The only thing not challenge related that I managed to get done was the following short. It was meant to be smutty. Honestly. And I think, if I continue writing in this particular 'verse (which is more than possible, because I like it), it will get smutty. But not in this one, unfortunately.
TITLE: Come to Me by Candlelight
RATING: A very light R
LENGTH: 3500 words
SUMMARY: When Arthur pushes himself too hard in his search for Morgana, Gwen decides to offer a helping hand. Set between S2 and S3.
As he trudged to his room, Arthur scrubbed at his face, trying to banish the lingering weariness that clung to him like a second skin these days. The searches for Morgana were becoming more arduous. Every time he went out, he returned with fewer men. Too many bodies had been carried back to Camelot for families to mourn. Even more had been buried on the battlefield because there was no one left to grieve.
This particular excursion had been worse than usual. A band of Cenred’s mercenaries had cornered them in caves too short to stand up straight in. He’d hidden for over eight hours, hunched over in order to fit, waiting for them to either move on or break up into smaller units they might actually stand a chance against.
He hated every second of it. It might have been the best tactical decision, but cowering in shadows went against everything he was. Still, he had to remember that confronting them when Arthur’s men were so thoroughly outnumbered would have stolen more lives, lives that still had promise, lives he felt increasingly responsible for with each passing day.
If only they could find Morgana.
If only they could find peace.
When he reached his room and rested his palm against the door, ready to push it open, his exhaustion welled up, winning the battle for a mere moment. His shoulders sagged, and his head bent, too heavy to keep up any longer. Was this what it felt like to be king? Did this weight bear Uther down, the knowledge that so much relied upon his strength, his control? Uther certainly never looked like it did. Oh, sure, there were times of trouble, when dangers threatened Camelot and Uther worse the seriousness like another crown.
But even then, he didn’t look defeated. He didn’t seem tired. He fought back as viciously as it required.
Perhaps this was still further proof that Arthur was not ready to be king.
Taking a deep breath, he summoned the last reserve of his strength and entered his quarters. “Merlin? Get me…”
The order trailed off. His room was not as he expected to find it.
The blankets on his bed were drawn back, ready for him to retire for the night, but a separate sheet had been thrown over the entire mattress, unfamiliar and untucked. Candles flickered at its side, gilding the room’s sole occupant in gold.
Gwen. Smiling nervously at him as he simply stood there.
“I’m sorry,” she said. Her hands knotted in front of her. “I know you weren’t expecting me.”
“No reason to apologize.” Some of his weariness fell from his shoulders at the sight of her. He rarely had the privilege to see her anymore. With Morgana gone, she’d found other duties around the castle, not to mention his frequent forays away from Camelot. He took a step closer, still unbelieving she was actually here. “Is everything all right?”
“Everything’s fine. I asked Merlin if I could have some time with you, but if you need him—”
“No, no.” He’d do without if it meant a few moments alone with Gwen. Such a gift was too precious to waste. “Why did you want to see me?”
Her eyes ducked for a moment, giving him the freedom to stare to his heart’s content. Her hair had grown longer, the weight pulling at the curls. When he dreamt of her—and he did, more often than he wished to admit—her hair was always unbound, splayed across his pillow or dragging along his skin when she bent her head to him. Each time, he’d wind it around his fingers, marveling at how exquisitely soft it was. Even now, he itched to touch it, but then she looked up again, and he was forced to pretend she didn’t consume his fantasies.
“You’ve been pushing yourself so hard to find Morgana,” she said. “Everybody sees it. How tired you are when you come down for breakfast. If you come down at all. You’re not taking care of yourself.”
“I’ll do that after Morgana is back where she belongs.”
“I’d like to help you do it now.” The words came out in a rush, each tumbling over its predecessor like she’d finally lost the battle to keep them contained. “That’s why I’m here.”
His heart thudded against his ribs. Surely, she could hear it. “What is it you’re suggesting?”
“A massage.” Her teeth caught the corner of her lip. Flesh he’d thought too exhausted to react began to surge back to life. “Sometimes, when my father had a hard day, when he worked so hard he could hardly lift his arms, I’d massage his shoulders until he felt better. I’m offering the same to you.”
She offered more than that, whether she knew it or not. She offered the memory of her strong hands on him, of heat and pleasure created by her loving touch. These would be memories to taunt him even more than her kisses. They would torture him by day and tease him by night, until he was quite sure no other woman would ever be able to touch him without evoking Gwen’s face.
“Are you certain?” he heard himself say.
A smile threatened to blossom. “I’m only certain I’d like to do this. I have no idea about any of the rest.”
They agreed upon that, then. Because the only thing he was sure of was that he wanted her to do it, too.
“I accept.” He nodded to the bed. “Did you want me to lie down?”
“Yes.” She stepped aside to give him room, then hesitated. “It’ll be better if your shirt isn’t in the way, though.”
Better for who? Her hands on his bare skin would be the sweetest agony. Indulging would be insanity.
“Of course.” Because if he was going to experience any of it, he was going to experience it all, insanity or not. “Just…give me a moment.”
Propriety should have driven him to the screen to strip down out of her sight. But what if he turned his back, only to find her gone when he was done? This could all be some massive illusion, induced by his exhaustion, Gwen a fantasy found that would dissipate without his attention to keep her real.
So instead of hiding himself from view, he began disrobing on the spot. The chain mail came first, relieving his shoulders of its solid weight as soon as he was free. Funny how he rarely noticed how heavy it was until it was no longer on.
Next came his boots, but when he sat down on the edge of the bed to pull them off, Gwen startled him by kneeling in front of him to help.
Her hand covered his, holding there until he pulled his away. Then, with the heel braced in one palm, she slid her other up the underside of his leg until it supported the back of his knee.
His fingers dug into the edge of the mattress, a death grip as his muscles shouted in exaltation. Merlin had aided with his boots a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand times, and not once had it ever felt like this. The constriction of leather loosening around his calf as the boot slid off, offering liberty he so rarely got to have. The heat of a feminine hand searing through his trousers, the fingertips kneading the tense sinew in strokes so infinitesimal they had to be unconscious. The shy glance through the thick fringe of eyelashes when the first boot was gone, an unspoken request for permission to finish the job.
“How have you been?” he asked. Perhaps it was a little late to pose the question, but her appearance and offer had upended any sense of time he might’ve commanded. Besides, he sincerely wanted to know. The answers she provided would lend his future fantasies the verisimilitude he needed.
“Busy.” She set the second boot aside to join the first. “Though not as busy as you.”
The reminder pricked his rising desire, making it easier to tolerate the way she stripped his feet bare. “We do what we must.” Which was all that needed to be said on the matter. They were both desperate for an end to this purgatory to which they’d been condemned.
Gwen sat back on her heels. The candlelight glinted in her luminous eyes, so solemn in the way they regarded him. He missed the humor that had always danced in them when Morgana was around. Even before he’d had the chance to get to know Gwen, she’d been quick of smile. She wasn’t nearly so quick anymore.
“I don’t want you to think I’m doing this out of duty,” she said. “I’m not.”
“That makes it all the more worthwhile.”
“Though if it helps…perhaps, I might be able to do this again.”
He would never have asked for fear of stepping beyond the invisible barriers they’d somehow managed to erect between them. But with her hesitant hint of more, she’d lowered the walls a few more inches, giving him a glimmer of hope of scaling them whenever his heart desired.
“Then we should test and see if it does.”
Rather than prolong the wait, he grabbed the hem of his shirt and whipped it over his head, tossing it aside before she took it as another opportunity to tidy up after him. Her eyes went to his chest, and the flare of her nostrils as well as the slight catch in her breath brought a swell of male satisfaction to his bruised ego. He was battered from so many sojourns with his knights, and often felt like less of a man for the constant failures he had to endure, but the low burn of Gwen’s appreciation supplanted all of that, enough for him to feel comfortable swinging his legs onto the bed and stretching out on his stomach for her.
Folding his arms beneath his head, he rested his brow against his hands, his breath caught in his lungs as he waited for what came next. This was the first time he’d taken his eyes off her since walking into the room. If she was conjured from his tired mind, now would be the moment she vanished. He half-expected her to. Considering how many aspects of his life had been disrupted over the past few months, this should be no different.
Her skirts rustled, a whisper that soothed the rough edges of his fears away. The next sound was more foreign, the clink of glass against glass. He was about to lift his head to see for himself what she was doing when the mattress bowed at his side.
The initial touch came at the back of his shoulders. Instead of the work-roughened fingers he remembered, slick palms molded over his bunched muscles, sliding with grace as well as strength. He caught a whiff of musk, chased by the earthier scent of oil. Her hands weren’t sweaty like his were. She’d brought the tools necessary to change this from a simple relaxation exercise to what was likely to be the most erotic massage he’d ever received.
Her strokes were long at first, kneading the larger group of muscles along his shoulders. One covered knee pressed into his side, keeping her close, maintaining her balance, promising him this was no dream to go scattering to the wind when he awoke. She was real. As real as the branches of every tree he fought against when he ran through the forest in pursuit of yet another fruitless lead. She was sanctuary from his repeated failure. She was everything that was good and right about Camelot.
When her hands slid lower, working to release the tension bordering his spine, Arthur groaned. “A man could become a slave to hands like yours.”
He heard his words the same moment he felt the slight hesitation in her strokes. Too late to take them back, though the desire remained to chase after and obliterate them before they could wreak their damage.
When she resumed, each knead was slower than before. “You have it backwards, sire. I’m your servant, and I always will be.”
He lifted his head, heedless of the way it forced his back to twist. This was not a weight he would bear without a fight. “If you’re doing this because you think it’s your job as a subject of Camelot, I won’t accept. I wouldn’t have in the first place if I’d known that was your motivation.”
Her hands settled at his waist, caught between continuing and pulling away. “I told you what my motivation was.”
“Because you wish to serve.”
“Because I hate seeing you so exhausted.”
“You hardly see me at all anymore.”
“And when I do, I hardly recognize you.” She sighed. “This isn’t a job. This is my selfish need to give you a glimmer of hope, because for a few minutes, it’ll help you forget what you’ve been facing every day.”
Rolling onto his side tore her touch away, but at least he could look at her again. “I can’t forget. Morgana needs us to fight for her.”
“Which is exactly why I would do this for you a million times over. This is for the man who holds that measure of love and dedication in his heart.” The corner of her mouth lifted. “The fact that you happen to be my future king is pure coincidence.”
He believed her. Deceit was not in Gwen’s nature, especially when cornered like this. “Then do one thing for me,” he said softly.
“Don’t call me sire tonight.”
As much as he might want it, he could make no request that she drop the title indefinitely. It would place her in too awkward a position to refuse him, since the difference in their stations still needed to be upheld for too many. But here, now, he could ask for this one concession and expect it. If she was so earnest in proving she did this for Arthur the man and not Arthur the prince, she could grant this with ease.
Her eyes glowed in the candlelight, brave in their assessment of him. “I suppose if I can dare lay hands on you like this for a few hours, I can dare to call you Arthur.”
He grinned. “Good. Because this is the best I’ve felt in days and I really didn’t want to kick you out.”
Though she slapped at his arm, it was more playful than punishing. “Back on your stomach, then, before I change my mind.”
His heart was lighter when he settled again, and this time, he kept his head turned toward her, to better watch every graceful bend of her body. She kept her eyes averted, but he was sure he caught a twinkle, a spark that only deepened when she set her hands back to their task. Though the massage was as deeply satisfying as it had been the first time, burning its way to the underlying weariness of his bones, it was secondary to the pleasure he took in simply watching her.
She stole his breath away. Even in the crushing aftermath of Morgana’s disappearance from their lives, she wore no shadows, no cloaks of sorrow to shroud the shining hope in her warm gaze and smile. Instead, she was light personified, and better, didn’t know it. The urge to bask in the warmth she offered was enough for him to want to reach for her and envelope her in his arms.
He almost did. But her fingers glided along his ribs, farther to the sides than they had previous, and their proximity to his chest distracted him with more carnal thoughts.
It was a good thing he rested in this position. Otherwise, she would be too aware of her effect on him, and the way he throbbed now with each stroke of her hands. He didn’t know how she could continue in good conscience, if she truly was ignorant of how intoxicating such simple pleasures were or if she did this to torment him. It couldn’t be the latter, of course. That was the game of a coquette, not Guinevere. But she was too intelligent to be so naïve, which made him wonder just how much she hoped to accomplish by doing this.
Asking would spoil the spell that bound them together. So he settled for watching how the candlelight played along her cheek, how it softened both skin and curve of lip and hinted at a future he could never really own.
“You’re watching me,” she murmured without lifting her eyes from her work.
“Yes. Does it bother you?”
“I’m not accustomed to it.”
“That doesn’t actually answer my question.”
“I haven’t stopped, have I?”
“I’ve missed seeing you,” he confessed. Because she deserved to know and he couldn’t contain it and damn it, here and now they weren’t master and servant. They were Arthur and Guinevere, and all the rest of it didn’t matter. “I’m enjoying it while I can.”
“Things will go back to normal once you’ve found Morgana and brought her home.”
He yearned to tell her how afraid he was that he’d fail at the one task that required his utmost skills. That with each passing day, doubt became a stronger enemy, creeping into the farthest corners of his thoughts to lay in wait for a weak moment.
But then she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, and he saw the belief there as clearly as he saw the reflection of the candlelight. It was the same certain faith Merlin displayed even at his most annoying, trust that Arthur would prevail no matter what the circumstances. It gave him strength, enough to finally vault over the barriers between them and find the fortitude to unfold his arm from beneath his head and reach for her.
When his fingertips grazed along the side of her wrist, her hand trembled. Its echo wound a path through his flesh, ending with a single constriction around his heart. Hardly enough to hurt, but more than sufficient to remind him of what was truly important.
His fingers laced through hers. Their joining gave him an anchor to tug her closer, and he met her halfway by sitting up, lips parted before they found hers already waiting for his kiss. She sighed at the tender contact, or perhaps that was him, his inability to contain the swell of emotions bursting forth at the first taste of her. He ached for more. Of anything. Her kiss, her body, her heart.
He settled for the single caress, lingering like the most exquisite melody. Their hands were still locked when Gwen pulled away.
“I should go,” she whispered.
“Why?” He spoke as softly as she did, fearful of disturbing the delicate balance.
The tip of her tongue appeared, moistening her still wet lips. “Because if I don’t, I fear I’ll stay.”
He chuckled. “Not going is the very definition of staying.”
“You know what I mean.”
Her tone sobered him, and he nodded. “I’ll let you go on one condition.”
It was her turn to smile. “You’ve already extracted one promise from me tonight. Isn’t that enough?”
He might not ever have enough of her, but admitting it aloud would frighten her away. “Come back tomorrow. Same time.”
“For another massage?”
“Because I don’t want it to be weeks again before I see you.”
From the way she pressed her lips together, he thought she’d say no. So much common sense she had, because really, what sense did it make for either of them to indulge in something that could never be? None. They both knew better.
Yet…she wasn’t pulling away. And she wasn’t immediately saying no. And he could pretend for a few more minutes that wishes really could come true.
“I can hardly deny the prince of Camelot, now can I?” She said it with a smile and a duck of her head, her mouth feathering across his in a tease that almost had him chasing after her when she rose from the bed. “Same time, then. What about Merlin?”
“I’ll take care of him.” He’d give Merlin every night off for the rest of their lives if it meant a few hours stolen with Gwen. She’d retreated to the doorway before he added, “Good night, Gwen.”
The way her fingers held the edge of the door had him longing for her to return and start the massage anew. But her smile widened, and her eyes held his, making it impossible to even move.
His name echoed in her soft voice long after the door clicked shut behind her.
He finally silenced it with breathless kisses when he fell asleep and began to dream.