Disclaimer: All characters mentioned are the creations and property of others. (The BBC, I'm presuming.) This work is not meant to reflect on the work of others.
A Few Early-Morning Worries and Breakfast
A bleary-eyed Gwaine smiled to himself. Though he invariably argued that he was constitutionally unsuited for the early morning watch (since most nights he was just leaving the tavern to get himself off to bed by the four bells mark), there was a peace in the pre-dawn hours that - occasionally - appealed to him. Noise and action were his default states, but even he found a still moment to be welcomingly restful once in awhile.
This morning, however, a strange sound drew his thoughts away from their half-aimless drifting. It was a sort of guttered, breathy sound with an accompanying clicking. Eyes alert now, he gazed around, closely examining the tree line behind his sleeping companions at the fire. The space between his shoulder blades immediately tightened and he cursed himself for an idiot: the noise was behind him.
And so was Merlin.
If there was one thing Gwaine took absolutely seriously, it was the defence of his friends, especially Merlin, and yet like a fool he'd decided to take his watch sitting on his bedroll by the fire, and not further away, back against a tree, so he could keep the entire group in view. Whipping 'round, he scrambled to his feet...
Only to see nothing wrong. There was nothing standing over his young friend, no dark shape approaching from the woods, no movement rustling the leaves on the trees.
He made his way closer to Merlin, hand on his sword, before realizing the noise was actually coming from Merlin. Sir Gawaine, brave Knight of Camelot, nearly laughed aloud when he realized he'd been spooked by a servant's shivering. For a moment he gazed affectionately down at his young friend, but then the smile slid quickly off his face.
Merlin was shivering. That meant he was cold, and judging by his face - pinched even in sleep - and the painfully tight way he was curled up, uncomfortably so.
Why is he cold? Gawaine wondered. Admittedly, there's a bit of a nip to the air, but…
He rolled his eyes. You thick dollop-headed prat! he cursed himself in the time it takes to blink, unconsciously using Merlin's pet phrases for Arthur. You're as bad as the Princess! There's a bit of a nip to the air for a man sitting by the fire, wearing a quilted doublet under his chain mail, and wrapped in a cloak. For a man in nothing but a threadbare tunic and thin jacket…Gwaine looked down at Merlin again… without even a warm meal in his belly…
Gwaine snorted and didn't even bother to fin the thought. Well, no point to standing here, pissing and moaning! Do something about it! He squatted down and shook Merlin awake with a light hand on the lad's shoulder.
"Merlin, mate," he said in a whisper, so as not to wake the others.
The servant, trapped in that state between sleep and wakefulness which is usually even more wearing on the body than being up and alert, pried opened heavy lids to squint groggily at the dark-haired knight. "Gwaine, izzat you? Wha's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong, mate. Don't worry. I just thought you looked uncomfortable and maybe you'd want to have my place by the fire while I was up." Gwaine felt a little foolish for rousing Merlin out of his sleep to ask him if he'd like to sleep six feet away, but he dismissed the feeling; Merlin would have woken stiff and exhausted if he'd remained as tensely coiled as he had been.
Merlin gawped up at him with sleepy bafflement. Gwaine reached down and grabbed his arm, pulling his young friend gently up, the younger man stumbling as he first tried to find his feet and then again as he tilted like a fumbling drunkard to grab his pack.
"What do you need that for, Merlin?" Gwaine asked.
"Want it," Merlin said, with no further explanation.
Gwaine didn't argue, especially when a few wobbly lurches later he had something else to think about. Though Gwaine suspected his friend was still more than three-quarters asleep, Merlin had just managed to get himself upright when he swayed alarmingly. Gwaine instinctively tightened his grip just before Merlin nearly dropped sideways into the fire. Merlin barely noticed, gulping instead like someone about to be sick.
The knight sat his friend down on his empty pallet. The servant's eyes were squeezed tightly shut and he rose his hands to place one on each side of his forehead. Gwaine peered at him intently. "Merlin?"
"Sorry, Gwaine… dizzy."
"Open your eyes for me, mate."
Merlin dutifully opened his eyes, but Gwaine had to cup his chin before the younger man could seem to focus.
"Are you sick, Merlin?"
Merlin had to shake his head and blink a couple of times before he could answer. "No…no…" he said faintly, "I'm fine." He smiled up at the knight, but Gwaine didn't like how fuzzy Merlin's gaze still was, nor the way he was swaying slightly even while sitting down.
"Lay down, mate," Gwaine directed and helped Merlin lower himself down onto the bedroll. That done, the knight pulled his own blanket up over his friend, added Merlin's blanket and then his own cloak for good measure. A twinge of guilt picked at him when he saw how immediately the tightness melted from the young man's body as his muscles unwound and he fell instantly into a deeper, more relaxed sleep in the new warmth. It took only moments before Merlin was so far under he barely seemed to be breathing anymore.
Why the hell couldn't we have made him a place by the fire? Gwaine thought as he settled himself further away, this time able to keep watch on the whole circle.
You were just having some fun with him, an inner voice argued.
Well, that was true, he considered. Merlin had been acting strangely this trip. Anxious, uncharacteristically serious, impatiently goading them to keep moving forward every minute, not to mention frustrated and snappish every time they stopped. Why Merlin had been so driven, even frantic, to hunt down the man after the dragon's egg Gwaine didn't know, but his friend's unexpected irritability had made him the perfect target. Merlin had relaxed somewhat after escaping the falling tower - and by the Gods, what had he been doing in there all by himself? Gwaine wondered for the first time, and then wondered why none of them had wondered that before - but still they had kept at him, taking his dinner for yet another night.
A low moan escaped Gwaine as a very obvious solution finally penetrated his brain, causing him to marvel at his own blindness. If searching for stupidity had been a quest, he figured, he'd just walked straight into the dragon's horde! No wonder Merlin was dizzy! He hadn't eaten dinner in three days. And the party hadn't been stopping for mid-day meals, so that left breakfasts. Had Merlin had anything to eat in the last three mornings? Between packing up, filling their waterskins, making sure the fire was dead, getting the horses ready, and generally picking up after Princess Prat, it was conceivably, just conceivable mind, that Merlin hadn't.
Gwaine rubbed a tired hand over his face, feeling an unusual emotion for him: guilt.
It was nothing but a prank, to be sure, but the lad's a twig, a clattering collection of bones. Well, not really, but he was very thin, far more slightly built than the rest of them.
Too slight to really fight you.
Gwaine raised an eyebrow. Where had that thought come from?
No, that wasn't what he'd meant. He only meant…
Yes, Merlin was lean and that meant he didn't have much fat to spare, and would possibly be affected by hunger a little sooner than someone else… though three days is long enough for anyone to get dizzy, a fainter voice said… but it didn't have to mean something darker. Like maybe Merlin wasn't thin because he was naturally lean, but because he never usually got all that much to eat, or like…
Merlin can't fight back against five larger men if they really want to taunt him. Or worse.
Gwaine knew that wasn't why they'd done it. He wasted no time re-considering or brooding about their motives. Merlin was a part of them. There was no question that, even without being a knight, he was just as much a member of the Round Table as any man here and that he, Gwaine, would strike down any threat that came for his best friend.
But he shifted uncomfortably as he wondered for the first time if Merlin knew it. Merlin who was the only one who wasn't a knight, and so not quite the same. Merlin who was the only one without status, without the power and prestige that comes with being a knight - even a landless one - and therefore the only who had no recourse to demand any kind of privileges or rights, or the redressing of the wrongs taken against him. Merlin who was the only one who couldn't put up a physical fight. Merlin who was pushed out of their circle at the fire. Merlin who didn't even have a bloody cloak of his own to keep him warm.
Did Merlin perhaps see himself as not-quite-an-insider? Was he more inhibited, maybe even intimidated, by them than they knew? On the face of it, it seemed ridiculous; Merlin mouthed off to the King himself more than enough for Gwaine to think the young servant would no problem demanding a few minutes to have some breakfast.
But there were FIVE of you being prats this time, Gwaine's conscience pointed out. And even with Arthur, Merlin can only go so far. Arthur's the one with the power. If he gets annoyed enough he can throw goblets at Merlin's head or stick the man in the stocks till dragons roam the Earth again, but Merlin can't. He might backtalk anyway, but his whole life is a daily lesson that he's not quite equal. Maybe he feels the limits on him more than we believe.
And he knew we were teasing him. (At least Gwaine sincerely hoped he did.) Whether he considered it good-natured or not, how else could he respond? Arthur would have just called him a girl and pushed a plate in his face while the rest of us all laughed.
Gwaine thought back and pictured Merlin's face over the last couple of days. The first few times they'd stolen his dinner, he'd grimaced - perhaps a little frazzled and worn at having to go hungry after a hard day and therefore a little more pained at the teasing - but he'd said nothing, laughing it off even in his new humourless mood. Gwaine had assumed it had been an exasperated "I can't believe I have to put up with you lot again," but it could have easily been an "I'll show you who can tough it out!"
It bothered Gwaine - it bothered him greatly - that Merlin might think he had to prove himself to them, or worse, felt bullied or pushed around, but what really got to him was suddenly remembering the look on Merlin's face this evening. It had been quick, too quick for Gwaine to question at the time, but a shadow had passed over his friend's eyes, a flash of pain smothered by an instant resignation. And when Merlin had turned in he'd looked… lonely somehow.
The sky was still dark, but lighter than before. Even with the fire dying down, Gwaine could make out Merlin's motionless form.
What is upsetting you, my friend?
Whatever it was, it had been driving the young man hard. Gwaine could understand Merlin's pride keeping him from begging for his dinner each night (though Merlin's reasoning for such was now something he was determined to find out at the very soonest private opportunity), but it was this unknown thing that the knight felt had been pushing Merlin to forget breakfast every morning.
And that lonely look… maybe he was missing Lancelot? Lancelot had been close to Merlin, almost as close as Gaius or Arthur, and at times the two had even been more at ease than the servant and the Prince.
No, that didn't feel quite it. There was no doubt Lancelot's loss had devastated Merlin, dimming that perpetually cheery light in a way that had positively worried Gwaine, but it didn't explain Merlin's burning need to hunt for the man after the dragon's egg. And, while it was possible that Merlin's unhappiness had never really been about the egg, and was just something stemming from a lingering despondency, it also didn't explain why Merlin's behaviour had changed so drastically once the tower had fallen. Why his constant state of frustrated anxiousness had given way to a new moodiness, vacillating from giddy smiles to suspicious paranoia when anyone got too near him, to that look of sadness just before he'd curled up in his isolated bed roll by the tree.
Well, it doesn't matter right now, you great pillock, Gwaine thought to himself as the heavens faded to a pearly grey. Why can wait. Princess - sorry, Queenie - will be up any moment, grumbling like a bear with a thorn stuck in its paw and bellowing for Merlin get up and fix breakfast. He rose and smacked his hands together. And that's just not going to happen today!
With a cheek-splitting grin, Gwaine set about gathering ingredients. Anticipating the fun of waking Merlin first so that he could offer his friend the first helping (and the even greater fun of watching Queenie waking to see his servant blamelessly finishing off the biggest helping), the happy-go-lucky knight whistled while the sun came up.
Author's note: Well, there you are. This is my first Merlin story and I haven't even seen a good number of the episodes yet, so if I've made any glaring mistake in characterization or facts, feel free to let me know. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. And while I know a lot of stories have been based on this episode already, is it weird that I have yet another idea in my head for it?