Title: a little older, a little wiser, a little happier

A/N: This is for the Albion zine! I'm making so many assumptions on Arthur's and Gwen's ages, ahaha.

Summary: Being a queen was exactly as boring and tiring as Arthur had whined about, all those years ago when she'd thought he was just a spoiled brat and he'd looked at her like she was any other peasant girl. Only, all those years ago, she thought she'd face the future with him. Instead, she was alone, with a wayward magician as her only companion.

There were some duties royalty couldn't avoid. Maintaining borders, listening to petitioners, solving the issues of squabbling nobbles—Guinevere Pendragon's mornings were filled with task after task. It was all she could do to sit on her throne, listening as some petty lord's son tried to worm his way out of his obligations. The only good part was when she could help the commoners, and even she felt worn after listening to a long line of applicants. It had been six years and she still hadn't gotten used to it

Luckily, though, she was done for the day. The last petitioner had scurried out, eager to claim his new chicken. The lords had gone home for the day, no doubt to create yet another trouble for her to deal with tomorrow. All that was left were her knights and her. Raising a regal hand, Guinevere gestured for them to leave. "Thank you for your services. I would like to be alone for a while."

The guards bowed before turning and leaving. The second the heavy, oak doors slammed shut, she sighed and slumped in her seat.

"That wasn't that bad," a familiar voice teased from across the room. Even before he stepped out into the flickering light, she knew who it was: Merlin.

"That is debatable," she replied, smiling as she slipped off the throne. Her long lilac dress flowed behind her as she walked down the dais.

"You sound like Arthur, Gwen," Merlin chuckled, coming closer. She couldn't remember the last time she'd heard that nickname—there were so few alive that still used it. "I guess it's true what they say about couples."

"Is it now?" Gwen laughed as well. It was strange, that she'd reached the point where it didn't hurt to hear Arthur's name anymore. "I like to think I have a little more sense than him."

"A little," Merlin agreed.

She smacked him on the arm before hugging him tightly. "It's good to see you, old friend."

"You too." He embraced her back. "I thought queens didn't hit?"

"Only you." Gwen grinned, pulling back to look at him properly. As usual, Merlin had that boyish charm to him, with his bright blue eyes and constantly smiling mouth. He always looked ready to crack a joke. "You're exactly the same."

"Handsome?" Merlin guessed, his eyes twinkling.

"In your dreams," she snarked back, chuckling. Talking to him, it was all too easy to forget that time had passed, that Arthur wasn't outside the door, waiting to yell at him for being tardy. Quietly, she asked, "Is it…"

She trailed off, but he understood. Merlin ran a hand through his hair as he looked away. "Magic? Maybe." He shrugged. "It's a little hard to figure out why I still look like this when there's no one around to teach me. I like to think it's a perk."

Gwen curled a lock of her hair around her finger, frowning at the white strands amongst the black. She was thirty now, and she felt it with every fiber of her being. Or maybe that was just loss that made her feel that way. "Will you also live forever, or just look young until you die?"

He scratched his chin as he pondered it for a second. "I'm…I'm not sure actually. I mean, I don't really feel older either?" He shrugged, before winking. "I'll be the most handsome corpse at least."

"Again, in your dreams." Gwen chuckled. "So you're back from your journey now? What were the results?"

"Well…" Merlin's expression grew grim and he clasped his hands behind his back. "Not good, I'm afraid. Well, actually, one good—no one's getting burned anymore. So, that's a plus."

"And?" she pressed, bracing herself. "You don't have to sugarcoat it."

Merlin winced. "Magic…" He bit his lip. "Magic is all but gone."

"Oh." She had expected that news for years now, but that didn't soften the blow at all. Turning around, she studied the throne. The gold looked dull in the dim light, the plush reds as dark as blood. It had been years now; she could barely remember what it looked like when Uther sat on it. When Arthur sat on it. A lump formed in her throat. "Was there anything I could have done?"

"I think it was too late for a while now," Merlin murmured gently, standing beside her. He clasped her hand tightly. His skin was warm and she took comfort from it.

"A prophecy?" she guessed. When he didn't reply, she knew she'd hit the mark. Steeling herself, Gwen asked, "What else is supposed to happen?"

Merlin still kept quiet. He had always been a terrible liar and she closed her eyes. A sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach told her exactly what was to come.

"Camelot will fall," she answered for him.

Immediately, he shook his head, denial on his lips. "Prophecies are hard to understand and they're never—"

"Then what did it say?" Gwen asked, interrupting. She turned slightly, just enough to look him in the eyes. Ruling alone had taught her just how to steel her voice and order someone. "Tell me."

"…when Arthur returns, Camelot will rise again," Merlin muttered, looking away. He'd never been good with confrontation. Even now, after it all, he preferred working behind the scenes.

"Rise again," Gwen muttered, ignoring the first part. She wasn't ready to consider the implications yet. "So we have to fall then. Do you know when?"

"Not really, prophecies are really vague about that sort of thing." Merlin squeezed her hand tighter, no doubt trying to be reassuring. She didn't have the heart to tell him it was anything but. "They're also unreliable—maybe it's just a figure of speech. Or nothing will happen."

"Do you really think that?" Gwen asked pointedly, giving him a look. She was too old for pussy-footing, not when that had led to Arthur's death before.

He sighed, shoulders slumping. She could almost see the weight of it all on him, the lies and secrets he'd kept over the years. Gwen had never asked him about what he'd done when they were younger, about just how many of those strange incidents had his hand in it. At one point, they'd been fun, and she felt nostalgic for a time long gone.

Quietly, Merlin shook his head and murmured, "Not really."

"I see." There was something calming about knowing an unchangeable truth. Maybe it was because it didn't matter what she did now.

Merlin frowned. "Don't let it—"

"It's fine." She smiled, letting go of his hand to wrap an arm around his waist and side hug him. Their heights were similar and she wondered if in exchange for magic, he'd lost out on a growth spurt. "Did you know that I'm thirty now?"

"I couldn't guess." As usual, he had a dry, witty response to everything. "You still look like you're in your twenties."

She pinched his arm. "Stop teasing."

Merlin yelped and jerked away. "Again with the violence. You don't have to take after Arthur there."

"He possessed me and made me do it," she retorted, flipping her long hair. "He wanted to remember just what a beautiful, adoring wife you're insulting."

"Okay, that was creepy, you sounded exactly like him." Merlin shivered.

"Still possessed." She giggled. Sighing, she stretched her arms behind her as she sobered up. "Thirty…you know, I'm almost Uther's age now. My brother and Arthur will never reach this age. I might end up even older than my father even."

"When you put it that way, it's really weird." Merlin bit his cheek. Quietly, he added, "You know, I might end up outliving all of you?"

"And you'll still have cheeks that make aunts want to pinch them?" Gwen replied playfully, making a pinching motion with her fingers. It was hard to think of something that far away, of an older Merlin taking care of their graves. "Make sure to visit."

"You won't know if I do," he replied weakly.

"I'll know." She rested her hands on her hips. "And bring flowers."

He held his hands up in surrender. "Any other demands, your highness?"

"I'll think about it." Gwen winked mischievously. She glanced at the throne again. It was too easy to Arthur on it, giving her a cheeky smirk. Curling her hand into a fist, she asked, "That first part of the prophecy—he'll return?"

"Oh…" A grim expression crossed Merlin's face and he rubbed his neck. "One day. Maybe. I don't know when though."

"So after I die then…" Gwen sighed. Of course, it wouldn't be that easy. Time had softened the edges of her heartbreak until it was just a dull pain. That didn't stop it from hurting. "You know, they've been asking when I'll remarry."

"No," he said, his tone incredulous as he came closer.

Gwen nodded, annoyance creeping into her voice. "Yes."

"But…" He wrapped an arm around her waist, pulling her close till their shoulders bumped. "You…"

"No, it makes sense." Gwen rested her head on his shoulder, inhaling Merlin's herby scent. She'd missed this during his absence. There was no one else she could speak her mind to like this. No one else who really understood everything she'd been through. "Like I said, I'm thirty now. Who knows when I'll die—if there's no heir, then Camelot ends with me."

"Still," Merlin argued feebly, always using his heart instead of his head. She'd been the same, before her long, solo rule. "They can't force you, right?"

"No, they can't. But…I wonder if that's why Camelot will end. Because of me." Gwen buried her face in his neck. "If I just don't…it'll all collapse because of me…"

"That's not true at all," Merlin rejected firmly. He gently pressed a kiss on her hair. "You're the reason Camelot's still standing. You can always just name someone else your heir—and you can pick someone because they are a good leader, not just because they're born into it."

Now that was comforting. Gwen lifted her head slightly, searching his eyes. Unlike before, he looked confident. "That's a good idea."

"You know me, full of great ideas," he teased.

"I said good, not great." Gwen laughed, straightening her posture. "Pick our own leader…the lords won't like it."

"Since when have you cared what they think?" he challenged, raising a brow.

"Since I became Queen," she replied, but that didn't stop the thought from echoing through her head. "Still…I like that. I like it a lot. You're right. Camelot won't end with me, not after everything. I won't let it."

"That's my girl." Merlin beamed, all teeth and she felt like she was falling back in time, to when it really was as simple as wanting it. "I'll help."

"Like I'd let you off the hook otherwise." Gwen grinned.

Perhaps they couldn't change anything. It was a prophecy, after all. But this wasn't the first time she'd faced something impossible.

If a blacksmith's daughter could turn into a queen, she could definitely keep her kingdom from collapsing.