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One and One, By and By

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“I’ll never leave you,” Gwen promises, and Morgana looks at the sweet open brightness of her face and thinks of everything Gwen could leave her for—a knight who wants a lady, a village with an empty forge, a lord who wants a mother for his sons, a horse and a sword and the open road—and lies, “I know.”

Morgana has never had anything all for herself except her gowns and her jewelry, beautiful insignificant luxuries.

“I know,” she tells Gwen again, and presses a kiss to Gwen’s smiling mouth, lets herself believe that no adventure or security will ever steal Gwen away. And when she holds Gwen a little too tight, well, Gwen holds her back just as hard, as if it’s just another part of what they do.

Gwen weaves crowns of flowers and rests them dream-bright on Morgana’s head, and Morgana laughs and makes her own wreaths—she’s clumsy in this as she can’t be anywhere else, because Gwen never expects her to be perfect, only expects her to be better—and crowns Gwen with them as carefully as if they were beaten gold, glittering with gems. The flowers are starlike in Gwen’s hair, exquisite above her smile.

The first night Morgana dreams of Gwen with metal and jewels heavy on her head she wakes screaming.

“What’s wrong?” Gwen asks, stroking Morgana’s hair and her back as if she could do it forever, as if she wants to be there for Morgana as long as Morgana needs her, as long as that.

Morgana kisses her terror-sharp, pulls her down to the mattress and maps her body with hands and lips and tongue, until Gwen’s fingers press bruises like a signature into Morgana’s shoulders and Gwen’s soft moans break into an almost startled cry as she comes, shaking, her hair spread out river-free on Morgana’s pillow.

The dreams stop, eventually.

They stop after Morgana dreams of Gwen waiting—waiting as if she’s not worth all of everyone’s love—quiet and somber in her own chamber as Arthur leaves her bed and returns to his own, where a dark-haired man with eyes that all but burn waits for him.

“Promise me,” she says to Gwen, and Gwen whispers anything natural as breath, so soft Morgana can hardly hear it. “Swear to me me you’ll never wed anyone who doesn’t love you with his whole heart.”

Gwen’s eyes go wide and uncertain. “Do you want me to—”

No,” Morgana says, as if she can keep Gwen from doing it with that word alone. “But—but if you do.”

“I swear,” Gwen says, sure, and Morgana lets herself believe it might be enough.

For whatever reason, she’d never dreamed of Lancelot. Maybe it’s only important things—maybe only when Arthur or Camelot is at stake. When the dreams of Gwen as queen faded she’d allowed herself to relax.

Gwen comes back from a seamstress job with her eyes shining, fascination bubbling up in her like spring and the word Lancelot over and over like poisoned honey in her mouth. Morgana feels jealousy twisting hard around her like a physical thing, so hard she expects to find bruises.

She goes with Gwen and Merlin to watch Lancelot’s test, her smile warm as winter. Neither of them quite notices; they’re both wrapped up in the excitement of it and fear of the gryphon.

She’s hoping—she doesn’t know what she’s hoping, she’s hoping that Lancelot will after all be graceless and toothless, someone perhaps who reminded Gwen of some elderly male relative, someone utterly unsuitable for Gwen, who can’t offer her a future that will make her realize that she deserves to be so much more than a mad noblewoman’s maidservant. Maybe he’s married, she thinks, and curses herself for a fool.

Lancelot is quick and charming and beautiful and good, and Morgana feels gut-punched with it, watching the light shining in Gwen as she watches him.

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When Lancelot leaves Camelot he takes the memory of Gwen with him like a cloak against the storm. Her smile; her shyness and her confidence so unforgettably, confusingly blended; the warmth of her hands.

He wonders if she’d like him to conquer some borderland noble’s territory for her, and then shakes his head at himself. He can’t imagine coming to her drenched in blood, bearing stolen lands—not for himself; for Arthur only if he must. He wants to give her everything, and he doesn’t even know whether she wants anything, or whether she’s as serenely joyful in Camelot as she seems, whether her friends and her brilliant lady content her without any need of him.

Gwen is a maid and a blacksmith’s daughter, he thinks, but she’s—she’s far more noble than he is, even than he was pretending to be.

Uther falls ill in late autumn—worn out by Arthur’s near-death, the rumors go—and Arthur sends people out to find Lancelot. It’s winter by the time he returns to Camelot. Arthur claps him on the back and Merlin, grinning hugely, hugs him; Morgana gives him a cool exquisite smile. Gwen just stares at him, stares for a long while until the corners of her mouth curl up in slow wonder. She’s even lovelier than he remembered.

There’s a feast a few days after Lancelot returns, a celebration of his return. Gwen arrives dressed in silver-trimmed lavender, graceful and composed as any queen. She smells like summer; there are flowers in her hair.

Her smile twists sideways whenever she forgets to hold it in place, and the sight strikes Lancelot through.

In a quiet moment between courses, he asks her, “What’s wrong?” and she shakes her head, her smile brightening until it’s like staring into the sun. He looks away.

“Later,” she says, defeated. “I’ll tell you later.”

Later is Gwen stopping him in a smoky torch-lit hall and drawing him into a storeroom cluttered with dust and so cold it steals the breath from his lungs. She shivers and he wraps his arms around her, ignoring the chill himself, and so it’s his chest she tells the story to and not his face, hidden as they are in the dark.

“My lady told me that if I wanted you I should have you instead,” she says, and Lancelot feels the world stop.

He can’t look at Morgana.

Or—he can, but now when he looks at her she’s still terrifying and beautiful but she’s also the woman who’s loved Gwen since they were children, she’s Gwen’s first everything. She’s the ward of a king, raised like a sister to the current regent; she has wealth and consequence and everything he doesn’t have to give to Gwen.

He doesn’t doubt, even for a moment, that she loves Gwen too.

When Lancelot finally kisses Gwen he thinks for a moment that he can feel the ghostly prints of Morgana’s lips between them.

Then that fades and it’s just Gwen in his arms, warm like nobody he’s ever known, and she shivers and opens to him, her hands tangling in his hair, and her mouth is nectar-sweet and she holds onto him like she’s drowning, like if he leaves her again she will shatter from the loss.

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Gwen knows Lancelot is comparing himself to Morgana every time they’re together, that Morgana is wondering why Gwen is happier with Lancelot with every time she sees them.

It’s exhausting.

She wants them both to be happy, because she loves both of them, still. She doesn’t want Morgana to have given her away as if Gwen were a gown she had tired of wearing. She knows that’s not how Morgana thinks of it; she knows Morgana’s hurting from the loss, but she has little sympathy for something that’s entirely Morgana’s fault.

Lady-in-waiting as she is now, some days she still has to go down to the forge—the castle’s forge, there are still too many memories in her father’s to soothe her—and beat things with a hammer until her frustration cools.

“Please,” Gwen says, and feels sick with guilt at how pale Morgana goes. Should she even have asked?

But Morgana nods, mouth thinned to a line, and follows Gwen down to the training yard. When she sees Lancelot there she gives Gwen a narrow look, and Gwen straightens her shoulders and prays to every god and goddess old and new that the practice-swords are all as blunted as they should be.

“The ladies first,” says Kay, grinning, and Morgana pales further yet, her lips like a slash of blood across her face. She takes the sword she’s handed and turns to Gwen with a bow, and Gwen bows back and lifts her own sword.

She’d been right; within a few minutes the old memories are covering over the new, and there’s something almost like a smile softening Morgana’s mouth. They move together like they’re dancing for a long soaring moment, and then reality crashes over Morgana again. Gwen can see the instant she remembers everything, remembers that Lancelot is among the people watching them both, and her next swing is harder than it should have been, quicker, more sharply angled. Gwen loses her footing dodging it and lands square on her rear.

“I yield,” she says quickly, because Morgana is starting to look horrified. There’s mud on Gwen’s breeches and her tunic but she isn’t hurt, and for a moment that had been good.

When she returns to the yard, clean-clad, everyone is watching Lancelot and Morgana. They’re stunning together, heartstopping, Morgana’s quick blazing passion and Lancelot’s perfect grace. Gwen feels it as an ache in her chest, realizes she has her hand pressed to her ribs as if she could compress her emotions that easily.

Lancelot wins.

Morgana—Gwen knows this, because she knows everything about her lady—Morgana takes it as a sign, as if Lancelot had been destined to take Gwen from her. Despite the fact that Lancelot is a knight, has been for a long time a warrior. Despite the fact that Gwen has never been a prize to claim.

“Do you wish I were her?” Lancelot asks.

They’re naked, curled together under the blankets on Lancelot’s narrow bed. It’s spring but it’s still cool, and Gwen is grateful for the warmth of Lancelot’s body mostly under her, or at least she was until he started asking completely ridiculous questions. She sits up, knocking the blankets loose, and he flinches at the draught and then again under her stare.

“Never,” she says—more sharply than she thinks he’s ever heard her speak—and it’s true, it’s completely true, she doesn’t wish he were Morgana, she just wishes Morgana were here.

Gwen’s bed in Morgana’s rooms is lonely and cold after years of sharing Morgana’s. She’s almost used to it now, and it helps that Merlin and Morgana have finally managed to give Morgana some control over the nightmares. The worst thing was always the time between when Gwen woke up and when she managed to soothe Morgana, and the space between them would be unbearable now.

Alone in the dark, she thinks: about how much of herself she recognizes in Lancelot; about how Morgana fascinates everyone from foreign princes to Alf the littlest stableboy.

And then she thinks about Lancelot and Morgana, about the beauty of their duel, and the way Morgana’s eyes still go soft when she looks at Gwen and thinks Gwen isn’t looking back, and the marvelous sweetness of Lancelot’s smile. She thinks about Morgana’s mouth glossy-dark without a hint of cosmetic, flushed and wet from licking into Gwen; and she thinks about Lancelot’s hands, deft and sure, with calluses that had startled her at first but thrill her now as much as they ever have. She keeps her face buried in her pillow so Morgana can’t hear the sounds she makes.

It’s wrong, people would say; it’s greedy. But she doesn’t want to take, she wants to give.

“If she had given you a choice between us—”

“No,” Gwen says, tight and angry. “That’s a stupid question. It’s not fair.”

Lancelot looks startled, stung. “Fair?”

“I didn’t want to choose,” Gwen says. “I love you, and I love her, and it’s wrong that you’re both trying to tell me I can’t possibly love you because I love the other person more.”

She catches her breath and only then feels the swooping drop of terror, that she’s blurted out something she can’t take back, something immense, and she means it too much to try to pretend she’d meant something else; she means it too much, she realizes, to apologize.

The silence stretches out. Lancelot stares at her, stunned as if she’d dropped something heavy on his head.

“Oh,” he says at last. And then, finally—finally! the first time anyone has asked her—“What do you want?”

“It’s impossible,” Morgana says, but her icy armor is crumbling, and what’s breaking through is want, raw and burning, and Gwen wraps her arms around Morgana and holds her, defying anything to tear them apart again.

It’s late summer before Lancelot and Morgana kiss.

Gwen had been starting to doubt they ever would, starting to expect that one fantasy of hers to remain something she had to keep tucked away in a corner of her mind, something to pull out and treasure but never see in truth. This was selfish the way nothing else was, wanting to see this, wanting them to fall together here as they did while sparring, or dragging Arthur’s attention to the ways he should be protecting the vulnerable and needy, or talking about grand heroics.

It’s unexpected, not the result of anything in particular—when Gwen thought about it, there were usually swords and triumph involved, or else a great deal of naked flesh—but it’s just the three of them, looking for herbs in the woods. Lancelot strips the thorns from a wild rose and hands it to Gwen, and then another and tucks it behind Morgana’s ear, and Morgana takes a deep breath and leans forward and brings her mouth to his.

For a second Gwen can’t even hear birdsong, just the pounding of her own heart.

Lancelot’s hands slide up into Morgana’s hair, knocking the flower loose, and she wraps her arms around his waist, pulling him flush against her, and it’s—it’s like knocking tinder into a bonfire, everything catching flame in an instant, because for all they’ve never touched each other intimately before now they’ve seen each other with Gwen, they’ve shared everything else about themselves with Gwen as a bridge between them. They’re the furthest thing from strangers.

Yes, Gwen thinks, drunk on delight. Oh, yes.

“I think we could find Elyan, though,” Morgana says, staring up at the sky through the gold-tipped trees. “Lancelot knows the right kind of people, and I can…” She waves her fingers around, years of habit keeping her from saying the words.

Lancelot nods. “It’s a fair chance—more than fair. I think we could.”

Gwen flings her arms around them both. Morgana’s the seer; Lancelot’s the dreamer; but practical Gwen can taste the future now, and it tastes like hope.