Disclaimer: Well, it's been fewer than twelve hours since I posted my last story, and . . . nope, still don't own "Merlin!" :P
A/N: This is the second of my three servant stories. Again, this will probably be two parts. And, again, it's crazy and it gets kind of OOC and AU, haha. But what's the use of wasting something I've written? :P Let me know how you like it!
We are the challengers of
- "Challengers," The New Pornographers.
Morgana lets a wave of laughter wash over her. After spending so long cooped up inside the castle – cooped up inside herself – spending time with him over the past few weeks has introduced her to a freedom she never knew existed. She can be herself with him, doesn't have to worry if she's using proper manners or behaving as a young lady of the court ought to. She can be a normal woman, with thoughts and fears and hopes and dreams, all of which she can share with him, all of which he listens to without judgment.
And he makes her laugh.
Before he came into her life, when was the last time she'd let go of her anxieties and really laughed?
Morgana tilts her face upward, her pale neck exposed to the late-summer sunlight, her laughter fading into the breeze.
Merlin, taking advantage of her momentary distraction, spurs his horse onward and takes off into a gallop.
"Last one back to the castle is an ogre!" he shouts over his shoulder, his face split into a grin.
"That's not fair!" she protests, nevertheless pressing her knees together in an effort to urge the brown-red mare beneath her to quicken her pace. Boudicca, well-trained and intelligent, responds rapidly, snorting and tossing her head as she drives onward. Morgana leans forward against the wind, pats the horse's neck, and whispers, "Atta girl, Boo. Atta girl."
Boudicca catches up to Merlin's horse, a dappled gray named Mercury, just as they reach the city limits. The two companions race down the street, the horses' hooves clattering over the cobblestones. Morgana's dark brown hair streams in the wind. Merlin's jacket flaps open, the fringe of his scarf whips around his neck. The noise – their laughter – attracts attention, and the king's ward and the prince's manservant do not go unnoticed by the townspeople.
They pass by the market, the sights and sounds and smells barely catching their attention as they ride swiftly past, so caught up are they in their game.
Boudicca inches past Mercury, and Morgana glances tauntingly over at Merlin. "Looks like I'll beat you," she smiles. "As usual."
"We're not there yet," he retorts, urging his horse faster. "And I'm not going to do your laundry this week."
"You have to do laundry every week anyways!"
Merlin leans close to Mercury's neck, stroking it softly, and, with renewed vigor, the horse breaks out in front of Boudicca and disappears around a corner into the castle courtyard. Morgana laughs and pursues them, pulling her mare to a skidding stop when she sees Mercury rearing up.
And when the gray clatters back onto all four hooves, Morgana can see Arthur standing just in front of the horse, his arms crossed over his broad chest, his blond hair gleaming in the sunlight.
He does not look pleased.
She sidles Boudicca up alongside Mercury, the mare letting out a happy snort after the exercise.
Morgana swallows. "Arthur."
The prince raises an unamused eyebrow, causing the color to drain from Merlin's face, already pale to begin with, as he dismounts. The servant steps over to help Morgana down from her horse, but Arthur clears his throat and intervenes. He offers a hand to his foster sister, who refuses the help with appointed look and dismounts on her own.
Arthur takes hold of Boudicca's reins and hands them to Merlin. "Go unsaddle the horses," he orders, keeping his disgruntled gaze locked with Morgana's defiant one. "And when you're finished, you can muck out the stables."
Merlin glances between his two friends, but takes the reins and trudges off towards the stables without a word.
Sighing heavily, Morgana turns on her heel and storms inside the castle.
"You can't act like this, Morgana."
"And you shouldn't be so hard on him," she suggests grimly. "There are lots of servants who can clean the stables."
Arthur runs up the first few steps to catch up with her and argues, "Exactly, Morgana! He is a servant. He's my servant. And he needs to understand that he is here to work, to serve the kingdom, not to cater to your every whim." He frowns. "It's not . . . seemly for you to spend time together."
He sighs as they walk through the entrance and turn down a corridor. "Because royals cannot be friends with servants."
She stops and looks him in the eye. "You're friends with him. I'm friends with Gwen. You've never objected to that."
"That's different," he scoffs.
"Why? Why should it be?"
"Because," he stammers, "you need a friend who can understand your . . . womanly things."
Rolling her eyes at the explanation, she prompts, "And you and Merlin?"
"If he's going to be my servant and go practically everywhere with me, it's best I like him, don't you think?"
"Then what's the difference with me and Merlin? Why can't I be friends with him?"
"Because, Morgana," he states shortly before resuming his walk down the corridor.
She follows, determined to elicit a proper response. Grabbing onto his sleeve, she forces him to face her and says, "That's not an answer!"
"Because he has feelings for you, all right?"
It comes out more like an exasperated roar than a rational explanation, but it's more than enough to catch Morgana's attention.
She pulls herself to a sudden stop, her mind reeling. She's considered it, of course – not that he was in love with her, only that she could be falling for him. She's invented a future where they were safe with each other, dreamt of a world where she could claim him as her choice and the announcement wouldn't raise anyone's suspicions. She's seen a little girl with pale cheeks but bright blue eyes and an infectious grin, a tiny boy with his father's laugh and penchant for mischief.
He's been her only refuge after her return from the Druid camp. But she's pushed away visions of his angled cheekbones, his adorably oversized ears, pushed away thoughts of how his lips would feel against hers, what it would be like to sleep beside his lanky body.
Instead, she's told herself he could be nothing more than a friend. She will marry soon, and force herself to focus on her wifely duties in an endeavor to forget about the boy who's inadvertently and clumsily stolen her heart. Still, he's the only one she can talk to, the only one who will listen to her dreams, the only one who doesn't cower at the very mention of the word 'magic,'
And therein lies her fatal error.
The more time she spends with him, the more she longs for him, longs to escape from Camelot to begin a new life with him.
But Merlin feeling the same?
She's often teased him about all the kitchen girls having crushes on him, but she hasn't realized until this moment why he'd always blush so furiously.
He's different, she knows, than any other man she'd met. He isn't awed by her position, or tongue-tied by her beauty (though he is frequently tongue-tied simply by nature). He isn't even trying to gain anything for himself by befriending her.
He's just Merlin – kind-hearted, generous, true.
And she's let down her guard enough to fall for him.
Arthur, sighing, crosses his arms and leans his back against the stone wall. "Look, Morgana," he says gently, his voice calling her out of her haze, "if it were up to me, I'd turn my head and let you be happy. But the king's starting to notice that my manservant spends more time with you than he does with me. And I don't think you'll like the consequences if he puts it all together."
"Arthur . . ." she pleads quietly, looking up at him.
"I'm sorry, Morgana," he frowns. He stands up straight, preparing to end the conversation. "I know it's not fair, but perhaps you will be together one day."
She wants to scream at him, to rail and argue until she runs out of words. But something about Arthur's face stops her. She can see how this will turn out. Like she's watching a play in front of her eyes, she watches Uther as he pronounces judgment upon them, watches Merlin go through the heartache when they're inevitably torn apart.
And she can't do that to him, can't do that to either of them.
Arthur's mouth set in a grim line, he heaves a great sigh and pronounces, "You have to end it. I'm sorry." When she still doesn't reply, he says, "Think of it this way: you can end it on your own terms, or the king will end it on his."
One last ride, she tells herself. One last ride before the end.
The sky clouds over before they go, and he wants to wait, but she insists. They ride out of the town and into the countryside, the thunder growing louder as they go. Merlin's expression darkens along with the sky, but the heaviness in Morgana's heart doesn't stem from the approaching storm.
"Morgana," he says, "we should go back."
"Just a few more minutes," she pleads.
A few more precious moments before she's forced to cast him aside.
Before he can protest, the dark clouds open up, and it begins to pour. Thick drops of rain splash onto her face. Merlin, pulling his horse up alongside hers, points to a farmstead in the distance.
"There," he says over the sound of the thunder. "The barn."
Off her nod, they take off in a gallop. The horses' hooves clomp over the sodden ground as they race towards the barn. Boudicca pushes as fast as she can, snorting with the exertion, but Morgana's clothes are already soaked through by the time they reach the barn.
Merlin dismounts rapidly and heaves the door open. With a sigh, Morgana follows him inside, leading Boudicca behind her. He finds a few open stalls and some extra blankets, and the two of them work quickly to get the horses calmed, dried off and settled. When the horses are taken care of, Merlin steps towards her and throws a blanket around her shoulders.
"Are you cold?" he asks softly.
Water's still dripping from their hair and clothes, and she's shivering even with the thick wool blanket around her.
"Thank you," she murmurs.
Merlin nods. The heat radiating from him is intoxicating, and Morgana finds herself unconsciously stepping close enough to lean into him. Hesitantly, he slides an arm around her.
She feels the spasm in his chest as his breath hitches. Swallowing nervously, she realizes that her sudden inability to breathe has nothing to do with the fact that she's dripping wet and everything to do with the fact that Merlin's arms are wrapped around her so comfortably.
She's spent so many years searching for meaning, and he can fill her up just by holding her.
Tilting her head, she finds herself staring at a bead of rain that's coursing its way down the side of his nose and over his lip. She knows she shouldn't be doing this – shouldn't be here at all – but she really can't help herself. She reaches up and brushes the drop away.
Merlin's gaze pierces hers, but he doesn't make a move.
"If you were not you," she whispers, "and I were not I, would you kiss me right now?"
"Then why not kiss me anyways?"
He sighs regretfully, licking the rain off his lips. "Because, as much as I want to, I know what will happen to me when the king finds out."
Teasing his bottom lip with her thumb, she asks quietly, "What about what I want?"
And this time she doesn't wait for him to answer. She slides a hand to his hair, still dripping wet, and pulls him down to her. His lips are smooth, soft, the touch of them sending a thrilling spark through her heart.
"Morgana," he whispers, leaning his forehead against hers.
Her heart aches at the note of regret in his voice.
But he pulls away suddenly, pushes her behind him, and stands in front of her protectively. A split second later, the door of the barn opens to reveal a young farmer, his clothes covered with grime and mud.
He holds up a lantern, squinting into the darkness of the barn. "Lady Morgana?" he questions.
Merlin reluctantly steps aside, and Morgana takes a step forward. She inclines her head and explains formally, "We were out for an afternoon ride when the storm hit and we took refuge in here. We apologize for any inconvenience, and reparation will be made when we have a chance. If you would only let us wait out the storm, though, we'd be most grateful."
"My lady," the farmer greets with a bow. Clearing his throat and standing up straight, he tilts his head. "Well, you'd better come in then."