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.
Anticipation was the darkness before dawn, those last few minutes when the flowers kept their faces tucked within their petals and the insects waited to resume their minstrel ways for the day to come. It was the promise of what was yet to come, and the fear that it never would. Those who served the court in Camelot were well accustomed to the feeling, but Gwen had never experienced it as she did that night.
A bitter wind cut across the distant fields, whipping loose leaves across the cobbles and into the streets. From where she stood on the parapet, Gwen had the best view possible of the road returning to the castle, but her fingers had long ago gone numb from the chill, her heavy cape pulled tightly around her motionless form. She should have gone home. Morgana had dismissed her hours earlier. And she had, long enough to allay her father’s worries.
But as soon as he’d fallen asleep, she rose from her bed and slipped out the door again, half-running back to the castle to wait and watch.
Three days. They had been gone for three days. Arthur and Merlin and Leon and the half dozen knights King Uther had deemed necessary to catch the bandits who’d been robbing trade caravans to nearby villages. The original estimation had them returning that same day, and yet, nobody had heard a single word from the party. Uther grew increasingly short-tempered. On the second day, he’d sent out a scout to search the area for any signs of Arthur and his men.
The scout had yet to come home, too.
She knew it wasn’t her place to watch for their return. The guards were on alert. They didn’t need her vigil. But her sleep the night before had been tumultuous at best. She’d dreamed of Arthur lying dead in the forest, Merlin broken in a pile nearby, other bodies bleeding into the soil as the bandits killed the lot of them over and over again. She’d woken and retched, and nearly picked up a sword to go off in search of them herself. Duty alone kept her bound to Camelot, since Morgana wasn’t convinced something was wrong.
“Arthur probably had to follow them farther from Camelot than he planned,” she said with more certainty than Gwen could understand. “I’m sure he and Merlin will be home soon.”
Though Gwen wanted to believe her, she couldn’t stomach the nightmarish images that refused to fade away. Standing on the parapet kept them in check. It stopped her from thinking of what might have happened to them. Most of all, it gave her hope that Arthur wasn’t lost, after all. She might have worried about him in the past, but that had been as their future king. Now, her fears were for Arthur the man, the one she’d met in the market more than once since he’d chased her down because he couldn’t sleep, the one who sometimes didn’t speak of himself at all but instead asked her to tell stories of the castle and her ventures into the lower town. That version of Arthur consumed more and more of her waking thoughts. That version left her anxious in ways previously reserved for her family and Morgana.
The half moon had crawled high into the sky when a flicker in the distance caught her eye. It came not from the forest, but from the fields, and her first inclination was to ignore it. She wasn’t interested in animals foraging for food. But it didn’t stop and start, like an animal would as it stripped the stalks. It traveled in a straight line, slowly and surely toward Camelot.
She leaned against the edge for a better look, her chill forgotten as her fingers gripped the icy stone. Details were impossible, but the progress was undeniable. When it passed out of her view, she moved the few feet sideways to get it back in her sights. It was larger now, and she squelched the sudden leap of her stomach as the amorphous shape took more definitive form.
People. A small group. A single horse.
Her hope ebbed. Likely not Arthur, then.
They fell out of view again as they skirted the edge of the fields. She would have abandoned her focus on them if she hadn’t realized the direction they chose. They approached from the north, the path selected by the knights when they wished to leave Camelot without rousing the people. Few others utilized it. Even fewer would use it at night.
Her heavy cloak flapped in the wind as she raced for the stairs. A better vantage was possible from the other side of the castle. When the lone guard she passed shot her a curious glance, she consciously slowed down. She shouldn’t raise suspicions in case she was mistaken. It might just be someone who had lost their way.
The travelers were much closer by the time she found them again. Two people walked, one leading the horse, another at its side. Something large was draped over the steed’s back, blocking any distinguishable emblems it might have worn, but every once in a while, moonlight reflected off the broad shoulders of the man in front.
Her pulse jumped when she realized it was metallic. Armor.
If not Arthur, then one of his knights.
Hesitation no longer held her back. Gwen ran down the stairs again, and through the deserted kitchens, out the rear entrance of the castle and past the stables. She didn’t want to wait for them to come to her. They were obviously tired and would need all the help they could get.
She heard the soft clop of the horse’s hooves first. They spurred her faster, and directed her path as she wound through the narrow street. The cold no longer bothered her, the flush of heat from running dispelling the last of her chill. Perhaps it was just as much anticipation of news, too. In light of their arrival, the reasons were unimportant.
Though no torches lit the thoroughfare, enough light spilled from above to reveal the arrivals. Gwen tried not to gasp in relief at the familiar sight of Arthur with his sword drawn, or Merlin’s lanky body at the horse’s side, but some sound must have escaped because Arthur looked up, and his grip tensed for the split second before he recognized her.
She almost stumbled. Then, his shoulders slumped, and the angle of his blade lowered.
Merlin leapt forward at the sight of her. “Gwen. Go wake Gaius.”
She drew up short. “Are you hurt?” Her gaze jumped past him to Arthur, only to realize the shape over the horse was a third man. “Who is it?”
“Leon. He’s barely alive.” Gripping her shoulders, he whirled her around and gave her a not too gentle shove. “Go! We can’t waste any more time.”
She ran. Questions would have to wait.
She was helping Gaius strip back Merlin’s bed when heavy footfalls crossed the threshold. Gaius left her alone to direct them, and she stepped away in time for Arthur and Merlin to enter, carrying an unconscious Leon between them. His armor looked like he’d walked through fire, melted and warped across his left side, scorched along the right. His beard had been singed away, as well, and furious blisters and welts mottled his otherwise fair cheek.
Gaius caught her arm and pulled her aside. “I need the most powerful cutting tool your father has,” he instructed. “We need to get that armor off him as quickly as possible.”
Leon didn’t make a sound as Arthur and Merlin laid him on the bed. Gwen tore her eyes away from the brave man she’d known much of her life and nodded as she backed away. “I’ll be as fast as I can.”
She tried not to think about what could have happened while she ran to the smithy. What could have burned Leon so badly? Where were the rest of the knights? How had Merlin and Arthur managed to escape? She wondered if Arthur would even be there when she returned. Uther would want to know he was back, and if there was a threat, he would need more knights to take into the fray. Answers would not likely come until she could speak to Merlin, and even then, there was every possibility he would leave with Arthur.
Her fears and frustration had compounded by the time she found the tool she wanted and ran back. She opened the door to see a shirtless Arthur, braced against the edge of the table, and Gaius behind him, swabbing down a nasty cut in his lower back. Both men turned their heads to her when she entered, though Arthur’s gaze was the only one to linger.
“Good,” Gaius said. “You’re back. Finish cleaning this out, so Merlin and I can tend to Leon. I can’t tell if Arthur needs stitches until I can see it properly.”
She traded the cutter for the bowl and cotton, ducking her eyes away from Arthur’s. Up close, the wound looked even worse, the torn skin jagged as if it had been ripped from Arthur’s flesh. “What happened?” she asked, once Gaius left them alone.
“A creature that breathed fire.” Arthur’s voice was deep and even, no trace of pain anywhere to be heard. “We weren’t sure what it was.”
Was. Relief should not have felt so good. “So it’s dead?”
“Yes. Thanks to Merlin.”
Her hand paused where she’d been wiping away more of the blood. “Merlin? Really?”
“Well, it was his plan how to trap the thing. And he’s the one who dealt the final blow after Leon and I were injured.”
“What happened to the others?”
Arthur dropped his head. The muscles in his shoulders bunched. “Dead.”
Without considering her actions, she touched his arm, offering what little comfort she could. “I’m so sorry, Arthur. I know how hard that is for you.”
His skin was hot, his breath just as warm when he turned his head toward her caress. “Why weren’t you home when you found us? Nothing’s wrong, is there?”
“No.” The temptation to deny her surveillance almost won. She hated how clingy it made her feel. But she could never lie to Arthur, not now, not after he’d been so surprisingly eloquent about trusting her during their various midnight meetings. “I saw you from the castle. We’ve been worried what might have happened to you.”
“Your father sent out a scout yesterday, because he was so concerned. Did he ever find you?”
“No. Though the bandits had circled back to cut us off from Camelot by that point. He probably found them first.”
They lapsed into a respectful silence for the men who had fallen under this latest threat. Gwen resumed washing away the blood and grit that clogged the edges of Arthur’s injury, taking extra care not to pull at the broken skin or exacerbate the bleeding. She had to rinse out her cloth more than once, but Arthur didn’t make a sound throughout the procedure.
His reasonably healthy presence was reassuring, but she realized quickly how she’d missed the sound of his voice.
“There.” She set both rag and bowl on the table. “Don’t move. I’ll get Gaius.”
Though she didn’t look back as she left, the weight of his gaze followed her the entire way.
Leon’s armor lay in pieces on the floor, while the man himself was neatly blocked by Merlin and Gaius bent over him. Gwen paused in the doorway and cleared her throat. The last thing Leon needed was for her to startle Gaius in the middle of his work.
“How does it look?” Gaius asked without pausing.
“It’s not bleeding anymore, but I think it needs to be stitched.”
“Can you do it, please, Gwen? I’d rather not leave Leon until I’ve covered the worst of these burns.”
Her response was automatic, and she could certainly handle such a routine nursing request, but her palms were clammy by the time she returned to the outer room, the prospect of touching Arthur so intimately suddenly unnerving.
He was no longer stooped at the table, instead standing next to it with his bloodied shirt dangling from his hand. Though dirty and sweaty from the three days of battle, he looked entirely fit from the front, straight and tall and regarding her so keenly she stopped in her track. “I’ll just bandage it,” he said quietly before she could utter a word. “You should go home and rest.”
The last thing she wanted was to leave. “Let me close the worst of it.” That felt like a fair compromise, especially since his near dismissal had unfrozen her limbs. “I’m not tired anyway.”
With a duck of his head and a small smile, he dropped his shirt to the chair. “I wish I could say the same.”
Gwen bustled around, finding the needles and thread Gaius used in his surgeries. “Sleep shouldn’t be a problem for you tonight, then.”
“For a change.”
While Arthur resumed his earlier position, she had to pull up a stool to best reach his lower back. “Do you want anything for the pain before I start? Or I’m sure Gaius has something that will put you to sleep while I do it.”
“No, no, just do it. I’ll need to be alert when I make my report to Father.”
Gwen nodded in understanding, but she wasn’t convinced that was his only motive. Every time a knight died under his command, he felt it personally. He wouldn’t blunt his own pain when they had lost so much more.
He didn’t make a sound on the first stitch. As she pulled it taut, her eyes flickered to his hands. The knuckles were bone-white, his fingerpads pressed nearly flat into the table’s surface. His breathing hadn’t quickened, but that was through sheer force of will. Arthur’s determination to hide weakness at all costs was both one of his most admirable traits and the most frustrating.
“Were you worried?”
So intent on not hurting him, she barely heard the soft question. He hadn’t lifted his head when he asked, and she wasn’t sure if he kept his voice low for privacy or fear what her response might be. Her heart fluttered at the memory of her dream the night before. The truth was dangerous, but deceit was more so.
“Because of the missing scout?”
“No.” She pulled the third stitch tight. She didn’t remember doing the second. “Before.”
“The first night…I already knew something was wrong, even though we didn’t know about the creature yet. Somehow, Merlin did, too. He tried warning me, but I was too focused on what I thought the threat was. I didn’t listen to him.”
He sounded surprised by that, though Gwen didn’t know why. Arthur certainly paid more attention to Merlin than he did almost anyone else, but in his determination to prove himself, he had the unerring tendency to get lost in his own head.
“You were doing what you thought best,” she assured gently. It helped that she believed that with her whole heart.
“I shut him out.” Said with enough quiet force for her to draw back, fearful of hurting him with her needle. “I didn’t think I knew best. I thought I knew better. Because he’s Merlin, and…” A frustrated sigh accompanied the shake of his head. “I was wrong.” He glanced back at her over his shoulder. “Just like I was wrong about you.”
She wanted to look away from the blaze in his eyes. Danger lurked there, the peril of opening her heart and soul to what it promised. More than once during their encounters, she’d thought she’d seen a glimpse of something similar, but it was always fleeting, like he was too careful to expose more of himself than was safe.
And how terrifying was it to consider he deemed her just as dangerous? She would love to think they had mastered some sort of friendship through their conversations, but deep inside, she knew she’d been fooling herself. There was more there, in the way he sought her out, in her desires to witness more of him, in their unexpected needs for the other’s company. She’d ignored it as much as possible, because thinking about their prospects would only lead to aches she couldn’t cure. But Arthur, it would seem, was unwilling to ignore them any longer.
Gwen bent her head to try and resume closing the worst of his injury. “What do you mean?” Perhaps if he was forced to clarify, he’d recognize the precipice upon which they stood and withdraw.
He didn’t. “Before Ealdor. You were just…Guinevere. Morgana’s maid. Tom’s daughter. But after…”
“You had no reason to think of me as anything else.” She was letting him off the hook. Didn’t he see that?
He regarded her for several more seconds, time she felt all too keenly, before turning away again. The muscles in his back relaxed. It was easier to do a quick stitch and get that much closer to completing the task Gaius had given her, then.
“It makes me wonder what else I’ve missed,” he confessed.
Familiar territory. Safer. She could assure him as much as he needed. “I’ve told you many times, but you never listen to me, Arthur. Nobody expects you to be perfect.”
“Father does. If I’m to be king—”
“Because he’s perfect? He’s made his mistakes. We both know that. The difference is to learn from them.”
His silence was a blessing, allowing her the time to bind off the last of the small, straight stitches. Only a narrow section remained open, but the skin was too torn to adequately sew. She dabbed away the few drops of blood that had seeped through while she worked and wrapped his waist in a clean bandage.
“All done,” she announced. She backed away, busying her hands with cleaning up, though it did little to distract her wayward thoughts.
If it had hurt, he showed no sign of pain when he turned around. His only weakness rested in how careful he was not to twist or bend unnecessarily. He watched her move through the room, always with a piece of furniture between them, his mouth canted in a half smile.
“I missed you,” he said.
She glanced at the doorway to Merlin’s chamber, but there was no indication his words had been overheard. Still… “I’ve become a crutch to help you sleep.”
“No. You’re so much more than that, Gwen. I know that now.”
Panic bubbled inside her. “My lord—”
“Don’t.” The smile was gone, replaced with the edge of anger. “Don’t do that.”
“I must.” She edged nearer, though her gaze kept straying back to the stairs. “Gaius or Merlin—”
“I don’t care. Haven’t you heard a word I’ve said?”
His desperate tone finally focused her eyes back on him. A mistake. She couldn’t escape the ardent fix of his gaze now. “Sometimes I think I’ve heard too much.”
He stiffened as if she’d slapped him. “You don’t mean that.”
No, I don’t, she wanted to say, but the words were beaten down.
Footsteps echoed from Merlin’s room, whispering closer. Gwen retreated another safe step, in time for Merlin to burst between them, a relieved smile creasing his face.
“Gaius says Leon should be all right,” he said to Arthur, almost ignoring Gwen completely. “The burns are bad, but his armor protected more than we thought it did.”
“That’s good to hear.” Arthur cast one final look in her direction, then nodded toward the steps. “Is he awake?”
“Not yet. Gaius says it’s better for him to sleep anyway. The pain will be easier to bear.”
“I’ve finished with Arthur,” Gwen said. She needed to leave before Arthur said something he would regret. Or she reacted in ways she’d need to apologize for later. “If Gaius doesn’t need anything more, I’ll leave you to get some rest.”
“We should be fine,” Merlin said, heedless of Arthur’s attempt to get her to stay. “Thanks for everything, Gwen.”
She nodded to Merlin, then dropped a brief curtsey to Arthur that should have felt better than it did. It should have been a reminder of the distance between them, that regardless of what he might say or how she might feel, there were still barriers that could not be overcome. Instead, it merely hurt, because not once since Ealdor had she felt the need to enforce that difference, not when each had been speaking so plainly.
Grabbing her cloak, she fled without a look back. Her dreams might not be the same nightmares of before, but she was fairly certain they’d be just as provocative.
To be concluded in Chapter Four...