Morgana smiled, vacuous and bright, at the assembled company as she pulled Gwen aside to whisper, "Surely it must be me who has altered; Sir Gareth simply could not have become this much more intolerably insipid since his last visit without bending the laws of nature." Never actually enjoyable, these revels had, in the last few months, reduced somehow from being at least something new, a break in the endless rhythm of days, to being instead an unwelcome intrusion.
Gwen carefully did not smile as she responded, "It's been an eventful year. These smaller breaks in routine are not as significant as they once were."
"Yes," Morgana paused to consider before continuing, "There is also Merlin to consider." Her wandering attention snagged against Arthur, who, from the expression on Merlin's face, was in truly obnoxious form. Arthur settled back with a certain degree of smug satisfaction. The equal degree of satisfaction glimmering in Merlin's eyes affirmed Morgana's belief that there was far more to him than the bumbling fool Arthur described and Uther saw. "Merlin's been good for Arthur." Morgana's pleasure in this was dimmed slightly by the vague but persistent feeling that something had changed for the worse in her own relationship with Merlin, and she frowned.
"Do you know what I might have done to offend him?"
"Offend Arthur?" Gwen asked tentatively.
Morgana snorted. "Am I really likely to trouble myself over Arthur's opinion of anything?" she demanded incredulously. Turning to look back at where Merlin retreated to the wall, Morgana shook her head slightly. "No. Merlin."
"Is Merlin offended, my lady?" Startled by the idea, Gwen nearly lost track of the wine she was pouring. Focused once again on the goblet in Morgana's hand, she continued quietly, "I have seen no loss of warmth in his regard for you."
"He is as warm and gracious as ever, but there is a reserve that hasn't been previously evident." Morgana sighed and shifted uneasily. "At least, I think there is." Taking her own turn to stare into her goblet, Morgana fretted, "There was a moment…" Morgana paused, frowning. "I had terrible nightmares even after Arthur was no longer dying, but I couldn't see them clearly. I tried to warn Merlin that whatever was going on wasn't over yet, and he pulled away from me." Morgana looked over at her maid. "I didn't understand the look on his face, Gwen, but I see it now whenever we talk." Morgana shook her head. It wasn't… Gaius lied to her and Gwen feared for her. Merlin was the only one who both believed in her dreams and believed that the outcome could be changed. Losing that comfort would be intolerable.
Gwen eyed her mistress with concern. "Are you sure whatever reaction you saw was directed at you? That was a terrible time, and Merlin, though he wouldn't like to admit it, is terribly fond of Arthur." Gwen blinked suddenly and stuttered, "Not that you aren't fond of Arthur. I didn't mean that, exactly…" Trailing off at the expression on Morgana's face, Gwen's lips twitched a little as she corrected herself, "Not of course that you bear him any more affection than duty requires."
Morgana grinned fondly at her maid. "Of course not."
"Perhaps you should talk to Merlin about it?" Gwen suggested. "I mean, if you are sure there is a problem."
Morgana considered this suggestion. "Well, my internal wittering on the subject has become exceedingly tiresome. Any more of it and I will be forced to compare myself unfavourably to Arthur."
Yes, the time had clearly come to talk to Merlin.
Leaning close, Merlin laid his hand atop hers. "Morgana, I…"
Morgana glanced up at the noise in the doorway to see Arthur's eyes fixed on Merlin's hand covering hers before they snapped up to Merlin's face. "If you've quite finished making up to the lady's of the court," Arthur snapped icily, "perhaps you would consent to undertake your assigned duties?"
Merlin rolled his eyes at Morgana with a slight grin before turning to Arthur with obviously spurious obedience, "Of course, sire," and bowed himself out of the room.
Arthur turned his narrowed eyes from Merlin's retreating form to Morgana and demanded, "Haven't you your own servant to importune?"
"I was expressing concern for a friend." Morgana smirked, "Not everyone is as socially inept as you are, Arthur."
Arthur snorted, "In future, be so kind as to limit your expressions of concern to times when you will not be distracting my already incompetent buffoon of a servant from his assigned tasks."
Brows raised, Morgana watched indignantly as Arthur swept from the room.
Morgana leapt from her bed and straightened her clothes with more efficiency than grace. Flying out of the room, she raced down the hall to the physician's chambers. Bursting through the door, she demanded of Gaius, "Where is Merlin?"
Interminably slowly, Gaius looked up at Morgana curiously. "With Arthur, I'm sure. What is it, my lady?"
Smiling tightly in apology to her old friend, Morgana spun on her heel and flew out the door. How she wished her dreams were clear about the triggering events rather than just the consequences.
This time of day Arthur would certainly be with the king in his audience chamber. Morgana hauled herself to a halt outside the chamber and made a brief effort to compose herself. Sweeping into the room with all the regal attitude at her command, Morgana scanned the room for Arthur and Merlin. Spotting Merlin at last, she curtsied perfunctorily at Uther and headed swiftly over to the vicinity of Arthur and his servant.
Merlin seemed completely absorbed in staring suspiciously at Sir Gareth's prospective son-in-law. To be fair, he really did seem to be a little shifty. Simultaneous to her coming to this vague conclusion, Lord Euric ripped a pendant from his neck and cast it at Arthur.
Merlin's eyes flashed gold, his hand flew up with a repelling movement, and the pendant flew back to bounce instead against Euric's feet. She barely noticed the resulting explosion. This was the reason she saw Merlin burning in the pyre. Morgana carefully contained her urge to sigh; the pendant reversing its course in mid-air was hardly subtle.
Throwing herself against Merlin hard enough to make him stumble, she pointed out the empty window and cried, "Sorcerer!"
Arthur turned to stare incredulously as she clung to Merlin's gawky frame. He had no chance to comment, however, in the face of Uther's ringing command to find the sorcerer. Casting her eyes around the room, the only pair she found paying any mind to Merlin belonged to the dazed Euric. He needed discrediting and quickly.
"Arthur," Morgana called urgently. "That pendant should be examined by Gaius unless you know of a reason why he needed to throw it at you." Turning to the king, she said stridently, "I was distressed by the sight of a sorcerer's staff but the person I saw outside may have saved Arthur."
"No doubt for some nefarious purpose of his own," Uther growled. Directing his next remark at Arthur, he snapped, "Take the pendant to Gaius, but see that the other sorcerer is apprehended."
Morgana met Merlin's wide eyes as Arthur swiftly left the room.
"I dreamed of you on the pyre," Morgana said quietly, "and I know what I saw." She laid her hand on his arm. "You cannot possibly imagine that I intend to betray you to the king."
Merlin twitched and swallowed convulsively. He was clearly struggling to find some convincing way to deny what she knew. Morgana's lips tightened. "What have I done to lose your faith in me?" Dropping her hand from his arm, she stepped back sadly. "I had thought that we were friends."
"We are," Merlin protested vehemently. "We are," he reiterated softly. "I just…" Finally raising his eyes to look at her directly, Merlin took a breath to continue firmly, "I cannot allow myself to betray the king more than I already do by existing." Morgana opened her mouth to protest, but Merlin shook his head. "We are too much alike, my lady. We want immediate solutions to every problem, and we don't always consider the entire cost in our quest to find them." Merlin shifted uncomfortably. "When Gwen's father was killed," he began and Morgana felt her stomach clench. Merlin took an unsteady breath and started again, "When Gwen's father was killed, I followed you. I followed you and heard your conversation with Tauren."
Morgana stepped back involuntarily. "Why didn't you tell anyone?"
Merlin's lips twisted. "I wasn't sure you were wrong. It took Gwen to convince me. Gwen, of all people." Merlin shook his head. "I'm afraid of the lines we'd cross on our own. We both changed our minds at the last minute this time, but we might not have, and I…" Merlin looked away with a grimace. "I… I'm still hoping someday to be able to tell Arthur."
Morgana closed the distance between them and grasped Merlin by the wrist. "Then let us make a pact that we will check in with Gwen or Gaius before we act." Meeting his eyes intensely, she declared urgently, "I cannot go back to being alone – not when you are…"
"Arthur," Merlin interrupted with a grin directed over Morgana's shoulder.
Turning with easy composure, Morgana asked, "Did you find your sorcerer?"
Arthur smiled coolly. "No one seems to have seen this sorcerer but you, Morgana." Eyes widening in exaggerated concern, he continued, "Perhaps you should talk to Gaius if your nightmares have turned into waking dreams."
Morgana raised a brow and asked solicitously, "Have you been dabbling in magic for long, Arthur?" In response to his impatient grimace, Morgana continued, "That pendant reversed its course in mid-air. If it wasn't the sorcerer that I saw, and if it wasn't you…" Morgana tilted her head and widened her eyes. "Perhaps it was Merlin." She forced herself not to react to the nervy gasp behind her.
Arthur snorted, "It's far more likely that Euric reversed it himself." Turning to face Merlin, Arthur remarked testily, "I was greatly surprised to learn that someone else fed my hounds this morning."
Merlin smiled angelically, "I was so excited at the prospect of seeing you in court that I switched duties with Gwen. Truly, sire, I was inspired."
Morgana ruthlessly interrupted, having no desire to remain an extraneous element in any conversation. "Well, I shall leave you to it. Arthur." Morgana nodded haughtily at Arthur before turning to smile warmly at Merlin, "We can finish our conversation later, Merlin," and swept off.
She had rounded two corners before she realized with considerable irritation that she was close to missing a meeting with the Steward back the direction from which she'd just come. Once again approaching the hall where she'd left them, she was astonished to see Arthur looming over Merlin.
Something about the intensity of the tableau froze her in the shadows of the junction of halls. Merlin, though bearing no sign of any particular intimidation, had backed up against the wall of the corridor. Arthur had one hand braced against the wall above Merlin's shoulder, hovering over Merlin - every muscle tense with menace. They lingered together, close enough to share breath and for too long to be casual. Merlin tilted his head in that way he had when he said something particularly provoking. The taut line of Arthur's jaw suggested that he largely growled his response.
Concerned that Arthur had suddenly decided to confront Merlin about his magic, she hurried forward. Much to her consternation, Merlin sort of gobbled at her and, sidling out as Arthur pulled away from the wall, left quickly for some duty or another. She turned to demand some explanation from Arthur, but he inexplicably commanded, "Have a care for your reputation, Morgana. My father will only indulge you so far," and stalked off.
Morgana raised her brow at Merlin as he trundled down the hall with a massive armload of… "Are those Arthur's draperies?"
Merlin scowled at her indignantly. "He's completely lost his mind. It's like he's declared war on dust, only he expects me to do all the fighting. He's seen me with weapons. He cannot possibly expect this to go well."
Containing her smirk with some effort, Morgana asked, "Has he offered any explanation for his sudden - and unprecedented, I promise you - obsession with cleanliness?"
"Some piffle about befitting his station and whatnot, but I think all the attention he's been getting has gone to his head and he's worried about losing his reputation for royal prattishness," Merlin grumbled. "That, and there's nothing that gives him greater pleasure than to make me skivvy for him."
Before Morgana could comment, Arthur's jovial voice sounded down the hall. Suddenly skittish, Merlin bowed perfunctorily and marched himself off to the laundry.
Catching sight of Morgana and Merlin's departing backside as he rounded the corner, Arthur's good humour seemingly vanished into mist.
Oh, Arthur, you ridiculous fool.
Mirth slowly overtook her astonishment, and Morgana wistfully suppressed her immediate desire to share this with Gwen.
Startled by Gwen's latest comment, Morgana glanced up from her account book as Gwen knelt to clear the ashes from the fireplace. Cautiously, she began, "I had thought..." When Morgana trailed off, Gwen turned to meet her eyes inquiringly. Searching Gwen's face for any sign of discomfort, Morgana said tentatively, "I had thought Merlin was a particular friend of yours."
Gwen smiled brightly, "He is, but I don't mind about Clarisse. She's..." Gwen's eyes widened, and she gasped out, "Oh. Oh, no. I don't... I mean, I quite like Merlin, but not..." Blushing, she stammered, "Well, I used to, of course, but, well, he isn't..." Gwen trailed off uncomfortably.
Morgana sighed a little in relief that the truths she was coming to see about Arthur and (perhaps) Merlin would not hurt her friend. "He isn't quite what you thought?" Morgana asked curiously.
"I'm not..." Gwen trailed off, thinking. "I don't think he ever really looked at me that way. Not the way he..." Gwen broke off abruptly, flushing. Almost desperately, she burst out, "He isn't quite what I thought, no. He's happier with Arthur." Gwen swallowed, "That isn't what I meant. Of course, that isn't what I meant. I mean that he's happier with adventure and danger and..." Gwen wound to a distressed stop at the sight of Morgana's covered face and shaking shoulders. "My lady?"
Morgana burst out into peals of laughter. When she finally wound down, she looked at Gwen's bewildered face and demanded, "When did you figure it out, and why hadn't you told me?"
Gwen's eyes widened. "I..."
Suffering her own realization, Morgana demanded, "Did you think I would be hurt?" Taking in the tentatively relieved expression on Gwen's face, Morgana concluded, "You did. Gwen." Morgana reached out an imperious hand.
"I have seen no indication that Arthur returns his regard, my lady," Gwen protested even as she moved at Morgana's direction.
Once Gwen came close Morgana confided quietly, "If ever I become queen of Camelot..." Her lips twisted wryly. "It will be bad enough that he is just king. To have him as king and husband?" Morgana shook her head sharply. "No."
Gwen's lips twisted with quickly hidden amusement.
"You're quite wrong, you know," Morgana murmured. "Arthur's quite ridiculous about Merlin."
"Is he?" Gwen's smile dawned bright across her face.
"Arthur has managed to acquire the impression that Merlin and I are engaged in a torrid affair. He's entirely enraged," Morgana snickered gleefully, "and you know he's far too arrogant to view a servant as a serious challenge." Voice rife with mischief and eyes dancing, Morgana pushed out the chair beside her and declared, "I must know all the details. How long has Merlin fancied Arthur?"
Gwen settled in and giggled, "Oh, I think almost from the beginning, but I don't think even he knew it until..."
Having seen Merlin hustling off on some, likely foolish, errand, Morgana sauntered into Arthur's rooms. "How lovely and clean your draperies are, Arthur. Planning to take someone to wife?"
Arthur turned from his seat on the window sill, eyebrow raised haughtily. "Why would I need a wife when I have a Merlin?"
Morgana smirked. "What pointless errand have you sent him off on, now?"
"I fail to see how that is any interest of yours," Arthur responded tartly.
"Why, he's a very dear friend, of course." Settling herself elegantly into a chair, Morgana watched in profound amusement as Arthur's jaw pulsed.
"Morgana," Arthur snapped warningly.
Morgana just grinned. "You really are a ridiculous fool. It certainly isn't me that Merlin keeps trying to throw away his life for."
"Isn't it?" Morgana asked mockingly. "When, exactly, did you start imagining that subtlety was part of Merlin's repertoire?"
"...is very fond of her friend," Morgana interrupted impatiently. "Why don't you just tell him?"
"Leave it alone, Morgana," Arthur snapped. "It's enough that you don't make a May game of yourself with him."
Rising regally from her seat, Morgana said coolly, "As much as there has always been to say to your discredit, I've never before felt the urge to call you a coward." Her hand on the door, she turned back to say quietly, "He won't approach you. He can barely conceive of you forgiving him for the magic."
Satisfied with the flabbergasted expression on Arthur's face, Morgana left and pulled the door closed behind her.
Morgana smiled as she passed Gwen in the hall. Behind her, she heard Gwen's startled, "Oh, I'm so sorry. I'll just..." and whirled back around, pressing against Gwen's back to peer into the room. Fervent eyes and deliciously flushed faces swung to glare at her from Arthur's chambers. Morgana slipped forward and slammed the door. Turning to Gwen, still close enough to feel her heat, Morgana grinned. She kept grinning until Gwen began to giggle, and then she had to rush the both of them off down the hall.
It wouldn't do to make Arthur stop to kill them. Not at all.