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You're Sure of a Big Surprise (aka The Adventures of Gwaine and Smelly Geoff)

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At first, Gwaine think it’s after Arthur. Everything’s always after Arthur, after all – he is the Prince of Camelot, and therefore the most important person in the whole world, or that’s what he thinks, anyway, the arrogant bastard. In fact, Gwaine would probably still think it was after Arthur if it hadn’t literally jumped over him to grab Merlin’s leg in its mouth. Gwaine’s never seen so many teeth in his life, and he’s had some serious face time with Branwen the barmaid over in Mochdref, so he should know. As it is, once the – whatever it is, and whatever it is looks like a cross between a giant boar and an eagle with maybe a bit of lion thrown in, and smells like it’s been dead for three days – anyway, once whatever it is starts dragging Merlin away, that’s when Gwaine figures out that Arthur probably isn’t the target after all.

“Shit,” yells Gwaine, and “Merlin!” yells Arthur, and what Merlin yells Gwaine can’t even spell and probably isn’t suitable for writing down because the vellum might catch on fire. The lad can curse, is what Gwaine’s saying.

“Merlin!” yells Arthur again, racing towards the beast. Percival and Elyan are running up to outflank it and Lancelot’s actually vaulting over a tree branch like he’s planning to land on the thing’s back.

He’s not going to, though, because that’s Gwaine’s plan, and he’s going to get there first. In fact, he’s already preparing to drop from the little cliff he shinned up as soon as he saw what was going on. That’s Gwaine, you see. Always thinking ahead.

“Right then, you stinking cesspit,” Gwaine mutters to himself, and jumps, landing right on the place where what he thinks is the creature’s neck joins what he thinks is its body. From here he has a monster’s eye view of Merlin, pale and wide-eyed, scrabbling at the mud and leaf mould like if he can just get a firm enough hold he’ll manage to pull himself free, rather than something much more likely like ripping his own leg off. Never fear, though – Gwaine to the rescue. He raises his sword and brings it down with all his strength on the thing’s head.

“Let,” he says, and bashes the creature again. “Go. Of. My. Friend.”

Maybe it’s the combination of Percival and Elyan slashing at the thing from one side, Lancelot and Leon from the other, and Arthur actually punching it in the face when he realises he can’t stab it from the front without endangering Merlin, but probably it’s mostly Gwaine that does it, because he’s on top of the damn thing, after all, which was a brilliant idea, by the way. Well, it was a brilliant idea right until it does this weird half-backflip thing which he didn’t actually realise that boar-eagle-lion beasts could do, and Gwaine isn’t on top of it any more, he’s actually airborne, and he sees that it’s dropped Merlin -- thrown Merlin, really, but who’s counting? Gwaine’s certainly not counting. Gwaine’s flying through the air, and becoming more aware by the moment that there’s a tree headed his way.

Oops.

----

Trees really aren’t as soft as they ought to be, Gwaine thinks a couple of seconds later, staring up at the sky through the leafless branches. Like, grass is soft, and leaves are soft, and actually most plants are quite soft, really, except nettles, and they’re more stinging than hard. Trees, though. They’re definitely hard. Yep.

“Gwaine.”

He peers up at the face that’s suddenly where the sky was a minute ago. It’s Elyan. Hi, Elyan.

“Hi, Elyan,” he says.

“Come on,” Elyan says, and holds out a hand, hauling Gwaine to his feet, and that’s when Gwaine remembers why he hit the tree in the first place.

Shit. Merlin.

“Merlin!” he calls, and heads towards the knot of knights forming a red splotch a dozen paces away. Merlin’s in the middle of them all, half-sitting, half-lying, his head and back supported by Lancelot. Arthur’s on his knees, reaching gingerly towards the mangled mess that is Merlin’s leg, and Gwaine drops down on his arse and puts a hand on Merlin’s shoulder, grinning at him. It’s pretty damn good to see him breathing, that’s for sure, even if his leg does stink worse than a griffon’s farts.

“That was a whopper, hey?” he says. “Never seen one that big before.” Of course, he’s never seen one at all, but details really aren’t Gwaine’s strong suit. “How’re you doing?” he asks, squeezing Merlin’s shoulder.

“I’m fine,” Merlin’s says, but he looks like he’s just had a pint of Gregor of Markyate’s best whiskey (and Gwaine’s pretty sure no-one’s ever survived that particular fate). “My leg hurts a bit, that’s all. I’m sure it’s fine.”

“Merlin, I’m looking at your leg right now, and I can tell you that it looks—” Arthur makes a face. “—well, fine is not the word. Disgusting is more like it. Now shut up and let people who know what they’re talking about decide how you are.”

“I’m the one who’s the physician’s assistant!” Merlin says, managing some indignation even with Gregor’s-whiskey-face on him. “I know what I’m—” he trails off into a strangled noise as Arthur peels back a strip of fabric from the flesh of his leg, and now he’s looking like someone’s just offered him another pint of Gregor’s whiskey, and Gwaine’s actually pretty worried about him.

“Um—” Merlin manages, and then leans over and throws up on the ground next to Gwaine. Gwaine doesn’t really mind – Merlin has better aim than most of the people who’ve ever thrown up on, over or near him, after all, and it does kind of stink, but it helps to mask the smell of Merlin’s leg a bit, which is absolutely fine by Gwaine.

“Hey,” he says, moving his hand from Merlin’s shoulder to the back of his neck. “You’re all right. Throwing up’s a sign of manliness, you know.” That’s what Gwaine’s always telling people, anyway, and he figures if he says it enough, people’ll start believing it.

Arthur snorts, but he’s not looking at Gwaine; his eyes are fixed on Merlin’s face, and they’re wary, like he’s afraid of what Merlin might do next. Of what might happen to Merlin next. Elyan, Percival and Leon have fanned out around them, keeping watch on the surrounding trees in case the beast comes back. Lancelot has an arm round Merlin’s chest, and he looks up when Gwaine glances at him, his face tight with worry.

“We need to get him back to Gaius,” he says.

Arthur nods. “Agreed. If we ride through the night, we can make Camelot by dawn.” He frowns down at Merlin’s leg. “We’re going to need to stop the bleeding first, though.” Standing up, he draws his sword, scanning the trees. “Leon, get the horses. Elyan, Percival, keep watch. You two stay here,” he adds, looking down at Gwaine and Lancelot. “Don’t let him move.” Lancelot nods and Gwaine grins and looks back down at Merlin.

“Your leg’s not all that disgusting,” he says. “I’ve seen worse. Like, this one time I met this leper with syphilis—”

Gwaine,” says Lancelot, shooting him a filthy look, but Gwaine shrugs. Merlin’s leg looks like shit, right, but it’s not leper-with-syphilis bad, and that’s a good thing, surely?

Merlin’s still looking pretty miserable, but he’s perked up a little bit since Arthur stopped prodding at his leg. He gives Gwaine a pale grin. “Yeah, cheers,” he says. “Good to know I’m not the most disgusting thing you’ve ever seen.”

“Not even second-most,” Gwaine says, and slaps Merlin gently on the shoulder. “Maybe not even third.” He leans over and peers at Merlin’s leg. “No, probably third, actually.” It’s worth Lancelot’s glare to see Merlin’s grin widen a little.

“All right,” Arthur says, striding back with Merlin’s satchel in his hand, still keeping a watchful eye on the trees. “Percival, I need you over here. Gwaine, here.” He hands Gwaine a short stick, maybe a hand’s breadth long. Gwaine stares at it.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” he asks.

Arthur rolls his eyes. “You’re not going to do anything with it. Merlin’s going to bite it.”

Gwaine looks at Merlin, but he’s frowning at Arthur. “Arthur, what—?”

Arthur shakes his head. “We’ve got to stop the bleeding,” he says, face grim, and suddenly Gwaine knows what he means.

“Wait a second,” he says. “He could lose his leg, Arthur.”

“He could lose his life if we leave it too long,” Arthur shoots back, and Gwaine’s about to reply when he feels Lancelot’s hand on his arm.

“He’s right,” Lancelot says, quiet, but not so quiet that Merlin wouldn’t be able to hear him. “Feel how cold he is.”

Gwaine grabs Merlin’s hand, and damn, Lancelot’s right. Merlin’s freezing, and there’s nothing for it. He shakes his head. “Just don’t tie it too tight,” he says, and Arthur looks like he’s going to roll his eyes again, but then just nods.

“No,” he says. “I won’t.”

“I’m sorry, my friend,” Lancelot says, and takes the stick from Gwaine, slipping it between Merlin’s teeth. Merlin’s looking a little dazed, but he nods and closes his eyes a second, biting down on the stick. Gwaine doesn’t let go of his hand.

“Hold him down,” Arthur says, and Percival leans forward, placing his giant hands on Merlin’s shoulders. Arthur nods once, and then pulls a bandage out of the satchel and bends over, slipping it under Merlin’s leg just above the worst of the bleeding and bringing the ends up, tying the bandage tight -- but not too tight -- in one smooth movement.

Merlin howls through the stick, squeezing Gwaine’s hand so hard Gwaine thinks maybe he’s the one who’s going to lose a limb. His body bucks against Percival’s hands and Lancelot’s chest, but both of them remain firm, keeping Merlin in place.

Then it’s done, thank all that’s holy, and Merlin subsides, breathing hard. Gwaine takes the stick out of his mouth and tries not to look at the depth of the teeth marks. His fingers have gone numb, but he doesn’t let go of Merlin’s hand until Merlin lets go first.

“That wasn’t so bad,” Gwaine says then, and it’s actually quite impressive, he’s not sure he’s ever had everyone glaring at him like that before. Luckily, a distraction arrives in the form of Leon, wearing his typical I’m-Sir-Leon-look-how-serious-and-sensible-I-am face.

“There’s a problem with the horses, sire,” he says.

“Yes?” Arthur says, sitting back on his heels. He’s sweating, Gwaine notices. “What is it?”

Leon looks worried. It’s not really that different from how Leon looks most of the time, but Gwaine’s been hanging out with the guy for a few months now, and he recognises the signs.

“They’re gone,” he says.

----

“It was probably the stink,” Gwaine says, coming back from taking a turn round the clearing and dropping down next to Merlin. “Horses have sensitive noses.”

“It’s not that bad,” says Merlin, sounding a little offended.

“I wasn’t talking about your leg,” Gwaine says, keeping his eyes on the treeline. “Although yes, actually, it is that bad. It smells like the privy at the tavern the day after Mayday.” Gwaine never goes to the tavern the day after Mayday any more, not after that one time with the morris dancer, but he remembers that smell. No-one could ever forget that smell.

“Come on, you’re exaggerating,” says Merlin.

“Percival?” says Gwaine, looking round at where Percival’s standing guard a few paces away. He looks round.

“It does smell pretty terrible,” he says, sounding apologetic.

“Right!” Gwaine says. “You only can’t smell it because you’re right next to it, and I, for one, do not envy you that position at all.” Although if Merlin can’t smell it, that actually is kind of enviable. Perhaps Gwaine needs to think about this a little more.

“What were you talking about, then?” Merlin asks, and Gwaine stops thinking so he can answer.

“The – thing,” he says, and waves his hands around a bit. “You know, the big giant eagle-lion-boar thing, or whatever it was. We need a name for it.”

“Did it smell?” Merlin asks, and Gwaine raises his eyebrows incredulously. Even Percival looks round in surprise.

“What’s wrong with you?” Gwaine asks. “Have you got no nose?” He grabs Merlin’s chin and tips it up, trying to peer up his nostrils.

“Ow! Hey!” Merlin pushes his hand away. “I was busy, all right? Thinking about how I was going to die, and all that.” He waves at his leg and glares at Gwaine. It’s all right. Gwaine’s used to people glaring at him. Also, he doesn’t really like Merlin talking about how he might die, so he glares right back.

“Geoff,” he says. “We can call it Geoff.”

Merlin looks confused – good, that’ll teach him to be all doomy – and says, “call what Geoff?”

Gwaine opens his mouth, but Percival speaks first. “The thing,” he says. Merlin and Gwaine both look at him, and he glances round, waving a hand slightly and somehow managing to mime both horns and wings at the same time. “The eagle-lion-boar thing.”

Merlin rolls his eyes. “You can’t call a monster Geoff,” he says.

“Why not?” Gwaine asks. “That librarian guy, he’s called Geoff, and that thing kind of reminded me of him.”

“He’s called Geoffrey--” Merlin starts, and then gives up, throwing his hands in the air. Huh. Gwaine didn’t know that people actually did that. At any rate, mission: distract Merlin is going excellently, thanks very much. Gwaine is a genius.

Arthur reappears out of the trees, Leon following close on his heels. He shakes his head. “No sign of them,” he says. “The stink must have scared them off.”

“See?” Gwaine says to Merlin who ignores him, mouth twitching a little.

“What’re we doing, then?” Merlin asks, and Arthur holds out a stout stick.

“We’ll have to walk,” he says.

----

There are a few teething problems with Merlin and the stick. Like the fact that he’s about as graceful as Gwaine’s great-aunt Myfanwy, and she’s eighty four and she’s only got one foot. Mind you, Merlin’s only got one foot now, so Gwaine supposes that has something to do with the fact that he keeps falling into things like he’s been drunk for three days (which actually reminds Gwaine of his great-aunt Myfanwy as well, now he comes to think about it). In fact, he’s sure that’s the only reason, and that’s the only reason Merlin’s sweating, too, even though it’s close to freezing out. So that’s all right, then.

“Hey,” says Lancelot, catching Merlin as he teeters. He’s been walking beside him the whole way – which, Gwaine thinks, can’t be more than a half a league, even though they’ve been going for over two hours – and Gwaine’s been amusing himself watching Lancelot twitch every time Merlin makes a false move. It’s useful, having Lancelot around. Means Gwaine doesn’t have to do any twitching himself.

“Thanks,” Merlin says, righting himself with an effort, and then Arthur turns.

“This is ridiculous,” he says. “We’re never going to get back to Camelot like this. Percival.”

Percival steps forward and Merlin shakes his head. “No, I can walk,” he says. “Come on, Arthur.”

“You don’t get a say in this,” Arthur starts, but then Elyan comes back from where he’s been scouting ahead.

“Sire,” he says. “We have another problem.”

“What is it now?” Arthur asks, and normally Gwaine would be enjoying this little regal meltdown – or causing it – but he doesn’t really like the sound of another problem, and he steps forward and looks where Elyan’s pointing.

Oh. Balls.

“How—” says Arthur, and Gwaine turns to him.

“Thought you said you knew where you were going,” he says, and he’s trying not to sound accusing, right, but somehow that sneaky little accusation just slips in there anyway. He’s not really very good at all this vassal business.

“I did,” Arthur says. “I do, just—” he steps out into the clearing and Gwaine follows, looking around. Yep. Definitely the same one they left two hours ago. The dark splotch where Merlin bled all over the ground is still there, even.

“Sorcery,” Arthur finally decides, and Gwaine rolls his eyes. Oh, right, when Arthur’s lost it’s sorcery. Arthur loses a fight? Sorcery. Arthur can’t keep his trousers up? Sorcery. It’s lucky Merlin doesn’t lose Arthur’s socks too often, or that’d probably be sorcery too.

The others have trailed into the clearing now, Merlin leaning heavily on Lancelot. They all look like they’ve just been told the tavern’s just run out of strong ale. Lancelot shakes his head, glancing at the sky.

“It’ll be dark soon,” he says, because Lancelot’s really a cheery fellow that way.

Arthur shakes his head. “We can’t stay here. The – beast –”

“Geoff,” says Gwaine helpfully, and Arthur shoots him a look of confusion. Merlin suddenly grins, though, and ducks his head to hide it.

“The beast,” Arthur continues, “it knows where we are. We must keep moving. It’s a full moon tonight – we should be able to find our way.”

Gwaine’s not sure why Arthur is so confident, given that they couldn’t find their way when it was light, and he’s not too happy about playing Blind Man’s Bluff with a barracks’ worth of sweaty mail-wearing men, but on the other hand, he’s not really into the idea of sitting around all night waiting for Geoff to get them, either.

“Percival,” says Arthur, and Percival nods and bends at the knees, lifting Merlin in his arms with ease. Merlin squawks.

“I can walk,” he says, flailing in Percival’s arms a little.

“Clearly not,” Arthur says, and Gwaine grins and ruffles Merlin’s hair as he passes.

“It’s all right, Merlin,” he says. “The damsel thing suits you. I’ll buy you a new dress when we get home, you’ve got blood all over that one.” He steps into the forest, pausing a moment for his eyes to adjust to the growing dusk. When he thinks about it, the whole Blind Man’s Bluff thing isn’t so different from that time after the Yule feast last year with him and Elyan and Percival, and that turned out to be quite a laugh, so maybe this isn’t really a problem.

----

Actually, though, it is a problem, but they don’t figure that out until Lancelot leads them into the full moonlight and they look around and it’s balls all over again.

“Guys, is it just me or—” says Elyan, and Gwaine groans. Apparently Lancelot’s ancient method of navigating by the stars is about as good as Arthur’s amazing knowledge of every tree in Camelot. Which is to say, no bloody good at all.

Lancelot’s staring round the clearing – the same clearing again, still with the lingering stench of Geoff, unless that’s Merlin’s leg – worry plain on his face even in the moonlight. “It must be an enchantment,” he says. Oh, right. Apparently Lancelot’s important enough for the whole sorcery! treatment now, too. They’ll be making him king next.

Arthur stands motionless for a second, then Gwaine sees his shoulders slump, just a little. “We’ll make camp here,” he says. “Half on watch at any time. Elyan, Leon, we need firewood. Don’t lose sight of each other, and pay attention to your surroundings.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Gwaine says. “It’s Merlin it wants.”

Arthur shoots him a look that’s unreadable in the dark. “Why would it want Merlin?” he asks.

All right, so apparently Arthur hasn’t actually figured out that it wasn’t after him. Gwaine should’ve known better, really. A pig could be having kittens right under Arthur’s nose and Arthur wouldn’t even notice it unless every one of the kittens had a little bow round its neck that said A gift for the great Arthur Pendragon, princeliest prince that ever princed. Not that Gwaine has anything against that, to be fair. It certainly makes it easier to get away with – stuff.

“It went straight for him,” he says now. “Didn’t even look at the rest of us until we started bashing it. What makes you think it wasn’t after him?”

“Well, that was probably just because he was the only one not wearing armour,” Arthur says. “It was looking for a quick meal.”

“I am right here, you know,” Merlin says from where Percival’s laid him down. Gwaine’s pretty sure he’s in the exact same spot he was before, although he can’t see the bloodstain any more in the dark.

“Yeah, and I’m going to be right here,” Gwaine says, sitting down next to Merlin and drawing his sword. “Because you’re still the only one not wearing armour.”

Lancelot silently comes and sits on Merlin’s other side. After a moment, Arthur grunts and sits at Merlin’s feet. Percival drops quietly down to form the fourth side of the square, facing away from Merlin and shuffling up until Merlin’s back rests against his.

“This is serious overkill, you know,” Merlin says.

“Shut up, Merlin,” says Arthur.

And they wait.

----

Gwaine is woken up by some bastard snoring right in his ear, and he’s pissed off for the ten seconds it takes him to realise that it’s actually him snoring, and then amused at the weird whistling noise he’s making through his nose for the ten more seconds it takes him to notice that someone’s talking quietly behind him. After that, he tones the snoring down a bit so he can listen.

There’s an abrupt pause in the talking, and then he hears Merlin start to say something and Lancelot’s voice saying hush, I think Gwaine’s awake.

Oh. So Merlin and Lancelot are talking about something they don’t want Gwaine to hear about. Well, that’s totally fine. They’re allowed to have secrets. It’s not like Gwaine doesn’t have any. Like, for example, that he’s actually really brilliant at snoring. Once, he managed to bring a whole pride of lions down on the camp of mercenaries he was travelling with just by snoring too loud, which doesn’t sound like a funny story, but actually it was because everyone got away all right except this one guy who was a bit of a cockbadger anyway. The point is that Gwaine is really something of a maestro, not just at real snoring, but at fake snoring, too and right now he’s got this nasty-sounding gurgling thing going on at the end of each in-breath that he thinks that he can make into something truly disgusting if he just works at it. In fact, he’s concentrating so hard on working up a good wad of phlegm in the back of his throat that he almost misses Lancelot speaking again.

Almost.

“Can’t you do anything about it?” Lancelot asks, and Gwaine instantly tunes back into the conversation, leaving just a little part of his brain to work on the whole gurgling thing, because Gwaine is nothing if not a multitasker.

“I don’t know,” Merlin says. “I think maybe it… did something to me. I haven’t been able to – you know, do anything since it bit me.”

Gwaine raises an eyebrow. He could be wrong – not that that happens often, but still – but it sounds like Merlin and Lancelot are having a conversation about the old five-finger shuffle. Which in itself is not that weird – although Gwaine’s pretty sure he wouldn’t pick Lancelot of all people to tell about some temporary issues with stroking the weasel, but maybe the man has hidden shallows – but Gwaine has no idea when Merlin’s found the time to even try it since Geoff got a piece of him. Even Gwaine hasn’t had a chance, and he’s usually a three-times-a-day kind of guy.

“Do you think it’s permanent?” Lancelot asks, voice full of concern, and Gwaine decides that Lancelot is definitely too interested in Arthur’s manservant’s, uh, manservant.

“I hope not,” Merlin says. “I can’t protect Arthur like this.”

…all right, so maybe this conversation isn’t actually about Merlin’s ability to get it up. Unless Merlin plans to protect Arthur using a different kind of sword, which doesn’t seem too likely (although Gwaine would probably pay actual money to see it and is honestly sort of disappointed now that he’s come up with the idea that it’s almost certainly not going to happen). In any case, Gwaine’s confused enough that he forgets to keep half an eye on the delicate mechanism of the whole fake-snoring thing and almost chokes on his own spit. By the time he’s done coughing and hawking, Merlin and Lancelot definitely know he’s awake. As does Arthur, who’s glaring at him from the other side of the fire.

“Don’t stop now,” says Arthur. “I think there may be some peasants in Catraeth that are still sleeping.”

Gwaine shrugs, clearing his throat. “They all stay up all night in Catraeth anyway,” he says. He’s been to some brilliant feasts in Catraeth.

“Well, since you’re awake, maybe you should get some more firewood,” Arthur says. Apparently he’s even more up his own royal arse than usual when he’s just woken up. Gwaine wonders how Merlin puts up with him every morning.

“Sure,” Gwaine says, and clambers to his feet. It’s almost dawn anyway, and Gwaine’s had enough of sleeping. He wants some action.

“You can’t send him out there alone,” Merlin says, and Arthur frowns at him.

“No, I suppose I can’t,” he sighs, and looks around. Leon and Percival are still out scouting, Gwaine sees, and Lancelot’s glued to Merlin’s side like he has been all bloody night. Not that Gwaine cares, obviously.

“Wake Elyan,” Arthur says to Lancelot. “Keep an eye out until we get back.” He picks up a flaming brand from the fire and draws his sword, nodding to Gwaine. “You collect the wood, I’ll make sure nothing eats you.”

Gwaine thinks about resisting the urge to roll his eyes, but he’s never been one for resisting urges.

“I feel safer already,” he mutters, and he and Arthur head into the trees.

----

One thing about Gwaine is, right, he’s got this amazing sense of smell. Actually, all his senses are pretty amazing, but the smell thing, it’s got him out of trouble more times than you might imagine. Like, Gwaine can smell a drunken husband coming back from the tavern at fifty paces, which comes in handy surprisingly often. So it’s not really a surprise that it’s Gwaine who notices it first.

“Can you smell that?” he says, raising his head, and Arthur makes a grumpy noise behind him.

“Yes,” he says. “You might try washing sometimes, Gwaine. It doesn’t hurt, I promise.”

“No, not that,” Gwaine says, and turns into the light breeze, trying to place it. It smells weirdly like Merlin’s leg, but Merlin’s back in the clearing, and—

“Oh, shit,” he says. “Geoff.”

“Who’s Geoff?” Arthur asks, but Gwaine’s already running back to the clearing, fumbling for his sword, firewood scattered on the ground behind him.

----

The stench of death – stench of Geoff -- is thick in the air by the time Gwaine and Arthur hit the edge of the trees. Lancelot lies crumpled on the ground near the edge of the clearing, sword a few paces away. Elyan’s on his feet, standing facing away from Merlin, and as Gwaine rounds the last tree he sees Geoff in the pre-dawn light, even uglier than he was last time, if that’s possible. Elyan swings his sword and Geoff makes this noise like Gwaine’s sister did this one time when Gwaine put a spider down her bodice, and tosses his head. Elyan goes flying – Geoff didn’t even touch him, damn – and hits a tree, sliding down to lie motionless on the ground. Gwaine winces. Someone should really do something about all these trees all over the place.

“It has magic,” Arthur breathes, which is pretty obvious, but Arthur’s always been into saying obvious things like he’s the first person to ever think of them. Geoff bounds over to Elyan and sniffs him, then turns and advances on Merlin. Merlin’s scrambling away backwards, leg dragging awkwardly along the ground, and Gwaine growls and starts forward.

“Gwaine,” Arthur hisses, grabbing Gwaine’s arm. “You can’t just go charging in there! It has magic!”

“Right,” says Gwaine. “And I have a total lack of anything resembling common sense, or at least that’s what my mother used to say.” He shrugs off Arthur’s hand and plunges forward, grabbing up a burning log from the fire and swinging it at Geoff just as he’s about to leap for Merlin. Geoff does his whole oh shit a spider shriek again and stumbles back, and Gwaine advances, getting in between him and Merlin.

“Come and get me, then,” he says, holding the blazing brand out in front of him, and he realises Arthur’s standing beside him, shoulder to shoulder, like they’re forming a wall of fire and armour. No way is that thing getting past them.

“We should charge it,” Gwaine says.

“That’s an incredibly stupid idea,” Arthur replies. “On three?”

“Three,” says Gwaine, and they race forward, swinging their torches and yelling their battle-cries. Arthur’s battle cry is something about Camelot or honour or some such codswallop. Gwaine’s is the most disgusting curse-word he can come up with on the spot. That’s probably what scares Geoff off, actually, although it might also be the two angry knights and the fire. Whatever it is, Geoff snarls and then bounds away, no magic, nothing, and Gwaine shrugs and turns to check on Merlin.

“You OK?” he says. “Did it hurt you?”

Merlin swallows hard, staring into the trees where Geoff disappeared. “It had magic,” he says, his voice shaking a little.

“Yeah, that was weird, right?” Gwaine says. “Didn’t seem like it had it before.” Or maybe it’s just shite at magic. There have to be magical creatures that bollocks it up all the time, right? Like people who can’t hold their drink, even though that’s what stomachs are for.

Arthur strides over from checking on Elyan and Lancelot, both of whom are now groaning and sitting up. “Merlin,” he says, squatting on his haunches. “Are you hurt?”

Merlin doesn’t answer, and Arthur reaches out a hand and shakes him a little. “Merlin,” he says, and Merlin’s attention snaps back to Arthur.

“Um, I’m fine,” he says. “It’s all right, I’m fine, honest.” He sounds like he’s trying to convince himself as much as Arthur, and Gwaine plonks himself down on his arse and nudges Merlin’s shoulder.

“How come it’s so keen on you, anyway?” he asks. “Are you wearing some kind of new perfume?”

Arthur rolls his eyes. “Eau d’unwashed peasant,” he mutters, and then looks up as Leon and Percival come racing out of the trees.

“We heard shouts,” says Leon. “Is everything all right, sire?”

“It’s fine,” Arthur says. “The beast came back. And it’s definitely after Merlin.”

Lancelot drops down on Merlin’s other side and Gwaine sees Merlin give him a wide-eyed look. Lancelot looks worried, and Gwaine narrows his eyes. Somehow he feels like whatever secret it is the two of them are hiding, it’s nothing as fun as skills at fake snoring.

“Why would it want Merlin?” Leon asks, sitting down as well and frowning in Merlin’s general direction. Merlin returns the stare, but the face he’s wearing is one Gwaine’s seen before, every time Merlin lies to Arthur about what he and Gwaine have been up to.

“It must just be what you said before,” Lancelot puts in, a little too loudly. “Merlin’s not wearing armour, and it was looking for an easy target.”

Arthur looks thoughtful, sitting beside Leon. “No,” he says. “Elyan was a sitting duck out there, and with the size of its teeth it could have had his armour off in seconds. It must be something else.”

Gwaine looks at Merlin and sees that he’s started to sweat. Beside him, Lancelot looks like someone’s just asked him to punch his own mother.

…all right, fine. Lancelot and Merlin have some big secret that they don’t want Gwaine to know, and Gwaine is totally OK with that because he’s a big boy, but they obviously don’t want Arthur to know it, either, or even that they have a secret in the first place, and even though Arthur’s basically incapable of seeing anything that isn’t jumping up and down in front of him naked and juggling cow dung, the thing is that Lancelot’s about as good at lying as he is at telling dirty jokes, and Merlin’s sick and not really on form. So it’s up to Gwaine to distract Arthur, because if there’s one thing that Gwaine has learned in life, it’s that you always make sure the person in charge doesn’t know what’s really going on.

“Who cares?” Gwaine says, hawking and spitting into the fire. Arthur turns a disgusted frown on him and Gwaine grins. “It doesn’t really matter why it wants him,” he says. “What matters is it’s not going to get him. Right?”

There’s a pause, and then a general murmur of assent round the circle. Percival grins and ruffles Merlin’s hair. Lancelot squeezes his shoulder. Elyan and Leon nod at him from across the circle.

Arthur stares at Gwaine for a long moment, then turns to look at Merlin.

“No,” he says. “No, it’s not.”

 

----

It starts raining just after dawn. Not a good old crazy downpour, either, where you just get soaked and you deal with it and then the sun comes out and dries you off, but the miserable miserly kind of rain that makes all your clothes damp and itchy under your armour, but you can't scratch because, you know, you're wearing armour. Gwaine remembers when he didn't have to wear a tin coat everywhere he went. Those were the days.

It's the rain that stops Gwaine from noticing that Merlin's sweating again, at least until Lancelot puts a hand on his forehead and shoots Gwaine a worried look.

“He's not doing well,” he says in a low voice, and Gwaine takes in Merlin's half-closed eyes and the fact that he still smells like a sewer even though they've cleaned his leg three times, and grins broadly at Lancelot.

“He's just a bit under the weather,” he says, clapping Merlin on the shoulder.

Lancelot stares at him like he's gone mad, and Gwaine rolls his eyes, making sure Merlin can't see. Honestly, Lancelot has no understanding whatsoever of dishonesty. Gwaine really needs to give him some masterclasses or something, but right now he's got other things to attend to.

“I've seen him sicker than this from one tankard of mead and half a pickled egg,” he says, raising his eyebrows at Lancelot and patting Merlin's shoulder again.

“That's cos pickled eggs are disgusting, Gwaine,” Merlin mumbles, and Gwaine sends Lancelot a triumphant grin. Ten points for being a lying bastard! Nobility loses again.

“You're fine, Merlin,” he says, and gets to his feet, heading over to where Arthur's patrolling the edge of the clearing.

“Arthur, we need to get Merlin back to Camelot,” he says. “He's not getting any better sitting out here.”

Arthur casts a glance over to where Lancelot is wrapping his cloak around Merlin in an attempt to keep the rain off. “We can try walking out again,” he says, and Gwaine shakes his head.

“Right,” he says. “That went brilliantly the last two times.”

“Well, what do you suggest?” Arthur asks, looking around at the other knights, who've gathered around to hear the conversation.

Gwaine shrugs. “I reckon we should kill Geoff,” he says. “He's got to be the one putting the blinders on us.”

There's a grunt of agreement from Percival, but Elyan shakes his head.

“We don't know that,” he says. “There could be a sorcerer out there, maybe even controlling Geoff.”

“Oh, for God's sake,” Arthur says, loud enough that Lancelot looks up from tending to Merlin. “That thing is a dangerous magical beast of the utmost power and it is not called Geoff.

Elyan clears his throat and looks sheepish, which Gwaine really doesn't get. Arthur doesn't know that it's not called Geoff. It's not like he's asked it.

Arthur takes a deep breath, and then nods. “All right,” he says. “We need to look for – the beast, and keep an eye out for any sorcerers as well. Gwaine, you go with Percival. Elyan with Leon. I'll stay here with Lancelot and make sure nothing gets to Merlin.” He looks around at them and does that half-nod thing where he's worried about them but he's too noble to admit it, the one that Gwaine always does when he's pretending to be a prince to skip out on his bill at the tavern (he's practised it in the mirror, and he does a much better job of it than Arthur, by the way). “Make sure you don't lose sight of each other,” says Arthur. “And be careful.”

“Always am,” says Gwaine, and follows Percival into the woods, sparing one last quick glance back at Merlin.

----

The problem with forests, Gwaine decides, is that there are way too many trees. It's not just that trees are solid objects scattered around randomly in the way of anyone who might be, say, flying through the air after being thrown off the back of a magical beast, either, though obviously that is annoying. It's also that it's dark under trees, especially when it's raining and you're mostly poking about in undergrowth looking for some old beardy man or a giant boar-eagle-lion thing, which, let's face it, is unlikely to be hiding in the scrawny bush that Gwaine is currently stabbing with his sword. Not that Gwaine doesn't like poking around in undergrowth, obviously, it's just that usually he's playing a game of hide and seek with someone who might be up for some more poking in future, if you get his meaning. And he mostly isn't into beardy old men. Mostly.

Percival hacks at a shrub at the base of the cliff they're working their way along, and Gwaine looks up and frowns. “You all right?” he says. “You're even quieter than usual.”

Percival grunts, and Gwaine raises his eyebrows and wonders if that's all he's going to get. You never can tell with Percival. A minute later, though, Percival pauses in his vegetation-torturing and frowns.

“I don't like it,” he says.

Gwaine snorts. “What, wandering around in the woods in the pissing rain looking for dangerous sorcerers?” he says. “Probably shouldn't have become a knight of Camelot, then.”

“No, not that,” Percival says, and then glances back at the clearing. “Why's it want Merlin, anyway?” he asks, and Gwaine sends him a sidelong glance.

“Probably just likes 'em skinny,” he says, and waits to see what Percival will say next. Percival's not Arthur, which means he's not the most oblivious person in the whole of Camelot, and Gwaine might need to do some damage control to direct attention away from – whatever it is that Merlin doesn't want to tell him.

Percival's looking back towards the clearing again. “I should have left him my armour,” he says.

“You could fit three of him in your armour,” Gwaine says, and he's enjoying the image – three Merlins, all wrapped in chain-mail and probably arguing with each other, or maybe just a three-headed Merlin, like that woman Gwaine once met in Pictland, except instead of three heads she had three – wait a second, why would Percival leave Merlin his armour? He looks over, and Percival's still frowning back the way they came.

“You're really worried about him, aren't you?” Gwaine says. Percival turns back to face him.

“Course,” he says. “Aren't you?”

Gwaine chews his lip. “Nah,” he says. “He'll be fine.” Why would he be worried about Merlin, anyway? Sure, the kid's a little on the scrawny side, but he can take a beating and come out the other side grinning, and there's no way a little bump in the road like being savaged by a horrifying beast from the depths of the Otherworld is going to cause any problems. Nope. Nothing to worry about at all. Anyway, Percival has no right to be so calm about the whole thing. He's just admitted to having feelings, and everyone knows Lancelot's the only knight who's allowed those.

“I didn't know you cared,” Gwaine says, trying for a mocking grin, although he's not sure he quite manages.

Percival raises his eyebrows. “Well, I do,” he says, and turns back to dismember another bush.

All right, so maybe Percival's allowed feelings too. He's a big lad, to be fair, so there's probably not many people can take them off him. Gwaine's not sure exactly what that means for the rest of them – like, he feels like there should be some kind of compensation, if Percival gets to have feelings then Gwaine should get extra wine rations or something. All right, so Gwaine already drinks half of Leon's wine and all of Lancelot's, but you can never go wrong with more wine, you know? He's trying to calculate exactly how much wine Percival's feelings might translate into when he notices a narrow opening in the cliff. It's so constricted he almost doesn't see it, and he's opening his mouth to suggest to Percival that they check it out, when he realises that there's a smell like a particularly sloppy midden wafting out of it. Like a particularly sloppy midden that's heading their way at high speed.

“Look out,” he yells, but he barely has time to draw his sword before Geoff comes barrelling out of the cave mouth towards them, spit flying out of its misshapen mouth. Gwaine swings his sword and connects, but the sword bounces off and Gwaine barely avoids getting smacked in the face with the sharp end, which really would have ruined his day. Then something invisible slams into him full force, and the next thing he knows he's dangling in mid-air with nothing holding him up. At times like these, Gwaine actually finds the whole knight of Camelot thing a little overrated.

Geoff approaches him, sniffing and slavering, and Gwaine tries to turn his head to see what's happened to Percival, but his neck muscles aren't working at all. His voice isn't either, which is a shame, because Gwaine's really in the mood to work himself up to a good healthy bout of cursing right now. Geoff snuffles at his feet, and Gwaine does his best to give him a good swift kick in the face – which, all right, given how many teeth that face has might not be the best plan that Gwaine's ever had, but then, he's more known for his roguish charm and exceptional good looks than his foresight anyway – but his legs aren't working either and oh hey absolutely no part of his body is working at all. So yeah, it turns out Geoff isn't actually that easy to kill, after all.

Gwaine feels a weird slimy burning kind of sensation and rolls his eyes downward to see Geoff licking his feet. Licking them. It's the most disgusting thing that's happened to Gwaine for at least a fortnight, and he is definitely going to have to have a bath after this, which makes three times already this year.

Then Geoff makes a kind of growling-huffing noise, and tosses his head, and Gwaine has just about enough time to notice that he's flying through the air again and think oh, bollocks, I'm probably about to hit a tree and pass out before he hits a tree and passes out.

----

Gwaine's woken up by a big sweaty blurry man who smells absolutely awful, and it's not the first time that's ever happened, but on the other hand, it's not Gwaine's favourite way of waking up, either, so he flaps his hands a bit and mumbles something about paying up tomorrow, honest, which nets him a big sweaty hand clutching him by the cheeks and a big sweaty face peering at him from what Gwaine can honestly say is far too close.

“Come on, Gwaine,” says the man. “We've got to get back.”

Gwaine blinks, and the big sweaty blurry face resolves itself into Percival's big sweaty blurry face. “You smell like shit,” Gwaine says, and Percival looks relieved.

“That's you, actually,” he says.

Gwaine's about to protest that he's never smelt this bad, not even that one time after he lost that cesspit-wrestling competition in Strathclyde – and he has no idea what they eat in Strathclyde that makes their cesspits quite that disgusting, but he's sure he doesn't want any of it – but then he remembers Geoff, and, more importantly, remembers where Geoff was heading last time he saw him.

“Percival!” he says, stumbling to his feet. “We've got to get back!”

----

Gwaine knows Merlin's going to be all right. Merlin's always all right, even though he gets himself into some really stupid situations sometimes, and he always laughs with Gwaine about them afterwards and they get drunk and sometimes they get into more stupid situations, but mostly those ones involve hiding in barrels of ale and being chased by women with frying pans rather than things that have more teeth than there are notches on Gwaine's bedpost, so that's all fine. The point is, Merlin always makes it through, just like Gwaine does, and Lancelot, and everybody. And Gwaine knows in his head that sometimes people do die and that one day it's going to be one of them, but that's in his head, and everyone knows Gwaine's head is full of pickled sawdust and beeswax, so he never pays it much attention.

The thing about it is, though, is that when Gwaine bursts into the clearing with Percival hot on his heels and finds Lancelot laid out on the ground for the second time that day, Arthur slumped fifteen paces further on, and the red cloak that Merlin had been wrapped in spread in ragged folds across the forest floor, he thinks that maybe his head's right about something for once. And when he realises that Arthur and Lancelot are both breathing, that doesn't change anything, because Lancelot's cloak's still torn and empty and Merlin's still gone.

Merlin's gone.

----

“Arthur. Hey, Arthur!”

It only takes a little bit of shaking to get Arthur to wake up. In fact, maybe it didn't really need shaking at all, but who's counting, right? Anyway, Arthur opens his eyes and stares at Gwaine for a minute like he's not really sure who he's looking at. Then he wrinkles his face up.

“God,” he says. “What's that smell?”

“That's Gwaine,” says Percival helpfully from where he's helping Lancelot up.

“Yeah, cheers, Percival,” Gwaine says, although to be fair, he really does stink, maybe even worse than Merlin did.

Merlin.

“Right,” he says, getting to his feet. “Come on, then, get up, we've got to go and find Merlin.”

Arthur blinks. “Merlin?” he says, and then looks around the clearing, at Percival looking worried and Lancelot staring at the empty cloak like it's just slept with his wife. “Where's Merlin?” says Arthur, and Gwaine sighs and waits. One. Two. Thr--

Arthur rises to his feet, swaying a little. “Merlin's gone,” he says, and Gwaine nods.

“Good, well, now we're all caught up,” he says, “let's go and find him.”

“Sire,” Leon appears through the trees, closely followed by Elyan. “We found no trace of--” He stops, staring around at the signs of disarray. “What happened?”

“We were ambushed,” says Arthur, and Leon immediately makes the face that means he's trying to figure out how he could have let Arthur get ambushed without him.

“Where's Merlin?” Elyan asks, and Gwaine rolls his eyes.

“Merlin's gone,” he says. “Geoff took him, and we have to get him back. Is everybody with me? Good. Let's go.”

He starts towards the trees, but Arthur grabs him by the elbow.

“Wait,” he says. “You don't even know where you're going.”

“Yeah, I do,” Gwaine says. “We found the cave where it lives. Tell him, Percival.”

“Yeah,” Percival says, but he's frowning. “But the entrance is really narrow. I don't think more than one man could go in at a time.”

“Well, it's lucky I'm only one man, then, isn't it?” Gwaine says, trying to shrug off Arthur's arm, because the whole obey your sovereign thing is all very well in theory, but Geoff's got Merlin and who even knows what he's doing to him right now?

Arthur's grip is as tight as Gwaine's sister's purse-strings, though, and he's glaring at Gwaine now.

“Great, and what good is it going to do Merlin when you get yourself killed?” he says. “I want to go after him as much as you do, but we need a plan.”

Oh, brilliant, a plan. Gwaine loves plans. Like, there was this time he made a plan never to have anything to do with nobles and princes again, and that worked out absolutely brilliantly.

“I've got a plan,” says Percival, and everyone turns to look at him. “We kill Geoff,” he says. “Really, really hard.”

...on the other hand, Gwaine is totally sold on that particular plan.

“Well, obviously,” says Arthur, running a hand through his hair. “But it's got magic, remember? It's already beaten down our defences twice.”

“Fire,” says Elyan. He looks at Arthur. “I mean, you said that when you and Gwaine scared it off with fire, it didn't use its magic on you. Maybe it's got some kind of blocking effect?”

Arthur looks like he's considering it, then squares his shoulders. “Good,” he says. “But we can't exactly set fire to the cave if it's got Merlin in there.”

“Sire,” says Leon, “we don't know for sure that Geoff--” He clears his throat as Arthur scowls at him “--um, that the beast is affected by fire.”

Arthur shakes his head. “It's a risk we'll have to take. But we need to get it out into the open somehow.”

“I think--” says Lancelot, and they all turn to look at him. He's still clutching the red cloak, and he raises it a little. “Whenever it's come after Merlin, it's always like it can smell him,” he says. “And he was wearing this cloak.”

“You think if one of us wears it, we might smell enough like Merlin to get it come after us?” Arthur says, and Lancelot nods.

“It's a chance, anyway,” he says.

Arthur nods. “I'll do it,” he says.

“Sire,” Leon says, but Arthur raises a hand.

“He's my manservant,” he says. “My responsibility.”

“You mustn't risk it,” Lancelot says. “You are the only heir of Camelot. He's my friend, I'll go.”

“He's my friend, too,” says Percival.

“And mine,” Elyan chimes in.

There's a pause, and they all look at Gwaine. He shrugs. “I don't know what you're all arguing about it for,” he says. “I mean, you need someone to annoy Geoff enough to make him want to murder them, right?”

There's a long silence, and then Arthur sighs.

“Fine,” he says. “Give Gwaine the cloak.”

----

Arthur tells Gwaine all kinds of things, like make sure you pay attention to where you're going and don't go inside the cave and don't do anything stupid and honestly, he's a worse nag than Old Mother Glenys who used to live next door when Gwaine was a kid, and she had a mouth on her like you wouldn't believe. All you had to do was trample her vegetable patch or leave horse dung on her doorstep or set fire to her shoes and she'd be on you like a shocker, and Gwaine has no idea how she always knew it was him. Anyway, Gwaine's got pretty good at ignoring people nagging at him, so he puts on his best yes-I-am-very-interested-in-what-you're-saying face, which somehow seems to give Arthur the impression that Gwaine's mocking him, which he's not, right, he's just ignoring him, which is completely different. Anyway, after enough time for all the kingdoms of the earth to come into being and pass away, Arthur finally shuts up, and Gwaine pulls the red cloak tighter round himself and heads for the cave.

The weird thing about stinking for a really long time is you kind of get used to it, and Gwaine's almost forgotten about the fact that his feet smell like something that's been buried in rotting sewage for three weeks until he gets near the cave and realises that actually, Geoff doesn't smell the same as Gwaine's feet, he smells foul in a completely different and equally disgusting way, which would be fine except that it turns out that when the disgusting smell of Gwaine's feet mixes with the disgusting smell of Geoff's – everything, there's this whole new level of holy God I'm going to throw up which Gwaine hadn't actually known was possible before.

Yep. Definitely going to need a bath after this.

“All right, keep it together,” he mutters to himself, trying to breathe through his mouth, and then trying carefully not to imagine the fact that air that smells that bad is actually going inside his body, because he's pretty sure that if he doesn't breathe, he'll die, and he doesn't want to die until he's collected the three deniers that Wulf the tinker owes him after their last dice game.

Finally, he reaches the entrance to the cave and peers in. Geoff's curled up on the floor, asleep, and every time he breathes out, Gwaine has to fight the overwhelming urge to just give up and let Wulf keep the money after all. Deeper into the cave, there's a huddled shape against the rock wall that's definitely Merlin, but beyond that and the fact that he doesn't seem to have been partially eaten, Gwaine can't tell anything at all.

“All right, then, you arse-faced bastard,” Gwaine mutters, because to be honest, he's really fucking sick of Geoff. He stoops to pick up a stone and tosses it at Geoff. “Wake up,” he yells. “Come on, nice juicy meat on the bone, right here!”

The stone bounces off Geoff's nose, and his eyes blink open, his head rising a little as he sniffs the air. Gwaine flaps the cloak in his general direction. “There's a whole party of skinny manservants right outside,” he says. “You're gonna love it, I swear.”

Geoff sniffs again, then lumbers to his feet, snorting a little.

“That's right, that's right,” Gwaine says, waving the cloak some more. “You really want a piece of this, it's what all the misshapen hellspawn are wearing this year.”

That's when Geoff charges, and Gwaine has a split second of triumph before he realises that Geoff is charging.

Oh shit.

----

The thing about running, Gwaine decides as he avoids yet another goddamn cocking tree, is that it's really quite a lot like drinking. Like, if you want to keep going for a good couple of days, you've really got to start off slow and it's probably a good idea to eat something at some point. If, on the other hand, all you want to do is get to where you're going really spectacularly fast and then go and fall in a ditch somewhere, it's totally all right and in fact probably recommended to give it everything you've got from the very start.

Well, all right, actually Gwaine doesn't think any of that while he's running, because while he's running what he mainly thinks is “oh shit”, but he thinks it not that long afterwards, and that definitely counts.

In any case, Gwaine's running so fast (because he always did prefer the end up in a ditch style anyway) that he almost forgets to stop when he gets to the ring of trees that he's supposed to stop at. The thing is, though, that Geoff's coming up hard behind him, and when Gwaine does manage to stop, he skids to a halt so suddenly that he overbalances and half-falls, and he's trying to turn and go for his sword when he gets a face-full of disgusting-smelling magical beast, and then he really does fall.

He lands hard on his side, but the weight of Geoff on top of him quickly pushes him to his front, and he feels his ribs groaning under the pressure. More importantly, though, Geoff's foot is on his head and it's pushing his mouth and nose into the mud, and on the one hand, he's really quite glad that all he can smell now is dirt and leaves, but on the other hand, that whole breathing thing there was actually kind of handy and Gwaine sort of misses it right now.

He flails, trying to push Geoff off, but the beast is damn heavy and it's not going anywhere fast, and Gwaine thinks oh well, guess this is it, then, and I hope Arthur pulls his thumb out of his royal backside and rescues Merlin and you know, I could really go a skin of ale and couple of pickled onions right now, and then black spots start dancing in front of his eyes and he wonders if his life is going to flash before him. He hopes it doesn't skip over Beltane last year if it does. He's always wondered what happened that night.

Then the black spots turn into dancing lights, and Gwaine's busy blinking at them when the weight suddenly disappears from his back. He rolls over, coughing and heaving and spitting out mud, and it takes him a couple of moments to realise that the dancing light is a ring of fire surrounding him and Geoff, and another couple of moments to remember that that was actually Arthur's brilliant plan and Gwaine drowning in mud wasn't technically part of it, and then he remembers that Geoff's still alive and he really actually hates Geoff, and he's stumbling to his feet, staggering a little and missing the hilt of his sword the first couple of times he reaches for it.

That's all right, though, because actually Gwaine's sword might be a little bit of overkill, seeing as how there are already five men with swords going at Geoff. Gwaine blinks, and the five men resolve themselves into his friends, and then he remembers what Geoff's done to Merlin and decides that overkill really isn't always a bad thing, after all.

----

So it turns out that Elyan's right about Geoff not using magic around fire, but the thing is, even without the magic, Geoff's still got legs as thick as Percival's waist and as many teeth as all the peasants in Camelot put together, and one swing of his tail knocks the sword right out of Percival's hands, and another almost sends Leon into the ring of flames. Gwaine is the next target, and he barely escapes, the smell of singed hair letting him know just how close he's come, and for a minute or two he thinks maybe they're actually not going to win.

Then Arthur flings his shield away and strides forward, flexing his wrist.

“I've had enough of you,” he says, and takes a two-handed swing that slices across the front of Geoff's knee, and would have left Arthur wide open if Elyan hadn't been there to fend off Geoff's shrieking maw. Geoff stumbles, and that's all it takes for Percival to duck in and give him a vicious upper cut to the jaw that sends him reeling for long enough for Leon and Elyan to slip into his blind spots on either side, swinging their swords in long, slicing arcs along his flanks. Gwaine finds himself shoulder-to-shoulder with Lancelot and Arthur, staring down Geoff's gaping mouth as he shrieks and thrashes.

“I don't know about you guys,” Gwaine says, raising his sword, “but I really hope he smells less when he's dead.”

And then all three of them plunge forward, thrusting their blades down Geoff's throat, and Geoff bucks once, twice, black blood spraying from his mouth, and falls to the ground in a twitching, oozing, heap.

Arthur kicks the corpse, and the thick, oily blood drips onto his boot. Gwaine stares at it.

“That'll never come out, you know,” he says.

And then he starts to run.

----

Even though Gwaine starts running first, Leon makes it to the cave before him. Gwaine decides it's because he's already done a fair bit of running today, not to mention he just had a stinking hellbeast sitting on his ribcage and it still sort of smarts. Of course, it could be that not drinking yourself unconscious every night is actually good for you in some way, but Gwaine's pretty sure that's an old wives' tale.

In any case, Leon's already kneeling on the floor of the cave when Gwaine gets there, leaning over Merlin's pale face and listening at his mouth. He's all right, obviously Merlin's all right, and if Gwaine has a bit of a funny turn when he comes in and sees how pale and slack Merlin's features are, well, that's just because he still can't draw a full breath without his ribs threatening a rebellion, that's all it is, that's all, because Merlin is fine, he's fine.

Apparently, Leon didn't get that message, though, because he looks up at Gwaine, and at Arthur and Lancelot who've come in behind him, and shakes his head.

“He's not breathing,” he says.

Behind him, Gwaine hears Lancelot make a choked noise, and then Arthur pushes past him, dropping to his knees and practically shoving Leon away from Merlin.

“Don't be stupid,” he says, and shakes Merlin by the shoulders. “Wake up, Merlin,” he says. “Come on, you lazy clot, stop acting the fool.”

Merlin's head lolls, hanging back on his neck, his jaw rattling with the force of Arthur's shaking, and Lancelot slips past Gwaine, too, crouching and putting a hand on Arthur's arm.

“Sire,” he says, voice thick and gravelly. “Please.”

Arthur stares at Lancelot, and the face he's making twists Gwaine's stomach into something that might be horror, but he's pretty sure it's actually irritation. Typical Arthur, prince of drama.

“What's happening?” Elyan asks, coming into the cave behind him, and Gwaine shakes his head.

“A lot of fuss about nothing,” he mutters, and takes a step forward, falling to his knees because that's the most useful place to be and not because his legs won't hold him up any more at all.

“Budge over,” he says to Lancelot, and then he leans down and puts his ear to Merlin's chest.

“Sire--” says Leon, but Arthur and Gwaine both say ssh at the same moment, and Leon subsides.

Gwaine closes his eyes. The problem with Leon is that he thinks that rules are important. He thinks that if a person's not breathing, if they're pale and limp, then they're dead. And Gwaine's got nothing against rules, really. He understands that they're there for a reason, and that reason is to give people like Leon something to make them feel safe and people like Arthur something to angst about while looking all noble. But the thing is, Gwaine thinks angsting and looking noble is pretty much the most boring pastime ever invented, and feeling safe is for people who don't understand that a good tankard or two of mead will cure more ills than any number of ideas about proper behaviour. So Gwaine gets what rules are there for, but he also gets that they don't apply to people like him, and they definitely don't apply to people like Merlin.

He slows his breathing and puts his hand over the ear that's not pressed against Merlin's chest, spending a couple of moments getting used to the change in pressure and listening to the quiet rushing sound, like the sea from half a league away. Then he filters that sound out, and concentrates on nothing but what he can hear in the other ear, the one that's itchy with homespun cloth and less than a hand's-breadth from Merlin's heart.

Everything's still, and for a moment, Gwaine thinks there's nothing, he thinks that Leon was right all along. And then – there, something, so quiet it's more a feeling in the bones of his skull than a noise.

Thump.

Gwaine holds his breath and waits. It's long, too long, and he wonders if maybe he imagined it the first time (but he didn't) and can anyone really live with this long between their heartbeats and what if--

Thump.

He sits up, and the world rushes back a little too fast, but he shakes his head and grins at Arthur and Lancelot.

“Heart's beating,” he says, and both of them look like they're starving to death and he's just offered them a pork pie.

“Of course it is,” says Arthur, clearing his throat and wiping that oh thank God a pork pie look off his face. “But I don't—” he coughs and runs a hand over Merlin's chest—“I don't see any injuries. Why doesn't he wake?”

Lancelot brushes the back of his hand over his eyes. “The beast,” he says. “It took something from him, his—his life-force. We need to get it back.”

“How do we do that?” Leon puts in, and Gwaine raises an eyebrow at him, because he's still not really over Leon letting them all think Merlin was dead just because those are the rules.

“I say we burn Geoff,” he says, and Arthur nods.

“For once,” he says, “I agree with Gwaine.”

----

The rain from the morning has left most of the forest damp and really resistant to being set on fire, and it takes them most of the rest of the daylight to collect enough dry wood and kindling to make a pyre around Geoff's stinking corpse. The fire that they used to block his magic is nothing but a ring of scorched ground, now, but the campfire they made in the clearing is still smouldering, and Gwaine crouches and pokes at it, blows on it, and generally treats it like he really wants to take it round the back of the tavern and spend some quality time with it until it springs back into life, crackling quietly at the end of Gwaine's poking-stick. Gwaine's got the magic touch, see. All the girls in the Lower Town say so.

He takes the blazing branch back to Geoff's body, moving as fast as he dares without risking the breeze from his passage blowing out the flame. When he gets there, Elyan is stacking a few more logs on the pyre, and Lancelot sits at the foot of a tree, Merlin slumped across his chest, head lolling back onto his shoulder, jaw slack. Percival and Leon are gone, but Arthur stands on the other side of the pyre, as close as he can get to Merlin without touching him. Poor sod, still thinks he can pretend he doesn't care. Gwaine offers Arthur the brand, but Arthur shakes his head, and Gwaine's pretty happy with that. He stares down at Geoff's bloated corpse, half-hidden by the pile of wood stacked around it.

“Bye, Geoff,” he says, crouching and thrusting the brand into the midst of the twigs and grass, deep in the depths of the pyre. The kindling doesn't catch for a second, and Gwaine breathes gently on it until it's merrily blazing, then watches the flames lick up against Geoff's skin. “You'd better give my friend back what you owe him,” he mutters, “or I swear I'll come down to hell and take it back from you myself.”

Geoff doesn't say anything.

----

Geoff's corpse burns hot and slow, and Gwaine hasn't had a night so grim since that time he stayed at the Cow's Head in Heilyn Goch. Every little while he crouches by Merlin, leaning over and listening for the slow thump of his heart-beat, and every time it's just as slow and Merlin looks just as much like someone's sucked all the Merlin out of him. No-one ever asks him what he hears, but every time he looks up he finds Arthur's eyes fixed on him, and he nods, because he thinks it's probably important that Arthur breathes out as well as in. The rest of the time, Gwaine doesn't look at Merlin at all, because the more he looks at him, the more details he's going to remember about all this later when Merlin's totally fine, and he's pretty sure that path leads to angsting and maybe even looking noble. And anyway, he thinks he's got indigestion from the field rations he ate earlier, and for some reason looking at Merlin just seems to make it worse. So all round, it's a better idea to just pretend he's not there at all.

Once Geoff's flesh is gone, they have to keep the fire as hot as possible to burn the bones, and that means a lot of running around collecting wood and falling over things in the dark. Gwaine's actually pretty all right with that, firstly because honestly it's pretty hard work sitting around not looking at Merlin—he just wants to check every now and then in case Merlin's woken up or, or in case he's, anyway, in case he's woken up—and secondly, secondly because he's really good at falling over things in the dark, and he always likes showing off his skills.

By the time dawn swings round, there's nothing left of Geoff but ashes, the few bones that are still intact crumbling to dust when Gwaine pokes them with his sword. He hits each one, making sure they're all gone, and then he turns and looks at Merlin.

Merlin doesn't stir.

There's a silence that's long enough for Gwaine's indigestion to start playing up again, and then Elyan says, “It didn't work.”

“Give it a moment,” says Arthur, voice tight like it is when he's arguing with his old dad.

Gwaine doesn't want to give it a moment, though. Burning Geoff was his idea, and suddenly he thinks what if they were supposed to do something else? Like, what if they needed Geoff's blood or his fur or something to fix Merlin? What if they've just burned the only thing that could wake him up and it's Gwaine's fault?

And the thing is, that is not all right. That is not something Gwaine's going to let happen, and if there's one thing Gwaine really excels at, it's being a damn stubborn bastard. So he doesn't give it a moment, he turns back to the fire and starts stabbing at it with his sword, sifting through the thick layer of grey ash looking for something, anything that they've missed, and someone's hand catches at his arm but he ignores them because this was his idea and now it's his job to make sure it fucking works.

And then, and then, there. Gwaine holds his breath for a second and lifts his sword, and there, on the tip, is a patch of skin, no bigger than the palm of his hand, charred and blackened but still intact, still something that belongs to Geoff. Gwaine shakes his head.

“I've got you, you fucker,” he says, and thrusts the skin into the hottest part of the embers, holding it there until the tip of his blade glows red, and the skin catches fire, shrivelling down until there's nothing left of it but ash.

“Got you,” mutters Gwaine again, and turns again to Merlin.

And Merlin breathes.

To be more precise, Merlin heaves in a lungful of air and doubles over, eyes snapping open and rolling wildly, limbs flailing all over the place. He looks sort of like Old Mother Glenys's cat did that one time it fell in the water butt (which Gwaine certainly didn't have anything to do with, no matter what his sister might have said at the time). Percival and Arthur both throw themselves forward, covering Merlin's thrashing body with theirs, pressing him up against Lancelot's chest, and Merlin stills, gulping in air like it's beer, eyes too wide and face too pale.

Gwaine crouches in front of the whole bundle of them, reaching out and ruffling Merlin's hair a little.

“You know, you still smell like you've been sleeping in a privy,” he says.

And somewhere under the pile of grim-looking knights, Merlin smiles.

----

The journey back to Camelot is longer than any journey has any right to be, as far as Gwaine is concerned. Percival carries Merlin as far as the nearest village, where they manage to buy a broken-down old horse that'll just about carry two. Arthur insists that he should get to ride, since he's the prince and all, which of course has nothing to do with the fact that Merlin's going to be riding too. Merlin sleeps most of the way, though, except for when he gets woken up by Gwaine poking him in the shins or Lancelot laying a hand on his arm or Arthur shouting at him to wake up. So actually, he doesn't sleep that much, though he gives it a good go, and Gwaine would maybe feel a little guilty about that if Merlin didn't look so pale and limp every time he fell asleep. So really, it's Merlin who ought to feel guilty.

The night after they get back, there's a feast to celebrate their complete lack of death-by-Geoff. Merlin's not there—he's sleeping, because apparently being mostly-dead for most of a day and night really takes it out of you—and Gwaine fills his tankard half-full and only drinks when someone's looking at him. Around midnight, he stands up and makes his way towards the door. Elyan stops him on the way.

“Hey, where are you going?” he slurs, at least two sheets to the wind.

“Got to see a man about a dog,” says Gwaine, and taps his nose. Elyan looks solemn and tries to do the same, but he misses his nose and pokes himself in the eye instead. Gwaine grins and claps him on the shoulder, then slips away.

No need to tell him that the dog's name is Geoff.

----

The next day, Gwaine spends some time lurking in a hallway just down the corridor from Gaius's chambers. Well, he's not lurking as such – skulking, maybe, or even just loitering. Loitering is actually one of Gwaine's special skills. In any case, he's been hanging about there for almost an hour, and he knows every detail in the tapestry that's hanging up there – and he's tempted to attach a note to it or something, because griffons don't really look like that and they definitely don't enjoy hanging around while wispy-looking girls make daisy chains for them, which as far as Gwaine can tell is what's supposed to be going on – when he hears Gaius's door open and shut, and he snaps to and puts on his best nonchalant expression.

“Oh, Gaius, how are you,” he says, stepping out into the main corridor and smiling at the old man. “How's Merlin doing?”

“He's resting right now,” Gaius says. “I think he will recover well, although it will be a while before he can put any weight on that leg.”

Gwaine nods, putting on his best grave and sympathetic expression, the one he's copied from Lancelot. Gaius frowns at him.

“Do you have indigestion?” he asks, and Gwaine coughs. Maybe he should work a bit harder on that one. Maybe he could get Lancelot to stand next to him while he practices in the mirror. That's probably the best way.

“Uh, well, you know,” he says, waving a hand. “Rich food at the feast last night, you know how it is. Where are you off to?”

“I have to go to the Lower Town for the afternoon,” Gaius says, and sighs. “I'd rather not leave Merlin on his own, though.”

Gwaine smiles his most winning smile. “Well, I could look in on him for you, if you want.”

A relieved looks crosses Gaius's face. “Would you?” he asks, and then frowns slightly. “No excitement, though.”

Gwaine starts to go for his Lancelot expression again, then decides maybe that's not the best idea, and tries for not a total scoundrel instead. Aim low, that's what Gwaine always says.

“I'm actually not that keen on excitement, myself,” he says. “It's overrated.”

Gaius gives him a worried look. “Well, I'll be back as soon as I can,” he says, and shuffles off down the corridor.

“No need to rush,” calls Gwaine after him, and then grins to himself. Heat one goes to Gwaine. He's a genius.

----

Merlin's dozing when Gwaine comes in, but Gwaine puts paid to that pretty sharpish, sitting on the bed and poking Merlin in the shoulder till he wakes up.

“Hey,” he says. “Gaius told me to come and take you out.”

Merlin opens his mouth and closes it again. He still looks pale, but it's probably just the light. “Out?” he says.

“Yeah, you know.” Gwaine makes a vague gesture towards the window. “That big place with all the grass and trees and sky and stuff? I've heard it's a lot of fun.”

“But Gaius said I should rest,” Merlin says, frowning a little.

“Well, you can rest outside,” Gwaine says. “And besides, what does Gaius know?” Wait, isn't he supposed to be pretending Gaius is all in favour of this? Well, maybe Merlin's still sick enough that he won't notice.

“He is a physician,” Merlin points out, and Gwaine jumps off the bed.

“Exactly!” he says. “How can he expect you to get better in here, with all these potions and bubbling pots and--” he sniffs something that's brewing in the corner and has a brief coughing fit. “I mean, don't get me wrong, Merlin, I appreciate that the stink in here makes your leg smell less, but you can practically see the air, and that can't be good for you.”

He turns to see Merlin throwing a longing glance at the blue sky through the window, and manages to stop himself doing a victory jig. Heat two to Gwaine, oh yeah.

“I can't walk on my leg,” Merlin says, and Gwaine grins.

“Who said anything about walking?” he says.

----

“Gangway!” yells Gwaine. “Sick manservant coming through!” The two kitchen-maids who are walking in front of him start and look back, parting in front of Gwaine and pressing themselves against the walls of the corridor to let him past.

“Thanks, ladies,” he says as he passes. “And might I add the two of you are looking very fine today.”

Merlin arms tighten a little around Gwaine's neck, and he snorts in his ear. “I don't think you've got much chance of picking them up while you've got me on your back,” he says.

“Why not?” Gwaine says, shifting his grip on Merlin's thighs, making sure not to jostle his injured leg too much. “There's two of them. There's two of us. And there are some things you don't have to put any weight on your leg for, if you know what I mean.”

“Everybody in a five-mile radius knows what you mean, Gwaine,” says Merlin, and Gwaine laughs.

“I'll aim for six next time,” he says.

----

There's a low wall around back of the castle, out of the way of the main thoroughfares but fully in the sun at this time of day. There's a little stool by it with a cushion on top, and next to it on the ground is a leather satchel.

“Oh, hey, look,” says Gwaine, depositing Merlin carefully on the wall. “This is handy.” He props Merlin's leg up on the stool, and then reaches behind the wall and produces the skin of wine that he absolutely didn't steal from Percival's chambers earlier (but even if he did, that would have basically made him even for the whole feelings thing anyway, so it doesn't actually count as stealing, right?) “Drink?” he says, uncorking the skin and offering it to Merlin.

Merlin stares at him. “Did you set this whole thing up to get me drunk?” he asks.

“Now, Merlin,” says Gwaine. “Why would I want to get you drunk?” He takes a swig of the wine and relaxes in the sunshine, waiting. One. Two. Thr--

“All right, pass it over,” says Merlin.

And that would be heat three to Gwaine.

----

“All together now,” says Gwaine, “and it's no, nay, never! No nay never no more! Will I driiiink Gregor's whiskey, no never no moooore!” He upends the wine skin and drains the last dregs.

“My leg doesn't hurt any more,” Merlin says, waving a hand in the general direction of his foot.

“That's good,” Gwaine says. “You're not putting anything on it, though. I mean, you're not waiting on it. Putting – don't do anything, all right? With your leg.”

Merlin blinks at him. “All right,” he says, looking a little confused.

“Good,” says Gwaine, and then he reaches down and picks up the satchel. “Oh, hey,” he says. “I found this book. It's really interesting.” He pulls the book out of the bag and hands it over to Merlin.

Merlin stares down at it. It's a huge old thing that's been leaking dust all over Gwaine since he first got it. He's pretty sure he's inhaled a couple of hundred years' worth of castle debris, which is not something he's not too keen to think very hard about (because that probably means there's bits of long-dead librarian inside Gwaine right now and oh right that's exactly why he's not thinking about it).

“This is one of the restricted books,” Merlin says, suddenly sounding a lot more sober. “Where did you get it?”

“From the library,” Gwaine says. There's no need to mention that the library was closed at the time and that Gwaine needed to break at least three locks to find the book. It's just not relevant information, and Gwaine is all about getting straight to the point. “Turn to the page I've marked.”

Merlin opens the book like he thinks it might bite him. The page has a picture and then a few rows of spidery text. Gwaine likes to imagine that whoever wrote it had a claw instead of a hand. It's the only way he can explain the handwriting.

“See?” says Gwaine, and taps the picture. “It's Geoff!”

“I don't think--” says Merlin, and shifts like he's thinking about bolting, but Gwaine grabs his arm.

“Read what it says,” he says. “It's really interesting.”

“I can't,” Merlin says.

“Come on, now,” Gwaine says. “I know you know how to read.”

“No, I don't,” Merlin says, “I don't – it might not even be the same beast.”

“Oh, you're being silly,” Gwaine says, and takes the book from Merlin. “The beast is born of darkness,” he reads. “It feeds on magic and seeks out magical beings, finding them through scent. It extracts the magic from its victims in stages, until at last the victim's life is extinguished.” He looks up at Merlin, who's looking even paler than before, even with the sun full on him.

“Well,” he says. “That could mean anything.”

“Yeah,” Gwaine says. “But mostly it means you've got magic, right?”

Merlin blinks, his mouth opening and closing. “Right?” says Gwaine, and Merlin looks like maybe he's going to cry, then leans forward, fingers clutching at Gwaine's sleeve.

“You can't tell anyone,” he says. “Please, Gwaine. Please don't tell Arthur.”

“I knew it!” says Gwaine. “This is brilliant!

“What?” If anything, Merlin looks even more shocked than he did when Gwaine showed him the picture, and Gwaine smacks him on the back.

“This is going to be amazing,” he says. “Just think of all the fun we're going to have! I mean, not that we didn't have fun before, obviously, but now, with magic...” His mind's spinning with the possibilities, but there's one that stands out more than all the others. “Hey, can you magic up beer?” He asks, and Merlin opens his mouth to reply, but Gwaine stops him. “No,wait,” he says, “mead. Can you make mead?”

Merlin shakes his head. “I'm serious, Gwaine. You can't tell Arthur.”

Gwaine flaps his hand impatiently. “What would I want to tell his royal law-abidingness for? I'm not sharing my magical mead with him, that's for sure.”

Merlin stares at him. “You're really all right with this?”

“Why wouldn't I be?” Gwaine asks, and Merlin looks down and away.

“It's banned,” he says.

“All the best things in life are banned,” Gwaine says, and Merlin looks like he's about to object to that (but that's only because Merlin really needs to try some of the other things that are banned), when Gwaine catches sight of a knot of knights headed their way and raises a hand.

“Here comes trouble,” he says, hiding the empty wineskin behind the wall. Merlin looks where he's pointing and goes even paler, if that's at all possible.

“Arthur,” he says, and shoots Gwaine a pleading look. Gwaine grins reassuringly at him, but it may be that his reassuring expression isn't quite as comforting as he thinks it is, because Merlin doesn't look much happier. He really needs to have a session with Lancelot and a mirror.

“What are you doing out of bed?” Arthur says as he reaches them.

“Gaius said it was all right,” says Merlin.

Really.” Arthur looks sceptical, and Gwaine decides he should probably chime in, since it was him who actually made up the thing about Gaius and all.

“Yep,” he says. “Told me to bring him out here and everything.” In fact, now he comes to think of it, he's almost sure that was what Gaius said. It makes total sense, after all – Merlin's having way more fun out here than he ever would have done all cooped up in the castle.

“You?” says Arthur, eyebrows heading for the sky. “Gaius assigned you to be Merlin's nursemaid?”

“I don't need a nursemaid,” says Merlin, but everyone ignores him

“Why wouldn't he?” Gwaine says.

“You're not exactly the nurturing type, are you?” Arthur says.

“I am, actually,” says Gwaine. He's nurtured all sorts of people in all sorts of situations, mostly ones that involve beds, but sometimes also haystacks, secluded clearings and the back rooms of taverns. Now he comes to think about it, Gwaine's actually pretty much an expert on nurturing.

Arthur snorts, but Lancelot steps forward with a gentle smile. “It's good to see you up and about, my friend,” he says, putting his arm round Merlin's shoulders in a quick half-hug.

“Yeah,” says Elyan, clapping Merlin on the back. “You gave us a bit of a scare, there.”

Leon squeezes Merlin's shoulder and Percival smiles broadly and ruffles his hair. Merlin's cheeks go from white to pink, and Arthur clears his throat.

“Yes, well,” he says. “When everybody's finished manhandling my manservant, we've got training to do.” He frowns at Gwaine. “Are you coming?”

“Sorry, can't,” Gwaine says. “I've got nurturing to do.”

Arthur rolls his eyes and opens his mouth, but Gwaine interrupts him.

“Don't worry,” he says. “I'll have him back before his bedtime.”

Arthur gives him a look that Gwaine can't interpret precisely, but he thinks means I am so much more grown up than you. “See that you do,” he says. “And no excitement.”

“I promise to be as boring as is humanly possible,” Gwaine says, and Arthur shoots him a suspicious glance, then sighs.

“Merlin,” he says, and pauses like he hasn't quite decided what he's going to say. He half-reaches out towards Merlin, then seems to change his mind. “Get well quickly,” he says. “My armour won't clean itself, you know.”

Then he turns and swans off, like he thinks he's the most important person in the whole world, which actually is what he thinks so that's probably why. The rest of the knights follow him, shooting grins at Merlin and Gwaine, and Gwaine watches them go and manfully resists the urge to make a most-likely treasonous gesture at Arthur's back. Then he turns back to Merlin, who's opened the magic book again and is squinting sideways at the picture of Geoff.

“Gwaine,” he says, “did you write in this?”

“Why would I do that?” says Gwaine.

Merlin raises his eyebrows at him and then looks back at the book. There's a line of text that runs along the margin of the picture from top to bottom, and Merlin reads it out.

This thing smells completely foul,” he reads, “but it's pretty stupid. Try setting fire to it, it'll probably help.” He looks up at Gwaine, and Gwaine shrugs.

“It's the truth,” he says. “That's why you look in books, to find out true things. Anyone could've written that.”

Merlin's eyebrows quirk a little higher. “P.S.,” he reads, “It's called Geoff.”

“See?” says Gwaine. “I told you it was called Geoff.”

Merlin breaks into a wide smile, and Gwaine is pretty sure that means he's won the entire tournament. He smiles back and keeps his eyes on Merlin's face because he thinks that if he pays enough attention right now, maybe this Merlin will replace the pale, slack-jawed Merlin he sees when he closes his eyes, and that'd be handy, because seeing your friend looking dead all the time is definitely a one-way trip to noble angsting, and we all know how Gwaine feels about that.

Merlin's smile fades a little, and he looks away from Gwaine. “Are you sure you're all right with, um...” he says, and makes a gesture that apparently means the fact that I have the power to create mead out of nothing. “I mean, you don't seem very shocked.”

Gwaine thinks about it, thinks about all the things he's seen since he met Merlin, the whispered conversations with Lancelot, the way things always seem to go right even when they have no right to. “You know what, Merlin?” he says. “Now that I think about it, it's not really that much of a big surprise.” Then he takes the book back from Merlin, stuffing it back in the satchel and slinging it round his shoulders. “Come on, then,” he says, spreading his arms a little and offering his back to Merlin.

Merlin hops on, and Gwaine shifts his grip until the two of them are balanced, Merlin a solid, comfortable weight across his back. “Where are we going?” Merlin asks, and Gwaine turns his face into the sun.

“I don't know, yet,” he says. “But I know it's going to be an adventure.”