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The Secret Door

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Gwen wakes in the morning to sunlight and Merlin's smiling face as he ties back the bedcurtains.

"Good morning, Your Majesty," he chirps, giving her a cheeky grin. She grins back.

Beside her, Arthur groans and covers his eyes with one elbow. Perhaps her biggest surprise after marrying him was that it took Merlin literally half an hour each morning to drag him from bed, wrap him in appropriate clothing, and urge him to open his eyes long enough to chew through breakfast.

On her other side, Lancelot's voice comes low and fond, "Good morning, Merlin." He lifts himself up on one arm, looking over both Gwen and Arthur with soft eyes, then drops a kiss on her cheek before rising.

Gwen doesn't like it. She has never liked the way he leaves in the morning, though he makes it as gentle as possible. Somehow it still leaves a sting, after all this time.

He slips into his dressing gown and through the hidden door adjoining their chambers. (Leon is on their other side as Arthur's chief knight, so there will be less suspicion.) The door slides silently shut behind him, leaving no gap, no line to show it was ever there.

When she turns back to the window, Merlin is looking at her with a sympathy the old Gwen part of her wants, but the new Queen Guinevere knows better than to accept. Avoiding his eyes, she lifts her chin and begins the morning ritual of prodding Arthur out of bed.

***

After Hengist, she remembers waking in the woods and knowing instantly that something was wrong.

The night before, she had settled against a log in her borrowed dress, pulled between two good men, two impossibilities. The jumbled mix of hurt and joy and dizzy terror left her exhausted, slipping sideways into sleep as quickly as a gently-rocked babe.

She woke damp, cramped, uncomfortable, and strangely nervous. The camp was hushed. She took in Merlin's cautious face, Arthur's wary anger, the near-dead fire, and an absence that tugged on everything inside her until she felt hollowed out with loss. The tears were an afterthought.

Arthur, though. He sighed and threw down the stick he was playing with, heading for one of the horses. Merlin leaped up as if to follow him, but Arthur made a cutting gesture. He saddled and bridled the horse himself before mounting and taking off alone, Merlin standing in his wake with empty hands.

It was nearly two hours before the horse returned, bearing two riders this time. Arthur sat in front, tired, hands a little too tight on the reins. Behind him, a dark head was bowed, hiding behind Arthur's shoulder.

For a moment, Gwen didn't know what to do. Her heart pounded and ached and felt like it was on the cusp of spilling over, tears blurring her vision again. Merlin stood too-still beside her, radiating uncertainty. All she could say for sure in that moment was that she wished them both happy – desperately wished it – and that no man as good-hearted as Lancelot should ever hide his face.

She lifted a hand, shaking, and Arthur stopped the horse an arms-length away. He turned and eased Lancelot off first, gentle and rough at once, as men used to fighting sometimes were. He set Lancelot on his feet and dismounted on the other side, putting the horse between them.

Gwen reached out, got a slippery, pinching handful of chainmail, and pulled Lancelot forward into her arms.

He took long moments to react, moments in which she squeezed her eyes shut and then reopened them, watching Merlin take the horse away to rub it down, watching Arthur fuss with the wet wood and the smoking remains of the fire. Finally, finally, Lancelot's arms came up and settled hesitantly across her back, clutching her to him.

"My lady," he breathed, shaking slightly.

She hushed him, cradling his head to her shoulder as she watched Arthur move stiffly, angry-but-not-angry.

Oh, boys.

Lifting one hand from Lancelot's shoulder, she held it out toward the fire. It terrified her to do so, but some part of her knew that she could not choose between them, not as she was, not as they were.

And Merlin, Merlin wouldn't judge. Her trust in him was solid as the ground beneath her feet.

It took several moments for Arthur to notice her hand, since he was so carefully not looking at them. When he did, after a moment of shocked stillness he pretended not to see it, his shoulders rising higher in defense.

Gwen shook her hand, insistent. He jerked his head away, then turned back slowly, uncertain as a wild animal. She could feel his attention shift from her to Lancelot, who was slowly unwinding one arm from her waist to reach out blindly behind himself, hand open, mirroring her own.

It took Arthur some moments to move, and even then he walked a wandering path, now to the right, now to the left, pretending to search for better wood. At one point, she though the might bolt for the horses and take over Merlin's task, but at the last moment he turned, and then he was within reach.

Lancelot caught him first, one hand against his waist, tugging him closer until Gwen could curl her wrist around the back of his neck. Arthur's eyes were wild, but when Lancelot murmured "Sire," with utter reverence, his face softened and he let himself be pulled into the tangle of them.

***

Once Arthur is dressed and eating, Merlin lets Gwen's personal maid in to help with her hair and to lace her dress up the back. Gwen ate her own breakfast already while Arthur grumbled about his shirt, the temperature in the room, and Merlin rushing him. She smiles fondly at the two of them through the screen as her maid finishes with the final hooks and fluffs out her skirt.

By the time Gwen meets Lancelot and Percival in the hallway on her way to discuss winter stores with the steward, she has her Queen mask perfectly in place. She allows each man to kiss her hand and wish her a fine morning, and if there's a twinkle of humor in Percival's eyes when Lancelot bows low, Gwen lets it slide. There are few who hold her certain trust, but this man holds Lancelot's, and that's good enough for her.

***

They dance an intricate and deadly pattern, the three of them. Gwen bears the most danger, so they are the most cautious with her. Arthur showers appropriate public affections on her, and she returns them with equal care. Lancelot hovers as her protector but never touches, never steps out of place, and Gwen keeps her demeanor friendly but cool toward him so long as the daylight lasts.

Arthur and Lancelot are far less careful with each other, but they can afford to be. They sling arms about each others' shoulders whenever they wish, and clasp hands fiercely after every training match. Lancelot has been known to kiss Arthur's hand, half in jest, and Arthur laughs and allows it. They speak protestations of loyalty and love in full hearing of the other knights and even the court, and no one bats an eyelash.

Gwen watches these moments, hiding a smile behind her mask, knowing each word and gesture is intended as much for her as for them.

***

Luncheon is a grand affair, though only the most favoured courtiers attend today. There are no visiting dignitaries except Queen Mithian, who drops by whenever she pleases, as though they live a mere league down the road from one another, and not a full forest over. Mithian's voice is lively as she distracts the nobles with yet another tale of her journey to the north last summer, full of brigands and Roman mercenaries and wild rides through the night. Gwen has heard the real story from her already; she finds the embellishments (and the shocked expressions on the ladies' faces) quite amusing.

With Mithian dutifully occupying the table, Gwen allows her fingertips to brush briefly across the back of Lancelot's hand on her way to slip a bite of meat to her favorite dog. The daring of it thrills her, even as she makes certain Merlin is the only servant standing behind them.

It's the highlight of her day.

***

Gwen inherited her passel of ladies-in-waiting from Morgana, and no one seems to be able to forget it, much as they all might wish to. Morgana's keys hang heavy at her waist, now that she has managed to track them all down and repossess them from the women who earned them as signs of Morgana's favour. Gwen does not give out keys in this fashion, and the women around her are still trying to measure what counts as a mark of her affections, and whether they even want such things of her, from her.

The Broom Queen, she's overheard more than once. Queen of Baskets and Hairpins.

Arthur frets enough already, so she doesn't tell him.

Merlin knows, though, and Lancelot suspects. They both show her all the more deference for it, and the care Lancelot takes not to sully her reputation reflects his worry.

Strangely, Gwaine and Leon are her next best allies in this. Gwaine has refused to acknowledge the rumor that Queen Annis has declared his line noble once more, and loudly proclaims himself the Knight of Dirty Socks and a Drunkard in Plate Armour. Yet time and again he proves his strength against all comers, even the enormous Percival. By his mere presence and his clear affection for Merlin, he makes the idea of a commoner elevated to power seem almost obvious.

Leon is more subtle. He treats Elyan, once his playmate, then merely the son of his mother's maid, as a brother. Calls him so, in public, with the quiet sincerity that marks his behavior around the castle. With her brother's place so openly supported by the leader of Arthur's personal guard, Gwen herself becomes less the daughter of a blacksmith and more the sister of a knight.

It helps, but it doesn't solve everything.

***

She spends the afternoon holding court with the ladies, Mithian watchful at her side. Gwen knows she must make friends, earn the affections and loyalties of at least some of these women, or she will be on the defensive for years until her place is secure.

She also misses female companionship. Mithian is friendly, gentle, and a fast friend, but she doesn't live in Camelot. Nor does Elena, who visits to moon at Lancelot once or twice a year. (Gwen is gentle with Elena, too, taking from Mithian this lesson at least.) In short, Gwen has lived so long in the light and shadow of one woman that she has no idea how to invest herself in others.

That must change.

The topic today turns to the knights, and one of the bolder ladies asks her slyly which knight she prefers, aside from Arthur.

"They're all so very handsome," the lady insists, mischief dancing in her eyes. "Surely you agree, You Majesty?"

Gwen smiles, serene in her coaching from Mithian. "I'm sure they are. Indeed, I think them all very noble and strong, but my favorite will always be Elyan."

The room, which had pulled taut waiting for her response, relaxes again, disappointed. There will be no juicy gossip from a green queen tonight.

***

Supper is a small affair, just Arthur's personal knights, Gwen, Mithian, and Gaius with Merlin serving all by himself, which he somehow always manages to do. Elyan sits beside her and tells her all the news from training that day, with occasional interjections from Leon. Across the table, Merlin has somehow tripped and landed in Gwaine's lap and seems to be having some trouble getting back out again. Everyone pretends not to notice, even though his feet are kicking Percival's chair every time he squirms and laughs.

Lancelot's eyes are warm on them, and then they turn to her, soft and honest for just a moment, here in the privacy of their most trusted friends.

It warms Gwen and chases away the lingering tension of her day, even as Arthur takes her hand and brushes his lips across her knuckles, his eyes also on Lancelot.

***

Gwen sends her maid away once her nightgown is on and her hair brushed. Merlin lingers, banking the fire and fussing over Arthur's wardrobe for the morning, while Arthur sits at his desk reading a letter from King Olaf. They're all waiting for a tiny, soundless rush of air that will mark the opening of the secret door (the one Merlin found, that she sometimes thinks Merlin built). They wait, all three of them not looking but focused all the same.

When it opens, Merlin will slip away to Gwaine's rooms, and Gwen will climb onto the bed and let the red curtains down around the three of them, secure in their secret world once more.