As usual, like every story I actually think about before I write, this turned out nothing like it was in my mind. So naturally I'm torn between satisfaction (because it's DONE and OUT OF MY HEAD) and frustration xD BUT. This does help with my questionable endeavor to have a fanfic starting with every letter of the alphabet. Strange, but enticing. Let me know what you think about this one! ^.^
Quick and Easy
"There's no need to look so... tense." Merlin frowned when Arthur seemed not to hear him. Something had been distracting the prince all day, and it wasn't anything to do with their outing. "This is a hunt. You love hunting." Still nothing. "Arthur."
Arthur jumped, and his sword was out in one swift move. The fire of battle in his eyes died as soon as it had sprung when he saw Merlin. "Don't do that," he growled. Merlin expected him to sheathe the blade, but he kept it in hand.
"And you say I'm twitchy," muttered Merlin. "Can we stop for the night? It's cold, I'm tired, and we're not catching anything."
To his surprise, Arthur did not protest. "Let's go," he agreed. He brushed past, giving Merlin an opportunity to notice his fingers clenched frighteningly tight around his sword's hilt.
It was the same inn where they'd stayed on the way to find Balinor. Same inn, same room, same bed. They were almost the only occupants for the night.
Arthur knew, deep down, that this was as good a time as any to do it.
He turned his head slowly to the side facing Merlin. His manservant's breath was even and deep as he slept, unaware of everything. His face was entirely relaxed - no, it wasn't. A small line creased his forehead, but otherwise, he was expressionless. Innocent.
I know I'm a prince, so we can't be friends.
The hollow ache that had taken refuge in his stomach two days ago intensified. No, they couldn't be friends. He told himself that tonight was not a night for friendship.
From somewhere in the inn, Arthur heard a cough. His heart leapt into his throat at the sound. He held his breath and listened; sure enough, he heard beds creaking in other rooms, soft snores from all directions. The walls were thin. Sound traveled. Any movement he made could easily be heard by anyone still awake.
He tried really hard to pretend that was unfortunate.
It struck Merlin as rather odd, the way Arthur was behaving. His heart wasn't in the hunt at all. His snide remarks were nonexistent at best. If he spoke at all, it was in small, agitated outbursts or clipped commands and replies. In short, Merlin had so far enjoyed this trip even less than most.
"Breakfast," he reminded Arthur about an hour from the inn. Merlin thought eating at the inn would have made more sense, but Arthur had been ready and on his way out the door by the time Merlin even woke up.
"Not hungry." Arthur didn't turn around. If possible, his fierce strides quickened. Merlin was practically running to keep up.
When he was in step with Arthur, he began, "What do you mean, you're not hungry? You're always-"
"Fine!" snapped Arthur. Merlin flinched. "Breakfast. Get it. Make it quick, I want a chance to actually catch something today, if it's all the same to you."
Swallowing the heated words that bubbled up in his throat - they would do him little good at the moment - Merlin said instead, "Yes, sire," tonelessly.
They hadn't packed much food - less than Merlin thought they normally would. Arthur hadn't exactly been clear on how long they would be gone. "Until we get the job done," was his vague reply when Merlin asked. By the looks of their rations, they didn't have too long to accomplish that, unless Arthur planned on living off plantlife. It wasn't as if they'd caught anything to eat so far.
Merlin took an apple and bread for himself, but he was much more interested in watching Arthur eat than eating for himself. For his insistence that he wasn't hungry, the prince tore through his food like a starving man, intent on nothing but what went in his mouth. He had finished before Merlin took more than a few bites of apple. Arthur tossed his core and stalked off, leaving an exasperated Merlin behind.
Typically Merlin knew the reasons behind Arthur's mood swings. Whether it be princesses he was supposed to marry, people he loved in a danger he couldn't fight, or a kingdom on the brink of crashing to its knees, when something had Arthur upset, it was obvious what it was.
In this instance, however, Merlin had no idea.
Arthur guessed he had a few good minutes before Merlin caught up to him, stumbling with both their packs and vilifying Arthur profusely for leaving him behind. Or maybe not. Against his will, he had seen the hurt look on his servant's face, and he doubted Merlin was too happy with him right now. Not that it mattered. Maybe it was better this way, even.
He wasn't watching where he was going, and was ripped back into the present when his foot caught an upraised root. He stumbled, so surprised he barely caught himself in time.
His anger - and just who was he angry with? Himself? Merlin? Fate, who laughed in his face? The king? - very nearly exploded. He took a few moments to steady his breathing, cursing inwardly. It was so stupid, getting bent out of shape over a little stumble, but it was something so... something Merlin would do. Would supposedly do. Arthur's heart, already lower than where it out to be, sank further when he realized that maybe Merlin wasn't even clumsy after all.
Of all the horrible thoughts that had occurred to him the last few days, that was one of the saddest.
Merlin reappeared in Arthur's peripheral vision after about twenty minutes. After that, he fell in and out of sight, sometimes close enough for his presence to hover awkwardly in the corner of Arthur's eye, but usually too far back for that. On the occasions he was out of sight, Arthur would have wondered whether Merlin was still following at all, except that he could hear him - barely. It seemed the servant had finally developed a habit for moving silently. Naturally, he did it the one time Arthur would have preferred the distraction - or at least a place to direction his anger.
If he weren't so cowardly, he would have done it already. The inn mightn't have been such a terrible idea after all. It wasn't like he didn't know how to get the job done quietly. That was how he wanted it: quiet and quick.
And it would be. Tonight, just after they ate. Arthur steeled himself; he couldn't let his resolve waver again.
It looked like they were finally going to make a kill. For once, Merlin didn't want to stop it. Arthur had made it clear they weren't leaving until they'd met their goal. Merlin guessed that meant he'd better let Arthur have this one, or they'd never make it home.
In fact, seeing Arthur concentrated so faithfully on the task at hand was a bit of a relief. It seemed ages since Arthur acted with a sliver of normalcy, and the prince with a crossbow in hand was certainly normal.
His prey was a young buck, nibbling the undergrowth lazily, the tip of his antlers nearly brushing the ground. He was beautiful, Merlin thought with a pang. The urge to interfere nearly killed him.
Arthur glanced back at Merlin briefly, and the deep concentration on his face changed to something else in that single moment. Perhaps it was annoyance that Merlin clearly wanted to stop him; after all, it was written all over Merlin's face. Perhaps it was something else. Whatever it was, he shook it off, turned around, took careful aim-
And fired. Straight over the buck's spine.
Startled, the deer's head snapped up and stared at his would-be killer for a fraction of a second, then bolted and ran. Arthur sent another crossbow bolt flying after it, but it shot into a bush more than a yard away from his target.
"Damn it!" he cursed, tossing the weapon at his feet like a child and beginning to stomp away. Merlin blocked his path. "Get out of my way, Merlin," Arthur commanded with a glare.
Merlin crossed his arms. "Not until you explain how you, self-proclaimed killing machine, managed to miss that shot." He received a glare for his efforts. "It was thirty yards a-"
"I said, move." Arthur pushed him roughly aside. Merlin staggered but stayed on his feet, mouth slightly open, because did Arthur really just shove him? He ran to stand in the prince's way again, this time tossing his and Arthur's packs on the ground and determined to get what he wanted. Arthur tried pushing him out of the way a second time, but Merlin dug his heels into the ground.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" he demanded, pointing in the direction the deer had gone. "And I'm not just talking about that, because that's only one of the things you've done that's off these days. Usually you get some perverse pleasure from dragging me along on one of these stupid hunting trips, but this time you've been acting like you'd rather be anywhere else, which is wrong, because hunting is one of the things you actually like. You act like a complete ass every time I try to say anything at all, you've barely even been looking for the animals you act so desperate to shoot. And then running out of the inn this morning like the place was on fire. And you won't even look at me." It was true; even now, the prince avoided his gaze, though there was something dark growing in his expression. "Have I done something I don't know about?"
Finally Arthur locked eyes with him, and for the first time in his life, Merlin felt a flicker of fear inspired by Arthur Pendragon. Arthur's hand darted out and grabbed Merlin's forearm, squeezing tight and hard. "Shut. The. Hell. Up."
Merlin blinked and looked down at his wrist. "Arthur," he said, calmer than he felt. "Arthur, you're hurting me."
Arthur's fingers tightened, a wild look present in the prince's eyes - and just like that, the pressure disappeared. Merlin's wrist was purple and red and white and bruised, probably. He rubbed it gingerly, then looked up to find that Arthur was no longer in front of him, but rather on the ground sitting against a tree, his fist curled tightly by his side and his eyes wet.
"I can't," he said in something of a whisper. "Please, just... I can't."
Merlin stood rigid like the deer had, unsure of what to do. His throbbing wrist told him to stay back. He ignored it and cautiously moved forward. When Arthur didn't react, he took the last few steps between them and crouched on the ground next to him.
"Arthur?" he tried. "Come on, whatever it is, you can... tell me."
Arthur looked purposefully in the opposite direction. "Stop," he moaned. "Please, you're making it worse."
Twice now he'd said "please." Please what? Merlin frowned, bewilderment locked in a fierce battle with concern. "Making what worse? I'll help you, I'll - I'll do whatever you need to do. Just tell me."
Arthur's attempted laugh came out slightly maniacal, and more than a little bitter. "You will, will you? You'll kill yourself, then?"
Merlin's insides turned to ice. "Wh-what?"
With a sigh, Arthur used the tree against his back to reclaim his footing. Merlin rose with him, but more slowly, every movement wary. "It's why I brought you here, you know," said Arthur conversationally. He had apparently gained control of his emotions in record time. "To kill you."
"This might seem an odd question," said Merlin, "but, uh. Why?"
"It seemed more humane than execution."
It took Merlin's mind a few moments to catch up with his hearing. "You know then," he said in a low voice. "About... me." Arthur nodded. "And you were going to kill me." Another nod. "And... and now?" He swallowed. "Are you still going to... you know." A shrug. Then, slowly, a shake of the head and another sigh.
"No, probably not."
It was better than nothing, Merlin reasoned. Better than a flash of silver and a pain in his chest. Infinitely better than a pyre and the smoke and all of those people talking about betrayal. Better than any alternative he could think of.
Forget wavering. His resolve had crumbled, and his pride along with it.
They walked back to Camelot mostly in silence, though a much different silence from the one that had plagued them on the way out here. Things were tense, yes, things needed to be talked about eventually, but for now Arthur just wanted to be home and pretend this never happened, from the very moment he saw Merlin's eyes turn gold and his mind became infested with the thoughts, Sorcerer. Evil. Kill.
Some part of his anger still boiled ominously in the pit of his stomach, but he wasn't about to act on it. Not until Merlin explained himself later, and Arthur decided what to do.
"What made you change your mind?" Merlin dared to ask, as they traipsed their way through the forest. They had no kills to carry, Arthur lamented, but that hadn't been the point of this trip anyway. Not that the real point had been accomplished.
Arthur considered the question. When he'd first seen Merlin doing magic - eyes ablaze, terrible words slithering from his mouth, flames erupting from the ground itself - he saw wickedness and betrayal itself. Merlin was a completely different person from the manservant Arthur knew. Wasn't he?
He'd forced it to fit. Merlin, aiding and abetting every sorcerer who'd tried to attack Camelot, never doing anything himself because he was a coward. He'd been so close to Nimueh when she first appeared - only to back out of their murder attempt on the prince out of sheer fright. Why had he chosen to drink what he knew was poisoned? Maybe he wouldn't have died, Mortaeus flower or not. Maybe it had all been to gain Arthur's trust.
Then Edwin - hadn't Merlin followed him around like a puppy? Eager to be his assistant? And Morgana... Morgana. They'd always had something. Perhaps enough of something that Merlin turned her traitor as well.
A thousand thoughts like those painted a picture of Merlin in the role Arthur thought suited him, the lying, traitorous, sorcerer. He'd drawn him out to kill him, where no one else had to know the truth.
The problems started when the real Merlin began interfering with the Merlin Arthur had created in his head. Merlin had fallen asleep so fast in the inn. The peace that washed over his face stood out in sharp contrast to the glowering, cruel features he had dreamed up.
Then the idiot couldn't even watch a deer die without that pathetic look of regret on his face. And the hurt, the confusion, when... "Arthur, you're hurting me."
It shattered the illusion he'd been clinging to, that Merlin and evil could belong in the same sentence. They just couldn't, and therefore didn't.
But Arthur had no ability or desire to say any or all of this to Merlin, so he simply said, "You."
After a moment or two, Merlin started smiling. That was probably the first smile he'd cracked since the beginning of this cursed hunting trip, for which Arthur ashamedly took the blame.
They stayed another night at the inn, and when Arthur finally settled down in his bed, he glanced over to check on Merlin - who was already fast asleep. He was so... so trusting, never thinking for a moment that Arthur might do what he'd been planning to do all along.
For the briefest of moments, Arthur envisioned himself pulling the sword from under his bed and carrying out the deed he'd set out to do. It would be easy enough. He knew how to kill without making a sound. Merlin would never even know what hit him, and Arthur could claim in the morning that someone must have sneaked into the room and murdered his manservant.
He stretched out and settled into his pillow. The sword stayed right where it was.