Gwaine has a strip of pale blue cloth tied around the hilt of his lance. It's coarse-spun and faded, speaking of many washings, and Arthur finds himself surprised that Gwaine has chosen such a homely token.
At the start of the tournament, he had seen the Lady Enid offer Gwaine a shining emerald ribbon, and later in the day, Ayleth, the daughter of Sir Rowan, had presented a richly dyed violet scarf. Both times, Gwaine had bowed and kissed the ladies' hands and they had walked off smiling, even though their tokens had been refused.
His eyes light on Merlin, standing in his customary spot at the corner of the arena, and Arthur has seen Merlin so often for so long that he immediately notices that something is out of place.
It all comes together in a moment of blinding clarity as Arthur spurs his horse forward, locking his lance in the crook of his arm; Gwaine's faded cloth token and the bare, pale curve of Merlin's neck, missing his habitual, ridiculous neckerchief.
Gwaine's lance hits Arthur a powerful blow high on the chest, over his heart.
Arthur thinks he might have fallen off his horse regardless.
Staring up at the sky from the flat of his back, Arthur wonders how this happened completely without his knowledge. Merlin's smile is proud and bright and he doesn't even try to hide it when Arthur looks up at him from the ground, dismounted and disgruntled.
Gwaine grins out into the crowd, fist raised and waving Merlin's token like a flag.
Arthur levers himself up, brushing dust off his armor. He glances from Gwaine's victorious parading around the stadium back to Merlin's smile. The exposed skin of Merlin's neck stands out starkly, vulnerable.
"Did you know about this?" Arthur demands of Leon over luncheon, tilting his head subtly toward Merlin and Gwaine. Long wooden tables have been set up outside for the tournament and knights and servants and commoners are all crammed together, feasting.
Leon smiles, "I think them very well-suited." Arthur doesn't know what kind of look he has on his face, but it makes Leon shift quickly from amusement to concern. "You don't approve of the match, sire?" he asks.
"I am reserving judgment," Arthur says decorously.
Gwaine pushes a dish of roast pheasant toward Merlin and says something about the Perilous Lands that has Merlin gasping with laughter. Gwaine grins down at him, fond.
Arthur is in the stables, getting ready to lead his horse out for a patrol, when he hears Merlin's distinctive laugh and Gwaine's low chuckle. He pushes Beyneth quickly back into the stall, out of sight. Beyneth gives him a displeased look, but is loyal enough to refrain from rearing up and kicking him in the chest.
Arthur peers out between the gaps in the wooden slats of the stall. Merlin is perched on top of a hay bale and Gwaine steps forward, into the v of his legs, humming contently against Merlin's mouth.
Merlin pulls away abruptly. "Gwaine," he says breathlessly, "I have to tell you something."
Arthur watches as Merlin cups his hands together and lights a brilliant blue flame in them with only a whispered word, trusting Gwaine with the secret he's never trusted to Arthur. Arthur understands. It pains him to take Merlin's victories as his own, but it would be worse still to watch from the dungeons as the royal guard led Merlin to the pyre.
Gwaine stares at Merlin's flame. "Merlin," he says quietly, reverent, reaching out to touch it. His fingers slip through the fire as harmlessly as if it were water. Then he flinches away as if he's been truly burned. "Put it out," he says fearfully, glancing around the stables the way Merlin had failed to before committing an extremely obvious act of magic and, therefore, treason.
Arthur is well-concealed. He watches Merlin's face fall and then try to recover. When Gwaine turns back to Merlin, he can immediately see through Merlin's brave face. "No, no, Merlin," he soothes, cupping Merlin's face in his large hands and running his thumbs over the sharp bones of Merlin's cheeks. "Merlin, it's beautiful. I just, I don't want..." He pulls Merlin's mouth to his own desperately. "I don't want you to get hurt."
"We can go to Bemaria," Gwaine says, tugging Merlin by the hand and looking ready to shove him onto the back of the nearest horse and ride off with him, never looking back. "Magic is still accepted there, even sought after."
Merlin shakes his head, resisting Gwaine's insistent pull. Their hands break apart and Gwaine looks at the new gap between them with a desolate kind of fear. Merlin reaches out to grab Gwaine's hand back. "I'm not leaving Camelot, Gwaine. And neither are you. This is our home. We belong here. And I'm meant to protect Arthur."
"Sod Arthur!" Gwaine yells. Arthur thinks of taking offense, of finding a way to subtly remind Gwaine that he took an oath that included the phrase 'to hold my liege above all others' without admitting to eavesdropping like a gossiping old woman, but then Gwaine adds, "I want to protect you" and Merlin's features go soft.
Oh, fine, Arthur thinks with annoyance, forgiving Gwaine and resenting Merlin's ability to reduce him to sentimentality with nothing more than an expression.
"You don't have to worry," Merlin reassures, his eyes flashing gold, "I can protect myself."
Arthur can see that this has progressed past the point of no return. It's time for him to step in.
Arthur finds Gwaine in the armory that evening, polishing his hauberk to a high shine. His sword is at his side and there is a thin strip of pale blue cloth tied around the hilt. Arthur swallows.
"I need to speak with you," he says in the steel voice he uses to command his knights to attack truly horrific and unkillable magical creatures.
Gwaine continues polishing. "All right," he says easily.
"I need to speak with you about Merlin," Arthur clarifies.
Gwaine's hands go still and he sets down his hauberk. "What about Merlin?" he asks, looking ready to pick up his sword.
There are several considerations Arthur would like to go over, starting with the state of Merlin's virtue and covering such lofty topics as courting etiquette and potential future ceremonies. But the most important thing, really, is, "What exactly are your intentions toward my manservant?"
Gwaine hesitates and for a moment Arthur thinks he will be disappointed, that Merlin will be disappointed, which will be the more difficult to bear, but then Gwaine goes to a knee before him. "Prince Arthur," he says formally, "I swear by God and country that my intentions toward Merlin are honorable. I regard him with only the greatest respect and affection. As the head of the household to which Merlin belongs, I humbly request your permission to court him."
Gwaine, Arthur has noticed, has picked up the phrases and customs of the nobility with surprising ease. He touches Gwaine's shoulder in benediction and bids him to rise.
"When I am king," Arthur says with studied indifference, "I intend to bestow upon Merlin Camelot's holdings bordering his home village of Ealdor and an allowance of twenty gold coins a year."
"Arthur," Gwaine says slowly, "are you offering me a dowry for Merlin?"
Arthur inclines his head in a way that can be interpreted as a yes, but cannot be construed as making an accord. He looks at Gwaine with his floppy hair and wolfish smile, the contained promise of adventure in every line of his body. "You are, perhaps, not who I would have chosen for Merlin," Arthur says honestly.
"Then it is to my great benefit that the choice is not yours to make," Gwaine replies, but he doesn't sound offended. Arthur nods and turns to leave. As he's passing through the doorway, Gwaine calls, "Arthur! Out of curiosity, who would you have chosen for Merlin?"
Arthur considers. He would have chosen someone dependable and forthright, someone with a steady arm and a romantic soul, who could wield a sword and a flower both. For Merlin, he would have chosen someone with quiet eyes and a forgiving heart. "Lancelot," he decides.
Gwaine nods and picks up his sword to run a whetstone along the blade.
Gwaine beats the hell out of Lancelot on the training fields the next day for no reason anyone but Arthur can fathom. For his part, Arthur finds this small display of jealously as reassuring as Gwaine's declaration of honorable intentions.
Merlin, who has taken to visiting the knight's training grounds more frequently of late, gives Gwaine a bewildered look before helping Lancelot remove his armor and putting cool poultices on his strained shoulder.
Gwaine glares at them.
When Merlin and Lancelot both turn big, hurt eyes on him, Gwaine turns his glare toward Arthur instead, as if this is somehow his fault.
This is all my fault, Arthur thinks the next month when Merlin fails to bring him supper for the third time in four days because Gwaine has whisked him away for a picnic or a walk around the castle grounds or a snog in the stables.
"Do I even have a manservant anymore?" Arthur asks cuttingly when Merlin finally arrives with his salted pork and wine. But Merlin is smiling his wide, besotted smile, the one that makes Arthur forgive him almost anything and apparently makes him forgive Gwaine most anything as well.
Gwaine has taken his courting of Merlin more seriously than Arthur could have ever imagined. There have been sonnets and flowers and gifts.
Last week, Arthur caught Merlin and Gwen perched together on a staircase, Merlin stretching out his legs and Gwen looking admiringly at the new leather boots with shining brass buckles which Gwaine had apparently purchased for Merlin. Arthur had a fleeting moment of panicked guilt over his own somewhat inattentive courtship which ended in him running down to the silversmith to have a necklace commissioned.
He presented the necklace to Gwen three days later and she gave him a sweet smile, but demurred, "It's much too fine for a serving girl."
"You are no mere serving girl," Arthur said indignantly, wishing at that moment, above all things, to see the small ruby at the end of the fine golden chain settle in the hollow of her throat.
Gwen took the chain and looped it around her neck and Arthur felt as triumphant as if he'd won a tournament or a battle or a war, but then she tucked it beneath her shirt collar, out of sight. "Perhaps someday I shall be two things, sire," Gwen said, "But one of them will always be a serving girl." She pecked him chastely on the lips. "I do thank you for your gift, Arthur. One day, I will wear it openly."
Watching her walk away, Arthur had the momentary thought of asking Gwaine for courting tips, but it would really be too humiliating.
In any case, Merlin has new leather boots and whenever Arthur comes barging into his room above Gaius' workshop, it is always filled with wildflowers. The night before last, Gwaine stood out in the courtyard below Arthur's window and serenaded Merlin who completely gave up even the appearance that he was tending the fire and getting Arthur's bath ready to go to the window and smile down like a princess in a tower.
Today, the ring Gwaine usually wears on the chain around his neck, beside his metal pendant, flashes gold around Merlin's finger. Merlin fairly bursts with happiness, grinning ridiculously as he scrubs the fireplace, which Arthur knows is his most hated chore. When Merlin brings up Arthur's lunch from the kitchen, Arthur makes sure to brush his thumb over the band of gold when he takes the plate from Merlin's hands. Merlin gives him a questioning look.
Arthur thinks of Merlin drinking poison for him in the Great Hall and then trying to do it again at the edge of a labyrinth with the sea stretching endlessly out beside them. He thinks of waking up from a dream of a glowing city beneath a lake, the incurable bite of the Questing Beast, a futile fight with a dragon. He thinks of Merlin shaking him to consciousness in the Perilous Lands and Gwaine appearing at his shoulder. He thinks, I could not have surrendered you to anyone less worthy.
"Merlin," Arthur says with difficulty, "I... approve."
The smile Merlin has been wearing all day widens even further, threatening to split his face.
Hurriedly, Arthur says, "Now go shine my armor. And sharpen my sword." Tomorrow on the training field, Arthur needs to show Gwaine that he can still stab him through the chest if he doesn't maintain this level of commitment.