By the time Percival got Gwaine to the kitchens, Gwaine had remembered how to walk on his own, but he still let Percival support him. After all, he had just cried like a baby in front of everyone he held even remotely dear, so he didn't feel he had much in the way of machismo left to maintain. It was kind of nice that no one had teased him about that yet, but he didn't expect it to last for long.
When Percival deposited him in a quiet chair by the fire, Gwaine realized that Merlin had followed them. He beamed pleasantly at the servant, who smiled back.
"All right, Gwaine," Merlin said, putting his hands on the table until he was leaning forward into Gwaine's face. "What would you like to eat?"
Now that he had smiled, Gwaine couldn't stop. "Honestly, Merlin, I will eat whatever you put in front of me." He was serious about his willingness to eat a horse.
With a small chuckle, Merlin scurried off, while Percival pulled up a seat next to him. Now that they were alone, the giant was thoughtful and quiet, frowning at his fists.
"Perce?" Gwaine asked. Percival didn't answer right away, so he prompted him again. "Percival? What's up, mate?"
"Two days, Gwaine?" Percival whined.
Gwaine slumped. "Do we have to talk about this now?
"Yes," Percival insisted, sounding so hurt, it nearly broke Gwaine's heart all over again. "You thought for two days that you were going to die, and you didn't run."
Gwaine quirked his head at that: it wasn't quite the question he expected, and it triggered a sad thought. Perhaps his itinerant ways bothered more people than just him. Perhaps by assuming he was going to get kicked out of everywhere he went, he had scared people out of even trying to be friends with him. And those who were stupid enough to befriend him anyway lived with the constant fear that he would leave them—to the extent that Percival's first question, now, after all of that, was why he hadn't left them.
So he wasn't the only one with abandonment issues.
Apparently, he gave other people abandonment issues.
His brow wrinkled, Gwaine fixed Percival with a pained, pleading stare. "I couldn't run, Perce. I just couldn't—Perce, look at me," he demanded as Percival tried to look away. "Everything for me is here. I had never had that before, not ever. Which was okay, don't give me that look, I was fine until I knew what a home was, what real friends were. Once I'd found it, once I realized what I'd been missing, I couldn't run. Execution would have been better than exile."
Percival frowned, but nodded. "And you didn't tell anyone." Judging by the soft, pained betrayal in his voice and the unspoken You didn't tell me, this seemed to be the far greater transgression.
Gwaine sighed. "I didn't," he answered honestly. He was too weary of it all not to be honest. "And it nearly killed me. I'm sorry."
"You can't hide things like that from me, Gwaine. Never again," Percival demanded quietly. "I would have helped you escape. I would have made you run away, if you had told me. I would have come with you."
"You would have thrown your life away for mine?" Gwaine gulped, making sure he got this right, before adding, a little bit smugly, "Then you know why I didn't tell you."
Percival looked pained.
"Don't tell me you wouldn't have done the same," Gwaine accused, holding Percival's gaze until finally Percival looked back down at his hands.
He snorted, laughing to keep from crying at the impasse they had reached. "Maybe," he admitted, looking up at Gwaine with shining eyes. "I don't have my family anymore, either, and—"
"Oh, Perce, Jesus, I'm sorry. Here I am talking like no one else has problems—"
"No, it's okay. That's not what I meant. I mean—I had them for longer, you know? We had a happy life until—well, one day it was just over. And anyway, what I meant was that's why we have to stick together. Because we've got no one else left."
"Yeah, but—that sounds worse," Gwaine grimaced. "To have loved and lost like that."
Percival shrugged. "I dunno, maybe. Maybe not. Look who turned out to be the emotional cripple, right?" he tried with a grin.
Gwaine rolled his eyes and shoved Percival, which only succeeded in making him almost fall off his own chair. "Shut up," he said. Percival was right, of course, though Gwaine—who usually considered progress to be something for suckers—actually felt as if he had made some headway today, or would do when he had time to process it all.
"But I don't want this to ever happen again, Gwaine," Percival said, serious again, putting his hand on Gwaine's knee.
There was a time when Gwaine would have jumped at the intimate contact, but now he didn't even flinch. He just shrugged noncommittally. "Would you believe me if I promised you? Keeping in mind I'm not that good at promises," he added with a derisive laugh.
Percival's eyes hardened. "I would."
Because some people just need trust to make them trustworthy.
"Am I…interrupting something?" Merlin said, stepping forward with one part arrogant cheek and another part genuine I-can-come-back-later-if-you're-having-a-thing nervousness.
"You are if you don't have some decent food for me," Gwaine said, though he was honestly prepared to eat anything Merlin put in front of him.
Luckily, Merlin was a saint, and set down a tray of food. Gwaine's eyes practically sparkled at the sight of the thick beef stew, piping hot, the bit of bread thick with butter, and—
"Is that apple pie?" Gwaine cried, sticking his finger in the filling and tasting it.
"After your dinner, young man," Merlin scolded, slapping Gwaine's wrist. He took the pie off the tray and sat it at the edge of the table, out of Gwaine's reach. "You want some, too, Percival?
"Yeah! Please," Percival said.
"Oh, and here's a bit of hot wine, Gwaine. I don't think one glass would hurt you, and I'm pretty sure you've earned it at this point."
"Mmm," Gwaine, who had already begun shoveling stew into his mouth, said gratefully, washing down a mouthful of potato with the mulled wine. "This is really good, Merlin, thank you," he said, his mouth full of beef this time.
Merlin considered telling him not to talk with his mouth full, but instead just shook his head and left, returning quickly with two more slices of pie for himself and Percival, which they dug into eagerly. Silence reigned as the boys ate.
"Maybe I could be the kind of nobleman who abuses his power for good," Gwaine mused, breaking the silence after some time. "Like throwing parties and giving servants the day off," he added, elbowing Merlin.
Percival chuckled appreciatively.
"Here's an idea," Merlin said, somewhat tetchily. "Be the kind of nobleman who doesn't abuse his power at all."
Gwaine scoffed. "Power corrupts."
"And you certainly don't need any help there," Merlin laughed, shaking his head.
Gwaine beamed wickedly, cheeks full of stew. Then, swallowing with an effort, he immediately went back for another monstrous bite and wolfed it down.
"Hungry?" Percival teased.
"Famished," Gwaine said, gulping down food. "And bloody tired. Once my head hits the pillow I plan to sleep for a week, so I'm eating as much as I can now."
Merlin and Percival laughed, watching him finish off the stew. Just as he was scraping the bottom of the bowl, Merlin swiped it. There was still a bit of broth left, so Gwaine whimpered, but Merlin quickly replaced it with the apple pie and a large mug of milk, so Gwaine's distress quickly turned into glee. Nothing made him happier than food.
Except that wasn't quite true
"Thanks, guys," Gwaine said, suddenly open and warm and tired.
Percival patted him on the back, rather tenderly for being so huge. "Thank Merlin, I wouldn't know where to get all this stuff."
"No, I mean..." How did he want to say this? Did he want to say this? He tried a gulp of milk to fortify himself. "Thanks for…not giving up on me, I guess. That's never really happened to me before, people—friends doing that for me—so—thanks."
"Gwaine?" Merlin said, stopping him.
"You are really addled in the head, you know that?"
Gwaine blinked, and laughed. "Yeah, well, maybe you all are the addled ones." He poked at his pie wearily, but determined to continue. "Let's just say: dukedom? Not a big deal. Arthur wanting me to be a duke? Huge deal. You idiots wanting to risk your lives for me… For caring…" Gwaine couldn't finish, choked with emotions he wasn't sure how to express. How did you put sentiments like that into words? How did you tell someone that your whole life had changed permanently for the better because of them? Percival was right about him being an emotional cripple. He went back to eating pie again instead, suddenly embarrassed.
Merlin patted his arm, understanding. "You're welcome, Gwaine."
Gwaine smiled up at him gratefully.
"Anyway I think you've made people cry enough for one day."
Gwaine blushed and turned back to his pie. "Oh shut up. I was emotionally compromised! Apparently Arthur's pout can rival Merlin's—who knew? Can't expect a man to hold it together when—"
Now Percival guffawed loudly, banging on the table. "Oh, good one, Gwaine!"
"What's so funny?" Merlin asked.
"Gwaine cries at anything," Percival explained, as Gwaine continued to flush brightly. "He may be the toughest otherwise, but he's a crier."
"Perce, I swear to God," Gwaine warned.
"Didn't you see him at Arthur and Gwen's wedding? He was bawling!"
"You cry at weddings, Gwaine?" Merlin demanded with a wide grin. He had always assumed Gwaine simply never cried, but maybe he only never cried from pain or fear or at funerals or normal sad things. He did know Gwaine wasn't good at dealing with feelings in general, so it made sense that Gwaine cried in happiness, in relief, at beauty.
"No!" Gwaine cried. "Well—yes! Yeah, well, that was tragic!" he insisted, trying to turn this into a joke"Seeing such a beautiful woman marrying such a prat! You bet I cried—it was a travesty!
Percival and Merlin laughed.
"You boys wouldn't be referring to anyone I know at all, would you?"
They looked up to see the Queen standing before them.
Percival and Merlin leapt to their feet, and Gwaine made a valiant effort, but she quickly rushed forward to push him back to his seat.
"Now, now, we're not in court, keep eating," she said with her characteristic disarming smile. Turning to the man she came to see, Gwen ran a hand through Gwaine's hair and gently patted his back. "How are you doing?"
"Been worse," he answered, in all honesty, grinning up at her.
"I've just spoken to Arthur, who…" she began, but something in the way she said 'spoken' made Gwaine cock his head at her.
"'Spoken'? Haha! Did I get the King kicked out of his Queen's bed?" Gwaine asked gleefully.
Gwen bit her lip and shook her head. "Where the King is or is not sleeping is none of your business…." she scolded, though Gwaine still chuckled, convinced his theory was correct. "But I may have mentioned how this is not the first time his…lack of delicacy threatened to undermine his purpose. And this time we almost lost someone very dear to us all. Needless to say he apologized."
Merlin nearly choked on his milk. "And here I thought I was special," he tried to joke, but Gwen did not break eye contact with Gwaine.
"But I do not believe that Arthur was entirely at fault for what happened," she went on, giving him a hard look. "If you really think Arthur is capable of that, Sir Gwaine, then you do not know him at all." She held his eyes, and Gwaine tried to look away, but she followed him, crouching down so as to look up at him. "You need to drop the façade, Gwaine, and learn to recognize friends, and listen to what they are actually saying. You need to have more trust, more faith in others."
Gwaine swallowed. He didn't like seeing his Queen on her knees in front of him. It made her look like she was begging, when she was in fact, giving him an order.
Either way: "I will, my lady. I will try."
"You can do better than that, Gwaine."
"I swear it."
She smiled, satisfied, and stood up, carding her fingers through his hair with motherly affection. "I have had the servants draw you that bath, if you would like?" she asked.
"It's that manky, huh?" Gwaine said, raising his eyebrows to indicate his hair.
Gwen laughed. "Ah, a bit, yeah." She ran her fingers together experimentally, and wiped the hair oil on his sleeve.
"Ha!" Gwaine chuckled, and went back for more pie. "Just let me finish this," he said with his mouth full.
But then he paused, mid-bite, suddenly pensive, confused, as if a thought had just struck him for the first time. "I think, maybe, we had an apple orchard, when I was young. Well, no, Lamorak had one," he said, setting his fork down and frowning at it, as if trying to recall something he hadn't thought about in many, many years. "I think—maybe I remember, me and my mother, picking apples, early in the morning when we were alone. And eating them. And then she made pie with them." Gwaine suddenly guffawed loudly. "And I think I made myself sick on them." He considered that for a moment and then, as if he wondered why he had thought it at all, picked up his fork and proceeded to finish his pie.
"Whenever I eat berry pie, I think of my mum," Percival said quietly. "She would only make it on dad's birthday, I remember." He blinked rapidly, and chuckled. "I would only ever get one piece, and it was always gone next day.
"I always think of my dad when I smell oak charcoal. It has to be oak—and it is a different smell," Gwen reflected, as she sat down in a chair next to Gwaine, her hand still on the back of his neck, a soothing presence. "He always said oak burned the hottest, and lasted longest. And he'd come home covered in the stuff, always smelling like that. I could tell when times were harder, or if he was helping out at another smithy, because he would smell like another kind of charcoal." Gwen looked around, laughing a bit. "That's pretty weird, right?
"Not at all," Gwaine said, smiling, as he scraped up the last sticky bit of pie from the plate. "Anyway," he said, breaking the spell, "I'll go take that bath now." His eyes sparkled at Gwen. "You'll be joining me, I hope?"
He hadn't expected the whack on the back of his head to actually have so much force behind it.
"Hey! Wounded guy, here!" he cried, sounding put-upon. "I meant to help me wash my hair!"
Gwen snorted. "You meant nothing of the sort. But I do imagine you'll need some help."
Gwaine practically giggled as Percival sized him up, determining how he was going to haul the boneless knight back to the physician's quarters. His shoulders were hunched, drooping lower and lower by the minute, along with his eyelids.
"Ready, Gwaine?" Merlin asked, smiling fondly at him.
"Not yet," he said, peering around the room suspiciously as he gripped the edge of the table. "Too much spinning." Then he laughed. "I haven't been this drunk on one stoop of wine since I was ten!"
"Good times," Merlin indulged, then turned to Percival. "You think you can get him up?"
Percival nodded, "Yeah," and then crouched down so he could look Gwaine in the eye. "You want to walk? Or would you mind if I carried you?"
Gwaine blinked at him sleepily, trying to assess his motives and determine whether or not he could be trusted. For the first time, possibly in his life, Gwaine felt he could actually trust someone else. "Ah, but would you still respect me in the morning?" Gwaine tried, grinning sideways.
Percival laughed. "I'm just going to carry you to bed. I'm not sleeping with you ever again."
Gwaine mocked disappointment. "Well, damn. Worth a try, 'eh Merlin?"
As Merlin just shook his head, Gwaine put his arm around Percival's shoulder as the other knight slid an arm under shoulders and knees to gently scoop Gwaine into his arms. Although quiet for the ride, Gwaine was still determinedly awake as Percival deposited him on the bed for him in Gaius' apothecary.
With the help of his three companions, Gwaine stripped down and made it into the tub without incident. He hissed and whined a bit at the heat, but soon relaxed into it, his beard slipping below the waterline.
"Hey, hey, hey," Merlin said, flicking a bit of water into his face. "You cannot sleep here, Gwaine. You see, I knew this wasn't a good idea: he's going to drown himself!"
Gwaine grunted, but opened his eyes. The water felt heavenly, like it was washing away more than dirt. "Oh, I'm fine. Anyway, since when did bathing become a spectator sport?" he grumbled. "I mean Gwen's all right, and I guess Merlin lives here, but you, Perce, what's your excuse? I know you're supposed to be a virgin and all but I promise I don't have anything to show you that you've not seen before." He didn't really wait for an answer as he tilted his head back to rest against the side of the tub.
"You wish," Percival laughed, though Gwaine wasn't sure to which part, and anyway Percival did not look like he was going anywhere, so Gwaine resigned himself to being naked both body and soul to these people.
And he was okay with that.
Gwen was gentle as she washed his hair, though she let Merlin trim his beard for him. They talked in soft tones. Merlin warned Gwaine of the horrors that awaited him in those tedious, tedious council meetings, and Gwen, assuming he would get land along with his title, warned him that he would have to learn to oversee crops and taxes, and of other monstrous things he had to look forward to in this new world of Responsibilities.
"Okay, okay, I was hoping to get through this night nightmare-free, so if you don't mind shutting up now…" Gwaine looked about him, his movements exaggerated as exhaustion set in, deeper and more unyielding than any drunkenness. "And get outta here. Water's cold, n'm going to bed, so if you don' wanna see my naked arse..." He had already pulled himself to his feet before anyone could stop him, though Percival quickly stepped forward under the auspices of placing a large towel around him when he was actually the only thing keeping him standing upright.
Gwaine lost track of what precisely was going on around him, but he was suddenly sitting on something soft, and something was shaking his head, and he couldn't really see what it was because someone had put a blanket on his head, which may or may not have been itself the source of the shaking, but his hair was drier now and he was warm and comfortable and maybe listing to the side.
"It's all his fault, anyway," he said, stabbing a finger at Merlin.
"Me? What did I do?" Merlin demanded.
"He's got a thing for taking in strays," Gwaine continued, obviously babbling yet determined to get this said. "Mean, stupid, rabid ones, and then he domesticates them, makes them tame."
Percival snorted softly, smiling at Merlin sidelong, for Gwaine's eyes were closing. "Maybe we should call you 'Spot,' or 'Lucky'."
"Ha, yeah. 'Lucky'," Gwaine said.
Someone was stroking his hair. He looked up to see Gwen smiling down at him.
"I'll fall asleep."
Gwen didn't laugh or roll her eyes. But she didn't stop running her fingers over his brow and through his damp hair. The motion really was putting him to sleep. The sun wasn't down for a few hours yet, but he was definitely checking out early. Though something poked and prodded at his belly again, and new bandages snaked their way around his middle, the weariness far outstripped the pain, and presently he felt only heavy, warm, soft things covering him. He didn't know when exactly his eyes had shut, but it was now blessedly dark and warm and safe in this little world—like a cocoon, or a womb.
Percival straightened. "I can leave him to you, then?"
"My lady? May I escort you back to your chambers?
"Yes, thank you, Percival," she said, and stood up, as well.
At the sound of the door shutting, Gwaine shifted, no longer held asleep by the hand on his brow. He blinked his eyes open briefly, but they closed on him again immediately. "Where's Perce?" he slurred. "'N Gwen?" He was beyond exhausted, but like an over-stimulated child, couldn't find it in himself to sleep.
"They've gone to bed, Gwaine," Merlin lied (it wasn't even dinnertime yet), tucking blankets in closer around him. "As should you."
Gwaine nodded, but, "I mean it, Merlin," he said. "If you hadn't taken me in, I—don't know where I'd be."
"Could be dead in a ditch somewhere. Homeless, friendless, just like you found me." Gwaine had opened an eye and was staring intently at Merlin. "You didn't know me and you took a chance with me, and, even crazier, even when you did know you still stood by me. So I pretty much owe you everything," he concluded simply, closing his eyes.
Merlin was touched. For a few moments he couldn't speak. When he finally did: "Gwaine, I—Gwaine?"
But Gwaine was fast asleep, snoring gently.
The problem with Gwaine was that he became even more incorrigible upon being formally accepted into the Camelot royal household. True, he left off drinking (mainly), (sort of), and learned to be more discreet about who got invited to his chambers at all hours (or whose chambers he could be found at in various compromising positions), and he actually began to show up to training and the occasional council meeting on time, but he was still Gwaine.
He would never pass up an opportunity to harass Leon about how he out-ranked him now, and it took way too long for Leon to learn simply to ignore him when he was like this.
He took to arbitrarily giving certain hard-working servants days off without necessarily consulting Arthur first (though he usually consulted Gwen, afterwards).
He chomped apples loudly in court, sassed Arthur at every other opportunity, flirted with everything with two legs, stayed out late and slept later, put his feet on the table at feasts, and if he had a dissenting opinion he never kept it to himself. But King Arthur could not ask for a more loyal knight as long as he lived.
At any rate, as far as Gwaine was concerned, if anyone couldn't deal with how he went about his business, and if his unconventional ways bothered others, well…
That was their problem.
A/N: That's all, folks! Thank you for reading! Thanks especially to anyone who left a review, favorited or alerted. Also a special thanks to EffervescentAardvark, whose input was instrumental to the formation of this story.
In the pipeline: 1. The "Friday Knights" Merlin series is still ongoing, if you would like to read Gwaine in a more humorous role (although angst is certainly to come there as well!). 2. EffervescentAardvark and I are planning to properly co-write a Merlin adventure with Gwaine, Merlin, and Percival, in which more excuses for hurt!Gwaine are made! 3. I still mean to contribute to DeaththeKidKat's "Whump War," so check that out!
Thanks again for making it this far! My longest fanfic so far, and the most reviews, wow! I hope you all enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!