One of the advantages to being Queen of Camelot is that Gwen no longer has to lurk on the ramparts waiting for any sign of Arthur’s return. Nowdays, he sends a very fast rider on ahead or Merlin will enchant a bird to carry a note to her hands, and Gwen will breathe a sigh of relief. It’s not as though she’d have time to wander about the castle walls anyways; the work of the kingdom must still continue in Arthur’s absence, and since her marriage she’s found an affinity for ruling that had surprised her and pleased her husband.
“I guess this means the knights and I can go off whenever we like and leave you to it,” he’d teased, eyes sparkling, and she’d rolled her eyes and said tartly, “Just because you don’t feel like reading this trade agreement…” He’d laughed and said, “I will read any trade agreement you like so long as you stop frowning at me.”
Arthur’s been gone for nearly seven months, campaigning in the north. The steady stream of messengers flowing between his army and Camelot had helped ease the separation, although most of their missives dealt with the practicalities of the kingdom and strategic planning. They’d agreed that he should not leave the front until he was sure of his allies’ positions. They’d agreed that short of a siege on Camelot’s own gates, Gwen could handle most anything that would come up at home. They’d agreed to be patient. They are adults, with adult responsibilities; they have to think of things outside of themselves.
So it’s with a distinct sense of nostalgia that Gwen now finds herself standing anxiously on a high tower, looking across the lower town and beyond, past fields and forests that stretch out forever. She’d calculated the distance from the rider’s message, and any minute—
There. Dust rising along the road.
It wasn’t until the fourth month of the war that Arthur Pendragon started to exhibit signs of frustration. They were all stressed, although the fighting was going as well as reasonably could be expected. But still Arthur grew short-tempered and snappish, and even Merlin, who should’ve long been immune to his temper, threw up his hands and stalked from the royal pavilion in irritation after one particularly ill-mannered outburst.
“Don’t know what’s got into his britches,” Percival muttered after receiving a tongue-lashing of his own.
“It’s what’s not in his britches, if you know what I mean,” said Gwaine with a smirk.
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s been four months since we left home. I suspect our dear king is feeling a little…pent up, shall we say?”
“If it’s a girl he wants, why doesn’t he just go find one?” asked Sir Kay. “There are plenty of girls with the baggage train who’ll go to bed with a king.”
Since Kay was new to the knights and presumably didn’t know the first thing about anything, Elyan settled for giving him a dirty look, but it was Lancelot who said sharply, “The king would never disrespect his lady wife in that way. You would do well not to degrade either of them by speaking of such things.”
He stalked off, radiating disapproval, and Percival mumbled, “Now there’s a fellow who’s feeling pent up.”
At first, Gwen looks only at Arthur, riding at the head of the train. She’s standing at the top of the stairs, and his eyes go straight to her as he enters the courtyard. Even though she had known perfectly well that he was fine, the relief she feels at seeing him there, alive and whole and golden, is enough to make her dizzy. She wrenches her eyes away at last and looks beyond him.
Merlin, dear as always, raising a hand in greeting. Then her brother, and Leon, and Percival, and Gwaine, nonchalantly munching an apple as though he’d only been gone for a day or two and smiling inappropriately at the serving maids. But no Lancelot. Gwen frowns, looking.
The First Knight of Camelot is riding toward the middle of the train, his face shadowed. She wonders why he’s not with Arthur and Merlin and notes the tension rigid along his shoulders. There’d been nothing in any of Arthur’s letters to indicate that something was wrong. Then Gwen remembers a note from Merlin that had included a casual line about a dispute between Arthur and Lancelot over leading a certain section of the army. Merlin had said it had been short-lived. Gwen wonders if he was wrong.
But now Arthur’s dismounting in front of the steps, and all other thought flies from her mind. He stands, looking up at her, and then his lips quirk and his head inclines and he calls, “Well, my queen. Have you gotten used to independent ruling while I was away?”
“Yes, my lord,” Gwen replies. “Our council sessions are ever so much more productive. Why don’t you run on back to your little war and leave us to it?”
He waits a beat longer, holding her gaze with an amused smirk. Then he bounds up the stairs and takes her laughing into his arms, murmuring, “Not on your life, Guinevere, I’ll not leave you again so easily.”
If Merlin had known the truth, he would never have mentioned the dispute to Gwen. As it was, he only knew the aftereffects. But the heart of the matter was much more complicated, as it always is.
But for the war, it might not have happened. Arthur and Lancelot were in the royal pavilion, going over the next day’s plans, studying maps and reports from scouts and calculating where best to deploy their forces. Scrolls lay heaped and discarded over the field table, and they’d both long ago shucked off their leather jerkins, remaining in their breeches and undershirts. Arthur’s armor was piled in the corner, waiting for his squire to set it to rights before they rode the next day.
“I shall lead the left flank,” Arthur said, stabbing at a map with his dagger, “over the hill, and I want you to bring the rearguard—”
“My lord,” Lancelot interrupted, “I will lead the left flank; you should stay in the center and—”
“No, dammit, I’m taking the left.”
“The left is going to bear the brunt of the assault.”
“Yes,” Arthur said. “Which is why I should be the one to lead it.”
“Sire, we cannot afford to lose you.”
“Oh, and we can afford to lose you?” Arthur snapped, running a hand through his hair. “Don’t be ridiculous. I will not order my men to go where I will not.”
“No one is questioning your bravery, sire,” Lancelot said quietly.
“Who the hell said anything about my bravery?”
Lancelot ignored this, saying, “But only you can hold this army together, and only you can keep our allies from abandoning this effort.”
“Look, I don’t intend to die tomorrow—”
“We need you in the center anyway to communicate with the rest of the army.”
“I don’t need to be in the center, you’re all experienced commanders, you know how to run a battle.”
“Arthur, if you do not acquiesce, I will take this to the rest of the knights. They will agree with me.”
Arthur blinked. Lancelot, alone of all the knights closest to him, so rarely called him by his first name that the use of it always set Arthur back. He sighed, dropping into a chair, and said, “There’s a chance this could be the last stand. You know that. But it is crucial that the left flank get through. Everything depends on it.”
Lancelot said stiffly, “I know. I understand, sire, if there is another commander other than myself that you’d rather entrust the left to. Leon, perhaps.”
Arthur swore. “Don’t be an idiot. There’s no one finer.”
“So you’ll let me lead the left?”
“We’ll flip for it,” Arthur said, reaching for a coin. “Heads—my head, incidentally—I will lead the left. Tails, I’ll take the center.”
Lancelot looked bemused. “You can’t just…flip for it.”
“Why not?” Arthur said.
“Well, it’s not very…leader-like,” Lancelot said doubtfully.
Arthur shrugged. “Lancelot, I think you’ll find that most things a leader has to do doesn’t actually feel very leader-like.” He flipped the coin.
It landed with a thud, face up. “Well,” Arthur said jocularly, “so be it. I’ll take the left with Percival and you’ll be in the center. I want Leon on the right, with Elyan. Gwaine will stay with you, and I suppose I’d better take Merlin. He’ll only disobey me otherwise.”
“No,” Lancelot said, moving toward him with a sudden, violent movement. The abruptness of it caught Arthur off-guard, and he had to crane his head back to meet Lancelot’s eyes, now looming over him. “No, I’m sorry, my lord, but I will lead the left flank. If things don’t go well, this could amount to a suicide mission, and Camelot cannot afford to lose its king.”
“As you seem keen on reminding me, I am the king,” Arthur said, the beginnings of real anger curling in his stomach. He shoved out of his chair and stood toe-to-toe with the other man. “And you will do as I say.”
“No, sire,” Lancelot replied, not backing down. “Can’t you see the risk? Can’t you understand that your life is worth more than this one battle? What would we do without you? What would she do?”
Arthur’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “I see. Your real concern. I would imagine you’d be more than happy to console the distraught widow.”
Lancelot’s breath left him in an explosion. “You bloody minded bastard. As though I could ever go near her, knowing I’d let you ride off to your death. As though I would even want to, with you dead.”
“You know,” Arthur said cuttingly, “you really must work on these asinine notions of nobility. I assure you, Guinevere doesn’t bother with such nonsense—one of the aftereffects of her peasant stock, I dare say. You’ll probably have to work very hard at staying away from her. Let’s see how your honor withstands that.”
It was probably the most unforgivable and most untrue thing he’d ever said about anyone, to the one person who would take it the worst. Arthur supposed he couldn’t really be surprised when Lancelot responded by punching him.
Since he deserved it, Arthur let him. But he wasn’t entirely expecting the second blow, or the one after that, so that he was driven back half-senseless into his chair. Nor did he expect Lancelot to drop to his knees, cupping Arthur’s neck and crying out, “Arthur, Arthur, you fool, it was never just Gwen alone, it was never, I could never—” He broke off with a great wrenching gasp and jerked away from Arthur, ending up on the other side of the pavilion.
Arthur remained where he was, immobilized. His jaw burned and his left eye was watering profusely, and in the back of his mind, he was aware that it would likely turn black. Lancelot stood across from him, breathing hard but oddly self contained. After a long moment, he made a little shrugging motion, half resigned and half apologetic. “I think you thought it hero worship, but of course it wasn’t just that. Yes, Gwen, always Gwen, from the moment I saw her, but then later…” Lancelot trailed off, and then smiled slightly. “You see now why I was content to leave her to you. Your happiness has always been....Well.”
There was a space, full of possibilities. A candle flickered, casting shadows over the sharp planes of Lancelot’s face. Then strangely, his shoulders relaxed, as though a great weight had been taken from him. He said formally, “You are my king, and I will abide by whatever you decide.” He gave a short bow, and slipped from the tent.
The next day, Lancelot rode on the left.
Arthur had led the knights on campaigns before, so Gwen is prepared for the alternating bouts of reflective stillness and violent activity that consume the men in the first few months of their return. She’d asked him once, long ago, what drove them to such highs and lows. He’d thought for a moment, then said, “War is not...it is not what the bards sing of. It’s a little different when you’re defending your home, but you’ve lived through the attacks on Camelot; you’ve seen the horror of it.”
He’d paused for a moment, thinking, then gestured towards the window. Beyond the glass, the pristine fields and forests of Camelot lay sparkling under the morning sun. “It is difficult sometimes, to have seen what we’ve seen, and done what we’ve done, and then come back to all this. Sometimes there is relief in being with the men who lived it with us.” He’d stopped and looked at her apologetically. “I’m sorry. Does it upset you?”
She’d smiled, a little wryly. “No. I’m glad you told me. I’m only sorry I can’t share the burden with you.”
This time around, Gwen supposes that the length of the campaign and the wretchedness of the final battle could account for the extremes some of the knights are driven to. Percival spends an entire week brooding in the archives until Geoffrey threatens to make him start cataloguing the scrolls. Gwaine maintains a truly impressive drunk for nearly three days that is abruptly ended by Merlin discovering and using, rather unsympathetically, a spell that removes inebriation but not the resulting hangover. Elyan locks himself in their father’s forge and turns out roughly 500 horseshoes in half the time it would have taken a normal blacksmith.
When he isn’t throwing himself into the work of the kingdom, Arthur spends much of his time seemingly lost in contemplation. His state of abstraction even extends itself, once or twice, to cloud their lovemaking until a gentle comment from Gwen one morning leads him to flush deeply and carry her off to the bedroom where he demonstrates, mock-solemnly, his awesome powers of concentration.
She notices, because she makes it her business to notice, that Arthur has stopped touching her in public. No, not in public—in front of the knights. He is normally physically affectionate with her, touching her hand, tweaking her hair, placing a gentle hand on her back, which she has always attributed to an effect of their long, hidden courtship. But now, when they are in the council room together with the rest of his councilors and knights, he maintains a distance. He is still respectful and always gives her a hand into and out of her chair, but where he would have previously brought her fingers to his lips for a kiss, he simply lets go.
It wasn’t a suicide mission, but it came pretty close. As Lancelot crested the hill with his men, he looked down upon a short expanse of field half-ringed by a dark fringe of trees. Their enemies would be shielded in those trees, he knew, and further, they’d have crossbows. And he and his men were framed against a clear sky at the top of the hill, perfect targets for any half-competent bowman. His own bowmen, ranged behind him, would do what they could, but they were shooting at phantoms, and what was more, would be aiming high into the air so as not to hit their own forces.
There was nothing for it. He’d known the risks, having devised most of the plan himself. Lancelot nodded to Kay, who lifted the battle horn to his lips. On Lancelot’s other side, Percival drew his sword. Kay blew.
The men surged forward down the hill, yelling, with the red and gold standards of Camelot fluttering in the wind like exotic birds. Lancelot was mounted and had to take care not to trample any of his own soldiers, but his horse was experienced and sure-footed and would not rear or kick until his signal. The ground sloped down, gently.
Even though he was braced for it, the first whine of crossbows still made his stomach drop. Ahead of him, men stumbled and fell, and horses shrieked in alarm. He couldn’t, now, avoid every fallen body, and his horse galloped over surcoats of red and gold. They were still not yet to the trees.
Another hail of bolts fired at them, and then with a roar, the enemy forces came charging out after. His body reacted immediately, slashing and hacking, while his mind recognized that the opposing commander, whoever he was, had evidently decided that fighting close in a forest benefited no one. It had always been a possibility. They’d tried to plan for everything. Lancelot fended off a particularly vicious attack and started considering the new strategy.
Arthur himself as well as his commanders carried no identifying markings save for the anonymous, golden dragon of Camelot’s royal house, but Percival’s size and height announced themselves for all the world to see. Lancelot, looking, spotted the other man and fought his way over. “”What’dya think?” Percival gasped when the men around them cleared a brief space in the battle for them to confer.
“If we can stay in the lee of the hill it should be fine,” Lancelot replied. “I don’t want to give them too much ground out of the forest.”
“It doesn’t matter how much ground we give them,” Percival bit out, swinging energetically. “If Arthur’s able to rout his line, they’re all going to come fleeing back towards us.”
“Yes, and we’ll meet them,” Lancelot said steadily. “We’ll manage. Arthur will send part of his force to back us up if he can.”
Percival gave a grunt that might have been acceptance, might have been skepticism, and then they were swept back into the fighting.
It was hard to measure time in a battle, because every moment was at once the instantaneous duck and swing and parry and rally, no time to think but just reaction after reaction after reaction. But at the same time, your lungs burned and your hand grew numb, and it seemed as though you couldn’t turn round without tripping over a new body that wasn’t there before. For Lancelot, leading the force, all that was added to the constant calculations in his mind, watching his men and judging the space around them and keeping a part of his senses open and receptive to any indication of the rest of Arthur’s army. The noise was deafening.
It wasn’t a sound exactly, more like a humming, an awareness within the enemy ranks that something had happened. Lancelot, watching, signalled his men to fall back, and called his archers to line up at the top of the hill.
Arthur must have broken through. Lancelot could hear the sounds of battle drawing closer, crashing and advancing through the forest. And born before them, like shells caught in the battering surf, came the enemy forces, broken and running to fling themselves desperately at Lancelot’s men, all that remained between them and freedom.
The next period of time was wholly unpleasant. Lancelot couldn’t stop fighting until he’d been assured that a cease-fire had been agreed upon, but there was nothing worse than facing down desperate men who were running for their lives.
Heartsick, Lancelot set his own men against them.
Lancelot is the one person Gwen is unable to observe closely. They’d always been able to maintain a cordial relationship, and before the war, Gwen had seen him no more or less than any of the other knights save her brother. She’d been careful with him, out of deference to both his feelings and Arthur’s. Her own she can control well enough.
But now it’s like every time she enters a room, Lancelot is just leaving, or she’ll catch sight of him disappearing around a corner. They meet, as is natural, in the council chambers, or at a feast, but surrounded as they always are by other people, she can hardly ask him anything personal and she’s not stupid enough to let her eyes linger.
Because Gwen is at heart a practical person, she decides to take the matter in hand and seek out Merlin. She finds the court sorcerer in the workroom he had shared with Gaius. Merlin has a whole suite of his own now, of course, but Gwen knows that he takes comfort in the dusty, dry room, filled with mementos of his late uncle.
His face brightens when he sees her. “Gwen! Perfect, you’re just the person I need. Hold this.” He thrusts something soft and smelly into her hands. “Careful not to drop it on your dress. It stains.”
Having deduced this herself based on the state of Merlin’s own clothes, Gwen holds the—whatever-it-is—out in front of her patiently. “Merlin, what happened to your assistant?”
Merlin blinks, then looks around as though he expects the boy to be hovering somewhere nearby. “Uh...I think I sent him to get lunch?”
As it is now nearly four, Gwen hides a smile and says only, “What is this, and for how long do I have to hold it?”
“It’s a new adhesive that I’m working on,” Merlin says, his eyes sparkling with magical fervour. “I’m hoping that it’ll be strong enough to act as a quick-acting bonding agent for the field. You know, when we’re traveling fast and a wagon breaks down or something, we can just slap some of this on and be good to go.”
“Ah,” Gwen says. “That does sound helpful. But must it be quite so...smelly?”
“Yeah,” Merlin replies. “I’m not entirely sure about that. I think maybe I added too much dragon dung.”
“What?!” Gwen exclaims, nearly dropping the object.
“Er,” Merlin says. “Just kidding?”
“Ew,” Gwen says feelingly. “Please hurry, Merlin.”
He bends over her outstretched hands, muttering and gesturing to himself. Then his eyes turn gold and Gwen feels a burst of warmth flash through the object. Merlin straightens, looking pleased, and removes it, handing her a rag to wipe her hands on.
“Now, what can I do for you?” he asks, sitting down on a workbench. She sits next to him, depositing the rag on the table behind her.
“It’s Lancelot,” she says. “I wanted to ask you...is he all right? I’ve seen how the others have been acting, and Elyan said the last battle was particularly bad.”
Merlin sobers, nodding. “It was...yes. It was bad. And Lancelot was in the thick of it. I don’t—you know what he’s like. He hasn’t spoken of it since, and I haven’t wanted to press him. But I know he’s been unusually quiet.”
“But do you think that’s just Lancelot being himself, or is there something more?”
“I don’t know. Gwen, the battle was really, really... Arthur and I did what we could, but Lancelot’s forces bore the brunt of the fighting. The carnage was... We thought it necessary.” He trails off, his face darkening.
“This isn’t his first battle,” Gwen says. “Surely he knows how these things can go.”
“Yes, but you see, Lancelot designed most of the plan. He and Arthur. They did it deliberately, to get a decisive victory and finish the war. That’s why he feels responsible.”
Gwen sighs. “Yes. He would. And Arthur as well.”
Merlin flicks a look up at Gwen. “Has he said anything to you about it? Arthur, I mean?”
“No,” Gwen shakes her head. “But I wouldn’t expect him to. Actually, that’s another reason I came to you. I’d have thought he would take his knights in hand by now, and he hasn’t.”
“I noticed,” Merlin says wryly. “Gwaine’s been particularly difficult. I can talk to him, if you like.”
“Maybe,” Gwen says fretfully. “But it should never have gotten to this point. Even if Arthur was content to let it go, Lancelot should have reminded him of his duty by now. And he hasn’t.”
Merlin’s face goes blank. “You’re right. Lancelot’s not one to shirk his duty to the rest of the knights.”
“Merlin, what happened when you all were away? Between Arthur and Lancelot? You said they quarreled.”
“They argued,” Merlin says after a moment. “It was about the last battle, and who would lead it. You know Arthur. He always likes to take on too much risk to himself. Lancelot was able to persuade him otherwise.”
Gwen studies him. “What aren’t you telling me?”
She stares at him. He sighs, leaning back against the table. “Lancelot blackened his eye.”
“Lancelot punched Arthur. A couple times, by the looks of it.”
Gwen gapes at him, and he gives a half-grin. “I won’t lie, I was a little jealous. Do you know how many times I’ve wanted to smack Arthur around?”
He sobers again. “I know. It’s not like him.” As Gwen opens her mouth, Merlin holds up a hand, forestalling her. “All Arthur said was that they disagreed about the battle plans, and then he asked me to remove the bruise so that no one would know.”
She frowns. “I can’t imagine what could drive Lancelot to actually strike Arthur.”
Merlin looks at her full-on. “Can’t you?”
Gwen flushes. “That was years ago, Merlin. And shouldn’t it be the other way round, then?”
“Not necessarily. You know how provocative Arthur can be when he’s upset.”
“Mmm,” Gwen says, worrying her lip. “Yes. I just hope Lancelot doesn’t—” She breaks off, thinking.
“Doesn’t feel that he’s failed Arthur in some way.”
“Failed him?” Merlin repeats, astonished. “For punching him?’
“Striking a king in anger amounts to treason, Merlin. I know Arthur is generally lax about these sorts of things, but Lancelot takes it seriously. He’s the First Knight of Camelot, charged with upholding the law.”
He sighs. “You’re right. I didn’t think about it in that way. Something needs to be done.”
“The question is,” Gwen says musingly, “what?”
Arthur didn’t see Lancelot again until after the treaties had been ratified, the valuable prisoners carted away and the common men ordered to disband. Camelot’s forces, as well as the forces of her allies, remained massed in a vast field a bit removed from the wreckage of the battlefield. As always after a victory, Arthur ordered the hogs slaughtered and several barrels of mead opened, after ensuring that the sentries had received strict orders to abstain. He might be victorious, but he wasn’t stupid.
As was customary, his commanders gathered in his pavilion to receive their individual thanks and discuss with him, if they wished, the day’s events. Arthur spoke, keeping his remarks brief but warm, and dismissed them to find their own beds. It had been a long day.
Lancelot stood near the back of the tent, his eyes downcast. When Arthur had met him on the field of battle, they hadn’t exchanged any words. There’d been no need, as there was no room in either of them for anything other than the horror they both felt. It wasn’t a new feeling; Arthur had experienced it in the aftermath of other hard-fought battles. But the great, wrenching despair never lessened, as the spluttering of dying men had droned in the air and the splashes of rusting blood mixed with the churned up loam of the earth. There had been flies, everywhere. Later, Arthur knew, there would be animals.
He’d been raised for it. To rule was his birthright, and to defend Camelot his duty. Uther Pendragon, for all his faults, had never attempted to disguise the harsh realities of what it meant to lead.
But Lancelot hadn’t been born to this. Lancelot had been destined for the life of a commoner before his parents had been killed and he’d turned to the sword. He was a brilliant fighter and had a natural head for strategy that very nearly rivaled Arthur’s. But it all came from an instinctual understanding of warfare, not from a lifetime of training. And no one had prepared him for the aftermath of sustained war.
Arthur opened his mouth to speak as the knights filed out of his tent. Lancelot turned, eyes still shadowed, and walked out. Arthur subsided, staring after him.
“My lord?” Elyan asked hesitantly. “You were going to say something?”
Elyan was Guinevere’s brother. He was a straightforward man with little patience for emotional entanglements.
“Nothing,” Arthur said. “It was nothing.”
Lancelot walks swiftly through the castle, head down. He’s just come straight from the latest council meeting, two interminable hours of careful conversation and tedious paperwork and overwhelming guilt over neglecting the duties he owes to the king as Camelot’s First Knight. Two hours of avoiding eye contact with pretty much everyone and pretending not to notice Arthur’s distance from both himself and from Gwen; two hours ignoring the worry fairly radiating off of Merlin. Two hours, and now he’s going to find a nice quiet spot and just sit for a moment. He thinks he deserves that much.
He stops, breathing out slowly. Then turns.
Gwaine is strolling up, a nonchalant grin plastered on his face. Lancelot relaxes. He knows how to handle Gwaine.
“How’re you doing?” Gwaine asks as he approaches. Lancelot is unsurprised to see him munching on a carrot. The only time he’d seen the man without something in his mouth was on the battlefield.
“I’m fine,” Lancelot replies.
Gwaine quirks a brow. “Huh.” There is a pause. Lancelot waits with an air of—he hopes—not entirely discourteous impatience.
“Huh,” Gwaine repeats. “Seems to me, you were in quite a hurry to leave the council chambers today. Some might say you’ve lost your taste for leadership. All that administrative work.” He takes a casual bite and chews thoughtfully.
Lancelot raises both brows, politely. The thing with Gwaine is that he will eventually get to the point, at his own pace. Trying to rush him will get nowhere, as Lancelot knows well from experience.
“Some might say you’ve had enough of long hours of paperwork,” Gwaine continues. “Can’t be pleasant, locked away with the king all the time. Some might say you’ve had enough of him.”
At that, Lancelot looks up sharply. Gwaine is staring back at him blandly. “Myself, I don’t think so. You’re not one to shirk your duties. If you felt you couldn’t perform at the usual level, you would have excused yourself by now. And if anyone can tolerate our good king for long periods of time, it’s you.”
“What are you saying, Gwaine?” Lancelot asks, almost unwillingly.
Gwaine shrugs. “It’s no business of mine why you’ve been avoiding everyone, especially Arthur, but the last thing you want is for people to start to talk. Or for them to draw the wrong sorts of conclusions.” Gwaine pauses. “Or possibly the right ones.”
Lancelot flushes, and Gwaine looks away, taking another bite of carrot. After swallowing, he grins suddenly and slaps Lancelot on the shoulder. “Anyway. It’s just a thought. What do I know, eh?”
He walks jauntily away, leaving Lancelot looking after him. “What do you know, indeed,” Lancelot mutters.
Lancelot’s reprieve lasts all of one day. The next morning, Guinevere finally manages to catch up with him.
They’re in the courtyard, surrounded by townspeople and members of the court and knights. It is not so unusual for the queen to speak to one of the knights, let alone the First Knight of Camelot and one of King Arthur’s chief advisors, and no one glances their way. Still, there is an ocean of space between the two of them, which neither tries to broach. It is echoed in Guinevere’s tone, respectfully formal. Even after all these years and the choices they’ve both made, Lancelot always feels a twinge when he hears her voice like this, polite and carefully modulated, like they’d never faced danger together, like they’d never clung to one another in a moment of awful desperation.
“Sir Lancelot,” Gwen says. “I haven’t seen much of you since your return.” In someone else, it might have been a reproof, but Lancelot only sees concern.
“Forgive me, my lady,” Lancelot replies. “Concluding a war is never as simple as people would like.”
She smiles. “Indeed. I have seldom seen so much paperwork. The notaries, at least, are happy.” Before he can respond, she continues, “I hope we haven’t been asking too much of you. I know how Arthur can push his men.”
He looks at Gwen, who gazes back at him serenely, giving away nothing. But Lancelot realizes that she must know about his quarrel with the king. He wonders how she knows, and then realizes that it must have come from Merlin, who was surely responsible for magicking away the bruises Lancelot left on Arthur’s face.
Lancelot says carefully, “Long campaigns are hard on everyone. The king was under a lot of pressure.”
“And you were not?” she asks. “I understand you were in the thick of it. In fact, it was your efforts that secured us a victory in the end, was it not?”
His jaw twitches. “All of Camelot’s men fought bravely.” He doesn’t want to talk about the battle. He wishes she would stop looking at him and stop talking to him and let him go someplace quiet, and then immediately cancels the thought. To stand here with her is the ultimate privilege. She says, “Yes, I’m sure they did. Arthur is lucky to have such men with him.”
“We are lucky to follow him,” Lancelot replies.
Gwen smiles. “He is lucky to have you as well. It is good for him, to have someone to worry about disappointing.”
“Disappointing?” Lancelot repeats. “I’m sorry—I don’t understand.”
“Surely you know?” Gwen says blandly. “He cannot abide the idea of letting you down. You are the example he sets before himself. He would never forgive himself if he thought he’d done—or said—something to drive you away.”
Lancelot gapes at her stupidly. She continues, “Forgive me. As I said, we worry about putting too much on you. But, you see, your engagement is necessary, Lancelot. You are needed here.”
She puts a hand on his arm and they both draw breath. She removes her hand. Then Lancelot watches as Guinevere reschools her face and walks away from him.
“What are you doing?” Merlin asks, coming up behind Gwaine.
“Spying,” Gwaine says, not looking away from the window. Below him lies the courtyard of Camelot. Gwen is walking away from Lancelot. From this angle, Merlin can’t see their faces, but he doesn’t have to be a Seer to guess Lancelot’s expression. Next to him, Gwaine takes a bite of a thick slice of bread, richly buttered.
“Breakfast was an hour ago,” Merlin comments. Gwaine shrugs. “I’m a growing boy, Merlin. What d’ya think they talked about?”
“I have no idea.”
Gwaine turns and looks at Merlin fully. “You’re lying.”
“And it’s none of your business,” Merlin replies, successfully ignoring the way Gwaine’s mouth curls up in appreciation.
“None of yours, either.”
“They’re my friends.”
“Oh, and they’re not mine?” As Merlin opens his mouth to reply, Gwaine laughs and says, “I’m just messing with you, Merlin.” He turns back to the window. Gwen is just entering the castle; Lancelot pivots slowly and walks the other way, brow furrowed.
Gwaine starts to grin. “If there’s anyone who makes ‘lovestruck’ work for them, it’s our dear Lancelot.”
“Gwaine,” Merlin says reprovingly, “I don’t think that’s very fair.”
“No?” Gwaine says. “Perhaps not. But never fear, I doubt he’ll have to wait much longer.”
“Gwen would never!” Merlin exclaims.
Gwaine grins at him. “Who said anything about Gwen?” With that, he struts off, leaving Merlin staring after him.
“My lord,” Lancelot says after the next council meeting. “You should consider increasing the training. The knights could use the added exercise.”
Gwen has not attended this council session. Arthur looks up at the other man, standing deferentially behind his own chair, and says, “And the added focus. Of course you’re right. We’ll start tomorrow afternoon.”
The next day is hot and muggy, but the men seem to respond to the added workload. They’re not wearing armour, sparring instead in shirt and hose with wooden staffs like the trainees use. The sun is too much to stand after a while, and the knights gradually shuck their shirts, preferring to risk bruised backs in exchange for one less article of clothing sticking to their bodies.
Arthur is not one to set himself apart from his men on the training ground and so he doffs his shirt as well, knowing that Gwen will scold him for the myriad marks that will surely rise on his skin tomorrow. He spars with Gwaine and he thwacks somewhat ineffectually at Percival and then he and Elyan have a furious exchange that leaves them both winded and panting on the grass. While he rests, he watches from the corner of his eye as Lancelot good-naturedly takes on several trainees.
His knights are no secret to him; he’s trained with them for years, and knows their bodies well—what they’re capable of, where their strengths and weaknesses lie. But it it’s been long since he actually properly looked at Lancelot. The lean line of muscle across the other man’s back, the corded stomach, the broad shoulders and limber arms. The powerful thighs that spring and bunch as he moves lightly around the young trainees, who cannot hope to keep pace with a man in full control of his physical powers. The furrowed brow and strong jaw under the dark hair, so like Gwen’s, so opposite to Arthur’s own.
Lancelot pivots and turns, his eyes meeting Arthur’s. If he realizes Arthur’s been watching him, he gives no indication of it. After a moment, Arthur looks away. Leon approaches and says, “My lord, what next?”
“We keep going,” Arthur replies.
His discovery three days later is a complete accident. He’s hunting through the halls for Merlin, growing increasingly annoyed, when he hears the sorcerer’s voice down a seldom-used corridor. He’s about to go bursting in when he hears another voice.
Arthur slows, moving with the stealth that years of training have instilled in him. The other voice belongs to Gwaine. They’re standing together, talking quietly, and some instinct tells Arthur to stay silent. Merlin looks exasperated, like he’s been trying to explain something, and Gwaine is amused, not having it. The look on his face as he watches Merlin makes Arthur draw breath. Then Merlin finishes with a quiet explosion, gesturing wildly, and Gwaine laughs.
“...isn’t funny, Gwaine!” Arthur hears, and Gwaine says something, still chuckling. Merlin gives a half-hearted punch to his shoulder. Gwaine grins wider and steps closer, into Merlin’s personal space and Arthur expects Merlin to move backwards but he doesn’t.
Gwaine’s eyes drop, the amusement on his face still present but fading into something else. He reaches one hand up and slips it under Merlin’s chin and then Arthur backs away, his own face burning.
He isn’t fully aware of his two feet moving until he realizes that he’s in Gwen’s sitting room. She’s there, with several of her handmaidens, and they’re all staring at him. He gives a little imperious motion, and Gwen says calmly, “Could we have the room, please?”
Once they’re alone, she puts her hands on his shoulders. “What’s wrong, Arthur? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I just saw...” he starts, and then looks at her worriedly. “Don’t be shocked. Maybe you should sit down.”
She frowns but does as he asks.
“I saw—I saw Merlin. And Gwaine. Together,” he says in a rush.
Her face clears. “Ah.”
“‘Ah?’ That’s all you have to say, ah?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“I don’t—why aren’t you—you’re not surprised,” he says suspiciously. “Why aren’t you surprised?”
“Because I’m not,” she replies. “I’ve long suspected that they two had feelings for each other.”
“And you didn’t tell me?” Arthur demands. “Why not?”
“Because, Arthur,” Gwen says levelly, “I was afraid you’d respond exactly how you are now.”
“What are you talking about? I’m responding perfectly normally!”
She makes a face. “Actually, you’re a bit shouty.”
“This is my regular speaking voice,” he protests. Gwen gives him a look but says only, “Arthur, this—this isn’t any of your business, or mine. Will you promise me you’ll leave it?”
“Of course I’m going to leave it,” he says, horrified. “The last thing I want to do is talk to Merlin about his—his—personal life.”
“You’re not just saying that because it’s Gwaine?”
“Gwen, believe me, the idea of Merlin kissing anyone is appalling enough,” Arthur says with feeling.
She laughs. “All right.”
Arthur goes over to her chair, lifting her up and sitting down himself. She settles more comfortably on his lap as he says thoughtfully, “To be honest, I’ve never actually thought much about it. The idea of two men.”
“No?” Gwen shifts against him, running her fingers through his hair.
“No. I mean, I knew that it happened of course, but I always assumed it was...somewhere other than Camelot.” He leans back into her stroking hand reflectively.
“What, did you think Camelot was immune?” Gwen tugs on his hair fondly and he grins sheepishly up at her.
“No, I just...I don’t know. It never occurred to me.” After a moment, he blinks, shaking his head. “But now it occurs to me that my wife is conveniently located on my lap and I have yet to do anything about it.”
She starts to grin back at him even as her eyes darken in anticipation. “And what do you propose to do, my lord?” Then she shrieks with laughter as he shows her.
Perhaps it is nothing. Perhaps it has always been like this, and Arthur simply didn’t notice. But now wherever he goes, he can feel Lancelot’s eyes on him. Not steady, not staring, just little glancing touches that slide on and slide off just as quickly.
Because he is now paying attention, he knows that Lancelot almost never looks at Gwen unless directly addressed. His very not-looking has, in effect, become a form of attention conspicuous for its absence. Despite this, it is clear that Lancelot is only too aware of her presence whenever they are in a room together and takes care to navigate delicately around her, like a boater avoiding the shoals.
Gwen, the only sane one among them, pays Lancelot as much attention as he deserves as First Knight, and continues serenely through her own duties. She has taken Arthur’s lead, he recognizes, and has tempered her own interactions with him in public. No one, watching her, would ever notice the strain she is currently feeling, trying to work out the undercurrents that she hasn’t even been told about but surely can feel. No one save for himself, of course. And, most likely, Lancelot.
It is because of this very strain that he tells her. It’s not fair to her to be caught in this situation with the two of them and be ignorant of the cause.
They’re in bed, which is probably poor timing on his part, but the early mornings are so often the only time they can be assured of total privacy. The servants learned long ago not to enter unless called for.
She’s lying in the circle of his arms, tracing a thoughtless pattern on one of his shoulders. She looks sleepy and contented, her hair spread out on the pillow behind her, and a part of him hates to ruin the moment.
“He still loves you, you know,” he says, by way of opening, and then mentally rolls his eyes at himself.
Gwen blinks. “What?”
Arthur makes a face, but continues. “Lancelot. He still loves you.”
She pulls backward, a crease forming between her brows. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I,” he says, and shuts his eyes briefly, wishing he had Lancelot’s tongue. “I’m sorry. I’m going about this all wrong. But I thought you should know.”
“Arthur...” she begins, but he waves her off.
“Let me finish. You should know the truth of what happened, when we were away. I think it is only fair that you know.”
She settles back against the pillows, but still outside of his arms. Her gaze is level and her face perfectly composed and perfectly unreadable.
“Lancelot and I—we had a disagreement. About the last battle, and I...ah, I lost my head. Said some things—it doesn’t matter what,” Arthur says hurriedly. “Point is, I was trying to goad him, and it worked, and he, well, he got quite upset with me.”
Gwen’s expression hasn’t changed, but Arthur detects no surprise and guesses that she’s been informed at least of the basics, most likely from Merlin. Well, that is all right. Merlin didn’t know the next bit.
He takes a breath and soldiers on. “Anyway, it was all rather incoherent and not at all sensible—as you’d expect from us”—and there’s a hint of a smile in her eyes, thank god—“and well, it came out that what he feels for you, he...ah...he also feels for me.”
There’s a long silence. The only hint of her emotions is conveyed through the delicate rise of her brows, but other than that, he cannot get a fix on her feelings.
She looks away and then nods once, slowly. “It makes some sense,” she says and lapses back into silence.
They sit like that for several moments more, him watching, her lost in thought. Then she stirs and meets his eyes. “What do you think?”
“I don’t quite know,” he says. “I feel foolish, certainly, for not recognizing it. He said I must have just thought it hero worship, and I did, I suppose. Now I realize there is not that much difference between one and the other; perhaps only a certain degree of feeling.
“Additionally, there was you, of course,” he says, smiling wryly at her. “And while I’ve always known how he felt for you, I didn’t think it fair—not after our wedding, anyway—to subject him to a more thorough examination, even if it was only in my mind.”
Arthur shrugs, a little helplessly. “He’s Lancelot. He’s the most honorable man I know. All that I ever wanted to be, he already was.”
“I rather think,” Gwen says, “that the hero worship went both ways.”
“Yes,” Arthur replies. “It did.”
Her eyes drop. “Is there anything else? That goes both ways.”
He leans over and lifts her chin gently until she meets his gaze. “Do you want there to be? You haven’t said how you feel.”
“I married you,” she says. “I love you.”
“I know,” Arthur says. “Gwen, there is nothing in this world that could make me think otherwise. But you still haven’t answered my question.”
After another moment, she meets his gaze. “He’s Lancelot,” she says, echoing his own words, and he smiles at her because there are times when they hardly need speak and yet they still understand each other perfectly, and he knows just how lucky he is.
They’re in Arthur’s study, one night not long after. Merlin, Gwaine and Leon have just left, stretching the kinks out of their necks. It’s late, and exhaustion has made Arthur loopy and playful. He sits Gwen atop the heavy oak desk, spreading her knees and leaning over her, fists bunched into the material of her dress. He kisses her, gently, lips moving over her eyelids, her cheeks, lingering over the tops of her breasts that strain against her bodice as she inhales. Then he grins mischievously at her and disappears underneath her skirts.
Gwen squirms a little as he draws down her underthings and his breath ghosts up her thighs. Then she leans back on her palms with a sigh as his mouth settles on her. Her toes are just beginning to curl with the first wave of orgasm when the door opens. Gwen swings her head around, half-blind with lust and shock. Beneath her skirts, Arthur freezes.
It’s Lancelot. He looks just as surprised as she feels. But his eyes stay steady on her face, and she realizes that he probably can’t see Arthur, on his knees behind the desk. “For—forgive me,” he stammers. “I did not know you were—Gwaine said...”
Gwen feels Arthur relaxing, and he gives a long, lazy lick that makes her shudder. Then he pulls out from underneath her skirts and stands up.
Comprehension flashes across Lancelot’s face, and he flushes deeply and steps backward toward the door. “I’m so sorry, I’ll just be—”
“Wait,” Arthur says. His lips are still damp with her. He glances at Gwen and she lets her eyes answer his question. His own crinkle up in understanding and love. He turns back to Lancelot. “I told Gwen. She deserved to know.”
“You...?” Lancelot looks at Gwen and she conveys the same wordless message. Slowly, his face transforms. Arthur walks toward the other man, stopping so close that Gwen is sure their breath is mingling. Then, Arthur kisses him. It is nothing like the way he kisses her; it’s tentative and delicate and filled with such care. Watching, Gwen is swamped with an aching sweetness.
Arthur breaks away, holding Lancelot’s gaze for a long moment, until he turns and extends a hand out to her. Gwen slides off the desk and joins them, slipping easily into the space they’ve created for her. With Arthur’s hand warm on her back, she stretches up and draws Lancelot’s head down to her own. He’s trembling. She and Arthur steady him.
When they pull apart, Arthur says quietly, “You started this. Will you finish it?”
“Oh, Arthur,” Gwen says fondly. “This is no ending.”
Arthur looks down at her and then back at Lancelot. “No,” he says thoughtfully. “No, I suppose it isn’t.”
Lancelot squints into the afternoon sun, wiping sweat from his face. The white walls of Camelot tower above him, and he feels a flash of pleasure rise through his body at the thought of home. He clatters through the courtyard with his patrol, dismounting and handing off their horses to waiting grooms. He dismisses the rest of the knights to their barracks and heads to the council chamber to make his report.
As luck would have it, both Arthur and Gwen are present, along with several other members of the council. Arthur’s face warms immediately, a smile breaking out in welcome as he jumps up and gives Lancelot a friendly clap on the back. In front of the council, it is all they can do, but even after all these months, Lancelot still feels a stutter in his chest at the brief proximity. Gwen is, as ever, more circumspect, but he doesn’t miss the secret smile that flashes quickly across her face, just for him.
He gives his report succinctly, and they spend the next fifteen minutes analyzing it and comparing his new information against everything else they know. It’s routine, and Lancelot falls into the line of questioning and debating with the ease of long familiarity.
As the session breaks up, Arthur slips an arm around Gwen’s shoulders, dropping a friendly kiss to her temple. “What say you, Guinevere? Shall we throw a feast in honor of Lancelot’s return?”
Gwen sends Lancelot a look, knowing full well that a feast is the last thing he wants after returning home. “Arthur,” she says with a good-natured sigh, “you cannot just throw a feast on an hour’s notice. Think of the servants.”
“Oh, right,” Arthur says, unabashed. “Well, perhaps tomorrow?”
Gwen rolls her eyes at Lancelot and says comfortably, “Lancelot, after you get settled in your chambers, could you join us for a few moments?”
“Of course, my lady,” he replies, inclining his head. Arthur grins companionably at him, and then the King and Queen of Camelot sweep out of the room. Lancelot proceeds to his own rooms, just down the hallway from the royal chambers, and smiles at the steaming tub of water standing ready. Gwen’s doing, of course, enacted through one of the stewards. He strips off his travel-stained clothes and indulges in the luxury of a hot bath.
Nearly three quarters of an hour later, dressed in clean, soft clothes, he heads down the hall, to Gwen and to Arthur. He can picture them in his mind’s eye; Arthur moving restlessly around the room, a ball of energy barely leashed, Gwen seated, emanating calm. His proper homecoming, waiting for him.
Lancelot enters the room, and shuts the door.