I ended up writing a 4-part, 14k fic for it, though I'll tell you right now, I threw out the latter part of the song where they part ways because they've learned/taken what they can from each other, lol. I wanted to write something romantic, not sad. And this is what happened...
Title: An Inexhaustible Moon
Type of Submission: Fic
Prompt: C21 - Falling Slowly
Rating: PG13 (which is really stretching it)
Length: 14k, in 4 parts
Warnings: Very mild violence
Summary: Four nights. Two lonely people. One inexhaustible bond.
Author's Notes: Starts out immediately after 1x10, and goes AU from there (mostly). I'm posting this in its entirety now, with links to the next part at the end of each chapter.
Not even a day of hard traveling could quell Gwen’s euphoria. She loved her job – really, she did – but the satisfaction she received fulfilling her duties around the castle paled in comparison to what they had accomplished in Ealdor. They’d saved an entire village. They’d freed good, hard-working people from a tyranny that would have crushed them, if not outright destroyed them. They had acted with honor, and in return, were rewarded with the knowledge the villagers could now live, and thrive, in peace.
A far cry from fetching extra blankets for Morgana.
When Arthur halted their journey for the day, she saw to their evening meal while Morgana prepared the bedding and the men gathered firewood to last the night. Supper was filled with surprising laughter, with Merlin’s stories of Ealdor, and with smiles both freely given and received, but soon enough, the sky was ink, and yawns too frequent to ignore.
“I’ll take the first watch,” Arthur announced.
The soft touch of Morgana’s hand on her arm stopped Gwen from volunteering to help Merlin clean up. Together, they rose and crossed to the patch of ground Morgana had claimed for their beds.
Gwen eyed the placement dubiously. “Will you be warm enough this far from the fire?”
“The slight chill may keep me from dreaming.” Morgana cast a furtive glance back at the men. “I’d rather be ill rested than have to worry about uncomfortable explanations in the morning.”
In Gwen’s mind, it would have been easier to simply admit at least part of the truth, but the nightmares were not hers to suffer, nor the potential awkwardness hers to bear.
“We’ll be back in Camelot tomorrow. I’m sure Gaius will be prepared for your return.”
No more mention of dreams, no more hints of a long night ahead. Gwen crawled under the blanket with Morgana and laid motionless, even after the breathing at her side grew long and deep.
Her thoughts kept straying. To how valiantly the people of Ealdor had fought. To Merlin’s grief as he stood by his childhood friend’s funeral pyre. To Arthur’s staunch determination to battle to the end, his blade slashing through the air with all the passion any single man could muster. Her emotions were in turmoil, but one surpassed everything else, in spite of her efforts to squelch it as soon as she recognized it.
For all of them. For their ardent commitment to doing the right thing. Every one of them had leapt into the fray with little thought to the consequences each might suffer. It was more important to save Ealdor than worry about their own petty, protected lives. Even Arthur had understood that in the end.
The night became heavy with the forest’s slumber, the moon sliding across the sky until the trees obscured it. Morgana’s sleep remained tranquil, and with each passing minute, the chill settled deeper into Gwen’s bones. She watched the fire, and when Arthur abandoned it for another patrol, she eased the blanket back and went to it, her footsteps silent from years of long practice.
Wearing trousers helped ward against the dropping temperatures, but her hands and cheeks were numb, the flickering warmth a welcome reprieve. Encased in shadows, Merlin slept peacefully. His gaunt features became skeletal in the firelight, a hint of what might have befallen him had they been less victorious that day. His would have been a loss greater than he could ever imagine. Too many would miss him - Gaius, Morgana and Gwen, but especially Arthur.
“You should be resting.”
As if conjured by Gwen’s thoughts, Arthur appeared out of the darkness. Though she had heard Arthur both bullyish and boisterous in her lifetime, his cadences now could only be described as oddly soothing.
“I’m not that tired,” she explained. Morgana’s privacy – as well as the lack of her sleeping draught – would not be betrayed tonight. “And I didn’t wish to disturb Morgana.”
He resumed his seat on the opposite side of the fire. He always seemed bigger to her when he was in repose like this. Even without the artificial bulk of his chain mail or armor. The fabric of his shirt strained across his broad shoulders, but he seemed oblivious to its protest. Perhaps his lack of self-consciousness created the illusion of greater size. Gwen didn’t know, though she silently chided herself for even considering the prince’s form in such ways – at least, while she was in his presence.
“The woods are clear,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll have to fear retaliation after all.”
“Then you should get some rest, my lord. I can wake you if I hear anything.”
She saw the moment he became aware of what he was about to say. It was the split second before he cut himself off, the split second where he looked across the fire and through the flames and actually met her waiting gaze. His eyes didn’t so much widen as they did freeze, fixed and firm as memory of their earlier valor returned, his as well as Gwen’s, and all the other women who had stood to fight with their men. She waited patiently to see if he would pursue his objection.
“Merlin would never let me hear the end of it if I fell asleep without waking him.” His gaze slid back to the fire, and to the way it danced as he poked at it with a stick. “But I appreciate your offer, Gwen. It’s most kind, especially since you’ve had as long a day as I have.”
She let him off with a half-smile. “For Merlin’s sake, then.”
His answering smile was nearly lost with a duck of his head, as if he couldn’t allow showing such a weakness without the excuse of company. She wondered why he didn’t smile like that more often. It brightened his entire demeanor, stripping away the smug exterior he presented to the court and leaving behind someone completely different, someone even more magnetic than the prince who stood strong and tall next to the king. She liked this person he so rarely presented. It was a shame he felt compelled to hide him so often.
“Do you think he'll return?”
He spoke without lifting his gaze. She wished the fire didn’t separate them. It might be better to read what he meant by such a nebulous question. “Pardon?”
“Merlin. Do you think he'll go back to Ealdor?”
“Why should he? He made his choice.”
A flicker of lashes, but toward Merlin, not her. “His mother is there.”
Now, she understood. She did not always when it came to Arthur, especially since Merlin had come into his employ. He had never been a maverick, too lost within Uther’s shadow as he sought unnecessary approval, but the boy she had known – Morgana’s tormenter, the kingdom’s primary strong arm – was changing right before her eyes.
“His mother has always been there,” she said gently.
His mouth tensed, and he set the stick down to leave the fire be. “I don't know if I could make the same sacrifice.”
“But that's different. Merlin has had a lifetime with her already.” Surely, Arthur saw that? There could be no comparison, and yet, the sad distance in his eyes said otherwise.
“Do you remember your mother?”
She stifled the instinct to withdraw. Though Morgana had been privy to the stories of her past, Gwen didn’t like discussing them. Too often in the beginning, people attempted to be kind by telling her everything they’d loved about her mother, as if filling her head with their feelings could ever supplant her own. She learned to avoid the topic entirely. Morgana only knew because of the close friendship they shared.
But in spite of their victory in Ealdor, Arthur dwelled in a melancholy place. Perhaps it stemmed from fears of losing Merlin, or seeing Merlin with his mother. Either way, Gwen owed him more than flimsy excuses.
“Vaguely,” she said. “I remember...laughter. And the smell of fresh bread. She worked in the castle kitchen, and I’d sit on a stool and watch her bake.”
Some of the hardness disappeared from his mouth, the corner lifting in the semblance of a smile. “Those are good memories to have. You’re very fortunate.”
“We both are.”
“I have no memories.”
“But we have our fathers. And I whole-heartedly believe they would both move mountains for us if they had to.”
Arthur sighed and leaned back on his hands. “I wish I could. My father's motives aren't quite the same as yours. His main concern is the kingdom. As it should be.”
He was slipping back into his prince mantle, which was the last thing he needed right now, the last thing Gwen wanted. “Just because he fights for the kingdom doesn’t mean he doesn’t fight for you, too.”
“Only because I'm the heir.”
“No.” The single denial came out forcefully enough to startle both of them. Gwen masked her own surprise by making it look deliberate, and rose from her seat to come around the fire to sit closer. “Because you're his son.”
His head tilted, his eyes speculative. “You truly believe that, don't you?
“Yes. Why don't you?”
He had no immediate answer, though he didn’t retreat again, either from his assessment of her or back to the fire. She couldn’t remember if he’d ever regarded her for so long before, then recalled the morning in Ealdor when she’d brought him his breakfast. A new day had dawned for the village, and now she knew, a new day had dawned for Arthur at the same time. She’d simply been incapable of holding her tongue any longer, not after witnessing Hunith taking from her own rations to feed him. The fact that he’d actually listened to her meant more than she could ever have imagined.
“You see good in everything, don’t you, Guinevere?”
Nobody said her name like Arthur did. The way he stretched it out, savoring each syllable, gave it weight she felt in her very marrow. When he used it, she was no longer the young girl, the friend, the daughter. She was every one of her years, a woman now, and, from the way Arthur curled his tongue around her name, appreciated for it.
“Because there is good in everything,” she said. “I’m merely seeing what’s already there.”
“You think Kanen had good in him?”
“I think he probably did once.”
“But now. What about now? You think pillaging Ealdor is the mark of a good man?”
She was ready to argue when she saw the twinkle in his eye. With an indignant huff, she swiveled her head away, lifting her chin to sit straight and tall and look at anything that wasn’t Arthur. “It’s not so naïve to believe people are inherently good,” she said. “It’s what we do with what happens to us that truly matters.”
“And what about magic? What about the sorcerers who bring evil into this world when they practice?”
“I know of at least one who used his power for good.” She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “As do you, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”
He conceded her point with a slight bow of his head. “What Will did was…a surprise. But that’s just one act, one deed. We don’t know how else he used his magic. For instance…” He paused and frowned, as if the notion had only just occurred to him. “Why didn’t he use it to stop Kanen? Why was he willing to sit back and just let his village be broken?”
Gwen hadn’t thought of that. She’d been too caught up in the victory, and what it meant for Ealdor’s future, to give Will much consideration at all.
“I’m sure he had his reasons,” she said, though it sounded weak, even to her ears.
“I’m not condemning him, whatever it might sound like.” That was exactly what it did sound like, but his admission was shocking enough to draw her attention back to him. “He saved my life. At the cost of his own. But it makes one question whether the good sprang from him, or from the fact that Merlin was there.”
“What does Merlin have to do with a man’s choice whether or not to save you?”
“Because this is Merlin we’re talking about. For all his fumbling, he has a certain way of bringing out the best in people.” He picked up his stick and resumed prodding the still strong flames. “As do you.”
Her cheeks went hot. It had nothing to do with the fire, and everything to do with the way his voice had deepened at the compliment, shy and sure both at the same time. She folded her hands in her lap to hide the sudden tremors overtaking them, but the aching pressure only brought to mind stronger hands than hers, what they would feel like if they were the ones quieting her riotous emotions.
What was she doing? Sitting here, speaking to Prince Arthur himself, as if she had any place to do so. As if he actually cared about what she might think. Certainly, his interest in hearing opinions of those around him was more than it used to be, but that was Merlin’s influence. It had nothing to do with her, or any imagined flattery he might bestow. It was simply his training, as the heir to the throne, that ability to beguile in one breath, then besiege in the next. It meant nothing, and she was foolish to even hope for otherwise.
They sat in silence, motionless except for Arthur’s occasional roust of the fire, side by side and yet so far apart the distance carved a loneliness inside her she loathed. Tomorrow, they would be back in Camelot, and all the work of the past week, the coming together and joining forces, the solidarity of comrades with a common purpose, would be gone. Morgana and Arthur would have to face Uther’s displeasure for aiding Ealdor when he’d already turned Hunith down. She and Morgana would share stories in private of the deeds they’d seen and done, but she’d not be privy to what Arthur might boast of to Merlin, if he even would after Uther’s upbraiding. Their battle would slip into memory, shared, yes, but separately.
And that saddened her most of all.
Morgana made a sound in her sleep that finally broke Arthur and Gwen’s stasis. Gwen stiffened, and peered over the flames at the shapeless shadow Morgana formed on the ground. While no more sounds came forth, she listened, alert, for long moments, in case they did.
“I should probably try sleeping now,” she said, keeping her gaze away from Arthur. “Morgana must be cold.”
“She should’ve laid closer to the fire, then. But you’re right. You really should sleep. Morning will come before you know it.”
Somehow, Gwen doubted that.
She rose stiffly, biting the inside of her cheek to keep from betraying the tightness of her muscles. “Good night, my lord.”
His voice drifted after her, like a warm breeze tickling along the ground. “Good night, Guinevere.”
To be continued in Chapter Two...