"Gwaine," Arthur said, entering the tavern just on the other side of the border of Camelot. He knew a banished Gwaine would be there, tankard- or seven- in hand.
"Arthur," Gwaine replied, nodding his head in greeting. Arthur sat at the table across from him and the barmaid immediately brought the prince a tankard of cider.
"We need to talk," Arthur said. Gwaine locked eyes with Arthur and said nothing, taking a cautious sip of his mead, "about Merlin."
Again, Gwaine said nothing. He nodded lightly, indicating for Arthur to continue.
"I understand that he has developed feelings for you," Arthur said, painfully.
"Yes," Gwaine said gently. "And I understand that he still has feelings for you, as well."
Arthur nodded. "He says he can't decide between us."
"A past or a future," Gwaine replied.
"What's the supposed to mean?" Arthur said, trying to keep his voice from rising.
"It means that you've got all the memories, but you have to marry inoble WOMAN/i, and be a king, and live your life by rules and codes that don't include Merlin." Gwaine replied.
Arthur narrowed his eyes. "I came here to speak like gentlemen," Arthur said. "Not to start fighting over him."
"He's worth fighting for," Gwaine said resolutely.
"If you start this fight, I iwill/i win," Arthur said.
"If I thought being with you was best for him, I'd leave, I'd back out and let you have him," Gwaine said, "but you're no good for him. I'm not going ianywhere/i."
"You're not welcome in Camelot," Arthur said, "and as I wrong as I think that is, that's a factor that adds complications between you and Merlin. He's convinced that helping me become king is his destiny. He won't leave Camelot for you. How are you going to see each other when you live a few hours ride away?"
"Riding for a few hours is better than a quick toss around in the broom closet," Gwaine said. "When Merlin's here, we're together. Everywhere, anywhere, the iwhole/i time he's here."
"How often does he come here?" Arthur asked, taken aback.
"Almost every night this week," Gwaine said. "He comes here, after you've called him stupid or worthless and thrown something at him, because he knows that I think he's brilliant and important. I'm sorry that this happened, Arthur. I didn't iintend/i to fall for him, but now that I have, there's nothing that matters more to me."
"So you're perfectly alright with the fact that he sleeps with me, and then comes here and sleeps with you?" Arthur snapped. "Because I'm not. This has to stop."
"First off," Gwaine said, "I never said I was okay with any of this. But if I pressure him into making a choice, he'll make the wrong one. Second, Merln and I don't sleep together. That's cheating, he'd inever/i do that. We don't even hold hands. We just talk. That's what he needs right now, a friend."
"I'm his friend," Arthur said.
"You're not his friend," Gwaine growled, throwing the rest of his mead down his throat, "you're a rich, spoiled, braggart that thinks it perfectly okay to boss him around, treat him like he's the dumbest person in the world, tell him he's useless, throw things at him, and openly court women in front of him."
"I have to court a woman, I don't want to!" Arthur snapped, "and Merlin knows I don't really think those things of him."
"Yeah he seems so convinced when he comes to see ime/i," Gwaine growled.
"You are an arrogant penniless nomad," Arthur hissed, "what would he want with iyou/i?"
"I could ask a similar question," Gwaine said, "why would he want to be with a self-obsessed, egotistical arse, who treats him like irubbish/i."
"Stay your tongue," Arthur said, drawing his sword.
"You seem to have forgotten," Gwaine said, drawing his own sword in response, "I don't like nobles telling me what to do."
Merlin entered the tavern looking for Gwaine. What he saw were the two men he couldn't decide between, fighting. For a moment, Merlin stood dumbly, watching swords and harsh words clang together, while tavern-goers cheered and hissed.
He was finally able to gain his composure, but he didn't know what to say. He watched them fight for another minute, their fighting strategies so opposite that they were very equally matched, and then spoke.
"STOP IT!" he yelled, almost iinstantly,/i Gwaine's sword clattered to the floor. Arthur lowered his, but didn't drop it. "I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU TWO! Do you ireally/i think this will solve the problem? I'm not going to choose one of you because the other is idead/i! You think that by banging your swords together I'll forget all the problems and just fall madly for one of you? I- I am so mad at iboth/i of you!"
He didn't know what else to say, so he just stood there for a moment, before bolting out of the tavern. This time, Arthur was quickest to react; he darted after Merlin, catching him outside. Gwaine didn't chase Merlin. He just sat down and ordered more mead.
"Merlin," Arthur said, "wait."
"What!" Merlin hissed. "What do iyou/i have to say?"
iHe's worth fighting for./i
"I think that," Arhur started, pausing to formulate his words.
iYou're no good for him, I'm not going anywhere./i
"I think, that you should-"
"That I should be with iyou/i?" Merlin snapped.
i Riding for a few hours is better than a quick toss around in the broom closet./i
"Listen to me," Arthur said, though his thoughts were plaguing him.
iI think he's brilliant and important./i
"I'm listening," Merlin said, giving in.
"I think that you should be with…" Arthur paused, thoughts racing through his mind.
iThere's nothing that matters more to me./i
"…Gwaine." Arthur wasn't even sure that that was what he was going to say, until the name left his mouth. Gwaine was right, being with Arthur was a relationship based on what they had once been; being with Gwaine was all about what they would ibecome/i. Arthur couldn't ask Merlin to sit, stagnant and in the shadows, and wait for him. It wasn't fair. Gwaine could offer him freedom, and love that Arthur could never show Merlin, no matter how much love he ifelt/i for the sorcerer.
"What?" Merlin whispered, taken aback.
"Gwaine is better for you," Arthur whispered, barely able to squeak out the words. "I'm a dead end. He's an unfinished story."
Merlin felt his eyes watering. Arthur was right, of course he was. Gwaine was totally the better choice, but it was harder than he could have imagined letting Arthur go.
"Your job is safe, don't worry," Arthur said. "But I'd like to be alone, and I'm sure you'd like to be with him…. So take the week off."
"You're sure?" Merlin asked.
"I'm sure," Arthur breathed. "If I love you, it's my responsibility to make sure you have the happiest life you can, and that's not with me."
"I'll always love you Arthur," Merlin said. "You will ialways/i be a part of my life."
Arthur nodded. "You too."
The Prince held his servant for the last time, and then walked away, never to see Merlin in the same light again.
When Merlin entered the tavern, Gwaine looked miserable. He slammed his mead and stared at the table.
"Why didn't iyou/i follow me?" Merlin asked, taking Gwaine by the shoulders and leading him outside to talk. The man was a bit drunk and couldn't walk in a straight line, but he was still sober enough to have the important conversation.
"You didn't want me to," Gwaine said softly.
"I didn't," Merlin replied, smiling lightly. "But I'm glad Arthur did."
"So you've chosen him then?" Gwaine asked, matter-of-factly. "I'm not surprised."
"I didn't say that," Merlin whispered, taking Gwaine's hands in his own. "I'm glad he followed me because I was able to say goodbye to him. To let him know that I choose you."
Gwaine's sharp intake of breath was, in Merlin's mind, adorable. "You do?"
"Of course," Merlin replied. "Even Arthur realized that you were better for me."
"I love you," Gwaine said, hardly waiting for Merlin to finish before blurting it out. "I will honor you, and protect you, and be with you always. I will live every day, iproving/i to you that you made the right choice."
"I don't need any proof," Merlin said, taking Gwaine by the chin and kissing him, tentatively, for the first time. "Because I love you too."
And Gwaine's responsive smile was brighter than the sun.