The piano cried under Merlin’s graceful fingering, familiar smooth ivory keys like the caress of a lover. Notes, a sweet yet sad mimicry of his own heart, fell from the instrument, swirling about the drawing room and soaking into the very soul of the house. For years the building had been Merlin’s most avid audience, always waiting with silent bated breath for the next chord, the rise and fall, through all the bright singing octaves, and slow grey melancholic notes.
With eyes closed, he played on.
Soft slippered footsteps filtered through the hum of the piano but Merlin didn’t falter, the song thrumming through his fingertips to swirl up his wrists, singing, dancing along waves of loneliness and despondency. Even when the bench shifted under the weight of the newcomer, he didn’t stop.
It wasn’t until the last final note rang through the air that he allowed himself to finally breathe. The sweet subtle smell of roses petals and lavender tickled his nose permeating from the visitor beside him. He had known who had joined him the second he heard her familiar footsteps. His sister, Morgana.
“Who was that?” Morgana asked, her voice soft and heavy behind the mask of a questioning tone. It didn’t bode well for the conversation to come.
Merlin opened his unseeing eyes to the encompassing grey of his world. “Mozart.” He ran his fingers idly over the keys, feeling them tremble and breathe under his touch.
“It was lovely.”
Merlin nodded in response. Without thought, he pressed down on the keys, his heart bleeding into another piece from memory. He barely tapped out a few notes before Morgana’s soft delicate hands covered his gently, cutting the song off in a halting tone that reverberated harshly through the room.
“Merlin, can we—,” she began but her voice cut off, hesitant, contemplating her words carefully. Merlin waited, patient. With a sigh and a squeeze of her hand on his, Morgana tried again. “Will you talk to me?”
Merlin tilted his head toward her. His fingers twitched on the piano’s frame but he forced himself to pull back and settle them on his thighs. Morgana released her hold.
Without the distraction of the keys under his fingertips, Merlin stroked the rough fabric of his trousers. “What about?”
“You. Me.” She paused, her breathing stuttering and catching in her throat. She was nervous, reluctant in her wording but her stubborn nature seemed unable to let her worries pass unspoken. Merlin had an inkling what it was about but hoped he was wrong. It wasn’t a conversation he wanted to have with his sister. He was perfectly fine wallowing in his own sorrow and self-pity.
Morgana exhaled in a long sigh. “Arthur.”
“Ah.” Merlin nodded again, tilting his face down to his lap. The grey of his vision moved and morphed, some pieces darkening while others lightened but nothing solidifying into anything decipherable. Nothing ever did. His world was only a collage of ever changing masses of greys and blacks.
“You fancy him,” Morgana said. The hesitation and uncertainty had left her tone, leaving only soft pressing conviction. There was no accusation, only statement.
Merlin shook his head, fingers twisting and gripping his trousers as his anxiety grew. “No.”
Yes. Desperately so.
But Morgana couldn’t know that. No one could know that. It was not done, not in polite society. Not anywhere except behind closed doors and within whispered dreams.
Arthur was trying to build his relationship with his father, not destroy it. He was well on his way to taking over the family estate and business, would inherit it when his father grew too weary to continue on. One foot out of line could tarnish that and destroy the affluent life he had painstakingly kept a hold of. Merlin knew, despite how they both felt about each other, he was not the socially acceptable choice in this scenario. It didn’t matter what was in their hearts.
Morgana, simply for her female form, was the more appropriate choice.
“I know you,” Morgana continued in that same soft tone now laced with concern. The rustle of fabric in creases and sweeping featherlight along the floorboards beneath their feet was the only hint of her continued nervousness. “Better than anyone, I reckon. I’ve never seen you like this.”
Merlin shifted, uncomfortable under Morgana’s scrutiny. She was more observant than he gave her credit for. “Like what?”
“Drawn. Weathered.” The house around them groaned in the silence of her pause. “Like you’ve taken ill with melancholy.”
On the other side of the house, the back door opened and shut with a creak, hard heeled shoes reverberating off the wooden floorboards as they headed towards the kitchen. Father was home.
“I’m in perfect health,” Merlin said, trying to convince himself as much as Morgana. “I apologize for having caused you worry. Truly, I am fine.” He mustered up a small smile for her, hoping it would be enough to placate her so he could go back to drowning in peace.
“Merlin.” Her tone tore his ruse apart with nothing but his name. He never could keep anything from her, no matter how much he tried. They were too close.
It would take just a few words, an outpouring of his breaking heart to confirm her suspicions and turn the tables in his favor. He could do it, easily. But by speaking the truth, he would squash Morgana’s chances at a better life, at happiness and fill her heart with guilt and shame. He couldn’t do that to her. She deserved all that Arthur could give her, a life of ease and comfort and prosperity. She would want for nothing. It was about time she stopped worrying over Merlin, stopped always putting his happiness before her own, stopped having to care for him. She had been his eyes since they were children. It was time he let her go.
Merlin reached out, palm up in invitation. Morgana’s warm supple hand slid into his and he brought it to his lips in a loving reassuring kiss. “Do not fret, Morgana. What I may have once felt was wrong and out of order and I no longer entertain such thoughts. No good can come from them.” He lifted his head aiming his sightless gaze in the general vicinity of her face. With the last dregs of his energy, he gave her another smile and lied through his teeth. “I have found a more suitable companion, a woman from the town. Perhaps she will make a gracious wife one day.”
There was a long pause. A raven cawed outside as the footsteps of their father retreated from the kitchen and out the back door once more on a creak of hinges.
“I am pleased to hear that.”
Merlin thought he could hear a sadness in her voice, remorse, but he shook it off, telling himself it was only imaginary. Just a reverberation of his own rendered soul.
She kissed his head and left the room in a rustle of sweeping skirts and protesting floorboards, her footsteps getting softer and softer before the rhythm changed as she withdrew to the second floor. Merlin exhaled his anguish and pain, promising himself that he would do better to hide his melancholia or avoid interaction altogether. He wouldn’t be a burden on his family any longer.
Merlin turned back to the piano, smelling the ghost of rose petals and lavender as he started up another sorrowful impromptu, losing himself in the rhythmic motion and letting all the heartache and pain he felt beneath his breastbone leach out into the ivory keys.