“Sire, I have a hypothetical question,” Merlin says.
Merlin’s tidying Arthur’s room. Arthur’s in the bath, which seems the safest time to ask him not entirely hypothetical and possibly provoking questions. If he wants to do anything to Merlin, he’s going to have to chase him while naked and slippery, which gives Merlin a much better chance of getting away. Probably.
The king’s not going to go running naked down his castle hallways, right?
“That’s a very big word for you,” Arthur drawls.
“Do you need me to tell you what it means?” Merlin retorts.
“No. What have you hypothetically done?” Arthur asks, unfairly suspiciously in Merlin’s view.
“Nothing! But hypothetically, if someone had tried to bribe me to do you in, should I tell you? I wouldn’t want to speak ill of a noble, but - ”
There’s a loud splash. Arthur emerges from behind the screen, slipping on the stones, towel wrapped haphazardly around his waist. “Someone bribed you to kill me?”
“Tried to. I didn’t take the money!” Merlin pauses. “Also, this is hypothetical, and if I’m in trouble for bringing it up, it definitely didn’t happen.”
“If someone tries to bribe you to kill me, you definitely tell me!” Arthur says. “Are you slow, Merlin? If you said no, they’ll ask someone else next!”
Merlin frowns. “They’re not going to get many takers. It was a pretty low bribe, as these things go.”
“How would you know how ‘these things go’?” Arthur demands.
“What, you think it’s the first time anyone’s wanted me to kill you?” Merlin asks. “The Earl of Westmire and I have a standing deal that if I manage to off you, I get the entirety of his earldom, since he thinks he’s next in line for the throne. That’s the sort of price you offer for regicide.”
Arthur’s pale. His towel is slipping due to inattention. “Merlin, how many people have tried to get you to kill me?”
Merlin shrugs. “I’ve lost count. About a dozen, I guess?”
“And why have you never mentioned it?”
“Because I’m not supposed to accuse nobles of treason!” Merlin says. “I just thought the rules might be different now you’re king. But if not, then I remind you this is entirely hypothetical.”
“From now on, you’re required to tell me if someone’s trying to kill me!”
“All right,” Merlin says agreeably. “King Cenred’s ambassador says they’ll pay me a thousand gold coins if you turn up dead in the next week.”
Arthur gapes. “A thousand?”
Merlin nods. “I know, right? Insulting. I’d make more than that in a single year as an earl, collecting taxes from my peasants.”
Arthur’s frowning. “It’s more money than you’d make in your entire life.”
Merlin nods. “Yes, it’s true. Assassins have a much higher salary than me. Pity I’m not cut out for the work.”
“Do you,” Arthur starts. “Do you want a raise?”
Merlin’s jaw drops. “Oh my God,” he says. “Arthur. Are you trying to bribe me not to kill you?”
“No!” Arthur says. “I just…”
“You are,” Merlin says. He could be offended, but it’s too ridiculous for that, and also he’s too busy being delighted. “You realize this is like acknowledging you think I could kill you? You think a lowly servant could kill Arthur ‘I’ve been trained to kill since birth’ Pendragon?”
“Not in a fair fight, obviously, but I’m sure you could find an opportunity.”
“Arthur, you know I’d never,” Merlin says softly. “Nobody could ever offer me a price worth your life. You’re the best king Camelot’s ever had, and you’re my best friend. Nothing could make me hurt you.”
Arthur’s eyes are locked on Merlin’s, and the expression in them makes Merlin feel hopelessly fond and entirely loved. Arthur gives him a small smile, which Merlin starts to return.
Then Arthur blinks, clears his throat, and smirks at him.
“All right, I won’t give you a raise, then,” he says, and disappears behind his screen and splashes back into his bath.
“I hate you,” Merlin says. “Maybe I will assassinate you.”
Arthur just laughs. Merlin catches himself smiling sappily at the sound, and can’t blame Arthur for not taking him at all seriously.
There’s some splashing and rustling noises, and then Arthur emerges from behind the screen again, this time with trousers on. He hands Merlin his shirt, because he still hasn’t learned how to dress himself.
“Now, back to our discussion of your use of large words,” he says, as Merlin helps him dress. “I really do think that ‘hypothetical’ is too big for your little peasant brain, Merlin. It means -”
“I know what it means!”
“It means we’re discussing a possibility, rather than a reality. Using it to discuss something that definitely happened is therefore incorrect, do you understand?”
Merlin glares at Arthur, who grins annoyingly back.
“A correct usage would be something like this: hypothetically, Merlin, would it be all right if I kissed you?”
“Wh-?” Merlin stares at him. They’re standing very close as Merlin ties up various laces on Arthur’s clothing. Merlin’s gotten good, over the years, at ignoring Arthur’s handsomeness and muscles and scent and his, well, everything, no matter how close they are. But with Arthur’s question, it’s overwhelming and distracting and - what’s going on?
Arthur, turning slightly pink, raises his eyebrows questioningly.
“Yes!” Merlin says, getting his brain working again. “Yes, absolutely!”
Arthur rests a hand on the back of Merlin’s neck and leans in a little. Merlin’s barely breathing. Instead of doing the logical and sensible thing of kissing him, though, Arthur goes back to evilly smirking. From three inches away. His breathlessness ruins his condescending tone a little when he says, “See, I’m not going to kiss you, because we were just discussing a hypothetical.”
“I’m definitely going to assassinate you,” Merlin snaps, and smashes their lips together.