Title: Lay Your Burden Down
Disclaimer: Not mine.
A/N: For geminigrl11. I hope there is snow and family for you this Christmas. And I hope this is just the first of many presents :) Much thanks to sendintheklowns for providing a beta.
Summary: Merlin and Arthur take a day off. At least, that's what they try to do.
Merlin yawns. Squinting, he tries to keep his eyes open even as he desperately misses his bed. "Tell me again why we're doing this?"
Next to him, Arthur is marching proudly through the woods, ducking branches and stepping over tree trunks, eyes alight with anticipation. "Because I need a day off," he says.
Merlin follows him a few more paces in due skepticism. "We're walking through the woods at daybreak," he says. "This doesn't feel like a day off."
Arthur is frustratingly undeterred. "We're out of the castle, away from all the advisors and knights," he says. "Now that I'm king, there's never a reprieve. I want a day not to be king, to do the things I love."
"Killing innocent animals and torturing dedicated servants?" Merlin prompts.
Arthur ignores him. "These days, I'm always surrounded by people," he says. "I need some privacy."
Merlin waits for the obvious. At Arthur's continued obliviousness, Merlin presses on. "Then why am I here?"
Arthur looks at him, amused. "You don't count, Merlin."
"Oh," Merlin says. "Great."
"Besides," Arthur continues grandly. "You're useful."
Merlin lifts his eyebrows, feeling his spirits buoy suddenly. "Yeah?"
Arthur turns to him, smiling. "Yeah," he says. "I need someone to carry what I catch today."
Merlin's face scrunches. "But if this is your day not to be king, then shouldn't you do your own carrying?" he asks.
At that, Arthur chortles, patting Merlin roughly on the shoulder. "Don't be silly," he says. "Royalty never carries its own burdens. Now, pick up the pace. I want to make it to the best hunting grounds before the sun is up."
As Arthur traipses off, Merlin scowls and follows suit.
By lunch, Merlin is weighed down with Arthur's catch. It's cumbersome and unseemly to carry the carcasses, but Arthur doesn't seem to notice as he sets up a fire and instructs Merlin to start cooking.
"I've been carrying them all morning," he protests. "And now I have to cook them, too?"
Arthur shrugs. "I told you that you were useful," he says, lounging back in the underbrush. "Besides, think of it this way, the more you cook here, the less we have to carry back."
Merlin huffs a mocking laugh, picking out one of the rabbits for them to share. Then, as he thinks about it, he takes another and gets to work.
Usually, Arthur doesn't eat with Merlin. He'll eat around Merlin or eat in front of Merlin, but it's not customary for kings to dine with servants.
That's mostly just fine with Merlin. He doesn't need the pomp and circumstance, and Gaius cooks just fine.
Today, though, they eat together. Their portions are equal; their seats are the same, opposite sides of the fire. If Arthur's not quite a king today, then Merlin's not quite a servant, and that's okay with Merlin, even if he doesn't plan on showing it.
Equality is short lived. Arthur takes them through the rest of the woods without slowing down, and soon Merlin's back hurts and his feet ache, and he's wondering how this could be anyone's definition of fun.
But Arthur's posture is relaxed, his laugh free. When he smiles, his eyes light up and he jokes like he hasn't since his father died.
Merlin doesn't understand hunting, but he understands that.
After the last quarry of the day, Arthur stands back contentedly. "This was a good day," he announces.
Trying to scoop up the entirety of their game, Merlin struggles to find his footing. Grimacing for effect, he looks up at Arthur. "Really?"
Arthur's smile widens and he jars Merlin roughly on the shoulder in what Merlin can only assume is a show of solidarity. "What more could you want?"
Shoulders aching from the load, Merlin makes a face. "I can think of a few things," he says, and he means it, but then again, he doesn't. Because it's something to see Arthur like this, to see him happy and free and content. Merlin doesn't like hunting and he doesn't like hiking, but part of him will always like that.
For his part, Arthur just laughs as he starts them back toward home and Merlin thinks, if this is a burden he can help carry for a day, then maybe it's worth it.
Merlin doesn't see it coming. He's too busy trying to balance everything to notice much of anything until Arthur pulls him to an abrupt stop.
Merlin's about to protest, but when he looks up, Arthur has a finger to his lips, eyes suddenly focused and bright in the growing twilight.
In these years at Arthur's side, Merlin is used to danger, even the sudden variety. But even with his experience, he can't control the churning of his stomach at the possible unknown.
Alert now, he turns to look. He doesn't get very far when Arthur shouts and pushes him out of the way.
Merlin goes down hard, spilling his cargo. By the time he gets his bearings, he sees Arthur in a defensive pose, staring down a beast. The thing is the size of a bear, ambling on four legs. Its thick fur is brown and it has two tusks protruding from its jaw.
There's no time to stop it from charging, ignoring Merlin for Arthur, who is brandishing his sword.
The thing has brute strength but Arthur has speed enough to duck out of its way. It spares Arthur from harm but it also keeps him from getting off a good swing. Now Arthur's on the ground, his sword downed in the melee and the beast turns back on the king with fresh animosity.
And Merlin thinks of the dragon's prophecy, Morgana's plotting. He thinks of all the years and all the near misses. He thinks of Albion and the future they are to build.
But mostly he thinks of Arthur's smile, declaring that this has been a good day.
In that, it's not a hard decision. On his feet, Merlin is yelling, waving his arms and jumping.
The beast turns; Merlin freezes.
As it charges, Merlin hears Arthur yelling before everything goes blank.
He comes to with a gasp.
Arthur is hovering over him, looking weary. "That was stupid," he says seriously.
Merlin blinks; he remembers. "That thing was going to kill you."
"So you thought to let it kill you instead?" Arthur snaps, tearing away Merlin's pant leg.
The movement sends a spike of pain through Merlin, and he hisses, his vision dimming around the edges. When it comes back into focus, he sees that Arthur is inspecting a ragged and bloody wound on his thigh, face twisted into a grimace.
"You were lucky," Arthur decides.
Merlin looks at the garish wound, feeling woozy. "I don't feel lucky."
"Yes, well," Arthur says, ripping away part of his own undershirt, "think about that next time you do something so stupid."
Merlin swallows with some difficulty. "I couldn't let it kill you."
Arthur's face is pinched as he wraps the wound. "Nor I you," he mutters, not looking up.
Merlin's eyes wander and he sees the beast, slain not far away. He's about to ask about that when Arthur yanks hard, pulling the bandage tight and Merlin almost passes out as a consequence.
He doesn't, though. At least, not quite. Still, things tunnel and it's like listening to Arthur underwater as he explains. "We'll have to leave the quarry," he's saying. "Most of our gear, too. And I'll have to carry you back."
Merlin perks up at that, trying to shake the vestiges of pain away. "No," he says, shaking his head. "I can walk."
Arthur gives him a look.
"I can," Merlin insists, and he pushes himself up as if to prove it.
Unfortunately, he doesn't get far when it gives way and he crashes back down, tears stinging his eyes as he sucks in harsh breaths against the newest onslaught of pain.
Arthur looks vaguely smug. "You're not getting anywhere on that leg," he says decisively.
"I'll be fine!" Merlin tries to insist.
"We don't want to be out here, injured and poorly armed, when night falls," Arthur says logically.
"Maybe it won't be that bad," Merlin offers.
Arthur pins him with a look. "Stop being silly and let me carry you."
Merlin's pride is a funny thing and why it flares up now, he's not sure. But he doesn't want to be weak, needy. Doesn't want to let Arthur know how much it hurts. "I thought royalty didn't carry its own burdens," he tries, voice shaky.
Arthur smiles. "It doesn't," he says, his face turning sincere. "But you're no burden, Merlin. Not even a little."
To that, Merlin has no comeback. Instead, he lets himself be levered upward. It's awkward as Arthur hitches him over his shoulders, but as they begin the journey home, Merlin thinks this might be a good day, after all.