Gwen hurries into Gaius’s rooms with her arms full of something lavender and luxurious. “Merlin,” she says, relieved and flustered, and Merlin sets down the basket of herbs he was cleaning and smiles at her because it’s Gwen.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
She drops the lavender thing on a table. A set of stays peeks out between the crumpled layers of cloth. “Morgana gave this to me to wear so I look suitable, but I can’t do any of the laces myself, and she’s terribly busy overseeing the packing, and I thought you might possibly be able to help.”
“Um,” says Merlin. “Stays and everything?”
Gwen blushes. “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble?” She doesn’t quite manage to meet Merlin’s eyes.
“Oh. No. No trouble at all,” Merlin says, and tries not to picture it too vividly. “Lock the door?” He’s not going to his room; his room has a bed, and that’s—that’s just absolutely inviting temptation.
The sounds of the latch falling, the bolt sliding, are loud in the silence, echoing in Merlin’s head.
He puts the herbs down carefully, dries his hands, and only then turns around. Gwen is pulling her dress over her head, half-turned away from him, and the motion molds her shift tightly to her body, brings her breasts up and out, deepens the curve of her back to her arse.
Merlin wills himself not to think about it but it’s hard not to notice how much warmer the room feels, how his mouth is dry and his heart is racing and—he digs his nails into his palms, looks away from Gwen. “Just the stays, right?” he asks, and is pleased that his voice is only a little rougher than normal.
“And the gown.” Gwen straightens her petticoat, which he wouldn’t have guessed needed straightening, and he realizes he’s looking at her again.
“Right. Of course,” he says, just as she continues, “I mean, I’m sure you knew—” and they both fall silent.
Merlin picks up the stays, which have little flowers embroidered all over the cloth cover. He’s never given any thought to Morgana’s underthings, but—flowers?
After a long moment, Gwen says, “Um,” and Merlin realizes he needs to give her the stays instead of spending all morning puzzling over the flowers. With an awkward and possibly incoherent apology, he holds them out to her, but she lifts her arms and turns away.
Right. She’s used to dressing Morgana, and even though Merlin thinks it should be possible to at least get a set of stays across one’s front by oneself it doesn’t seem to occur to Gwen.
He has to put his arms around her to do it. Her breath catches when he does. She smells like springtime, of flowers and sunlight, and he keeps his eyes firmly ahead and doesn’t look down her shift: mostly because Gwen is lovely and trusting and caring and he doesn’t want there ever to be a reason for her not to be, but also because they’re standing close enough that if he gets hard she might feel it.
She lowers her arms once he has the ends of the stays behind her, and Merlin takes a definite step back. The laces are torture—he has to concentrate, and get thin bits of material through not-much-bigger holes, with his hands so near near the warmth of her body and that dangerous floral scent surrounding them both, with the sound of her quickening breath spurring him on.
His knuckles brush against the bare skin of her upper back as he ties off the lacing, and she shivers and leans back into the touch. “Gwen,” he says, and it’s uneven, ragged, more a plea than a word.
Gwen turns to face him. The stays do something to her breasts, push them up so they’re full and tempting and barely contained by her shift. One deep breath, one gentle tug on the cloth, and they’d be free. Her nipples are hard, disturbing the smooth linen maddeningly close to the neckline. If he were to—
She waves a hand in front of his eyes. He blinks.
“Merlin, I’m sorry,”—she pauses for breath and he loses the chance to think again—“I’m really sorry, but I have to go, I was supposed to be ready for Morgana at noon and it’s nearly—I would, but—”
“Right,” Merlin says.
Gwen bites her lip. “I really would, I’m not just saying that.”
Merlin suspects he needs to work on being subtle.
It’s a miracle he manages to fasten up the gown without getting even one hook in the wrong place. When he’s done she turns again to smile at him, not with her usual brightness but with something hotter. The color makes her skin nearly glow. It’s perfect. She’s perfect, too, but she’s Gwen; she always is.