mst3k | plot thinnens

Merlin fic: Shadowplay -- Prologue + Chapter One

Title: Shadowplay
Summary: Stood down from duty on convalescent's leave, secret agent Arthur Pendragon wonders if sheer boredom might just do him in. But when his handler saddles him with a caretaker who is by turns completely inept and strangely brilliant, and invites trouble wherever he goes, Arthur has to concede that death by boredom looks less and less likely. Death by goon squad, high-speed car chase, poison, or fiery explosion, however...
Pairing: Merlin/Arthur
Rating: NC-17
Chapter word count: ~9,500
Notes: This fic has been living in my head and hard drive for over two years, so it's high time it got its day in the sun. My deepest thanks to venivincere for being such a fantastic beta and sounding board, and also to accordingtomel for not letting me abandon 70K+ of writing.




PROLOGUE

It was half light by the time Arthur decided to leave. He padded about the room noiselessly, locating his clothing by the dawn of a slow sunrise shimmering through gossamer curtains, its cotton candy glow turning staid white walls into a little girl's bedroom.

Arthur buttoned his shirt with deft fingers, half an eye on the sleeping form lying on one side of the bed, long blonde hair a halo around her head like it had been artfully arranged for a screenshot. She turned, nestling up against a warmth that was no longer there, and fluttered her eyes open.

"Morning," she said, smiling through bleary eyes, and received a nod in return. "Where are you going?"

"I've got some things to see to," Arthur replied, the syrupy light softening his voice, and snapped his watch into place.

She stretched, languid and graceful and confident in a movement that had never met failure, blankets rippling at her waist. "Can't it wait till after breakfast?"

Arthur pocketed his mobile, ran through a mental inventory. "I don't do breakfast, sweetheart," he said, not unkindly, but his hand was already curled around the doorknob.

"Wait," she said, as the handle twisted. "Don't I even get to know your name?"

He smiled at her, and left.

Straightening his clothes as he jogged down the stairs, Arthur waited until he was ensconced in his car before tapping a button on his phone to read the mission in full. He slipped it back into his pocket once more and pulled his car out onto the street, sparing a swift glance at the bedroom window with its diaphanous shades and a slender silhouette in its fretwork frame.

She had been charming, beautiful to the core, but Arthur had no time for love or relationships, or for breakfast. He had people to kill.




CHAPTER ONE

"I'm not an invalid, Morgana."

The corners of Arthur's mouth resolved themselves into a deep scowl. So what if he'd been shot, twice, in areas just shy of putting him in a casket instead of this wheelchair, and had sprained several body parts previously unknown to man during his repeated, downward acquaintance with a very pointy flight of stairs? He'd captured and/or killed all the right people in the end and averted a major global disaster, hadn't he? He ought to be knocking back his fair share of congratulations and adult beverages right now, not being coddled like a baby.

If there was one thing Arthur hated, it was being made to feel useless, which was definitely the impression he was getting from the agency forcing him to go on extended convalescent's leave, like he was some kind of normal person. He wasn't normal, he was a super spy extraordinaire, and super spy extraordinaires laughed off blood loss, stitched up their own wounds with needles they'd whittled themselves, slapped plasters on and then went straight into the waiting, cooing bosom of whatever beautiful foreign heiress they'd managed to charm that week.

Circumstances being what they were, however -- i.e. hordes of goons trying to blast him to smithereens -- he'd managed to accomplish none of that and instead had lost consciousness at the bottom of a staircase, undergone hours of surgery and then got released into the care of Morgana, of all the horrible people in the world to be released to. She was a near relation, however, and there was no getting around family.

"Well, if you stopped moaning like one, perhaps I'd be more inclined to believe you," said Morgana, in a voice that made a half-hearted stab at compassionate, decided against it and veered straight into dry instead.

Of his two emergency contacts, Morgana had been the one to rush to the hospital and raise her own special brand of hell to ensure him the finest treatment normally only afforded to the likes of royalty and the upper tiers of celebrity. The other, his father, had been a trifle busy running the world's foremost intelligence organisation to attend Arthur's sickbed, though he'd couriered his best wishes and the order to stay away from work for the foreseeable future, along with a biography of Sidney Reilly and a 1978 Glenrothes to aid recuperation.

That Uther had opted to remain sequestered in the shadowy confines of his office relayed to Arthur the conclusion that he wasn't in any immediate danger of expiring, so he felt somewhat vindicated that his condition wasn't worth all the fuss Morgana was kicking up over it. His urge to gloat about this, however, was strongly tempered by the fact that his father had also stood him down from duty, so all in all, it was kind of a draw.

"You're the one who insisted on the wheelchair," said Arthur, though he couldn't trust his body to keep itself intact should he choose, to prove his point, to tuck and roll out of it. Not at the speed at which Morgana was steering him, anyway. She seemed to pick up a tail wind with every other step.

Fairly flying them down the ramp and towards her car, Morgana blew a short, disgruntled puff of air through her teeth. "You were shot, Arthur, and you almost died; I'm not letting you just traipse out of here by yourself, pretending to be all manly about it. And if you dare to call yourself a super spy extraordinaire who's above help, I'll tip you into that puddle there."

Arthur was reasonably certain that she wouldn't make good on her threat, considering all the trouble she'd gone to to preserve his health, but kept his mouth shut just in case.

On the whole, it was safer to let whatever bout of step-sisterly affection she'd been stricken with run its course than get in its way. The last time she'd been this solicitous had been over a decade ago, when his seventeen-year-old heart had been trampled upon by a lovely, young slip of a girl, so he supposed Morgana was well due for a relapse. Then, she'd brought him contraband McDonald's (Uther didn't hold with junk food), watched a Bruce Lee marathon with him and made disparaging comments during the boring, talky parts about his taste in women and films, because what passed for concern in the Pendragon household manifested itself by way of insulting remarks only slightly less stinging than usual, which would have been classifed as major acts of aggression by international military standards.

Morgana parked him alongside the passenger door of her car, rolling her eyes as he waved off her attempts at assisting him out of the wheelchair. As long as he kept the weight off his left leg and didn't flail his arms too vigorously about, hobbling along by himself was well within his grasp. He slid in gingerly and strapped himself in while Morgana folded and tossed the wheelchair into the boot, crushing Arthur's overnight bag.

One of the radio presets clicked to life as Morgana keyed the ignition on, and they were on their way, half-listening to an aging rock band wail about young love.

Arthur hadn't realised he'd drifted until he started awake at a news bulletin bearing a report that made his insides clench. Out of the corner of her eye, Morgana stole a wary glance at him.

"-- still at large. McLachlan, who operates under the code name Nimueh, was apprehended last month for smuggling government technology secrets overseas. Anyone with information of her whereabouts is advised to contact the authorities at the following number --"

Arthur snapped the volume down, lips pressed in a thin line. "You didn't tell me."

"So you could leap out of the ICU and go off in hot pursuit while leaking blood everywhere? I don't think so."

"Shit," said Arthur, wishing he could hit something really hard without doing himself further injury. "I spent two bloody years tracking that woman, only for them to let her just up and walk out of jail? Idiots."

"It was masterful, her escape plan; I'll afford her that much. Most likely an inside job, too. We have our people looking into it, but she's been quiet; just disappeared," The car slowed to a halt in front of traffic lights that glared red, and Morgana turned to look at him properly. "We'll get her again," she said grimly. "I promise."

*


Morgana pulled up to Arthur's house, a stately, white-stuccoed affair fronted by an expansive garden pocked with so many dry patches and snarling weeds it would have made Alan Titchmarsh weep. Morgana tutted softly at the state of his lawn but otherwise left it alone; domestic upkeep was difficult when one was away for much of the year meting out death and justice to the more slippery, unrepentant members of the criminal underground.

She forced him back into the wheelchair even though the walk from the drive and to the front door covered a distance of approximately ten feet, and Arthur held up his end of the bargain by complaining for at least eight and a half of them.

"I have to head back to the agency," Morgana announced, after she'd deposited Arthur in the sitting room, brought him a glass of water and stacked a pile of randomly selected books next to him, "but I've arranged for someone to come in and stay for a bit to look after you and take care of the house."

Arthur glared at the copy of Noddy Goes To Toyland cheerfully taunting him from atop the stack of reading material. "I don't need looking after. Neither does the house. I do have a housekeeper, you know; she comes once a week."

"You had a housekeeper," Morgana corrected, "but I fired her. She was rubbish, and you know it. Besides, I can't be here everyday, so I've hired someone to nanny you."

"To nanny -- You're just intent on making this experience as humiliating as possible, aren't you?"

Morgana smiled benevolently. "I'm your sister, Arthur. It's my job," she said, and patted him lightly on the head to make things worse. "Be good. Call me if you need anything."

Arthur made a sound at her that couldn't properly be called a growl, but did its level best to seem menacing and put out anyway. After Morgana breezed out, he nestled into his armchair and sighed deeply. Everybody was overreacting; the bullets had barely punctured anything important, the pain was mostly manageable and it wasn't as though he was old and infirm. All he needed was a good day's rest, and what he definitely did not need was a bloody nanny, probably some kind of shrill, severe martinet fashioned in the mould of Morgana herself to make sure he ate his vegetables and cleaned behind his ears and put away all his semi-automatics properly after he was finished playing with them.

A knock at the front door interrupted his brooding, but, already predisposed to loathe whoever dared to cross his threshold to try and order him around in Morgana's stead, Arthur resolutely kept his nose buried in his book (not Noddy, which had somehow discovered flight, followed very soon after by discovering crash landing at the other end of the room) and ignored the persistent cacophony coming from the front end of the house -- steady knocking first, and then the doorbell went off, and then both at once.

Arthur lifted and cocked his head, nonplussed with the suspicion that his unwanted visitor was attempting a rousing Christmas song. It obviously wasn't Morgana, who didn't knock at doors so much as barge through them; his father never visited and, in any case, disagreed with Christmas; and his housekeeper, who was no longer his housekeeper, did have more fluff than brains in her head, but wasn't insane. Presumably, then, it was the caretaker Morgana had employed making a ruckus at the door, and Arthur snorted at Morgana's poor decision-making skills.

He resumed reading, enduring the din for the time being in the hopes that the idiot would just give up and go away. He'd catch flak from Morgana later, but then he never listened to her anyway. After cycling through a short repertoire of tuneless carols, the knocker fell silent. Five minutes after that, with no further sign of disturbance, Arthur huffed triumphantly and settled in for a good, quiet read.

He'd only got a few pages in when he noticed an incongruous lump of a shadow falling across the sunbeam that daily made a slow march across his sitting room, and Arthur felt affronted on its behalf, frowning to himself. He twisted round slowly to peer out the window, but whatever was making the shadow was too high out of sight, so he carefully hoisted himself out of the armchair, patted his holster for reassurance and tottered through the kitchen and to the back door to investigate.

"Hey," he called up to the spare, dark-haired man who appeared to be scaling his way up the back of the house with the aid of high-tech suction cups.

"Oh. Hi," the man replied, peering at him apologetically from a considerable height. "I didn't think there was anyone at home, and I was given specific instructions to --"

"Look, if you're going to burgle me, hadn't you better wait until nightfall?" Arthur asked, keeping one hand casually poised near the holster at his hip in case weaponry became necessary.

"Oh, right, no, I'm not burgling you; Miss Le Fay sent me here, only nobody answered when I knocked just now, and she didn't have a spare key to give me, but she said I was to get myself inside at all costs because she thought you might be difficult about it, so I thought --"

Scepticism and annoyance raced each other to a photo finish at the forefront of Arthur's mind. "You're my new live-in maid?" he said flatly.

The not-burglar hesitated. "Er, that's one way to put it, I suppose. Look, may I please come in?"

He was hanging precariously from one hand now, which was when Arthur noticed that his upward mobility had been possible thanks not just to suction cups, but specifically, the standard issue Tintagel X20 that the agency gave out to all secret agents in training, along with night-vision goggles, invisible ink pens and zip line cables, which all secret agents in training would eventually discover were completely pointless hindrances, usually by doing enthusiastic and grievous injury to themselves (this tended to weed out the chaff; Uther was a staunch believer in natural selection). In other words, Morgana hadn't sent him a housekeeper; she'd sent him a rookie.

"No," Arthur snapped, and shut and locked his door. He hoped it crushed the boy's spirit.

Reaching for his mobile phone, Arthur pressed his thumb to speed-dial 2, grinding his teeth in rhythm to the succession of rings that sang in his ear. He was certain Morgana was purposely making him wait -- she and her phone never parted; if there was a way to surgically implant a mobile into one's head, Morgana would have been first in line to slice her brains open -- and sure enough, she answered on the fifth ring.

"Hello, Arthur," she said sweetly.

"There's a trainee about to fall to his death from the exterior of my house. You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?"

The honey evaporated instantly from her voice. "For god's sake, Arthur, let him in."

"No. You can't just foist inept youths on me; I'm not equipped to train anybody, particularly not people who think it's a good idea to scale a house in broad daylight using subpar, company-issued equipment."

"Nobody's asking you to train anyone. He's there because he's the best I could do on short notice; I wasn't going to send anyone over there who hadn't passed our background check, and you know those take weeks. Look, he used to be a medic, so he's well enough qualified to take care of you, and I'm paying him a ridiculous amount of money to clean your house and tend to your whims, so you're really the one coming out on top here."

"I told you; I don't need taking care of. And if you hadn't fired Mrs. Winthrop behind my back, I wouldn't need my house cleaned either."

He could practically hear Morgana's eyes making a full revolution in their sockets. "Stop being such a stupid man, Arthur, or I swear I will take a full month off work to come and look after you myself. Is that what you really want? Hm?"

"You wouldn't."

"I have years of compounded leave shored up, and you know how I hate tropical beach holidays," she threatened.

"You're an unbelievable, awful harpy," he accused.

"Good, I'm glad you see it my way," Morgana said cheerily. "Now, go and let the poor boy in before his equipment gives out on him. He's lovely, really. You'll like him."

Arthur recalled three full verses of percussive 'Deck the Halls' played upon his front door. "I have severe doubts about that. I think he might be mentally unsound. Are you sure --" He cut the line off when the probable lunatic in question sauntered down the back staircase and towards the kitchen island against which Arthur was leaning. He did his best to keep his jaw from dropping and then clenching. The effect was not exactly suave. "How did you get in?"

"Upstairs window was open," the intruder admitted.

"Nrgh," Arthur growled to himself.

His former housekeeper had been fond of throwing all the windows open when he was away to air out the place, and equally fond of forgetting to close them all afterwards. It was something of a miracle he hadn't actually been burgled yet. Perhaps it was just as well that Morgana had got rid of her; it was nigh impossible to find someone more incompetent, though he had an inexplicable suspicion that this fellow could well give Mrs. Winthrop a run for her money.

"Erm, I'm Merlin Emrys. How do you do, sir?" he asked genially, sticking out a hand.

Arthur's mobile buzzed on the kitchen countertop, most likely Morgana wanting to shout at him for hanging up on her, so he ignored it in favour of scrutinising the interloper closely through narrowed eyes.

Rather than the stern, thin-lipped governess-type Arthur had envisioned, Merlin was tall and gangling, loose-limbed like a marionette, and, if it wasn't for the height, looked like he could still get into places at children's prices. Clad in black from head to toe, he looked like one of those little emo boys, whose wardrobes were places where colours went to die, and who moped around dripping teenage angst all over the floor. He had an easy smile, though, and didn't seem particularly moody, nor prone to siccing overwrought poetry about his feelings on unsuspecting passersby, so perhaps there was hope for the future of civilisation yet.

"I'm in perfect health, and I don't need you here," said Arthur, in another hopeless attempt at circumventing Morgana. "Now, go away."

Merlin dutifully shuffled out the back door, leaving Arthur impressed with his own apparent efficiency at getting rid of people (in the non-fatal way, of course; he could do lethal dispatching in his sleep and with both hands tied behind his back). The exultation didn't last long, however, as Merlin returned a few moments later, a huge duffel bag slung over one shoulder.

He smiled brightly. "Where do I put my stuff?"

There were all sorts of impolite answers crowding round in Arthur's brain, but he was saved from having to choose, as the electronic strains of the latest word in incomprehensible pop music skirled out of Merlin's pocket and laid siege to Arthur's eardrums.

"Oh, it's Miss Le Fay," Merlin said, prodding at his phone as he put it to his ear. "'Lo."

Arthur spared a frown in his direction. If the boy was really going to live with him, the first thing they'd have to work on was getting Merlin to stop calling Morgana 'Miss Le Fay'. All it did was inflate her sense of self-importance, which, at the best of times, already skirted dangerously closely to detonation. The second thing: exorcise the banshee residing in Merlin's ringtones folder.

"No, no, nothing. It's fine; yeah, he's fine. I'm in. Oh, okay," said Merlin, glancing at Arthur. He placed his fingertips over the mouthpiece. "She wants me to tell you that the next time you hang up on her and ignore her calls, she'll tell you exactly what happened to your gerbil that summer you went to scout camp." He received a withering look, but failed to properly transmit it back to Morgana. "Yeah," said Merlin into the phone again. "Oh, er, well, I don't think I can tell him that. That's a bit rude, isn't it?"

"Oh, for god's sake," said Arthur, swiping the phone away and disconnecting the call after shouting, "Stop talking, Morgana," in its general direction. Unfortunately, when his doctors had advised him, upon discharge from the hospital, to take it slow and easy for a few weeks, it hadn't occurred to Arthur that forcibly filching somebody's phone would fall under overexertion's jurisdiction, and he winced in pain.

Merlin was by his side in a flash. "Okay," he said soothingly, in a tone of voice that faintly reminded Arthur of a nursery school teacher he'd never cared for, and gently hefted Arthur's weight against his own frame, fingers fluttering against his lapels for firmer purchase, leading him back to the sitting room. "That's enough excitement for one day."

"Don't you dare treat me like a child," Arthur said, and saw Merlin reconsider his intent to pick up the discarded book on the floor.

"Wouldn't dream of it," said Merlin with a dry smile.

Arthur cocked his head thoughtfully. "On the other hand," he said.

*


Merlin bludgeoned the alarm clock with a tight fist, reducing it to a cowering mass of ticking plastic before realising that it wasn't the clock that had woken him, but Arthur's dulcet tones floating in from the next room with all the soothing subtleness of a foghorn. For someone who'd been so insistent on not needing assistance or special treatment of any kind, Arthur had taken to ordering Merlin around for the smallest, stupidest things with surprising alacrity.

It was all part of Arthur's very poorly concealed master plan to run Merlin off his grounds by being completely impossible, and thereby give Merlin no choice but to throw in the towel. Entitlement and authority so swelled every vein Arthur may as well have stamped 'PRAT' across his face to save everyone the time and trouble. They were on day four of this hideous arrangement, and he showed no signs of slowing.

In retaliation, Merlin deployed hitherto untapped reservoirs of patience on his charge in the hopes that the phrase 'killing with kindness' had some solid worth behind it. Failing that, well, Merlin did have access to some very interesting firearms. Which were starting to look like a very appealing option.

It wasn't that he minded the work, really; he'd grown up with a very sensible mother who'd made sure he was no stranger to hard work, and in fact rather enjoyed the physicality of it once in a while. It had been done out of necessity then, though; this, with Arthur, was just frivolous busy work meant to drive him insane. He had a niggling feeling that Arthur wasn't like this all the time and might, in fact, have a decent personality buried somewhere in there, but it was three in the morning, and even given the leeway he usually afforded Arthur for having been shot and exiled to home leave, Merlin hadn't the energy to think any charitable thoughts at the moment.

He sighed, noting once again the ungodly hour, and flung the covers off. His bedroom was just next door to Arthur's, conveniently placed to be within earshot of every loudly announced whim, so it was a very short and unsatisfying stomp.

"You rang, your highness?" Merlin said dryly, leaning against the doorjamb.

Arthur was sitting up in bed, the lamp on his nightstand lit low. "Careful, I might get used to that," said Arthur, who possessed an impressive range of at least seventeen degrees of smirk. At present, the one smeared across his face was, according to Merlin's mental log, entitled I Think I Am Much Cleverer Than I Really Am, with shades of Please Notice How Very Attractive I Look In Ambient Light.

"What insignificant item may I fetch for you now?" Merlin asked, oozing concern in the sort of way one might expect to observe in certain species of poison dart frog.

Arthur looked at him evenly. "Glass of water."

"Oh. All right," said Merlin. Fetching water wasn't an unreasonable task; the kitchen was one storey below Arthur's bedroom, and in a house as large as Arthur's was, going from one end and one level to another could be quite the trek, especially for an injured man.

He padded downstairs towards the kitchen, his socks whispering to each other across the beige carpeting, and fished a tall glass out of the cupboard. He turned towards the sink, gleaming silver underneath bright moonlight from the window that looked out into the courtyard. A shadow shimmered past with a light rustle through the back garden.

Merlin didn't believe in tricks of light and scoffed inwardly when people said things like, "Must have been the wind." He set the glass on the counter and traced the shadow's deliberate movement across the yard. Silent as the breeze, he slipped through the back door, socks soaking instantly with early morning dew.

Keeping squelching to a minimum, Merlin darted across the lawn towards his quarry, who didn't seem to have noticed the pursuit. As such, Merlin was able to catch up swiftly and tackle the trespasser with fluid ease. However, even given the element of surprise, the man was twice Merlin's size and hell bent on using him as a punching bag, so the part of Merlin's plan to subdue, question and possibly do a bit of slapping around quickly went to pot.

At one point in his life, Merlin would have been more than capable of taking the man on –- and down -- without any fuss, but at the moment he had to admit that he was well out of practice. Still, he wasn't being completely pummelled into the ground and managed to get in a few good, crunchy shots. The resistance put up seemed to surprise his opponent into mild panic, and the man disentangled himself with a grunt, rammed a fist into Merlin's face for good measure and ran.

Deciding that staying close to home was more important than giving chase, Merlin only stared after him bewilderedly, nursing bruised knuckles. He stooped, squat on the grass, and pulled his sleeve to the end of his fingertips to pick up a small, capped syringe that surely hadn't been there before.

The syringe went into a little re-sealable storage bag, and Merlin stashed it in the utility room, into which Arthur never set foot, until he had the time and means to send it to the agency for processing. Merlin frowned and sighed; he didn't need more than one guess as to what the syringe was meant for.

"Oh, right. You," Merlin said to the empty glass on the counter.

Arthur raised an eyebrow when Merlin came back into his bedroom. Looking pointedly at the bedside clock, Arthur asked, "Did you get lost?" His expression shifted suddenly when Merlin approached to place the glass of water on the nightstand. He gripped Merlin's arm to keep him in place. "I don't remember you having a black eye twenty minutes ago, Merlin."

"Right, yeah. Walked into a mantel," said Merlin. Arthur's house, an insane extravagance in itself, contained no less than seven fireplaces and corresponding mantels, and Merlin had nearly put his eye out on their corners a few times while running around on errands for Arthur, so he didn't feel like this was a very farfetched lie. "It was dark, and there was, er, a mantel. In the way."

Arthur looked him up and down. "Was that you making all that noise, then?"

"Yeah. Yep." For good measure, he added, "Ow."

"I really didn't think I'd have to childproof a house this early in my life. Or without a child in it," Arthur carped.

Given that they'd only known each other less than a week, the long-suffering quality to his voice was, in Merlin's opinion, rather unfair. After all, it wasn't as though Merlin went around braining himself on household objects all the time.

Arthur sipped his water, and peered at it and then at Merlin with a hint of a frown pulling at his lips. "No ice?"

Whether the accusatory tone in the question had been imagined or not, Merlin was too busy swallowing a frustrated growl to suss out the difference. His bones were still throbbing. He'd just averted some kind of murder attempt on Arthur's life, taken several hard blows to his person for Arthur's sake and would be bruised and achy for days, and all he was good for in Arthur's esteem was menial work, which Arthur complained he did shoddily anyway. And fine, if he had to be fair, Arthur wasn't exactly privy to what had transpired in the garden, so he couldn't be expected to fall at Merlin's feet, overcome with gratitude, but at the very least he could show a smidgen of concern for Merlin's injuries. But no; all Arthur cared about was the temperature of his water. Merlin bit one cheek so as not to let out any noise; he suspected it would come out along the lines of a blue streak.

"For your eye," Arthur went on, reaching forward to examine Merlin's face. "Better get that taken care of. It doesn't look pretty."

Merlin blinked, and in that instant, the wind fell flat away from his sails. "Yeah. Yeah, I will."

Arthur nodded. He then glanced at the door and gave Merlin a look that plainly told him to get out, but it was too late. The seed had been sown, and it flowered in Merlin's mind into the suspicion that underneath all that arrogance and overweening conceit there beat a real live human heart after all.

And since it was fairly important that Arthur's heart continue beating, Merlin slipped back into his own bedroom and instantly dialed Morgana's number. He tiptoed back down to the kitchen so Arthur wouldn't overhear.

"Morgana Le Fay," she said, sounding oddly alert for it being still hours away from sun-up.

"Someone came after Arthur."

A sharp inhalation. "And?" Morgana asked, deadly calm.

"Averted."

"Weapon?"

"Injection. I have it; I can get it to the lab tomorrow."

"Send it to my attention. I'll make sure it gets top priority," she said. "How's Arthur?"

"He's fine. He doesn't know. He was in bed at the time, and I caught the guy creeping around the back garden." Merlin paused, trying to think of the best way to broach the subject that had been scratching at the back of his mind like a cat wanting to be let out ever since he'd been assigned this job. "Morgana, I'm not enough. I only just barely managed to fight this guy off, and -- and then I let him get away; Arthur needs better than that."

"You were one of our best before you quit on me, Emrys, and you're exactly where I need you to be. You know I wouldn't have asked you to come back if I didn't trust you to do this."

"Absolutely nothing to do with being short-staffed?" Merlin said wryly.

"Merlin."

Not having held out much hope for Morgana agreeing to take him off the case, Merlin only sighed to himself and said, "Fine. But can't we at least tell Arthur someone's taken out a massive hit on him? If I fail him, he needs to be prepared."

"You're not going to fail him, and that's an order," Morgana said. "But we can't let him know, and he cannot find out who you really are. Uther made that very clear."

*


Despite Morgana's frequent, dire proclamations to the contrary, Arthur wasn't stupid. He hadn't consistently achieved top marks in school by being dull and unobservant, nor had he taken the fast track to the highest echelon of his father's agency by cashing in on his genetic lottery. He had done by mastering seventeen ways to conclude a person's life without aid of props, weaving mist and shadow into cloaks and shields, talking his way into and out of asphyxiatingly tight corners and outthinking deadly security systems before they registered his presence. He could scope out a room in less than thirty seconds and tell you more than you wanted to know about everything in it, down to the degree of crookedness of a frame.

Arthur wasn't stupid, he was insulted.

The swelling on Merlin's eye had been completely inconsistent with how it would've looked had he actually been dumb enough to smack his face into a mantelpiece. As if there was a way to not notice the incongruity. Or the raw skin and reddening knuckles. Or the grass stains at the knees and all down the back of the pyjamas with the little printed sailboats, the goon.

However amusing it might be to imagine Merlin ceding an altercation to one of the raccoons that liked to prowl around the estate for leftovers, he wasn't going to make any assumptions about what Merlin had been up to. Assumptions, Arthur knew, occasionally made an ass of you, which was an inconvenience, but to a much lesser degree than the kind that, in his line of work, also occasionally made you a bit dead (those were the ones where people said things like, "You don't have the guts to do it" whilst being hog-tied and suspended over a crocodile pit). As a general rule, he tried to avoid them altogether. In any case, with Merlin's type, the direct approach was often best.

He could hear Merlin shuffling up and down the stairs, obviously having given up hope of going back to sleep and also in sore need of working on his stealth skills.

Arthur sighed and edged himself carefully out of bed, taking his time to pull a set of clothes out of the wardrobe. The pain was already lessening, which was good news, but having to keep still and go slow all the time so as not to aggravate his injuries made him feel restless. Under normal circumstances, he'd run the feeling off, let his feet pound a hard rhythm back into his bones, but that was out of the question now, and it made him even antsier.

Downstairs, he found Merlin dressed and sat at the kitchen island, idly paging through a book. Merlin looked up at him, silent and expectant, draped in a thin film of wariness.

"Well. You look -- better," said Arthur, gesturing towards his face.

"Yeah, thanks."

"Of course, the original wasn't much to look at to begin with."

"Funny. You know, I'm surprised no one's offered you a headliner at the Apollo yet," Merlin said genially, and vaulted away from the island to poke his head into the fridge. He extracted an ice pack for Arthur's leg and an egg carton. "Breakfast?"

"Yeah, sure," said Arthur.

Dawn was still taking its sweet time arriving, but since they were both up anyway, they might as well get an early start to the day. It would probably be like the previous days, with Arthur doing his best to be rude and Merlin valiantly refusing to get sucked into his game.

The man wasn't impossible to rile, but he was unusually good-natured; where lesser mortals might have lost it and gone crying to their mummies by now, Merlin only persisted in smiling while doing Arthur's admittedly ridiculous bidding. Arthur was getting a little bit tired of trying to break his spirit, to be honest. Merlin didn't seem like a bad sort, really, and it wasn't his fault Morgana had picked him to bear the brunt of Arthur's stubbornness. In spite of himself, he kind of liked Merlin, actually.

Still, likeability didn't necessarily translate to trustworthiness. Some of his best nemeses had been such charmers it had seemed almost a shame to end them. Not that it had stopped him, of course; he was a professional. With Arthur, you got exactly what it said on the tin. Or, more precisely, what it said on his business cards. Which he'd stopped giving out some years ago, owing to the fact that it was only an exercise in futility telling people to feel free to ring you anytime, just before dripping a nice gob of poison in their tea.

"So. Which fireplace did you walk into again?" Arthur asked, looming casually over the stove at which Merlin was trying to calculate a scientific equation to the exact degree of crispiness Arthur demanded of his sunny-side-up edges.

Merlin looked up from the frying pan. "The one in the main hall."

"That's the opposite direction of the kitchen," Arthur said.

"I was sleepy. Got disoriented for a bit."

"Funny, you strike me as being significantly taller than that one."

He shrugged. "Must've stumbled, then."

"Too burnt. Start over," Arthur said cheerfully, and waited for Merlin to finish looking forlornly at what he obviously thought was a perfectly acceptable fried egg and which he decided to serve Arthur anyway, tipping it onto the toast on Arthur's plate with an upward quirk of his lips. It spoke less of sedition than a pleasant bit of cheek, and Arthur had to remind himself of the number of people he might've enjoyed a lager with, if only he hadn't ended up inhuming them anyway.

He cleared his throat softly, reclaiming his seat at the kitchen island. "If you'd tripped, it's more likely you would've hit your head rather than catching your eye on the edge, isn't it?"

Merlin eyed him bewilderedly. "What -- what is this? Do you need a dramatic reenactment?"

"No, no, I'm just trying to make a point," said Arthur, gently stabbing his egg.

"Which is?"

"Well, first of all, that you're a terrible butler --"

"Not a butler," Merlin interrupted.

"And also that you're a bloody lousy liar, Emrys. What happened last night?"

"What do you mean?"

Arthur licked his fork clean and put it down, leaning forward. "You may have noticed, Merlin, that I was shot," he said conversationally. "Now, ballistic trauma in the best of circumstances is a right nuisance, but when one is shot cleanly in the chest, as I was, Merlin, optic failure is generally not part of the fall-out. So, contrary to what you may think, I haven't gone blind."

Merlin stared blankly, blue eyes wide and limpid.

Arthur rolled his perfectly functioning eyes. "Look, unless a mantelpiece came alive, punched you in the face and shoved your remains into the garden, I'm pretty sure you were nowhere near a fireplace. So, I'll ask again: what happened last night?"

"Ah," said Merlin, shoulders slumping forward slightly. "Okay, there was this man in the courtyard when I came down to get your water. I thought he might've been a burglar or something, so I went after him. And then he hit me. A lot." He cringed a little. "But I guess it was more work than he really wanted to put into the job, 'cos he ran off after."

Vexed, Arthur said, "Well, fine. What was all that rubbish about the mantel for, then?"

Merlin shrugged, drawing himself in like he was trying to make himself look as small as possible. "I was -- embarrassed. I should've been able to handle it better; I mean I'm supposed to be a secret agent and everything, and --"

"In training," Arthur added, though whether it was to be kind or to rub salt in the wound, he wasn't really sure himself.

"Right. In training," Merlin agreed, and went a bit pink in the cheeks. He busied himself with cleaning and moving plates and utensils around, like all the clattering and clinking would annoy Arthur into forgetting the conversation they'd just had.

Arthur watched the whirlwind of dishware with some trepidation. He hadn't much attachment to the things in his kitchen, stocked primarily by ordering online whatever looked the shiniest, but nobody liked sweeping up broken china. He'd heard it enough from the agency crews who sometimes had to clean up after his missions and asked him please could he try not to break so many things because bodies and bloodstains were difficult enough to remove already without him throwing jagged shards of debris into the mix.

"Are your courses on hold, then, while you're here?" he asked.

"Yeah," said Merlin, leaving the plates alone now. "I got, er, special dispensation to do this instead."

"Sounds like you got the bad end of the deal," Arthur said.

Merlin shrugged and shot him a quick smile. "'S'not so bad once you get used to it."

Arthur gingerly got to his feet. "Where are your car keys?"

Jumping to attention, Merlin said, "In the front hall. Why?"

"We're going for some extra tuition."

"What? Why? What are we doing?"

Merlin followed Arthur's careful progress out of the kitchen and towards the front door, hovering close by like he was afraid Arthur might shatter a kneecap mid-ramble.

Arthur snatched the car keys off a set of hooks next to the door and tossed them over. "Have you ever heard of the phrase 'Shut up and drive', Merlin?"

*


No more than ten minutes into the journey, Arthur snatched up Merlin's iPod, which had been plugged into the car stereo, and unlocked it, making agitated noises as he scrolled through the contents of its current playlist.

"Right at the next light," Arthur said. He held the music player up next to the side of Merlin's face. "And what the hell is this?"

"Music?" Merlin said, flicking his indicator on as the car approached the intersection.

"What? No. I can't believe you listen to this voluntarily. One Direction, Merlin? Really? One Direction?"

Merlin tried to wrest the iPod out of Arthur's hands while still keeping his eyes on the road. "Shut up, it's catchy. Besides, my car, my music."

"Twelve year old girls shouldn't be allowed on the roads," Arthur said, giving up the iPod to Merlin's clawing fingers in favour of prodding at the radio buttons instead.

"Oh my god," said Merlin, slapping Arthur's hands away from the console. "Hands off, Arthur. You're like the poster child for child locks. Was it you? You were the reason they were invented, weren't you? Well done, Arthur; ruining it for the rest of us."

"Wouldn't have been a problem if people listened to halfway decent music," Arthur sallied, still fiddling with the buttons. "Left here. No, Merlin, your other left."

They fought over the radio stations half the way there until finally compromising on listening to the audiobook in the middle of chapter three in Merlin's CD drive, except Arthur kind of got into it, and made Merlin start the book from the beginning.

Luckily, they had just finished an exciting bit when Merlin pulled up to their destination, eyeing the building and then Arthur warily. In big, white letters, the front of the imposing structure announced that they'd come to the Camelot Rifle Club.

"What are we doing here?" he asked.

"I told you," said Arthur, unbuckling the seatbelt. "We can't have you falling behind your classmates. Next thing you know, they'll be off on fun missions to exotic places while you're still separating my darks and whites."

Merlin looked up at the building again, frowning. "I know how to use a gun."

"Practise never hurt anyone."

"Also, it's closed, which is not surprising, seeing as it's not even six yet."

"Closed? What are they teaching you in spy school these days? There isn't a place a well-trained agent can't find a way into. Locks," said Arthur, "are merely a friendly invitation to try a little harder."

"So, what you're suggesting," said Merlin dubiously, "is that we break into a building that houses thousands of guns that may well be turned on us once we're discovered?"

"Exciting, isn't it?"

"Did getting shot make you go slightly mad as well?" Merlin inquired politely.

Arthur cracked a smile. "Getting shot? No, that doesn't make you go crazy, but being stuck inside your house with nothing to do for days helps. Now, find a way inside, young grasshopper; I'm imparting important spy wisdom to you."

"You aren't," Merlin accused mildly. "You're only making me sneak around to poke at doors and things so if we're caught it'll be my fingerprints all over." He looked up at the building with a studied frown.

Before he'd requested a transfer to the Research and Development arm of the agency, Merlin had been extraordinary at breaking and entering, technically more a legal term than accurate of what he did, which was to not break anything and enter anyway. He was lissome and light, and nearly nobody could match his efficiency at scaling walls, drifting across rooftops, shimmying up towers and bending locks to his will. His examiners had sometimes said it was a bit like magic.

So, in truth, he'd already figured out a way to get inside the shooting range three minutes ago. Of course, it wouldn't do to let Arthur know this; as far as Arthur was concerned, he was just some trainee Morgana had chosen for convenience and expediency's sake, though Merlin couldn't exactly see the reasoning for keeping Arthur in the dark about the hit taken out on him, first when he'd been in hospital and now the intruder at the house. There was an unbelievably high price on Arthur's head, the kind where you'd need one of those giant gag cheques to have enough space to fill in all the zeroes when payment was due, and Merlin wasn't convinced that was the sort of thing to be hush-hush about.

Apparently, however, because Arthur was prone to reckless heroics and risking his life in the name of justice and all that, the order had come down from on high that he was to be kept entirely out of the loop, in case he decided to take matters into his own hands, rupture all his stitches and destroy his entire musculoskeletal system in the process and then bleed to death somewhere without anyone else having to lift a finger. Instead, the agency had dispatched legions of agents to track down the origin of the hit and, having exhausted much of their staff on this endeavour, had then pulled Merlin out of early retirement to be Arthur's bodyguard, which was flattering in a sense, but not nearly enough to make up for the immense pressure attached.

It wasn't that he'd never done anything like this before; it was because he'd done exactly this kind of job before that had fuelled his initial decision to transfer out of active espionage. Lying made his insides itch, keeping his senses on high alert every second of the day made him jumpy and paranoid, being directly responsible for somebody else's continued existence made him shed weight he couldn't exactly afford to lose and the less said about his kill count the better. He'd been excellent at his job; he just didn't know if he'd be able to survive it.

And now he had the Pendragon heir's life dumped in his hands, which only amplified all those problems about a hundredfold. The only reason he'd agreed to do this in the first place was because Morgana had personally come and asked for his help, and he wasn't even sure if Arthur was worth it yet.

"Get inside, Emrys. I'm marking you down a point every second you stand here dithering."

"You don't have that sort of authority," Merlin snipped airily, but went and made a show of trying to discover the building's weak points anyway. When he felt that enough time had passed under Arthur's scrutiny, he swung himself easily up a drainage pipe, taking advantage of the cover provided by a large tree nearby, and worked a window over until it surrendered. He slithered inside, and jogged down to the front to let Arthur in, except Arthur was already inside.

"Not bad," Arthur said, though his encouraging manner was somewhat lost on Merlin, who had only just recovered his jaw from the floor. Arthur jangled a key. "I may have forgotten to mention that my family owns this place."

Merlin nearly laughed. "Did you also forget what a terrible idea it is to take the piss out of someone who's suddenly found himself with his pick of firearms?"

"I see your point," Arthur said gravely, and then brightened. "Let's go and shoot things."

The building was decently-sized and its layout fairly straightforward until they got towards the back, where corridors snaked every which way, though it was clear that Arthur could navigate this place in the dark. He led Merlin to a room where the targets hung innocently at the other end, minding their own business, and handed him the requisite eye and ear protection gear.

"Welcome to my private range," Arthur said.

Merlin looked at him levelly. "Your private range," he repeated flatly.

"It was my twelfth birthday present," Arthur said, as if this was perfectly normal.

"Your birthday present," Merlin said. "When you were twelve."

"Stop that. And yes." Arthur slipped on his own set of safety equipment, and gestured to Merlin a wide range of weapons to choose from. "My father isn't exactly a traditional parent. While all my classmates got action figures and Rubik's cubes and things, I got this. And I still use it today, which is probably more than I can say for all the He-Man figures laying siege to your friendly neighbourhood Oxfam. It's the gift that keeps on giving."

"Ah," said Merlin, as he looked over the selection of weaponry, quietly noting the use of 'classmates' rather than 'friends' and filing it away for further processing.

Arthur set up the targets and looked at Merlin expectantly. "Well? Let's see what you're capable of."

Merlin hefted the handgun in his palm, appreciating its weight and form, getting a good feel of it before loading his rounds. He did a lot of work with weaponry in his department, and he was a good shot, if he were to say so himself. Merlin raised the gun to eye level, lining up his gunsight and completely ignoring the bulls-eye pattern printed across the target silhouette's torso. He pulled the trigger.

"Oops," he said to the bullet-hole that appeared smack in the middle of where the silhouette's eyes would have been, had anyone been bothered to paint them on. Merlin bit down a broad smile. "Missed."

*


Arthur watched Merlin closely out of the corner of his eye during the drive back home, as though something might give if he just squinted hard enough. There was something brewing deep underneath that amiable façade, he was sure of it, some kind of spark, a crackle of lightning, a hint of brilliance that belied the fey, cheery ineptness Arthur was beginning to suspect had been manufactured purely for his sake.

He hadn't done any shooting at the range because he wasn't insane; the recoil alone might have made him come unstapled and he wasn't fool enough to risk further injury so the agency could have more of an excuse to keep him off duty. Instead, he'd spent that time sitting and observing Merlin's form, occasionally offering instruction as needed; initially, the idea had been borne of altruism -- whatever he'd told Morgana about not wanting to train anyone, it did seem like a bit of a raw deal that Merlin had been ordered out of his classes at the agency to cook and clean for a convalescent instead, and Arthur had honestly wanted to help him a little so he wouldn't fall so far behind his classmates, who, by now, were probably getting well acquainted with a thousand and one fun things to do with poisons.

But Merlin hadn't needed the help. Little drops in the shoulder here, a nearly imperceptible shift in the stance there, and his shots had gone off the mark, not wide enough as to be a danger to himself and others, but just that much short of being an acceptable marksman. It had taken Arthur some time to notice, but, as it was his job to notice things most people wouldn't, it eventually had become fairly apparent that the very first shot Merlin had fired, a clean pierce in the exact center of the forehead, wasn't just a case of beginner's incredibly good luck. Merlin was talented with a gun, and too comfortable with it besides for a bungling trainee who, a few days ago, had just tried climbing up the side of a house with bottom-of-the-range equipment.

Of course, it was possible that Merlin had had experience with firearms well before coming under the agency's wing, but even if that was the case there was no reason to keep it under wraps as he'd done, pretending to go off target when it was clearly well within his ability. There was also the possibility Merlin had done it out of charity to make Arthur feel useful, in which case, Arthur couldn't decide whether being pitied or being lied to was worse.

He'd already taken the precaution of snooping through Merlin's things on the day of arrival, after he'd dispatched Merlin to tend to all five sprawling acres of lawn with nothing but a pair of pinking shears; just because he trusted Morgana with his life didn't mean he also trusted her not to pull some kind of elaborate ruse on him for whatever absurd motivations passed for rational in her mind. The search had proven unfruitful, however; all he'd gleaned from that bit of poking around was that Merlin was a year younger than him; owned an excessive amount of scarves; enjoyed fantasy novels; had an art teacher mother who lived in some tiny hamlet in the southwest of England called Ealdor; photographed exceptionally well; and was missing the gene that made people fold clothing properly. So, in all, absolutely nothing helpful there.

There was a great deal more to Merlin than met the eye, and Arthur was going to get to the bottom of it. However, given that he'd already accused Merlin of lying once today (and, in all fairness, he'd been right), Arthur opted to sit on this one for a little longer, so he wouldn't spook the boy. Sometimes suspects were more likely to get complacent and make mistakes if they thought you weren't onto them, and he didn't want Merlin getting cagier than usual.

There was something that felt weirdly unkind about considering him a suspect, but Arthur decided that was Merlin's own fault for being shifty.

They turned into the drive, Merlin pulling his ratty two-door just inches behind Arthur's gleaming sports car and giving Arthur nightmares about scratches on his dearly beloved Bentley.

Merlin switched off the engine. "Shall I get your wheelchair?" he asked. "You were on your feet quite a bit earlier."

Arthur pulled a frown at him.

"Let me rephrase that," Merlin suggested. "Wait here. I'm going to get your wheelchair."

Naturally, this was Arthur's cue to ignore him. He knew his limits, and this wasn't one of them. Merlin danced lightly over to the passenger side, hands outstretched like a swimming instructor dealing with a small child who's just come off his water wings.

"Walking to the front door isn't going to kill me, you know," Arthur grumbled.

"Sorry," said Merlin blithely, curving one arm across Arthur's back. "It isn't in my job description to leave you to your own devices."

"Oh, well, as your employer, I hereby relieve you of your duties."

"Technically, Miss Le Fay's my employer."

"Will you stop calling her that? It only gives her a big head," Arthur said, leaning into Merlin if only because it was easier than struggling.

Merlin smiled. "Well, better her than you. It's not her I've got to live with."

Arthur thought about being indignant, but amusement won out. "Are you suggesting, Merlin, that I am difficult?"

"What, me? No, never," Merlin said briskly, all innocence, as they passed through the front hall. "You're a delight, sir."

"Yes, I rather thought so," said Arthur and couldn't help smiling to himself when from his periphery, he saw the corner of Merlin's mouth tilt upwards.

It really was a bit of a pity that he couldn't quite trust the man.




Continue to Chapter Two



I'm really enjoying this! I love the dry humour in it, bits like not Noddy, which had somehow discovered flight, followed very soon after by discovering crash landing at the other end of the room are making me grin.

Love the set-up and the characters and the way you're writing Arthur and Merlin. Looking forward very much to the next chapter.
This is such a great beginning!! It's a great plot, with the hit on Arthur and Merlin trying to keep his secrets and Arthur suspecting something isn't quite right. They both feel very in character, too, and I love the humor and bits of h/c. Looking forward to more!
Yes, i really want to read more! Lovely written, lots of humoristic bits...can't wait for the next posting...
AWESOME, I can't wait to read more, this is so much fun.
Enjoying this so much. You've got the characterisation spot on and the snark between the two of them is delicious to read. I was laughing out loud in places.

Looking forward to more!
Hurrah, I'm always happy when my fics make people laugh! :D Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!
Loving this. All the background and Arthur's snarky way of looking at things. Loved that Arthur is so very good at observation. Want more!
This is all kinds of brilliant. I can't wait for more.

At present, the one smeared across his face was, according to Merlin's mental log, entitled I Think I Am Much Cleverer Than I Really Am, with shades of Please Notice How Very Attractive I Look In Ambient Light.

I want to marry this line.
You may have to buy it a drink first :) Thank you for reading; glad you're enjoying it!
This is such a fun, flowing read with the perfect amount of intrigue and secrecy and tension. I look forward to the next parts.
This is a fantastic start. Really looking forward to more.
Oh, I'm loving this! The intrigue, the secrets, the humor! :D

Can't wait to see where you take this.
I love this. I love the idea of everyone as secret agents and Morgana trying to fool Arthur. Merlin secretly being a secret agent par excellence, as well as protecting Arthur, is such a great parallel to the show too. Love your characterization - they're so funny. Really looking forward to more.
Basically I just wanted to write the boys being well-dressed and wielding guns :))) Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment; glad you're enjoying it!
Wee, you've written 70K+ of Merlin fic? Exciting! \0/

This is fabulous, I love the set-up of your story so much, bb. :D I'm really looking forward to reading more!
Loving the set-up already and looking forward to more! :) Very interesting.
This is totally delightful. Can't wait to see where you go with it. Also I want to know what made Merlin retire early.

Great dialogue and characters.
Thanks very much! I'm glad you're enjoying it :)

Re: Merlin's early retirement -- I didn't have anything really specific in mind:
It wasn't that he'd never done anything like this before; it was because he'd done exactly this kind of job before that had fuelled his initial decision to transfer out of active espionage. Lying made his insides itch, keeping his senses on high alert every second of the day made him jumpy and paranoid, being directly responsible for somebody else's continued existence made him shed weight he couldn't exactly afford to lose and the less said about his kill count the better. He'd been excellent at his job; he just didn't know if he'd be able to survive it.
I am already loving this smart, funny story. Arthur, Morgana and Merlin are all well drawn and the dialogue is incredibly witty. Arthur is intelligent and observant and a royal pain in the arse. Now that he's caught on to Merlin being more than he appears on the surface he's going to be hyper vigilant. Poor Merlin, he thought he didn't have a moment to himself before!
Hurrah, I'm so glad you're enjoying the story and characters! :))) Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment!
I've been wanting to read this and I was wondering if you had it posted on AO3 at all so I could put it on my Kindle??
Ditto on the AO3... I get too distracted trying to read long fics on the computer, so it'd be nice to have this on AO3 and get it on my Kindle. But if you don't want to put this on AO3, then I'll still probably read this at some point. I just prefer to have the ability to put long fics on my Kindle, and this story looks like an awesome one. I've been looking forward to reading it. :)