Arthur's signing his name to the bottom of the parchment when the doors to his chambers swing open, the well-oiled hinges barely whispering under the strain of the heavy oak. Gwen walks in, skirts trailing the floor and arms full of scrolls, and smiles. His heart gives a thump in his chest - nerves, ridiculous - even as she steps into a sunbeam filtering through his window, all green and red and gold through the glass. She's beautiful, distractingly so, and he catches her free hand in his when she reaches him, not yet able to take for granted the chance to touch her as he pleases, whenever he pleases.
"What's all this?" he nods toward the scrolls as she sets them on his desk, selecting one to unroll before him.
"More plans for the offensive," she tells him, her brow furrowing into a slight frown. "I thought we might go over the updated maps."
"You don't need to concern yourself with these," he begins, but the quiet look she gives him stops him protesting further. Most days he is grateful for her insight and desire to be involved in ruling the kingdom by his side -- they're more alone in this than they expected to be, with Merlin gone who-knows-where, and it scares him how much he needs her. But war's becoming more and more imminent, and it's difficult not to try and shield her from the worst of it. It's been more difficult than he'd figured, with advisors surrounding them on all sides, questioning everything from their youth to their foolish ideals. To say nothing of the kings beyond their borders, from all directions, waiting and looking for fissures to split wide.
He sighs and studies Gwen's profile, the firm set of her jaw as she places weights on the corners of the parchment to hold it flat. Perhaps he's the one feeling vulnerable. He glances down as she gestures to the letter he was writing, half-covered now by the map. "Appealing to Bayard again?"
His heart gives that thump again, and he shakes his head. "No." He pulls the leaf of parchment out, hands it to her. He watches her face as she reads it, even though he's not sure he wants to know what he'll find there.
"Oh," she says, releasing a breath as she finishes and sets the letter back down. She doesn't look up. "Oh."
"We're going to need him," he explains, hating the insecurities that snake their way through him. Is she happy? Too happy? He can't be sure. "Frankly, I've wanted to send for him all along. I want no one else leading my men when I'm unable to."
That part, at least, is easy for him to admit, to accept. When it comes to protecting his men, his kingdom, his wife, he would have no one else. That needs to be his first priority.
After a moment she nods, smiles. "It will be good to have him back."
"Will it?" he asks quietly, before he can stop himself.
Gwen lifts her head and holds his gaze. "It would," she says firmly. "It's been a long time." She flexes her fingers, stretching until the tips graze his hand where it rests, tensed, on the table. The tentative brush feels so much like it used to, when they'd had to keep their touches brief and secret. It's oddly soothing. "Really, a very long time, Arthur."
Restless, he gets to his feet, nods. He wishes the movement didn't make him feel like such a child, but he can't help the way he passes his hand lightly down her spine, feeling her skin warm through new silk. Possessive. But he's made his choice, and he knows it's the right one.
"I'll send this first thing. Perhaps…" he hesitates. "Perhaps you might sign it as well."
She smiles and takes up his quill.
The letter finds Lancelot within a fortnight, and not for the first time Arthur wishes contacting Merlin were so simple. They've not seen him since before Uther's death, since after Morgana was lost to them, and no amount of searching would turn up a hair. They know well enough he won't be found unless he wants to be, and the knowledge still claws at Arthur's heart. He isn't used to being so powerless in this, any more than he's used to not having Merlin around. Perhaps Gwen's right; perhaps he needs the space and the time, but they both know they won't really feel together, won't feel altogether right, until he returns. From wherever the hell he's gone. Whenever he sees fit to turn back up, Arthur has it in mind to send him straight to the stocks, anyway.
For his part, Lancelot wastes no time returning - Arthur hadn't imagined he would. He'd known even when they'd been younger that Lancelot's loyalty didn't shake, and despite everything it's reassuring when his sentries report that Lancelot is riding toward the castle. In the throne room, Arthur stands with Gwen as the doors open for Lancelot and he walks in.
"Your highness." He kneels before them both, solemn and eager and everything that Arthur is not.
Arthur banishes the thought from his mind as he says, "Please, stand. There will be time for ceremony." He sends the guards and attendants from the room, and they're left to themselves.
Lancelot gets to his feet and smiles. "It is good to see you, My Lord," he says sincerely. Arthur lifts a hand to his shoulder, squeezing briefly. Their eyes meet, and for a moment all he sees is his old friend, and it is good, very good, to have him back. He ignores, for now, the feeling of something sliding into place inside him, when Lancelot turns to Gwen and takes her hand. He bends over it, as a knight should. Reverently, with all the proper restraint.
"Both of you, My Lady."
Gwen smiles, and it's warm, and Arthur pretends not to notice the faint breathlessness in her voice. "Welcome home."
Arthur wonders if it could actually be so easy.
Lancelot slips so seamlessly into knighthood that Arthur can't help but curse the time they lost with his father's ridiculous code. It's not just his skill with a sword, but his manners, the bred-in-the-bone nobility he wears as easily as his mail, that distinguishes him from the other knights who were practically born with their titles. He carries himself impeccably at court, and everyone notices it. Is impressed by it.
It grates at Arthur every bit as much as he admires it. It's stupid to measure himself, a king, against his best knight. Even more stupid that he sometimes finds himself lacking.
The first day he leaves Lancelot to oversee the knights' training, he watches from the ramparts and scowls.
"He's brilliant, isn't he?" Gwen's joined him at his side.
"Yes, he's a wonder," Arthur mutters, crossing his arms as his scowl deepens. "Practically perfect."
"He only wants to please you," she tells him softly.
"I know," he admits, glancing at her. "I don't think I'm the only one he wants to please."
Gwen falls silent, lifting her hand to trail her fingers against her collarbone as she watches the training. The movement is unconscious, and never fails to distract him even as he wishes she'd deny his words, tell him he's being ridiculous. Of course, she's never been a liar, and she's too self-possessed to demure. It's part of what he loves about her. Instead, she turns to him, steps close, and lays her hand on the hilt of the sword at his waist.
"He's given us no reason not to be pleased," she says simply. "Meanwhile, you and I have training of our own to get to," she reminds him, and it's only then he notices the blade at her own waist.
His mouth quirks up at the corners as he grips her fingers. "Let's find out how much I've learned."
"Forgive me, Sire," Lancelot ventures, during a sparring session. They fit in opportunities to train more often as they prepare to move on Odin's forces in the coming weeks. Lancelot is the only knight who can match him, so they spar often. Arthur doesn't miss a beat as he nods and sidesteps, both giving Lancelot a chance to speak as well as blocking his blade on the left.
"I can't help but wonder if --" Lancelot lifts his shield to block and strike -- "if I've displeased you in some way."
"What makes you ask that?" Arthur grunts as Lancelot's blade clangs against his shield and the force of it ripples through his arm.
"Nothing, my Lord." Lancelot dodges Arthur's sword - barely, tossing up his shield. "That is, nothing in particular. Just a feeling, I suppose."
"Can't imagine why," Arthur says equably - as equably as he can manage as he moves his feet and bobs his head to avoid another strike. "You know I consider you one of my best knights, as well as a good friend."
It's all true, true enough that it's easy to pretend he doesn't know what Lancelot means.
"I appreciate that, your highness." Lancelot parries another blow.
He's barely breaking a sweat, Arthur notices, and pushes harder when he realises he's spending a bit more time on the defensive than he'd like. He feints to his right, a move Lancelot may have anticipated under different circumstances, and lands a hit with the flat of his blade on Lancelot's left side. "Haven't got anything to feel guilty about, have you?"
Lancelot sidesteps and jabs with his sword. "Of course not, my Lord," he says quickly, his eyes darting up to Arthur's face before he moves in close to try to get past Arthur's defenses. He's quick enough to knock Arthur's shield to the ground. Arthur bites off a curse, but steps back, assuming a defensive position without it.
"Well then," Arthur says, and moves in, quick and aggressive, advancing on Lancelot, who's able to land one glancing blow before he's driven back, back and further back as Arthur pounds at his defenses. He drops his sword and shield just as Arthur pins him against a sparring dummy, one hand hooked in his mail and the other holding his short sword to Lancelot's neck. They're both panting, sweat beading on their foreheads. It's a few moments before Arthur steps back, dropping his weapon. "That settles it."
He whirls, and finds himself looking at Gwen. He's no way of knowing how long she's been watching them, but the look on her face isn't helping him to catch his second wind. It makes him want reach for her, in front of the other onlookers, in front of Lancelot. But knowing how childish it would look, how improper, he stops a safe distance from her.
"Guinevere," he nods toward her, and she inclines her head in response.
He can feel Lancelot watching them both.
They don't get the chance to move on Odin. The attack on Camelot is sudden, the forces Odin sent efficient and strategic. Arthur finds himself defending the castle as the rest of his forces defend the lower town from the soldiers who are still advancing. The failure stings; he should have anticipated this, should never have let them get this close to everything, everyone he holds dear. His father wouldn't have --
He doesn't allow his thoughts to get further than that. He remembers the way those fears used to cripple him when he'd been younger, weaker. He wouldn't give himself over to them now.
He meets Gwen in a narrow stairwell and his heart squeezes in relief to find her there, in full mail and brandishing a sword. He hadn't seen her since Odin's troops had breached the castle, but there's no time to cling to her now. There are more coming; it seems like there are always more. He only has a second to lift his gloved hand to the scrape on her cheek before they turn their backs to each other, covering each other as they practiced so many times in private, long after Gwen overrode his objections to training her to fight alongside him.
They move well together, nearly seamlessly, as they do in most things, and they manage to hold their ground at the top of the stairs. The second time he tries to take on Gwen's opponent as well as his own, she stops him with a look, and sends another soldier tumbling down the stairs, a gash in his side. "Don't show off, Pendragon," she tells him once they have a moment to breathe, and he catches her eye, caught up in the inescapable thrill of it. When they hear footsteps on the stairs again, they tense, and Gwen nearly advances on Lancelot, sword drawn and ready.
"My Lady!" he has to put up his shield before she realises and steps back. She's catching her breath, still jumpy as she lowers her weapon, and smiles sheepishly.
"Careful Lancelot," Arthur puts in good-naturedly, and he's so happy to see Lancelot whole and well that he steps forward, clasping his shoulder. "You don't want to be on the wrong end of her blade."
"I'd say not, My Lord." Lancelot gives a quick bow as he glances between them. But there are more men at his back and no time for him to say anything more. Together, they turn to beat them back as three. Arthur admires the way Lancelot tries to protect Gwen, almost as much as he admires the way she doesn't let him. It's not long before there's another lull in the fighting.
"It's so good to see you," Gwen says when they've relaxed slightly, lifting her hand to his shoulders and then his hair, checking for injuries. "Are you hurt?" There's a tenderness there that Arthur can't deny as he watches them. It unsteadies him a little, but he's so full of energy from the fight, and his system's flooded with relief to have both of them at his side, and in his mind it's all jumbled.
"I've news from the lower town -- I'm all right, My Lady," Lancelot adds as Gwen finishes checking him over. "We've nearly beaten them back, Sire, but I -- they need you down there. I've tried to rally them as much as I can, but there are losses, and --"
Arthur cuts him off, nodding. He knows what he has to do, and how. "You must hold this ground with Guinevere. I'm trusting you, Lancelot." Arthur pins him with his gaze.
"Don't worry, My Lord." Lancelot's steady and sure as he grips his weapon. "I will not let anything happen to her."
"I," Gwen puts in, "can take care of myself."
Arthur laughs shortly and kisses her, tasting blood and sweat on her lips; it fuels him, pumps him with energy and he loves her so much he could burst with it. He holds on for as long as he dares, knowing the risks that he might not be back, before he heads down the stairwell and leaves Lancelot with his wife.
He returns to the castle battered and bruised, but whole. There'll be no more attacks on the city tonight, and they've stopped more men from breaching the walls. He heads straight upstairs, passing foot soldiers and servants as they cart bodies out of the castle. Not as many of them were his own men as there might have been, but it weighs heavily on him all the same. This should never have happened here. When he reaches the stairwell where he left Gwen and Lancelot, he finds them there, huddled close, Gwen wrapping a deep cut on Lancelot's leg. His heart thumps again, and he doesn't have a name for what he feels looking at them both. They're both smiling when they see him, and he finally breathes.
They spend a few hours overseeing the cleanup of the castle, and when the knights produce sacks of wine to celebrate, Arthur doesn't have the heart to refuse them despite the fact the fighting is sure to re-commence in the coming days. He feels less like celebrating, not when his castle's been breached and men have died and it all falls to him, but when Lancelot brings over a skin of wine, he doesn't turn it away. Understanding, Gwen and Lancelot sit close by and they pass the wine companionably between them. Eventually, they talk - about other things, things that aren't dead knights or fierce battles. Lancelot talks about his travels; they tell him about Merlin (Lancelot seems unsurprised, and Arthur decides he'll deal with that later) and Morgana, and the promises they made to hold each other close, keep each other safe.
Gwen suggests that Lancelot stay in one of the spare bedrooms, unable to use his leg properly, and they walk upstairs with him limping between them, supporting him all the way. They make it as far as Arthur and Gwen's chambers, and somehow between the three of them and the wine, they decide that's far enough to walk.
Arthur doesn't remember the rest of it completely, but he remembers enough. He remembers himself and Gwen, helping Lancelot into their bed. Fumbling off his boots. Leaning over to kiss Guinevere while Lancelot looks on with this dopey expression that makes Arthur pull back and shoot him a peevish look. Gwen laughs and Lancelot reaches up to touch a sluggish hand to Arthur's shoulder. His fingers catch on the fabric, pulling it, exposing skin. Gwen takes the opportunity to touch her lips to the spot, undoing him completely. Arthur puts his hand in her hair, keeps it there as she lifts her head, then leans down to press her lips to Lancelot's. Arthur's hand trembles in her curls as he watches them, and listens to Lancelot's soft groan. It's fuzziest after that, but he remembers his own hand tugging at Lancelot's tunic, sliding over warm skin and lean muscle, remembers rough, long-fingered hands fumbling at his breeches and softer, smaller ones with blunt nails digging into his back. Remembers skimming his own fingers beneath Gwen's shift to find her slippery and hot, and the jolt of feeling Lancelot's fingers tangle with his. If he thinks about it, he can still hear the sounds they made. Gwen's moans, the way they'd gone from breathy to low and keening as she'd pitched and rocked against their questing hands and tongues. Lancelot's raspier moans when Arthur's fingers had fisted around him and stroked. The way Gwen had said both their names when Arthur'd been buried inside her.
He remembers plenty. All in all, though, he wishes he'd been completely sober for the experience.
It doesn't fix everything -- doesn't fix anything, really -- but the aftermath is different than Arthur might have thought, if he had thought about it before they'd tumbled into bed. So much is the same, at least in public. Lancelot is just as deferent to them both as ever, just as devoted. Just as in love with his wife. At times it's difficult for Arthur to deal with the depth of Lancelot's feelings, and the ease with which he expresses them, even though it's not just Gwen he looks at with such frank devotion these days. Likely because it's not just Gwen. But then there are times he catches Gwen watching them together -- just talking, or touching -- and there's a look on her face, like she knows something they're only just discovering. It makes him feel steadier.
Perhaps Lancelot's simply filling a space between them they hadn't realized needed filling, in Merlin's absence. Or, perhaps they've ended up exactly where they've been headed all along.