The chapel was empty, which made it perfect. With all the people crowding Camelot, privacy was a luxury. Gawain missed solitude and for this particular chore needed seclusion. The idea of practicing, of making mistakes, in front of others, was more than his pride could tolerate. Kay understood and agreed, so they settled on a bench in front of the wooden cross to begin.
"What comes after B?"
"C." The first three were easy.
"What comes after X?"
"Y." The last three were easy as well.
"What comes after Q?"
Gawain frowned and tried to remember. Everything between those six letters was difficult. He mentally ran through the list, messed up twice after H, and finally guessed "U?"
Kay shook his head. "Try again."
"O?" When Kay shook his head, Gawain growled. "I give up."
"R," Kay said, giving him an annoyed look. "That's your first free answer." He held up one finger. Gawain got three free answers per session. The sessions lasted an hour and they had three sessions per week.
They had been doing this since Gawain came to Camelot a month before and he felt no closer to knowing how to read. "Fine."
"What comes after H?"
"G," he said, a little too quickly. "No, um, L."
Sounds from the courtyard carried through the window. Swords clanged and he heard Arthur shout encouraging words. They were training.
"I should be out there," Gawain said. "Some of the newer men need to work on blocking techniques."
Kay fixed him with a stern glare. "They've got Arthur and Leontes to help them. What comes after H?"
"Arthur needs to work on parrying. I'm surprised he can even lift a sword. I should be out there."
"You should be telling me what comes after H. Now is not the time to think of swords, but letters."
"Every time we meet I think I am better suited to swords. Some men were not made to read." He opened the door. Kay's voice stopped him in his tracks.
"What would you say to a man who walked out in the middle of weapon training?"
Gawain turned around and met Kay with a glare of his own. "It's not the same."
"You'd call him a coward. A weak coward. And you would be right."
Gawain fought the urge to punch his teacher. The words stung like wasps and he didn't have a ready retort. "That's not fair," he said at last.
"You are a coward. A coward who runs away when things get hard."
This time, Gawain did not resist the urge to hit him.
Hours later he sat on his thin mattress in the small room he shared with the rest of 'Arthur's Team' when the boy-king himself came to visit.
Gawain was sharpening his sword when Arthur sat beside him. "You heard what happened then, or you wouldn't be here."
"I heard. I understand why you hit him. He can be a stuffy know-it-all sometimes." Arthur hesitated before continuing, "I'm trying to bring peace and order to Britain. I can't have my warriors brawling like thugs in a pub. You have to apologize."
"I'm not sorry I hit him. I'm sorry I didn't hit him harder."
Arthur groaned. "Look, I know your pride is hurt but…"
"But nothing. I'm not sorry and I won't pretend I am."
Arthur's face took on that determined look he wore whenever he was trying to do the right thing. His jaw set and his chin jutted out. Gawain always thought he looked like a puppy when he got that look. "You know I can't let this go unpunished. You're banned from hunting and sword lessons until you apologize."
"I teach your men to fight," Gawain said, his voice raised. "If I don't train them who will?"
"If I can't trust you to control yourself with one man, how I can I trust you to train many? Leontes can take over until you've apologized." Arthur stood and hesitated again. "I'm sorry I have to do this."
He looked and sounded sincere but that didn't make Gawain feel any better. When the door closed and he was alone, the warrior packed his things. When the rest of Camelot retired to bed and sleep and pleasant dreams, he snuck over to the stables.
He was saddling his horse when he heard footsteps. Within seconds, both blades were drawn and pointed at the one approaching.
Kay raised an eyebrow. "After I teach you to read, we're going to work on your people skills."
Gawain sheathed the swords and turned back to his horse. "I liked you better when you weren't being sarcastic. And forget reading."
"So you're running away?"
"Your brother forbade me to hunt or fight. There is no more reason for me to stay."
"You know, Arthur had trouble learning to read. He wanted to run around, play, make noise. Having to sit still was his worst nightmare."
"Is there a point to all this?"
"Yes. One day, Mother told him that if he didn't sit down and shut up, she'd whap him with a wooden spoon." Kay paused. "Y'know, sometimes I'd like to smack you with a wooden spoon."
Gawain almost laughed. "You try it, and I'll do worse than bloody your nose." He double checked the length of the stirrups. After confirming that everything about the saddle was as it should be, he mounted the horse. "Good-bye, Kay."
"Pride goes before a fall," Kay shouted after him. "You're not the first man to have trouble learning to read."
Gawain said nothing, but rode out of Camelot and into the dark night.
Six hours later it was dawn and he was sitting in the forest, roasting a quail and trying to puzzle out how long it would take him to reach his old haunt, the church. He was tired and wanted sleep, but the dark clouds promised rain.
He turned to Leontes to ask if the King's Champion had brought an extra cloak, then remembered the man wasn't there. He, and everyone else, was back at Camelot.
Gawain compared the distance to Camelot to the distance to the church. He thought of Guinevere's laughter and Brigit's button nose. He thought of Brastias' jokes and Ulfius' grin. He thought of the goat that was always wandering throughout the castle and the children who loved petting it. He thought of Igraine's calm voice and Merlin's oddly comforting bald head. He thought of going back.
Pride didn't let him do any more than think. After finishing the quail, he rode on for the church.
Three hours later, Leontes and Kay caught up with him. They rode their horses in front of him, forcing him to pause.
Leontes didn't waste words. "King Arthur orders you to return home."
"How convenient; his orders and my desires are the same." Gawain pointed. "My home is just beyond that hill."
"Gawain," Kay sighed, "nobody wants you to leave. We want you back at Camelot. You are missed. Forget your pride…"
"I'm a warrior," Gawain snarled. "A warrior's pride is everything. It feeds you when there is no bread, it warms you when your cloak is a rag, and it heals you when there is no medicine. It is the only thing of value I have!"
"What do you have to be proud of?" Kay replied, just as heatedly. "There are plenty of men who can fight. But not every man has a castle full of people who care about him and want him to come home."
"Camelot," Gawain said through clenched teeth, "is not my home." He guided his horse past them.
The sky opened up and rain came pouring down the second he reached the edge of the hill.
"Your church will likely flood," Leontes called out. "There are such things as signs, Gawain. Take this as God's intent that you return to Camelot."
Gawain's response was the most vulgar curse he could think of. He urged his horse up the muddy hill. It recoiled, and he cursed it as well. A flash of lightening made it rise on its hind legs and threw him off. He landed in the mud and it ran off.
Through the mud and the thunder he heard his name shouted and hoof beats. Feet splashed the mud and he saw the bleary outline of Kay's face.
"Are you alright?"
"Can you feel your toes?" Leontes asked. "Your fingers?"
"I'm fine." He sat up and couldn't stop himself from wincing. "Leave me be."
"No," Leontes said simply, and he and Kay pulled Gawain to his feet. "Can you ride?"
"I can walk. The church isn't far." He took two steps and collapsed in the mud again. Once again, he was helped to his feet. This time they took him to the church.
It was wet, but not flooding. Leontes cleared a space for them to huddle while Kay inspected Gawain's ankle.
"Does this hurt?" He pressed the joint gently.
It felt like a devil was sinking its fangs into his foot. "No. Go away."
"I didn't bring along any bandages, but I doubt it'll take long to heal."
"Why can't you leave me in peace?"
"Leontes still has his cross and we have a right to wait out the storm here." Kay held the injured appendage in his lap. "Even if he didn't, I would not leave you in this state."
"It's a bloody broken ankle."
"I meant I won't leave you alone. Men aren't meant to live in solitude. It's not healthy."
"Your concern is touching, but I don't need or want your help."
Kay sighed and leaned against the crumbling wall. "There's another thing. I owe you an apology."
"What?" Gawain gave him an odd look.
At the same time Leontes looked up from his cleaning. "What?"
"I owe you an apology," Kay said again. "I know I can be strict and Arthur is not incorrect in calling me a stuffy-know-it-all. I'm sorry. I should have been more patient and understanding."
"Oh." What was it about the other man that so often left Gawain at a loss for words? It wasn't fair of him to apologize out of the blue like that. It made everything awkward and left Gawain feeling uncertain about what to do.
"So will you return with us?"
"I'll think about it."
The day went on and the rain kept falling. The three of them slept a while; they were confident nobody would attack a dilapidated ruin of a church. Gawain only slept for a few hours. He was staring out the broken window when he heard Kay stir.
The knight yawned and stretched his neck before noticing Gawain was awake. "Are you feeling better?"
"I'm feeling," he wanted to say fine, but stopped himself. "My foot and ankle hurt. I'll be fine. And," he took a breath, like a man about to jump into a freezing tub of water, "I'm sorry. For hitting you. And leaving." He couldn't bring himself to say 'running away'.
"Sometimes we all act in ways that do not do our characters justice," Kay said quietly. "Does this mean you will return to Camelot with us?"
Ten hours later two horses walked through the gates of Camelot. The crowd mostly ignored them, too focused on animals, children, and gossip to pay any attention to returning knights. Men traveled in and out of Camelot all the time and their return did not warrant attention.
Even the sight of one horse carrying two riders did not merit any more than a sideways glance.
"Has Arthur told anyone I was forbidden to hunt or fight?" Gawain asked when they reached the stables. He half-expected stares and whispers on his return. He wasn't sure why he expected it, he just did. Being treated normally just felt anti-climatic.
"Now you've gone from being anti-social to paranoid. Why would Arthur tell anyone?" Kay dismounted and helped Gawain do the same. The injured knight landed on his un-injured foot. "Careful."
"I am not some delicate maiden you need to watch over."
"I'm protective of my students."
"I'm going to hit you again."
Leontes coughed. "Speaking of delicate maidens, I'm going to find my wife. Can I trust you two not to kill each other?"
"I'll watch them." Arthur stood at the stable door, a look on his face that was genuinely happy. "Guinevere waits for you."
"Be careful, my King. They're flirting." Leontes left.
Arthur frowned as he tried to piece that together. "What…?"
"He was kidding," Kay said. "Don't worry about it."
"I'm not. I'm never going to think about it again." The king bit his lower lip, obviously unsure of how to proceed. "Um, have you two resolved your differences?"
"I apologized," Gawain said. "There is no grief between us. If you have no argument, I'll resume training the men tomorrow."
"I have no argument."
"In that case I'll see you both at the training ground at dawn." Gawain took a step and fell flat on his face.
When dawn came he hobbled into the chapel. "I should be out there."
Kay snorted and shook his head. "You want to trip in front of all those men? You could hurt yourself seriously and then you'd be bed-ridden for months instead of a few weeks." He pointed to the bench. "C'mon, I've got an idea."
Reluctantly and with a scowl, Gawain obeyed. "An idea?"
"Yep." Kay seemed excited. "We are going to sing the alphabet. If you think about it, the letters sound like they should be sung together. They're lyrical." He demonstrated, "A B C D…"
"I don't sing."
"I heard you sing that night at Pendragon Castle."
"That was different." There was a difference between something sung to keep fear away and lift men's spirits, and something that sounded like it should be sung in a child's nursery.
"Once again, you make me wish I had a wooden spoon." Kay sighed. "Fine. Then sit and listen to me sing it." Before Gawain could protest he started singing. When he finished, he sang it again. And again. He sang for several minutes before stopping. "What comes after H?"
"I," Gawain said without thinking, in the same tone Kay had sung.
His teacher smiled. After a few moments, Gawain smiled too.
Author's notes: It is Starz's world, I'm just playing in it. No copyright violations were intended.
I hope they weren't too out of character. I've always been a sucker for brooding, cranky types and I've written them before, but for reason this fic was difficult. I hope you enjoyed it at least.