Gwaine’s being measured with a tape around his chest when the door creaks open after the briefest of knocks, and he’s still got his arms in the air when Gwen peeks into the room.
“Sorry, er. Sorry, I’ll just—”
Gwaine grins and tuts. “It’s all right Gwen, I’m quite decent,” he says generously.
Gwen doesn’t come all the way into the room, but stands in the half-open doorway. “I find that hard to believe, Sir Gwaine,” she says, dipping into a tiny curtsey at the honorific but smirking all the same.
The tailor tugs his tape loose and steps away. Freed, Gwaine presses his hands to his chest. “You wound me, Guinevere.”
“Yes, well, that would be the point of being fitted for armour, wouldn’t it?”
Gwaine feels his smile grow a little crooked, but before he can respond the door opens further, and Merlin’s head pops around the corner above Gwen’s.
“You found him!” Merlin exclaims, grinning in a way that Gwaine can’t ever help but return when it’s directed at him.
“I suppose it is hard to track down a man in such demand,” Gwaine admits breezily, privately preening a little at the thought that they were both recruited to locate him.
“Ha ha,” Gwen says drily, but there’s a half-obscured scuffle behind the door as she leaves, and when Merlin finally wanders into the room, he’s rubbing at his side.
“Pointy elbows,” he mumbles in response to Gwaine’s raised eyebrow.
Gwaine doesn’t miss the sweep of Merlin’s gaze from his open shirt collar down to his stockinged feet, though Merlin doesn’t actually seem to be trying to hide it. Especially not when the tailor crouches down to measure the circumference of Gwaine’s thigh and Merlin’s expression shifts into something more thoughtful.
“Did you need me?” Gwaine prompts at length, when the tailor’s moved from left thigh to right, and then to measuring the full length of Gwaine’s leg, without losing Merlin’s interest.
“I, um. Yes.” Merlin scratches his head and squints, then points his finger at Gwaine in sudden recollection. “The quartermaster! He wanted to see you.”
The tailor finishes scribbling notes onto a scrap of parchment, and hands it to Gwaine after gathering the rest of his tools into his satchel.
Gwaine remembers to thank him before he leaves, and eyes the figures on the paper suspiciously before slipping it into his pocket. “Surely the Prince’s personal servant has better things to do than run messages around the castle?”
Merlin sidles closer, and Gwaine’s breathing picks up—but Merlin just plucks the parchment out of Gwaine’s pocket and steps back. He holds it up between two fingers. “Do you even know what to do with this?”
“I’ll take it to the smithy, then, unless you want to be fighting your next tourney in your skivvies.”
Merlin dances out of reach as Gwaine grabs for the parchment, but his playful grin falls away when he sees the look on Gwaine’s face. “What is it?”
Gwaine glances to the door quickly, then back at Merlin. Merlin doesn’t miss it, and his mouth tightens. “Gwaine?”
“It’s nothing. It’s not…” He trails off, then makes an attempt to start again. “Remember how I told you I was penniless?”
“Gwaine, there isn’t a tavern in Camelot that doesn’t know that about you.”
“It’s not—” His mouth twists, because he’s been trying, he has; not just because of Lancelot’s gently pointed comment about the knightly virtue of exercising restraint, but because hangovers are even less fun when he has to be up at dawn for training. And Merlin’s words sting a little, which makes him feel more uncertain, because the last thing Gwaine is is thin-skinned, but… it’s Merlin.
Who’s looking at him thoughtfully, but not in amusement anymore, and Gwaine thinks that if the look turns to pity he might have to just storm out of the room and slam the door behind him, dignity be damned.
“You’ll receive a knight’s wages,” Merlin says. He waves Gwaine’s measurements in the air. “And as for this new livery and armour? Arthur’s paying for it from his own coffers, for all of his new knights.”
His new knights. The phrasing makes Gwaine twitch instinctively; though he can’t tell if it’s in rejection of being beholden to someone—to a noble—or rather in mild pleasure of, well. Belonging.
He turns away from Merlin and reaches for his boots, but Merlin stops him with a hand on his shoulder. Bracing himself for further uncomfortable conversation, Gwaine’s taken completely by surprise when Merlin grabs the boots himself, then drops to his knees before him.
“Let me do this,” Merlin says, smile lopsided in a hopeful sort of way as he looks up at Gwaine.
Gwaine’s breath catches. “You don’t have to—”
“Personal servant, remember?” Without breaking eye contact, Merlin guides Gwaine’s hand to brace on his shoulder and keep his balance as he lifts Gwaine’s foot and tugs his boot on. “Besides, your feet can’t possibly smell worse than his.”
Gwaine snorts in startled amusement, and he can’t take his eyes off Merlin’s dark, bowed head, something soft and fond swelling in his chest. Merlin lowers the booted foot to the floor, and Gwaine shifts his weight as Merlin lifts the other, his hand cradling Gwaine’s ankle with a confident familiarity.
“Thank you,” Gwaine says quietly, meeting Merlin’s eyes when Merlin stands again. Merlin ducks his head, then turns the movement into a mocking bow.
“I’d be happy to perform any task for Sir Gwaine, the—” He glances at the scribbles on the parchment again then raises his eyebrows, mouth twisting in a smirk not unlike Gwen’s, though it manages to affect Gwaine in a way that Gwen’s completely failed to. “—well endowed.”
He skips and ducks under Gwaine’s half-hearted swipe, laughing back over his shoulder as he darts out the door.
◊ ◊ ◊
Even after a week, Gwaine’s still not used to walking freely about the castle, nor being treated with deference rather than the more familiar suspicion.
He’s also not quite used to seeing Merlin around in his natural environment; for all that he’d spent time with Merlin in Camelot before, at least half of that Gwaine had been drunk, and the other half either wounded or banished. Even with the disconnect between the Merlin undertaking menial chores and the one charging across the kingdom, he’s still the most familiar—and friendly—face amidst the complex collection of people in the castle into which Gwaine can’t help but feel like he’s been wedged, like a stone in a shoe.
At least Percival and Elyan are in the same boat. Merlin is hardly Gwaine’s only friend anymore; even Lancelot is companionable whether he’s at the tavern or on the practice field, although Lancelot does have a tendency to offer unsolicited advice on the true bearing and manner of a knight, usually when Gwaine’s lost count of how many cups he’s drunk.
But even Elyan and Percival seem to adapt with far less difficulty than Gwaine seems to feel most of the time—most of the time being every time Leon gives him an order, or he’s required to be somewhere at a certain time. Or wear something at a certain time. And, as spring begins to unfurl, delicate and mild, he becomes more and more resentful about that, and about the fact that any kind of displeasure he expresses about not being able to hie off and enjoy the sunshine—or fine local brew—is met with sound disapproval. Not that he doesn’t try to engineer such outings anyway.
This time he stumbles on Merlin in the battlements, unexpectedly for a change. He’s got in the habit of seeking out Merlin’s usual haunts whenever he’s freed from duty, though better are the times when Merlin seems to find an excuse to seek him, a handful of stolen moments spent making each other laugh with new gossip and nonsense. This time, though, Gwaine’s come up here as an escape, if only for a few moments—he can breathe easier as soon as he reaches the top of the stairs, as if the weight of the castle above him had been palpable.
He’s caught up in his own thoughts as he turns a corner and finds Merlin scrambling to gather up an armful of things wrapped in dark cloth. When a book tumbles free of his arms and falls to the hard stone, spine first and pages flying open, Gwaine sees him wince and steps forward immediately, picking it up and easing it closed again, hand smoothing over the leather cover.
He goes to hold it out to Merlin, but Merlin’s just looking back at him, wide-eyed with surprise and something Gwaine isn’t sure he wants to name. His arms are full as he hugs the bundle to his chest, its ragged edges flapping in the same wind that’s flattening Merlin’s hair to his forehead.
“Can I help?” Gwaine offers, quirking his lips into a hopeful smile.
“No, no,” Merlin says immediately, somehow juggling his armful to a point that he can reach for the book and tuck it out of sight. “I didn’t expect— Sorry. I need to…” he stammers, then presses his mouth together in an utterly unconvincing smile and walks away, heading back in the direction that Gwaine came from.
Gwaine blinks after him, something in his chest sinking painfully.
Though Merlin’s quick exit was more disinterest than rejection, Gwaine’s used to handling that just as well, usually by shrugging it off and seeking a more willing companion… And now that he thinks of it, it’s been at least a month since he’s charmed someone into bed with him, and then he realises that even though he’s been drunk enough more than a few times, he hasn’t wanted to.
As he stares after Merlin’s windswept figure and wants nothing more than to follow, he begins to realise just how dire his predicament is.
◊ ◊ ◊
The fact of the matter is, Lancelot’s pointed comments about knightly virtues haven’t been entirely unwelcome, something which alternately horrifies and humbles Gwaine. He’s horrified, because he occasionally finds himself thinking of what he would have thought even a year ago of taking advice on chivalry from a knight. And humbled, when he’s reminded of where that previous self might have ended up should Merlin and his Prince not have needed rescuing that first time.
Besides, Lancelot’s not a noble himself, which makes his serenely-given advice easier to swallow. If ever there was a man defined by his deeds rather than his birth, it’s Lancelot. In his increasingly frequent moments of doubt, Gwaine compares himself to Lancelot and finds himself in a state not so much of self-loathing, but at the very least, self-disappointment. In comparison to Lancelot, his words seem empty; the brash philosophising of a drunkard whose only redeeming feature is an assortment of dirty sword fighting tricks picked up from an existence of not really belonging anywhere and owing a lot of people money.
Though it’s more often than not that Gwaine shares a meal with Lancelot, it’s when they’re feasting in the great hall that Lancelot’s words turn more to Knightly Virtues (as Gwaine has begun calling it in his head, with his remaining shred of sarcasm on the topic). Which is unsurprising, given that their seating arrangements limit their conversation partners—nowhere else in the castle does everyone’s place become so obviously important. The nobly-born knights are seated closer to the royal table; Arthur’s table overlooking all but unbalanced with his father’s empty chair beside him; and Merlin is stood behind Arthur’s shoulder, outside the calculated revelry of the diners.
Regardless of where they’re sat, everyone in the hall is watching the royal table, to the obvious disgruntlement of the Prince. His discomfort strikes Gwaine as somewhat ironic; after all, the whole purpose of this show is to declare, ‘nothing amiss with the royals, see here’. At least the focus on Arthur means that nobody notices where Gwaine and Lancelot are looking.
Lancelot sighs deeply, the sound almost lost in the noise of the diners, but Gwaine has learned to read the movement in Lancelot’s shoulders. The serving maid slips in between them to fill Lancelot’s cup, and Gwaine smiles gratefully at her; Lancelot doesn’t look away from the object of his gaze, even as he lifts his cup to drink.
When Gwaine follows his line of sight, he sees Guinevere standing with Merlin against the tapestry behind Arthur. They’re speaking lowly to one another, but staring back in Lancelot and Gwaine’s direction; when Merlin notices Gwaine’s look he gives a small smile.
Gwaine wraps his fingers around the stem of his goblet, the dark surface of the wine shifting as he twists the cup on the table. When he looks up again, Merlin’s still watching him. He lifts his wine jug a little, long, white hands easily cradling its round belly, and Gwaine returns the gesture, lifting his cup in salute and taking a sip.
“Things were simpler before all of this,” Gwaine says as he sets the cup down, and god, he must have been exercising more restraint than he thought, if a single mouthful of wine is enough to make him maudlin.
Lancelot picks up the thread, as he often does these days. “And following a code isn’t easy?”
“Easy for you, perhaps,” Gwaine says, a little unkindly. “You like nobles.”
“Well yes, I do like you,” Lancelot says frankly, and Gwaine feels suitably chastened; Lancelot is one of two people in Camelot who knows the truth of Gwaine’s birth, and he doesn’t bandy about the knowledge lightly. “And isn’t it you who’s always saying that deeds should speak louder than birth?”
Gwaine sees where this is going, and he’s already at its destination; if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t concede to being bloody Arthur’s, would he?
At Gwaine’s morose nod, Lancelot continues. “Then let noble deeds speak also.”
Gwaine squints at him, wondering if Lancelot hadn’t quite found the thread after all.
Lancelot meets his gaze, then gestures his cup in the direction of the royal table—and royal servants—again. “Not only on the battlefield, my friend.”
“What do you mean?” Gwaine’s tone is a little flat, mildly insulted at the possible suggestion that his own brand of charm—which has got him through many doors, not to mention into many beds—perhaps could do with some improvement.
“I mean—” Lancelot leans closer, eyes soft and considerate, raising Gwaine’s hackles further. He takes another sip of wine in an attempt to stave off his own defensiveness, his gaze flicking over Lancelot’s shoulder to where Elyan and Percival are laughing together. Abruptly, he’s envious of them.
“There is value in following the code of chivalry in all aspects of life,” Lancelot continues. “Especially when the object of your affection clearly places value in such things.”
Lancelot looks pointedly back at the royal table—actually at the royal table this time, where the Prince is dourly eating his meal, ignoring the mutters and bursts of laughter that swell around him. Gwaine blinks in confusion, thinking that Lancelot has got it so utterly wrong, to think that Arthur is his object of affection, but—oh.
He makes the connection of Lancelot’s pointed glance when Merlin steps forward again. Merlin’s posture is controlled and graceful, and he fills Arthur’s cup unobtrusively, smiling slightly when Arthur nods in rare acknowledgement. It’s an unusual display of professionalism from Merlin, but then he’s undoubtedly aware of the scrutiny directed towards Arthur.
Gwaine represses the urge to groan. Of course, Merlin clearly adores Arthur, requiring so little prompting to launch into a dreamy speech about how great a king Arthur will make. And that’s to say nothing of Gwen, whose conflicted interest in both Lancelot and Arthur, if nothing else, is enough for Gwaine to understand that the extent of Lancelot’s Knightly Virtue is rivalled only by the Prince’s.
Lancelot nudges Gwaine’s shoulder with his own. “You don’t need to emulate him, Sir Gwaine,” Lancelot says. Gwaine feels a little sulky at the gentle humour in his tone. “Certainly not to get Merlin’s attention; surely you can’t doubt that you already have that.”
It’s the first time in all their conversations of Virtues and codes and chivalry that Lancelot has outright mentioned Merlin’s name, and Gwaine’s heart lurches at the open acknowledgement. He feels laid bare, completely without warning, the great hall suddenly too hot and his pulse thrumming fast with the urge to flee. He shifts his feet under the table, even more aware now of Elyan and Percival’s bawdy conversation at Lancelot’s back, their laughter sharp-edged in his ears.
Lancelot seems unaware of the turmoil he’s caused, and Gwaine is grateful for that as he tries to force it back down. Lancelot’s gaze on him is not judgemental, nor speculative; Gwaine reminds himself that he would do well to listen this time as he has many others. While Gwaine’s mostly come to the private conclusion that by following his beloved code of Knightly Virtues, Lancelot has found himself left with a perpetually broken heart, the fact that Guinevere seems to gaze back at him with just as much longing is enough to stop Gwaine from dismissing his methods out of hand.
“You think I should… court him?” Gwaine isn’t even sure Lancelot hears him, his voice is cast so low; he’s not even sure he wants Lancelot to hear him. He takes another sip of wine to break eye contact; it’s strange, how such a small amount of it can bring a flush of blood to his face.
“I think you should behave nobly,” Lancelot murmurs, and that’s not entirely helpful, but Gwaine can try; if Lancelot is suggesting that choosing to follow a code of chivalry is a noble deed in itself, then, well. Merlin adores nobility.
Lancelot responds to Gwaine’s grimace of determination with a raised goblet. Gwaine lifts his in return, then drains it. The serving maid steps forward to refill it without a word.
◊ ◊ ◊
“A squire,” Gwaine says blankly.
Arthur tests the edge of another blade before sliding it back into its rack and swiping his finger along the polished wood. He examines the dust left on the pad of his finger and frowns. “That’s what I said.” He turns his head and bellows, “Merlin!”, then faces Gwaine again. “And before you begin, it’s not something that’s under discussion.”
Gwaine closes his mouth and crosses his arms over his chest. “You want me to be responsible for another person,” he says, deeply sceptical.
Arthur gives him an unimpressed look, and Gwaine must admit he’s got that perfected to an art. It twists an anxious coil of inadequacy in his belly, and god, why’s it so difficult in Camelot, living amidst all the pomp and snobbery of a royal castle, to remember that he doesn’t care what this man thinks of him?
Though that’s a lie, of course. Gwaine hasn’t worked out yet if he needs to quash the part of him that itches to rail and reject the position he’s been given, or if the quashing itself would be a horrible betrayal of his own principles.
“I rather thought it’d be the other way around, actually,” Arthur says bluntly. “Merlin!” He picks through the scattered pieces of armour strewn about the huge work table in the middle of the armoury.
“What am I supposed to even do with a squire?”
Before Arthur can respond, Merlin stumbles in, panting with exertion. “What?”
Arthur rolls his eyes, and Gwaine can see his jaw clench. He represses the urge to smirk, which is much more difficult to do once Merlin winks at him.
“Apparently I’m to be assigned a squire,” Gwaine shares.
Merlin looks at him askance, then shrugs after a moment. “You could do with a caretaker, I suppose.”
“Merlin, I can’t see how your opinion on the subject should matter at all,” Arthur interrupts, but he seems pleased with Merlin’s unwitting support. “Especially as this isn’t up for debate.”
“Do I know him?” Merlin continues, unfazed, even seeming to gain enthusiasm on the subject. Gwaine feels his indignation fade into resignation.
“Merlin, despite what you seem to believe, I’m not actually a fishwife and do not appreciate your love of gossip—”
“Lord Galeron’s son. The youngest one. They’ve been promising him for months, haven’t they?” Merlin bounces on his heels a little, smiling at Arthur eagerly. “Is it?”
Arthur stares at him wordlessly for a moment, then points to the armour on the table. “Polish.” —to the sword rack— “Sharpen.” — to the knotted mess of chain mail — “Mend.”
Last of all, he points to Gwaine. “Two weeks,” he says, glaring, before sweeping out of the armoury.
“A squire,” Gwaine says miserably. He’s barely capable of being responsible for himself. Of course he can’t speak that aloud to Merlin, though he’d come close to openly acknowledging it to Arthur.
Merlin hoists himself backwards up onto the table, heels of his palms braced on the edge and feet swinging just above the ground, his good mood seemingly unaffected by Arthur’s parting demands. He leans to bump his shoulder against Gwaine’s, and Gwaine sighs, resting back against the table to keep the contact between them, small as it is. His arms are still folded and suddenly it feels sullen and awkward, but he’s not quite sure what to do with them, so he keeps them where they are, and stares down at Merlin’s flexing knees.
“It will actually be good for you,” Merlin says. “Not only do you get to order someone about, but it’ll be someone who actually knows about all this knightly stuff. Which is more than I can say for myself.” Gwaine fancies that the touch of Merlin’s shoulder against his own becomes a little firmer. Merlin’s voice definitely softens. “I can’t take care of you forever, after all,” he says, humour in his low tone, all soft-edged.
“What if I want you to?” Gwaine says before he can lose his nerve.
Through their scant contact he feels Merlin’s breath catch. The response is tiny but unmistakable, and it sends heat flushing through Gwaine’s body, his fists sweaty where they’re clenched under his elbows. Seduction comes easily to him: a suggestive word into an ear softened by ale; a hand on the knee, the thigh; a kiss that invites more. But wooing? The honesty of his own words—and intentions—have left him at a loss.
“Gwaine,” Merlin says, Gwaine’s name rich with meaning. In the silence of the armoury, Gwaine can hear him take a deep breath.
They both startle as the door opens again, the heavy wooden latch knocking loudly as it’s lifted, and Elyan strolls in, grinning as he sees them. Gwaine unfolds his arms and moves away from Merlin, pushing off the table and sauntering toward Elyan, meeting him half-way with a clasped wrist. Behind him, Gwaine hears the scuffle of Merlin’s feet landing on the floor again, and then the rattle of armour being shifted about.
Gwaine swallows, forces a smile on his face. “Are you suffering from this squire business as well, my friend?” he asks.
Elyan glances over to Merlin and back to Gwaine again. “No? You’ve got yourself saddled, then?”
Elyan laughs. “Probably because I can already tell a pauldron from a gorget.”
“You might get one yet,” Merlin says soberly from somewhere behind Gwaine. “A lot of knights were lost not that long ago. The king’s incapacity isn’t the only reason you’ve all been asked to stay.” You meaning Lancelot and Gwaine and Elyan and Percival, of course. Those for whom Arthur has rejected the tenets of knighthood—and in Gwaine’s case, banishment—to knight.
Gwaine’s smile falls away, and Elyan meets his gaze with sympathetic guilt.
“Camelot is weak,” Merlin continues bleakly. “The King is unfit to rule. Morgana’s betrayal from the heart of the royal house has damaged more than just his wits. Arthur’s position right now isn’t as strong as you might think it is.” He returns to Gwaine’s line of sight, arms full of dismembered steel shapes, only vaguely recognisable to Gwaine—he knows what a gauntlet looks like, anyway. “If it wasn’t for the total destruction of Cenred’s army, we’d have a lot more to worry about than squires right now.”
He doesn’t seem cheerful about this last cause of Camelot’s good fortune, leaving the armoury with only a final glance and strained smile behind him. Long after he’s gone and Gwaine has followed Elyan back to the garrison, the low itch of anxiousness he seeded in the back of Gwaine’s mind lingers.
◊ ◊ ◊
Gwaine notices more, then—that perhaps the aloofness of the royal castle isn’t necessarily all snobbery, but a bit of worry felt rather genuinely. The preoccupation had been difficult to notice before Merlin had obliquely pointed it out; not only does Gwaine lack experience for comparison, but it’s an emotional leap for him to empathise with people for whom this is thoroughly home. Even if it did occur to all the folk of the castle to simply leave in order to escape impending danger, it might not actually be possible for some of them.
Merlin’s determined independence even in the face of Arthur’s most priggish moods gives Gwaine the impression that Merlin is suffering there under his own volition, though. He’s made it clear enough that he’s more than capable of taking care of himself, after all, and others besides. Gwaine wasn’t merely flirting when he made his confession to Merlin in the armoury, and he feels restless and edgy when he remembers it.
Though even Merlin seems more preoccupied than usual of late, and the less Gwaine sees of him, the more he occupies Gwaine’s thoughts, until finally he decides to take Lancelot’s words to heart. Shortly thereafter, he finds himself knocking on Arthur’s door, clutching at his courage before it slips between his fingers.
“Enter,” the Prince calls shortly from within, and he doesn’t look up immediately when Gwaine steps inside. Gwaine can’t quite step beyond the inside of the door, though, because Merlin’s in the room too—of course he is, and Gwaine curses himself for an idiot—stoking the fire and looking up at Gwaine with an expression that seems mildly startled.
“Is everything all right?” Merlin asks.
When Gwaine just gives him a weak smile in response, Arthur rises from his desk with a mighty scraping of wooden chair against stone floor, and says brusquely, “Right, Merlin. Out.”
“Do you want to question your dismissal? Because if you really want to stay here, I’m sure I could come up with some more things for you to—”
“Going,” Merlin cuts him off, and is sidling behind Gwaine and out the door before Gwaine can barely blink, though he does manage to meet Merlin’s concerned gaze for a brief moment before he’s gone.
“Come here.” Arthur’s definitely paying attention to him, now, and Gwaine pulls on his old cloak of confidence, coming forward with a swagger in his step and finding an easy grin from somewhere to plaster on. Arthur examines the expression closely, with rather more scrutiny than Gwaine is really comfortable with. “Speak.”
“I’m not on duty this morning.”
“Yes, I can see that.”
Surely Arthur wasn’t this much of a ice princess when Gwaine was saving his bloody life. Still, he doesn’t need Arthur’s empathy, just his permission.
“I was hoping to ride out with Merlin.”
Arthur’s expression takes on something that looks more like suspicion. “Ride out?” he asks, as if the term is incomprehensible to him. “Where?”
Gwaine represses the urge to fidget. “Nowhere in particular. Just… out. If you would consider it?”
Arthur doesn’t seem any less perplexed. He barks out a laugh, though, and while startling, to Gwaine’s huge relief it’s not one of ridicule. “Are you suggesting I could make Merlin do anything?”
Gwaine frowns in confusion. “No, just that… you might consider giving him the morning off.”
Arthur’s head draws back a little from where he was leaning forward to peer at Gwaine, though his scrutiny doesn’t cease. “He runs errands for Gaius every third morning. You might find he needs an escort to go foraging for… bandages and so forth. Whatever it is he gets up to.” He waves a hand dismissively, finally looking away to shift around parchment on his desk, and Gwaine feels half the muscles in his body relax from where he hadn’t realised they’d been tensing.
“Thank you, Sire,” he says, a little embarrassed at the relief apparent in his tone, and Arthur looks up at him sharply again.
“You’d best go before you miss him, then.”
Gwaine sketches a bow and exits rapidly.
He uses all the knowledge of the castle’s shortcuts he’s collected over the past few weeks, and curses all those he’s yet to learn. He moves as quickly as he can while maintaining decorum, first to the kitchens to charm a not-too-simple meal out of the day cook, and then to the stables. Merlin’s not there, and Gwaine prays that he hasn’t already left—either for the lower town, or somewhere in the castle, or out of the citadel entirely—before Gwaine has a chance to speak with him.
He bursts into Gaius’ chambers breathlessly, and the old man himself stares at him in shock, hand clutching at his chest. “Sir Gwaine, I never—”
Merlin steps through the open door of his room, his expression of puzzlement not easing as he sees it’s Gwaine. “Are you—”
Gwaine strides past Gaius, and Merlin backs into his room before his approach.
Gwaine shuts the door behind him, and then it occurs to him that forcing himself into Merlin’s room with Merlin in it is not the most chivalrous choice he could have made. He rubs his hands over his eyes and then internally curses the notion for a bad idea; what next, a chaperone?
Merlin would probably punch him in the nose for even thinking it, or at least laugh him out of Camelot.
When Gwaine lowers his hand again, Merlin’s staring at him in open concern. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing, I—” Gwaine takes a deep breath. “I was hoping to escort you. Today. Outside the citadel.”
He can’t help but feel a bit slighted by the way Merlin’s expression turns to complete bafflement at that, though perhaps it’s the fact that it resembles Arthur’s so closely that makes Gwaine want to squirm.
“Escort me,” Merlin confirms flatly. “Is this what you were speaking to Arthur about?” His eyes narrow. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing, I—” This is not going to plan. “I just want to ride with you.” Gwaine fumbles for his charm, finds it cowering out of reach, and brings out the most hopeful smile he can manage.
Merlin stares at him. His mouth twitches, as if he’s unsure if he’s supposed to be smiling back. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, I just—your royal highness says it’s all right, and I know you have the morning off, can we please just—”
“You asked him if you could ride with me?” Merlin looks faintly horrified at that, and Gwaine’s heart sinks.
“Why would you...” Merlin’s hands make an abortive movement, as if with the physical urge to prevent something that’s already happened. “Oh god, what did he say? Would it have been too difficult for you to just ask—”
“Merlin.” Merlin’s mouth closes tightly as Gwaine cuts off his escalating consternation. “Please.” Gwaine hunches his shoulders a little in supplication, making an effort to meet Merlin’s eyes, and his charm makes the slightest appearance in his self-deprecating smile. “I brought food?”
Merlin closes his eyes and shakes his head, and Gwaine feels his hope fade—but then when Merlin looks at him again, the agitation has melted away and left amused resignation in its wake.
“I do actually still have work to do,” Merlin says grudgingly. “And if Arthur ever brings this up again, then you’ll be the one bearing all responsibility for what happens after that.”
Gwaine grins winsomely. Merlin rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling back despite himself.
By the time they’ve finally run Merlin’s errands through the lower town and have ridden out to the woods beyond the cleared fields just outside the city walls, the sun has warmed Gwaine to the point of nearly roasting under his heavy cloak. The canopy of shade under the new leaves is welcome, and Gwaine’s keen eye has spotted an ideal place to stop—far enough from the road for privacy, but not so far as to suggest he’s attempting anything… unchivalrous.
Merlin sighs as he carefully removes the food from Gwaine’s saddlebag. “Do you know how to pack anything? How did you manage to survive this long fending for yourself?” He bites into an apple, holding the fruit between his teeth absently while he unwraps the round of cheese Gwaine had obtained with some expert cajoling.
Gwaine stares, then shakes himself out of it, pulling the bag away from Merlin. He grimaces as he uncovers what was once a small collection of pickled eggs. While Merlin’s still preoccupied with breaking up their loaf of bread, Gwaine tosses the ex-eggs surreptitiously over his shoulder.
“What was that?” Merlin asks at the sound of them landing, his voice a little muffled as he rubs his nose with the back of his hand, threadbare sleeve dangling loosely around his narrow wrist.
“Pheasant?” Gwaine offers Merlin an innocent smile.
Merlin laughs, and takes another bite of his apple. Gwaine sinks his teeth into an overripe, somewhat squashed plum, the juices running down his chin.
Then Merlin makes an odd, sharp noise and starts choking.
Alarmed, Gwaine kneels towards him and starts pounding him on the back until Merlin holds up a hand for him to stop, heaving in breaths at last.
“What was that about?” Gwaine asks, bewildered.
“Sneezed,” Merlin croaks shortly, and sniffles. “Never mind. Cheese?”
He continues to sniff as they share their food, blinking and wiping his eyes, and on one memorable occasion propelling a peeled grape from between Gwaine’s upheld fingers to somewhere into the underbrush with the force of his sneeze. That incident is followed by profuse sniffling and even more profuse apologies, and Merlin stepping away into the trees for a few moments before he comes back with apparently clearer breathing (but no grape).
“It’s always like this at the start of spring,” he explains nasally when Gwaine expresses his concern. “I’ll get used to it. By summer I can roll around in the hay with the best of them.” Apparently realising what he’s just said, Merlin flushes deeply, and he shakes down his loose sleeve to cover half of his face with the next wipe of his nose.
When they’ve eaten enough to feed a small army, Merlin lies back on the spread-out cloak and groans contentedly. He rests his hands on his belly, then, when Gwaine helpfully tucks a saddlebag under his head, reaches up to wrap one of his hands in the leather strap. Gwaine reclines on his side, propping himself up on his elbow, and watches the sleepy flutter of Merlin’s eyelashes and the twitch of his nose.
After a few moments of comfortable silence, Merlin turns his head to look back, his mouth curved in a small, pleased smile. “What?”
“Just enjoying the scenery,” Gwaine says guilelessly, and reaches out to hook a finger in the woven leather encircling Merlin’s wrist. The cord is warm and worn, and he feels Merlin’s tendon flex against his knuckle. “What’s this?”
“Nothing, really.” Merlin’s smile drops a little into contemplation, and he lowers his eyes to watch Gwaine’s finger slip idly back and forth between leather and skin. “A friend gave it to me, before I came to Camelot for the first time. Well.” Merlin looks back up at the canopy above, lifts his other arm to wipe his nose again. “Not this exact one. It… I lost it, a while ago. But—well. This one is… just so I remember.”
The contented mood of moments before seems to have slipped into melancholy without so much as a by-your-leave. Gwaine lets go of the leather to draw the back of his fingernail along the delicate skin on the inside of Merlin’s wrist, and it brings Merlin’s attention back to him immediately. When Merlin turns his head again, Gwaine realises just how close he is.
“You’re not from Camelot?” Gwaine murmurs.
“Ealdor,” Merlin says just as softly, and Gwaine can feel the warm puff of his breath against his face. “Not even in the realm. So officially—” Merlin turns his hand a little, fingers curling against Gwaine’s. “—I’m not really even a subject.”
His fingers are dry and warm against Gwaine’s, and Gwaine belies the rabbit-leaping of his heart as he shifts his own slowly. Merlin flexes back and their fingers interlock.
“Merlin,” Gwaine says, and swallows, looks down at their joined hands, and then back to Merlin’s open face. “Would you—”
Before he can complete the sentence, there’s a shriek from the woods behind them that sounds like someone’s shoved a sword into the grind of a millstone with a good deal of anger. Gwaine’s on his feet with his sword out before it’s ended, and he whips around at the sound of something very loud crashing through the woods towards them.
When he turns to check, Merlin’s standing behind him wide-eyed, cheese knife clutched in his hand and hair sticking directly up at the back.
“Stay behind—” Gwaine starts to say, but then Merlin shouts, “Look out!” and something very heavy knocks Gwaine down and everything goes painful and dark.
When he cracks open his eyes again, light stabs in directly to the back of his skull, and he groans and squeezes them back closed. His body feels heavy and immobile, and yes, it’s the back of his skull that’s the issue—a deep ache clasps his head, throbbing outwards and down the column of his spine.
There’s a soft touch on the top of his head, though, and another on the side of his face. And he’s not entirely sprawled on the ground; there’s warmth underneath his neck and shoulders as well. “Just a moment,” a voice says from above, and then there’s a hand cupping gently over his eyes. “Open.”
It’s less painful this time, with the cover of pinkish darkness and fingers too close for him to need to focus. They slowly draw away and Gwaine blinks as his eyes adjust; the shifting blurriness above resolves to the leisurely wafting leaves dappling the blue sky, and Merlin’s face looking down at him in concern.
“What… the hell was that?” Gwaine slurs, then winces as rolling his head causes more stabbing pain to the back of his skull. He tries to touch the source of the pain, but his hand is caught and lowered to his side again.
Merlin laughs softly, and Gwaine realises he’s lying half in Merlin’s lap when he rocks with the movement of it. “Giant pheasant.”
“Giant… what?” He goes to sit up then groans, and Merlin shushes him, pressing a hand to his chest until he settles again.
“Don’t be an idiot,” Merlin says. His hand moves to press against Gwaine’s forehead, then comb gently back through his hair, and Gwaine decides that being an idiot is certainly the last thing he’d ever want to be. “Apparently it was attracted to the food. Pickled eggs, to be precise.”
Gwaine cringes a little, and Merlin cradles the back of his neck while he turns his head to look. The pheasant is indeed giant, and—from the size of its claws, and god, teeth—very mean. And very dead. “How did you—?”
“Um,” Merlin says. “When it knocked you down you lost your sword, and, well, while it was distracted, I sort of… stabbed it.”
“Sort of? It’s skewered!”
“It was very distracted,” Merlin says. “By you.” He’s got that concerned look again, staring down at Gwaine while his fingers stroke down Gwaine’s temple, then tuck hair behind his ear. “They weren’t pheasant eggs, were they?” he asks, a hint of humour in his tone.
Gwaine tries to push himself up again, then groans in pain and slumps back.
Merlin sighs, and leans to ease an arm under his shoulders. “Come on, then,” he says. “Back to Gaius.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Gwaine’s taken off duty for a couple of days—though, if he’s honest with himself, he’s had hangovers that hurt more than a giant pheasant to the head—and Arthur sends Sir Leon and some other knights familiar with Camelot’s surrounds out to roust the woods for any more beasts. When they ride back later that day, there’s an extra rider, and he’s hustled into the castle and directly to one of the King’s rooms.
The King, of course, is absent from said rooms: he’s been bedridden since Arthur freed him from his own dungeons. At least, that’s what Gwaine hears whispered in the corridors of the castle. Arthur is generally in too foul a mood to be questioned about it, even if Gwaine were feeling particularly foolish enough to ask, and he can’t speak to Merlin about it either. As the days go on, Merlin seems to become more and more tight-lipped about the Prince, as if drawing his defences around him. Gwaine admires him for it, even as he feels a tiny, unpleasant prickle of jealousy.
He assumes Merlin’s in there now, along with Arthur and the rider, and Leon and Kay, and Gwaine’s not really surprised to find Gwen lingering in the halls nearby.
The look she gives him is tight with worry. “It’s a messenger from Escetia,” she says in a low voice when Gwaine draws near. Her eyes dart to follow a chambermaid as she passes them by, and Gwen doesn’t continue until the woman’s footsteps have tapered off down the staircase. “He brings news from King Uther’s spy in Cenred’s court. Morgana used to ask after him… if I’d seen him come in.” Her lips press together and she cuts her gaze away, staring blindly past him, her hands knotting in her pinny.
“Is it bad news?” Gwaine prompts, half to bring her back from whatever place her recollections have dragged her to, half because the knowledge she’s already imparted has set an unpleasant sense of unease to stirring in his belly.
“He’s said nothing, at least not outside that room,” she murmurs, her gaze coming back to him for a moment before focusing on the closed door. She shrugs helplessly, and Gwaine gets the sense that both the haste and silence with which the messenger was shut away does not bode well.
It’s a long time before the door opens again, and when it does it’s Sir Leon who emerges. He catches sight of them immediately. “Sir Gwaine,” he says, not a hint of warmth in his tone, “I believe you have duties, do you not?” His expression is tense, brooking no folly, and Gwaine dips his head, chastened.
Gwen gives an awkward curtsey which Leon nods curtly in response to before turning on his heel and stalking down the corridor, and Gwaine and Gwen share one final look before parting ways.
Gwaine doesn’t see Merlin around the castle for the rest of the day—even busy, he’s wont to catch a glimpse of him running errands from a distance, if nothing else—and so in the evening he begs off drinking with Percival to seek him out.
For the past few nights at least, Gwaine has seen Merlin in Gaius’ rooms after supper, ostensibly to check up on his head injury, or, according to Merlin, his bruised ego. Gaius himself is occupied with the King more often than not, and Gwaine takes great pleasure in cajoling laughter out of Merlin in these encounters, willing Merlin’s touches to linger longer as, in a gesture that’s surely only token by now, Merlin’s deft fingers feel for the knot on the back of Gwaine’s skull. The moments are only ever fleeting, though—Merlin always cutting things short, albeit reluctantly, to go and settle Arthur for the night, and Gwaine leaving before Gaius returns.
This evening the rooms are deserted, the cluttered paraphernalia taking on an odd air of poise when Gwaine edges in silently, as if they’re anticipating the return of the rooms’ occupants. It becomes more unsettling the longer Gwaine waits, and at length he sits on one of the benches by Gaius’ table. After another while he swings his leg around to straddle the bench, and, once jiggling his knee for long minutes has not yielded sufficient distraction, begins flicking through one of the tomes scattered on the table.
The ink is faded, symbols arcane and meaningless (to Gwaine’s eyes, at least) and he turns the pages with dull interest until the pictures become more familiar. He takes in the script idly, and becomes lost in the over-formal language of times past describing the use for particular herbs and other substances; ground horse bone, crushed hemlock, swamp water…
He’s not sure how much time has passed when the door opens again, but his neck is stiff from bending over the table and he’s nearly a third of the way through the book, so he suspects it’s considerably later than it was.
Merlin’s standing in the doorway, expression half-perplexed, half-anxious as he stares at the book, and then at Gwaine. “What are you doing here?” he asks tightly.
Gwaine swings his leg back over the bench so he’s facing Merlin. His stiffness, suddenly, has nothing to do with posture, the itch in his palms everything to do with Merlin's odd expression.
Gwaine rubs his hands on his knees to prolong having to answer. “I was waiting for you,” he says at last, voice a little rusty from lack of use.
Merlin closes the door and comes towards him, his frown becoming more pronounced. This much closer Gwaine can also tell just how exhausted Merlin is; his jaw tense and mouth tight, eyes drawn. He doesn’t come much closer than half a dozen paces, then turns away from Gwaine to scrub his hand over his eyes.
“You can’t be here,” he says, voice brittle when he resurfaces. He huffs out a sigh and walks towards his room. “I need to sleep.”
Gwaine leaps to his feet, and is behind him in a few long strides. “Merlin—”
“You can’t come in here,” Merlin says, hoarse and tired as if he’s been having that argument all afternoon, wheeling around as Gwaine steps into his room.
“Merlin,” Gwaine soothes, holding his hands out, palms down. “I was only—”
“You can’t keep behaving like—like we can see each other whenever you want,” Merlin spits out, teetering on the edge of vicious.
Gwaine blinks, swallows; braces for whatever Merlin will say next.
Merlin stares back at him with desperate, sad eyes, then looks away. “We both have responsibilities—duties, and it doesn’t matter how much we—” He paces a few steps away, hand over his eyes again.
“Duty isn’t everything, Merlin,” Gwaine begins, keeping his tone low and easy. “You can’t expect—”
“It is,” Merlin cuts him off sharply. “Arthur needs me, I can’t just— And you have to—”
“Forget Arthur,” Gwaine says softly, stepping towards him. He gently grasps Merlin’s shoulder, and it’s strung taut under his hand. “I didn’t come to Camelot for Arthur.” He takes a deep breath, screwing up his courage. “I came for you.”
“You can’t say that!” Merlin shouts, twisting abruptly and throwing Gwaine’s hand off; Gwaine stumbles a few paces back. Merlin’s expression is agonised, but as Gwaine watches, it settles into that familiar, fierce resolve.
“Leave,” Merlin commands curtly.
Gwaine’s heart is in his throat, but he forces himself to speak through it. “Merlin—”
One moment he’s in Merlin’s room, the next he’s tripping backwards down the stairs from Merlin’s door as it’s slamming in his face. Hands shaking and breath tight in his constricted lungs, Gwaine waits to listen for sound behind the door, but hears none.
The room seems to teeter around him; Gwaine half expects the glass to start shattering on the shelves, and the floor all but shifts under his feet as he stumbles across it and out the door. The stairs tilt ominously before him and Gwaine braces himself against the wall, pressing the heels of his palms against his closed eyes for long moments. Then he drops his hands again and begins the descent.
◊ ◊ ◊
Gwaine sleeps little, and half the castle seems affected by the same dragging sense of anxiousness the next morning. On the practice fields, both the Prince and Sir Leon are absent, and Sir Bors a decidedly poor substitute. They don’t have to put up with it for very long, though; before the mid-morning bell has rung, there’s a servant waving frantically on the sidelines, and his overstated deference when Bors calls a halt and walks to meet him makes Gwaine twitch.
Bors has a look of solemn distaste on his face when he returns. “Sir Lancelot,” he says. “Sir Percival, Sir Gwaine, Sir Elyan. You have Prince Arthur’s summons.”
Gwaine exchanges glances with his fellows and sheathes his blade. Those remaining are stony-faced, the selection of the Prince’s knights in particular not escaping anyone’s notice. With the speculation he’s heard whispered about the corridors of late, Gwaine’s almost convinced that he’s going to have to fight his way into the castle, a suspicion not eased by the fact that the somewhat twitchy servant impresses on them the need for great haste, and thus they’re still mostly armoured and armed as they follow. They make it to Arthur’s rooms without incident, though, and when they enter they find the Prince waiting with Sir Leon—and, to Gwaine’s surprise, Gaius. The congregation of them is familiar; the only person missing from attendance is Guinevere.
Merlin is standing a little behind Arthur with his hands behind his back, his typical pose for all formal occasions. When Gwaine tries to meet his gaze, Merlin looks away, throat moving as he swallows, and it sends the hollow, sick feeling that Gwaine had managed to shove aside for most of the day rushing back into his gut.
“Excellent,” Arthur says, standing as they enter the room. “Close the door behind you, that’s the way. Sit down.”
They arrange themselves around the narrow table, jostling for space a little, and Arthur sits at the head. He takes a deep breath, looking at them each in turn before beginning.
“Yesterday, a messenger of my father’s spy in Cenred’s court came bearing news of great import. King Cenred is dead, murdered by the sorceress Morgause, and, apparently due to a lack of living heir, the court has been run by an inept series of murderous earls for nearly a month, now.”
Gwaine feels Percival shift next to him, and hears a similar metallic susurrus of chain mail around the table, but doesn’t look away from Arthur. In the pause, Arthur returns Gwaine’s gaze briefly, his chin dipping minutely. He looks away as he begins speaking again.
“In light of the fact that Cenred’s armies were defeated by Camelot’s, Escetia is ours to claim, but we must act quickly. Gwaine, Lancelot,” he says, looking at them each in turn, “you and Sir Kay will accompany a party of soldiers along with Sir Ector to Escetia, to occupy the castle and establish my father’s rule. Sir Kay is overseeing military preparations at present; I have given him leave to act in my stead to provide you with authority on matters of security and combat.”
“Sire,” Lancelot murmurs acquiescence. Gwaine cannot seem to speak at all.
“I’m sure that both your experiences in Escetia—and indeed, outside of Camelot in general—will greatly ease the experience of Camelot’s new subjects, and aid the peaceful transition to my father’s rule,” Arthur continues. “I’m sure you’re aware that speed in this matter is of the essence; Sir Leon has arranged for your party to ride out this afternoon.”
Gwaine can’t help but suck in a sharp breath at the impact of that knowledge; his eyes dart to Merlin to see Merlin looking back at him. This time Merlin holds his gaze a few moments longer before looking away, lips pressed tight. Abruptly, his inexplicable upset at Gwaine makes immensely more sense; the hollow feeling is scraped out sharper for a different, desperate reason.
“Sire, if I may,” Leon begins, and Gwaine can barely follow the rest over the ringing in his ears.
After all matters have been addressed, they stand from the table, and Elyan and Percival take turns clasping Gwaine’s wrist, and Lancelot’s, imparting good luck and somewhat sympathetic looks. Merlin slips away through a door to an antechamber, and Gwaine is too trapped by his companions to follow, even if he thought Merlin would want it. Perhaps that’s what last night had been, then—rejection of Gwaine’s attentions as frivolous and unfeasible.
Last of all, Arthur approaches Gwaine. “I have great faith in you, Sir Gwaine,” he says, warm despite the honorific, looking into Gwaine’s eyes intently. One hand clasped around Gwaine’s vambraced wrist, the other hand squeezing chain mail down onto Gwaine’s shoulder, he leans forward to murmur, “Come home safely.” He delivers one last, fierce pat to Gwaine’s shoulder and then he steps away, a moment later dismissing them all.
◊ ◊ ◊
Gwaine has few possessions to gather, no servants to see to, and no rooms to leave unoccupied in his absence. After dressing for travel and seeing to his pack, he can hardly bear to be in the castle a moment longer. Lancelot is absent—Gwaine suspects another fraught farewell with Guinevere—and the castle is buzzing with everyone else’s hastened errands, so Gwaine quietly slips away to the stables.
He can saddle his own horse, after all; even if a retinue of nobles, their servants and guards require cooks to travel with. This much he can take care of himself, though he winds up spending more time stroking Cabrion’s white neck and her soft nose, murmuring quietly to her. No one bothers them in her closed stall, even as hurried footsteps rustle through loose straw and the dull tinkle of buckles on leather straps rings out constantly.
At long last the sounds die down again, the door opening less frequently, chatter of the stablehands notably absent; just the occasional whickering rumble of another steed.
Gwaine’s feet feel as heavy as if they were iron-shod themselves, and his heart as well. He presses his forehead against Cabrion’s shoulder, knowing time is running out, willing himself to lead her out (and out, and out).
Gwaine looks up as the bar on the stall door lifts, and he struggles to pull back on the mask of his composure. It slips away along with his breath when Merlin sidesteps in, and he doesn’t have a chance to catch it again because Merlin’s staring at him intently. Then Merlin is stepping forward and holding Gwaine’s face in his hands.
“You idiot,” Merlin murmurs softly, rich with fondness, and kisses him.
It’s just a fierce, closed press of lips at first, but then Gwaine’s hands find Merlin’s sides and discover Merlin’s chest is heaving with the effort of controlling his breath, so Gwaine clasps him closer, pressing Merlin’s body to his. Merlin’s mouth opens on a helpless noise, and their lips shift and interlock, then Merlin’s tongue skims over Gwaine’s lower lip. Gwaine groans and tilts his head, and any restraint either of them was still feeling is gone, Merlin’s mouth open against his and wet, tongue slick and seeking, his lips firm and mobile.
When they part again they’re both gasping, Merlin’s hands cradling Gwaine’s head and Gwaine not relinquishing his tight hold on Merlin’s body. “Why am I the idiot, then?” Gwaine asks breathlessly, and he must be pouting a little, because Merlin darts in again quickly to press small, eager kisses against his lips, like he can’t resist.
Merlin’s still staring at his mouth when he draws back enough to answer. “Hiding in here, when you should be…” He trails off, and there’s an edge of desperation in his gaze when he meets Gwaine’s eyes again. “Do you know how long I spent looking for you?”
Gwaine remembers in a rush why he’s in the stables in the first place and groans—in regret for Merlin not finding him sooner, in protest of the minuscule amount of time they have left, that they’re parting at all—
He presses Merlin back against the high wooden wall and kisses him again, commanding him to stay where Gwaine’s put him with the nip of his teeth and stroke of his tongue. His hands slip down Merlin’s body to pull Merlin’s hips forward against his own, making Merlin moan, his hands flexing against Gwaine’s neck. Merlin presses hard against him for a brief, exhilarating moment, then his hands tighten in Gwaine’s hair until Gwaine’s forced to break the kiss.
“You—” Merlin says, mouth red and wet and open, so kissable. “I’m sorry.” He pushes Gwaine back, hands stroking through Gwaine’s hair, and a helpless, humourless laugh escapes him. “Really, you don’t know how much.”
Gwaine pulls him forward, into an embrace this time, and Merlin clings to him, pressing his face against Gwaine’s neck. Gwaine breathes in the warm scent of his hair and struggles to swallow down his own desperate misery—mingled bittersweetly with the leaping joy at having Merlin in his arms at last—until Merlin sniffs one last time and pulls away. “It’s time.”
They lead Cabrion into the stable yard, the small, closed space likewise bereft of people, and once Merlin has spent a few moments checking all the straps and buckles, he helps Gwaine up into the saddle. Then he stops again, presses his forehead against Gwaine’s thigh, shoulders heaving as he breathes deeply. Gwaine strokes his fingers through Merlin’s hair, the emotion lodged in his throat harder to swallow with the feel of the fine, arched tendons of Merlin’s neck between his fingers, finally touching as freely as he’s wanted to for weeks.
“Wait,” he says when Merlin goes to straighten again, and Gwaine unknots the faded blue scarf and tugs it carefully from Merlin’s throat. He presses it to his face to breathe in its scent, and when Merlin looks questioningly up at him, he says more lightly than he feels, “A token from my beloved.”
The endearment could perhaps be considered a little too forward to be entirely chivalrous, for all that Gwaine’s voice is hoarse with his sincerity. But then again, he can’t help but feel he’s been catapulted into a different measure of propriety entirely, what with Merlin’s taste in his mouth, and Merlin’s tears on his neck. There’s surely no harm in channelling Lancelot, though; Gwaine dips his head in deference before tucking the scarf beneath his collar, settling it against his breast.
Merlin gives a choked laugh, making Gwaine feel both relieved and painfully empathetic, and wipes his eyes before taking a deep breath and leading them on. Before he steps forward to open the gate that will take them beyond the stark privacy of the yard, Merlin seizes Gwaine’s hand and kisses it one last time, ardent, making Gwaine’s heart tighten in his chest.
The rest of the party are already waiting in the square when they arrive, and Merlin slips through the crowd as Gwaine subtly joins the back of the retinue. Arthur is standing at the top of the steps, and Gwaine barely hears the formal farewell that follows, though it is admirably short considering the amount of political posturing that it no doubt needs to include. Instead, Gwaine’s gaze is fixed on Merlin, lower on the steps and to the side, as still as the poised, guarding statue he’s next to. With his neck bared he emanates a vulnerability that stabs Gwaine with almost physical pain, and he can barely breathe; he wills Merlin to raise his head to meet his gaze. Merlin doesn’t, though, not until Arthur’s speech comes to an end, and then he looks up and directly at Gwaine, eyes bright.
The retinue is moving between them, shuffling and turning the horses around, and Gwaine’s heart is pounding like he’s about to gallop into battle. He keeps his eyes on Merlin for as long as possible before he has to turn and ride on.
The attention of the onlookers as they move slowly through the town drags against Gwaine like he’s forcing through brambles, and when they finally get out into open country he sucks in breaths so deep he feels dizzy, then digs his heels into Cabrion’s sides and spurs ahead.
He’s not sure how long he’s been riding when he becomes aware that there’s someone following him; the sharp clip of another horse’s hooves and a high, clear voice calling out, “Sir! Sir!” until Gwaine slows to a trot and turns around. His face feels numb and eyes tender from the chilly push of the wind, and he blinks back at the party trundling along in the distance, and the boy riding at his shoulder.
“Sir Gwaine,” the boy says, breathless and relieved, and he half-bows in the saddle. He can’t be older than fifteen, face smooth and still with a childish curve of softness to it, his eyes anxious when he meets Gwaine’s gaze.
“Who are you?” Gwaine croaks.
“My name is Gareth, Sir.” The boy brings his horse forward to trot closer alongside Gwaine’s. “I’m to be your squire.”