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In Which a Leather Jacket Becomes a Metaphor

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Gwaine loves Winter. He always has. Ever since he was a little kid the brisk air gave him a sense of excitement, as if adventure was waiting right around the corner. Once when he was eleven and wondering what it would be like to rebel, he waited for it to get dark and snuck out of his window to go on a midnight adventure. Never mind it was the middle of Winter and was getting dark by late afternoon, and when he got back his father hit him across the face for being late for dinner. It was an adventure.


From a very young age, Gwaine loved adventure.


He was also very resilient to low temperatures. At fifteen, fed up with being afraid to come home, Gwaine had packed an Iron Man backpack with clothes and comic books and hit the road. It had not been nearly as simple as it looked in the movies. He'd been caught and brought back on his second day, and it had been a week before he could even walk properly again. It had been a week and two days before he tried again.


He was more successful this time and wasn't found, but this had led to many cold days and colder nights and a young Gwaine curled in the nearest alley wondering what it would feel like to lose a toe to frostbite.


Now, Gwaine is 28, has a steady job (as a bartender, but a living is a living) and hardened to cold Winter nights. Which is just as well.


Merlin is walking ahead of him, waving his arms wildly as he discusses something with Lance. At one point poor Percy has to lean back, Matrix style, to avoid getting smacked in the nose by Merlin's wandering arms. Visible under the streetlights' glow is the dark leather jacket sitting snug on his shoulders. The sleeves are just slightly short enough on him that occasionally a wrist sneaks out and gives a glance of pale skin.


The jacket belongs to Gwaine, one he discovered in a charity shop a month after his 21st birthday. He immediately fell in love with it and snuck it out of the store when the salesperson was distracted by another customer. Old habits, you know.


To Gwaine, that jacket is a milestone, a piece of his own history. It's proof of how much he's survived. It's the possession he's managed to hold onto the longest throughout his life. There was a week where he thought he'd lost it, and been distraught, before remembering which one night stand he'd accidentally left it with and braved the woman's long, fake nails to get it back. Gwaine doesn't like to think of himself as sentimental, but he'll willingly admit to being emotionally attached to that leather jacket.


He thinks it looks good on Merlin, short sleeves and all.


Arthur falls into step beside Gwaine, who'd unknowingly begun to drag behind the group in his musings. The usual gang are heading to their favourite pub to celebrate surviving another long week. Gwaine's mildly surprised that he's stuck around long enough to have a favourite pub. But then, as Merlin turns to make sure Arthur and Gwaine are still following, and his eyes meet Gwaine's, and Merlin grins that blinding grin, he thinks, he really isn't that surprised at all.


"So," Arthur says, giving a small wave to Merlin who turns back around only to narrowly avoid walking into a drinking fountain, "it's been four months."


There's no need to ask what he's talking about. "I wasn't aware you were counting."


"It's been an interesting four months, I'll give you that."


It has. It started with another one night stand, and as Gwaine looked down at the tall, lanky man still asleep, tied in a knot with his own blankets, he couldn't help but think he was getting too old for this. He'd been prepared to sneak out of the younger man's apartment, probably move on to the next city by the end of the week. But then the man opened his ocean-blue eyes, looking sleepily up at him, his dark hair a mess of sleep and sex, and Gwaine felt himself melt back into the bed.


Just a few hours, he thought to himself. I'll only stay a few hours.


He stayed for the rest of the day. He found out the man was 25 years old, worked as a history professor, and called himself Merlin.


Unlike the man's roommate and best friend, who called him Merlin, and arrived at 11am from his girlfriend's place to glare at Gwaine.


A week later, Gwaine found himself to be knocking on Merlin and Arthur's door. Merlin was pleasantly surprised, Arthur much more unpleasantly so, and Gwaine stayed for three days before he thought about going back to his hotel room.


It was a month in that Gwaine realised he'd slowly domesticated himself. It was a month of Merlin, of long sleepless nights, of quiet, calm days, of meeting his friends and realising he had none for Merlin to meet in return. It was a month of dinners, of jokes, of long talks about nothing, of silences filled with everything. It was only after Arthur finally came to him and begrudgingly admitted that Gwaine seemed to be good for Merlin, to make him happy, and he hadn't left Merlin heartbroken yet so he was really an okay guy but if he did at any point break Merlin's heart he would never see another sunrise. It was at that moment that Gwaine realised he was in a relationship, and had no plans of escaping it any time soon.


It was two months in when Gwaine told Merlin of his father, of his childhood, of the reasons for his constant wondering. The niggling fear in the back of his mind, the shadow in the corner of his eye, the face in the crowd. The stupid, irrational, embarrassing fear that his father will still find him, and that he will still be a boy, too young and weak to defend himself. It was two months in when Merlin held Gwaine close, rested his forehead on Gwaine's shoulder, and cried for him, because Gwaine admitted to never allowing himself to cry. He told Gwaine that he wasn't stupid, or irrational or embarrassing. That he was brave, and strong, and that he would gladly be his strength when Gwaine was too tired to do it on his own.


It was two months in that Merlin told Gwaine he'd never known his father, but he had a mother who Gwaine just had to meet.


At two months and two weeks, Hunith made them dinner and smiled at Gwaine in a way as if she just knew, even though Merlin would never tell another living soul. Before they left, while Merlin was clearing the dishes in the other room, Hunith grasped his hand and told him she loved him for the way he made her son smile, as if he had not always smiled so easily. She told him she hoped they continued to make each other happy. She reminded him, pointedly, to always be open and honest about the things he wanted. It was motherly advice he had never received before.


The next day, he took a trip back to that charity shop and paid for the leather jacket.


At almost three months Merlin insisted they go out and celebrate Gwaine getting a job, despite Arthur pointing out how dumb it was that they go to a pub to celebrate Gwaine working at a pub. They got absolutely sloshed. Merlin, especially sloshed, got confused about what they were celebrating and started singing 'Happy Birthday' to Gwaine only to stumble over a stool halfway through and fall gracelessly to the ground. By the time Gwaine's inebriated mind had caught up and he'd rushed to his boyfriend's side Merlin was doubled over on the floor in laughter. Gwaine kissed him, long and loving, unable to express his affection in words.


Later, they were home (and at some point Merlin and Arthur's apartment had become home and the hotel was calling to ask if he wanted his stuff back any time soon) and Merlin sat on the edge of his bed and looked at Gwaine with wide, terrified eyes. He explained how happy he was, and how he felt the life in his own body, how precious it was to hold on to it, but how he hadn't always felt that way. He used to feel heavy and tired, used to see the world in shades of grey. He told stories of a time when he'd refused to crawl out of bed, and Arthur had had to spend hours coaxing him into eating something, and how he would look out the window and wonder how far someone had to fall before they couldn't get up again. He explained that, one day, he would feel like this again. He told Gwaine, in a much more sober voice than he had used for the rest of the evening, that he wanted Gwaine to know. So he could leave, if he wanted. Before it got bad. It had almost killed Arthur and Hunith, trying to get him through last time. He didn't want to force that responsibility on Gwaine too.


Gwaine had known Merlin for almost three months when he brought him into a fierce hug and told him he wasn't going anywhere. Merlin cried on his shoulder for the second time.


The next day Merlin smiled at him, an almost apology in his eyes that Gwaine wished was not there, and said that at some point he'd have to get that jacket waterproofed, the way they were going.


"I don't want to ruin it," he admitted, much too serious to be talking about just a leather jacket, special as this one is.


"He never takes that damn thing off," Arthur says now, sounding only mildly annoyed. It was a vast improvement from when they'd first met and his tone when addressing Gwaine was only ever threatening.


"It looks good on him."


Arthur wrinkles his nose. "I can only imagine where it's been."


"Ah, Princess," Gwaine winks, "you cannot imagine where that thing has been."


Arthur sighs. "Yes, well. It does look good on him." He says it like it pains him. Gwaine wonders when his jacket suddenly became a go-to metaphor. "Are you planning on taking it back any time soon?"


Gwaine thinks of four months of a kind of calm he has never felt before - of not just surviving, but living. Of not feeling the need to look over his shoulder at every corner. He thinks of smiles and kisses and touches that have been catalogued and preserved in his mind. He thinks of conversations and tears and the fierce desperation he feels to be Merlin's strength like Merlin wants to be his. He thinks of the morning after Merlin's drunken confessions, when he nodded at Arthur, one small gesture of respect, of recognition, for finally understanding his unwavering protectiveness. He thinks of how grateful he was in that moment, that Arthur had been there for Merlin, and how angry he is that he hadn't found Merlin sooner. Hadn't been there for him sooner.


"Nah," he says. He thinks of love and doesn't feel the cold air on his bare arms. "Merlin can keep it."