A/N: Here it is! The final part! Done and dusted. Goodbye Gwaine. This was meant to be a 2 or 3 chapter fic, but my love for the character of Gwaine stretched it further than that, and I will be honestly sad to let it go now.
THANK YOU to everyone who has taken the time to like and comment on this. Your kindness has encouraged me and made me very happy :) so thank you for that. I hope this story gave you joy.
And now, without further ado...
He needed something else.
Quite by accident, his fingers fell onto Lot's ring.
Two weeks later, Gwaine was standing outside Arthur's door, wondering if he'd made the biggest mistake of his life so far. He had been in long correspondence with Ejber, the older lord of the group of Lot's nobles who had come to see him, and Ejber's letters had encouraged him. But now he was actually outside Arthur's door, all his courage seemed to have vanished.
But there was no going back now. There could be no going back. There was barely anything to go back to. He took a deep breath and knocked on the door.
There was a pause and then Arthur's voice said, "Come."
Gwaine pushed open the door. Arthur was alone in his rooms - Gwaine knew he would be because he had hidden in the corridor until he had seen Merlin leave the rooms to ensure it. The king was currently frowning his way through some sort of complicated looking treaty. He glanced up and said, "Oh. Gwaine."
Gwaine bowed deeply. "Your highness," he said formally.
Arthur stalled slightly. "You're…being very polite." He frowned suspiciously, as if he suspected a trick was being played on him, which Gwaine would have taken personally if he hadn't been so nervous.
Instead, he straightened up, swallowed, then rushed straight into the matter as was his way. "My lord," he said. "I have come to ask permission to leave Camelot."
There was a short silence. "Leave?" Arthur echoed.
"Permanently, if all goes well," added Gwaine.
Arthur looked at Gwaine for a long time, but he was not a foolish man. "This is about Lot's kingdom," he said.
Gwaine nodded. "The kingdom is still in trouble," he said. "There is still strife about who should rule and the people are suffering as a result. I have spoken with Ejber and the other lords and they think that if I make my claim for the throne, I will have a high chance of winning it and securing peace to the kingdom. I wish to leave Camelot and claim my birth right, my liege."
Arthur was staring at Gwaine with a strange look on his face. "When do you wish to leave?" he asked.
"Soon," replied Gwaine, and then felt he should say more, that he should somehow explain his actions. He sighed and dropped the formality. "Camelot is at peace, Arthur," he said. "You have created a secure and fair kingdom. Now I feel I must do that for my people. And besides," he swallowed hard, "I'm not sure I'm really needed here anymore."
Arthur bit his lip but made no half-hearted protests against this. That was one of the things Gwaine had always liked about Arthur, that he would drop propriety for honesty.
"If you would like," he said slowly, "I would gladly lend you what you need - soldiers, weapons…"
"No, no," Gwaine interrupted, and waved it away. "I must do this without aid from anyone else. But I will add that if I do win the kingdom, I would gladly be allies with Camelot. If…I mean, if you would like."
Arthur paused, and then flashed Gwaine one of his smiles, his proud smile, which Gwaine had sometimes been on the receiving end of before, at the end of some struggle or battle or during training, but never to this extent. "Yes," Arthur said. "I would like that."
Gwaine bit the inside of his cheek with no small relief. "Right," he stuttered. "Good."
Arthur stood, assuming a suddenly more kingly stance. "Sir Gwaine," he said formally. "I release you from your duties in Camelot. You have my permission to leave."
Gwaine bowed again. "Thank you, sire."
"And I wish you," Arthur added. "The very best of luck."
Gwaine glanced up at Arthur. Arthur was smiling at him, and Gwaine was suddenly struck with the same sensation he had felt before, at Merlin's ceremonial feast. That idea that he and Arthur were equals. It was very strange, but it sort of…fitted.
"King Gwaine," Arthur said, grinning and abruptly losing his kingly attitude. "I can't imagine that. You'll drink all the taverns dry."
Gwaine laughed and straightened up. "I'll give it my best shot, certainly," he replied.
Arthur smiled again, but this time it wavered - he seemed to have finally thought of something. "Have you told Merlin about this?" he asked.
A lump suddenly swelled in Gwaine's throat; he forced it down. "No," he said.
"Please do, Gwaine," Arthur said.
Gwaine nodded, but he didn't mean it.
He didn't want to tell Merlin. He didn't want to tell anyone. They were all so happy, that was the problem, so content with their lives and their fortune, and he didn't want to spoil it. He liked things how they were. He liked sitting in the taverns and listening to Leon's anecdotes, and laughing at Elyan's jokes, and watching Percival arm wrestle some poor sap. He loved the simplicity of their friendship, he didn't want to complicate it, he didn't want to add a layer of sadness to it, or that air of approaching departure.
He particularly didn't want to do that to Merlin. Merlin, who had been so troubled for so long, who had seen so much loss and experienced so much grief, and now was so content. Merlin, who had spent so much of his life having to feel pain and consequently hide it. Merlin, who was now Court Sorcerer and had a million projects going on and a whole people in Camelot to oversee and had never been busier or happier. How could Gwaine burst this joy?
He almost told him a few times; once, when they were all drunk at the tavern and laughing uproariously at one of Percival's jokes and Merlin was leaning his head against Gwaine's shoulder and giggling giddily into his chest, Gwaine very almost said it. The words were on the tip of his tongue, but they vanished just as quickly. He didn't want to do it. So he slipped an arm around Merlin's shoulder instead and gave him a squeeze and revelled in the closeness and comfort.
Maybe, he thought, he should just vanish overnight.
Maybe it wouldn't hurt them so much if he did that.
Arthur let Gwaine keep his secret until about three days before he was about to leave, then clearly got fed up with him.
There was a hammering on Gwaine's bedroom door in the early evening; Gwaine was packing, which had taken him longer than it ever had in his life before - how had he managed to accrue so much stuff? - and simultaneously writing to Ejber, and the knocking jumped him. He moved to open the door but Merlin stepped through it before he could.
He watched Merlin look around, take in the room, view all the scattered objects and the bulging bags.
There was a very heavy silence.
"So Arthur was right," Merlin said at last. "You are leaving." His voice cracked on the words.
Gwaine swallowed hard. "Yes," he said.
"Right," said Merlin.
There was another long pause. Merlin's face was white, and his brows were drawn together as if he was in pain, but otherwise he looked totally calm.
Gwaine found himself trying to explain. "The situation in Lot's kingdom has got worse. The people are suffering and I can help them, Merlin."
Merlin nodded tightly, but said nothing. His hands were shaking just a little.
"Camelot has grown great," Gwaine carried on, just to say something. "It looks after it's people so well - all it's people now, thanks to you. I want that for my kingdom. If I can be half the king Arthur is, I will be well pleased."
Merlin nodded again, and took a deep breath. "Were you even going to tell me?" he whispered.
Gwaine hesitated, then decided to be honest. "Probably not," he said.
Merlin flinched, like he'd been slapped. He blinked, eyes wet. "Right then," he mumbled, then turned on his heel and left the room.
The door slammed behind him. Gwaine sat heavily on his bed.
Suddenly he didn't want to go anywhere at all.
The tragic expressions he was greeted with when he entered the tavern told him it hadn't just been Merlin Arthur had blabbed to.
"Bloody man can't keep a secret," he murmured and approached the knights. They stared at him brokenly.
"Why didn't you tell us?" Elyan whimpered.
Gwaine sighed and sat down with them. "I didn't want to make things sad," he said. It seemed a kind of flimsy excuse now that he thought about it. The knights clearly thought so too - they glared at him.
"You should have told us," said Percival, who, though he had never been a dangerous person in his life before, now seemed to be making up for lost time. Gwaine wilted under his fury.
"All right," he acquiesced, and held up his hands in surrender. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have kept it from you. But hey - " he smiled his most charming smile. "I've still got three more days. Let's get the drinks in."
He still got frosty looks, but they had melted a little.
"It's your round," muttered Leon.
Gwaine raised an eyebrow. "I'm leaving soon. You should treat me."
Percival leaned across the table. "You get the round," he said, "Or I'll go up to the innkeeper and tell him the customer with the biggest bar tab is going to be leaving Camelot soon and he'd better get his money quick. All right?"
Gwaine stared at Percival. "You are unexpectedly evil," he told him.
Percival met his gaze stolidly. Gwaine scrambled off to get the ales in.
In the end, everyone found out. Gwen cried embarrassingly on him when he told her, and he suddenly became very busy with people from the lower town visiting him to give him their best wishes and hopes. The knights got over their betrayal and rallied around him, being just as they had been before the news, if a little sweeter to him. He was quickly and completely overwhelmed by the love that Camelot, and of all within her, felt for him. It felt like he was leaving home, and though he knew it was for the best, though he was looking forward to the challenges awaiting him, he still felt pangs of regret. Often this was when he said a last goodbye to a close friend, or was given a parting gift. One of the regrets, however, was over the money he lost paying his bar tab, which he eventually forced himself to do.
He did not see Merlin at all.
Arthur scrambled together a proper formal goodbye for him in the courtyard on his morning of leaving, with knights and nobles all positioned to see him go, and as a result Gwaine felt a little of the stage-fright Merlin had felt at his title ceremony and spent a long time hesitating in front of the huge double doors, unwilling to push through them and emerge into the courtyard.
He had just berated himself for being a coward and screwed up enough courage to put a hand on the door, when a voice called behind him, "Gwaine!"
He turned. Merlin was hurrying towards him. He let his hand fall back to his side.
"Oh," he said. "Hello."
Merlin reached him and they blinked at each other shyly, suddenly awkward. There was no one around and Gwaine could think of nothing to say.
"Uh," Merlin said at last. "This is for you." He held out an envelope to Gwaine.
Gwaine took it. "Thank you," he said more stiffly than he had meant to.
Merlin scratched the back of his head uncomfortably. "Just don't read it until you've left Camelot, will you?" he asked.
Gwaine forced a smile. "I won't." He leaned down to tuck it into his bag, desperately curious but curbing it as best he could. When he straightened up again, Merlin was watching him with that look he sometimes had, a sort of glazed look, as if he were looking into another place or another time, as if he were seeing into the future or the past or both.
"The People's King," he said at last, and came back into the present, and smiled. It had a little hint of sadness to it.
Gwaine nodded. "But always your knight, Merlin," he said.
That was obviously a bit too much for Merlin - his expression crumbled. But then, while Gwaine was opening his mouth to apologise, he reached up with one hand and tugged Gwaine down for a kiss.
The goodbye kiss was almost like their first kiss - gentle and unexpected. But it was also deeper, and sadder, and happier. It was everything they had felt and survived together, and it was still as sweet as that first time. Gwaine sank into the feeling, letting every sensation seep into him so that he would never forget it, Merlin's long fingers twining into his hair and stroking down his neck, Merlin's body warm and slight against his, Merlin's lips, his lips, his lips.
When Gwaine broke the kiss, the fingers on the back of his neck were trembling. He leaned forward and wrapped Merlin into a tight, all-encompassing hug. He could feel Merlin's cheek press against his, and it was wet.
He held Merlin together, until the shaking stopped, and even then he only let him go because he thought that if he hung on a second later, he would never let go at all.
Merlin scrubbed at his cheeks with his silk shirt sleeve, but he was smiling. Gwaine smiled too. "I'd better go and face the ravaging hoard," he said. He suddenly had all the courage to do it.
Merlin laughed, a little weakly. "All my luck will go with you," he said formally.
Gwaine smiled and clasped Merlin's shoulder, feeling the warmth under his hand one last time, and then he picked up his bag and pushed open the door.
A burst of applause greeted to him. He glanced behind him and Merlin was applauding too - laughing and crying a bit as well, but also applauding as hard as he could.
Gwaine flashed him his best and most rakish wink, then left in a swish of hair.
It was only when he had trotted through the castle gates that he let himself cry.
He waited until he had set up camp for the night, in a clearing by the border of Lot's kingdom surrounded only by stars, and then he succumbed to temptation and got Merlin's letter out of his bag. It was written quite neatly for Merlin, which hinted that this was perhaps not the first copy.
Gwaine, [it said]
I love you.
There. I said it. I love you. Of course I do, I would be a fool not to. You thought me important even before you knew my secret, and then when you found out, you still thought it. You never stopped appreciating me. You always thought me worthy. You loved me, right from the beginning. I do not think you know just how valuable this was to me, how it gave me hope in the darkest of times. How could I not love you after that?
Remember that small man on the bridge who we met at the Perilous Lands? He called you 'strength'. Well that is just what you are. You gave me strength. All the time. Every time. And I love you for it.
I am not saying this to try and lure you back to Camelot. I understand why you left. It took a while, but I understand now. I think it is right. And I think you will be a marvellous king. And now you have a future and an adventure entirely apart from the rest of us, and I wish you the best of luck, I really do.
Just…please come back to Camelot one day, won't you? Please come and see me. Merlin
Gwaine read the letter over and over until his vision blurred and he could not longer read the words, and even then he stared at the first line until his tears started falling onto the paper and he had to put it aside and put his face in his hands.
There was silence. The stars watched him.
After a while, when he had pulled himself together, he dug out some ink and a pen and some spare paper and crafted a short reply.
Year one - Take back my kingdom.
Year two - Save my kingdom.
Year three - Alliance with Camelot. Visit Camelot. Visit you.
Three years, Merlin.
He folded up the letter neatly; the lords of Lot's - no, his - kingdom were going to meet up with him at the border tomorrow and he would give his letter to a messenger to deliver back to Camelot then. Merlin's letter he read and re-read, then folded and gently tucked back into his bag. He knew it would be his most prized possession to date.
He lay back and watched the stars watching him, and his heart felt really, entirely warm for the first time in his life.
Merlin hadn't rejected Gwaine. He hadn't accepted him either. But he had made him.
3 years later…
Merlin had been - to quote Arthur - 'insufferable for weeks'. He didn't think this was entirely fair, because everyone else, especially the knights, had been just as excitable as him, and he knew Arthur was as well. His face when Gwaine's letter came asking to delay the visit for a further week had been an absolute picture. But Arthur was Arthur, and he would never change in his attempts to look cool and uncaring. Not even Merlin could stamp that out of him.
Anyway, the point still stuck. He wasn't the only one who was excited.
Oh, but he was excited though.
When the scout came to say Gwaine and his entourage were arriving, Merlin stood on the stone steps next to Arthur and fidgeted until Arthur nudged him. Then they heard the sound of horse's hooves and even Arthur was fidgeting.
"So his plans are going well?" Merlin asked for something to say.
Arthur nodded. "Brilliantly. Our Gwaine is proving to be quite the king."
Merlin smiled. "Our Gwaine," he whispered to himself. Always 'our' Gwaine, he thought. No matter how far Gwaine went, he would always be Camelot's. He would belong to them as they did to him.
The sound of horses grew closer, and Merlin glanced up to find the entourage finally entering the courtyard.
Gwaine was heading them. He looked so different, more different than his grand horse, his bright silver crown or his dark ferny green cloak could explain. He seemed…taller, grander, more. He seemed more as a king than he had ever been as a knight. And yet, bizarrely, Merlin was also reminded of the Gwaine he had met right at the beginning, in a tavern brawl all those years ago.
He was, Merlin realised with relief, still Gwaine.
Gwaine's eyes scanned the crowd fleetingly, and then met Merlin's.
He smiled. It was his old smile, always so irresistible to Merlin. It was the smile that promised excitement, and foolishness, and fun, but was also, impossibly, sweet, and caring, and full of more love than Merlin had ever been able to handle. It was Gwaine's smile that had always been Merlin's favourite part of him. It made Merlin want to do anything for him.
He smiled back, and stepped forward to welcome Gwaine home.