Word Count: 8540
Timeline: Set in an imaginary future a few months down the line, slight spoilers for the first 3 episodes.
Summary: “Arthur wants you to pretend to be him so that he doesn’t have to get married to Princess Helena?”
Author’s Notes: Well, I wanted to get this plotline out of the way early on in the fandom before someone else did it (it’s hardly the most original of bunnies). I’ve probably taken a few liberties with the geography, but since the show has smoked pigeon sandwiches I feel it’s not that much of a transgression. Also? It’s mythic, so sod historical accuracy; I haven’t given them ipods and I feel that’s good enough. With love for widowedanthem, who sends me lovely texts about the slashy awesomeness of the boys.
I’m not sure who’s fooling who here.
- Tori Amos
“This is a sensationally awful idea,” Merlin says. Arthur turns to look sharply at him, and so he quickly adds: “Sire. This is a sensationally awful idea, sire.”
Arthur scowls. The past few months have worn off the roughest edges of their relationship, and Merlin doesn’t want to punch Arthur at least three-quarters of the time. As Gwen has pointed out, this is near miraculous; though she’s also added that Arthur has been unusually bearable since Merlin became his manservant. Merlin can’t say that he’s noticed all that much of a difference, but it would be nice to think that he’s managed something.
“You’re my servant,” Arthur reminds him, as though Merlin could somehow have forgotten, continuing to pace his chamber. Firelight throws weird shadows against the stone walls, and the wooden floorboards creak softly under Arthur’s boots.
“I am,” Merlin agrees. “Please feel free to sack me. Again.”
He expects Arthur to scoff, to come back with something sharp and determined. Instead, his master turns to face Merlin fully, anxiety writ large over his face.
“Help me,” he repeats. “It’s not as though there’s nothing in it for you…”
“Your father will kill me, if he finds out,” Merlin can’t help saying.
“He won’t find out,” Arthur says dismissively. He seems to have forgotten how all-powerful Uther Pendragon really is, though Merlin knows that the only person Arthur is really afraid of is his father. That’s also not something to bring up right now; or ever, if he knows what’s good for him.
“Have you thought this through at all?” Merlin asks hopelessly, aware that he’s cracking. That he was probably going to crack all along.
“Of course I have,” Arthur replies, a glitter in his eyes implying he knows Merlin’s about to give in. “You never know. It might even be fun.”
Arthur’s ideas of fun mostly seem to involve varying kinds of violence followed by large amounts of food and alcohol; still, Merlin sighs and says: “All right. Why not?”
“It’s a sensationally awful idea,” Gwen says the next morning.
“That’s what I said,” Merlin replies, amused to find just how similar their minds are. “I said I’d do it, though.”
Gwen stops walking abruptly, arms full of linen, and stares at him. “Let me get this straight,” she says, “Arthur wants you to pretend to be him so that he doesn’t have to get married to Princess Helena?”
Merlin tries to find a better way of putting it, but can’t find one. “Well, yes.”
Gwen isn’t going to let him off so easy. “So you’re both going to travel to her father’s kingdom, you pretending to be Prince Arthur, and Arthur pretending to be you, and then you’re going to stay there for a week pretending to be each other until you’ve sufficiently put Princess Helena off?”
“You don’t have to make it sound quite that awful,” Merlin tells her, screwing up his face. “It might be a little bit fun.”
“And when the king finds out, will that be fun?” Gwen raises an eyebrow. “He won’t put you out in public to be pelted with fruit, you know.”
“More’s the pity.” Merlin winks at her and she laughs. “Don’t worry. I’m sure the novelty alone will keep Arthur entertained for the week.”
“It’s a game to him,” Gwen warns. “It’s your life.”
Merlin knows this, but then again he takes his life in his hands every time he decides to practise magic – something he’s just about managed to keep from Arthur, with a few very close shaves – and he’s come to the conclusion that, when faced with a risk, he’ll take it. It might not be the most sensible way to live his life, and he suspects that Gaius is beginning to despair of him, but it is infinitely more fun.
“I’ll be careful,” he promises Gwen.
“If you get yourself killed, I’ll say ‘I told you so’,” she warns, but she’s grinning so Merlin doesn’t take her prophesy of doom too seriously.
“I’ll miss you,” he offers instead; Gwen was the first friend he made in Camelot and she remains the truest. At first, he worried that she felt things for him that he would be unable to return, but if she still does she’s keeping them increasingly well-hidden.
“Come back in one piece,” she replies, stopping at Morgana’s door with her load of clean laundry.
“That will be my priority,” Merlin promises, grinning brightly at her before continuing on to find Arthur.
Merlin can hear Arthur pacing impatiently up and down his chamber, boots echoing solidly on the floor.
“Well?” his master demands eventually. “Does it fit?”
Merlin tugs awkwardly on the tunic. He and Arthur are very similar in size, so of course their clothes would fit each other. It still feels strange to be so richly dressed; fine linens and silks and velvets. He grimaces, but acknowledges that he has to step back around the screen before Arthur wears a hole in the floor.
“What do you think?” He shifts under the shirt; Arthur’s shoulders are a little broader than his, but it’s really not as bad as it could be.
Arthur stares at him, wordlessly, for a long moment. Merlin can’t read the expression on his face, and doesn’t try.
“It will do,” Arthur manages after a moment, tone brisk. He’s already concerned with other matters, picking up his sword from where it’s lying carefully on a table. “Here, we’d better try this on you.”
Merlin takes it from him, and it’s strange to be buckling the leather belt around his own waist, as opposed to Arthur’s. The sword feels heavy, dragging on his hips, and as he takes a few steps forward it bumps against his legs. Merlin makes a face, muttering ow. Arthur laughs, and Merlin turns to look at him.
“This is ridiculous,” he complains.
Arthur’s eyes are crinkled with amusement. “It’s simple,” he says, “It just takes a little practise.”
“We leave tomorrow,” Merlin reminds him, and then looks properly at Arthur. “I see you gave up on trying to dress in my clothes.”
Arthur has got into his trousers, which fit fine, but is still wearing his own white undershirt. “They itch,” he says gravely.
“Perfect,” Merlin mutters dryly, about to undo the buckle of the sword belt, but Arthur reaches out and stops him, their hands colliding clumsily.
“Stop it,” Arthur says, a warning in his voice, fingers tight against Merlin’s wrist. “We haven’t finished yet.”
The more he finds out about this scheme or Arthur’s, the more Merlin becomes convinced it’s a catastrophically bad idea. He still doesn’t point this out, as Arthur helps him fasten a thick velvet cloak around his shoulders. It seems impractically long, and between the cloak and the sword Merlin can’t help thinking he’s going to have a very tragic and painful accident.
“I’m probably going to fall over and impale myself,” he warns Arthur. His master ignores him, reaching for the last thing on the table, and Merlin feels his chest tighten. “I can’t.”
“I am a visiting prince from another kingdom,” Arthur says, somewhat patronisingly, “If I enter the castle without wearing a crown then I’m going to look stupid, aren’t I?”
“If I wear your crown then I’m basically committing treason, aren’t I?” Merlin curls his fingers into his palms.
The prince sighs, but picks the crown up anyway, ignoring Merlin’s protests. He holds it reverently for a minute, and then reaches to put it on Merlin’s head. The gold is cold and heavy against his forehead, and Merlin does his best not to grimace. Instead, he draws his shoulders back, pulling himself to his full height, and does his best attempt at Arthur’s favourite facial expression; a cower lesser mortals sort of look. His lips curl a little, and he stares at Arthur with all the disdain he can muster.
Arthur looks both impressed and disconcerted.
“I think you’re going to be fine,” he says.
Merlin lets his shoulders sag a little. “How do you not get neck ache from wearing this?” he asks, fingers brushing the crown.
“I’ve worn one since childhood,” Arthur points out. “It comes naturally to me.” If there’s a jibe in his tone, Merlin chooses to pretend he hasn’t heard it.
“What are we going to do about you?” he asks.
Arthur considers this, and then reaches for Merlin’s favourite red shirt, currently discarded over the back of a chair. He pulls it on over the white undershirt, and runs his fingers over the worn material. “This will do,” he announces.
There is something very strange about Arthur wearing his clothing that Merlin can’t put into words; he decides to push it out of his mind because if they’re going to carry this off for a week then he can’t afford to focus on how weird it all is. It gets even more odd a moment later, as Arthur hunches his shoulders a little, bowing his head to look almost demurely at the ground. Merlin has never seen him submissive before, and for a moment he doesn’t even seem like the prince any more. Then a new thought occurs to him, and his mouth tugs into a smile.
“So,” he says slowly, “You’re going to be my manservant.”
Arthur’s gaze snaps up, ice blue and still full of power. “Abuse it and I’ll see to it that you’re soundly punished when we return,” he warns.
Merlin just grins, removing the crown and setting it carefully on the table again. He’s finally seeing an upside to this whole stupid plan.
The journey to the neighbouring kingdom takes four days; it would probably take less time if it weren’t for the fact they have to take so many things with them. Merlin enjoys himself; Arthur insists on riding out with the guards, leaving Merlin alone in the very comfortable royal carriage. He takes the time to appreciate the scenery, especially now he doesn’t have to stumble through it on foot; and also to study his book of magic by daylight, the heavy tome propped open on his knees and concealed swiftly under the seat any time another person comes near. Gaius advised him not to take the book with him, but Merlin isn’t going to somewhere new and unusual without the safety net of incantations with him. Anything could happen, especially since, as far as he knows, magic roams free and untamed in other kingdoms. Merlin can tell Uther isn’t going to be impressed if Arthur becomes the victim of sorcery, and really, when you think about it, it wouldn’t bode well for anyone.
Outside of Camelot – and, Merlin notes, well away from his father – Arthur seems to relax a little. He laughs more often, and seems less inclined to get angry at little things.
“Aren’t you supposed to be marrying the lady Morgana?” Merlin asks curiously on the second day. They’ve just finished setting up camp and twilight bathes everything in blue and purple; even half in shadow, Arthur’s face tightens immediately. If Merlin were anyone else, he would back down instantly; but he’s still interested, and so stands and waits for Arthur’s reply.
“Nothing’s certain,” Arthur replies, his tone a little strained. “And my father rather likes the idea of expanding the kingdom, which could of course be done with an advantageous marriage.”
He sounds sort of like he’s reading the words off a piece of paper, so Merlin doesn’t push it.
When they’re not travelling, they live in large tents; Merlin sleeps in a narrow cot in Arthur’s tent, a sort of curtain keeping him separate from the prince. It’s a relief to have his own space, because he and Arthur seem to be spending a little too much time together. Merlin is finally getting the hang of walking with a sword strapped to his waist and Arthur spends many hours by candlelight drilling into Merlin exactly how to talk to people; apparently he can’t rely on his slightly hopeful grin to get through.
Merlin, for his part, finds out exactly what he can and can’t ask Arthur to do. By the sound of it, he’s going to get to be both master and manservant over the next week, which just seems to involve a lot of work while Arthur sits around laughing at his expense. Arthur doesn’t put it exactly like this, of course, but it’s implied.
“At least you’ve had a little combat training,” Arthur muses over dinner. Under normal circumstances, they wouldn’t eat together – yet another one of those you’re a servant institutions that drive Merlin mad – but they’re not in the castle now. Merlin reflects that if being Arthur’s manservant was always like this he’d probably enjoy himself more.
“I’m not going to need it, am I?” Merlin asks worriedly. “I mean, you don’t just walk into someone else’s castle and say: ‘let’s have a duel’, do you?”
Arthur laughs at him, but in a kind way, blue eyes sparkling. “It’s all right. We’ll make sure you don’t need to do any fighting. I do have a reputation to keep up, after all, we don’t need you falling over in armour or anything.”
“Thanks a lot,” Merlin mutters sarcastically, but he can’t help smiling.
The evening before they’re due to arrive, they set up camp near a river. Merlin is just checking that his magic book is safely concealed beneath his cot when Arthur unexpectedly comes to join him.
“Dinner in about an hour,” he says. “And you need to go and bathe.”
“I bathed a few days ago,” Merlin points out, but Arthur is having none of it.
“You are pretending to be a prince,” Arthur reminds him. “Absolute cleanliness is important.”
He has a point. Merlin sighs, and follows him down to the river. It’s still summer, so the water will be tolerably warm, and there doesn’t seem to be a fierce current here either. Arthur hands him a foul-smelling bar of black soap and a thick cloth for drying himself afterwards.
“Don’t forget to wash behind your ears,” he teases.
Merlin rolls his eyes, laying the cloth and soap down near the river’s edge and curling his fingers under the hem of his shirt, dragging it up his chest.
“I will see you later,” Arthur says a little too quickly, heading back through the trees. Merlin gazes after his hurriedly retreating back with a bemused expression and then turns his attention to getting clean before he becomes utterly freezing.
Much later, he’s lying in bed and watching the vague shadows of trees against the tent’s ceiling.
“Arthur?” he says carefully.
For a moment he thinks Arthur’s asleep, or is ignoring him, or actually can’t hear him. Then the prince, sounding a little irritated, says: “What?”
“You really can’t marry her?”
Silence again, just the wind in the trees. “I don’t want to marry anyone right now.”
Merlin considers asking him about Morgana, and decides against it. Arthur sounds like he’s telling the truth, at least.
“All right,” he murmurs, and rolls over to get some sleep.
Arthur has apparently told the guards his plan because none of them so much as blink when Merlin walks out to get in the carriage wearing Arthur’s clothes, the sword hanging at his side and mercifully not whacking his thigh. Arthur himself is in the cleanest and least worn of Merlin’s shirts, a pale blue one that was always a little too large for him, and which therefore accommodates Arthur’s broader shoulders better.
“No turning back, now,” Merlin mumbles, half to himself, as their carriage passes through a small village and curious peasants stare at them, apparently hoping to catch a glimpse of this foreign prince. He resists the urge to fiddle with the edge of Arthur’s tunic; the clothes feel too hot and too heavy and he reflects that he might be panicking a little bit. Facing down witches and evil demons is nothing to this.
“Calm down,” Arthur says, with a kind enough smile, though there’s a trace of an order in his tone. “You never know, this might be fun.”
“I’ve got to meet this princess and then make her hate me so her father won’t suggest a marriage to your father,” Merlin points out. “And I need to convince everyone I’m you so the king doesn’t hang me when I get back. This will not be fun.”
“Fine.” Arthur rolls his eyes heavenward. “If you’re determined to ignore all the potential fun, then we’ll ignore all the potential fun.”
“Why can’t you make her hate you yourself?” Merlin asks, as the horses’ hooves begin to clatter on cobblestones. He can’t believe that this hasn’t occurred to him until now.
“I’ve done this twice before,” Arthur replies calmly. “I’ve had enough.”
Merlin should’ve known it would all have come down to boredom.
King Kyren is older than Uther, and considerably less terrifying. He gives Merlin a pleased smile, and Merlin belatedly remembers that of course the king likes him; he’s expecting Merlin to marry his daughter. He plays his part as best he can and apparently Arthur served him well because he handles the initial introductions with more grace than he would have thought possible. The crown still feels suffocatingly heavy but he doesn’t fall over his sword or his own feet when attempting a bow, and he doesn’t forget himself or say anything stupid.
Merlin catches a whisper of conversation from a couple of serving girls as he is being escorted to his chambers; one is telling the other that he’s just as handsome as they’ve heard. He suddenly wonders what these people know about Arthur; all they need right now is for someone to have heard about, say, Arthur’s golden hair and the game is going to be well and truly up.
“Your majesty,” one of the servants says, bowing and leaving Merlin in privacy. Merlin stands still for a moment, and then pushes the door open.
“That man just called me ‘your majesty’,” he says blankly.
“What else would he call you?” Arthur asks, not sounding terribly interested. “You can be a clot sometimes, Merlin.”
Merlin scowls, taking off the crown and depositing it safely on top of a heavy mahogany chest. Arthur has sort of begun to unpack; there are piles of clothes and things all over the room; Merlin is relieved to note that his pack has been left untouched, the magic book still safe inside it.
“I won’t sleep in the bed,” Arthur informs him, “Because it would look strange if a servant came in. But I’m taking your pillows.”
Merlin smirks. “Of course, because you can’t possibly sleep if your head isn’t cradled by hundreds of goose feathers.”
Arthur looks sorely tempted to throw one of the pillows at Merlin, but instead just hefts them both up and carries them through to a little room just off Merlin’s. He comes back a minute later with the pillows that probably belong to the other bed, and dumps them onto the magnificent four-poster.
“Happy now?” Merlin asks, with just enough impudence in his tone to have Arthur’s shoulders tensing. It’s easier to see how annoyed Arthur is through the thin layers of cloth, Merlin is amused to note. He sighs, sitting down on one of the carved wooden chairs. “There’s a feast tonight in your honour,” he offers. “I’m getting officially introduced to Princess Helena. She looks pretty from a distance. Very… blonde.”
“She’ll have a horrible personality,” Arthur warns darkly. “They always do.” He glances over his shoulder at Merlin. “And even if she’s nice, act like she isn’t.”
Merlin nods tiredly; he’s had his part explained to him a dozen times and he knows what he’s doing here. He doesn’t know exactly what Arthur thinks he would do instead; Merlin’s hardly in a position to marry the princess anyway. He sighs, and watches Arthur fuss over the sleeping arrangements; apparently the mattress next door is too lumpy.
“Of course it’s lumpy,” Merlin reminds him, “The nobility don’t want us servants getting too comfortable.” Arthur sighs. “Look, if it’s that awful we can always share,” Merlin suggests wickedly. Arthur seems to freeze, all the muscles in his back tensing up.
“Don’t be stupid,” he practically snarls, sounding genuinely angry. Merlin raises his eyebrows at Arthur’s back, but remains quiet, watching Arthur stamp about for a while. “And you could help me,” Arthur snaps a few minutes later, “Since this is actually your job.”
Merlin removes the impractical cloak and goes to get on with unpacking; he’s faster than Arthur, possibly because every time Arthur turns his back Merlin uses little bursts of magic to convince folded clothes to lie neatly on shelves. He knows it’s risky, and it’s cheating, but he’s found domesticity is always that bit easier if you get magic involved. It’s not something that Gaius approves of; but then Gaius is not here.
“Just treat the servants tonight like actual people and it’ll be fine,” Merlin advises Arthur later, when his master is scowling and the uncomfortable silence still hasn’t shifted. Merlin isn’t sure exactly what has created this tension, but he doesn’t want to make it worse and so does not bring it up.
“I’ll give you the same advice,” Arthur responds a little loftily, “The nobility aren’t all bad, you know, whatever you may have decided.”
Merlin thinks about this. “Except Princess Helena.”
Arthur finally cracks a hint of a smile. “Except Princess Helena.”
The poor girl, Merlin thinks, but doesn’t voice his pity aloud.
On the whole, Merlin decides, Princess Helena isn’t all that bad. She’s a bit simpering and girly, which would annoy Arthur no end should this marriage go ahead, but she’s hardly a demon. And Merlin has met demons and witches, so he considers himself somewhat of an expert on them.
“Tell me about Camelot,” she urges him, as they’re seated next to each other on the head table. Merlin can see Arthur skulking in the shadows down one of the walls, talking to a very pretty servant girl. Clearly he actually took Merlin’s advice onboard, which is a minor miracle in and of itself.
Over a gigantic roast animal of some kind, Merlin describes Camelot to Helena. He tells her all about the beautiful castle with its creamy stone, the surrounding lands, the honourable people within the walls. He thinks that he may have got a little carried away, though, when Helena looks at him with shining grey eyes and says:
“It sounds wonderful.”
Merlin belatedly remembers that he is not supposed to be selling Helena on the idea of living in Camelot, and chokes on a mouthful of wine. When the spluttering has passed, he raises his head and notes that Arthur is glaring at him from the other side of the banqueting hall, a mixture of concern and irritation on his face.
“Yeah,” he says, “I mean, Camelot’s quite nice, but we have lots of… rats. There’s a huge vermin problem, we just can’t seem to get rid of them. It’s horrible in the summer.”
“Oh.” Helena screws up her face in disgust, and Merlin lets out a mental sigh of relief.
When the next course arrives, Helena turns to Merlin and says: “Is it true that King Uther has removed all traces of magic from his kingdom?”
Well, not exactly… Merlin thinks, but aloud he says: “Yes, the kingdom has been free from magic for twenty years.”
“To live in a world without magic…” Helena murmurs softly. Merlin thinks that if she says the idea is horrific he is not actually going to be able to keep up this charade; what if she’s even capable of doing magic herself? “I admire your father,” she tells Merlin eventually. “I often wish we lived under the same conditions here.”
Merlin decides that he officially does not like her, which is probably just as well. He does his best to smile.
During the next course, Merlin recalls that he’s meant to be Arthur and attempts to be charming; he remembers some of Arthur’s favourite anecdotes, half-amusing, half-boastful, and delivers them in the same tone Arthur always does. He thinks he senses the real prince’s eyes on him rather a lot over the course of the evening, but it’s understandable and he tries as hard as he can to ignore it. He also abstains from the wine as much as possible; he doesn’t want to end up drunk and forgetful, especially not now he seems to be getting the hang of this.
“You appeared to be having fun tonight,” Arthur observes neutrally when they’re back in their chambers. “I told you that this wouldn’t be a complete waste.”
“Fine,” Merlin accedes, “It’s a little bit fun. At the moment.”
Arthur grins, and then looks a little curious. “You listen to me,” he says, sounding slightly puzzled, “When I tell my tales. And you remembered them.”
“Well, I’m trying not to be completely obnoxious,” Merlin replies, not entirely sure what Arthur is trying to get at. “I needed conversation of some kind while we were eating whatever that gigantic roast thing was.”
Arthur laughs. “Right. Yes. Well done for being resourceful.” Merlin gets the feeling that’s not actually what Arthur is trying to say, but he doesn’t attempt to work it out. “And Helena?”
“Well, I don’t want to marry her,” Merlin tells him, sitting down and tugging off his boots, “So obviously you’re not going to.”
“Good.” Arthur smiles. “This is all going rather well then.”
Merlin can only hope that it actually stays that way.
“I don’t think my mother had this in mind when she sent me off to live in Camelot,” Merlin mutters to himself, buckling Arthur’s sword around his waist. “If she could see me now…”
Arthur is still asleep; although Merlin is the one perpetually late every morning, he’s gathered that Arthur is fairly bad at getting out of bed. He doesn’t bother going to wake him up, because of course Arthur is not being the prince at the moment. He’s just being a manservant that no one cares about.
A young woman hurries in, eyes obediently downcast. She bobs a quick curtsey in his direction, and Merlin smiles but she doesn’t acknowledge him at all as she heads across to the fireplace. Merlin frowns, and is about to introduce himself when he realises that he’s not a fellow servant; not at the moment. He’s the prince, the heir to the throne of Camelot, and he would have no interest whatsoever in a maidservant. So he bites his mouth closed and turns his attention to his clothing, shrugging his shoulders under Arthur’s long coat. It’s the first time he’s really noticed the barrier between the nobility and their servants, the divide perpetuated by both sides, and it makes him feel a little nauseous.
The woman looks at him one more time before she leaves, a flirtatious glance from under her eyelashes, and a hint of a hesitant smile. Merlin thinks about power and how easily people can be attracted to it; he’s sure he’s suddenly become a hundred times more handsome in everyone else’s eyes because they think he’s of royal blood. It’s an interesting thought, and one he’s still dwelling on when another servant brings in platters of bread and fruit for breakfast. Merlin waits until she’s gone before going to bang on the door to Arthur’s chamber.
“Breakfast!” he shouts, pounding his fist against the wood.
He’s sitting at the table eating an extremely good apple – apparently the orchards of this kingdom are better than Camelot’s – when Arthur finally joins him, looking wide awake although his clothes are crumpled. Merlin wonders if people still think Arthur is more handsome than him, now Arthur’s been rendered powerless by this exchange, but Arthur unknowingly pierces his inflating ego by sparing Merlin a glance and saying:
“I don’t suppose there’s anything you could do about your hair, is there?”
Merlin scowls, scattering his fingers through his hair. Arthur ignores him, settling down comfortably and reaching for a bunch of fat grapes. He seems so at ease with all of this, while Merlin remains hopelessly confused.
“You’re going hunting with the king and his men today,” Arthur offers eventually, settling back in his chair.
Merlin stares at him. “I’m what?”
“Didn’t I tell you last night? Catherine told me.”
Merlin gets the feeling that this is all going to end very very badly. “Who is Catherine?” he asks, deciding to deal with the easy bit.
“Helena’s maidservant,” Arthur replies, shrugging easily. “I met her last night. She’s a nice girl.”
Merlin raises an amused eyebrow at this, but Arthur doesn’t seem to notice, and he realises he should cope with the matter at hand. “Can you come with me?”
Arthur sighs, helping himself to another apple. “If you insist. It’s not entirely proper, but we can play the I’m-alone-in-a-strange-land card and it should be fine. Have you ever been hunting before?”
“When exactly would I have gone hunting?” Merlin asks, folding his arms. “One of the many times you didn’t invite me, perhaps?”
“I only didn’t invite you because I assumed you’d be dreadful,” Arthur replies. “Are you dreadful?”
Merlin shrugs. “Very possibly?”
“Well,” Arthur grins, “This should be interesting then.”
He bites hard into the apple; Merlin finds himself watching the juice running down Arthur’s chin for a minute. He tears his gaze away, his hands coming up to cover his face.
“It’s going to be a disaster,” he mumbles.
“Don’t worry,” Arthur offers, mouth full, “You concentrate on not breaking your spine and leave the rest to me.”
Merlin’s hands drop. “There’s a possibility I could break my spine?”
“Only a small one,” Arthur shrugs, taking another bite. “And I know you can be clumsy at times but I’m fairly sure you’re not a total moron.”
“Thanks,” Merlin mutters, “You’re being a great help. Can’t I pretend I have a headache?”
“No.” Arthur swallows his mouthful of apple. “You’re not Morgana. You are going to face this like a man. All right?”
“I’m not here solely for your entertainment,” Merlin scowls.
“Yes you are,” Arthur responds, straight-faced. “You’re my manservant, and therefore you do whatever I want you to do. If I want you to be entertaining, then you will be entertaining. Oh, and don’t wear that shirt, I don’t want you getting mud on it. Wear the grey one.”
Merlin closes his eyes and breathes in sharply through his nose to keep from saying some distinctly unfriendly things to Arthur; most of the time he is amused by the prince and the fact he’s been spoiled rotten his whole life, but occasionally it can be a bit much. Not that it matters, not at the moment. He’s trapped here, and there’s no way out that won’t end in punishment. He’s just got to keep going.
“Fine,” he manages after a moment. “Grey shirt, don’t break my neck.” He glances at Arthur. “And I’d rather you didn’t wear that either, sire, if we’re going hunting.”
Arthur plucks at the blue shirt, looking a little incredulous, but nods his acquiescence. “I’ll go and change,” he says.
When the door closes behind him, Merlin lets out a long sigh. His attention is caught by the apple, left carelessly on the table with Arthur’s bitemarks clear and strong on the red flesh. He sighs, glaring at it until the fruit flies off the table and shatters mushily against the floor, and goes to change his shirt. Then, as Arthur shows no sign of returning just yet, Merlin goes to write a letter.
Gwen, you were right. I don’t think I can do this.
He’s just found a courtier willing to carry the message back to Camelot when Arthur sweeps back in, wearing one of Merlin’s slightly more ragged tunics and a smug smile.
“Shall we go?”
You are completely insufferable, Merlin thinks, but aloud all he says is: “Yes.”
“I think I may be paralysed,” Merlin says, aware that he’s being pathetic by allowing Arthur to practically carry him back to their chambers, but unable to do anything about that right now. If it weren’t for his arm around Arthur’s shoulders, he is reasonably certain that he would not actually be upright right now.
“You only fell off your horse once, and I was the only one to see it,” Arthur says cheerfully, “And you managed not to break or sprain anything. I’m impressed, you’re more talented than I gave you credit for.”
Of course, Arthur has no idea how much magic Merlin used today just to avoid hurting himself or anyone else, and he still feels like some people have been kicking him for several hours and then they threw him down a staircase for good measure.
“Sire,” he says quietly, “Sire, could you just… not, for a while?”
Arthur considers this. “You only call me ‘sire’ when you want something,” he observes, “I’m sure there’s something wrong with that.”
Merlin stumbles and makes a very pathetic sound that he will choose to forget later. “Why couldn’t you be renowned for being very good at sitting in chairs and reading things?” he asks hopelessly.
“Because they I wouldn’t have princesses from foreign kingdoms queuing up to marry me,” Arthur says, as though it’s obvious.
Merlin hesitates. “…Wouldn’t that be a good thing, given the situation that we’re in right now?”
Arthur turns to glare at him. “Shut up.”
Now, their faces are awfully close together; Merlin blinks and he swears his eyelashes skim Arthur’s cheek. The prince seems weirdly uncomfortable about this, pulling hurriedly away and leaving Merlin to almost fall through the chamber door by himself.
“You know, your majesty, I don’t bite,” he mutters wickedly.
Arthur chooses not to hear him.
Some of the servants have brought up a large metal tub and filled it with hot water; Merlin has never wanted anything in his life more than he wants to peel off his clothes and sink into the lovely heat.
“I’m having the bath first,” Arthur informs him bluntly.
“But…” Merlin hears a plaintive note in his voice and does his best to sound like an adult, not a whiny child: “But that’s my bath.”
“It was filled for Prince Arthur,” Arthur reminds him, smirking. “And that’s me.”
“But they don’t know that!” Merlin protests. But he realises Arthur is not going to back down, so he sighs and inclines his head. “Yes, your majesty.”
“You don’t always have to make ‘your majesty’ sound like an insult,” Arthur says. He points towards the adjoining chamber. “You can rest in there until I’m done.”
Merlin sighs, but obediently begins dragging himself towards the other room. He could suggest to Arthur that they share, but he suspects that the prince would not see the funny side. He realises Arthur is still watching him, eyes catching on his hunched shoulders in concern.
“Are you all right?” The prince’s voice is soft, almost grudging, but the sentiment is real.
“Yes.” Merlin pulls together a genuine smile. “I’ve had worse. From you, as a matter of fact.”
He thinks Arthur winces, just slightly.
Lying in his muddy state on Arthur’s clean bedsheets, just to annoy him, Merlin flicks through the magic book in the hopes of finding a spell that will enable him to make Arthur’s nose blue for the course of the evening or something similar, but there isn’t one. Apparently magic can’t be used for that kind of petty revenge, which is a shame. Merlin decides that he’ll have to find some ways of doing childish things with magic, and then add them in as notes in the margins. Gaius probably wouldn’t approve, he reflects, but Gaius does not need to know. He thinks the Dragon might be amused to a certain degree; although after all these months, the Great Dragon is still coming up with increasingly irritating and cryptic ways to inform Merlin that he and Arthur are stuck with each other for the rest of eternity.
Merlin tries not to think about that too much; he can’t help thinking that he and Arthur could easily end up murdering each other if their destinies are entwined. He has tried asking the Dragon if he and Arthur are perhaps destined to kill each other, but the Dragon just laughs at him in that patronising way and goes flying off to do whatever it is that Great Dragons do when stuck in a cave all the time.
He has just shoved the book away in his pack when Arthur walks in, wet hair dripping down his forehead and dressed in his own clothing.
“You’d better hurry,” he says, “Or you’ll be late for the feast.”
They have altogether too many feasts here, but then Merlin has to reflect that the presence of Prince Arthur is a cause for celebration. A curl of guilt settles uneasily in his stomach, and he limps past Arthur into the other room. Arthur does like his privacy, Merlin reflects, pulling his dirty and sweaty shirt off; but then the prince spends his life surrounded by people all wanting things from him, so maybe it’s not completely beyond comprehension.
One wave of Merlin’s fingers in the water sends frissons of heat through the tub, returning the water to a decent temperature. His skin stings as he steps in, but it does feel wonderful as he leans back, exhaling heavily, eyes closing almost of their own accord. He can’t stop himself from thinking of Arthur; Arthur reclining in this same bath while Merlin was banished next door. Merlin would be the first to admit that he doesn’t actually know anything about being a manservant, but he has gathered that other personal servants help their masters to do things such as dress and bathe. Arthur seems to avoid intimacy with Merlin in any sense, and he can’t work out if that’s because Arthur values his privacy, or if he’s because he doesn’t like Merlin enough to let him get that close.
He’s let too much time slip past him, and so he reaches for the bar of goose fat soap lying beside the tub, putting everything out of his head except getting clean and more comfortable than he is now.
Later that night, Merlin has eaten more venison than he thinks was at all sensible, and he’s slouched by the fire in one of the mahogany chairs.
“Say what you like about these people, they do really good feasts,” he observes, resisting the urge to glance down and see if his borrowed trousers have become too tight. “Maybe it’s not too late for you to marry Helena.”
Helena remains somewhat irritating, but Merlin has found that he can put up with her company better than he would have expected.
“I’m not changing places with you permanently,” Arthur warns. He’s draped across the other chair with a casual grace that Merlin will never be able to master. He supposes that’s why he’s the servant that no one looks twice at, and Arthur is the heir to the throne. Excellent posture even with his legs dangling over the carved armrest.
“We could… we could say there was a plot on your life,” Merlin suggests, yawning, “And we were forced to change places to find out what was behind it. Because I’m dispensable and everything.”
Arthur’s eyes sweep across him, momentarily piercing, and then a smile creeps across his wine-stained mouth.
“…You know, Merlin, that’s not a bad idea,” he says slowly.
“I keep telling you,” Merlin smirks, “I’m not as thick as you think I am.”
Arthur shrugs. “Well, no. No one could be.” He grins wickedly, and Merlin resists the childish urge to stick his tongue out at his master. Instead, he just rolls his eyes.
“I suppose this means we’re not changing back.”
“Of course we’re not changing back,” Arthur replies, “We’ve got this far.”
Merlin presumes that, with an upbringing like his, Arthur has not ever heard the phrase quit while you’re ahead. Arthur is the sort of perfectionist who will spend hours and hours strapped into his armour on a hot summer’s afternoon just to make sure that his sword skills remain the best in the kingdom; no matter how hot he is getting, no matter that his eyes are running with sweat or he’s scraped raw from the chafing of his leather undershirt, he will not ever give up. Merlin supposes he is similar; staying up all night to find just the right spell, repeating words of gibberish until his mouth is dry and his lips are chapped until they eventually become more than gibberish, they become magic.
“We have got this far,” he agrees, hearing the surprise in his voice.
“There’s no need to be so stunned,” Arthur tells him, “I knew you could do it.”
Merlin blinks. “I think that may be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me,” he observes, only half-joking. “Don’t go getting soft on me now, sire, I won’t know what to do with myself.”
“Clot,” Arthur murmurs, but not without affection.
It is very late, the fire casting black shadows against the walls, and Merlin thinks that this might actually be the most tired he has ever been in his life. Being a prince is exhausting, he realises; he must always be on his guard, aware that everyone’s always watching him.
“Did you have a nice evening?” he asks, “While I was so very busy not getting you married…”
“It’s really not as difficult as you’re making it out to be,” Arthur sighs. “Just make a few unkind comments about her clothing, inform her that Camelot is rife with crime and pestilence, and adopt some bad table manners. The rest is easy.”
Merlin manages to resist the urge to ask whether Arthur practises insulting potential wives on Morgana, and instead smirks a little. “I saw you talking to Catherine,” he says, allowing a note of teasing to enter his voice.
“She’s… very nice,” Arthur tells him.
“Is that all?” Merlin pushes, grinning, “Remember, she thinks you’re a servant, and you won’t be a servant in a few days’ time…”
Arthur scowls. “I don’t tease you about your friendship with Gwen,” he protests.
Merlin looks at him incredulously. “Yes you do,” he replies. “You kept it up long after even Gwen and I had figured out we’re not in love with each other.”
“Well, yes, because it was funny,” Arthur tells him, as though this is a perfectly reasonable reply. Merlin suspects that Arthur still refuses to believe that he’s not madly in love with Gwen, but then he’s not ever really ever going to be in the mood to sit Arthur down and have a nice, serious talk about the difference between love and friendship. He sometimes worries that Arthur hasn’t actually learned the difference, deprived of real friendship as he has been all these years.
Merlin isn’t entirely sure where his relationship with Arthur actually fits in, but it’s not something he particularly wants to think about, especially not now, with Arthur sitting right in front of him, so instead he yawns again and lets Arthur loftily inform him that he really is rather pathetic, the glow of amusement reflected in his eyes.
Mercifully, most of the court seems to be hung over from the previous day’s festivities and so no one tries to make Merlin up much before midday. Even with pillows made of stuffed rags, instead of the goose feather ones that Arthur has acquisitioned, Merlin sleeps improbably well, finally opening his eyes at some point in the afternoon to find the room awash with sunlight. Someone has brought breakfast, though it’s impossible to tell when the meal arrived; Merlin knows he was sleeping like one of the dead, and only hopes he managed to look slightly regal in his slumber.
It takes a few minutes to persuade his limbs to move, and then he manages to stumble over to the table, helping himself to some water for his dry mouth. He decides that it’s simply too bright, screwing his eyes up against the harsh white light streaming through the windows. He wonders if Uther ever holds feasts that leave the guests feeling like their heads have been slammed against a stone floor the next morning, and then decides that he would rather not find out. Still, he can’t lie around all day being pathetic; he should probably make an appearance at some point, and it might help if he doesn’t look like some kind of phantom.
By the time Arthur makes it out of bed, eyes slitted against the daylight though he has at least bothered to put on a fresh shirt, Merlin has dressed and eaten and is sitting by the window looking out over the extensive grounds.
“Good evening,” he says, and Arthur glares daggers at him.
“You’re not nearly as witty as you think you are,” he warns.
“I’m not witty, I’m not stupid…” Merlin sighs theatrically. “What am I?”
“Very, very trying,” Arthur replies, though there’s a notable lack of venom in his voice. He sits down and begins attacking the food with more relish than Merlin managed earlier.
A short time later, there comes a knock at the door. Merlin glances at Arthur to see if he’ll play the part of the good servant and answer it, but Arthur seems way too interested in trying to eat his way through an entire loaf of bread, so Merlin shuffles over to see what the matter is.
“Your majesty.” A servant bows implausibly low, and Merlin wants to burst out laughing. He composes his features and straightens his spine a little.
“Yes?” His tone comes out tight and haughty; and the disturbing part is that it’s becoming increasingly easy to do this.
“Her majesty asks if you will accompany her and her ladies on a tour of the grounds,” the servant informs him, not making eye contact.
Merlin glances over his shoulder; Arthur is making compact but nonetheless vehement don’t go! signs, but Merlin doesn’t know how to refuse without seeming needlessly cruel. He doesn’t want Princess Helena to like him, but he equally doesn’t want everyone thinking he’s rude and haughty. That wouldn’t reflect well on Uther and Camelot at all.
“Tell her majesty I am on my way,” Merlin blurts, and hears Arthur sigh heavily behind him. “I will just make myself ready.”
“Your majesty.” With another bow, the man leaves. Merlin closes the door and leans against it.
“I take it all back,” Arthur informs him. “You are very very stupid. You are more stupid than anyone I know.”
“What was I supposed to do?” Merlin demands. “I couldn’t exactly say something like ‘no, actually, I would rather stick hot irons in my eyes than go on a walk with your princess’, could I?”
Arthur looks tempted for a moment, but sighs. “I suppose not. Well, at least you can take this opportunity to start making her dislike you.”
This does not go exactly according to plan. Merlin does his best to be surly and unhelpful, but it’s a lovely, warm day and the grounds are full of blossoming greenery. He can’t help grinning around him, forgetting dignity in spite of the heavy crown resting on his head.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Helena asks, when her maids are lagging a little behind.
“Very beautiful,” Merlin agrees, inadvertently catching her eye as he says it. He can’t help noticing the little flush that colours Helena’s cheeks, and mentally curses himself. She’s very pretty, if a little annoying, and she deserves to marry someone nice who can put up with her. He can’t help suspecting that he’s really started giving her the wrong impression, without meaning to.
Merlin tries desperately to think of Arthur’s advice, because he needs to stop this now before it gets out of hand. Just make a few unkind comments about her clothing. He looks over at Helena and tries to think of something. All he can come up with is Morgana has a nicer dress than that and he doesn’t think that has the right ring to it. This is all Arthur’s fault; does he not know that Merlin’s incapable of insulting anyone? Though that isn’t entirely true; Merlin is perfectly capable of insulting Arthur, which seems strange. After all, Arthur’s the one with the power to have Merlin carted off to a jail cell almost indefinitely.
“You have mud on your dress,” Merlin says, and knows that it is completely rubbish and not the right thing to say at all because Helena just glances down, says: “I have, haven’t I?”, and leaves it at that.
The damage is done.
“‘You have mud on your dress’?” Arthur repeats incredulously.
“Yes,” Merlin admits sheepishly, catching his lower lip between his teeth.
“‘You have mud on your dress’,” Arthur says again, as though unable to understand how Merlin could say something so unbelievably useless.
“I’m sorry!” Merlin tells him.
“You will be,” Arthur observes, pacing the room. “You are charming Helena completely. We’ll never be able to get out of this marriage, and then everyone will find out what we did.”
“Your father will punish you,” Merlin reminds him.
“My father will hang you,” Arthur replies.
They stare at each other for a long moment, panicking. Merlin reflects that he really should not have agreed to this, but it’s too late for wishing that he’d listened to his own common sense or to Gwen’s, because this is the situation and he’ll just have to deal with it as it is.
“I don’t know how to get her to hate me without her father attacking me,” Merlin confesses, quietly.
Arthur sighs. “I must admit, she seems a lot more attached than the other two princesses have been,” he says. “If only you were uglier…”
Merlin, in spite of himself, cracks a smile. “So you think I’m handsome?” he teases. Anything to break the tension in this room, he honestly can’t handle the edginess and the possibility of incipient death in the air.
Arthur’s jaw tightens; for some reason he really doesn’t like this kind of teasing. “You’re not completely disfigured,” he accedes, “Which right now is a problem.”
“Only you could make saying that someone’s attractive sound like an insult,” Merlin smirks.
“Well,” Arthur says, “It would be rather useful if you could do it too.”
Merlin nods; he has a point. “Are you going to teach me how to be cruel to women?” he asks. “Because I’ll be sitting next to her at dinner all tomorrow night and I don’t think I can trust myself not to end up betrothed by the time the plates are cleared.”
Arthur finally smiles, just a little. “You know,” he says, not meeting Merlin’s eye, “One day this ability to be effortlessly charming to women is going to be useful.”
Merlin attempts to meet Arthur’s gaze but he remains determinedly staring at his feet. “Yes,” Merlin murmurs, “I suppose it will.”
The silence is stretched and uncomfortable; he’s not entirely sure why.