Morgana is combing her hair when Merlin arrives. The camp falls almost silent, and through the birdsong comes only one wavering voice calling “Halt!” She knows who it is before she even opens the tent-flap, because it is only of Emrys that this odd, desperate, yearning army might actually feel fear.
She puts the comb down, gathers her dressing-gown more tightly around her, and goes outside.
“Morgana,” he says, and his eyes are hungry, sorrow-bright; there are circles the color of day-old bruises under them. He looks harder than the last time she saw him—thinner, sharper, tempered like steel. He is a soldier now too, and she remembers the laughing and inept boy she knew in Camelot, muddling through life by his raw magic and his awkward charm.
“Have you come to join us?” she asks, smiling her best seduction at him. She knows he hasn’t; he’s Arthur’s man, still and forever, probably even beyond death.
“No,” Merlin says. And then, again, “No. But—could we talk?”
Her gesture takes in the space between them, the conversation hanging ragged and half-frozen in the air.
There are muttered protests from around them, but this is Merlin, not just Emrys, and so Morgana nods. They leave the camp, ignoring wary stares and hostile murmurs, and go into the woods. Merlin lets her pick the direction, a courtesy she appreciates even though it is not—it has never been—his way to set traps for others to spring, and she stops when the closest tents are little more than a pale smear between tree trunks.
“What do you want?” Morgana asks. “What can’t you say with witnesses to hear it?”
Merlin ducks his head, looks torn for a moment. “You’re right,” he says finally. “This”—a gesture back at the camp—“all of it. What you say about magic.”
“And you stay with Arthur despite that?” She’d promised herself not to get angry; she is a woman grown now, not a spoiled, sheltered girl-lady. She thinks of the people who follow her, prepared to give their lives for her cause, and the men of Arthur’s army, who had to choose whether to serve their king or commit treason. Wrath is a slow burn in the pit of her stomach, itching across the palms of her hands. “After everything he’s done to us—to you—you stay?”
“He’s my destiny,” Merlin says, as simply as if that’s all it is.
Morgana reaches up and curls her hand hard around his neck, pulling him closer. “You stay with a man who’s treated you like any other servant after everything you’ve done for him because it’s destined?” she asks against his mouth. There’s contempt blazing in her voice, and anger. Frustration.
He doesn’t give her a chaste press of lips to lips, or lick her mouth open, like most people would have with this chance. He bites her lower lip, and she gasps at the hot sting of it and then twists her fingers into his hair, holding his mouth against hers. She’s furious at how stubborn he is, at the glory of his magic he refuses to use sensibly, at the bones of his face and the unnatural age of his eyes.
She pulls away just enough to speak and says, “What if I told you I had a vision?”
“I thought you didn’t have those anymore,” Merlin says, and she looks at his kiss-red mouth and wonders how such stupid things can come out of it sometimes.
“I don’t dream them anymore,” she says. “What if I told you I saw us in a castle? Not Camelot—something old and warm and welcoming, with vines covering the walls and a sacred spring in the courtyard.”
He touches her, now, one hand between her shoulder blades. It’s hot through the thin silk of her dressing-gown, and she thinks about how perhaps she should have put on real clothes. It wouldn’t change anything, of course, but they could both pretend for a little longer, hold to a little more dignity. “Where is it?” he asks.
“I don’t know.” She can feel each of his fingers, separately.
Lower, rougher—“What are we doing?”
Morgana’s mind runs through possibilities almost on its own. “The throne is mine,” she says, and Merlin starts to nod and is stopped by her fingers in his hair. “You’re sitting in it, though, with your breeches down to your boots and me in your lap.” She’s close enough that she can hear his breath catch, hear the click when he swallows. “My skirts are pulled up around my waist and I’m riding you, your—”
“You didn’t see this,” Merlin says. His voice is broken, lust-drunk, and it sends a bolt of heat skittering down her spine.
“I said what if.”
He shakes his head.
She unties the belt to her dressing-gown with hands that shake only a little. “You said we’re right,” she says, shrugging the gown off so she stands there in her shift and her unbound hair. “There’s been too much harm done to magic-users to keep pretending it’s all right, Merlin.”
“I’m loyal to Arthur,” he says, and she tugs a little too hard as she unlaces his shirt. She wants skin, wants him naked before her as she once pleaded with him.
“He doesn’t—” deserve it. Morgana cuts herself off. “Care.”
Merlin yanks his shirt the rest of the way off and throws it to the ground. “And you do?”
She spreads her arms. The shift is fine, fine linen, nearly translucent. “Arthur won’t give you this,” she says.
His magic is under as tight control as her own, now, and when he grabs her it’s with his hands only, curved around her shoulders hard enough to bruise. That hurt him; she’d known it would. “If all we plan to do is carve into each other—” he begins, and she sways into him, open and yielding, the long line of her throat bared, and he stops.
This is very nearly the last of the trust she has for him, but she’s always been reckless.
He sucks a kiss over the pulse hammering below her jaw, hard, hard enough that it blooms into an ache, and her hands fly up to his arms to hold her there—to stay against his mouth, to stand without wavering as he pulls sensation through her. She can feel the give of his skin beneath her nails. He works his way down the tendon and she feels the bright edge of teeth here and there.
“What do you see now?” he asks, bending to take the hem of her shift.
Morgana centers her thoughts. She wants him, badly, but she wants him more at her side than inside her, wants the strength of his magic and his name more than she wants the aching emptiness between her legs filled and the pressure of arousal released. “You kneeling at my feet.”
He stands, yanking the shift up. She lets him until it catches on her breasts and then she does the rest herself. “I do not kneel to you,” Merlin says. “I—”
She cups him through his breeches because this conversation is getting tedious and his protest of loyalty breaks off in a groan. He’s more than half-hard already, despite the stuttering pace, and heat wells through her. “You kneel to no one,” she says tiredly, and starts untying the laces. “Except Arthur.” His cock jerks hard against her hand at that, as if that thought is a spell instead of a reminder of something deeper and more deadly. “And yet, here we are.”
Merlin steps back before she finishes with his breeches, runs his fingers down the forming bruises along her throat. She braces herself against a moss-covered tree and lets him, willing herself to ignore the unsteadiness in her knees. His hands—beautiful hands—skim from her breasts to her belly to her hips, without tenderness.
They’ve never had tenderness between them, not quite.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Merlin says, because in spite of everything he’s still Merlin, and Morgana laughs, harsh and broken.
“You don’t give a damn whether you hurt me or not.”
Maybe it’s supposed to be punishment when he pushes her thighs apart and slides two fingers into her without any further warning, but she’s tingling with the energy from their fight, slick and ready, and she doesn’t bother to hold back a moan. He bites his lip and she fights to keep her eyes open, to watch him, but then he gives her a third finger and she feels it through her whole body, shudders around him and grits her teeth so she doesn’t say anything she’ll regret.
“God,” he mutters, and strokes across her with his thumb, circling over her clit, and she clutches at him because the tree isn’t enough anymore, she’s falling, and he crooks his fingers inside her, kisses her almost sweetly, again and—“Stay with us,” she gasps, because it needs to be said—again as he works her inside and out until all the tension coiled inside her breaks and she comes, clenching around his fingers and biting the corner of his mouth.
“I can’t stay,” Merlin says, fumbling his breeches down. “I’m Arthur’s.”
Morgana looks at his shining fingers, his bloodied lip, the marks of her nails all over his arms, and has to fight to keep from laughing. She reaches for him instead, pulls him against her and curls her hand around his cock, a few strokes until precome glints at the tip and he’s repeating her name—like a prayer, like a spell, like he doesn’t dare say anything else—and then she takes pity and guides him into her. Maybe she could have made him promise something first, if she’d tried, but there is nothing she can do to make him mean it.
He rocks against her and she pushes back and says “We need you,” licking along the line of his jaw, sucking on the knob of his throat as she runs her hands along the subtle muscles of his back, and he says “So does Arthur” and cups her breasts in his hands, presses her nipples between his fingers and sends sparks flying through her body. Her nails drag down his back, hard, and his rhythm falters—for a moment he just stands there shaking, panting for breath, and Morgana feels molten and wicked and beautiful.
“Finish me,” she says, demands, and Merlin stares at her with lust-blank eyes and then moves again, slowly, running his skilled ungentle hands over her body, touching her everywhere in all the ways he’s learned, winding the heat higher and higher around her until she shatters, raking her nails down his back again as she comes. He follows with something that might have been a curse muttered underneath his breath.
Morgana half-slides down the tree trunk, legs trembling, and leans over to pick up her shift. Merlin is lacing up his breeches. She’s proud of the fact that her voice is almost perfectly even when she says, “Tomorrow.”
“I’m going to stop you,” Merlin says.
“You’re going to try.”
He turns away and she watches the red lines down his back shift and sway as he pulls his shirt back on. Whatever they’ll say afterwards about this battle, the first blood was shed here.