Somehow, being in a bed makes Gwaine wearier than being in a cell had. It’s as if between bouts of being Morgana’s entertainment, all the muscles in his body were held tight, no room for hurt. As soon as Leon and Percival had appeared, some central pin in him had been tugged free and the tension had loosened, knots falling into painful tangles. Once the pages serving as his temporary walking sticks had eased him into bed, it was like every little hurt bestowed on him by Morgana’s goons blossomed into full, painful bloom.
But at least he had been deposited in the physician’s quarters—in Merlin’s bed, at that. That it was at Gaius’ insistence had taken Gwaine aback; the first time in memory the old man had shown him any consideration that wasn’t vaguely suspicious or downright grudging. Not that he was treating Gwaine with any sort of bedside manner at all, right now, bedridden in the next room himself.
Gwaine would probably be better off in the impromptu infirmary set up for the rest of the wounded. At least he’d have Merlin himself to attend him then, as distracted as Merlin is at present. But perhaps amidst his harried fussing at being tossed into the role of physician, Gwaine might be able to murmur a few words into Merlin’s ear, teasing encouragement that would make Merlin’s mouth twitch and shoulders loosen a little.
Gwaine’s thoughts drift for a while. There’s a wooden crossbar in Merlin’s bed beneath the lumpy mattress, and it feels as if his tailbone is resting right on it. It hurts, but he has memories of it digging in on other occasions—making him groan in complaint, which in turn made Merlin laugh, already breathless with joy and sweaty pleasure. Gwaine’s thoughts drift idly back and forth between the discomfort now and the memory of those happier moments, like waves creeping up and falling back against the shore, keeping him a scant step away from sleep.
He’s not aware of just how close to sleep he is until the sound of someone bursting into the room startles him violently awake. For an instant he’s back in the cell and the bars are being rattled; in moments he’ll be dragged to his feet to climb the stairs to the throne room again, to take another beating and fight back as fiercely as he can.
Heart banging in his chest, Gwaine drags his eyes open with some effort, his vision swimming before he can focus again. He’s in Merlin’s room, and someone’s digging through Merlin’s things, far too noisily for a room with a sick bed. Gwaine takes a deep breath—ribs tightening painfully as he draws in a lungful of air that carries the scent of peppermint and arnica—and makes the effort of turning his head.
It’s Merlin fussing about, and he turns to look over his shoulder at the sound of Gwaine’s exhale without really stopping. “Sorry,” he says, the word half-stuck in his nose. His eyes are wide and damp.
“What are you doing?” Gwaine forces out hoarsely. He clears his throat and winces, then attempts to prop himself up on his elbows; being on his back feels far too much like being at a disadvantage.
Merlin doesn’t answer, but leaves off what he’s doing at Gwaine’s grunt of pain and hurries over to shove cushions behind Gwaine’s back. He’s somewhat lacking in bedside manner himself: he barely looks at Gwaine but immediately drops down to ferret something out from under the bed.
Gwaine’s grimace as he settles himself is the only thing keeping the pout off his face; he watches Merlin’s upthrust rump wiggle about; as it sounds like Merlin is excavating something beneath the bed.
“Merlin?” Gwaine tries again, a little louder: “Merlin.”
Aside from a huff preceding Merlin’s re-emergence, there’s no response at all, and when Merlin finally stands again—hair greyed with a smattering of dust and wispy cobwebs—Gwaine’s eyes widen.
Merlin’s holding a staff, smooth-worn wood clutching a blue crystal at its top. The only thing that can drag Gwaine’s eyes off it is a dawning realisation. He darts his gaze to what Merlin had been fussing with before: a hurriedly-stuffed pack by the door. The significance of that is one Gwaine knows too well from his own life, and he speaks through sudden tightness in his chest. “You’re leaving? Right when you’ve finally got me stuck in your bed?”
Merlin gives a choked laugh that sounds half like a sob, and drags his sleeve over his face. “It’s not like that’s a difficult thing to do, you tart.”
While it’s a response at last, it’s far from what Gwaine is grasping for. Feeling even more at a disadvantage—the anxiety of it clawing at the inside of his chest, pushing out at his broken ribs—he struggles to sit up and swing his legs out at the same time. All his hurts flare into wakefulness at once, and he hisses through his teeth.
Merlin dashes forward again, and his hands are abruptly all over Gwaine—though not in the way that Gwaine would like. He’s not even helping let alone fondling, instead tutting and urging Gwaine back into bed. Gwaine tries to fight him off, smacking at Merlin’s hands weakly, but it’s no use.
Merlin’s aloofness in moments like these—when he so clearly needs Gwaine’s help most of all is equal parts infuriating and terrifying. That Gwaine’s body—his greatest tool of both persuasion and coercion—is so incapacitated right now makes it all that much worse.
“Stop,” he begs as Merlin goes to draw away again. He grasps Merlin’s wrist, his own raw knuckles stinging at the strength of his hold. “Please, Merlin. Stop.”
Merlin stops, as if it’s impossible for him to break Gwaine’s hold—as if he’s not even going to try. Hope limps upright under Gwaine’s chest. Merlin’s head is bowed, and the staff clatters to the floor as Merlin drops it to press his hand against his face again. He sobs once, biting the sound off and pressing the heel of his palm to his mouth.
“Could you at least wait until I’m back on my feet again before we go running off together?” Gwaine says gently.
Merlin looks surprised—as if there was ever any question that he’d be going alone. “Can’t,” he says, short and choppy. “Need to leave now, before Arthur can banish me. Or…” His breath hitches. “Or worse.”
“I can’t imagine why the hell you’d think he’d do such a thing,” Gwaine soothes, a lie. “What happened?”
“I told him about Agravaine.”
From outside the room there’s another clatter, and Merlin startles, jolting into tension that’s seized tight. They both hold their breath, but no more sound follows: it must have been Gaius, Gwaine realises. Merlin seems to come to the same conclusion at the same moment; he turns to face the door and it slams shut.
Gwaine’s heart pounds—more in awe than anxiousness—Merlin hadn’t even spoken a word.
He keeps his tone casual, though, and continues the conversation as if nothing is amiss. “Am I mistaken in thinking that bird had already flown?”
Merlin’s eyes were wild when he turned back from the door, but some of the frantic edge smoothes off into desolation when he says, “No, not that he… Not that he was a traitor, but that… I killed him.”
Gwaine very carefully doesn’t let his shock show on his face, and forces down all the questions that that revelation has spawned, instead choosing the most trivial. “And his royal pratness is upset that you didn’t let him have a go first?”
“No, you idiot,” Merlin says, sounding more desperate than exasperated. “That I used magic.” His eyes rove over Gwaine’s face, searching.
“Oh,” Gwaine says, holding Merlin’s gaze.
“Oh? That’s it?” Merlin tries to tug out of Gwaine’s hold, but Gwaine tightens his grip. Merlin stops. “You knew?” His expression turns perplexed. “For how long?”
Gwaine looks at the discarded staff pointedly. “Oh, about a few minutes. I didn’t really think you had a penchant for decorative walking sticks,” he adds.
Merlin sways a little closer, and it eases the tight-strung muscle of Gwaine’s arm. “But—you—”
“Merlin, did you really think it’d make a difference to me?”
Merlin lets out another of those half-laugh half-sobs, and then he’s dropping to his knees by the bed.
Gwaine aches to embrace him—quite literally—but all he can manage is to cuff the crown of Merlin’s head and then squeeze the back of his neck, letting his hand rest reassuringly on Merlin’s nape. After a moment, Merlin drops his head, pressing his forehead against Gwaine’s hip through the bedclothes.
Gwaine’s heart aches. He can feel Merlin trembling through the touch, and he strokes Merlin’s head with forced gentleness; his instincts are urging him to leap out of bed and seize his sword.
“I have to go,” Merlin moans, but makes no effort to rise.
Gwaine keeps up his stroking, though the urge to fight has shifted into the urge to draw Merlin into the bed and wrap arms and legs around him, preventing him from escaping. “Arthur,” Gwaine begins cautiously. “Did he actually say…?”
Merlin shudders. “He told me to get out of his sight,” he says, bleak. “But I couldn’t… I couldn’t lie any more, Gwaine.” His chest heaves.
Gwaine squeezes the back of Merlin’s neck again, and shakes gently. “You could’ve told me,” he says—unable to help himself, his insides all in turmoil at the hurt and envy and fear that the revelation of Merlin’s magic has stirred up, almost inseparable from his lingering physical pain.
Merlin lifts his head, his eyes magnified with tears, his lovely mouth twisted. “I—”
“Come here,” Gwaine says in a hoarse rumble, his own throat tight. He draws Merlin forward as best he can; Merlin topples and braces an arm on the bed before their lips crash together in a salty kiss. For all that Gwaine is good enough with words to get himself out of most difficulties, he’s much better at this, and after a little longer Merlin’s intensity eases. Gwaine strokes the hair at Merlin’s nape, and Merlin heaves another sigh—damp against Gwaine’s chin—and drops his head to rest it against Gwaine’s chest.
Gwaine cups the side of Merlin’s neck and sweeps his thumb over the cool curl of Merlin’s ear. When Merlin’s breathing has settled, Gwaine says, “All right, so what we need is an old nag to sling me over, and you can haul me out of Camelot tomorrow.”
Merlin huffs in amusement, then lifts his head to prop his chin up on Gwaine’s chest. “You need a haircut,” he says after a moment of looking Gwaine over; his fingers play with the greasy strands of Gwaine’s hair. His nose wrinkles. “And a wash.”
Gwaine raises his eyebrows. “Are you offering?”
Merlin shuffles around until he’s sitting on the edge of the bed, looking down at Gwaine. His hand rests on Gwaine’s chest, a weight that feels like it’s the only thing in the world keeping Gwaine anchored—which is just as true in Camelot as it would be anywhere else; Gwaine finds himself half-hoping Merlin will decide to run after all, and take Gwaine with him. He opens his mouth to speak, but before he can, there’s the sound of the door to Gaius’ chambers opening, and Arthur’s voice calling brusquely, “Merlin.”
Merlin startles, and Gwaine covers Merlin’s hand with his own, squeezing hard. “Go,” he says softly, tilting his head towards the door.
Merlin nods firmly, and goes.