Notes: So, number of application forms completed this week...zero. Number of words written...bordering on four thousand. Somehow, I think my future would be a whole lot brighter, career wise, if it was the other way around. But whatever. Three cheers for procrastination, yeah? Also, just because I haven't said this in a while, I dearly love everyone reading this. Thank you.

Hunger- Chapter Thirty-Two

Gwaine takes Merlin to his room, can't imagine for a second taking him anywhere else. Somewhere safe, he promised, after all, and gods know he might not be the only one who'd protect Merlin with his life but right now he's not sure he'd trust anyone else to do so. Merlin doesn't protest, anyway, and Gwaine is fairly sure that even drugged and bruised like he is, Merlin would object if he wanted to. Montague stays quiet, too, no mention of the very obvious fact of Merlin's magic, but then maybe Gwaine isn't all that surprised, not when he'd as good as confessed to knowing a few weeks ago.

Montague stays too quiet, actually, even with things being what they are, because Gwaine would figure him for the type to go for distraction through chatter, same was as Gwaine would with anyone else. It's only when they're back, though, a closed door between the three of them and the rest of the world, that Gwaine realises why.

Merlin still looks awful, abstracted, so much like he doesn't belong in Gwaine's small, ordinary room that Gwaine is almost awed he's still there. He's better than he was, though (Gwaine thinks he can see white in his eyes again, even if the pupils are still absent), a little less lost now, and when he speaks it's in full sentences, not just words, even if they still sound drunk.

"Are you okay?" he asks, which is just bloody ridiculous, isn't it, except it's not Gwaine he's facing.

"Just a scratch," Montague says, even though when Gwaine finally manages to tear his gaze from Merlin he looks like whatever it is hurts quite a lot more than a scratch would. "Would have been a lot worse if you hadn't dealt with him."

Merlin half-smiles at that, wan and weak and yet Merlin, unbroken, and it's enough that Gwaine manages to get to his feet again, no longer kneeling at Merlin's side. "I'll get you something for it," he says. "And for you as well, Merlin," and Gwaine hates that he has to stop himself reaching to examine the lump he can see forming on the side of Merlin's head, carries on talking to keep himself from dwelling. "Clean up, too, because discarded clothing is odd enough without a splatted rat in the mix, and...And the others will need fending off somehow, because it wasn't just me you called, and-"

"Gwaine," Merlin says, cutting through all of it, Gwaine's voice out loud and all the ones inside him, shouting to get out. "It's not your fault."

Gwaine only manages to stare at him, blinded by the sincerity on Merlin's face and the last dregs of gold still clinging to his eyes, and, "I should have followed you," is all he can say before realising that, actually, he has to be somewhere else.

"Here," he says, unhooking the piece of string holding his key from around his neck. "Gareth's got one, but I'll get it from him when I find him." Merlin doesn't take it from him, though, and Gwaine can't exactly push it into his hands, so he just gives the key to Montague instead. "Lock up behind me," he orders, and then he's gone.

X

Lancelot honestly had no idea Gwaine could run that fast, but then he imagines it is probably a matter of incentive, and if it was Guinevere who had told him she suddenly had something to do, looking worried and awful and smiling as insincerely as humanly possible, Guinevere who had refused Lancelot's help only to urgently require it later, Lancelot thinks he would probably be running rather quickly as well.

Still, Gwaine is out of the tavern before any of them have really worked out what is going on, and then by the time they make it out the door, Leon pausing to assure the other patrons that there is nothing to worry about, Gwaine is well out of sight.

"Which way?" Elyan asks, pausing in the middle of the street, and only then does it occur to Lancelot that he doesn't actually know.

"The citadel," Gareth says, and if it were not for the panic in his guts Lancelot would try persuade him to go back. It is what Gwaine would want him to do, probably, keep his brother safe from harm, but Lancelot is terribly aware that they may need all the help they can get, and that wasting time on an argument he may not win is an even worse idea than trying to rid them of an extra man. "Gwaine would have waited for us if it wasn't somewhere he was familiar with."

From the way Leon looks at him, Lancelot is certain he is not the only one who doubts this – where Merlin is concerned, Gwaine is far from predictable – but they have precious little to go on, and somehow heading into the castle feels more correct than heading away from it.

Gwaine has described, or tried to, this hold Merlin can take over him, controlling his limbs like they are his own, moving him this way or that as suits his wishes. Either he exaggerates greatly, Lancelot thinks as they make their way inside at a swift jog, or this is something different. The first seems ultimately more likely – it is Gwaine, after all, not to mention the fact that Gwaine was awfully certain it is Merlin doing this, which hardly makes sense if the nature of the summons is different – but it feels wrong, and right now all Lancelot has to go on is a feeling.

He has always doubted his gut, shunned all those irrational, illogical instincts, but the first time they have to choose between left and right, Lancelot lets his feet make the decision.

They go right.

X

Rationally, the clean up should be more important. Neither Merlin nor Montague has died of their injuries yet, and neither of them is likely to do so any time in the immediate future; collecting bandages and whatever else is not the most urgent thing to be doing, not when the three of them are, in essence, trying to cover up a murder tonight. Not that it's not completely justified, what they've done, and Arthur isn't dumb enough to disagree with that, but if questions get asked explanations are going to be needed before they're off the hook, and Merlin might not want to give them.

So, from a practical standpoint, tidying up whatever evidence Gwaine can find of what's happened should be his priority, but it isn't. Merlin's hurt, and even if he isn't going to be able to fix it, nothing comes before that.

Gaius is still awake when he gets there, the old man sitting on one of those uncomfortably low benches, staring at the door like he's expecting someone to walk through it any second. His shoulders sag when he sees it's Gwaine and that he's alone, visible relief decorating his face.

"You wouldn't leave him if he was seriously hurt, would you?" Gaius says, and it hadn't really occurred to Gwaine to wonder who else might have felt Merlin's call, but now he definitely has cause to, and maybe another thing to clear up.

"Not for a second," Gwaine answers, even if it doesn't need saying. "Just a few scratches and bruises," he explains, because even though that's ignoring what might be the worst of the damage, it's not exactly going to be something any of them can repair with any ease. "Better to be safe than sorry, though."

"I quite agree, my boy," Gaius says, which is probably about as much affection as Gwaine has ever gotten from him. He hands over a bag, presumably full of supplies. "There was no chance I'd reach him before any of you did," he explains. "My time was better spent readying whatever you might need, just in case."

"Thank you," Gwaine says, slinging the bag over his shoulder. "I'll bring him by in the morning."

Gaius nods at him, for once smiling like Gwaine is a favoured grandson rather than someone he merely tolerates because of Merlin. "Thank you," he echoes, then ushers Gwaine out of the door.

X

Merlin is cold, and shaken, and the whole world feels fucked up, but mostly he's just tired. Really, really tired.

"Hey," Montague says, and the words sound like they're being dragged through treacle, or maybe that's just Merlin. "Hey," he repeats, "Merlin, look at me."

Merlin tries, he really does, but he's cold and tired and if he sleeps things might go back to normal again.

"No," Montague says, sharper, and one of his hands presses hard against Merlin's leg for a second, just long enough to jolt him fully into wakefulness. "You cracked your head pretty hard, Merlin. I don't want you sleeping."

"No," Merlin agrees, but it's a struggle, and his tongue feels like a victim of the same thickness as hit the air a moment ago. "No, not sleeping."

Montague smiles vaguely, shuffling up from his knees with a pained gasp and slumping back into his seat. "Right, so, we find something to talk about."

"Like what?" Merlin asks, and if Arthur was about he'd be laughing at Merlin needing someone to suggest a topic of conversation to him.

"Well, I suppose we could start with you turning a man into a rat?"

"Oh," Merlin says, and suddenly he doesn't feel all that tired.

X

Lancelot knows when they reach the place they ought to be, even if there is no sign of either Merlin or Gwaine there. Arthur, yes, looking confused and more concerned than he will ever admit to being about Merlin's welfare, but not the people Lancelot is expecting to see, and it is both worrisome and a relief. This is where Merlin wanted them, and since the panic that had them all running has faded, he clearly does not want them to go somewhere else; the fact that Merlin and Gwaine are not here shows that whatever the problem was, it has been dealt with, but there still remains the question of where they are, and why the solution to the problem seems to have involved nudity, a bloody knife, and an unorthodox means of pest control.

"Where do we go from here?" Leon asks, and Lancelot does not quite know how to answer. It all depends of the owner of the blood on the knife, he thinks: if it is Merlin's, they go to Gaius'; if it is not, they go to Gwaine's. Sadly, without asking either Gwaine or Merlin, they cannot find this out, thus leaving them with something of a quandary.

"We wait," Arthur says, somehow managing to make this sound like a reasonable course of action, despite the fact that he was clearly abed when Merlin's summons reached him, and whilst he picked up a blade before leaving his room, he did not take the time to put on boots or a shirt. "Gwaine will return here soon enough."

Looking at the mess, Lancelot does not disagree.

X

Gwaine rounds a corner, bag still over his shoulder, and finds exactly what he'd been hoping to avoid. And Arthur, as well, which just makes things even worse.

Sadly, the fucker notices him before he can sneak off back to Merlin, so he's stuck trying to explain without explaining anything.

"It's fine," he says before anyone can ask. "The problem's been taken care of."

"What problem?" Lancelot asks.

"I can't tell you that."

"And how did you take care of it?" Arthur adds, sounding really rather menacing, despite the fact that Gwaine could stamp on his toes and leave him limping for days.

"Yeah, can't tell you that either." Gwaine sighs, because Lance might be willing to let not telling fly but there's no way Arthur will. "Look, I don't know what Merlin's going to want you all to know, so I'm leaving it to him. But he's fine, and there is nothing to be worried about."

"That's Gaius' bag," Arthur points out, being spectacularly observant, for him, although Gwaine is really just glad the sword in Arthur's hand isn't jabbing him in the ribs. "If there's no problem, why do you have that?"

"Because Montague got jumped by the arsehole Merlin was having difficulty with," Gwaine snaps. "You can talk to Merlin tomorrow, Arthur. It can wait until then."

Arthur stares at him, the expression on his face stuck somewhere between indignation and worry, but eventually he nods, even if he looks bloody unhappy about doing so. "Go, then," he says, like Gwaine needs his permission. "We will tidy up here."

It is only with great effort that Gwaine manages to stay quiet about that, because there's no way in hell he thinks Arthur's going to involve himself in whatever cleanup needs to be done. He's not going to argue it, though, not when he's been gone more than long enough already. "Thank you," he says, because being polite to the king isn't going to hurt, and he knows it's what Merlin would want of him. "Gareth, I need your key. Find somewhere else to kip tonight."

"But-" Gareth starts, because gods forbid the kid ever knows when to leave something alone.

"No," Gwaine says. "No buts. Give me your key, and find somewhere else to stay."

It takes a moment, but Gwaine wins this one too.

X

He stops the first servant he sees walking through the castle and demands a bath, offering his best do what the fuck I tell you to glare when the guy looks ready to object.

"I don't give a shit what time it is," Gwaine says, knowing he's being way more of a dick than he usually would, knowing he has no right to treat someone he doesn't know like this, but he really can't be bothered right now. "Have a bath brought up to my room. Now. And don't go in."

X

"You know," Merlin says, when words decide they want to come back again. "You know about my..."

"I know you have magic, yeah," Montague answers, and Merlin wonders that he can still somehow be shocked by hearing those words when his whole world seems to have gone to hell and back today.

"Gwaine knows you know, doesn't he?" Merlin asks next, even though he's pretty sure about the answer. Gwaine wasn't drugged, wasn't loopy with forcing his magic through the thing keeping him out of it, wasn't halfway to being unconscious and- Gwaine had everything to work with, while Merlin was barely functioning at all. Of course Gwaine knows.

"He does," Montague confirms, looking almost amused. "And you aren't the slightest bit concerned, are you, Merlin?"

"He wouldn't have left you alive if you were a threat," Merlin's says, and there's no doubt to it whatsoever.

Montague laughs, genuinely amused, and if Merlin was feeling a little better he might join in. "That's a hell of a lot of trust to put in someone."

"He deserves it," Merlin says, and, again, there's no room for doubt.

X

Gwaine shoves past the guy waiting outside his room with a large tub and a steaming bucket, then knocks on his door, even if it is his and he's carrying a key. "It's me," he says, leaving it a moment before putting his key in the lock. "I'm coming in," he tells Merlin, loud enough that he'll hear it through the door, then turns back to the guy, who is still looking at him like he's mental.

"Go get the next bucket," he orders. "I'll take this from here."

The look only intensifies, but there's no argument, and that's really all Gwaine can ask for.

Merlin looks better, now, as Gwaine drags the bathtub in, then makes another trip for the bucket. Not well, not completely fine, but better than he was, and Gwaine still feels fucking lost when it comes to speaking to him.

It's easier not to, he decides, instead just ordering Montague to take his shirt off and attempting to patch up the wounds he has a chance of fixing.

X

Merlin climbs into the bath with a desperation that feels almost inhuman, and he really couldn't care less that there are two other people in the room. Gwaine has seen it all before, anyway, and Montague is far more occupied with Gwaine's attempts at triage to notice anything he shouldn't be seeing. Besides, really, he just wants to feel clean.

He soaks for ages, a spark of magic reheating the water each time the temperature drops below scalding, drifting idly. It's probably how a cloud feels, he thinks, abstract and empty, nothing to hold it in place, nothing to hold it down, ready to blow away as soon as the wind calls it to.

Merlin isn't free, though, isn't untethered, has things keeping him here, close and safe and grounded. He's not going anywhere, not tonight, and he doesn't really want to.

"Right," Gwaine says, voice soft, but it drags Merlin down fully, even if it's not him he's talking to. "You're done. You want to stay here, or are you leaving?"

Merlin doesn't turn to look, mostly because the water is hot enough to make him a little bit dizzy. It doesn't matter, though, because Montague half-laughs, and the painful noise he makes is probably him shrugging his shirt back over his head.

"I'm thinking sleeping on the floor isn't a great idea," Montague says, then pauses for a moment. "And it looks like your bed is going to be full. I appreciate the offer, though."

"Welcome," Gwaine says, in that gruff way Merlin knows means embarrassment. "We'll see you tomorrow."

"Goodnight," Merlin adds softly, hunching his shoulders and ducking further down under the water.

"'Night, Merlin," Montague answers, just as quiet. "Shout if you need me, or whatever."

X

"Merlin?" Gwaine asks, after Montague is gone and the door's locked again behind him. "How's your head?"

"Hurts," Merlin says. "Will you look at it?"

Gwaine falters for a second, what with that really not being what he expected, then approaches slowly, not making any effort to muffle his footsteps or anything like that, because being quiet right now probably isn't for the best. "You sure you want me to?" he asks, hovering just out of arms' reach.

Merlin turns halfway towards him, stopping before Gwaine see his eyes, then turns back again, his breath not even changing rhythm. "I'm not going to break if you touch me, Gwaine."

Gwaine nods, though Merlin can't see him, of course, collecting a cup before kneeling by the bathtub.

"You're you," Merlin continues, tipping his head back and, true to his word, not flinching when Gwaine rests one hand on his forehead, shielding his eyes, and uses the other to pour water over his head, trying not to wince himself when some of it runs away pink. "I could never be afraid of you."

Gwaine smiles, even if he maybe shouldn't. "Good to know," he says, adding another cup of water, then another, before combing as carefully as he can through Merlin's hair over the bump.

It's clotted already, not much blood for a head wound, but it's still more than there ever should be, enough to make Gwaine feel sick like no wound ever has.

"Merlin," he manages, even though it hurts and he feels like he's sinking, lost. "I'm so sorry, Merlin. I'm sorry."

"No," Merlin says, reaching up and grasping blindly for one Gwaine's hand, searching until Gwaine feels he has to give him it and then holding on so hard that it hurts. "Don't you ever apologise for this, Gwaine. Ever. You're not responsible."

Gwaine feels sick, sick from touching him and talking to him and just being in the same room, because whatever bullshit Merlin is spouting, it is his fault. "I knew something was wrong," he says. "I knew you lied to me, I knew it wasn't for a good reason, and I listened anyway."

"I wanted you to," Merlin answers, his fingers twisting between Gwaine's, twisting and tangling and refusing to let go. "He knew about my magic, and I wanted you a long way from that."

That doesn't change anything, Gwaine wants to say, but he doesn't. He can't. "I should have followed you," he says, and it's still just as true as when he said it earlier.

Merlin crumples back against him, leaning his head down onto Gwaine's shoulder and clinging, fingers pressing into Gwaine's hand in a way that's got to be leaving bruises, but there's no way Gwaine is going to stop him. "I told you to stay," he says, solid and determined, as stuck on self-blame as Gwaine is. "I told you to."

Gwaine doesn't know what to say or what to do, barely even knows how to breathe with Merlin here, his wet hair soaking Gwaine's shirt, bruising more than his skin. "Love," he says, wrapping his arm around Merlin and resting his forehead on Merlin's bare shoulder. "Oh, Merlin, love."

X

Eventually, Merlin makes a move to extract himself, and Gwaine is never going to stop him. He just lets him go, moving back and standing slowly, knees feeling creaky and old, then finds something for Merlin to wear to sleep in.

"Here," he says, though the trousers will be too short and the shirt too loose, but it's better than nothing, and he reckons Merlin probably wants to make his way back through the castle at this hour just as little as Gwaine wants him to go.

"Thank you," Merlin says as he dresses, then again as he drinks the wine Gwaine has warmed for him by the fire, and a third time as he sits on the edge of Gwaine's bed.

Gwaine wants to tell him not to, that he doesn't deserve it, but they've had that argument already and it's not going to go any differently now.

X

"Sleep well," Gwaine says, as Merlin curls up in his bed. "You can wake me if you need me."

"I know," Merlin answers, feeling warm and safe and loved.

Outside, the bell signalling the midnight change of the watch sounds. Three days to go.