Arthur shifted uncomfortably in the cramped space.
Really, this was all Gwaine's fault.
Arthur didn't mean to forget that today was Merlin's birthday. He also didn't mean to actually go along with the madcap 'surprise' Gwaine had set up. Namely, the knights, Arthur and Guinevere ambushing Merlin when he was polishing armor and wishing him a happy birthday.
As in, literally ambushing. Hence waiting, crouching, actually, in the small space in the armoury for Merlin to get on with his chores already.
When he was king, Arthur really was going to order larger supply closets. He put it on his mental list that, sadly, he would probably get to do before too long. Uther had barely spoken more than several words in months, and it was the general consensus that he would either step down or quietly die. Even the Dorocha a while ago had failed to rouse him.
Which, now that Arthur thought about it, was really why he was doing this. He needed a bit of fun. What better way to achieve that than messing with Merlin a bit?
Brushing the curtain aside a little, he checked in the armoury again. Another thing. Supply closets should really have doors. Even if the heavy curtains that were there instead blended into the wall so well that many new recruits had trouble finding it.
There. Footsteps, obviously Merlin's. Finally. The knights and Guinevere tensed, getting ready to jump out. Arthur could practically feel Gwaine's infectious grin.
Arthur pulled the curtains a bit wider, and felt everyone shuffling silently to peek out the small crack.
Merlin went over to one of the racks of weapons and hefted the axe Arthur liked out of it's holdings. Arthur felt, absurdly, pleased. He had never really been sure that Merlin had not been foisting polishing onto other servants or just skipping it altogether. It was good to know he actually did work.
Merlin paused, and set the axe down on a bench. Then, carefully, he picked Lancelot's sword off the rack.
Arthur tensed. He felt everyone else do so as well.
There was a look on Merlin's face. It was the deepest grief someone could express by expression alone, and it was heartwrenching.
Arthur cursed himself. How could he have forgotten? Out of all of them, Merlin had seemed the closest to the dead knight. They had all been grieving, but it had been tempered by knowing it was a noble death and there was nothing they could have done.
Merlin, however, had seen it. He'd had to watch his friend sacrifice himself, and was probably blaming himself for not stopping him.
How could Arthur not have noticed?
Turning his head just a little, Arthur could see in the shadows of the torches that everyone else was thinking the same thing.
Guinevere made a move to get up, perhaps to go out and comfort him, but another set of footsteps broke through the air.
Something about them made Arthur put a hand on her shoulder.
Oh. It was Agravaine. Arthur felt a little silly for being apprehensive of his uncle.
Merlin's voice sounded...cold.
It was such a not-Merlin thing to be cold, distant, almost angry. But that was what Merlin sounded like. His face was turned away from the curtain, but Arthur could read the way his shoulders were tensed, his hands were still, his body shifting almost imperceptibly into a stance Arthur knew well.
Merlin looked ready for an attack.
Arthur only recognized it from knights and enemies taking that stance. Never, ever had he seen Merlin looking ready for an attack...or ready to launch one.
Gwaine took hold of the fabric of the curtain, a half-second away from jumping to Merlin's aid even though he didn't quite know why.
"Oh, don't be so hostile."
Dimly, Arthur realised there was something profoundly wrong about the way Agravaine said those words, even though they were perfectly innocuous.
"There's nobody here. I think we can do without the pretend for once."
There was a pause.
"Then I won't waste time."
The change was jarring. Every drop of friendliness vanished from his uncle's voice, and it took on a mocking, cruel edge. Arthur's head jerked back from the force of it, and almost overbalanced. He felt Percival grab his shoulders to keep him upright.
"I will give you an ultimatum."
Agravaine was no longer the sympathetic, supporting uncle he had grown to know. It was obvious, even from simply listening, that this man was cold and hard.
"Either you will step aside, or I will make you."
"You mean you'll kill me."
The sentence was delivered so casually Arthur almost didn't understand it's meaning.
This was not happening. This could not be happening. He trusted Agravaine. Agravaine wouldn't do this to him. He wouldn't kill Merlin. There had to be a mistake.
"You'll have to try and kill me, then."
The reply was so blunt, so direct, Arthur was stunned.
He was vaguely aware that the five people in the closet had stopped breathing, himself included.
"A lot of people have tried to kill me. None of them really succeeded."
"Ahh..." Agravaine moved into their field of vision, and Merlin turned to look at him, so that both of their faces were visible through the crack. Merlin was impassive, his expression might have been carved of stone. Agravaine had tempered his outburst of cruelty with a look of thoughtfulness.
"Yes, I imagine there would be...Tell me, how many times have you saved Arthur's life?"
The world was skewed, everything twisting and turning and no longer making sense. His uncle was making death threats, Lancelot's death was hitting harder than ever, and Merlin was being...as un-Merlin-like as it was possible to be. Now Agravaine was asking how many times Merlin had saved Arthur's life?
"Two that he knows of."
That he knows of? Yes, Merlin had pulled him away from the knife thrown by the old sorceress, and drunk the poison for him, but that was it-
"How many that he doesn't?"
"Dozens, at least. I've lost count."
Arthur felt as if blasted by an unexpected windstorm. Merlin had saved his life dozens of times? So many he had lost count? When had this happened?
"Oh." Agravaine was less shocked, but still obviously surprised.
There was a very pregnant pause.
"Going by that information," Agravaine said, recovering quickly, "once you are dead there would be very little trouble killing Arthur."
Arthur felt dizzy.
No. This wasn't happening.
But it was.
"More than a little. You'd still have to actually kill Arthur. He's the best warrior in Camelot."
"True. Except...if you're dead, you won't be able to test his food."
This time, the silence was longer. Agravaine had a small smile on his face, and Merlin's mask had cracked a bit.
"That is why you're always late with his meals, of course. I've seen you. You might have actually found poison a few times, even. How many?"
"Four." Merlin's voice was quieter now.
Arthur was reeling. He was legendary for rebuking Merlin over his tardiness. He often arrived so late the food was barely hot anymore. It was one of the most commonly heard complaints from the prince in Camelot.
And Merlin was late because he was testing for poison. And found it. Four times.
"You see? If you had been...indisposed, let's say, Arthur would be dead four times over." There was a slight chuckle in the words as if the thought amused him.
It probably did.
"Think on it, Merlin. At the very least, you could live."
Agravaine turned to the door.
Merlin's face was stone again.
"Know this." Merlin's voice was bare of any warmth. It sounded as if ice had formed over the words, turning them hard and hateful. Yet every syllable rang with truth and loyalty. "I don't care if you're crowned King or if I die doing it; if you harm anyone I care for, I will kill you."
Arthur knew Merlin was speaking the truth. Possibly the most honest truth he had ever said. Even Agravaine seemed to falter for a second as he strode towards the door.
Then the traitor was gone.
Merlin stayed still for a second, then let out a heavy breath. The tension and anger drained away, leaving him looking forty years older than he should have been.
Slowly, as if under a great weight, he put Lancelot's sword back on the rack, as well as Arthur's axe.
He rested his hand on the sword for a moment.
Then he left the armoury, leaving his unseen audience stunned behind him.