Arthur smiled blandly across the table. Morgana was beginning to feel disturbed: he'd had the same expression for five days running, even though Uther's breakfast conversations had consisted of border patrols, the logistics of expanding the palace guard, settlements for two minor lords' quarrels, and the projected figures for this year's harvest tithe. Morgana knew for a fact that Arthur hated figures; it was why he'd been meeting with her over a midday meal every other week for the last four years, although he hadn't actually had to badger her into doing them for him after the first time.
Her eyes flicked to Merlin, standing a few paces behind Arthur's chair. His shoulders were tense, and he was looking quite attentively at the opposite wall rather than any point in Arthur's general vicinity. He smiled when he caught her glance, but it was strained. Morgana frowned thoughtfully. Perhaps she should ask Gwen to attend her-
"Is something troubling you, Morgana?" Uther asked.
"No, it's nothing," Morgana replied. "I've just been feeling a bit... restless, lately."
"Well." Uther cleared his throat gruffly, his hand closing briefly over hers. "Be sure to see Gaius if you're feeling unwell."
"Yes, of course."
Merlin moved to refill their cups in the ensuing awkward silence, risking a comforting hand on Morgana's shoulder as he passed her. Across the table, Arthur's eyes sharpened at last, but Merlin steadfastly refused to meet his gaze.
Not for the first time, Morgana contemplated locking the two of them in the dungeons together until they'd managed to talk things out.
Morgana discovered Gwen at the training yard, emptying her water buckets into the trough.
"It's a bit early for that, isn't it?"
Gwen smiled, but her eyes lingered on the field. "Well, this is the fourth round Arthur's gone without giving them a break."
"Today wasn't supposed to be a heavy training day, was it?"
"I'm sure I wouldn't know, milady, but Sir Bedivere mentioned that it's been like this for weeks."
Morgana raised an eyebrow, watching as Arthur disarmed Sir Gawain with a contemptuous flick of his wrist, his swordpoint aimed at Gawain's gorget. "Next!" he shouted.
There was a general shuffling of feet, but no one stepped forward. Arthur's face clouded, his jaw set mulishly.
Morgana sighed and walked into the yard, holding out her hand. "May I borrow that, Sir Cador?" she asked sweetly.
"Excuse me?" Arthur sputtered.
"Gentlemen," Morgana said, ignoring him grandly, "Gwen's brought water for you all. You've been working so hard these last few days; please, do take the rest of the afternoon and get some proper rest."
"Morgana," Arthur gritted, "what are you doing?"
"Well, I was feeling so nostalgic all of a sudden, I thought I'd come down for a practice bout." Morgana studied her nails. "It's been far too long since I've beat you in a skirt, don't you think?"
"All right, dismissed," Arthur said brusquely. "Cador! If you'd be so kind as to lend the Lady Morgana your sword, I'll see that it gets returned to your squire."
"Of course, Highness." Morgana inclined her head graciously as Cador pressed the hilt into her palm; he gave her an uneasy look and retreated quickly to the water trough.
She hefted the sword experimentally, smiled at Arthur, and attacked. For once, Arthur didn't hold back, despite her position and her lack of armor; she could feel the pent-up aggression in him with each blow she parried. Morgana welcomed the familiar rush of adrenaline through her body with a deep satisfaction. They were well-matched, still; despite Arthur's breadth of combat experience, she was still the better swordsman, and she knew him well enough to read the tells that nobody else could catch.
Her skirt caught briefly beneath her heel, and she stumbled. Arthur struck at her, but missed the opening; the edge of her blade jarred against his crossguard. Morgana disarmed him with a wrench. "Better," she said, wiping the sweat from her eyes.
"Bollocks," Arthur panted. "I should have had you there."
"Yes, well." She smiled wryly. "Someday soon, I won't be able to beat you. I have to savor these moments while I still can, you know."
"Clotpole. How's Merlin doing, by the way?"
His face closed off. "Fine, I'm sure." Morgana blinked in surprise as he stalked away; she felt unsettled and vaguely sorry.
"Gwen?" Morgana opened the door to her chamber, running a hand through her hair distractedly.
Gwen looked up, abandoning the contents of her laundry basket. "Yes, milady?"
"Has Merlin said anything to you about Arthur recently?"
"About Ar- Prince Arthur? No, he hasn't. We haven't spoken much at all lately; Gaius seems to be keeping him busy."
Morgana frowned. "Gaius? Not Arthur?"
"Well, I don't know for certain, but mostly I see him with his arms full of baskets of herbs rather than chain mail. When I see him, that is." Gwen bent to pick up the clean linens, tucking dried lavender into the folds. "Why? Has something happened?"
"Not exactly, no. It's just that Arthur's been rather... moody."
"Ah." Gwen winced. "Yes, I'd noticed that. I'll try and have a talk with Merlin."
"Please, do. I'll make up an excuse for you if necessary."
"Thank you." Gwen ducked her head in acknowledgment and turned to put the sheets in the closet. There was a cluster of tiny flowers tucked behind her ear, white and fragrant. Morgana raised an eyebrow, brushing a finger across the soft petals.
"Why, Gwen, what's this?" she teased gently. "Have you met someone I ought to know about?"
Gwen stiffened at the touch and turned around with a flustered smile. "Oh- it's nothing, nothing at all. I'm sorry, milady, I really must be going." She bobbed a swift curtsey and hurried out of the room.
Morgana stood stunned for a moment, staring at the empty doorway. She glanced down at her fingers, where the scent of the flowers still lingered, then at the empty vase on her bedside table. "Surely not?" she murmured.
But Gwen hadn't confided in her for a very long while. Morgana rubbed at the crease between her brows, which was looking more and more like a permanent fixture these days.
Well, this wouldn't do at all. However, given the ragged state of Camelot's defenders, Merlin and Arthur's business would have to be dealt with first. She'd find an opportunity to hash things out with Gwen later; for now, it was time to stage an Intervention.
Gwen closed the door and slumped against it with a sigh.
Morgana grimaced. "That bad?"
"Worse, I think." Gwen came to sit beside her at the foot of the bed. "Merlin's so cheerful most of the time that I didn't even know he had a worse. Usually we can talk to each other about anything, but once he changed the subject to pustules rather than talk about Arthur-"
"Oh dear," Morgana said faintly.
"He was beginning to sound like one of Gaius's diagnoses."
"Clearly, something needs to be done."
"If you have any ideas, I'd love to entertain them."
"Well." Morgana laughed a little. "I can't believe I'm actually saying this, but- we could lock them in the dungeons together?"
Gwen turned to look at her, perfectly serious. "How?"
"Are you sure you want to do this, milady?" Gwen said dubiously, watching as Morgana doctored the pitcher of ale.
"Don't worry; it won't harm the guards. It's the same sleeping potion Gaius makes for me."
"That's not exactly what I meant."
"Merlin and Arthur?" Morgana laughed, reaching back to squeeze Gwen's fingers reassuringly. "They'll be fine. Definitely peeved at each other, but at least they'll be talking again. It shouldn't take too long for them to patch things up after that; it usually doesn't."
Gwen bit her lip, considering it. "What if they refuse to come? What if Merlin refuses to come, I mean; he won't hear of it if-"
"Well, Merlin won't know that I'm asking Arthur if you're the one who invites him to have dinner with us."
"Devious," Gwen murmured, and flushed guiltily when Morgana smirked at her.
"Did you manage to get the aqua vitae?"
"Excellent." Morgana took the bottle from her and emptied it carefully into one of the wine flasks. "Don't forget which flask to drink from, or you'll have a truly vile headache in the morning." She grinned impishly at Gwen, and was rather gratified when Gwen smiled back.
"What," Arthur said, stopping abruptly just inside Morgana's room, "is the meaning of this?"
"That's what I'd like to know!" Merlin said indignantly, shoving his chair back from the table where he and Gwen were sitting. "Honestly, I take one night off because Gwen invited me to dinner-"
"Guinevere invited you to dinner?"
Morgana prudently closed her door. "Gentlemen," she said. "I suggested to Gwen that we have dinner together among close friends, and Gwen agreed. She invited Merlin, and I invited Arthur."
"Morgana, you must know that this is ridiculous," Arthur protested.
"As much as I hate to say it, I'd have to agree!" Merlin said, glaring at him. Unnoticed by either of them, Gwen dropped her head into her hands.
Morgana cleared her throat. "Thank you, that will be quite sufficient. Of course, I did inquire with the head cook especially for our dinner, and we do have several flasks of claret at our disposal, not to mention that Gwen was kind enough to make us raisin pudding, but if you'd rather not join us..." She joined Gwen at the table, looking up at them expectantly.
Arthur subsided grumpily, and Merlin looked abashed. They sat down in silence.
"Roast duck?" Gwen ventured cautiously, gesturing at the serving plate.
"Claret, please," Arthur said. Gwen looked at Morgana somewhat helplessly. Morgana shrugged and passed over a wine flask- one of the un-doctored ones, to start with; the last thing she wanted was a drunken pair of idiots passed out on her floor- and Gwen filled all of their cups.
"Thanks, Gwen," Merlin said, tipping his cup toward her. Arthur snorted and drained his own to the dregs. Gwen reached out to refill it, and he flushed.
"Thank you, Guinevere," he mumbled.
"Roast duck?" Gwen tried again. This time, Arthur accepted the plate.
Morgana smiled, sipping at her own wine. So far, so good.
Morgana propped her chin on one hand, amused. Arthur was drinking steadily through Merlin and Gwen's idle conversations about recent castle gossip and the news from the townsfolk and Gaius's latest smelly concoction. At some point, he'd taken over refilling his own cup; Morgana left a wine flask by his plate and sat back, listening to Gwen's comments with half an ear.
"Cat got your tongue?" she asked in an undertone.
"Not at all," Arthur retorted, just a little too loudly. "I figured I'd relax a while, seeing as Merlin's talking enough for both of us."
Morgana rolled her eyes as Merlin shot him a venomous look. "Pardon me, sire, but I wasn't aware I needed your approval to have a conversation with my friend."
Arthur looked away, snorting. "Of course. Whatever."
Merlin clenched his jaw and took a gulp of claret, turning back to Gwen with a smile. "I'm sorry, what were we talking about?"
Gwen smiled back uncertainly, her eyes darting between him and Arthur. "I, er... I apologize. I seem to have forgotten."
"Ah." Merlin looked away awkwardly, two spots of color bright on his cheeks.
Gwen laid a hand on his arm. "I haven't thanked you for coming, have I? It's good to see you."
"Oh, no, thank you for inviting me," Merlin replied. "I'm sorry I've been so busy."
"It's not your fault," Gwen said. "Although- the children in the lower city do miss you. They say you know the best games."
"The lower city?" Arthur interjected, surprised.
"Yes." Merlin rolled his eyes, taking another drink. "Gaius does have patients there, you know. Sometimes I accompany him on rounds. It's simple enough to divert the children while he's tending to the parents."
"You never told me that."
"You never asked," Merlin muttered.
"That's very kind of you, Merlin," Morgana said, then cocked her head thoughtfully. "What sort of games?"
"Oh, simple ones, really- let's pretend, hide and seek, truth or dare-"
"Truth or dare!" Morgana laughed. "Arthur and I used to play that all the time."
Arthur groaned. "Really, Morgana, not that again."
"You're only saying that because you could never out-dare me," Morgana said smugly.
"Is that a challenge?" Arthur said.
Morgana merely smirked in reply.
"We used to pretend there was a dragon living under the castle," Arthur whispered as they tiptoed down the hallway. "We came down here in the middle of the night to look for it, 'cause it's all- dark and twisty. Or, well, it used to be."
"There is a dragon un'er the castle," Merlin muttered. "Bloody annoying one, too- always nattering on about coins 'n destinies 'n magic- never gives anyone a straight answer-"
Gwen shot him an odd look.
"Eh? What did you say?" Arthur said.
"Tricksy!" Merlin said, wagging a finger. Morgana hushed him, and he slumped against the wall, apparently content to watch the flickering shadows cast by the torches.
Arthur craned his head around, trying to see through his blindfold, and promptly knocked his head against a wall sconce. "Bloody ow!" he hissed. "I can't believe you talked me into this stupidity-"
"Are you forfeiting the dare?" Morgana asked, motioning Gwen onward. Gwen nodded and disappeared with the pitcher of doctored ale.
"Of course not!" Arthur said indignantly. "What do you think I am, a coward?"
"No, y're just an idiot," Merlin retorted without looking up.
"No, that would be you, Merlin-"
"Shh!" said Morgana. "I'm listening for any guards."
Two solid thumps sounded from below, followed by a faint chorus of snores. A few moments later, Gwen rounded the corner, biting her lip against a giggle, and nodded at Morgana.
"All right, Arthur, carry on." Morgana passed her wine flasks to Gwen and went to sling Merlin's arm over her shoulder.
"... fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen steps- whoops!" Arthur caught himself against the wall.
"It's twenty-one steps down, you clot!" Morgana hissed as they reached the bottom of the staircase.
Arthur shrugged and clumsily peeled off the blindfold. "Got us here, didn't I?"
Morgana shook her head and pilfered the keys from the guard nearest the door as Arthur looked around with satisfaction. "Well, if we're going to do this properly-" She opened it with a grand gesture and waved him in, leaving the key in the lock as she helped Merlin inside. Gwen set the wine flasks on the floor and caught Merlin's other arm to ease him down slowly. Merlin giggled as he landed with a thump.
"Hey," he said, "I echoed!"
"What?" Morgana asked.
Gwen tapped her shoulder, and she turned to see the second guard topple over in front of the gate, jarring the key from the lock with a soft jangle. Morgana covered her face with one hand.
"At least we have the wine," Gwen murmured sympathetically.
"Truth or dare?" said Arthur. He was surprisingly cheerful, Morgana thought, or at least oblivious to their current predicament. Which was a mercy, really.
"Truth," she replied.
"Who brought you those flowers?"
Morgana looked at him incredulously. "Merlin," she replied.
"Ha! I knew it!" Arthur crowed.
"S'what?" Merlin asked fuzzily. "I brought Gwen flowers once."
Gwen shrugged. "I've brought Morgana flowers, too. On multiple occasions, even."
"Not recently, though," Morgana mused.
Gwen looked at her, surprised and vaguely guilty. "I'll bring you some more, if you'd like?"
Morgana smiled and squeezed her hand. "I'd like that."
"Nobody brings me flowers," Arthur noted.
"That's b'cause you're a prat," Merlin said. Arthur scowled and took another drink.
"Your turn, Merlin. Truth or dare?" Morgana asked.
"Truth!" Merlin declared.
Gwen leaned in conspiratorially. "All right, then, I've been kind of curious- what happened after Arthur sent me away so he could 'cook me dinner'?"
"Well. I came in and he was sort of... standing there, with the chicken," Merlin said, grinning madly. "Like-" he made a vague pulling gesture, as if he were holding two drumsticks, his eyes bugging out comically. Gwen stifled a giggle; Morgana, never one to be overly concerned about Arthur's fragile ego, burst out laughing.
"Excuse me, I don't remember that," Arthur sputtered.
"Are you whinging, sire?" Merlin said, feigning shock. "I do believe that was a whinge, wouldn't you agree, Gwen?"
"Er- well-" Gwen bit her lip, trying and failing to suppress a smile.
"At any rate, he just turned around with the carcass, and for a moment it was just... dangling there, and then, you know, he chucked it at me and asked me to go to the palace kitchens."
"So what did you do with it?" Gwen asked.
"Oh, I took it home and roasted it. It was quite good," Merlin added smugly. "Gaius even complimented me on my herb choice."
"I'm pretty sure I can have you fired over this- this insult to my dignity," Arthur huffed.
"Oh, do get over it," Morgana said. "We already know that you have no dignity left to speak of."
"Truth or dare, Arthur?" Merlin asked, grinning.
"Well, since I already took a dare, how about a truth," Arthur replied airily.
"Oh, I know!" Morgana said. "That time with Sigan, when you got stuck outside with the gargoyles- how did you manage to get out of that?"
Arthur looked at her askance. "I can't bloody answer that," he said. "I was knocked on the head, and I don't remember a thing that happened afterward."
"What?" said Gwen, perplexed.
"S'me, you prat," said Merlin. "That's how."
"What? Merlin, don't be ridiculous, you weren't even there! You were- you were stuck in here!" said Arthur. "I should know, because I put you in here!"
"Oh, yeah, like a dungeon could stop me," Merlin sniffed. He stretched out his hand, eyes flaring gold, and demonstrated; the gate popped open as far as it would go with the sleeping guard lying across the front of it.
"... Oh. Oh, no," Arthur said, his eyes wide and dark with horror. "Merlin, please tell me you aren't-"
Morgana stared. "You too?" she whispered, somehow unsurprised. "Is that how you knew?"
"Yes," Merlin replied. "That's why I had to talk to you."
"Morgana," Arthur said, his voice strangled, "how long have you known about this?"
"About me? Not for very long, not for certain." Morgana closed her eyes, suddenly cold. "But... I have true dreams." Gwen clutched her hand tightly, and she felt grateful.
"And about Merlin?"
"I found out just now, like you did."
"Arthur?" Merlin said, somewhat less muzzily. "Arthur, please, don't send me away."
"Send you-" Arthur glared at him, furious. "You idiot! I ought to strap you to the fastest horse I know and get you the bloody hell out! How can you take such stupid risks!" He looked up at Morgana. "And you. I can't believe you didn't tell me."
"Arthur, I truly didn't know, not until a few weeks ago."
"... I can't believe the two of you," Arthur said stiffly. "Did you really think I was capable of killing you? Even after Mordred?"
Merlin stared at him. "I- Arthur, it wasn't like that. I need to stay here, to protect you."
"Protect-" Arthur exhaled explosively and took a drink straight from the wine flask, his hands shaking. "Protecting you is my job," he said tightly, "not the other way around."
"Is," Merlin insisted. "It is my job." He held out his hand, a swirling silver ball of light appearing in his palm. Morgana stared at it, entranced by the shifting colors; dimly, she was aware of Gwen beside her, doing the same.
"That-" Arthur swallowed, a strange look on his face. "Merlin. That was you?"
"Hardly just that," Merlin admitted with a crooked smile. "Lots of other things, too. No one else c'n do it."
"Don't be a prat, Arthur," Morgana said quietly, reaching over to squeeze Merlin's hand.
Arthur cleared his throat. "All right," he mumbled, cuffing Merlin lightly. "All right. I still think you should go, but it's not as if you ever listen to me, anyway." He turned to Morgana. "You, on the other hand... I really have no idea what to do."
Morgana shrugged helplessly as her head began to spin. "I won't leave Camelot. At least not for now."
"You won't be safe here," Gwen whispered, her fingers trembling in Morgana's. "Not if the King finds out."
Arthur shifted over, awkwardly, to drape his arms over their shoulders. "He won't," he promised. "Not if we're careful."
Merlin let go of the spinning ball of light and moved to curl around them for warmth. "We will be," he said dreamily.
They sat for a while in comforting silence. Morgana watched the ever-changing flicker of silver and blue-white across the face of the orb, her heartbeat still fluttering in her ears. After a while, Arthur's breathing slowed and evened out, and Gwen's head dropped onto her shoulder, and the ball of light grew ever smaller and dimmer as Merlin fell asleep.
"Ow," Merlin said piteously. "My head."
Morgana cracked an eye open, surveying the damage as Arthur made an extremely undignified noise and batted somewhat feebly in Merlin's direction. Nearby, Gwen shifted, burrowing her face into Morgana's shoulder with a soft moan.
"What on earth were we doing last night?" Arthur said, flopping over laboriously.
"Shhh," Gwen mumbled. "Head hurts."
"Drinking, obviously," Morgana replied softly, curling closer against the noise. "Oh. That was altogether too much wine."
"Definitely, since we ended up down here," Merlin said, staring at the barred gate.
"What do you mean, down here?" Arthur struggled to sit upright, blinking at their surroundings. "Oh. I thought I'd dreamed this part." He looked at Gwen and Morgana, who were still disheveled and sleepy, and then at Merlin, who was equally rumpled.
"Funny," said Merlin. "So did I." His eyes widened. "Wait a minute, did I really tell-"
"Yes, you did," Morgana said. "As did I, apparently." She looked at Gwen and Arthur guiltily.
Gwen's arms tightened around her. "It's all right," she said softly. "I'm glad you told me- told us."
Arthur sighed, a resigned look on his face. "Yes, well. You're both insane for staying, but I'm- I'm glad you're here." He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Even if you never listen to me."
Morgana looked at Merlin and grinned. "You know you wouldn't love us if we took you seriously," she said slyly. Arthur gaped at her, pink and horrified, and she burst into giggles. Merlin began to laugh, and as Gwen's shoulders began to shake helplessly, Arthur groaned and slapped a hand over his face, which did nothing to hide the sudden twitch of his lips.
A cough sounded from outside the gate, and Morgana turned to see Gaius staring at them, his eyebrow having achieved unprecedented heights. The guard lying at his feet snorted once and startled into wakefulness, stammering, but Gaius held up a hand to forestall him.
"I've no idea what all of you are doing down here, and I'm sure I don't want to know, seeing as I'm currently missing a bottle of aqua vitae-" Gwen blushed, hiding her face in Morgana's skirts as Merlin and Arthur eyed them suspiciously- "but you do realize that Uther is expecting you at breakfast?"