Morgana can’t sleep. Or—she could sleep, she’s more than tired enough to sleep, but she has the strange itch down her spine that sometimes comes before her nightmares, and the fear of fear keeps her awake. Her muscles are bowstring-tense; she aches from scalp to ankles. She hangs on to waking with teeth and fingernails, feet swinging over the void, and she wants to let go, and she can’t.
From the angle of the moon through the windows—a hard stripe of silver-white that passes by Gwen’s cot and doesn’t quite reach Morgana herself—it’s nearly midnight, and she’s been lying here for hours, twisting her sheets into a snarl with her at the center and knowing that won’t protect her. Sheets aren’t armor strong enough to defend against dreams; nothing is.
She untangles herself from the blankets, wincing at the stretch in her muscles, and climbs out of bed. Outside her window the stars blaze through the darkness, and a candle winks through glass across the courtyard. If she looked out at the city she’d see people asleep, at peace with themselves. Everything is slow and clear; her thoughts are crystal chimes inside her head.
“My lady?” Gwen’s voice is soft-edged with sleep, but not reproachful.
“I didn’t mean to wake you,” Morgana says. It’s true and it’s false; she didn’t, but she’s glad of it anyway. If she has to be awake she would rather not be alone.
“Is everything all right?” Still half-asleep, Gwen doesn’t stumble over this as she might have, awake. Of course everything isn’t all right, but right now she doesn’t point this out as Morgana herself never would.
Morgana considers her reply. “I ache,” she admits. Even in the dark, even to Gwen whom she loves as a dear friend and desires as a lover, she can’t say she’s afraid of sleeping, afraid of the constructs of her own mind. Gwen knows about the nightmares—the worst of them, anyway, the ones bad enough to hurl Morgana screaming or crying into wakefulness—but they have never spoken of how Morgana feels about them.
It is a weakness; the king’s ward cannot afford weakness. Many people have made this clear to her, from Uther himself down to the cousins of visiting knights. Uther meant it kindly, as a warning.
“Is there something I can do?” Gwen asks. Morgana hears sheets rustling, footsteps, the scrape of coals in the hearth. Light flares dimly against the wall, and she turns to see Gwen faintly outlined in copper, coaxing the fire back to life. “I could wake Gaius if you need a tonic, or—”
Pain isn’t weakness, Morgana reminds herself, and Gwen is no fool. “It’s—my muscles are drawn too tight.” Her hand goes to her neck on instinct, now that she’s thinking of it so clearly, but trying to rub away the tension only sends twinges of pain shooting down her upper arm. “Everything hurts.”
“And you can’t sleep,” Gwen says, her voice so gentle Morgana wants to cry, wants to wrap herself in it like she did in her sheets. “May I—I could ask Gaius for a tonic, but may I try something first? I mean, only if you want.”
“Anything,” Morgana says. She means it.
Gwen touches a rush to the flames licking out of the ashes and crosses the room to Morgana’s bed with it. “Lie down?” She lights candles—one, two, three—washing the room with gold that melts into the chill silver of moonlight, and blows out the rush. Smoke curls palely into the shadows.
It won’t work, Morgana doesn’t say, and I don’t want it to work. She drops heavily onto the mattress and swings her legs up, staring at the canopy above her.
“On your front,” Gwen says. “And, um. I can do this with your nightgown on but it’d be easier if it were off. My lady.”
Morgana realizes it is possible for her to feel neither embarrassment nor arousal at this. The ache has settled into her bones, and pulls at them; she hears—she craves—only a chance for it to stop. Gwen has dressed her, undressed her, washed her back and her hair. She pulls the nightgown off and rolls onto her belly, the air cold on her exposed skin.
Gwen settles onto the edge of the mattress, and it shifts under her. Her hands are warm on Morgana’s back, a little hesitant as she traces the outline of muscle and bone and pain, and then she takes a deep breath and lets it out, settles her thumbs near the top of Morgana’s spine and curls her fingers over the curve of Morgana’s neck into her shoulders and presses, and Morgana can’t help but moan as the deep ache stabs towards the surface.
It hurts—Gods, it hurts—but it’s a sharp-edged pain and she can live with that; Gwen is pulling it loose from where it’s wrapped around her bones and it doesn’t matter that it wants to stay. Gwen won’t let it, and Morgana gladly hurls it into the storm.
Her neck still aches when Gwen slides both hands up into Morgana’s hair, but she doesn’t say anything because her entire head seems to relax under the gentle circles Gwen’s fingers draw on her skin. There’s nothing here for the pain to hold onto, and it’s gone, gone everywhere Gwen moves. Morgana feels like her head could float loose from her shoulders and drift up to the ceiling.
The mattress shifts again, dips down on Morgana’s other side. Without looking at all—she isn’t sure she wants to move—Morgana can tell Gwen is kneeling astride her, and the faint brush of cloth, of Gwen’s nightgown, falling across the backs of her thighs confirms it.
“It’s all right,” Morgana says into her pillow.
Carefully, very carefully, Gwen eases down.
“I said it’s all right.”
Gwen’s weight is an anchor on her, tying her to the real world, warm and solid. She leans into Morgana when she reaches forward to Morgana’s neck again, and this time the slow rolling press of her fingers pushes the pain out evenly.
Her arms feel like butter when Gwen touches them, soft and giving, and it’s almost no effort at all to ease the last few knots out. Gwen sweeps her open hands feather-light back over Morgana’s shoulders, down her spine, and the itch of nightmare fades as Morgana’s awareness of the tug of muscle against bone, like her body trying to rip itself apart, sharpens.
“Ssh,” Gwen says, and Morgana opens her eyes and sees gold and shadow dancing in the draft through the windows and closes them again.
This is hard, again, this makes Morgana hiss her breaths through her teeth because this pain doesn’t want to let go, this tension has its claws wrapped around her and she doesn’t know how to set it free, but Gwen doesn’t give up. Her hands are strong and skilled and patient; they are a smith’s hands, a maid’s hands, a lady’s hands.
Gwen’s hands, Gwen who leaves joy in her wake wherever she goes, bright and sweet and lovely. Slowly, so slowly, she presses some of that peace into Morgana’s body, and when the worst of the ache is gone and everything starts unraveling faster and faster Morgana loses the edges of her control and starts sobbing into her pillow, feeling like she has wings, like someone had just pulled a millstone from around her neck and all that weight she hadn’t even known she was carrying was gone.
“My lady?” Gwen asks, going still.
“Please,” Morgana says. Her voice is breathless, broken, desperate, and the end of pain itself is absolute bliss, and finally she realizes that she’s naked in bed with Gwen and she hasn’t felt this good in weeks. She wants to roll over and pull Gwen down to her and kiss her senseless, wants to tear off the nightgown that had once been hers and later—much later—have a new one made for Gwen that had never been anyone else’s, wants to twist their bodies together and touch Gwen everywhere, learn the weight of her breasts and the curve of her hips and the way she tastes and the sounds she makes when she comes; she wants to give instead of taking, wants to wake up in the morning to Gwen’s beautiful smile every day of her life, wants anything—everything—whatever Gwen wants. She’s closer to that hope than she’s ever been. She can’t; Gwen is her servant; she can’t ask this of her in case Gwen thinks it’s a demand. She takes another unsteady breath and says, “Don’t stop.”
She’d thought the room was cold but it’s burning now, heat breaking over her body in waves. Her tears are drying slowly on her cheeks. If she’s lucky Gwen will think she’s still crying, will think the sounds she can’t fight back are pain or relief. Her heart is pounding, hard enough she can hear it echoing in her ears, feel it in her throat and chest and between her legs, and she wonders if Gwen can feel it too.
“Um,” Gwen says, and Morgana realizes Gwen’s hands are at rest on the small of her back, steady and warm. “You—you said everything hurt, did that mean your legs too? I can keep on if you need.”
Morgana’s mouth is drought-dry; she has to swallow twice before she can manage words. “Yes,” she says. It’s true, and it’s not true—it had been true when she said it, but nearly all of the pain’s gone now. But she’s only human, and Gwen’s offering.
Gwen shifts off her and starts at her ankles, working her way up. If she notices that Morgana’s calves yield immediately to her touch, that there’s none of the stony resistance she fought earlier, she doesn’t say anything.
Morgana takes shallow open-mouthed breaths and tries not to moan or beg or writhe shamelessly against the mattress. The backs of her knees are ticklish, and she wonders how Gwen knows this or whether it’s just a lucky guess that draws her to skip over them. The last flickers of tension in her thighs melt under Gwen’s touch, fading as if they’d never been, and Morgana feels boneless and open and pliant, wants to lie there forever and be touched and take whatever Gwen will give her, wants everything, wants it now.
“My l—Lady Morgana,” Gwen says.
Morgana makes what she hopes is an encouraging but not needy sound, and realizes too late that she’s been rocking her hips against the bed. Just a little, but—
“Would—if you—what do you think of me?” The words come out in a stumbling rush, and when Morgana summons the will to turn her head to look at Gwen (wonder of wonders, she does it painlessly) Gwen is biting her lip and looking away.
“I don’t know what you mean,” says Morgana, afraid to think about what Gwen means. Sometimes she has beautiful dreams, false ones, and the harder she chases the memories when she wakes the quicker they vanish. She sits up, carefully, moving loose and free and fluid.
“As a person. I mean, not that you don’t think of me as a person, of course that’s not what I meant, but if—if we were meeting just now, or if I were a lady or you were a commoner or—”
“Gwen,” Morgana says, and the only sound in the room for a second is the frantic thunder of her heart.
Gwen gulps air and says “I want to kiss you.”
And Morgana thought she’d found she had wings before, that she could float before, but now she can fly. She can tear down the world and build it up again more beautiful than it’s ever been, and hand it all to Gwen. It takes her a moment to find words and Gwen’s eyes start to widen with panic, and there’s the word she needed—“Please,” Morgana says, on the last of her breath, and curls her hands into fists to keep from reaching for Gwen.
Gwen reaches out and brushes her fingers over Morgana’s cheek, down to her jaw and throat, and finally curls them around the nape of her neck. Her eyes are still wide as she leans forward, and they only flutter closed when she presses her lips carefully to Morgana’s. It is a soft kiss, a chaste one, and Morgana fights the swooping fall of disappointment and shame and lets herself be kissed. She has always wanted more than people had to give.
Maybe Gwen doesn’t know what she wants, or maybe she’s a virgin, or just shy, or she thinks this sort of thing should be taken slowly, or when she said she wanted to kiss Morgana that was only and truly all she meant. Morgana realizes, to her shock—dismay, even—that this is all right, that if this is what Gwen wants she can have it.
Gwen pulls back, brow wrinkled with some emotion Morgana can’t decipher through her own fatigue and arousal and concern and bone-deep affection that pulls at her like pain. “My lady, if—”
“Morgana,” Morgana says. “If you’re kissing me, it’s Morgana. Unless you’ve changed your mind.”
Gwen swallows. “Morgana.” It is strange and beautiful and delightful in her mouth, three floating syllables. “If—if you’re doing this, letting me do this, as some sort of treat for me, or a reward for good service, like you’d give me a dress or a sweet or some sort of trinket…” She looks angry and afraid and ashamed and Morgana never wanted to do that to her, none of it. “Don’t let me touch you, my lady.”
“I would never,” says Morgana. She uncurls her hands and only now feels the crescent bite of her nails. When she touches Gwen’s shoulders she can feel the soft heat of Gwen’s skin, the shape of her bones beneath, clearly, even through the fabric of the nightgown. “I want this,” Morgana says, and she can’t quite keep her voice from shaking—“I want you.”
She pulls Gwen to her and they overbalance, tumbling back onto the pillows. Gwen squeaks and Morgana gasps and there they are, breathless and fallen, Gwen’s lips—still parted with surprise—inches from Morgana’s, their breasts and hips and legs pressed together, and Morgana slides her hand into the rich curl of Gwen’s hair and brings Gwen’s face down to hers.
Their mouths fit perfectly against each other. Gwen bites the corner of Morgana’s lip, very gently, licks over that bright-tingling spot and into Morgana’s mouth, and Morgana shivers, runs her hands down Gwen’s back and tangles them in the hem of Gwen’s nightgown and pulls it up until she can touch bare skin, wanting everything. Gwen shifts off her and pulls the nightgown off completely, dropping it somewhere on the floor, and Morgana looks up at the arch of her body and loses her breath. She reaches for Gwen, bracing herself on her elbow as she skims her hand up Gwen’s side to her breast, and Gwen catches her breath as Morgana’s thumb brushes over her nipple.
It’s different with someone else’s body, not feeling everything, having to guess, and Morgana wants this to be right, wants it to overwhelm them both, but she doesn’t know—“Tell me,” she says, and Gwen leans into her hand, into the patterns Morgana’s drawing on her skin. “Tell me what you want. Anything.”
“Oh,” Gwen says faintly, trembling, and lowers herself to the bed beside Morgana. “Kiss me again.” And Morgana was half-expecting her to make it a question, to hesitate, but Gwen is confident here, like she’s seeing herself through Morgana’s eyes, and Morgana kisses her like there’s nothing else in the world, helplessly. She traces Gwen’s shoulder, the curve of her breast, and Gwen shifts to lie nearly flat, head back and eyes closed.
Morgana grazes Gwen’s jaw with her teeth, which earns her a shiver, and licks down the line of Gwen’s throat, feeling the frantic hammering of Gwen’s pulse under her tongue. Gwen’s collarbones are beautiful, she thinks, foolish with lust, and when she sucks a kiss over one she feels the low sound Gwen makes vibrating against her cheek. This is all she knows, all she’s ever done before, and she sits up to try to think without the distracting heat of Gwen against her skin.
She’s more distracted by looking, though, because Gwen is breathless and beautiful and hers, and Morgana wants to do everything all at once, and she presses her thighs together against the tingle in her blood and realizes she’s biting her lower lip. She touches Gwen’s stomach and feels the muscles beneath her fingers jump, watches Gwen’s hips shift and her legs fall open and goes dizzy with heat for a moment, and then she remembers what she’s doing and shifts her hand up. “What do you like?” Morgana whispers, moving her finger in a slow spiral over Gwen’s breast. “What do you do to yourself?”
“Like this,” Gwen says, stilling Morgana’s hand with one of her own. She brings her free hand to her other breast, catches her nipple between thumb and forefinger, and Morgana forgets to breathe—wonders whether Gwen ever did this in her cot here, whether she ever—“Did you ever think of me while you did this?” she asks before she can stop herself, and Gwen’s eyes close with what might be an answer or might be mere reaction. “Yes,” she says, after a pause just long enough for Morgana to begin to wish she’d never said anything, and that’s—yes.
Morgana leans down to kiss her again and breathes “So did I” against Gwen’s mouth, not sure whether Gwen hears her or not but needing to say it, admit it, confess it, and Gwen pulls Morgana closer to her and Morgana lets herself be pulled. They tangle together, deep frantic kisses and Gwen stroking over and over the sharp angles of Morgana’s hipbones—it’s nothing Morgana had ever thought would feel this good; it burns under her skin where Gwen touches—while Morgana tries to match what Gwen did to her breast, get it right with her hands before she uses her mouth. Gwen makes pleased little noises but Morgana has never been satisfied with good enough, and then she almost accidentally presses her nail against the edge of Gwen’s nipple and Gwen gives a choked little cry and then says “Please,” more breath than word.
“Tell me,” Morgana says, her own voice thick and unsteady, almost unreal to her ears, and she needs to know but she wants to know, too.
Gwen says, “Touch me,” and it isn’t that specific but her hips are rocking against Morgana’s and yes, yes, it doesn’t take experience to know what she means, or to be glad about it. Morgana pulls away and eases Gwen onto her back, and Gwen looks up at her with eyes dark as dreamless sleep and an expression of such contentment that Morgana’s heart aches. She curves her hand around Gwen’s hip and almost smiles at how well they fit together, then slides it down.
She’s not surprised that Gwen’s wet but she’s surprised at her own reaction—a fierce, almost stabbing, rush of arousal. For a few heartbeats her pulse thrums through her whole body hard enough for her to feel it, then settles to an ache between her legs. Gwen says, “Morgana”—and this is what it takes to drive Gwen past patience, then, because her voice is edged and urgent, and Morgana regretfully decides she can’t kiss Gwen and do this at the same time and instead just moves her fingers, stroking harder as Gwen arches against her every time, and then Gwen says “Can you—” and stops.
“Can I what?”
Gwen can’t quite manage to look embarrassed, not sex-dazed with her skin gleaming and her hair fanned out across Morgana’s pillow and her legs spread, but she tries. “Your fingers, inside me,” and Morgana goes a little lightheaded.
Gwen’s body opens around her, hot and slick and welcoming, and now she does lean down to kiss Gwen, meaning to do it quickly, but Gwen shudders and tightens around her fingers with a sound that rings through Morgana’s body and gasps “Yes, there,” and Morgana knows she’s going to have to keep kissing her, because if she hears Gwen cry out like that again she’s going to need to touch herself and that wouldn’t be fair. But neither one of them can quite breathe like this, and Morgana reluctantly sits up, trying to keep the angle Gwen wants while she shifts so she doesn’t need her other hand for balance. She thinks she has the motion now, knows how hard and how fast to touch, but Gwen rocks against her hard and Morgana lets her lead, watching Gwen shake apart, and then Gwen stiffens and gasps silently and comes, and Morgana feels it in her fingers and flying up her arm to everywhere.
She pulls away and drops back against the pillow, watching Gwen drift back, and Gwen smiles, radiating happiness, and says, “What do you want?”
“Anything,” Morgana says, and she knows she sounds desperate but she can’t help it, can’t help the needy little noise she makes when Gwen kisses her as if they have all the time in the world, can’t help rolling so Gwen’s half-lying on her with one leg between Morgana’s, can’t help arching into that pressure which isn’t enough, isn’t enough, and Gwen’s hands on her breasts are lovely and confident and feel nice but she doesn’t need nice, she’s been ready for what feels like hours, and she says, “Gwen, I promise, I swear, you can do anything you want later, but please, I—” need you, she means, but she can’t say it after all.
“All right,” Gwen says, “I’m here,” but she sits up and detangles herself from Morgana, which isn’t, and then her hand is between Morgana’s legs and Morgana almost sobs in relief but she doesn’t, she can’t, even as sparks dance under her skin and spiral down, dragging her with them, and then Gwen’s other hand is on her shoulder and Gwen’s calm voice in her ear says “It’s all right” and Morgana distantly realizes she’s just screamed but she’s too busy coming to care.
She’s tired, and she has no energy left to fight sleep. Gwen starts to shift away, and Morgana mumbles, “Stay.”
“I like you naked,” says Morgana, or thinks she does. Maybe she just meant to say it. Gwen pulls the covers up over them both instead and slips her arms around Morgana, holding her close, and Morgana rests her head on Gwen’s shoulder and lets herself fall.