Gwaine's mood lifts at the sound of familiar grumbling. It echoes through the halls, announcing the presence of his friend, but not of the stray, grungy boot that pummels Gwaine's nose as he turns the corner. Gwaine grunts and recoils, at once presented with a prodigious pile of laundry, shoes, and armor barely held together by forearms toned from years of work.

"Sorry! I'm sorry"

"Merlin," Gwaine laughs. "I think you're still missing the other half of Arthur's chambers."

Needing to be helpful, he takes as much off Merlin as he can and continues in the direction Merlin was heading. Before they can get very far, Gwaine uses his knee to open his chambers and hold the door open in invitation.

"How about a detour?" he says with his best grin. "Arthur gives you twice the load of a mule."

He's proud of himself for sounding like he's got everything under control, but really he's considering flinging every pack and piece of armor against the wall out of spite for Arthur treating Merlin like a slave. But instead, he sets them down with as much gentleness as he can muster to keep Merlin from bearing the brunt of more work from the scratches that would ensue.

Now that his hands are free, Gwaine shifts his attention to Merlin and begins easing the straps of numerous packs from Merlin's shoulders. The relieved sigh that escapes the other man inspires a smile on Gwaine's face and encourages him to run a thumb parallel to one of the red indentations left on his alabaster skin.

He watches quietly as Merlin huffs and rolls of his shoulders and neck before reaching behind to grab a shoulder blade. Reaching forward, Gwaine lets the cool touch of his leather glove soothe the skin.

"How you've not become so hunched your knuckles drag against the floor..." At his words, Merlin sighs again and bows his head. Gwaine finishes his sentence softly and with care: "Well, I'm only saying I'm starting to suspect magic."

In the silence, Gwaine notices a multitude of minute reactions in the next few moments: Merlin's muscles tightening under him, the silence hanging heavy between them as the back of Merlin's neck heats and dampens with sweat, the click of Merlin's swallow and the shaky twinge his breathing is taking. Gwaine's own understanding of the terror Merlin must have made room for the moment he came to Camelot.

It becomes clear that Merlin is waiting for Gwaine to react, for the moment that determines whether Merlin will be accepted or be forced to defend himself against a friend. Merlin-clad only in his tunic and neckerchief, already so much more naked and vulnerable than Gwaine in his chainmail and gloves. Determined to make Merlin feel safe with fewer layers between him and Merlin, Gwaine makes them less unequally protected by taking off his gloves with his teeth and throwing them on the bed. He can better stroke Merlin's shoulders comfortingly this way.

Gently, meaning every word, Gwaine says, "I swear on my life that I won't tell a soul." A small smile pulls at his lips as Merlin makes a noise in his throat and nods frantically, and then brings his head up as he fills his lungs with a relieved sigh. "Hey, come here." Gwaine leads Merlin to sit on the bed and kneads the warlock's shoulders. "Are you okay?"

"So few people know besides the Druids. My mother, Gaius, Lancelot…"

"Arthur?"

"No," Merlin murmurs, clearly pained.

"It amazes me how far he ranges on the scale of intelligence." Gwaine moves down to Merlin's back, rubbing in circles around two dips below his neck. Merlin sighs. "Lie down." Merlin complies without complaint. It strikes Gwaine the privilege he has to see Merlin unguarded.

"He just has a lot on his plate."

"That's one argument you could make."

"His whole life has been visible examples of magic trying to kill him. As far as he knows, it's inherently evil." The words sound almost rehearsed, like a mantra Merlin has adopted when he entertains the thought of telling Arthur.

"You're the furthest someone can get from evil."

"Maybe that was the case when I first arrived in Camelot."

Gwaine shrugs off the statement and buries his hands in Merlin's hair, petting back and forth, and is pleasantly surprised when Merlin's cautious tension slips away.

"You tend to him everyday, undressing and bathing," Gwaine murmurs. "To spend nearly every waking minute with him and be unable to touch and love him as you want..."

"Gwaine." Merlin says it quietly enough, but the sharp edge of his voice is warning enough for Gwaine to pause and reconsider saying his next few words. He powers on anyway.

"I can't recall a single time in the past few months I've seen you genuinely relaxed…It's driving you mad, isn't it?" Gwaine waits to see if he'll argue, but instead, Merlin is silent. After a few moments, he turns around to face Gwaine, eyes narrowing with caution. His hair is entirely tousled as if he just rolled out of bed after his best night's sleep; it's endearing and distracting. Gwaine just wants him to relax and sleep well. "Merlin, I am in no way telling you to give up what you feel for Arthur. But I think you need a way to let off a bit of the tension... Between trusting friends."

They share a silence. Merlin is clearly confused but Gwaine worries more that the booms of his heart is echoing through the chamber. He pinpoints the exact moment realization seeps into Merlin-eyes widening, eyebrows scrunched, mouth open in words of surprise he can't yet form.

"Only if and when you want," Gwaine assures. He won't deny he has affection for Merlin that reaches a point only Arthur shares, but this isn't about Gwaine. Surely he can overlook his affections for Merlin's sake.

He doesn't speak to Merlin for a week. Normally Merlin would come over during training to poke fun at Gwaine's technique or just offer a quick greeting and take in Gwaine's smile, a refresher after Arthur's demands and stream of insults. But not recently. Lately, when he smiles at Merlin across the yard, the responding smile is noticeably tentative.

Gwaine begins to worry his suggestion has made it unbearable for Merlin to be around him, but assuming that he's the cause of a change in Merlin's behavior seems too arrogant. For all he knows, Merlin has entirely different worries on his mind. One thing he had quickly picked up in his years at Camelot, was the fact that Merlin doesn't like being bothered when going through bursts of antisocial hyperfocus on things Gwaine only now has an idea of. So he knows to continues to give the other man acknowledging nods or "Hey Merlin"s when they're in each other's company, allowing Merlin to decide for himself whether to respond.

In this case, it took Merlin exactly two weeks. As Gwaine continues a regular night of wandering around the castle to satiate his restlessness and hope to see a certain friend, a blur of black hair, blue scarf, and red tunic comes into sight.

A grin climbs onto Gwaine's face as he says, "Has the mule been freed from today's duties?"

Instead of answering, Merlin beelines straight for him. As Gwaine's shoulder blades bash against the jagged stones behind him, it's only his utter confusion that keeps his warrior reflexes from pushing Merlin away.

A curse runs through his mind, his memory already seeking anything he might have done to wrong Merlin. But as Merlin's eyes come into view in the torchlight, any sign of anger is absent. Instead, Gwaine's greeted only by the blue, amplified echo of his own shock.

With his tunic pulled tight, Gwaine is able to grasp that the fingers against his chest are as unsteady as a civilian boy's before his first battle. Merlin's breathing hits his cheek in slightly ragged bursts with but his eyes are fixed determinedly on Gwaine's chest between them. The light of the fire is dim, but it seems unlikely that the flush painting his sharp cheekbones is a trick of the flames' twists.

Merlin swallows, eyes darting between points on Gwaine's tunic. As his gaze finally lifts and settles on Gwaine's mouth, he tongues and bites his own lip in turn.

Oh. Gwaine remembers. It seems reality has shoved Merlin harder than Merlin trapped Gwaine against the wall.

Gwaine's movements are cautious and slow as his hands slip under Merlin's tunic to caress his warm hips soothingly. Merlin's eyes dip closed. His single steadying breath is audible in the empty corridor. One of his hands unclenches and sits flat against Gwaine's chest. But it seems not to be enough, because his knuckles are pressing into Gwaine's skin once more.

"It's okay, Merlin," Gwaine murmurs. His eyes fix on Merlin's mouth before he leans in to nudge his nose with Merlin's. His lips graze pale skin. "C'mon."

Merlin lets out the ghost of a whimper and Gwaine's mouth is captured. The harshness of it contrasts the gentleness he would have expected of Merlin. "Had to watch him train today," Merlin gasps against his lips. "He ordered Sir Rupert on his knees," Merlin explains, and Gwaine's memory flashes to training earlier that day. Gwaine himself had been filled with a sudden awareness of how long it's been since he's bed anyone. His strikes became more forceful for the better part of training. "Had to give him his bath. He was still filled with post-battle aggression. Had me wash his back." Merlin breaks off for another kiss. "Felt his muscles under me and I couldn't keep myself from massaging them." A kiss. "His groans, Gwaine." Goosebumps flash over Gwaine's skin as Merlin breathes the words into his neck. Merlin is trembling under his hands. Gwaine hopes that means Merlin won't fault Gwaine for doing the same.

Gwaine fits a thigh between Merlin's legs and tentatively rubs it against Merlin's groin

Merlin whimpers into Gwaine's skin and bucks once into the touch. The side of Gwaine's mouth turns up in delight and he pulls away to let Merlin breathe. "That okay?" he murmurs. Merlin releases Gwaine's tunic and settles his hands on Gwaine's waist.

"Yes..." His wavering breath hits Gwaine's cheek. "Yes, gods, that's fine."

Merlin is polite enough, Gwaine notices fondly, to hold himself up as long as he can, only slumping and clutching at Gwaine when it seems his knees grow too weak. Merlin cants his hips against Gwaine's thigh to the rhythm Gwaine sets. "Hate him. I hate so much. So many men in the world and of all of them it has to be-" Merlin's breath hitches as Gwaine breaks rhythm and drags his muscled thigh against Merlin's groin. "Arthur." It takes Gwaine a few moments to process that the whined name might be either a continuation of Merlin's sentence or a revelation of where Merlin's mind currently is. And it's with a hint of resentment that he admits to himself that Arthur's name sounds right falling as a moan from Merlin's lips.

As Merlin's shame dissolves and his franticness grows, Gwaine in the back of his mind silently thanks the brutality of the knights' training for allowing him to grind his thigh without tiring against Merlin's increasingly desperate pace.

Merlin gasps softly and makes low noises against Gwaine's neck, like he wants to be as unobtrusive as possible.

Merlin's past hour with Arthur has left him aroused enough that it isn't long before Merlin comes with an open-mouthed whimper and flare of the nearby torches as Gwaine's thigh worked him held him through his shudders. The flames startle Gwaine with the possibility someone could be turning the corner, and then he remembers. Magic. Gwaine mentally rejoices he took care of himself this morning and that he doesn't come untouched because of Merlin.

Merlin's still slumping slightly against Gwaine's chest, and shifts awkwardly on legs that seem threatening to acquaint Merlin with the ground. Gwaine looks up when Merlin clears his throat, or maybe it's a small sound of exertion while pulling himself to stand normally. Merlin is enchanting like this: face flushed, his eyes innocent and half-lidded, his breathing quick and shaky. Gwaine's heart makes a leap against his ribcage at the sight, the taste, the feeling of Merlin's heat in his arms and the spot of condensation he left against Gwaine's neck.

"Should I-" Merlin starts. "Do you want me to..." Merlin scrunches Gwaine's trousers on his thigh as a question, and the fabric tightens the pressure on his groin-already tight because Merlin-and Gwaine's eyes flutter momentarily in response. Gwaine manages him an amused smile because he just pounced on Gwaine and humped his leg and suddenly he's shy.

Merlin averts his gaze to the stone beside Gwaine's head, and Gwaine realizes with a tug in his stomach that Merlin might regret this.

"Merlin?"

"Have I just-I thought this was what you meant when you offered. Did I misinterpret?" Merlin blabbers, and Gwaine laughs gently. Merlin looks horrified at that and lets go of Gwaine's tunic.

"No!" Gwaine gently pulls him in again with a hand on the back of his head. He caresses the side of Merlin's face with a thumb and glances as it runs over an endearingly large ear. "No, that's not why I'm laughing. You're my friend and you'll stay my friend unless you decide not to. Okay?" Merlin nods, face still spooked but a smile easing its way onto it. "You don't have to, Merlin. I can take care of it myself."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah." Merlin nods and runs his hands through his hair, then whispers a spell and the damp spot in his trousers is gone.

"I could make yours unnoticeable as well," Merlin offers.

"You don't have to take the trouble.

"It's not." He shares a look with Gwaine, who hopes his smile doesn't betray how drunk he is on love, on happiness he fears will disappear soon. Merlin takes a step toward him and smooths down the rumples he's left in Gwaine's shirt, murmuring more syllables Gwaine doesn't understand that leave him looking at Merlin in awe with how his eyes light aflame, how it sends his body pleasantly prickling with magic, how practiced his friend is, the trust Merlin must have in him to share his magic and this with him. Merlin's hands pause on Gwaine's chest. Gwaine prepares for a verbal jab at the ferocity with which his own heart is beating. Instead, Merlin catches Gwaine's eyes and tells him, "Thanks, Gwaine." The sincerity brings a smile to Gwaine's face as Merlin looks too long at Gwaine with uncertainty of how to continue on.

"Anything for you, Merlin. Go on, sleep off your chores." He kindly nods a head to the direction Merlin's path was on before.

Gwaine waits until the footfall of Merlin's boots disappear to look down at the arousal with his mind fuzzing over; his trousers appear to be in perfect order. Contrary to the appearance of his groin, his body still thrums with lust and desperation to take himself in hand.

He groans and grimaces as he beats his head back against the wall. He's fucked.

That first encounter opens a floodgate. Over the next few weeks, Gwaine finds new reason to be grateful for his chain mail; it covers his arousal when Merlin looks at him hungrily across the training field, when Merlin slips into a puddle and removes his shirt to wring it out, when Merlin continues on bringing water to the knights without a shirt on, that fucking tease, he isn't even that clumsy anymore he does it on purpose Gwaine knows it...

Over the next few weeks, Merlin's smiles to Gwaine are extra bright. Over the next few weeks, they both have difficulty controlling the dirty smirks when saying hi at the evident confusion of the others. Over the next few weeks, Gwaine is in a continuous high of euphoria from being shoved against hallway stones, trees, empty closets in which he has the honor of making Merlin moan and pant into his ear.

It turns out that Merlin's hesitance and shyness melts away with each time Gwaine helps him come. When he's not yet completely loosened up enough to directly say what he wants, Merlin loves to grab Gwaine's hair and use it to put Gwaine's mouth where he wants it. The soothing words and comfort Gwaine had at first been compelled to utter to Merlin has been replaced with words on Merlin's part that aren't too many steps away from bringing a blush to even Gwaine's face. The frenzied biting of lips and blue and purple ghosts of palm prints on their hips give way to gentler nips and savory sucks of the dips in Merlin's neck. Gwaine can feel carnal joy when Merlin builds a fondness for sucking Gwaine's tongue into his mouth and caressing it with his own. Whatever needs Merlin comes to Gwaine with, Gwaine is happy to give him.

But it becomes questionable-well, more than already-on a day when training isn't scheduled and Gwaine sees Merlin walking with a basket of herbs collected for Gaius. Merlin doesn't come to him at all. Gwaine goes to him.

The sight of Merlin's sleeves rolled up shows the man Merlin's become. The visibility of his muscles reminds him of the unexpected forcefulness of Merlin's touch, and Gwaine is having too many flashbacks to his wank material from the past few week. Merlin's determined walk shows the slight curve of Merlin's ass, and Gwaine is slightly dizzy with the realization of how much he wants to taste Merlin there. He barely has time to process it before he is beside Merlin with a hand on his veined arm.

Merlin startles and and he's carrying a damn basket so Gwaine wants to laugh but he also wants Merlin and he realizes Merlin is staring expectantly at him, and his brows are furrowed at Gwaine's grip and then at Gwaine's face and Gwaine decides he doesn't have to be holding Merlin's-tense, muscled-arm so tightly. So he loosens his grip and slides it down to Merlin's forearm, where he slips his thumb under the sleeve to slide over the inner elbow and blurts, "Do you want to...talk?" He grimaces at how serious it sounds, but there people nearby and he can't exactly tell Merlin out loud how much he wants him. So he offers a hand for Merlin to give him his basket and leads the way to the knights' hall. He takes a few steps and glances over his shoulder and stops when he sees Merlin unmoved and looking back at him. Gwaine turns to face him and lifts the basket with a grin. "I'm eating all of these if you just stand there," Gwaine says.

"You'll get a rash."

"So you should go with me to ensure I don't." Gwaine scans Merlin's confused but assertive stance, and his eyes land hungrily for a moment too long on Merlin's groin. "Come." He runs his tongue over the corner of his mouth and connects gazes for a moment before turning and leading the way.

An hour later, the basket lies forgotten on the floor and Gwaine's hands instead hold onto Merlin's thighs for leverage.

"I'm-" Merlin pushes back against Gwaine's tongue. "Please, yeah, that's-Good, so good. That's-fuck-" Merlin's words are traded for a whine muffled against the pillows.

Gwaine holds the base of Merlin's cock and uses the two fingers of his free hand to stroke against Merlin's prostate until his back is bowed and Merlin manages to wrench a hand from his iron grip on the sheets and slide it along his dripping cock. It only serves to make the pleasure more difficult to handle, Gwaine's hand at the base the barrier to Merlin's release until Merlin is giving a high-pitched and breathless, "Gwaine, Gwaine, please-ah-please, Gwaine, please, please," he whimpers and it's so fucking gorgeous that Gwaine can't do anything but give Merlin the reward he deserves and let warm come release in spurts. Merlin's babbling transforms into nonsensical syllables and whimpers through a harsh bite of his lip, and two vases simultaneous shatter. Gwaine will worry about them later.

Merlin's come-down is long, accompanied by his body slumping once Gwaine's fingers slip ouT and more whimpers. Gwaine's too delirious from the the sight and sounds of Merlin's pleasure to remember to guard his affections. He pets Merlin's hair from his heavy-lidded and fluttering eyes as he struggles to regain his breath as Gwaine whispers, "Beautiful, beautiful, so fucking beautiful." Gwaine strains valiantly to not let his chest clench at the tiniest huff of exhausted, disbelieving laughter Merlin gives, or to kiss Merlin's forehead. He fails thoroughly, and Merlin moves his head on the pillow to chase Gwaine's touch.

He tries to deny he's in love when Merlin reaches a weak arm out to him and curls in with his back to Gwaine and arranges Gwaine's arm over his waist and falls asleep with his pale hand loosely over Gwaine's tanned. He fails vehemently.

On a journey weeks later, the heat of the day is ungodly, and Gwaine envies how easily Merlin can remove his neckerchief and wrap it around his belt. His own padding and mail have him sneering at the heat and sweat pooling under his mail. The metal clasp of his cloak rubs hot against his damp throat. He's been through much worse, but often in battle, and there is currently no threat to his or other people's lives to distract him. He occasionally takes a break surveying the forest to glare at Arthur's back. 'Come on, Princess. Allow us the break I know you want too.' At one point, Gwaine finds himself wishing he had magic simply so his glares could light Arthur's pretty hair on fire and give him more immediately motivation to find water. Merlin sometimes look back from his place at Arthur's side to survey the condition of the knights. There's sympathy and guilt in his gaze, and Gwaine is certain that Merlin's only keeping his jacket on his sweating body so as not to taunt the rest of them with his relatively light load of clothes

It's when Elyan reaches back and uses his cloak to wipe the sweat on his face and neck that Merlin decides to speak.

"Arthur, we would do well to take a break," Merlin says. His tone is polite, likely because his usual snark would make Arthur snap when the heat cloaks them so fully, and Princess would probably suck up his thirst and wander aimlessly for another half hour to punish Merlin. Arthur's been too snappy lately to react in a way less childlike.

Arthur taunts him on not being able to withstand the heat in only a jacket, but must be grateful for the suggestion because he stops and shifts their path wordlessly. The lake comes into view leads them to a lake. "The horses need to drink," he explains, and each man groans and scrambles off to the water too quickly to pause and Elyan gives Arthur a smile as smug as a tired man could make it.

Arthur drops the reins he was tying around a tree. He is behind Merlin in a second and spins Merlin by the arm to face him. Merlin startles, raising his other hand in what Gwaine is now believing to be a reflex to use magic.

"Who did that to you?" Arthur growls. Merlin blinks wide-eyed and lowers his free hand on top of Arthur's wrist to pull him off. Gwaine takes a step forward to pry him off, but Arthur's tendons recede as he loosens his grip. Merlin shakes his black hair in confusion. The knights are tense at full attention, unable to grasp the meaning of the sudden change in the air. Gwaine's tension matches theirs, but for reasons unknown to them.

"What?"

Gwaine doesn't miss the slight shiver and well-disguised panic running through Merlin as Arthur runs his fingers over the palm-shaped bruises on Merlin's hips. Arthur does a slight double take (Gwaine whispers a "Shit") as he finds the top of a stark bite mark peeking out from under Merlin's trousers. To Merlin's horror, Arthur looks ready to murder.

"Arthur," Gwaine says. "There's no need to berate Merlin when he insists there's no need, and it is not your place to handle Merlin against his will." Arthur, surprisingly, doesn't assert his position as king and Merlin's as a servant. Gwaine is almost disappointed.

"You're supposed to be Merlin's friend, aren't you? Yet you're not the least bit concerned that it looks as though Merlin's been chained and beaten."

"Arthur, I wasn't beaten." Arthur releases Merlin's arm and closes his eyes for a steadying breath. His face softens and he rests his arms on Merlin shoulders.

"Whoever you're trying to protect doesn't deserve protection... Or is it because they've threatened to do worse if you give their name?" Merlin shakes his head, and even Gwaine is unsure of how to help him. Arthur's voice lowers. "Tell me who it is so I can throw them in the dungeons. I promise you they will wither," Arthur grits the word out, "for what they've done to you."

"No one beat me."

"Merlin-"

Slowly, holding unwavering eye contact with Arthur, Merlin says, "They're not from beating." It takes the group a moment, but Gwaine sees Leon's mouth open slightly in his peripheral vision. Realization manifests in Arthur with a reddened face and neck, though it is unclear how much is embarrassment and how much is anger.

"The water," Elyan pointedly calls from the lake, "is fantastic and all of you are torturing yourselves by not being in it right this moment."

"Merlin, are you bathing with us?" Gwaine asks, eager it change the subject and rid the air of putrid discomfort. As Merlin says yes, Gwaine is already clawing at his chain mail to set it on a large stone. Too overjoyed to pause and strip, the rest of the knights are already soaking wet and fully clothed in the river.

Bathing while out on journeys usually makes little difference if he'd be forced to get himself back in the armor and padding he'd worn and sweat in for days. But today was hot enough that they could rinse their clothing in the water and wear them wet to cool down.

The coolness of the lake makes them too blissful in the water to be bothered by the tension of the earlier confrontation, so blissful Gwaine doesn't jerk when a hand traces Gwaine's back downwards. That morning, Gwaine took a moment in the mirror to appreciate that in that spot Merlin's blunt nails gripped hard enough to break skin rather than just leave red marks.

"Gwaine's been a harlot again," Percy proclaims loudly from behind him. "If being a knight ever fails, you should consider working on the streets. There's an unfortunate lack of men in their profession."

"I hope that isn't meant to insult me, Perce. I'd make good money."

"If your customers lost all sense of smell," Elyan quips with a smile.

Lancelot whistles a few yards away and adds, "Gwaine, you might have competition."

"Oh? Who dares steal my harlot crown?" He turns to Lancelot, who eyes palm-shaped bruises on Merlin's hips, a lovebite trail down into the hollows between his hips and thighs, and bite marks on Merlin's neck and collarbone. God, Merlin had really needed it recently, hadn't he. He catches Arthur staring at each of them with his displeased pout, and Gwaine allows himself to feel pride that it's his mouth and hands tattooed on Merlin, not Arthur's. Perhaps he should scold himself. He barely remembers to put on a face of shock.

"Merlin, if that's all from one night, I may even willingly give my crown." He wades to Merlin and slaps a hand on his back.

"Those on the hips. They mark those who top- and do it well, I might add," Elyan says.

"I'm not sure about that topping bit. Are there women that feisty in Camelot? She seems like the type to throw you down and have her way with you," Percival says.

"That's enough," Leon intervenes. "You're making our king uncomfortable with the nighttime escapades of his best friend." Arthur indeed hasn't said a word about it. In fact, he for once has been rubbing his shirt into the water with the cluelessness of a royal, needing something to do to keep out of the conversation.

Focus on your washing so I don't have to smell you for another day." Merlin scowls, but a smile is hidden in it, and it is clear that, when no one is being threatened because of them, he takes pride in showing off his marks. Gwaine makes a mental note to leave more.

"Sleep here tonight," Merlin tells Gwaine when they arrive home from their journey and Gwaine nearly falls over himself with exhaustion.

"Where will you sleep? The floor, or the bed for patients bursting with pestilence? Best we take my bed. It's bigger and, no offense, more comfortable."

"You want to walk to your room in your state because my bed's not good enough for you?"

"Because the floor isn't good enough for you. Come on."

When Merlin awakes the next morning, he's warm, he's comfortable. Gwaine's hand rests loosely on his abdomen and his face is tucked into Merlin's neck.

The calm of the morning in Gwaine's chamber is disturbed by a knock at the door. "Gwaine, are you either awake or sober?" Percy calls. Merlin and Gwaine shuffle in bed, groaning into the pillows that they could have slept another hour.

"Bit preoccupied, Perce. Can it wait?" Merlin calls out. There is silence for a few moments, and Merlin and Gwaine snort.

"Merlin?"

"Yeah, Perce."

"Did you need me or are you coming to make sure I've not drowned in a flagon of mead?" Gwaine asks.

"The latter. Don't mind me, then. Go back to sleep."

"Like we bloody can if you wake us up before the sun," Gwaine growls. With laughter and footfall lightening, Gwaine pulls Merlin closer and falls back into sleep before Percival's steps are gone.

All highs must come to an end, and the stinging song of reality hits Gwaine hard one night before bed.

After catching a whiff of Merlin's scent on his pillow, he barely restrains himself from shoving his face in it and breathing it in until he suffocates. He's slept alone most of his life, most nights not even in anything that could pass as a bed. His entire life the things he prided himself on were his fighting skills, his ability to sustain himself, and being satisfied with the bare minimum. Experiencing Camelot changed that.

Tonight he occupies a bed in an entire chamber dedicated only to him, and even that's not enough if Merlin isn't next to him. Weak. Greedy. Worthless.

There's really no way this could work out. Gwaine realized it years ago. Merlin's clearly too far-gone for Arthur, and Gwaine's not big enough an asshole as people like to joke to try to convince Merlin to give up on Arthur. Because frankly, Gwaine had at first thought the two were fucking. Then he thought they were viciously failing at hiding their relationship from everyone. Then he thought they were fucking to take out their frustration of loving one another. And though Arthur and Gwen may be married, Arthur still looks at Merlin like he was sent by God to answer his every prayer (which Gwaine is sometimes drunkenly suspicious is exactly what happened but for himself instead of Arthur). Merlin still has an unbearably endearing sense of loyalty and bleeds love for Arthur, and both have tried to die for each other so often Gwaine has lost count. It makes Gwaine slightly nauseous, only because the one person he feels the same for is part of said duo.

There is...theoretically..one way it could work, and it is plausible enough when Gwaine drinks just enough to impair his judgement but not to pass out. It's beyond wishful and complicated and there are too many factors, but his mind still strays to the possibility more often now than before. Nevermind, though, Gwaine thinks on his back as he stared blankly at the ceiling. Best not to dwell on hopes that can never be more.

He has tried to avoid longing like this by giving himself continuous and adamant reminders that have become a daily mantra: Merlin is not his; he is Merlin's friend and only that. It's been so for years, Merlin within reach, and Gwaine has had enough experience with the devotion and absent-minded glances burning with love that he has long ago come to terms with Merlin being his friend and nothing more. His daily reminders have for the most part kept him grounded, telling himself loving Merlin does not mean he deserves Merlin. And that has worked. Yet, as he worried, the daily mantra has done nothing to keep Gwaine from loving Merlin.

Merlin's friendship he treasures with those of his fellow brothers in arms, of Gaius, of Gwen. But Merlin showed him Camelot, gave him the home he needed and the love for which he burned with craving, gave him the vital message that he was worth even the deep platonic affections of someone so great as Merlin.

For the last years of his life, Gwaine has been content with the longing he's pushed aside if it meant having Merlin in his life, even if it was just when throwing snark during quests. There was always something about him that didn't fall within the parameters of normality, and Gwaine was at first not quite able to place the reasons. Merlin's magic, while not nearly all of what makes him special, only seems right, and it is with unspeakable appreciation that Gwaine vowed to share Merlin's secret, offering himself as an outlet for the horrors Merlin hinted at.

There are times when Merlin drops his sass level when Arthur is wounded and the soft-edged insults he gives Arthur still somehow drip with every bit of love he has for his king. There are times when Gwaine's belly jumps when Merlin comes to check if he needs help tending to his horse. There are times when he feels a flutter of warmth when Merlin ushers a battle-worn Gwaine to give up his watch and sleep while Merlin takes his place. There are times when Merlin finally initiates hugs between them. Such times inspiring bone-deep aches in his chest and the flutters in his belly-they have all become as second nature to Gwaine as the need to fill his lungs.

As much as he likes being able to care for Merlin, keeping himself in check is growing increasingly difficult. Gwaine isn't a stranger to intimacy with his friends, so it's simpler to continue their arrangement when Merlin shoves him against the nearest surface, trembling and panting with need, yanking Gwaine's hair back so hard Gwaine cries out into his mouth. Hard, fast, mindless fucking he can usually handle. But Merlin politely requesting, somewhat bashfully, a hand to help him out, and offering so sincerely to have Gwaine thrusting up into his fist...

The further this arrangement goes on, the more frequently he finds Merlin in his lap, pale fingers skimming his torso, pressing his ample lips to the corners of Gwaine's mouth, having the same lips trap and massage his own, fingers not trapped by fabric carding through Gwaine's hair, the skin of Gwaine's neck vibrating when Merlin presses contented hums to it. There are other times when Merlin simply presses his forehead to Gwaine's, murmuring to him things about his day or a long-haired doll he saw in the market that reminded him of Gwaine, or mentioning Gwaine's quietness and asking if he prefers to be left alone. If Merlin senses Gwaine's distress he'll ask if Gwaine wants to discuss it; other times he'll just know, assuring Gwaine that even Camelot's best knights face sword blunders when accumulating sleep debt.

Gwaine tells himself the affection Meelin shows is a direct result of Merlin's starvation for touch and a need to redirect the affections he wants to show Arthur. That, or Merlin thinks he owes Gwaine a debt paid in affection.

Gwaine does his best to help Merlin, loves helping him in any way he can, but he can't deny it takes a toll on him. Merlin isn't aware of how his affections carve through Gwaine's chest. How could he be? Merlin is only grateful for the outlet Gwaine unhesitantly offered because of how much he knew Merlin was breaking.

Merlin had infinitely more stress than Gwaine does from this, he reasons just before he falls asleep, and hopes his logic will still appear sound in the morning.

When Gwaine enters the tavern one day for a drink, Jeb the bar man only half jokes that he thought Gwaine was dead.

"Why, has my absence put you out of business?" Gwaine asks with a grin as he spills his coins on the wooden counter.

"Its two more. Supply shortage raised the price."

"Since when?"

"Two months ago."

"Two-" Gwaine frowns. Has it really been so long?

"The usual?" Is it even usual anymore if it hadn't been for two months?

"Yeah."

Jeb readies Gwaine's drink as he speaks. It's the usual, now unusual as of at least two months ago. "I wasn't sure whether to worry if you were dead or be happy you had weaned yourself off."

"Well don't take this the wrong way, Jeb, but I forgot about this place.

Placing the full mug on the counter, Jeb asks, "The place or the need to drink?" Gwaine meets Jeb's eyes, the comment and concern in them arresting. Gwaine honestly wants nothing more than about four of those mugs filled at the moment. He'll do it when he's too drunk to have shame.

After a pregnant silence between them, Gwaine grabs the mug handle and says, "I'll take my drink." With a gulp, Gwaine turns from the counter and continues, "You're a bar man, not a bloody philosopher," and sits a table as out of Jeb's proximity as possible.

He's down to a third of his mug when he pulls his nose out of it to see Merlin walking toward him.

"You look well-rested. Princess having a nice day?" He asks Merlin, who takes the chair opposite him with a harsh grate of the floor and its legs. Gwaine thinks the sound is symbolic of his own current turmoil.

"Arthur's hunting. He left a note saying he left earlier in the morning so I wouldn't 'bumble about loudly to scare away the game, you oversensitive animal hugger'." Gwaine chuckles, and Merlin gives him a grin. He's expecting-hoping-Merlin to flash him a look of hunger and offhandedly suggest Gwaine not make a drunk of himself, but instead Merlin leans back comfortably in his chair and bumps Gwaine's knee against his. The warmth of it lingers as neither Gwaine nor Merlin move to separate. "You've been more stressed lately." Gwaine's eyebrows rise and he tilts his head back for a gulp of drink to cover his surprise. "More tired. Less fight in you."

"You expect them to change the price of a flagon without it having an effect on me?"

Merlin leans across the table and Gwaine disguises his own reflexive recoil by leaning back more and taking another gulp. "Gwaine." He looks at Merlin. "Is it because of..." Merlin tips his own head to one side to avoid saying it out loud in the tavern.

"Merlin, your concern is much appreciated, but wholly unnecessary.

Merlin sighs and his eyes drift to the side before focusing on Gwaine. "You're pretending you're okay again. What is it, then?" Merlin pulls himself across the table closer to Gwaine and lowers his voice. "Is it because I don't...reciprocate much? I thought I've been offering every time. Should I insist on it when you say it's not needed, or..."

Gwaine pats Merlin's head and gives a disregarding, "You're cute, Merlin."

"Would a back rub help, then?"

"You don't have to."

"I know."

"Do you?" Gwaine blurts. He regrets it when Merlin's brows scrunch in confusion. "You don't owe me a debt, Merlin."

"Of course I don't." Merlin looks at him like Gwaine's stupid, and he begins to feel that he is. "Is that...You think I'm doing it begrudgingly because I feel tied to you?"

Gwaine feels foolish for still keeping that a possibility even as Merlin denies it, so to have an excuse to not reply, he swallows the rest of his drink in one go and wipes his mouth across his sleeve.

"I didn't sleep too well last night," he says as he stands. "Let's hope the booze helps me pass out as well as it usually does." It's rude walking away from Merlin, but he's already blurted out too much, he can blame it on the drink, and he honestly just hopes a nap will leave him feeling less foolish than he does now. Merlin's eyes follow him out the door, but he doesn't stop Gwaine from walking away.

Arthur finally connects the dots during a training session.

"You and Merlin are spending an awful lot of time together," he says to Gwaine as the two of them prepare for a duel. The scowl with which he adjusts his gloves and his utter failure at a nonchalant tone indicates that he does indeed find it awful.

"Indeed, sire. Though not nearly as much as you do."

"I don't spend my time with him breaking his skin."

"No, you just take your aggression out on him by breaking his back with an endless list of chores." Gwaine steps closer to Arthur. "Do you even care about him in the slighte-" Gwaine just barely ducks his head from a quick swing of Arthur's sword.

"Arthur!" Merlin scolds from the sidelines.

The next few minutes are a blur of metal and clanging, of nicks and jabs fueled by years of injustice.

Gwaine stops a blow with his sword, and through the cross it forms with Arthur's, Gwaine hisses quietly in his face, "I'm only trying to give Merlin what you've refused him. You know how much it affects him and you still repay him in insults and mulework. You've no appreciation for him, you royal cock." Arthur snarls and kicks Gwaine to the ground.

Gwaine rolls out and onto his feet, drops his sword to the ground, and spits at Arthur's feet. A servant gasps at the action; it stops Arthur cold. In a low murmur, Gwaine continues. "You claim bravery and yet you would rather make your best friend suffer than face your own thoughts." The area is silent. Gwaine spits out a final, audible "Coward" and walks away fuming into the halls.

He expects Arthur to run after him with his sword drawn, but the footsteps trailing him are Merlin's.

"You're lucky he didn't execute you right there."

"I'm willing to bet he'll execute me to keep from facing introspection."

Merlin is by his side in a moment, and then Gwaine is pressed against the hallway.

"Merlin, I'm sorry but I'm too wound up to treat you how you should be right now." Merlin is understanding, should agree and walk away. He shouldn't drop to his knees and grip Gwaine's trousers. "Merlin!"

"Let me help you wind down."

"I can't ask you to do that." Despite his words, Gwaine's cock hardens at the situation. Traitor.

"You're not asking. I'm telling you I will. If you let me."

Merlin's too bent on fairness, and he's a bit of a hypocrite in that he does things for others without expecting anything in return, and he still always insists on giving back for favors done for him.

"You can," Gwaine begins, triggering Merlin's scramble to open Gwaine's belt and pull down his trousers and underthings in one go. "Merlin..." Merlin's grip tightens and his tongue drags across Gwaine's slit and Gwaine's only human and really can't be blamed for the thrust he half fails to restrain. "Merlin," he tries again, "Christ."

"If you want me to leave you to yourself, I'll leave you. But you're wound up, you're too fucking noble so you refuse to ask for my help, and I know you need it. Come on, Gwaine." And then Merlin echoes back his words with such sincerity that Gwaine wonders if he's really pleading. "Use me." Gwaine groans.

"What makes you think you can just go around saying that?"

"Do you want me to stop?"

"No."

"Gwaine, it's okay if you do." Merlin strokes the sides of Gwaine's thighs encouragingly. "I've no no ego to bruise. Nothing has to change with us if you tell me to fuck off right now."

"No, that's not why," Gwaine huffs and his body's thrumming with lust and Merlin is so eager and Gwaine's lower back begins to ache with the pressure of the stone wall he's pushing back against to suppress the harsh thrusts his body begs him to do. "It's just your first time sucking someone off. I don't want to make it tough on you." He meets Merlin's eyes, and is surprised to find them glinting with annoyance.

"I'm not breakable, and I know you're far from it too. Do you want me to continue?"

"Yeah," Gwaine laughs through his panting, because what kind of a question is that? And then Merlin snarls and determinedly hisses, "Then shut up and fuck my mouth." Gwaine's still reeling with shock, and then Merlin takes him in again and grabs his hips and jerks them closer to himself.

It's sloppy and inexperienced, but Merlin's heart is in it.

There's a rustle far away in the corridor and Gwaine wonders if Merlin is getting off on it and if his magic moves objects even when he isn't coming. Then the prickle along Gwaine's skin takes on a different, more foreign twinge, and when he looks down at Merlin, his eyes are glowing golden under heavy lids. Merlin slips Gwaine's trousers further down, his face cautious as he searches Gwaine's for signs of protest, and suspiciously easily slips his fingers into Gwaine.

"Merlin," Gwaine growls, and Merlin's lips are stretched too taut to smirk, but the mischievous glint in his eye suggests that the scold was swimming too deep in his groans and panting to have had any bite. Merlin's using his own form of Gwaine's techniques to break Gwaine.

"Magical bastard," Gwaine rasps. It doesn't matter that Merlin's lips are taut around his cock; the little shit's fucking smirking at him, he can tell. Merlin goes until Gwaine comes and Gwaine slumps and slides down against the wall, wincing when his ass meets the hard stone.

"That was not your first time," Gwaine argues. Merlin's chuckle is low.

"I made a tonic to numb my throat." Merlin's voice is broken and gravelly, and Gwaine hopes to God and all of Merlin's gods that there's no spell or tonic to fix that, and that Merlin won't take it if there is.

"You realize Gaius is going to give that The Eyebrow if he finds it."

"He won't. The rest is under my bed."

"You left some?"

"How else will I suck you off?" Gwaine huffs an incredulous laugh and runs his hands through his hair.

"Well if you're so intent, I'd be mad to stop you."

The next day, Gwaine thanks Merlin for putting his sword in its usual place. Merlin says it was gone when he returned to the training area, along with everyone else. Over the course of a day of walking through the halls, Gwaine asks each servant if they returned it. All say no. Two say the only person in the armory at the time of its return was Arthur.

"They agreed to see other people," Merlin tells him a week later in Gwaine's room.

"Who?"

"Gwen and Arthur. He told me today. Gwen smiled so happily at me today in the hall. She looked so happy, Gwaine," Merlin grins. "It had to be a mutual choice. Do you think she and Lancelot will get together?"

"I wouldn't be surprised if that was the reason they agreed in the first place. She will still be queen, won't she?"

"She's the only person who's worthy. Arthur knows that. She'll have her own chambers, though. The official story will be that Arthur snores and kicks too much in his sleep."

"Arthur may be thick but at least he realizes the throne belongs to Gwen."

"She's grown so much," Merlin says lovingly. "I haven't come to talk to her in months. I'll see her tomorrow." Gwaine admires Merlin for not once that night asking if Gwaine thinks Arthur initiated the agreement because of Merlin.

Gwaine almost regrets confronting Arthur once he sees how Arthur cracks the metaphorical whip on Merlin. Arthur worsens the already impossible load Merlin had, and Gwaine sneaks into see Merlin during his free time to help and watch for people walking by while Merlin completes some chores by magic. When the load is worsened even more, Gwaine worries that Arthur knows Gwaine spends even more time with Merlin now and backs off to see if it helps the load. Merlin in the next few weeks gradually receives less work orders. Gwaine thinks it may be Arthur realizing he's been a cock.

"I'll gather firewood. We have an hour at most before it gets dark and cold."

"Alone?" Gwaine cast a look around the woods. "I'm willing to bet bandits are the safest threat in these parts."

Arthur strokes his horse's muzzle. "You're right. Merlin might startle upon seeing a rabbit and trip and drown in the lake." Merlin throws Arthur a glare, but Arthur's back is to him.

Gwaine chuckles and walks to Merlin. "Don't worry, Merlin. You're lucky enough that you'll just get bitten by a vicious fly." He claps him on the shoulder and follows Merlin into the trees. He ensures they're far enough from camp before he pipes up, "It must bother you not being able to tell them you probably could take out an entire army if you felt like it."

"A little. But it provides an excuse to have you around."

They fall into easy occasional conversation as they collect wood, and it soon falls away to silence. Merlin looks back and checks the woods.

"Gwaine."

"Merlin." Merlin strides to a piece of wood not much bigger than a twig with unnecessary determination. It wouldn't do much for the fire anyway.

"I'm not..." Gwaine uses the guise of searching for wood as he prepares himself for the inevitable "in love with you. This is getting kind of awkward, and I can feel the desperation emanating off of you and now that Arthur and Gwen agreed it's okay to see other people I don't think you should go near me-"

"Gwaine."

"Merlin." Merlin decreased the distance between them while Gwaine was lost in his thoughts. "Twig," Gwaine replies to Merlin's look. "Grass?" Merlin raises a brow. "Oh, we aren't playing..."

"You don't have to trot around my question. A straight answer won't wound me, Gwaine. I'd actually prefer one." Irritation shows on Merlin's face, but his eyes quickly dart from Gwaine's.

"No, sorry," Gwaine begins to explain his lapse in listening, and before he can finish, Merlin nods and turns away to pick up another twig too small for a fire.

"Yeah, don't worry." Gwaine adds another branch to the pile in his arms.

A few beats pass with the tinkering of wood, and Gwaine's mind catches up.

"Merlin, I haven't the slightest idea of what happened." Merlin huffs.

"I'm not an idiot, Gwaine. What we talked about in the tavern? You've been acting off because you're trying to cover up your second thoughts, aren't you?" Merlin takes a breath. "I just-" He tightens his lips. "I don't mean to be so touchy afterwards, I just get tired and it's nice to have the warmth and a physical reminder that someone cares enough to help out and...you're there with your hair and warmth-gods, this is getting-" Merlin leans his head back and sighs at the sky. "I didn't mean to make it awkward. I realize you saw a friend in need, your helpful instincts set in, and you didn't realize how much you wanted to take it back until I forced myself on you like some heat-ridden harlot-and gods, I'm so sorry.

"I mean, there's really no way to properly apologize for that and I know it's not enough and neither is me swearing I won't do it again, but-You don't seem like the yelling type, but if you want to yell or dangerously hiss in my face-that seems more like you, but I dunno, I've never been aware of angering you that much-that'd be okay. I'd rather you get it out now instead of letting it simmer and manifest itself through avoiding and awkward silences because I couldn't keep myself-"

Merlin, in his verbal haste and persistence to keep his eyes and whole body away from Gwaine, has grabbed at anything remotely long with a purposefulness that doubled the pile in his arms. The top half is occupied by bits so frivolous Gwaine is surprised Merlin hasn't put in tufts of grass.

Gwaine lets his branches drop to the floor. Merlin turns his body full-on to Gwaine, hands bunching the woof closer to his chest. The twigs at the top clank with the almost indiscernible tremble in his hands. Gwaine walks to Merlin, whose twigs beat the grass as he lets them drop them with a rustle.

"Okay, you're going to-Yeah, that's fine. Okay," Merlin babbles. "But it'll probably be best if I'm still conscious because it's less of a load for you to carry." He takes a breath, tension visible in is shoulders and body, meeting Gwaine's eyes expectantly. Gwaine takes a few steps forward and Merlin hurriedly shuts his eyes. He flinches as Gwaine's hands land on his shoulders.

"Merlin, I don't think either of us know what's going on," Gwaine murmurs. Merlin tentatively opens his eyes after a few seconds. "You think I'd hit you?"

"I was hoping you would."

"Is this your way of telling me you have a pain kink?" Merlin flushes and makes a noise in his throat. "I have no problem with biting...or spanking you, if that's what you want." The red travels to the tips of his ears, and Gwaine chuckles at his embarrassed groan.

"No, that's not what-well the biting I like, but-" Merlin huffs, swallowing with his eyes cast defiantly at a tree behind Gwaine. "You know what I'm trying to say."

"Slander."

"But you have a general idea. You just like it when I squirm.

"I like it when there's no terror and more whimpers involved."

"Gwaine."

"You didn't force me into anything. I offered because I care about you and because I'm more than happy to help you out, whether you need two arms to carry firewood or a hand on your cock-"

"You don't need to-"

"-because I'm a versatile man and you don't deserve to have a raging case of blue balls because Arthur's being a dick who doesn't admit he wants to touch his dick to yours."

"We aren't that far from-"

"And it's not exactly like I suffer through it, Merlin. You're a hot piece of ass and I appreciate being given the honor to have your come dribbling down my chin while you moan my name."

"Oh, my gods."

"And to be quite honest, you jumping me like a harlot in heat is usually the highlight of my day." Merlin rubs his hands over his strawberry face. "And we have about a half hour until sunset, so would you like me to step aside and give you privacy while you take care of that, or would you prefer I help you?"

xx

That night, Merlin comes over to sit beside Gwaine on the log. He warms his hands over the fire and keeps a few inches of distance between them until the others appear to be asleep, snoring penetrating the air around them. He at first moves so their thighs are touching, but then he rests his elbows on his knees, and he's hunched and clearly dissatisfied with the position, so Gwaine uses a hand on Merlin's waist to nudge him closer. Merlin makes a satisfied noise and leans until his body rests against Gwaine's.

"Sorry for the bruise," Merlin says.

"I don't mind. It's just proof someone tolerates me enough to give it. Getting it wasn't bad either."

"You can give me one as payback."

"That's very sacrificial of you. I'm sure you don't just enjoy having your neck sucked."

"No, it's utter torture."

"I'll remember that next time you dry hump me."

"Just because you're a knight doesn't mean you can mistreat commoners," Merlin jests.

"You're not common."

"Mm. Your mail's cold." Merlin's hair tickles Gwaine's neck.

"It doesn't seem to bother you."

"Not really." Gwaine shifts and pulls Merlin closer. "Do you still have trouble sleeping?"

"Yeah." They sit by the crackling fire until Gwaine apologizes and gently removes himself from Merlin to answer the call of nature. But Leon needs help hunting, so he doesn't return until an hour later.

xx

Later that night, Arthur lies awake on the ground while most of his knights have already gone to sleep.

"Don't think I don't see you awake and miserable over there, Merlin." Gwaine sits by Merlin on the log. "What's happened?" Arthur doesn't miss the familiarity with which Merlin scoots a little closer and leans into him immediately.

"It's not-" Merlin starts, and then leans closer to Gwaine's ear and Arthur is horrible for straining his ears to hear Merlin's murmuring, but he can't hear it, and whatever it is, it causes Gwaine to splay his hand against Merlin's back and murmur something back soothingly. Merlin melts into him as Gwaine scoots closer, nodding at something Gwaine said. They stay like that for a minute or two, Merlin drooping against Gwaine, until Arthur hears Gwaine ask, "Shall we get you to sleep, then?"

Gwaine clears away some twigs and leaves to make a more suitable earth bed for Merlin.

"Gwaine, am I a person or a dog?" Merlin asks amusedly.

"You look a little more like a mouse."

"Oh gods, you're not in with Arthur on the ear jokes, are you?" Gwaine laughs and lies down, patting the spot next to him. When Merlin lies down next to him, it maintains the small degree of space between them earlier. It's even worse when Merlin changes position to be belly down and slightly on top of Gwaine's chest, takes Gwaine's arm and drapes it over his middle. Both men look perfectly content.

"Don't worry. You're no longer defenseless in my big strong arms." They share a laugh. Something about it makes Arthur feel like he's missing an inside joke.

In the morning, Leon nudges Percival in the morning when Gwaine and Merlin are still sleeping tangled together.

"Looks like I'll get more firewood for breakfast? Give them a little more rest," Elyan says as he walks off into the trees.

"You're a great man, Elyan."

"You're getting the wood next trip. Should be colder then. I'll be in my fur blanket."

"I love you, Merlin," Gwaine slurs after Merlin finds him in the tavern instead of his chambers.

"You say that to every man who drags your drunk backside to bed."

"Yeah, but you're the only one I mean it with."

"I'm flattered." Merlin dumps Gwaine onto his bed and busies himself with slipping off his boots and arranging him into a sleep-able position. He'd woken on quests to see Gwaine curled against a tree before, but while he could sleep like that, the rest of the company had to spend the rest of the morning listening to Gwaine's moaning about his sore back and neck. Merlin admittedly would much prefer not to listen to more of it tomorrow, but mostly did it for Gwaine's sake. The hangover would be bad enough. Gwaine's record with alcohol seemed to warrant him immune to them, but Gwaine's drinking had steadily declined after his arrival in Camelot-when he was permitted to enter the borders without the threat of execution, the honor of knighthood freshly encompassing him.

"I thought about you, after I left Camelot. You came to get me, and I rode away again with the hope in the back of my mind that word of Uther's death would come soon." Merlin had despised Uther, but the one thing that had kept him from wishing Uther dead was the devastation Arthur would feel. His heart squeezes with the memory of the pain in Arthur's face when he held Uther's body.

"Arthur would be a better king. Don't tell him I said that. I figured a dead Uther would mean I could return to Camelot and not be forced to kneel to a dick in a crown. A cock, I might like. Yours is nice. But not a dick."

"So you did want to return to Camelot."

"Yeah, well. It was nice to have someone who gave a fuck about me." Gwaine gives a drunken swat to Merlin's shoulder, which he supposes is meant to be a thankful pat. "Gave me another reason to stay alive." Merlin frowns.

"What were the others?"

"Not letting the world win." Merlin's hands clench at his sides, then go to stroke Gwaine's hair.

"You didn't. Goodnight, Gwaine."

"Night, Merlin."

Merlin leaves the window cracked before he leaves and makes note to check on Gwaine in the morning.

"You look even worse than usual," Arthur scowls after the next training. "Take a few days off. Get some sleep. Take a bath. Come back when you can swing a sword properly." Delivered bluntly as it was, Gwaine recognizes Arthur's extension of care when he sees it. Knowing he now has a few days away from duties lets relief wash over him, and his shoulders slump with how much he realizes he needs it.

"Thank you, Sire." Arthur nods and takes off in the direction to his chambers.

Sleep almost seizes Gwaine later in the bathtub. He slumps deep enough into the water that he only realizes when water fills his nostrils and he comes up sputtering. His break couldn't have come at a better time.

xx

Patrolling the woods for years has given him a knack for navigating to the gardens easily. He suspects someone in Camelot started it up and tended to it, but now the bushes and flowers grew wild. Their vines weave into each other. They coil around thin tree stumps. Their thorns have nicked his fingers. The dry needles of bushes scratch his neck from his place on the ground.

Twigs snap rhythmically from nearby. He opens his eye and half prepares himself to either collapse an intruder's chest (because no one who wants to ambush a man stomps on sticks) or to see a deer. Instead he sees brown breeches and a blue shirt, and a face tinged with surprise. A basket of leaves hangs from the end of Merlin's fingers.

"Is that a rosemary mustache?"

"It is."

"There are flowers in your hair."

"You say it like you're judging, Sir Warlock."

"What would you have done if I was a lunatic with an axe?"

"Cry." Merlin snorts. Gwaine is glad to see his reputation renders his sarcasm absurd.

"Arthur was worrying about you today."

"Really? Did he threaten to beat me if I took more than today off?"

"No. He wondered why you were especially useless as of late." Gwaine chuckled.

"The man's father really did a number on his emotional expression."

"It's there. Just got to get used to it, is all." Merlin's voice is closer. The grass rustles beside Gwaine, and he opens an eye to see Merlin on his back beside him. "Should I tell him the answer to his question is you're becoming a fairy princess?"

"Sure. Give the man another reason to hate me. Have you seen how hard he swung his sword at me yesterday?"

"He's trying to motivate you to swing harder, to show you that you'd be dead if you went to a battle the way you are now. He needed to break you so you'd have a reason to rest.

"I'm assuming he didn't tell you this."

"No." Merlin hums. "He hates you as much as the other knights do."

"Now you're going to tell me my friends hate me too."

"You know, words keep their intended meaning when you don't flip them. You're just trying to get me to braid your hair and tell you how loved you are."

"Wouldn't hurt." He quirks his lips at Merlin, the rosemary twig under his nose sliding down his cheek, but it must be not have been satisfactory-once he closes his eyes, the sunshine disappears from his eyelids. Merlin is hovering over him as he opens them again.

"How are you?" Gwaine shrugs.

"Came here to clear my head, organize the shit that won't go away."

"Thoughts running wild?" He has failed in coming up with a solution to the thoughts that burrow deep in his mind and seem to use pickaxes to latch onto the walls of the corner he's tucked them into. Accepting their hidden presence no longer helps. They have run wild. Their parasitic roots have smashed the glass that kept them locked away, the growing vines' thorns scraping the inside of his chest, leaving him bleeding and unsure and unable to wash the red away.

Merlin looks at him expectantly.

"Yeah." His own voice is abnormally gravelly to his ears. He feels Merlin's gaze moving over his skin until Merlin returns it to the specks of sky visible through the trees.

"I could get my herbs and leave you to yourself."

"No, that's alright."

The sun comes in bright through a canopy of leaves. Gwaine closes his eyes and just breathes, indulging in the wind lifting his hair and stroking his face. Each lungful fills his being with the scent of rosemary. It doesn't wipe his soul clean of the pain, but all these years haven't dulled the calmness it brings since he associated it with his mother's perfume. A contented hum escapes him.

Merlin's presence is palpable, even in his silence apart from the occasional rustle of grass as Merlin adjusts his position and a deeper breath here and there.

"I can feel your magic, you know."

"Hmm?"

"Your magic. I couldn't figure out what it was, but now I see it feels...alive."

"Are you sure that isn't just me being not dead?" Gwaine scowls at Merlin's curious smile.

"Yes, I'm sure, Merlin."

"Does it feel like anything other than not dead?"

"Right now it's content, kind of happy. I feel it most when you touch me. It's like your happiness radiates into me."

"You can feel my magic's moods?"

"It seems to respond to the ones you feel." Merlin silently stares at the woods above.

"It screams out when there's danger. It gets harder to keep it in then."

"I can't imagine how horrible it must be. Facing the terror of immediate danger and keeping Arthur safe, and then on top of that trying to keep your magic from exposing itself."

"I've had enough practice." Merlin flicks it off so casually, so contrary to the worn and weary way Merlin had looked and sounded when he'd slumped against Gwaine's bed that day.

"Arthur wouldn't hurt you, you know." Merlin's eyes skittered over the bark of a tree.

"I've betrayed his trust for too long now."

"By saving his royal ass more times than you can count?"

"It'd be how everyone would see it."

"Who's everyone?"

"The court. They've lived through Uther's reign, adopted his ideologies. Magic is evil to them."

"You're the furthest from evil I've met, Merlin," Gwaine says as he did that day he told Merlin he knew about his magic. Merlin sets his jaw.

"I haven't told you what I've done, Gwaine." Merlin closes his eyes and takes a breath, the kind that signifies he is preparing himself for something Gwaine wants and needs to know. "I knew when Morgana's magic manifested. She told me. She came to me, terrified, and I couldn't tell her she wasn't alone. Morgause gave her sanctuary, taught her about magic, gave her the satisfaction and safety of acceptance and belonging." Gwaine looked over at Merlin, whose face was tucked into the bend of his own elbow, as if it would shield him from the world. "Camelot got cursed after that. The only way to keep the people of Camelot from dying was to kill the source, and Morgana was the source. I poisoned her. She-" Merlin's voice broke.

"I offered her the poisoned waterskin and she was so grateful, but then she drank it, and the way she looked at me-" Merlin trailed off. "I've lied to Arthur, killed his uncle. I'm one of the closest people to him, and I am the reason his sister tried to kill his father, has almost had Arthur and Gwen killed so many times. If he finds out he's been swindled into telling such a sorcerer the things he won't admit even to his wife...Not to mention the affairs of Camelot..."

"Arthur's uncle tried to kill him, Merlin. Morgana would have wanted the throne anyway, and Morgause was her sister."

"Arthur's her half brother. He won't see it the same way you do."

"He'll see what a prat he's been about magic and those with it. He'd be insulted with how little you think of him. Look, Merlin, I just know it must be horrible and lonely for you, and frightening to live with the fear that you'll be found out."

"It'll be more frightening to tell Arthur and put him in a position that would make him choose between a sorcerer and his own laws."

"He's king, Merlin. His father created the ban on magic when he was king. It's Arthur who now makes the laws, and it's Arthur who can change them. Especially when he sees how it harms his people. You told me he rescued the sorceress from the villagers."

"A stranger is different than someone he's let into his deepest affairs for a decade."

"I feel like now you're arguing just for the sake of arguing." Gwaine glances at Merlin, whose fingers were fiddling at his side with little clumps of grass. "I also think you should tell Arthur you want to kiss him in a not-platonic way." Merlin groaned. "I'm telling you, Merlin. Princess loves you. Not just that, but in the want-to-hold-your-hand-and-kiss-you-and-wake-up-cuddling-you way. He's just unsettled by how much he wants to touch his dick to your dick."

"Fuck's sake." Merlin hides his amused smile badly

"I mean, even when he and Gwen were together. The last time I saw Arthur kiss Gwen, it was the way I kiss Percy."

"Are you suggesting you want to leave me for Percival?" Merlin cracks a grin. Gwaine returns it.

"Don't fuck with me. I know you understand." Merlin's lack of response leaves only the wind's whistle. Gwaine leans into the ground and lets his thoughts compartmentalize. This is good. He's telling Merlin what he needs to know, he's not taking advantage of Merlin, he's not confessing what he shouldn't, and not messing with Merlin's mind.

"I'm not fucking with you," comes Merlin's soft voice. "But I am fucking you." Gwaine's heart stutters. Yes, thank you for the reminder that you're within reach and not mine to take.

"I'm sure Princess would be ecstatic if you show him what you've learned." Good recovery. That was gold. Merlin's smile was badly hidden.

"A lot more than I thought I would. I hadn't expected it to escalate so much."

"Were you pleasantly or horrifically surprised?"

"I won't stroke your ego."

"You do it enough with your reactions. You have a bit of a filthy mouth, Merlin." Merlin's eyes are closed when Gwaine glances at him, and his ears begin to pinken.

"You say it as though you don't react yourself," Merlin says casually. "I think my favorite is a tie between the whimper when you come, and when you're so lost in it you can only say my name." Merlin peeks out from an eye and gives a naughty smirk. Oh. He's paid attention. He has favorites. He's thought of it before. Gwaine feels his prick start to harden. That's just fucking great.

"I can't pick a favorite with you. They kind of all fall into the category. The way your legs fall open for me, the way you bare your neck when you arch your back, when your words get lost in your whimpers and moans, when my name falls from your lips like a prayer, and you mark my back as you beg to come." He casts a glance at Merlin, whose lower lip is caught between his teeth. It's red and slick when he releases it. Merlin reaches down to adjust himself, but it seems his fingers linger too long and with too much pressure, because his breath hitches. Gwaine licks his own lip and clutches his breeches over a thigh.

It's been a while.

"Can I?" Merlin asks.

"Yeah. Please, yeah." Gwaine reaches out for Merlin, hands slipping over his skin, and he feels that almost indiscernible presence of magic spreading over his arms and filling his chest with warmth.

Merlin climbs Gwaine, straddling his hips, his tongue asking Gwaine for admittance, and it's slow, his hips are dragging over Gwaine's and it's not enough even with Gwaine's bucking, he's already panting with need, and Christ it's going to be torturous in the best possible way.

"Merlin," Gwaine groans when Merlin unlaces Gwaine's breeches and takes hold of him. "I need-God, can you just-Can you fuck me? Fuck me into the ground, mark me, please, I just need-"

"Yeah, I've got you." Merlin slips off his jacket. "Wrap your legs around me." Gwaine complies and Merlin slips his jacket on the ground under Gwaine's backside. Merlin strokes Gwaine's face, as he goes in for a kiss, but the action is too tender and it makes Gwaine's heart hurt even more, so he grabs hold of Merlin's wrist and sucks in his fingers, and Merlin's eyes darken and the look there makes Gwaine's eyes flutter and he's suddenly all too aware of how empty he feels and how much he wants Merlin to fill him.

Eventually, each of Merlin's thrusts brings his cock to drag against Gwaine's prostate, and he matches each with his tongue in Gwaine's mouth, and Gwaine tries to keep up but soon he can do little else than clutch Merlin and rock against him and press his head back against the ground and pant and moan.

Merlin keeps his mouth occupied by sucking on Gwaine's jawline and then biting lightly at first and gradually increasing pressure until a soft cry escapes Gwaine. He soothes the spots by tonguing over the bruise and pressing gentle kisses to it.

There's no teasing this time, no hand gripping him at the base to stave off his release, no sucking the only around his cock, no smirks. Only he and Merlin connected at the core, Merlin whispering soothing words in his ear, how glad he was Gwaine was at that first tavern when they met, kissing his cheek, his forehead, asking if he's okay, telling him how much he cares. It's too much and too easy to feel as though it is him that Merlin loves and not Arthur, and that's a dangerous thought, and Gwaine keeps his eyes shut lest he mistake what he sees in Merlin's eyes as love. It must be a misleading sight, because Merlin says, "I can stop. Just tell me to."

"No, keep going. Please." Merlin's frowning down at him with concern. "Please," Gwaine says, and Merlin complies gentler.

xx

Merlin's magic is convenient once more in sparing them a trip to the nearest river. Merlin has ushered them into position so he is sitting back against a tree and Gwaine is between his legs with his back to Merlin's chest with his head on Merlin's lap. Merlin runs his hands through Gwaine's hair, using the back of his hands to stroke Gwaine's cheeks. His palms to slide absentmindedly over Gwaine's collarbones and neck. Gwaine leans back and lets Merlin continue.

They indulge in the breeze, the songs of the birds. Merlin's voice adds to them when he suddenly voices, "You know you're very important to me. Not because of the sex, though that's good-great, mind-blowing. But you're important because you're Gwaine. You do what you know is right. You're noble, and honorable, and the others will agree that you're a vital part of their lives and Camelot's safety."

Gwaine absorbs the words, basks in them, then asks, "What are you doing?"

Merlin simply replies, "Braiding your hair and telling you how loved you are."

As Gwaine pulls off his shirt from that day, a knock comes from outside his chambers. Pleased that Merlin's presence will help calm him, he yells, "You know the door's always open for you."

The door, rather than opening with Merlin's learned assuredness around Gwaine, opens to reveal Arthur already stripped of his chainmail.

His confusion must be evident on his face, because Arthur explains, "Merlin went to rest."

"Ordering people to rest seems a recent pattern for you, sire." / Arthur remains awkward in the doorway.

"Close the door, sit down. You're so uncomfortable it's making me uncomfortable."

"Are you sure it's not just the stench of your socks?"

"I've become immune."

"Savage." Arthur sits at the corner of Gwaine's bed. "Has rest helped you regained usefulness then?"

"Why, is Merlin throwing your dirty clothes behind your drawers again?"

"What?" Arthur asks, the look in his eyes suggesting he already has plans to check behind his drawers.

"What?"

"You-I'm asking if rest has helped you."

"Yeah."

"Good." With that, Arthur stands and leaves Gwaine wondering what just happened.

"That will be all." Merlin looks up from closing the ink pot.

"You haven't yet dressed."

"Does it still surprise you that I can put clothing on myself?" Arthur pulls his shirt over his head and onto a shelf in his dresser. Merlin bites the inside of his cheek, watching Arthur's back stiffer than usual. There had been a wedge between them recently, and Merlin could no longer be sure Arthur was telling him everything.

"Is there new danger to the kingdom?" Merlin asks tentatively. Arthur freezes.

"Not unless you have information that's been kept from me. Do you?"

"Camelot is fine, to my knowledge. You don't seem to be." Merlin begins sharpening the end of a quill with a knife.

"Did you come to that conclusion yourself or did Gwaine bring your attention to it?" The quill skitters down to the desk as the knife in Merlin's hand slips, bringing beads of crimson against his white skin.

"I did, Sire. If you've forgotten, I have been in your presence daily for 10 years. I know when something is wrong." When Merlin braves a glance up, Arthur's eyes are at the cut on Merlin's hand. Silence, and then-

"I can't dwell on you forever," Merlin says. "You have to understand." He pauses as his throat begins to constrict. "It's been so lonely, Arthur." As Merlin's eyes begin to prickle with tears, he squeezes them shut; he doesn't want to see Arthur's face, whatever disgust or hatred or disapproval must be on there. "A decade in Camelot, and most of it without loving someone I'm unable to press close to me, to have them hold me, to kiss me when they would like to wake up to, to understand and be able to acknowledge the darkness in me after I've done something I had no choice but to do, with no pretense or worries about how it'll look to the kingdom. You've already paved so many new roads, and I'm so proud of you for doing so, and I must admit in our closest times I lie awake trying to convince myself that us being together, even open only in the privacy of our closest friends, will just be another road paved. Gwen held my same position before your marriage, and she's grown to be a fierce queen loved by all of Camelot and I don't tell her enough how proud I am of her for it." Merlin recognizes his rambling and breaks off that trail before he falls apart.

"And I know talking about it has been off-limits, but I think that keeping it inside has done nothing but slowly tear us apart." He hurries on, before his bout of bravery recedes. "I can tell him things about me I want so badly for you to know but I can't, Arthur, I can't tell you because of what it'd do to us and Camelot.

"My feelings for Gwaine appeared just as my feelings for you-hit me upside the head and latched onto my soul. Right next to my feelings for you. Pretending your soul isn't right next to his in my chest is tearing me apart.

"I will be whatever you need me to be, Arthur-your servant, your friend, your savior, and I'll do it proudly. You're my life, Arthur. You have been since I came to Camelot and I can't stand having you closed off and angry. Please understand why I allowed Gwaine into my life." Arthur walks to the window and holds the sill. He refrains from speaking for so long that Merlin deflates and takes a few steps to the door, until-

"I do, Merlin," he says, and his voice is soft, understanding.

Relief flows through Merlin harder than the blood in his veins. Merlin nods, looking at Arthur's hunched form for answers.

"Come here," Arthur says softly, back still turned. Merlin hesitates, but moves until he is close enough to touch Arthur if he stretched out his arm. His heart beats even harder when Arthur turns to face him, and Merlin keeps his face down at the floor. He can't handle any more vulnerability at the moment.

Merlin feels Arthur's eyes on him as Arthur stretches a hand out to Merlin's left. Merlin lifts it, shaking, uncertain if Arthur would really do such an intimate gesture. Arthur steps forward to take Merlin's hand in his, turn it over so he can inspect the bleeding Merlin has already forgotten about. Merlin expects to be scolded for getting a few drops of blood on the floor, but Arthur retrieves a medicinal kit Merlin stored in his desk and lifts Merlin to sit on the desk.

As Arthur applies ointment and wraps the cut in a strip of cloth, Merlin sits in shock. He steeps in frustration at himself for allowing Arthur to be so intimate with him, for enjoying it, for shaking through it and for the bloom of useless hope from it. But he's even more frustrated at Arthur for showing such tenderness so suddenly and only after Merlin is with Gwaine. Only moments after Merlin explains how much Gwaine means to him.

Arthur holds Merlin's bandaged hand in his, and covers it with the other one. They've never held hands and Arthur chooses to give two of his now.

Arthur holds Merlin's shoulder and rubs a thumb against the skin.

"Go rest, Merlin," Arthur whispers, and though the words say to go, Arthur doesn't release Merlin's hand until Merlin takes it back a minute later and walks out the door.

Touch between Merlin and Arthur had been so sparse and often fleeting during painful punches and swats whenever Arthur had somehow added to his arrogance and, after Arthur had picked up a roll of bread with melted cheese, Merlin mockingly raised an eyebrow at Arthur's stomach and eyed the extra food in his hand.

(It was after such occasions that Merlin walked in on Arthur pouting and counting the holes in his belt. Arthur threw it to the floor the first time, barking out a demand for Merlin to answer why he was in his room. "To get you ready for bed, Sire," Merlin replied, and Arthur still looked at him as if he was the one who erred.

While undressing Arthur for bed, he'd mumbled, "You know I only meant to jest," to which Arthur replied with a momentary searching stare and a too-late "You think your words pierce me."

"I do know your sensitivities are larger than you pretend they are."

"They can't be larger than your ears." Merlin had hidden a smile into his neckerchief as he laced Arthur's trousers. "Or the extent of how stupid your smile is."

"Of course, Sire.")

Nonviolent pats and grips were much less frequent, and embraces were almost nonexistent except for few times when Arthur found Merlin not dead. So to hold Merlin's hand tenderly when all Merlin had was a cut? Sending signals Merlin absolutely did not need right now.

Merlin's seethes on the way back to his bed. Why would Arthur do this? Why couldn't he just continue to be cold with Merlin? Why would he wait until Merlin is with another to reel him back in? Why would he confuse Merlin by making him feel for two men at the same time?

Before bed, Merlin throws a wooden cup against his wall. The lack of shards is disappointing.

The next day, Merlin comes to Gwaine with an explanation of the anger that rejuvenates his sex drive and leaves Merlin craving sensation to clear his mind for at least a little.

Gwaine fully plans to help him, and is, when a familiar, soft sound rings through the chambers. Merlin's body completely stills. Gwaine at first thinks that Merlin's magic has thrown a book across the room, but Merlin's staring at something in horror. Gwaine ceases his movements, fearful he's done something to hurt Merlin, but when he turns to look he's met with a rigid Arthur in the doorway. The three sit in still silence, until Arthur regains himself and closes the doors behind him hurriedly. The movement seems to remind Merlin of his own ability and he reaches for Gwaine with a grip that'll leave matching bruises. Gwaine slips out and scrambles to cover Merlin's body with the duvet.

Arthur clearly doesn't want to leave and is too stunned to explain himself. Head down, face flaming, Arthur stammers, "I didn't-I just wanted to speak. I didn't think… I'll go." Merlin, previously frozen shock, shakes his head vigorously.

"No," comes his hoarse reply. "Don't leave." The quiver in Merlin's voice matches the one in his body, and Gwaine rubs his side to encourage him. Merlin opens his mouth to say more; nothing comes out.

"Go on. Say what you're thinking," Gwaine whispers and kisses the top of Merlin's damp head. He knows the chaos that must be Merlin's mind currently, especially after what happened between Arthur and Merlin yesterday. He moves to stroke Merlin's damp back as a sorry for the increased anxiety Merlin is about to have, and hopes the payoff will be worth it. "Look, Princess, there are two ways this could happen." Gwaine's own voice is alien to him; it's rare that it takes on as deadly a tone as now. Then again, he's protective over few people as he is over Merlin. "One, you join in. Two, you get out or I'll leave you exposed in the square with your royal jewels visible to the whole of the citadel."

"Gwaine," comes Merlin's scold. The flush on his cheeks becomes more prominent and he tries to bury himself into Gwaine's skin.

"It's only fair. You already saw Merlin's." Arthur meets Merlin's eyes, still flushed, lustfully. "Do you want to join?" Arthur's gaze silently drops to what must be Merlin's lips.

"Merlin," Gwaine asks as he cards his fingers through Merlin's hair. "Do you want Arthur to stay? He could watch...me fucking you. Hear how sinfully you moan. See how pretty you look when you come." Merlin gasps and his eyes are larger than the moon as Gwaine eases him onto his back and rids them of the covers.

"Gwaine, you-" Merlin's breath stops in his throat as Gwaine slides his cock against his. Gwaine covers Merlin's mouth with his and is chuckles lowly when Merlin's tongue sucks his filthily. Merlin leans up to chase his mouth as Gwaine pulls away to speak.

"That's it, love. Show him what he could have." Gwaine takes a hold of Merlin, stroking the way he knows Merlin likes. "Gorgeous, isn't he?" Gwaine says directly to Arthur. "But you already know for yourself." Gwaine leans down to explain. "Arthur's hard for you, Merlin," he whispers loudly.

"Arthur?" Merlin whimpers, and bites his lip in embarrassment that it's slipped from his mouth.

"Do you want Arthur to touch you?" Gwaine asks.

Merlin nods, and Gwaine grins. "Why don't you, Arthur?"

Merlin's anxiety definitely seems to have immediate payoff when Merlin is on his back with Arthur's fingers in him.

"Look at him, Arthur," Gwaine says. "Fucking himself on your fingers. Do you know how long he's wanted this? Ten years of watching you train, having to undress and bathe you? If you saw how wrecked he comes to me after a day with you... I can barely believe he was so shy at first."

"He begs so prettily. But you have to work for it. What do you want Arthur to do to you, Merlin?"

"Touch me. Please, just-like yesterday, no pretense. Just touch me."

Arthur seems drawn to Merlin's abdomen and glances at Merlin before slowly placing a hand on it, their decade of barely touching weighing habit of hesitance down on him, but it must be the memory of yesterday and the decade-long craving that urges Arthur to swipe over Merlin's skin with confidence.

Gwaine's had months to map Merlin's body, to learn Merlin's cues, to learn some of the gears in Merlin's head, and he can tell Merlin needs more. But Merlin's spent a decade wanting this and he's now biting his lip and Gwaine knows it's a sign of restraint-from being too loud, from sassing Arthur into being a better top-put up to not piss off Arthur and ruin this one potential chance. And this may likely be Arthur's first time with a man, but Gwaine will be damned if Arthur won't step it up.

Gwaine moves away, heart leaping when Merlin immediately takes notice and anxiety fills his eyes. Gwaine strokes an assuring hand on Merlin's torso.

"If I may make a suggestion, Sire." Arthur returns his gaze with a scowl. "For Merlin's sake," Gwaine clarifies before he can be sent out by guards. Arthur's scowl falls. His rhythm falters as he looks down and asks, "Merlin?"

"Yeah, let Gwaine."

Gwaine slides his hand soothingly down Merlin's thigh, presses a kiss to the inside of the knee, and lifts his leg slowly while holding gazes with Merlin. Merlin understands and places his ankle on Arthur's shoulder. Merlin shudders with anticipation.

"Arthur," Merlin urges. "Go harder." Gwaine surges with pride that Merlin's bossiness has switched on, keeps surging as Merlin demands Arthur touch him there, like that, faster, deeper, and has Arthur serving his every need until both of them are barely coherent.

"You're doing so well, Merlin," Gwaine praises, pushing Merlin's dripping hair from his face. He kisses his cheek, and trails it down until he's pressing open-mouthed kisses and sucking and swirling his tongue over the spot under his ear that earns him a whimper. Merlin turns his head and bares the skin in a silent invitation.

Merlin clutches the sheets with his back arching, gasping "Ah-ahhh-Ar-Arthur. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, please, fuck, gods, I'm-mercy," he sobs, hips desperately slamming back against Arthur's.

Arthur kisses and trails his hands over Merlin's body, his hands shaking with what must be restraint. He pointedly avoids pressing on the bruises that remain over Merlin's hips, instead gripping Merlin around the waist.

It's not close enough for him. Arthur lifts Merlin into his lap, and Gwaine feels the loss of touch and a stab of jealousy before he reminds himself that he's touched Merlin for this long. Merlin uses Arthur's hair as an anchor, his eyes shut tight, back bowed, his other hand raking impressive trails of red across Arthur's back.

Merlin's so far gone that his breathing comes out in whimpers, and anything he's trying to utter falls from his lips in senseless syllables and gasps.

Arthur is no more composed. His hands, which had at first taken a curious and tentative exploration of Merlin's body, now knuckles white and veins prominent with the force he grips the headboard. Moans escape Arthur when Merlin harsh tugs hold his blond head back, jawline regal and sharp, and Gwaine really can't be blamed for the open-mouthed kiss he sucks into it after he leans into Arthur's ear to whisper, "You're fucking gorgeous, princess."

Merlin's body must have tightened like a vice, because Arthur's groan is low and followed by a breathless, "God-God have mercy" into Merlin's neck.

"Love you. Love you so mu-ah-gods, I'd do anything for you."

Merlin comes with a gorgeous, tortured moan, the candles flare, and the wood of his desk splinters. Gwaine quickly moves in front of the desk and puts his hands behind him to grip the it. Arthur cranes his head to look at the source.

"Got a bit carried away," Gwaine explains gruffly, hoping Arthur didn't notice the fire and that it is semi-plausible that a knight of Camelot could break a desk in his pleasure. He was, after all, destined to be Strength.

Merlin and Arthur are absorbed in each other in their mutual come-down. Gwaine can sense when he's not needed.

He'll reek of sex, but Arthur and Merlin need to be alone, and he could use disappearing into the unmanned woods for a few hours. This is what Merlin's wanted for 10 years, and Gwaine is not about to ruin it for Merlin by being a pining third wheel. So it surprises him when Merlin's croaks out, "Gwaine. Stay."

Gwaine looks up from doing his belt and uses his happiness for Merlin to put on a smile. Merlin's too good for him, insisting he stay. He's happy for Merlin-he's newly with the man he's loved for a decade. The agony flaring in his chest and throat are only of Gwaine's fault for ever suggesting something he knew would only end badly. For a bit there, Gwaine had begun to think Merlin could truly end up with him. But it was worth it in that he eased Merlin's body and soul, and Merlin was now in the arms of the man he loved because of it. And if there was one thing Gwaine would know he didn't fuck up on, he wants it to be bringing happiness to Merlin.

"It's alright, Merlin. I know you two want to be alone."

"No. No...Gwaine, we have all of tomorrow to be alone. My job is us being alone. You're here now, you're falling asleep on your feet, and what I want is for you to crawl back into your bed and sleep next to me." Gwaine contemplates the determination Merlin manages even in his physical and emotional exhaustion, and looks to Arthur. He nods at Gwaine.

Gwaine tries to resist. Don't get any deeper into it. But he's slumping with physical and emotional exhaustion, and he rolls under his covers and nudges Merlin's arm gratefully for letting Gwaine give into his desire to sleep for a week. It's Merlin who tugs at Gwaine's bicep once with just enough force to have Gwaine's body scooting on the sheets. It's also Merlin who guides Gwaine's hand over his lower hips, and it's Merlin who falls asleep with his arm reaching back with arm in a slight unnatural angle to massage comfort into the jut of his unclothed hip bone. But it's Arthur who puts an arm over Gwaine's. Gwaine can't recall with certainty which one of them falls asleep first, but the last sensation he feels is the heat of Merlin and Arthur radiating into his chest and the softness of his skin kissing the insides of Gwaine's arms.

The next day, Arthur finds Gwaine in the tavern and settles at his table with a drink.

"You know," Gwaine breaks the silence, "Merlin didn't simply say it to you in the passion brought on by the moment."

"Merlin didn't simply say what?"

"The words you've been contemplating since the moment he spoke them." Arthur doesn't deny it; there's no point.

Either you're too honorable for the good of you, or you just have no talent of disguising how suicidal you are...It kills him, you know. When you ride out to your death. You don't even realize how much his life centers on keeping you alive. How much he does for you, and God be glad it's not for me to tell you exactly what, because I'd list off everything he's told me." Gwaine's hands clench into fists with the desire to name off every reason Arthur should spend his life serving Merlin.

Gwaine's voice drops to a spitting hiss, his outrage speaking for him. "He's too good and devoted of a person for someone so oblivious, selfish, disparaging..."

The silence extends. Gwaine is suddenly all too aware of their dynamic, that they may both be wearing civilian clothes, but Gwaine is a homeless runt turned knight only because of Merlin and Arthur's generosity, and Arthur is king and the man Merlin loves as much as his own magic, and Arthur could very well have Gwaine publicly denounced and banished if he so wanted. Before Merlin would step in. Merlin has Arthur wrapped around him as much as he is wrapped around Arthur, and maybe Arthur meant his next trailing question to be a snap, but Gwaine can only hear despair when Arthur asks, "And you believe you're better for him?"

Gwaine has allowed the idea to slip too close, with it raging and rattling inside his mind with such ferocity that he found himself regularly losing hours at a time to sleep so as to escape from his thoughts and slashing through the targets set up for training. It has penetrated the safety that should be his own mind, but it was so lucid a fantasy, so easy to believe it in grasp with Merlin greeting Gwaine with a grin and almost constant meeting of mouths once Gwaine's chambers. So easy to convince himself with Merlin tugging him toward his bed and scrabbling to straddle his lap. With Merlin pulling away and murmuring the usual variation of "not too late to back out" and "you've helped so much already." With Merlin's eyes fluttering when Gwaine cradles his jaw and whispers, "use me, Merlin."

It was so easy to convince himself with the trust in Merlin's eyes when he frees Gwaine of the shirt Gwaine now puts on only for Merlin to take it off, when Merlin's hands slide over Gwaine's sides and he begins a slow and steady roll of his hips with their trousers on. With Merlin's hand slipping into Gwaine's hair and move Gwaine's mouth to correspond with his wishes, when he draws a gasp from Gwaine's mouth with a harsh tug that bares Gwaine's throat to him, and Gwaine shivering with the thrill of vulnerability invigorating the pulse under Merlin's tongue. With Gwaine awakening hours later with Merlin pressed against him. With Merlin telling Gwaine that day in the forest that he's loved…

Gwaine lived out his biggest fantasy while Arthur came to his senses. Now they're here, and Gwaine can't leave without telling Arthur everything he needs to improve to be good enough for Merlin.

"His devotion to you frightens me. His life is built around you and your safety. I fear of what will happen to him when you get yourself killed and he's unable to stop it."

"No one lives forever."

"No, but few others seek out their death so often as you."

His scalp prickles with the glower he's sure Arthur sends his way. Glower away, Arthur. You can't deny any of it.

"Are you two in love?" Arthur asks. Gwaine shakes his head. He looks into his drink as he casually counters, "Merlin loves another." Arthur looks down, almost guiltily. The following silence penetrates Gwaine's chest and he clenches his jaw at the burn that begins to take his eyes. He closes his eyes and hurriedly thinks of yawning until his body responds by giving into the urge to do so. He then presses his hands over his eyes in feigned tiredness. Maybe the pressure will force his body into submission. He slides his palm over to his forehead for a moment and runs the other through his hair. "You love him." Gwaine's laugh is laced with bitterness. Of all things for Arthur to notice.

"That's what you become observant for? Maybe one day you'll realize the irony." Gwaine finishes his drink.

"I have duties to attend to," Arthur says. He stands and leaves a pile of coins on the table. "For your drink," Arthur says, and leaves the knight alone in the tavern.

The next morning, Gwaine wakes up in confusion with his trousers pulled tight and a clear memory of his dream-him on top of Merlin, groaning into Merlin's mouth. It's nothing new, except Gwaine begging for Arthur's cock to push into him faster.

Gwaine damns Arthur for intruding into his dream, and tries not to think about the fact that a few minutes later he comes to the idea of Arthur inside him.

Merlin and Arthur experience unrushed pleasure soon after. The sound of the festivities in the great hall bleed over to the halls before Arthur's chambers, over the sounds of their gasps and hitched breaths. They break apart, faces still close, half-closed eyes meeting. Merlin grips Arthur's tunic. "I want to feel you on me," he murmurs. "Can I have you inside me?" he murmurs. Arthur exhales and slots their mouths together, more purposeful than before.

"So quiet?" Arthur asks when Merlin is undressed.

"You've told me many times you prefer it when I'm quiet."

"I didn't think you were fool enough to believe any of it."

"Not a word." Arthur's mouth quirks up.

"Well don't stop your incessant rambling just for my benefit." Merlin's mouth tilts up.

"As if I would."

It's not rushed like the first time. It's slow, gentle, their hitching breaths combining with their mouths, Merlin unabashedly opening his legs more for Arthur, breaking away from him when Arthur's languid thrusts take him apart so gradually and so well even biting his lip can't hold back his moans and he has to focus on regaining his breath. "Feels so good," he praises helplessly, voice shaky. "So good, Arthur." The back of Merlin's head burrows into the pillows, giving himself entirely to Arthur, Arthur taking such good care of him. He closes down on Arthur and rubs the palm of his own hand over his lower abdomen where Arthur is, ignoring his own need to take himself in hand, and reveling in the groan it tears from Arthur's throat.

"I love this," Merlin manages with shaky breaths. "Being on my back, you on top of me, sliding over me, feeling so full of you."

That night is the first Merlin sleeps in Arthur's bed with him.

When Arthur noticed Gwaine's sour mood and invited him to talk, he honestly thought they'd talk. He would have been happier with just that.

But he really can't complain now, with Merlin dragging his cock against Gwaine's prostate, Arthur sucking at his neck, Merlin's mouth joining the opposite pulse point, and a hand gripping his cock tight and keeping him from coming. His eyes have long rolled back and he can't open his eyes and his jaw is slack and there's so much heat and he has so much trouble catching his breath and shaking it's as if he's just fought in battle but he feels so fucking good he doesn't know whether to beg for them to let him come or to keep holding him on the edge.

One of the mouths in gone. He whines in loss, or maybe it's just another blended into the desperate high-pitched noises he couldn't possible stop if he had the focus or the will to try.

He thinks he hears Merlin murmur, "Pull his hair" against his neck, and if he had the lucidity to, he'd wonder if it was for him, but then he gasps as a hand tugs his hair and shivers as Arthur's gravelly voice asks him with a burst of heat against his ear, "Can I bite?" and Gwaine gathers the strength to gasp, "Yes, yes" and turns his neck so that Arthur has the most access. Gwaine wants to wear them with pride, partly to show everyone, but mostly to remind himself that for some reason a great man and a great king deemed him worthy, that Gwaine has the absolute pleasure-and fuck, he really does mean pleasure-of being included into their relationship, that they are so good to him, to remember it every time he catches sight of his reflection.

The miniscule part of his brain that's not yet shut down feels selfish for not doing anything in return, but he has two of the men he's loved pleasuring him between them and goddamn it, he's allowed to be selfish just this once.

He's clutching something soft. Arthur's hair, whose grunts are in his ear, maybe from pain or from pleasure at rutting against Gwaine's lower back or both but Gwaine doesn't fucking care he needs more, more, more. "Please," he manages, his voice broken even to his own ears. There's another hand on him, stroking him slowly, a thumb rubbing the slit, and his back bows impossibly more as the other hand is still at his base and keeping him from coming and he's sobbing and he feels so good he thinks he's going to die just from this.

He comes so hard he loses time, himself. He's still shaking and whimpering when he returns to himself, Merlin and Arthur's mouths on him, pressing tender kisses onto his stomach, his collar, his cheek, his hair, the back of his neck, taking a break to acquaint their mouths with each other with Gwaine between them, and then stroking his sides, his calves, his hair back from his face.

"Are you still with us?" Arthur asks, and Gwaine only has the energy to look in front at Merlin through fluttering eyelids.

"Gwaine?" Merlin asks and cradles his face. Gwaine's throat is dry from his panting; he swallows.

"Yeah." They give him time to recover, Merlin cleaning them up with spells so he doesn't have to suffer with the laundry later, because even though Arthur has told Merlin he cannot have him acting as a foolish servant when he knows how much Merlin has done for him and the power he holds, Merlin insists he will care for Arthur, and Arthur hardly argues because he can't imagine anyone but Merlin doing it.

"How lucky I am to have two great men squishing me like a grape. 'M I crushing you?" Gwaine asks, head lolling to Arthur with the rest of his dead weight.

"Entirely."

"Deal with it, mighty king." He feels Arthur's huff of laughter against his hair, the movement shaking Gwaine along with Arthur's chest, post-orgasm bliss too overwhelming to allow him to think up an insult.

"So, is this a one-time thing or does this mean all three of us are kind of together? Because I'm okay with the former, but I'm great with the latter."

"I think I'm even greater with the latter." Arthur looks at Merlin, who shrugs and grins.

Arthur rolls his eyes.

"I suppose it wouldn't be too horrible."

"Royal prat," Gwaine says with the biggest grin of his life. "I like not one but two guys. How big of a harlot am I now?"

"Bigger than the other two of us who just fucked two other people."

"Do you think we'll destroy the castle with how sexy we are? I mean separately we're sexy but all together it's just unbelievable."

"Shut up, Gwaine."

The development proves both exciting and extraordinarily fun for them, though probably a horror for the other knights, like the night Merlin finds himself grunting into Arthur's mouth as his back hits the door.

"Sorry," Arthur whispers against his lips.

"'S fine," Merlin replies, and hooks a leg as close as he can get it around Arthur's waist and braces himself on Arthur's shoulders. Arthur takes the hint and helps lift Merlin up by the rear, though his help is barely needed, with Merlin's newfound upper arm strength.

Arthur ruts against Merlin, Merlin's head falling back to hit Gwaine's door. "Someone will walk by," Merlin whispers, but his movements showcase that he couldn't care less.

"For some reason I think you'd like that." Merlin laughs into the darkness. Arthur knows him so well. Merlin lightly raps on Gwaine's door behind him, the rhythm of his knock uneven with his focus on Arthur and the curl in his toes.

It all goes downhill when Gwaine opens the door.

"Is something wrong, sire?" Gwaine asks innocently on a patrol day as Arthur leads him stone-faced by the arm deeper into the forest. Arthur shoves him into a tree and Gwaine shouts at the sudden harsh tugging of his hair back.

"Even you know better than to pull those stunts in front of my knights," Arthur hisses, the heat of his rage warming Gwaine's jawline. Gwaine shivers as Arthur comes even closer to grit against his skin, "Now make good of your promise." Gwaine huffs and grins lasciviously, strained through the pain, and as Arthur wrenches Gwaine's face to his own, the adrenaline of training is evident in the union of their mouths, hurried, rough, dirty. Gwaine is on Arthur's hair, sliding down his mail-covered chest, palming Arthur and he has too many layers on and Gwaine pulls the chain mail up with one hand and unlaces Arthur's trousers with the other and

"We don't have time for games," Arthur tries sternly, but his tone suggests it's not the leaderless knights he's worried about.

"Calm yourself, princess. I'll have your pretty cock occupied soon enough." Gwaine drops to his knees and uses his forearm to press up the chainmail against Arthur's abdomen and wastes no time in getting Arthur in his mouth. He takes him in like a man starved, moans and hums tunelessly, cradling his balls, and Arthur stutters out, "Your singing is pitiful."

While Arthur rides it out, Gwaine takes care of himself.

"If your intent is to teach me never to do that again," Gwaine rasps, "you're enforcing it rather poorly."

"You're vile."

"What, no thank you for sucking you off on moment's notice? I suppose I'll just have to see Merlin later to care for my needs. He's not selfish like you. He's cuter. Polite. His moans are nicer."

Arthur's eyelids become a little heavier in response.

"Shall we find Merlin, then?" Arthur asks, to which Gwaine hurries out a, "Yes."

"Your voice alright, Gwaine?" Elyan asks too casually when they come back. "Haven't caught a cold from 5 minutes in the woods, have you?"

When a villager travels to Camelot to express concern over kidnappings, Arthur assigns each pair of knights a section to patrol near the village. The knights respond with a nod and "sire", except for Gwaine who instead says "Arthur." It skips Gwaine's notice until just after he does it, and upon Arthur's eyes flickering to Gwaine without correcting him, Gwaine lets himself smirk as he and Percival lead their horses to their assigned direction.

"So has Arthur finally given up on taming you or have you persuaded him in other ways?"

"Exactly what other ways are you imagining before bed, Perce?"

"You do realize the others notice something different between you and Arthur too. I admit I was surprised to wake up to you and Merlin spooning, only because you were convinced it would never happen."

"Did I get too drunk one day and tell you?"

"You can't expect me to spend weeks with all of you at a time and not notice."

"Perce, I'm flattered you pay so much attention."

"And I'm dying of curiosity."

"I'll make sure they bury you well."

"Not even a quick explanation? You and Merlin spooning like it's a regular pasttime and Arthur nearly taking your head off during training and now Arthur has no qualms about you addressing him by name? I feel like the knights are missing out on so many developments we're getting whiplash trying to figure it out."

"You can keep your necks from hurting if you keep your noses where they should be." Gwaine thinks Percival has dropped the subject when they hear only hooves and crunching leaves for several minutes.

"You're happy though, right?" Percival asks, softer and more hopeful than his previous words. It catches Gwaine off guard. As he turns to Percival, he is met with a sincere, expectant expression. Gwaine nods.

"Yeah," he says, voice cracking.

"Good. Finally." If Gwaine will ever grow used to being cared for, the warmth in his belly says it clearly will not be any time soon.

If Percival notices the tears Gwaine blinks away, he says nothing.

While the knights patrol, Arthur pores over documents, writing reports of the recent (raids and thefts) in the villages. It upsets him, to see people treating each other horribly, homes taken away, people left penniless. Merlin by now knows better than to disrupt Arthur during business, though when Arthur is finished and leaves his face in his hands, his shoulders rising with a deep, troubled sigh, Merlin knows to kiss the back of his neck and hug him from behind.

"I know how heavily taking care of this kingdom bears on you. You love your people. Your people love you. I just want you to know that I'm proud of you. You're doing so well." He doesn't have to see Arthur's face to know that it's still grim with the sigh it accompanies. Arthur removes his hands from his face and places them over Merlin's on his abdomen. "You've done your work, Arthur. No need to stress over it some more."

"I can't switch off my worries for my people, Merlin."

"Let me help," Merlin whispers against Arthur's lips, his thighs warm against Arthur's strong ones. Merlin kisses him gently, licking into Arthur's mouth until Arthur's grip on Merlin's sides tighten and his panting hits Merlin's neck. Arthur's tension melts away with each kiss Merlin places on his cheeks, his jaw, his chest, his sides, his hips. Arthur lets Merlin remove his red shirt and turns onto his stomach on the bed. Merlin climbs onto his rear and massages the excess of knots.

"Could you have done this before you got me hard in my trousers?"

"Are you complaining?"

"No."

After some time, Merlin can't distinguish if Arthur's groans are from his hands or from Arthur rocking himself against the bed. Merlin tightens his thighs around Arthur.

"Keep doing that and I'll stop."

"Merlin," Arthur pants in protest. Merlin removes his hands from Arthur's skin and Arthur groans. "Fine, fine." Merlin resumes his massage, and once Arthur is settled, Merlin rocks his own groin against the crease of Arthur's ass. Arthur gasps and pushes back into it, his groan tortured. "Unfair," he whines, fingers sliding into the sheets.

Deviousness, Merlin thinks, is a trait Merlin likes in himself.

A month later, Arthur shoves a man into the windowsill, the man grunting at the impact. Arthur's sword is at his throat in an instant. "You will release my knight unscathed," he growls, "or I'll have your head rolling and your body cut in fours."

The man laughs delightedly. "So much attachment to one man."

"Release him," Arthur barks again. The man shrugs.

"I could do that, or I could keep him as entertainment. The body on him…" The man's head is on the ground before he can finish the sentence. Merlin is already freeing Gwaine of his chains.

As they're walking out of the chamber, Arthur gets in Gwaine's face and shouts, "Getting yourself kidnapped, you blithering idiot."

"I'm very sorry someone decided to try to kill me." Arthur begins to walk away, but turns back and snarls in Gwaine's face.

"Do that again and I'll murder you myself."

"Again, not my fault." They stare at each other, then Gwaine brings him in, and Arthur's pats are extra hard on his back.

"Still not sick of me, then?" Arthur punches Gwaine's shoulder.

"You're sharing Merlin's horse. Mine won't take the two of us."

Merlin sits behind Gwaine on the horse. Arthur is sure it's mostly so Merlin can embrace Gwaine the entirety of the journey home.

They sleep tangled in each other for the next fortnight.

Arthur's stress has hit him harder recently. He should be able to enjoy as possible, and Gwaine shouldn't be deprived of time with him either, so Merlin finds himself leaning against Gwaine's wall saying, "Arthur needs a rest. Help me destress our king?"

Arthur protests half the journey into the woods: "A king doesn't take vacation from his duties."

"Your people want you to vacation," Gwaine rebutts, "so the stress doesn't make you suck at governing them."

Not even half an hour in, Merlin and Gwaine are absentmindedly putting flowers in each other's hair. From his place sitting against a tree, Arthur looks on, narrow-eyed, when they extend to him the flower crown they've made together. "You're trying to turn me into a fool."

"That's not possible, considering you're already one."

"They smell really good."

Once the crown is on Arthur, he glowers at the two, and Merlin reaches out to adjust it.

"You'll tell no one."

"Don't worry, Arthur. Everyone already knows we have the prettiest king in the land." Arthur stares blankly at them.

"Are you two sure you didn't get into those mushrooms Merlin almost cooked for us that time?"

"My mind was occupied at the time, Arthur, and I did realize before you ate them."

"They were already in the water! I woke up thinking I was a turnip."

xx

Some time later, Arthur half lies in Merlin's lap, one of Merlin's hands sliding slowly over Arthur's cheeks and neck and shoulders and collar, and the other one intertwined with one of Arthur's. Gwaine is seated on Arthur's torso.

Arthur's eyes and body feel a little heavier, the tension disappeared along with his shields and any titles inside the castle walls. He cared little for titles before, and any leftover regard flew out the window when Merlin happened. But especially here, away from everyone, Arthur feels simply like a man lucky enough to have two other men who love him as much as he does them, as willing to care for him and see him happy as he is them. He gives a lazy, unguarded smile to Gwaine, who for one second looks taken aback. He raises his free hand to hold up to Gwaine, and when Gwaine presses his palm against Arthur's, he laces his fingers with Gwaine's and kisses it, too docile and contented to make a crack about not knowing where Gwaine's hands had been.

"Get down here," Arthur says softly. Gwaine lowers and kisses Arthur's forehead, and Arthur takes the opportunity to kiss Gwaine's cheeks. Gwaine presses his forehead against Arthur's, tentatively, like he's still not entirely sure he can.

"You know, you're awfully touchy once a guy gets to know you," Gwaine says with Arthur's air. "Didn't know you were a softie."

"Just when my armor gets a nick."

There's no pressure to speak. The coos of the birds and the rustle of the trees is sound enough, background noise for the three silently enjoying each other's company. Gwaine almost feels bad for breaking the silence when he confesses, "You gave me a home, you know. Both of you."

The confession takes both Arthur and Merlin by surprise. "I don't ever remember feeling like I've been welcomed by an entire place, like people not only tolerated me, but asked if I was okay when I wasn't there, where people went out of their way to include me and make sure I was fine."

The statement is so open Arthur looks down at Gwaine's chest half expecting to see Gwaine's beating heart.

xx

Arthur catches a glimpse of himself and his crown in the water when they stop to refill their skins. The colors contrast nicely with his skin and hair. His eyes look bluer. And his heart is brighter with these two men at his side.

xx

When they return at sunset, the great hall is decorated and displays a bounty of food and drink. Arthur is too shocked to react to the servants' expectant expressions turned to the ground.

"Did I miss an anniversary?" Arthur asks in a panic. He's met with light-hearted laughter.

"Your people thought you deserved to relax for at least one night." Gwen laughs at Arthur's astounded open-mouthed smile and whispers as she hugs him, "Plus, I thought it could be an unofficial celebration of our new arrangements."

The knights attend, as do his people, the musicians, and jugglers. Gwen and Arthur sit together, as usual, but Lancelot sits at Gwen's side and Merlin (for once sitting at all, causing whispers to Arthur's amusement) and Gwaine sit at Arthur's.

Arthur thanks the servants for their effort and invites them to help themselves. He will relax more with this feast so everyone's efforts are not in vain. He will be a worthy king for them.

Only bones left of his chicken, he whispers to Gwen, "Your man looks in great need of a dance with you, my lady."

In response, Gwen leans over to him and whispers, "Your men look in great need of a dance with you, my lord."

In the morning, they'll have duties to attend. But for now, they share a mischievous look, and pull out their chairs to attend to their men's dancing needs.


a/n: This fic is a part of Gwaine Fest, a tumblr and LJ Big Bang in which authors wrote stories with Gwaine as a main character and artists made art for that story. My artist picked mine up pretty last minute and was wonderful. Her lovely art is here: post/79850454655/gwaine-fest-2014-i-had-next-to-no-time-to