Characters/Pairings: Merlin, Gwen, Morgana, Arthur. Gen.
Genre/Rating: G, episode coda, drama, angst
Spoilers: Episodes 3.01 and 3.02
Word Count: ~860
Summary: At the second banquet held in Morgana's honour, Merlin and Gwen observe the recently returned ward.
Author's Notes: Episode coda to The Tears of Uther Pendragon Part 2. Spoilers for episodes 1 and 2 of series 3.
After Morgana is named Camelot's saviour, after the more urgent repairs are completed and an appropriate time of mourning has passed for those who lost their lives in the kingdom's defence, there is - predictably in Merlin's embittered view - a banquet in Morgana's honour.
He watches her from across the room, as she smiles and nods her head. Falsely bashful, at turns delightedly proud. The court sits in her palm, Uther watching dotingly from his seat as he swills wine.
She wears the same dress tonight in which Merlin had first seen her. A subdued but alluring wine purple, baring her shoulders in innocent temptation which she masters easily: coy glances over the white flesh with a teasing flutter of lashes at the bolder of the knights and noblemen.
The court view her as their saviour, and a proper lady playing their game.
But Merlin believes she sees weight and meaning in the golden threaded diadem that sits across her brow, just as it had that first night. No longer is it a mere adornment, but the furtive declaration of cold longing.
He tries not to stare, for that may lead to glaring. Not that anyone watches him, but it took only one wrong person catching attention of his expression to send up flags of warning, and he is used to trying to stay in the shadows.
"She is changed," Gwen says beside him, and Merlin only just prevents himself from dropping the tray he carries.
He glances at her; she had sounded lost and she looks tired. No, not simply tired. Weary. As though she no longer quite knows where she stands.
He says, "Yes," when Gwen meets his gaze. She flashes a wan smile and breathes out a humourless laugh through her nose. Rising to the balls of her feet, her eyes shift forward once more, tracking Morgana as she moves through the courtiers.
"I don't..." Gwen's lips disappear between her teeth and Merlin waits. "Four days amongst Hengist's bandits was - hard," she says carefully, swallowing around the descriptor. He wishes his hands were free so he could take hold of one of hers. "I can't imagine a year," she finishes wretchedly.
Merlin stands immobile, allows Gwen to interpret his silence as she needs to. He cannot speak; doesn't know where to begin, and wouldn't be able to say much if he did.
"So I don't hold it against her," Gwen continues, then draws a breath and shakes her head. "No," she says lowly, as though correcting herself. "I..."
She gives up then, her shoulders sagging, and with a hissed breath between slightly parted lips, Merlin imagines her valiance leaving her.
"Arthur doesn't see it," he says instead, as Arthur steps up to Morgana with a dry smile. He says something on a smirk, Morgana retorts with exaggerated false offence, and after a playfully tense moment, they both break out into the smiles of mutual satisfaction in the repartee.
"No," Gwen agrees. Her gaze lingers, though Merlin cannot discern whom upon. Then she sighs and turns her back on them, stepping directly in front of him, unanticipated steel in her eyes.
"She does not show it to him," she says, something dark lies beneath her tones which Merlin had rarely heard there before. Forceful, demanding. Frustrated. "But she shows you, Merlin. Why is that?"
He only just stops himself from wincing, able to hold Gwen's eyes evenly. She searches his face as only she can; it had been some time since they kept the secrets of their present from one another.
A year, in fact.
When her left brow finally crinkles upon finding nothing in his expression, Merlin says simply, lowly, "Why does she show you, Gwen?"
He doesn't allow himself to ignore the ache of regret as she deflates before him; of all people, he did not want to be the cause of Gwen losing her fight.
"I don't know," she says brokenly then. And Merlin imagines her face in those grief stricken moments when neither his nor Arthur's company seemed to alleviate whatever loss or guilt she felt over Morgana's vanishing, when his own guilt then seemed to swallow him whole because it was Gwen who held the hope between them -
He jerks, prepared to drop his damned tray in order to grip her arm and squeeze belief into her veins again if he must -
"Gwen?" Morgana's voice floats, plaintive, harmless, across the chatter.
Merlin straightens, and only watches as Gwen visibly gathers herself, a gentle and false smile sitting a mockery of her beauty across her lips as she turns.
Merlin meets Morgana's eyes for only a moment; malice, and challenge, twinkles at him and he feels his face harden before he can stop himself.
Her grey eyes then fall to Gwen's face, her expression softening in imitation of affection all but Gwen and he would believe, and accidentally Merlin looks to Arthur.
Who is frowning, watching Gwen, before his eyes flick to Merlin's face. Arthur's eyebrow rises and Merlin swallows.
His heart pounds in stilted ways as though shackled, and he only just musters a shrug.
Arthur rolls his eyes, Gwen and Morgana move off amongst the courtiers, and Merlin stands alone. The food on the tray he carries trembles and he can do nothing to stop it.