“Merlin!” A very familiar voice, unheard for a long time, called from the lip of the dell. The young wizard looked up and smiled to see Lancelot skidding down the hill. But the man was grimacing rather than smiling, his sword in hand. Merlin didn’t really process what was going on until the fighter bodily shoved him out of the way and brought his sword up in both hands.
A massive beast, tawny and black, with two heads, one lion and one goat, bounded down the cliff side of the dell. Something green lashed near its backside, but that was not what anyone was concentrating on. The horses panicked, tearing free of Merlin’s already loosened grip and galloped out of the dell. The knights reacted just as quickly, but ran towards the danger instead of away, the fools that they were. The beast roared as Lancelot slashed at it, and it slashed back with a giant paw. The fighter had the misfortune to be caught in the side, and to not be wearing chainmail like the knights around him. Luckily, by that time Arthur was on one side of him and Gwaine on the other, so they kept the creature back for the split second when he was down. Men like him had to get back up fast; they died faster if they didn't.
Faced with so many heavily armed men, the beast snarled and ran, knocking Elyan and Percival into each other in the process. It escaped in the same direction that the horses had bolted off in, bounding out of the dell like an frightened kitten. The only differences were that this kitten had blood on its claws, two additional heads, and shook the ground when it ran.
“So I take it that's the Chimera?” Arthur asked. The group of knights led by the prince had left Camelot yesterday, looking into reports of a beat terrorizing the countryside. The leader wiped a bit of blood off his blade and put it away. The others weren't so arrogant and fast to let down their guard. Lancelot was the next to disarm, planting his sword in the soft earth in favor of clamping a hand over his side where the creature’s paw had hit.
“Yeah,” he confirmed, what little breath he had hitching in pain. “I've been tracking it for nearly a moon. It came down from the mountains of Lot's kingdom. I managed to cut off its third head, the snake one, already, but it's clearly still dangerous. I confess I don't know the best way to kill it.”
“Well, we've lost our horses, which would have been our biggest advantage,” Leon said, glaring at Merlin.
“Hey, don't blame me!” the young servant protested. “They wouldn't have gotten away if I hadn't been trying to hold onto all six of them at once. It's a miracle I wasn't stampeded!”
“Petty arguments don't solve anything,” Arthur cut in, ignoring how often he got into the very thing he was preaching against. “Lancelot.” He turned to the other fighter and clamped a hand on his shoulder in proper greeting. “It's good to see you again.”
“You too, your highness,” Lance said. “It's a great relief to have you here, truth be told. I'm not sure how long I could have continued to chase the beast by myself.”
“Especially not with that,” Merlin said, pointing at the mercenary’s injury as he began to dig his supplies out of a pack. “Sit down, let me see.”
“It isn't bad,” he protested.
“Let Merlin tend it anyway,” Arthur commanded. “Then we'll join you, to track the creature down and destroy it.”
Lancelot sat down on a convenient log and carefully pulled up his shirt to reveal sluggishly bleeding gashes across his side. The beast’s claws had caught right between and below his ribs when he'd been side swiped. The cuts weren't deep enough to have damaged his lung, but they were worrying.
“How's the pain?” Merlin asked as he pressed a clean cloth to the wounds to try to stem the flow of blood enough for him to bandage them.
“Manageable,” the man said tersely, obviously not wanting to talk about it. “How's Camelot?”
“The worse for not having you there.” Six months after Morgana’s coup, Uther still hadn't regained his strength to lead, but he was adamant about one thing; that Lancelot, who he saw as having disgraced his crown, would never be a knight. He had thrown the man, who had still been healing from the gash on his shoulder he'd received while defending Camelot, out of Gaius’s quarters and the kingdom. At least his exclusion seemed to be adequate, and all of the others that Arthur had knighted at the Round Table were allowed to stay. “How's life for you?”
“Same as always. Fighting for whoever will pay, living off of other people's generosity. Recently, just trying to keep up with the Chimera.” Arthur, listening in, heard his failings in their words. Not fighting hard enough for Lancelot’s right to stay in Camelot and not getting here sooner when reports and refugees started to flood in from a terrible beast in the north of his kingdom. The prince helped pull the fighter back to his feet once Merlin had bandaged up his side to the best of his ability.
“You good to walk?” Arthur asked.
“Yeah. It moved fast last time after I attacked it, so we should get moving if we hope to catch up to it quickly.” He pulled his sword from the ground and sheathed it.
“We wouldn't have to if someone hadn't lost the horses,” Gwaine complained. That comment sparked a wave of good-natured banter that Lancelot hadn’t realized he had missed.
“Let's stop for a breather,” Arthur suggested when he noticed Lancelot lagging behind. The injured man sat down heavily on a fallen log to catch his breath. Elyan took the time to find a dead branch and cut it down to the right size for a walking stick for the man who should be a knight, and when they started moving again after a few minutes, Percival snatched up his old friend's bag to carry along with his own. Lance gave a shallow nod of gratitude to each of them.
He had a hard time keeping up, even with the slower pace Arthur kept them to during the evening. When they reached a little clearing, the prince decided they would stop and make camp for the night, even though there was still plenty of light in the sky to walk by. Leon and Percival went to go collect firewood while Merlin and the other knights set up the camp. Lancelot offered once to help, but was actually quite relieved when he was turned down. Gwaine came and sat down beside the solitary fighter, so close that their shoulders touched. Arthur gave the two of them an odd look that only Gwaine caught, but didn't say anything. The knight had once been on his own too, and he knew how much a little bit of human contact could mean, especially when one was hurting. Lance didn't acknowledge the contact, but nor did he shy away from it. Merlin lit the fire near to the two men when the others returned with firewood. That night, the hunter finally was able to sleep soundly, secure in the knowledge that Gwaine was on the first watch.
He seemed a bit stronger in the morning, but it wasn't enough and it didn't last. Exhaustion and pain was evident in every move, despite how he tried to hide it. Every knight was concerned for him; none more than Arthur. The walking stick didn’t seem to be enough, and when he tripped not long into the day, it was just only Merlin catching him, with subtle magic and a hand on his chest, that kept him from collapsing.
“Thanks,” he said, disturbingly quietly, as if he couldn't get enough air into his lungs to speak any louder.
“Here, lean against me,” the sorcerer said, offering his old friend a shoulder. Lancelot took him up on the offer, though he was careful of resting all his weight on the twig-thin young man and knocking him over. Arthur fell back to help and pulled Lancelot’s arm over his shoulders to support him. They only walked like this for a few minutes before the injured man just stopped.
“I can't,” he said, breathing heavily. Arthur eased him down to rest sitting against a tree. “I'm sorry, my lord. I can't.”
“It's okay,” the prince assured him, resting a comforting hand on the other man's shoulder. “Don't worry. Just rest for awhile.” He stood up and motioned for Merlin to come off to the side to talk to him. Percival stayed back to stand watch protectively over his friend. “I thought you said his wound wasn't that bad,” he hissed at the manservant and young healer.
“I didn't think it was. But walking on it can't have helped, and his exhaustion only compounded the problem. I mean, he's been tracking this beast for a month, and I doubt he's gotten more than half a night of rest or a decent meal in all that time.”
“How long will it be before he's able to walk again?”
“With rest? At least a couple of days, probably quite a bit longer.”
“Longer than we can afford to wait with this beast on the loose,” Leon piped up. Arthur growled under his breath, hating the decision he knew he had to make. He walked back over to Lancelot and knelt down the same way the should-be knight had when he'd sworn his fealty.
“You need to leave me,” the injured man said solemnly, before Arthur could. “The longer the Chimera is around, the more innocent people are going to get hurt, and I'm slowing you down. You need to go on without me.”
“I'm not leaving you alone,” the prince said. He was so relieved that he got to argue this side, rather than explaining why he had to go and betray the most loyal man he knew.
“I was on my own before. I’m used to it.”
“Yes, but right now you're clearly in no condition to defend yourself if anyone or anything comes along, and you can't be on alert all the time by yourself.”
“I'll stay,” Merlin immediately volunteered. Lancelot had taken care of him before when he’d been weak and vulnerable; it was the least he could do to return the favor now.
“Well Merlin, you aren’t much use as far as fighting goes, so I’ll stay too,” Gwaine added. Usually he never would have volunteered for glorified babysitting duty instead of tracking down and killing a mythical creature, but he figured taking care of one of the few men in the world he cared about was more important.
“It would be better for you to have all your men with you when you face the Chimera,” Lancelot addressed Arthur. He didn’t meet the eyes of either Gwaine or Merlin as he declined their kind offers.
“You fought this thing by yourself for a month,” Arthur countered. “I'm sure I can manage with four. Plus, as Gwaine said, Merlin isn’t much help anyway when it comes to fighting.”
If only Arthur knew how wrong he was. The wizard would probably be the most useful when they came to battle the probably magical creature. Lance gave the young man a worried glance, asking if he really was going to leave Arthur unprotected, but just received a solemn nod in return. “If Gwaine is unacceptable, and if we’re being honest, when isn’t he, them I’ll stay myself. You are aren’t going to get rid of help so easily.”
“No, he’s fine,” the fighter finally agreed with a sigh. He was outnumbered. And if he was going to have company, he supposed he couldn’t ask for better than the two men who had offered to stay.
“Once we kill it, we'll come back for you,” Arthur assured him.
“Find some horses first,” Lancelot said with a soft laugh, though he wasn't joking.
“Will do,” the prince agreed before standing up. He left with Leon, Elyan, and Percival, while Gwaine and Merlin stayed behind with Lancelot. They waited until the other group had passed out of sight before any of them said anything.
“We should find a better campsite,” Gwaine suggested. “Lance, do you think you can walk back to that little creek we passed?”
“If we go slow,” he agreed.
“Okay. Tell me if you need to stop.”
They set up camp in a little clearing by the side of the creek. Merlin quickly got a fire going, using magic to start it when Gwaine wasn't paying attention. He cleaned Lancelot’s wounds, which was starting to get red and puffy around the edges, as best he could with the warm water and rewrapped them with a poultice. The knight went off to set game traps so they would have something beyond stale bread and dried meat.
When he got back, he found himself getting antsy without anything to do. He wanted to spar, but there was no one for him to fight. After Merlin barked at him to stop pacing, he found a little piece and started carving. The closeted sorcerer polished his own boots for once instead of someone else's, and Lancelot was content sit against a tree, staring at the brook and dozing off every once in awhile. He was sleeping when Gwaine tiptoed over to place the little figure he had cut from the wood beside him. It was a little knight on horseback with a lance, crudely made, but enough to draw a smile from the man when he woke up and found it. He tucked it into his pack for safe keeping.
Gwaine came over to place a blanket around Lancelot’s shoulders when he started to shiver, and sat down next to him. Close to him again, shoulders pressed together. He felt it through the contact when the man coughed, his frame wracked with violent shudders. Gwaine rubbed his back gently, and then left his arm looped around his shoulders after the fit abated. He used this arm to guide Lancelot to lie down when he lost the strength to stay sitting up by himself. He still shivered, even close to the fire with two blankets covering him, and so Gwaine did the only thing remaining to try to warm him.
Gently, which was not usually a word used to describe the bawdy knight, he curled himself around the other man on the ground until his chest was flush with his back and his knees pressed into the backs of the other man's. He pulled both of their blankets back up over both of them. There was no way for Gwaine to drape an arm over his waist without pressing on his injury, so he settled for resting a hand on his hip to still his shivering. Instead of tensing or waking up at the touch, Lancelot relaxed slightly and even nestled himself farther into his embrace. It was rare for a man in his lifestyle to be held. The knight knew from his time living it that for a mercenary, most contact with other people would be bad, usually of the fighting for your life variety. As a knight there was practice combat and friendly wrestling, encouraging back pats and always someone to offer a hand up when you fell. It wasn't so lonely, though he never did get this close to any of the other men.
It was warm and about as comfortable as one could get in the middle of the woods, and despite his concern, Gwaine drifted off. He was woken when the man in his hands coughed, and reluctantly sat up.
Lancelot had clearly gotten a lot worse while he had slept. He was still shivering, and now struggling to breathe.
“Isn't there something you can do for him?” the knight asked Merlin.
“At the palace, with Gaius and his supplies, maybe,” the young healer replied. “But out here, there isn't much I can do.” Not without revealing his magic at least. If Gwaine wasn't here, he could have just used some spellwork to fix up the fighter, good as new. “I'm sorry. He’s going to have to get through this on his own,” the wizard said before rolling over to go to sleep himself. The knight must have thought him heartless, but he couldn't stand to watch his friend in pain, knowing he could stop it but not being able to without putting himself at risk. Gwaine was making everything harder with his protectiveness.
“He's strong,” the knight muttered a quiet reassurance to himself. “He'll be alright.” He knew Lancelot’s chances would have been better if he hadn't been exhausted already, but he would be fine. He had to believe he would be fine. Gwaine didn't quite know how he'd become so attached to someone he barely knew. They'd fought together, but he had been a mercenary. He'd fought with a lot of men and then hadn't shed a tear when they'd been killed. Hell, he'd killed some of them himself when they got hired by an opposing force or simply when they started to annoy him too much. So it had to be something else.
Maybe it was that he was so similar and yet so different from Gwaine. He was a commoner as well, but instead of compensating with arrogance he just tried to be the best he could be and get along with people. He was an excellent swordsman, but reserved and careful in his style instead of reckless and showy. A man who appreciated life all the more for having been dealt a crappy hand in it, instead of blaming the world like he had done. A good man.
Gwaine placed his palm against his forehead and found it warm.
“He’s hot,” the knight remarked aloud in surprise.
“Yes, we all know you have a thing for men who can handle a sword as well as you can,” Merlin mumbled from where he lay face down on the other side of the fire. It was the kind of thing he only dared say when they were alone.
“No, I mean, he’s feverish.” That was enough to get the herbalist to scramble to his feet and over to him. The look on his face said everything Gwaine needed to know about the man's condition. “He won't last like this,” he summarized in despair.
“No, he will,” Merlin decided. His mind was made up. Lancelot was the most important thing right now, and damn the consequences. “Hold him still.”
“I thought you said there wasn’t anything you could do,” the other man said. Despite his confusion though he did as he was told and pinned Lancelot to the bed roll with a hand on his hip and the other on his head.
“No, just nothing I wanted to do. Listen, you absolutely cannot tell anyone about what I'm about to do.”
“Well that would be a little hard, as A) I don't know what you're about to do, and B) there's no one else around,” Gwaine pointed out.
“No, I mean, you can't tell anyone, ever .”
“You'll see. Do you promise?”
“Yes. I promise not to tell. If it helps Lancelot, just do it.”
Merlin laid his spindly hands over their friend's upward-facing side, where the wounds were, and muttered an incantation. His eyes flashed gold, and the air around his hands took on a wispy, semi-solid, shiny purple quality. Gwaine tensed, caught off guard by the magic, but not as much as Lancelot. He woke up enough to cry out and struggle weakly. The man instructed to keep him still carded a hand through his hair and held onto his hip, hoping he didn't bruise him.
Merlin let go of the magic, and its effects dissipated. The air returned to its usual color and consistency, Lance lapsed back into stillness, and the sorcerer sort of fell back away from him, breathing as heavily as if he'd just gone a dozen rounds with Arthur. Gwaine viewed the wizard suspiciously, but quickly looked away before he accidentally made eye contact. He relaxed his grip on Lancelot’s hip, but didn't move his hand away.
“So did that heal him?” he asked after a minute.
“Not entirely,” Merlin replied, still breathing hard. It was clear that he'd taken a lot out of himself with such an expenditure of magic. “I just pulled the infection out of him. It should give him enough of an advantage to heal the wound itself on his own.” The fighter did already look better. He was less pale, and breathed more consistently.
“So you have magic,” Gwaine said softly, still not making eye contact.
“And you choose to live in Camelot, working for the son of the magic-hating king.”
“Yeah,” Merlin said with a soft huff of a laugh.
“Doesn't sound like a great plan,” Gwaine pointed out, unable to keep amusement from seeping into his tone despite the seriousness of the situation. Trust Merlin of all people to get himself into the most dangerous situation at all times.
“Believe me, I'm well aware of that.”
“Does he know?” Gwaine asked, looking down at Lancelot. Merlin nodded. “Who else?”
“Gaius, Morgana, and my mother.”
“Elite club then, huh.”
“You can't tell.”
“Don't worry about that Merlin. You've kept just as taboo secrets for me.” A man being attracted to men was just as likely to burn as a sorcerer if they couldn't keep it hidden. “I wouldn't turn you in if they put me to the rack. Guys like us gotta stick together, huh.”
“Yeah, I suppose we do,” Merlin agreed softly. In the low light of the fire, Gwaine could see new dark circles under his eyes. He didn't know exactly how the young man's magic worked, but it was clear he was exhausted.
“I'll take first watch, if you want to get some rest,” he offered.
“Thanks,” Merlin said with a yawn. The wizard lay down beside the fire, and was snoring gently within minutes. Gwaine sat up, his bare blade across his knees shining in the moonlight, ready to defend the two men he probably cared most for on this Earth.