Title: Worst Kept Secrets
Warnings: Really truly none this chapter. Not even a little swearing, I don't think. Sort of proud of that, but also just sort of surprised. No, wait, moment of surprise over. Somehow managed on two rereads to miss the single instance of foul language in the final sentence. Oops.
Disclaimer: I own nothing, of course. Not that any of you are dumb enough to believe I might have done.
Notes: Thank you to my anonymous reviewers: anon, who reviewed chapter nine (sorry I forgot about you last time) and Dearly beloved, for reviewing chapter ten. As I said in the previous chapter, this is the end. Or sort of, anyway. This all began in my head as a one-shot, but it so very clearly isn't (if it continues as far as I should like it to, we aren't even halfway there yet). I intend to have the prologue and first chapter of the sequel up next week, before The Start of Series Four (yep, little bit of a giddy dance going on in my brain right now. Immediately after the last episode of Doctor Who, as well. It's like Christmas, only better), though updates will be few and far between for the first month or so, until I get it completed. Love and gratitude to everyone who has read and favourited this, and even more love to all of you who have taken the time to tell me what you think. I appreciate it more than you can imagine.
And, that said, onwards to the end. Peach.
Worst Kept Secrets - Epilogue
Gwaine is a staunch believer in the adage that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission (though his immediate instinct is to run far and fast rather than request either). It is for this reason that he is lurking in the corridors around Arthur's chambers in the hope of kidnapping Merlin to take him hunting.
It has been a truly glorious week, and Gwaine is tired of being stuck in the city when the sun is shining and there are things to do, things far more fun than hit people he isn't allowed to kill with dulled swords. Not that he actually intends on them hunting – he knows Merlin really doesn't enjoy it – but he's willing to mess with Merlin however he can.
Unfortunately, rather than encountering Merlin, he is caught by Arthur. Lacking the same nifty summoning powers Merlin has (which is, in part, some of the reason he's where he is), Gwaine feels justified in swearing under his breath.
"I didn't quite catch that, Gwaine. Would you care to repeat it?" The prince smirks at him when he shakes his head and continues. "Seeing as I find it almost impossible to speak to Merlin without you either being present or appearing within a few sentences, I thought perhaps I could have a few words with you instead, seeing as you're here. Walk with me?"
Gwaine, sadly, cannot think of an excuse – and, as one of Arthur's knights, the prince would know that he doesn't actually have to be wherever he claims he has to be. He's only asking as a courtesy, anyway, since he is well within his rights to command – so he nods, because the consequences of running away without giving an explanation are not worth the brief respite he will have from the conversation.
"Good," Arthur smiles, and Gwaine doesn't often see what Merlin finds to love in the prince but his approval really is something. "The first matter I wish to address is, of course, your sudden appearance when I'm questioning Merlin about his magic. I take it you have not developed a sudden desire to shirk your duties – more than you usually do – just to talk to the pair of us."
This is not strictly a question, more a statement, but just because the request for elaboration is unspoken it doesn't mean it's unheard. "No, sire." Gwaine does enjoy calling Arthur that; the blond prat looks so happy when he does so, and fails entirely to notice the sarcasm with which Gwaine says it.
He doesn't want Merlin to get into trouble, but he sincerely doubts Arthur would ask the question if he didn't already know the answer. "It's Merlin's doing. Think it amuses him, to make me walk places against my will. Asked him to stop, but he won't."
Arthur stops walking in order to peer pensively out a window. "I thought as much, yes. It was either that or the two of you have become freakishly co-dependent ever since Leon and I discovered Merlin's secret." Arthur laughs, and Gwaine tries to convince himself he imagined the slight inflection he placed on the word 'co-dependent'. His attempt fails miserably, though, when Arthur continues speaking.
"You are admirably protective of him, Gwaine. Slightly too much so, at times; perhaps it would be wise to tone it down when around those who are not in the know, less they begin to question why."
Again, this is not a question, except it is, and Gwaine hopes that if he pretends he has no idea what Arthur is implying, the prince will decide he is wrong (even if he isn't). "Not sure how keeping an eye out for Merlin will get people thinking he has magic, but if you reckon it's an issue I'll do my best to be more subtle."
This hope dies when Arthur responds to his sentence with a steady look. "Really, Gwaine? I know you all think I notice very little to do with my manservant, but that was only true in the past when I thought him too...Merlin to keep a secret. An oversight, I admit, but since learning of his magic I've made a point of keeping a closer eye on him. Would you like to know what I've seen?"
Gwaine wants more than almost anything to say no, but if there is even the slightest doubt in Arthur's mind it will vanish as soon as Gwaine makes his discomfort obvious. Instead, he says, in a way he hopes sounds neither too resigned nor too challenging, "go on, then?"
"Number one," Arthur begins, grinning in a slightly self-satisfied way. "Merlin is late a lot less than was usual for him, and when he arrives he is far less out of breath than when he was never on time. Why? Because he is no longer sleeping in Gaius' quarters, instead finding somewhere closer to the centre of the castle to stay.
"Number two: Merlin has mildly suspicious bruises hidden poorly by his scarf and, I notice when he reaches for things in high places, sometimes on his stomach. Why? Because he is getting into many more fights than I have seen him having, or because he has a lover." The grin broadens, and Gwaine has the impression that Arthur has been waiting to discuss his suspicions for quite some time, if the way he is relishing the opportunity now is anything to go by.
"Number three: said lover lives in the castle, somewhat closer to my chambers than Gaius does." He pauses, fixing Gwaine with an intense look that only intensifies his squirming.
"Now," Arthur continues, when Gwaine is fairly sure this conversation couldn't actually get any more uncomfortable. "I am sure you know where I'm going with this, but indulge me a little further. Number four: you, the knights reliably inform me, no longer drink as much as you used to, and have not been seen leaving the tavern with anyone unknown in quite some time – for which, may I add, I am most pleased, because my father may have decided to overlook my knighting commoners in light of the circumstances at the time, but he really would not tolerate the smear your past behaviour left on the rank of knight of Camelot, and you are a rather impressive swordsman."
He pauses again, clearly expecting some sort of response to this praise (if that is indeed what it is), so Gwaine smiles through the churning in his gut and says, "thank you."
Arthur nods. "Number five: Lancelot is far more obvious than the pair of you put together, even with your over-protectiveness and Merlin's inability to discuss accidental magic without you present. Would you like further observations, or is that sufficient to convince you that I know about you and Merlin without you breaking any promises you've made by talking about it?"
When Gwaine stays silent, Arthur seems set to continue (Gwaine wonders just how long the list of observations is, and tells himself that they have to be more carefully if they don't want the whole city to know), so he quickly says, "no, Arthur, that's enough," then awaits reprimand for his usage of Arthur's first name.
Arthur, however, does not comment, although he does raise an eyebrow laden with disapproval (Gwaine, in some bizarre corner of his mind, wonders if Gaius teaches that, and how much a lesson costs). "Why, pray tell, did you think telling Lancelot was a good idea, and why only Lancelot?"
Gwaine isn't sure what the tone in Arthur's voice is, but it is certainly something. Jealousy, almost, he thinks; Arthur is displeased, behind all his smirking and delight at causing Gwaine discomfort, that Lancelot knew about them before he did, and as much as it amuses Gwaine to know that, Merlin wouldn't be happy with him for reinforcing the idea. Reluctantly, he tells the truth. "Didn't tell him. He found out, same time as I found out about Merlin's magic. One of the last people I'd've told, if it were up to me. And we didn't tell anyone else, 'cause it really isn't any of anyone else's business what we do." Gwaine hears a faint whisper of defensiveness in his voice and figures he'd better stop talking before it gets any clearer. "You going to tell Merlin you know?"
"I sincerely doubt I shall ever get the opportunity, unless I choose to announce it in public."
"We'd probably prefer it if you didn't, to be honest."
"We or he?" This is another question Arthur probably wouldn't be asking if he didn't know the answer, so Gwaine ignores it, choosing instead to stare out of the window and pretend not to feel the scrutiny Arthur is currently subjecting him to.
"Well, Gwaine," he says eventually, when Gwaine can no longer hide his fidgeting. "You don't seem to be doing any harm. However, if I ever have reason to believe his relationship with you is causing Merlin any more trouble than it does happiness, I will reinstate your banishment from the kingdom. Are we clear?"
Gwaine can only nod, because these words are from Arthur the man, one of Merlin's closest friends, yet they are delivered with all the severity of Arthur the king, who Gwaine has sworn obeisance to and will follow readily until such a time as he is released from his vow, and whilst they are not strictly speaking a threat to his life, the menace is certainly felt. More than just the threat, however, is the implication of a bargain held within them; Arthur won't tell Merlin he knows, if Gwaine doesn't tell Merlin about the the possibility of him being forcibly ejected from the kingdom if their relationship ends badly. A nod seems sufficient anyway, because Arthur turns from him and resumes walking, regal and proud, uncaring as to whether or not Gwaine chooses to follow him.
Which, of course, he does, all plans of finding Merlin forgotten for now; he has things he could do in the city, things he should do, and stealing away for a clandestine mid-morning shag in the forest, however much he might want to, is not one of them.
Still, as he catches both Lancelot and Arthur sending him looks that assess him in more ways than his skill at dodging Percival's swings, he does wonder if Merlin has any idea just how many times Gwaine has been and will be threatened for sleeping with him. Of all the numerous and varied ways Gwaine has put his well being, both mental and physical, at risk, this is surely the most extreme.
And, fucking pathetic as he is, he wouldn't change it for the world.