Rating: PG-13, fairly fluffy
Characters/Pairing: Merlin, Arthur/Gwen
Summary: I think the title explains it :]
Author's Note: I'm still
He expected a tongue-lashing. Merlin anticipated his eyes would be tired by the end of it, having rolled more times than he'd ever imagine possible in response to Arthur's exaggerated and overwrought complaints. Even so, his ingrained belligerence did not relax the set of his shoulders as he hurried to the Prince's chambers. When the sounds of hushed laughter filtered down the passageway, however, Merlin found his feet slowing to a more sedate pace. Once he reached the door, he cautiously turned the handle, peering in before entering.
Arthur and Gwen looked at him with matching smiles, amused and strangely soft looking. Gwen dropped her eyes before meeting his gaze again, and Arthur shifted slightly as Merlin closed the door. "Hi," Merlin said uncertainly, raising his free hand in awkward greeting.
Gwen was looking over her shoulder at him, resting with her hip against the table, one hand splayed as she leaned towards Arthur, who sat forward in his chair. For his part, Merlin would have sworn up and down that Arthur's hand had covered Gwen's, but when he looked again, Arthur was reaching for his goblet, just behind her.
"Hi, Merlin," she said, smiling in welcome. He couldn't tell in the flickering firelight if she was blushing: neither looked exactly guilty at his entrance, but there was at least some discomfiture between them which made Merlin feel as though he was intruding.
Merlin eyed her curiously, offering a small smile of his own. "What're you doing here?"
Gwen reluctantly pushed from the table and turned to face him, glancing away momentarily and clasping her hands before her. Arthur raised his eyes to her face over his goblet, the residuals of his laughing smile still slowly fading from his features. "I was just... bringing Arthur his dinner," she responded slowly. By her focus on his face, it was clear she was very carefully not paying any attention to the tray in Merlin's hands.
"The cook said this was Arthur's tray," Merlin said, confusion deepening. It was not as though Gwen would have made the mistake of bringing Morgana's dinner to Arthur, surely she could not have known Merlin had not brought it yet, and it was entirely true that Marcus directed him to this tray, after muttering darkly about Merlin's tardiness.
She shook her head and indicated the dinner set out beside her. "I didn't think to ask which tray was intended for Arthur. It was my mistake. Let me return yours to the kitchen." Her gaze flicked to Arthur's face as she started towards Merlin, and he saw Arthur give her the ghost of a nod. When she reached him, he pulled the tray back a bit from her outstretched hands.
"But why were you bringing Arthur his meal at all?" he asked, perplexed: the whole situation was so completely bizarre.
"That is an excellent question, Merlin," Arthur finally said. He put his goblet down with a hollow thump and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest and sending Merlin a waspish glare. "Why is it exactly that Guinevere is having to bring me my dinner?"
Merlin shifted his weight with a roll of his eyes. "You know... Bumped into Gaius, got to chatting a bit."
"Of course you did. It's always something with you, Merlin," Arthur said, with practised disdainful tones and pained expression firmly in place. "You should be thankful Guinevere thought to be so generous."
Merlin was positive of the flush on Gwen's cheeks this time, and caught the flash of a smile when she ducked her head. "I should go. I'll take that back to the kitchens," she said. Gwen stretched out a hand and Merlin relinquished his hold. "See you later, Merlin," she said softly with a small smile. Then turned to Arthur and, smile becoming almost conspiratorial but for the bashful affection in it, murmured, "Good night, Sire." Merlin thought his eyebrows may have vanished into his hairline.
"Good night, Guinevere," Arthur said, watching her as she left. Merlin turned to watch, too. He hoped for some final indication of what exactly just unfolded, since he was positive he was missing something, when a piece of bread caught him roughly on his temple. "Stop gawking at her. Guinevere is a lady, Merlin. Not a piece of meat. It's no wonder you have no luck with women."
"I have luck with women!" Merlin whirled around, scowling at Arthur and rubbing his head where the bread hit. "And I was not gawking."
Arthur rolled his eyes and took a bite from his fork. "Generally, when one stares with their mouth hanging open," he said, gesturing at Merlin with the same utensil. "It's considered gawking."
Merlin frowned at Arthur. "I was not gawking," he muttered again and Arthur snorted, plunging his fork once more into the potatoes. Merlin's eyes narrowed; regardless of the bread-induced bruise now forming on his head, Arthur seemed to be acting the role of irritated, more than truly feeling it. Instead he seemed constantly on the verge of smiling.
With a final glare in Arthur's direction, Merlin set about stoking the fire, debating whether to question Gwen or let the strange evening pass.
"Calling me silly... I could have you imprisoned for that," Arthur said. Merlin was just in the doorway, about to open his mouth in automatic defence when Gwen stepped up to Arthur, holding a wicker basket of linen before her and wearing a teasing smile.
"Surely not," she said, slightly breathless. Merlin ducked back into an alcove, leaning forward to watch as Arthur took the basket from her hold and set it aside. Gwen watched as he moved, smile turning to confused frown until Arthur straightened and encircled her wrists in his fingers.
"I am quite serious," he said as she started shaking her head at him. "You see, I have a Kingdom to run, and I can't have any of my subjects questioning my decisions."
"It isn't my fault your decisions are so-
"Not a word more! To the dungeon with you!" he declared before she could finish her sentence and Merlin felt fairly certain he was in a strange, alternate plain of existence. Or that he was still in bed. When Arthur began leading her towards the door as she laughed and pulled against his hold, Merlin flattened himself against the wall, contemplating the risk of doing magic to make himself invisible against the embarrassment of facing his two friends in what was evidently part of a secret... Something. He wasn't entirely sure what it was he was witnessing, but he was certain his spying would land him stable duty for at least a month.
"What if I were to bribe you?" Gwen called loudly, drawing Arthur up short a few steps from the door, much to Merlin's relief. As the pause sustained, he chanced leaning forwards to see what was happening.
Arthur had turned to her again and was watching her with slightly narrowed eyes as Gwen bit her lip against a smile. "What would this bribe be?" he asked finally, hardly bothering to mask his interest.
Gwen took a deep breath, straightening her shoulders and said, as though it were perfectly reasonable, "I was thinking a kiss."
"How many?" Arthur asked instantly, lifting his chin to study her appraisingly.
She gave a startled laugh and Merlin almost choked. Gwen offering kisses was one entirely implausible thing to swallow; Arthur looking to negotiate the number... Although, the more he saw and heard, the more light pierced through the fog of certain eccentricities.
"I had meant it to be one," Gwen said after thinking briefly, voice tugging Merlin out of his thoughts. "But I suppose I could be convinced to give ten."
Arthur was shaking his head before she'd even finished speaking and Gwen tilted her head with an incredulous look. "I won't accept any less than fifty for your continued freedom," Arthur said offhandedly.
"Fifty!" Gwen exclaimed. This, however, had Merlin scoffing and rolling his eyes; of course the Crown Prince would demand fifty. How could he possibly settle for less?
"I would expect instalments, obviously," Arthur continued impudently. Gwen shook her head in disbelief, dislodging some of the hair in her bun.
"Well, obviously," she agreed indulgently and Merlin saw as her look morphed from teasing dubiety to affectionate expectation when Arthur changed his grip, transferring both her wrists to one hand so he could brush the loose hairs free of her cheek.
"It's decided then," he said with a quirk of his lips. He started to lean towards her and Merlin closed his eyes; there was spying and then there was voyeurism, the latter he did not particularly want to embark upon this afternoon. But with Gwen's hushed, "Wait!" Merlin opened his eyes. For one insane and panicked moment, he thought perhaps she'd seen him, but flicking his gaze to the pair of them, he was clearly still perfectly safe.
Gwen had raised her captured hands between them to keep Arthur at a distance and was eyeing him strictly. "I don't know that you're in a position to negotiate further," he told her seriously, tapping her wrist with his forefinger.
She straightened her shoulders, and Merlin thought she looked strangely regal in that moment. More equal than servant as she faced Arthur down in a flirtatious battle of wills. "Just wondering... That is, you're doing this for your people," she began rationally, and Arthur smirked.
"Of course," he agreed negligently and Merlin very nearly interrupted them then, if only for propriety's sake.
But Gwen rolled her eyes and nudged him in the chest. "Well, how exactly do fifty kisses-
"Given through instalments," Arthur interrupted, clearly enjoying himself.
"Help with the smooth governance of Camelot?" she finished primly, meeting his gaze unfalteringly.
And so Arthur put on a mask of sobriety, pretending to take a moment to consider as he lookedd at the ceiling. "Excellent question, Guinevere," he told her impressively, lowering his sights to her face.
Merlin could guess that it was her name that cracked her composure, cheeky grin breaking across her features as she inclined her head. "Thank you, Sire."
"The answer, of course, is indirectly." Gwen scoffed at that and had opened her mouth, presumably to clarify his meaning further, when Arthur ducked his head and covered her lips with his. Her surprised giggle brought an unexpected grin to Merlin's face and he ducked from the room, silently shutting the door behind him.
Merlin decided that he was now going to magically inspect every room before entering. He had been certain the Prince's chambers were empty; the silence from within had suggested it. But instead, he walked into a room, chilled from tension, where Arthur and his lover stood at opposite sides eyeing each other in varying degrees of indignation.
He was doomed.
He knew it the moment they both looked at him and Gwen said, "Merlin, thank goodness!" as Arthur said, "Merlin, excellent," simultaneously.
Both had whipped their heads back around to scowl at each other again and Merlin had stood, momentarily dumbfounded. After the pause had lasted for some time, Merlin cleared his throat. "Uh... I think I should head back to the kitchens."
"Stay right there."
Merlin froze and sighed. It was obvious they were in the midst of an argument, which was something he would really prefer not to be involved with, mostly because it meant his job would become more difficult: he tended to think Gwen was the more clear-thinking of the two, making it entirely likely he would take her side. And Arthur would not appreciate that.
"Merlin, I would like you to confirm to Guinevere that she is entirely, and in the most profound way, incorrect," Arthur said, breaking the silence. Merlin cringed, stomach dropping through the floor. Definitely, irrevocably doomed.
Gwen sighed. "You can't just tell him to confirm or deny what you consider true without telling him the problem." And in that moment, Merlin reconciled to himself that his duties for the next few months would include cleaning horse dung from the stables and hefting hay.
Arthur smirked, without humour, and inclined his head to her. "Explain the problem to him, then."
"Well, I mean, really, it's your dilemma, since I've given my answer, so don't you think you should be the one to explain it?" Her sudden blush almost set her face aglow and Merlin's stomach clenched uncomfortably several storeys below.
Merlin cleared his throat again. "I don't really want to get involved if this-
"I've asked Guinevere for her hand in marriage," Arthur interrupted roughly.
His jaw dropped and he looked from one to the other; Merlin could definitely not understand why either was looking so unhappy, but the joy which was starting to bubble through him would surely infect them. "Well that's- that's great! Congratulations! This is ama-
"She said no."
A dissonant kind of silence rang through the chamber with that piece of information and Merlin stilled, huge smile melting off his face like wax from a candle. "What?" he asked softly.
"Guinevere said no."
Gwen dropped her head, looking away towards her shoulder. Merlin looked between them again. "Why?"
Arthur looked to the ceiling, expression momentarily hopeless. Then he dropped his head and looked Merlin in the eyes, gesturing towards Gwen. "Guinevere," he invited.
She looked at Arthur, meeting his gaze: fierce and vulnerable. Then she took a deep breath and turned to Merlin. "Arthur will be a great King, and he needs a great wife to be Queen."
"And you would be," he said harshly from across the room.
Gwen looked at him, sad frown tugging her brows together. "You cannot just marry whomever you please, Arthur. You will rule well, create a legacy. The woman at your side ought to add to your respectability and I'm just a commoner, a maidservant for years. I do not give you credibility... We have to do what is best for Camelot, not what is most desirable for us."
Merlin frowned, his heart aching. "Gwen," he began and she whirled to face him, wretchedness slowly cracking her composure.
"I'm right," she said, in tethered desperation. "No one would accept a handmaiden as queen."
"But Gwen, all of Camelot knows you're Arthur's lover. You haven't hidden your relationship for nearly three years now." Merlin had thought their honesty was endearing, and their easy affection had increased Arthur's already high popularity amongst the people.
Her eyes were suddenly overbright and she cleared her throat. "And... It's just, I've been told... Warned not to..." She sucked in a deep breath and squared her shoulders. "I have been advised more than once not to fall in love."
Arthur snorted and Merlin frowned at him. "Well, that doesn't mean-
"They accept me as a mistress. That befits my station. No one believes I will be queen." The next breath she drew was shuddering, a chill twitching her body as it rode down her spine.
Arthur crossed the room to her in three strides, hands gripping her shoulders tightly. "Tell me, Gwen," he commanded softly and Merlin stared intently at the wall straight in front of him. "How many times have you been warned not to fall in love with me?"
"I don't know... Maybe ten or twenty times? I don't... I try not to consider it."
"Hm." Arthur looked over his shoulder at Merlin. "Merlin, how many times has someone come to me when I am with you and told me I ought to marry Guinevere?"
Merlin looked at Arthur from the corner of his eyes, and bit back a smile as Gwen turned to him, face shocked. "A couple of times each week." Her eyes flickered between them, disbelief evident in each line of her expression.
"And when I am alone, they come to me as well," murmured Arthur, looking back towards Gwen. "My Knights, castle staff, stall owners in the market, blacksmiths, weavers, bakers and little children... They all wish you to be queen."
"It makes sense, Gwen," Merlin said as she continued to look incredulous. "You know the ways of Camelot and its people, perhaps better than Arthur does. They all respect you; you have spoken of the pride the people will feel with Arthur as King... Their pride to have one of their own on the throne would almost equal it."
Gwen frowned deeply and opened her mouth but Arthur's finger laid across her lips. "Merlin is right. They are as eager to see you ascend as I am to have you as my wife."
Merlin felt daft with a huge smile stretching his lips when she looked at him; he had seen them together, but had never actually heard either speak of the other but in round about or disconnected ways. He would certainly not witness his two best friends getting engaged every day. Her eyes flashed uncertainty but he nodded to her in encouragement.
"Guinevere," said Arthur after a moment, drawing Gwen's concerned stare back to his face. "All that is left is for you to give me a new answer."
She bit her lip and watched him intently, Merlin holding his breath the while. Gwen was cautious and considerate; he truly wondered how often things went according to her wishes, and if that wasn't partially the cause for her hesitance now.
After several stressful moments, Gwen drew a deep breath, and she whispered, "Ask me again." A tentative smile finally claimed her lips and joined a sudden, pleased flush which splashed across her cheeks.
Merlin laughed as Arthur dropped to his knee before Gwen.