Uther died seven months after Morgana fled Camelot, but a scarce two weeks after she left Albion itself, and even through his grief – the bone-deep, exhausting grief that he couldn't have rationalized away even if he'd wanted to – Arthur could see the irony in the timing.
Really, it had been utterly idiotic for her to leave Camelot in the first place, but this really was the last straw.
The thing was, Morgana didn't have the same kind of natural control of her magic that Merlin did. For Merlin his powers were like a weapon, he'd told Arthur once – dangerous in and of itself, but always fully under his command. For Morgana, it seemed more an unpredictable creature she'd been giving charge of and had never been taught to tame.
It was the accidentally blowing up things in her sleep that made her finally leave. Not that Uther had ever suspected his beloved ward, but that as the problem; every time there was another suspicious occurrence, the probability of an innocent person being scapegoated increased. So far no one had actually taken the blame for anything Morgana did, but it was only a matter of time.
So Arthur understood, really. He would have done the same. That didn't mean he had to like it.
In those first few months after Morgana left Camelot, Arthur was made rudely aware of the fact that, like it or not, she came up in his mind, even unbidden, almost every day. For ordinary things, mostly – some scathing retort he would have loved to try out, or someone to ask how to deal with the newest knight preferring his right side too much. He started writing her letters in his head sometimes, with her imagined responses to boot. It was strangely comforting.
Merlin is an exceptional idiot. Blown anything up yet?
It's only to be expected, you've been a wonderful teacher and role model for him.
No, but yesterday I burned the rabbit that I caught for dinner. How do you not starve when you're out on your own in the woods?
Idiocy is one of two skills Merlin comes by naturally. It's a terrible combination. This morning I caught him using a spell to tie his trousers.
Unlike some people I can cook. Enough to be edible, at least. You really are crap at womanly things.
I'm sorry I'm not as good at being a woman as you are. And why exactly were you with Merlin when he was tying his trousers, hm?
It really was frustrating, Arthur thought, that Morgana could win arguments with him even in his own head.
Morgana sent messages sometimes too, frequently enough that Arthur, Merlin, and Gwen could be assured of her safety. They never knew how exactly she did it, but Gwen would awake to find a newly-woven tartan shawl draped over her door, or Merlin to a vial of some magical formula with instructions for its usage.
Arthur didn't receive anything for quite a while and felt almost offended at being forgotten or ignored. But when he entered his chambers one day to find a handkerchief on his bed with a meticulously embroidered scene of Morgana beating him in a sparring session, he laughed so hard that his stomach hurt, so it was worth it.
The last time Arthur spoke to her as a prince still was in a dream, half a year or so after her departure.
They were sitting in a tree. Morgana was leaning up against the trunk, straddling the branch in a most unladylike fashion, while Arthur was perched a little away from her.
"Apple?" she said, and tossed one at him before waiting for an answer. He caught it reflexively and bit into the fruit, and the sweet, tangy sting of the juice was what made him realize suddenly, but without a doubt, that this was a true dream – not the kind Morgana had, prophesies about what would come to pass, but true in the sense that he and Morgana really were talking, together. Probably something she was doing with her new magical knowledge.
"You must be improving," Arthur said. He frowned suspiciously at her. "You're not mucking up anything in my head, are you?"
"Relax, it's a simple enough spell," Morgana replied, rolling her eyes.
"Then why is this the first time you're doing it?"
"It's not exactly easier to find teachers, even outside of Camelot," she said dryly. She was silent for a moment and then asked, more quietly, "How are you? And Gwen and Merlin?"
Arthur chose to ignore the first part of that statement because it wasn't worth dignifying with an answer. "Well, now that it's springtime, Gwen's been looking so bereft at not having anyone to bring flowers that Merlin said he'd love some, just to cheer her up. Now Gaius' chambers are filled with them. He's even started bringing them into my rooms."
Morgana snorted with laughter, and it warmed something up inside Arthur to hear her laugh, filled in a little space that he hadn't known was empty.
"They're well," he assured her eventually. "Safe." Arthur paused and swung his foot at her. "You're alright, aren't you?" he said, going for jovial and careless but coming out, to his disgust, somewhere between concerned and anxious.
"I'm fine," said Morgana, still uncharacteristically somber. "Fine enough. But Arthur –" She hesitated, and then plowed on, "– I'm leaving Albion."
Although he would never, ever admit it for the rest of his life, in that moment Arthur's stomach felt like it had dropped out. "You can't," he said, a little stupidly.
"I really can," said Morgana.
"No, you can't! As your future king, I forbid it." Not that this particular argument had ever worked on Morgana, even when they were children, but it came out almost automatically.
"As a former subject of Camelot now in exile, I am no longer bound to your word."
"I meant it when I said teachers are difficult to find, Arthur. There's so much I have still to learn – that I need to learn. Apparently there are lands across the ocean where magic is – well, not exactly accepted, but seen as more useful than traitorous."
Arthur had nothing to say to that. How could he begrudge Morgana a place where she felt she belonged?
He looked down at his hands and found them suddenly clutching sheaves of paper, dozens of pieces with familiar-looking scribbling on them. His scribbling. These true dreams were certainly strange. But without quite understanding how he suddenly knew what they were right away, familiar as – well, as the thoughts in his own mind. Arthur shoved the papers at Morgana, spilling them onto her lap although taking care enough care that none escaped to drift down to the ground.
"I wrote you letters," he said, still sounding like a child and being completely aware of it. "Lots. In my head."
Morgana frowned and picked one up, reading it over quickly before looking down at the next. She sifted through the piled, giggling at some and making a face at others, before finding one that made her look up to scowl at Arthur. "Hey! I didn't burn any rabbits!"
Arthur raised an eyebrow. "Any other type of animal, then?"
She deflated a little. "Well. Maybe a pheasant. Or two. But I am a perfectly decent cook otherwise!"
"If you mean like Merlin is a perfectly decent servant, or Gwen is a perfectly decent grand orator, or I'm a perfectly decent dancer, then yes, I might believe you."
"You are a terrible dancer," Morgana admitted. She looked up through her eyelashes at him, her lips curving up a little, teasing. "So why were you around to see Merlin tying up his trousers?"
"I repeat: shut up," Arthur groaned, throwing back the apple core (that had only just reappeared in his hand when he wished for it) at Morgana's big, fat head.
She raised a hand and said something that made her eyes flare yellow, and the apple core stopped in mid-air, then dropped to the ground. Morgana turned to give him a smug look, but it had chilled something inside Arthur – reminded him why they were here. Or rather, why Morgana wasn't actually here.
Her smile faded away at his expression and she studied her hands. "I'll come back," Morgana said finally.
There it was, the answer to the question Arthur had asked before and Morgana had tried to ignore. It should have made Arthur feel relieved or glad, but mostly it made him feel unsettled – the idea that something (someone) he'd long taken for granted could disappear with a moment, and return in the next, transformed completely.
"Will you?" he said, almost absently.
"When you are king," said Morgana, and Arthur woke up.
And then Uther died and Arthur's world turned upside down around him.
After all the overwhelming formalities and ceremonies of ascending the throne had finally calmed into a lull; after Arthur had dealt with his first border skirmish and first initial assassination attempts in his new role as king; after he'd lifted the ban on magic and thrown the kingdom into chaos as half his people rejoiced, and the other half tried to flee or riot out of the fear that Uther's reign had instilled in them: after all that, Arthur sent out people to find her. Scouts, magicians, anyone who possibly thought they could help. But to no avail. Even Merlin wasn't able to scry far enough away to find her, and Arthur didn't feel sure enough of Camelot's security to let him go wandering off in person.
When it came down to it, Arthur wasn't particularly surprised. Morgana would return in her own sweet time, if at all.
The wine, Arthur reflected, was very good. Morgana had brought it back from wherever she'd been when she finally heard news of Uther's death, months and months after the fact. And though Arthur had little interest in places outside of Albion, they certainly knew how to make excellent wine. Perhaps a little too excellent, if that was the reason for Merlin and Gwen's current pantomime attempts, though Arthur suspected the wine was only an excuse.
"Remind me, which one of you is supposed to be Arthur?" Morgana was asking as Merlin tugged a sheet from where he'd tucked it that morning on Arthur's bed, and then once successful, for some reason let it drop to the floor. Arthur glared at him, but he didn't seem to notice.
"Me," Gwen said confidently. "Merlin's everyone else."
"Right now I'm still Merlin," said Merlin. "So anyway, after all the hundreds of boring speeches –"
"– so boring that Lord Hawley fell asleep before he had even made his –"
"– I brought the crown up to Geoffrey." Before Arthur quite knew what was happening, Merlin reached over and snatched the crown from atop Arthur's head.
"Hey!" said Arthur, indignant.
Merlin ignored him and grabbed the sheet again to drape it around his shoulders. "Now I'm Geoffrey, and I have to make a speech," he informed Morgana, who nodding sagely. "Blah blah blah tradition blah blah valor blah Arthur Pendragon blah blah blah his royal pratliness," Merlin intoned, before placing the crown on Gwen's head, who giggled.
"Alright, that's enough," Arthur said, leaning over to take the wine bottle from where it was positioned rather precariously next to Gwen's knee. He held it out to Morgana, and she managed to use the bottle somewhat successfully to hide her smile. Only somewhat, because Arthur knew better. When it came to Morgana, he always did.
"Are you leaving again?" he asked, trying to not sound at all hesitant about it.
Morgana smirked outright then, tipping her head over to their friends. "What, and miss the rest of the show?" she said, and the layers of warmth in her voice made the once-empty spot inside Arthur twinge, like a numb limb coming back to life.
"Look," he said, and paused. The serious and rather awkward speech he'd been about to make about starting a-fresh as the new king and needing the best of his people's abilities and all that seemed suddenly ridiculous. Not only would Morgana laugh her head off, but he knew now what he'd probably known all along – that once Morgana had entered his life and thrown an apple at his head for the first time, he'd never be able to get rid of her, no matter how hard he tried.
Morgana probably would have said the same the other way around. Perhaps they were both right.
Later, after Merlin and Gwen had fallen asleep snuggled together on the end of the rather enormous royal bed, and Arthur and Morgana sat leaning against the headboard and passing the wine bottle back and forth, Arthur slouched down a little and dropped his head to Morgana's shoulder with a sigh.
"I'm glad you're back," he said, not even trying to hide the sincerity in his voice.
Morgana tilted her own head to rest on his. "I know," she said softly. "Me too."
Arthur was stubbornly trying to keep from falling asleep, and he could feel Morgana smiling against his hair. "Still not going to marry you, though."
Arthur just snorted and finally let his eyes flutter shut. Maybe this sister thing wasn't so bad after all.