Lancelot didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there staring at Merlin’s bloody torso before Gwaine walked in. Merlin had passed out the moment they reached Lancelot’s room, and Lancelot had carried him to the bed and carefully removed his stained, ripped tunic, only to feel his stomach twist at the sight before him. It was one particular cut--not deep, but dangerously close to Merlin’s neck--that captured Lancelot’s vision, making it blur and then return to focus in a nauseating rhythm.
“I got here as soon as I could,” Gwaine said, handing over the medical supplies. “Gaius wants to look him over as soon as Percival and Leon are patched up.”
Lancelot nodded, dragging his gaze away from Merlin and to the physician’s kit instead. He fished through the case in search of some cloth to clean the wound. When he knocked a jar to the floor in his haste, a pungent scent wafted up from the shattered remains.
Gwaine took the kit from Lancelot’s shaking hands and crouched down in front of him, trying to catch his eyes. “He’s going to be alright.”
Lancelot’s throat was too tight to speak.
“He is,” Gwaine insisted, as though Lancelot was arguing with him. “Merlin’s made it through tougher scrapes than this. In fact, he and I were talking the other day, and we came to the conclusion that he can’t die. He’s just too stubborn.”
“I’m not--” I’m not worried, he wanted to say, but the words didn’t come. I’m guilty. Every single one of us is.
Reports had been coming in for weeks about a sorcerer frequenting the area, and everyone said there was a high likelihood he was working with Morgana. They were on a patrol when Arthur gave the orders. When he spotted a flash of gold under the hood of a dark cloak, Arthur made the decision to attack first and ask questions later. Lancelot hadn’t realized who it was at the time. He had followed Arthur’s orders, trusting his king even though he knew sorcerers weren’t evil. Trusting Camelot’s laws even though he knew the person under that cloak could be innocent--someone like Merlin.
He hadn’t even considered the possibility that the cloaked figure might be Merlin until his sword made contact. Until he saw a flash of blue eyes, not gold, and his sword came away red. By then, the others had caught up to him, and several swords joined the fight. Merlin fought back as best he could without hurting anyone, but he was at a disadvantage since the knights were playing by different rules. He escaped, with his identity still a secret to the others, but he’d been badly wounded, and it was only through Lancelot and Gwaine’s distraction that he made it out at all.
“We did this,” Lancelot said roughly. “We’re supposed to protect people. We’re supposed to protect Merlin, and instead--” His eyes caught on that damning wound, too close, far too close-- “Instead, we’re the ones causing him pain.”
Gwaine reached out like he was going to offer comfort, but Lancelot stood and retrieved the physician’s kit before making his way to the bed. He set out clean water, bandages, and ointments meticulously, lining them up beside Merlin’s clammy limbs. Merlin deserved to be tended by a real physician. He shouldn’t have to hide in Lancelot’s chambers, concealing his wounds and his pain. But Lancelot would do the best he could. Anything to make up for the damage he had inflicted--the destruction he supported every time he donned his knight’s cloak.
“You really believed in it,” Gwaine said.
Lancelot unfolded a fresh cloth and dipped it in water. “In what?” He could feel Gwaine’s eyes on him as he worked.
He fought the urge to look over his shoulder, not wanting to reveal the turmoil in his eyes, even as he wondered what he would find in Gwaine’s. “It’s said to be the height of loyalty, bravery, and honor,” he said, his voice empty of the pride and passion that once accompanied such statements. He cleaned each of Merlin’s cuts with care, and his heart clenched each time Merlin twisted away from the sting or squeezed his face up in pain. “To be a knight is to fight for what is good and right.”
“Sometimes, maybe,” Gwaine granted, “but not most. A knight’s job is to defend the interests of the king. And most kings aren’t worth the dirt on your boots.”
A young, childish part of Lancelot thrashed at Gwaine’s words--the part of him that had placed all of his hope in the knighthood, in becoming a fighter instead of a helpless bystander at a time when he had nothing but hope. No family, no prospects, no home. Just the hope that if his world were ever threatened again, he would have the power to stop it. But he couldn’t deny that he felt powerless now, even with his chainmail weighing heavily on his shoulders. “If you believe that, then why did you let Arthur knight you?”
“You know why.”
Lancelot did know. The two of them had little in common besides their love for Merlin and their respect for each other, but they made it work somehow, learning to communicate with no more than a look, offering support when Merlin was too weighed down by destiny to give it. What had started as a shared concern for Merlin’s wellbeing--making sure he ate, making sure he slept, holding him close when the nightmares kept him awake--had strengthened into something stronger, deeper, but seldom spoken aloud.
“I’d give anything to take him far away from here and never look back,” Gwaine said. “But Merlin wants us here.” There was a note of finality in his words, as though Merlin wanting it was all the reason he needed.
As Lancelot rubbed ointment into the broken skin of a man he loved--skin he had broken--he wondered whether that could be enough for him too. “Maybe Merlin’s wrong,” he murmured.
“He is,” Gwaine agreed, surprising Lancelot who had never heard the man speak a word against Merlin in his life. “Prophecies be damned, Merlin deserves better than to serve a king who would see him dead if he knew who he was. But he’s sacrificed far too much to give up now. Deep down, I think he knows it’s all fucked, as much as you or I do. You can see it sometimes in his face, when the princess lectures about the evils of magic, or when Merlin has to choose Camelot over his kin. But he still has hope. He has to, in order to make himself believe it’s all been worth it.” A bitter laugh escaped his throat. “He’s the strongest person I know, and yet he’s so close to breaking. That’s the problem with hope, I guess.”
Gwaine went quiet then, leaving Lancelot to wallow in his own musings on hope. After all of his training, all of his strife, this was it. This was the dream he’d been fighting for. In the battle to regain Camelot from Morgana and the stretch of peace that followed, it had been easy to block out the truth: that Lancelot’s dream was no more than a foolish fantasy. That he had wanted a simple answer that didn’t exist. Not easy, since becoming a knight was one of the hardest challenges he’d ever faced, but simple. If a knight’s job was to fight for what was right, then goodness came with the position. The life of a traveler and later a sell-sword had made everything muddy. Was it wrong to kill for the right to eat, if the alternative was to be killed? Was it wrong to steal or cheat or lie in order to sleep in a bed at night? Becoming a knight was supposed to be his solution--his salvation. But the question of right and wrong, good and bad, was fuzzier than ever.
He tucked the jar of ointment back into the case and unrolled a set of bandages. Covering up the evidence of his mistakes felt like its own kind of punishment, worsened by the knowledge that Merlin had done this countless times before on his own. Was there a part of the warlock that hated them all? For siding with the law when it would place him on the pyre? Had he felt afraid when Lancelot cut him? Angry? Disappointed? Or had he grown so used to the blurred line between friend and foe that it didn’t even faze him anymore?
As Lancelot wrapped the last bandage, Gwaine took the physician’s kit and set it aside. He sat on the mattress, one hand resting on Merlin’s calf almost unconsciously, and looked up at Lancelot. “I know you don’t believe it right now, but you’re a good man, Lancelot. One of the best I’ve ever met.”
Lancelot forced himself to meet Gwaine’s gaze, desperate to find the tell in his lie or the evidence of his truth. “How can you be so sure?”
Gwaine’s lips twisted into something that could barely be called a smile. “Because it bothers you. The idea of doing something you know is wrong makes you feel sick.” He glanced at Merlin’s face which had evened out in sleep now that the poking and prodding were over. “Meanwhile, I would burn Camelot to the ground if it made Merlin smile.”
There was a promise in his words that should have been alarming but wasn’t--perhaps because Lancelot knew Merlin would never smile at something like that, or perhaps because Gwaine’s honesty was reminiscent of what Lancelot hoped he wound find when he joined the knighthood. It struck him that the unabashed loyalty Gwaine showed to Merlin was everything Lancelot appreciated about being a knight. It had never been about the title, or the battles, or the kingdom. It was about protecting the ones he loved, above all else. Perhaps that was a good enough reason to stick around--not for the hopes of one man, someone Lancelot would have to hurt time and time again if he remained a knight, but for the love of two. Two men who represented so much of what was good in this world.
“...ancelot?” Merlin mumbled, eyelids fluttering as he squinted up at them. “Gwaine?”
Taking care not to jostle Merlin’s injuries, Gwaine climbed over to the other side of the bed and stretched out alongside him. He tucked one arm behind his head and gazed at Merlin. “How’s the pain?” he asked. “Do you need us to get you anything? A potion?”
Merlin shook his head. “...feel fine.” His sleepy eyes locked on Lancelot, and he frowned. “What’s wrong?”
A million responses danced on the tip of his tongue. “I’m...” sorry, he wanted to say. But he knew that wasn’t what Merlin wanted right now, even if penance was what he deserved. He tried for a faint smile instead. “...just glad you’re okay.”
Merlin smiled back, shifting closer to Gwaine to make room and wincing a bit at the movement. “C’mere,” he said.
Lancelot did, lying down on his side facing Merlin and weaving his fingers into the soft hairs around Merlin’s ears. Merlin sighed in contentment, and his eyes fell shut. Gwaine sent Lancelot a look as if to say, see? Merlin doesn’t need your guilt.
Lancelot was the one who reached out this time, in apology for rejecting Gwaine’s attempt before and in gratitude for the strength Gwaine had given him. With a slight nod in understanding, Gwaine interlocked their fingers, resting their hands on Merlin’s stomach, the only place where no new cuts marred his skin.
There was space for them here in Camelot--all of them--even if it wasn’t large or liberated or honorable. Even if Lancelot didn’t yet know if that was enough. For now, he let himself be lulled to sleep by the slow circles Gwaine drew on his knuckles and the gentle rise and fall of Merlin’s breaths and imagined that it was.