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The Longest Night

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It was always cold in Camelot, when Vortigern was king.  Maggie supposed she was one of only a few, now, who would remember it.  There were roaring fires to mark the winter solstice this year, and singing at the feast.  Arthur, his friends, the members of the resistance- all in their different ways had known harder winters than she.  And yet Maggie walked the halls with the keenest appreciation of all that had changed. 

Everywhere Maggie looked, she saw grins and laughter.  Even the mage, tucked up against a window just beyond the banquet hall, had abandoned her usual dour expression for something much brighter.  Maggie nearly tripped over her own feet when she saw her. 

It was the mage herself who steadied Maggie, fingers wrapping around hers as she said, “Are you well?”

Maggie noticed the mage’s hands were a little warmer than natural.  She liked it.  “Yes,” she managed.  “Yes, of course.”  She felt terribly clumsy. 

“Are you overheated?”               

“No, no.” Maggie was not sure, in fact, that she could ever be overheated again.  She had not left this castle for more than a few days in years, and yet it was strangely difficult to reacquaint herself with its walls now that there was joy between them again.  Hope.

Something wry passed over the mage’s features then, as if she knew Maggie’s thoughts- and perhaps she did.  Maggie could not begin to guess the extent of her abilities.  It made her feel... Maggie didn’t altogether know what it made her feel.  Or rather she did, but she preferred not to dwell on it too much, or she might become more than clumsy.  

“You are flushed,” the mage pointed out, the tiny smile growing faintly on her face. 

“I’m all right,” Maggie said, feeling as though she was reassuring herself more than the composed and powerful woman before her. 

“And are you enjoying the evening?” the mage asked, something playful in it. 

That answer, at least, Maggie was sure of.  “Very much.  And you?”

The mage nodded, her playful look intensifying in a strangely contained way Maggie thought was unique to her.  Maggie could spend ages tracking the peculiar ways an expression could pass over that face.  The mage released her hands at last to point, and Maggie had to take her eyes away to follow it.  “Do you know what that is?” the mage asked.

She was pointing to a tangle of leaves tied up with a ribbon over a nearby doorway.  Maggie shook her head, then hesitated.  She had seen a few sprigs of it through the castle tonight and- she fancied- a few times outside the castle before, hanging in trees.  “I’ve seen it,” she said at last. “But no, not really.”  

“It’s called mistletoe.  My people used it in spells, once,” the mage said, cocking her head.  “To pass under it, one must show they are armed only with goodwill.”

Maggie glanced back the way she had come.  There were no sprigs in that direction, but she still wondered if she had been spelled without realizing it.  Everyone in Vortigern’s court had learned to be very wary of magic, and yet when she thought of the mage doing it, she was not afraid.

The mage laughed softly.  “Those are made only of stems and leaves,” she said, “no magic.  But Arthur asked if I had any traditions you all could honor here, so I offered it up.”

“It’s beautiful,” Maggie said.

“It is a parasite,” the mage replied.  Her voice was as warm as her eyes. 

Maggie laughed. 

She was still laughing when voices spilled out from beyond that doorway, and a cluster of men- King Arthur first, then Bedivere, and Bill last- passed under the mistletoe.  

There were rumbled good evenings from all three.  Maggie watched them, but kept her eye on the mage too.  Her face remained impassive but there was something bright there, alert- something that Maggie had rarely seen but would dearly like to see more of. 

It was Arthur who noticed the mistletoe first.  His face was pleasantly flushed.  Maggie didn’t know him well; perhaps that was why it struck her so profoundly to see him happy.  When she first knew him Vortigern was doing his best to destroy his life, so of course most anything would be an improvement- but more than that... Arthur was, in so much more than blood, born to be a king.  A leader.  The cheerful look he shot the mage’s way, as if he knew she returned it even if her expression did not obviously change, was even better proof of how Camelot had altered under his rule than any fire or feast.  "What does the plant mean again?" he asked. 

“It symbolizes peaceful meetings,” she said. 

He nodded thoughtfully. 

“It is traditional for those who pass under it to show their goodwill.  By kissing each other.”

The only reason Maggie didn’t stare at the mage, then, was that she had trained herself out of such reactions long ago.  Nevertheless she watched her carefully.  The mage had mentioned nothing of that kind to her, and as difficult as the mage was to read at the best of times, Maggie found herself suspecting that this had not even been her plan a moment ago.

Bill, who had come to a stop directly under the plant, his shoulder wedged into the doorway, looked up slow and his mouth quirked.  “That’s easy enough.”

He reached out and Bedivere, who looked only faintly surprised by this turn of events, met him halfway in a brief but affectionate touch of lips.  Maggie was not exactly surprised.  She knew Bedivere better than Bill- Bedivere had often felt like her best ally and only friend during the last months of Vortigern’s rule, and though she knew his kindness and strength well she had not had much leisure to watch him and Bill together.  What she had seen, though, had left her with little doubt as to their closeness.  The mage, who had spent many nights with the resistance, probably knew more. 

No, Maggie was not surprised- not by that.  What did surprise her was the way her own gaze slid first to the mage- not so odd, in itself, her eyes always seemed to go to the mage, ever since the first time they met- and then, following the mage's gaze in turn, to Arthur.  His expression was still warm, but there was a flavor of yearning to it, now, that Maggie had not anticipated. 

But perhaps it explained the gleam in the mage's eye. 

Bedivere and Bill were both smiling faintly when they drew back from each other.  Bill’s smile was crooked but welcoming as he turned to look at Arthur, though it was Bedivere who spoke next: “And you, your majesty?”

Arthur blinked, slow, and said, “Oh."  He blinked some more.  "Yes, of course.”  He closed the small distance between them, Bedivere pressing a lingering kiss to his cheek.  There was a moment of stillness between them, a shift, and though the kiss appeared chaste, it occurred to Maggie that it wasn’t

Oh indeed.

Bill, still close by and smirking faintly, kissed Arthur’s other cheek just a breath after Bedivere drew back.  And that kiss wasn’t very chaste either.  “You had something upstairs to show us, didn't you?" he said quietly, and Arthur gave a slightly dazed nod in response.  Smile widening, Bill wrapped his hand around one of Arthur’s and tugged him down the corridor.

Bedivere followed more sedately, pausing to glance back at the mage.  “Thank you,” he murmured, and all three disappeared into the warm darkness.

For a moment, Maggie could only stare at the empty space where they had been.  She wasn’t sure what to do or say, or if it was even necessary to do or say anything.  But then she thought about the different kinds of contentment she had seen grow on all three faces.  She thought about the way she looked at the mage, the way she thought the mage was looking back at her, and how she had always tried to stop that line of thinking before it could go any further.

She thought about how tired she was of hiding in the shadows.  How much she wanted to step into the light. 

Without saying a word, she headed in the direction from which Arthur, Bill and Bedivere had come to pause under the mistletoe.  She took a breath.  “Is it really traditional to kiss anyone who stands here?” she asked at last.

The mage regarded her in silence for a moment, then her lips curved just faintly up.  “Oh, yes,” she said, crossing to Maggie and taking her face in both hands to kiss her.

Maggie had never felt so warm.