Elyan catches Merlin by the collar before he can follow Gwen downstairs. Gwen looks back and up, past Merlin’s hand linked in hers, to see her brother point at his own eyes and then at Merlin’s.
“Watching you, Emrys,” he says. Gwen looks ceilingward and sighs, giving Merlin a gentle tug. He’s gone as still as a startled rabbit, eyes wide and just as innocent.
“Are you done?” Gwen calls.
“Only seeing to my duty.” Elyan backs off grinning, which makes him look as affable as a big cat and half as trustworthy.
“You can shut the door behind you, Merlin,” she says. Merlin hesitates mostly because Elyan keeps smiling at him until the door has closed in his face. Elyan has mastered the art of the creepy older brother. Later, he’ll complain that Merlin wasn’t much of a mark and suggest Gwen aim a little higher next time.
“He seems nice?” Merlin tries.
“He has a complex. What do you want to watch?”
“I brought Firefly, BSG, and Buffy, which is an oldie but I’ve not actually seen it yet.”
He unslings his backpack and starts pulling out DVDs, kneeling before the television. Gwen considers the options. They’ve both seen Firefly, but they’d both happily watch it again. Morgana would probably be annoyed if Gwen watched any BSG without her. Buffy wouldn’t have occurred to her if Merlin hadn’t suggested it, but now that he has she’s warmed to the idea.
“Let’s do that, then.”
“Buffy?” Merlin holds up the first disc.
Merlin gets them set up and joins Gwen on the couch with his bag, pulling out a pack of Twizzlers, two bags of Skittles, a green iced tea for Gwen and a peach tea for himself. “Concessions,” he says, proud. Gwen pokes his bag open a bit wider and peeks inside.
“What else have you got in there, Mary Poppins?”
He bats at her hand. “Hush, yeah? It’s starting.”
They polish off the candy within three episodes. Gwen tips her head onto Merlin’s shoulder.
“This is a lot more cheesy than I remember it,” she says. Merlin huffs a silent little laugh and makes room for her under his arm. By the end of the first season her head is pillowed on his lap and he’s got his hand in her hair, absently playing with thick pieces that tickle her face until he brushes them back. She might have stopped watching about two episodes ago, closing her eyes to enjoy his fingers on her scalp.
The music of the menu screen prompts her to sit up. It feels suddenly intimate to be so close when they’re not watching anything anymore. Which is kind of the point, if she’d understood Morgana correctly, but Gwen doesn’t exactly know how these things go. Maybe if she were Morgana she could transition easily from friendly cuddling to making out. I want to do this she reminds herself, belly jumping with nerves. I want to do this.
“Do you…want to start the next season?” Merlin is very still and his arm is extended straight behind her like he’s an especially rigid tour guide. Excellent, he’s feeling awkward too.
“Um,” Gwen says, plucking at the frayed knee of her jeans. “No, that’s alright.”
“Did you like it?” she asks the same minute he says “We could watch something else?”
His face brightens with that wide, silly grin Gwen likes so much and she immediately feels less nervous. She knows Merlin. Catching sight of him in the halls at school makes her happy and they sit next to each other in their one shared class, and even if he’s only been in Camelot for a year he still rates as one of her favorite people. So, at Morgana’s encouragement and under the power of her own curiosity, Gwen had finally invited him over and he’d accepted. They’d both seemed to understand the significance of hanging out alone. If they’re a little nervous about it, that’s only natural, right?
“Ah, yeah! Buffy reminds me of Arthur.” He says it so easily Gwen doesn’t think he let it sit in his head long enough to consider the wisdom of speaking it aloud. A beat, and then their expressions are complementary variations on surprise — hers gleeful and his horrified. He clutches her hand. “Don’t tell him I said that.”
“Oh, I’m going to tell him.” She leans away, cackling, and he reels her back in.
“Gwen,” he whines. “Gwen, come on.”
“And then I’m going to take a picture of his face and text it to you!” She’s giggling, twisting away from his fingers. He’s resorted to tickling, the crafty villain. “With Morgana there too!”
And then his face is abruptly in hers and soft lips skip across her cheek, their noses bumping.
“Um,” he says, breath puffing across her jaw.
Gwen turns her head, just slightly. Their mouths line up and fit, his upper lip pressed sweetly to her lower. He makes a low noise and she pulls away.
“Is this okay?”
“Yeah, yes,” he says. “Er, is it...okay for you?”
“Yes.” Gwen smiles. Her heartbeat has shifted into a higher gear and her breath has shortened. It feels like the climb up the first hill of a roller coaster.
They both move in at the same time and bump noses again. “Here,” Merlin says, pulling her legs across his.
“Or, do you want to—” Gwen kneels up, balancing with one hand on his shoulder and the other on the back of the couch so she can get a knee around his hip and settle on his thighs. He scoots a bit so his back is against the armrest. “Okay?”
“Yes,” he says. He sounds breathless. He stays still and lets her sink into him, pressing their mouths together. She’s not quite sure what to do next. He’s flat and firm to lean against, his shoulders broad but thin. They’re the obvious place to put her hands and she’s grateful to them, because Merlin doesn’t seem to know what to do with his, touching her ribs and then her waist and then her back. Gwen isn’t clear if they’re kissing or if their mouths are just hugging. Merlin makes a throat noise and Gwen pulls back again.
“Can I—” he starts, definitely breathless this time.
“Yes,” Gwen says, happy for the help. His hands find their place in her hair and he tilts her mouth against his. The technique seems to be about rhythmic pressing and lifting, and sometimes shifting a little side to side. Her lips are sensitive and it does feel nice. Every few seconds the press and shift opens one of their mouths just a bit, offering a hint of moisture and hot breath.
Merlin’s hands exhibit more confidence trailing down her back. He’s slightly squirmy under her legs and the heat between them is starting to make Gwen sweat. It tenses her up, waiting either for the moment Merlin notices and pulls away or doesn’t notice and tries to move his hands. What if he wants to touch her boobs? Should she let him? The absurd thought that Elyan would somehow know if she did hits her and she almost laughs, which would be weird to explain in the middle of making out. How long were makeouts supposed to last? What if Merlin wanted to do more? Gwen doesn’t know if she wants to. She’s having a hard enough time focusing on the kissing.
After about fifteen minutes Merlin abruptly pulls away, turning his face aside. “Oh shit,” he says, clenching.
Gwen sits back. “Merlin? Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
“God,” Merlin groans. He covers his face with his hands. Between his fingers, his skin has turned a vibrant shade of pink. “Could you...could you get off me, please?”
“Okay?” Gwen slides off gingerly, worried she’s hurt him or done something wrong. Then she notices him tugging the hem of his shirt down to cover his crotch. Oh. “Oh,” she blurts. Heat flashes across her own face and she puts her fist over her mouth, embarrassed.
“Sorry,” Merlin says, like the air being let out of a balloon. “Sorry, I—” He shuffles a little, disentangling their legs the rest of the way and fishing over the side of the couch with one hand.
“Glad I brought these.” He reaches into his bag and pulls out a change of pants. Gwen’s eyebrows soar. It takes Merlin a moment to register her expression. “Oh no! No no no, I didn’t mean—” he sputters, clutching his pants to his chest. “These weren’t — I didn’t expect anything! I mean, I thought we might make out? But then I wasn’t sure if you wanted to and then we did and...yeah.” Somehow, his flush seems to intensify. “It’s only that this has been happening a lot lately and I hoped it wouldn’t but I also didn’t want to count on it. I promise.”
“It’s fine, Merlin,” Gwen says. It seems uncharitable to giggle, and the effort to tamp it down makes her mouth do a pinched smile that feels weird on her face. Fortunately Merlin doesn’t notice, as he’s making his way off the couch in the direction of the bathroom like an awkward caterpillar.
When he comes back out his cheeks are still pink but his mood is surprisingly upbeat. They go back to watching Buffy, and after a moment Gwen settles against his side.
She doesn’t try to kiss him again, that day or any other time going forward. The pressure of expecting something else to come next makes the idea of kissing anyone gray and unpleasant. They still hang out, and to Merlin’s credit there’s only a brief undercurrent of awkwardness the very next time they’re together alone. Nothing happens, and Gwen thinks it’s because Merlin is waiting for her to make the first move, either out of embarrassment or some strange acknowledgement of their first failed attempt. But she never does. By the end of the night he relaxes, apparently having taken the hint. When Freya invites him to the spring dance and Gwen begins to see them walking the school halls together, she finally relaxes too.
Some months later...
“Shhh,” she says. “It’s fine. Everyone knows Morgana reads all of your texts.”
“I don’t think she reads all of them,” Gwen grumbles, dislodging Freya’s fingertips.
“Everyone knows Morgana reads most of your texts.” Freya yawns. “And you practically live at the Pendragons’. I panicked. I should’ve just called you.”
“At two in the morning? I’m glad you didn’t,” Gwen says. “You can keep your midnight sex crises to yourself, thanks.”
Freya’s sleeping bag rustles with her odd, silent laughter.
“I did panic a bit, didn’t I?”
“I probably would’ve too, to be honest,” Gwen says.
“So does that mean he didn’t with you, then?” Freya leans up on her elbow, resting her head in her hand.
“He didn’t cry with you?”
Gwen drops her face into her pillow, groaning. “Oh my god, he told you about us?”
“Yes, he’s very enthusiastic about honesty. Though I think he may have a touch of an embarrassment kink.”
“I’m sorry I never mentioned it.”
“Please, it would’ve been more strange if you had.”
“Shut up, both of you!” comes a hiss from across the room. Vivian.
Freya brushes her hair out of her face, scooting closer. “So he didn’t, then?”
“No,” Gwen whispers back, cheeks heating at the memory. “I think it took him by surprise. We were just kissing.”
“There is no ‘just’ with Merlin.” Freya grins. “I did think it was strange at first, but now I kind of like it. Of course it’s happening less the more we do it.”
“So is it...emotional for him, or something?” Gwen asks, curious that sex could cause that kind of reaction. Maybe a little curious about why Merlin hadn’t reacted that way with her. Perhaps she was less exciting than Freya?
“I don’t think that’s it. I think he just gets overwhelmed. It’s like he temporarily loses control of the things he’s feeling and so, um,” she says, tilting her head. “He comes, and then he cries.”
“Not all boys do it, if that’s what you’re worried about?” Freya says, touching her arm. Gwen coughs to cover her sudden laugh.
“No, that’s not it.”
Freya smiles. “Oh? No one you’d like to see cry for how much they want you?”
They have to duck their heads into their pillows to muffle their giggling. It doesn’t work, judging by the shoe and hairbrush Vivian lobs at them, but fortunately the sleeping bags help to soften the impact.
“I think you and Arthur would be cute together,” Freya whispers after they’ve stopped shaking. “He always hangs around when you’re over to see Morgana. That has to mean something, doesn’t it?” She bats her eyes significantly before turning over, settling down to sleep.
Gwen rolls to her back and blinks up at the ceiling, anxiety beginning to steep in her gut.
Arthur doesn’t feel that way about her. The three of them are friends; it only makes sense they’d spend their time together. But what if he’d be open to the idea? What if he’s only kept an easy friendship with her because he believed she wasn’t interested? Gwen doesn’t think she’s interested. Like Morgana, Arthur is an improbably beautiful human being. But Gwen has never taken the time to consider Arthur’s beauty any more than she has Morgana’s. It’s just a fact of who they are, much like Morgana’s stubbornness and Arthur’s pride. Now, having even imagined romance with Arthur, Gwen worries it’ll affect her behavior, interest or no. What if Arthur notices? What if he notices and assumes she likes him, but he doesn’t like her back? Will he draw away? Will Morgana wonder why? Will she blame Gwen?
Unnerved, Gwen burrows into her sleeping bag and wraps her arms around her pillow, hoping to forget the conversation ever happened by the morning.
“Okay.” Gwen yawns, glad for a way to skip the line for Mithian’s bathroom. Or, not a line so much as a reluctant support group for Mithian and Elena’s newfound kissing habit. Maybe one day Gwen would be dared into kissing someone and the odd compulsion to keep doing it would finally make sense. Mithian and Elena hadn’t quite been in each other’s laps the whole night after the game, but it had been a close thing.
“I regret encouraging this!” Vivian says, thunking her forehead against the (locked) bathroom door. Freya smirks because she’s a rare breed of freakish morning person who woke up before everyone else. She finishes finger-combing her damp hair into a braid with a very cat-like air of smugness.
So it is that Arthur rolls up to the kerb in front of Mithian’s house with the top down on his fancy car, looking both windswept and sunkissed in a way that reminds Gwen of how unwashed and rumpled she is. It shouldn’t matter. It never has before. But suddenly Morgana is a carefree grunge rocker greeting her ride with a middle finger and Arthur’s a preppy beach boy and Gwen doesn’t know where she fits. She tries not to make the leather squeak as she slides onto the bench seat next to Morgana and closes the door.
“Ladies,” Arthur greets them with a sideways grin. Gwen turns her hot face into the breeze and lets them bicker over the radio for the five minute drive across town without comment.
“You should try buying a car that actually has an iPod adapter next time,” Morgana says as they disembark.
“Cherry is a classic.” Arthur slams his door and plucks Gwen’s bag off her shoulder before she can protest she’s able to carry her own things. “She doesn’t need an adapter, she needs passengers with taste.”
Morgana strides into the house with Arthur hot on her heels. Gwen follows them, carefully stepping the ball of her foot in the center of the artfully paved cobbles that lead to the wide, marble entryway.
To Gwen, the Pendragon home is much like the Pendragons. She’s known it so long and so well that she’s almost as indifferent to its grandeur as if it were hers. Only in being reminded that it isn’t do her eyes fully take in the professionally manicured lawns, the double doors that stand at twice her height, the solidity, the effortless beauty, the assuredness of ancient foundations.
Arthur and Morgana’s voices are already fading down the stairs toward the basement; Gwen jogs to catch up with them. She finds Arthur sprawled across nearly all of the couch in spite of its generous size. Morgana’s arms are lifted as she ties back her hair, briefly flashing a ribbon of white skin at her waist. Gwen notices she isn’t wearing a bra and pleads with her brain to stop suddenly paying attention to things that it never has before.
“So how was the party?” Arthur says in his affected dad voice. “How quickly did everything devolve into a massive girl orgy?”
“Faster than usual.” Gwen shrugs as Morgana shoots him a poisonous look. “Freya goaded Mithian into finally kissing Elena. It was cute.”
“But hardly an orgy,” Morgana says. “I certainly didn’t get any play.”
“Well, that could be because everyone thinks you’re frigid.” Arthur stretches lazily, missing the way Morgana turns to look at him. There is something in Morgana that will occasionally shift like a weapon being armed. Gwen first witnessed it when they were eight years old and Arthur stole his new sister’s juice box. Almost a decade later, Arthur is still oblivious to the warning signs.
“Did your father teach you that word?” she asks in the sweet voice she never uses on him.
“Morgana,” Gwen says, looking between them. Arthur’s face goes curious like a dog listening to people sounds.
“Why else would he think ‘frigid’ applies to any woman who’s not interested in sleeping with him?”
“Hey!” Arthur hooks Morgana’s calf with a foot and drops her to the couch. She halfheartedly slaps at him just to annoy his efforts to climb up and get her in a proper headlock. Seated on the ottoman, Gwen leans back to avoid flailing limbs.
“Jesus, you weigh a ton,” Morgana says.
Arthur laughs, pinning her hands to the cushion above her head. “Bitch.”
They both turn to look at Gwen at the same time, grinning and eye-rolling, respectively. Gwen’s mind plays that trick on her again, thinking things it’s been instructed not to think about, like the flush in Arthur’s cheeks and the way Morgana’s thighs have captured his hips.
She blinks, wondering if she isn’t the only one struggling with unusual feelings. Maybe her teasing at the party hid an unexpected kernel of truth.
The thought makes her grin back helplessly, and in the momentary lull Morgana tosses Arthur off the couch altogether.
“Eh?” he says, making significant eyebrows over a creased fly-fishing rod. Gwen offers a half shrug, waggling her hand under the table. There’s nothing wrong with the rod Elyan’s been using; a new one would probably be a waste of money. Tom sighs, conceding, before returning to his other ideas. The next picture he offers is of a set of fancy hunting knives, which Elyan is just as likely to use for whittling as for hunting, but would appreciate either way. Gwen gives the suggestion a thumbs up.
“Ha ha,” Tom says, triumphantly palming the chosen present.
“What’s that, dad?” Elyan says.
“Nothing!” Tom quickly sits on his manila folder full of clippings. Elyan goes back to whistling over the food, and the sly winks they both send her when they think the other one isn’t looking are identical.
“So, Gwen,” Tom says, obviously changing the subject. “How are your finals coming along?”
“My last is on Wednesday,” she says, spearing two pancakes off the plate Elyan offers her. “I think they’ve gone well so far.”
“Does that mean you two actually do work when you go over to Morgana’s to ‘study’?” Elyan smirks.
“No, it means I’m just naturally that intelligent.” She lobs the syrup bottle at Elyan, who makes a show of licking his fingers after he catches it.
Tom quells them with an unimpressed look. “Should I expect you to go into hibernation with the Pendragons this summer then, too?”
“Probably,” Gwen mumbles, guilty. With his late nights at the foundry, Gwen doesn’t see much of her father except on the weekends. And Elyan is almost never around during the summer months, off hiking and picking up odd jobs and generally impossible to contact for weeks at a time.
“I wouldn’t call what they do hibernating,” Elyan says.
“Elyan!” Gwen glares at him.
“What?” Elyan spreads his hands. “Swimming isn’t hibernating.”
“Cute,” Gwen says, stabbing at a bit of pancake.
“Ahh.” Tom sits back, grinning. “The young Pendragon boy; Arthur, is it?”
“No, it isn’t,” Gwen says while Elyan mouths it is.
“Do I need to speak with this young man?”
“Absolutely not,” Gwen says, thinking if anyone knew the panic and confusion she’s been wrestling with lately, to say the least of her suspicions about Arthur and Morgana, they’d recommend a shrink over her father. “I’m not interested in anyone that way. I have school and debate, and colleges to start looking into.”
“Hey, that’s my girl.” Tom smiles, proud. Elyan rolls his eyes and Gwen kicks him under the table. “You’re a hard worker, just like your mother. But you won’t always be too busy for romance, I promise.”
“Sure Dad,” Gwen says. “Thanks.”
That only meant the trick would be to stay busy forever or find some other excuse to avoid the issue entirely.
“Counterpoint,” Morgana says, adjusting her sunglasses, “What’s the use in having deck chairs if you don’t sunbathe in them?”
Gwen squeezes another dollop of sunscreen into her hands, eyeing the white expanse of Morgana’s skin and contemplating the most convincing way to “accidentally” drop some on her. As if she can read Gwen’s mind, Morgana pulls out the baby oil, dashing her schemes.
“We’ll swim with you in a bit, Arthur,” she says, covering her cheeks and the back of her neck with her sunscreen in defeat.
Arthur groans, throwing himself into a couple laps around the pool in his displeasure. After circling around like an agitated fish he returns to the edge nearest them, tossing his wet hair out of his face.
“This is boring. Summer is dwindling away, like sands through your oily, uncaring fingers.”
“Oh my god, Arthur. Stop being such a pest.”
“I’m going to call Merlin,” he threatens. “He’s useless in the water but at least he’ll bother to get in.”
“Ooh, you should invite Freya too, then,” Gwen says. Arthur grumbles something unintelligible and tosses his phone back onto the pool deck, shoulders slumped.
“I’m going to go get a drink from the cooler.” Morgana sighs. “Walk with me, Gwen?”
“Sure,” Gwen says, her hopes for a sunscreen attack somewhat revived.
“I’ll take a lemonade,” Arthur says.
“The pool staff have the day off,” Morgana says.
Gwen is barefoot because her father taught her from a young age that most footwear around a pool is a recipe for trouble, but that is exactly the sort of advice Morgana has no use for. She’s more interested in the overall pool aesthetic, hence the strappy, heeled sandals and the bathing suit with the intricate criss-crossing fabric across her middle. To Gwen’s eyes it doesn’t seem like an ideal outfit to sunbathe in, since it’ll just pattern Morgana’s belly with an interesting collection of long triangles if she manages to achieve a tan. But if she really steps back to look, there’s no denying how striking Morgana is with her long black hair and architectural swimsuit and rosy, slightly glowing skin.
Arthur bobs along beside them as they walk around the full length of the pool toward the shed and its attached ice chest.
Gwen grabs a bottled water and holds the chest open so Morgana can pick what she’d like, which turns out to be a sparkling water. When she goes to close the chest, Arthur scoffs.
“If you want something, get out and get it yourself,” Morgana says.
In response, Arthur plants his hands on the tiled edge of the pool and gracefully vaults out of the water. He shakes himself off, splashing at their feet and making Morgana recoil against the shed wall to avoid the wet.
“Are you happy now?” Arthur says, soaked through and somehow managing to look very tan and imposing in spite of it. Leaning back against the shed, Morgana wraps an arm around Gwen’s waist and takes a pull off her bottle, smirking. When she lowers it, Arthur deftly nicks it from her hand.
“Ah ah, I got this for myself,” Arthur says, holding the bottle aloft out of her reach. Just like the juice box all over again, Gwen can feel Morgana’s nails press against her skin, can see her eyes narrow.
When Arthur leans in again to taunt her, Morgana doesn’t reach for the water — she slides a hand around his neck and draws him into a kiss. Surprise pings between them all like a pinball machine. Morgana has clearly won but Arthur isn’t pulling away. Latent shock makes Gwen reel back, only to be stopped by Arthur’s fingers around her wrist and Morgana’s hold around her waist.
“What...?” she says, heart hammering in her chest. Arthur pulls back slowly, like he’s standing on a landmine and is waiting for the world to collapse around him. But Morgana’s eyes have lost their steely edge, her brow pinched with a confused sort of vulnerability instead.
“Is this okay?” Arthur says, voice hoarse.
Gwen looks to Morgana, who’s looking back at her. “Is this okay?” she asks, pressing her fingers into Gwen’s ribs significantly. Arthur’s hand slides down from her wrist to lightly lace with hers, cautious.
And it’s strange, like so much else about the Pendragons, but when Gwen searches for the familiar panic and uncertainty — it isn’t there. Even if it’s abnormal and even if it must inevitably lead to more questions and difficulties and anxiety, for the moment, it feels like a good fit.
“Yeah.” She smiles. “This is okay.”