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.
Arthur had never noticed how quiet the castle was at night, until he laid awake listening to its ghosts. It wasn’t a deliberate choice. He normally had no problems falling asleep. But ever since the business with the unicorn, he found his thoughts too distracting to settle until long after the rest of the household had succumbed to slumber.
Merlin knew. The first morning he’d come in and found Arthur already awake, he’d frowned, looked at the bed Arthur had decided to make out of sheer boredom, then proceeded to grill him on whether or not he felt all right. Arthur had finally grown too annoyed to field his constant queries any longer, and sent him off to deal with some busywork in the stables, but he saw the worried frown on Merlin’s face before he left. He saw the same worried frown that night when Merlin lingered longer than necessary after dinner. Though Arthur dismissed him, he heard Merlin wander around in the corridor for hours afterward. Neither of them ever mentioned it.
Reluctant to face questions he didn’t know the answers to, he got into the habit of standing at his window, gazing out into the courtyard, instead of lying in his bed and staring up at the ceiling. The latter was an exercise in mind-numbing dreariness. He discovered that almost right away. The former, however, gave him focus. It reminded him of everything he had to fight for, and everything that had happened before. Though he never found the answers he sought, it worked to quiet the worst of the demons.
Sleep was always short.
This had been the pattern for nearly two weeks when he saw her. The hour was late, the sentries had reached that point of semi-alertness where they more leaned against the wall than stood straight at their posts, and the moon had climbed in full-faced gold over the parapet. A flash of movement caught his eye, and he looked away from the sky in time to see Gwen descending the stairs.
An echo of a previous midnight erased his earlier contemplations. He saw only her, and remembered all too well how she had listened to him, and, for too few precious minutes, helped him believe he wasn’t alone.
When she disappeared from view, heading for home by the look of it, he twisted away from the window and strode purposefully for the door. His footsteps seemed to clamor in the noiseless castle, so he quickened his pace to be gone that much quicker. He needed to reach her before it was too late. If he could speak with her like they had that night on the way back from Ealdor, perhaps he could find sufficient succor to find sleep early.
The courtyard was empty, and as he approached, the sentries resumed their rightful stances. He acknowledged them with a nod, but his gaze was directed ahead, into the street, searching everywhere for a sign of her. None came. He couldn’t even hear footfalls except for his own. But he knew the way to her home, and for the first time in a long series of mindless nights, he had a purpose more consuming than his own thoughts.
He caught a glimpse of her skirts around the next corner, and broke into a jog. The impulse to call out her name overwhelmed him, but Camelot slept behind their closed doors and shuttered windows, and he couldn’t risk calling attention to his chase. He waited until he could actually see her full form, and even then, it came out more as a breath.
But a single breath was all it took. Her step faltered, and she glanced over her shoulder in search of the source. The moonlight caught her face, and though her eyes were shadowed, he could see well enough to know she was frowning.
Saying it a little louder directed her gaze straight to him. This time, she stopped, and waited for him to catch up.
His pulse had accelerated slightly from his dash. He expected it to slow once he stopped, but standing there at her side, finally able to speak to her as he’d wanted, he realized it wasn’t.
“I saw you leaving the castle.” That sounded completely inane, even if it was true. It also did nothing to ease the lines between her fine brows.
“Is Morgana all right?”
“Morgana? No. I mean, yes, she’s fine. She’s not the reason I’m here.”
“Oh.” She waited for him to elaborate, but when he didn’t… “Why are you here?”
“I…was thinking about that night. After Ealdor.” Now that he faced her, he had no idea why the words he wished to come failed him so miserably. They had reached a point during that first real conversation where he’d felt safe enough to admit things he never uttered aloud. Like how jealous he had been of Merlin the entire time they’d been in Ealdor. Watching him with Hunith had been bittersweet, and not because he feared for the village’s fate. “I had hoped we could continue it.”
Her hesitation was clear. She might as well have worn a sign that proclaimed she was well aware of the difference in their stations, and he spoke madness by seeking her out. Maybe he was. It certainly didn’t make much sense, if he tried to analyze it rationally. All he knew was that his head was a tumult of unknowns, increasing in number every day, but when he looked at her in the moonlight, they felt surmountable.
“You mean…our conversation?” she asked carefully.
“Yes.” Thank God, she understood his babbling. “Would you walk with me?”
She glanced around at the darkened buildings, and the silvery rays from the moon above danced across her face. The weariness he often noticed in her at the end of a long day vanished. Instead, he saw the soft curve of her cheek, the full swell of her mouth, the fathomless pools of her brown eyes. Morgana might be beautiful, but Gwen possessed an earthly loveliness that transcended superficial trappings. It surprised him that he’d failed to notice that before.
“People are sleeping,” Gwen said. “I don’t think it would be polite to disturb them, do you?”
He had been so relieved she understood, he hadn’t given additional thought about their surroundings. The fact that it was Gwen who pointed it out – who seemed to always be the one to spot his shortcomings – was embarrassing. Almost embarrassing enough for him to abandon his request. Why should she care to listen to him when he only made a bumble out of everything he said?
“We could walk down to the market, my lord.” Her gentle tone diminished the worst of his chagrin, though the way she looked up at him through her lashes carried a hint of boldness the soft tilt of her head couldn’t mask. “It’ll be empty, and you can speak freely there.”
Yes. That’s what he wanted. To speak freely. To let loose so much of what plagued him, because she might censure, but she would never condemn.
With a small smile, he nodded. “That sounds like a marvelous plan.”
They fell into step, side by side. While he was anxious to reach the market, he matched his pace to hers, slower, more measured. The hem of her skirt whispered against his boot, a sly tease, a delicate taunt. Gwen seemed completely unaware. He wasn’t entirely certain why he noticed it at all, except that he did. It reminded him of how she’d dressed in Ealdor, how comfortable she’d been in trousers and how disconcerting it had been to see her move so confidently throughout the village in them. It was much harder to argue with her about the women joining in the fight, when she herself looked more than capable of taking on a few of the men. It was really no wonder he’d eventually conceded to the women’s wishes.
The market was deserted, just as she’d said. Gwen led the way to the fountain at the far end, and smoothed her skirt over her legs when she sat on its stone edge. Arthur sat next to her. Then, however, he was at a loss. The silence suffocated rather than soothed. He wanted only to speak to her, but had no idea what to say.
“So…” Though it took several minutes, Gwen was the one to break their quietude. Bold, brave Gwen. “You wished to talk to me?”
“Right.” He cleared his throat. It did little to clear his head. Where to start? “I’ve…not been sleeping as well as I used to.”
“Oh? You’re not unwell, are you? Perhaps Merlin—”
“No, no, I’m not ill.” The last thing he wanted was for her to go running to Merlin with tales of his health. “And please, don’t say anything to Merlin. He fusses over me more than a mother hen.”
The corner of her mouth twitched. “Well, that is his job.”
“Perhaps. But it’s really not necessary this time.”
“But if you’re not sleeping—”
“It has nothing to do with my health.”
“I don’t understand.”
Leaning forward, he rested his forearms on his knees, his hands knotting, opening, then knotting again as he searched for words. “It started with my father’s choice not to send aid back to Ealdor. I didn’t agree with him.”
“But you came anyway.”
“Yes. And he made his displeasure more than known when we returned.” He glanced over at Gwen, and was glad to see her watching him, listening so intently. All that was missing to reproduce the night in the forest were the orange flames burnishing her skin, but sitting beneath the austere moonlight created an equally welcome effect. It sharpened her loveliness, etching her out of the chilly air into a flesh and blood statue worthy of any gallery. He forgot for a moment what exactly he’d been saying, and had to blink several times to return to the present. “He could have demanded I suffer the punishment tenfold, but it wouldn’t have changed anything. I still would have ridden out to join you. We did the right thing.”
The twitch of her lips curved into a small, understanding smile. “Of course, you did.”
He couldn’t let her negate everybody’s contribution. “We did.”
“Yes, but we’re not the ones unable to sleep now, are we?”
“Ah, yes.” He ducked his head. “Point taken.”
“You slept fine in Ealdor.”
“Because hours and hours of training can work wonders.”
“It exhausted you.”
“And distracted me. I was too focused on defeating Kanen with as few losses as possible to think of my own circumstances.”
“But don’t you see?” She rested her hand on his arm, the weight both delicate and strong. Though she touched his coat, the tips of her fingertips skimmed across his wrist. Fire and ice raced each other through his veins, and his lungs tightened as he stared, transfixed, at her dark skin against his. “This is what will make you such a great king when it’s your time. You didn’t let something stand in your way of doing the right thing.”
“That doesn’t mean my father didn’t have a point. If I’d taken the men necessary to defeat Kanen, our presence in Cenred’s kingdom could have been misread.”
“Is that what troubles you?”
“Partially,” he admitted. For all that he knew he’d done what was necessary, he couldn’t escape the fact that part of him understood his father’s reasoning.
“What’s the other part?”
“Trying to reconcile what Merlin’s friend did.”
She didn’t speak, but neither did she move her hand, like she’d forgotten where it was. Arthur hoped that wasn’t the case. He wanted to cover it with his own and feel if the bones were as fragile as they appeared, though he sincerely doubted they could be. Her skin would not be smooth. She worked too hard, and had done so for too long, for that to be the case. But if her palms were not callused, they would not be Gwen’s, because she wore the truth of her spirit there, for the world to see. Industrious. Honest. Willing to do what was necessary with her own hands, if that was what it took.
“He doesn’t talk about it, you know.”
A pang of jealousy sliced through him. Of course, Merlin and Gwen had regular contact. He’d seen them laughing together in the castle more than once, sharing secrets back and forth that he and Morgana were likely never to hear. He’d never realized how fortunate they were to have each other, until he wanted some of it for himself.
“It’s not safe to. Merlin understands that.”
“It’s not just Will. He doesn’t talk about Ealdor, and if it comes up, he finds a way to change the subject. I think it’s easier for him not to think about it.”
“He told me he left because he’d changed. He wanted more than what he could get in Ealdor. He probably doesn’t talk about it, because he’s moved on. His life is here now.”
“But he was going to move back to save them.”
“Because they needed him. Now, they don’t.”
She started to squeeze his knee, but then froze. A moment later, she withdrew. He almost dragged her hand back, but he understood why she’d retreated. Because he was the prince, and she was a servant, and even here, they couldn’t just be Arthur and Gwen.
And that, more than all the rest of it combined, left him empty.
“He must believe you need him more, then.” She smiled, as if that could replace her touch. “Perhaps he already knows about your trouble sleeping.”
“If he’s not mentioned it to you, then I doubt it.”
“I’m not the one he spends the most time with.”
“I believe that honor probably rests with my armor. His cleaning is impossibly slow.”
“Or it’s impossibly dirty,” she came back with, her tone still light. “You do use it quite a lot.”
“Out of necessity.”
“It’s necessary to walk through the castle in your chain mail when there isn’t any training scheduled?”
He opened his mouth to retort he’d only done that once, and it had only been because Uther had commanded his presence in a counsel with some of the nobility, and that he was to appear “appropriately forbidding,” when it dawned on him Gwen had noticed. Even more, she remembered, because that had been several weeks ago, and he couldn’t remember actually passing her in the corridors on the way to meet his father.
“It looks good on me,” he boasted, testing to see how she would respond.
“Most things do.”
“Well, if I say all, there’s no room for improvement, now is there?”
He smiled. “Are you saying I’m not perfect?”
“Nobody’s perfect, my lord. Though some people certainly believe themselves to be.”
“Is that what you think of me?”
The teasing glint in her eyes faded, replaced by a more sobering assessment. “It’s not my place to say.”
“There’s no such thing here. I want you to feel free to talk to me just as you would anybody else.”
“But you’re not anybody else.”
“Do you fear what might happen to you if you say what you’re thinking? Because I give you my word, nothing will.”
Her mouth thinned, and after a moment, she shook her head. “No, you’ve never faulted anyone an opinion.”
“Then tell me.”
She seemed uncomfortable under his direct gaze, looking away and up at the stars pinpricking the velvety sky. Her hands folded in her lap. As far away as the heavens now.
“When Morgana first came to Camelot, and I was moved from the kitchens to serve her, I didn’t like you. I thought you were rude, and arrogant, and a bully, and every time I got assigned to help serve, I traded extra shifts with another girl so she’d take my place.”
Arthur frowned. “You preferred more work than serving me supper?”
“After I saw you spill hot soup down another girl and not even apologize, yes.”
He had no memory of the incident, but he wasn’t going to let her know that. It would just make him look worse.
“Do you remember how quiet Morgana was when she arrived?” Gwen continued. “Her grief was still so fresh. She’s always felt things deeply, like…they become a part of her she can’t root out. She would barely talk to anyone, and nothing Uther did seemed to make a difference. Then, one day, you showed up at her quarters with a pair of swords you could barely hold up. You asked her to come down to the courtyard to train with you because all of your father’s knights were away for some reason.”
This, he remembered. He’d only seen Morgana at meals and those times he caught a glimpse of her wandering like a wraith through the castle’s corridors. And Uther had constantly fretted over her. Arthur had been jealous, to say the least.
“She didn’t want to go,” he said.
“But you wouldn’t take no for an answer. Morgana finally went with you, because it was the only way to get you to stop.”
“And she won.”
Gwen’s gaze swiveled around. “You let her win.”
“She’s a talented swordswoman.”
“She was a sad and distracted ten-year-old girl. I was watching from the window, Arthur. I saw the whole thing. I saw every mistake you made to make sure Morgana beat you.”
For the first time, he was glad for the darkness. It hid the heat creeping into his face at being caught out, especially after all these years. He couldn’t even argue with Gwen that she was mistaken. She was the daughter of a blacksmith. She knew more about swords and how to wield them than any other woman he knew.
“She still won,” Arthur said. “And she’s never let me forget it since.”
“And I’ve never forgotten how that marked the day she started to move on from her grief. Because a boy I thought was insufferable set aside his pride to make a girl he could have been jealous of forget about all her pain for a few hours.”
He wasn’t entirely sure how that had answered his original question, and he felt too foolish to ask Gwen to clarify. But he was grateful for the honest reaction, and more than a little embarrassed she’d known all along.
“Please tell me you never told Morgana.”
Gwen smiled. “And take away her ability to gloat about beating you? Never.”
A breeze rippled over the cobblestone, lifting the hem of Gwen’s dress. She shivered once and rubbed at her arms, but otherwise didn’t comment on the impending chill.
“I should let you go.” Abandoning her company was the last thing he wanted, but he didn’t want her to be cold, either. “I’ve kept you long enough.”
“But…we didn’t resolve what’s troubling you.”
“I’m not sure there is a resolution.”
“Will you be able to sleep?”
He rose to his feet and held out his hand to her. “I think I will now, yes. And I owe that to you.”
Gwen glanced from his proffered fingers, to his face, then back to his hand again. The battle on whether or not to accept warred behind her eyes. No amount of darkness could hide that from him. After a moment, she took a deep breath, lifted her chin, and rested her fingers on his.
Though he wanted to lace their fingers together, the subtle heat of her touch just as he helped her rise dispelled the last vestiges of his anxiety. He didn’t understand why she was capable of turning the world on its end. The feelings she evoked were vastly different from those other women in his life had, and yet, his physical response felt all too familiar. She was soft, but strong, lovely to the point of distraction. Wanting to know more, to feel just how soft she could be, was enough reason to let go of her now, but even then, he took his time releasing her, their hands bound by some invisible attraction that required long seconds to break.
He turned away from her and the fountain to head back in the direction of her home. Gwen fell into step beside him, her pace seemingly as reluctant as his.
Arthur cleared his throat. “If I have troubles falling asleep again – not tonight, obviously, but later, sometime, would you…agree to meet with me?”
Her quiet response… “If I’m available, certainly, my lord.”
He needed to get this out there. If he was going to have her, he wanted all of her. “If it’s just you and I, I want you to feel free to call me Arthur. Not ‘my lord,’ or ‘sire.’ Just Arthur. You should have the same freedom to use my name as I do yours.”
“But that’s not—”
“I already told you, you’re not just anybody else. You can’t grant me your trust in one breath, and then take it away in the next, Gwen.”
Perhaps it was too bold a request. Asking for her company and conversation was one thing. She could explain it away as part of her duty. This invited intimacy that she might not be comfortable with. He should have considered that before ever blurting it out. Sometimes, Merlin was right. He really could be a prat.
She maintained her silence for nearly the entire trek back to her house. Arthur had to settle for the occasional brush of her arm against his, and the knowledge that at least she’d agreed to meet with him the next time his insomnia posed a problem.
“How will I know if you wish to see me?” she asked when they rounded the final corner.
He had no idea. He’d thought the hard part would be getting her to agree to it at all.
At her door, she paused. “Place a flower on your windowsill,” she offered. “I’ll look for it when I leave Morgana for the night. If it’s there, we can meet at the market, like we did tonight.”
“Yes,” he said, relieved. An elegant solution. He could bring the flower with him and give it to her to stop Merlin’s inevitable questions. “That’s perfect.”
Gwen smiled. The moon had shifted since he’d first caught up to her, the light that shone alone her cheek paler in the fresh diffusion. “Good night, Arthur.”
He bowed his head, but felt like he was going to float away.
To be continued in Chapter Three...