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Merlin thought he knew a thing or two about breaking rules, what with the constant violation of his sovereign's decrees and the perpetual insubordination to his prince and the practice of illegal magic in secrecy and all, but apparently there was a lot Gwaine could teach him about rules and breaking them.

For example, Merlin would never, in his wildest moments of ill judgement and lunacy, ever, ever suggest to Arthur that a nobleman should act as a servant to a mere serf. And yet, here they all were.

"Absolutely not," Arthur said, facial expression caught somewhere between disgust and incredulity.

"Ah, but you can't let him travel through the borderlands alone. They're replete with villains and outlaws. You know how much trouble he attracts, and he's no good with a sword so it won't even do to arm him. He needs a minder."

"What definition of 'absolutely not' did you think I was invoking?"

Gwaine went on like Arthur wasn't grinding his teeth and flaring his nostrils. "I'll make sure he stays alive, stays fed, stays warm, doesn't get robbed, doesn't get kidnapped, and comes back to Camelot in one piece."

Because really, despite all of the admittedly unlawful things Merlin had done, he had never so brazenly defied the class structure that kept their very civilization stable. A knight, attending a servant on a journey to see said servant's mother? Not only unheard of, but seditious. Practically treasonous. And Gwaine was suggesting it with a dashing grin and a jaunty flip of his hair, as though he fully expected Arthur to give him his blessing.

It had been a miracle that Merlin was even able to convince Arthur to let him have a few days off to see his mother. Well, miracle wasn't quite the right word—it had been the result of a judicious campaign of hinting, cajoling, pleading, and flat-out whining kept up over the course of several determined months. And Arthur had finally, finally given in, and Merlin was okay with seizing this hard-won gift gratefully without making any further demands. Gwaine, however, evidently did not share his sentiments.

"Merlin needs an escort. Ealdor is far, and the woods are a dangerous place where ruffians lurk—I know because I used to be one." Gwaine turned over his shoulder to wink at Merlin as he pronounced this last remark. Merlin's ears flushed pink.

Arthur's entire face flushed pink, for a different, angrier reason, and he roared at them to vacate his presence.

Out in the corridor, closed doors separating them from Arthur's fuming, Merlin ruefully returned Gwaine's grin. "While I appreciate your entirely unnecessary display of brave rebellion for my sake, I want it on the record that you, Sir Gwaine, are insane."

"Don't worry, Uther outranks Arthur. I've got this."

There was a lot Gwaine could teach him about insanity too, apparently, because the very next morning Gwaine barged without warning into the chamber wherein Uther and son were partaking of breakfast and announced that he needed to go on an important and very urgent trip to Ealdor. Immediately.

Merlin didn't know what to do with the pitcher of milk he was in the middle of pouring, as Arthur knocked over his cup in surprise and there was no longer a receptacle to pour milk into.

"I'll take Merlin with me to carry my load and clean my clothes, since Prince Arthur has announced that he has no need of him this week," Gwaine said breezily.

"Uh…"

Gwaine hissed and presented some sort of facial tick at Merlin, which Merlin was thankfully bright enough to translate into a cue to play along.

"Um, right." Merlin cleared his throat. "Oh please, Sir Gwaine, do not make me serve you on my only week off. Oh woe, the injustice."

"Hush, servant boy, you will listen when a Knight of Camelot commands your fealty. Well, that's settled." And with that, Gwaine swept Merlin under his arm and pulled him swiftly out of the room, Merlin still holding onto the superfluous milk jug.

At the breakfast table, Arthur found it hard to unclench his fist, clutched around his spoon in shock.

"I approve of this Sir Gwaine," Uther said conversationally, taking a sip of wine. "He knows how to treat servants properly. Unlike you, being so lax with them, giving them holidays. It's unheard of—who gives servants holidays? Lenience doesn't breed respect, Arthur."

Arthur stared at Uther and struggled against the urge to hurl the spoon at his father. It wasn't his father who needed a spoon in the eye, he reminded himself—it was Gwaine.

* * *

"I still can't believe you did that," Merlin said, urging his horse closer to Gwaine's so they could talk.

They had been travelling for the better part of a day, and the sun was but a pink smear at the edge of the horizon. Merlin was still mentally replaying the scene from breakfast and, despite all the floor-scrubbing duty Arthur would undoubtedly punish them with when they returned, he still couldn't help chuckling.

Gwaine shot him a knowing smile across the distance between their horses.

They decided to keep pressing on until they reached the tree line, to avoid sleeping out in the open fields. As such, by the time they were ready to set up camp, they had been riding in the dark for several hours and Merlin felt chilled to the core.

"We need to get a fire going before my fingers freeze off," Gwaine said as they hitched their horses. "The loss of my fingers is not something the ladies of Albion should be asked to bear."

Merlin hit him lightly in the arm for being uncouth, and got a shove in return hard enough to land him seated on a log. Gwaine pressed his hand to Merlin's shoulder when he tried to get up.

"No, stay here. Someone needs to look after our things."

"But it'll be faster if I help gather firewood," Merlin protested.

"Nonsense. I wasn't kidding about ruffians in the woods. It'll be faster if I can concentrate on gathering firewood without keeping one eye on our belongings and the other eye on you, making sure both are safe."

"I'm a grown man, Gwaine, I don't need you to 'make sure I'm safe'."

"You're a grown man on holiday for the first time in god knows how long, and it would be ungentlemanly of me to let you do menial labour."

"But—"

"Sit!"

So Merlin sat, feeling faintly ridiculous because Gwaine was off tramping around the forest doing needless grunt work while Merlin waited like a dainty princess who couldn't get her dress dirty, when Merlin knew full well that he could start a fire in two seconds if it weren't for the fact that magic was prohibited. He cleared away some undergrowth, laid out their bedding, made sure the horses had enough to eat, and dug a small pit for their fire. He was in the middle of circling the pit with rocks when, somewhere behind him, Gwaine called, "Now what did I say about not doing any menial labour?"

Merlin turned, a retort on his lips, and found Gwaine a lot closer than he'd thought. Whatever witty thing he had planned to say died away along with all the moisture in his mouth. Gwaine was holding a large bundle of wood, biceps bulging, his forehead sweaty from exertion. It was dark, the moon only half full, but he was standing so close that Merlin could make out the streak of dirt on his left cheekbone. So close that Merlin could see the rise and fall of his throat as he swallowed, hard. The back of Merlin's heel hit stone when he tried to take a step backward, and he realised that he was stumbling into his own fire pit in a clumsy attempt to not look like a completely besotted maiden for Gwaine.

"We should, um. Get that fire started," Merlin said, scrambling around in no particular direction.

Gwaine said nothing, merely inclined his head and handed him some tinder from his load, looking amused.

Midway through the night, when Merlin had finally gotten comfortable enough on the lumpy ground to fall asleep, the rain began. Their fire kept fizzling out, and by the fifth time Merlin had to get up to restart it, he was feeling ridiculous all over again and thoroughly awake besides. It would be such a simple thing to use his magic to keep the fire going, but that stupid ban meant he had to keep poking at the embers instead of getting a good night's sleep. Preposterous. Merlin huffed and sighed his annoyance loudly.

"Right, give that up," Gwaine said, rolling out of his bedding and pulling Merlin towards him. "That's not going to stay lit, so let me show you a different way to stay warm."

Which was how Merlin ended up snuggled in Gwaine's bedclothes, his own covers on top to provide double the warmth, Gwaine's arms around his midriff and Gwaine's chest pressed to his back.

"Don't worry," Gwaine joked, "I won't try anything that might besmirch your reputation."

"I'm not sure I'd mind if you did," Merlin joked back.

There followed a long moment of silence as they both held perfectly still, practically not breathing. The woods were quiet except for the rustle of innocent nocturnal creatures going about their business, blissfully unaware of the awkwardness one felt when one realised a joke was no longer a joke.

By and by, the rigid line of Merlin's back began to relax, when Gwaine continued not to say anything. Perhaps they could just pretend this incident hadn't happened, and never speak of it again. Perhaps Merlin wouldn't have to go down in the court's memory as the loose servant who gave up his virtue to a notoriously philandering though admittedly charming knight in the open air atop some trampled weeds.

"Let me get this straight." Perhaps not. "I want you, and you want me."

"Yes, but—"

"But we won't act on these desires," Gwaine smoothly overrode him before he could voice any objections.

Merlin didn't want to sigh in relief, because it wasn't as though he didn't want Gwaine to take him roughly on a forest floor. Indeed, it was a scenario that came up not infrequently in his daydreams. It was just that—"This is what it means to be chivalrous and honourable," Merlin said. "To show self-control."

"Hmm. Yes. Well, if this is chivalry and honour, then at last I know why Arthur is always so insufferably bad-tempered. All this self-control is incredibly tiring."

"So sleep if you're so incredibly tired, Sir Gwaine," Merlin replied, hiding a smile in Gwaine's blanket.

Gwaine slept. His hands remained respectfully above Merlin's waist for the rest of the night, and in the morning when they woke Gwaine helped him up with one hand on his elbow and the other on the small of his back, deference and care radiating from his every action. It was almost better than being roughly taken on the forest floor.

* * *

As predicted, there were, eventually, ruffians. Three of them, to be precise, who ambushed them with a flurry of daggers and poor planning.

They captured Merlin, looped rope around his wrists rather loosely and thrust him down by a fallen tree, but then they forgot to secure the other end of the rope to said tree. They then disarmed Gwaine and flung his sword so that it landed laughably close to Merlin. Merlin felt little fear, mostly just embarrassment for the incompetence of their would-be attackers. He couldn't look at Gwaine, who held his hands open in surrender but was also biting his tongue very hard to keep himself from laughing. Merlin felt sure that if they made eye contact, they would not be able to hold in the laughter threatening to bubble over their lips.

Magic wasn't even remotely necessary to get them out of this fix. Merlin simply waited until all three louts turned their backs on him, which they did quite promptly, seeming to forget about him entirely. Then he grabbed up a large branch with his right hand and Gwaine's sword with his left, and felled one man with a solid blow to the back of the skull while tossing Gwaine's sword back to its rightful owner. Gwaine had the other two assailants by the point of his sword before their friend's body hit the ground.

Gwaine and Merlin tied the three together around the trunk of a tree with the rope they had used to bind Merlin, badly. It was no easy task, convulsed as they were with mirth.

"H-h-here, you tie it," Gwaine hooted, grabbing Merlin's hands and physically placing them on the tangled mess he was passing for a knot. "I can't, my stomach hurts too much from laughing."

Merlin was not much better at it, shoulders and hands shaking from giggles that wracked his body like sobs.

The trussed-up bandits glared at them, unable to move, and spat ineloquent insults that only made Merlin and Gwaine laugh all the harder.

In the end, the whole debacle barely slowed down their travels—it had lasted less than two hours, and most of that time had been spent tying up the failed outlaws. It was all a bit anticlimactic. If this was the kind of peril Gwaine meant to protect Merlin from, arguing with Arthur and jeopardizing his place in court, he needn't have bothered, really.

As though reading his mind, Gwaine said, "If anyone asks, we were attacked by a horde of very dangerous and highly-trained assassins, and it took a lot of skill and effort to defeat them."

"Deal."

"And tell them I did most of the work. Tell them I rescued you, and stirred feelings of extreme awe and admiration in your breast."

"You did," Merlin agreed.

* * *

It wasn't until they arrived in Ealdor that they realised having Gwaine along on the trip also meant having Gwaine for the week Merlin stayed with his mother.

"Oh, Merlin, how you've grown!" Hunith said, holding her son at arm's length and beaming.

"I've been past the growing stage for a long time now," Merlin said, embarrassed and pleased and just so happy to see her again.

"You've grown in mind and spirit if not in height," she insisted. "I can see it in the set of your shoulders." She hugged him close, and in doing so caught sight of Gwaine over his shoulder. "And I see you've…brought a friend?"

Gwaine stepped forward and bowed deeply. "My lady; Sir Gwaine of Camelot, at your service."

"Are you a friend of Merlin's?" The question was ostensibly for Gwaine, but she directed it at Merlin with a furrow between her brows.

"A friend, a travel companion, and now a humble guest begging for hospitality, if you'll have me."

"I'm not sure we have accommodations befitting a knight," she said, still shooting Merlin looks full of undecipherable significance.

"Don't worry, Mother, Gwaine has slept in far shabbier surroundings and enjoyed it."

"It's true, I have," Gwaine said, smiling at Merlin. "The floor by Merlin's bed would be a luxury." He turned his famous grin on high and aimed it at Hunith.

Hunith was not the kind of woman to be taken in by a grin, no matter how famous. "You may have the floor by the hearth, Sir Knight."

She shephereded the young men into her house, casting Merlin yet more Significant Looks of the unreadable maternal sort behind Gwaine's broad back. Merlin shrugged in response and attempted to explain that he had not meant to bring Gwaine along to his childhood home, it was just that Gwaine had volunteered to keep him safe on his journey. This explanation only served to earn him more Looks.

Hunith spent the next several nights staying up very late indeed, her ears pricked for sounds of movement either from Merlin's room or from Gwaine's spot on the floor by the fire, but she heard none. Gwaine seemed to have no intentions to steal into Merlin's bed, which was a comforting thought. It rather thawed Hunith to the rakish knight and his unsettling habit of talking to her in extremely flirtatious tones. (Merlin attempted to explain that this was just Gwaine's normal default speaking tone, that he was permanently set to 'flirtatious,' that it was part of his charisma—like most of Merlin's defensive explanations these days, it only made Hunith Look at her son Significantly.)

When her wood pile ran low, she borrowed an axe from the farrier and readied herself for the work she was just starting to feel too old to do. She normally had the help of the farrier's son, but he was away for trade and wouldn't be returning for a few more days. Hunith had been a self-sufficient widow for too long to go cold waiting for the help of a strong man, so she rolled up her sleeves and brought back some logs from the communal stock.

"Mother, please, let me do that," Merlin said, laying his hand on the axe's hilt, and she knew she had raised a good boy.

She relinquished the axe to him and stepped back. "Not with magic," she reminded him, "not outside where everyone can see."

Merlin rolled his eyes. He selected a log and hefted the axe, but before he could swing down Gwaine approached and laid his hand on Merlin's back, between his shoulder blades.

"Allow me," Gwaine said.

"Don't be absurd."

"A Knight of Camelot helps every woman who requests assistance, Merlin. It's in our code. You're interfering with the fulfilment of my duties. Arthur will be gravely disappointed to hear that a widow needed firewood and I stood by and did nothing. He might strip me of my knighthood."

"There's no woman who needs assistance right now, because I'm chopping the firewood. Would you just go away and wash your hair or something?"

"Uther might even exile me again. Camelot has no use for ex-knights who have forsaken their duty, you know. Imagine your guilt then, when you reflect that it was all your fault for not letting me take this axe."

"Your duty doesn't include doing my chores, Gwaine. Running away to act as my squire on this trip was bad enough. If Uther finds out you've been doing my domestic errands for me, he really will fly into a rage."

"He won't find out," Gwaine said, sliding the axe out of Merlin's unresisting fingers despite his noises of protest. "Besides, I assure you, I am nobody's squire. I've been acting every bit as a knight this whole time." With that, he ushered Merlin away with a little push and got to work.

Merlin smothered the ludicrous urge to bat his eyelashes at Gwaine and went to join his mother, who had been standing by her front steps and watching the entire teasing exchange. They both stood watching the long lines of Gwaine's back and arms flexing through his tunic as he chopped.

"Merlin," Hunith said after a while, "every time you come home you bring some handsome young aristocrat with whom you have a certain…romantic tension. Are you…I mean, there is a name for women who entertain noblemen. I'm not judging. I did ask Gaius to find you a trade. I just need to know so I know what to say when your cousins ask how you're doing."

"What—I—just—what—" It was hard to speak for the enormity of the horror clogging his throat, but eventually Merlin got all his facial muscles back under control and managed to splutter out a reply. "First of all, no. Gwaine and I are not—I am not anything 'professionally,' besides a servant to the prince and an apprentice to Gaius. Second of all, even if I were, which I stress that I'm not, why on earth would you tell my cousins?"

"I was being hypothetical," Hunith dismissed, not, Merlin felt, all that logically.

They lapsed into a silence that could only be described as awkward, punctuated by the whizz-chink-bang of Gwaine's continued wood-chopping.

"And third of all," Merlin said eventually, "I don't make a habit of bringing around men with whom I have 'romantic tension'. Arthur and I had no such thing."

"You did," Hunith informed him. "Not even near the amount you have with Gwaine, though."

As though on cue, Gwaine straightened, finished his task. He leant the axe against the stump he'd used for chopping and tossed his sweat-soaked hair back, running a hand through it. He waved when he realised they were watching him. Merlin couldn't help waving back.

* * *

When it came time to leave, Hunith clasped Merlin in a fierce hug and refused to shed tears.

"I'll be back again," Merlin told her, hugging back just as hard.

When they finally let go, Hunith surprised Gwaine hugging him too, just a light press of arms around him but for long enough to be unmistakably an embrace. Gwaine hadn't felt the kindness of a mother's arms in many years. The unexpected sensation moved him to make an unexpected promise.

"I shall take care of him," Gwaine said. "I shall guard his honour like a treasure."

Hunith, who still hadn't fallen for Gwaine's way of talking in all his time in Ealdor, laughed at him gently. "Save your vows for Arthur. My house is no court; it is a home. And anytime you boys need to get away from the restraints of courtly honour you are welcome here."

Much later, when they were but an hour's ride to the gates of Camelot and already bracing themselves for the berating they were sure to get from Arthur, Merlin asked Gwaine what his mother had said to him when they left.

"She said you should sneak into my chambers under the cover of night as often as possible."

"She did not!"

"She did, I was positively shocked by her language."

Merlin brought his horse up close and cuffed Gwaine's head. "I'll not have you casting aspersions about my mother this way, Sir Gwaine."

"Did you know that my heart thrills when I hear you call me 'Sir Gwaine'?"

Merlin stopped short at the sudden and unprompted admission. He murmured something not only inaudible to Gwaine but incoherent to himself as well, making not words but sounds, giving voice to the scarlet warmth he felt spreading down his face.

"It reminds me that I am a knight," Gwaine continued. "I travelled without aim for a very long time, without a home, without loyalties to tie me to any one place for longer than a fortnight. And now, I am bound to Camelot by the prefix 'Sir,' for infinite fortnights. Your mother taught me that home can also mean a place where one feels safe enough to leave knightly duties aside, at least for a brief respite."

Merlin blinked at him, a single sweep of lashes that echoed the fluttering of Gwaine's heart. "I'll race you back to Camelot," he said, spurring his horse forward.

Gwaine followed, laughing, delighting in the unsaid but still understood "and I'll race you back to Ealdor next time."

*

Endnotes:
• Thank you to lj user "theholysea" for talking me out of taking this fic in a bad direction. I don't always listen when people tell me not to be ridiculous, but in this case she was absolutely right.
• The title is from the beginning of "The Coming of Arthur" in Tennyson's Idylls of the King, about how everything sucked until Arthur was king; I liked how it sounded and reinterpreted it to mean how everything is UST until Gwaine makes his move in a billion years or something.
• I find the courtly love ideal (aaaaalways almost touching, but never quite touching!) kind of hilarious when applied to slash fic, hence all the UST. Lancelot pines away for Gwen while Gwaine trails longingly after Merlin, and Arthur's like why are you guys aaaaalways almost touching the people closest to me? >:|