Anyway. Working on like, twenty plot bunnies while not doing my fucking homework (fuck Philosophy, man), and just.... guess I'm just updating to let ya'll know I'm alive and shit.
I can’t tell where the journey will end
But I know where to start.
When hope dies, the heart dies with it, and it is a slow, gasping death with arms outstretched, shaking fingertips reaching for a handhold to no avail.
And then, “I love you.”
The confession sets off a tiny genocide in her mind, brain cells shredded and torn in its wake; those three words quickly and effectively destroy any chance of coherent thought until she takes a few, tense minutes of strained silence to remember what it is to breathe.
The thing about Merlin, she’s come to understand, is that he’s both the best and worst liar she’s ever met. He’s a better liar than she’ll ever be, and she’s quite the accomplished actress. Worst still, she knows what to look for, knows the mask he wears and how much he detests keeping secrets. And when it comes to silly little falsehoods, he’s as transparent as a pane of untouched glass. But it’s that oddly guileless face, his innocence, his wide blue eyes that see all and give nothing in return, that makes it so easy for him to fool people when it comes to matters important to him; the big secrets he keeps close to the vest. It’s a conundrum she’ll never figure out: how can a man incapable of keeping the queen’s surprise birthday party a secret be able to keep world-shattering truths hidden for so long?
Better yet, how can a grown man resemble a frightened puppy every single time he’s forced to confess his lies, half-truths, and omissions? That expression has the same poignancy as ever, but it is frustrating nonetheless. Not once have they attacked him for his lies and yet, he acts as if someone will jump out of a bush to ambush him.
But the question she needs answered most of all is: “You would have let me marry another man without saying a word? Without even attempting to fight for me?”
The look he gives her is priceless. Two parts shock, one part shame. “’Let you’? What are—but—Morgana.” He takes a breath, seemingly exasperated. “You seemed… happy with the arrangement, at first,” he says finally. “And what have I to offer you? What could I possibly give you that can compare with a kingdom? I will protect you till my dying breath, but I would never force my feelings on you, and I valued our friendship too much to scrape at old wounds.”
She could kill him. He may be the legendary Emrys, but she’s still better with a sword than he is.
“You idiot,” she seethes. “You, of all people, should know an act when you see one.”
“I…” he frowns. “I’m not sure I follow.”
Of course he doesn’t; for someone so intelligent, he can be remarkably obtuse. “Prince Joffrey is a pathetic excuse for a man, and not at all up to my standards. Did you honestly believe I could ever fall in love, let alone be happy, with a man who lies with whores and beheads his people for the crime of breathing too loudly?” At his horrified surprise, she sighs; she is exasperated. “All this time and you still know nothing of the games we royals play,” she mutters mostly to himself. “Joffrey is another Uther, only he doesn’t have prejudice to exorcise his demons; Arthur is too young a king and too happy in life to know or recognize the look of a vile man like Joffrey. Hence, why he needs advisors, and me.”
“Arthur would never have allowed—wait.” The disgust on his face has yet to fade. “Why would you agree to marry such a man?”
“Because,” she says with a toss of her hair, “he is besotted by me. I know a thing or two about sleeping draughts, and you’ve taught me well, so I need never lay with him. As if I would debase myself by letting such a disgusting creature touch me. Nevertheless, in a year or two, he’ll fall ill and I, the doting wife, will care for him until his unfortunate passing, at which time I will claim the throne as queen and bring peace to the people he so terrorized. And besides, I needed—what’s so funny?”
“I just,” he pauses in his snickering to grin at her, “I know how far you will go to right the wrongs of the world, but Morgana.” He runs a hand down his face. “This is Tauren all over again. Only worse.”
She crosses her arms, chin held high. “You should never underestimate me.”
“I would never make such a stupid mistake.” He inches closer. “But, I must admit, I’m relieved. You don’t have any feelings for the prince?”
She scoffs. “Did I not just reveal my master plan?”
He snorts. “Yes, and it’s a rather brilliant one. And I am going to do everything within my power to talk you out of it.” A pause. Then, “what about me?”
“You have your moments, but no, I don’t think you’re brilliant at all.”
“Yes you do. And you know what I meant.”
Her eyes narrow; he’s suddenly, strangely bold. She’s never seen Merlin like this before. It’s new, it’s different, and she’s not at all averse to it. In fact, it’s something she could get used to. But she’s still irritated with him for taking so long to figure out something she knew years ago, and she’s not ready to give up the fight just yet. “I don’t think you deserve to hear that answer,” she tells him haughtily.
But her answer is good enough for him.
He ducks down and kisses her once, softly, sweetly, tentatively. A jolt rushes down her spine, an electrifying force that has nothing to do with magic. He pulls away when she doesn’t respond, stunned and paralyzed for a breath of time, before her senses kick in and she pulls him back down for another.
And this one is different, much different than the first; the moan in the back of his throat is her only warning before she’s pushed against a tree, pinned between his bare chest and the rough bark of the tree trunk. His hands grab a fistful of her hair, rove hungrily over the plane of her back, and she returns the favor with eager enthusiasm. Fire spreads down to her curling toes. She presses against him as much as she can, committing him to memory with fingers, lips, and tongue in case this is a dream she will be cruelly awakened from. He seems to share her desperation, for when they part in brief, harried seconds to gulp in much needed air, he looks at her as if she will disappear, and that tenderness brings tears to her eyes.
So they keep kissing.
She doesn’t know how long they stay that way, mouths fused, wildly trying to devour each other whole in breathless wonder. But she knows that it takes several tries before the fog clears and she can hear the tail end of Arthur’s grousing.
“…and, really, I thought Merlin had bad taste.”
Merlin tears himself away from her and she unconsciously follows, not yet ready to relinquish him. He gives in for another moment, but then gently pushes her back, visibly fighting to control himself.
She pouts. “What? It’s just Arthur.”
He’s red-faced and lustfully embarrassed, and this, she decides, is her favorite of his expressions. Even his ears are burning.
“Gods have mercy, am I going to find you two like this all over the castle from now on?”
“No,” Merlin lies at the same time she says, “yes,” with glee.
Arthur scowls. “Stop being so happy,” he says. “It’s obscene.”
Gwen giggles, infinitely pleased. “Well, I think it’s about time. But now we really must head back.” At three incredulous stares, she sighs. “Cancelling a royal wedding is going to take time, especially when more than half of it has already been planned. The amount of flowers alone will take weeks to clear out.”
She winds her arms around Merlin, not the least bit bothered. “I don’t see why we should cancel the wedding,” she says, and quickly continues when she feels Merlin tense against her. “I have a plan, remember?” She looks up at him, meets his troubled eyes, and holds on a bit tighter; he’s finally hers and there’s nothing that will take him away from her now, not while she still draws breath. There’s not the slightest ghost of space between them and if she has her way, with time, there will never have to be. She will tear the world asunder before they pry him out of her cold, dead arms. But as much as she wants to ignore Joffrey and the turmoil in Mercia due to his cruelty and Bayard’s inability to curb his heir’s sadism, she cannot. Even if it means waiting a little longer to be with the man she loves. “And it is a good plan, a sound plan, and it will work, I promise you.”
Merlin hides his face in her hair, and the feel of him wrapped around her is one she will never tire of. “Morgana,” he pleas, and the heartache he pours into her name is meant for her ears alone. “Please don’t ask me to let you go when I’ve only just…” One hand runs up along her spine, curls around the nape of her neck, and slides into her dark waves. “Please, do not think I doubt you; I know your power, I know your mind, and if anyone could pull this off, it’s you. But I cannot let anything happen to you. I could not bear it.”
Neither of them notice the queen leading Arthur away to give them a little more privacy. Arthur, Gwen, the lake, the woods; all of it disappears. She melts at the sentiment, at the naked emotion behind his words. Her lips brush against the shell of his ear when she murmurs, “then come with me, my love. Once I’ve freed Mercia of its oppressors, you will be my king.”
He is a knot of fear and worry against her. “You mean to overthrow them all.”
“Bayard’s treaty with Arthur only stands if I marry Joffrey.” She plants a kiss on the muscle ticking in his jaw, basking the freedom to do so. “When Joffrey dies, so will the treaty, and he will suspect me. Bayard is shrewd and intelligent, but he has grown neglectful of his people in his old age. Their line cannot go unchecked.” Another kiss, moving down his jawline. His breath puffs hotly against her cheek. “But we can be together.” The power of speech is stolen from her for several long, frenzied minutes as he takes possession of her mouth. When they break for air, she’s bent backward slightly, eyes closed while his teeth wreak havoc against her throat. “I will give you a kingdom,” she vows, panting.
“I need no kingdom, crown, or country to be happy. Just you.”
When he steals the breath from her lungs once more, she’s still not sure if he’s for or against her plan, or if it’s simply that he’s as caught up in this incredible whirlwind of newfound closeness as she is. Morgana readily admits she’s had problems keeping her hands off of him before, but now that there are no boundaries between them, now that she can touch and hold and kiss him as much as she pleases—and that it’s encouraged on his end—she finds it impossible to stop.
So it’s not really a surprise that she ends up against a tree again. If not the tree, it would have been the dirt floor, and she’s almost certain Gwen and Arthur would have returned to them going at it uncontrollably at some point. She smiles into his lips at the thought; as hilarious as she imagines the outrage on Arthur’s face would be, she prefers a bed and some privacy as opposed to the final resting place of Merlin’s first love. Distantly, she wonders if this constitutes as defiling a grave—they still mostly have their clothes on—but then Merlin does something with his tongue and any hope of cohesiveness is lost as she delights in the lovely fact that he still tastes like apples.
“You are,” he growls into her mouth, “by far, the most brilliant, beautiful, insane—” she keeps him from talking for a little while because no, she’s not insane, thank you very much, “—ly stubborn, amazing woman I have ever known. And I love you so much, too much to deny you. I love your kindness, your clever mind, your smile,” something new blossoms in her chest, a bone-deep ache she’s never felt before; she’s never needed a man’s opinion to validate her worth and she doesn’t mean to start needing one now, but he is precious and his opinion is precious because of this. “And your ambition is marvelous, incredible,” he continues, and she’s torn between letting him speak and being annoyed that he wants to talk when they’re obviously in the middle of something here. “But you will be the death of me, I swear.”
Somehow, she summons the will to pull away enough to look at him, to really look at him. “So you will help me?” She doesn’t bother to hide how hopeful she is; at the resignation etched in his sharp cheekbones, she grins. “You will come with me?”
He groans and crushes her to him. “I can’t—don’t use your wiles against me. It’s not fair.” She hadn’t done anything of the sort, but he sounds so defeated that she withholds the urge to question him on it. “We can talk about this later, I promise,” he whispers. “But for now, let’s go home, my lovely, fearless little monster.”
The strange endearment—for it can only be heard as such when he says it with such reverence—is nothing compared to what she feels when his lips form around the word ‘home’. It’s amazing how much that concept has changed in such a short amount of time. She’s always thought of home as a place, a safe haven to run to in times of need. But home can be a feeling, a state of being, or even a person with deep blue eyes and a smile as bright as the sun. And maybe it took him far longer than she would have liked for him to come to his senses, but coming home is a sensation she would have waited eons for. Whether that home is Cornwall, Camelot, or a new one in a land she knows only as Mercia, it will be home only if he is there to make it a home with her.
Besides, he’ll make it up to her, one way or another. Hopefully, that will include sweaty, tangled sheets and a few more titles to add to his ridiculously long list; personally, she’s thinks ‘King Merlin’ has a nice ring to it.
She nuzzles into his collarbone. “Mm. Home sounds good.”
Part one (here)
So wake me up when it’s all over,
When I’m wiser and I’m older.
“Is that a new scarf?”
He pauses, holding the sleeve open for Arthur to slide his arm through. “Yes,” he confirms, suddenly fascinated with the material of the prince’s fine jacket.
“The fabric is… very nice.” Something strange creeps into Arthur’s voice; Merlin doesn’t dare meet his gaze, uneasy for reasons he cannot explain. “Your shirt looks rather new too. I wasn’t aware you could afford such high quality clothes, Merlin.” He tries very, very hard not to look guilty. “And here was I, thinking I didn’t pay you enough.”
“They’re gifts,” he sighs, “and no, you don’t pay me enough. Since when do you notice what I wear, anyhow?”
Arthur ignores that last bit. “Gifts from whom?”
Merlin finally meets his eyes, frowning. “That’s not important. I didn’t ask you who gave you your gifts on your birthday, did I?”
“Is it your birthday?”
“Then there’s a difference.”
“Merlin,” Arthur says in that patronizing tone he hates so much, “you’re a servant wearing purple silk—”
“The scarf is lavender, actually.”
“—and I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but servants don’t wear either purple or silk—”
“I didn’t take you for a connoisseur of cloth.”
“—since your scarf alone is more than what most servants make in a year. Do you see the problem?”
“Not really, no.” He understands what Arthur is trying to oh-so-subtlety tell him: purple is the color of royalty and is reserved for such, and the obvious quality of the gifts makes him, a lowly manservant, stick out like a sore thumb. Only two people in his acquaintance can afford such luxury—well, three if he counts Uther, which he doesn’t—and in this world of status and intrigue, calling attention to himself thusly is problematic for a multitude of reasons. But he’s not going to play into such petty games. “They’re clothes, Arthur, and they were given to me by a dear friend. Who that friend is and why they gave me these gifts is of no concern to anyone, not even you.”
“Oh, for—you sound like her.” Arthur looks disgusted. “Did she tell you to say that?”
He hasn’t even had the chance to thank her for her generosity, let alone collaborate; he’d worn the scarf, shirt, and jacket—odd that Arthur hasn’t noticed it yet—in the hopes that she will understand his gratitude and appreciation should she see him, or perhaps notice his attire and seek him out. But his duties have kept him too busy to slip away and she hasn’t tried to monopolize his time anymore.
He misses her smile.
Lost in his thoughts, he ignores Arthur’s pestering and lecturing about inappropriate behavior. A fortnight has passed since he’d awoken to the sun in her hair and her breath on his shoulder, lips lightly pressed against his flesh in slumber. It was surreal and bizarre, and oddly soothing to feel Morgana’s toes lazily kneading his calf, Gwen’s knee against his hip, and Arthur’s arm thrown across them all. His constitution was one that did not suffer much from the effects of alcohol—perhaps a spell of disorientation for a while, but not much else—and he’d taken a moment to understand where he was, with whom he laid, and how he’d gotten there, before deeming it all irrelevant and burying his face in Morgana’s amazing pillow. That set off a series of tired shuffling, sleep-talking, and groans of protest, eventually quieting down until he and Gwen jolted out of bed with the unspoken realization that they were both horrifyingly late for work.
Which, considering they’d been in bed with their masters, wasn’t entirely irreparable, but Merlin served more than one master and if Gaius knew where his ward had spent the night, there was no telling how high that eyebrow would climb. The old physician hasn’t been very happy with him lately, not since he admitted that the three people he’d tried his hardest to keep his secret from were the three people that found out at the same time. In one fell swoop, everything they’d worked for was destroyed, and Gaius is more worried, more paranoid, and more afraid for him than ever before.
He’s almost as bad as that bloody dragon, but at least Gaius shows his concern with good-natured fretting; Kilgharrah just keeps roaring his displeasure every time Merlin sees him.
“…uck out the stables if you’re quite done daydreaming. Merlin. Merlin. Merlin!”
He jerks and pulls too hard on a button, ripping it off in surprise.
Arthur scoffs in disgust. “You can add fixing this to your chores. Now go, get out of here before you destroy the rest of my clothes.”
Contrite, Merlin shuffles off with the jacket back to his room to grab some needle and thread. Gaius is brewing something for the visiting Lady Vilondra when he walks in and the whole room smells of rotten fruit—something he’s well acquainted with. His mentor wonders what he’s doing home so soon, and with the prince’s coat, and when Merlin explains, Gaius shakes his head.
“He has a right to be suspicious, you know,” his mentor says, stirring the bubbling green-yellow concoction, “and to caution you. For all intents and purposes, it looks as if Morgana is courting you.”
Merlin chuckles, hopping onto a table beside Gaius. “The Lady? Court me?” He tries to thread the needle, but his hands are inexplicably unsteady, shaking. “Gaius, in spite of our lustrous little abode, I’m no nobleman, in case you haven’t noticed. She’s my friend, and apparently my clothes offend her.” He tries not to blush, vividly remembering the smell of her, the softness of her pressing against him as she’d spoken the words into his skin. “I think she’s just a little excited about the whole…” he waves his hands around, trying to encompass him, her, and their shared taboo, “magic… thing, is all. But I’m pretty sure being a warlock still doesn’t make me worthy of the king’s ward. In Camelot, the only thing I’m worthy of is the chopping block. And mucking out stables, of course.”
Gaius levels him with a sideways glance, his face shuttered. “The world isn’t worthy of you, my boy,” he says with quiet, sad conviction, “and one day, they’ll see that.”
A strong pang of love for this man makes him unable to speak. He feels like crying again and swallows it back because, really, Arthur tells him all too often how ‘unmanly’ he is and he doesn’t need to give the royal prat anymore ammunition, even though he’s not here to witness it.
“But my worry is that the Lady in question does see it. Surely you’ve noticed how… enamored of you she seems lately.”
Merlin still can’t thread the needle. “She’s worried,” he explains. “She has been ever since…”
And it’s then, with his flustered fingers gripping the needle like a lifeline, that he realizes he hasn’t thought of Freya in weeks. Not once, not even in passing, has her face blinded him, has the bittersweet ache of her memory overwhelmed him and driven him to distraction. Since that night of wine and tangled bodies, his mind has been occupied with another smile, another voice, another face he holds dear; the glimmer of moondust in wide, green eyes, the warm breath against his cheek, the smooth line of her neck. The long, silken wave of her raven hair, the sweet tang of bergamot that reminds him of tiny Ealdor and the uncomplicated life of a farm boy he’d exchanged for this kingdom of lies and destiny.
He’s always thought of Morgana as beautiful, has always admired her spirit. When she moved, all eyes followed, when she laughed, all smiled with her. The first time he saw her, swathed in red and gold with her creamy shoulders bare for all to see, he’d gaped so long, so hard, that Gaius had swatted him until he relearned how to close his jaw. The rose red of her full lips, the dimple in her cheeks when she smiles, the slow roll of her hips as she strolls with Gwen at her side. The curve of her shoulders, the arch in the small of her back, the tease in her beautiful eyes. Her passion, her strength, her bleeding heart that could not bear to witness the injustice wrought by the mad king. And a seer, borne of old magic just like him. With time, discipline, and some help, she will become a powerful sorceress in her own right; he can feel her potential as surely as he can feel something strange rolling around in his stomach whenever she’s near. Something sharp and burning, something that makes his palms itch to touch her, if only for an instant.
She is a monster, like him, but different. A beautiful, kindhearted monster in a world that doesn’t appreciate her for all of her strength, courage, and power.
But he will not betray Freya. He doesn’t understand what’s happening, doesn’t know why his mind and heart are in such an uproar, but he feels that pursuing these answers will be to forsake his first—and only—love.
So he shakes away the idle, alarming thoughts, focusing on the needle. “She’s a friend,” he says sharply, masking his fear, “and that’s all she’ll ever be. A Lady like her would never, ever court a servant.” The thread finally slides through the tiny eye. “And besides,” he adds, trying for levity, “I thought the men did the courting, not the other way around.”
“Usually,” concedes Gaius, watching his nervous hands, “but Morgana has never been one to adhere to convention, and those of nobility conduct their affairs in a manner far different from what you’re used to. Gifts, especially such lavish ones as those she’s bestowed upon you thus far, could be misconstrued as tokens of affection. When a man—or woman—of high birth bequeaths such things, it is usually to convey interest to those they are courting, unless they are given to family. You must realize that Morgana was raised as a princess before she came to live in Camelot, and these teaching have been instilled in her since birth.”
“Rubbish,” Merlin denies, “she buys Gwen things too, and no one’s assuming anything about them.”
Gaius looks away pointedly. “You are much too innocent to understand the complexity of Gwen’s relationship with her mistress, but, suffice to say, she and Gwen are more than just friends.”
“I’m not stupid, Gaius,” he says, prompting Gaius to look at him in surprise. This is even more insulting. “I know they’re more than friends. They’re like sisters, honestly, the way they move around each other and talk without speaking. Any idiot can see that, but my point is that no one bats an eye when she gives Gwen flowers or buys her a dress, and yet I’m the one being lectured on propriety by the same git that spent an entire night inappropriately wrapped around Gwen!”
There’s a world of shock in the physician’s gaze and Merlin curses himself for letting that slip out.
Thankfully, Gaius says nothing for a bit, carefully spooning some of the nasty poultice into a bottle. “We’ll finish this discussion later. Hopefully when I’m better able to handle explaining the sensitive nature of love between two women, and knowing how you are aware of such a circumstance between the prince and Morgana’s maidservant. For now, I must see to the Lady Vilondra; I’m afraid she’s come down with a bout of influenza and I hope to have her better before the virus spreads.”
Merlin settles down to start mending Arthur’s jacket, praying that Gaius will forget this conversation ever happened.
As Gaius opens the door, he pauses. “By the way, there’s another package for you. I’ve left it on your bed.”
Surprise wars with curiosity and he darts for his room, Arthur’s jacket forgotten on the table.
The scarf had been his first gift, sent to him through Gwen one night after Gaius had retired. He’d tried to return it, adamantly refusing such generosity when he’d done nothing to deserve such favor from the Lady, but Gwen had insisted that he take it, for it would insult Morgana if he didn’t. So, in return, he’d gathered a large bouquet of flowers for her, preserved with a bit of enchantment and added sparkle; he is a servant and a warlock, there isn’t much he can offer one of her status. Then came the shirt and jacket, a matched set of purple and black that fit him quite nicely, if a little loose in some places. So he’d gathered even more flowers and spent two sleepless nights scouring through his book of spells for something to help with nightmares until he’d found a charm that promoted health and relaxation.
But he does not expect this.
A tiny bundle lies on his cot, wrapped in a blue handkerchief that, once straightened, reveals Morgana’s initials; it is obviously hers. Even more puzzling, a gilded key falls into his lap, tumbling out of the satin cloth on the end of woven velvet, along with a note in what he assumes is the Lady’s loopy script.
It reads simply: Tonight.
All this time, I was finding myself
And I didn’t know I was lost.
When he doesn’t show up, she’s hurt by the perceived rejection, but she understands why. She’s always been rash and headstrong, driven by emotions rather than reason; she knows what she wants and does not hesitate to claim it as hers. Whether it’s the result of her upbringing or a facet of her personality, she does not know, but it is who she is. However, Merlin requires a silk touch, and in spite of Gwen’s insistence that she’s moving too fast for him, Morgana’s certain she has gone about this as smoothly as any gentleman wooing a virginal maiden would—according to Arthur, he’s just as innocent, so she forgives the young warlock for his indecision. She decides to give him another day to think about it.
On the second night of his absence, she’s irritated. She’s given him time and space, and he doesn’t even have the decency to speak with her. She goes to Arthur for Merlin’s whereabouts and is thoroughly questioned on her intentions toward his manservant; she tells him to go hang himself on his own hypocrisy when he has the gall to lecture her about propriety and inappropriate behavior. As if she doesn’t know why Gwen no longer warms her bed.
By the third night, she has soared to new heights of indignation. She’s still hurt, yes, but anger is the strongest of her emotions and she allows it to carry her down the empty corridors on silent, slippered feet. Down the stairs and across the courtyard, she glides through the night with a single-minded purpose, a ghostly figure in her white nightdress and freckled furs. There’s a trickle of light coming from inside the physician’s quarters, filtering beneath the door, and she falters for only a moment, running a hand through her wild hair. She hadn’t put much effort into her appearance, too frustrated to care, and she takes this time to make sure she’s as presentable as she’s going to get.
If he wants to refuse her, he will have to do so to her face.
“Evening, Gaius,” she says as she breezes past him, hunched over a tome.
“My Lady, what—”
“Oh, I’m not here for me,” she supplies in a controlled voice. “I’m here for your idiot ward.”
“What’s he done now?”
“It’s what he hasn’t done.”
She ignores Gaius as he stands, alarmed and confused, and she barges into Merlin’s tiny chambers without further ado.
He sits on his cot in naught but a towel, fresh from a bath, she gathers. He clutches the key to her rooms in his hands, twirling it around his deft fingers in thought. At her entrance, he jerks up in surprise, wide blue eyes honing in on her squared shoulders, her uplifted chin, her narrowed eyes.
“Were you ever going to use that?” she motions toward the key.
“I, er,” he stammers, “I w-wasn’t sure what it was, er… for. Milady.”
“Don’t give me that,” she scoffs, “don’t you dare play stupid with me. That may work with Arthur because he’s an idiot, but it will not work with me. Now, you will tell me why you’ve been so spinelessly avoiding me before I lose my patience.”
Something shifts; the cowed expression hardens, changes, and she’s not looking at a nervous servant anymore. The air hums with his displeasure, rising to match her own. It’s not anger, not yet, but there’s something unpleasant in his eyes, something that pinches the line of his brow and the curve of his mouth. She’s never seen him look like this before, and while it’s rather attractive, there’s an uneasy churning in her stomach. She should have tried the gentler, understanding approach, comes the idle thought, and perhaps Gwen was right: she’s pushed him too far too fast. But there’s nothing to be done for it now and she will not be intimidated by a warlock too cowardly to accept a lady’s preposition.
“You avoided me for much longer, milady,” he counters, “and yes, I knew what the key was for. But did you ever stop to consider that I’m not ready for something like what you’re proposing?”
‘Not ready’ isn’t the same as ‘not interested’. She picks up on that immediately and breathes a little easier. “Then why not tell me so instead of hiding like a child?”
“I’m not a child,” he says with an edge in his voice. It strikes a chord in her; she’s lost count of how many times she’s uttered those very words. “And I was not hiding from you. Had you given me some time, I would have come to speak with you.”
“I’ve given you three days.”
“I don’t have the luxury of free time.” He looks away, his expression dark. “And what you… this isn’t a decision to make lightly.” When he glances back at her, there is sadness as his grip tightens around the key. But more prominent is the regret that weighs down his shoulders, averts his eyes. “You’re asking for something I cannot give.” And beneath his hooded gaze, beneath his white knuckles and the small tremor that wracks his wiry frame, she can feel something else. She doesn’t know how, doesn’t know why, but the sensation seeps into her skin, caressing her for an instant before it’s gone.
His loyalty has always been his most visible, most notable trait; how he follows a man that treats him like dirt most of the time with such blind fidelity is astounding. More astonishing is that he is a warlock serving and protecting the son of the man that condemns his kind. Even now, he is a paradox, but his loyalty has never, ever been in question. And, in truth, it is one of the things she greatly admires; a man so faithful, so devoted in this world of mercenaries and cutthroats looking out for themselves.
And yet, she still thought herself capable of stealing his heart from a dead woman’s cold, wet hands.
One hand securing the towel around his waist, he stands, holding the key out for her to take. “I’m sorry,” and the crack in his voice tells her that he truly is, “but I cannot accept this, milady.”
The fight drains out of her. He looks so heartbroken, so remorseful that she cannot stay angry at him. His watery blue eyes look at her with such sorrow that she can only smile, hoping to alleviate the overwhelming guilt she sees; he cannot help how he feels, just as she cannot change who she is and the emotion he inspires within her. But there is something on her face that makes him crumble, and it’s not until he looks away that she realizes she’s crying.
Gently, she pushes the key back to him and steps closer. “Keep it,” she whispers, and tries her damnedest to stop her tears. “’Twas a gift.”
“Morgana,” she corrects. “Please, after everything, please call me Morgana. We are still friends, aren’t we? Can you… can you give me that, at least?” She hates the way her voice breaks.
“Always,” he whispers fiercely, a vow she knows he will keep. “I will always, always be your friend. If you ever need me, I will always be there for you.”
It makes her heart pound shamelessly in her chest, makes her feel giddy and wonderful even as another part of her wants to scream and wail in spite; Freya is cold and dead and she is the Lady Morgana Pendragon of Camelot, former Princess of Cornwall and the most beautiful woman in either kingdom. She is warm and alive, and all she wants is this thin, floppy-eared servant to love her, to share her bed and smile at her and whisper sweet words into her belly like she’s seen in her dreams. She wants him to show her how to move the heavens with a glance, how to bend the world to her whims, and how it feels to sleep beneath a canopy of falling stars.
She’s had visions of him before, when he first came to Camelot; wandering aimlessly through monuments of metal and glass, distant and alone, he is older, wiser, and infinitely more broken. She’s seen Guinevere as queen, gazing at the horizon, her dark eyes red with grief. She’s seen Arthur die, his faithful manservant sobbing by his side. Her own future was once a scattered mirror, nightmares that reflected the chaos in her heart on jagged shards. And it did not matter, then, how much she tried to see something different, how much she tried to change the scenes that played behind her eyes. Before, the themes were always the same: Gwen as queen, quiet and forlorn on her throne, Arthur dead, she as a dark enchantress, filthy and spitting hate and venom in equal measures, and Merlin alone. Always, always alone.
But now, sometimes, Arthur does not die. Sometimes, Gwen is not queen; sometimes, she is with Lancelot, sometimes with Arthur, sometimes with both. Sometimes, Morgana is not filthy and angry; sometimes, she stands beside Merlin with their fingers intertwined, young and beautiful and happy. And sometimes, Merlin is not alone; and when he is not alone he is with her, and they make love in fields of enchanted flowers like mad, romantic fools.
The only difference between then and now is that she sees Merlin, really sees him, and he is the answer to a question she never knew to ask.
She leans up and kisses him softly, the lightest touch of her lips to his cheek, and glides from the room, wiping the tears from her eyes as she passes a silent, contemplative Gaius. She nods at him, unable to speak, before she cuts through the courtyard, a lonely ghost wandering through the night.
Gwen is there when she returns to her rooms because Gwen is always there. When she sees her best friend, her first love and lover, she shatters, her strength crumbling into fine dust. Gwen rushes over to embrace her, soothing her with words and soft hands in her hair, down her back, down her arms. She weeps into her maid’s shoulder without restraint, her composure lost, her dignity in shreds, and she clings to the coarse fabric of Gwen’s dress like she used to cling to her mother so long ago.
“He said… he said he w… wasn’t ready,” she manages between sobs, “he… he said he cannot give me wh-what I’m asking for.”
“’Not ready’ doesn’t mean ‘not interested’,” soothes Gwen, and Morgana laughs wetly because she’d thought the same thing. “You need to give him time. Merlin is unlike any man I’ve ever met, but he is still a man and I’ve seen how he looks at you.” Gwen pulls back. Morgana sniffles as Gwen tries to tame her hair; it feels nice. “You never did tell me why you were so dead set on him. I mean, he’s lovely and wonderful, yes, but…” Gwen holds her shoulders loosely, dark eyes boring into her green. “I’ve never seen you like this before. Not once, not with all the times you’ve been infatuated. Even with me, you were never this… determined. Is this because you and him are… because you have magic?”
She sighs, hiccupping a little, and crosses over to her bed, terribly drained. “I will not lie: when we saw Merlin’s power I… I loved it, Gwen. I could feel him bending the earth to his will and it was the most incredible thing I’ve ever felt or witnessed.” She toes off her slippers. Gwen quietly crawls under the covers with her and they lay beside each other like they used to, bowed and close. “But…”
Gwen grabs her hand when she trails off, the touch familiar with old intimacy. “But?”
“But his grief was so… so pure, and his love for the druid girl, it… gods, Gwen, he is so beautiful, I cannot stand it, I cannot help it, I…”
Gwen smiles. “Well, you’ve always liked pretty things.”
She smiles too. “I was a princess, once. Princesses are raised to admire beauty and strength, you know. Not that I’m big on tradition, but we all make exceptions to our own rules once in a while, right?” Her smile takes on a mischievous slant. “Even those of us who swore never to give ourselves to men who did not deserve us.”
Gwen blushes prettily. “Arthur is a good man.”
She scoffs. “No man deserves you, let alone Arthur.”
“You judge him too harshly.”
“And you judge too kindly.”
“What about Merlin?”
Her heart gives another brief, sharp pang. Her glare softens. “Merlin is the exception.” He is always the exception. “I did not know him very well when you were smitten with him, but even then, I knew he was different. I knew he would treat you like a queen.” Like the queen she will be, Morgana muses, yawning as sleep tugs on her heavy eyes. “You must think so ill of me for flirting with him when I knew you had feelings… Uther would have him flogged and burned if he knew I’d given Merlin my key. And yet, he wouldn’t bat an eye if he knew of you and Arthur; he’d even suggest Arthur keep you as his mistress.”
“I could never be a mistress.”
“Of course not, dear Gwen. My brother is an entitled, arrogant,” she yawns, “man, but he has a good heart. You will be married and you will have a kingdom that will fall to their knees before you. Bards will sing songs of your beauty and kings from every corner of the earth will come to fawn over you. I’m already jealous.”
Gwen laughs. “Go to sleep, my lady. You’re speaking nonsense.”
“I’m right, you know… and one day, I’ll get to say, ‘I told you so’.”
That night, she dreams of dragonfire and brimstone, of blood and tears and Merlin always, always alone. She wakes screaming, arms outstretched for a man too broken to cry, and in the glow of early morning, she finds a stunning bouquet of white roses by her window, a note tied to the stems with blue ribbon.
It reads simply: I’m sorry.
Feeling my way through the darkness
“I told you so.”
Gwen rolls her eyes. “Yes, yes, I know. But will you now admit that you’ve judged him too harshly?”
“Of course not. My brother was smart enough to realize that you are the best thing that’s ever happened to him, and that he is blessed to have you in his life. Now, he’s an entitled, arrogant man with a single redeeming quality.”
Gwen giggles, her dark eyes shining. “And what would that be?”
Morgana takes a moment to admire the lovely bride before her, holding back her tears. “You, my love.”
Guided by a beating heart.
The mountains in the distance glitter charmingly as the midday sun sets the treetops ablaze in gold, casting its warm rays of light upon the calm lake. The scent of earth drifts toward him on a gentle breeze, urging the flowers to sway, their redolence soft and sweet. It’s an idyllic spot for a picnic, and though his life seems to veer drastically off course every time he comes here, he cannot deny that there is a calming peace to this place. It is beautiful here, always has been, but it’s taken him a while to truly appreciate it.
Years have passed since his powers were revealed and now, he finds himself rather happy he’d told them about the lake.
Morgana’s restlessness gave him the idea, but it was Merlin’s suggestion that brought them here. Their palpable concern is touching even now; he catches them watching him on the trot over, and he grins every time he sees their worry, trying to reassure them that he is fine, that he wants this. He’s visited Freya many times since that outing, and it feels like both yesterday and eons ago that he mourned her and their all-too-brief affair. But today is not for either of those. Today, he wants to enjoy the sunshine with those he loves, free of chores and duties and destiny. Still, their caution makes him nervous, and Morgana is the worst of all, for her eyes haven’t left him since they left the citadel; her concern is mired with fear and a lingering sorrow that pierces him with guilt.
He tugs on the thin rope of woven velvet around his neck, the key safely hidden under his robes, as always. His scarf hides any evidence of its presence, but it burns when she’s near, as if reminding him of words he’s supposed to say and doesn’t. Perhaps he’s waited too long, but he’s worn it since the night she’d urged him to keep it and he cannot bring himself to discard it.
While the lake has not changed, not a single leaf or stone different than what he remembers, the years have changed them all. The last time they came together like this, Arthur was a prince, Merlin his manservant. Morgana was still the Lady of Camelot and Gwen, her maidservant—and lover, though it had taken him a while to figure that one out. Arthur and Gwen loved in secret, magic was taboo, and Uther’s tyranny still held strong, Camelot held tightly in his iron fist.
But now, the future he’d worked so hard to bring forth has come into fruition, brighter and more wonderful than he could have ever imagined.
Arthur is king and Queen Guinevere rules by his side, and the people adore them. Magic has returned to Albion and Camelot is flooded with all manner of the mystical and fae, many of them venturing from far and wide to consult with the king’s advisor, the High Warlock, the last Dragonlord, and soon-to-be court physician, Merlin—or Emrys, or Myrrdin, or whatever it is that people like to call him these days. His mother stays at the castle and, to his endless delight, is known as Lady Hunith. And, best of all, the dragons have begun to flourish again; they’d found an old cache of eggs hidden deep in the tombs, long thought dead were it not for Aithusa’s keen senses.
Camelot is everything Merlin hoped it would be and more, and lately, it’s soared to new heights of excitement due to the announcement of Morgana’s engagement. The people do so love a royal wedding; the ale and wine will flow like a raging river, there will be dancing and singing and bonfires in the streets, and nobility and peasant folk alike will feast until their bellies burst.
But in spite of her impending nuptials, the Lady—soon to be queen—has been subdued as of late. Merlin silently admits that he cannot summon up the strength to support her as he should, as any friend should, and he feels like the lowest of the low for wallowing in his selfish melancholy when he should have been comforting her. The eldest of Bayard’s sons is a fine man—although, Merlin is honest enough to admit that no man will ever be worthy of Morgana—and Morgana herself agreed to the union after a lengthy courtship. A courtship in which Merlin tried his damnedest to be a good friend while giving her the time and space she needed to become acquainted with her suitor. He stopped bringing her flowers every morning, as had become custom between them, and stopped lurking around her chambers every night after bringing her the usual sleeping draught. The closeness that had taken months to rebuild after he’d denied her has become this muted, tense, awkward dance of too much space, filled with all of the words he cannot say.
He’d promised her that he will always, always be there for her and he will not break it, no matter how much it kills him to see her engaged to another. He will swallow these feelings and be what she needs him to be, because the time is soon approaching when she will no longer live in Camelot; he will not see her training with the knights in all of her fiery splendor, he will not watch her unfiltered glee when she masters a new spell, he will not smell the scent of home in her hair or hear her rich laughter on a crisp, spring breeze.
He has no right to feel such sadness, for he has only himself to blame.
He scratches at the stubble growing on his face. He’s in need of a shave—and a trim, he thinks with annoyance, driving a hand through the hair that tickles his nose—but he’s been too preoccupied, too depressed to worry about his personal grooming. He remembers Morgana once mentioning something about the distastefulness of facial hair. Something about scratchiness, he thinks. He gives a wry smile, looking out over the lake while his friends munch on the small feast laid out on the blanket.
He will be lonely when Morgana leaves, but he can only imagine how lonely she will feel so far away from home. Perhaps he can think of excuses to visit her, something about her being his apprentice—complete rubbish, she doesn’t need his tutelage anymore, not really, though they still study together—or simply find ways to sneak off to Mercia for a few days. He hasn’t had a reason to teleport for a while now.
An apple knocks against his head. “Ow!” He glares at Arthur, rudely broken from his ruminations. “Plonker. The hell was that for?”
“You’re making that face again,” says Gwen before the king can open his mouth to retort. “Is everything all right?”
He smiles because it’s Gwen. “I’m fine, your grace.”
Gwen wrinkles her nose at him. “Please don’t use that term here.”
“Fine, your highness.”
She rolls her eyes, fighting a smile of her own. “You’re incorrigible.”
“Why don’t you ever call me that?” wonders Arthur, biting into a sandwich. Mouth full, he continues, “It’s a battle just to get you to stop insulting me in public.”
“Because you’re a prat that needs his ego kept in check,” Morgana supplies helpfully, and the look on Arthur’s face has Merlin roaring with laughter.
Arthur whacks him upside his head. “You shouldn’t laugh at your king.”
Merlin shoves him. “Don’t speak with your mouth full.”
Arthur shoves him back, rolling his eyes. “You’re such a girl.”
A flash of gold and Arthur splashes ingloriously in the lake, sputtering curses and waving his arms indignantly.
Gwen tries to stifle her giggles; Morgana has no such qualms and she guffaws at her brother’s soppy state. Their humor only serves to make Arthur more vengeful and he grabs the warlock by his scarf. Merlin twists out of his grip but Arthur has brute strength over Merlin’s magic and agility, so they wrestle in the dirt until Arthur manages to pin him in a headlock, which is nothing new. Merlin, however, still has a few tricks up his sleeve; he kicks out Arthur’s legs and, with a thought, flings him back into the water for a second time.
Morgana applauds his performance and he graces her with a sweeping bow, warmed by the genuine smile on her face. But his grin irons out when several seconds pass and Arthur hasn’t resurfaced. A few more and he’s panicking, terrified he’d used too much power.
He pulls his robes over his head—they’ll only slow him down, stupid things—shucks off his boots, and dives into the lake, Gwen and Morgana suitably alarmed on the shoreline.
Looking back, he should have expected Arthur to trick him. When he realizes the only danger the king faces is from his own boyish antics, they tussle in the water; Merlin is thankful that his friend is safe, and that he’d thought to wear a pair of old, worn trousers under his day robes. His new wardrobe is made of exquisite materials that retain moisture a little too well, and these battered trousers will, at least, dry faster when all is said and done. His scarf is another story, for it is his favorite: the silken lavender a dear lady once gifted him so long ago. But he feels a little vindicated that the king’s attire is thoroughly ruined whereas his clothes are safe on the shore, and works out his shaking relief by tackling Arthur underwater again.
“Race you to the other side,” Merlin challenges, sweeping his hair out of his face.
They swim two laps before Merlin is declared the winner; he’s not much on land, but he can cut through water like a fish. They trudge back to their picnic spot, dripping and breathless from the exercise, chuckling amongst themselves like brothers. The women are not impressed by their playing and Gwen scolds Arthur for scaring them like that, eventually complementing Merlin on his excellent swimming. He jokes that his ears double as fins, which earns him a good burst of mirth. There’s a nagging silence where Morgana should have added a heavy dose of her own humor to the situation and when he looks at her, he finds her frozen, staring at his bare abdomen. He follows her eyes and he stills too.
As much as he’s done destiny’s bidding over the years, he cannot help but wonder why it is that fate likes to play such cruel jokes on him. He meets her wide-eyed gaze for a second that beats in eternity, quaking through him with the elegance of a raging inferno, and he looks away, ashamed, afraid, and beneath it all, hopeful. He’d kill to know what she’s thinking.
Gwen looks at Morgana, glances at the key, and catches his eyes. There’s a question there, and a startled kind of hope he doesn’t know how to interpret. He reaches for an apple and makes it the center of his universe until everyone stops looking at him as if they know.
The pregnant silence makes Arthur frown. “What? What did I miss this time?” Arthur glances at him, and then notices the piece of jewelry under such scrutiny. “That’s new. Kind of gaudy, but you always did have awful taste.” Three glares have the king backtracking. “I-I mean, when did you get such a… a lovely… thing…?”
Merlin chews his mouthful of apple, carefully choosing his words. “It was a gift.”
A blond eyebrow rises. “Oh? From whom, might I ask?”
Someone very special. “None of your business.”
“You’re my advisor; everything you do is my business.”
Merlin rolls his eyes. “Only when you’re being nosey.”
“Yes, and now would be one of those times. Stop pretending to be mysterious; was it a woman?”
“Arthur,” warns Gwen.
“What? I, for one, think it’s a good thing. It’s about time you went and found yourself a woman to settle down with, Merlin. Granted, I don’t know how a key makes any difference, but she must mean something to you if you’re wearing the damned thing.”
He’s keenly aware of Morgana’s stare boring a hole into his skull. His apple is almost gone. “She does.”
“Let’s go,” blurts Gwen. “I mean, I think it’s best we start heading back,” she swiftly amends. “Arthur, why don’t you and I go get the horses ready? I’m sure Morgana and Merlin can take care of the rest.”
Arthur looks at his wife as if she’s lost her mind. “Er, okay?”
“Come on, dear.” The queen gives him a meaningful look as she shepherds her husband through the trees.
Though his heart leaps up into his throat, he smiles. It is said that power corrupts, which can be true for some. But not Guinevere. Beautiful, kindhearted Gwen will never change, and he can only be glad for it. Her children will be lucky to have such a mother; he wonders if she’s aware of her pregnancy, as early as it is. She’s still as modest as ever, so perhaps she does and simply wishes to keep it a secret for now. After all, with a royal wedding around the corner, the news of Camelot’s beloved sovereigns expecting a child will shut down all business for a month.
“What does this mean?” Morgana’s soft, disbelieving voice cuts through his musing. “Merlin, what does this mean?”
He shuffles to his feet, heart racing. With a wave of his hand, the blanket folds in on itself. Morgana stands too.
“Merlin,” she prods when he will not answer.
“I-It doesn’t have to mean anything.”
“Five years,” and she’s close enough that he can count her long, dark lashes. Her eyes are so beautifully, impossibly green. “I gave you that five years ago and you’re wearing my key like some, some bloody medallion, like a trophy and you have the nerve to tell it doesn’t mean anything?” Her voice is rising. At first, he thinks it’s anger that makes her so shrill. “I can’t believe you! I’d convinced myself that ‘not ready’ didn’t mean ‘not interested’ but you, you stupid bloody man, you kept being my friend, you kept being… you… and you never, not once, even hinted that you—five years!” She shoves him hard, and the tears collecting on her lovely lashes churns his stomach.
It’s not anger, he realizes. Not even close.
“Morgana,” he tries, but she’s not having it.
“How long,” she growls through clenched teeth, “have you been wearing it?”
He watches a tear streak down her pale cheek. She wears the anger like armor, but he knows better. “Please,” he begs quietly, “I didn’t mean to hurt you, I never wanted to cause you pain. Please, let’s just forget this and…” he chokes, swallows back his own tears, “and go back. Nothing has to change. We can go back to how it was.”
Her shout echoes through the clearing. “How long?”
“Five years,” he admits, crossing his arms over his belly. Unconsciously, he hunches his shoulders, bracing himself. “Since… since you told me to keep it.”
She screeches something unintelligible. He winces at the sound.
“It doesn’t have to mean anything,” he insists, desperate to calm her down. He could never stomach a woman crying, his inherent empathy wanting to take her pain as his own, and that it is Morgana in the throes of hysteria just twists the knife. “Your fiancé is a good man and I would never, ever stand between you and your happiness.”
It’s not really a lie; he wants to, oh how he wants to stop this engagement that has kept him up for countless nights, wishing he’d said something sooner, wishing he hadn’t let her slip through his fingers when she wanted him. But her feelings have faded, the light in her eyes for him has dimmed over the years, and she deserves all the good, all the happiness in the world. And he would rather fall on his sword—or staff, rather—than force his feelings on her now, not when she will be queen and will have a kingdom, a family of her own.
“Typical man,” she spits, “thinking you know what I want, that you know better than I what will make me happy.” Her mouth twists. “I decide my own happiness! I decide what I want! Don’t you dare presume to make such assumptions on my behalf, and if you have any gods-be-damned respect for me, you will tell me the truth, Emrys!”
He hates when she uses that name, and she knows that. One last glimmer of self-preservation pushes him to say, “I don’t think this is really the time for that.”
“Damn what you think!” she explodes. “We’ve played by your rules and look where that’s gotten us. No, we will do this my way, and you will tell me the truth or I will never speak to you again.”
He grits his teeth to quell the reflexive urge to snap back, to blurt out the last of his secrets. She means too much to him, and to lose her now would be his undoing. But to tell her that the moon rises and falls in her eyes, that the lulling melody of her voice drives away the endless, raspy whispers of a harsh world, that her smile eliminates the shadows of his soul, would drive a wedge in their friendship. He’s damned either way.
Their friendship, strained by the gilded key and his devotion to a love that ended before it had ever truly begun, had flourished over time. Eventually, they’d reached a plateau where her whimsical flirtations were commonplace again, where they could walk together in the marketplace and feel at ease. They spoke often and laughed even more, and she’d accompany him on many of his chores; picking herbs was her favorite, and Gaius scolded him something awful every time he returned hours later than he’d meant to. Once Arthur took the throne and Merlin became a freeman, his duties changed, and it was she that did the lurking, hovering over his shoulder as his quill scratched over fresh parchment, occasionally giving him little suggestions on legislations and articles that, as a lifelong member of nobility, she was intimately acquainted with.
When his mother came to live with him, she, Gwen, and Morgana became fast friends. She loved and treated Arthur like a second son, and the four of them, Hunith, and Gaius made a point of dining together every evening. She loved to regale them with tales of his and Will’s misadventures, how his powers would flare and explode in strange and disastrous ways, and he would playfully blame her for the unfortunate size of his ears, as she’s spent half of his life pulling them for one reason or another.
His life is perfect the way it is. His friends and family are happy, hale and whole, Albion is safe for all peoples, and his destiny is, more or less, fulfilled. But he is selfish and there is a treacherous part of him that hungers for more, longs for something he cannot have. He tries to ignore the slippery serpent of desire, tries to move past the undiluted want that twists his heart in its merciless grip, and it does not help that she is so unapologetically her that it is impossible to entertain the notion of disinterest. No other woman catches his eye like she does, no other woman engages his mind, matches his acerbic wit, challenges his beliefs, his morals, his opinions, like she does. While he is a freak of nature that cannot be measured by mortal means due to the sheer freakishness of him, her power is all fire and deadly grace, and every time he feels it, he is enchanted, entranced, ensnared anew.
Unbidden, the memory of her in his room, proud and fierce in her nightdress and furs, superimposes upon the Morgana before him now; her hair is longer, her gown is more refined and styled to match the current fashion, and there is an air of worldliness to her now, but she is the same woman. Reckless, headstrong, passionate, and brave. And in the years to come, she will still be the same woman, grown lovelier, wiser, and more opinionated with age.
If he does not speak now, he will never see that.
His pulse thuds, palpitates, and beats erratically. He has a chance here, and he is terrified of taking it. More than dragons and serpents and sorcerers salivating for his requiem, the thought of losing her is petrifying and a bead of panic nestles into his chest, stealing his breath. He could lose her, lose this wonderful friendship he has with her, forever; a friendship that sustains him, a friendship that is as integral to his survival as his friendship with Arthur and Gwen. Cut one off and he would live as an amputee, always missing that lost limb, always trying to reach with an arm that’s been severed.
Or he could take this chance and have something even more wonderful, something that exceeds his wildest dreams. And, he realizes, he owes her this, because hadn’t the Lady of Camelot once risked her pride, her heart, for a serving boy? She’d lived through this fear, lived through this pain, and through the soul-wrenching anguish of rejection with a smile on her face.
His admiration for her knows no bounds.
He takes a deep breath, holds it, and lets his last, most precious secret melt away.
*due to LJ's size constraints, the last part can be found (here).
The mountains in the distance glitter charmingly as the midday sun sets the treetops ablaze in gold, casting its warm rays of light upon the calm lake. The scent of earth drifts toward him on a gentle breeze, urging the flowers to sway, their redolence soft and sweet. It’s an idyllic spot for a picnic, which is why Merlin had suggested it when the Lady Morgana loudly complained of restlessness. Admittedly, Morgana’s desire for fresh air and new scenery was not what prompted him to talk of the lake, but he’s been flailing these past few weeks; as much as Gaius tries to understand, it’s all Merlin can do not to scream and wail and pour all of his secrets out to anyone who would listen, who would believe, because he’s wound too tight and doesn’t know how to pretend everything’s just the way it was.
He should have never told them about the lake. He should have never agreed to accompany them here.
He should have never left Ealdor. For all of his adventures and lies and friends, Camelot hurts too much these days. But Ealdor hurts too. Monsters, he realizes, can’t afford the luxury of a home, a haven, a safe place to run to when they need food, shelter, and comfort. A moment’s rest could mean a lifetime in a cage, sold to a mad king and thrown on the chopping block or burned at the stake for a few coins for the crime of having been born different. He knows he’s been lucky; his mother, Gaius and the dragon are the only ones that know of the power lurking in his veins, this unseen foe of magic he never asked for. His position as Arthur’s manservant gives him a lot of leeway, grants him privileges most servants and peasants couldn’t dream of, and he should be grateful for that kind of protection. He’s a prisoner under the rule of a tyrant, caged in his own skin, but he’s luckier than most.
It’s no wonder she didn’t trust him, in the beginning. She was the manifestation of his worst nightmare, living a life he’s been carefully trying to avoid, had tried to save her from.
But he’s failed her. Utterly, completely, painfully failed her.
He jerks at the sound of his name. “Yes, milady?” He doesn’t look at her, doesn’t trust what his face reveals.
“He speaks!” Arthur exclaims, trying for levity and manages only to make him feel worse. “I was beginning to think you’d gone mute. Not that it wouldn’t improve the atmosphere, but if you want to go for a swim, you might as well jump in already.”
“Hush,” Morgana admonishes. “Merlin,” she calls, “why don’t you come join us?”
He doesn’t want to. He’s quite comfortable here, his arms wrapped around his legs a short distance away from the blanket he’d lain down shortly after their arrival. The smell of sweetmeats and sweetbreads is tempting, but his stomach cannot handle the thought of food right now. It’s not until he thinks of moving—just to shut them up—that he realizes he’s been rocking back and forth; it’s something he hasn’t done since he was a child, alone and afraid of the power he couldn’t control. He forces himself to stop, to uncurl himself and join his friends for what should have been a lovely little picnic and a nice reprieve from his chores, but his fists will not unclench themselves, his muscles will not relax, and he finds himself unable to tear his gaze away from the golden surface of the lake.
He hears movement, shuffling. A swish of skirts and the soothing warmth of Gwen is at his side, sitting by him in the dirt without a care. She’s close enough that he can feel the heat of her thigh through her dress, the softness of her arm through his shirt. She ducks her head around to look at his face, her dark curls sneaking into the corners of his vision, and he tries to smile for her sake. Her deep frown tells him he’s failed.
Wouldn’t be the first time.
“Are you all right?” she murmurs, her breath fluttering against his sleeve.
He nods, unable to speak.
“You’re lying,” she says, confident. His eyes burn at her concern; he wants her to go back to her picnic, wants her to ignore him and let him remember what it was like to feel whole. “Merlin,” she tries again, her hand on his arm, “what’s wrong?” At his silence, she squeezes. “I’ve never seen you like this before. You can tell me anything, promise.”
He blinks rapidly, trying to control himself. He’s held his secrets for this long and he needs to pull himself together before he loses everything he’s been fighting for. “Do you know,” he asks, his voice low and hoarse, “what it’s like to be a monster?” He’s flailing again, tense and desperate and looking for an escape. “Do you know what it’s like to be afraid of who you are?” His heart is pounding, begging her to understand. He’s fit to burst and he curls tighter in response; hold it in, get a grip, hold it in. He pulls his arms tight against his stomach, his knees brushing against his chin, and he cannot stop the rocking no matter how hard he tries.
He should have never told them about the lake. He should have never agreed to accompany them here.
“Merlin?” Gwen sounds alarmed.
His eyes finally listen and look away because she’s dead, she’s not coming back, and it doesn’t matter how much he wills it to be different. His magic cannot help him here. What use is all this power if he cannot bring back the people he loves? What good is destiny when it hurts so much? A drop of rain slides down his cheek but when he opens his eyes, it’s not raining. There’s not a single cloud in the sky, just gold and trees and mountains and Gwen.
Gwen. His first friend in Camelot, who knows the pain of a broken heart. Gwen, who had tended to her Lady the day after her father’s death, too sweet, too caring to let her own grief overwhelm her. His kindhearted Gwen, who would turn away from him if she knew who he was, what he was.
But in this, he thinks, maybe she’ll understand. Because this is killing him and maybe, just maybe, she can tell him how to live with this gaping chasm of loneliness.
His muscles loosen long enough for him to wrap his arms around her. She doesn’t move at first, startled, but when he sobs into her hair, crushing her to him in an effort to keep himself from falling apart, she embraces him with a strength that belies her gentleness, and they sway to the beat of his erratic pulse.
Another swirl of skirts and Morgana kneels by them in the dirt, hovering over them. She rubs his back like his mother used to and he’s grateful for the comfort, but every time he opens his mouth to thank her, his throat closes again. Heavy footsteps signal Arthur’s approach, surrounding him with people he loves but cannot trust with his secrets. His friends, whom he would die for, and would die for if they knew. Morgana presses closer as if she can sense his turmoil, the hypocrisy of needing them close and needing his distance. His chest heaves with the desire to speak and he’s a little boy again, asking his mother what he’d done wrong, why is he so different. And then the man wants to know why she couldn’t stay with him, it wasn’t her fault; they wouldn’t have bothered anyone, they would have run away somewhere far and beautiful and he would have kept her safe.
He’s so tired of fighting to protect the world from its own cruelty.
He doesn’t know he’s spoken aloud until Morgana’s lips brush his ear, her voice soft and low when she says, “the world is cruel, but you are one of the rare, beautiful gems that make it worth fighting for.” Her hand delves into his hair alongside Gwen’s. “Whoever she was, she was lucky to have you.”
Reality crashes down around him, choking him with fear. He pulls back, curls into himself, and starts apologizing—and doesn’t stop.
Arthur grips his shoulder, surprisingly gentle. “Merlin.”
He covers his face.
He’s surrounded again, enveloped in heat and cloth and hair. Three heartbeats pound against his ears and he doesn’t know what arm or hand belongs to whom, squeezing and holding him and pulling him tight against them. The sound of sniffling is close, too close, and he’s dimly aware that someone is crying with him. For him. And they stay that way, kneeling in the dirt while the sun slowly dies and the food lies forgotten a few feet away.
He’s calmed down enough to be embarrassed, apprehensive by the time Arthur packs up their picnic and readies their horses. Gwen and Morgana stay close, cocooning him before they’re ready to leave. He wants to apologize again; he’s ruined their peaceful outing and he feels horrible for it, his chin tucked against his chest in shame.
Instead, all that comes out is, “Freya.”
Morgana strokes his back again. “What was that?”
“Her name was Freya.” He looks up at her, green eyes meeting his blue, and the red in them reveals that she’d been crying too. “She was a druid girl and she…” he swallows back another sob. “She died in my arms. I laid her to rest here, on the lake, and I’m sorry for ruining your picnic, milady.”
Gwen hugs him. Morgana hugs them both and whispers fiercely, “don’t you dare apologize anymore.”
“We can visit again, if you’d like,” Gwen suggests, tangling their fingers together.
Morgana leans close again, a wave of raven hair falling over his shoulder. “If you want company, never hesitate to ask.”
They’re treating him like some small, fragile thing—a cracked pane of glass that will shatter if poked too hard. He’s too shy to handle the attention well, but he feels too unsteady to speak, to assure them that he’s fine, no need to worry, sorry for wailing like an infant, can they pretend it never happened? He tries to shield himself from their gaze as he walks to his horse and allows them to lead the way; he needs a moment to collect himself, to reattach the pieces of his broken armor that make him Merlin again. One last glance over the lake and he’ll trot back to Camelot as if nothing’s changed.
Sharp, jagged rocks jut from the earth in wide, diagonal patterns, piercing the shoreline to cover the dark waters. The spiraling stones arch high over the clearing, obscuring his view of the snow-capped mountains, and he forgets how to breathe.
Those weren’t there before.
By the gods, he’s as stupid as Arthur claims he is. How did he let this happen? Had they noticed? How could they not have, anyone can see these twisted obelisks from miles away. He knows better than to let his emotions get the better of him, knows better than to allow himself the luxury of letting his guard down. He stares at them in horror, his knuckles white on the reins; how will he explain this? They can’t prove it was him—it had to have been him, he would have sensed a sorcerer nearby—but how will he explain this?
Then again, they hadn’t said anything. Perhaps his luck hasn’t run out yet.
“Are you coming?” he hears Arthur call distantly.
Thankfully, they’ve let him fall behind. With a desperate glance to make sure they can’t see him, he wills the rocks back into the earth, restoring the Lake of Avalon to its former glory. He whispers a quiet farewell, remembers her eyes in the candlelight, and turns to trudge through the woodlands.
Perhaps he’s finally lost his mind. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s heard voices. But the treacherous hope in his heart bursts into joy when he sees her, standing waist-deep in the water with the brightest smile on her lovely face. His body moves without conscious thought and he’s running toward her, convinced he’s stuck in a dream.
She is cold, wet, but solid and he grips her as if he’ll never let go. And he won’t, not if he can help it.
“Merlin,” she breathes into his neck. He rains kisses down her face and she laughs. “Merlin,” she tries again, closing her eyes. “I cannot stay long. I just—I couldn’t let you go on like this.” She pulls back, gripping the sleeves of his shirt. “Merlin.”
He knows what she’s going to say, but he’s not ready to leave yet. He leans his forehead against hers, wondering how such happiness can feel like pain. “Take me with you,” he begs.
“You know I cannot. Where I go, you cannot follow.”
“I can try.”
“No.” She peers up at him, forcing him to look at her. “You were meant for greater things than wasting yourself by this lake.” Her tone softens. “Should you need me, I will always be here. But there are people that need you, Merlin, and you cannot close yourself to them.” She tugs on his kerchief. “We monsters need our champions, too.”
He can feel her pulling away from him, the magic of her presence slowly fading. “But they need homes too, and mine died with you.”
She kisses him, soft and sweet. “Then you must build a new one.”
Gwen and Morgana are crying quietly on one another, muffling their sadness so as not to disturb the couple saying their goodbyes in the lake. Arthur feels like he’s intruding on a tender, private moment, but he cannot look away for the life of him. It is painful to watch; a swell of sympathy clogs his throat, making it difficult to feign nonchalance, made more difficult when he recognizes the girl Merlin holds so dear as the changeling from several weeks ago.
Of all things, Merlin had to go and fall in love with a druid and a bastet.
There is much to discuss, a lot of questions that need answering, and he’ll try to wring all of them out of his manservant—his friend—on the way home. “So,” he’ll start conversationally, “when did you plan on telling us you were a sorcerer?” Followed quickly by, “and what else haven’t you told us?” before Merlin can gallop away on his horse.
The terror in his servant’s eyes will haunt him for days, as if he truly believes Arthur has a heart black enough to send him to his death after everything they’ve been through. The hurt, the betrayal he feels is not important; he wants to know why. He wants to know why a sorcerer would blindly, loyally follow the son of the man that persecutes and slaughters anything that breathes the word ‘magic’. He wants to know why Merlin would still remain by his side after he’d killed this Freya. He wants to know why Merlin never told him, never so much as hinted—well, perhaps there were a few hints, now that he thinks about it—that he has magic, uses magic until he’d crumpled like an autumn leaf and the earth grew claws in response to his anguish.
And when the women manage to calm him down, to quell the naked fear on his angular face, he’ll stutter and mumble and hunch his shoulders as if expecting a blow that will never come. He’ll talk about destiny and monsters while his hands shake and his skin pales. And when the bells toll the late hour, they’ll sit down to eat a late supper in Arthur’s chambers, tiredly mulling over everything they’ve learned about the servant who is so much more.
Then Merlin, with Morgana clutching him to her breast and Gwen clutching his hands, will stare out the window, looking for Freya; he’ll give a shy, watery smile and murmur quietly of champions and homes.
But that, of course, comes later.
For now, he’ll let his friend have this moment. It’s the least he can do.
“Why are you scrubbing my boots?”
He pauses at the sound of Arthur’s voice, surprised; the prince, as far as he knows, is supposed to be out training with the knights. Or something. He doesn’t want to admit that he’s been purposely avoiding Arthur as much as he can, performing his necessary chores as swiftly as possible when he’s forced in Arthur’s presence. For the most part, Arthur has been letting him scurry away every time they’re in the same room, allowing his weak excuses to go unchallenged. He didn’t expect this confrontation to come so soon.
“You see,” says Merlin, forcing his words to sound light, “I have this job. It doesn’t pay very well and the management is rubbish, but I’d like to keep it.”
Thankfully, Arthur ignores the ‘rubbish’ part. “No. I mean, why are you scrubbing my boots by hand when we both know you could just snap your fingers and be done with it?”
He winces, his whole frame twitching in response. There’s something strange in Arthur’s voice, a challenge, as if he doesn’t understand why a sorcerer—a warlock, Merlin quietly corrects—would debase himself by maintaining the guise of a lowly servant. He’d tried explaining to Arthur that it’s not a disguise, it’s who he is; he just so happens to also be some kind of creature borne of ancient magic that must serve and protect the Once and Future King to restore magic and peace throughout the land because he’s a child of destiny and charged with the task of helping it along. And he’s also Arthur’s friend, as much as the prince can’t seem to understand such a concept, and Merlin would do anything to protect his friends.
Perhaps he hadn’t explained it clearly enough. He’d been rather hysterical after what happened at the lake, which he thinks is understandable considering that he’d exposed himself so foolishly. Never mind that he’d seen Freya again, never mind that lovely Gwen and the Lady Morgana had clung to him most inappropriately—but very, very welcomingly—once they’d gotten back to the castle, never mind that Arthur had seemed to absorb it all with much more grace and poise than Merlin ever thought he would. It doesn’t change the fact that Merlin is still instinctively afraid.
These secrets are his life and he’s not used to sharing them. The hypocrisy is not lost on him; not so long ago, he wanted so badly to tell the truth, wanted someone to love and accept him for who he was, like Freya had. Gaius does too, but Gaius could never understand living in such fear of himself, and the love he yearns for is something he’d only tasted once for far too briefly. And now that his deepest desire has been realized, Merlin finds himself fragmented and wary, truth and lies spilling from him without restraint, gushing from his heart because he’s forgotten how to keep it all in, only to stop when the words reach his pinched lips. There’s so much he wants to say, doesn’t know how to say, and that day he’d given himself away had been no different—it’s a miracle he’d been able to manage anything comprehensible considering how vulnerable and terrified he’d been.
He doesn’t know if this is better or worse. He doesn’t know whether to say nothing or keep regurgitating everything he’s ever held inside.
“I don’t know,” Merlin says quietly. “Gives me something to focus on, I suppose.”
“You mean when you’re not mooning over Morgana?”
That’s a bit unfair. Merlin sits up straighter on the floor, glaring up at him. “I’m not mooning over her,” he defends, “I’m helping her. She’s just…” he searches for the right word to describe the light in the Lady’s eyes when she sees him, the way she keeps touching him and holding him and looking at him. Gwen’s been acting the same way, as if she’s afraid he’ll shatter all over again, and the maidservant has made it a point to visit him and hold him when the Lady cannot, hovering closer than ever before. He doesn’t mind it much; they’re his friends and he knows they’re worried, regardless of how many times he’s told them not to. It’s the affection that’s making him uneasy, having never been particularly close with other women besides his mother. He’s not afraid of affection and certainly not afraid of giving it, but receiving it, especially in physical form, is not something he’s used to and he doesn’t think he deserves all of this unwarranted attention from two such lovely, admirable women.
Freya’s the only woman he’s ever been openly, physically affectionate with, but that kind of intimacy isn’t one he would easily share with another. Not that Gwen or Morgana would ever try for that kind of intimacy with him—the thought is utterly laughable—but there’s something slightly off with the way they’ve been regarding him lately and he can’t quite put his finger on what.
So he can understand why Arthur thinks he’s developed an interest in the Lady Morgana. While Gwen is a sweetheart and makes every effort to coddle him, she’s also one of the finest, strongest, most wonderful people he’s ever met, and her softhearted kindness is as natural as air. It’s Morgana that’s altered the most since she’s learned of his secrets; her heart is no less kind, no less generous, and she’s the bravest, most beautiful and charming woman in the world, but she’s always kept a distance with most people, shrouded herself with aloofness as easily as she dons those scandalous gowns she wears. A Seer in the court of a ruthless king that condemns anything unnatural to death must always keep her guard up, every step, every façade perfectly planned and executed.
But that wall came tumbling down that day by the lake, broken and grounded into fine dust, scattered to the four winds. She pulls him into alcoves—which is nothing new—for absolutely no reason, drops in to ‘visit Gaius’ and spends an hour or more talking about nothing and everything while he’s standing in a tank full of leeches up to his ankles, steals him from Arthur to run needless errands that she’ll accompany him on, and flirts outrageously—which is definitely not new, per se, but very new in that it’s directed at him.
It’s harmless, really. He knows how wonderful it felt to be himself around someone who actually understands, someone who lives with the same fears and hopes he does. And while he knows he cannot be her Freya—that’s unthinkable—he’s happy to help her; the smile she gives him is worth it.
“She’s a bit excited, is all,” he finally says, “and that’s my fault, really; I let her think she was alone all this time when I could have been teaching her how to control her gifts.” It’s yet another point of hurt betrayal for Arthur that his sister never told him of her power, but she didn’t even know about it until recently, and he’s known about her strange dreams—nightmares—since they were children. Merlin admires Arthur for trying to take it all in stride, especially for a man who’s been raised on the belief that magic is evil, can only hurt others. Doesn’t make any of this easier for anyone involved, but they’re trying, and that’s more than Merlin has ever hoped for.
Well, that, and a day off, but beggars can’t be choosers.
“And besides,” he adds, an edge creeping into his voice, “I would never betray Freya like that.”
Arthur looks away, his eyes shuttered. When he glances back, there’s a strange expression on the prince’s face that looks almost like sadness, sympathy, guilt. Merlin doesn’t know what to make of it. “Merlin,” he sighs, plopping onto a chair, “about Freya... I…”
Merlin shakes his head. “It wasn’t your fault, Arthur.”
“What?” Arthur is incredulous bordering on angry. “How can you—I killed her!”
The pain in his chest makes it difficult to breathe, the knot in his throat constricting his words. He doesn’t want to talk about this, not with anyone, but Arthur cannot carry a guilt that isn’t his to own. “You’re not the one who cursed her,” says Merlin, fighting to speak clearly, confidently, “and you didn’t know. You have a duty to protect Camelot, Arthur. What happened wasn’t your fault; neither she nor I have ever blamed you.”
Arthur stares at him, searching for something. Then, quietly, “how do you do it?”
“What, charming and ruggedly handsome?”
The prince scoffs fondly, a smile playing on his mouth. “No, delusional.”
Merlin shrugs, grinning. “Takes practice.”
And for the first time since he’d said goodbye to his only love, the world is right side up again.
Wish that I could stay forever this young;
Not afraid to close my eyes.
When hope dies, the heart dies with it, and it is a slow, gasping death with arms outstretched, shaking fingertips reaching for a handhold to no avail.
It’s not often he gets to sneak off—not for his own purposes, anyway. But when Arthur retires early from his own birthday banquet, Merlin seizes his chance. No one pays him any mind as he pushes through the town, where the citizens have used the prince’s birthday as an excuse to spill their revelry onto the streets. Camelot doesn’t often indulge in such loud, careless festivities, but the king has allowed the people this freedom in light of their adoration of his son. Merlin briefly entertains the notion of joining them, drinking ale and singing around the dancing groups of peasants as they celebrate under the full moon.
But he misses her with a clawing desperation he’s not sure he can bear any longer, so he keeps moving, keeps pushing, keeps running until he reaches the lake that holds her.
He trips in his excitement, drenching his clothes, but he laughs and so does she. He kisses her a little rougher than he means to; she is cold and wet and solid, and he yearns for the warmth he remembers so vividly. She grabs fists full of his shirt and pushes against his lips as if she, too, is searching for something she cannot find.
“Merlin,” she breathes when the need for air forces him pull away, “please, you can’t keep doing this.”
“I missed you,” he murmurs against her cheek.
“And I, you.” She smiles sadly, briefly. “But you cannot keep coming here.” Her cold fingers trace the lines of his cheeks, his jaw. “You must stop doing this to yourself.”
“I don’t know how to stop,” he admits, his face buried in her wet hair. “I don’t want to.”
Her eyes are wet now too. “You do yourself a great disservice by hanging on to these memories, to me.” She forces him to meet her gaze. “Were our circumstances reversed, could you bear to see me pining away for a love that cannot be? Could you stand to watch me become so withdrawn, distancing myself from those whose only desire is to me smile again?”
Of course not. He would want her to be happy, to live her life far and free from his prison. But there’s no such thing as home for people like them and as much as she wants him to find one, it seems impossible without her.
She buries her face in his neck. “We’ve had our time, and though it was brief, I’ll never forget your kindness. I’ll never forget that you saved me, and I’ll always treasure those memories. Eternity is a long, lonely road for people like us, but you…” He can feel her smiling. “You have the rare chance to find happiness, my love. You have the power to change the world with a single thought, and you have lovely people that depend on you—people that care for you, if you would only give them the chance.”
He grits his teeth. “I don’t want other people,” he manages, raspy and petulant, “I only want you.”
“And you have me,” she soothes. “Always and forever. But our paths are not the same; yours crosses with another’s, who comes to you in their darkest hour, and you are forever bonded with the masters you both will serve.”
In spite of himself, he laughs. “You sound like Kilgharrah.” Then, “I’m tired of destiny and duty. I want to walk my own path, not one laid for me by some invisible puppeteer.”
“My love,” she whispers, a soft sigh against his skin, “this is the path you chose. And I promise you, it will lead you home.”
Life’s a game meant for everyone
And love is the price.
She watches him return, damp and pale, to the home he shares with Gaius. Gwen sits with her, nursing a goblet of sweet wine as they pretend that they haven’t been waiting for the skinny manservant, idling by the windows of her room. Arthur lies on her bed in his sleep attire, half unconscious, equal parts confused and inebriated; it reminds her of when they were children and she, young and wild and raw with grief, would climb under his covers, desperate for the presence of another. He, who knew the ache of a missing parent, had tried so hard to help her feel like she belonged in a strange land, in a strange kingdom, with a strange, cold king that carelessly slaughtered the strange and unknown. Long before Uther’s expectations drove them apart, she and Arthur were great friends—she could not have asked for a better brother.
And for the first time in years, she feels as if she’s gotten that brother back. Not that he’s admitted why he’s worried and wracked with guilt, but she knows, just as Gwen does. Every time his servant—his friend—sneaks off to see his beau, Arthur becomes a study in remorse. Morgana has to fight the furious urge to hit him, hug him, and then run after Merlin because that poor boy always looks so alone these days. Gwen, too, suffers from this strange helplessness, and she’s caught Gwen holding Arthur more than once, comforting him with hushed words and soft hands.
But unlike Arthur, Merlin cannot be put to rights again with sweet words and a soft touch. She knows because she’s tried, has been trying since that day by the lake. She’s teased and flirted and played with his ears, she’s kept open invitations for lunches and outings that he never accepts, she’s tried to get him to speak to her about more than just the magic in her veins, but there’s nothing. All he ever gives her is a half-hearted smile that doesn’t reach his eyes and that little bow as his tongue curves around a quiet, “milady.”
Except, that’s not entirely true. Morgana looks out over Camelot, over the walls of the citadel to the fields that stretch beyond.
Though rare, there are times when there’s something else, something more. It’s there when she accompanies him on the errands they both know she doesn’t need, when she laughs at his odd sense of humor and he smiles at her, looks at her with something akin to wonder. It’s there when his eyes burn gold and fire springs to his fingertips, when she’s too afraid of herself to do the same and, in an effort to quell the rising hysteria, he shows her how to make dragons fly from the embers of her failure. It’s there when she steals him away or distracts him from his endless chores, hiding him from the world for a minute or an hour to talk about nothing and everything because she knows what it is to speak and not be heard, to have been ignored so much until the urge to speak dies. Whatever it is, she thinks there’s something changing in him. Something new.
Or perhaps it’s something in her.
“Gwen,” she says into the yawning silence, startling the other woman, “could you tell Merlin to join us?” She phrases it like a question because she’s not sure if it’s her or if it’s him—or both of them—that’s making it so difficult to leave the warlock to his own devices, but she doesn’t want to leave him alone. “And bring another bottle of wine, please.” She would fetch him herself, but there is a large difference between two servants walking through the castle in the middle of the night, and a woman of noble birth sneaking through the halls in her nightdress and furs with a man she cannot go a day without touching. And it is that difference that makes her quake inside.
Gwen stares at her for a moment, her expression unreadable, before her lips quirk in a secret smile and she says, “Of course, my lady.” She hands Morgana her goblet, who downs it one gulp, and slips away quietly.
Arthur is heavy, but malleable in sleep. It takes a lot of pushing, tugging, and general grousing to move him over and under the covers; he swats and grumbles at her, whining about unicorns and bastets, before she manages to shepherd him to one side of the bed. Of course, she’d forgotten what a cuddler her brother was and is swiftly and unpleasantly reminded when he grabs her, his grip like iron, and curls around her as she sputters and flails to get free. He is unmoved by her protests, snoring and drooling most unbecomingly into her hair. Worse still, her nightdress has ridden up as a result of all the wrestling she’s done.
By the time Gwen returns with a red-eyed Merlin in tow, she is beside herself with both indignation and embarrassment.
“Help!” she squeaks, her arms reaching for them. “He won’t wake up and he’s drooling!”
Gwen immediately scurries over and Merlin stares, his pale cheeks flushing in the moonlight. Were she not in this ridiculous predicament, she would have admired his beauty. As it is, she’s too busy trying to maintain her modesty, her dignity, to gush about the warlock, who eventually hurries over to extract her from Arthur’s lethal embrace.
Free at last, she tries to straighten herself. “I hope you’ve brought that bottle,” she mutters, annoyed.
“Yes, my lady.” Now that she’s out of danger, Gwen isn’t trying very hard to hide her giggling. “And I’ve brought Merlin too.”
“Yes, but wine first,” says Morgana. “Merlin later.”
“Er,” says Merlin. He’s in a pair of long sleeping trousers that fold and wrinkle down to hide his toes, an equally large tunic falling off of one shoulder; both look old and frayed, most likely second-hand. When she’d sent Gwen to fetch him, she hadn’t meant to bring him barefoot with his hair standing in pointed tufts, as if dragged from his cot. Not that she minds, really, because he is adorable standing there, wide eyes looking at her with unmasked confusion. How can such a sweet, fragile thing, she wonders, hold such power inside? Over her? Over any of them? “Did you, uh, need something? Milady?”
“Yes,” she says, and pushes a goblet at him. “You.”
He turns an alarming shade of red.
“Drink. Gwen, would you like another?”
“Oh, no, I really shouldn’t.”
“Nonsense. The two of you will join me in bed tonight and I can’t have either of you spouting logic or bothering with propriety.”
Merlin, it seems, has lost the ability to think. Gwen rolls her eyes and does as her mistress bids, pouring herself a cup of dark red wine. She pours another for Morgana and fills Merlin’s cup when he continues to stare at the Lady as if she’s grown another head.
She takes pity on him. “She means sleeping, Merlin, nothing more.”
That doesn’t seem to ease his discomfort. Of course, Gwen is used to her mistress’s whimsies and it will not be the first time the two women share a bed. Perhaps, Morgana reflects, she’s come on a little too strong. Not that she will curb herself, but she forgets, sometimes, that while the men and knights of the court are used to the attentions of a lady, servants and peasants are generally not accosted so openly by nobility in such a manner. If the thought of sleeping next to her seems scandalous, she wonders how he would react to the ideas she has buzzing around her head, to the dreams she’s been having and her determination to make them a reality.
She sighs. One step at a time.
It takes a lot of smooth talking to get Merlin to accept the idea. Gwen doesn’t mind sharing a bed, but she does mind sleeping beside the prince, especially in light of the fact that said prince will instantly cling to her if she so much as stands near the mattress. But Morgana knows what’s really keeping the maid from getting too close to Arthur, and after a long talk that consists mostly of, “damn propriety!” and, “inhibitions are not allowed in my room—that is a rule, Guinevere, and I expect you to abide by it,” Gwen slowly, meekly crawls in beside him, loudly squeaking when Arthur nuzzles into her collarbone like it’s the happiest, warmest place in the land. The tired smile on Gwen’s face says that she doesn’t think it’s such a bad idea anymore, either.
Merlin, however, is swaying towards the door, his face flushed. He’s loose and relaxed from the wine, being the lightweight that he is, so it’s not very difficult to pull him in, ignoring his small whimpers as she pushes him in beside Gwen. She slides in after him, boldly huddling against him in an effort to steal some of his heat.
After a bout of shuffling, twisting, and wriggling, he sinks into the bed and groans. “This,” he murmurs, eyes already closed. He relaxes even more, the tension bleeding out of him; he sounds delirious. “This is the softest, most comfortable place in the world. Every bone in my body has turned to liquid. You have a problem on your hands, milady.”
She smirks. “Which is?”
“I’m never going to be able to leave.”
“I doubt she’ll mind.” Gwen teases, drifting.
“Mm.” Merlin snuggles deeper into the pillows, also drifting. “Smells like you.”
Morgana hides her face in his shirt. “Oh?”
“’S’like… bergamot… m’ mother liked when I brought ‘em home… made the house smell really pretty.” Gwen rests her head against his shoulder, unconsciously cocooning him, and Merlin nuzzles into the pillow until his face is obscured by her hair.
“You smell like you need new clothes,” Morgana says.
She can feel his lips move as he continues to sleepily mumble, unguarded. “’S’you. You… smell just like home.”
*due to LJ's size constraints, the continuation can be found (here).
SUMMARY: After thirty years of waiting, Seras is overjoyed when her sire returns. Unfortunately, a few misconceptions keep her from giving him a proper welcome.
Of the many faults she possessed lay one of the few even her Master had never glimpsed; if he had, he had never commented on it. Then again, Master had been able to read her like an open book before he’d disappeared, so it was quite possible that he’d known of it and had never bothered to correct it, viewing it as a hopeless cause. After all, she’d never met another vampire with a sense of romanticism.
Either way, she could not help the note of embarrassment she felt upon seeing him again, mortified that she’d interrupted a private moment.
Her first reaction was to hug him until he pulled her off of him or the world came crashing down around them. She wanted to run to him as he healed from the rounds Integra had pumped him with, wanted to cry and jump and laugh and maul him in her undiluted joy. The urge was strong, overpowering, but she kept herself in check before she did something stupid to displease him; after three decades in his absence, she did not want him irritated the second he’d returned to her. To them, she corrected, glancing over at the aged Integra Hellsing, who still sat in her bed. Thankfully, Integra had dropped the gun she’d used on Alucard, but there was a speck of disbelief behind the woman’s spectacles, as if she could not believe what she was seeing. While Seras had never doubted her Master, she wasn’t sure if Integra had held the same confidence.
“Go with our master. Go and conquer, Seras.”
Three decades and he hadn’t changed, while she was different in so many ways. “I’ll, er… I-I’ll be in my room,” she stuttered, quickly phasing through the floor before either of them could question her.
Alucard had always sneered at her steadfast refusal to discard her humanity and all of the quirks that came with it, but even after drinking fresh human blood and embracing her new life, there were still characteristics she could not shed. Thoughts she could not shed. Amongst them was the nervous anticipation that clenched in the pit of her stomach whenever she saw him, the want to make him proud, the desperate need to please him. In the time since she’d seen him last, she’d thought she had quelled those skittish tendencies of hers. She covered her face when she’d made it safely to what had once been her Master’s chambers, sighing into her hands. Maybe, she thought with some chagrin, I haven’t changed at all.
It was very telling that Integra was the first person Alucard had sought upon his arrival, going so far as to scare the wits out of the Hellsing heir while she slept. There was a part of Seras that was hurt, but another part warred against that emotion, the hopeless romantic in her soothing the bitter sting of rejection and focusing on the facts.
She wondered if her idle imaginings from so long ago had been correct. It certainly seemed that way; Master and Integra had always had a strange relationship, one she could understand most times, and she’d assumed there was something she was missing, buried beneath the masks they used in public. More than once, Seras had witnessed strange little “moments” between the two of them, had gotten the same feeling she had now: a child who had walked into something that should have only been shared between “Mommy” and “Daddy”. It was amusing and painful at the same time and she had no idea why, though she had her suspicions. As much as they made sense together, as much as she kept imagining them several floors above in their happy reunion, it was difficult to place Alucard in the role of her father.
He was her Master and she adored him. He was her mentor, her guide, her sanctuary, her leader. One word from him and she’d comply without question, destroying the Earth itself if he wished it so. He was her worst critic and she hated him for it, but she loved him even more. He was Alucard, the penultimate of Nosferatu, the Lord of Shadows, the No-Life King, and his strength was unsurpassed, his power staggering. He filled her with awe, his very presence inspiring her to greater heights. He was everything to her and having him back was like the first drop of blood after years of starvation, but he could never be her father.
When tears pricked her eyes, she forced herself to get a grip. One went rogue and fell down her cheek, a line of red on her pale skin, and she rubbed it away as best as she could.
With a breath she didn’t need, she straightened and looked around the room, trying to remember if she’d left anything of hers within. These quarters belonged to Master and would always be such, but she’d taken to sleeping here daily, if only to comfort herself during those moments before slumber took her when she was at her weakest. It was pointless, she knew, as she was sure Alucard would smell her as soon as he entered his room, would catch her scent in his coffin. He was going to be furious with her, he was going to berate her for entering his private domain, and she did not have to make it worse by littering his space with her belongings.
Thirty years was a long time. It would feel weird sleeping in her own coffin again, but she swatted at the errant thought, reminding herself that he was here and that was all that mattered. Had she moved his coffin? Had she replaced anything? She was confident that she hadn’t thrown anything away, but she conducted a thorough investigation anyway, hoping that Integra would distract Alucard just a little while longer while she made sure.
Caught by surprise, she squeaked and dove through the wall, uncaring where it led her. If she still had a pulse, it would have fluttered like a hummingbird’s wing.
He saw me, she cried internally, tumbling headfirst into her own chambers. He saw me! She collided with her bureau, the loud collision echoing ominously. It hurt like hell and she could feel her fractured skull already knitting itself together, though the poor bureau had been reduced to a pile of splintered wood and clothes. She rubbed her throbbing head, dismayed and rattled.
How was she going to explain to Sir Integra about the dresser?
How was she going to explain to her Master about her invasion of his room?
She covered her face and groaned. Weren’t he and Integra supposed to be catching up? Surely, after thirty years, the two of them would have dropped the charade and done something, right? She was virtually clueless about what went on between the sheets aside from the nightmares she still occasionally got about her mother—and she was intelligent enough to know the difference between rape and consensual sex—but whatever involved Alucard and Integra had to be longer than, what, five minutes? Or had she been lost in her thoughts for longer than that? And surely, he wouldn’t return to his room immediately after. Damn it, she grimaced, a little sickened by the images in her brain.
How could this possibly get any worse?
She squeaked again, blindly diving through the wall once more. He’d followed her? Why had he followed her? This time, she did not hit anything but the cold floor, rolling to a crouch. Aggravation made her fangs elongate when she realized she’d landed right back in her Master’s room. Damn it, she cursed again. Quickly, she stood and moved towards the door, ready to run for her life. This is ridiculous.
An arm around her waist cut off her retreat. “‘Ridiculous’ does not begin to describe this.” The voice was heavy with its own aggravation.
Her spine collided with his chest when she tried to take off again. He held her to him tightly, quieting her brief struggle, and she wanted to die. Was death by embarrassment feasible? As she felt her cheeks flood with color, she was convinced it might. “M…” Her throat was tight, every nerve in her body buzzing with electricity, concentrating on every bit they touched. Get a grip. He’s going to kill me. She parted her lips to explain, to say something, anything, but her voice would not work. I hope he makes it quick. Her senses were overloaded, completely surrounded by his aura, his scent, his body, him. Some part of her shut down for a millisecond while the other worked double time until she could remember how to function again, how to behave properly in front of her Master. Not that I ever knew how, before. Still, she didn’t recall ever having this kind of reaction in her younger years.
His nose was in her hair and when he spoke, she could feel his mouth moving. Her stomach clenched at the sensation. “Relax.”
She instantly sagged against him at the command, boneless and suddenly very tired. She could not remember why she’d been so frantic to begin with.
“Good. Now, why are you running from me?”
It all came flooding back and she instinctively tensed. His grip tightened, bringing his arm upward, unintentionally exposing her midriff. She held still, if only so that he’d lower his limb; whether or not he realized it, he was brushing the curve of her bosom and any chance of a coherent conversation with him flew out of the proverbial window. Integra, she thought, projecting the name until her mind caught on and stopped flailing around. She had to remember Integra and her Master and whatever they’d been doing for however long before he’d caught her in his room. I don’t even make sense anymore.
He sighed, ruffling a few tendrils of her hair. His other arm lifted, bringing a long, fluffy object into her view. “Does this look familiar?”
It did and she wanted to die again. She knew she’d forgotten something, but she hadn’t even thought of her pillow. How could she have left something like that in his coffin? “I-I can explain,” she managed, snatching the item from his hands and hugging it to her chest. In actuality, she could not explain, but it was all that tumbled off of her tongue.
“Can you?” There was humor in his tone. “Because all I see is some nonsense about Integra and one very frightened kitten.”
She froze. He could read her mind. He could read her mind. She’d forgotten that little gem, too. Hopeless, she covered her face with the pillow and let out the bastard child of a moan and a scream. Was it a sob? Thirty goddamned years and she was acting worse than a newborn fledgling. She slumped, inadvertently pushing his arm further into her breasts. “I’m so sorry, Master,” she cried into the silk material of her pillow, her voice muffled.
“There’s nothing to forgive, silly girl. However, I’m offended,” he said, though he didn’t sound it. “Is this any way to greet your sire?”
She’d only heard the words, not the tease, and sputtered. “Wha…? No! I mean,” she lowered her voice, her shout ringing in her ears. “I missed you, Master.”
He chuckled. “I know.” She heard the faint pop of a button, her shirt looser than it had been before. His unencumbered hand danced along the top of her skirt, the tip of one finger dipping beneath the fabric to venture lower. Time stopped for an instant and another button joined the first. She dropped the pillow. “And yet, you made me chase you down.” Another button gone. That treacherous finger toyed with the elastic of her panties. “You’re fortunate I can hear your thoughts, else I fear you would have given me the wrong impression.”
She did not know what she was supposed to do. This was not what was supposed to happen. In fact, she’d convinced herself that something like this was just some girlish fantasy all fledglings had when their sires were as handsome and powerful as hers; unfortunately, she doubted any other vampire had Dracula himself as their master, and so did not understand how irresistible he was. Or maybe they did, but could not understand why she’d fallen for him. These emotions were purely human—that she knew of—and she’d convinced herself early on that he’d detest them, even mock her for them. Then, she’d figured that he was set on Integra. She’d even convinced herself that she’d enjoy the two of them together, although the combination of the two could prove catastrophic, if it turned out badly.
He ripped the last of the buttons from her uniform and flicked a thumb over an exposed nipple.
Her cerebral functions shut down, her body on fire.
He bit her ear, still teasing. A delicious shiver went down her spine. “Did you really think,” he whispered, “you could keep any secrets from me?”
Were it not for their bond, she was pretty certain she could have. Not that it really mattered. She twisted her head to peer over her shoulder and he seized the opportunity, claiming her mouth with his own. The rest of her turned in his arms, pressing against him with a fervor she had not imagined could exist. He did not seem to mind, swallowing her little mewls as he led her to his coffin.
I guess this means he’s not mad about my sleeping habits.
No, came his voice, answering her stray thought. I’m encouraging them. I hope you don’t mind a few… modifications.
As it turned out, she didn’t.
- - -
Integra, still disheveled, frowned at him. “What is?”
He did not answer her for a long moment, still staring at the spot his fledgling had stood, pensive. He reached out and found her in the dungeons below, scanning through her mind like pages of a book. “The night I turned Seras,” he said, a grin slowly growing on his face. “You gave me an order.”
The Hellsing heir stiffened. “I said many things,” she deflected.
“I’d like you to rescind it.”
She sighed in disgust. Her eyes closed as she pinched the bridge of her nose. “It’s far too early for this discussion and I’m far too tired to think about it,” she admitted.
He was not fazed. “It’s a simple request.”
“Men,” she muttered, shaking her head in disbelief. “All these years and that’s the first thing on your mind?”
“You’re forgetting that I came to see you first, Master.” If possible, his grin grew wider.
She waved a hand in dismissal. “Fine. Do whatever you’d like with her, so long as she stays in one piece and you keep the noise down.” She paused. “And absolutely no babies.”
He phased through the floor and as his cackle echoed in her bedchamber, Integra had a feeling she’d regret this in the morning.
As it turned out, she did.