It's not that the rest of the week is horrible. Except when it is, with the never ending tedium of work, the early mornings and exhausted evenings, ringing her parents to reassure them she's still alive and that she doesn’t have the time or money for a vibrant social life
And it's not that her job at the publishing house is the worst job imaginable, and god knows Gwen's lucky to have a job, even if she hadn't planned on using her degree in French to do cubicle work.
It's just, in comparison, Saturdays are glorious.
Saturday mornings, especially, are Gwen's favorite, even ones like today, when there's nothing but rain and cold, grey gloom outside. The walk through scuttering raindrops redeems itself once Gwen arrives at the café, where she can get coffee and breakfast, and can sit and read quietly for a few hours.
"Hey. D'you mind?"
Well. Mostly quietly. But it's not like she minds sharing the table, and Gwen realizes she really doesn't mind when she looks up to see a bloke who lives in the same building as she does standing by her table. He's got two cups of coffee in his hands, a notebook tucked under his arm, and the most disarming, ingenuous smile on his face.
"Of course not," she replies, and accepts the cup of fresh, hot coffee gratefully.
Actually, if Gwen thinks about it – and it's sort of hard not to, what with the way their hands keep brushing against each other as she reads and he sketches, or the way their feet accidentally touch under the table – this is sort of splendid, too. It's awkward, and a little unsettling, but she's seen him here pretty much every Saturday morning since she moved to London three months ago. And not just here, but also at the tube station and the newsagents, and sometimes the Thai takeaway. They've already had their fair share of awkward conversations and seem to have settled into a pattern of companionable silence that has more moments of familiarity than it does awkwardness.
Gwen catches herself watching the rain drench the pavement, then watching Merlin sketch the scene outside the café window, before she notices he's watching her, too.
"Can I ask… Your name. Is it like the queen? Guinevere?"
"What, just like you're like the wizard, Merlin?"
Merlin shrugs and leans forward in his seat across from her at the table. "Maybe I am. Maybe I'm an incredibly ancient, incredibly powerful sorcerer."
"What you are is strange." But she's laughing, because Merlin looks completely serious, and then laughing some more when his mouth draws into a pout. "No, not at all. Just Gwen."
"Well, that's all right. I might, possibly, be just a moderately powerful sorcerer."
"Maybe we can work up to it, you know, royalty and incredible power."
"Might be a worthy goal, yeah?"
Gwen hesitates, but agrees after a few seconds consideration, and something inside her chest clenches slightly to see Merlin smile at her again.
She meets Merlin first, a slight, young man sent from Camelot to tell her of the new king's intentions to propose marriage.
Guinevere knows that by marriage Arthur means a marriage alliance, and that the alliance portion of the contract may very well be more important than the marriage. He sends Merlin to Cameliard along with a great deal of gifts, a parade of ambassadors, and an even greater deal of parchment that gets submitted to her father. It's all another reminder that for all the finery with which she'll be gifted, her marriage will be negotiated between men.
But Merlin… Merlin, Guinevere discovers, was sent to her. He's neither an ambassador nor a diplomat, though the trust Arthur has in him must be great, and he speaks with a frankness that makes Guinevere smile.
"Arthur's a good man," Merlin comments one morning.
They sit in the private gardens behind the castle, all of Guinevere's ladies-in-waiting with them, the princess's own ambassadorial contingent. The sunlight is weak, half-hidden between clouds that promise rain for the afternoon, and the air is pleasantly cool.
"I'm sure he is." Her embroidery remains untouched in Guinevere's lap. "What's Camelot like?"
Merlin's forehead creases in thought and he smooths his hand down the front of a tunic that looks as if it hadn't been worn before Merlin was commissioned to make this visit. "It's wonderful. Arthur, he's trying to break down the barriers his father set up, not just between kingdoms, but between people."
"There's magic in Camelot now, isn't there?" Though Guinevere has none of her own, none beyond the quiet charms and hopes all people have, but Cameliard has never outlawed it like Camelot is said to have.
The frown on Merlin's face becomes an open, radiant smile and for a few seconds, he appears to be on the verge of sharing some secret he can barely contain, words almost bubbling to his lips. He ducks his head before they can escape and nods in reply to Guinevere's question.
"What's your real position in Arthur's court? I mean, you're obviously not a warrior. Or a diplomat. Not that you're undiplomatic, but… Well."
"I could be. In disguise," Merlin adds.
Guinevere takes another look at his tunic, his shiny, new boots, and the cloak he seems to not have quite grown into yet. "All right. You might be. But you're his advisor, I suppose?"
"Something like that." He glances around the garden and leans down to pluck a flower the color of summer sun from those growing closest to their bench. His long, slim fingers brush the closed petals in a tender, light movement, and a second later the tiny bud blooms into a spray of yellow brilliance. "For you, your highness."
The scent of long summer days, of near endless hours of sunlight, fills the air and Guinevere cups her hands around the flowers. "I should like, once I arrive in Camelot, for us to be friends."
Merlin's smile is once again open and undisguised.
Merlin shivers as soon as he's near the castle. Tintagel: Morgana was born here, Arthur conceived here, and the whole area is alight with magic. He can taste it on his tongue and feel it fill his lungs with every breath.
He's been gone for a long time. Long enough that he'll have to head for Camelot soon to join Arthur and make sure the royal prat doesn't off himself before he attains the crown.
First, though, he'll stop here, and not just because he can tell that Morgana is aware of his presence. Her power skitters over his senses and he looks up at the sky, nods, and shivers again when he can only feel the faintest trace of her magic.
The trace grows, mingles with the magic of the forest and clouds, and by the time Merlin is inside the castle, his senses hum again. The sensation filters under his skin and through his blood, a warm and pleasing sensation, and he smiles to see Morgana stand before him.
"Merlin. You haven't changed at all."
He ducks his head. "Though you have." Of course she has – she's no longer a girl with fractured nightmares, but a woman with the great power of a seer and future priestess of Avalon.
Morgana nods in reply, slips her arm around the woman who stands at her side, and her smile becomes as bright and blinding as magic itself. "Merlin, meet my queen, Guinevere."
"Gwen," the queen adds, smiling first at Merlin, and then at Morgana.
It's easy to see that a love match has been made between Morgana and Guinevere and that half the warmth and power that Merlin can feel at Tintagel finds its source in the new queen. Who accepts Merlin's close approximation of a bow with easy grace, laughing and reassuring him that he need not play the courtier in front of her, and quickly reminds him she prefers to be called Gwen instead of 'your majesty' or even 'Guinevere.'
They spend their first night together talking, politics and magic and the hope that arises from the possibility of Camelot renewed with Arthur's reign. Gwen tugs Merlin along when she and Morgana decide to retire to their bedchamber for the last few hours before dawn.
The second night, they make no stop to stay in Morgana's library after they've finished the evening meal. Every other night of his stay is spent this way: a tangle of warm limbs and eager, generous mouths; a free exchange of magic and power, the sort that only comes from the brush of skin against skin and the pleasure of mutual desire.
The last day, they stay abed well into the morning and breakfast on summer fruits atop rumpled sheets.
Later, Gwen catches Merlin's hand before he turns to leave. "You belong at Camelot, but you're always welcome here. Please, come back to us. I don’t think," she adds, in a lower voice, "that Morgana would mind too much if you brought Arthur."
He meets Gwen first this time, and something inside Merlin tells him that, really, it's Gwen he's always known, first and best.
Merlin drops an armful of books and papers his first day at university and knows Gwen the moment her hand brushes his to help him stuff a pile of handouts from the Creative Writing program into his ruined portfolio.
She's doing a course in engineering, works at one of the high street shops, and kisses him before he even realizes they're on a date. But her lips fit against his, warm and perfect, and Merlin can't stop the swell of hope that their lives will turn out differently now that Camelot is dust and the earth has turned too many times to count. By November, Merlin spends more time in Gwen's residence hall than in his own, more nights in her bed than his, and knows he'd love her even if they only had months instead eons of history behind them.
One night he wakes, and the moonlight shifts and falls in silver stripes over her skin; the thousand years seem to fall away in one painful, sharp movement. Merlin runs his hand down her back, leans in to press his lips between her shoulder blades, and kisses his way down the length of her spine.
"Gwen," he whispers, and his hand curves to fit against her hip. "I…"
"Hm?" Half-asleep, Gwen blinks over her shoulder.
He presses his cheek to her warm skin and listens to the rise and fall her breath. At the edge of his lips hover the words that he longs to share: that he remembers when she was queen of all Albion and that she was just and good; that he remembers how she looked the day that Morgana left Camelot, the day Lancelot left, the day Arthur never returned; that she was never as beautiful to him as she is tonight and that, if he has to, he can remember for them both.
"I just, Gwen, I wanted to tell you, I want you to know, but it's just, it's—"
"Well. You were never good at grand explanations, were you?" She smiles and when the moon catches her eyes, there's a different light in them. No, not different, the fondness, love, and warmth are there, as they've always been, but now she when she looks at him, Merlin can see the weight of recognition and knowledge in her gaze.
Gwen turns to him, the sheet tugging down off their bodies, and her fingers against Merlin's skin are gentle but certain. Her hair falls in a tangle over her shoulders, down to her breasts, and tickles his neck when she moves in closer to kiss him on the lips. "Mm, no. But I always liked that about you."
"Yeah. All right?"
Silence and moonlight settle between them. When Gwen touches his cheek, Merlin looks down and realizes she's known, she's always known and been strong enough to know, and he's always loved that about her.
The summer months pass slowly and the days between the midsummer and harvest festivals creep by. The dusty ground rises up in clouds to choke the air into hot dryness and mask the shimmer of the sun.
Gwen pins her hair up every morning and reminds herself that autumn will bring relief. The turn of seasons always does, and Gwen always forgets how short-lived that relief is. The warmth of spring and the cool of autumn turn too quickly to the ravages of summer and winter weather.
Three months have passed since the questing beast's arrival in Camelot and nearly fifteen since Merlin's.
"It's been a long year," Gwen says when she finds Merlin sitting on the castle steps in the shade, a book open and unread in his lap.
"Would you change it, if you could? Would you change yourself back?" The shadows of the past year flicker like sadness without regret in Merlin's eyes. "You wouldn't."
"Neither would you. And, I couldn't – no, I suppose I could imagine, parts of what it would be like. But not all the possibilities that open up." She can't imagine Arthur gone; but her heart aches to see Morgana again the way she was before this year settled upon them.
"It could've been different."
Three months ago, Gwen wanted to ask Merlin so badly what had happened when he'd ridden away after Gaius but never could discover what words to use. Now, when she's pieced together the events of that week and its aftermath, when she's seen the same strange ache in Merlin's eyes as she sees in Morgana's, and hears Arthur's voice go distant and hollow in quiet moments, and her own heart still and catch in her chest, she feels like she might be able to ask him.
She's changed. They all have; and they all could've been different. Gwen's not sure there's anything left to ask Merlin this summer.
Gwen reaches up to stroke the soft, slightly damp hair at the nape of Merlin's neck and smiles to feel his body move closer to hers.
"Gwen… if I could tell anyone, you know it would be you."
"I know." She cups her hand at the back of his neck and pulls him in even closer to kiss him.
And Gwen thinks about how she'll go home, unpin her hair and slip out of her shoes, how she'll pour out water and cut bread for the both of them, and fall asleep, her body warm against the curve of Merlin's. How he'll press his face into her neck and the world will feel safe and wonderful, and how when they make love, it'll be quiet and desperate, and she won't want to change anything. Not yet; not ever.
She thinks about how they'll wake up before dawn, and how Merlin won't open his eyes until she kisses his neck or rubs his chest, and when he does, how he looks at her – just for a second, before he's really awake – like he's seeing her for the first time.