It was just her luck that the next time Gwen found herself alone with Lancelot, it was to say good-bye. It was just her luck that the revelation that brought him back within her reach was also taking him away. Maybe forever. And yet--
"I had hoped," Lancelot said carefully, earnestly, "that I might have hope."
His fingers caught hers and lifted them gentle between them. The brush of his fingertips over her palm sent an uncomfortable tingle of pleasure up her wrist, through her elbow, until it shivered into her breastbone. Lancelot's horse stamped behind them, sending a whiff of fresh hay through the stable.
"Hope," Gwen repeated carefully, earnestly… hopefully. "That's--a good thing to have."
"I hadn't hoped to hope," he went on, a small contradiction she might have smiled at, if she were not already smiling at the little crease between his melting brown eyes. "Not until I spoke with Merlin."
"Merlin," she repeated. Then she blinked, and the warmth in her chest took a rabbiting thump. "Merlin?"
"I would not think to speak otherwise." The little crease cleared into a tentative smile. "But Merlin gave me every assurance that it was only friendship that lay between you."
"Ah." Though the connection between Gwen and Lancelot had only grown each time they set eyes upon each other, a pang of distress still struck her at Merlin’s dismissal. "Yes, we're--great friends, I suppose."
His gaze felt too keen on her face. "Have I disappointed you?"
Her smile felt welded on, a curve of iron hammered from the crucible of humiliation burning in her face. But when he lifted her hand to his lips, the heat shifted, gentled, and she no longer needed to force her smile. "No," she answered. "How could I be disappointed when--the way you look at me--"
"I would do so much more than look, if my lady is willing," he murmured. And she was. A new heat flushed through her, pooling in the juncture of her thighs.
Yet even as he kissed her, laid her down in the softest straw, loosened the ties of her dress, she could not escape a prickle of unease under the arousal. She wanted this, of course, it had been so long and Lancelot was beautiful and noble and, oh, quite skilled with his tongue, but they were in the stables and his horse was right there with all his things because he was leaving.
And Gwen might hope, but she could not wait forever. She had her own hopes. She had, more than she realized until now, been counting on Merlin.
Lancelot hummed a little. She glanced down and caught the fleeting gleam of his eye before he redoubled his efforts against her distraction. "Sorry," she murmured.
She stroked her fingers through his hair to show her appreciation. His lips and tongue coaxed little licks of pleasure from her, but they faded almost as soon as they sparked. Her thoughts kept diverting, distracting her before she could stoke the flames.
He drew back a bit, pressing a soft kiss to the inside of her thigh. "I'm sorry. I am not pleasing you."
"No, you are, you are." Of course he pleased her. Her body melted at a single look from him, ever since they had first laid eyes on each other. "It's just--what exactly did you ask Merlin? When he said that we were friends?"
Lancelot looked up at her helplessly and sighed.
Her thighs still burned from the scrape of Lancelot's beard as she brushed out and plaited Morgana's hair that night. This was her favorite of the duties that she performed for her lady, though tonight she felt far away even as Morgana's silky hair flowed around her fingers.
"Gwen, what's the matter?" Morgana's fingers brushed over her hand. "I've made at least three very clever jokes, and you haven't so much as smiled."
She startled and flushed. "Oh. I'm sorry, my lady. I was just thinking."
"About what?" Morgana glanced over her shoulder with a quick smile. "You must share something so fascinating."
Gwen looked down at the crooked plait in her hand. "It's nothing, truly." She unraveled the plait and started again. "It's just--no, it's nothing. I'm sorry."
Morgana hummed a dubious tone. "If something's troubling you, Gwen, you know I'll help you, whatever it is."
"Thank you, my lady." A smile tugged at Gwen's lips, warmed by Morgana's attention. "It's not worth speaking of, truly."
"Just a moment." Morgana twisted around to look up her, nearly tearing the braid from Gwen's grasp. "I know that look. That's your Merlin look."
"What?" Gwen gave Morgana's hair a little tug to get her to turn away again. "I haven't a Merlin look."
"Of course you have." Morgana settled back in her seat with a huff that might have been called a snort if she had been of less noble stock. "Don't worry, it's a common enough affliction in Camelot these days. You have a cute little frown. Arthur looks befuddled--more than usual--and Uther just looks like he swallowed something rotten."
A giggle burst through Gwen's professional restraint, almost through her nose. "Yes, I suppose that's true."
"So tell me, what adorable thing has Merlin said now? Or what idiotic thing has he done?"
Gwen hesitated, but Morgana enjoyed being in her confidence and her advice was often good. "Someone…asked Merlin about me. And Merlin said we were friends."
Morgana waited a moment, until Gwen pressed her lips firmly together and resumed her plaiting. "Yes? You are friends, aren't you?"
"Yes," Gwen conceded. "But…he said only friends."
"I kissed him," she blurted out, then dropped Morgana's braids to clap her hand over her mouth. "Oh, I shouldn't have said that. But I did."
Slowly, Morgana shifted around until she was facing Gwen completely. She arched her eyebrows in expectation.
"It was when he woke up after he drank the poison, when Arthur had to go get the flowers to cure him." Gwen stumbled on under Morgana's gaze. "He--he didn't seem to mind it. But I suppose--maybe he was just happy he wasn't dead?"
"Escape from imminent death does tend to affect men that way," Morgana agreed. "What of it since then? Has he done anything to court you?"
"No," Gwen admitted. "He's been busy, of course, with everything with Lancelot. And Arthur always wants him."
"Yes." Morgana's gaze unfocused. "He does, doesn't he?"
Gwen tilted her head and waited, but Morgana did not continue. "My lady?"
"I was just thinking how odd it is that Merlin demonstrates such fervent devotion to Arthur, even though Arthur is, as we all know, an insufferable pig." Morgana tapped her finger against her chin in thought before she refocused on Gwen. Her gaze swept Gwen from head to toe as though figuring her market price. "And how odd that a healthy young man would show no interest in someone like you."
"It's not that he's never--" Gwen stopped mid-protest, groping for an example. "I…suppose he never has, really. He was just…friendly."
"You're beautiful." Morgana's blunt evaluation sent a pleased tingle through Gwen's chest. "And he couldn't hope for a more suitable match. I would have supported it, though suddenly I wonder if Arthur might not."
It took a moment for Morgana's insinuation to take coherent shape in Gwen's mind. Once again she pressed her hand over her mouth to keep her wildly churning thoughts from spilling out of her mouth.
"I see you understand my meaning." Morgana rose from her chair and came to take Gwen's hands in hers. "I hope the thought isn't too shocking to you."
"No, of course not!" Gwen shook her head. "My uncle, he's always been--he lives with--"
"There are many who share a wish for such a life." Morgana's fingers tightened around Gwen's in comfort. "Let's observe a bit more before deciding if Merlin is among them. Though I can think of no other reason why he would not desire you."
Morgana's earnest loyalty made Gwen glow with pleasure, and she let herself linger by her lady's bedside for some time that night, thinking less of Merlin by the moment.
Gwen leaned forward to pour fresh wine into Morgana's goblet. She steadied the jug before letting her eyes flick toward the other side of the table, where Merlin was squabbling with his prince. The clatter and chatter around them made it difficult to discern the subject of the argument, but the lack of words made the language of their movements clearer than Gwen had ever seen.
Merlin had bent close to speak. His nose brushed the shell of Arthur's ear, an intimacy that would have had any previous servant of Arthur's in the stocks. When he made to move away, Arthur gripped him by the back of the neck to keep his face close while Arthur spoke. Then Merlin laughed, eyes shining and focused only on Arthur's face, despite the glances they were starting to attract. He started to step back again, but Arthur caught his wrist.
Gwen chose to look away then; her observation had begun to feel like an intrusion. She stepped back, escaping Morgana's speculative look.
Later, she sat curled up on her lady's bed, more willing after an illicit cup of wine to bask in Morgana's sympathetic understanding. "No," she tried to explain. "I'm not unhappy. Quite the opposite, if he's finding some happiness."
"Good luck if he has his sights set on that royal arse," Morgana muttered and refilled Gwen's cup by her own hand.
Gwen could not help a giggle, but then sobered as she tried to wrest her thoughts into words. "I only feel embarrassed, for myself, that I didn't know."
"You have nothing to feel embarrassed about. You haven't made a fool of yourself, by any means."
"No, I fear I have." Although Gwen sometimes thought herself too easily flustered, the heavy feeling in her stomach came from genuine regret. "I kissed him, when he'd given me no sign that he'd welcome it."
"He could have told you. You are his friend, the best he has here in Camelot. Gods know he tells you every other detail of his daily life."
And that added sadness to Gwen's burden, for how lonely Merlin must feel bearing a secret that he could not share even with Gwen. Of course, even in Camelot there were some people who would judge him harshly for such feelings. If she had given him any reason to think she would be among them, she doubted she would sleep until she had set things right between them.
She leaned back against Morgana's pillows, not registering how inappropriate it was until she had already done it. But Morgana merely put an arm around her shoulders and drew Gwen to rest against her shoulder. Gwen relaxed with a sigh. "Do you suppose," she started and then grimaced. "I shouldn't ask, but--do you suppose Arthur returns Merlin's feelings? Or at least that he--that he could feel that way? Toward a man?"
Silk brushed her cheek as Morgana shrugged. "Arthur has always liked women well enough. I've certainly found his eyes stuck to my breasts often enough. But that's not to say he might not like men as well, though I don't think he would have thought of it until Merlin came along."
"Both men and women?" Gwen stared up at the ceiling and tried to tip more wine into her mouth without moving her head.
"Yes, why not?"
"I don't know. I always figured it was either one or the other." Though her eyes had fallen more than once on Morgana's breasts herself. She had called it admiration, at the time.
Morgana hesitated, then pressed her lips to Gwen's head. "Some of us choose love and pleasure where it is offered and desired. Regardless of sex."
"Or station?" Gwen shivered at the brush of Morgana's fingers against her hip.
"Even Merlin might be open to both," Morgana offered, reluctant. Her hand brushed the curve of Gwen's waist, skimming over the laces of her bodice before withdrawing.
Gwen's hand lifted of its own accord as though to catch Morgana's fingers. She stopped, startled at herself, and looked away to consider Morgana's thought. Merlin had once seemed taken by a beautiful Mercian serving girl--but then he had witnessed Morgana undressing and had only been eager to run away. And then there had been Lancelot, who had taken up residence in Merlin's room--in his bed--to Merlin's evident delight.
"No, I don't think he is," she said. "And I owe him an apology."
She felt better once she had delivered that apology, though she had not gotten her speech out as eloquently as she had hoped. Merlin's look of pure terror when she confronted him with her knowledge had wracked her nerves. Losing Merlin as a hoped-for suitor had been a sorry blow, but losing him as a friend through her own ignorance would be unbearable.
In the end, he had hugged her gratefully, and she left him with a lightened heart, pride tattered but mostly intact. She would be a better friend to him. She would respect his desires above her own. She would even help him with Arthur, if need be.
She found herself outside Morgana's door. Her hand flattened against the wood. She knew her lady was within, abed, but she had no reason to enter. Then again, reason had not gained her heart much thus far.
Gwen took a breath and pushed the door open.