Contrary to popular opinion, Gwaine was actually quite used to rejection. It was the law of averages, after all - he attempted to seduce so many people on a daily basis (women and men, yes, why limit yourself to one sex when you can have both?) that there was bound to be some who were going to say no to him. Despite his stunning good looks. And gorgeous body. And hair that looked like it had been spun by fairies from sheets of fine copper. (Hey, it wasn't boasting if it was true, was it?)
His first attempt at chatting someone up had been rejected, actually. Her name was Clarissa, she was 7 and he was 5, and she already had golden hair down to her ankles. He had picked her a bunch of posies rather than collecting firewood for his mother and had presented them to her. She'd laughed in his face, took his flowers and stamped on them. The next day he saw her in the village giggling with Gareth, the local yob even at age 8. It was the first time he'd ever felt bitterness.
But, he was Gwaine, and Gwaine never let setbacks get him down. He'd get nowhere if he did, what with the life that he led. So he was quite used to rejection, and very adept at handling it.
Merlin did not reject him. What he did was worse.
He met Merlin and Arthur in a tavern. This was not unusual, he met most people he knew in taverns, mostly because that was where he spent the majority of his time. But these two arrested his attention straight away. Mostly because they managed to start a bar brawl within moments of coming into the tavern, but also by the way the two of them constantly and quite unconsciously gravitated to each other. Gwaine was good at noticing body language, and this was undeniable. Merlin never strayed far from Arthur's side. Arthur never let Merlin leave his sight of vision for more than a few seconds. And neither of them seemed to notice that they did this at all.
This did not change, in all the years Gwaine knew them.
He was also arrested by how Merlin looked. On the surface he was scruffy, and looked about 12, and had ridiculous ears, but there was something about him…
Plus he had a smile that could topple kingdoms. When Merlin smiled at Gwaine like that, it made Gwaine want to do the most ludicrous thing he could think up. This also never changed.
He was utterly unable to stop himself when he approached him, had a drink, smashed a marauding oaf in the face, flipped his hair Gwaine-style and said with all the charm he possessed, "What do they call you then?"
He was unnerved when he woke up in Merlin's bed. He was used to waking up in other people's beds, that was all par for the course, but not when he hadn't had sex with them first. He was even more unnerved when Merlin entered with food and his trouble-causing, I'm-just-too-cute-for-my-own-good smile and informed Gwaine that the person he'd taken a knife for just so happened to be Prince Arthur of Camelot. He'd have bolted right out of the bed and out of the kingdom if he'd been able to feel his leg. As it was, he ate the food and concentrated on charming Merlin. He leaned back, said, "When your chances look between slim and none…I guess I just kind of like the look of those odds," and grinned rakishly, and Merlin, a little bemused but obligingly charmed, smiled back.
"Besides," continued Gwaine, dropping his arms and focusing on his food again. "I had to help Mary."
Merlin dithered a bit, then came and perched on the side of the bed, carefully staying away from Gwaine's bad leg. "Mary?"
"The owner of the tavern," Gwaine said, "She's brilliant, I've never met a more welcoming and fiesty woman. She gave me my board for free, you know. Fantastic woman, heart of gold." He smiled genuinely - he'd been quite taken by Mary.
Merlin's expression warmed considerably - he'd clearly been less than impressed by Gwaine's attack on nobles, but whatever Gwaine had said there had put him back in Merlin's good books.
Which was odd, because this time he'd been speaking from the heart and hadn't even been trying to ingratiate himself.
He finished his food, Merlin left, and he slept.
Gaius woke Gwaine up, a bit later, by peeling the bandage carefully off his leg. "Sorry to wake you," he said quietly.
Gwaine frowned sleepily; from the look of things it was early evening. "Where's Merlin?" he asked. His throat felt dry; he coughed.
"Waiting on Prince Arthur," Gaius said, passing Gwaine a jug of water to drink from without comment. "He is his manservant."
Gwaine drank thirstily. "That explains why he was visiting a dead-end tavern with his highness. Oh wait, no it doesn't."
Gaius said nothing, but Gwaine sensed a wave of amusement coming off him. "Merlin is very kind," Gwaine said, because it was the simple and obvious truth. "Very honourable."
"He is indeed," Gaius replied.
He slept for the rest of the day and night, but the next morning, when he'd awoken to the sound of Camelot going about it's daily business, and had peeked out of Merlin's window to take a look, he was filled with new vigour.
He went on the pull. It didn't last long. It turned out ladies from Camelot were harder to get into than the queen and her maidservant that time a few years ago, and that had been nigh-on impossible. Mind you, Gwaine had managed it, even if he did end up running out of that castle with no trousers and the queen's husband right behind him.
He went to the tavern to cheer himself up, and that was how Gwen - one of the rejecters - found him, drunk as a skunk, surrounded by new friends and being threatened by the tavern landlord. She brought in reinforcements. They came in the shape of Merlin.
They spoke of their fathers. Gwaine wasn't used to speaking of serious things when he was drunk, but Merlin seemed to possess an underlining seriousness in all that he did. Some people - Gwaine had met them before - had a deep melancholy within them, which they retained even when they were at their happiest. As if they knew some deep secret that others did not. Merlin had a quick smile but also a quick sadness about him.
Perhaps this was why Gwaine kissed him - in an attempt to dispel this sadness. He had, after all, always been the most naturally cheerful of people. And so, somewhere after them talking about their fathers and Gwaine hitting his head on the bedroom wall, he leaned forward and kissed Merlin firmly and determinedly on the mouth.
Merlin stiffened - Gwaine could feel it in his spine, where his hand was resting - but his lips were soft, and when Gwaine pulled away, Merlin followed him and kissed him back, suddenly fierce.
After that it all got a bit heady; either he pulled or Merlin pushed, but Merlin ended up in his lap either way, he tugged off Merlin's shirt, Merlin slid his hands under Gwaine's and they were kissing furiously the entire time, mouths open and hot breath mingling.
Gwaine pulled back again. "Someone's eager."
Merlin blinked, a little disorientated, but before he could do something stupid like apologise for this, another thought had hit Gwaine.
"This isn't…the first time?"
Merlin laughed, face suddenly splitting into his brilliant smile. "No! There was - there was a boy in the village - Gwaine!"
The protest was because Gwaine had snuck his hands under the waistband of Merlin's trousers and was having a most enjoyable grope. Merlin gasped and dug his fingernails into Gwaine's shoulders, and Gwaine grinned against his neck.
"But it's been a while?" he persisted.
"Yes," Merlin said, sounding a bit more breathless. "There was a - there was Lancelot, but he was a while ago - keep doing that!"
Gwaine actually laughed out loud at this, and obeyed, and the next thing he knew he was lying down on the bed and Merlin was attempting to wrestle his trousers off while he was trying to do the same to him, and they were laughing so hard it was difficult to concentrate, and then Merlin tugged at Gwaine clumsily, wobbled, said "uh-oh!" and promptly fell off the bed, bringing Gwaine with him.
They collapsed with a loud crash and in a heap of giggles, Gwaine on top of Merlin, their legs and er, other parts, squashed together.
"You are abysmally clumsy," Gwaine told Merlin, noticing suddenly how blue his eyes were when viewed from above.
"One of my many talents," Merlin breathed, and then he shifted against Gwaine, and Gwaine let out a noise somewhere between a gasp and groan and grabbed Merlin's hips so that he could push against him properly, and after that it really didn't take them very long at all.
It took them a while to get back from the floor onto the bed afterwards, but after Merlin had regained enough of his faculties to remember that lying on the floor was probably not good for Gwaine's leg, they helped each other up and ended the night tucked under Merlin's scratchy blanket and half lying on one another. Gwaine's arm was slung around Merlin's shoulder, his face half pressed into Merlin's hair. For such a scrawny person, Merlin radiated heat. It was dark because they had blown out the candles and moonlight was streaming through Merlin's window above them.
"Uh oh," Gwaine said suddenly after a small, peaceful pause. "I hope Gaius didn't hear that."
Merlin went completely stiff. "Oh no," he said, and then relaxed and started giggling.
Gwaine joined in. He felt light-headed, a little more than alcohol and sex could explain. "I'm going to have to protest that my intentions are entirely honourable," he said.
Merlin was laughing into his fist, shaking against Gwaine. "Are they?"
Gwaine laughed. "All the time, promise," he said, and busied himself with counting the vertebrae on Merlin's spine.
He was woken by the clanging of the bells and Merlin's body sitting up hard against him. "Oh no, I'll be late!"
Gaius's voice said, tactfully, just outside the door, "Merlin, you're going to be late."
"I know!" Merlin yelled back, wrestling himself out of the bed, and running around trying to find his clothes.
Gwaine smiled to himself, lay back and enjoyed the view. He was starting to enjoy Camelot.
He changed his mind almost immediately when he finally plucked up the courage to sneak out of Merlin's room and found Gaius amongst his many potions, very pointedly inspecting the bottom of a test tube rather than look at Gwaine.
Gwaine dithered, but he had always been one to take the bull by the horns, so to speak. Whatever else he was, he was an honest man.
"…Sorry if we kept you awake last night, Gaius."
Gaius finally looked away from his potions and his face twitched into a very small smile. "It is fine," he said, and Gwaine felt himself relax - he had been more tense than he realised. "I'm glad Merlin is having fun for once," Gaius continued. "He doesn't often get to enjoy himself."
This chimed so closely to what Gwaine himself had thought last night that he found himself fidgeting uncomfortably. "Well," he said, scratching the back of his head. "Now I'm here to change that."
He winced inwardly; it sounded a little too much like a sexual innuendo now that he played that back to himself, but Gaius just smiled and nodded and went back to his potions.
Merlin interrupted Gwaine's prowling of the lower town later that morning with the bad news of what Arthur had decided was their 'payment' for the previous night. They sat in the throne room close together, surrounded by pairs of boots, the golden morning light streaming in through the windows. Merlin, despite their ridiculous chore, was cheerful, and Gwaine wasn't quite sure whether it was due to his influence or Arthur's.
They talked of their fathers again. Merlin seemed somewhat desperate to talk about his, Gwaine could sense it. Maybe he didn't have anyone to talk to about it. Maybe this was another secret woe of his.
"If there's one thing, " Gwaine told him, "That I learnt from my father's life, is that titles don't mean anything. It's what's inside that counts." He tapped Merlin on the leg with his scrubbing brush…right where he knew he had bruised it in their little night-time skirmish. Merlin yelped, smiling, and Gwaine allowed himself a little congratulatory smirk, for reminding Merlin of what they had got up to.
They scrubbed away at the boots in silence for a bit, and then Merlin spoke again, a little more haltingly this time.
"You see the good in everyone," he said. Gwaine flashed him a quick glance, but Merlin shrugged and carried on. "I can tell that about you. You think everyone is important."
It was like he had reached into Gwaine's head, had reached through all the bluster and japery and had plucked at that one bit of him no one else ever noticed. A simple, unassuming manservant and he had the wisdom to instantly see straight into what Gwaine really was. Gwaine felt immediately, strangely defensive.
"But then you tell me you hate nobles, you call Arthur a braggart," Merlin persisted. "You imply that nobility is defined by what you do, but if that's the case Arthur is noble, whether he's the prince of Camelot or not."
Gwaine stared at Merlin. He was completely taken aback. "I haven't seen that," he said, more harshly than he intended. This wasn't entirely true, but he was feeling oddly bare and exposed.
"You will," Merlin replied easily. "Promise."
He was completely confident, as if he trusted Arthur to prove this beyond doubt. And the way he looked whenever he spoke of Arthur…it was like he was lit up from the inside, he became all soft angles and faraway eyes. That amount of devotion could make anyone believe in Arthur, it could make them believe in anything really. For the first time, Gwaine felt a little stab of bitterness, that he had no one who believed in him half as much as Merlin did in Arthur.
He turned away a little sharply and concentrated on the boot. For a while, there was only the sound of the two of them brushing hard.
"Um, so," Merlin said, suddenly awkward, and Gwaine inwardly rolled his eyes because he knew what was coming. "About, uh. About last night."
Gwaine cut him off. "Fun, wasn't it?" He glanced at Merlin, eyes sparkling, waited for Merlin to pause, then relax and smile his customary life-ruining smile.
"Yes," he said simply.
"Good," Gwaine replied, and they sat and grinned at each other for a bit. Merlin broke his gaze first, reaching for another boot, and they carried on their chore in companionable silence. The light was golden, the throne room sparkled and Merlin was smiling and happy.
Gwaine hadn't felt this relaxed in a long time.
Events - as they always did - took a turn for the worse. Merlin came back to Gaius's later that day with bleeding fingers and a story about blunted swords that were in actuality not blunt at all, and they soon unravelled the plot surrounding Arthur. It was the first time Gwaine had seen Merlin worried for Arthur and it was in no way going to be the last. Merlin was all action, hardly able to keep still, that underlining seriousness coming to the fore. He did not have one doubt, was not going to accept any other explanation, was definitely not going to let it go. Gwaine, with misgivings, allowed him to go to Sir Oswald's chamber alone.
It didn't take too long until he was worrying as well and it was lucky that he did, for when he arrived in Sir Oswald's chamber Merlin was about to become the equivalent of a pig on a spit, what with the knives being thrown at him and all. Gwaine and Oswald fought, the knights came in, he was dragged before the king.
And of course Uther was, as he knew he would be, utterly cold, utterly cruel. It was only thanks to Arthur that he left the throne room in one piece at all.
Thanks to Arthur…
Arthur caught up with Gwaine, Merlin and Gaius in the corridor afterwards, after the guards had undone his shackles and sent him off to pack.
"Gwaine," he said. "Can I have a word?"
Merlin and Gaius shot Gwaine worried looks, but he flashed them his most comforting smile. "It's fine," he said. "Go." He figured Arthur couldn't really do much worse to him at this point.
Arthur waited until Merlin and Gaius's footsteps faded away before he spoke. He was grave, eyes dark in the dim light.
"I wanted to thank you," he said, somewhat stiltedly.
Gwaine frowned. "For beating up one of your knights?"
Arthur's face adopted an expression that Gwaine would, later on, come to associate with Merlin saying something particularly dense. It was as if Arthur couldn't quite believe how dim he was being. "No-oo," he said slowly. "I meant to thank you for helping Merlin."
Gwaine was stunned into silence.
Arthur shifted a bit. "Look, I don't know what went on between with you and Sir Oswald, but I've rarely seen Merlin as rattled as he was back there. And he does have an unerring propensity for getting himself into trouble, so…you know…thanks."
Gwaine, with difficulty, stopped his jaw from falling right open. "You're welcome?" he said, his bafflement making it sound like a question.
"I'm just sorry that you had to pay by - " Arthur started, then cut off the sentence quickly. Gwaine was visited by the sudden revelation that perhaps Arthur was just as unhappy that he was leaving as Gwaine was.
They shuffled around in awkward silence.
"Anyway," Gwaine said.
"Anyway," said Arthur, made a few weak gestures that could have meant anything and then turned on his heel, striding back down the corridor from whence he had come.
Gwaine dithered in the corridor for a bit before he realised he was meant to be being banished and high-tailed it back to Gaius's chambers.
Merlin was miserable at his leaving, which was oddly satisfying. It was a wrench saying that Arthur was perhaps worth dying for after all, but worth it for the glow it put on Merlin's face. At least, Gwaine thought forlornly as he left Gaius's chambers, he got to give him that last bit of happiness before he left.
He was good at getting out of places quickly and was quite a way from Camelot before he realised that he was doing completely the wrong thing.
All his life, Gwaine had run away from things. People, places. There were a million reasons for it, always had been, but the main one was that he'd never felt like he belonged. He had always found himself eventually becoming someone he was not, with people he hated. He was the joker, or the seducer, and he was never, ever taken seriously.
But in Camelot, he had not felt like that. He'd felt…comfortable. Sometimes, such as when he'd been defending Merlin from those murderers, he'd felt like the knight he knew he was, deep inside of him. He remembered golden light streaming through windows, the sound of the city waking him up in the morning. He remembered the look on Merlin's face when he spoke of Arthur, the look on Gwen's face when she spoke of Arthur, and of course Arthur himself in all his awkward and surprising benevolence.
Arthur was going to die. And Gwaine realised, with a wrench, that he cared about this.
He turned back.