First problem: hubris.
Gwaine knew he had problems. He wasn't perfect. Admittance was the first step, wasn't it? He just rarely went any further than that.
"Merlin, what is this?" Gwaine said.
"That." Gwaine pointed at what Merlin was carrying. King Arthur and the rest of the knights were saddled up to go hunting. Why they thought bringing Merlin along was good for anything more than a few laughs was beyond Gwaine. He was likely to get himself killed.
"A…polearm?" Merlin said cautiously, as if he was unsure of the name.
"That's the most shite polearm I think I've ever seen in my life. You're not going to hurt anything with that but yourself."
"But…I…sharpened it specially…?" Merlin tried, attempting, adorably, to understand what Gwaine was on about.
"There's no crossguard on it, Merlin." Gwaine said, snatching up the tip and gesturing. You need a guard on it. Have you ever even hunted wild boar before?"
Merlin was now looking at him like he was simple. "No!" he squeaked.
"Well, you'll be in for a treat if you go in with this one. I've seen one actually crawl up a man's spear, skewering itself just for the chance to hook its tusks in him." Gwaine described the scene with relish, and Merlin gulped.
"Oh," Merlin said.
"You better take mine," Gwaine said, exchanging the weapons.
"Wait, what? But then…won't you—?"
"Be in danger? Me? Hardly! I've hunted more boar than you've hunted…dunno, fish! The guard's more for insurance, and with your luck…" Gwaine chuckled and clapped Merlin too hard on the back. "Well, let's just say I'm more worried about you!"
Elyan, Percival, and Leon rode up with a chorus of laughter: "Don't listen to him, Merlin!" Leon warned, grinning widely.
"Gwaine just didn't want to be the only one stuck with one of the old-fashioned boar spears," Elyan piped up.
Merlin looked up at the trio of knights: sure enough, they were all bearing long, thin, light polearms that looked suspiciously like the one he'd just given up to Gwaine.
But if Gwaine was lying, he dug his heels in for the long haul: "I don't know what kind of boar hunting you do here, but this isn't going to…" he trailed off, shaking the polearm in his hand. It was too light, too flimsy, too—
"All right, all right," Arthur rode up easily on his white palfrey, with Lancelot close behind. "Gwaine, boar-hunting is a bit of different sport in Albion than elsewhere you may have been. We stay on horseback the entire time."
"What?" Gwaine rolled his eyes and blew his hair out of his face with a huff. "Well, hell, I'm getting my warhorse, then!" He laughed, determined to enjoy this if it killed him. "Back in a jiff!"
Second problem: a hugely misplaced sense of loyalty.
For having been a wandering hired sword for so much of his life, apparently, as Gwaine found out about himself, when he fell for a liege-lord, he fell hard. And their little manservants, too.
They had cornered the beast in a grove: a colossal boar the size of a horse with, like, easily four tusks sprouting out of its face. The aim of the game was to get it to bleed to death, but its hide was thick and only a few strong jabs had drawn any blood. Still, everything was going well.
Until Merlin's nag spooked, sending him to the ground, and Arthur, in a fit of heroism, dropped down off his own horse to help his servant.
The boar spotted the easy targets, though, and charged. Arthur raised his polearm, but it was looking just as sissy and aristocratic as Gwaine feared it would look next to the reality of a wild boar.
Gwaine, forgetting perhaps that he too was holding a sissy spear, also swung down off his horse in what he deemed the nick of time, so that as the beast charged, it speared itself on two polearms instead of one. Arthur glanced to see who had come to his aid, but neither had time nor air for a snarky remark. The other four knights circled around, plunging their spears deep into the pinned beast, but this only angered it further. Merlin had got back on his horse and, if he wasn't joining in, was at least staying out of danger.
Third problem: bravery bordering on stupidity.
Which wasn't strictly true, because the plan currently simmering in Gwaine's foul little mind was, for once, actually fairly premeditated. It didn't mean it wasn't bloody stupid. He noticed, in the few short seconds that dragged on like minutes, two things. One, the boar was steadily sliding—like he said it would! though he could hardly say I told you so to anyone now—up the length of both polearms, wild with rage and not caring a damn that it was killing itself the further it went, knowing it would take longer to die than it would to reach the ends of the conspicuously crossguard-less poles. The second thing Gwaine noticed was that Arthur had a bit better leverage than Gwaine had, the spear probably wedged on bone somewhere, while Gwaine's own spear wiggled around somewhat, doing probably gross things to its innards. And that sparked off an idea.
A very, very bad idea. Safe, for Arthur, probably, and bad for the pig, and very probably not at all wise for—
"Spread out!" Gwaine grunted. Arthur, not used to taking orders from peasants-turned-knights or whatever he thought of him, ignored him. "We've got to pull the spears apart, get him to bleed more!" Gwaine insisted.
More because he was out of options, and because a tree's worth of crossbow bolts emptied into the thing from point-blank had done nothing to slow it, Arthur nodded, and sidestepped out. Gwaine also sidestepped, widening the "V" they created between the pair of them, hoping against hope that this would work. His own spear could just as soon slide out, couldn't it, leaving Arthur alone wrangling the boar? And that would be bad. So he was taking a gamble on the actual rather than the apparent flimsiness of the polearms.
But, really, when wasn't Gwaine taking a gamble? Ah, that had to be problem number four, then, didn't it? Add it to the list!
Leon had possibly figured out what was going to happen, because he shouted out, "No, wait, not so far!" but too late.
Arthur's polearm snapped in two, the head from the wood, and he stumbled back, freeing the ferocious dying boar from everything but its personal vendetta against Gwaine. Which was precisely what Gwaine had hoped.
Though he hadn't, in all fairness, thought much further than getting Arthur out of harm's way.
The boar rushed him, up the length of the pole. There was a flurry of movement, a chorus of loud cries. Gwaine was pretty sure the thing bit his arm. More spears, driven deep with panic. Gwaine drew a long knife from his belt and shoved it through its eye, right down to its brains. There was a terrible squelching sound of sharp hardness piercing flesh, a few more squeals from the dying animal, and then it dropped, with Gwaine bent over it, holding his knife in.
There was a long stretch of silence, before a shout went up: victory!
Gwaine was frozen in place, heels dug in against the boar, holding onto that knife for dear life or as though if he let it go it would come back to life.
It wasn't until Arthur clapped him on the back that he realized something was wrong.
Very, very, very wrong.
The strange little gasp that was meant to be a loud curse had Arthur doing a double-take, letting him go like he was hot, and everyone going silent.
"Gwaine, are you—? Gwaine!" Arthur demanded, jumping to the horrible conclusion even before Gwaine had. "Percival, Leon!" he shouted urgently, even panicking.
Gwaine made a concerted effort, now, trying to pry himself away from the boar, confused until the adrenaline wore off and the pain kicked in, and he realized the problem:
"Four tusks," he gasped out.
Fifth problem: Gwaine was usually right, especially when he didn't want to be.
Merlin was crouched down somewhere around his navel, and Leon and Percival had gripped him by the arms. All this attention was making him more than uncomfortable, and he gave a cursory struggle.
"Gwaine, don't move!" Merlin cried, so loud and so urgent that it actually surprised Gwaine a bit, and it made a thin sheen of sweaty terror spring up along his back. Or maybe that was because he was impaled on four enormous tusks and the damn thing wasn't letting him go!
"We've got to lift him up, they're hooked into him," Merlin explained, putting a hand on his back to steady him.
"You with us, Gwaine?" Arthur asked, grabbing his shoulder.
"Oh, God, don't touch me," Gwaine ground out. Any pressure anywhere only made it worse. If a fly landed on him he felt like it might drive him down on the tusks until they pierced his heart. "Hurts. Jesus, ow."
"Okay," Leon said, "one, two—"
Up he went, sliding free with another sickening wet sound, followed by a wave of warmth all down his front. For a brief horrifying moment Gwaine thought he had wet himself, but, looking down, "Oh, thank God, it's blood," he gasped. Arthur looked at him like he was simple. Merlin looked ready to cry. Percy and Leon hadn't yet let go of his arms but Lancelot had stepped in and was holding a wad of cloth—someone's shirt?—to his belly.
"Great, belly wound. That's new," Gwaine tried to make small talk, frustrated that no one was letting him grab his middle and roll over and die, which was what he wanted more than anything in the world to do. A knife flashed, and someone had cut his tunic down the middle. And, okay, even Gwaine didn't like this much attention…
"I'm here, Gwaine, what is it?"
"Too many people, Merlin," he rasped, "make them go away."
"Gwaine, they're trying to—" But Merlin could see the trouble too, and nodded. "Okay, guys, give us some room, here. We'll need water and—and bandages. Make some bandages." As a few of the knights backed up into his line of sight—Percival and Elyan and Leon—Gwaine was startled by how much blood was on their hands and clothes. And how…stricken everyone looked. Here, this wasn't fair! It wasn't like they had been gored by a boar now, had they?
"Merlin," Gwaine gasped.
"Gwaine, shush, you've—"
"I'm not bleeding black or yellow, am I?"
"Bile, I'm not bleeding—"
"No, just—just blood. A lot of—" Merlin looked like he might be sick.
"Okay. Okay, good. We need it clean." It was apparently making Merlin uncomfortable that Gwaine was giving him triage orders, so Merlin attempted to reclaim his rightful place as assistant court physician, and his voice became marginally sterner:
"I know, water's on the way."
Gwaine was shaking his head. "Need something stronger. Did we save any of the ale from lunch? Whiskey'd be better, though—"
"No, Gwaine, we haven't anything like that," now Arthur snapped, apparently in worried-irritable mode. "How do you know this stuff, anyway?"
"Happened before," Gwaine said, with a grimace that was more memory than current pain, and he patted his right leg absently. Then, with a jab that was meant to be less accusing and more joking than it came out, "With another hunting party too cheap to invest in crossguards." Instead of rolling his eyes or blushing, however, Arthur paled, and if Gwaine hadn't already regretted it before it got out of his mouth, he regretted it now.
"I—I'm sorry, Gwaine," Arthur said, quietly.
"Whoa, now, wait a minute, Princess. You take that back!" Gwaine demanded, desperate to find a joke if it, well, if it killed him. "The only time you ever apologize is when someone's dying, and you, Sire, are most certainly not jinxing me into dying!"
That got half a smile, at least, and a soggy grin from Merlin.
"I'm afraid water and bandages are all we can do for you until we get you back to the castle, Sir Gwaine," Lancelot said, coming into view to assist Merlin, who began flushing out the wound.
"Ah—ahhrgh!" Gwaine grimaced. "Come on, there's got to be something sterile around here."
"Urine," Merlin suggested.
Merlin blushed as red as his handkerchief. "No, I mean, well—we're desperate enough. Urine is sterile. You know. Um. Pee."
Gwaine guffawed loudly, mostly at the look on his face, until he realized it hurt and it sent another wave of warm blood out over Lancelot's fingers. "You're not pissing on me!"
Lancelot and Arthur frowned.
"You're not going to listen to him, are you?" Gwaine tried to sit up—another wash of blood—he was beginning to feel dizzy—until Merlin snapped at him to lie still. "Okay, okay, fine!" he gasped, "there's a flask of Northumbrian moonshine in my saddlebag, all right? But I was saving that for a special occasion."
"Like the day you make it back to Camelot alive?" Arthur challenged.
Gwaine wrinkled up his nose. "I dunno. Was kinda trying to hold out till Midsummer."
Gwaine's sixth problem, which may have been and always would be the greatest, was his complete and utter refusal—nay, inability—to accept help from others. It tied into his hubris, yes, a bit, and also his pride—for Gwaine had a great deal of pride, contrary to popular opinion—it was shame he didn't have, which was different.
"All right, all right, all right," he insisted, shoving Merlin and Arthur off of him, "I've got it, give it to me."
"Gwaine, no, what are you talking about?" Merlin said, batting his hands away. Was everyone going deaf? Why was no one listening to him? "We've got to get this cleaned."
"Aaaarghh, lemme do it!" Gwaine said, sitting up, but he only got about halfway up before Arthur intervened, shoving him roughly back to the grass, and Gwaine fell back with a whimper he tried to disguise as a manly groan.
"Gwaine," Arthur told him sternly. "Every time you move you bleed more. Lie still. That's an order."
"Pfft!" Gwaine chuckled, though he knew it, too, and anyway was getting tired of how sticky he felt all over and how red everyone's hands were. "You think an order will work on me?" he asked with a wink.
"It's either that, or I sic Merlin's pout on you."
As if on cue, Merlin turned those pleading baby-deer eyes on him in all their adorable glory, and in all seriousness, not a hint of smile or that Arthur was forcing him to do this. "Oh, God, fine!" Gwaine moaned and settled back. He shivered. The wind had picked up a slight chill in the past however long he'd been bleeding out, though then again that also could simply be that he was bleeding out his warmth all down his—
"Yeeeeowholyfuckingshite!" Gwaine bellowed, sitting up so hard he broke free of both Lancelot and Arthur holding him down. "Agh! That hurts!" His eyes flashed at Merlin, who was guiltily holding the flask of liquor. "And that's good stuff, mind!" He added, regretting his outburst as Arthur and Lancelot guided him back down, this time his head pillowed on Lancelot's knee. At least like this he could look around now. That was good.
He caught sight of Percival and Elyan looking at him all wistful and pathetic, then quickly looking away, going back to making bandages.
People only didn't look at you like that when you were dying.
"Dammit," Gwaine breathed, closing his eyes. He managed only to hiss and stiffen as more of the whiskey was thrown on him, and some on his arm as well. "Christ. Ow." A few more labored breaths before he realized they weren't going to torment him any further and he cracked an eye open. "Any chance you saved any of that for me?" he asked, his grin hopeful but faint.
"Not to drink," Merlin said, apparently in a bossy mood. "You've lost enough blood already."
Gwaine shrugged. "Worth a try."
Arthur had stood up now, and looked down at him, deep in contemplation. "We'll need a bier. Sir Percival—"
"Oh, man, I'd love a beer," Gwaine said, perhaps beginning to feel a bit loopy because he was almost certain that that wasn't what his sovereign had actually meant.
Percival had come up, Elyan beside him. "I need you to go into the woods, get two stout poles. We'll need to make a litter to carry him on."
"Carry who on, the pig?" Gwaine said, lifting his head.
"Which one?" Lancelot joked quietly, pushing his head back down. Gwaine had the feeling that Lancelot was humoring him—Lance wasn't even remotely that funny normally—but he let it slide and laughed appreciatively:
"Haha, ooh—hey, wait, no bloody fair. You can't carry me!"
"Believe me, none of us are looking forward to it, either, Gwaine—"
"You saying I'm fat?" He hoped he was only sounding breathless to himself.
"—but you're certainly not riding a horse in that condition," Arthur concluded, using that my-word-is-law voice. For once, Gwaine didn't have the strength to argue. "Now, Sir Percival," he said. Then, walking a bit further away, "Sir Elyan—I need you to ride to Camelot. Take my horse if you need to, and ride like the wind. Have them send a cart back for us, and tell Gaius what happened. He may want to come with you."
Gwaine blinked, and Elyan was gone.
Finally, "Sir Leon."
"I need you to strip that boar. Don't bother with all of it, but get the choicest cuts, as much as one horse will carry and you can get off it in half an hour. It looks like we'll have a longer journey back than we anticipated, and we'll need the meat."
Leon nodded, glancing helplessly at Gwaine, and turned back to the pig.
Now Arthur was frowning at Gwaine again, sighing like he had the world resting on his shoulders. Which he did, you know, he just didn't often look it. Merlin had the same look, come to think of it.
So Gwaine felt it was his duty to cheapen the moment: "For a moment there I thought you were talking about me." He grinned sideways.
"That's not funny," Merlin said, laughing.
"It was a bit funny," Gwaine insisted, gladdened by the sight of Merlin's smile, however brief.
Then, "Okay," Merlin said. "We want to leave that—those—to heal open or it could get infected. Can't sew them, can't cauterize. So we'll just have to wrap them up and…make sure Gwaine doesn't move."
"Oh, is that all?" Lancelot asked, "I was worried there would be a harder part to the plan," he said, with sarcasm sharp enough to wound.
"I'm offended," Gwaine said. "Usually people wait til I'm pretending to be passed out before they start referring to me as if I'm not here."
Problem twelve: Gwaine was a bloody awful patient.
Probably the most embarrassing moment of Gwaine's career (in a long, detailed career of embarrassing moments, usually involving getting caught trousers-down with someone's daughter, which Gwaine naturally took this opportunity to mention) was being held sitting upright between Arthur and Lancelot as Merlin cut his shirt from off his body and proceeded to wrap his stomach and chest with what may have been two or three bed sheets' worth of bandages.
"Well, at least I won't be cleaning these again," Merlin said with some sort of sick satisfaction as he tied the last bandage off.
"You…what?" Arthur asked.
Merlin looked at him.
Percival, who was crouched nearby working on the litter, snorted.
"Those were my shirts?"
Gwaine guffawed, never mind it hurt.
"Where else were we going to get clean bandages?" Merlin retorted. "And anyway, it wasn't my idea. It was Sir Leon's!"
Sir Leon who was conveniently out of earshot. Sir Leon the perfect angel of a knight.
"Yeah, that's right, Sir Leon's," Percival added. Gwaine—and Arthur by the look of it—didn't believe for a moment that it was Sir Leon's idea, but he couldn't do anything about it now, really, except turn red and set his jaw. Even Lancelot thought this was funny.
Settled back against Lancelot now, Gwaine's chuckle faded more because it hurt than he stopped finding the situation funny. Merlin, Lancelot, and Percival kept laughing even after Gwaine had quite forgotten what they were laughing about, and he had fallen silent. His gaze wandered away from the eyes and the smiles to the sky beyond.
The clouds seemed darker. Gwaine wasn't going to say anything. It was just as likely that his vision was going wrong.
Merlin touched his head as if he had forgotten he was wearing a hat. "I think it's starting to rain," he said, blinking up.
"Almost done," Percival said.
"No shoddy work, now, Perce: the only thing worse than letting you lot cart me back to Camelot would be if it broke and you dropped me!" Gwaine said. It was becoming…an effort to talk now, and Gwaine didn't like that. Still, it would take a lot more than this to keep Sir Gwaine silent!
Merlin must have caught something in his eyes—Gwaine made a note to be better on his guard—because he spoke up at that point. "How much pain are you in?"
"Well, I'd say I'm about to be a major pain in the arse by the first mile—"
Gwaine rolled his eyes, but put his hand on top of Merlin's. "I'm fine, Merlin, all right?" he said quietly, earnestly. No one could deny Gwaine in persuasive mode, so Merlin dropped it.
There was a fair sprinkle when they lifted him onto the litter—"You may be a worse patient than Arthur!" Merlin had exclaimed in response to his wriggling and complaining about being carried, and at the same time voicing problem number twelve (that he was a terrible patient)—so they drew out their cold-weather cloaks and trudged on. Percival and Leon were near his head in the back, with Arthur and Lancelot in the front taking his feet, leaving Merlin to wrangle the horses and attempt to scout ahead.
Problem number thirteen was that Gwaine talked too much.
Oh, he could be silent. He'd been silent when they'd been tracking the boar. He could sneak about as well as anyone, except maybe Merlin. He just didn't like to be quiet. Not when he had such stories to tell, and no one had anything better to do but listen!
And certainly not when all their faces just looked so bloody worried! Gwaine had to keep up appearances, didn't he? I mean, sure, give him his druthers and he'd much prefer being passed out unconscious until this entire dreadful thing was over and it didn't hurt so Goddamned much, but, well, then they'd know, wouldn't they? He had to keep them laughing, or at least keep them irritated at him. Then they wouldn't have time to be worried. Gwaine couldn't stand worry. It was worse than pity.
The sprinkle turned into a light snowfall, and the temperature plummeted in a few short (okay, very, very long) hours. Though they had actually draped one of the tents over him to keep him dry, Gwaine was growing quite cold, and if his constant bitching about the weather hadn't clued them in, Merlin's warm hand against his cold neck told them they had to stop for the night and get Gwaine warmed up.
"You know what would help with that?" Gwaine asked as his litter-carriers trudged along. "A drop of whiskey!" he answered when no one guessed.
"Gwaine, you do know that only makes you feel warmer, right? It can actually help you to freeze to death faster," Merlin scolded.
"Ooh, look who knows so much!" Gwaine jabbed.
"That's…common knowledge, Gwaine! It's a wonder you're still alive, if this is how you've 'looked after yourself' all those years."
"Hey, that which doesn't kill you, right?"
There was an uncomfortable silence as the men considered just how Gwaine was still alive. Certainly he had been in worse scrapes than this, they posited, if only to make themselves feel better about the current situation, and—had he always been alone, when it happened? If strength was actually measured by that which didn't kill you, well…
"Merlin," Arthur barked, filling the silence. "Stop encouraging him and go ahead to see if you can find some shelter. A house would be best, but a cave or glen will do."
Gwaine stiffened, but Arthur anticipated his complaint:
"Uh. Sir Leon, go with him. Percival, can you—"
"Got it," the knight replied, and Leon passed his corner of the litter to Percival, who took the weight easily.
"Look at you, you big strong man." Gwaine said, his jaw beginning to hurt from not letting his teeth chatter in the cold. "What do they feed you, my God?"
Percival shot him a painful smile.
They trudged on for some time like this. Gwaine's stories had now drifted to the one time he was caught with some Lady called Godgifu in a storm and how they had had to keep warm by lying naked together in a cave—and what that led to—and Arthur really was ready to kill him when Merlin returned, waving animatedly.
"It's almost too big, a bit drafty," Merlin said, "but it'll get us out of the snow and we can keep the horses inside, too."
"And it's better than what we've got," Arthur insisted, and Merlin led the way.
Gwaine was definitely obviously shivering by the time they got him inside, and looking far too pale. Arthur was giving orders immediately. "Lancelot, Percival, get a fire going. Merlin, look after the horses. Leon, you have first watch."
"And I suppose I'm left to you?" Gwaine smirked as Arthur advanced on him.
"Shut up, Gwaine." Arthur was serious. He was so rarely serious, or maybe it was that Gwaine so rarely took his seriousness seriously, so Gwaine let the grin fall from his face. Arthur looked at him, pained. "Would you drop the act?" he pleaded.
Gwaine was taken aback. He scrunched his face at Arthur, shifted uncomfortably. Arthur's gaze bored into him. Gwaine didn't like it. Why was this working on him? He didn't care what Arthur thought or did or threatened or asked of him, did he? Arthur was a noble, like all nobles. He didn't…care….
Except Arthur did care. He cared a lot. Because his jaw was hard but his eyes were soft, and Merlin was in the background pretending not to be listening in and pretending not to be crying and—
"You wouldn't like that," Gwaine whispered after a moment, a bit defeated.
Arthur huffed out through his nose, like a dragon.
"I—I'm okay," Gwaine insisted, surprised at himself for talking so easily. Even the lies usually had to be wrung out of him. "You know. Not great. You'll know when it gets bad. I swear. You'll know."
Arthur grumbled, but that was the best he was going to get.
"Fine. Are you warm enough?"
"Bloody freezing!" he exclaimed, almost laughing before he choked on his enthusiasm. He coughed lightly, and then again, harder. Ow…
Merlin rushed up. "Gwaine?"
Gwaine coughed again, but finally seemed to expel whatever was tickling his chest. "Ugh," he said.
Merlin and Arthur relaxed.
Then, suddenly, the pain in his belly was worse, and Gwaine sucked in a sharp breath. "Ow. Hurts."
"Gwaine, what is it?" Arthur demanded, at full agitation capacity again.
Merlin was touching him. He didn't want to be touched. Well, he did, but not now. Really not now.
Gwaine struggled a moment, but it was quickly apparent that this was not going to end well. "Think I'm gonna be…"
Gwaine used his last bit of strength reserves to sit up and roll over as he retched violently, holding his belly. Arthur half-leapt out of the way, but Merlin steadied him. Gwaine wasn't in enough pain for this not to be embarrassing, but it was close. He groaned, shaking on his elbows, as the last bit came up. No blood. Well, maybe a little.
"Ugh." He said. He was really trembling hard now, afraid to lie back down, unable to stay up.
A hand on his shoulder, pulling him back. Gwaine flinched, didn't want to go, and groaned his disapproval. But he fell only a few inches, his chest pillowed on Merlin's knee. He was slowly becoming aware of Merlin speaking to him. "Easy, easy, you're all right, it's okay," he went on softly, and apparently had been doing for some time.
"Owwie," Gwaine whined. This wasn't freaking fair.
"I think you opened up the wounds again," Merlin said, moving Gwaine's arm aside to look at his belly. "I'll have a look at those in a minute."
"Super," Gwaine gasped, not really caring if Merlin had said he was going to cut his balls off later. His chest was heaving, every breath painful. His eyes couldn't decide whether they wanted to be open or closed. And he was still shaking, violently.
"I'll…" Arthur sighed, looked at Merlin, communicating something with his eyes that Gwaine was too exhausted to catch. "Look after him. I'll clean this up. I guess."
Almost a full minute later, Gwaine laughed. It was weak, and was more of a gasp, but a faint smile appeared on his face. Arthur was going to clean up? It wasn't even so much embarrassing that King Arthur was going to clean up Gwaine's vomit, as it was horrifyingly confusing.
"I must be more out of it than I thought," Gwaine gasped.
"Oh, good, you heard him, too?" Merlin smiled. "I thought I was imagining things."
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Gwaine didn't get worse after that.
But he didn't get better, either.
Merlin had checked the bandages, finding them no better. The two smaller wounds had perhaps begun the healing process before Gwaine's violent retching had broken them open again. And the wounds were a little red and warm to the touch, so Merlin cleaned them again with the last of the whiskey, hoping that that would stave off infection, but not counting on it.
Gwaine just couldn't warm up, though they swaddled him in blankets and cloaks and set him up near the fire and gave him warm broth to drink—he actually didn't even want food because of the pain in his stomach, which worried him even more than it worried the others.
And Gwaine could barely keep his eyes open. That was irritating. What if he missed something? What if he died in his sleep? That was no way to go.
During that night, Merlin, Arthur, and the knights learned something about Gwaine: the reason that he seemed to have an endless supply of inane chatter wasn't so much that he liked to hear himself talk, but rather more because he simply hated silence. As long as someone was talking, or singing, or bickering or mumbling, he could actually be quiet—and that meant he let himself rest for even long stretches at a time. As soon as a lull occurred, though, he'd jump right back in to fill the void. Even when near-sleep or asleep, if the sound of familiar voices died out, Gwaine would shift or start awake, asking where everyone had gone and had they heard the one about the three nuns?
Gwaine disliked silence on principle. With the life he'd led, before Camelot, he was alone a lot of the time, which was why, when he was in a town, he'd taken to living out of taverns, flocking to the most crowded of places, and hooking up for three-or-more-somes as often as possible. And apparently, old habits die hard.
Plus, Gwaine quite liked people. He liked their sounds, their stories, their differences, their similarities. It wasn't the companionship that he craved, really, necessarily: it was the environment. It felt—well, really, Gwaine never let his guard down—ever—so he guessed it felt…safer? When you were on your own, in the wild, you didn't know what was coming or from where: at least with people, even with enemies, you knew what was coming and the only variable was when. So it was safer. Not safe. But safer.
And, okay, maybe he let his guard down, just a bit, with Merlin, the King, and the Knights, maybe just enough that he felt, maybe, you know, sort of, actually a little bit safe.
Merlin looked up sharply as Gwaine twitched.
"You let me fall asleep in the middle of the one about the Duke of Earl," Gwaine accused, clearing his throat and blinking sluggishly. His voice was hoarse. Arthur was sleeping, as were Leon and Lancelot. Percival was on watch, on the other side of the fire near the horses. Merlin was watching him.
"Of course I did. Gwaine, please, you've got to rest," Merlin insisted, putting a hand on Gwaine's knee.
"Don't want to," Gwaine complained, shifting.
Merlin sighed, rubbed his eyes. "Why?"
"Cold." Gwaine didn't care that he sounded like a petulant child. "And bored."
"You're still cold?" Merlin sounded urgent. Oops.
"Mmmmaybe?" Gwaine said. Merlin glared at him in silence until, "It's not so much cold as it is a dull ache now," he said, trying to be helpful.
Merlin snaked a hand inside the cocoon of blankets. His hand was warm against Gwaine's chest. "You really are icy. Blast it, Gwaine, that's it," he sighed. Then, turning, he whisper-shouted across the fire. "Sir Percival!"
Percival stepped over to them. "What is it, Merlin?" His eyes darted to Gwaine worriedly.
"Merlin, you better not be thinking what I—"
"Gwaine's still cold. I know it's awkward, Percival, but, well, you're bigger than me, and—"
"Whoa, wait, what?" Gwaine attempted to shake off sleep and pain and weakness and cold and the overall feelings of ick, lifting his head. "You're not going to sleep with me!"
Percival and Merlin both blushed bright red.
"I mean, er, next to me!" Gwaine corrected, also blushing. "You're not doing either one!"
But now Percival was frowning. "Oh, hush. You sound like a prude."
"I'm not a prude!" Gwaine exclaimed. "I just—I don't go in for—well, okay, there was this one time, and I was very drunk, and…really, I'm fine, I just…Percival, stop, don't, I—ohh…"
Gwaine practically melted as Percival crawled under the mountain of blankets with him, putting Gwaine between the fire and himself. He began warming immediately, and his body relaxed from its state of tension against the cold. Percival was a bloody furnace!
Merlin nearly laughed out loud. "Doesn't that feel better?" he said smugly.
It did. Gwaine couldn't even dredge up the energy to care that one of his best mates was spooning him like he was a bloody woman. "You're not as soft as Lady Godgifu," he said, a weak attempt to find something to complain about.
Gwaine had gone quite limp. He may even have been drooling. He didn't care. It was just nice to be warm again. "You tell anyone about this and I'll skin you," Gwaine groaned, knowing he didn't have the strength to make good on his threat. His eyelids began to droop, but he struggled to keep them open.
"Keep talking, Merlin," Percival encouraged, half-joking. "We've got to talk him to sleep."
Merlin grinned. "Okay, one bedtime story, and then you have to sleep."
Gwaine nodded. "Make sure Perce keeps his grabby hands to himself!" he mumbled.
"Hey, you're the one who kicks in your sleep! I'm the one in danger here," Percival retorted.
"I'll keep an eye on him," Merlin said. "You sleep, too, Percival. I'll watch."
"All night?" Gwaine wondered sleepily, eyes still fighting to remain open, but losing.
Merlin smiled sadly. "Most of it, anyway. I'll wake Lancelot if I can't stay awake."
Gwaine seemed satisfied with this, and settled, closing his eyes. Then, "Merlin?"
Merlin laughed, supremely glad that everyone had their eyes closed because a tiny tear exploded out of one eye, because Gwaine just sounded so—small? Innocent? Insecure? Precious? A host of other words that could never be applied to Gwaine under normal circumstances and thereby only highlighted how bad the situation truly was? Merlin furiously wiped away the errant manifestation of emotion before anyone noticed. "Um. Yeah. Okay. Have I ever told you about how I met Arthur?..."
"Yeah," Gwaine snorted. "But that's a good one. Tell me again."
Merlin drew the (in)famous story out as long as he could, poking at the fire and adding a few more logs to it. For the first half Gwaine chuckled or snorted at all the appropriate bits, while Percival was fast asleep almost immediately. At the last half, Gwaine, too, seemed to have drifted off, but Merlin kept up this story to no one, even beginning, once it was finished, to list off names of herbs and their remedies from Gaius' Pharmacopoeia and then to recite all the animals and their behaviors from Geoffrey's Bestiary until he was quite hoarse, just to keep Gwaine asleep. Merlin didn't have much experience with babies, but he assumed this was like putting a child to sleep—if the infant became suspicious that you had stopped singing its due lullaby before it was fully properly asleep, it would cry and you had to start all over again. And Merlin wasn't going to start all over again with a certain big baby in a red cape.
Fortunately, when Merlin's voice finally gave and the cave fell silent, Gwaine remained asleep.
Unfortunately, Gwaine remained asleep, which was somewhat worrying in and of itself. He needed the rest more than anything, but Merlin couldn't help feeling—somewhat selfishly—that Gwaine had given up. He hadn't, of course, that was silly—Gwaine would never give up, he would die before he gave up—but his breathing was slow and shallow, and his face was so pale and, in sleep, without the mask he always wore, so drawn in pain, that Merlin couldn't help but go over to check that he was still breathing every few minutes.
In the quiet while everyone was sleeping, Merlin considered using magic to heal his friend.
He considered it for all of three seconds before he crept back over to where Gwaine and Percival were sleeping soundly and muttered a few words. He could hardly concentrate—big surprise—but Merlin was never very good at these healing spells, which was a frustration, and he had just tried raising his voice above a whisper, "Gestepe hole! Þurhhæle! Wearþ hál geworden—" when Arthur stirred:
"Shut up, Merlin. Put Lancelot on watch and go to sleep."
"Sorry, sire," Merlin said and, with one last helpless look at the sleeping Gwaine, went to wake Lancelot for the last watch.
Apologies for my atrocious Anglo-Saxon grammar. I took some of Merlin's spell from the Merlin wiki, and some I made up…I think it says something like "Begin to be well! You are healed! He was restored to health!" or something redonkulous like that. Perhaps we can chalk it up to Merlin being bad at healing spells, LOL. My OE is terrible, seriously, don't judge me.
Merlin hadn't wanted to go to sleep, but Lancelot made him. "It didn't work, Lance," he had said, mournfully, exhausted, as Lancelot pulled his own cloak up and over Merlin's thin frame. "I tried, but I couldn't—I'm useless."
"Hush, now, you're not useless," Lancelot said, knowing exactly what Merlin was on about. "You did what you could, and he'll be all right. Just rest, I'll look after him."
Merlin nodded and closed his eyes.
The problem with Gwaine, Lancelot mused, as he watched the sleeping knight—surrounded on all sides by Percival, the fire, Merlin, and himself—was that he never let his guard down. He was a twitchy sleeper, and that didn't bode well at the best of times. He never admitted to having nightmares, and maybe he didn't, but Lancelot had been on enough campaigns with Gwaine to know that the only time he slept easy was when he'd had too much to drink. He assumed there were other events (involving tavern wenches) after which Gwaine slept soundly, but Lancelot didn't necessarily want to think about those.
The night passed without incident. Once he'd gotten used to the tossing and turning of Gwaine, whose sleep was more fitful than usual—Percival, who as a rule, slept like the dead, didn't seem any worse for it, luckily—he managed to settle down himself, keeping a lonely but comfortable watch until it was time to wake Leon for the morning watch.
"Leon. Leon?" Lancelot said, jabbing the ginger-haired knight in the shoulder.
Leon snorted and jerked awake, blinking owlishly. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"Nothing's wrong," Lancelot whispered. "The sky's lightening, and it's your watch."
"Oh." Leon took a minute to collect himself—ran a hand over his face, sat up slowly—and looked around him. "How's Gwaine?"
"Same," Lancelot said, although he honestly didn't know and actually expected "worse" was a more accurate answer. "He's…he hasn't been sleeping too well, but I don't think there's anything we can do—"
"Oh, there's plenty you could do," insisted a gravelly voice from the other side of the fire. "Only you lot insist on being perfect bastards."
"Gwaine," Leon frowned.
"It's true," Gwaine grumbled, sounding weary but determined: "Not a drop of whiskey, not a harlot to be had for miles, and I'm stuck sleeping on the cold hard ground with the sleeveless wonder here who, between you and me, is, I think, a virgin, and let me tell you I do not (except in the most exceptional of cases) share beds with virgins!"
"Hush, Gwaine," Leon said, trying desperately not to find that funny. "Lancelot's trying to sleep."
"Help me up," Gwaine said, struggling futilely to shove blankets and Percival off of him.
"What?" Leon was at Gwaine's side in an instant. He looked slightly flushed but hardly delirious. "No! Gwaine you've got to lie still."
"Which is why I need your help, genius," Gwaine said, freeing one of his hands enough to clutch at Leon's sleeve. "Look. I've got to piss. Help me up."
"Uh. I still think…"
"What, you want to explain that to Percival?" Now Gwaine's laughing eyes grew serious. "Please, Leon. I'm only going to have the strength to do this once, and I'd rather save you the mess and me my pride as long as I can, all right? Be glad I'm letting you help me, Jesus."
Leon frowned but, "All right," he said. "But you follow my lead, and let me do the work."
Leon eased Percival aside—"eased," ha! It took nearly all his strength!—and, after putting Gwaine's boots on him, lifted Gwaine first into a sitting position. Gwaine hissed but didn't say anything. "Sorry," Leon whispered. "You all right?"
Gwaine could only nod. He looked pale.
"You sure about this? I could get a pot or something…"
Gwaine let out his held breath in a laugh. "The one we eat out of? Yeah, right."
"Merlin said it was sterile…" Leon tried, grinning.
"Not funny. Up."
"Okay, okay, easy. Now, let me actually help you, understand? You do what I say. You try for one step to prove how tough you think you are, son, I'll put you back down and make you pee in your bowl, all right?"
"All right, all right, stop with the 'dad' thing, it's worrying me."
"Okay, okay," Gwaine was getting lightheaded just sitting up, and his face felt hot from more than the fever. "I'm not tough, follow the leader, now can we get on with it?"
They got on with it, but the going was slow. Gwaine was shirtless but claimed he felt too warm for cloak or coat, and since it would have been an ordeal anyway, Leon let it slide. And Gwaine actually behaved, leaning heavily on Leon and only moving when he told him to, much to Leon's surprised and secret horror: he had expected the fight, for Gwaine to try walking on his own, but he didn't. They shuffled slowly along, Gwaine's limp belying more than a full bladder.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes," Gwaine snapped, when they'd reached the cave entrance. Clearly this was taking a lot of effort.
Leon wasn't going to let this go. "You're not hurt anywhere else? Only you're limping, too. Did your legs sustain any injuries?"
"No, Leon, I just have a really huge cock that gets in the way!"
Leon flinched at the profanity before bursting into helpless laughter which echoed around the glade. Gwaine was grinning, though his teeth were set so it was more of a grimace.
"Gwaine, seriously," Leon tried, needing to make sure. It would be just like Gwaine to hide an injury, even at a time like this, with humor. Leon suspected Gwaine hid a lot of things with humor.
"Leon, seriously." Gwaine was going to play this one till the end. "You think I'm kidding, but I'm not. You try having a really full, really huge—"
"Okay, okay, forget I asked," Leon said, trying to clear the mental image.
"I can prove it. Do you want to see me?"
"No, no, I think I'm good."
"Okay, good. Then leave me by this tree. I can't take a piss with people watching."
Leon stopped. They hadn't gotten far from the cave entrance, but it was far enough. "I'll turn around."
"Yeah, you will, and you'll walk on. I'm serious, or this is going to take way longer than it has to. And it's cold, and I'd like to get back inside soon," he added.
Leon glared at him, but he could stand well enough with the help of the tree, and Leon hadn't actually planned to drop his drawers for him, so…
"Fine. Let me know the second you're done. And no heroics, understand?"
"I thought you said you didn't want to see?" Gwaine winked.
"God, you're incorrigible."
"I know," Gwaine beamed.
Shaking his head, Leon walked on ahead. He could at least take care of his own business at the same time.
Gwaine took the precious time alone to pull himself together. He was definitely in a lot of pain, though that was lessened somewhat when he relieved himself. But the real problem was that they were catching on to his tricks. Merlin, definitely, and Leon, probably—even Arthur, who was really bloody perceptive when he wasn't being a selfish prat.
Gwaine wasn't used to knowing people long enough that they got to know him. He wasn't used to people calling his bluffs and recognizing his tells. The less other people thought of him, the more advantage he had: that was just how he had gone through life.
But certainly it wasn't like that with friends? With comrades in arms? Surely he could drop the act in front of them and admit that he wanted nothing more than to simply curl up and die only he was too bloody scared of dying?
No, Gwaine decided. It was because he cared about them that the act had to stay up. He couldn't have them worrying about him. Especially not Merlin, who had too much resting on him already, more than anyone knew. Especially not Arthur, who had a kingdom to run and men to think about. Especially not Leon, who was balding, poor darling. Especially not Percival, who was like a brother to Gwaine, nor Lancelot, who was way too empathic for his own good. He couldn't let them worry about him. He wasn't worth it. He loved them too damn much.
And anyway, he was Gwaine! He could bloody well take care of himself! When people worried about him, it was usually that he'd had too much to drink and maybe wouldn't get home all right. Certainly not—
With an effort, Gwaine drew himself back out of his musings. "Yeah," he ground out.
Leon stepped out of the trees, pleased to find Gwaine still leaning on the same tree he'd left him at. "Better?"
"Okay, let's get you back to bed before Percy gets lonely."
Gwaine snorted appreciatively, though he did strongly suspect that the extra banter and joking around was a reflexive reaction to his own response to stress. Still, it helped. So long as everyone was pretending.
He was exhausted by the time he got back to the bedroll with Percival.
"You cold or hot?" Leon asked as he settled him in.
"I don't even know," Gwaine said, staring at the ceiling. "Too tired to care."
"Fine," Leon said, pulling the blankets over Gwaine's shivering frame, though he also felt his brow and found it quite warm. "Try and rest for a few more hours. Can you do that for me, Gwaine?"
"For you, baby, anything."
Leon chuckled. "All right, I'm serious, Gwaine: sleep."
"Don't call me 'Dad.' It's weird."
Leon sighed deeply. "You're hopeless."
Gwaine closed his eyes.
Gaius was distressed, though not exactly surprised, to learn of the hunting accident.
The problem was, when you put six 18-30 year olds out in the woods, and had them going after one of the most dangerous wild beasts in existence, as a game, things were bound to go wrong.
He just hadn't expected things to go this wrong.
The snowstorm was early in the season, for one thing. It was beginning to melt in the sunshine, but still clung to shaded areas, and at any rate made the roads slick with mud.
And when one horse, not five rode through Camelot's gates, Gaius feared the worst.
Gwen met her brother on the steps of Camelot. "Elyan, where are the others? Has something happened?"
"It's Gwaine," Elyan said. "I need to speak to Gaius. Gaius!" he called as the old man tottered down the steps. "Sir Gwaine was injured by the boar we were hunting. We need you to come quickly. The King told me to bring a cart."
The court physician pressed his lips together. "Yes, we better had. We can't start out tonight, however: it's dark. We'll leave at first light. I'll make the necessary preparations."
"I'll get some men together," Elyan said.
"And get a full night's rest, Sir Elyan," Gaius ordered sternly. Elyan waved and nodded as he ran off.
Gwen clung to his cloak. "What can I do?"
"Continue to look after Camelot, my lady."
If he didn't know any better, Gaius might have said that Gwen looked like she was pouting. "I feel so helpless here."
"Helpless? Only running the kingdom by yourself?" he teased, but took her hand. "If you would like to help me in my apothecary, there are some items I need to collect in preparation for tomorrow."
Her eyes lit up. Gwen dismissed her maids and followed him to the physician's quarters.
Gwen immediately started in making bandages—she appeared to enjoy the rare moments when she had the chance to perform manual tasks—while Gaius got his kit together. Since he would most likely be treating Gwaine in the field, Gaius brought most of his potions along with: something for infection (boar tusks were among the worst), something to help blood coagulation (although if that was a problem by the time he got there, Gwaine probably wouldn't be in need of his aid any longer), something to dull the pain, and, just to be safe, something to knock him out completely. The few times he had ever treated Gwaine for injuries, he had not been impressed by the young man's disdain for doctor's orders as much as for any other kind of orders.
"Do you think he'll be all right, Gaius?" Gwen asked, startling him out of his thoughts so that he upset a few tiny bottles. "Oh! Sorry!"
"It's quite all right." Gaius said, righting the bottles. "I'm sure Sir Gwaine is…well, I haven't gotten a great deal to go on, but it's just as likely any wounds are insignificant, only preventing him from riding."
"And…if it's not?"
"Then we shall see," Gaius finished noncommittally.
"I wish I could go with you," Gwen whispered.
"As do I, my dear, but you are far more necessary here."
She pursed her lips. "Perhaps I could leave my brother in charge instead?"
The sound of their laughter echoed loudly in the tiny workshop.
When Leon roused him from sleep, Merlin wasted no time in bolting to Gwaine's side.
The first thing Merlin noticed was the fever. Though Gwaine was very warm to the touch, he was shivering since Percival had left his side to help with striking camp. He looked even more pale than he had been last night, his skin bordering on a gray pallor.
Arthur stood behind him, silent for a long time. "Should we wake him for breakfast?"
Merlin shook his head. "I…think sleep's the best thing for him now." Merlin lifted the blankets tentatively, but Gwaine groaned and shifted, and he dropped the blankets back. But he didn't actually need to see the wound to be sure. "The wound's gotten infected," he breathed, the curse on himself going unspoken. "There's nothing more I can do for him, Arthur," he said, quietly desperate, looking up at his king with wet eyes.
Arthur set his jaw and put his hand on Merlin's shoulder. "You've done admirably, Merlin. It's up to us now, to get him to Gaius. And," he added after a moment, "it's up to him," he said, nodding at the sleeping knight.
Right on cue, as if he knew he was being talked about, Gwaine stirred and blinked. His eyes had trouble focusing, but eventually they found his king and his friend. He gave a salutatory grunt.
"Morning, sunshine," Merlin forced himself to sound cheerful. "You with us, Gwaine?" Because as much as he knew Gwaine needed the rest, Merlin would give anything to hear the knight's inane babbling if it meant he was still okay.
Gwaine nodded lethargically, grumpy at himself that he couldn't focus. Then again, Gwaine didn't usually do mornings well, so they were still okay. He tried moving. He wasn't sure what he tried moving, but it didn't work. At all. Why was he so tired?
"Thirsty," he croaked.
Before he could convince his body it would be cool to sit up and drink, a hand was cradling the back of his head and water was at his lips. Glorious, clean-tasting water, so heavenly that Gwaine forgot about taking the water with his own hands of his own volition. He choked a bit when he realized, and, "Easy!" Merlin said, taking the water away.
The jolt of the cough was nauseating, so Gwaine lay back, focusing his energy on not throwing up again. He was too warm. And too cold, at the same time. So unfair.
The silence was deafening, though, and that was definitely the worst part.
"There better be a really good party at the other end of this hangover," he said. It wasn't much, but it was an effort. "What'd I miss?"
"Aside from Arthur snoring?" Merlin grinned, also making an effort.
"I do not snore!" Arthur insisted.
Gwaine chuckled while the other knights guffawed, though he also winced, and before the end he had quite forgotten what had been so funny. Christ, he was tired. And now his stomach really hurt. Gwaine raised a heavy hand to his own forehead, but Merlin recaptured it and put it back down. Gwaine didn't fight him. Was he really that out of it? He'd have to try harder, or they'd get suspicious.
As it happened, Gwaine slept most of the day.
Problem whatever-the-hell-number-he-was-on-now was that Gwaine was an all-or-nothing kind of guy. He was a lover and a fighter. He either loved unconditionally or hated completely. He was either laid-back and carefree, or neurotic and restless.
And he was either totally fine and doing well and joking and laughing and putting on his famous act, or he was flat on his arse with hardly the strength to breathe.
Gwaine tried. Really he did. But he couldn't stay awake long, and he didn't make sense when he was awake. Gwaine didn't give up, though. Never give up. No, he was still trying—trying so hard to keep it together, just to remain conscious for five minutes at a stretch and answer the occasional question, crack the odd joke—and was simply failing. That was worse than giving up.
And it had the others worried sick.
"Somebody say something," Arthur demanded, after two hours of trudging through the mud in an awkward silence. He wasn't sure whether the silence had actually gotten to him, or whether he was doing this for Gwaine, providing the background noise the wounded knight so clearly constantly craved.
Lancelot chuckled, glancing sidelong at his king, though he also glanced back at Gwaine. "So you'd prefer Gwaine's chatter then? I bet he'd love to hear you admit that." He might have been hoping to get a reaction from the sleeping knight on the litter between them, but Gwaine slept like one dead.
"I would prefer even Merlin's chatter at this point," Arthur sulked.
"Well, I can tell you all about how generally clever I think you lot are for thinking that poking wild animals with sticks was good fun?" Merlin grumbled, his sarcasm apparent.
"Come now, Merlin," Leon mock-scolded, "no point in getting nasty."
There was nothing else to say, though, and they were all too preoccupied with worry and not slipping in the mud to think of how to pick the conversation up again, so it died.
All their attentions were roused, then, by a soft noise amongst the silence of boots sloshing through mud and crunching the occasional patch of snow.
Merlin noticed it first. The only thing keeping him from rushing to his patient's side were the reins of the six horses he held in his hand. Gwaine appeared to be trying to talk, though it came out mostly as moans and whimpers, and was struggling in earnest to do…something. Sit up, perhaps? Merlin couldn't be sure, for his movements were weak and uncoordinated. Merlin drew as near as he could, slowing the procession.
Gwaine's eyes were closed, but the lids were fluttering. He was literally dripping with sweat, and he was shifting under the blankets and kind of…whimpering, in pain or fear. Percival and Leon, in the back with a good view of what was going on, fixed their eyes on him, looking uncomfortable and entirely at a loss about what to do.
"Gwaine?" Merlin whispered, gently. "Gwaine, you've got to lie still. What's wrong?" Lancelot and Arthur glanced back, but Gwaine settled a bit, then, so they again looked back at the way they were going.
Gwaine frowned, blinked his eyes open. "Stuck," he said, forlornly. If he didn't know any better, Merlin might have thought Gwaine was asking for help.
"No, Gwaine, you're all right. Go back to sleep," Merlin encouraged.
He noticed too late that Gwaine's eyes were wrong.
"No!" Gwaine cried, and, with a sudden strength that surprised everyone, he sat up. "Lemme go!" he cried, thrashing wildly, shoving blankets off of him, and toppled.
The forest exploded into cries and shouts and commotion. Merlin dropped the horses' reins and lunged, but too late. Leon and Percival tried to lower Gwaine to the ground before he fell, but Arthur noticed too slow, and Lancelot in his panic let the litter down too fast, so Gwaine fell out of the litter to the icy ground.
Something snapped audibly.
Hoping that wasn't what he thought it was, Merlin rushed forward to Gwaine, but the knight was struggling and fighting as one fey, with a power they'd thought he'd long expended. Percival dropped to his knees in the mud and took hold of him, wrapping his arms around Gwaine's chest, pinning him, and Lancelot was sitting on his legs as he continued to struggle and fight them violently as if he felt no pain and in spite of being so sick.
"What's going on?" Arthur demanded, not helping the situation by getting angry.
"I don't know! He was just sleeping and—then he wasn't!" Merlin said, trying to see into Gwaine's eyes, trying to determine what was wrong.
Percival could feel Gwaine's heart pounding hard against his own chest, and held him as tight as he dared as the smaller, but hardly weaker, knight continued to struggle and fight. Gwaine smelled strongly of blood and sweat. The noises he made were mostly incoherent, but for the most part he seemed to think he was trapped in the clutches of an enemy. He must have been delirious, or dreaming, because he didn't react to any of their voices or touches.
And Gwaine's eyes definitely weren't right. "I think it's a dream, or the fever. I don't think he's awake," Merlin murmured, touching Gwaine's cheek only to have him jerk his head back, nearly clipping Percival in the jaw.
"Gwaine," Merlin said sternly, taking Gwaine's head in his hands. "Gwaine!" he shook him gently, but the brown eyes wandered, unfocused, seeing threats that weren't there. "You've got to wake up, Gwaine!" Merlin slapped his face—more of a pat, really—but it did no good. "Gwaine, please," he begged, the tears that sprung to his eyes unintentional. "Gwaine, please wake up. I swear you're safe. It's me, Merlin, I'm right here…"
"M'ln?" Gwaine jerked, shoving back against Percival. "Merlin, there's—you've got to get away…"
"No, Gwaine," Merlin said, assuming a borderline-Dragonlord voice. "Gwaine, I'm right here. I'm safe, and I've got you, and you're safe. Percival's here, and Lancelot, and Sir Leon, and Arthur. We're all here, okay? Can you wake up for me? Gwaine, look at me." Merlin shook him roughly, and Gwaine started as if awakened from a deep sleep.
His eyes wobbled, then focused.
"Merlin?" he asked. Then Gwaine shivered, violently, as if shaking off a bad dream, and blinked around at everyone, now making eye contact. "Where…what…" He blinked again, shifted his hand. "Ow."
Everyone was staring at him. Why was he panting? Why did his wrist hurt?
Arthur rolled his eyes and growled, turning away before he got angry with Gwaine for something that wasn't his fault like scaring him nearly to death.
"You had a bad dream, or something," Merlin explained.
Gwaine laughed. "What, me? Perce, let me go, I can hardly breathe—"
"Oh. Sorry. It's just, you—"
"Ow. Seriously, what happened to my…hand…why am I on…the…ground?" Realization began to dawn even as he said it.
"It's all right, Gwaine," Merlin said, sounding way too patient for his liking and rubbing his arm like he would stroke a skittish horse. "You just sort of thrashed around in your sleep, let me see your hand." Gently, Merlin took the limb which Gwaine relinquished, felt it gently in between Gwaine's hisses of pain. "I don't think it's broken. Not badly, anyway, I'll just wrap it. Can we get him back onto the litter?" Merlin asked. Immediately Lancelot and Percival lifted him back to where he was supposed to be, though Percival remained settled behind him, propping Gwaine sitting up against his chest. No one seemed to care that they were still covered in mud. "You're fever's not helping," Merlin went on. "How are you feeling?"
"…Like I broke my hand?"
Merlin sighed. The problem with Gwaine was that he really was a terrible patient. He went about checking on Gwaine's hand and making sure he hadn't damaged anything else, because Gwaine was apparently the least reliable source regarding his own wellbeing.
"Dammit," Gwaine huffed as Merlin wrapped his wrist with the last of the bandages.
"What?" Merlin asked worriedly.
"That's my wanking hand," Gwaine pouted, and Percival snorted and shook his head, and Merlin snapped his head up to see Gwaine winking playfully and laughed. Gwaine joined him, but laughing hurt. And now his hand really hurt. All because…
"So, w-wait, I did what exactly just now?" He looked flushed, and Merlin wondered if he was more embarrassed or more fevered at this point.
"It's all right, Gwaine, forget about it. Just scared us, that's all."
"I…must have been—been really out of it. Sorry—"
Arthur's voice boomed loudly, and everyone looked up. Sure enough, there was a cart in the distance, flanked by a good troop of horse in Camelot livery.
"Looks like our rescue party is here!"
"Super," Gwaine said, and knew no more.
Problem fifty-nine: apparently, Gwaine would sleep when he was dead, and not a moment before.
They had barely gotten him settled into the cart, and Gaius had just begun assessing the damage, when Gwaine, after dropping unconscious and without hardly a moment's pause to regain his strength, grew restless once again—
Dreaming. Hallucinating. Remembering.
"You go on to bed now, boy, me and your mother have things to do…"
Anna didn't look happy. Gwaine, at the tender age of nine, didn't know what 'things' were, but he didn't like the sound of them.
"Gwaine, go to bed, sweetheart. Mummy's—"
"Not til he leaves! I don't want him here, he's not my dad!"
Gwaine hadn't understood then why his mother had married the mean old man. He suspected then that she had done it so Gwaine would grow up and leave the house sooner. He later learned that Lamorak had money and title, and could offer Anna and the young Gwaine protection after the death of her husband, Loth. But by the time he realized that, it was too late. And the man, though noble by birth, hardly behaved so.
"Get out of here, runt!"
"No! You leave my mother alone!" Gwaine shouted.
There was a chorus of shouts and curses as Gwaine lunged upright, shoving Gaius back. The old man stumbled, but Arthur caught him, unhurt, while Percival and Leon rushed in to calm Gwaine.
"Easy, easy, son," Leon was saying, as he and Percival gripped Gwaine by the shoulders and, gentle but unyielding, guided him back down. Gwaine whimpered in frustration but not defeat, his eyes open but unseeing.
The man lifted him up like he was nothing, carrying him, kicking and screaming and crying, to his own small, windowless room.
"He's just a boy," his mother had protested, and the man's hand lashed out like the sting of a snake, striking her full in the face so that she fell back.
"I'll kill you!" Gwaine was suddenly incensed. Lancelot rushed in now to help, and Elyan, to try to hold him down. Gwaine was fighting like a rabid animal—and, somehow, shockingly, against them all, winning.
"Gwaine, wake up!"
"Stop it, mate, you're scaring us!"
"Gaius, what's going on? He can't be dreaming this, can he?"
"Easy, son, you're all right! Stop squirming!"
"I'll kill you if you touch her again!"
The man didn't even dignify the young boy's threat with comment. That was the first time in his life Gwaine had ever made such a threat, and the first time he had made good on it. Gwaine did not boast: he guaranteed. It was the first of many such guarantees, for with this man's blood on his hands he would flee, an outlaw, alone. So to remain.
There was, among the scuffling and the shouting as they tried to hold Gwaine down, the sliding sound of weapon leaving sheath. A moment of confused panic—who had drawn a weapon? who would draw a weapon?—and then a cry of pain. No one knew whose knife Gwaine had gotten a hold of, and Gwaine certainly didn't know, he saw only victory at the flash of steel and blood.
"Agh!" Percival leapt back and let go, holding the fresh wound on his arm, and, more confused than scared, and having lost their strongest asset, the others also let go. It reminded them, strangely, of the time when Leon had dropped his knife while sharpening it, and while most of them had taken the instinctive and wise step back to avoid the falling missile, Gwaine had been the only one whose instinct had told him to try to catch it (he had missed, slicing his thumb open, and they had laughed at him). This was like that: the others too smart, Gwaine alone.
Alone. Not trapped. No one holding him down anymore.
Freedom achieved, Gwaine had only one goal in mind:
Merlin was sick of this.
What had, for the past two days, made his heart hurt so much was now making him feel ill, and also very, very angry.
He was sick of watching his friends in anguish. He was sick of Gwaine's pig-headed, machismo stubbornness in refusing to lie down and give up the way normal people did. He was sick of seeing Arthur look lost. And he was sick of seeing Gwaine look so haunted.
Merlin's eyes flashed gold—he was unafraid of anyone seeing him or even hearing him, as their focus was clearly elsewhere—and Gwaine, though he made it free of the cart, slipped in the mud and went down hard, right behind the cart. Merlin wasn't even sorry. (Okay, he was massively sorry, later, but right now he was too angry to care.) He scanned Gaius' kit for the potion that was strong enough to knock out a horse, and snatched it up. Gwaine, in that second, had rolled, floundered, tried to get up, but Merlin was on him in an instant. He had been the only one able to get him to snap out of his delirium before, and he was going to be that same one now, or else he was going to hit the dumb oaf with a rock.
The others, perhaps sensing Merlin's errand, or themselves still at a loss as to what to do, let him.
The first thing Merlin noticed was that even covered in mud as Gwaine was, wearing only trousers, unprotected by blankets, he was burning, his fever at a dangerous level. His eyes were wrong again: unfocused and bleary. His breathing was very labored. He smelled awful—like sweat and blood—but also a sickly-sweet odor that, if Merlin thought about it, smelled like something dead—though he definitely did not think about it.
"Gwaine. Wake. Up."
The Dragonlord voice again. The strong, commanding voice that might have had everyone wondering a bit at him if their thoughts had not been so otherwise preoccupied. The voice that you listened to if only because it was so different from its owner's normal tone.
It shook Gwaine a bit, or else here his strength gave out. He had lost the knife in the fall—it had skidded out of his hand—and Gwaine now focused on it, as if willing it to return to him or planning to lunge for it.
"You don't need that, Gwaine," Merlin anticipated, his voice warning. "It's done."
Gwaine looked around, searching for someone he thought he had just seen. "Where's my—" he stopped, flushed red in embarrassment, and tears welled up in his eyes: he couldn't say it. He looked so vulnerable Merlin thought he felt his heart break. Gwaine shook his head. "No, she's…she's gone." He blinked. Merlin steadied him, for Gwaine's face paled and he wobbled. A few tears fell.
"Easy, Gwaine," Merlin whispered.
Gwaine blinked again, seemed to understand himself a bit more. "I'm sorry," he blurted out. "Tell them I'm sorry." He looked at Merlin. "Tell them all that I'm s-sorry." His muscles gave, and he toppled, then, into Merlin's waiting arms.
Gwaine was heavy, but Merlin held him tight, though Gwaine's skin was so hot it was actually uncomfortable to hold him. "I need you to drink this, Gwaine," Merlin said, taking advantage of Gwaine's docility and holding the potion to his lips without waiting for an answer.
Gwaine seemed to suspect what this was, and "Please don't make me go to bed now," he whined, sounding more like a scared little boy than a knight, but he drank the potion. His muscles twitched faintly, still wanting a fight that the rest of him had given up on.
"It's all right," Merlin soothed.
Gwaine began to pant, his eyelids fighting sleep, voice beginning to panic. "Please," he said. "Don't want to see her—hurts—"
"You won't dream," Merlin said, hoping that was right, was what Gwaine needed to hear. There were about seventeen thousand problems with this, but he ignored them all in favor of getting Gwaine to rest voluntarily.
Gwaine froze at this, unbelieving: he wasn't sure how Merlin could make such a claim, but he clung to it. No dreams. That was good.
When Gwaine's head fell against Merlin's shoulder, he was sleeping like the dead.
"Are you all right?" Merlin asked Percival as they hoisted Gwaine back into the cart.
"What?" Percival seemed distracted, but at Merlin's prompt, checked the cut on his arm, tied in a hasty bandage. "Oh. Just a scratch. Gaius said it's fine."
"Sire," Gaius said. Arthur stood from where he crouched in the mud, clutching something in his hand. "Do you think you and your knights could give us a few minutes of privacy? We will be ready to move within the hour."
Arthur nodded. "Absolutely. What do you need from us?"
"Just space, if you please, sire."
Arthur looked relieved. "Of course. We'll just go…do…" he trailed off: it didn't matter what. They needed space as much as Gaius did.
When the physician and Merlin were quite alone with the unconscious Gwaine, Merlin burst into tears. Gaius held him and shushed him. "You've done well, Merlin," he said, "you've done well."
"It's my fault he got so sick, Gaius!" Merlin was shaking as the terror and adrenaline of a moment ago wore off. "Well, and his fault, the blockhead. It's not even normal, the way he—"
"Anything about him?" Gaius supplied, and Merlin laughed a bit, wiping at his eyes. He let Merlin compose himself before getting down to business: "Tell me what you've done for him."
"Not much," Merlin said, as Gaius took a pair of scissors and cut the knight's few remaining clothes off of his body, caked in mud and blood as they were. "We didn't have any supplies, and no herbs to be found. I got the wounds as clean as I could but—boar tusks. Do you think they're poisoned?"
"Might as well be," Gaius said. "Such an injury is a particularly nasty one to sustain."
Merlin nodded. "He said—I mean, we never know, it's Gwaine—but he said he'd been through this before. I didn't know what he meant."
Gaius pointed to a set of white scars high up on Gwaine's leg. They looked like the younger brothers of the wounds in Gwaine's stomach. Merlin gulped. Actually, now that Gwaine was lying unmoving and naked before them—which was awkward, and Merlin tried not to stare—Merlin noticed that his friend had a lot of scars. Deep ones, too, many quite large, and others of various shapes and sizes. It was becoming more and more obvious that what Gwaine hadn't been through would probably be a much shorter list.
"And—and he just now broke his wrist, I think. I mean, just before you came. He was pretty out of it. I don't—I don't know where he thought he was, but it wasn't here."
Gaius was checking the bandages around his middle, now. "Perhaps you should ask him about it, later?"
"Ha." Getting useful information out of Gwaine was a science he hadn't mastered yet. If Gwaine was drunk, that helped, or if Merlin also opened up. Gwaine may have liked talking, but he didn't like talking. He loved to talk about himself, but it was always superficial: conquests of barmaids, how wonderful his hair was, how annoying Lancelot was; never about his thoughts or his problems, and certainly not his past.
Which, fair enough, Merlin had his own secrets. But still.
Merlin watched Gaius' face as he unwrapped the bandages: Gaius knew he was watching him, so he schooled his features into a mask of neutrality. "And you tried magic?" he asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
Merlin was not going to cry again, but, "Yes," he squeaked. "It didn't work—no surprise." He groaned in frustration. "Healing spells are hard."
"I know, Merlin," Gaius said. "I have a salve which will bring the swelling down and, I think, reduce some of the infection. We should get him to ingest some Aconitum Napellus and St. John's Wort when he wakes."
"How long will that draught last for?"
"A few hours. It should get us back to Camelot without incident."
"Will he be all right?"
"I certainly hope so, Merlin."
Problem two hundred and ninety-seven: Gwaine never could do anything the easy way.
He always joked about "working smarter, not harder" but Percival suspected this was only Gwaine's way of skimping on chores or training in order to get to the tavern, and he really didn't commit to this philosophy in any consistent way.
Percival walked alongside the cart, holding onto the side for guidance, because he could hardly see for tears that threatened every other minute to blur his vision. He was tired, but he didn't want to ride. He needed something to focus on, like putting one foot in front of the other. Plus, his horse was tired. They all were.
And he wanted to be near Gwaine.
When they spotted the castle in the distance, Percival breathed a sigh of relief that even then he knew was a joke—as if reaching the castle would really change anything about the situation. Against his better judgment, he glanced at Gwaine.
His eyes were open.
"H-hey, Gwaine," Percival managed after a few tries. Merlin, Lancelot, and Gaius looked at him, sharply, confused. Gwaine shouldn't be awake.
Then again, this was Gwaine.
Rulebreaking was a part of his being.
Gwaine didn't react to the sound of his voice, or to Percival touching his arm. "Gwaine, you should really go back to sleep," he encouraged.
Well, that wasn't true. Gwaine did give a soft, keening moan, almost impossible to hear.
It made Percival sick to his stomach. Merlin stepped up, now, on the other side of the cart. He touched Gwaine's pulse, felt his brow, and eased the blankets down a bit to cool him. No reaction, as if either Gwaine couldn't sense or else couldn't move. He was just staring off into space, eyes fixed but unseeing at a point somewhere past Percival's shoulder. He barely blinked. It was not quite unnatural, but it wasn't comfortable.
How many times in the past two days had Percival thought that nothing could possibly get any worse? It was so unfair.
"Is he all right, Merlin?"
Merlin took a moment before nodding. "I think so. We drugged him, so he should be really out of it." There was a long pause. Merlin tried to get a reaction by laying a hand on Gwaine's brow and pushing a damp lock of hair back, but recieved nothing. "Guess he just wants to make sure he's not missing anything, as usual," he tried, with a forced smile.
Percival also tried to smile. "Maybe you should tell him another one of your stories?"
Merlin shook his head. "Why don't you tell him one of yours?"
"Me?" Percival glanced around to be sure. "I don't have any stories!"
Then Gwaine stirred: it was hardly anything, a deep intake of breath, which shuddered his chest, and a heavy blink. His eyes were looking weary: all of him looked weary, and very weak. Perhaps the sound of voices was still something that comforted Gwaine, no matter how asleep, awake, sick or drugged he was.
"Well—" Percival stammered. He immediately began to feel self-conscious. All his funny stories involved Gwaine, were usually instigated by Gwaine. And anyway, Percival didn't like telling stories. He didn't like talking. Not when he usually had Gwaine to do all the talking for him! He was suddenly struck by a panicked image of himself ordering drinks or speaking to the court with his own words, Gwaine painfully missing, not there to do the talking for Percival so all he had to do was stand there and nod.
It was a strange experience that now Gwaine needed him to talk.
"I don't know any stories. But there was this one time in my village where the cows got out…"
Once within the gates of Camelot, Arthur gave orders: for Gaius and Merlin to be given anything they could possibly require, for the knights to get cleaned up and rested, and for the horses to be taken care of. He had something very important to deal with first, before anything else. He gave his wife a hurried kiss as she greeted him at the steps of the palace.
"I need you to help Gaius," Arthur whispered, touching her hair. "Merlin's exhausted."
"You look exhausted," she said, frowning slightly.
"I am. And I'll need you to look after me, later," he said, trying to grin, though his heart wasn't in it. "I need to see the Court Genealogist."
"What?" Gwen snorted, thinking he was joking. Then, "Now?"
"Something has come up," he said, though Arthur, too, wondered why this couldn't wait. "I'll be down to see how Gwaine's doing when I'm finished."
Gwen's brow was still knotted, but she nodded and kissed his cheek.
Arthur was still wearing his muddy, bloody armor when he threw open the library doors.
"Sire! I only just heard—is Sir Gwaine…?"
"His condition is critical, but everything that can be done is being done for him now. I assume Gaius' medical library is sufficiently extensive, but I hope you will aid him in any archival capacity should he require it."
"You have only to ask, Sire," Geoffrey of Monmouth replied, sensing that this was not why the king had come to see him.
"I thank you. Now. On an unrelated, but no less urgent, matter, I need to know to from what house this crest comes."
Arthur dropped a pendant on a chain, with a gold ring strung along it, onto Geoffrey's desk.
Geoffrey stared at it a moment.
"Might I inquire as to its owner?"
"I need you to tell me what you can about it, first."
Geoffrey nodded, took up the pendant.
"I will wait, if I may," Arthur said, remaining unmoving.
"Of course, Sire. I shall just check one or two texts to ensure my guess is correct."
Arthur nodded. The older man had scrutinized the symbol for a mere three seconds and already recognized the emblem. Which was what Arthur had expected, and why he was here:
Arthur thought he had recognized it, too.
"Ah, yes," Geoffrey said, and Arthur followed him over to another desk where a large codex lay open before him. "The house of Lucius. The two-headed eagle charged upon a Chevron is unmistakable, though the actual arms would be tinctured Or on Gules. The crescent of the pendant indicates a second son, of which I am not aware…." Geoffrey flicked through a few pages. "Lucius was, as you know, Sire, your grandfather Brutus' wayward brother. Your father wisely cut ties with his cousin Lot—not much better than his father—and, yes, here, Lucius had a second son, Loth, who, it seems, faded into obscurity, or else died young…" He paused, cast about for another book. "Unless…"
Arthur was beginning to feel very warm as an irrational wave of panic swept over him. "Unless what?"
"Ah." Locating the book, Geoffrey opened it. "Yes, there is record of a Sir Loth serving under Caerleon—" he pointed in the book to a small shield scribbled in the margins: there was no mistaking the two-headed eagle, golden, though here upon a burgundy shield, not red. "It is mentioned that he fell at the Battle of Guinnion Fort, oh, twenty-something years ago now."
Arthur nodded, realizing he was grinding his teeth, and stopped: "And did he have any offspring?"
"Well…" Geoffrey flicked through a few more pages. "I could probably find that out for you, Sire, but it will take some time pouring through records. He was married: to a Princess of Orkney, apparently, though she is not named here."
Arthur nodded. "Might there be any significance with the ring?"
Geoffrey examined the piece expertly but quickly, and shrugged. "Not that I can see. Probably a wedding band. There are no initials on the inside." He looked at Arthur and opened his mouth, but the young king looked troubled, so the Court Genealogist did not want to push him. "Shall I continue to peruse for records of any of Loth's children, Sire?"
"Yes. Send for me as soon as you find anything. Thank you," Arthur barely managed to remember to say before he took the chain up again in a fist and stalked out of the library.
You had better make it through this alive, Gwaine, Arthur vowed, in a rage of frustration with his massively pig-headed, mixed-up, hypocritical, reckless and, now, apparently, not only noble but very possibly his own blood-relation, because I might kill you myself.
It was official.
This was bad.
Merlin and Gaius had gotten the injured knight settled in the physician's quarters on the sickbed, pale and listless and, though the sleeping draught had worn off by now, absolutely still. He vacillated between being awake and asleep, or else seemed to, oppressed by fever, his eyelids working sluggishly, his fingers twitching, but no voice or touch could rouse him. All they got out of the usually active and noisy knight was the occasional tremble or heartbreaking whimper.
With some difficulty, Merlin had only barely managed to shoo the knights outside, who opted to stand in the hallway whispering quietly and looking crestfallen. No one seemed to notice or care that they were still in their hunting clothes, stained dark with Gwaine's blood.
"This is stupid," Elyan finally said, interrupting the awkward discussion about the weather (it was still raining heavily).
The knights looked at him.
"He can't do this! A hunting accident? Really? He was—" there were tears in Elyan's eyes, "you didn't see what Morgana did to him, when we were in the dungeons, he…. He was annoying as hell but he just didn't give up. He was unstoppable! And now he's—"
"He is not giving up," Leon said, as if saying so forcefully would make it true.
"I don't think it matters if he gives up or not," Lancelot whispered sadly, then straightened to attention when the Queen glided down the hall.
"Lancelot! Sir Leon, what's going on? How's Gwaine?" she said, looking around at the knights. No one could meet her eye.
"I…we do not know, your majesty," Leon managed after a moment. "Gaius and Merlin are doing everything they can."
She attempted a smile. "Then I would say he is in good hands, yes?"
"In which case I think you should all get some rest yourselves," she said, pointedly. Gwen didn't often use her commanding, queenly voice, but when she did, it tugged at a small, invisible string on each of their spines, straightening their shoulders stronger than any king ordering them into battle.
"But, my lady—" Lancelot tried, and "But, Gwen—" her brother protested, but she held up her hand.
"You have all performed admirably, getting him here. But I fear there is little more you can do at this point other than take care of yourselves. Camelot needs you to be strong now more than ever. I have had servants draw you each a bath, and warm food and clothes are waiting for you in your rooms."
It sounded like an invitation, but it wasn't. The knights bowed and left quickly.
"Percival," Gwen warned.
"Please, milady," Percival said, his voice cracking as he wrung his hands nervously and looked down at his feet. It was pitiful seeing someone so big and strong look so lost and scared. "Please, I can't leave. Can't I stay with him? Just a bit longer? Only I couldn't eat a bite now without being sick, and I know Gwaine would do the same for me, and I just remembered another story to tell him because he likes funny stories, and, and, I just can't leave him, please don't make me—"
This may in fact have been the most Gwen had ever heard Percival say to her at any one time.
She laid a hand on his arm, and he quieted immediately, blushing hot. "Sir Percival," she said, trying once more to sound stern.
"Please," he begged, his voice and manner meek.
She pressed her lips together, searching his face, though he tried his best to hide it. "All right," she said, and Percival released a huge sigh of breath she hadn't realized he had been holding. "I think you should stay—but not for too long."
She opened the door, and Percival shot to Gwaine's bedside like an arrow. Gaius and Merlin frowned at her ever-so-slightly, and she shrugged. What were they going to do, kick her out?
"What can I do to help?" she asked.
Just as Percival looked ready to nod off, having not left Gwaine's side for the rest of the day and well into the evening, Lancelot had knocked softly on the door and entered. The two knights exchanged a few quiet words, of which Gwen only heard, "I'll look after him for you," and with a sad nod, Percival stumbled out.
Although she and Gaius generally tried to be quiet, Merlin and the knights tended to speak and move quite loudly for being in the room of someone so ill. Right now Lancelot was telling Merlin how boring things would be around Camelot if not for Sir Gwaine:
"I can hardly begin to describe how depraved I find his behavior," Lancelot went on, with an odd grin on his face, "and how ignoble, and how much I think that would please him to hear me say that—but he is honorable, and one of the best men I've ever met. Why, he—"
"Sir Lancelot," she admonished, "I think you should keep your voice down."
Lancelot's mouth snapped shut, but, "No, Gwen—er, your majesty—" Merlin stammered, his face flushing, still negotiating how he was meant to talk to his friend-turned-queen, "I-it's all right. I know it makes no sense, but Gwaine seems to sleep easier when he can hear our voices…" As if to prove this point, he trailed off, plunging the room into a profound silence. Almost immediately Gwaine frowned, shifted weakly, and a small, abandoned whine crawled out of his chest, until Lancelot quickly laid a hand on his arm and, "Easy, mate, I'm still here," he whispered, glancing at Gwen.
Gwen marveled at this, and shook her head, though with what she knew of Gwaine, she really oughtn't to have been surprised. "Very well," she smiled. "I stand corrected. I apologize. Carry on."
Later that night, Elyan returned for a shift, and Lancelot traded places graciously. She sat and talked with her brother in low tones, but loud enough, telling Elyan about when she had first met Gwaine and his hopeless but endearing attempts to impress her. Gaius and Merlin bustled around making ever new and more potent draughts and salves to try against the fever—which was high and steady—and beginning to make her nervous, actually—occasionally asking her to stir or grind something, but mainly leaving her to tend Gwaine's fever the old-fashioned way, with a cloth and a bowl of water.
She didn't want to say anything, but it seemed to be doing very little good.
Merlin was beginning to be irritated by the rotating knight act, though he knew they had as much of a right and a desire to be here as he did. That day and night passed without incident, except for the regular changing of the guard. When Leon showed up, early in the morning, and he and Gwen had muscled Elyan off to bed, apparently, it was with the express purpose that Sir Leon would have room to pace.
Leon paced when he was worried.
And that got in Merlin's way, and—tonight more than any other time—on his nerves.
"Sir Leon, can't you sit down?" Merlin snapped, somewhat unintentionally, as Leon blocked his way to the herbs.
Sir Leon looked aghast: not that a servant had just shouted at him, but because he realized immediately that he was impeding progress. "Oh! Merlin, forgive me, I didn't mean to…" He sat, quickly, and folded his hands in his lap, trying to fold his lanky frame into as small an area as possible.
Merlin regretted his outburst immediately. "No, it's all right, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have shouted at you," he grumbled, going to the herbs.
Leon frowned. "No apology needed. I think we're all a little worn down. I am deeply sorry for being in your way. Is there anything I can do to help?" he was looking a little wistfully at the motionless figure of Gwaine. Gaius was bending over him now, trying to administer a new potion.
"No, thank you," Merlin said.
There was silence for a long time. Then, "You know, it took me the longest to forgive Arthur for knighting Gwaine," Leon said. "The others could be taught, the others behaved. Lancelot, he's perfect, Elyan's quick, Percival will do anything to please, but Gwaine…" he chuckled. "I wanted to kill him every other day for the first few months. He was reckless, couldn't follow orders, didn't even know how to hold a sword—and yet managed to best me in practice nine times out of ten, anyway." Leon sighed, remembering. "He certainly stirred things up a bit, made me re-assess my tactics. We're a better unit because of him."
It was also making Merlin a bit angry that they were talking about Gwaine as if he was dying.
"You know, if he can hear you, he's going to be irritated at you for talking about him in the third person," Merlin said, with a sad smile.
It was pretty clear that Gwaine wasn't hearing anything right now.
Leon blinked rapidly, also smiling. "Yes. I certainly hope he can hear me, because I'd never say this to him while he was conscious."
The door opened.
"Arthur!" Gwen said. Everyone leapt to their feet. The king looked haggard. He had cleaned and changed, and didn't look as if he had slept, and was wearing a scowl.
"I believe I told you and the knights to get some rest."
"Yes, Sire," Leon said, not wanting to argue with Arthur when he was clearly in A Mood (Merlin knew that worry generally made Arthur into more of a grouch than usual). "I was just on my way out." And Leon was gone.
The room was silent.
"How is he?" Arthur demanded.
Gaius cleared his throat. "He is very weak, Sire. The fever is proving most difficult to quell. We are doing all we can."
Merlin's heart caught in his throat.
Gaius paused. "I…could not say, Sire."
"Yes, you can, and you will." Arthur was bossy when he was worried.
Merlin felt suddenly, painfully ill. Arthur may have wanted a straight answer, but Merlin certainly didn't want to hear it. He had practically avoided talking to Gaius because of it, and had told himself the physician's scowl was deeper than usual because he was irritated at all the knights getting in his way, too.
But Merlin knew that wasn't true. He recognized his own foul mood was more a stage of grief than anything, though he hadn't had the courage to admit it to himself yet. And now, Merlin wanted to stop his ears and run out of the room before Gaius could say anything, but he found himself rooted to the floor.
It broke Gaius' heart to tell them the truth. The time Gwaine had kept him and Elyan alive in Morgana's dungeons alone would be more than enough to put him in Gaius' good graces, but if the physician was honest with himself, he had appreciated Gwaine as soon as he had met him—for being such a friend to Merlin if for no other reason. Gaius sighed deeply, and spoke slowly.
"The infection is severe, and he is very weak, Sire. If he makes it through another night, it will be a miracle. His condition has greatly worsened, and, if I didn't know any better, I'd say he doesn't seem to have any fight left. Even if he does, his fever is too high and has lasted too long. If his fever broke now, it may already have damaged his mind, and I am not sure he would ever make a full recovery."
The only sound was of Gwaine's painfully ragged breathing, and then Gwen burst into quiet tears.
Arthur shivered, releasing a breath, and slumped into the chair beside Gwaine's bed. Gwen went to him. Merlin was surprised, even alarmed, to see tears glistening on Arthur's cheeks, and he felt his own tears now only because they were dropping onto the front of his shirt, but still he couldn't move.
Arthur looked exhausted, dark circles heavy under his eyes, but he set his jaw. "It's my fault. All of it."
Gwen put her hand on his arm. "No, Arthur, you mustn't say that. He chose to go on this hunting trip with you—"
"He was injured defending me and Merlin," Arthur said. His voice, his face, all were carefully void of emotion, except for the wet streaks. "That should be me there."
"Arthur, don't, please."
He lifted his arm, slowly, hand in a fist, and when he opened it something metallic clinked down on the table by Gwaine's head. Merlin recognized it immediately: Gwaine's pendant! Merlin couldn't believe he hadn't noticed that Gwaine wasn't wearing it.
"Sir Gwaine is of noble blood," he said.
Gwen gasped. Merlin and Gaius nearly forgot to look shocked, though this was apparently enough of a revelation to impress Gwen and Arthur so that they hardly noticed.
"But why did he—?" she began. "He was always so—"
"Your guess is as good as mine," Arthur said.
There was a long pause as everyone considered this. Arthur took a deep breath, then, and went on:
"And he and I are descended of the same house."
Merlin dropped the pot he was holding, and it shattered. "WHAT?" At any other time he might have laughed to think that Gwaine and Arthur were related, but now it came as a surprise, and the laugh stuck in his throat.
"He is the grandson of my grandfather's brother. My father and his father were cousins. I have made extensive research into this, and the Court Genealogist has confirmed it." Arthur looked as stunned as they all felt. "And now, if he—" Arthur stopped, choked, and his face broke. Gwen wrapped her arms around him, but Arthur struggled on, determined to finish his speech: "If he dies, he will go not knowing how highly I thought of him. He must have known we were kin, surely, and he simply didn't want to tell me. He expected better of me, hoped I would give him equal treatment for his deeds rather than for the blood which runs in his veins. But I failed. I didn't bother trying to look past his glib façade to see the honorable man beneath. I had to wait for this even to care enough to find out his true history. And now that I know, it shouldn't change anything between us, he wouldn't want that, but it does. It does to me. It changes everything, and I am so deeply ashamed of myself for it."
Arthur wept into Gwen's arms, and she shushed him quietly. Aside from this, the room was silent.
For his part, Merlin couldn't care less if Gwaine and Arthur had been switched at birth. But Gwaine's breathing had now grown softer, weaker, and it hit Merlin like a punch in the gut. He sobbed, still just standing there, jarred by the realization that what he had been so stalwartly denying was horribly true, that Gwaine was dying. Suddenly Gaius was at his side, and he was crying into the old man's shoulder like he would never stop.
Gwaine seemed to be the only one not put out by the situation.
He didn't really understand what was going on around him. He heard snatches of voices he might have recognized, and felt the occasional touch or cool cloth—which was nice, except for the odd drop of water that trickled annoyingly down his neck and he couldn't scratch or wipe away. He didn't even understand what was going on in him for that matter—whatever was wrong with his stupid, useless body.
But he also didn't care.
If he had to go—well, there were worse ways.
He'd almost been there enough times to recognize it: the fever-dreams were memories—ordinary nightmares couldn't come up with this stuff—and the memories flirted often with death until he felt he knew it well. But at least now, at least here, he wasn't alone. There were friends here, people he trusted, even if he didn't like them seeing him weak. He wasn't outside, in the cold. Sure, he was probably going to boil instead, but that was maybe even a little bit awesome, with the emphasis on going out in a "blaze of glory." As a nice touch, he wasn't actually in much pain—he'd definitely had worse as far as pain went. Though this probably had more to do with Gaius' apothecary and how high he was flying now than anything else.
And, most importantly, Gwaine was almost, maybe, just a little bit…proud of himself. At least not mortally ashamed, in the brief respites between remember-dreaming, anyway (at which points he was very, very mortally ashamed). This was a noble death, right?. This was far more than he could ask for, really. He wasn't going to die in a drunken brawl after some guy caught him tumbling his woman, or on a battlefield in the service of whoever paid good coin being hacked to death by another man who was only there because he was paid better coin. Gwaine had generally assumed that ignominy and ignobility would be his lot in death as it was in life.
Because however much Gwaine valued and respected "nobility," he knew he was not it.
So the fact that he'd actually been doing quite well these past few years was a shocker, especially to him. He was a knight, for Christ's sake! And that no one had caught on was good. He'd hidden his sordid past well enough, his despicable soul, his tainted whatever, and had been accepted, had even been loved, here, by these innocent, wonderful people who probably couldn't fathom the things he'd seen and done—though they all had their dark sides, sure, Gwaine wasn't naïve, but they, he had to believe, had made their desperate choices in desperate circumstances, not out of an innate depravity like him—and now, at any rate, thank the maker, he was going to die before anyone found out. He had actually meant to move on earlier, pick up the vagabond lifestyle again, before anyone had a chance to discover the truth, but as usual he had been too selfish, having enjoyed this foreign experience of friendship too much to do what he should have.
This was more than he deserved: to die surrounded by friends who didn't know him enough to hate him yet, and to be missed. Gwaine was pretty sure he had never been missed before, by anyone, and it was kind of nice. It was selfish, of course—there wasn't a selfless bone in his body if Gwaine was honest with himself—but he supposed it wouldn't matter if they found out later, after he was gone, about all the horrible misery he left in his wake. That would be okay. They wouldn't miss him as much, then, and he certainly didn't want these precious people in any pain on his account.
He only wished, now that everything was in perspective and, ironically, now that it was too late, that he had somehow met Merlin and the others earlier in his life, before he had gone and done too many things he could never forgive himself for and for which they would never forgive him if they found out. Still, it had been better than nothing. Funny how it took a chance meeting with a scrawny servant and his arrogant yet good-hearted prince to show Gwaine that he did have the capacity to fight on the side of right and maybe even could become a better man.
Gwaine's final problem was that he had been wasting all his breath and time (not just since the boar incident, but his whole life, really) making stupid jokes when he could have been telling them the things he would never be caught dead saying but were important nevertheless—
You're the only nobleman I've ever met worth dying for, Arthur.
I don't know what I would have done without your friendship, Merlin.
Ah, well. He'd died for them. They had to know that.
So this seemed as good a time as any to stop fighting.
Merlin pulled out his heavy spell book and thumped it brazenly on the table in the main room with everyone there. He just didn't care at this point, and anyway was banking on Arthur and Gwen, sitting quietly at Gwaine's bedside as they were, being pretty well distracted.
Gaius raised an eyebrow at Merlin, but Merlin couldn't read what the old man was thinking.
But that was definitely his thinking-face.
Merlin had set his jaw, and was flipping through pages angrily, tearing a few slightly, but he didn't stop or slow. He was simply not going to let Gwaine die!
Gaius watched him, sadly, for a few minutes, before laying a hand over Merlin's hand. Merlin stilled, almost broke into a sob, but clenched his fist and went for the next page.
Gaius' eyes flicked to the royal couple absorbed in their patient, and, so as to remain quiet, found a scrap of paper and a stylus on which he jotted a note, sliding it over to Merlin.
What do you know of Gwaine's dreams? it said.
Merlin picked up the stylus to reply in writing. They made him violent before. I hoped they would stop. But Gaius waited. Communicating with their eyes, Merlin questioned, prompted, but Gaius only nodded at the paper again, and Merlin, frustrated, seized the writing implement again, scribbling furiously.
I think he was dreaming about his mother or something. Got angry, cut Percival, said "you leave my mother alone" and Merlin paused, stopped writing, remembering with a shudder before he continued, I had to bring him back. He was hallucinating, dreaming in the fever. He was pretty out of it. It was like he wasn't there, couldn't see us, like his mind was somewhere else. Was okay after I talked to him, shook him, made him come back.
This seemed to be enough for the old physician. He nodded, and Merlin dropped the stylus, pushed it toward Gaius, begging for a reply.
Gaius' handwriting was slow and neat: I think these dreams are breaking him. He is fighting against something in his past. Trapped between dreams and fever—he does not have the strength to fight them both. He must be drawn safely out of his dreams, or he will not recover.
Merlin figured where this was going:
Okay. What do I need to do?
Gaius produced a small, tattered notebook, one Merlin had never seen before. Merlin looked at him, sharply, questioning, wanting to blurt out a hundred questions, but, cursing Arthur's presence, he resigned himself to scribbling a hasty addition: Can you save him?
Gaius frowned as he penned his reply: I cannot, he wrote, encircling the letter "I" for emphasis before continuing But I know a spell which might.
Gaius opened the notebook. The words could hardly be read anymore, for the ink was faded and the pages yellowed, and anyway were scribbled in a mysterious shorthand in among what looked like genuinely non-magic healing recipes. He skimmed it for a few minutes before replying.
Get them out of here. The arrows Gaius drew made it clear to whom he was referring.
After Merlin read the note and nodded, Gaius gathered up the paper, closed the two spellbooks, and tossed the incriminating note in the fire. Gwen and Arthur did not even look up.
Merlin crept up behind them. "Why don't you two get some rest?" he suggested, in a whisper that he tried to make sound nonchalant. "I'll stay with him."
"No." Arthur sounded firm. "I will stay with him." The unsaid 'until' hung in the air.
"I…should stay with Arthur," Gwen added, with more trepidation, as she saw the look of intensity on Merlin's face.
Merlin immediately went for the throat.
It wasn't much of an effort to burst into a heart-wrenching sob. Gwen stood up, open-mouthed, and Arthur looked at him, surprised.
"I, just—I'm sorry, I just—been on my feet for two d-days and I just—need some time al-l-lone with him," Merlin whined, only half-feigning his distress and putting his head in his hands. Perhaps he was taking it a bit too far, because he was feeling light-headed, and at this moment of giddy hope, he decided to remember that he actually had been on his feet for two days and hadn't eaten a thing in that time. "Please, Arthur, I'm so tired…"
Arthur opened his mouth to speak, but Gwen beat him to it.
"Of course, Merlin, how selfish of us. We'll just go now. Send for us if there's any change."
Arthur quirked his eyebrow at her, but let her lead him out of the apothecary, anyway. Gwen truly was his better half.
Merlin bolted the door after them and wheeled around.
"So what is it? Is it a healing spell?" Merlin demanded immediately. He took a half-step forward and nearly toppled on his wobbling legs, but Gaius caught him.
"Careful, Merlin!" he admonished, leading him to sit at the table. "You'll need your strength if you're going to be any help to Gwaine," he said, putting a huge slice of bread and a small pot of honey in front of Merlin, who began eating like he had never tasted food in his life. "It is not quite a healing spell. It is really more of a—well—it's a sort of a—"
"Gaius!" Merlin exclaimed, banging on the table with equal parts exasperation and urgency.
"It's a dream-walking spell." Gaius frowned.
Merlin laughed. "But, Gaius, there's no such—" he began, until he saw the serious look on the physician's face, and he swallowed the mouthful of bread and the 'thing' he was going to add.
"I'm afraid there is, Merlin, and it is a very dangerous spell. I nearly lost my life once in an attempt. You are much more powerful than I ever was, though, so I hope it will be less troublesome for you, but…still, it will not be easy. It is more or less up to his dreams."
"What does that even mean?" Merlin said, gulping at the glass of milk Gaius handed him. "This isn't even a magical fever, I don't understand why—"
"I know it sounds like nothing you have ever done before, Merlin, but you must trust me," Gaius explained. "Sometimes, when an illness is this strong, fevered dreams can consume the patient, and they die from massive trauma brought on as much by the heat of the fever as by their own imagination, and even if they survive, they will often never recover. The strength of his dreams will determine whether you can draw him out of them or not,"
"So…wait, what? I'm going to go…inside Gwaine's head?"
"In a way, yes. Your mind will. You will be dream-walking inside his mind." He went on as Merlin tried to follow this. "You will need to take something with you: a token of some kind to ground Gwaine and help bring him back. If he does not come with you of his own free will, he will not come back at all."
"Look, Gaius—magic is one thing: but this? This is all…allegorical and…weird…"
"And it's our only chance," Gaius concluded.
Merlin nodded, slowly, considering his options—which were really only one option—and, draining the last of his milk, he stood up.
"Okay." Merlin cast about the room, in thought. "I'll take his pendant," he said, snatching it from the bedside table. "He always wears it, so, I don't know if—it might be enough." There was also a withered apple sitting forgotten in a wooden bowl. It didn't look exactly appetizing to Merlin, but Gwaine loved apples, and was known to eat even worm-bitten ones without a thought. "And I'll take this," he said with a chuckle. "If nothing else will lure Gwaine out, I'm sure food will do the trick," he tried, with a poor attempt at a laugh.
Gaius was mixing a potion and didn't seem to be paying Merlin any attention.
Merlin went to sit beside his friend. He was suddenly struck with a wave of intense guilt. He had told Gwaine—promised him, even—that he wouldn't dream. Gwaine actually shouldn't have dreamed (but then, neither should Morgana have dreamed with all the potions Gaius gave her, yet always did anyway) but it was clear, even worn down as he was, practically catatonic, that Gwaine was still dreaming.
And these dreams did not seem pleasant. Gwaine's eyelids fluttered faintly, his fingers twitched, and his breath hitched in gasps or muffled cries. He was physically too weak to wake, too exhausted to hold the dreams back. It was painful to watch, not least because Merlin felt so awfully guilty.
Gaius handed him a potion. It looked worse than it smelled, but that wasn't saying much. "This is it?" Merlin asked.
"Yes. And I will guide you in. You need to quell the fever, and don't let Gwaine focus on the dreams. You must get him to follow you. Beyond this I cannot help you."
Merlin absorbed the instructions, then nodded.
"Gaius, when—when you did this, before—how did it end?"
Gaius' face flashed pain. "I failed. But you will not, I hope. Now drink up, we haven't much time," he said, and as Merlin downed the foul-tasting potion, began to chant:
"Swefnu gefremminge habbaþ…"
Merlin was spinning, falling, spiraling downwards, lost, until—
He hit the ground hard, as though he had fallen off a wall flat onto his back. It was dark, here, wherever he was. And very warm. Way too uncomfortably warm.
Merlin was in Gwaine's mind. He tried to ignore how weird that was, and focused on the quest at hand.
It really was sweltering. If this was how bad Gwaine's fever felt to him, Merlin didn't really blame Gwaine for giving up the fight.
"Colian," he said, and sent a magic breeze that wasn't very effective through the—room? Could Gwaine's mind be called a room? There was a dim light from somewhere, but it wasn't enough, so Merlin added, "Leoht." A blue orb of light appeared in his hand, and at his bidding floated above his head, but it was dim and flickering, much weaker than it should have been. Exerting his magic, he tried to extend the reach of illumination, and again to cool the room, but it was like trying to move the ocean with a spoon: he was quickly exhausted and it had done very little good.
So. His magic didn't really work in here. Great.
Still, with the bit of added light, Merlin discovered that it was a room, or at least appeared that way. In fact, completely unsurprisingly, it looked like the inside of a tavern. Merlin might have laughed, if he had been here under very different circumstances. It wasn't quite recognizable as the Rising Sun, but seemed more to be an amalgamation of taverns, perhaps, even, from all over the world or wherever Gwaine had actually been. There was a blazing fire at the opposite end of the room, from whence all the heat came. The whole room was full of vague, shadowy figures drinking and carousing, but who clearly weren't quite all the way there: and while, now Merlin listened, he could barely make out the background drone of a busy pub, the figures had no faces and themselves made no noise. They were tempting company, perhaps, but not real—Merlin wondered briefly, painfully, if Gwaine went through much of his life like this, surrounded by people but always alone—just shadows. It was still uncomfortably warm and damp despite Merlin's best efforts, but other than this it appeared to be just a normal tavern.
Then Merlin saw the dreams.
They featured, here, as woven tapestries hanging on the walls. Merlin wouldn't have looked twice at them except he caught movement out of the corner of his eye
—An old man gripping a woman by the hair, shouting, her crying, while a small, dark-haired, suspiciously familiar-looking boy shoved him, and, "You leave my mother alone, you son of a bitch!" he shouted until the man backhanded him, sending the child sprawling to the ground, weeping—
Once Merlin had peered closely at one of the moving tapestries, it was too late, it had drawn him in, and then he had to look at them all, each more horrific than the last:
—The same little boy, again, taking up his father's dagger and, defending his mother, stabbing the man who dared to replace his father and hurt his mother. The boy's hands were bloody and the woman held her to him, sobbing. "You have to run, Gwaine. They'll come for you." She put something silver into his hand, embraced him and kissed him. "You have to run, my boy, and don't look back." Not for the last time, Gwaine ran—
—"Shame about the Lady Anna," a bartender was telling the same boy, who was definitely too small to be drinking that enormous pint in front of him, though whoever ran this establishment didn't seem to care, "executed for murdering her husband, she was, just last week."—
—The same boy, a little older, cutting a nobleman's purse-strings: being caught, and thrown into a black, dank dungeon—
—"My husband is too old to produce an heir," a baroness telling an older (but still young, still so young-looking) Gwaine. "But you are young, and strong," and the way she was touching him was uncomfortable to watch, "and if you can help me, I might see a way to your release from prison." As soon as they got to the bed Merlin looked away—
—"Ten gold florins to the last man standing!" a man shouts in a boxing ring at a fair, as Gwaine sizes up against a towering mountain of muscle—
—"You look like you'd be good in a fight. We're raiding the next village over, and there's good money in it. Can I buy you a drink?"—
—Gwaine coughing up blood in a forest somewhere, huddled against a tree in the dark until he woke, seeming disappointed he wasn't dead, and with shaking hands built a fire and bound up his chest wound himself—
—"I swear, mate, I didn't know she was your sister," Gwaine was telling an irate man, dodging his sloppy punches as they danced around a tavern, "there's hardly a family resemblance!" The crowd laughed as the man connected with a lucky hit, and Gwaine's eyes grew suddenly cold. "Not that I'd care if I did know!" he said, and broke a chair across the man's teeth to the roar of the crowd—
—Gwaine watching Merlin and Arthur riding into Camelot, the only place in the whole wide world he was not permitted to go, insisting to himself and his horse and the sky that he did not even care to go there, and was not alone, and going to the tavern to prove it, where, "No, I can't pay for the bloody drinks, leave me the hell alone," were Gwaine's famous last drunken words before he was beaten to a pulp and tossed out into the mud and the rain—
—"I'll love you until I die," Gwaine, with that characteristic snake-charming smile of his, was promising girl after girl after girl after girl, different every time, every single time a different girl, "or until the next one comes along," adding under his breath—
—Gwaine beating the holy hell out of Leon, and trying to do the same to Merlin and Gwen, while under the enchantment of the Lamia, over and over the scene played out like it couldn't be stopped—
—"You shall have your supper," Morgana was sneering, "if you're prepared to sing for it." The rest was a blur of violence and motion, as if time had sped up, and sound was magnified, so that Merlin heard every skull shatter and every spine snap until oceans could not wash away the blood on Gwaine's hands and you could see it in his eyes when no one was looking—
With a huge gasp like he had been trapped underwater, Merlin wrenched himself away, tears rimming his eyes. He felt ill. Dreams weren't plaguing Gwaine's rest: memories were! They were too clear and too horrible not to be. While some of them—many of them—he didn't want to know about, many others he only wished he had known of sooner. He was mad at Gwaine, though only for a moment, for keeping all of this hidden and pretending to be so blasted cheerful all the time. It made him ache.
There were, conspicuously, no happy images here. Presumably they existed—some had to exist—but there were none here. Merlin could easily believe that Gwaine had experienced, and apparently caused, his fair share of misery, but Merlin could not believe that Gwaine had no pleasant memories at all. This wasn't right.
He had to get Gwaine out of here now.
"Gwaine?" Merlin whispered, quietly searching the room full of faceless people. Was he in here somewhere? "Gwaine!" he tried a little louder, wiping the sweat out of his eyes as he moved through the crowd of ghosts.
Merlin listened, quiet. At first, nothing. Nothing over the screaming tapestries, the faraway background pub sounds and the roar of the too-warm fire in the corner.
"Isgebind," Merlin waved his hand over the fire, and the flames were soon locked in ice, fire frozen into a wild shape. The room began to cool immediately. But the ice cracked in places, just as immediately, the fire too strong to be held back for long. So it was with a renewed sense of urgency that Merlin sought Gwaine.
And Merlin found him. The knight was sitting in a corner table, clearly trying to hide from the crowd—something Gwaine never did in a tavern—and his posture was resigned and wilted—something Gwaine never was, ever. He was playing listlessly with the tankard on the table before him, staring at it, feeling the handle, not drinking, but other than this, he didn't move, except occasionally when his eyes were drawn, against his will, to the not-real-people or the tapestry-memories. He was clad in only thin breeches, though whether this was symbolic of the current vulnerable state of his mind, or he had simply taken his clothes off because of the heat in the room, Merlin couldn't tell. He was slouching, hunched-over, and looked so defeated and unlike his normal self that it made the hairs on the back of Merlin's neck stand up.
"G-Gwaine?" Merlin tried.
Gwaine didn't look at him—did not even seem to have heard him. Merlin was just about to try again when Gwaine's voice—raw-sounding, like it had either been worn out screaming or else was scratchy from disuse—answered him, "I don't care anymore," without even looking up.
"Wh-what?" Merlin's mouth flapped for a few seconds. "Gwaine! Yes you do, you have to!"
"No. I actually don't." Merlin was getting goose-bumps all over: this simply didn't sound like Gwaine! He sounded ghostly, two-dimensional, as if all the life had been sucked out of him. Gwaine laughed dryly, his tone sarcastic: "I'm going to die in a tavern drinking water," for emphasis he splashed a bit out of his tankard onto the table, which practically boiled away in the heat of the room. "I'm beyond caring."
"Gwaine, you have to snap out of it!" Merlin insisted, putting his hand on the table. "We've got to get you out of here!"
Gwaine shook his head. "I'm cashing in while I've still got something to play with: I've got a home, I've got friends—and that's a huge deal, so excuse me for quitting while I'm ahead." He stared at the tankard and shrugged. "Look, whatever: I'm sorry, okay? What more do you want? I can't make it better, it's too late. That stuff doesn't matter, now." The trying-not-to-cry-grimace on his face told Merlin that Gwaine clearly didn't believe a word he was saying—or perhaps Merlin just hoped that was what it meant. "If you just let me die, I'll take it with me to my grave."
"No, Gwaine," Merlin warned, trying to sound authoritative. "Gwaine, I'm here to help you."
Gwaine scoffed at that. A horrible thought struck Merlin—
"Gwaine, don't you recognize me?"
Gwaine looked up and fixed him with a hollow, withering stare that almost had Merlin jumping out of his skin. Merlin noticed for the first time that tears were standing out on Gwaine's cheeks, blending with the rivers of sweat that ran down his body. "You're my conscience, aren't you?" he squinted, and then shrugged, defaulting again to to not-caring. "Or something. Except I don't have one. Or didn't, have one, until—not until I met—well, for a long time, anyway. It doesn't take a genius to tell wrong from more wrong around here, though," he gestured vaguely from one tapestry to another, "so I don't even need you. Leave me." The 'leave me' rang more as a battlefield I'm-done-for than as a mere dismissal, and it made Merlin shudder.
"Gwaine—" There were so many questions Merlin wanted to ask, but there wasn't time, nor was this the place, and the questions didn't matter, anyway. He shook himself. "No, Gwaine, listen: it's me, it's Merlin. It's actually me, and I'm here to help you."
The ice holding the fireplace shattered, and the flames roared back to life.
Gwaine's transformation was total. Still broken, still lost, still fatalistic, knowing there was no hope—but now also terrified, pained, haunted. His face paled, then flashed through the hot blush of embarrassment and then settled on a green-gray anguish. His eyes grew wide, betrayed, and somehow wildly hurt. He scrambled back, knocked his tankard over, falling off the bench to the floor, before wrenching himself into a crouch that looked like he was either going to fight or flee.
"No!" he wailed, pressing himself against the wall as if hoping he could become part of it. "No, no, no, no, you can't be!" He dove under the table to get away, drawing the overturned bench up to protect him. "Oh, God, please, not you—you weren't supposed to know! You weren't supposed to see!" The walls cracked in places and the ground shook: the fire flared up, devouring more of the tavern, advancing on them. The heat was growing unbearable, was licking at the nearby tables, beginning to consume the room.
Merlin leaped back at this outburst, but now returned, shouting back, "Gwaine, it's all right! What's wrong?"
Gwaine looked around feverishly, perhaps assessing his chances of escape, and finding them slim to none, simply collapsed back against the wall, in his fortress of mead benches, breathing as heavily as a frightened rabbit. "Merlin, please, you can't be here," Gwaine pleaded, desperate, panicked, and broken all at once.
"Why, Gwaine? Why can't I be here?"
Shuddering, Gwaine turned himself toward the wall, toward the fire, panting in fear, almost begging it to consume him. "You'll hate me," he whispered. "And I don't want to die alone."
That stopped Merlin dead. In the near-silence that followed, he tried to figure out how to answer that. It took Merlin an even longer while to reconcile the new sound emanating from Gwaine with what he knew to be true of his friend, because Merlin had literally never heard such a noise before. It sounded—and looked—impossible. Sure, Gwaine was emotional—he would get all misty-eyed whenever Merlin or anyone showed him any kind of affection, it was just his way, and most people thought it was kind of endearing, actually—but this was something Merlin had assumed Gwaine was physically incapable of doing: crying openly. Bawling, really, like he would never stop, sobbing so hard Merlin wasn't sure he was breathing anymore.
Merlin was at a loss for some time as to what to do, or even what to think of this scene, which was somehow worse than all of the tapestries combined. He just stood there, unmoving, watching, not believing, letting Gwaine cry, until he shook himself sternly. "Gwaine?" he said, quietly, as tenderly as he could.
No reaction. Gwaine just went on sobbing, trying to curl in on himself.
"Gwaine…" Merlin felt tears running down his own cheeks, and without another moment's hesitation he plunged under the table after Gwaine.
Gingerly, he touched Gwaine's shuddering shoulder, and though Gwaine flinched, like a dog expecting to be beaten, he did not otherwise move. Now that Merlin was close, he could feel Gwaine's heart pounding furiously in his chest, and heard Gwaine's whispered litany: I'm sorry, don't hate me, I'm sorry, please don't leave me, I'm sorry, so sorry between the sobs.
"Gwaine, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—" Merlin tried, but that must not have been what he wanted to hear, because Gwaine only wailed louder and wept harder.
Then, "I forgive you," Merlin blurted out. It sounded stupid, though he meant it, but it was all he could think to say. But maybe, somehow, it was the only right thing to say:
The crying stopped, replaced by a gasp for air.
"You c-can't," Gwaine moaned, still begging. "Not worth it. Don't deserve it."
Merlin was getting frustrated again. "You don't deserve it? Gwaine, what do you think I'm doing here? Forgiveness isn't something you can deserve, that's not the point: it's something other people give you because you're their friend."
Gwaine looked up, met Merlin's eyes for the first time. The knight's eyes were bloodshot and puffy, though some hope had returned to them, making them shine.
"Do you think I would be here if I didn't forgive you?" Merlin added, softer, gentler. "If you weren't my friend?"
Gwaine shrugged, sniffled, wiped at his eyes and nose furiously with his arm, looking for all the world like a small boy trying to insist he wasn't crying. He seemed speechless, so Merlin spoke again, trying to make light of the situation, anything to get Gwaine to snap out of it: "Do you want to come out from underneath this table, now?"
Gwaine sniffed again, choked out a laugh as if he felt suddenly silly, and nodded. Merlin offered him a hand, and, after a painful pause, Gwaine took it. Merlin led his friend out from under the table and benches until they sat, worn out and tear-stained, on the floor in the middle of the room.
The tapestries were plain, blank, empty. The shadows had disappeared.
"Am I dreaming this?" Gwaine asked, unsteadily. His shoulders were hunched over, and he looked very tired, though not as lifeless as before.
But before Merlin could answer, the fire roared, back with a vengeance, seizing its final chance to destroy them. Gwaine cried out, whether in fear, in pain, or simply because he was startled by the sudden immediacy of their danger. It evoked a fiercely protective instinct Merlin had never really felt before toward Gwaine, and his eyes flashed gold. He formed a wall of ice before them, but it was neither as tall nor as thick as he had instructed it to be, and he found himself struggling to hold it up.
Gwaine's response surprised Merlin: "Cool!"
Merlin looked at him, in confusion and alarm, and no little stress. "That's all you can say? You find out I have magic and all you say is 'cool'?" he demanded, a little manically.
Gwaine looked offended. "Oh, I'm sorry. Were we still pretending I don't know you have magic?"
Merlin bridled. The wall of ice cracked under the pressure. "You…what?"
"I won't tell your secret if you don't tell mine," Gwaine was now grinning impishly, seemingly unaware of the danger.
"That's not funny!" Merlin cried, his magic wavering. "Wait—Gwaine, where are you going? What are you—doing?"
Merlin ducked as one of the ale barrels was launched over his head.
"No, wait, don't!" Merlin cried, bracing for a flare-up as alcohol connected with flame—
Which never came. The liquid splashed out, dousing a section of the flames and soaking the wood in…
"What a dive," Gwaine admonished, as he went down the line of ale, wine, and whiskey barrels, knocking the tops off one by one, shaking his head though he was still grinning widely. "Not a drop of alcohol in the whole damn place. Nothing to drink here but barrels and barrels of water…"
Merlin let out a huge breath of relief, returning the grin sheepishly. Of course. In Gwaine's head it would be that simple, wouldn't it?
"Ironies abound," Merlin said.
Between the two of them working, the fire was quickly reduced to smoldering ashes.
Gwaine took a deep, trembling breath as he surveyed what was left of his mind, and his grin faded, and he stumbled. Merlin gripped his arm, steadying him, as he turned to Merlin a bit sadly. "Merlin, I don't know what's going on out there, but I don't think I'll…make it," Gwaine seemed strangely calm and unafraid. "Thank you for what you've done, but…you should probably go."
"I will," Merlin said firmly. "And you're coming with me."
"But, Merlin—" Gwaine began, but Merlin cut him off.
"But nothing, Gwaine!" Merlin bellowed. "Percival's heartbroken, Arthur blames himself, Leon can't sleep, Gaius won't look me in the eye, and Gwen…" Merlin trailed off. "If you leave them like that, Gwaine, that's something I could never forgive you for! You're coming with me!"
Gwaine set his jaw and struggled with that a moment, his signature my-paradigm-is-shifting-confused-pout (usually reserved for when people like Arthur changed what he believed about nobility) on his face, then nodded.
"But how, Merlin? I don't know how to get out of here. There's no door."
Merlin turned out his pockets.
Gwaine stared at the objects Merlin presented to him. "How's a wrinkly old apple and my necklace going to help us get out of here?" he scoffed.
Merlin wavered for the first time. "Er. Gaius said we needed them to help, er, ground you? That they might make it easier to find your way back?" Feeling a little silly, Merlin hastily placed the tokens in Gwaine's hands. "Something worth living for?"
Gwaine stared at the objects in his hands for a few more seconds before throwing them to the ground and practically falling forward to envelope Merlin in a desperate, clinging hug.
"Not those things," Gwaine said simply, the strength in his grip speaking volumes about what was worth living for.
Slowly, shocked, and starting to cry again, Merlin returned the hug.
Merlin was the first to speak. "Okay. Let's go."
Gwaine hissed, suddenly, recoiling back from his friend in favor of wrapping his arms around his middle. "Agh, damn it!" he cursed, adding a few more colorful phrases as Merlin bent over him, alarmed:
"Gwaine! Gwaine, what's—"
Gwaine pulled his hand back from his belly, revealing it soaked in blood.
"Gwaine!" Merlin squeaked.
"No, no, it's okay," Gwaine said, grasping Merlin's sleeve with one hand while the other stayed around his stomach. "I think this is okay."
"How is this okay, Gwaine?"
Gwaine shrugged, though he doubled over and groaned again. "It's an improvement from not feeling anything."
Realization struck Merlin, along with a bit of panic. "This is it, then? You think we're going back?"
Gwaine nodded, in too much pain to speak.
Merlin felt himself growing dizzy. The room was spinning, he was falling, leaving as he had come. "Gwaine!" Merlin grabbed Gwaine by the face, forced him to look at him. "Gwaine, no matter what happens, don't you dare give up, you understand? I don't want to have gone to all this trouble for nothing," he added, trying to laugh, but tears sprang to his eyes instead. "Please, Gwaine, don't leave me."
Gwaine clasped Merlin's shoulder and managed a wry grin: "I wouldn't dream of it," he said, winked, and Merlin was gone.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
As soon as Merlin had closed his eyes, the magic taking him out of his own mind and into Gwaine's, the boy had gone rigid, clutching the sides of the chair and screwing his eyes shut, and just hadn't moved.
He was like this for some hours. Gaius lost exact track of time, but it was long enough for him to recall his own venture into this kind of magic—and its tragic failure—which he could just as well have done without remembering—and long enough for him to grow concerned.
Dawn was just beginning to break when Gwaine stirred.
Gaius approached the bed. He touched Merlin, who was cold and still unmoving. Gwaine whimpered and shifted, his brow creased in a deep frown.
But his brow was cooler.
This was promising! Perhaps Merlin had had some success, although Gwaine's ever more active struggles seemed to indicate he was in a great deal of pain. This made sense, as the last draught for pain had been given to him well over twelve hours ago, when he was last conscious enough to swallow a bit of liquid. Gaius quickly set about making a new one, though he had to give it up in favor of restraining Gwaine as the knight almost sat up in bed.
"There, there, now, Gwaine," he encouraged, holding Gwaine down gently at the shoulder. "It's all right."
Gwaine cried out now, and clutched at his stomach. Fearing the worst, Gaius turned down the blankets to find that one of the wounds had burst again—probably at Gwaine's eagerness to sit up—and were soaking through the bandages. He made short work of removing the old bandages and adding a poultice, noting positively that at least the blood ran clean and the worst of the infection appeared to be clearing up, but between holding Gwaine down and flashing worried glances at Merlin (who still had yet to move), the situation was becoming more than he could handle. He wondered briefly what would happen to Merlin if Gwaine died while Merlin was dreamwalking in his mind, but quickly halted this line of thought because it was doing him no good except to upset him.
But when Merlin still didn't wake, the thought kept creeping up on him.
Gaius was startled when he looked over and saw, now, that Gwaine's eyes were open. They shone glassy, and he appeared confused, was blinking rapidly. He shifted weakly, and noise still issued from somewhere deep in his chest which might have been a garbled attempt at speech.
"There you are, Gwaine," Gaius said, trying to smile, trying to pin down Gwaine's prying hands that were getting in his way. "Lie still now. How are you feeling?"
"Blech," Gwaine said, but whether that was an answer or not, Gaius couldn't tell. But the very next word out of his patient's mouth made it clear that he had reclaimed agency over his tongue: "M'rlin?"
"He's here," Gaius lied, trying to block the knight's view of the warlock, but the panic that arose in Gwaine's breast at the sight of Merlin, still unconscious, still tensed, still not actually "here," was tangible.
"Why hasn'e woke up?" he demanded, words still slurred, panic working his body as he tried, pathetically, to rise, despite Gaius' suggestions to the contrary.
"I don't know," Gaius admitted. The situation was clearly getting out of hand. "But you need to lie still before—"
With a suddenness that startled them both, Merlin was awake, gasping air like he had never tasted it before and looking around wildly. Gaius flinched, wanting to go to him but afraid to leave Gwaine, who sagged back to the pillow in relief upon seeing Merlin conscious.
"Merlin?" Gaius asked, trying to be in two places at once. "Merlin, are you all right?"
Merlin nodded, far too many times than was necessary. "Yeah…yeah'm a'right," he mumbled, shaking his head as if to rattle things back into some semblance of order. "Gwaine!" he lurched to his feet, only to collapse at the bedside, making it only half a step.
Gaius was exasperated, absolutely done dealing with stupid children trying to kill themselves, and Merlin, sensing the gravity of his tone, looked up sheepishly. "Sit! Still!" he ordered, before rounding on Gwaine. "And you, Gwaine, lie still," he demanded.
Both boys obeyed.
"Thank you," he said. "Here, Merlin, put pressure on this, just here," Gaius said, returning with more bandages. With a docile Gwaine and with Merlin's help, the redressing of the wound was done quickly. Gwaine's eyes were closing. "Wake up, Gwaine," Gaius said softly, "just a bit, here, have some water." He lifted up Gwaine's head, and trickled a bit of water to his lips until Gwaine lifted his head on his own and gulped greedily. "There we are, good lad," Gaius encouraged before laying him back flat.
It didn't look as though the knight would need the sleeping draught after all, because Gwaine was asleep within seconds.
"And as for you, young man—" Gaius took Merlin by the arm gently and stood him up.
"Nnnoooo…have to stay with…Gwaine…" he protested, but then suddenly he was in his bed, which he had almost forgotten the feel of, and was presently asleep.
Gwaine woke to a beam of sunlight in his eyes.
Gwaine was strangely okay with this. In the confusion between waking and sleeping, where he couldn't really recall where he was or why he hurt or how long he had slept or what he last remembered, the only thing he was certain of, somehow, was safety.
This was a foreign sensation, and he took the time to enjoy it. It helped that his mind was slow and tired. Even though he as yet knew nothing about his surroundings (except that sunshine and silence were involved), Gwaine knew he was safe. That was nice.
The physical sensation that accosted him most was hunger, which pained his stomach greatly. This of course triggered the question when he had eaten last, and the realization that the pain in his stomach wasn't just from hunger, and the reminder that he had almost died.
It wasn't quite silent, though, because he heard snoring. Gwaine was sure he heard it now: the sound of someone sleeping, very nearby.
He forced his eyes open, feeling as though this small movement took all his strength until he was almost ready for a nap again. Once he had blinked away most of the sweat stickiness and general sleep from his eyes, he was able to note a few things:
He was in the apothecary, still. So, not well enough to be released to his chambers yet. Perhaps he hadn't been out of it that long?
The sun was definitely shining. It was late morning. It had stopped raining.
And Merlin was sleeping at Gwaine's bedside. He was sat on the floor, half-draped over the bed near Gwaine's hip, his head and arms slumped to the side in what looked like unintended sleep. At least, he hoped Merlin was smart enough to sleep in a bed if he was tired.
Gwaine tested his arms and legs, finding himself grinning inanely at the simple pleasure of feeling all his limbs more or less intact. With an effort, he managed to lift his arm and rest his hand atop Merlin's dark hair, and patted it gently.
Maybe the weight of his own hand was too much, though—his wrist was bandaged up in something heavy, he noticed, and perhaps hard as well—because almost immediately Merlin groaned, shifted, and then his head popped upright.
"Gwaine?" Merlin said, blinking sleep rapidly from his eyes and scrabbling upright. "Gwaine, how are you feeling?" He sat on the bed and touched the side of Gwaine's face as if he didn't believe he was real. "You with me?"
"With? What? Where?" was all Gwaine's addled brain could come up with, but even this was more than his tongue could manage, and it came out garbled. "Nngh," he added, frowned, and coughed, trying to clear his throat and figure out which way his tongue went. He also tried to lift his head, but Merlin held him down.
"Easy, Gwaine, no need for heroics yet," Merlin said, gently, smiling.
Gwaine melted back into the bed, resigned. He let Merlin rearrange his limbs and didn't even mind so much when Merlin lifted his head to give him a few sips of water.
"Beginning to see—" Gwaine tried, but his voice was whisper-squeaky and uncooperative. But he tried again, coughing and lowering his register: "Beginning to see a pattern, here," he finally managed.
"What's that?" Merlin asked patiently, feeling very much as though he'd just responded, "who's there?" to a "knock-knock," and not caring, actually marveling at the giddy feeling it stirred in him if it meant that Gwaine was feeling well enough to be back to his usual tricks.
"Every time I rescue you and the Princess from certain death I end up in your bed," Gwaine winked. The wicked grin was there, if faint and sloppy. But he was clearly trying, so Merlin laughed.
"Sorry about that," he grinned.
"Y'should be," he slurred, his tongue exhausted from its previous efforts. "Dump me in—in one of the rooms above the pub next time. Sure I'd be much better looked after," Gwaine went on, his eyelids blinking closed slowly.
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Wine and women are the last things you need right now, Gwaine."
"Nahh, like mother's milk to me," Gwaine drawled out, too easily, before stopping dead, his eyes snapping open and looking at Merlin guiltily.
Merlin looked back at him, wounded, his brows knitted together. There was a time where that would have been funny. After all Merlin had seen—so it wasn't just part of the horrible dreams, then, as Gwaine had dared to hope—it was just awkward.
Gwaine frowned at the tragic look Merlin gave him. He sighed, braced himself for The Talk. "Too soon, huh?"
Merlin pouted. The awkward silence stretched. "Gwaine, why didn't you tell me?..." he began, pleading.
Gwaine fixed him with as withering of a stare as he could manage. "Don't give me that, Merlin. I didn't tell you because I don't want to talk about it. Any of it." He glared before deciding to add, "Because it hurts, okay?"
Merlin wasn't letting this one go. "But it's better now, isn't it?" he demanded, and Gwaine shut his mouth. "Now that I know? You have to deal with your past sometime, Gwaine. You don't have to hide from it anymore, none of any of it was your fault!"
Gwaine was just shaking his head, slightly, too weak to bother arguing, so Merlin stopped: Gwaine wasn't fighting him on it, but he certainly wasn't listening, either.
"We all keep secrets, Merlin," Gwaine said, after a minute, breaking the heavy silence.
Merlin stiffened. "Oh," he said, looking uncomfortable. So Gwaine did remember everything, then.
But Gwaine hadn't meant to put Merlin on the defensive.
"And that's okay," he added. "We keep secrets for reasons. And if they don't hurt anyone else, who's to say what's a good reason and a what's a bad reason?"
"But, Gwaine, I just wish you'd let me…"
"What, help?" Gwaine laughed bitterly. He actually pitied Merlin his optimism and his nobility and goodness. "Merlin, this isn't something you help. It's—" And there were the doe-eyes. Jesus H. Christ, not the doe-eyes… "Not more than you have already, anyway," Gwaine admitted in a huff, went limp again, and looked away. "I mean, you saw me at my worst and you're still looking me in the eye, and that's better for me than—"
"But, Gwaine, you can't just keep it all locked up inside and pretend it never happened!"
Gwaine raised a challenging eyebrow. I killed a man at age nine and let my mother be executed for it, the eyebrow said. I lost my virginity when I was twelve to a woman twenty years my senior, and that's not even counting prison. I have stolen, cheated, lied, and murdered my way through life. And now, here, in the first place I have ever felt safe and loved, you are one hundred percent damn right I am going to keep it all locked up inside and pretend it never happened.
I was actually really hesitant about making Gwaine into as much of an emotional cripple as I've apparently made him! BUT I feel like the character, for all his carefree appearance, really has some depth to him and is dealing with some deep wounds that never healed (little hints the show gives us, like how he drinks all the time, invents what his dad was like, does not talk about his mom, doesn't talk about his necklace, Merlin is his first/only friend, gets in bar fights everywhere he goes, has zero problem killing people for sport with his bare hands when Morgana has him fighting, etc…). He just covers these up with a really well-constructed "game-face"...and that was really what I wanted to explore with this fic.
Gwaine did a lot of sleeping the next few days. Every time he awoke, someone was sitting at his bedside, and they were usually suspiciously willing to be talkative. Like Elyan—who knew the guy even had a sense of humor? And when Gwaine woke and Leon was around, the older man usually sent him immediately back to sleep by telling him the latest news of the court, or exciting new developments in crossbow technology. So when Gwaine woke next, it was no surprise that it was to the sound of someone talking:
"With that, the King turns and goes.
The bisclavret follows him close;
It won't escape, it stays right near
Losing him is its only fear.
The King leads it back to his castle keep;
It pleases him, his delight is deep
For he's never seen such a creature—"
It didn't take him long to decide that this was Percival, and probably reading from one of Merlin's books of fairytales, judging by the slow, occasionally halting, rate. Thinking back on what he could remember from the past few days, Gwaine was pretty sure he'd never heard Percival talk so much in his life. And he wasn't complaining. Percival actually had interesting stories to tell. It even made Gwaine consider learning to shut up occasionally, because Percy could actually be hilarious. That just goes to show you: it's always the quiet ones…
"Bisclavret?" Gwaine asked.
Percival's head shot up from the book. "Gwaine!" He snapped the book shut and shifted so he was sitting closer to Gwaine, making Gwaine feel irritatingly small by his proximity. "How are you feeling?"
"The one about the werewolf?" Gwaine insisted, trying to dodge that last question. "And he bites her nose off in the end?"
It took Percival a moment. "Oh. You mean the story? I don't know, I've never read it before. You just…" Percival suddenly blushed hot, though Gwaine couldn't decide whether for his own embarrassment or for Gwaine's, and he looked at the floor. "I only…. You seem to rest easier when—when someone's talking."
It was only through sheer strength of will that Gwaine forced himself not to let a mortified blush take him over, though he began to feel hot. He was Gwaine, he didn't need anything to "rest easier:" that would be stupid, was what he wanted to say, but what actually came out was, "Thanks."
"Here, let's get you some water. Gaius said to give you water when you woke." Percival stood up, and as he moved away from where he sat protectively over Gwaine, an angry beam of morning light shot straight into Gwaine's eyes.
"Ow," Gwaine said. "What time is it? How'd you get out of practice?"
"Oh, Arthur's letting us off in shifts to sit with…" But that was maybe embarrassing, too, so Percival stopped, looking guiltily at Gwaine, anticipating his reaction. Gwaine was really down on his game to let them think he needed to be coddled like this. He had a reputation to protect, and even though it secretly warmed his heart and made him feel like a basketful of puppies inside, well, he couldn't let on. "Um. I think they just rang the bell for prime. Sun hasn't been up long."
This wasn't quite as helpful as Gwaine wanted it to be. "What day is it?"
Percival grinned fondly. "Here, drink up," he said, and Gwaine suffered himself to let Percival hold the cup of water, but damned if he wasn't going to lift his own head. "It's Saturday," Percival told him.
"Mmm," Gwaine said, lying back comfortably. Two days? "That's not so bad, actually."
Gwaine did the math. "Nine days?" he shrieked, practically sitting up.
"Easy, Gwaine," Percival insisted, holding him gently but firmly to the bed. And Gwaine couldn't argue Percival's strength at the best of times.
The door to the apothecary opened, and Lancelot smiled broadly at them. "He's awake!"
"And you can have him," Percival laughed. "He's starting to get fussy."
"Arthur wants you working on the shield with Leon," Lancelot explained, patting Percival on the shoulder.
"Right, see you in a bit, Gwaine."
"I'm apparently going to be left in this bed for all eternity, so you'll know where to find me," Gwaine grumbled.
Percival and Lancelot exchanged a sympathetic look as Gwaine shifted his legs helplessly, and then Percival was gone.
"Well, now, let's see what's in this pot here Gaius told me to feed you…" Lancelot said, going to the table and poking about.
"Feed?" Gwaine perked up immediately, trying to see what Lancelot was doing. He was suddenly accosted by hunger, despite the pain that remained in his belly, and found himself negotiating how meek and docile he was willing to be for a nice, hot bowl of thick stew. He decided he was probably willing to sell himself quite cheaply for such a thing.
Lancelot grinned, ladling something into a bowl. "Looks good." He took a few steps toward Gwaine, who tried to sit up, so he stopped. "Gwaine, you must lie still," he scolded, as if he was talking patiently to a rather slow child. "I don't want you hurting yourself just for a bowl of mash…"
"Oh, come on, Lancelot," Gwaine whined. "I've been here for nine days, I'm practically healed already and—wait, what? Mash? Mashed what?" He wrinkled up his nose.
Lancelot chuckled, setting the bowl on the table. "I'm not really sure. Here now, let's get you sat up. Easy does it, now," he said, gently helping Gwaine to sit up. Now Gwaine really felt himself blushing hot as he discovered how weak he actually was, and how much he had to rely on Lancelot to hold him, whether he wanted to or not. Lancelot fluffed some pillows behind him to prop him up, and refused to notice how weak Gwaine was, and how embarrassed he was at being weak.
Bloody bastard always being so stupidly nice and perfect…
"Okay, here we are," Lancelot said, laying the bowl on Gwaine's lap with a flourish. It was brownish in color, and smelled sickly sweet. "Can you manage the spoon left-handed?"
Gwaine nodded, having almost forgotten about his wrist. He could probably manage the spoon right-handed, thank you very much, but he figured if he tried anything "too strenuous," Lancelot would just take the food away from him. Gwaine knew this game. He hated it. And he wasn't even sure this meal was worth it. The slop looked very unappetizing.
"Go on, Gwaine. You need to get your strength back. I promise I'll get you something a little heartier next time, if you can keep this down."
"Keep it down, ha! A challenge, is it?" Gwaine's eyes sparkled a bit. He took the spoon in an awkward fist and lifted it to his mouth. His hand shook, but it was manageable. And when he tasted it—
"Oh!" he cried.
"What is it? What's wrong?" Lancelot asked, leaping to his feet.
It was an orgasm in his mouth, that was what it was!
"Apples!" Gwaine cried gleefully, diving back for another mouthful. It sort of dribbled down his beard a bit this time as his aim was slightly off, but he didn't care. His stomach rumbled approvingly. "It's mashed apples!" he explained, his mouth full. "I think with a bit of sugar and some spices. It's heavenly."
Lancelot stuck his finger in, and tasted it. "I thought you'd be disappointed."
Gwaine tried to whack Lancelot's hand with the spoon, but he was too slow. "Disappointed? I'd sell my soul for another bowl!"
"I don't think it will come to that," Lancelot chuckled. "Easy, now," he added, seeing Gwaine's hands shaking. "You're going a bit fast. You haven't eaten in nine days, Gwaine, you'd better slow—"
It was then that Gwaine's stupid body decided to betray him, just when he needed it most! He dropped the spoon, and it clattered to the floor, spilling precious apple mash across the floor. "Damn!" he said, and tried to lift the bowl directly to his mouth, but there was no way his weakened arm could manage it, even if he used both hands.
"Okay, okay, calm down," Lancelot told him as the situation seemed to be getting out of hand, laying a gentle hand on his arm and fishing for the spoon. He wiped it off on his trousers and reclaimed the bowl.
"Hey!" Gwaine practically whimpered, fully prepared to launch into begging mode and wondering how exactly one tempted a saint.
But, "Relax," Lancelot said, "I'm going to help you. There will be much less waste, I think."
Gwaine pouted, flopping back against the pillows resignedly. "You better be quick about it, Lance," he grumbled, apparently trying to reclaim some dignity and agency by acting like a spoiled child.
But Lancelot chuckled and let it slide, and actually proceeded to spoon-feed him.
"I might forgive you for impugning my masculinity like this if I get a second bowl," Gwaine said, between mouthfuls. But his eyelids—betraying him, as usual—were already drooping.
Lancelot chuckled obligingly. "Certainly, Gwaine, anything. Arthur's orders are to treat you like a king."
Just when Gwaine had thought he could not possibly be any more embarrassed, later that day Gwen had entered with two buckets full of steaming water. Of course, she was a queen now, and apparently this meant she wasn't allowed to carry things herself, but it did mean she could dismiss the maids at the door.
Gwaine, who had been dosing, opened his eyes. Merlin, who had been gathering a few medicines into a pouch, smiled. "Hello, milady!"
"Merlin, what have I told you about that?"
"Sorry, Gwen," Merlin corrected, grinning ear to ear. "You're just in time. I was just about to make the rounds for Gaius."
"I don't need to be babysat," Gwaine growled.
Merlin and Gwen chuckled knowingly, but didn't say anything.
"I'll take good care of him for you, Merlin."
"Good. Make sure he doesn't stink so bad when I get back," he laughed.
"Hey! Whose fault is that?" Gwaine demanded, now fully awake. "You just leave me here in my own filth for nine days—"
"Don't be so overdramatic," Merlin teased. "The hunting trip was nine days ago. You've only been in that bed for seven days. And we've changed the linens twice."
"Oh, that's better, is it?"
"He's quite grumpy when he's cooped up like this," Merlin explained, lowering his voice, though of course not enough that Gwaine didn't feel like he was being spoken of in the third person, which of course only aggravated him more. "But I think good behavior can be bribed with the applesauce on the table there." He pointed.
"Hey, don't tell her my weakness!"
Gwen smiled at Gwaine. "I don't think he'll give me any trouble, Merlin. Thank you."
Damn. She was right, of course.
When Merlin left and she turned down the blanket, though, Gwaine gave a weak jump. "Hey, wait! What are you doing?" he practically squeaked, like she was planning on tickling him. Unfortunately, Gwen was too pure to be stripping off his blankets and clothes for any good reason, so Gwaine immediately assumed the worst.
"Oh, hush," she said, pulling a bucket over. It smelled clean and soapy. Maybe even a little flowery. "You're only going to make this harder on yourself."
"Says the married woman trying to give me a sponge bath! If that's not cruel and unusual, I don't know what is." Gwaine said, with a shameless wink and a sleazy grin. It took Gwen a split-second before she realized her mistake.
"Gwaine…." she groaned, her usual reaction to Gwaine's cheek, though she blushed a little and shook her head as she rolled up her embroidered sleeves. "I could always fetch Gaius?"
Gwaine paled at the thought, and she laughed. Although torturous, at least this was hot. Being bathed by the physician could potentially be a lot of things, but none of them remotely hot. Gwaine shook his head at her, practically begging.
So Gwen dipped a large cloth in the water before wringing it out and smothering his face with it. He flinched back, but she had anticipated this and was holding the back of his head. Once he had determined she wasn't actually trying to kill him, only reduce him to a melted puddle of childlike security and hopefully clean him up a bit, he relaxed into it.
"Mmm," he said.
"That feels nice?"
When she took the cloth away from his face, his eyes were closed. She trailed it down to his neck and chest. "I bet it would feel nice to get your hair cleaned, but I'm afraid that will have to wait until you can take a proper bath," she said. "I've told Arthur to lend you his when you're up and about."
Gwaine wasn't listening, but was watching her listlessly. He was…kind of in love with the Queen. Not in the way Lancelot was—well, of course, he wouldn't kick her out of bed for eating toast—but really this was something more…spiritual? Pure? Maybe "devoted" was the better word. Could Gwen inspire non-sexual love even in him? If she could, Merlin clearly wasn't the only one with magic.
"Why are you doing this?" he asked. He wasn't sure why he asked it.
"Well, I can't exactly trust you with the honor of my handmaids, now, can I?"
"Nope," he giggled, as she swiped the wet cloth under his arms, which tickled. But then, "I mean, why are any of you doing this? You can't feel guilty. It's not your fault Arthur can't properly equip his hunting parties." He was trying to joke, but it wasn't working. He really needed to know.
Gwen looked at him funny, with a mixture of sadness and warmth, like she was watching a beautiful sunset. She just stared at him like that, for an uncomfortably long time, actually, before she went back to her bucket. "You know you're a lot like Arthur?" she said finally. "He's really insecure, too—"
"I'm not insecure!"
"All his life he's grown up surrounded by people who, he thinks, are forced to like him. And you, Gwaine, it's just how you are: you're a force of nature, people can't help but be taken by your charm. And like you, Arthur is very independent. Oh, he works Merlin very hard, but not nearly as hard as I've seen some royalty treat their servants. He likes to do most things himself, and he doesn't like to need help. I for one find I enjoy helping him, because he never lets anyone, so it makes me feel special. You, on the other hand, I don't think you've ever let anyone help you, ever." Her eyes bored into him, and Gwaine looked away. "So it makes me—Merlin, Percival, everyone—it makes us feel special that you let us. And I know you know people like helping their friends, so I'm not sure why you don't think it goes both ways."
Gwaine swallowed hard. This had suddenly gotten, like, serious, and he hadn't wanted that. "Not like I have much of a choice," he said, trying to chuckle. "Sort of held against my will, here: I'm not letting you do anything."
Gwen shrugged. "I don't think so. I think you'd manage to look after yourself if you had to."
God, she knew! How did she know so much?
Okay. Time to cheapen the moment. Quick.
"You know, there is something you could look after, actually…" Gwaine said huskily, with a lecherous grin as the cloth trailed down toward his groin.
Gwen looked shocked before she remembered she was talking to Gwaine and therefore nothing should ever shock her, and whacked him on the nose, making his eyes sting.
"I'm going to tell Arthur you said that!" she cried.
"Oh, please don't tell him," Gwaine said, the grin still lingering. "I'm not in any state to contend with the combined powers of the Princess' prattishness and his jealousy. I was only joking. I'll be a good boy."
Gwen laughed like she didn't believe him.
Interestingly enough, in all of this: no Arthur. Gwaine had first assumed that Kings just didn't do that sort of sit-at-bedsides thing, but then he began to take it somewhat personally that Arthur hadn't even been by to see him, until once he caught the sound of raised voices just outside the door to Gaius' apothecary—
"Merlin, you can't keep me from seeing him!" Arthur shouted. "There are one or two rather important matters that we need to discuss!"
"Sire, as assistant to the court physician, I can keep you from seeing him. He's still very weak and in no condition to discuss anything."
Gwaine wondered what on earth Arthur wanted to "discuss" with him. Did he know about—
"Merlin?" Gwaine asked as Merlin entered the room, clearly troubled that Gwaine seemed to have overheard the altercation with Arthur.
"Oh, er, hm?" Merlin asked, looking innocent—which meant he looked guilty to Gwaine, who knew all about looking innocent.
"Where's my pendant?"
"Oh. You don't have it?"
Merlin sagged. "Okay, fine. Arthur has it," he said, and braced for impact.
Gwaine was silent for a minute, as a cold something—he wasn't sure if it was fury or terror—gripped him. "So that's what he wants to talk about."
Gwaine sat up, panic stirring: "You didn't tell him anything, did you?"
"No! Oh, no, no, I never would, Gwaine. But…"
"But….I might have maybe given him the impression that you would tell him. When you were ready. When you were better."
Merlin grinned from one enormously dorky ear to the other. "I thought you'd appreciate the opportunity to do the right thing."
Gwaine raised his eyes skyward for patience and slammed his head back against the pillow. "If you weren't a sorcerer, Merlin, and if I could sit up on my own for more than, oh, ten minutes at a time, I would bloody well kick your arse."
"Thank goodness for that, then," Merlin said, still grinning, and Gwaine laughed until it hurt.
"I can walk by my damn self, Perce!" Gwaine shouted in frustration, shoving against the unyielding grip of the larger knight.
"Don't let him go, Percival," Merlin warned. Both of them were ignoring him.
"Believe me, I have no intention," Percival said. His large hand hugging the small of Gwaine's back made him feel both safer and more vulnerable at the same time. He wasn't sure whether he wanted to cling to the giant shoulder that was supporting him, or pinch it as hard as he could in an effort to make the other knight let him go. "Come on, now, Gwaine, play nice. Give yourself a break, you've been off your feet for ten days."
"That doesn't mean I've forgotten how to walk!"
"He's not saying you did," Merlin encouraged, standing a few paces ahead of him with arms outstretched, like Gwaine was a damn infant being taught to walk by hovering parents, "you're still just a little weak, that's all."
"And that's another thing! Since when do 'Gwaine' and 'weak' belong in the same sentence all the time, huh?" he asked, still straining against Percival, "You've got to stop that."
"It's no shame to admit you're a little off form after what you—whoa!"
This last shout was from Percival, as Gwaine had finally managed to tug himself free—Percival, who was not accustomed to being overcome by anyone or anything, would add this to the now growing list of times when Gwaine's physical strength really surprised him—and insistently took a few wobbling steps on his own before his knees buckled and he went down. Luckily, Percival and Merlin caught him, but Gwaine hissed sharply and sort of seized up, and it was entirely thanks to Percival's strength that Gwaine ended up in a nearby chair rather than on the floor where he was heading.
"Gwaine! Gwaine, you all right?" Merlin was kneeling in front of him, looking up into his eyes, which were unfocused, and blinking rapidly. He took Gwaine's hand to steady him, and Gwaine gripped it back tightly.
"Ow," Gwaine said, grinding his teeth, as the world spun back into place. Merlin and Percival were close. Too much crowding. Not enough crowding. He felt like he might fall. He had forgotten how much his belly actually hurt. Apparently those muscles were involved with walking. Who knew?
"Yeah, 'ow'," Merlin admonished. Merlin, who apparently knew everything, and was taking this opportunity to point that out: "What did I tell you? You're not—"
"Ah, Sir Gwaine—you're awake. Excellent."
Everyone looked up as Arthur, fake-grinning broadly, waltzed into the room. He was flanked by two servants carrying a huge stack of books and scrolls.
Gwaine felt the tiny hairs on the back of his neck standing up, and his brain cleared through the fog of pain very suddenly. Here was all that safely ignored everything coming back to get him. Merlin hadn't pressed him since he had first woken up, and Gwaine was able to continue on with mostly everyone else like things were more or less normal, but now….
A flare of panic stirred low in his gut as Arthur, between giving Percival the get-out stare and Merlin the I'll-deal-with-you-later glare, was giving Gwaine the we-need-to-talk look.
Gwaine hated that look.
"But, Sire—" Merlin began, standing up.
Percival also stood, but more like a knight called to attention, though he laid his huge hand on Gwaine's shoulder.
"I would like to speak with Sir Gwaine alone," Arthur said, the request sounding like a demand, a threat, and a promise all at once.
Merlin sent him a wistful glance. Gwaine tried to put on a brave face, but he wasn't sure he managed it.
"Arthur, please, I think—" Merlin tried, but Arthur would not be gainsaid.
"Thank you, Merlin, I will take your thoughts under advisement. Now, leave us. Both of you." He turned to the servants. "You can put those things on the table."
With a resigned sigh, Merlin collected a blanket from the bed and threw it around Gwaine's shoulders. Percival patted him on the back, and they left, followed by the servants.
Gwaine was alone with the King. Arthur was just standing there, looking all paternalistic and powerful, his arms crossed, his jaw set, just waiting. The silence dragged on, until Gwaine was desperate to fill it.
"I, um," Gwaine began, grasping at any excuse, perhaps even trying to crack a joke, "don't know how long I can keep this up, you know. I'm injured, apparently. I have a blanket!"
"Your ears and tongue are not injured, I see," Arthur said.
"I can't even walk!" he whined.
"Excellent. We might be able to get through this in one sitting without you running off." As Arthur stepped forward, Gwaine could not hide his involuntary flinch, though Arthur did not notice or pretended not to notice and sat in the chair next to him. He regarded Gwaine for some time before reaching into his pocket. "I believe this belongs to you," he said, laying the pendant and ring on the table.
After a moment's hesitation, Gwaine reached out and snatched it back. He wasn't sure whether he was glad to see it again or hated it for giving him away. He had tried to tell himself countless times before that it was just a couple pieces of metal, ties to a past he was no longer a part of, he should really get rid of it before it gave him away, but somehow he never could.
This already felt like an interrogation. And Gwaine did not want to talk.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
Arthur's question startled Gwaine. Not the question itself, which reminded him of Merlin asking him the very same thing, but how Arthur said it. He sounded quite like Merlin in this moment—and Gwaine never compared Merlin and Arthur—as though by not telling him, Gwaine had betrayed him, hurt him, only not as a king, but as a friend. He had never thought of Arthur as a friend before.
"I…" Gwaine began, determined not to let this slip-up of emotions get the better of him. "Tell you what?" he tried, innocently.
Arthur growled as he stood up, causing Gwaine to flinch again and close his eyes as Arthur stalked around the room, looking for something to punch. When he was finally a safe distance from Gwaine, he wheeled back, fixing him with blue eyes made of steel. "You have underestimated me once, Gwaine. I do not advise you to do it again."
Gwaine shifted uncomfortably under that stare, and was the first to back down. He pulled the blanket closer around him, and he could feel his heartbeat speeding up.
Arthur now went to the stacks of books, flicking through them absently, and launched into speech-mode. "Now, for some reason, I had been under the impression that by making you a Knight of Camelot I would earn your trust, just as you had earned mine."
Uh-oh. Past tense. Had trusted. Not good.
"Sire, I—" Gwaine blurted out, and Arthur paused, actually allowing him to continue. But Gwaine shook himself. Had he just called Arthur 'sire'?
"Did you have something to say?" Arthur prompted, with growing impatience.
"I…" Gwaine stopped, clamped his mouth shut, and hung his head. "No, Sire." Better to see what Arthur knew first before he blabbed.
Or plead not guilty, or whatever.
"Well, I guess it's a good thing our Court Genealogist is so good at what he does. The man should really be a historian. Because if I had waited for you to tell me, we might be here until Doomsday, Sir Gwaine. Or should that be Lord Gwaine, or even Prince Gwaine?"
Gwaine's head shot up as he looked at Arthur in alarm. So he knew…a lot.
"Quite the exciting family tree you have, not to mention your exciting personal history. I have your name on the payroll of at least half a dozen minor nobility, and yet. The firstborn son of Prince Loth and an Orkneian Princess, yet you chose to live your life as a commoner, denying your heritage—"
"Formerly, I think you'll find," Gwaine growled, finding his tongue as, for no reason at all, hearing Arthur talking about his parents boiled his blood. It brought back too many memories, too much rage at the injustice of the world, reminder why he hated…anyone with any power.
"Both houses disavowed them," he sneered. "I'm not noble, not technically. And when my father died in the service of Caerleon, he sent my mother away, too."
That gave Arthur pause. Gwaine relished in it.
"If three supposedly 'noble' households turned you out on the street, I think you'd find it a bit difficult to identify with any of them, too. Did you find that in your books? The true meaning of 'nobility'? You're damn right I'm not going to own up to any of that."
"But—" Arthur faltered. "My father—you could have been a knight years ago! Your birth was all that mattered to him!"
Gwaine laughed dryly. "You assume I wanted to work for someone like him. No offense," he added, with of course every shred of offense intended.
Arthur looked back down at the texts, partially, it seemed, to collect his wits. It was an unfortunate truth that neither man was very comfortable with talking about…well, much of anything, really. Definitely not feelings. That was what they had Merlin for, and other sensitive types such as Gwen and Gaius. Although rightfully indignant that Gwaine had been lying to him all this time, Arthur had, as a matter of fact, intended this conversation to go much smoother, more friendly and compassionate, but instead both of them had only gotten angry.
They were more alike than either cared to admit.
Which made sense, now.
Arthur broke the silence. "It says here that your mother, Anna of Orkney…"
"You don't know shite about my mother," Gwaine growled, and it was so raw and emotional Arthur couldn't help but feel he was getting somewhere with this, so he poked it:
"…was executed fifteen years ago for the murder of her husband—a second husband, it looks like: Lamorak?"
Gwaine stood up, swaying dangerously, but when Arthur reached out to steady him, he jerked back. The blanket dropped to the floor. "That's a lie! He was an abusive prick and a ravisher. It was self-defense, and I didn't know she would be killed, but if I hadn't done that then she would still—"
Arthur blinked. It was suddenly getting difficult for either of them to breathe. "You killed him?" Arthur looked down at a few more records. "Gwaine, you were nine years old." Arthur himself had killed his first man at fifteen—something he wasn't necessarily proud of, but that was war, that was his job. He felt only pity for the knight, but since Gwaine knew there was no possible way Arthur could ever feel that way toward him, he saw only reproach in the king's eyes.
And he was done pretending he didn't deserve it.
"That explains my cowardice, then, too, because I ran," Gwaine spat. He was livid. He was gripping the back of the chair for stability, but also to keep something between him and Arthur. In this moment, he saw nothing but red, old wounds now open and angry and bleeding. He hated the nobility, the fucking aristocracy, all of them, every one an inbred patrician scumbag. He hated himself for the blood that ran in his veins. He hated those papers and books—written by the nobility, favoring their petty political machinations built on lies and cruelty. He hated what they had done to his mother, to his father, to him. "And yes, I killed him, for what he did to my mother ever day for nine years. And I'd do it again. And if you hadn't executed Caerleon I would have murdered him myself if given half the chance. If you want to sit there and believe those lies—" he pointed to the stack of manuscripts and rolls, which Gwaine wanted nothing more than to rush at and tip into the fire, burning the lot, even if the exertion killed him, "that filth, then go ahead. Everyone else has. No one would dare believe any noble could do anything wrong. No one would dare write that one of you could do anything wrong."
Arthur, refusing to become angry, stepped forward, trying to be commanding as well as gentle, but Gwaine still shied away from him, like a skittish horse. Or maybe more like a wounded tiger.
"Then tell me, Gwaine," Arthur demanded. He was using his King voice. The voice that Gwaine bucked against even as he followed it into battle without a thought. He took another step forward, grasped Gwaine's arm as he was about to topple, and then the King voice, the King persona was gone. There was compassion in those eyes where Gwaine had assumed no compassion could rest, there was trust, and that bloody annoying desire to help that made him feel so uncomfortable, even a sparkle of unshed tears: "Please, Gwaine. Tell me. I want to put it to right. I trust you to tell me the truth. I will believe you."
When the hell had Arthur gotten so two-faced? And why, oh, why, did he hide this side of his personality?
So Gwaine told him. And once Gwaine started, there was no shutting him up. Arthur wanted the truth? He would get it.
But he wouldn't like it.
So Gwaine told him about his father being exiled from his kingdom because of his older brother's paranoia. He told him about the secret love of his father and mother, and that they fled Orkney when Anna discovered she was with child. He told them about his father's service under Caerleon, and Caerleon's refusal to grant the family pension when Loth died in battle. He told Arthur about that dirty rotten bastard Lamorak she married for his wealth and his protection, and how Gwaine had killed him, and how his mother had told him to run, taking the blame herself to save him. He told the King how he had stolen to survive, wandering town to town until he was caught thieving and thrown into a prison. He told how Lady Bertilak released him from prison, and how he was the actual father to the heir of the infertile Sir Bertilak. He told Arthur of his life fighting for coin at May Day celebrations, of his life as a mercenary for more warlords of negotiable virtue than he cared to name. He told Arthur of the blood on his hands, of the heartbroken maidens, of the outraged innkeepers, of the raided villages, of surviving well-deserved wounds that he had wished would just kill him outright but never did.
At some point, Arthur had made him sit down. He must have begun shivering, because Arthur replaced the blanket around his shoulders, as well.
And Arthur listened.
Gwaine choked on the last few words, when he had come to the end of his story, terror taking hold of him as he suddenly realized what he had done. He would have to leave. Arthur was going to throw him out. He didn't want to go, please, not another city he could never return to, soon there would be no cities left for him. I'm sorry, he wanted to say, as he had said to Merlin in his dream, Sorry for everything. But he couldn't say it. He couldn't beg. He was trembling violently now, but he was somehow incapable of crying, and the strain was rattling his body apart. He was sorry, but he couldn't say it. His definition of a good nobleman was one worth dying for. Not one worth crying for.
So the next words out of Arthur's mouth surprised Gwaine. "I'm sorry."
Arthur was crying. Why was he crying? Gwaine, who was used to being able to read people easily, assessing types and knowing what those around him were thinking before they thought it, could never hope to understand Arthur. Gwaine had known about Merlin's magic, his most closely-guarded secret, almost as long as he had known Merlin. But Arthur made no sense.
"Why are you crying?" Gwaine demanded. "Why are you sorry?"
And then the realization hit him:
This was the, I'm sorry, I'm going to have to let you go…
"You want me to leave," Gwaine blurted out. Arthur looked at him, sharply, mouth open in surprise, as Gwaine stood up. "What, you don't think I've heard that before? I know the signs. Look, thanks for, whatever, for believing me, I guess." All kinds of ironies were there that Gwaine could have mentioned, but he chose not to, hoping for one last night's rest in a bed and a hot meal at least before he was banished. "I just need a horse and a sword, and I—or either, really, or neither—and you'll never have a problem with me again. I can be gone by sunrise."
"You are not going anywhere," Arthur said, also standing, suddenly imposing again, his voice shaking with something like rage. He reached out to touch him, but Gwaine didn't let him, so the King clenched his hands into fists instead. "Gwaine, please believe me when I say that I am so sorry. I only wish there was more I could do for you. One thing I can do is put the record to rights. Your mother can have justice."
Gwaine's mouth flapped, but no sound came out. Arthur advanced on him again, but Gwaine was too weak, too stunned, to escape.
"Gwaine, I do not want you to leave, do you understand me?" He clasped Gwaine's shoulder, his hand warm, his grip stable. "When you are able, you will appear in court and testify, and your mother's name will be cleared. That is where we will start, anyway."
Gwaine nodded dumbly, quite torn. The world began to blur and go dark—or had it just gotten dark outside?—and he was vaguely aware of someone helping him back to bed and covering him up with a blanket. He was still shaking, shocked and awed by what had just happened, by what was going to happen. Mind. Blown. Gwaine didn't notice when Arthur left, or when Merlin came back in and tried talking to him. He couldn't hear past the ringing in his ears. His eyes couldn't focus.
His greatest desire and his greatest fear were coming together as a package deal. Lamorak and Caerleon were going to get the epitaphs they deserved. Arthur was going to clear his mother's name.
The true guilty party was going to be brought to justice.
Arthur wasn't going to banish him.
Arthur was going to execute him.
Gwaine had, he thought, actually performed more or less admirably under the circumstances. Considering his audience was Merlin, who knew him distressingly well and had almost figured out how to tell when he was lying (and therefore gave him the occasionally probing look), Gwaine had pulled it off rather well. When he had woken from his talk with Arthur where—well, he hadn't quite fainted, no, he wouldn't say that—but it was the closest he would ever admit to having come, certainly—Merlin was hovering worriedly over him, and Gwaine had had to pull it together pretty quickly before Merlin suspected anything.
Because Gwaine, who was intimately familiar with fates worse than death, knew that letting Merlin know what Arthur was going to do to him, to see that look on his face, not to mention watching him try to throw away his life to save him (which, bless him, he would do, even though Gwaine wasn't worth it)—that would truly be worse than dying. Gwaine wasn't afraid of death.
Or so he'd thought.
For the next two days, he hadn't slept. His appetite had gone. He was able to blame this a bit on the belly wounds, which were generally healing well, but some food had to be had, and he was fed more tonics than anything, which were an attempt to get him to regain an appetite he was sure he was never going to have again. Still, he ate, because Merlin and Gaius and Percival and Leon and Elyan and Lancelot and Gwen all looked like the world might end whenever he said he wasn't hungry. But it was with a strong sense of irony that he ate "to get his strength back" since he was just going to die, anyway. Everything seemed a waste: the food, the bandages, the medicines—Merlin risking his life to pull him out of that dream. He wanted to tell them not to bother, but he also didn't want them to worry.
Because on the other hand, Arthur was a good man, in spite of everything. He hadn't told anyone. He hadn't dragged him up in front of the court then and there. He was allowing him to face death like a man, letting him get his strength back. He was, Gwaine suspected, maybe even giving him a chance to run for it, if he could or wanted to. But Gwaine wouldn't. His mother was finally going to be pardoned, her ghost able to rest easy and stop haunting him. Lamorak and Caerleon were to be disgraced. And it was no secret that Gwaine had a vindictive streak: he would cut off his nose to spite his face, and do it gladly.
And it wasn't as if he didn't deserve death, for various and sundry reasons that really only began with homicide and accessory to matricide. Many, more defenseless than he, or who were not so skilled at running from their problems, had died for far lesser crimes. He was sick of living with the guilt, sick of running from it. Sick of the faces haunting him, sick of waiting for Arthur and everyone else to find out. And now he was finally doing the right thing, owning up and taking it like a man, which he ought to have done years ago, before he'd had time to royally arse up so many other lives.
He hoped the rest of the knights wouldn't hate him for what he'd done, for putting on that he was noble and honorable like they were—truly noble, not by blood, but something deeper. When the list of his crimes was read out in court he would be bringing shame on the red cloak that had come to mean so much to him, and he could only hope that they realized he hadn't meant to bring shame to them, to sully their reputation across the kingdoms. Maybe by finally facing his death as a knight should, he would help minimize the damage he'd already done. He wasn't afraid of dying—he'd faced it often enough—even wanted it more than once—and the inevitable was, if he was honest with himself, well past due. It was time he paid the piper. It wasn't the dying he was afraid of, it was the fear of…being afraid, of losing his nerve in front of everyone, of bringing yet more disgrace to his friends. Death itself was more of an irritant, really: because of course it only came to claim him now that he had found friends, love, safety, and stability—now that he had something to lose. Most of all, though, Gwaine was afraid of what his death would do to Merlin. Merlin, who for some unfathomable reason didn't hate him, who actually really truly cared about him, out of the goodness of his heart more than for anything Gwaine ever did to deserve it. A heart like that needed to be protected.
And Gwaine was going to do that if it killed him.
Now he stood with Sir Leon in an anteroom just outside the doors to the throne room, on The Big Day. The entire court was there. All the knights were there, Elyan, Lancelot, Percival, all in their finest ceremonial armor. Gwaine was conspicuously armor-free—ostensibly because he was still "too weak" to be wearing armor—but Gwaine knew that it would prove a logistic problem when he was inevitably taken to the dungeons or straight to the block. Arthur was a by the book man, though he was actually honorable about it unlike his father, but nevertheless Gwaine was sure justice would be swift.
Still, Arthur wanted him wearing the red cloak of Camelot. He liked that whole pomp and circumstance thing. But it made Gwaine feel sick wearing it. He imagined that it would be the first to go. It would serve as the symbolic stripping of his title, before he was—
Well, he hoped he wouldn't be hanged as a common criminal. That was a terrible way to go.
"I only hope I die well," Gwaine blurted out to Leon, quietly, without really meaning to.
Leon half-grinned at him. "Oh, come now, Sir Gwaine, it won't be that bad," he chuckled.
Gwaine struggled not to throw up: either Leon didn't know, or he apparently really hated Gwaine. He was pretty sure that if Arthur had briefed anyone about what the court proceedings would entail, it would be Leon. Gwaine glared up at him, trying to assess what he knew, but finally gave up: "Arthur told you what's going on?"
"Yes, more or less," Leon beamed. "You'll get what's owed you, Gwaine, I promise."
Somehow, though, Gwaine couldn't dredge up the energy to be angry, or even hurt. He deserved every bit of Leon's contempt. He began to re-think how the others would react when they knew, and braced himself for the worst.
"Well, for the record, it was an honor serving with you," Gwaine managed.
Now Leon gave him a queer look, as if trying to assess whether he was trying to be funny, and if so, how. "And with you," he said. Then, "Sir Gwaine, are you all right? You look a little…"
"I'm fine," Gwaine said hurriedly, panic flaring through him at the thought of postponing the inevitable, of prolonging the torture, of letting them see him afraid. He looked away from Leon and swallowed dryly, staring at the door.
"That's your cue," Leon said, holding the door open for him. They made it out to the hall before Gwaine stopped, gripping Leon's cloak. "Sir Gwaine? What is it?"
He had to say it, and this was going to be his only chance:
"I know I shouldn't ask any favors, Leon, but I just need you to do one thing for me." An empty, terrifying, sucking hole manifested in the center of his chest. Gwaine could think of nothing more horrible than sending his dearest friend away at the moment he needed him most, but the alternative was even worse. "If not for me, then for Merlin."
Leon looked very confused. "Anything, Sir Gwaine."
Gwaine took a deep breath, holding back the urge to scream. "You can't let Merlin see. You know what it will do to him," he said.
In a single moment, Leon's expression flicked from comfortably confused to very, very, very alarmed.
"Gwaine, no," he breathed, whining, pleading, even, but he knew it wouldn't do any good.
Sir Leon was a man who picked his battles wisely. He was a diplomat: he bent, he swayed, and he was willing to compromise heavily on quite a lot of things. He had worked for Uther long enough for this to be beaten into him. But even with Uther, every once in a while he was struck by something so completely wrong that logic, propriety, and diplomacy be damned, and he would dig his heels in and insist.
This was absolutely one of those times.
Gwaine was… Wrong? Confused? Mistaken? Ill? Mad? Gwaine had thought—had been thinking this entire time—that they would—that Arthur would—why? How did that happen?
Did it matter?
This had to stop. Stop now. This whole thing had to stop until it had been sorted out.
"Merlin?...Merlin!" Leon called, in a hoarse whisper-cry, not daring to take his eyes off of Gwaine, who, now that Leon was really looking at him and knew what to look for, appeared cagey and very pale underneath the hard-set jaw insisting he was all right when he most certainly was not.
"No, no!" Gwaine hissed. "Leon, you can't stop it now, please—you owe me that much," he tried. But before Leon could even think of how to answer that, Merlin poked his head around the door, grinning.
"Come on, Gwaine, everyone's waiting—" he started to say, but stopped dead as soon as he saw Gwaine. His eyes flicked to Leon, who hauled the scrawny servant bodily out of the throne room and shoved him at Gwaine, who startled, but they caught hold of each other, rather automatically. "What's wrong?" Merlin demanded of them both.
"Leon," Gwaine said, ignoring Merlin—he had to ignore Merlin—he would fall apart if he let Merlin in, "I know I don't deserve it, but if you ever had any scrap of respect for me, you will get Merlin out of here now. I won't be able to do this if—"
"Gwaine, I am doing this because I have every respect for you," Leon replied, before wheeling on Merlin, "Stay with him," he told the servant, ushering them back to the anteroom for privacy. Even at this distance Leon could tell that Gwaine's clenched fists were trembling, and his breath had quickened, and a public venue was not the place for this. "Stay with him," he ordered, "and do not leave. I'll be right back."
Leon marched into the throne room. A few of the minstrels started up their next song, but quickly faltered when they realized it was only him. Arthur looked confused, as did the Queen and the other knights. The court erupted into hushed whispers, as the nobles wondered what was going on. Undeterred, Sir Leon marched directly to the front of the hall, up the steps to the King's side, and, leaning down, whispered in his ear:
"I suggest you disperse the court, Sire. Sir Gwaine is not well." Arthur squinted at him, unbelieving, so Leon tried again: "He somehow is under the impression that all this is because you are going to execute him, Sire."
Arthur jerked like he had been hit. He looked to Leon briefly for confirmation, but Sir Leon had never lied to him, and he was almost never wrong. The King blinked, slightly winded, but recovered quickly and addressed the court.
"This session of the court is postponed indefinitely. I apologize for calling you here without need. Please await our pleasure," he said, more or less on automatic before nodding for his knights and his Queen to follow him out of the great hall.
"Gwaine, what on earth is wrong?" Merlin tried, rubbing his hands up and down the knight's arms. He was cool to the touch. He had never seen Gwaine's normally very expressive face schooled into such cold neutrality.
Gwaine was only shaking his head, though it blended in now with the all-over shaking. It reminded Merlin, briefly, terribly, of how he had found Gwaine after that conversation with Arthur a few days ago. Merlin had considered eavesdropping on that conversation, but had decided against it, trusting to his two friends to be mature about things, but he was cursing himself for it now. All the rage that had boiled in him at Arthur for having said anything to so distress Gwaine (which Gwaine had quickly assured him was nonsense, but, big surprise, he had been lying), was now back full force.
"I'm okay," Gwaine told him, his eyes unfocused, staring straight ahead at nothing. "I'm okay. You have to go, Merlin, please. Just tell Leon to get on with it, and I want you to leave. I'm afraid I won't be able to do this if you're there."
"Gwaine, I am not going anywhere. Look, just tell me what's wrong! What are you so afraid of?"
"Nothing!" Gwaine replied automatically, his eyes finally finding Merlin. He looked either angry or about to cry, or both. "At least—damn it, Merlin!" he screamed in frustration, "I was never afraid of death until I met you!"
But the door slamming open frightened the tears from falling, and they quickly dried up, along with Gwaine's speech, at the sight of the King stalking toward him. His body stiffened and he stood rigid, like a soldier at attention.
"I'm sorry," Gwaine whispered at Merlin, apparently having forgotten that he had already apologized and been more than forgiven for anything he could possibly have done and Merlin was actually growing tired of his needless apologies. Gwaine's eyes were fixed, warily, on King Arthur.
Merlin stepped forward, shielding Gwaine bodily from the King.
"What's going on?" he demanded.
Arthur tried to look past him at Gwaine, but Merlin didn't let him. "I was hoping you could tell me," he replied.
Part of Merlin expected Gwaine to interject at this point, but nothing was forthcoming, and that only fueled his own rage. "What have you done to him?" Merlin practically shrieked. He looked to Leon for an explanation, then back at Arthur, before rounding out the accusations with a glare at the entire room—at all of the knights and even at Gwen. "What did you say?"
"Merlin…" Gwaine groaned, finding his voice too late and feeling like his whole body was going to rattle apart in front of everyone if someone didn't put a stop to this right now. "I'm okay," he tried again, which Merlin promptly ignored.
Gwaine now realized that his failure was complete: he would die in total ignobility just as he had begun. He was a coward. If he had just kept his mouth shut and held it together, everything would soon be over, but now Arthur had dismissed the court, and he would be sent to wait in the cells while everyone talked about how he was too cowardly to face justice.
He couldn't even get death right.
"Merlin," Arthur said, trying to be patient. "I need to speak to Gwaine alone."
"Not on your life!" Merlin snapped. Gwaine's hands had reached out, clinging to him, so Merlin eased himself a little closer, ostensibly to give stability, though no one else knew how tactile of a person Gwaine was, and how much human touch comforted him. "I'm not leaving you two alone to 'talk' ever again! What did you say to him?" Merlin's glare was apparently as impressive as he hoped, because Arthur swallowed hard.
"Merlin…" Gwaine tried again, weaker.
"Are you sure we should…" Arthur began, looking around.
"Yes. This is all the 'court' we need. This is as public as it is going to get for now." No one questioned why the King's manservant was giving orders. Not when they were so bloody well sound.
Arthur nodded his consent.
Behind him, Merlin felt Gwaine shrink, defeated, against the wall, sliding down until he sat on the floor with his head buried in his hands. Merlin wheeled back around to face his charge, and crouched beside him, gripping his shoulder. Gwaine looked up at him, briefly, but the Gwaine he was greeted with reminded Merlin of the hollow, listless Gwaine of the dreamwalk. Merlin realized in this terrible, clear moment, that this empty-Gwaine had always been there—always, was in every forced smile, every sad laugh since Merlin had known him—but remained covered up, maintained, held in, forced down, except for rare moments in which Gwaine was weak or caught off-guard. It made Merlin's stomach clench, but it made his glare steely, so when Gwaine had again buried his face and Merlin sent the room another sharp look, they presently leapt to do his bidding.
There was a brief commotion as everyone got settled, gathering around the fallen knight. Someone fetched a chair for Gwen. Arthur knelt down beside them.
"Gwaine?" Merlin coaxed, gently, easing Gwaine's hands from his face. He was blushing red to his ears, clearly even in all of this anguish mortified at how he appeared in front of his friends. "Gwaine, I need you to tell me—"
But Gwaine was shaking his head, insisting on hiding his face. "Stop, stop, stop," he said, and, "I'm sorry," for good measure.
"Stop what, Gwaine?" Merlin asked.
Gwaine looked at him, suddenly, gritting his teeth, desperately trying to whisper quietly enough not to be heard by anyone but Merlin: "You have to stop—I can't keep it—if you—you mustn't let me—"
Merlin was pretty sure that what Gwaine meant by this garbled nonsense was that he didn't want to show any (further) weakness or emotion in front of the others, and that Merlin would force it out of him if he kept treating him with kindness like this.
Merlin was also pretty sure he didn't give a damn. It was Merlin's considered opinion that most of Gwaine's problems stemmed from not showing emotion—genuine emotion, not the devil-may-care-playboy emotions he played at to make himself look cool—in front of his friends. He was worse than Arthur.
"Gwaine," he said, as sternly and as gently as he could manage. "It's okay."
And there went one tear, as Gwaine fixed him with a broken, betrayed look which Merlin refused to be swayed by even as he thumbed away the tear. Gwaine's jaw was still set, stubbornly determined, but this was a start, at least.
Arthur seemed to have found his voice. "Gwaine, what—tell me what you think this was all about," he tried, adding a hurried, "please," at the behest of Merlin's sharp look.
Gwaine trembled, drawing in a shuddering breath. He couldn't draw his knees up to his chest, but he wrapped his arms around his middle. His face looked very thin and pale. He did not raise his eyes from where they were fixed on Merlin's knee. "You're going to—" but here he stopped, sniffed, reclaimed some of his virtus, and continued, forcing his voice to be steady. "My mother was executed for a crime she did not commit," he explained, carefully, for the benefit of the audience, since it was going to come out anyway. "And you were going to bring the actual perpetrator to justice. And I'm ready to die, I just—"
The pressure in the room changed at all of the loud gasps. "Gwaine!" Arthur shouted desperately, just as Merlin shouted "Arthur!" accusingly.
"I deserve death, don't I? I killed Lamorak. It is I who should have died," Gwaine went on, desperate to fill the weighty silence before anyone else could try to say the wrong thing. He had managed to pull himself away, to safely distance himself, and the words tumbled out, void of any emotion: "Instead I let her take the blame for me." As before, it was easier now that Gwaine had gotten going. "Additionally, Arthur has a list of various other crimes to which I have confessed. The only fitting punishment is death. I'm sure when you have heard the list you will agree. And I only ask that—"
"Did you tell him that?" Merlin shouted, rounding on Arthur. He wouldn't have put it past Arthur to say or heavily imply something like that just to scare Gwaine into behaving or something.
"No!" Arthur bellowed. "I certainly did not—I would not!"
Merlin wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry as he looked between the two of them, probably his two dearest friends in the entire world. "You two do speak the same language, don't you?" He looked at Arthur, for Gwaine was silent, gritting his teeth again, not daring to speak or look anyone in the eye. "Try again, Arthur."
And Arthur did: "Gwaine. This was not meant to be your trial. I did not say that. Gwaine, you—Gwaine, look at me!"
"Look at him, Gwaine," Merlin said.
Slowly, Gwaine turned his head and raised his eyes.
"Gwaine, you are not going to die."
"I have to," Gwaine whispered, shaking his head, breaking eye contact again. "My mother—my crimes—"
Arthur looked to Merlin, who was edging slightly away so that Arthur could move in closer. "He is not going to die! Translate that!" he half-joked in exasperation, as if to say See! It's not my fault he misunderstood me, I'm being as clear as I possibly can!, then he grabbed the side of Gwaine's head, forcing him to look at him. "Gwaine, no one is getting executed today—certainly not you! I had drawn up only pardons for the proceedings today. I can show them to you, Gwaine, I swear it. Pardons for every single possible transgression. What did I say wrong that you so grossly mistook me? Why can you not trust me?"
"I do trust you," Gwaine whispered, not daring to hope, convinced that this was wrong. "You'll do the right thing by punishing me," he said, trying to look away, but Arthur wouldn't let him.
"Then you do not know me very well," Arthur said, holding his gaze. And there was that shine, that too-quick blink in the King's eyes that betrayed raw emotions, and suddenly Gwaine lost it. With a shuddering sob, tears practically exploded out of Gwaine's eyes and ran down his face. But after only a second, Gwaine seemed to have realized he had sprung a leak and quickly set about damage control, halting the flow and, wrenching himself free from Arthur's grasp, wiped furiously at his face with his sleeves. Before he knew it, Gwen was on his other side, dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief and stroking his hair. This show of kindness only made it harder to control himself, and there was nowhere he could turn that wasn't surrounded on all sides by friends.
"I'm sorry," he said, wishing the earth would just swallow him up, as the tears, unbidden, continued to flow. "I'm sorry. But I thought—I just thought that—"
"Gwaine," Arthur said, in a rare moment of deep perception, "you thought you deserved death, and you thought I would give it to you. But you don't, and I won't. It is my fault that I permitted my words to be perceived so—" Arthur now reached out, tentatively, to touch Gwaine's shoulder, leery both of Gwaine's previous fear of him as well as Merlin's apparently militant defense of the knight. But the touch went unhindered. In fact, Merlin backed off, letting Arthur move in as he continued: "Gwaine, how could you possibly think I would blame you for defending your mother at age nine? How could you think I would blame you for doing what you had to in order to survive? I am enraged that the courts took Lamorak's side, and I am even more furious at Caerleon's disgraceful misconduct, though I am hardly surprised by it. Gwaine, look at me." Gwaine did. "I forgive you."
Once he was out of Gwaine's line of sight, Merlin caught Arthur's attention and brought his arms together exaggeratedly, pantomiming an embrace. "Hug him," he mouthed.
Arthur trusted Merlin's judgment on this, certainly after the apparent debacle two days ago, and pressed himself forward until he had gathered the trembling knight into his arms. At first Gwaine stiffened, jerking back with a shocked sniffle, but though this was hardly the King's medium, Arthur did not shrink back. After a long, tense pause, Gwaine finally threw his arms around the King's neck, burying his face in Arthur's shoulder and sobbing openly. Arthur felt Gwaine relax against him, and, reflecting, he was pretty sure Gwaine had never trusted him more—perhaps, had never trusted anyone more—and he thought that was a nice change, and even an honor.
They stayed like that for some time, Gwaine crying out all his fear and anxiety until he was reduced to a weeping mass of stunned relief and gratitude, fisting his hands in Arthur's cloak, clinging to the King as if for dear life.
"Thank you," he whispered, the sound almost lost in tears and Arthur's shoulder.
"You're welcome, Gwaine," Arthur finally managed, once he had his own voice under control. "Now, you translate this however you have to to get it into that thick skull of yours, because I want you to understand this: I am proud of you." Gwaine made a noise into his shoulder, and Arthur felt a new flood of tears soaking his ceremonial robes. "Most of the time, at any rate," he felt the need to add, teasing, and Gwaine hiccupped and laughed appreciatively into his shoulder. "You are, at the very least, amongst the ever-dwindling number of people related to me by blood who have not tried to kill me. In fact—"
At that, Gwaine sniffed and drew back, looking at Arthur with his signature confused-pout, though his eyes were red and puffy. "I what?"
"You know how it is," Arthur explained, "I don't exactly have much luck with my relatives—"
"No, I mean—" Gwaine sniffed and wiped at his face as if clearing the tears would help the world make more sense, "what?"
Arthur blinked, and started. "Wait, you mean you didn't know? I thought you knew!"
"Knew what?" Gwaine shouted, growing agitated again.
Merlin grinned, in on the secret.
"Yes, Arthur," Lancelot piped up. He had almost forgotten that they had an audience, and Arthur actually flushed a bit, looking around him. "Knew what?"
"Gwaine's grandfather and my grandfather were brothers. Sir Gwaine is my closest living male relative, in fact." Arthur watched Gwaine carefully to see how he was handling this. Gwaine was, in turn, staring carefully at Arthur, as if trying to determine if Arthur was just having him on. "It's true!" he insisted. "Do I need to fetch Geoffrey to show you the documents? I can't believe you didn't know!"
Gwaine sat still, his mouth flapping. "I—I knew my parents were of noble houses, but—you mean to say I—I'm royalty?" Arthur wasn't sure whether Gwaine looked pleased or disgusted by this.
"Yes, Gwaine. That was what the ceremony was for, you know. To welcome you into the family. If—" Arthur paused, struck with a hitherto unconsidered possibility: "If you want to, that is."
"Do you want to?" Gwaine shot back immediately, absolutely unable to believe anyone would willingly claim him as a blood relation.
Arthur laughed. "I think we may need to have a talk about how Camelot royalty should spend their Friday nights, but other than that, yes, Gwaine, I very much want to."
Gwaine smiled softly, genuinely, at that, as far as everyone could tell. Then, suddenly remembering his duty to spoil all precious moments, he jerked his head up at where the knights stood together. "So does that mean they now have to call me 'milady'?"
There was a beat.
Then the small room erupted into laughter, as Gwaine never passed up the opportunity to crack a joke, no matter how awful. Also, no one was crying or angry anymore, and that seemed as good a reason as any to laugh.
"I was thinking 'Duke,' actually," Arthur said.
Gwaine blinked again and then smiled that smile. The smile that made Merlin groan and the knights run for cover.
"Does that mean I outrank Leon?" he asked, impishly.
Leon actually looked a little faint, and Gwaine laughed boisterously, wiggling his feet, caring less about the answer than Leon's reaction.
"In court, conceivably, but not on the field," Arthur explained, rolling his eyes but smiling in spite of himself. Then an idea struck him, "You might actually have to show up to council meetings once in a while!" he cried, with no little relish as he stood, offering Gwaine a hand up.
Gwaine wrinkled up his nose. "Ugh," he said, taking Arthur's hand, letting the combined strength of him and Merlin haul him to his feet. "I didn't know nobles actually had to do stuff."
"I think there is a great deal about nobility you don't know," Arthur said, determined to turn this into an educational opportunity. "There is a pretty steep learning curve: I hope you are up for the challenge."
"I'm always—" Gwaine began, caught out by a yawn mid-sentence, "up for a challenge," he concluded with a sleepy grin. He looked worn out from his ordeal, and blinked around at the room sluggishly. "Hey, listen, I'm starving. Any chance there was going to be anything to eat at this ceremony?"
Merlin looked relieved. "You mean you're actually hungry?"
"I could eat a horse," he confirmed, trying to take a step and wobbling dangerously before Percival inserted himself under Gwaine's arm. Exhausted as he was, he was even willing to go along with this. "Take me home, by way of the kitchens," he said, waving his hand with aristocratic, if sloppy, extravagance. "Or I'll have your head, or something."
"As you wish, milady," Percival said.
By the time Percival got Gwaine to the kitchens, Gwaine had remembered how to walk on his own, but he still let Percival support him. After all, he had just cried like a baby in front of everyone he held even remotely dear, so he didn't feel he had much in the way of machismo left to maintain. It was kind of nice that no one had teased him about that yet, but he didn't expect it to last for long.
When Percival deposited him in a quiet chair by the fire, Gwaine realized that Merlin had followed them. He beamed pleasantly at the servant, who smiled back.
"All right, Gwaine," Merlin said, putting his hands on the table until he was leaning forward into Gwaine's face. "What would you like to eat?"
Now that he had smiled, Gwaine couldn't stop. "Honestly, Merlin, I will eat whatever you put in front of me." He was serious about his willingness to eat a horse.
With a small chuckle, Merlin scurried off, while Percival pulled up a seat next to him. Now that they were alone, the giant was thoughtful and quiet, frowning at his fists.
"Perce?" Gwaine asked. Percival didn't answer right away, so he prompted him again. "Percival? What's up, mate?"
"Two days, Gwaine?" Percival whined.
Gwaine slumped. "Do we have to talk about this now?
"Yes," Percival insisted, sounding so hurt, it nearly broke Gwaine's heart all over again. "You thought for two days that you were going to die, and you didn't run."
Gwaine quirked his head at that: it wasn't quite the question he expected, and it triggered a sad thought. Perhaps his itinerant ways bothered more people than just him. Perhaps by assuming he was going to get kicked out of everywhere he went, he had scared people out of even trying to be friends with him. And those who were stupid enough to befriend him anyway lived with the constant fear that he would leave them—to the extent that Percival's first question, now, after all of that, was why he hadn't left them.
So he wasn't the only one with abandonment issues.
Apparently, he gave other people abandonment issues.
His brow wrinkled, Gwaine fixed Percival with a pained, pleading stare. "I couldn't run, Perce. I just couldn't—Perce, look at me," he demanded as Percival tried to look away. "Everything for me is here. I had never had that before, not ever. Which was okay, don't give me that look, I was fine until I knew what a home was, what real friends were. Once I'd found it, once I realized what I'd been missing, I couldn't run. Execution would have been better than exile."
Percival frowned, but nodded. "And you didn't tell anyone." Judging by the soft, pained betrayal in his voice and the unspoken You didn't tell me, this seemed to be the far greater transgression.
Gwaine sighed. "I didn't," he answered honestly. He was too weary of it all not to be honest. "And it nearly killed me. I'm sorry."
"You can't hide things like that from me, Gwaine. Never again," Percival demanded quietly. "I would have helped you escape. I would have made you run away, if you had told me. I would have come with you."
"You would have thrown your life away for mine?" Gwaine gulped, making sure he got this right, before adding, a little bit smugly, "Then you know why I didn't tell you."
Percival looked pained.
"Don't tell me you wouldn't have done the same," Gwaine accused, holding Percival's gaze until finally Percival looked back down at his hands.
He snorted, laughing to keep from crying at the impasse they had reached. "Maybe," he admitted, looking up at Gwaine with shining eyes. "I don't have my family anymore, either, and—"
"Oh, Perce, Jesus, I'm sorry. Here I am talking like no one else has problems—"
"No, it's okay. That's not what I meant. I mean—I had them for longer, you know? We had a happy life until—well, one day it was just over. And anyway, what I meant was that's why we have to stick together. Because we've got no one else left."
"Yeah, but—that sounds worse," Gwaine grimaced. "To have loved and lost like that."
Percival shrugged. "I dunno, maybe. Maybe not. Look who turned out to be the emotional cripple, right?" he tried with a grin.
Gwaine rolled his eyes and shoved Percival, which only succeeded in making him almost fall off his own chair. "Shut up," he said. Percival was right, of course, though Gwaine—who usually considered progress to be something for suckers—actually felt as if he had made some headway today, or would do when he had time to process it all.
"But I don't want this to ever happen again, Gwaine," Percival said, serious again, putting his hand on Gwaine's knee.
There was a time when Gwaine would have jumped at the intimate contact, but now he didn't even flinch. He just shrugged noncommittally. "Would you believe me if I promised you? Keeping in mind I'm not that good at promises," he added with a derisive laugh.
Percival's eyes hardened. "I would."
Because some people just need trust to make them trustworthy.
"Am I…interrupting something?" Merlin said, stepping forward with one part arrogant cheek and another part genuine I-can-come-back-later-if-you're-having-a-thing nervousness.
"You are if you don't have some decent food for me," Gwaine said, though he was honestly prepared to eat anything Merlin put in front of him.
Luckily, Merlin was a saint, and set down a tray of food. Gwaine's eyes practically sparkled at the sight of the thick beef stew, piping hot, the bit of bread thick with butter, and—
"Is that apple pie?" Gwaine cried, sticking his finger in the filling and tasting it.
"After your dinner, young man," Merlin scolded, slapping Gwaine's wrist. He took the pie off the tray and sat it at the edge of the table, out of Gwaine's reach. "You want some, too, Percival?
"Yeah! Please," Percival said.
"Oh, and here's a bit of hot wine, Gwaine. I don't think one glass would hurt you, and I'm pretty sure you've earned it at this point."
"Mmm," Gwaine, who had already begun shoveling stew into his mouth, said gratefully, washing down a mouthful of potato with the mulled wine. "This is really good, Merlin, thank you," he said, his mouth full of beef this time.
Merlin considered telling him not to talk with his mouth full, but instead just shook his head and left, returning quickly with two more slices of pie for himself and Percival, which they dug into eagerly. Silence reigned as the boys ate.
"Maybe I could be the kind of nobleman who abuses his power for good," Gwaine mused, breaking the silence after some time. "Like throwing parties and giving servants the day off," he added, elbowing Merlin.
Percival chuckled appreciatively.
"Here's an idea," Merlin said, somewhat tetchily. "Be the kind of nobleman who doesn't abuse his power at all."
Gwaine scoffed. "Power corrupts."
"And you certainly don't need any help there," Merlin laughed, shaking his head.
Gwaine beamed wickedly, cheeks full of stew. Then, swallowing with an effort, he immediately went back for another monstrous bite and wolfed it down.
"Hungry?" Percival teased.
"Famished," Gwaine said, gulping down food. "And bloody tired. Once my head hits the pillow I plan to sleep for a week, so I'm eating as much as I can now."
Merlin and Percival laughed, watching him finish off the stew. Just as he was scraping the bottom of the bowl, Merlin swiped it. There was still a bit of broth left, so Gwaine whimpered, but Merlin quickly replaced it with the apple pie and a large mug of milk, so Gwaine's distress quickly turned into glee. Nothing made him happier than food.
Except that wasn't quite true
"Thanks, guys," Gwaine said, suddenly open and warm and tired.
Percival patted him on the back, rather tenderly for being so huge. "Thank Merlin, I wouldn't know where to get all this stuff."
"No, I mean..." How did he want to say this? Did he want to say this? He tried a gulp of milk to fortify himself. "Thanks for…not giving up on me, I guess. That's never really happened to me before, people—friends doing that for me—so—thanks."
"Gwaine?" Merlin said, stopping him.
"You are really addled in the head, you know that?"
Gwaine blinked, and laughed. "Yeah, well, maybe you all are the addled ones." He poked at his pie wearily, but determined to continue. "Let's just say: dukedom? Not a big deal. Arthur wanting me to be a duke? Huge deal. You idiots wanting to risk your lives for me… For caring…" Gwaine couldn't finish, choked with emotions he wasn't sure how to express. How did you put sentiments like that into words? How did you tell someone that your whole life had changed permanently for the better because of them? Percival was right about him being an emotional cripple. He went back to eating pie again instead, suddenly embarrassed.
Merlin patted his arm, understanding. "You're welcome, Gwaine."
Gwaine smiled up at him gratefully.
"Anyway I think you've made people cry enough for one day."
Gwaine blushed and turned back to his pie. "Oh shut up. I was emotionally compromised! Apparently Arthur's pout can rival Merlin's—who knew? Can't expect a man to hold it together when—"
Now Percival guffawed loudly, banging on the table. "Oh, good one, Gwaine!"
"What's so funny?" Merlin asked.
"Gwaine cries at anything," Percival explained, as Gwaine continued to flush brightly. "He may be the toughest otherwise, but he's a crier."
"Perce, I swear to God," Gwaine warned.
"Didn't you see him at Arthur and Gwen's wedding? He was bawling!"
"You cry at weddings, Gwaine?" Merlin demanded with a wide grin. He had always assumed Gwaine simply never cried, but maybe he only never cried from pain or fear or at funerals or normal sad things. He did know Gwaine wasn't good at dealing with feelings in general, so it made sense that Gwaine cried in happiness, in relief, at beauty.
"No!" Gwaine cried. "Well—yes! Yeah, well, that was tragic!" he insisted, trying to turn this into a joke"Seeing such a beautiful woman marrying such a prat! You bet I cried—it was a travesty!
Percival and Merlin laughed.
"You boys wouldn't be referring to anyone I know at all, would you?"
They looked up to see the Queen standing before them.
Percival and Merlin leapt to their feet, and Gwaine made a valiant effort, but she quickly rushed forward to push him back to his seat.
"Now, now, we're not in court, keep eating," she said with her characteristic disarming smile. Turning to the man she came to see, Gwen ran a hand through Gwaine's hair and gently patted his back. "How are you doing?"
"Been worse," he answered, in all honesty, grinning up at her.
"I've just spoken to Arthur, who…" she began, but something in the way she said 'spoken' made Gwaine cock his head at her.
"'Spoken'? Haha! Did I get the King kicked out of his Queen's bed?" Gwaine asked gleefully.
Gwen bit her lip and shook her head. "Where the King is or is not sleeping is none of your business…." she scolded, though Gwaine still chuckled, convinced his theory was correct. "But I may have mentioned how this is not the first time his…lack of delicacy threatened to undermine his purpose. And this time we almost lost someone very dear to us all. Needless to say he apologized."
Merlin nearly choked on his milk. "And here I thought I was special," he tried to joke, but Gwen did not break eye contact with Gwaine.
"But I do not believe that Arthur was entirely at fault for what happened," she went on, giving him a hard look. "If you really think Arthur is capable of that, Sir Gwaine, then you do not know him at all." She held his eyes, and Gwaine tried to look away, but she followed him, crouching down so as to look up at him. "You need to drop the façade, Gwaine, and learn to recognize friends, and listen to what they are actually saying. You need to have more trust, more faith in others."
Gwaine swallowed. He didn't like seeing his Queen on her knees in front of him. It made her look like she was begging, when she was in fact, giving him an order.
Either way: "I will, my lady. I will try."
"You can do better than that, Gwaine."
"I swear it."
She smiled, satisfied, and stood up, carding her fingers through his hair with motherly affection. "I have had the servants draw you that bath, if you would like?" she asked.
"It's that manky, huh?" Gwaine said, raising his eyebrows to indicate his hair.
Gwen laughed. "Ah, a bit, yeah." She ran her fingers together experimentally, and wiped the hair oil on his sleeve.
"Ha!" Gwaine chuckled, and went back for more pie. "Just let me finish this," he said with his mouth full.
But then he paused, mid-bite, suddenly pensive, confused, as if a thought had just struck him for the first time. "I think, maybe, we had an apple orchard, when I was young. Well, no, Lamorak had one," he said, setting his fork down and frowning at it, as if trying to recall something he hadn't thought about in many, many years. "I think—maybe I remember, me and my mother, picking apples, early in the morning when we were alone. And eating them. And then she made pie with them." Gwaine suddenly guffawed loudly. "And I think I made myself sick on them." He considered that for a moment and then, as if he wondered why he had thought it at all, picked up his fork and proceeded to finish his pie.
"Whenever I eat berry pie, I think of my mum," Percival said quietly. "She would only make it on dad's birthday, I remember." He blinked rapidly, and chuckled. "I would only ever get one piece, and it was always gone next day."
"I always think of my dad when I smell oak charcoal. It has to be oak—and it is a different smell," Gwen reflected, as she sat down in a chair next to Gwaine, her hand still on the back of his neck, a soothing presence. "He always said oak burned the hottest, and lasted longest. And he'd come home covered in the stuff, always smelling like that. I could tell when times were harder, or if he was helping out at another smithy, because he would smell like another kind of charcoal." Gwen looked around, laughing a bit. "That's pretty weird, right?"
"Not at all," Gwaine said, smiling, as he scraped up the last sticky bit of pie from the plate. "Anyway," he said, breaking the spell, "I'll go take that bath now." His eyes sparkled at Gwen. "You'll be joining me, I hope?"
He hadn't expected the whack on the back of his head to actually have so much force behind it.
"Hey! Wounded guy, here!" he cried, sounding put-upon. "I meant to help me wash my hair!"
Gwen snorted. "You meant nothing of the sort. But I do imagine you'll need some help."
Gwaine practically giggled as Percival sized him up, determining how he was going to haul the boneless knight back to the physician's quarters. His shoulders were hunched, drooping lower and lower by the minute, along with his eyelids.
"Ready, Gwaine?" Merlin asked, smiling fondly at him.
"Not yet," he said, peering around the room suspiciously as he gripped the edge of the table. "Too much spinning." Then he laughed. "I haven't been this drunk on one stoop of wine since I was ten!"
"Good times," Merlin indulged, then turned to Percival. "You think you can get him up?"
Percival nodded, "Yeah," and then crouched down so he could look Gwaine in the eye. "You want to walk? Or would you mind if I carried you?"
Gwaine blinked at him sleepily, trying to assess his motives and determine whether or not he could be trusted. For the first time, possibly in his life, Gwaine felt he could actually trust someone else. "Ah, but would you still respect me in the morning?" Gwaine tried, grinning sideways.
Percival laughed. "I'm just going to carry you to bed. I'm not sleeping with you ever again."
Gwaine mocked disappointment. "Well, damn. Worth a try, 'eh Merlin?"
As Merlin just shook his head, Gwaine put his arm around Percival's shoulder as the other knight slid an arm under shoulders and knees to gently scoop Gwaine into his arms. Although quiet for the ride, Gwaine was still determinedly awake as Percival deposited him on the bed for him in Gaius' apothecary.
With the help of his three companions, Gwaine stripped down and made it into the tub without incident. He hissed and whined a bit at the heat, but soon relaxed into it, his beard slipping below the waterline.
"Hey, hey, hey," Merlin said, flicking a bit of water into his face. "You cannot sleep here, Gwaine. You see, I knew this wasn't a good idea: he's going to drown himself!"
Gwaine grunted, but opened his eyes. The water felt heavenly, like it was washing away more than dirt. "Oh, I'm fine. Anyway, since when did bathing become a spectator sport?" he grumbled. "I mean Gwen's all right, and I guess Merlin lives here, but you, Perce, what's your excuse? I know you're supposed to be a virgin and all but I promise I don't have anything to show you that you've not seen before." He didn't really wait for an answer as he tilted his head back to rest against the side of the tub.
"You wish," Percival laughed, though Gwaine wasn't sure to which part, and anyway Percival did not look like he was going anywhere, so Gwaine resigned himself to being naked both body and soul to these people.
And he was okay with that.
Gwen was gentle as she washed his hair, though she let Merlin trim his beard for him. They talked in soft tones. Merlin warned Gwaine of the horrors that awaited him in those tedious, tedious council meetings, and Gwen, assuming he would get land along with his title, warned him that he would have to learn to oversee crops and taxes, and of other monstrous things he had to look forward to in this new world of Responsibilities.
"Okay, okay, I was hoping to get through this night nightmare-free, so if you don't mind shutting up now…" Gwaine looked about him, his movements exaggerated as exhaustion set in, deeper and more unyielding than any drunkenness. "And get outta here. Water's cold, n'm going to bed, so if you don' wanna see my naked arse..." He had already pulled himself to his feet before anyone could stop him, though Percival quickly stepped forward under the auspices of placing a large towel around him when he was actually the only thing keeping him standing upright.
Gwaine lost track of what precisely was going on around him, but he was suddenly sitting on something soft, and something was shaking his head, and he couldn't really see what it was because someone had put a blanket on his head, which may or may not have been itself the source of the shaking, but his hair was drier now and he was warm and comfortable and maybe listing to the side.
"It's all his fault, anyway," he said, stabbing a finger at Merlin.
"Me? What did I do?" Merlin demanded.
"He's got a thing for taking in strays," Gwaine continued, obviously babbling yet determined to get this said. "Mean, stupid, rabid ones, and then he domesticates them, makes them tame."
Percival snorted softly, smiling at Merlin sidelong, for Gwaine's eyes were closing. "Maybe we should call you 'Spot,' or 'Lucky'."
"Ha, yeah. 'Lucky'," Gwaine said.
Someone was stroking his hair. He looked up to see Gwen smiling down at him.
"I'll fall asleep."
Gwen didn't laugh or roll her eyes. But she didn't stop running her fingers over his brow and through his damp hair. The motion really was putting him to sleep. The sun wasn't down for a few hours yet, but he was definitely checking out early. Though something poked and prodded at his belly again, and new bandages snaked their way around his middle, the weariness far outstripped the pain, and presently he felt only heavy, warm, soft things covering him. He didn't know when exactly his eyes had shut, but it was now blessedly dark and warm and safe in this little world—like a cocoon, or a womb.
Percival straightened. "I can leave him to you, then?"
"My lady? May I escort you back to your chambers?"
"Yes, thank you, Percival," she said, and stood up, as well.
At the sound of the door shutting, Gwaine shifted, no longer held asleep by the hand on his brow. He blinked his eyes open briefly, but they closed on him again immediately. "Where's Perce?" he slurred. "'N Gwen?" He was beyond exhausted, but like an over-stimulated child, couldn't find it in himself to sleep.
"They've gone to bed, Gwaine," Merlin lied (it wasn't even dinnertime yet), tucking blankets in closer around him. "As should you."
Gwaine nodded, but, "I mean it, Merlin," he said. "If you hadn't taken me in, I—don't know where I'd be."
"Could be dead in a ditch somewhere. Homeless, friendless, just like you found me." Gwaine had opened an eye and was staring intently at Merlin. "You didn't know me and you took a chance with me, and, even crazier, even when you did know you still stood by me. So I pretty much owe you everything," he concluded simply, closing his eyes.
Merlin was touched. For a few moments he couldn't speak. When he finally did: "Gwaine, I—Gwaine?"
But Gwaine was fast asleep, snoring gently.
The problem with Gwaine was that he became even more incorrigible upon being formally accepted into the Camelot royal household. True, he left off drinking (mainly), (sort of), and learned to be more discreet about who got invited to his chambers at all hours (or whose chambers he could be found at in various compromising positions), and he actually began to show up to training and the occasional council meeting on time, but he was still Gwaine.
He would never pass up an opportunity to harass Leon about how he out-ranked him now, and it took way too long for Leon to learn simply to ignore him when he was like this.
He took to arbitrarily giving certain hard-working servants days off without necessarily consulting Arthur first (though he usually consulted Gwen, afterwards).
He chomped apples loudly in court, sassed Arthur at every other opportunity, flirted with everything with two legs, stayed out late and slept later, put his feet on the table at feasts, and if he had a dissenting opinion he never kept it to himself. But King Arthur could not ask for a more loyal knight as long as he lived.
At any rate, as far as Gwaine was concerned, if anyone couldn't deal with how he went about his business, and if his unconventional ways bothered others, well…
That was their problem.