Notes: Uh. Look. My big scary PASS THESE OR FAIL OUT OF MEDICAL SCHOOL exams are in less than a week, and watching Merlin was meant to be a nice joyful way to spend my study breaks, but...that didn't exactly work out. Because this show makes me want to squeal in a high-pitched manner and have caplocky conversations about DESTINY and, obviously, write fic. Much love to ariastar for reading this over and making excited noises, and for helping me fill in some gaps.
This is a fic about Arthur's pratliness, because I miss it when it goes away, and I wanted an excuse to go on at great lengths about it. I suspect I also wanted an excuse to make up at least three different variations on the word 'prat'.
Set...between 1x09 and 1x10, I suppose. It was meant to be a lot slashier, but instead it is just about as slashy as the show. Which is still pretty damn slashy, trust me.
(five ways to defuse a prince)
In retrospect, it had taken a surprisingly short time for Merlin to decide that Arthur Pendragon was not actually a complete prat. No: through careful observation and pattern-spotting of which he felt Gaius would have been very proud, Merlin had concluded that Arthur was in fact a selective prat, and predicting the worst fits of prattery was no more difficult than looking out of the window and predicting rain based on the presence of charcoal clouds.
First of all, there was the fact that Arthur seemed utterly incapable of watching anyone do anything badly. His clothes were filthy and he didn't care until Merlin was ordered to wash them; then a single missed stain was enough to merit sarcasm and the garment being shoved in Merlin's face. His knights were kept drilling the same tricky formation until twilight had come and gone, taking their ability to see properly with it, because Arthur didn't think they could do it well enough yet. And yes, on some days he tapped his fingers incessantly against the breakfast table and his jaw had a certain arrogant set to it and Merlin scurried around making sure nothing went wrong, because those were the moods in which Arthur ended up throwing knives at servants for fun if they didn't move quickly enough for his liking. Merlin had expected Arthur to work him hard; it was the insistence on all the work being unreasonably good all the time that got on Merlin's nerves.
He mentioned this to Morgana, who could usually be relied upon when it came to listing Arthur's faults, but she seemed to be in a generous mood; she looked down at her wrist and touched one of the bracelets there, and then she said, "Arthur's grown up with everyone expecting the world of him. Don't blame him too much for expecting the same from everyone in return."
Later in the day, when he'd had a good lunch and his hands were no longer aching from polishing the fiddly bits on Arthur's weapons and armour -- his own fingers achieving greater finesse in the long term than his magic could manage without giving him a severe headache, leaving him to choose between the lesser of two pains -- Merlin admitted that she might have a point. After all, Arthur had stayed out just as long as the rest of the knights, and often stayed out longer.
And certainly it was easy enough to avoid this particular source of Arthur's pratliness: Merlin just had to do everything as fast and as best he could. Sometimes Arthur would look put out, as though he had been looking forward to yelling some more, but by and large Merlin couldn't fault his true appreciation for good work done well. It showed in the way he would close his eyes in enjoyment of an excellent wine but then snap at the nearest servant and snatch the flagon from their hands if they spilled any of it. This was usually Merlin, who tended to get distracted by the music and Gwen's silly faces and not notice when Arthur's cup was empty, and then trip over his own feet when he finally noticed the frosty glare being directed his way. Apparently princes couldn't ask for their cups to be filled, one was expected to anticipate; Merlin thought this was a load of bollocks and was generally quite happy to put up with being insulted if it meant Arthur would do his own perfectionist pouring.
In fact, Merlin decided finally, this was one irritating habit of Arthur's that could possibly be turned to his own advantage.
He'd developed a knack for blending magic and actual work when doing most of the duties Arthur liked to heap onto his shoulders, but there was still the problem of mucking out the stables. Magic was useless because ostlers and trainers were liable to wander in and out without knocking, and because the one time he'd tried it, one of Arthur's warhorses had nearly had a fit. Merlin privately dubbed it Utherhorse, especially when it continued to snort suspiciously whenever he was nearby and to eye him as he cleaned out its stall in a way that suggested a strong desire to kick him in the head. Though that wasn’t actually as inconvenient a reaction as that shown by one of the younger mares, who had taken an enormous liking to Merlin ever since he floated some oats into her feedbag, and who liked to nosebutt him with violent affection and generally make a complete nuisance of herself.
No. Merlin would be quite happy to never set foot in the stables again.
"What is this, Merlin? Am I to conclude that you are blind, in addition to your other many failings?" Arthur had his hands on his hips and his most unimpressed sneer on his face as he looked around.
Merlin put on his best no-Gaius-I-wasn't-doing-magic-no-really face -- it was improving through sheer dint of repetition -- and said, "I don't know, it looks fine to me."
He could see the moment where Arthur's shoulders twitched and the prince was a heartbeat away from snatching the shovel from his hands and doing it himself, or at least calling someone else to do it...but then Arthur narrowed his eyes and smiled. Both at once. It was almost frightening.
"I can't have a manservant who doesn't know how to make my stables presentable, now, can I? That would reflect very poorly on me. So you're going to stay here and keep cleaning until I decide that you've done an adequate job of it. Even if it takes you all night."
Merlin made an unpleasant face at his lord and master's back as Arthur left, and then glanced nervously in the direction of Utherhorse, who seemed to have a seventh sense for insubordination alongside its sixth one for magic.
"Nice homicidal bigoted horsey," he muttered, and went to fetch some more water.
By the time he returned to his own rooms, having finished all the tasks he'd deliberately left undone and had Arthur proclaim them acceptable, tidied up the prince's rooms, and set out his clothes for the next day, Merlin was so tired and his brain so fuzzy with automatic action that he started sorting some of the piles of clothes and putting them away before he woke up to what he was doing.
Struck with a mild feeling of horror, Merlin -- Merlin, whose mother had given up trying to make him use cupboards by the time he was ten -- threw himself onto the bed. After a moment he lifted his head, concentrated, and floated two pairs of socks over to lie in the largest clear spot on the floor. Just to make the point.
"What do you think, Merlin? Is this -- oh, this is just ridiculous, I can't believe my father is making me write reports."
Merlin glanced over at the whisper of paper against the floor -- sure enough, Arthur had swept his notes off the table and was now burying his head in a cushion. He managed to retain some semblance of nobility while doing so, but only just.
"Gwen's father told me that John has a good feel for his weaponry, if that's any help."
"For God's sake, Merlin, this isn't about what you're told," Arthur snapped, muffled. "It's about drawing your own conclusions. You've seen them all fight: what do you think?"
And then, of course, there was the fact that Arthur became an ass seemingly by default whenever he was bored. Merlin rolled his eyes at the wall, ignored the fact that Arthur seemed happy to get advice from his admittedly clueless servant rather than draw conclusions on his own, and made a stab at diplomacy.
"Well, sire, I'm not exactly an expert on fighting styles."
Arthur scoffed into his cushion. "You can say that again."
Personally Merlin blamed the fact that Arthur had never spent his leisure time with anyone except his knights, who were likely to encourage or at least pander to pratly behaviour, or Morgana, who encouraged it almost as much by turning it into a competition. What Arthur really needed, Merlin thought, was not a flipside to his coin or a tangled thread of Destiny or whatever the hell the Dragon was calling Merlin this week. What Arthur needed -- as well as a couple of smacks upside the head, which Merlin wasn't quite stupid enough to provide, whatever Gaius might say -- was a friend.
So Merlin gritted his teeth and did what any friend would do when faced with a tantrum grown out of boredom: he provided a distraction.
"You could, you know. Do something about that. Teach me to fight."
Arthur's considering expression, when it appeared over the top of the cushion, had a little more sadism in it than Merlin considered entirely appropriate. "I thought you said you didn’t fancy, and I quote, being knocked around like a sack of hay. Which is exactly what you fight like, by the way, it's disgraceful. We should do something about it."
Merlin shrugged. "Well, we do seem to run into danger quite frequently. I thought it might be wise to be more prepared."
Half an hour later, when he was having trouble lifting his feet clear of the mud because of the angle of his sword and the weight of his chainmail, Merlin was reconsidering his own wisdom. He envied Arthur his knack for moving around as though he wasn't wearing half a tonne of metal; he supposed that was what came of a lifetime of training.
"What are you grinning about?" Arthur demanded.
"Oh, just remembering the first time we met," Merlin said. "You made sure to tell me that you'd been trained to kill since birth."
The beginnings of an answering grin appeared on Arthur's face. "That's right."
"So what did they do, give you a spiked rattle and encourage you to whack your innocent toys with it?"
"Oh, no, only my evil toys," Arthur said solemnly, and Merlin laughed until his smile slipped; he knew what kind of toys those would have been. Rag doll witches. Warlocks. "I seem to remember," Arthur continued, "you saying something dreadfully insubordinate after that."
"You'll have to forgive me for that, my lord." Merlin recovered his wits and his smile. "I had no idea that you were accomplished so far beyond your years when it comes to being a prat, else I would have made sure to compliment you on it."
Arthur laughed and put his helmet on. "You're right, Merlin, this training was an excellent idea. A brave man like yourself -- I'm sure you're not expecting me to go easy on you."
Merlin watched the expert spin of Arthur's sword and his whole body winced in anticipation, but the prince's mockery had moved out of spite and into good humour, so it was probably worth it.
Merlin had long been familiar with the concept of passing down: back at home, before he'd had the habit of self-control hammered into him by Gaius's endless warnings, his bad days tended to manifest themselves as minor crockery accidents. And as Merlin was very capable of moving objects around but lacking the skill to put his breakages back together, they went through more household items than they could really afford, and Merlin's mother would spend the rest of the evening in a bad mood herself. One person's suffering was a rock dropped into a pond.
What he was learning was that Uther's anger was less rock and more boulder: the ripples were enormous.
"I expressly told you that any further deaths were unacceptable. And then I find that not only have two more people been killed, you have also been requisitioning my men and my equipment, behind my back, to feed your destructive efforts."
Arthur stood with his head held rigid and his back as straight as his sword, looking very much as though he'd like to remind his father that his men had captured the culprit eventually, but he had more sense than to actually do so. Merlin felt sorry for him: for a spoiled prince, Arthur was expected to do a lot more work than Merlin had first thought, and he'd been working on minimal sleep for three days in order to spearhead the force carrying out Uther's escalating demands.
"Clearly I should have given this task to someone with at least a passing chance of carrying it out efficiently. One of my hunting dogs, perhaps."
The king's voice had gained a hard edge of sarcasm, and Merlin groaned inwardly; if Uther had decided to go the route of humiliating his son in front of the court, then Merlin himself was in for a dreadful evening. Arthur had never again gone so far as to sack Merlin, but shame touched something ugly inside him and made him vicious. Prone to striking out without thought.
"I expected much more from you, Arthur. Get out of my sight." Uther flicked a hand at his son and Arthur stood frozen for a moment, then gave a deep bow. He looked so stricken and so furious that Merlin was surprised his spine could bend at all.
Arthur didn't even glance at him as he stalked out of the room, but Merlin gave a hurried bow of his own and raced after him. Someone was going to receive the backlash of the rippling Pendragon anger, and Merlin knew how to handle himself. Most of the other servants would accept Arthur's abuse and then gossip nastily about him in the kitchens; Merlin might be starting to learn the names and faces of the village children, in between having rotten cabbages pelted at his head, but at least he was used to it. And as satisfying as it was sometimes to sit around listening to other people complain about the prince's behaviour, he had a feeling that preventing nasty gossip was part and parcel of his task when it came to helping Arthur become someone that his subjects would respect.
Destiny was a bitch sometimes.
"Can you believe him," Arthur was fuming as soon as Merlin entered the prince's chambers."Of all the unreasonable ways to react --"
Merlin made a noncommittal sound and started to tidy up in one corner of the room; he'd discovered that agreeing with any statement that denigrated Uther was almost as dangerous as disagreeing with Arthur. Rationality was not a large factor in Arthur's blackest moods.
Arthur's continued tirade on how hard he had been trying and how unfairly he had been treated and how he was the prince goddamnit was interrupted by a knock on the door.
"Arthur?" Morgana's voice; Arthur pressed his lips together and looked belligerent.
"I'll get that," Merlin said hurriedly, and walked over to the door. He let himself out rather than letting Morgana in, and closed the door behind him as quietly as possible.
"Oh, Merlin." She sounded relieved. "I thought Arthur might have --"
"Throttled me? Used me for target practice and thrown my body into a lake?"
Morgana laughed. "Sent you away, at the very least."
"What can I say?" Merlin leaned against the door and smiled. "I'm hard to get rid of."
"You certainly are, and I'm glad of it." She looked past his shoulder, eyes unfocused. "Uther was -- well. This has been hitting him very hard, I don't think he was thinking clearly, but he shouldn't have done that to Arthur."
"You should tell Arthur that you think so," Merlin said. "Though -- tomorrow, maybe?" He didn't trust Arthur not to find offense any more than he trusted Morgana to keep her temper when the prince was losing his, and the last thing they all needed right now was for Uther's dependents to get into one of their legendary rows.
"I will." Morgana rested her hand for a moment on Merlin's arm and gave a teasing smile as she turned to leave. "Good luck."
"Thank you, my lady." Merlin stood leaning against the door for a moment longer, exhaled in a huff, and then re-entered the fray.
After five more minutes of ranting, three minutes of drawing Merlin into an argument and then trampling on his attempts to help, ten minutes of sulking and ignoring Merlin completely, and two minutes of grudging discussion of the preparations for tomorrow's hunt, Arthur's behaviour was inching closer to that of a reasonable human being. Merlin moved around the room pretending to clean things that were already clean and sneaking glances at Arthur, who was sitting on the floor, leaning against his bed and turning his -- thankfully sheathed -- dagger in his hands.
"You should get some rest," he suggested.
"Mmm." Arthur looked up. "Stop darting around like that, you're giving me a headache."
"I'll just --" Merlin made gestures at the door.
"Sit down, Merlin," Arthur snapped, and whacked the floor irritably.
Merlin obeyed, levering himself down to sit next to Arthur. He was just about out of safe ideas, and didn't really know what else Arthur expected of him at this point, but the prince didn't say anything more; he just sat there with his shoulder touching Merlin's and the hilt of his weapon making slow arcs between his palms. After a while his breathing became calmer, and when Merlin looked at him his eyes were half-closed and the fight was easing out of his shoulders. Merlin ducked a smile at the floor and kept silent.
Finally, Arthur let out a long sigh and bumped Merlin's knee with his own.
"You know," Merlin said, "you could just say, thank you Merlin, I'm sorry I was such an ass, here, have a couple of days off --"
"Oh shut up," Arthur said, but he was smiling.
"Look, I know our fates are joined and I'm meant to stay by his side for the rest of his life..."
The Dragon just looked at Merlin through its heavy-lidded eyes. Merlin had rather been hoping the Dragon would correct him on that last point, maybe give him some cryptic wriggle-room when it came to having a life of his own. Apparently not.
"...but do I have to be his manservant to do that? Am I still going to be cleaning Arthur's boots while we unite Albion?"
"Your path is a complex one, young warlock. You will be many things to Arthur." Which could have been promising, but could just as easily have meant that sometimes Merlin would get to polish the boots as well.
"Are you sure you don’t want to give me anything more than that?" Merlin tried, but without much hope. Sure enough, the Dragon gave a low puff of amusement and launched itself into the air with a rattle of chains.
"Time," it intoned, the booming sound glancing off the rocks, "will reveal all things."
"Enormously helpful, thank you," Merlin muttered, and left the cave.
The guards waved at him as he exited; Merlin had long ago given up trying to distract them, and had instead managed to convince them that Gaius sent him down there to do Research on the Evils of Magic. In order to better protect Camelot, of course. Merlin liked to make a big show of brushing himself down and telling dark stories about how angry the beast could get, so the guards had never tried to see what he was actually doing down there.
For all that he'd rather kill himself than be Arthur's manservant for the rest of his life, Merlin had to admit that it wasn't too bad at the moment. There were enough dangerous adventures to break up the tedium of cleaning and running errands and attending feasts full of dull speeches, and he still had enough time to practice his spells and help Gaius with his preparations, and he liked Arthur a lot when he wasn't actively exasperated by him.
Unfortunately, there was the problem of the knights.
In addition to the terrible injustice of Lancelot's dismissal, Merlin hated the First Code of Camelot because it ensured that all of Arthur's knights were noblemen who found the idea of a servant talking back to be either hilarious or offensive. Merlin would put up with Arthur's orders and insults because he knew that the prince would -- indeed, had -- drop everything and go anywhere if Merlin was in danger. But he felt that the other knights treating him as a general dogsbody was a bit rich, really, and the way Arthur acted three times as entitled and insufferable as usual when he was in their company, in an effort to play up to his status, was ridiculous. They obviously respected him, almost to the point of adoration; there was no need for him to impress them with his pratly powers quite so frequently.
"Hey, you. I left my helmet over at the targets, go and fetch it for me."
Merlin eyed the knight in question -- Tristan? or was that the redheaded one? -- with dislike. He'd been lugging jousting equipment around all afternoon, the knight was grinning in a way that suggested he'd left his helmet there on purpose, and Merlin had the firm suspicion that as soon as he stepped close enough to return it, he'd have his knees kicked out from under him or mud dumped down his shirt and honestly, he preferred the stocks. At least they gave him a chance to rest.
"Hurry up then, Merlin." Arthur gave an arrogant wave of one hand and basked in the smirks of the knights. "We haven't got all day."
Merlin thought: I should probably go along with this. I am a servant, at least for now, and Gaius gave me that talk about undermining Arthur's authority in front of people, and it's not a completely unreasonable demand, and it'll put him in a good mood if I obey.
But he looked hard at the Crown Prince's smug face and all he could see was Arthur, who had a habit of leaning his arms on the backs of chairs and scuffing one foot against the floor. Who pretended to love mushrooms in order to annoy Morgana, who would have preferred them never to be served. Who interrupted Merlin's conversations with nothing more than a tilt of his head and an impatient expression, and hated to wear yellow, and was simultaneously the bravest and the most annoying friend Merlin had ever had.
Merlin gave his most obnoxious grin and made a run for it.
Win some, lose some.
The storms Merlin hated the most, however, weren't the violent ones. They were the quiet ones, the ones when he recognised in Arthur his own frustration at not being able to fix everything that needed to be fixed.
"Clean this." Arthur tossed his tunic onto the floor without looking at it; Merlin saw the darker patches of drying blood and winced.
"Is it -- how did it go?"
"His mother wasn't there. I had to tell his brother. God, I hate doing that." Arthur threw himself into a chair and rubbed at his face. He looked pale, almost unwell.
"I'm sure he appreciated you coming in person."
"Yes, well." Arthur laughed through his hands, a hollow slice of sound. "It was. It was awful. He was practically sobbing and he was trying to tell me how it was an honour to have his brother fall in defence of Camelot, and I -- hah. Do you know what I said?
"I told him," Arthur continued mercilessly, "that Adney had died bravely. Heaven forbid I tell the truth, tell him that it wasn't even a battle, it was a stupid peace-keeping visit that was supposed to be easy and then someone lost their temper and Adney wasn't even meant to be standing out of rank, and oh yes, do you know how long it takes to die with a crossbow bolt in your gut? Too long."
Merlin clenched his hands in the fabric of the tunic until his fingers hurt and his knuckles were white. "Arthur," he said quietly, aching, hating the fact that Arthur's fierce despair at futility was spreading to fill him in turn. "Stop."
"Stupid," Arthur raged, and slammed the heel of his boot against the chair leg. "How am I supposed to rule a kingdom if I can't keep one -- God."
More than anything Merlin wanted a spell to make this better, wanted to whisper some words that would make Arthur's pain curl up and dissipate like fading fog. He was meant to be there for Arthur, meant to help him, there had to be something he could do. And he couldn't stop thinking about Adney's brother; couldn't stop imagining how he himself would feel if someone came to him with the news of Arthur's death.
Merlin shuddered around what felt like a block of ice in his stomach and looked down at the tunic, where one of the seams was unravelling and the thread tying itself in frantic knots, and quickly shoved the garment onto a shelf. Magic wasn't going to be any good here. He supposed that he could say the kind of things the Dragon usually said when he was fuming about his own helplessness, things about Destiny and choices and unseen paths. But Arthur's face was a shattered glass meticulously remade, the cracks thread-thin but visible where the light hit them, and Merlin knew that the word destiny was not going to be one jot of comfort to him.
He moved to stand in front of Arthur and, for once, actually thought carefully about what he was going to say before he opened his mouth.
Which was rare enough in itself that Arthur looked up.
"You trust me, right?"
"Yes..." Arthur said slowly, as though expecting Merlin to exploit this at once.
"You know that I wouldn't lie to you."
He snorted. "You're a terrible liar, Merlin."
"Right! Even better! So you'll know that what I'm telling you is the truth."
Arthur looked at him more sharply and then stood up, and as he did so something changed; not his expression, not really, but there was some shift of body and soul that was like a cloud slipping away from the sun, a subtle window into the future that showed Merlin the kind of man Arthur would become; not on the battlefield, not in the eyes of the court, but at heart. Where it mattered.
"I trust you," Arthur said. "What is it?"
"Well then. You're going to be the best king that this kingdom has ever seen. That the world has ever seen."
Arthur blinked, three times in rapid succession, and Merlin wasn't sure if the expression of naked shock that escaped through Arthur's eyelashes was heartbreaking or the best thing he'd ever seen. "You honestly believe that, don't you?" Arthur said in a strange voice.
No, there has to be another Arthur, because this one --
It's not about what you're told. It's about the conclusions that you draw of your own accord.
Merlin had learned to accept the things the Dragon said because, well, when a giant magical dragon with mysteriously intimate knowledge of your life told you things, you damn well listened to the coherent bits. But then and there he realised with a sharp rush of warmth that this was it, he was standing in front of the Once and Future King, and that he wouldn't have needed anyone else's words -- no matter how loud or how weighted in prophecy -- to tell him so.
He said, "I honestly do."