Gwen Smith is elbow-deep in delicate wiring when Lancelot arrives at the door of her workshop to report that the mining station on Isgard has stopped transmitting.
She disentangles herself from the wires and says, “Is there any chance the error is here on Camelot?” There’s a thread of metal still wrapped around her wrist, the curl of copper bright against her skin, and he stares at it for a second until she brushes it away and looks back at him.
“That was the first thing we checked,” he says, and she sighs and pushes her safety glasses up over her hair and starts packing her workbag. He watches her while she does, quick and efficient—she knows exactly where everything is, and he wouldn’t have expected anything else of her.
Gwen—he calls her Gwen inside his head even though he knows he shouldn’t, that as an engineer she deserves his respect and as the only master of her craft on the station since her father retired she deserves more than that—shoulders her bag and smiles at him.
He smiles back, helplessly.
“Shall we go?” she asks, and then hesitates. “Unless you didn’t mean to, I mean?”
“I was planning to, madam,” Lancelot says.
“Gwen,” she says firmly. “If you’re flying me to Isgard it’s Gwen, not ‘madam engineer’.”
If he’d been at all inclined to protest he would have lost all urge to do so when she gives him another smile like real, groundside sunlight and brushes past him on her way out the door, so close that their arms touch for an instant.
The shuttle they take is fair-sized for two people and Gwen’s supplies, but it seems a good deal smaller once they’re clear of the station and Lancelot has engaged the pre-programmed course. She’s sitting an arm’s length away, the lights of the screens reflecting warmly off her face. They’re breathing the same air.
He’s being mawkish again.
“Five minutes to Isgard,” he says. “Have you ever been?”
She shakes her head, the motion stirring her hair. “I helped with the cores when I was a journeyman, but my father was the one who oversaw the installation.”
“I happened to be on duty and free the last time something went wrong,” Lancelot offers. “It’s—well, it’s a lot rougher than it looks from the air. The entire area is mountains, and there aren’t that many clear spaces to land in.”
Gwen looks through the displays, clearly fascinated. A lesser man would have been distracted by the quirk of her eyebrows and the sparkle in her eye; Lancelot tears his gaze away from her face to watch the controls.
They’re descending through atmo when Gwen says, “What is that? The aurora?”
Curving across the surface of the planet towards them, in loops and swirls, comes fire written in the sky: ghost-green, stabbing up into the hollow softness of space.
Lancelot makes a few adjustments and the shuttle drops faster, its nose shimmering around the edges. “Ion storm,” he says as they hurtle towards the landing pad, because answering is better than swearing.
“Damnation,” says Gwen, craning her neck to see it better. The edges of the storm are violet, magenta, ice-blue, pale and furious. The first quivering tendril of it curls above them as the shuttle reaches the landing pad.
They run for the mine entrance, Gwen’s bag slapping against her leg. Lancelot hadn’t even realized she’d taken it. She punches in the access code with hands that shake only a little and they tumble in, breathless. The door shuts behind them and Lancelot hears the bolts thud into the rock as the seal hisses into place.
“Normally,” he says, looking up at the rock ceiling above them, “we’d get weather data from the planet that would have warned us.”
“It’s all right,” Gwen says absently. “No harm done, after all.” The lights are flickering on slowly at the presence of lifesigns, and she’s staring at the narrow, twisting rock passage as if it’s the most fascinating thing she’s ever seen. “This sort of thing happens a lot for you, doesn’t it—dangerous adventures, and so on?”
“Not really,” says Lancelot. She thought being in the guard was interesting? It was mundane and dull and occasionally sordid, and all it had to recommend it was the knowledge that you were helping people. “Usually it’s all very routine.”
She shoulders her bag and heads deeper into the mine. “Oh. Well, I want to sort out the problem, and turn off the main lights while we’re at it, to save energy.”
The main room is about a quarter-mile in, but it feels much further. The rock is faintly blue-green, and occasionally bits of copper wink at them from the walls, left behind when the tunnel was blasted out. Three turns from the room, the power goes out.
“Storm,” Lancelot says, probably unnecessarily. “They didn’t—”
“Bother hosting the main generators inside, I know.” He hears fabric rustle, and her soft ha of success comes just before the emergency lights go on, dim watery panels set in the floor. Gwen shrugs and straps on the headlamp she’d produced anyway.
They follow the bright clean spot of light down into the main room, walking closer together than they had been before. Shadows dance around them.
Gwen goes straight for the supply cabinet and triumphantly produces a proper battery lamp—which lights up the full room once she’s hung it on a hook in the ceiling—and, after that, a survival kit. “Would you mind seeing what’s in there while I start on the panels? I’m hoping it’s in here and not in one of the engine rooms, or God forbid in the actual mines, but I won’t know until I’ve looked.”
Lancelot opens the kit. There’s another in the shuttle, of course, but he hadn’t had time to grab it before they left. The shuttle might not even be there when they get out; it all depends.
“Half a dozen ration bars, a cup, and a thermal blanket,” he reports.
“Uh-huh,” says Gwen, lying half-under one of the machines staring up at the lights blinking under the console.
He goes to check the cabinet himself. The only things left in it are a vacuum-sealed pillow, compressed so small he wouldn’t have recognized it if it hadn’t been labeled, and a fold-out cot.
This is…unfortunate. It was late afternoon Camelot time when they left, and he can’t think of a way to stay here that won’t involve sleep. He thinks about sharing the narrow cot with Gwen and shivers.
“It is getting cold, isn’t it,” she says, indistinctly. Lancelot looks up to see that she’s holding a thin tool of some sort with her mouth while she sorts through a jumble of shiny implements in a drawer. “Ah.” She emerges from the drawer with whatever she’d been looking for and takes the first thing out of her mouth. “Found it, by the way. It’s that one over there.”
The machine in question doesn’t look any different from the rest, but she’s the engineer. Lancelot opens the pillow, then goes into the lavatory to the left of the engine room doors and fills the survival kit’s cup with water from the tap. When he comes out she’s sitting on her heels in front of a panel, head and shoulders disappearing into a wire-filled maze. Reflected light from her headlamp bounces back, outlining her hair with red and gold.
He leans against a wall and listens to her talk to herself as she works. Most of it’s indistinguishable, and the few bits he does hear don’t make sense, but it’s pleasant background nonetheless. Finally the wires start disappearing—he hears the faint click of metal on metal that suggests they normally live behind smaller panels—and then Gwen emerges. Her face is flushed and there’s a smudge of oil on her nose, but she’s grinning.
“It’s not going anywhere until the storm’s over—how long is it? ten hours?”
“Twelve to fifteen,” Lancelot says.
She bites her lip. He tries not to watch. “Well. Twelve to fifteen, then. But after that it’ll start beaming out to Camelot again, and if anything’s happened to the shuttle we’ll be able to communicate then. Air’s breathable, but I’m afraid the heat is going to keep dropping until it stabilizes at, um”—she glances at one of the other readouts—“about ten C.”
“Thermal blanket. Also this…lovely cot.”
They both look at the supply cabinet.
“Um, food?” Gwen asks brightly. “I think you mentioned ration bars?” There’s something a little off about her voice now, an uncertainty and forced cheer that weren’t there when she was talking about her work.
He hands her a ration bar as gravely as if it were a field-grown rose, and she takes it with a smile that flickers and then deepens to sincere.
The ration bars are tasteless and dry, but nourishing, and they pass the cup back and forth between them. It’s companionable, oddly, and Lancelot is struck by the sweetness of the moment.
“I know your brother,” he says finally, when the silence has all but become a third person at their meal and he’s sure Gwen is wondering why he isn’t talking. He’s watching her, but he can’t exactly say that.
“Oh, I know,” she says. “He talks about you rather a lot when he manages to get home. I always thought border guard seemed incredibly monotonous, but his last comm he was talking about some smugglers he thought were supplying the rebellion, and it was all rather a mess because of course the guard is loyal but the passers-by might not have been so everyone had to decide how—” She stops, breathless, and doesn’t resume. Lancelot thinks she might be blushing. “Sorry,” she says, “I sometimes—I talk too much, I’m sorry.”
Gwen has always seemed perfectly self-assured, confident, in control of her own life and everything around her. It’s intimidating, something sleek and smooth and impenetrable as the shielding around the station. And it’s too easy, now, for Lancelot to say, “I don’t mind.”
She tells him about the little mechanical toys she used to make when she was smaller while they get the cot unfolded—it’s definitely cooler now—but her voice fades once it’s done.
“It says it’ll hold about a hundred and eighty kilos,” Lancelot says, looking warily at the cot. It’s a little narrower than a proper single bed, a little wider than one of the bunks in the guards’ quarters for people on backup duty. He doesn’t think he and Gwen will be able to lie down side-by-side, or even back-to-back, without one or the other of them dangling over the edge. “Maybe if we sat next to each other?”
Gwen’s mouth tightens, just briefly, and then she nods. Her hands are deft and sure on the packet that the blanket’s in. She tosses it to Lancelot once it’s open and gets up to turn off the battery light.
The room is dark except for the emergency lights now; Gwen is a dim and curving outline as she comes back with the pillow and sits down at his side. It’s more comfortable with the blanket wrapped around them, definitely. Gwen’s hair smells warm, faintly spicy—he can’t quite place the scent, but it makes him think of fire in winter.
“And your family?” she asks. “Or how you came to the guard? Something?”
He tells her about the pirates that had gone after the Pendragon heir’s leisure vessel, forcing it to land on the planet he’d grown up on, and how after they’d captured the pirates together Arthur had invited him to Camelot if he ever wanted a job elsewhere and Merlin—“Arthur’s personal servant, the one with the ears,” Lancelot explains when Gwen looks blank—had practically begged him to come for sensible conversation.
“ ‘Sensible conversation’?” He can hear Gwen smiling.
“From but not of Camelot, I think.”
She shifts against him, setting the blanket crinkling over them. Her breast is pressed against his arm, and he feels the warmth and the weight of it and tries to think of other things.
She asks what sort of literature he likes and they end up somehow in an animated discussion about political propaganda in Geoffrey Monmouth’s biographies that ends when Gwen gives a jaw-cracking yawn and says, “The only way I can think that we can both fit under the blanket while we sleep is if I lie mostly on top of you.”
Lancelot goes absolutely still. He’s surprised his heart isn’t beating so loudly she can hear it, feel it, whatever.
“I don’t think you’re going to going to do anything”—she gestures, sinuous and obscene—“if that’s what you’re worried about.” Her voice is somehow sharp and flat at once, defensive. “Or is it me? I’m not goi—”
“It’s all right,” Lancelot says quickly. “I was just…never mind.” He’s an adult. He can hold very still and think about very dull things until he goes to sleep.
Which is how he wakes up with Gwen’s cinnamon-scented hair in his face and Gwen’s thigh rubbing against him and nobody but himself to blame. She’s still asleep, moving a little with whatever dream she’s having, and it takes all of Lancelot’s willpower to say “Gwen, wake up.”
She makes a sleepy, protesting sound, pressing closer against him. “Gwen,” he says again, and she murmurs “L’nce—” and then freezes, finally awake.
“Oh, God,” she says, pushing away from him. “I’m sorry. I thought I was—I mean—I didn’t mean to.”
“You thought you were what?” Lancelot asks quietly.
He thinks he can feel her blushing, feel the heat radiating from her body even with the space between them. He doesn’t say anything else, though, and after a moment she says, unprompted, “Dreaming.”
And now he’s half sure he’s dreaming—because she’d said his name before she woke up, hesitated too long before answering if she’d meant someone else—but when he digs his nails into his palm it hurts.
“I can move,” Gwen says haltingly. “If—I don’t want to be—” and he reaches up and touches her cheek and her breath catches.
“Was it me?”
She hesitates for half a second too long, just enough time to make him sure it wasn’t and he’s made assumptions he should never have and now she’s uncomfortable, and then nods.
“May I kiss you?”
“Yes,” she says, and leans down to him.
Her mouth is warm, soft, and Lancelot feels like he might be dreaming after all as the first soft press of lips turns deep and open-mouthed, as her mouth slides away from his to map his face. When he runs his hand down her back she makes a pleased sound against his jaw and moves closer, all curves and heat.
They end up half-naked, their shirts pulled up and their trousers pushed down, her clever hands moving over his skin as she gasps beneath his touch, and it’s the most unexpected and enjoyable wait through an ion storm that Lancelot has ever had.