"Erm," Merlin said.
"It's all right," Gwen said hastily. "You didn't hurt me, you're not heavy. A little pointy, your elbows I mean - anyway -" She was a little breathless; probably Merlin was crushing her. "I landed on the laundry and that's soft so that's all right too."
"Oh," Merlin said, "good," and began disentangling himself. That was Arthur's tunic cushioning Gwen's head, and something purple and shiny of Morgana's just under her shoulder; he had been carrying both baskets at once. Gwen had clearly been doubtful about it at the time, managing in the nicest possible way to insult Merlin's arm muscles as well as Arthur ever had, but Merlin had insisted, stacking them high.
And really, it all would have been just fine if he'd remembered that going into the laundry room required a step down.
The disentangling wasn't going very well. His foot caught on something - maybe Gwen's, his leg was between hers - and Merlin fell again. His nose landed somewhere in the warm curve of her neck, and when he opened his mouth to say sorry his lips brushed skin, and the word got very, very lost.
Quickly, new strategy, Merlin rolled to his left, until his stomach and cheek were pressed to the stone floor, nice, cold, unyielding.
Gwen sat up, and made some adjustments to the top of her dress. She probably thought Merlin wasn't looking, but he was, he was quite good, actually, at narrowing his eyes to teeny tiny still-working slits. A handy skill to have in all types of situations, life and death and otherwise.
And then Gwen noticed his utter lack of movement, and her brow creased. "Merlin?"
He rose to his hands and knees and began scrabbling around after Arthur's clothes, carefully avoiding the slippery things of Morgana's. "Sorry about that," Merlin said. "Erm, if you got a bruise or anything, we've got fresh salve. With blackberries in."
"Yeah, I thought, if it's the colour of a bruise, it'll be obvious what it's for, see? Plus it makes it smell a little nicer."
"What does Gaius think?"
"Not all that impressed, actually." He let his head drop down between his arms so he could look back at Gwen. He caught her eye right away, and based on where he was, and where she was behind him, did that mean that she had been doing some of her own surreptitious looking, and at - was it at his....?
"Water!" Merlin said, stumble-hopping to his feet. "We need - water. Do you need hot, or...?"
"I'll need a little hot, but not too much. Mustn't let the dyes run." Gwen rose, taking Morgana's clothes over to the half-barrels in the middle of the room. There would be some water in them already, but it would be tepid, likely used several times over by others doing washing.
Merlin crossed to the large hearth, where a large pot hung above the flames. He reached for the irons, swinging the pot sideways so as to pour some water out into a bucket.
The plan was, basically, to not use magic in front of Gwen, and to not scald himself either. The problem was that in order to manage the first bit, he had to talk himself into thinking that a dousing in boiling water wouldn't be such a bad thing, not really - warmth was good, he liked warmth, right? - because otherwise, the moment the water started sloshing out of control he'd end up stopping it, whether he meant to or not, and, well. That could be bad. Especially if Gwen was watching him right now like she had been before, all secret and close....
Yes, she was, and no, turning away from a precariously-tilted cauldron of water wasn't actually the smartest move he could have made. But, bright side, he hadn't done any magic. And it didn't turn out to be so much of a dousing or a scalding as an uncomfortably warm splash.
Gwen hurried over, bringing a wet cloth with her. "It's not so bad," Merlin said, holding the damp part of his tunic away from his chest, peeking underneath.
Gwen's hands moved in funny fluttering circles. "We can't let it blister."
"Right." Merlin didn't think there was too much danger of that really, but Gwen was quite close now, and pulling off his scarf seemed like a good idea. Undoing the laces of his tunic, that seemed a good one as well. He reached out for the cloth, but Gwen didn't give it up; their hands were on it together, slipping under the neck of his tunic, and when Gwen said, "Oh," dipping her head, Merlin tangled his fingers in hers without a thought.
Cool water on hot skin and the softest linen he'd ever felt in his life, and he wasn't trying to identify what article of Morgana's clothing it must be, no no, he absolutely wasn't. Gwen's ideas were better than good, they were brilliant and he relaxed his hand, letting her, letting her -
Nothing funny about those circles now. Not now that they were against his skin, slow, light pressure traveling all along his chest, dipping down towards his ribs, over and again. Merlin watched the place where Gwen's wrist disappeared beneath his shirt, fascinated. Mapped her movements from the outside, started to anticipate the sweet jolt that came each time that soft fabric slipped up and over -
When Merlin breathed out, long and slow, a loose curl stirred at Gwen's temple. That was how close they were, and quite suddenly it was too close, and Merlin took a step back because he had to, saying things like thank you, sorry, it's better, sorry.
Gwen was half-frozen, her arm still stretched between them for a moment before she recovered, snatched it back. Merlin started to realise what he'd done, and the thought of giving her shame overrode his own; he grabbed at her arm as she turned away, and said, "But you. We need to take care of you." At her surprise - he'd shocked her enough to make her actually look at him - he added, "Your bruise. I know you've got one."
"It's nothing," she said, but he could tell it was a token protest. "Just a small one, on my leg."
Merlin sank to his knees, not graceful but natural as anything. Caught the hem of her skirt in one hand, glanced up for permission, and when he found it in her tiny, curving smile, lifted. Up, up. Just a little, just enough. He saw the bruise, blooming purple on her calf; smoothed a hand down her leg, carefully, gently.
Gwen's hands clutched at his shoulders. He glanced up, caught her eye before she could look away again, at anything but him. Merlin's face was hot, burning, he was surely blushing like mad but it was all right; he bent down and pressed his lips to her leg, soft at the bruise, harder just above, then soft again at the little hollow at the back of her knee.
It was around this point that the door to the laundry room became very firmly stuck, should anyone try to open it from the outside.
He'd raised her skirts to her thighs, and was busy finding out how much he liked the way everything felt - the fabric rumpled under his palms, Gwen soft and firm and strong against his lips, his hands - when it all changed. She was moving, sliding, and he was lost, and then suddenly he wasn't, because they'd found each other's mouths.
Merlin had been too close to dead last time to properly appreciate how wonderful Gwen's lips were: their softness, their fullness, the way her bottom lip could slip between his own, the way it felt to nibble and pull. He was happy to make up for that now. And her hands, they were wonderful too, mapping the back of his neck, fingers in his hair. He had to reciprocate, had to pull her hair down around her shoulders, and she didn't seem to mind when his clumsy fingers got knotted up and tangled. She laughed against his mouth, small, like she couldn't help it, and he laughed too, a little louder, a little bigger.
Her hair was tempting him, brushing her collarbone. Merlin wanted to be there again, properly, no scurrying off, and he leaned in. It was pretty perfect, nuzzling against her skin, letting her hair tickle his face, pressing his lips to that little jut of bone. Licking it, scraping it with his teeth.
Gwen made a noise.
Merlin pulled back at once. "Ah. Erm. What? I'm -"
"No, no," she said. "It's, you're fine, it's just, I've never been chewed on before."
Merlin cocked his head. "Well," he said, "you've been missing out, then," and dove in to lick a messy path up her neck. Gwen squirmed and squealed, actually squealed, then laughed and called him a very strange creature, laughed and tugged him down.
And if, thank magic more than luck, Merlin and Gwen ended up falling together on a nice soft pile of Arthur's tunics rather than the stone floor, well. Merlin wasn't going to waste time feeling guilty. He'd be the one cleaning them anyway.
And some things could wait.