To Swim or Not to Swim
A/N- Was looking over this story and decided to post. Ah, I miss the old days! This one is set between series 2 and 3. Tell me what you think! ;D
Merlin plopped down the moment the chase was over, having unusual difficulty catching his breath.
"Did you really think… you'd get a clear… shot at a moving target?" he managed to ask.
Still standing and slightly less winded than his servant, Arthur seemed to ignore the fact that this was a rhetorical question, firing back, "I stood a fair chance. Anyway it's your fault my target ran in the first place. Honestly, Merlin, how many times have I told you, not to stand upwind?"
Though Merlin could have taken a nice, long nap on the ground- as if Arthur would permit it- he sat up, raising tired eyes to his master. "I've lost count."
"Well, then you can start recounting because I'm sure there'll be many more times when the basic rules of hunting escape your slippery mind."
"Ouch. That really hurt," Merlin answered in a conversational tone. When Arthur opened his mouth- with some nasty retort, no doubt- the servant again interrupted. "No, stop taking it out on me; I know you're just upset because it's so hot out."
Predictably unhappy to restrain himself from berating Merlin further, Arthur shook his head. He lifted a hand to shield his eyes from the sun while he tried to gaze in its direction. Merlin could never understand why people did that, but then, this was Arthur.
"It's never gotten this hot around Camelot," the prince was saying now, "for as long as I can remember."
"I know what you mean- and I've only been here a few years." Merlin looked up at his frowning master with a wide grin and chuckled- more at Arthur's expression than what he'd said, though he found them both, for some reason, quite amusing.
The prince maintained his incredulous scowl. "…I'm going to assume that it's the heat this time which is making you hysterical. Not that I ever know with you. Come on; time to go." He gestured for Merlin to follow him with a wave of his hand, already turning away.
Dragging himself to his feet, Merlin dutifully followed, feeling whatever strength he possessed quickly continue to fade.
"You just had to go hunting today," he panted, unable to resist.
Walking backwards to face him, Arthur raised his eyebrows. "I'm sorry, Merlin; I really should have realized that it would be too much for you."
Merlin narrowed his eyes a little as Arthur once more turned away. "It's not too much for-"
"Then, stop complaining."
Merlin shook his head. There was just no way to win.
Upon catching fragments of a strange, though familiar sound, Merlin pulled back at his horse's reins and raised a hand as if for silence- then he remembered that his only companion wasn't facing him. "Listen," he said.
"Don't tell me you're hearing things as well, now." Arthur didn't even glance back.
"No, really," Merlin persisted. A smile lit his face. "It sounds like a river."
"Probably because it is." Arthur cast Merlin a look that questioned his soundness of mind. "Where did you think we were headed?"
Merlin decided to let that one pass as well.
Crouching down at the river shore, Arthur swept the hair from his forehead as he splashed water onto his face. While he blinked his eyes clear, he caught movement in the corner of his vision.
Scowling, he turned to face his servant, who currently struggled to tug his shirt over his bandana. "I don't want to ask…" Arthur began.
Arms caught in his sleeves, Merlin looked back as best he could. "You can't in your right mind tell me it's not a good day for a swim."
Arthur shook his head. "The river's too deep, Merlin- it's dangerous," he told him, overpowering a note of concern with one of irritation toward the younger boy's ignorance.
"The current isn't strong; it's only dangerous if you can't swim." Merlin scoffed at the mere thought.
The prince rolled his eyes- more at his companion's increasingly awkward predicament than anything else. "Look, Merlin, you need help," he said, getting to his feet. "I'm not a psychologist, but I'll see what I can do."
Instead of untying the scarf, Arthur chose to take a firm grip on his tunic, brace his foot against Merlin's leg and give a successfully strong yank. Though he managed to keep his balance, Merlin fell to the ground when it came off- and to be honest, Arthur had expected as much. He grinned slightly, amused that his servant had the nerve to look annoyed before pushing himself to his feet.
"Aren't you coming?" Merlin asked as he undid his bandana and dropped it onto the ground beside his shirt.
Arthur crouched down at the riverbank once again. "No."
"You won't be so irritable when you've cooled off."
A glare was all the response needed to steal Merlin's smile- but it couldn't keep him from talking. "Why not?"
"I don't swim," Arthur said flatly.
"You don't know how, do you?" Trust Merlin to read between the lines now of all times.
Arthur did his best not to blush, but he found difficulty in avoiding embarrassment. "I never had a reason to learn," he explained, evenly meeting Merlin's gaze. If he dares to laugh, or even so much as grin… he mentally threatened, but Merlin did neither, instead nodding with understanding.
Then the servant's face brightened to provide encouragement. "Now's a good time to learn."
Arthur inwardly winced. On one hand, Merlin had a point; it would be great to cool off, and this was one of those few talents that he didn't possess, and perhaps should. On the other hand, if it meant being humbled by floundering around like he didn't know what he was doing in front of Merlin…
"I'll help you," Merlin offered. "It's really not hard. What do you say?"
…But it would be great to cool off. And if Merlin could do it, how hard could it be?
"Alright," Arthur relented, and standing, he gave their area of the river a distrustful glance. "How does one do it?"
Merlin wore a bemused smile. "Well, if you keep your armor on, you're sure to sink to the bottom like a stone, and I'm not sure that's what you want…"
"Never mind;" Arthur grumbled, "help me with it." Merlin did as he was told, helping his master take off his hauberk, chain mail and tunic. Arthur caught him flinch when his shirt hit the muddy riverside ground- Merlin did the laundry, after all.
Lowering his legs into the water, Arthur sat on the bank, but made no further move. He knew that he was looking like he thought the water would attack him at any second, but it was hard to appear otherwise. Noting his trepidation, Merlin jumped in to prove him wrong- or at least, that was how Arthur interpreted it. He squinted as his companion's action caused a heavy mist to wet his face.
When he resurfaced, Merlin grinned happily back at Arthur and waved a hand, prompting the prince to come in as well. "You have to get in the water to start, Arthur! Come on, I won't let you sink."
Arthur remained hesitant. "How are you doing that, exactly?"
Merlin tried not to appear amused and failed miserably.
"What is so funny?" Arthur questioned, refusing to believe that the joke was on him.
Merlin shrugged. "I think everyone knows the basics of swimming…"
"Well, not being a country bumpkin like yourself, I've had more important things to learn," Arthur shot back.
"You just… kick your arms and legs," Merlin told him with another shrug. "It's simple-"
"I don't need you to tell me how simple it is. Just come help me." Arthur reached out, both hands adhering to Merlin's arm the moment he came close enough.
…The prince had to remind himself how bravely he'd fought off wild animals and magical beings- and how he had a reputation to keep up- before convincing himself to push off the shore and plunging in beside his servant.
The sensation of weightlessness was remarkable enough that at first he didn't notice the stupid smirk Merlin was wearing- or how much deeper the water appeared from this close up. He clung harder to his human raft, who took a hold on one of his wrists.
Arthur unconsciously decided that now was the time for threats, as he usually did when feeling self-conscious, most especially when Merlin was around. "If you let me sink," he said, "I swear I'll come back to haunt you for the rest of your days."
Merlin raised his eyes. "Now why would I do that? If I let you drown, I'd be out of a job."
"Besides," Merlin continued on a more serious note, "if you'd relax, you'd find that you're able to float, mostly."
"Another thing, Merlin…" Arthur gave him his best glower, under which Merlin appeared downright… if not intimidated, meek- especially at this short distance. "You are not to mention this, ever. Ever, as in… under pain of death."
Arthur got the distinct feeling that he'd not been taken seriously when a ghost of a smile touched Merlin's lips. "Right," the younger boy said, yet he hardened his expression once more. "Okay, you've got to try it by yourself; now-"
"Do not let me go," Arthur ordered; and was unpleasantly surprised at himself. When had he developed such a fear of deep water?
"I won't," Merlin stated, sincerely enough that Arthur found himself trusting that he wouldn't- which was another unpleasant surprise.
"Start by moving your arms and legs like I'm doing," Merlin instructed. "…Arthur, at least one arm."
Reluctant, but determined, Arthur kept only one hand firmly around Merlin's arm as he did his best to imitate his servant's motions. Just as he was developing the notion that this was going quite well, he caught yet another grin from Merlin. It disappeared the moment the prince looked up.
"Merlin, if I'm doing something wrong, just tell me."
"It would…" Merlin began slowly, "help if you'd form a pattern of some sort… Come with me."
And just where else would I go? Arthur mentally groused as Merlin led them both back upriver.
"Try to do the same thing each time," Merlin told him, going against the current so that they stayed in one place.
Arthur envied the ease with which he kept them there, and was determined not to be beat by his servant, despite his companion's advantage of experience. When he'd paddled along beside Merlin for a good half-minute, the younger boy appeared to weigh his progress.
"Not bad," he said, and in response to Arthur's glare, continued, "well, you can't expect to master everything- that's not to say that you aren't doing well with the dog paddle…"
"Well, that means a lot coming from a witless whelp."
"I think you're ready to let go," Merlin shot back, not missing a beat.
Arthur groaned, "Merlin…"
"No, I mean it; you can't really swim until you try it on your own."
The prince eyed the deep water.
"I'll be right here," Merlin persisted, "and if you start to sink, I'll catch you."
"I thought it might be."
With no more warning than that, Merlin pried Arthur's off-guard, loosened grip from his arm, pushing away; out of the prince's reach.
Arthur's first instinct was to panic; and panic he did.
Merlin watched the scene that unfolded in ever-increasing amusement. Arthur obviously had little to no idea what he was doing when it came to swimming, yet he somehow managed to keep himself afloat. Not that this latter fact kept him from a bout of alarm.
"Merlin!" he shouted the instant he was released- probably expecting to sink, though his frenzied, uncoordinated floundering prevented that, one way or another.
"See?" Merlin said, floating on his back idly- and no, it wasn't showing off. "It's not difficult, and certainly not worth all your fussing." Laughing softly to himself at Arthur's lingering, meaningless outrage, he shut his eyes, now assured that his master would be well enough on his own.
Though of course, he wasn't expecting Arthur to come up and dunk his head underwater.
Coughing as he resurfaced, Merlin considered that maybe teaching Arthur to swim hadn't been all that great of an idea after all.
In spite of the unnatural heat, and Arthur's being a prat, and Arthur's being an exceptional prat due to the unnatural heat, Merlin concluded that it had been a good day- about the time that said prince lost interest in trying to drown him.
The two now stood dripping at the riverside as the sun began to set, the water having grown cool enough that the warm air was welcome, and brought some balance to the temperature.
Presently, Arthur was rolling his eyes in response to Merlin's worries about getting lost out here after dark, seeing as they'd not an hour's daylight left to them.
"I know these woods like the back of my hand," the prince bragged, working into his shirt with some difficulty as it stuck to his wet skin. "Even if it gets dark before we reach the castle, we won't get lost."
"Then why are you in a hurry?" Merlin asked while assisting him- resisting the urge to bring up that one time…
Arthur slung his chain mail behind his horse's saddle. "Because we should already be back. We're getting an early start tomorrow."
Merlin's gaze fell discreetly to the bandana in his hands and he began to tie it around his neck- avoiding eye contact on the mention of their search for Morgana, as he usually did. The hunt had lasted himself and the knights of Camelot several months already. Most every day they were on the road now, from winter to summer. The winter had proved the most perilous, though this summer had been equally miserable. And the entire time, Merlin hadn't been sure who exactly they'd find when they located Morgana.
Unexpectedly, Arthur gave Merlin a shove towards his own horse. "Quit dawdling," he told him.
Merlin wasn't one to argue.
As they rode back, Merlin felt an urge to say something that probably wasn't very wise, but obeyed said urge in spite of that fact.
"So how many people know that you couldn't swim?" he questioned, lips twitching as he spoke. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Arthur was also staring straight ahead.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Merlin. I can swim perfectly well."
"Only because I taught you how."
"Merlin." Arthur glared, but sighed in resignation. "No one knew. And if anyone finds out, I'll know who to blame. And if that happens, I will so kill you."
"Merlin," Arthur addressed, angry to have, once more, not been taken seriously.
Merlin wasn't the least bit intimidated by this anger, and perhaps the prince read his lack of fear, for his own demeanor changed dramatically.
"Race you back," he challenged with a grin, and sped away at a gallop.
And of course, your head start counts for nothing, Merlin thought as he attempted to catch up. His revenge for being badly beaten in a swimming race, but it doesn't matter. A lighter rider makes for greater speed, and there the advantage is certainly mine.