The flowers bloomed when Merlin’s arms wrapped around him, holding him tight against his chest. Arthur had pushed him away without acknowledging him, as if Merlin didn’t have any weight in the scheme of things. So Gwaine had hugged him, and patted his shoulder, and right in that moment, he had felt the flowers opening their petals and caressing his insides, a ticklish feeling that ran along his lungs.
And then, right in that moment, everything was right in the world.
The taste of dust had been wiped off of the tip of his tongue, and the air wasn’t stale anymore. It smelled of flowers, of the woods were his father’s castle had been, of the hay he used to lay on when he was just a boy and spent his afternoons doing nothing but kissing the stable man’s son.
It was the clean air by a perfectly clear lake, the freshness of spring after a long winter, the soft silk of a princess’ gown.
Gwaine breathed in and out, his chest rising and pressing against Merlin’s, and did his best to repress the sudden urge to kiss Merlin’s hair, and cheeks, and forehead, and mouth. Instead, he kept patting the boy’s shoulder and then, when he felt something grow and grow and grow in his throat, he pulled back, smiling and doing his best not to cough.
After all, Merlin had to run after his prince.
The urge to throw up caught him when he was drinking the tankard of beer he usually drank in the morning. The tankard’s handle slipped from his fingers as his skin began sweating profusely, and he had to jump off of the barstool he was sitting on to run outside.
He managed to make it out the door before he folded almost in half, hand against the tavern’s wall to keep himself from falling on the ground, and began coughing and shaking with violent fits.
Tears welled into the corners of his eyes, but he shut them tight and ignored the ones that managed to escape him. Shapes made out of white light appeared on the inside of his eyelids, drawing patterns that moved in the darkness. Circles exploded and became oddly shaped flowers that disappeared after colouring themselves of a bright red shade.
He gagged and coughed, spitting beer, saliva, chunks of food he couldn’t remember eating. He spat a little more, stomach hurting and throat burning. His tongue felt weird, but he wasn’t going to complain about the state of his mouth in that moment.
Taking a deep breath through his nose, he prepared himself to push his body in an upright position. His knees were a little weak and were trembling, but he knew he had to walk away from there before collapsing in his own vomit. It had happened to him a few times – once because he had caught some weird sickness, the others because he was downright drunk – and he very well knew that washing his clothes afterwards wouldn’t been easy.
He pushed all his weight on his legs and then upwards, so that he could stand straight, but he didn’t open his eyes. The only thought in his mind was how much money he had in his pocket, and trying to remember how many coins he still had had never been so difficult. He could remember thinking that he had barely enough money to buy another meal, but, as the sickness settled in his belly once again, he thought about trying his luck and looking for a room for the night.
He wanted a bed. Even without pillows and blankets, he didn’t care.
Gwaine slowly opened his eyes, shifting his weight from one foot to another, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Between his boots, a red puddle.
Frowning, eyelids fluttering in an attempt at seeing through the tears, Gwaine stared at the red petals on the ground. They were surrounded by beer, stained with the substances that were in his stomach and made his mouth burn, but defiantly there.
Maybe he was going crazy.
Maybe those were his last clear thoughts before a life of insanity, hunger and pain that could be followed just by a terrible death.
The memories of mother with her grey hair loosely braided to hide the missing patches on her scalp, eyes bulging out of their sockets as she screamed that her sister’s ghost was coming to kill her came to his mind.
Her screams still echoed in his head, from time to time.
But no, it wasn’t possible… mother had begun her journey to insanity by hearing strange noises – that later on would’ve become her sister’s voice that insulted her and reminded her of all the bad things she had done in her life. Mother had never seen flowers and, by the end, all what she could see were dead things and ghosts.
As he picked a petal between index and thumb, beer drenching it and making it heavy, an old story came to his mind. It was stupid, though.
He shook his head and let the petal fall on the ground.
Time went by, and autumn came.
By then, Gwaine had stopped throwing up and coughing petals. He could still feel the flowers in the pit of his stomach, caressing his lungs. Sometimes, they grew enough to reach his chest bone and tickle him from the inside, as if they wanted him to know they were still there.
Gwaine, no matter how he spent his days, never did.
He rarely dreamt, but when he did, he dreamt of Merlin, and when he woke up, it was to find the red petals by his face.
He knew very little about flowers, but he knew enough to know that those petals weren’t the ones of a rose: they were large, wrinkled, with their edges shaped in zigzags. Gwaine found himself liking how they looked and how they felt between his fingertips.
Sometimes, however, he woke up and found no petals, and his chest felt light and his throat clear, and drinking and running from the people who had lent him money was fun again.
But then… then something reminded him of Merlin – let it be a small flower that had the same colour as his eyes, or the little falcon whose breed possessed the same name as the boy – and the flowers in his chest blew, bringing the pleasant scent of spring to his nostrils again.
And it was warm, and familiar, and Gwaine wished that it would never disappear.
During those times, Gwaine wandered through the nearest forest, his whole body weakened by nausea and shaken by frequent coughing fits. His throat and chest usually hurt, and he would then fall on the ground, roll on his back, and just admire the bright, autumn sky between the orange leaves that were still hanging on their branches.
If that was a curse, it was the best curse he could’ve wished for.
Time went by, and winter came, bringing snow and diseases.
Gwaine began coughing blood, alongside the petals. His forehead often burned with fever, but he didn’t have enough money to rent himself a room nor buy medicines. All what he could do was wrap himself in the heavy woollen blankets he had bought years before and hope for the best.
Every morning, when he woke up beside his almost skeletal horse, he counted the few coins he still possessed, and he often spent them on stale bread he ate by dipping it in the freezing water of wells and fountains. All what he could eat was cold, stale, old, and it made his health even more delicate.
Whenever he coughed, he would spit dead petals.
Roaming, he found himself in a small, isolated village populated only by people who looked as unhappy as him. They all had the same disease, and they saw him as one of them.
An old lady who had fallen in love with a stable man for a Duke who had his castle in Mercia gave him shelter, food and remedies for his fever. With her lived a young boy with wide blue eyes who had been unfortunate enough to fall for his sister’s husband.
Gwaine slept with him almost every night, and the young boy wrapped his arms around him and often called him by the wrong name.
Gwaine didn’t mind: he couldn’t even remember the boy’s name.
Anytime they kissed, he could feel the soft flowers that grew in the boy’s throat with the tip of his tongue.
The people of the village said that the flowers grew in the bodies of those who were tormented by unrequired love, just like the story Gwaine remembered. They said the flowers would’ve eventually killed them by spreading and growing in their insides until they took the organs over and damaged them to the point of no return. There was a cure, but only a few knew how it worked, and all those who had been through it said that, with the flowers, the feelings for the person they were in love with disappeared too.
Gwaine knew it wasn’t something he could bear.
The boy passed away in January, a few days after the beginning of the year.
It was Gwaine, the one who found him. The boy had spent the last days of his life coughing and vomiting, his body unable to keep any kind of food down, and when he had died, he had been in the bed he and Gwaine had shared in the past months, wrapped tightly in the blankets.
A small bright yellow flower had grown out of his nostril, and that was the first flower Gwaine recognized: it was a mustard flower.
The ache in his chest was, for once, not related to Merlin.
Spring arrived late in the year, and Gwaine decided it was time for him to move on and leave the village.
His boots had been soled, his horse didn’t look like an abused animal anymore, and he felt like nothing was tying him there anymore.
The day before his departure, the people of the village gave him a satchel filled with money, and the old lady who had sheltered and fed him gave him enough food to survive many months.
Before mounting on the saddle, Gwaine hugged the old lady hard, and kissed the crown of her head, her white hair tickling his nose. He wished her best, and told her that everything would’ve been alright.
They both knew it wouldn’t but, for a moment, it had been nice pretending it would.
Roaming, Gwaine met Arthur and Merlin for the third time.
When Merlin smiled to him, the flowers in his chest grew in his throat, as if they wanted to grow tall enough to escape from his lips.
If they did, Gwaine would’ve let them.
He was knighted, and he could finally spend all his time by Merlin’s side.
They went for long rides, Gwaine helped the boy pick up herbs and flowers for Gaius, and they did Merlin’s chores together, no matter if they weren’t exhausting and the boy could do them by himself.
Sometimes, Merlin disappeared for a few hours and came back dirty and breathless, with bruises all over his body and scratches on his hands and face. Gwaine wanted to ask, but swallowed all the questions that got to the tip of his tongue. When Merlin would’ve been ready, he would’ve told him. Instead, Gwaine tended to Merlin’s wounds with all his tenderness, using wet cloths to wipe away the dirt and blood, massaging unguents on the bruises.
Even that time Merlin ran to him with a sprained wrist, Gwaine didn’t ask anything, and just wrapped the bandages around it so that it would’ve healed correctly. Then, using his sleeve, he wiped the tears that were running down Merlin’s cheeks.
Gwaine hid the petals he coughed with a neckerchief he always had wrapped around his neck and often raised to cover his mouth too. They were getting bigger and bigger, and no matter how hard he tried to hide his sickness, it didn’t take long, for the other knights, to notice.
The first who did was Leon.
The red haired knight, wise and older than all of them by a good decade, saw him cough the petals in the stables, when they both were saddling their horses.
The knight didn’t say anythi ng, he just stood beside Gwaine and stroked his back with a warm hand while the coughing fits were shaking his body. Then, when everything seemed to be other, Leon helped him clean up the petals so that the horses wouldn’t have eaten them.
Leon took him under his wig, and did his best in his power to protect his secret from the others. It didn’t work, but Gwaine appreciated Leon’s effort anyway.
Leon didn’t talk about his disease, and didn’t acknowledge ever having it. However, Gwaine saw a glimpse of pain shine in the knight’s eyes, and it too well reminded him of the pain he had seen in the boy’s eyes when he had first met him.
It took Leon a few tankards of beer, to finally talk.
He actually did far more than talking: he grabbed Gwaine’s hand and dragged him, stumbling in his own feet, back to the castle and into his chambers. Leon’s chambers were far more comfortable and big than Gwaine’s, but he felt like that wasn’t the right time to complain about the matter.
Leon took a wooden box from under the bed, and opened it to show a single and weird looking flower that had dried much time before. Its five petals were of a faded pink.
“It’s a cyclamen”, said Leon. His grey eyes were staring at the flower. “I was madly in love with lady Morgana, and I thought there was hope, for me… for us, since I was one of the best knights in Camelot and, when I had to joust, she always gave me her token. Then Morgause found her, and I realized there was no hope, no matter how hard I looked for it.” The knight took a deep breath before going on, eyes watering a little and tears clumping to his blonde eyelashes. “I asked Gaius to take it out of me, because I didn’t want to be cursed anymore, now that I knew it was completely useless. And he did, but… everything is… empty, now.”
As Gwaine watched Leon shed a few, sorrowful tears over a dried cyclamen, he promised himself he would have never ended like that.
Lancelot happened to be the second.
When he told Gwaine he had discovered his secret, he had a happy smile on his tanned face, white teeth almost shining in the dim light of the morning. Gwaine couldn’t remember Lancelot spotting him during one of his fits but, honestly, he was too afraid to ask.
The knight didn’t consider the flowers that had once grown inside of him a secret: he spoke about it without any shame, and insisted on staying in the courtyard, as they talked about it. After all, for Lancelot coughing petals had been a blessing in disguise, the push he had needed to find enough courage to begin wooing the lady he was in love with.
Lancelot showed him the leather satchel he always kept in his chest plate, pressed against the metal of his armour and the cloth of the undergarments so that it was right in front of his heart. After the knight opened it, Gwaine was able to see that it was filled with with nothing but small, fragile petals whose colour was a soft shade of lilac.
“Gaius said these are petals of lungwort,” Lancelot explained, the joyful smile still on his face. He had the look of a person who didn’t have a single worry in the world. “I stopped coughing them when my love wasn’t unrequired anymore. The plant receded and died off. It took me a while, to get rid of it completely, but it never grew back.”
And as he said those words, Gwaine saw Gwinevere walk by the well. She was smiling too and, braided in her hair, there were flowers of lungwort.
The third knight who noticed was Elyan.
Elyan, who was a nice guy who didn’t know the struggle of feeling unrequired love and had never had flowers growing in his belly. Elyan who, when he saw Gwaine throw up petals and beer, after a long night spent drinking, showed him all his support and offered him a shoulder to cry on, if he ever needed it.
He even offered to talk to Merlin about the matter, but Gwaine pleaded him to not to. He could manage the situation by himself, just like he had always done.
Knowing that Elyan had never felt unrequired love made him feel happy and incredibly sad at the same time.
And then, Percival happened.
Percival, who just happened to be the youngest knight of the bunch and yet the kindest.
Percival, who was sweet and gentle and strong, but who wasn’t Merlin, and that Gwaine couldn’t forget. Maybe, if they had met before Gwaine had gotten to know Merlin, something between them could’ve happened.
For once, it was Gwaine the one who noticed about someone else spitting petals. To say the truth, Percival didn’t even spit them: he just talked opening his mouth very wide, as if he wanted to show people all of his teeth, and sometimes a petal escaped his lips.
The first Gwaine saw fell from Percy’s lips during a banquet, and it was large and pink, and it resembled the one of a rose.
Percival didn’t seem to notice it, but Gwaine, who was sitting right in front of him, couldn’t tear his eyes from it. He was sure that, when Percy had first gotten in Camelot, there had been no flowers in his stomach.
Gwaine sipped wine from his cup, teeth scraping at the cheap metal of it. It took all his will, to tear his eyes from the petal fallen beside Percy’s plate, and, since that was his lucky day, he ended up glancing at Merlin, who was standing behind Arthur at the high table. He was holding a jug of wine, ready to pour another cup to the king.
Merlin had complained with Gwaine about that job – standing in a corner all night waiting for the king or someone else to call him because they had finished their drink –, saying how much annoying it was, and how hungry and tired he found himself after. In fact, Gwaine was expecting to see Merlin with an irked face, eyes staring in front of him as he always did when he was bored out of his mind. Instead, Merlin’s blue eyes were observing the back of Arthur’s head with a certain softness in them.
Before he could begin asking himself why would Merlin stare at the king with such eyes, Percival exploded in a contagious laugh.
For a minute, he completely forgot about the boy he was desperately in love with and just contemplated how well Percy hid his suffering.
He wondered if Percival knew there was a cure, and he soon took the decision to be his mentor, just like that old lady at the village, Lancelot and Leon had been for him.
Once the banquet was over, Gwaine helped Percival get on his feet and walk to his chambers. He did so by holding the knight tight against his side, pressed against his hip, and wrapping his arms around his waist.
Finding himself at loss of words wasn’t something that happened very frequently, to Gwaine, but while he was helping the big guy climb the stairs, he found that the silence between them was becoming heavy and suffocating. Someone had to talk, and Percival wasn’t in the right conditions to do so.
Gwaine began talking, telling Percy about the cure, the feelings that would’ve eventually disappeared if he ever decided to get rid of the flowers that were infesting his stomach, the terrible death that was waiting for him with its arms already open.
Percival’s head kept going up and down, in a sluggish attempt at nodding. Whenever Gwaine asked him if he was listening, he made humming sounds that came from the deep of his throat.
By the time they reached Percy’s chambers, Gwaine was sure the knight had passed out.
Breathless and with aching muscles, Gwaine let himself fall on the bed, right beside Percival’s calf. He massaged his own shoulders, cursing under his breath for thinking that he could’ve carried a heavy weight like Percival by himself.
Maybe it happened because he had drunk too much wine, or maybe it happened because it was midnight and he just wanted to talk some more, but he told, to Percy’s sleeping form, everything.
And it was such a relief.
He told all what he had been through in the past years as if he was narrating a story: he began from explaining in great details about the first time he had thrown up the petals, proceeded with the village and the boy he had met there, and concluded by saying that, sometimes, the flowers tried climbing up his throat.
And then, Percy’s sleepy voice asked: “Who is this person?”
And Gwaine answered, his head turned so that he could look outside the window. The room was in the west wing of the castle, and from there it was impossible to see the moon, but its silver light was shining so bright it almost hid the stars.
After that, there was silence. Percival had fallen asleep.
Gwaine got to his feet and walked to his chambers.
The day after, none of the knights saw Percival all day long. He didn’t show up for training, and Arthur didn’t say a word about his absence. It was clear that there was something wrong, a matter that the king wasn’t allowed to talk about, but, knowing that whenever a knight wasn’t present to training something bad had happened, no one dared questioning Arthur. Leon, however, had the face of a man who knew too much.
That evening they gathered at the tavern in the hope to wash the stress away.
Before the moon could raise, they were all sitting on the benches and drinking ale and beer while munching on bread and cheese.
Gwaine was sitting beside Merlin, a cheek pressed against his shoulder because his bottom kept sliding on the smooth surface of the hardwood bench. He had to give to the tavern’s owner credit: they really did a good job, when polishing benches.
Merlin was laughing because of something Elyan said. Gwaine hadn’t really caught on Elyan’s words, but was laughing all the same. It didn’t matter, because for once he was happy, everything around him felt warm, and all the people sitting at their table seemed to be enjoying their evening as much as him.
Then, chills ran down his neck and spine.
Lancelot stretched his neck and announced Percival’s arrival. Caring as always, once Percy got next to their table, Lancelot offered him a beer or something to eat, but the big guy’s voice answered that he had no intention in stopping there.
His voice sounded sad, and yet it felt devoid of any emotion.
Gwaine cringed, other shivers running through his body, and lowered his head into his shoulders. Something was off, but he couldn’t put his fingers on it.
Merlin, who noticed his sudden distress, ruffled his hair and scratched behind his ears.
Something wrapped in a white cloth fell in front of him, almost on the piece of bread he still had to it. What was inside of it was long and slim, larger on one side. Brown, round stains were all over the fabric.
His heart skipped a beat.
It couldn’t be.
He heard the sound of Percy’s heavy steps as he made his way out, but barely acknowledged him. On the table, everybody was silent.
Gwaine pushed himself out of his own shoulders and in an upright position. There was a heavy knot in his throat, far more painful than the ones that the flowers sometimes gave him.
It couldn’t be.
As he unwrapped the cloth, his fingers were shaking.
A single, strange looking rose was there, its pale petals stained with blood and its thorns adorned with little pieces of flesh.
A chocked sound escaped his throat as he swallowed down the tears that wanted to rush down his cheeks. A petal fell out of his lips, just like it had happened to Percival the night before, and he was sure that everybody saw it.
Merlin, dear Merlin, who was still at his side and seemed to have no intention to leave his place soon, used his long fingers to close the cloth and hide the rose. Then, before taking hold of his hand in a secure and comforting grip, he used his index to push the red petal off of the table.
The kiss had been unexpected.
Nothing had lead to it, not even a sudden twitch in Merlin’s face.
One moment they were talking, bodies dripping water and clothes drenched because of the sudden storm that had caught them unprepared, and the following Merlin’s arms were wrapped around his neck, a hand in his hair, and lips pressed against his.
Even if Merlin took him by surprise, Gwaine quickly shook himself from the state of complete astonishment he had dropped into and held Merlin by the hips. Under his fingers, Merlin’s hips were bony.
Just like the first time they had hugged, the flowers in Gwaine’s stomach bloomed, and spring was there again. The awful, suffocating stench of the stables where they had found shelter was swiped away by the cool spring breeze.
Merlin’s lips and hands were cold, but Gwaine didn’t care.
Merlin could’ve been scorching with fever, for all what Gwaine cared.
They kissed with desperation, Gwaine’s teeth biting into Merlin’s lower lip, as if that single kiss could’ve made all the years they had spent apart disappear. And it was so good, so fulfilling to finally have the man of his dreams tight in his arms, that Gwaine ignored the flowers that kept growing and growing until they reached his mouth and pushed themselves on his tongue.
It should’ve been disgusting, but everything was finally right in the world, and nothing else was worth his attention.
Merlin, however, didn’t seem to be of the same idea.
He jumped back, breaking the kiss and the filament of spit that connected their lips. His blue eyes were wide open, perfectly round, and his lips were reddened. Even his cheeks were a little rosy.
Gwaine arched his eyebrows, hands ready to grab Merlin by the biceps to bring him back against his chest, but the man stood up from the hay they were sitting on and began pacing.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Gwaine,” Merlin murmured. His eyes were glossy with tears.
Gwaine wanted to reach out for him, hug him, and tell him that it was all right, but there was something wrong with Merlin’s distress. Something he hadn’t seen before.
“I thought you knew… I thought the knights had told you… they usually tell everybody…”
Merlin was shaking, and not because his clothes were drenched and drops of icy water were running down his skin. But Gwaine wasn’t shaking. He could feel his skin buzz, his muscles aching for movement, his nerves moving by themselves. His whole body was feeling hot, feverish.
“I have the flowers too, Gwaine. And there’s nothing I can do about it.”
And suddenly, Gwaine understood. He understood why Merlin was always behind Arthur’s back, why he complained about banquets but didn’t look the least bothered during them, why he smiled anytime he saw the king.
Now it was his time, to blink the tears away. He opened his lips, sticky yet dry. “Then why did you kiss me…?”
Merlin looked at him, and Gwaine had to recognized they both were miserable in the same way. “Because I thought it could’ve helped… I didn’t know…” he waved his hand towards him, as if saying anything about the flowers was going to curse them both once more. “I love you, Gwaine. But not…”
“Not in the same way as Arthur.”
Merlin nodded, too shy and ashamed to look at him.
Gwaine stood up and held him, rising to the tip of his toes to give him a kiss on the forehead.
“Everything is going to be alright,” he whispered with his lips pressed against Merlin’s wet hair.
He felt Merlin move, probably to nod, and then heard him sigh.
It wasn’t going to be, but, for a moment, it was nice believing it.