The spoon hangs limply from Merlin’s hand, eyes gazing at the barely touched meal, while he resolutely ignores Gaius and the ever-accusatory Eyebrow. He shouldn’t be the one being accused. He isn’t abandoning anyone.
He doesn’t meet Gaius’ eyes. He can’t.
“Merlin, promise me you won’t do anything. She’s better off this way.”
His lips press together a moment before he returns to his staring contest with his soup. How is she supposed to be safe when she starts fires in her sleep? She could easily do that in front of the King.
“She is not safe…”
To this, Gaius doesn’t give an answer. Merlin doesn’t look at him to see why, to see if he concedes or denies. It doesn’t matter. He’s not going to do anything. If Gaius only knew how it was… If he only understood what it was like.
Except he doesn’t. Nobody does. Nobody could.
Gaius leaves moments later, something about talking down Uther from his current rage. Merlin forces himself to finish the soup before clearing the table. Hoping perhaps it would bring some clarity to his mind. Because Merlin has to do something. Leaving Morgana be with only sleeping draughts for a futile relief is just cruel.
What can he do, though?
He blows out the first candle on the now clear table.
Under the King’s nose, in the beast's belly, what is there to do?
He blows out the second one.
And the door bursts open.
It’s Morgana – because apparently the Gods fancy a laugh tonight – with her intricately embroidered nightgown flowing gracefully behind her. It’s a grave contrast to her face, a particular mix dark under eye circles, tangled hair sticking out in loops and bloodshot eyes from exhaustion or tears or both. The sight breaks his heart.
“Is Gaius here?”
“Um…” he composes himself quickly, “No, he's not here at the moment. He should be back soon though.”
“I need to speak to him! Where is he?” she asks in despair.
“He’s gone to see the King.”
Her eyes widen in fear. He knows that fear. Everyone with magic knows that fear.
She opens her mouth to speak. Her jaw trembles before she turns away. It's all too familiar...
“You can trust me Morgana. You know you can,” he reassures her and prays she believes him.
She hesitates still, for a moment, before speaking, “I’m scared, Merlin. I don’t understand anything anymore. I need to know what’s happening.”
The words get stuck in his throat, an incoherent mess of half formed sentences. What could he possibly say? Well, Morgana, you have magic, and yes, you did start the fire. Would you like some tea? Never in his wildest nightmares has he been in this situation. How is he supposed to handle this? How is she supposed to handle her home turning into a death trap overnight?
“Please…” she urges him and it's all too real, all too much. No. Merlin isn't cut out for this!
“G-Gaius will be back soon. He'll be able to help you."
Yes. Wait for Gaius. Just wait until he can gather his thoughts.
“He won't. I don't want any more remedies. They won't do any good.” He backs away with every step she takes. He needs air, he needs to think, he needs– "It's magic , Merlin.”
And Merlin freezes. The world freezes.
His instincts take over, and all his years tell him to deny, to feign ignorance, to run and hide. He trembles with the effort it takes him not to.
“What…?” he thinks he says. His ears ring too loud to be sure.
“We're friends. You know I wouldn’t make this up.”
“Of course.” His eyes sting. His heart is beating against its cage, a frantic fish out of water. All he can think of is the dead bodies, the ashes, the severed heads. Arthur's words at Will's funeral.
“Then you believe me?”
He can’t breathe. He can’t breathe and it’s too cold and too hot and he needs to hide. Hide before he finds himself on the pyre.
“Y-you think it’s magic too?”
Flames lick his feet. His lungs are filled with smoke.
He wants to scream.
“Please Merlin. I just need to hear someone say it, so I don't have to keep feeling like I'm imagining it!”
This is it. This is the moment. He is supposed to do something!
He nods uselessly, staring into her eyes. Her pleading, emerald green eyes...
Speak. Speak, damn it. SPEAK!
“I really wish there was something I could say…”
Her face falls.
No. No, take it back! He wants to take it back! But she’s already backing away...
No! It can't be like this!
“Morgana! Wait!” he calls out. She doesn’t listen. He doesn’t know what he'd say if she did...
The door slams. He is left panting, heart beating so fast he can hear his ribcage thunking by the force. He shuts his eyes against the prickling tears. With every breath he takes, his mind seems to trickle back into him, offering the millions of things he could have said, which is literally anything but that.
It’s too late now, and that seems to be the way things go with Merlin. Always a little too late.
A pathetic whimper echoes in the chambers. Her body convulses with the sheer intensity of the sobs. She tries to focus on something else, but it’s cold and damp and it makes her shiver almost as much as what happened.
She has ruined everything with just one word.
She’s lost Merlin with one word.
He had been afraid. Afraid of her.
Oh dear, God, what have I done…?
Gwen finds her in the morning, curled in bed with her face still wet with tears after she had spent all night trying to convince herself that she’s just going crazy.
It wasn’t— couldn’t have been magic, she had told herself over and over. She knows nothing about magic. How could she do magic if she doesn’t even know how to? How could she know without ever being taught? And besides Gaius said it was nothing. He knows about magic. He would know. He would tell her. She thinks she convinces herself.
Except she knows she hasn’t.
So she goes again, tells herself she knows nothing. She tells herself Gaius said it was nothing. She trusts Gaius. She thinks she believes him.
Except she knows she doesn’t.
So she goes again.
She looks at her maidservant by the table hovering over… the shattered vase.
She doesn’t know magic. So it couldn’t be magic. Gaius would have known yet he had said it wasn’t magic. So it shouldn’t be magic.
“What happened to this?”
Except it is.
There is no denying how that vase broke. The flame of a candle can be explained away but this cannot.
It is magic.
And she is doomed.
“Thank you, Gwen. That will be all,” says Morgana after Gwen has cleaned up the evidence of her crime.
“Oh… Are you sure?” Gwen says in between breaths as she runs about the chambers tidying what she has already tidied and cleaning what she has already cleaned. “I can stay. I mean– Of course I can, that’s quite literally my job. But you know–” she babbles on in her typical Gwen fashion. A warmth spreads in Morgana’s chest at how worried she is and her cheeks pull into a small smile. “I mean as a friend and not a servant. With the whole attack and the fire… And– I mean– you’re brave, not like me, but it was magic,” she says. She whispers. Because magic is to be whispered. Feared.
Morgana is to be feared.
Like a bucket of ice water down her head, she remembers last night. Gwen wouldn’t be doing this if she knew the truth. She’d be afraid of her just like Merlin.
“... Not that I could do anything more, of course the King is doing everything that can be done but–”
“Gwen,” Morgana says softly. Her hand rests on the younger girls shoulder, barely touching. “I’m fine. Don’t tire yourself for nothing, I just want to be alone,” she needs to be alone, “But thank you.”
“I’m not overstepping, am I?”
“Oh, not at all,” she smiles at her, sweet and blank, like she isn’t dying inside, like she isn’t imaging Gwen’s face pale and horror stricken. “The fact that you’d worry like this means so much to me. But after everything, I think some quiet will do me good,” she says with a courtiers distant sincerity. Gwen seems fooled. Then again almost everyone is. It feels familiar. She feels safe for the first time since the fire, even though she isn’t.
She will never be safe again.
Gwen bids her goodbye, still eyeing her over hesitantly like she never wants to leave Morgana’s side again, but leaves anyway. Gwen’s footsteps fade away and she bolts the door. Her breath echoes along the chilled walls of her chambers. Her nightdress is damp from the night and clings to her body like Gaius’ leeches. It’s disgusting. She needs to get into new clothes and feel like a person again.
She spends all morning pampering herself. Gwen, because she is Gwen, has prepared a tub for her in her behind the dressing screen and forgot to tell her about it. It’s very likely that Gwen herself had forgotten about it too. With the warmth, the spearmint soap, and the herbs in the bath water refreshing her, she finally starts to think. She mulls over everything that has been happening. She runs through, in her mind, everything that she knows until the water grows cold. All three of them.
It has something to do with magic.
Gaius is no help.
And she has to hide it at all costs.
How do you hide magic at the heart of Camelot, she asks herself as she is getting out of the bath, wrapping herself in a thick, soft towel. She goes to her wardrobe to pick out what she will wear. Her softest shift, her most comfortable and oldest stays, and the green dress that used to be her mother’s.
There has to be something she can use to predict how this works. There has to be and she has to find it. What was different about the night of the fire?
She paces towards the window, running her fingers through her slightly damp hair with a fluid motion and grasps at the back of her already aching neck. She doesn’t really remember the past two nights. From the start of the fire to the disaster with Merlin is just a fragmented mess of too fast instances.
Maybe that’s what’s different, as unhelpful of a conclusion as that is.
“Focus, Morgana,” she says aloud. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. She notices something when she opens them again. A pool of wax on the stand where the candle had been.
Among all the blur, this is what feels crystal clear, solid like stone. She had spurred on the flame and set the curtain on fire. She had jerked awake by the lightning and thunder, shivering from the cold. She had felt so cold only once before. The day her father died.
She had been looking for something, but she can’t remember what. Probably something about what she dreamt. Her gaze had stuck to the flame the moment she saw it. She had felt the flame in her stomach, flickering and straining. Her lungs felt stuffed with air. And she could feel this thing bubbling beneath her skin she couldn’t get it out, any of it, until the flame tore it from inside–
She covers her face with tingling hands and shuts her eyes. What she sees isn’t darkness but a faint shimmer of golden smoke. Vibrating, shivering, and the flame is inside her again no no no she has to breathe she has to stop!
“M-my Lady?! Are you alright?” a servant speaks outside of her chambers and bangs on the door again.
“Yes,” she assures, “Yes, you just startled me. What I would like to know is why.”
She swallows and tentatively opens her eyes only to find her table two paces farther than it should be, the two candle holders knocked over and the bowl of fruit dangerously close to the edge.
“His Majesty invites you to eat with him.”
“I’m not feeling up to it.”
“His majesty insists.”
… Of course he does.
At least Uther isn’t talking, Morgana thinks to herself in an attempt to be positive. He might looking at her, but she’s not looking at him so she absolutely can and does refuse to acknowledge that possibility. The food is extravagant, she notes as she pushes it around her plate, like she has been doing for the past ten minutes and she's certain it tastes great despite the ruined presentation.
“You aren’t eating,” he says, because all good things must come to an end.
“I’m just not that hungry, my Lord.”
He huffs, soft and genuine, “You should eat anyway.”
Morgana dares to glance up at his face, then. Forehead creased with worry and a gentle frown on his lips, he actually looks kind.
“Eat, Morgana. I know how you get.”
She takes one spoonful at a time, eyes back at her plate. It’s like sand in her mouth, but she eats anyway. She knows better than to disobey. That kind look only lasts as long as things go just how he likes it. He claps her in irons when they don't. He sentences serving girls to be burned, executes good people without a second thought. He isn't kind. He is a monster.
I should have just killed you.
She stops mid chew. Suddenly the whole room is ice cold. What did she just think?
This had all started after that, hadn’t it? The endless nightmares and weeks spent in delirious half-consciousness all started after Tauren. After she helped a sorcerer.
Is this it? Is this how it starts? How magic corrupts the soul?
Her eyes snap to the man in front of him, all she sees is death. Sparks crawl across her skin like spiders. It’s happening again.
She needs to get out. Now.
She forces down the mouthful. Her chair drags on the ground when she stands. “My apologies, sire. I’m feeling a little sick. I’m afraid I must retire to my chambers,” she says and leaves before he can properly dismiss her. She doesn’t care.
She breaks into a run the moment the doors have shut. Her chambers are on the opposite wing and up two stories, but she can't think of anywhere else safe. As safe as can be. The faster she runs the more she feels the signs build. Too much air, tingling, sparks, it’s like everything is shimmering gold.
A chambermaid is there when she finally makes it. “Get out.”
“I said out!”
The girl, probably barely ten years old, runs away in tears. Morgana ignores the guilt, slams the door after her and leans against it to rest. The boning in her stays digs at her sides. It only seems to make the shimmering worse. Still panting, she paws at her back to undo the laces of her dress, then her stays. She kicks them off along with her shoes in a fit of despair. She has no idea why she’s doing it. She just has to. It’s instinct.
It eases the moment her bare feet touch the floor. The onslaught seems to quell, the smooth stone seems to ground her. She closes her eyes and focuses on her breathing and the gentle breeze pouring over her. She anchors herself on the immovable stone and slowly the shimmering fades. Even the breeze lulls and stops.
When she finally opens her eyes, all the windows are closed.
The door makes deep thuds with each hit from Merlin’s bony knuckles. He swallows, daring to glance at the pairs of guards at each end of the walkway. They are far away enough that they won’t be able to hear any treasonous conversation once inside.
When Morgana answers, he quickly steps in. “Gaius asked me to deliver this.” It’s as good a start as any.
“I don’t need any potion. Thank you...” she says, her voice barely audible and her eyes fixed on the ground.
He looks away in shame. This is all his fault. This is all because he is a coward…
“Merlin?” she continues, “Ignore what I said last night. I had a nightmare, I was upset,” she says, but he knows what she really means.
Please don’t have me burned.
Because it wasn’t just a nightmare. It was magic and they both know it. The truth hangs heavy between them. It's unbearable.
“I know. I haven’t said anything to anyone.”
The silence stretches as she tries to say something, looking at him with searching eyes and a mouth moving around unspoken words. She looks so scared and small and... not Morgana.
“I’m sorry,” she finally loses her nerve and walks away, “It’s usually Gwen that has to deal with me when I’m like this.”
“I don’t mind. Maybe I could help.”
“I doubt that.”
He thinks she laughs. He’d laugh too.
“You’d be surprised…” he says and closes the door, just to make sure they have complete privacy.
Here goes nothing.
“I understand-” No, people with magic understand, “I realise how frightening all this must be for you. Especially for you.”
“Why especially for me?”
“You’re the King’s ward. You know his hatred of magic better than anyone.”
“That’s what you think has been happening to me? The dreams, the fire! You think it was magic!”
He grips the small medicine bottle a little too tightly, wondering just when he'd learned to be so scared.
“Yes…” she repeats, her eyes narrow at him, “Then what about last night?!”
“You didn’t tell me because, what? Just to torture me?!”
“No! I– I was–”
“Do you have any idea of the day I had?! I’ve been terrified out of my mind ever since last night! It’s a good job I realised it was ma–” the indignant words die against his palm.
“Keep your voice down,” he whispers harshly, “There are guards everywhere. You’re going to get us both killed! Have you forgotten this is Camelot?!”
“Forget?!” she follows suit and changes her volume, “I keep doing magic left and right! I almost did it at lunch with Uther! How could I possibly forget where this is?!” she pauses to catch her breath, “And how could you not say anything?” she adds at the end, more hurt than angry.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Merlin, because he is a coward, offers as an excuse.
“How about, hey Morgana, you have magic and you started the fire. Want some tea?”
…Well, alright then.
“Look, I’m sorry. I know I was a coward last night,” he presses his mouth closed and averts his gaze, “I know I turned you away when you probably needed me the most. I’m so sorry, Morgana. I was… afraid.”
“And you’re not afraid of me now?” she knocks the wind out of him with her words. Of course that’s what she thought.
“No… Morgana, your magic wasn’t what I was afraid of. It never would be,” he says all the while the Dragons previous words chip away at his confidence.
She cannot be trusted.
“Oh.” She leans abruptly against the dark wooden table. “I hadn’t thought of how much danger I was putting you in. Or Gaius when I told him about my dreams…” Okay, that wasn’t what he was trying to say. “Or Gwen! Uther would think her the real sorceress…” her breathing starts morphing into panting, “He’d never listen to me. He’d burn burn her– he’d burn her with me, or worse her before– Oh no, no no, not again. Not again!”
“What not again?”
“My magic,” she whispers, heels of her hands pressing into her eyes. She jumps away when he tries to approach her, comfort her, anything, “Get away from me, Merlin. I don’t know what to hurt you.”
“You’re not going to hurt me,” he says, slow and steady, like his mother had done for him when he was child and his magic got away from him.
“You don’t know that.”
“You’re not some kind of wild animal and I refuse to treat you like one,” he holds her upper arms tentatively, she doesn’t back away this time. He can feel her magic thrashing faintly in his palms, “That magic is yours. It’s a part of you,” he tells her all of the things that took him years to accept, “Maybe if you stop trying to, you know, squash it down…”
She nods and lets him pull her hands away. “I just... I just need this to stop. I need to,” she exhales loud and long, “To just calm down.” Except her eyes are squeezed too tight and already spilling tears.
“It’s not working, is it?”
She shakes her head violently.
“You should leave. You’ve been here too long.”
He glances at the door. If the guards haven’t broken it down to see what he’s up to with the King’s ward by now, they’re not going to.
“I’m not leaving you to face this alone.”
“Merlin, if we’re caught, you’ll get blamed for this.”
“I don’t care. I’m not abandoning you to save myself,” no matter what anyone says, “So just breathe, okay? We’ll figure it out.”
Then he closes his palms over the backs of her hands…
… His magic grasps at her instantly and actually steadies it. Merlin doesn't pull away, even though he probably should before she figures out what is happening. She turns her hand over and intertwines their fingers together. He tightens his grip in response. It’s so warm and gentle.
“Is this helping?”
“… Seems to be,” she says, staring their joined hands with fascination as her magic settles and their connection fizzles away, “Did you feel that?”
Yes, he did. He absolutely did, and it was the most soothing kind of magic he had ever felt.
“I suppose you wouldn’t,” she sounds a bit disappointed, “This is such a nightmare… I think I prefer the actual nightmares. At least that way I don’t set fire to things or explode vases or fling tables. It just keeps happening… The moment my heart rate goes up…” she flings her hands about vaguely, “I told you, I can’t control it.”
“You just don’t know how.”
“Oh and who’s going to teach me? You?”
Yes. Yes, he wants to say. His magic thrashes within him, to her, to his kind. Yes, he'll teach her, even if he doesn't quite know how. He wants to hold on, now that he’s had a taste of what it feels like to not be alone. But he can’t. The Druids can offer so much more than he ever could. And besides he has Arthur. He can’t reveal himself without putting Arthur at risk as well. He is acutely aware of how much that last part echoes of the Dragon. He hates him for poisoning his mind… But he hates himself more falling for it in the first place.
“What about the druids? They help people like you.” People like us, his mind corrects so very unhelpfully.
She scoffs, “None of their kind would dare show their face in Camelot.”
“No. But I know where you can find them.”