hope: Art of a woman writing from tour poster (merlin - merlin's neck)
puddingsmith ([personal profile] hope) wrote2011-06-06 11:21 pm

Along a Wandering Wind (6/6)

See the Masterpost for header information or read the whole thing on the AO3.

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Part Six

Gwaine can barely see through the crowd, let alone move through it. Green robes intermixed with Camelot finery block his way, every gap he pursues closing with another embrace, or a kiss; voices raised in laughter and exclamations of joy. After trying and failing to get to where he last saw Merlin without resorting to violence, Gwaine realises that the crowd is in fact pushing against him; when he stops fighting it he finds himself moving with them, being wheeled around the oak tree, fenced in by clasped hands on either side.

“The King is dead!” a man shouts from somewhere in the crowd, and from elsewhere a woman cries, “Long live the Oak King!” just as joyous. The cry is taken up, and the circular march takes on its rhythm; when a drumbeat lifts the cries turn into cheers again, and march into dance. Someone grasps Gwaine’s hand and when he tries to pull free the grip tightens, and then he’s being tugged away from the tree and through the crowd, effortless as you please. He trips breathlessly between the crush of people, barely able to see who’s leading him until they’re out in the open. Then Merlin stops and turns, using his grip to pull Gwaine into him.

“Thought I’d never get out of there,” Gwaine says, at a loss how else to begin with Merlin bright and breathless in front of him.

“Tell me about it,” Merlin says, and he clasps Gwaine’s face between his hands and kisses him once, quick and hard and dizzying, the crowd noise suddenly roaring in Gwaine’s ears. “This way,” he says before Gwaine can come up with an apt response. “Unless you prefer an extremely large audience.” And he leads Gwaine into the trees.

Despite the near-dark—more obvious now that they’re away from the magical illumination of the oak—the woods seem to part for them, no branches sweeping too low and no roots rising to trip them. When Merlin turns to see him follow, the light catches his face briefly; with his leafy crown he looks almost like Pan, mischievous and powerful, the promise of hedonism in the tilt of his smile.

Gwaine laughs at the sheer joy of it, all feelings of doubt and heartache overruled with Merlin’s hand in his. Gwaine’s feet are too clumsy to carry him as lightly as he feels. “Stop, stop,” he begs, and Merlin obeys as they come to a small gap in the trees, ground soft and mossy underfoot. Then Gwaine finds himself backed against a tree trunk, with Merlin tall and real pressed up against him, Merlin’s hands on his face again.

“You’re here,” Merlin says simply, and Gwaine clasps him in return, draws him into a kiss, at last.

It’s just as fierce as the one Merlin pressed upon him while they were still in the open, but this time it lasts longer, Merlin’s mouth opening against his and Merlin’s happy moan reverberating under his hands. Their tongues press and stroke, more intent with each delving taste, becoming frantic. They finally stop when their chests are heaving with the need to suck in more air; already breathless from running through the woods, Gwaine feels half-drunk and dizzy. He presses his forehead to Merlin’s, revelling even in the cool puff of Merlin’s breath against his wet mouth.

“Let me get a look at you,” Merlin murmurs at length, stepping back and taking Gwaine’s hands again to tug him forward. He whispers a word and an orb of light expands into existence above them, the same warm gold as settled in the oak tree.

Gwaine almost feels shy at the open scrutiny. Which is a bit ridiculous at this point, considering what he’s written to Merlin, but that’s just the thing—how easy it had been to open his heart on a piece of parchment, without Merlin standing before him, responding immediately to everything Gwaine says and does, his reactions inescapable.

“I thought you didn’t want an audience,” Gwaine says, glancing up at the orb.

“They won’t notice it,” Merlin assures him, and his smile is bordering on wicked. “I have been planning this for a while, you know.”

It draws a laugh out of Gwaine, banishing some of his nervousness, and more still is washed away when Merlin steps closer again, hand brushing Gwaine’s hair back from his face. “Lancelot told me you cut it,” he murmurs, pushing his fingers through the strands. “It isn’t as short as I thought it was going to be.” He rubs Gwaine’s scalp as he strokes back to rest his hand on Gwaine’s nape. Gwaine sighs in pleasure at the touch—not to mention the warming thought of Merlin asking after him—and Merlin presses a softer kiss to his mouth, smiling.

“It’s mostly grown back, now,” Gwaine says, nudging his chin forward to follow Merlin’s lips.

“I think I would have liked to see it.” He tightens his grip in Gwaine’s hair, taking a fistful and tugging gently. “Though I do like this very much.”

Gwaine tilts his head back into the sensation, eyeing Merlin from beneath his lowered lashes as Merlin’s gaze drifts over his face and downward.

“You’re wearing my symbol,” Merlin says when his eyes reach Gwaine’s chest, sounding awed and delighted all at once. His hand splays over the embroidered tree, his words and the touch spreading the warmth of realisation through Gwaine’s body as well. “I wanted to ask you first, but Gwen thought the surprise would be better. I hope it wasn’t an unwelcome one.” Merlin’s smile turns smugly suggestive. “You do suit my colours very well.”

Gwaine snorts, but he’s grinning as he clasps Merlin’s hand on his chest, and he nods towards him. “Speaking of colours and symbols, that suits you as well,” Gwaine says, and then, before he’s really thought about it, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Merlin touches the oak leaf crown, expression turning hesitant. “I… I ran out of time.” When Gwaine raises an eyebrow he huffs a little, ducking his head. “I didn’t want to scare you off,” he confesses.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Gwaine says, easing his arms around Merlin’s body and pulling it flush against him, proving with his touch what he’s told Merlin countless times on parchment. He dips his chin down to guide Merlin’s head back up with more kisses; Gwaine is certain he’ll never tire of them.

“I know,” Merlin responds at length. “But this… court sorcerer… everything… sort of ruins our running-away-and-having-lots-of-sex contingency plan.”

Gwaine laughs again, tightening his arms to press Merlin closer, rolling his hips into the embrace. “Isn’t that what we’re doing right now?” he points out.

“God,” Merlin says, staring at his mouth. “Yes. Enough talking.”

“Yes, my Lord,” Gwaine says with mock-seriousness, and Merlin laughs and tumbles him to the ground.

The little sphere of light is extinguished by the time they land, elbows and knees cushioned by the thick layer of moss, and the warm darkness of the summer night flows back around them. It’s almost like Gwaine’s fantasies, then—perfected in the intimate dark behind his closed eyes, conjuring thoughts of Merlin pressing against him—only this is a thousand times better because he can’t predict it, each new touch of Merlin’s body to his shocking in its pleasure. And more intense, too, in part because it seems that finally lying with each other has tapped the well of desperate lust that’s been filling all year; gentleness seems left by the wayside, but Gwaine’s not complaining.

They roll about, Merlin pressing him into the ground and kissing him hot and possessive; then Merlin’s tumbled onto his back when Gwaine grips his hips, his arse; grappling with the thick weave of the long robe. They strip it up and off and Merlin is lithe and firm underneath; Gwaine splays his hands over Merlin’s chest to stroke as widely as he can, pressing with his fingers, feeling the taut leanness of Merlin’s flesh beneath the soft, heated fabric of his shirt. Mouth watering, he nuzzles to find the low-slit opening of the shirt then drags his lips upward, Merlin arching up into him at the prickle of his beard, and Gwaine bites down on the angled tendon where Merlin’s neck curves into his shoulder, sucking hard.

Merlin’s appreciative groan is unselfconscious, one hand tightening in Gwaine’s hair and tugging until Gwaine growls and latches tighter. The other hand Merlin knuckles hard in Gwaine’s lower back, and he forces his knee up between Gwaine’s legs. Gwaine bucks forward—the first hint of Merlin touching him where he wants it most—and rocks against the hard press of Merlin’s thigh. Gwaine’s cock is stiffening quickly, and he grinds down to try and feel if Merlin is similarly affected. Merlin tightens the grip on Gwaine’s hair, though, pulling until the pleasure of giving in to his painful direction is better than the stinging hurt itself.

Merlin forces him to the ground again, and they wrestle for long moments over who’s to be on their back, shoving their hips together and biting at mouth and jaw. Merlin’s hands push up under the surcoat and grip at Gwaine’s waist; the unexpected, tender touch makes Gwaine falter, briefly disoriented by the dark fabric being pulled up over his head, and then he’s freed of it and falling back.

Merlin bares his teeth triumphantly above him, features lit faintly by the moonlight through the gaps in the trees. He straddles Gwaine’s thighs, splaying his own knees wide for a stable enough seat to pin Gwaine down with it. Then he leans in to run his hands over Gwaine’s chest, touch shameless and proprietary as he maps out the shape of Gwaine’s body.

It’s hard to only watch him; Gwaine grasps the thick chain swinging free around Merlin’s neck and uses it to pull Merlin back into a kiss. Merlin pushes Gwaine’s head back into the loam with the force of it, feeding his throaty noise of pleasure between Gwaine’s lips. When the heels of his palms find Gwaine’s nipples and press firmly against them, Gwaine makes a helpless, hurting noise of his own, pushing his hips up against Merlin’s hold. Merlin pants against his mouth, grinning and licking at his lips for a moment before ducking lower, pushing aside the cloth of Gwaine’s shirt to kiss his skin directly. His teeth scrape along the line of a pectoral, and then he rubs against the sensitive skin of Gwaine’s nipple; gripping lightly and pinching, twisting, his tongue licking the trapped flesh between his fingers.

It’s a little too much, but glorious for just that reason, sending shudders desperately through Gwaine’s body as the sensation twists sharp pleasure through him, high, breathy noises spilling from his mouth. Merlin’s licks become more intent, tongue laving hard against the bud as his wet fingers find Gwaine’s other nipple, giving it the same relentless treatment.

Gwaine’s cock feels hard as iron, trapped in his trousers and so close to Merlin’s heat but still too far away; he grasps Merlin’s arse and arches up against him, making Merlin gasp and thrust back.

“Come on,” Gwaine gasps, rocking against Merlin’s stiff cock. “Let me see it.”

Merlin laughs breathlessly. “You first,” he says, and shifts to kneel between Gwaine’s legs instead, long fingers tugging at the lacings of Gwaine’s trousers. Eagerness wins over dexterity, and Gwaine has a fleeting concern for how he’ll manage to get through the rest of the evening if he can’t actually fasten his clothes again. Any importance that might have held disappears when Merlin settles between his legs, arms hooked over his thighs, mouth very near Gwaine’s bare cock.

“This is the best part,” Merlin whispers, “when I get to find out what you really like.” He brushes his lips against the shaft and Gwaine’s breath leaves him in a rush, not even enough air for voice when the soft touch turns wet with the lick of Merlin’s tongue.

He agrees, thoroughly—he couldn’t have imagined the flutter of Merlin’s eyelashes on his belly, or the way he breathes out with shaky pleasure as his tongue tastes the tip of Gwaine’s cock. All Gwaine’s fantasies had somehow focused on just one site of contact—mouth and cock, or hand and cock, or arse and hand, or mouth and mouth—but the reality is he can feel the restless movement of Merlin’s chest between his legs, the dig of Merlin’s elbow into his thigh, the ebb and flow of Merlin’s attention as he keeps getting distracted by his own pleasure. Gwaine’s rising arousal is different, too—as Merlin seeks out the sensitive spots, his touch in places that Gwaine usually ignores just serves to stoke his anticipation, making each dart of pleasure all the sweeter.

Gwaine’s thighs are tight with tension as he tries to keep still, aching to thrust up into the wet suck of Merlin’s mouth. His hand fumbles down to Merlin’s head instead—the oak crown is long since gone, but Merlin’s hair feels silken between his fingers, damp at the nape of his neck. At the touch, Merlin makes a soft, pleased noise around Gwaine’s cock and begins a more focused rhythm, twisting with his hand and sliding his mouth up and down to meet it. Gwaine moans, and his hand cups low enough to feel the warm chain of Merlin’s locket; he wraps it around his fist, clenching tight but not pulling too hard, just enough to encircle Merlin’s throat.

Merlin gasps and lifts his head but doesn’t push Gwaine off, flat of his tongue licking the head of Gwaine’s cock over and over as Gwaine struggles to keep the leash on him gentle, Merlin’s eyes gleaming back at him in the moonlight. When Merlin’s damp knuckles brush the sensitive skin behind Gwaine’s balls—light at first, then more deliberate—Gwaine shudders and flattens his hand on the back of Merlin’s neck to bring him back up.

The taste of himself in Merlin’s mouth is better than Gwaine ever imagined, and he moans as Merlin’s tongue strokes into his mouth the same way, tightening his legs around Merlin’s hips. Merlin rocks downward, and then for long moments they get lost in the urgency of thrusting against each other, mouths deep and devouring, their entire bodies rolling into it. Then Merlin breaks his mouth away, panting and burying his face in Gwaine’s neck, his hips pushing firm between Gwaine’s legs. Gwaine can feel how hard he is, and the promise of it makes him feel weak with wanting.

He bends his head to nuzzle Merlin’s damp hair, lipping at his ear. “Go on, then,” Gwaine whispers, lightly teasing, “aren’t you going to plant your acorn?”

Merlin shakes with startled laughter, puffing hotly against Gwaine’s neck. “You can’t say things like that,” he says without heat.

“Why not?”

Merlin draws away enough to look at him, mouth twisted in that achingly familiar way, almost the first look Gwaine had ever seen on him: like he really wants to smile but can’t quite believe that Gwaine is making him.

“I like it when you laugh,” Gwaine murmurs, low and heated.

He can feel the unsteadiness of Merlin’s breathing, Merlin’s chest pressed flush against him. When Merlin strokes his fingers against the swell of Gwaine’s lower lip Gwaine kisses them gently, draws the tips into his mouth. Merlin allows it for a moment or two, eyes dark and intent, then withdraws them to clasp Gwaine’s jaw instead, forcing Gwaine’s mouth open and taking it in another deep kiss, grip tight and controlling.

“Are you sure?” Merlin gasps when he draws back again, at the same time pushing his hips forward, slow and deliberate, washing a boneless wave of heat through Gwaine’s body.

“Think I might die if you don’t,” Gwaine confesses hoarsely, meaning it though he follows it with a huff of laughter, diluting his seriousness.

Another quick, hard kiss, then Merlin’s hands are on his hips, yanking his trousers down and out of the way. While he’s busy pulling off Gwaine’s boots, Gwaine drops his head back against the ground, eyes searching for stars amidst the dark silhouettes of leaves above, heart pounding at a gallop.

Merlin’s hand smooths firmly back up his inner thigh and Gwaine spreads his legs wider at Merlin’s guidance, but when Merlin’s fingers press, oil-slick, between them he startles and looks up. Merlin stops immediately, looking back.

“Did you conjure that?” Gwaine asks, incredulous.

“I summoned it,” Merlin says haughtily.

Gwaine drops his head back and laughs, cutting it off with an unsteady inhale when Merlin’s oiled fingers swirl gently at his opening. “Wait,” he says shakily. “Wait.”

He closes his legs around Merlin’s wrist when Merlin goes to withdraw, and it has the planned effect of making Merlin keep up the shivery, tantalising touch as he brings himself up to lie alongside Gwaine again. Gwaine cradles Merlin’s head in his hands, needing to kiss him again; when Merlin goes to press his fingers in Gwaine tightens the grip of his thighs at the first breach.

“I don’t want that,” he whispers, Merlin staring back at him, noses brushing. “Just you.”

Merlin’s fingers rub again, harder like he can’t resist, circling around and over the closed furl of Gwaine’s body. Gwaine can feel Merlin’s coiled tension, pressed all along his side, and how Gwaine’s words make him shift forward restlessly.

“It is actually bigger than an acorn,” Merlin says, soft and uncertain.

“Slowly,” Gwaine clarifies.

Merlin huffs out a laugh, pressing his face to Gwaine’s shoulder, fingers still stroking, pressing. “Don’t know if I can,” he confesses.

Gwaine lets his legs fall open again, and nudges Merlin with his knee. “You’d better.”

Merlin uses so much oil that everything is almost too slippery to work at first, but the feel of the blunt head of his cock nudging against Gwaine’s hole is inflaming in itself, and he has to force himself to hold still instead of squirming into it. It’s been a while since he’s been fucked but he’s determined to make this work, anticipating already the delicious, overwhelming feeling of being filled.

Merlin palms the back of Gwaine’s thigh, pushing it back and out of the way as he stares down with intense concentration, using his other hand to guide the tip of his cock to where it needs to be. His press forward is more deliberate, then, and Gwaine hisses in a breath and gasps out again breathlessly—“That’s it, that’s it—” making himself relax, not resist it. It hurts, but not too much to bear, and Merlin draws back after barely breaching him and then presses forward again, slowly as ordered. Gwaine can hear the harsh drag of his breathing but Merlin stays steady, working himself in against the tight clasp of Gwaine’s body, and when the head of his cock slips in properly he jerks forward a little harder, forcing an involuntary cry from Gwaine’s throat.

“Fuck, fuck,” Merlin chants unsteadily, trembling above him, and to his credit he doesn’t pull all the way out again but braces his hands on the ground on either side of Gwaine and keeps himself still. Gwaine strokes his arms soothingly, Merlin’s skin damp with sweat, soaking into his shirt. Gwaine tightens around the intrusion—surprised he’s able to do that; it feels like Merlin’s stretching him as wide as he can go, enormously thick and unrelentingly hard—then pushes back, allowing Merlin to sink in a little further, a little easier.

The conditions for Merlin fucking him had been an instinctual demand, but on reflection, perfect: Gwaine’s being gradually filled, pinned in place and driven slowly mad by the inescapability of it, heat flushing all over his skin and limbs weakened by the frantic speeding of his heart. And Merlin is above him, desperate and determined, unyielding as he slowly takes Gwaine over. It’s been building all year, and a better culmination Gwaine could not have imagined.

A helpless, eager sound escapes him, and Merlin hunkers lower to kiss him again, mouth unfocused and sloppy and the perfect complement to the hard force of his cock; Gwaine folds his knees up and digs his heels into the small of Merlin’s back to guide him inward quicker. Merlin groans as he sinks the last length forward in a rush, and the hurt flares then, sending tremors through Gwaine’s limbs, and more when Merlin draws back to thrust back in again, making Gwaine give a choked, pained cry. Merlin doesn’t stop, though, forcing him through it; he grasps Gwaine’s hair again and pulls his head back to mouth at his throat, and the next time he thrusts forward Gwaine reaches down and clutches his arse, holding him in for a little longer before he pulls back.

The pain doesn’t go away, but Merlin stokes the burn into something glorious with each smooth stroke of his cock, and soon enough he’s thrusting forward in the rhythm of Gwaine’s panting breath, hips flexing quickly under the wrap of Gwaine’s legs around him.

“Gwaine, fuck, yes,” Merlin groans against his throat, and unsurprisingly he doesn’t last much longer. He rises again to hold Gwaine’s hips still in his grip, then slams forward the last few times and pushes deep, back arching and mouth falling open as he spills, hot and wet inside him.

Gwaine thinks Merlin’s eyes might have flared gold at his climax, but it’s hard to tell with sparks drifting in the corners of his own vision, his body trembling on the edge of endurance despite the fact that Merlin’s just done most of the hard work. He feels not unlike he’s just been injured—his body reacting to the pain with a giddying drop in energy while his limbs still shake and heart flutters frantically. Only this vulnerability—and Merlin’s willingness to see him through it without baulking—leaves him feeling exhilarated rather than wounded.

He groans at the sharp discomfort when Merlin pulls out, but that doesn't last long with Merlin kissing the sound out of his mouth, murmuring, “What do you want?”

The scalp-prickling memory of Merlin’s mouth hot and slick around his cock is too close to consider anything else. “Your mouth,” he whispers hoarsely, and Merlin descends without pause, guiding Gwaine’s hand into his hair on his way.

He takes Gwaine’s cock in his mouth easily, urging it back to hardness with the eager stroke of his tongue. Gwaine’s love for him grows impossibly when Merlin’s fingers seek out his hole again, instead of ignoring it now that the pleasure of his fucking it is over; not hesitating at the slick mess but pushing his fingers back inside. The stretch of Gwaine’s rim stings, but is quickly succeeded when Merlin’s fingers find the spot inside that sends out a sharp jolt of pleasure, the sensation almost unbearable. Gwaine doesn’t realise he’s shouted until he feels the raw scrape of it in his throat, and Merlin sucks, tight and encouraging. His tongue lashes against the taut, sensitive skin of Gwaine’s cock as his fingers massage deep, continuing with even more fervour when Gwaine twists his fist desperately in Merlin’s hair.

When Merlin reaches up his free hand to pinch at Gwaine’s still-tender nipple, it’s too much, and Gwaine’s climax washes through his body like flames, razing control and rationality with its heat as he arches up, vision going bright.

When he comes back to himself Merlin’s pressed up against his side again, hands stroking over Gwaine’s face and neck, breath as loud and hoarse as Gwaine’s in the hush of the woods, drums pounding in the distance that Gwaine only gradually realises isn’t actually the sound of his heart.

“That was... quite fantastic,” Merlin says, sounding awed and exhausted.

“It was. And you are. The most fantastic of men,” Gwaine pants, certain that half the relief he feels is in the fact that he and Merlin clearly make compatible lovers, along with everything else. He tries to roll over to embrace Merlin again, but has to stop, groaning in discomfort. “So fantastic that I might never walk again, in fact.”

Merlin laughs softly, and strokes his hand down Gwaine’s flank, soothing. He whispers words into Gwaine’s neck, and a gentle wash of heat follows his touch; some of the ache eases. “So you can still feel it,” he whispers secretively, the thrill of his words singing through Gwaine’s sensitive body, “but no one knows it except me.”

They are getting quite good at kissing now, but Merlin draws away after far too little of it. “I wish we could stay here forever,” he says, sounding regretful already.

“I’ve hardly got to see any of you,” Gwaine protests, seeking to convince Merlin to stay with the possessive stroke of his hands up Merlin’s sides and down over his hips, squeezing. Merlin is disappointingly over-dressed, even after all of that.

“We’ll have plenty of time yet,” Merlin says, and Gwaine seals that promise with another kiss.

It takes them longer than it ought to get dressed again, though Merlin mends Gwaine’s snapped laces quickly with another gold-tinted command. Merlin conjures the globe of light again to search for the discarded crown, and when Gwaine finally finds it, he straightens and looks over his shoulder to find Merlin staring hungrily; then he’s being pressed face-first against the tree trunk, Merlin pushing his hips against Gwaine's arse and biting the back of his neck, his hand shoving under the newly-mended laces.

Luckily, Merlin’s spell to clean them up works just as well the second time, and Gwaine’s still holding onto the crown so he’s able to set it back on Merlin’s head without further ado. Gwaine could have sworn it was a little worse for wear, but after moments of being settled in Merlin’s hair it seems to lose its bedraggled appearance, leaves crisp and fresh again. Merlin does up Gwaine’s belt for him, cinching the surcoat, and last of all Gwaine tucks the locket back under Merlin’s robes. Then they just stand and stare at each other.

At least until Merlin turns his head away, looking back to where the drumbeat and shouts of revelry ring out, as if someone’s just called his name. “They’re missing me,” he says distractedly, and turns back to give Gwaine an apologetic smile.

“Come on, then,” Gwaine says, and begins walking back through the trees before he can give in to the urge to drag Merlin to the ground again, instead leading him by the hand. “No need to keep your adoring subjects waiting.”

“They’re hardly adoring,” Merlin scoffs.


“You have no idea just how much political posturing I’ve been subject to for the past month. And before then, even, because Arthur—god, he’s worse than I thought he would be.”

Gwaine laughs softly.

“Though there was one strange woman who gave me a kiss,” Merlin says, his tone taking on an air of calculated innocence, “on behalf of another.”

“Did she now?” Gwaine grins.

“Yes.” Merlin stops before Gwaine steps out of the trees, drawing him back a pace to keep them out of sight as he lifts Gwaine’s hand, dropping a kiss to it before letting it go. “I need to be with the druids. Don’t cause too much trouble?”

“Only if you’re gone too long.”

Merlin rolls his eyes. “Don’t drink too much.”


Merlin brushes his palm one last time over the embroidered tree on Gwaine’s chest, smile proud and eyes fond, then steps away and out towards the light again, quickly vanishing amidst the crowd.

The tree has grown further in their absence, the branches that had just brushed the heads of the assembled crowds now arching all the way to the ground and spreading outward. From within the canopy comes a golden glow; in fact the whole thing seems to be lit up—light limning each leaf and twig, illuminating the surrounds at least as much as a fire would have. It’s too enormous to see around, but from the other side Gwaine can hear music, though there are people still dancing on this side of it as well—children, mostly, darting in and out of the canopy with shrieks of laughter while a few indulgent adults look on. It’s hardly Gwaine’s usual idea of fun, but he’s drawn closer anyway, wanting to see what’s beneath the luscious drape of boughs.

“Sir Gwaine.”

He turns at the sound of his name spoken in a familiar voice and sees Gaius. His presence is not entirely unexpected, though it’s hard to tell from his usual garb whether he’d come with the druids, or accompanied them from Camelot, and Gwaine had been just too preoccupied to notice. Gaius is looking at him with the same old reserved smile, and Gwaine grins winsomely in return. It is actually good to see the old man again, for all that Gwaine had banished him without remorse from his own rooms in all fantasies of accosting Merlin there.

“Gaius,” he says, dipping his head in respect. “I trust you’re well?” He alters his course to approach, and Gaius blinks as he comes near, eyebrow lifting.

“Perhaps not as well as some, though I cannot complain. You know the Lady Bronwen, I take it?”

Gwaine hides his confusion at Gaius’ uncharacteristic, if mild, standoffishness—wondering just how much Merlin had confided in the old man in his absence—and turns to where Bronwen is standing at his side, looking highly amused.

“My Lady,” Gwaine says, bowing over her hand. “Thank you for conveying my message.”

“Not at all,” she says. “Though it seems as if you have managed to convey a few of your own since then.”

Gwaine frowns openly this time—confusion shifting into concern that he’s sporting a damning stain somewhere, or lack of properly-fastened clothes—he could have missed something, in the dim light of the woods, but there’s no way he can check without condemning himself to further embarrassment if it’s not as he fears—

Bronwen smirks, and gestures to her own neck and jaw, looking at him. “You’re looking a little… blue.”

Gwaine rubs his own neck and looks down at his hand—in the much brighter light of the tree he can see a stain the same colour as the lines dyed on Merlin’s arms, and not only where his fingers had touched his neck, either. Gaius’ apparent discomfort abruptly makes more sense; Gwaine didn’t even look to see the state of the patterns on Merlin’s skin before they parted ways.

Bronwen’s expression is deeply entertained, but she’s sympathetic enough not to laugh at the warmth creeping over Gwaine’s face. He tries to smile politely in Gaius’ direction but it just comes out profoundly awkward. It’s barely an hour since he’s been reunited with Merlin, and already he’s failing terribly at keeping up any kind of discretion.

“I take it the rest of your journey went well, then,” Bronwen says kindly, and Gwaine is immensely grateful for her deft change of subject.

“Yes. And you? Your family?” He almost doesn’t want to ask—there’s no one else standing with the two of them, though he supposes they may have much to talk about, given that they were both members of Camelot’s court, more than twenty years ago.

Bronwen looks over to children playing around the tree. “That’s my granddaughter,” she says, her voice rich with the depth of the unspoken in those few, simple words.

Gwaine watches the girl laugh and dart into the leafy boughs again. “She has your look about her.”

Bronwen smiles. “She’s my daughter’s.” She turns back to Gwaine, and her smile falls away, mouth pressing tight with sadness. “Do not ask me of my sons. I cannot. Not yet.”

Gwaine feels a sympathetic stab of grief—knotted together tightly with a sense of injustice at it all—and he nods in acknowledgement of her request. “I was intending to seek out some mead,” he says instead. “Can I fetch you some?”

Her smile is small but genuine, and the affinity he’d felt for her from nearly the beginning settles warmly in his chest. “No, thank you. Though you ought to leave some for everyone else, too.”

“Why is everyone so inclined to think the worst of me?” Gwaine sighs, exaggeratedly put-upon.

“I’m sure I have no idea,” Gaius says blandly in response.

“Gaius, shall I bring you a goblet?”

“No, thank you. I’ve seen far too many injuries due to intoxication to have a taste for the stuff.” His gaze on Gwaine is piercing, and for all Merlin’s independence, Gwaine wonders fleetingly what he’s got into.

He bows politely as he takes his leave of them, Gaius dipping his head and Bronwen curtseying in return, and heads the last few paces to the tree.

The branches are laden heavily with acorns, making Gwaine wonder idly if they’re what drew the boughs to grow all the way to the ground, as ancient and thick as the branches seem. Though from even a few paces away the canopy appears impermeable, when he walks right up to it it’s easy enough to sidestep in, cool leaves brushing him on either side.

It’s not as bright as he thought it would be inside, and under direct examination of any small portion of the tree the gold seems to fade and be hardly present; like the faintest of stars, the light is brightest when he sees it from the corners of his eyes. It is quieter, though, and the grass thick and lush underfoot as if enriched by sunlight—as he supposes it was, given the speed of the tree’s growth—but it’s unlike any other canopy he’s ever been under.

The space seems larger, too. As Gwaine steps further in, the sound of laughing children is left behind, but he spies a young man and woman chasing each other around the enormous trunk, and another pair resting in the grass together, gazing into each other’s eyes. There are a few others too, some simply lying on their own, staring upward with expressions ranging from content to rapturous.  

The bark of the trunk is rough and somehow warm when Gwaine brushes his fingers against it as he passes, and by the time he reaches the far side of the canopy he feels filled with the warm, hazy glow of it all—almost drunk from the muffled, cosy space. When he emerges the summer night air feels cooler over his skin, the noise raucous, the smell of crushed grass and sweaty bodies suddenly sharp.

He’s still blinking, looking around for familiar faces—unsure even of how much time has passed while he was under the tree—when a servant sweeps by him, leaving a full goblet in his hands. Downing the mead re-establishes some of his equilibrium, helping the muggy warmth of happiness suffusing him to better match the world outside his skin. When a druid woman—dark braids coiled up over her ears and robes hoisted above her ankles—takes his hand and drags him into the dance, laughing, he doesn’t resist.

The joyous rhythm of fiddle and drum matches his mood well, and when a piper joins the band he cheers loud, the trill of its melody familiar from his youth and sewing it with a tight stitch of home—primitive as that instinct is—into his enjoyment. He barely stops dancing to accept the many goblets passed his way, and as the music reels on those around him seem to mirror his increasing dizziness and exuberance, flushed faces beaming back at him. He’s sure that he must have sweated most of the blue of Merlin’s marks away, though when he finds himself linking arms with Elyan, the other knight seems to find Gwaine’s broad grin and wobbly chivalrous gestures uproariously funny.

Finally Gwaine wanders off to empty his bladder far from the crowd, the air cooler away from the teeming euphoria of the dancers. He finds himself picking his path between beacons of sounds; lovers retreated to the dark and soft grass, their noises plucking at a fragile feeling of longing in Gwaine’s chest. He takes a different route back, drawn in another direction, lingering in the soothing dark and letting his thoughts drift back to Merlin—though they’d not strayed far—humming happily and revelling in thoughts of Merlin’s touch on his body, the whispers of Merlin’s words in his ear. Though he feels languid from the mead and tired from dancing, he feels more and more ready for another go at seeing how they fit together this much closer.

The royal tent appears ahead of him; pale, smooth cloth rising gracefully, lit more gently this far back from the tree. There are few other people around—servants, mostly, and other wanderers like Gwaine heading in the direction of the music. Gwaine goes towards the tent instead, his steps heavy from the drink and at the same time buoyant, happiness swirling in his heart and head. The servant standing near the opening bows his head as Gwaine approaches, lifting the tent flap enough for Gwaine to pass through.

The interior is soft with lantern light, rugs covering the ground with a multitude of cushions strewn about. Gwaine’s eyes find Merlin immediately, sitting with his knees folded up and goblet in one hand, locket clasped in the other. He seems to have lost his robe—and his boots—somewhere, and looks disheveled and satisfied; more so with the mark of Gwaine’s mouth red on his throat.

He grins wickedly up at Gwaine as he enters, saying, “See, I told you it would work,” and taking a draught from his cup, looking very pleased with himself.

“Yes, yes,” Arthur drawls, sprawled on a truly impressive pile of cushions opposite. “One day you’ll get tired of showing off, Merlin, but apparently that’s not today.”

Gwen is tucked under his arm, flushed and happy, and she bursts into a rapid round of applause. Lancelot is a little more sprawled than both of them—head resting on Gwen’s thigh and more relaxed and unrestrained than Gwaine’s ever seen, smiling languidly up at him. Gwaine feels more than drunk, abruptly—seeing the three of them so brazenly affectionate, the truth of their engagement is unmistakable—he almost staggers, mind racing through the implications.

He fumbles to keep his reeling thoughts from showing, managing to retain enough control to beam at them proudly in response to the applause, unsure what the praise is for. Then he slumps down next to Merlin and finds himself lying on his back in the soft cushions not entirely intentionally, though he groans at the decadent feel of them. Merlin leans over him, and Gwaine looks up into his flushed face, wondering giddily if the royal trio’s lack of reserve means that he can just kiss Merlin here and now.

“I summoned you,” Merlin informs him, a private edge of sultriness in the quirk of his lips as he reminds Gwaine of when he’d most recently used those words.

Gwaine laughs, so very tempted to pull Merlin down and tumble him amongst the cushions. He’s thwarted when Merlin sits back up, though when Gwaine manages to struggle upright again himself he’s rewarded by Merlin handing over his goblet. Gwaine meets his eyes over the rim as he drinks, then makes a deliberate show of finishing it with his head tipped back, throat exposed.

Merlin is dark-eyed and giggling a little drunkenly when Gwaine lowers the cup and wipes the back of his hand over his mouth.

“You seem to have a bit of blue about you, there,” Lancelot speaks up, leisurely teasing.

“What can I say?” Gwaine shrugs widely with deliberate nonchalance and not lifting his hand to touch his neck. “It’s a night of celebration.”

Gwen laughs, happily and helplessly, Arthur flushed and grinning as well. Merlin leans into Gwaine, ostensibly to knock shoulders, but he teeters, slumping heavier; apparently the mead had been flowing steadily in the royal tent as well.

Gwaine sees Merlin’s bare toes curling into the rug, and before he’s even thought it through he’s folding his fingers over them, squeezing. “What happened to your boots?”

Merlin’s face twists into a thoughtful frown, then clears again abruptly into eagerness. “I could summon them!”

“No!” Arthur and Gwen bellow as one, sending Lancelot into a fit of giggles.

“So can you summon them to appear here instantly, or… walk here by themselves?” Gwaine asks curiously.

Merlin grins, more than a little mischievous. “Either way. Though I had you walk here, rather than startle you in the middle of something.” His hand sneaks onto Gwaine’s thigh, squeezing just above his knee. The touch itself is thrilling in its brazenness, though for the same reason it sends a dart of anxiety through Gwaine.

“So, this whole year, and days of travelling home, and you could have magicked me here…” Gwaine snaps his fingers. “Like that?”

Merlin bites his lip, guiltily coy.

“Not without my say-so,” Arthur grumbles.

Merlin throws a cushion at him. “I’m your advisor now, and I advise no more sending Gwaine away.”

Arthur tosses the cushion back, which Merlin deflects without lifting a hand. “No more than anyone else,” Arthur says grudgingly. “But you needn’t worry. It’s not as if you’ll be left behind on any campaigns.”

“Really?” Gwaine raises his eyebrows, sobering a little—not liking the sound of Merlin on a battlefield one bit—and to be honest, somewhat incredulous at the thought as well. “To advise you on battle strategies?”

“To fight,” Arthur says shortly. “No point in letting our greatest weapon languish, as a servant or at court.”

Gwaine looks to Merlin for confirmation, and Merlin’s small, rueful smile has an edge of worry in it, as if he’s afraid of what Gwaine might think. “That’s about the size of it.”

“Greatest weapon?” Gwaine repeats, bemused.

“Just what do you think that was out there?” Arthur asks, and Gwaine abruptly sees the ritual from a more sobering point of view. Perhaps most of those attending had been overjoyed with it as a celebration of the end of Uther’s unjust laws, but with the light Arthur’s cast on it it’s difficult to see the growing of the oak—without even a word spoken on Merlin’s part—as anything but a show of power.

“Against who?” Gwaine sounds a little bleaker than he intended; he’s been back at Camelot only a day and already his King’s talking to him of being sent off again, to kill and maybe die, far from the home he’s barely spent any time in as it is.

“There are those still amongst the druids who consider any Pendragon their enemy,” Merlin says. “Twenty-five years of death and despair, you can’t really blame them for holding a grudge.”

Arthur nods grimly. “And not a few of my father’s most faithful lords who see this as evidence of my unfitness to rule.” He grimaces. “That’s the problem with my father only having one direct heir—the next in line is not so loyal to our family. And though making such changes so quickly after my father’s death will be used against me—” Arthur meets Gwaine’s eyes as if in challenge. “—I will not be a hypocrite, whatever else they may accuse me of.”

Gwen squeezes his knee, and Arthur’s gaze turns to her as if in mild surprise, drawn out of his increasingly dark mood by the touch.

“Even with Escetia under Arthur’s rule, there are other kingdoms that perceive it as an opportunity—especially as depleted as Camelot’s armies were by Morgana’s invasion—we are stretched thin, ripe for the taking.” Merlin shrugs. “Perhaps they will think twice, knowing Camelot has the might of sorcery behind it once more.”

“And you,” Gwaine says, scrutinising him—beginning to realise just how little Merlin had told him in his letters, for all they had turned confessional; and just what had been left unsaid in Merlin’s long silence.

Merlin shrugs again, meeting Gwaine’s eyes briefly before looking away, mouth pressed tight in a frown.

“I don’t know what you’re all worried about, none of you are to be left behind,” Gwen says shortly though not bitterly, her words both diffusing some of the graveness of the conversation yet still resonating in their honesty.

Lancelot struggles upright, and perhaps he’s a little drunker than Gwaine gave him credit for, because he leans in to press his face against Guinevere’s neck without pause or gracefulness. Merlin snorts and leans forward to pour himself another goblet of mead, watching with amusement while Arthur blusters and Lancelot peers at him through her hair, apparently unmoved; Gwen fond and entertained between them.

Gwaine reaches over to stroke the back of his hand briefly down Merlin’s jaw and throat, drawing Merlin’s attention back to him. “Perhaps we should leave them to it,” he suggests softly, just loud enough for Merlin’s ears.

Merlin lifts his cup, taking a long draught before lowering it again and gasping, pulling a face at the taste; he offers it to Gwaine, who downs the rest quickly. The tent spins a little as they stand, grappling each other for balance. They don’t bother letting go once they’re upright, arms slung around each other as they stumble out into the open air again, not fazing the placid servant standing outside one bit. After walking a few yards away into the darkness they pause, contemplating for a moment the faint music and light behind them.

Gwaine lifts his arm from Merlin’s shoulders, caressing Merlin’s neck instead, fingers lingering over the love bite before he rests his hand on Merlin’s nape and draws him in for a kiss, hoping they’re far enough away already to not be noticed. Merlin’s mouth is becoming thrillingly familiar, and it’s sweet and heady with the taste of mead. If this keeps up, Gwaine’s never going to want to stop kissing him at all, and that’s not going to help their plans for secrecy one bit.

Gwaine draws back far enough to speak, pressing his forehead against Merlin’s. “You don’t have to go back there again, do you?” he whispers, priming his best pout.

Merlin wavers, steadying himself with hands on Gwaine’s hips. “Even if I did, I wouldn’t.” He angles forward for another kiss, mouth eager and a little sloppy.

“Perhaps we should spend the night in your wonderfully big new bed, then.” Gwaine nudges his hips forward. “I assume you have one, my Lord.”

“Mmm, yes,” Merlin hums in indulgent agreement. “Perhaps you can be my advisor. Although—you are already my champion.”

“Is that what I am to you?” Gwaine murmurs, low and teasing even as Merlin’s words coil warmly in his chest, making his heart swell in painful eagerness.

“Gwen has Lancelot as hers, and Arthur as well…” Merlin’s hand splays over the tree on Gwaine’s surcoat again. “I think one of you is enough for me.”

Gwaine leans in to press his mouth to the side of Merlin’s neck and Merlin sways a little before leaning in as well, weight propped against Gwaine’s body. He shivers as Gwaine mouths gently against his skin, licking wet, devoted kisses below his ear; then he finally shakes himself and tilts back again, giving Gwaine’s mouth a disapproving look as it shifts into a moue of disappointment.

“Come on,” Merlin says reluctantly. “Or we’ll never make it back.”

“Are you sure you don’t need to summon your boots?” Gwaine looks down at Merlin’s bare feet, thinking of the not-that-short walk back to the castle.

“No,” Merlin says, expression turning a little dreamy as he curls his toes into the grass, “feels good.”

It’s all Gwaine can do not to hoist Merlin over his shoulder and carry him off—and he might even have tried to, had his strength not been so softened by drink and weariness. Hardly chivalric, perhaps, but Gwaine imagines that Merlin might be amused by it for that reason, if nothing else.

As it is, they only make it about halfway back. Though the torches lit hours earlier still flicker an avenue of beacons back to the castle, they’re far too drunk on mead and lust to stick to the path, instead straying further into the dark beyond it, punctuating their unfocused journey with pauses to kiss and grope.

At last they give in entirely, and after tumbling down a small slope into a softly-grassed dell, Merlin just rolls over and starts stripping Gwaine out of his clothes again. Gwaine gives as good as he gets, this time—not willing to get his end away again without at least seeing more of Merlin, if not touching—and soon they’re both naked, facing each other, the moonlight much brighter with the sky unobscured above them.

Then Merlin climbs onto Gwaine’s lap, straddling him and reaching for his cock, petting it with eager familiarity. Gwaine groans, finally getting his hands on Merlin’s bare skin, skimming over his curved back and around to his sides, making Merlin tense and straighten. Gwaine firms the tickling touch and Merlin relaxes again, then Gwaine slides his hand down to finally hold Merlin’s cock, and Merlin’s body stiffens in an entirely different way.

It takes Gwaine a while to get hard, the long day and the copious amounts of mead catching up with him, not to mention being fucked and already coming twice that evening. “Sorry,” he gasps, though Merlin seems happy enough to take his time, finding out just where he can touch to make Gwaine’s hips flex up against him. “Not sure I’ll be good for much.”

Merlin tilts his head and rocks forward to kiss him, his own passion banked into something more mellow, but seemingly no less fond. His hands coax Gwaine with gentle touches. “Just as long as I can still have my wicked way with you,” he murmurs, voice husky.

“Whenever you want to,” Gwaine confirms, loving the way Merlin’s body rolls sinuously into his when Gwaine uses a particular, twisting stroke on his cock. After a while, Merlin guides Gwaine’s hand around to his arse—and that’s another thing Gwaine could very quickly get used to, Merlin summoning oil whenever they need it; Gwaine adds it to his mental list of reasons why a life on the run with Merlin would be fantastic.

Merlin grinds down onto Gwaine’s hand with more intent as Gwaine opens him up, clasping hot and tight around Gwaine’s seeking fingers. He pushes his own fingers into Gwaine’s mouth, eyes fixed there as Gwaine sucks and licks, and Gwaine can feel the swirl of Merlin’s fingerprints on his tongue when Merlin presses down against it.

“Want you,” Merlin whispers shakily, once Gwaine has found and relentlessly rubbed against the spot in him that makes him tremble and pant, and he hooks his elbow around Gwaine’s neck to pull him closer. His hips jerk fitfully, body slick with sweat, the musky scent of it and his arousal wreathing around them with the warm night air, so much richer than the faint traces of him in the scarf that Gwaine had spent a year savouring. But then he’s pushing Gwaine back, hands to Gwaine’s chest as he kneels up, urging Gwaine to lie against the soft grass.

His back arches beautifully as he sinks onto Gwaine’s cock, taking him inside gradually but then barely pausing before beginning a smooth ride. Gwaine’s hands rest on Merlin’s hips, to anchor himself amidst the heady sensation of Merlin gripping his cock, but mainly just to feel the rhythm of Merlin’s undulations as he sinks into breathless concentration, as if holding Gwaine’s cock in him requires all his attention.

Gwaine’s almost glad that he doesn’t think he’ll come again; grateful for his body’s tendency to deal with an excess of drink with prolonged hardness and lack of climax. It means he can focus on the way Merlin’s working himself to his own release, muscles in his thighs tensing as he lifts and lowers himself, back arching when he descends in a particularly good spot, or sometimes curling forward instead to run his hands over Gwaine’s chest. As his speed increases, he guides Gwaine’s hand to his cock and shows him how to touch it; Gwaine strokes it to the beat of his own pounding heart and soon Merlin is bucking against him, screwing down and tightening, his seed spilling onto Gwaine’s skin.

Merlin slumps over at the end of it, falling forward and sliding off him, thigh pressed to Gwaine’s still-hard cock and arm slung over his chest. He shakes with the aftershocks, clinging close and panting heavily, nuzzling under Gwaine’s arm as Gwaine wraps him in an embrace. Gwaine feels giddy with the accomplishment of making Merlin come, pride singing through his veins and making him tighten his hold.

“You’re so…” Merlin begins, words slurring and tone dreamy, then moments later he’s asleep, soft and heavy against Gwaine’s side. Gwaine is almost there himself, the background lull of his arousal intertwining with the languid pull of drunkenness, tugging him into sleep.

Gwaine wakes as the first direct light of dawn hits his eyelids, so it’s probably only been a few hours since he fell asleep. His mouth feels dry and mossy, and he presses his tongue against the roof of his mouth and swallows a few times to wet it and clear away the taste. Then he cracks his eyes open to see the blurry streaks of grass close to his face, trembling a little as he breathes.

He lifts his head and props himself up on an elbow to see a little further, and finds Merlin sitting beside him—naked as well, knees folded up to his chest and forearms resting atop them. The pose is relaxed, for all that his hair is a total mess and expression wrecked, both in a just-woke-up sort of way. His pale arms are tinted blue, the druidic symbols only faintly visible amidst the smudged mess, for which Gwaine feels proudly responsible.

“Good morning,” Merlin croaks.

Gwaine slumps back to the ground—on his back this time, stretching arms and legs out, pointing his toes and groaning at the various aches throughout his body, the sound turning into a truly enormous yawn. The stretch pulls at the dried seed on his belly, and he rubs his hand over it idly.

The new sunlight has peered up higher over the lip of the dell, chasing away the last of the coolness clinging to the grass, and Gwaine basks in it, sighing happily. He’s naked, and there’s sunlight, and Merlin: all is right with the world.

“It smells so good, here. I can’t tell you how sick I was of the sea. Even the sound of it.”

Merlin huffs quietly in amusement, glancing down at him. “Shame it’s not like this all the time.”

“I know. But at least in winter I get to wear my lovely new cloak.”

Merlin shakes his head, finally slipping out of his pose, knees tilting sideways and hand braced on the ground near Gwaine. His other hand tucks Gwaine’s hair behind his ear, and he smirks, the well of fondness in his eyes taking the sting out of his next words. “You are so very vain.”

Gwaine smiles smugly, staring back. “You think I’m handsome.”

Merlin rolls his eyes and falls back down again, shoulder just brushing Gwaine’s as they lie side-by-side, gazing up. Small birds flit overhead, their voices high and adamant as they pick off the midges that haven’t yet been chased away by the heat of the morning sun.

Gwaine bends his knees up to plant his feet flat on the slightly-sloping ground, curling his toes to dig into the cool soil below the yielding grass.

“We can’t stay here forever, you know,” Merlin says at length, sounding reluctant.

Gwaine grunts in half-hearted agreement, letting his eyes slip half-closed to turn the lightening sky into a softer haze.

It’s barely minutes later that Gwaine begins to hear the chatter of people on the road, not as far away as he’d thought when he was stumbling drunkenly in the night.

Merlin sighs and sits up, and Gwaine stretches again, spine arching before he slumps back down. “Can you do the cleaning spell again?” he asks, and fails to suppress his shiver of delight when Merlin leans over for a kiss, running the flat of his hand over Gwaine’s belly and leaving a tingle in its wake.

“Mmm,” Gwaine hums, speaking freely while he still can; it feels like they’re the only people for miles when Merlin’s touching him. “Next time I want to taste you.”

Merlin groans and kisses him a little harder, closed-mouthed and firm before withdrawing again. “You’re incorrigible. At least wait until we get to a bed.”

Gwaine sits up, looking down between his legs. “Think I probably need far more sleep first, anyway,” he says sadly. Merlin laughs.

They dress themselves this time, and it’s easier to make sure everything’s well in order in the crisp light of day. Gwaine makes sure Merlin’s hair looks a little more presentable, and Merlin spells away the worst of the blue on Gwaine’s skin before they clamber back out of the dell. No one seems to notice them joining the slow drip of people wandering back to the castle from beyond the road, though a few people greet Merlin when they see him.

There are a number of green-robed druids heading in the same direction, and when Gwaine comments on it, Merlin shrugs. “Many of them were from the city originally,” he says. “They’re now free to return to their livelihoods.” He smiles wryly. “Apparently some magic users are quite cosmopolitan; fancy living amongst the druids for twenty years, then.”

Gwaine chuckles. “I suppose you’re going to be getting ideas now.”

“Oh no,” Merlin counters. “I’ve already lived in the city for years myself.” He glances over at Gwaine, grinning cheekily. “I’m a country boy at heart.”

Gwaine shakes his head in amusement, grinning right back; it’s so hard not to kiss him again, or at least take his hand. Merlin turns away again and is silent for a long time; it makes it easier for Gwaine to force the urges back under control. Perhaps it’s the hangover, not just from the mead but from the journey home, and the anticipation that had him wound tight for weeks, not to mention the sudden influx of Merlin into his life and body… but he feels raw and fragile again, all the more desperate for contact with Merlin so near and yet still so out of reach. Gwaine prays to every god he’s ever heard of that it won’t always be like this, or he thinks he might go mad.

“Ealdor’s mine now,” Merlin breaks into his thoughts, clearly following his own trail of logic from their last conversation, “as apparently, I need lands to hold a place in court, and Arthur decided it would make perfect sense to confer Ealdor on me.” He meets Gwaine’s eyes, concern and bafflement clear in his gaze. “It’s all a bit… beyond comprehension.”

“Does this mean I get to meet your mother?” Gwaine asks.

It startles a burst of laughter out of Merlin, having the desired effect of smoothing out the tension around his eyes. “Oh, she will love you,” Merlin declares with relish, adjusting his stride to lean in and bump his shoulder against Gwaine’s. “My noblest of knights,” he says privately, voice low, before leaning back and drifting away again, smiling.

As the citadel looms before them, Merlin stops in the last stretch of grass, looking back. He glances at Gwaine sheepishly. “Won’t be a moment.”

A few minutes later, Merlin’s boots appear, tromping through the grass steadily towards them. Gwaine feels his eyebrows shoot up, and Merlin gives him another apologetic look.

“That’s a bit… excessive, isn’t it?” Gwaine asks, genuinely curious; from what he’s seen of Merlin’s magic, it seems rather efficient and to the point.

“The grass is nice, but I’m hardly walking through the town barefooted.”

“No, I mean—” Gwaine waves his hand in the direction of the woods. “Why have them walk here when you could just… transport them in an instant?”

Merlin frowns a little, considering. “They’re supposed to walk,” he says at length. “It’s best not to interfere with the way of things. You hardly see very many things appear out of nowhere, do you?”

Gwaine has to concede that he doesn’t. When Merlin goes to crouch, though, Gwaine stops him. “Let me,” he says, mouth curling in a mischievous smile as he kneels down before Merlin and picks up his boot.

Merlin snorts in recognition of the gesture—and Gwaine wonders if it feels as long ago for Merlin as it does for him, for all that the excitement of it still flutters breathlessly in his chest, as it had then. Merlin’s feet are stained green at the sole, skin on the top as delicate and translucent as the heel is thick and coarse, and Gwaine tugs his boots on one by one, tightening each of the buckles to try and make sure Merlin doesn’t chafe his way to blisters.

“Thank you,” Merlin says warmly when Gwaine stands again, eyes as soft as his tone. His hand lingers as it slides off Gwaine’s shoulder and away. Then they walk onward into the citadel side-by-side, just a few paces of distance between them.

The castle seems somehow different to yesterday, for all that it’s still familiar; as if Gwaine’s stepped through a mirror into a different world. No one else seems to sense it; the corridors are still mostly full of servants bustling about with their heads down, and Gwaine wonders if that will be the case for most of the day as the nobility sleep off the celebration.

Merlin’s quietness had seemed comfortable as they walked through the town, for all that Gwaine had felt the increasing pressure of the citadel around them after waking so light under the open sky. But it had turned heavy as they ascended the steps in the courtyard, and he leads Gwaine to the same wing as yesterday in silence.

Gwaine doesn’t know if he should even be following—if, now they’re back in the very seat of propriety, he should wander back to the garrison, or try and find the room from yesterday again, or just generally not be seen to be tripping at Merlin’s heels. He recognises the tapestry at the end of the corridor they finally stop in, though, and Merlin pauses before a door Gwaine doesn’t recognise.

Merlin turns, clearly withholding something from the way he’s pressing his lips together and searching Gwaine’s eyes. Gwaine holds his breath, but a moment later Merlin’s opening the door, gesturing Gwaine forward.

The room is bigger than the one he was shown to yesterday—big enough for there to be a table rather than a desk near the window, with room for a small party to sit around. There’s also a considerably large fireplace—not to mention the bed, which has a heavy canopy and curtains tied back to its posts.

Merlin’s looking at him anxiously when Gwaine’s gaze returns to him, hands knotting together.

“I’ll send for some water,” Merlin says abruptly, and ducks away to the door again.

Huffing out a sharp breath, Gwaine walks to the window and sees the same unidentifiable view as yesterday. To his right is another tapestry, to his left an open door; through it he can see another chamber entirely. Curious, he wanders through.

The other room is smaller, with a high window and desk standing nearby, chair pushed out from it and a chaotic scatter of parchment covering its surface. Gwaine walks around the desk idly, tucking the chair in and tipping the lid of the ink pot closed. A quill lies discarded near it, and he strokes his fingers along its dark feather.

“I hope that this is all right.”

Gwaine looks up, and Merlin is standing in the doorway. His expression is nearly blank, just the faintest hint of apprehension that could easily be misread as blitheness. Gwaine’s beginning to recognise it as armour around Merlin’s uncertainty, obvious when he knows just how animated Merlin is when he’s confident and relaxed.

“These are your rooms,” Gwaine hazards, feeling more than a little uncertain as well.

Merlin nods once. “Yours as well. If you… if you want. I mean, you don’t—”

Gwaine stalks forward, heart thudding in his chest, then stops a scant breath from Merlin. Merlin doesn’t back down, though his breath quickens at Gwaine’s proximity. “What happened to discretion?” Gwaine asks, barely above a whisper.

“Lancelot has rooms near the royal chambers,” Merlin returns breathily. “And there’s an adjoining room for you, if you decide you want to—if you want your own.” He tips his head toward the tapestry hanging in the main room without breaking eye contact. “Your things are there now.” His mouth quirks in a hint of challenge. “I could have a servant bring them through.”

“So it’s… we can…?” Gwaine’s hand has somehow found its way to Merlin’s waist, and their mouths have drifted closer. He can barely concentrate with how close to a kiss they are, for all that he wants—needs—to make sure.

“Well, we can’t exactly tumble in the courtyard,” Merlin says, a bite of salacious heat in his words for all that their cadence is droll, as if just the thought of them getting into it again is as inflaming for him as it is for Gwaine. His hand is warm against Gwaine’s chest. “And there are such things as trustworthy servants, to keep our private lives our own. But Arthur wouldn’t cast us out even if there weren’t.”

Merlin’s hand slides up to cup the back of Gwaine’s neck, pulling him in the tiny distance remaining to a kiss. It’s not like the giddy, desperate kisses they shared yesterday, but still firm and heated, Merlin’s tongue pressing in determinedly.

“I wouldn’t let him if he tried,” Merlin continues when they part, sounding deadly serious this time. It sends a frisson of excitement up Gwaine’s spine.

For all of Merlin’s grim intensity—or perhaps because of it—Gwaine can’t stop himself from smiling. “Well, good. Because I think I quite like it here.”

Merlin’s mouth curls in return, his mood softening again. “Really,” he returns, fingers scratching lightly at the back of Gwaine’s neck, up into his hair.

“Mmm.” Gwaine lists closer again, feeling on the desk with his free hand while he distracts Merlin with another kiss. He lifts the quill while Merlin’s eyes are still closed, dragging the stiff-soft feather up the side of Merlin’s neck; Merlin gasps against his lips.

“I thought you wanted to sleep?” Merlin asks, breath catching as Gwaine traces the tip of the feather along the edge of his jaw.

“Later,” Gwaine says, stroking it down again to follow the cut of Merlin’s collar. “I think I have some promises to fulfil.”

Merlin purses his lips like he’s trying not to smile, but it shines through in his eyes anyway. “Later,” he agrees.  

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