When Morgana was taken - when Morgana left Camelot the first time, Uther ordered that her room should remain undisturbed, except for the removal of dust so everything would be ready for her return. Gwen did more than that; she put up fresh flowers every week, and every week Arthur watched her remove the dried, crumbled flowers like the remnants of dried up hope. Watched her replace them with new ones, propped up with the stubborn hope which they both shared.
There are no flowers in Morgana's room when she leaves for the second time, and Uther is not in a condition to order anything anymore. Still, this is where Arthur finds himself after Camelot is his once more and all immediate emergencies are taken care of. In Morgana's room, full of her dresses, jewelry, her favourite fragrances, even the sheath of the dagger he'd given her for her last birthday, if not the dagger itself.
A part of him wants her to come in and tell him he's been dreaming, that everything after he saw her with the crown on her head and Uther kneeling at her feet has been a nightmare. Her nightmare, one of those dreams that used to frighten her so much she woke up screaming, warnings pouring out of her like cascades of blood from an open wound.
There is a lot of blood in the courtyard of Camelot right now. Not from the battle, for most of the knights who fought for Morgana and Morgause were the living dead. No, the blood comes from the people who died because Morgana ordered them shot, according to what Arthur has been told by Leon.
He sits down on Morgana's bed. There are so many explanation he has already grasped, as shields against this new truth he doesn't understand, and discarded because he knows them to be false or insufficient. His first instinct had been to blame Morgause. After all, he knows, none better, how persuasive Morgause can be. If she could make him believe that his father had killed his mother, she could have made Morgana believe anything, Arthur had thought, and had remembered the desperate rage that had filled him then and the awareness that yes, he could do it. He could kill his father.
But it had not been Morgause who had ordered those arrows directed at the crowd. And he knows it had not been Morgause who had chosen to keep his father prisoner and make him watch rather than kill him. Morgause is a warrior; her instinct would have been to have his father dead as soon as possible, so that her conquest of Camelot was irrevocable. It had not been Morgause who had visited Uther in the dungeon to fling her hate in his face.
Arthur remembers the one time he had seen the Great Dragon before the beast was freed. He'd been a child, and his father had brought him to the caverns deep below Camelot.
This is what we're fighting, my son. This is magic in its true form. Never forget that, Uther had declared while the dragon had been spewing fire and hate. Arthur had been young enough not to know he had to hide his fear when the dragon rushed towards them, clinging to his father, but then he had noticed the chains holding the dragon, drawing him back, and the raw flesh around them.
Why don't you just kill him, he had wanted to ask his father, why does he have to live like this, but then he'd seen the Great Dragon's flames mirrored in his father's eyes. The expression on Uther's face, the deep satisfaction in it had been as chilling as the sight of the dragon.
Arthur had seen that same expression on Morgana's face in the throne room as Uther knelt in front of her, and he'd known then that what she said was true. Uther is her father in blood as well as raising. And every single one of her actions is her own.
When Morgana first comes to live with them at Camelot, Arthur is jealous because his father makes so much of her, and because Morgana, who is two years older than Arthur, is always ready to answer the king instead of feeling simultaneously thrilled and afraid to disappoint him every time he addresses her, which is what happens to Arthur on a regular basis.
"The Lady Morgana lost both of her parents," Gaius says to Arthur as if able to read Arthur's thoughts. As a child, Arthur believes this is what healers are able to do. "It is most generous and knightly to share your father with her."
This makes him feel better, but his jealousy does not completely fade until he finds Morgana slapping a servant, which is very unusual. She's really good at getting the servants to do what she wants without as much as raising her voice, which is a trick Arthur hasn't mastered yet. And Morgana has called him a brute more than once for yelling at them.
As it turns out, the servant in question claimed that Lord Gorlois' death in battle had not come about by a simple twist of fate; apparently, there is a rumour that King Uther had arranged for his death. Of course, this cannot possibly be true, because Arthur's father is the source of all justice, but Morgana is so upset that she goes from slapping the servant and crying to lashing out at Arthur as well. He doesn't manage to duck in time, and in the aftermath of her fingers hitting his face, they stare at each other. He's too stunned to be angry at her. The servant takes her chance and runs.
"It's not true," he says because that was what he was going to say before she hit him.
"Of course it isn't," she whispers. "If it were, I'd have to kill you, you and your father both. I don't want to."
He can understand that she would have to kill him. After all, his father is killing all the magicians in the land for killing his mother.
"Don't worry," he offers. "You couldn't."
Something of Morgana's usual disdainful look returns to her face.
"Of course I could. If I wanted to. "
"No," Arthur says, and takes her hand so she can't hit him again, because if she did that, he'd have to hit her back. While he firmly intends to beat her at their next sparring session, no matter how good she is and how much more experienced, he can't imagine striking her face. "You couldn't. We're your family now. You don't kill your family."
She makes her fingernails into claws, but while that hurts, he doesn't let go, and then, to his surprise, she takes his other hand.
"You're such a stupid boy," she says, squeezes both of his hands and does not let go.
He's fifteen, and she's seventeen when Morgana asks him what it is like to kill. She doesn't ask him what it's like to see people die, because both of them know that and have done long before Uther had started to take Arthur into battle. There aren't that many executions in the courtyard anymore; most of the witches and warlocks appear to be gone for good. But it still happens once or twice a year.
"You mustn't look away," Uther has told them, more than once. "The King is the ultimate source of justice in the land. It can be a hard duty, but a duty it is, and neither the King nor his family can be allowed to be weak in its execution."
So they both know what death looks like from a distance.
He doesn't really want to talk about what it looks like up close, and he knows that gives him away to Morgana, because modesty in anything he can do is not something he's famous for. The first time he won a tournament ended in him informing the entire castle of that fact, despite most of them having been present at the event itself.
"It's your life or the other man's," Arthur replies. "You don't think much about it. Simple as that."
"Uther says you were leading a raid against a camp of druids, and that you made him proud," Morgana remarks. She's probing; she can't know. Not even if the king did indeed tell her about this, because Uther doesn't know more than what Arthur reported, either, which was that they won and the druids lost.
"I didn't think the druids were good at armed combat," Morgana says, and Arthur wants to yell at her to shut up, but if he does that, she won't ever let it go. He knows her.
"They weren't," he says with gritted teeth. "That's why they lost."
"And you killed them anyway."
He can't talk about it. It wasn't supposed to be like this. They were supposed to be murderers, the lot of them, in the process of plotting the torture and doom of innocents and armed with sinister powers beyond comprehension. Not a couple of families who didn't look much different from the people of Camelot he was sworn to protect. And the knights of Camelot are supposed to fight monsters or soldiers, that's whom he is supposed to lead them against. Not a bunch of helpless - but they weren't helpless. It just has to have been a trick. His father said "you stopped them in time, before they could harm anyone", and Arthur tries to believe that with all his heart. It has to be true. If it isn't true, then he is no better than any of the people executed for murder in Camelot.
Neither the King nor his family can be allowed to be weak.
But he has been weak. He is weak. They are dead, and he still can't get the screams out of his head.
"What did that feel like? Weren't you even a bit sorry for them?"
"It felt like doing my duty," Arthur says woodenly.
"Gods," Morgana says disgustedly. "You don't have a thought of your own in your head, do you?"
People assume one of three things about Morgana and Uther's plans for her. As she's his ward and one of the richest heiresses in the land, they think she will be married to further an alliance with one of the five kingdoms of Albion. One of the more outrageous rumours has it Uther is thinking of asking the Romans to come back to Britain; that he'll offer Morgana to Byzantium in exchange for an army to make himself High King.
But time passes, and while there are plenty of offers, Uther never opens negotiations with any of the suitors for Morgana's hand. This furthers the other rumour: that the king will marry his ward to his son. It makes sense, people say. She's the apple of his eye, and this way, he will not have to lose her. Besides, this way, he could not only raise the next king of Camelot, but also the next queen.
There is yet another speculation, held by only the most reckless of gossipers: the King plans on ending his long grief for Ygraine and on marrying the Lady Morgana himself.
Uther never says anything about any of this to either Morgana or Arthur. But they are aware of the chatter.
"You'd have to be the last man on earth before I'd marry you," Morgana tells Arthur in a rare peaceful moment, as he's escorting her to her annual pilgrimage to Gorlois' tomb.
"Good luck with some eunuch in Byzantium then," he shoots back, half insulted, and half amused despite himself. He's not serious. His father will never send Morgana that far away, Arthur knows that. Morgana lets him help her onto the horse, and then says:
"I'd make a splendid Empress, I'll have you know. I'll even let you be my champion, because you need some better causes to fight for."
"Some Empire in the East where they have slaves and pestilences is a better cause than Camelot?" Arthur asks.
"Getting me a throne and a realm to rule is the best cause of them all," Morgana retorts at her most haughty, and then she ruins the effect by smirking. Soon, they're both laughing before spurring their horses to a little race.
It is a good day.
Arthur can't remember about the first time Morgana sees him dead in her dreams. It happens during Sophia's presence in his life, and anything from this period is blurred, a collection of fevered feelings without any concrete events to anchor them to, as if he'd been in a dream as well. But he remembers the second time it happens, when she races through the castle to warn him. He feels her pulse racing under his fingers as he catches her wrists, and so much more.
There is embarrassment, because his men are around him, and he can just imagine what they'd say if he sent them to their deaths against the Questing Beast while staying at home because of his foster-sister's bad dream. There is also stark terror. Not for his life. Oh, he's afraid for his life, too, any sane man would be given the monster's previous killing score, but he's used to dealing with that kind of fear. He's mastered the trick of hiding it for years.
No, the new terror he's feeling is about something else entirely. Because if this isn't just a bad dream Morgana has been having, if she's truly able to see the future, this means she has magic. If she has magic, she falls under the same laws of Camelot that have brought so many to death. Except that this is Morgana. He's known her for most of his life. He loves her. Maybe not as a future wife, maybe as a sister, but he loves her, and he can't believe ill of her. He can't imagine harming her, not ever.
One law for Morgana, one for all the others, though: that would not be just. It would make the terrible duty his father has always defined their actions against magic users as into the arbitrary actions of a tyrant.
Therefore, Morgana cannot have magic.
Arthur remembers how she protected the druid boy only a few weeks earlier. He remembers the desperation in her eyes when he caught her. He remembers smuggling the child out of Camelot himself, that silent child, held closely in his arms, a bargain with fate, not just for Morgana's sake but for the memory of a camp years ago, of other children. Hasn't he already started to make exceptions?
Murder is murder is murder. One life cannot replace another. Maybe Morgana dreams of his death because he has not carried out justice, he carried out his father's vengeance.
But if he's a murderer, then so is his father, and this cannot be.
Therefore, Morgana cannot have magic.
Aredian does much harm in the short time he stays in Camelot. To Gaius, most of all; but he also proves how easy it is to accuse people of magic unjustly. How easy it is to draw the wrong conclusions.
Which inevitably makes Arthur wonder how many people Aredian has wrongfully accused in the past. How many who didn't have a Guinevere to speak up for them? And who could blame people for not speaking up, if it would only get them accused themselves?
There is still a point in having laws against magic. Between plagues slaying hundreds of people, undead knights, monsters and greedy trolls bent in squeezing the kingdom dry, Arthur has seen too much evidence for the damage magic can do not to believe that. But the lethal, final dimension of the law; he can't justify this to himself any longer.
Perhaps the most disturbing moment of the entire Aredian affair came early on, when Aredian accused Gaius of having been a magic user, and his father without as much as flinching confirmed that this had been so, informing Arthur that Gaius had given up magic long ago.
"If people can just give up using magic," Arthur says to Morgana, who hasn't spoken two words to him during the entire time Aredian was at court and is even paler than usual, "then how can we justify..."
Not giving them that chance, he wants to continue. If Gaius could reform, anyone could. Anyone can. And this means the laws themselves have to be changed.
"You're not really surprised about Gaius, are you?" Morgana asks bitterly, though she can't have known about Gaius' past anymore than Arthur had before Aredian's arrival. He thinks Merlin knew, but then Merlin loves Gaius as a father, so it's not surprising he kept Gaius' secret.
"Of course I am!"
Because if Uther could spare Gaius at the height of his crusade against magic, without having yet any proof of Gaius' ability to reform, it means his father has always had two laws for magic users. One for his friends, one for his enemies. Right from the start.
"I can never decide who the better liar is," Morgana says. "You or your father. He lies to others, and you, you're so good at lying to yourself."
He can't talk to her if she's in that mood, and so he leaves. Much later, he wonders whether this was when he lost her. Whether if he'd stayed, if he'd forced himself to voice the growing doubts to her, whether she'd then have confided in him in turn. But he doesn't stay, and only a few days later, Morgause arrives at court. Which changes everything.
As long as he lives, Arthur won't be able to forget what Morgause gave him. The greatest gift as the greatest curse: his mother, his dead mother, killed by giving life to him, whatever else about her death is true. Everything the image of Ygraine says falls on the seed of doubts that have grown in his heart and brings them to terrible fruit. For a few hours, he lives in another reality; the one where his father is everything his enemies ever accused him of being, a murderer and a liar, and so is Arthur himself. It ends when he has his sword at his father's throat and a choice to make. His living father or the image of his mother; Merlin or Morgause.
Love or hate, because that's what it comes down to.
"I loved your mother," his father says, and in his familiar, so familiar voice are all the years of their life together, tightly wound around and through Arthur as the veins carrying his blood. His father's blood. His mother's blood.
"Morgause is a liar. That was not your mother you saw," Merlin says, and if this is true, then there is still a way to love them both, father and mother. He sinks under the weight of choice, and feels his father's lips on his head.
Morgana comes to him late at night, white gown making her look like a ghost. As she had that day she ran after him to talk of his death, but his death isn't what she wants to talk about this time.
"I dreamt you had Uther at swordspoint," she says. "But they would have told me if he died, and besides, you'd never do it, so my dreams were wrong. Again. I suppose I should be glad."
He says nothing, and her eyes narrow.
"I'd have done it," she says.
"No, you wouldn't," he returns, and this, at least, he can still state with conviction. She flinches, as if he had accused her of something shameful.
"I wouldn't," she admits. "But the difference between us is that you think that is a good thing."
When Arthur finds Morgana in the woods after a year of absence, she appears drained at first. Not just exhausted but drained of all the anger and fear she showed in the months before Morgause took her from Camelot. But she regains her old vitality, and more than that. There is a renewed playfulness in her that had almost vanished after her childhood.
There are other changes that only become apparent with time. She doesn't argue with Uther anymore. Instead, she's affectionate and agreeable towards him to an unprecedented degree. Uther, of course, is ecstatic, especially after having missed her for so long, and for his part avoids any quarrel as well, giving in to her every whim. When Arthur makes a remark about that to Morgana, because much as he used to hate seeing them at odds all the time, this relentless harmony has something disconcerting to it, she laughs.
"Are you back to being jealous again? " she asks. "You have no need. You're his son."
There is something hard in her eyes, like polished ice as she adds: "Morgause even said he paid for you with the blood of your mother. A captor's tale to taunt her captive, no doubt, but you know... I could almost believe it. "
It's the first time she has said anything about her time with Morgause other than that it was horrible.
"I couldn't," Arthur says.
"He would never," Arthur says, voicing for the first time since it happened what he's told himself again and again in feelings more than in words, "do this to someone he loves. And he loved her. You know he did. He still does. He never stopped."
"As he loves you, and he loves me. And yet," Morgana says, still in a brittle, playful tone, but at last her old anger is audible again, "I seem to recall he locked you in the dungeons once and would have let your servant die to teach you a lesson. And he put me in irons for an entire night for the same reason."
They look at at each other, and he remembers all too well. He knows what the lesson was, too. It wasn't as much about obedience to the king as it was about putting other people before him. There are many reasons why Arthur has kept his relationship with Guinevere a secret; Gwen's lowly birth is but one of them.
"There is a difference," Arthur says. "Between that and killing. A world of difference."
A ripple goes across her face, and it goes still again. She leans forward and kisses him as his father did on the day of ghosts and choices: a kiss to mark.
"You're right," she says peaceably. "He'd never. Any more than I would."
A week later, she gives him the talisman that, as they tell him much later when she's gone for the second and final time, would have drained him of his life, to pay for her crown.
In a way, Uther never leaves the dungeon Morgana locks him in. Or else he chooses to stay. His silence, save for a very few nonsensical mutterings, seems to be absolute. Gaius says it's possible he'll stay this way for the rest of his life, however long that may last. In practical terms, it means Arthur will be king from this point onwards, but it also means his father will never have to answer any question again.
Not about Ygraine, or how his love for her still allowed Uther to betray her - by adultery at least if nothing else, a crime for which he has other members of the nobility executed. Not about Gorlois, and Gorlois' wife.
Not about Morgana.
"I knew I'd find you here," Guinevere says to Arthur, and he's not surprised she came to Morgana's room as well. Gwen, of course, has witnessed most of Morgana's short reign. There was a time when she was Morgana's shadow. There was a time when nothing had made Morgana as happy as knowing Gwen was sound and safe.
"I loved her once," Gwen says, sitting down next to him and he remembers how they had held each other, crying, as they had believed Morgana would die earlier this year. "But she did not even remember how my father had died before I reminded her. I - I don't think we are real to her anymore. Any of us. Is that was magic does?"
That would have been his explanation, too, once upon a time. But he thinks about his father, who has shut the reality he cannot bear away again, this time by removing himself from it instead of removing others. He thinks about bargains, truth and lies, and the child Morgana breaking his skin with her nails and making him bleed but not letting him go.
He thinks about the deaths his father ordered, the deaths Morgana ordered, and about the blood on his own hands.
Morgana in her proclamation when taking the throne has taken the name Pendragon for the first time. He has a feeling she'll never let it go again.
"I don't think it was magic," he says.
He still doesn't understand it all. Some of it more than he wants to, but other parts not at all. Still, he can't pretend, not to himself nor to Gwen, that this Morgana is someone else; that she is not the same girl, the same woman.
Gwen's fingers steal into his, and he's reminded again how strong her hand is; all the work throughout her life providing as many calluses as sword fights did for his own.
"Don't lock this room up again," she says, and he knows she's thinking of his father doing just that. For Ygraine's room, for Morgana's. Trying to freeze the past forever. Arthur shakes his head. In all the turmoil of disbelief, raw regret and anger, he had imagined destroying everything this room held, but now that he's actually there he can't do that, either.
Guinevere looks at him and bites her lower lip, then says: "I've seen a lot more orphans, widows and widowers today. And nobody has counted all the dead yet. "
He knows what she means. Even if Morgana came back, wanting a genuine reconciliation, as opposed to another chance at the throne, he could not take her back without telling every citizen of Camelot their lives were worth less than the prince's - than the king's feelings for his sister. There was nothing in this room which could ever be present instead of past again.
Well, not to Morgana, his father and himself.
"You would know better than I do," Arthur says, "but - do you think Gaius can use an additional room for the infirmary?"
A few days later, when rebuilding efforts in the entire city and surrounding countryside have been coordinated, he starts patrols with his new knights to familiarize those who aren't from Camelot or, like Gwen's brother Elyan, haven't lived there for a long time, with the lay of the land. They haven't left the lower city before he spots one of the guards' widows wearing a familiar dress while using what used to be drapery from Morgana's bed as a temporary replacement for her destroyed door. It stings, and it is soothing; both at the same time. He has no doubt that by now, Gwen and Merlin will have found new owners for every single item, while the room itself is filled with the recovering wounded who do not care who used to live there. It is done.
"A new day, Sire," Lancelot says. Out of the corner of his eye, he can spot Gwaine smiling at the widow who ignores him yet does not appear to be angry, either.