Title: Buckle Boots and Pratty Presents
Character/s: Arthur, Gwen, Merlin
Summary: Arthur ponders life lessons while Merlin dreads his first Yuletide in Camelot.
Prompt: #40 ~ Leather
Author's Notes: Takes place during S1: when Morgana was still good, Gwen was just Merlin's friend and Morgana's servant, and Arthur, though pratty, showed tons of promise left unfulfilled in later years... Slightly AU.
With this week's prompt, I just had to write something about Merlin's boots, because a) I love them! and b) I just got myself a pair of the real thing! (does happy dance) They're black instead of brown (as they aren't making the brown ones right now), but they are still wonderful!
[Buckle Boots and Pratty Presents]
Buckle Boots and Pratty Presents
~ ~ ~
Arthur had never seen any like them before: silly, strappy things made of leather that bunched up around his manservant’s ankles and couldn’t possibly be practical. Really…who would even make such ridiculous things, let alone wear them? Yet, Merlin wore them day after day, with his socks scrunched down over them like it was the most normal thing in the world.
And, in a way, it made sense, because there was literally nothing about Merlin that was normal. He had always had the air of the absurd about him, had always seen the world from an angle just a bit off from everyone else.
Not that Arthur didn’t like that about him; on the contrary, it was refreshing to hear the things that Merlin thought and he was amazed at the solutions he came up with by thinking outside the box.
The truth was…he’d never been as glad as when his father had made Merlin his manservant. Not immediately, of course. No. Because it had taken time for Arthur to understand what a boon having Merlin around was: having someone who was not afraid of him, who didn’t curry his favor (or bootlick, as Merlin would have said), and didn’t give him any more or less respect than he deserved was a rare gift for a prince.
Arthur had learned more about who he was and who he wanted to be from Merlin than he had from anyone else in his entire life. Not that he could admit that out loud, of course. It wouldn’t do to let Merlin know that he really didn’t mind all that much that the man never knocked before entering his room, or that he unceremoniously yanked open the curtains every morning to wake him, or that he grumbled not-so-under-his-breath and called Arthur a prat.
Arthur certainly didn’t mind when they bickered and teased each other; it felt a lot less like prince and servant, and a lot more like friends.
~ ~ ~
Yuletide was around the corner and it was the time of year that nobles were expected to show their thanks and appreciation to their servants. At first, Arthur thought that Merlin would be the sort of bloke who would love Yuletide, would love that Arthur would have to do something for Merlin for a change.
And, at first, Merlin did seem to be enjoying the fact that Arthur had to get him a present. He had teased Arthur about it incessantly and made outrageous guesses as to what he thought the present might be. (Is it…a basket of unwashed socks? No, because that would be too much like the gift I get every day…How about a pike? That’s it, right? Because a pike is just a necessity, don’t you think? Every person should have one!)
But then one day, the teasing stopped. Merlin didn’t seem his normal self; he was much more reserved and quiet than was his norm. Arthur tried to tease him out of the morose mood, but nothing seemed to work. As the days brought them closer and closer to Yule, the more sullen and withdrawn Merlin became. Attempts by Arthur at trying to ferret out the cause of his manservant’s melancholy had been utterly futile. He discovered (as if he didn’t already know) that Merlin could be a stubborn git when he wanted to be.
Finally, about a week before the Yuletide celebration, the two of them were holed up in Arthur’s room. Arthur was catching up on some correspondence while Merlin polished Arthur’s dress boots. The silence in the room was deafening. Usually, Merlin prattled on about some little bit of nonsense while he worked, and Arthur couldn’t believe that he actually missed it, but he did. Before he even realized what he was doing, Arthur blurted out with his customary tact, “Damn it, Merlin! What is wrong with you? Usually you’re going on and on like a squeaky wagon wheel, but now…nothing!”
And, to Arthur’s shock and surprise, Merlin just snapped. “Why the hell do you care? I thought you’d like the quiet! Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted: the perfect servant? Obviously, you’ll get your wish soon enough. Pretty soon I’ll be a bootlicker just like the rest of them!”
Then Merlin pushed himself to his feet, threw both boot and brush onto the floor, and fled the room. Arthur could have sworn—although he’d only seen his face for a moment—that Merlin was crying.
Arthur wisely thought better of going after Merlin, because his manservant was just as gifted at hiding from Arthur as he was with being stubborn. Instead, he sought out another friendly face that might be able to shed some light on Merlin’s problem: Gwen.
It only took him a few minutes to locate Morgana’s maid, carrying a basket of bed linens in the direction of the laundry room.
“Excuse me…Guinevere?” Arthur called out tentatively from behind her, quickly picking up his pace to catch up to the girl just as she startled and almost dropped the basket. Arthur’s hands steadied it and placed it more firmly into her grip.
“My lord!” Gwen stumbled over the words, so great was her shock at Prince Arthur singling her out, let alone knowing her name.
“Tell me something…” Arthur began, pacing. “You’re friends with Merlin, right?” He stopped and speared Gwen with his stare.
“Y-yes, my lord,” she stammered, her eyes skittering away from his.
“Do you…do you know what’s bothering him?” Arthur asked, embarrassed by the question.
Gwen placed the laundry basket on the floor by her feet. “Yes…but I’m not sure I should say anything. My lord…” She tacked on the title almost as an afterthought.
“Just ‘Arthur’ is fine,” Arthur said with a tiny smile. “I have tried to get Merlin to tell me, but he won’t talk about it.”
Gwen’s eyes narrowed perceptively. “You really don’t know, do you?”
“Do you know what the traditional gift for a personal maid or manservant in the royal household is?”
“Of course!” Arthur spluttered indignantly, even though he really had no idea.
At Gwen’s raised eyebrow, Arthur looked down at his shoes in shame. “Okay, I might not be as up on royal gift etiquette as I should be…”
“Well, what did you used to give Thomas when he was your servant?”
“I…didn’t. Father used to take care of such things…”
Gwen rolled her eyes a little. “Well, the traditional gift is to gift your servant with clothes: specifically clothes that ‘mark’ them as Pendragon property.”
Horrified, Arthur’s eyes widened almost comically. “What?”
“Yes. So, if you were to follow tradition, Merlin would be gifted with clothes that he would be expected to wear: clothes that look just like every other worker’s in the royal household, except for the Pendragon crest.”
Arthur closed his eyes and tried to imagine Merlin dressed in those bland, colorless clothes he’d seen the other servants wear: no ridiculous leather jacket, no jaunty neckerchief, and no silly boots. But worse, all of his clothes would have the Pendragon crest sewn onto them, as befitting his raised status in the household…like it was some sort of reward to be branded like cattle or horses in the royal stables.
The very thought of Merlin—of unique, irrepressibly cheerful, idiot Merlin—suffering through the ignominy of normalcy day after day made his stomach turn.
“But…but…” Arthur stammered, “you don’t wear clothes like that…”
Gwen raised her chin proudly. “No, I don’t. But then Morgana was never one to follow tradition for tradition’s sake.” She bent over and picked up her wash basket. “Now, if you will excuse me, I need to launder these in time for them to dry before nightfall.”
Arthur stepped aside at once, making more room for Gwen in the corridor. “Of course. And, thank you.”
Gwen turned back to look at Arthur, her eyes both curious and shrewd. “You’re welcome, my lord.”
~ ~ ~
The morning of the Yuletide celebration dawned clear and cold with just enough snow to cover the grass in dreamlike fashion. Arthur knew because he’d been standing at the window watching the white flakes fall for hours, waiting for morning. Waiting for Merlin.
Merlin tiptoed in about an hour past sunrise, one hand balancing the breakfast tray as the other hand opened the door. He was just setting the food down on the table when he startled to Arthur’s presence in the alcove of the window. “My lord!” he stammered, his blue eyes slithering to the floor in an uncharacteristic sign of subservience.
Arthur, still leaning against the wall with arms folded across his chest, teased, “Who are you and what have you done with my manservant?”
Arthur could actually see Merlin biting the side of his cheek to keep from uttering a retort. “I am right here, as always, Sire,” the doppelganger with Merlin’s voice replied. The sarcasm that usually would have filled a sentence like that was curiously absent.
Pushing away from the wall, he grasped Merlin by the arm and dragged him toward the table in his anteroom, where a number of parcels sat, wrapped in cloth and tied with string. “Well, good, because I wanted to make sure I gave you your gifts nice and early this year, so you’d have plenty of time to prepare before the feast.” Arthur pushed against Merlin’s chest to deposit him in the fur-lined chair usually reserved for the prince.
Merlin gave Arthur a look that clearly indicated that he could think of millions of things he’d rather be doing than opening Arthur’s gifts right then. Arthur bit his cheek and tried not to laugh. “Well, go on then…” Arthur waved his hand pompously, not wanting to give the game away too soon.
Sighing deeply, Merlin picked up the first package and untied the string, listlessly pulling the cloth aside to reveal… a leather jacket? “Huh?”
Unfolding the garment, Merlin shook it free of wrinkles and studied it. It looked almost identical to the one he always wore…except this one had a quilted lining, which would provide more warmth in the cooler months. “What is this?” Merlin asked Arthur, twisting his head around so he could make eye contact with his master.
Arthur tried not to smile, but the corner of his mouth still twitched. “I know you’re an idiot, Merlin, but I would think that even you would recognize a jacket when you saw one…”
“No…I know, but…”
“…but you thought I’d want to turn you into one of those blasted bootlickers? No, thank you. I’ve had it up to my eyeballs with that nonsense!” Arthur protested vehemently. “I’d rather you just be…you.”
Merlin’s smile grew to outlandish proportions. “Arthur, are you trying to tell me that you actually like me?”
“Shut up, Merlin,” Arthur grumbled good-naturedly, giving his servant’s head a small shove. “Open the rest of your presents, would you?”
The next parcel contained four new tunics of differing colors in the style Merlin preferred: blue, red, grey and purple. Merlin gasped when he saw the last one, for it was well-known that purple was the color of royalty. “Arthur…”
Arthur shrugged nonchalantly. “I figured if Guinevere could wear it because Morgana gave it to her, then you could, too.”
The next present contained three new pair of brown trousers; the next, two new leather belts and five pair of woolen socks.
Then, Arthur handed him a small, flat package. Inside, Merlin discovered three new neckerchiefs: red, blue, and grey. Each was embroidered with a gold Pendragon herald. Merlin fingered the beautifully-sewn metallic dragon on the top one. “Father insisted I give you something with the seal on it. If it bothers you, then feel free to put them away after the feast. Just make sure Father sees you wearing one tonight.”
“I like them, Arthur,” Merlin said seriously, meeting the prince’s eye. “I’ll wear them with pride.”
The soft smile Merlin received in return told him he’d said the right thing.
Arthur reached over Merlin’s shoulder and nudged the last present closer to his servant. “I was hoping you’d save these for last…”
Merlin untied the wrapping and pushed the cloth aside, revealing a new pair of leather buckle boots, almost identical to his own. However, these were a warm, luscious brown, shiny and butter-soft, unlike his current pair that were scuffed and scraped, the soles nearly worn through.
“Arthur…” Merlin gasped in awe, stroking the soft leather gingerly as if he couldn’t quite believe such beautifully made boots belonged to him, “Wherever did you find these?”
“Find?” Arthur snorted. “Had made, you mean. Who else would be crazy enough to wear boots like that but you?”
Merlin stared at Arthur, open-mouthed, tears pricking at his eyes. Arthur had boots commissioned for him?
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Gods…you’re not going to start crying like a great girl now, are you?”
“No!” Merlin protested, trying to rub the moisture out of his eyes without Arthur noticing.
“Good,” Arthur said with a nod of satisfaction. “Well, as you can see, I’m up, I’m dressed and you’ve served me breakfast, so…” Arthur grabbed his clothes basket, dumped the few dirty items in it onto the floor and thumped it onto the table near Merlin’s elbow. “Why don’t you take your things back to your room and make sure everything fits? Then you can spend some time with Gaius for Yule. I will see you at the banquet later.”
“Yes, Sire,” Merlin responded with an ear-to-ear smile. He got to his feet, packed his presents into the basket, and gathered it under one arm. He was almost to the servant’s entrance door when he heard Arthur call him. “Oh, Merlin?”
Merlin turned on the spot. “Yes?”
“I think you’re forgetting something…” Arthur emerged from behind his dressing screen toting a long wooden pole with a wicked blade at its end. Around the handle was a bright red bow. Arthur swaggered across the room and shoved it into Merlin’s free hand.
“What is this?” Merlin asked, baffled, eyeing the weapon warily.
Arthur’s grin was smug even as he tried to feign innocence. “Why, it’s a pike, Merlin. I personally can’t understand why you’d fancy one, but you’re the one who told me it was a necessity…”
Not one person roaming Camelot Castle at that moment could have missed Merlin’s delighted laughter as it echoed gaily through the halls.