Characters/Pairings: Gwen, Merlin, Morgana, Arthur. Gwen/Arthur.
Rating/Genre: G, fluff. With a touch of angst.
Summary: There are pieces of a person which make up a whole. Like painted strokes on a portrait canvas.
A/N: Written for the incredibly wonderful & adorable felix_aeternus for her birthday ♥♥♥ All the stunning art pieces are hers; all work herein inspired by her visions, hopefully doing them at least a little bit of justice. Each image below clicks through to the original post. N's already (implicitly ;) forgiven me for the corniness of the title & summary; hopefully you do too! Patiently beta'd by la_esmeralda_ <3!
Merlin could easily believe he was alone. All around him, wheat breathed and whispered, ever shifting with a life of its own. The field stretched, waved and clung at his sleeve.
Slipping through the stalks, four fingers reached for him, followed by the rest of Gwen's hand.
He ducked, just as Gwen would have touched his chest. On a shallow chortle, Merlin twisted - caught the toe of one foot on the heel of the other and fell with a shout.
"Merlin - ?"
Then her foot caught on his calf and she tumbled with a startled gasp.
He crawled over to her as she rolled to her side, pushing up. The apology sat primed and worried on the tip of his tongue, but then Gwen turned to him. Her mouth was pulled wide in amusement and as she tugged the neckerchief down from her eyes, Merlin was momentarily struck.
He had not seen her so bright and so happy since before her father had died. The transformation was beautiful; her face was nearly shining with joy, and guilt ran uncomfortably from his chest to his finger tips that he hadn't done more to help her while she grieved.
But Gwen's brows rose, and she laughed at his expression, and Merlin couldn't help a smile as he sat down next to her.
"How do you do it?" he asked.
"Do what?" she asked, easing herself to sit properly, smoothing the fabric of her new purple dress so it fanned out beside her, the toes of her slippers tapping together as they peeked from beneath the hem.
Merlin reached over, tugging his neckerchief from her grasp. "Stay so... dignified."
She laughed then, disbelieving. "What are you talking about, Merlin?"
"Look at you," he said, gesturing emphatically. She sat easily, as though she made a habit of lounging in wheat fields in her spare moments. "You tripped over my feet and the only indication that anything is out of place is - this."
Gwen swatted at his hand as he reached out to tug a strand of her hair. She tucked the curl behind her ear before sing-songing, "I don't have the faintest idea what you're on about."
"Gwen. If I fall, I land on my face," Merlin enunciated slowly, "And without fail, I land in a pile of horse shit."
Her laughter was warm as the breeze which playfully ruffled the stalks around them.
Her fingers were nimble, picking through his fringe to pluck a sheaf of wheat free.
She held it before his nose, eyes dancing delight, and said firmly, "This is not horse shit," then tossed it aside.
Momentarily, her smile grew, and then she leaned back, fingers digging into the soil as she turned her face to the last rays of the sun.
Foolishly, and with a small measure of regret, Merlin thought, It could have been nice to love Gwen.
He grinned when she peeped an eye at him and declared, "You were royalty in your last life."
"What?" she asked, baffled. Her eyes narrowed as he scrambled to his feet, then she gasped as he started snapping the tops of the stalks. "Merlin! It's one thing to break these by accident -
"Quiet, Your Highness," Merlin interrupted cheerfully. He only smiled the larger at Gwen's frown, plopping down beside her again and depositing his bounty in his lap.
Gwen was resolutely disapproving in her silence, until he started stealing squinting glances over his shoulder at her head.
She pushed up, dusting her hands of lingering soil and wheat dust, before nudging Merlin's shoulder as she peered into his lap.
"What're you doing?" she asked, voice bright with begrudging curiosity and he was struck by how much he had missed that tone.
Shame had his fingers weaving more quickly.
"The first girl I fancied in Ealdor," he began, glaring as a strand of wheat popped free. "Insisted she would only accompany me if I could make her necklaces of flowers."
She said, "So you learned."
"Mmm," Merlin agreed. "And quickly. Now wheat is obviously not flowers, but I trust you'll grant me pardon, my lady."
Gwen laughed again, incredulous, and Merlin imagined it was accompanied by a roll of her eyes. "What are you on about, Merlin?"
Done, he twisted and deposited the chain on Gwen's head. "Perfect," he proclaimed proudly.
Then laughed as Gwen's eyes nearly crossed in her attempt to look up and see the crown of wheat across her brow.
"Queen of Camelot," Merlin pronounced. "Well, of Paul's wheat fields anyway - Hey!" His fingers closed on her wrist as she reached for it. "Leave it on. It suits you."
"Don't be silly -
He jerked her hands down, and then fell back to lie in the soil.
The shifting pinks of the sunset sky became framed by feathers of wheat tinted bronze, and Gwen eventually laid down beside him, arm pressed tight to his.
"If I was a queen," she said thoughtfully and Merlin smiled. "What were you?"
"Court jester, probably."
"Be serious," she scolded, her elbow bumping into his.
Long and low, Merlin hummed.
"I would have advised you," he decided.
"I like that," she said, and her pinkie finger nudged his.
He scoffed and rolled his head to squint at her. "You rarely needed it."
The sun dropped and starlight was suddenly bright, shining eternal in Gwen's eyes as she smiled slightly, staring up into the skies.
"Is that so?"
"Yep," Merlin told her seriously. "Right pain, you were. Knowing it all." He was rewarded when her smile grew, her lips cracking wide open. The starlight turned the wheat to silver, and for a moment, Merlin believed the crown to be real.
Then he looked skywards again. "Why do you think I took up jesting?"
Gwen laughed, and he wrapped his hand around hers. Her calloused fingers tapped affection against his knuckles and he resolved to keep her by his side, if ever that great destiny he was meant to have came to pass.
They lay there, watching the sky move, until Gwen shivered.
Merlin wouldn't let her take the crown off as they made their way back to the town, and Gwen looped her arm through his.
"As your queen," she said, attempting - awkwardly - to sound commanding as they set off. "I order you to tell me of all the other ways you impressed the girls in Ealdor."
There was a pause the space of a beat, before she added, "Please."
And Merlin chuckled and poked her ribs before telling her how he learned that the girls in his village did not like spiders nearly so much as he did.
Morgana had been nearly sixteen, her new maid, Gwen, was freshly fourteen, and they had only met that morning.
Not that Morgana care one lick about impressions because weaselly Arthur had just managed to convince his snivelling father that she was far too old to be studying swordsmanship and wasn't it just so embarrassing for the throne?
"Bastard!" she shouted, throwing her scabbard onto the table, cursing as foul as a stall owner when it skittered all the way across to drop with a thunk on the other side.
Before she could work up a proper stomp, Gwen, quiet as a mouse, had picked it up and placed it carefully back on the table.
Morgana need not meet the girl's eyes to know she would be somewhat reproachful; Gwen knew swords.
Gwen knew swords.
"You know swords!" Morgana said sharply, brandishing her finger in Gwen's direction. "Propriety be damned, you can teach me in secret."
For a girl who had been described to her as good for working and not much else what with her propensity for silence, Morgana thought the girl told whole stories with her expressions. And presently, she was spinning a tale about the fight for patience when dealing with spoiled nobility.
Morgana liked her already; her other maids would have been stuttering by this point.
"Well?" she demanded, when Gwen's expression began to clear.
"I know much about the care of swords, my lady," she said softly. Morgana had to lean forward to catch every word. "But I could not possibly teach you as you wish. I can wield no deadlier a blade than a butter knife."
Morgana stared at her and then huffed out a disappointed snort. "I suppose a butter knife could be deadly..."
"That's true, my lady," Gwen said evenly. "The butter never survives."
Against her will, Morgana smiled. "Why, Gwen. Whoever said silence is caused by stupidity?"
Gwen smiled, humourlessly at first before her eyes softened as she spoke. "My family values the quiet. My father says that my mother only felt those with the ability to observe were wise. And that only those who could be quiet were able to observe."
It sounded simply like the recital of oft-heard sentiment and so Morgana only nodded, then threw herself down into a chair with a huff.
"I'll fetch you a bath," Gwen offered gently. "It will relax you." Morgana waved her off.
Indeed, the bath had been relaxing. And her thoughts as she flicked water through the rising steam had been enlightening.
"Many say I am to marry Arthur," she pronounced in disgust as Gwen tugged at the ties of Morgana's sleep gown. She was clumsier than the last maid had been.
"Yes, my lady," Gwen replied distractedly, tongue between her teeth as she again missed one of the holes for the laces. "Many do say that."
"I have decided, if I don't kill him before we reach the alter, that I shall make the most out of being queen."
"Very wise," Gwen agreed on a nod.
At the undertone of dismissal in Gwen's voice, Morgana grew curious. "What would you do, Gwen?"
Gwen took a moment to answer, finally fitting the final tie. She reached for Morgana's overgown and held it up for her. "Do, my lady?"
"Yes," Morgana said, slipping her arms into the sleeves and letting Gwen smooth the creases. "If you were queen."
Morgana watched Gwen's eyes grow wide, her cheeks, still pudgy from childhood, turned pink.
"That really isn't for me to say," she stammered, stepping away hurriedly to make the bed.
Morgana grinned slightly. "Of course it is. We're just pretending, Gwen."
"No, I couldn't. Honestly -
"Go on. One thing you'd do," Morgana cajoled.
Gwen's eyes flicked up to her face and nervously, a little desperately, she said, "Perhaps if my lady tells me her ideas, I would think of something worth sharing."
Morgana had then immediately embarked upon a list which began, No woman would be denied learning – of any kind, and it wasn't until Gwen had snuffed the last candle, slipping from the room with a warm, "Dream well, Lady Morgana," that Morgana would realise she had not got her answer.
Years later, Uther married a woman named Catrina. In a bout of inexplicable disregard to the realities of the peasantry, Uther passed a tax which would render many in the towns destitute.
In standing up for the people, Arthur was disinherited and the next day Catrina was to be made rightful heir to the throne of Camelot.
Gwen had been quiet all evening; in a way unusual for her, preoccupied. There was a small dip across her brow as she worked, and her lips were tight, small wrinkles creasing her cheeks.
Morgana had left her alone. She often found herself more comfortable in silences now in any case.
Sat before the mirror, she watched Gwen's face as she brushed out her hair. When Gwen's frown deepened, her tongue poking out to wet her lips, Morgana finally said, "Gwen?"
Only her eyes rose in response, meeting Morgana's stare in the reflection.
"You've been lost to your thoughts all night," she said gently. And offered a smile when Gwen breathed out a puff and her lips curved apologetically. "What weighs on your mind?"
Gwen turned away slightly, watching carefully as her fingers curled long strands of Morgana's hair and freed them of the prongs of the brush. "Do you remember on one of my first nights in your service,” she began, slow and deliberate, "you asked, if I was queen, what I might do?"
Startled, Morgana's eyes widened. "Yes of course." Then she laughed, trying not to allow the bitterness to show. How her problems had changed; she had known nothing then. "You refused to answer."
Gwen's teeth tugged on her bottom lip as she turned forwards once more. Her palm rested lightly with practised familiarity on Morgana's scalp as she set the brush to her hair again. Steady strokes down.
"Have you... Do you have new wishes for the kingdom?"
"There was merit to some of what I wanted then," Morgana replied thoughtfully. "But yes, I have many new wishes."
A kingdom where she would not wake in terror from a dream, only to step into a reality where she might be killed for having dreamt at all. Where she could be understood, for all that she was, not having to cloister herself away for fear of discovery.
Gwen nodded, her eyes narrowing as she pulled gently at a stubborn knot.
"And you?" Morgana asked, as the silence lengthened again, growing heavy. "Do you at last have an answer to the question?" she teased.
Brown eyes flicked to Morgana's and Gwen's mouth twisted, wistful. After a moment, Gwen breathed out, a little harshly. "It is still not my place -
"Come Gwen," Morgana said impatiently. "None of that any longer."
Gwen's grateful smile was fleeting. Then she said with increasing resolve, "I would give a voice to the people. So decisions weren't made on whims or without accountability... And so that they knew that they were being thought of. As individuals, not... A group, assets, to exploit."
For a moment, Morgana could only watch Gwen. Her narrowed eyes were directed to her task, but they saw something else, heat bright behind them. Her voice belied something deeper, a belief in possibilities which Morgana couldn't quite get a hold on.
The resolve in her tone had not been of flighty desires, but of some quiet faith. Gwen had always seen the good, felt stalwartly that it would out, in the end.
Morgana licked her lips, and envied.
There was a time, an awkward and painful space where Morgana felt herself as a seed pod tossed from wave to foaming wave on a storm in the endless sea.
Her heart was rent and splintered, alternately fire and venom when she thought of Merlin.
She remembered Arthur, missed his stalwart idiocy and loyalty. His stupid, smug glances, and soft, doting tolerance.
Morgause told her stories of the truth of Uther Pendragon which made Morgana's skin crawl.
And Gwen. Gwen moved through her waking and sleeping thoughts as an apparition of warmth and safety, longed for as desperately as the sun in the middle of coldest winter.
The first time Morgause suggested, with seductive certainty, "And you would be queen," there was an unspoken, "With me at your side," echoing into the clamorous silence.
But for weeks, before all in Camelot became a blur of faceless obstacles in the desire to finish her enemies, Morgana would always add to herself, "And Gwen at the other."
He knocked a second time. It was far more frustrating than it ought to have been, waiting for Gwen to answer her damn door.
Arthur raised a fist, preparing to knock again when Gwen opened the door with a reproving frown.
Which quickly shifted to fond exasperation. "Sire... What can I do for you?"
"I heard you've been given the afternoon off," Arthur said, leaning forward conspiratorially.
Gwen's smile grew, and warmth pooled comfortably in his belly. "I have," she agreed, then tilted her head in a way he swiftly recognised. And thus, she teased, "I do not know what interest the prince may have in such details..."
"None, of course," he replied, straightening and tipping back slightly. "I merely thought to tell you I plan to take a walk in the forest."
"In half an hour."
"Perhaps I shall pause by the oak spinny."
"Is that so?"
Her eyes sparkled up at him and Arthur swallowed, looking innocently at the ceiling.
"Not that you'd have interest in such things."
His head dropped and he couldn't fight his smile at her pleased expression.
"I'll be off then," he said.
"Good of you to stop in, my lord." He stared when her chin tucked and she watched him from beneath her lashes. "Half an hour..."
"By the oak spinny," he replied, quietly, given the sudden constriction in his chest.
Then her smile broke properly and Arthur could only nod with his departure as Gwen said, "I understand."
Arthur eyed the heavy clouds moving slowly towards Camelot and tried not to fidget. It wasn't that he thought she wasn't coming, simply that Guinevere was reliable. Punctual.
If she was late - and she would be, in approximately two minutes - then it meant she wasn't coming.
His mouth went dry.
And six minutes later, Gwen crested the hill, smiling apologetically.
"I'm sorry I'm late," she said, grimacing and coming to a stop before him.
He shook his head, feigned a lack of concern. "I didn't realise."
When she gave him a look that could, under certain circumstances, be read as sceptical, Arthur cleared his throat. "What kept you?"
Gwen's cheeks went a little pink, her gaze drifting slightly to the left. "I underestimated the time it would take to get ready," she said, almost shy.
Arthur didn't fully hear her. He couldn't exactly remember what she had been wearing when he visited her earlier, but he was certain it wasn't this dress.
He had always appreciated the way the purple complemented her countenance. The embroidered corset tucking in at her waist nicely, the curve of her breasts well accented. Particularly, it seemed, today...
She cleared her throat and Arthur's eyes shot up to meet hers. She crooked an amused smile at him and weakly, he offered, "The rose is very pretty."
Instinctively her hand lifted, lightly touching the spot where the stripped stem tucked into a pinch of her hair. "In many ways, it was your idea," she said, and then indicated the path into the forest with a gently raised brow.
"Was it?" he asked as she stepped past him, studying the way her curls fell about her shoulders, swept back from her face with only the neat twist which captured the bloom.
A glance over her shoulder had him falling into step beside her and she nodded. But rather than explain, she gestured to the basket he carried. "What have you brought?"
"I packed some food -
"You packed it?" she interrupted, delicate emphasis on the first word as she voiced the question lightly to the forest at large.
Arthur smirked. "I asked Merlin to pack us some food," he amended shamelessly.
"I'll remember to thank Merlin, then."
"I wouldn't make any plans yet," he said, tipping his head towards her playfully, liking the smile it earned him. "You've no idea the quality of what he's packed."
"Merlin has made me food before," she said with a shake of her head. "I'm sure it's good enough."
Arthur hmphed. "Perhaps he saves his culinary skills for you."
"Perhaps he does," she agreed gravely and then bounced a step forwards. "Where are you leading me, sire?"
"Haven't the foggiest," he said, glancing thoughtfully to the tree tops.
They spoke of family. Of how Elyan was settling, and, in not quite so many words, how distant Morgana sometimes seemed.
With a shudder, Gwen turned to him slightly as they walked, her tone forcibly fine as she said, "I cannot blame her for her distance. To be held for a few nights is..." She stopped, and wet her lips. "An entire year would be... indescribably worse."
Arthur frowned, painfully, and sent his gaze tracing the path ahead of them.
Their knuckles brushed as their hands swung by their sides.
Arthur could feel Gwen's eyes on the back of his neck as he bent over the basket.
"So?" she asked after he'd been fiddling for a little while. Why Merlin had seen fit to pack it at the bottom -
"What has Merlin given us?"
"Mostly fruit, by the looks of it," Arthur replied absently, pushing aside a few apples and tugging. "If we're lucky, perhaps there will be a piece of cheese somewhere."
Gwen was quiet again, but when he gave a frustrated grunt, she stepped around and crouched curiously in front of him. "What are you doing?"
"Trying to get this damn -" Finally he caught the edge of the material properly. "Hah!" He pulled it free. With something of a flourish.
As Gwen stood, Arthur looked up to meet her eyes and was dismayed to see her staring in considerable bafflement at the cloak. "What's that for?" she asked.
Confused himself now, Arthur frowned. "For sitting on."
Gwen's eyes widened as her brows dropped and she glanced to the clearing they'd selected. Dewy, bright green grass sparkled from within the circle of trees, the space as yet untouched this spring.
Then she looked back at him indulgently, biting her lip against a smile.
"What?" he demanded.
"Grass stains are some of the hardest to clean," she said gently. "And that is your ceremonial cloak."
The implications took a moment for Arthur to follow, and he wondered if blood was a harder stain to clean than grass.
"All right," he said finally, awkwardly trying to re-fold it until Gwen took pity, reaching out with a smile. "We'll find some rocks then."
This, ultimately, turned out to be the preferable option. It was a flat stone, just large enough to fit two bottoms - snugly.
The stone was set at the crest of a low hill, edged by the forest and looking out across Camelot's valley. The castle rose before them, beautiful in its spires and cream stone. Indomitable.
They'd both taken a moment to indulge in the sight, the toe of Gwen's slipper a delicate weight in the side of his boot, his hand hanging down just ghosting her hip.
Rather than laying things out properly as Arthur tried to insist, Gwen persuaded him to leave everything in the basket, taking what they wanted from there.
"More than fruit then," Gwen said lightly, her fingers picking through the contents. She held up a piece of bread in one hand, cheese in the other.
Arthur laughed. "Bread is not that much of an addition."
"Patience, Arthur," she teased, handing him the two and reaching in again to withdraw a wrapped package. "I believe," she began lightly, fingers nimble as they pulled apart the fabric. Neatly, the pieces fell away and the scent of smoked pork wafted up to him. "I will be thanking Merlin."
Gwen slid her eyes to look at him, smiling with faint triumph, and Arthur half rolled his eyes. "Just because he gets it right one time..."
"Stubborn," she murmured, smile turning to amusement.
Arthur cocked a brow. "You know it."
She breathed out a chuckle and leaned forward again.
Their meal mostly passed in the exchange of stories. How the knights became increasingly invigorated with the spring, which made them both easier to train for their enthusiasm, and more difficult for their rowdiness. How Gwen had been managing twice the usual number of repairs thanks to the longer hours of light each day.
"There ought to be an increase around now, really," she said thoughtfully. She polished an apple on her skirt. "There was last year."
"I would have thought winter would see you many," Arthur said, fishing for another piece of bread.
But Gwen shook her head as she chewed. Swallowing, she said, "Winter has most wearing their hardier clothes. With spring and summer, the thinner and more vulnerable pieces are worn."
"Ah, that makes sense."
Before Gwen could reply, it started raining. A few innocent drops which reached torrential levels by the time they had scrambled to their feet.
"We could go back to the trees," Arthur suggested, blinking hard against the rain.
Gwen twisted and turned her face up to him, laughter dancing in the crinkles around her eyes. "We're both soaked through already," she said, tossing her head in a vain attempt to dislodge a curl which stuck to her cheek.
"Then what -
She bent and dug through the basket, extracting his cloak. At Arthur's dropped brow, she said, "Rain water does not require scrubbing."
"That isn't what I was concerned about," he said, taking a step forward and drawing it from her hands. "You weren't thinking of giving this to me, were you?"
Her fingers slid beneath his where they grasped the cloak, and she prodded at his palm with one of her nails. "No," she said, lips pulled into a distracting pucker before she moved quickly, the cloak thrown about his shoulders with practised ease. "I thought we might share it."
And she stepped up to him, almost touching, and drew the ends of it around herself. Arthur belatedly shifted, tugging the cloak up higher so it covered her more thoroughly. His fingers lingered at her neck, then slipped down to hold her shoulder.
Her hair hung in sodden twists, drops alighting her lashes, gliding down her cheeks, making her glow in the rain's residual dew. Then her mouth twitched, and her smile grew, bashful slow.
His heart stuttered when her hand landed warm on his chest. His cloak rumpled and slopped as she reached her toes. Rain and roses and Guinevere filled his nose as she drew ever closer.
Her lips were chilled.
Arthur discovered what it was to kiss Gwen with apple on her tongue, his heartbeat beneath her palm, and Camelot rising proud from the distant fog.