Word count: 2,577
Notes: Arthur/Merlin-ish. Spoilers through Excalibur.
"Yes, fine, there's a lady in the lake and she has your sword."
There is seaweed and sediment and a sword at the bottom of the lake, and Merlin's hands only close around two of the three. He remains under as long as he's able, air bubbling away from his mouth to break the surface in tiny ripples, his hands digging into the lake bed in search of something he knows is there.
When he's finally forced to come up for air, he pushes his hair away from his eyes and stares at the vast expanse of lake around him, trying not to lose hope. The sword could be anywhere, carried away by currents or creatures or retrieved by some other hand. He can't search the entire lake bed this way, and he isn't sure how to go about it with magic. He already tried summoning it to him directly, with no luck; he could most likely drain the lake, but the fish wouldn't like that much, and the fishermen even less.
"Merlin," Lancelot calls from the shore, more perplexed than impatient. "What is it you seek?"
"I told you, it's a surprise," Merlin says, and dives back under. Lancelot is impressed by things like swords; he wants to see the look on Lancelot's face when he first sees this sword, Arthur's sword.
Merlin has to find Arthur's sword, first.
He fumbles around in the depths of the lake, sweeping his arms about with less caution than before. The sword was heavy, and his throwing arm wasn't particularly strong; how far could the thing have gone?
He surfaces again, kicking at the water in frustration. The water merely churns sluggishly around his ankle, almost as unsatisfying a response as Lancelot shouting to him: "Are you certain you can't simply use your -- you know?"
"My magic -- my magic, you can say--"
Merlin chokes on water. There's a hand around his ankle, dragging him down into the lake.
He twists, trying to see who or what has caught hold of him. He catches a glimpse of pale skin and a swirling flame of hair, and then Lancelot is there and Merlin is being pulled in two directions at once.
Before Lancelot and the lake can accidentally divide Merlin between them, he gives the hand on his ankle a slight shock of magic, just enough to make the half-glimpsed ginger woman let go.
They stumble onto the shore, shivering and dripping wet. Lancelot looks a bit pathetic with his clothes sticking to him and his hair in his eyes, and Merlin makes a note to smile about that later, when he's not otherwise occupied with coughing up water and gasping for air.
"Thanks," Merlin says, when he can manage it. He does not say, I was holding my own, but thanks for diving in with all your armour on to wrestle me away from a woman, you clod, because he's growing as a person, and Lancelot doesn't take affectionate sniping as well as Arthur does.
Mostly he doesn't say it because he can hear the words spoken in Arthur's voice, and that's too depressing to contemplate. He's known Arthur entirely too long, or perhaps merely too well. He doesn't necessarily want to unknow Arthur, but he'd settle for not hearing Arthur's words emerge from his own mouth.
"I think someone doesn't wish you to find what you're looking for," Lancelot says.
"Yes, well spotted," Merlin mutters, scrubbing at his eyes with one hand.
Merlin's assailant surfaces not too far from where he went under. She's pretty, all glistening skin and enormous blue eyes and small, playful smile; she's pretty but off, not quite right. Something about her is distinctly less -- or more -- than human. Merlin mentally flips through the pages of his books, trying to remember something he once read.
Naiad. She's a naiad; he'd bet his horse on it.
But then, his horse is technically Arthur's horse, so he'd best not.
Lancelot draws his sword with a rather undignified squelch. The naiad's smile doesn't waver; she doesn't even look at him. She's focused on Merlin, an absolute sort of focus that would unnerve him if he weren't safely on the shore.
"You came for the sword," she says, sounding oddly pleased, for all that she just tried to drown him.
Lancelot glances at his own weapon, his brows drawing together in confusion.
"I came for the sword," Merlin agrees, making a frustrated gesture that doesn't come off terribly impressive, sopping wet as he is. "Do you have it?"
The naiad laughs, giving him a Merlin, you idiot look that translates pretty directly, otherworldly being or not. "If Arthur Pendragon wants the sword, Arthur Pendragon must come to collect it."
"The thing is, Arthur doesn't actually know there's a sword, and I was sort of hoping--"
She sinks back down into the water without as much as a ripple to mark her passage.
This wasn't meant to happen. He was meant to find the sword, carry it back to Camelot, and make a gift of it to Arthur with a lot of pomp and pageantry as befitting a bright, shiny offering from a sorcerer to a king. Instead, some meddling naiad has stolen it, and now the most pomp Merlin is going to get out of all this is the bit where he tells Arthur, "by the way, I threw your enchanted sword into a lake a few years back and now a girl has stolen it, good luck getting that back."
"Right, thanks," Merlin says, and sighs.
Arthur looks intrigued. "And you say there's an enchanted sword in this lake?"
"I put it there," Merlin says, wanting to stress how entirely -- mostly -- partially responsible he is for there being an enchanted sword in the first place.
Arthur claps him on the shoulder. "Of course you did, Merlin. Who else would throw a perfectly good enchanted sword into a lake?"
"It made sense at the time!" Merlin considers and discards the idea of bringing Uther into what is, on the whole, a perfectly civil discussion. "I had -- reasons. And I think you're missing the point, which is--"
"Sire, there was a lady in the lake, and she tried to drown Merlin," Lancelot interrupts.
Now Arthur looks positively fascinated. "There was a lady in the lake?"
Yes, of course: focus on the bit with the girl in it, and ignore the bit where Merlin nearly drowned.
Merlin sighs. "She's a naiad, Arthur. I'd hardly call her a lady."
Arthur and Lancelot exchange a look, the rough equivalent of drawing straws to see who will have to determine what Merlin is talking about.
"Yes, fine, there's a lady in the lake and she has your sword." Merlin gestures at the windows, in what may or may not be anything like the actual direction of the lake. "We should go and get it back."
"Well, of course we're going to get it back," Arthur says, rolling his eyes in a manner that is not at all kingly.
Arthur gives him a boyishly excited grin. "Yes, you're coming too."
"Sire, she did try to drown Merlin," Lancelot points out, which is nice; at least someone hasn't forgotten that Merlin nearly died trying to retrieve the thing. Or, all right, he didn't nearly die -- but he did inhale an awful lot of lake water, and that can't be healthy.
"So I'll stay on the shore." Arthur gives Lancelot a shove toward the door. "Lancelot, there's a girl with an enchanted sword in a lake, did you really think I'd give it a miss?"
"I suppose not," Lancelot says, beginning to pick up some of Arthur's enthusiasm.
"I put it there," Merlin says, for absolutely the last time.
The meddling naiad with the obnoxious smirk rises out of the lake sword-first. It is, Merlin has to admit, a rather impressive display: the sword gleaming, her dress clinging, the lake perfectly still.
"Fantastic," Arthur says under his breath, beaming. "Merlin, from now on, I want to receive all new swords this way."
Merlin smiles, any lingering irritation dissipating. "I'll just toss them into lakes as I go, then, shall I?"
The naiad makes a sound that is, Merlin suspects, the mythological lake creature equivalent of clearing her throat. Merlin does his best to look attentive, and very subtly elbows Arthur to make him stand a bit taller. Arthur elbows him back, and the naiad clears her throat again, more pointedly.
Behind them, Lancelot gives a small, exasperated sigh.
"Arthur Pendragon, you may take up your sword," the naiad says, and holds said sword out rather majestically, looking absurdly pleased with herself.
Really? That's all? Merlin had an entire speech prepared, and there was a bit at the end with magic and light and -- take up your sword?
Arthur looks similarly nonplussed. "Well -- all right, then, I'll just--"
He takes the sword from her and stands there with it held out awkwardly in front of him, clearly expecting there to be more to it than that.
There isn't. The naiad just slips back into the lake, with nary a speech nor an attempted drowning to further commemorate the event.
"When I tell this story, I suspect it will be rather different," Arthur says, staring at the still surface of the lake.
"More speeches," Merlin agrees.
"Or not," Arthur says.
Lancelot coughs. "That looks like an excellent sword, sire."
"It's not terrible." Arthur turns the sword this way and that, giving Merlin a doubtful look. "It doesn't feel enchanted."
"I could make it glow, if that would make you happier," Merlin mutters. Arthur purses his lips, actually seeming to consider it. "I'm not -- no. I'm not actually making it glow, Arthur."
"Of course not. That would be ridiculous." Arthur slings an arm around Merlin's shoulders, waving his shiny enchanted sword at the lake. Merlin wishes he wouldn't; that's just tempting fate, or naiads, or both. "Will it take that foul look off your face if I promise to work in one speech?"
Merlin gives him a sidelong look. "Is this speech going to be about me commissioning a magic sword for you and then putting it in the lake for years of safekeeping, or is it going to be about that half-naked naiad?"
"Can't you just be happy with a speech?" Arthur tries.
"My lord, it is often best to give credit where credit is due," Lancelot says. Merlin doesn't quite point and nod at him, but he does give Lancelot a beaming smile, which is much the same.
"Perhaps." Arthur squints at Merlin. "What was it you did, again?"
"I put it there, Arthur," Merlin says, wondering if it would really be so bad for Camelot if he ended the Pendragon line.
"So you did." Arthur pulls him closer, his lips just barely brushing the corner of Merlin's jaw, and then he's striding off to clap Lancelot on the back on his way to the horses. "I'm sure I can work that in somehow."
"Too kind," Merlin says, trying to sound displeased still, or at least like Arthur hasn't entirely appeased him with what can hardly be called a kiss at all. Lancelot is smiling at him, far too amused for Merlin's liking, so his attempt must have failed.
Arthur sheathes the sword at his waist and swings up into the saddle, pointing back at the lake. "I think she likes you."
Merlin turns to find the naiad watching them -- watching him -- with a small, smug smile. She gives Merlin a wave when she sees him looking and laughs, diving back into the lake.
"I think she did all this just to show me up," Merlin says, the idea occurring to him for the first time.
Arthur smirks. "As I said. She likes you."
"Arthur, she's not even human," Merlin points out.
"As if you've had any better offers," Arthur scoffs.
They both ignore him.
"I swear I'm going to take that sword back and give it to a king who isn't such an incredible arse," Merlin says.
Arthur rests a protective hand on the pommel of his sword. "It's mine now, you can't have it."
"That's what you think--"
"Yes, it is." Arthur leans forward in the saddle, smiling down at Merlin with just the faintest twist of condescension. "Even that naiad wants me to have this sword, Merlin. Where are you going to hide it next, a cloud? A cave? Are you going to seal it in stone?"
Arthur is just being ridiculous to provoke Merlin, but knowing that doesn't make it any less successful. "Don't tempt me. I could."
"In stone," Arthur says again, doubtfully.
"I could," Merlin insists.
"I'd just like to see you try," Arthur says.
"I liked it better with the naiad," Arthur complains, after his fifth consecutive attempt to free his sword from the flagstones of the throne room.
"Apologise and I'll let it go," Merlin says, arms folded. He doesn't truly want or need an apology from Arthur -- if it were like that between them, Arthur would be apologising constantly -- but Arthur backed himself into this corner, and Arthur will have to get himself out.
Merlin receives a thoroughly irritated look that is all Arthur, lacking so much as a trace of the king he's meant to be in this room. "Apologise for what, having a go at you over the girl? I was only joking, surely you know that." He wraps his hands around the hilt of the sword, bracing his feet on either side. "Besides, we both know you've had better offers, seeing as how they all come from--"
"'I'm sorry, Merlin,'" Merlin says, in case Arthur has forgotten what an apology sounds like.
Arthur pulls at the sword, gritting out through his teeth: "Yes, yes, quite sorry, Merlin -- now if you don't mind, before we have an audience--"
Merlin lets the sword go.
The sword slides free of the flagstones, and Arthur tumbles back onto them with a fair bit of backward momentum and a muffled curse.
"This sword had better be bloody well worth it," Arthur says, glaring up at Merlin from the floor.
Merlin smiles down at him, offering him a hand up. "I promise it is."
There's a noise from off to one side, a low, startled sound. They both turn toward it, Arthur still on the floor, Merlin with his hand frozen in midair.
A maidservant Merlin doesn't recognise says, awed: "Sire, did you truly pull that sword from the stones?"
Arthur scrambles to his feet without Merlin's help, seeming to fill out, somehow, to lose the lingering traces of the boy he was and expand back into the king he's meant to be.
"Yes," he says, gravely. "Yes, I did."
Merlin coughs to hide a laugh.
Arthur gives him a sharp, wounded glare that says, really, Merlin, must you ruin this for me?
"Absolutely he did," Merlin hears himself saying, and is rewarded with the sudden shine of Arthur's smile. "Lucky for him I put it there."
The maidservant claps her hands together, beaming. The king -- being the king, and not a boy -- can only pat Merlin on the shoulder, stopping short of a shove.
"Yes, thank you, Merlin," Arthur says, sounding reluctantly amused.
Merlin smiles at him. "You're welcome, sire."
It's rather lacking in speeches, but it will have to do.