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.
For five nights running, he’d left the flower on his windowsill, and for five nights running, he’d waited for her in the empty market until nearly dawn.
She never came.
He knew why. Gwen feared what he might say to her when they were free to speak their minds. She’d made that abundantly clear after fleeing Gaius’s quarters.
But the rub of it was, Arthur wasn’t so certain what he would say. He never was. He only knew he needed to see her, that the world that grew increasingly complex every day would make more sense when she was there.
That he needed her to smile and look at him with those ageless eyes, not because he was her future king and worthy by default, but because he was a man she wished to share her heart with.
He tried to distract himself during the day with patrols along the roads trafficked by the bandits, but the long hours with nothing to find provided too many opportunities to wonder what Gwen was doing, what excuses she made to avoid meeting with him. Merlin’s presence helped somewhat. His incessant chattering yanked Arthur from the worst of his ruminations, but the reprieve was always temporary. As soon as they parted ways in the evening, Arthur went to his window to watch the courtyard.
The fact that he never saw her leave was only further proof she was avoiding him.
Morgana and Uther credited his morose mood to his losses in the forest. Gaius kept asking if he was having difficulty with his wound. One of his few smiles came with his visit to Leon after the knight woke up the first time, but its quick disappearance after leaving Leon alone to rest seemed to confirm what everybody already thought was wrong with him. Arthur didn’t correct them. What would he say? So he kept his silence, and went about his routine, and prayed for Gwen to change her mind.
The sixth evening, someone knocked at his door long after the sun had set. At Arthur’s call, Merlin entered, his hands behind his back.
“What is it?” Arthur asked, barely hiding his annoyance.
“I wondered if you wanted company for your walk tonight.”
He frowned. “What walk?”
Merlin hesitated, but only for a moment. “The one you’ve been taking to the market all week.”
Turning back to the window, Arthur kept his face a blank. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s all right.” Merlin edged forward, forcing himself into the corner of Arthur’s vision. “Nobody else knows. I haven’t said a word.”
He stayed unmoving, hoping that ignoring Merlin would be enough to drive him away, but now, just like every other time he tried this particular tactic, it failed to work. “How did you find out?”
“It was an accident, really. I had to deliver some medicine for Gaius, and I saw you leaving. I followed to make sure everything was all right.”
“Everything’s been fine. I just…needed some fresh air.”
His mouth thinned into a hard line. It figured Merlin would have seen those, too.
“Perhaps…you’re hoping for other company. I know that Gwen is rather partial to that type of wildflower.”
Arthur shook his head. It was pointless to continue the charade. He supposed he was lucky to have escaped Merlin’s attention this long. “It doesn’t matter. If she’s not there, she can’t see them.”
“So give them to her directly. Or if you want, I can—”
“No.” As tempting as it was to have an intermediary, he’d feel even more helpless if he gave into it. “How did you even know? Did she talk to you?”
“About you? No, but she doesn’t have to. It’s not like I don’t spend a lot of my time with you, Arthur. I have eyes. I can see how you care about each other.”
His heart leapt at the acknowledgement of Gwen’s affections, albeit from a third party. But even that wasn’t enough to overcome what she saw as insurmountable obstacles. She would have met with him, then, instead of hidden away, ignoring what he was finding more and more difficult to refute.
When he didn’t immediately respond, Merlin sighed and shook his head. “You’re making a mistake.”
“It’s my mistake to make.”
“And you'd rather sit and wait and hope for the best? That doesn't sound like the Arthur I know.”
“It's more complicated than that.”
“Because of my position. Because of Gwen's.”
“You didn't care about your position when you came to help in Ealdor. You did what you knew you had to, regardless of what Uther said.”
“This is different. There aren't lives at stake here.”
“No, just your happiness.”
He would have thought he heard bitterness in Merlin’s tone, except that seemed far too out of character with the Merlin he knew. “I'll be fine,” he tried to reassure. “You worry too much.”
“Because it matters. What's the point in fighting for everyone else when you never fight for yourself?”
Merlin was so fervent, Arthur couldn’t help but look at him. Belief in what he said blazed in his narrow face. His body practically quivered in indignation. Arthur couldn’t fathom why it mattered so much to Merlin, but there was no denying his passion for every word he uttered.
“Fighting for Camelot is fighting for myself,” Arthur argued.
Merlin’s shoulders sagged, and he retreated from where he’d pressed forward. “A crown is a poor substitute for a companion, sire. You may be destined for great things, but I don’t believe anyone would wish for you to achieve them alone. Especially Gwen.”
There were many arguments to Merlin’s assertions. He was young, he had years before he took the throne, he’d have ample opportunities to find someone not only more suitable for his queen, but someone who would want to be with him. Gwen had made her desires clear.
But imagining someone else in the role she’d filled these past weeks was beyond his abilities. Every time he turned to his side, he saw her expectant gaze smiling up at him. Every time the urge to bare his soul became too great, she was the one who heard him out. She was the one he dreamt of when he finally managed to find sleep, and it was her voice that cast aside the demons when he tried to battle them back.
He might not be alone in this destiny Merlin saw for him, but right now, the only one he wanted to share it with was the one who gave him the strength to face it.
Besides, Arthur rationalized, if Merlin could see how he felt for Gwen, others would, too, and then what would be the point of hiding at all?
“I might go for that walk after all,” Arthur said, striving for casual but knowing by the quirk of Merlin’s brow that he was failing miserably. He kept his gaze averted as he crossed to his wardrobe and fetched his red coat. “Though perhaps not to the market.”
“Will you need anything?”
Someday, Merlin’s delight in being proven right would warrant punishment, if only because it would make Arthur feel better. “Not tonight. You may go.” He listened to Merlin’s footsteps travel all the way to the door before adding, “Thank you, Merlin. She is worth fighting for.”
The door clicked quietly behind him.
As Gwen walked through the moonlit streets, she forced herself to keep her chin high. Tonight, for the first time since his return, Arthur had not placed the flower on his windowsill, requesting her presence in the market. When she’d reached the bottom of the stairs, she had glanced up automatically, then chastised herself for her weakness. She had to forget how much she missed their meetings. It was bad enough going through her daily routine in the castle and realizing she was looking for Arthur around every corner, in every group of knights. Even Morgana had commented on how distracted she was. Looking for his signal would not help matters.
Except…the sill was empty. She’d stumbled in her surprise, and had to wave off the nearby guard when he moved automatically to help her. She stood there and pretended to check her shoe, all the while looking up at the window through her lashes, just to be sure. But no, nothing was there, not even a shadow of a man lurking within the room. She’d swallowed down the bitter disappointment that welled in the back of her throat and continued on through the courtyard.
It hurt. She was ashamed to admit it, especially since she had deliberately chosen to ignore his summons all week. Arthur had not sought her out to demand answers, but she didn’t know if that was because he was nobler than she or because he was finally fully cognizant of the gulf between them and didn’t wish to lower his status within the court. His continued requests, however, had satisfied a secret part of her heart, the one that wanted to believe anything really was possible. Seeing him give up brought her crashing back to reality.
Her gaze drifted to the moon low on the horizon. Insipid clouds tried to obscure it, but even behind their tendrils, the frosty light glimmered bright and sure. Though it was ideal for illuminating shadowy paths, she would only get to appreciate its beauty through her window tonight.
She wondered if Arthur would even see the moon. And if he’d care that he wasn’t beneath it.
As she approached her front door, she noticed the soft glow streaming through the front window. Though she often worked later than he did, her father didn’t always wait up for her. It lifted her spirits to know she’d have him for company a little bit longer, before she had to retire and attempt to get a good night’s sleep. She paused when the rumble of voices came out as well. He already had company. The corner of her mouth lifted. An even better distraction.
The door swung wide, and Gwen promptly froze on its threshold. Tom rose from where he’d been sitting at their table, his half-empty tankard left behind, but across from him, much slower to stand, was Arthur. He had his own drink, though his appeared mostly untouched, and his coat rested, discarded, on the seat beside him. As their eyes met, a soft smile curved his mouth. Gwen started to smile in return, her heart leaping at the mere sight of him, but then she remembered where she was – who she was – and swept her gaze over to her father, away from temptation, away from Arthur and everything she wanted.
“Don’t just stand there, Gwen,” Tom chided. “We have a visitor.”
“I see that.” Her muscles slowly unlocked, and she guided the door shut. As soon as her hands were free, she bobbed a quick curtsey in Arthur’s direction. “My lord.”
“Morgana kept you late,” Arthur said. “I hope everything is all right.”
“She’s fine. We were finishing some needlework and lost track of the hour.”
Arthur chuckled. “Knowing Morgana, I think it’s more likely you were finishing her work. She treats her needles as if they’re all swords.”
Her gaze jumped to him, her spine stiffening. He had coaxed stories from her more than once about how she constantly had to fix Morgana’s crooked stitches. His allusion to deeper knowledge was out of place here, didn’t he see that?
Tom didn’t seem to notice. “But you’re here now, Gwen, that’s what matters. Prince Arthur stopped by to ask me something. To ask both of us, I suppose.”
“Oh?” She did everything in her power to hide the sudden flutters in her stomach. What was Arthur up to? “Did you require assistance in something, sire?” Maybe if she insisted on using his titles, he’d see reason again.
Arthur glanced at Tom, then squared his shoulders and cleared his throat. “No, no assistance. I came to ask your father’s permission for your company this evening. If you were willing, of course.”
Gwen caught her breath and stared at him in disbelief. He might as well have asked her to run through Camelot naked. Coming to her father? Was he mad? There was nothing discreet about that. That was the very definition of indiscreet, in fact. Everyone would know. All they needed were eyes.
When she didn’t respond right away, Tom shuffled nervously in place. “Gwen—”
“My company for what?” she blurted. She prayed she’d misconstrued his meaning, though the possibility felt remote.
“A walk?” He phrased it as a question, and in that heartbeat, she saw the nervousness beneath his calm exterior. He was terrified she’d turn him down, even with her father’s consent. “Or we could go for a short ride, if you’d like. If we stay to the roads, the moon’s light should be sufficient.”
She hadn’t been mistaken about his intent, but as she stood there and watched the doubts flicker behind his eyes, she realized she’d been wrong about other things. Like what exactly her companionship meant to him, if he was willing to defer to her father’s word on whether or not he could see her. Or believing the man she knew when it was just the two of them would want to deny his personal truths just because it was too difficult.
“A walk would be…lovely.” She meant to say fine, but one look at the hopeful expectation in his face and she was undone.
“Lovely,” he echoed, and his smile brightened, the air in the house sparkling back to life with it.
Tom exhaled in relief. “Right, then. Well, I’d say be careful, Gwen, but seeing as who’ll be escorting you…” He glanced at Arthur, obviously unsure of how exactly to address his sire under such circumstances. Gwen didn’t blame him. It was all very confusing, at first.
“I won’t have her too late,” Arthur said. He started for the door, then stopped and extended his hand to Tom. “Good night.”
Though his gaze jumped between the offering, and Gwen, and then back to Arthur, Tom grasped his hand and shook it. “Good night, my lord.”
Gwen gripped the edges of her cloak under the semblance of keeping it close around her against the evening cold, but it also served to hide the sudden trembling of her fingers as Arthur joined her in front of the house. Much of Camelot had already retired for the night, but a neighbor wheeling a load of wood around the side of his home caught sight of the pair of them and nodded in respect.
Arthur nodded back. Resting his hand in the small of her back, he guided her toward the market, only letting his touch fall away after they were comfortable in their casual pace.
“I half expected you to tell me off,” Arthur commented when they were safely away from her front door. “You didn’t look pleased when you saw me with your father.”
“I was…surprised. To say the least.”
The answer seemed obvious to her. “Because we can’t hide or pretend if you’re asking permission to see me.”
Arthur stopped in his tracks. Gwen halted a pace ahead, and turned to see him frowning at her. “Were you?” he asked.
“Was I what?”
The chance to end this, here and now, rested within her grasp. But… “Of course not. I’d never tell you anything I didn’t believe.”
His frown eased, and he returned to her side. “Good. I haven’t, either.”
“So why this?” They resumed walking, though he felt closer than he had before, his strong arm brushing against her shoulder. “Why go to these lengths?”
“You weren’t meeting me. I had no other choice if I wanted to see you.”
“Because we shouldn’t. Nothing will come of it, Arthur. Surely, you must know that.”
He shook his head. “You’re wrong. Something’s already come of it.”
“We’re more than that.” The sudden clasp of his hand around hers nearly jerked her to a stop. Only the tightening of his fingers kept her moving, the soft, almost tentative caress of a rough thumb along the side of her palm. “You’re not running away this time. Not until I’ve said my share.”
Her nerves refused to settle, skittering beneath her skin as she looked back and forth along the street in search of witnesses. Arthur was oblivious to the potential, his head high, and she just wanted to shake him and tell him to wake up.
When he turned away from the market square, she frowned and looked back over her shoulder. “Where are we going?”
“Someplace private. I had it picked out in case you chose the horseback ride.” Smiling down at her, he squeezed her hand. “It’s not far.”
He led her through a narrow street, curving away from the center of Camelot and toward the rear of the castle. His steps were no longer leisurely, forcing her to quicken her own to keep up. He had direction now, and determination to get there before he’d finish whatever it was he wished to say. Every once in a while, he glanced over to make sure she was all right, each time with a small smile when he caught her eye. Each time, she smiled back, because the anxiety at being seen had shifted into thrills for the lengths to which he’d gone.
For all their meetings, for all the intimacy they might have shared in their conversations, never had he touched her like this, or for this long. She’d thought the night he’d returned with Leon had been shattering, his body bared for her to tend. But this, this was oh, so different. Really, this was such a simple gesture in comparison, chaste and companionable, and if he hadn’t already denied her claim they were merely friends, she might have accepted it with a little more grace. As it was, when his battle-callused fingers skimmed over hers, small tremors undulated through her body, rippling up her arms, down her back, into her legs until she wondered if she’d be able to walk at all if he kept it up.
He didn’t even seem aware that he was doing it, which made it all the better. That he did it to make up for all the hours they hadn’t touched. That he’d somehow overheard the hushed whispers of her desires, the ones she hadn’t even dared to acknowledge by the light of day.
Time slipped away. It might have taken seconds to reach the small glen outside the city walls, or it might have taken hours. Gwen only knew she was there, and so was Arthur, and so was the ever-present moon.
“Sit.” He stopped at a pair of large stones that bordered the tiny creek that split the grass. Without releasing her, he kept her steady as she took one of them for a seat. Then, he caressed the side of her hand one more time, smiled, and let her go.
“Well, I’m here now,” she said as he sat next to her. She had to tuck her legs up under her cloak to make room for his. “What was it you wished to say to me?”
She sounded braver than she felt. When Arthur’s gaze ducked beneath the directness of her eyes, she fought the instinct to reach out and trace the slight jut of his lip. His unexpected shyness always kindled the fires she tried so hard to keep under control.
“This week...” She had to strain to hear him, and leaned closer to make out the rest. “…was it easy for you to stay away?”
Gwen frowned. “I don't see what that has to do with anything.”
“It has everything to do with it.” His head cocked in anticipation of her answer, though he still hadn’t looked away from the shimmery water at their feet. “Was it?”
No escaping the inquiry, though she had known this would likely be the outcome if she agreed to come with him. “Not the first night.”
“No. Nor the third before you ask.”
“But you chose to stay away anyway.”
“Sometimes what we must do is not the same as what we would like to do. You should know that better than anyone, Arthur.”
Her responses emboldened him, drawing his eyes back to hers. The hesitancy was gone. In its place burned the same emotions that had so terrified her the last time they had been left alone. He took a deep breath and spoke.
“I know...when I'm with you, it doesn't matter if I don't have all the answers. You don't expect anything from me but honesty and respect. I know...I dream of you every night, of how beautiful you are when you smile and I’m the only one to see it, of how beautiful you must be in all those moments I miss. I hear your voice all the time, when I’m asleep, after a battle, in my head. You haunt me, and I crave having you there, even when I know there is still so much about you I have yet to learn.” He reached out and brushed a loose curl away from her face. “Or especially because I do.”
The world stopped. Nobody had ever said such things to her before. Even Lancelot, in all his honor and attention, hadn’t been so eloquent. And she believed Arthur, with her whole heart, because it took only one look into his eyes to know he meant every word.
His fingers lingered near her cheek, and she tilted her head to strengthen the contact. The hands she held in her lap unfolded, one stealing across the distance to rest on his bent knee. The muscles were unyielding at first touch, but at the careful weight of her fingertips, jumped and twitched.
“I wanted to come this week,” she murmured. “So badly. Every night, I’d see your flower, and I’d say to myself, maybe he needs me this time—”
“I needed you there every time, Gwen.”
Her mouth curved into a gentle smile. “I know. But I didn’t want to, because then I’d have to admit I was the one being selfish in staying away.”
“You weren’t selfish. You were sensible.”
“Ah, yes.” With a sigh, she sat back and stared out across the glen. “Sensible Gwen. That’s me.”
“Not too sensible. You’re here now, aren’t you?”
“Only because you were so persistent.”
“You could’ve said no.”
“Turn down the prince in front of my father? I don’t think so.”
“But you’re not here because you feel obligated. I won’t believe that, no matter how you try and convince me.”
“No,” she admitted. “But I don’t see how it changes anything, Arthur. You’re still the prince, and I’m still just a servant, and wishing it otherwise never works.”
“It changes everything. Because it means we’re both fighting for this.”
He surprised her by reaching out, not for her cheek or hand this time, but for her waist. Scooping his arm around it, he pulled her onto his lap in a smooth, sensual gesture that forced her to reach for his broad shoulders for balance. Their mouths became level, and his heat seared through all the layers they both wore, and even then, she wanted more. Her nipples ached where they brushed against his chest, and her throat tightened until she had to gasp for air.
His gaze immediately fell to her parted lips. In the next moment, his hand slid up to her nape, cupped the back of her head, and held her utterly still as he leaned in for a kiss.
Contrary to what most people thought, Gwen wasn’t completely inexperienced when it came to men. She’d had her first kiss at the age of thirteen, when a new stablehand had taken a fancy to her and she’d been tired of hearing all the other older girls working in the castle talk about their various beaus. It hadn’t been worth repeating, not with him anyway, but others had come along over the years, each one diverting in his own way. She’d learned enough not to be startled by the press of lips to hers.
She hadn’t, however, learned how exhilarating a simple kiss could be.
His mouth was firm and warm, molding over hers with an effortlessness she’d never known before. The tip of his tongue tickled along the seam of her lips, each tiny stroke sending a fresh flutter through her veins. He didn’t demand more than what she was willing to give. He didn’t bully her into submission. But there was no denying the claim in his control, the sure slide of his mouth along hers, the way he nibbled at the most tender flesh and then soothed it over with his tongue.
She opened to him with a whimper, her arms stealing around his neck to crush her body closer to his. All their weeks of moonlit meetings had led to this, and still, it felt like it had been too long coming. Thrusting her tongue into his mouth, she tasted the dark corners he was so willing to share, then moaned when Arthur did the same. More. That was what she wanted. And then some more after that.
Her lungs burned when they parted, though Arthur’s fingers remained threaded through her hair, refusing her the space to move even if she wanted to. The look in Arthur’s eyes was awed and more than a little satisfied, while his mouth curved into a half smile.
“I know what you said is true,” he said. “But I also know that sometimes we have to follow our hearts, not our birthrights.”
She swallowed against the lump in her throat. “Is that what we’re doing?”
“I am.” His broad thumb caressed the spot behind her ear, creating a fresh array of goosebumps traveling across her skin. “And if ever I knew a woman strong enough to do the same, it’s you, Guinevere.”
Just hours earlier, she would have argued that it took greater strength to deny themselves. That’s what she’d been prepared to do, to suffer the ache of what could be and hope it would pass with time.
Now, Arthur offered more, if she was willing to bear with him the load of fighting for what they wanted. There were no guarantees they would succeed. Tradition and the kingdom itself were against them. People would talk. Uther would rage. She was likely to be punished if he deemed it necessary, perhaps even banished.
But one look into Arthur’s eyes, and she knew he wouldn’t say such things if he wasn’t prepared to defend her to the end. Even more, he believed in her as vehemently as she did him. She needed to decide for herself just how deep her feelings ran for him, and whether or not this was a battle to wage, beyond the protection of their moonlight rendezvous.
He regarded her patiently, the silence stretching out between them. On impulse, she touched her fingers to his mouth, and was rewarded with one of his crooked smiles.
She would never grow tired of those.
“Then, I will, too,” she said. The sudden tightening of his embrace was mirrored in the furious leap of her heart, all surprise and excitement and anticipation letting loose at once. “I can’t go back to the way things were.”
“And I don’t want to,” he vowed.
And the moon gazed down upon the pair of them, wrapped in each other, ready for the world.