Rating/Genre: PG; fluff, romance, some humour
Characters/Pairings: Merlin, Arthur/Gwen
Warnings/Spoilers: references to events in 2.13
Summary: When Merlin walks in on Arthur and Gwen, he is less than pleased...
Author's Notes: written for imigination for her generous donation to Haiti for the Camelot Loves Haiti efforts. She wanted protective!Merlin having a big-brother chat with Arthur, and Gwen's response thereafter. I sincerely hope you enjoy this, bb! Thank you so much for your generosity ♥!! Sorry this took so long.
The art of stepping into the middle of things
It had taken a long time, but, looking around himself, Merlin thought it seemed that things were finally beginning to return to normal. The rubble had been cleared, merchants were back in their stalls, he even had to dodge a small child, laughing hysterically, being chased by another through the streets.
Camelot wasn't exactly as it had been; the anxious response of the townspeople over Morgana's kidnapping was still evident, like a very thin, chill, pervasive mist. But Merlin knew, from the snippets of conversation he overheard, that they were waiting for news from the king before jumping to conclusions about their Lady. He didn't know if Gwen was the person to thank for that (had the people gone into mourning, Uther would have likely gone off his nut) but he knew Gaius was encouraging the mentality.
And, though guilt made him nearly retch with each whispered enquiry about Morgana he heard, it was easier for him, too, that they did not mourn.
The increasingly bright state of Camelot itself was also unexpectedly helping to ease his ache of mourning for Balinor. It felt almost as though his father's sacrifice was worth it.
Shaking his head, glancing around quickly to ensure no one was watching, Merlin plucked a flower from one of the vines crawling up the lower town midwife's wall, and rounded the corner to Gwen's house. He had been looking forward to the night all week; it wasn't that he'd not seen Gwen - he saw her almost every day - but they hadn't had the opportunity to sit, just the two of them, and... be. The simple truth was, he missed her.
Coming up to the door, a low murmur of voices sounded through the thin wood, followed by a high pitched giggle. Merlin rolled his eyes: that explained where Arthur had disappeared to for the afternoon.
He took a deep breath before opening Gwen's door.
"Hello!" he said brightly.
Gwen gasped, pulling her face away from Arthur's to tip back in his hold and look at Merlin in shock. There was a beat where they all simply stared at each other - Merlin not missing Arthur's hand on Gwen's hip, nor his other at her upper back, keeping her almost indecently close; he also noticed Gwen's hand threaded into Arthur's hair, and how she looked awfully comfortable and familiar perched on his lap like that - before Merlin swung his arms as Arthur and Gwen entered into a flurry of movement, disentangling limbs and trying to negotiate table legs without tipping over benches.
Merlin would have found the whole thing hilarious, had the image of Arthur with his hands all over Gwen not still been burned into his mind, and had Gwen not been so obviously, thoroughly, mortified.
"Merlin!" she was saying breathlessly, at present ducking under Arthur's arm as he attempted to free his foot from where it had become stuck between the legs of the bench and table. "I didn't expect you until - oh," she gasped with a glance out the window, seeing how low the sun was. "Well, then, I really thought you would have knocked..."
"Sorry," Merlin replied, falsely cheerful, rolling up to the balls of his feet. He raised his brows innocently as Arthur threw him a furious look over Gwen's shoulder. Arthur got the pinched expression which meant he was about to say something scathing, but Gwen's elbow struck the side of his head.
Merlin didn't feel at all sympathetic as he dropped back to his heels heavily. "Didn't think there was cause to. What with our dinner plans."
Finally free, Gwen turned, and smoothed her apron. "It's still the polite thing to do, Merlin," she said reproachfully, and Merlin ducked his head dutifully.
"Merlin wouldn't know," Arthur began, not even bothering to look up in his irritation as he tugged the bottom of his shirt in a (misguided, Merlin thought) attempt to appear less dishevelled. "Polite if he was slapped in the face with it. And I'm beginning to think," Arthur added, finally looking up to meet Merlin's eye. Merlin dropped his grin, frowning at Arthur. "That a slap for each impolite act may do some good."
"Arthur," Gwen said in hushed exasperation beside him. Merlin was sure that if he were to glance her way, she would have been rolling her eyes.
Instead, Merlin held Arthur's gaze until Arthur huffed out of the corner of his mouth, frowning in disbelief and turning to face Gwen.
"Enjoy your supper," he said softly. That was the Arthur that Merlin had become accustomed to seeing around Gwen: deferent, and fond.
Not the type of miscreant who tugged innocent young women into their laps and sucked their faces off.
Merlin bristled a little when Arthur ducked, obviously to kiss her cheek, though Merlin couldn't actually see the deed. And he would not be fooled by such demureness now.
Though Merlin couldn't ignore the slight smile on Gwen's lips, or, the way, after Arthur had turned, that her expression softened, eyes following Arthur closely as he walked away. Even so, Merlin wouldn't stand for Arthur behaving in such a way towards Gwen.
So, when Arthur said, "Good night, Merlin," Merlin nodded curtly, and snapped, "Night, Sire."
Gwen looked at him quickly, but Arthur only sighed long-sufferingly before closing the door behind himself.
The little home was silent for a moment, as Gwen studied Merlin closely, before she scolded, "You really should knock."
"And you should be careful, Gwen," Merlin replied grimly.
Shaking her head, she said, a little tightly, "What do you mean?"
He quirked his lips uncomfortably, and cleared his throat. He really ought to be having this conversation with Arthur, not Gwen. "Just, don't feel you have to give him what he wants."
Watching her eyes widen in shock, and then her brows knit in disapproval, Merlin felt even more awkward. "Honestly, Merlin -
"Supper smells delicious," Merlin interrupted. There was a short silence before he belatedly realised, with Gwen's raised brow, that no scent of cooking filled the room. "I mean, I bet that it will."
"Hm," is all she said, before gesturing with a rag to the table for him to sit. It was then that Merlin noticed a vase of flowers sat neatly in the centre of her table, and remembered the bloom in his hand. He glanced down warily, happy to discover it mostly whole.
"I'll just put this in here, should I?" he called to her, reaching towards the vase as she ducked to fetch something from inside her cabinet.
From the corner of his eye, he caught the movement of Gwen's turn. It was when she sighed that he turned fully to face her. A small, indulgent smile was on her lips and her brows were slightly raised. "Did you snatch that from Nan's wall?"
"Maybe," Merlin admitted, not at all sheepish, slipping the thin stem in between the other flowers and rearranging them slightly. "It looks much nicer on your table, though." He looked back over his shoulder at her, attempting to grin winningly, and after a moment, Gwen's smile turned pleased and, with a small shake of her head, she returned to the cupboard.
"You said you had a story to tell me?" she said absently after a pause. "About Sir Eckhart."
Merlin laughed loudly at the memory, forgetting about Arthur's roguish behaviour, and leaned forward eagerly, embarking on a story of nonsense and false intrigue ending with Sir Eckhart's rear powdered white from copious amounts of the baker's flour.
The evening passed lightly and quickly between Merlin's outlandish stories of his serving peers and the knights, and Gwen's tales of the nobility she served as seamstress. Just as his lids started to feel heavy, Merlin asked Gwen's opinion of Gaius' new haircut, which began a brief, affectionate discussion on the physician's new style; they both agreed it was shockingly short though forgivable given the reasons for it (a child had managed to smear the contents of a particularly viscous and rancid smelling ointment on Gaius' shoulders, catching the ends of his hair and requiring him to get quite a dramatic snip in order to entirely rid himself of it all and the horrendous scent with it).
It wasn't until the end of the evening, after Merlin had made a sluggish way to the door, feeling contented, sated and sleepy, that he remembered what he had walked in on; when Gwen had forced a wrapped package of leftover food into his hands before quickly embracing him, and reaching on her toes to press a fast kiss to the hollow of his cheek.
"It's good to see you really smile again, Merlin," she said softly, her fingers still lightly touching his arm. She stood before him then as he always remembered her: gentle, composed Gwen, the same Gwen who had seen to his mother while she suffered through Nimueh's curse.
And he didn't want Arthur to taint her with his - admittedly somewhat unexpected - roguish ways.
Without so much as twitching to indicate his sudden shift in mood, Merlin said good night, and made his way, brooding, back home.
Whether by design or happenstance, Merlin did not come across Arthur until nearly noon the next day. Which had given him plenty of time to rehearse exactly what he wanted to say, and exactly how he was going to say it.
But Merlin's expectations went sideways with the first words out of Arthur's mouth upon his return to his chambers.
"Did you have a good evening with Guinevere?"
The unexpected (and surprisingly friendly) enquiry brought Merlin up short. He had anticipated a somewhat grouchy Arthur, what with the way Merlin had interrupted his sordid intentions the previous night.
"What?" Merlin asked, staring hard at Arthur's back as the prince sorted through the fruit basket on his table.
"Have you gone deaf, Merlin?" Arthur asked absently, turning around and brushing down an apple on his vest. "I asked if you enjoyed your dinner with Guinevere."
Watching as Arthur leaned back against his table, taking an enormous bite from the apple he'd selected, Merlin blinked. "It was good," he said cautiously, his surprise only heightening with Arthur's nod of approval. With a shake of his head, Merlin cleared his throat. He would not be distracted by niceties. "And actually, I wanted to talk to you about that."
"Yeah... No! About Gwen."
To this, Arthur straightened, the hand holding the apple dropping forgotten to his side. "What about her? Did something happen over dinner? Is she all right?"
"She's fine," Merlin responded stiffly.
"She is," he said firmly, waiting for Arthur to relax somewhat. It wouldn't do for him to be fretting about Gwen's state while Merlin tried to knock sense into his libido. "But I think you should... lay off a bit."
Arthur leaned back against his table again and studied Merlin in a way that suggested he wasn't entirely sure of Merlin's level of cognisance. He didn't say anything, though.
Swallowing thickly, trying to tame the seething irritation in his stomach, Merlin licked his lips and continued. "You know, with the - the... kissing and things."
To this, Arthur barked out a laugh, though a bit of pink appeared on his cheeks, and he took another huge bite from his apple. Fighting the urge to turn prince into frog, Merlin clenched his fists while Arthur chewed.
"Honestly, Merlin," Arthur said after swallowing. "I don't think you have a clue what you're talking about."
"I know you love each other," Merlin snapped. Arthur, in the midst of chewing another piece of apple, swallowed the large piece in surprise. Though he took grim satisfaction in the way Arthur coughed and grimaced painfully around the apple, Merlin waited impatiently for Arthur to compose himself.
"And that with that affection," Merlin finally continued, though he could feel his own ears beginning to burn. "Come certain ... desires."
"No, listen to me. Gwen has no one else now. There's only us - and Gaius."
"I know that -
"Which means we have to take care of her, and I don't want you taking advantage of that."
"You've got this totally -
"I don't want to hear it, sire. Do you have any idea how much she's risking, everyday, being with you? And I know she wants to - she does love you - but she stands to lose so much more than you do if anyone decides to take issue with what's going on."
"Look, I'm happy for both of you. Really I am. But when I saw... what I did, last night, I just... I worry. We're all she has..." He paused briefly, thinking of Gwen as she looked to him just before he left the previous night. With that vision, a fresh wave of protectiveness surged through him and Merlin glared at Arthur. "You should know better. I thought you were a bloody knight. Don't you have a code?"
Panting, fists clenched so tightly that his fingers were aching with strain, Merlin watched as Arthur hesitated.
Finally, Arthur drew a deep breath, and Merlin tensed.
"You're right," Arthur said heavily. Merlin's eyes narrowed. "What you saw... was inappropriate," he paused, seeming on the cusp of adding something, before he decided against it. "But I want you to know, Merlin, that I take the state of things in Gwen's life very seriously. And I don't... I would never intentionally act in a way that would put her at greater risk."
Merlin nodded, and waited for Arthur to continue. After a moment, Arthur glanced aside, towards the pile of scrolls on the table and made to move towards them.
"Hang on!" Merlin shouted. He realised with Arthur's swift turn and sharp glare that the shouting may have been too much. But then again, what he was about to say would top that. "I want your promise," he demanded.
"Excuse me?" Arthur asked, looking torn between indignation and bewilderment.
"Promise me, that you won't behave that way again."
Arthur stared at him again, and after a moment, heaved a beleaguered sigh. "All right. I swear to you."
A look back at the truth, and then the results of jumping to conclusions
"How often do you and Merlin have dinner together?" Arthur asked behind her. Gwen grinned at the frown she could hear in his voice.
"Why?" she asked lightly, wiping her hands off on her apron as she turned to face him. It was always thrilling to find him seated at her table, or leaning against the stove beside her as she made dinner, or on the other side of a knock on the door, with a grin...
Or, with a flower. Her eyes slid compulsively to the three purple flowers sat in the centre of her table. It was the first time he had brought her anything but a rose, and she wondered if he had come to realise her preference on his own, or if Merlin had been of some help. She didn't really mind.
When she looked back at Arthur, it was to find him with a softer smile on his face watching her, setting her cheeks burning. She sucked in her lips and puffed out a small breath, before schooling her reaction and continuing with the sentiment she had originally intended.
"Not jealous, are you?"
"Jealous?" Arthur asked, smile vanishing to be replaced with a raised brow. Gwen nodded and bit her lip against a grin as he scoffed. "Of Merlin? I don't think so."
With a final, playfully evaluating look to which Arthur only presented her a disbelieving mask, Gwen turned back to tidying her kitchen. "We haven't ever had dinner, the two of us before," she answered properly, bending to put a small pot away. "But... Ever since the Dragon's attack and Morgana's disappearance..."
She quelled the icy rush of panic that happened any time she thought of her mistress - former mistress - and knew that if she looked up at Arthur, his face would be rigid. So Gwen did not look, but flailed her hand deeper into the tiny cupboard, seeking out the largest cooking pot.
"Anyway," she continued after having found the one she was looking for. "I thought, maybe, he just needed a friend."
"I hope you have better luck then," Arthur grumbled, and Gwen turned to face him, curiously. "I've spoken with him once or twice, to no avail."
Gwen smiled genuinely then, and walked to him. It was still so new, being able to touch him freely as she had wanted to for some time, but Gwen was proud of herself for only hesitating a moment before she placed her hand on his cheek.
"It isn't quite the same," she said softly. No matter how close she was with Morgana, there were still certain boundaries she had not been able to cross; she imagined Merlin felt similarly with Arthur.
Arthur glanced at her, then nodded, pressing his jaw fleetingly into her touch for comfort. Eager to turn the mood, Gwen cleared her throat and indicated the rag folded next to him on the bench. "Could you please pass that to me?"
Looking to his side, Gwen could just make out the twitch of a grin before he plucked the rag up, and turned back towards her. "This?" he asked, dangling it out of her reach.
She licked her lips, quelling the flutter of anticipation at the flirty light in his eye, and tried to appear entirely composed. "Yes..." she said, beginning to walk around him to the other side - only to have him switch the rag to his other hand, exactly as she had expected.
When she huffed out a falsely frustrated breath, Arthur tipped his head to see her, and grinned widely. Invitingly, Gwen thought, feeling a little heady. "Come, Guinevere," he said quietly. "Sometimes you have to fight for what you want."
Her eyes flicked between his face and his outstretched hand. She very deliberately lingered her gaze on his lips before letting her eyes drift to meet his. "Fairly?" she whispered.
"Absolutely not," Arthur answered immediately. Gwen always liked how his eyes widened when she would move towards him. And they were delightfully wide as she ducked to press her mouth to his.
She placed a hand on his shoulder for balance, capturing his cheek again with her other. Gwen had intended it to be a soft, short kiss, after all, Merlin would arrive at any moment, but it seemed Arthur had other plans entirely.
Though he still held the rag at arm's length, his other hand rose to rest against her neck, holding her in place. Then his lips teased hers apart, his tongue slipping into her mouth before she sent her own to tangle with his.
Her back began to ache at the angle, and though Gwen knew she really should, she was unwilling to pull away. After a moment's hesitation - which had Arthur grunting in protest of her lack of response, which led her to smile against his mouth, and so Arthur to gently nipped at her tongue, sending a whole new thrill down her spine - Gwen slid her arms around his neck, balancing herself as she dropped herself carefully, manoeuvring around the bench to sit in his lap.
Arthur did break the kiss then, looking at her wide-eyed with cheeks flushed, then glancing down to where her bum was sat neatly on his thighs. Gwen swallowed when he looked at her again, his astonishment causing her to blush furiously, though she was entirely unwilling to move unless he asked.
"Hello," he said, a little uncertainly.
She laughed breathlessly. "Hi," she whispered. Then licked her lips. "I can move if this is ... too much."
"No," Arthur said quickly, his hand flying across her waist to keep her exactly where she was. Gwen bit her lip, warmth pouring through her. "But don't think you'll win that easily," he murmured sternly, ducking forwards again.
She sighed in response, the sound quickly turning to a shallow gasp when he began to nuzzle along her jaw. Gwen licked her lips, instinctively tipping her head back to grant him better access, each gentle press and suck of his mouth making her stomach flip and her heart pound.
Sliding a hand into his hair and tussling the strands a little, she murmured, "Merlin will be here soon."
Without so much as glancing up at her, Arthur muttered, "He'll knock," against her throat.
Finding no argument against that piece of logic, Gwen leaned back a little, so Arthur had to break away. He looked a little disgruntled to be interrupted; she could feel the damp, warm line of his work tracing down her jaw to the hollow of her throat.
"So," she began softly, leaning up and bumping her nose lightly against his. She felt his hand rise to her back, enjoyed how he pulled her tighter against him, and adored that though his eyes kept lingering on her mouth, he waited for her to complete her thought before kissing her again. "About that rag..."
"It's yours," he said lowly, moving in as Gwen giggled. Her giggle turned shrill as he blew a raspberry on her cheek before covering her mouth with his, swallowing her laughter. Gwen slipped her arm under his -
Gasping, she pulled back to discover Merlin hovering in the doorway. His smile was enormous in an entirely false way, and he was bobbing on the balls of his feet in agitation. She felt frozen, bared, watching Merlin's eyes flick across she and Arthur. Her mind seemed blank, no words surfaced to her tongue...
Then, on a silent and urgent signal, Arthur's hands dropped and Gwen tried to get to her feet.
She glanced at Arthur curiously as he leaned against the window frame, looking down into the courtyard thoughtfully.
"You're being unusually quiet," she told him, eyes flicking up to his face as he turned towards her.
At least once a week, Arthur's name appeared on the list of people she was to attend to. Penelope never seemed to think anything of it, and Gwen was certain that was thanks in large part to Arthur praising the royal seamstress's skill as being too great to deal with the minor (self-inflicted, Gwen knew) tears which he needed mended. The nearest Penelope had ever come to voicing any possible suspicion was an off-handed comment that Arthur was damaging his clothing with far more frequency than usual. Gwen only shrugged her false bewilderment before she disappeared into the room designated as hers for apprentice work.
And while Gwen was always pleased to have his company - in fact, any company that wasn't a complaining noble was most welcome - she generally enjoyed herself because of their conversation while she worked, often causing her to stretch a simple three minute repair to last up to forty-five minutes.
His silence was disconcerting.
"Merlin..." he began, and then fell silent.
Gwen grinned slightly, keeping her eyes focused on undoing her stitches for the first time that afternoon. "You don't usually have any problem complaining about Merlin," she said lightly, her smile growing with Arthur's scoff.
"You're right," he agreed, pushing off from the wall and settling in the seat across the table from her. This, too, was not unusual. However, Arthur leaning forwards and watching her intently was unexpected. "But this time is different."
Looking up slowly and studying his sombre expression, Gwen set aside his shirt and leaned forward anxiously. "Is he all right?"
"Merlin is perfectly fine," Arthur said, sounding a bit irritated now. "But, he did have a few comments about... us."
He looked agitated, which sent Gwen's stomach twisting. Licking her lips, she shook her head slightly. "What kind of comments?"
Arthur's face went tense, a drop in his brows indicating his incredulity, and Gwen felt herself frowning deeply. "Merlin seems to believe that I..." Her brows shot up as red spread along Arthur's cheeks. He was careful to keep eye contact, however, and Gwen swallowed, making herself hold his gaze. "Am... taking advantage... of you."
Though her cheeks and neck flushed hotly at the memory of Merlin's interruption, Gwen couldn't help laughing at the revelation. "He's wrong," she said honestly, glancing away to pick up the shirt again now she knew there were no great concerns to deal with. "Did you tell him that?"
"He wasn't keen on letting me talk much," Arthur said stiffly.
Gwen nodded and looked up to find Arthur still frowning. "Does he think that because of what he, um... walked in on? The other night?"
"Yes." Arthur hesitated, then said vehemently, "We need to put a lock on your door."
Gwen laughed again, reaching across the table to squeeze his hand. "Was he very upset?" she asked after a moment, during which time Arthur had twisted his hand to slip his fingers between hers.
He tapped a rhythm between her knuckles and nodded. "I think he thought I was being quite a cad," he said, and though Gwen looked at him sharply, she found Arthur's expression had eased to a slight grin. "I can't find too much fault with him, though. He was clearly trying to look out for you."
She sat stunned for a moment until Arthur squeezed her hand, making her grin a little. "That was nice of him," she murmured.
"He wasn't simply being nice, Guinevere," Arthur corrected softly, Gwen picked up the slightest traces of exasperation in his tone. It made her grin broaden, and she ducked her head sheepishly. She knew if she looked up, Arthur would be watching her with that soft look she secretly adored, but instead of looking at him, she traced one of the scars along the back of his hand. Arthur was quiet for some time, before he added, "Though, he was an idiot about it."
Gwen flicked her nail against his thumb. "Don't say that," she admonished lightly, but tipped her head up to meet his eyes. "He should have spoken to me, though."
There was a beat when it seemed Arthur may have disagreed, but Gwen gave him a warning look - she was not going to let her decisions be made for her - and Arthur's lips twitched before he breathed out a sigh. "What he should have done, is spoken to us both."
"Hm..." Gwen slipped her hand free of his, smiling when he playfully snatched for her fingers. "As long as he was only talking," Gwen said, picking up the shirt once more. "Then it's all right."
"Uh, well..." Arthur winced slightly when she looked at him again.
Gwen narrowed her eyes. "What is it?"
"Merlin also made me promise not to... behave that way again," Arthur said, clearing his throat awkwardly.
Gwen stared blankly at him for a moment, and then glanced down at his shirt in her hands. With a sigh, she carefully placed the shirt on the table, and neatly arranged her sewing instruments to the side of it. Then she sat back, clasped her hands on her lap and met Arthur's eyes again.
She almost smiled at how bewildered he looked.
"If I may, sire," she said softly. "I would like to finish mending your shirt at a later time."
His eyes wide with surprise, Arthur nodded. "Of course, Gwen. But what -
"Do you happen to know where Merlin is?"
Gwen caught up with Merlin as he was leaving the laundry, empty basket swinging loosely by his side.
"Gwen!" he said cheerfully. When she did not return his smile - it wasn't that she was angry exactly, just... perhaps a little perturbed - his brows furrowed immediately. "What is it?"
"Can I talk to you? For just a minute?" she asked tightly, stopping just before him.
"Yeah," Merlin said, studying her face. "Gaius' house?"
"I was thinking somewhere a little closer," she said, twisting her hands and glancing around. There were usually a few empty rooms in this area of the castle - rooms used for preparation on feast evenings.
Spotting one possibility behind her, Gwen turned on her heel and led the way in, with Merlin shutting the door behind him. It was one of the larger rooms, meant for readying all dining necessities a day in advance. Presently empty, Gwen walked until she was in the middle of the room, with plenty of space between she and Merlin.
Merlin seemed to follow her meaning, hovering just inside the entryway. His look of concern was enough to wash away most of the irritation she had felt and she allowed a small smile to gentle her expression.
"Arthur told me of your conversation," she said quietly after the silence had stretched. Merlin tipped his chin up slightly, but otherwise gave no response. Gwen sighed. "What were you thinking, Merlin?"
He continued to watch her until Gwen raised her eyebrow and his shoulders sagged. "I don't want you hurt, Gwen," he said simply, raising his hands peaceably. A little warmth spread through her, starting at her tummy and radiating outwards. She knew that, of course; Arthur had said as much. It was different to hear it from his mouth, though. "And I know that... when two people are in love, they can get a bit carried away."
Gwen felt a blush spread quickly with that sentiment, but she held Merlin's eyes steady. "Merlin, you really have nothing to worry about."
"You say that, Gwen, but Arthur should know better than to -
"Arthur should know better?" she interrupted, a little amused. "Merlin, it takes two people to... do what we did." She cleared her throat uncomfortably, adding, "As I'm sure you know."
"Yeah, but -
"And making Arthur promise was a little much." With this last, she tried to make her expression stern, hoping Merlin would follow the obvious conclusion without her having to say it explicitly.
But Merlin was shaking his head, and Gwen's stomach tightened a bit. "I didn't think he would be the type, but Gwen! He had pulled you onto his lap - and ... What?"
Gwen was shaking her head. She had assumed Arthur had explained what happened, but she should have known better. Between them, there was too much honour and a desire for privacy, that Arthur would never cross a line like that without first speaking with her. Meeting Merlin's eye again, she cleared her throat.
"Merlin, Arthur didn't pull me into his lap," she said, as evenly as she could, though the burning on her cheeks had spread now to her ears and neck, and her palms were incredibly sweaty. "He was teasing me about a rag, and so I -
"I really don't need the details, Gwen," Merlin interrupted, wide-eyed, quickly raising his hands to stop her.
Gwen shook the loose curls from her hot neck and raised her chin slightly. "And yet you were willing to comment on them to Arthur without knowing what really happened."
Merlin's mouth opened and closed twice, before he nodded, sheepish. "From what I saw..." He trailed into silence when Gwen narrowed her eyes at him. "I just wanted to make sure you didn't feel... That you're all right," he finished weakly.
"I am all right, Merlin," she insisted, stepping forwards. She stopped a short distance from him, and stood tall as they studied one another. After a few moments, Merlin's eyes seeming to probe more deeply than he'd ever done before, a slow smile spread his lips.
"You look happy," he commented warmly. The flush that rushed across her skin this time was of a more pleasant variety, of bashful joy to have something like that recognised. And with her own shy smile, Merlin nodded. "I guess... You'd like it if I freed him of his promise."
"Please," Gwen said, nodding once for emphasis.
He hesitated, then said, "And you're sure he hasn't ever -
"Merlin," she warned. "Arthur hasn't ever asked anything of me. And if he were to, it would be for me to decide."
"Yeah, but I don't want you to think -
"I have a mind of my own. I can make my own choices and set my own boundaries."
"I know that, it's just -
"Merlin. Please." She felt a strange mix of gratitude and irritation with his persistence; it was ... sweet, she supposed, if entirely unwarranted and unanticipated. With a twist of grief, she wondered if her father would have reacted similarly, before she pushed the thought aside. It wouldn't do her any good to linger on such thoughts of her father. Arthur and Merlin were her responsibility now.
So at Merlin's continued silence, she added sternly, "And you should also trust Arthur."
His lips were a thin line, but after a moment, he blew out a long sigh, saying reluctantly, "All right."
"Thank you," Gwen breathed in relief. Merlin nodded, hands hanging by his sides, compulsively tightening into fists. Reaching forward, she took one of his hands and smoothed out his palm before patting his fingers.
Worrying her lip, Gwen glanced up at him. Her friendship with Merlin was a little strange, in that, there were boundaries like mysteries between them which she could never quite fathom. But he had a good heart, and tried to take care of his friends in much the same way she did. It was nice to have that impulse understood, even if other things remained unknown. "But thank you for thinking of me," she mumbled shyly, letting his hand drop.
She saw from the corner of her eyes as Merlin nodded. But the tension in the air had cleared, and Gwen could sense the cheerful warmth almost coming in waves from him now. And she could also feel the moment of hesitation before he cheekily said, "You're sure -
"Merlin!" she scolded falsely, this time laughing and batting his arm lightly as he chuckled down at her.
The reward for insisting on truth
It wasn't until the following evening that an impatient knock sounded on her door. The day had been long, and Gwen wasn't in the mood to deal with a last minute stitch or rip-repair before some noble's dinner or other.
Heaving a sigh, she rose to her knees from her place before the hearth where she had been stoking a fire to life, and called, "Coming!" just as another impatient knock sounded.
The opened door revealed Arthur, eyes bright as he looked at her. He stepped past inside without waiting for her invitation, and Gwen frowned a little as she shut the door behind him.
Turning, admonition sitting ready on her tongue - for she was in no mood for rude princes, either, whether she loved them or not - Arthur lightly caught her face between his palms and pressed a firm, lingering, closed mouth kiss across her lips.
His hands didn't drop when he pulled away, leaving her overly aware of the heat of his palms and the way the rough calluses lightly dragged along the skin of her cheeks, and Gwen sucked her bottom lip between her teeth, trying to take the moment to sooth her pounding heart. It was difficult to ignore the responses to such a greeting, and at the pleased smile on his mouth, Gwen swallowed.
"I take it you've spoken with Merlin," she breathed. She wrapped her hands around his wrists, slipping her thumbs beneath the cloth of his sleeve to stroke his arm.
"I did," Arthur confirmed, smiling smugly. His face drew close to hers again, causing her to catch her breath as his breezed across her cheeks, but his mouth only gently pressed to the tip of her nose before he withdrew again, taking his hands with him. When she smiled back, he glanced over his shoulder before looking back to her with a raised eyebrow and a mask of teasing incredulity. "You call that a fire, Guinevere?"
Licking her lips as Arthur moved towards the hearth, evidently intent on staying for the evening, Gwen felt that perhaps Merlin should interfere more often... If each interference would result in a greeting much like that.