Merlin, can you hear me? I need you!
Merlin lurched to a halt, grabbing his head. Morgana had made great progress at speaking to other sorcerers through her mind, but her mastery of it was far from perfect; she poured too much energy into projecting her thoughts when trying to communicate over long distances, wielding magic that should have the fine point of a needle like an anvil. Being contacted by her in this way even felt like being hit over the head with an anvil. I hear you, he assured her when he could form coherent thoughts again. I'm on my way.
Tracking Morgana's thoughts to their source was easy; Merlin found her in the corridor near her chambers, standing over the unconscious bodies of Gwen and Arthur. "Ah, Morgana, is there something you'd like to tell me?"
"They tried to follow me when I left to meet you and Nimueh," she explained, sounding simultaneously irritated and distressed.
"So you knocked them out?"
"I didn't know what to do! They were spying on me, and I couldn't let them discover where I was going - I'm not ready for them to find out about my magic, and certainly not like this…"
Merlin patted her back reassuringly. "It's all right; they aren't injured. I'll take care of this. Can you help with a levitation spell?"
Together, he and Morgana moved Arthur and Gwen to a secluded alcove where they were unlikely to be found before they awoke. Then he placed his hands on their foreheads and began an incantation. "What are you doing?" Morgana asked.
"Making them forget about spying on you. They'll think they were just talking here and fell asleep…unless you'd like me to make them remember something else? A midnight tryst, maybe?"
"Heavens, no! Then Gwen would know she'd been enchanted, because she would never be interested in Arthur if she were in her right mind."
"All right then." Merlin refrained from adding anything romantic when he altered Arthur's and Gwen's memories, but he couldn't resist posing Gwen with her head on Arthur's shoulder and putting Arthur's arm around her.
"What? I think they look cute."
"You are incorrigible."
Morgana maintained her disapproving attitude throughout her lesson, which aroused Nimueh's curiosity, so Merlin explained what he'd done. Nimueh found it hilarious. "Merlin, you are incorrigible." She said it more affectionately than Morgana had, as if she thought his mischievous tendencies endearingly charming.
"Well, I tried being well-behaved once, but it was boring."
Nimueh appeared skeptical. "I don't believe that."
"It's true; I was perfectly obedient when I was about three years old, or so I'm told. Apparently my mother was the only one who could ever really make me behave myself."
"I certainly never could - I trust you recall the incident involving a frog infestation in Finna's bedchamber?"
"I remember that you were furious."
"Oh, Merlin, I wasn't truly angry with you. Of course I couldn't let you get away with such misbehavior, but privately I thought that dried-up old hag needed her feathers ruffled…and I was proud that you were the only one of our students who wasn't too cowed by authority to do such a thing."
Nimueh ran her hand down his sleeve, stroking his arm, and the candles on which Morgana was practicing conjuring fire suddenly erupted in towering flames that consumed the tallow almost instantly. Crying out in surprise and alarm, she quickly backed away. Merlin automatically began speaking the words that would quench the fire, but Nimueh took hold of his wrist and forcefully lowered his hand before he finished the spell. "Let the Lady Morgana do it. She must learn to rectify her own mistakes."
Morgana drew in a deep, shaky breath, extended her hand, and incanted, "Invadit et ignis," producing no effect whatsoever.
"Stronger intent," Merlin whispered.
Frowning in concentration, Morgana thrust out her hand again. "Invadit et ignis!" The fire died, and Morgana instinctively glanced at her more experienced fellow sorcerers to see if they had any comments or advice.
Nimueh still had Merlin by the wrist, and was now rubbing the back of his hand with her thumb…and he wasn't pulling away. Morgana's smile disappeared as swiftly and completely as the flames. "Very well done, Lady Morgana," the High Priestess said, those luscious scarlet lips of hers forming a satisfied smile. She must not have noticed Morgana's reaction to her contact with Merlin - or perhaps she had.
"Thank you. Will that be all for tonight? I really don't feel I can continue any longer," Morgana said woodenly. Nimueh dismissed her, and she walked out slowly, her spine held stiffly erect, refusing to show any outward sign of distress until she was far enough down the winding stairs that she didn't think Nimueh and Merlin could hear her. Then she increased her pace.
She remembered Freya telling her about the rumor that Merlin had been in love once, and now she knew beyond a shadow of doubt that Nimueh was the woman he'd loved. That was all well and fine, if only she could be sure those feelings were firmly in the past where they belonged, but after what she'd just seen Morgana wasn't convinced that such was the case. If Merlin no longer had feelings for Nimueh, why did he let her hold his hand? I thought that was something he only did with me…unless he's already done it hundreds of times with her.
Was there anything he hadn't already done with her? Every time he rode horses with Morgana, or took her for walks, or danced with her, or practiced magic with her, did he think, This I did with Nimueh, and this, and this, and wish it was still her by his side? How often did he compare them, even if it was purely subconscious? Such a comparison wouldn't be difficult to make; catching her reflection in a window she passed, Morgana realized that she and Nimueh even looked somewhat alike, with their pale, smooth skin, long, wavy black hair, and light-colored eyes. Nimueh's eyes were fierce and penetrating, though, like shards of ice, whereas Morgana's were a soft green that was probably about as penetrating as moss.
She turned away from the window, not wishing to see how closely her face resembled that blasted priestess's any longer. Noting the similarities between them forced Morgana to consider that any attraction Merlin felt toward her might be predicated on her likeness to Nimueh, and she didn't care for that one little bit.
Being compared with other women had never bothered her before because such comparisons were bound to be favorable, but this time it looked as if she may have met her match. Nimueh was her equal in beauty, brains, and breeding (the three things noblemen looked for in a wife, though most were perfectly content to make do with a woman who possessed only two of those qualities), as well as being much more worldly and having command of magic Morgana couldn't even imagine yet. She was the High Priestess of the Old Religion - and since Merlin belonged to the Old Religion, didn't that technically make him her subject, in a sense?
How much simpler it would have been if he really did have feelings for Freya, as I first suspected! Given some time, I could have shown him I was the better choice… What can I offer him that she cannot? There truly is no reason for him to prefer me over her, is there?
Morgana reminded herself that she was Merlin's fiancée, not Nimueh; however, the fact that she would have his ring on her finger in less than two months' time did not mean she would ever have his heart, especially not if it was already in someone else's keeping. And if he didn't still love Nimueh, why had he accepted such an overly familiar gesture from her?
"Morgana! Hey, Morgana!"
Glancing up, she saw Merlin jogging toward her. Though part of her wanted to walk away, she remained standing where she was until he reached her and came to a somewhat clumsy dead stop.
"Is everything okay? You walked out sort of abruptly…"
"I thought you and Nimueh might like to be alone together."
Merlin appeared bewildered, which only provoked Morgana further. "I saw her holding your hand, as I do, and you let her! So the rumors about why you never show any interest in women are true; I preferred the version in which you found it hard to love again after your mother's tragic demise, yet you did love another woman after her, didn't you? It was Nimueh."
The blood drained from Merlin's face at her mention of Hunith's death, chilling his skin. How was it that a few words from this girl could make him feel so warm inside at times, yet so cold at others? "You don't know what you're talking about. My feelings for her are much more complicated than you make them out to be."
Hearing about the depths of his undying devotion to his High Priestess was the last thing Morgana wanted, yet her self-destructive side - undoubtedly the same part of her that had nearly caused her to magically self-immolate - wouldn't let her stop pouring salt on her wounds. "Explain them to me, then. Explain how we are supposed to be married - by her! - when you still feel so strongly for her!"
"I will, but only if you calm down. I don't want a shouting match with you, Morgana."
Breathing as hard as a horse after a gallop, she literally bit her tongue as she glared at him. She wanted to yell and fume over her wounded pride, but Merlin's cool stare was like water thrown on the raging bonfire of her temper. Morgana shrank into herself as the flames sputtered out, her breath evening out and her gaze automatically dropping to the floor. "Very well, my lord. I shall hear whatever you wish to tell me."
Merlin forced himself not to react to the formal address; once she knew all of his history with Nimueh, he might have to get used to regularly hearing expressions of impersonal politeness from her lips.
"I do have strong feelings for Nimueh, but they aren't…romantic. As I've told you before, I was sent to study with her when my magic grew beyond what anyone here could teach me to control. After what you've been through, you know something of how it tormented me, except I never got an entire day's reprieve between incidents - it was like a living thing inside me, trying to claw its way out through my skin, and I wasn't able to focus it. The first large-scale, destructive manifestation of my magic came on the day my mother died, when I was five years old; after that it kept happening whenever I got upset, or scared, or sad... Father helped me manage for a few years, even though carrying on without Mother was hard for him too; losing her made him very protective of me, so he kept me by his side constantly."
Little Merlin hadn't minded - he'd actually insisted on sitting on the king's lap whenever possible. Balinor's arms around him felt different from Hunith's, but it was better than having nobody to hug him. Additionally, the scratchy beard that he'd once found so intimidating, thinking it made his father look like a hairy bear, and shied away from when the king tried to kiss him, now provided a curtain under which he could hide his face by snuggling into Balinor's neck. He was happy to be able to escape the stares of all the concerned lords and servants who fussed over him, wondering how their little prince was coping, and especially the overbearing ladies who seemed to feel it was their duty to act as substitutes for his mother.
"Being with him usually kept me calm and content, but still, by the time I reached my twelfth birthday I thought the magic would drive me mad. Finally even Father saw no other recourse except sending me to the Isle of the Blessed. I was depressed about leaving home for the first time, and that's when I met Nimueh. She said she was intrigued by my potential, and the feeling was mutual. She knew more magic than anyone I'd ever met, did things with it I'd never seen - she was like a force of nature, and that power fascinated me...as did the woman who wielded it. Then she taught me how to harness my own magic, so of course I was more grateful to her than you can imagine."
Morgana wasn't so sure; she thought she'd experienced that level of gratitude when Merlin confirmed her half-formed suspicions about her magic, finally opened her eyes to Uther's deceptions, and put her fears to rest by vowing to protect her from her treacherous old oppressor and probable future would-be murderer. She also knew feelings of that magnitude could be forged into unbreakable loyalty to the one who had inspired them, because she had put her life in Merlin's hands and her trust in him hadn't wavered since.
"We spent nearly all our time together," he went on, "and when she was pleased with me she'd tell me about the days when she knew my mother. Except for my father, there was no one I felt closer to than her, no one who mattered more."
"Yet you claim not to love her?" Morgana questioned softly. Everything he'd just told her seemed to contradict that assertion.
"I can't deny that she had - perhaps still has - a powerful hold on me, one so strong that for a long time I believed I loved her. Then I learned how cruel she can be."
"She hurt you?"
Merlin smiled slightly at Morgana's incensed growl. "She did nothing - and nothing, it turns out, is the worst thing you can do to somebody. I always suspected she knew of my feelings, a suspicion she confirmed the night I requested her help in training you - I mentioned our past together and she never batted an eyelash, so obviously it was no surprise to her - but at the time she pretended not to notice. She wouldn't do me the courtesy of rejecting me outright so I could sulk over my broken heart and then move past her, but I'm sure she never wanted to be with me either. Perhaps she simply liked knowing she had that power over me…"
"That," Morgana said indignantly, "is horrible. That vicious harpy!"
"She's not that bad. Nimueh isn't evil or malicious, but she can be selfish. It just isn't in her to put another person ahead of her own needs and desires. I suppose I still idolized her," he sheepishly admitted, "but once I stopped fooling myself into thinking she was perfect I realized I didn't love her. Maybe I never did. Not because she isn't perfect, but because it was a false idea of her that I thought I loved, not the woman herself. You have to know someone in order to truly love them, don't you agree, Morgana?"
She nodded absently, her mind elsewhere. "Is that why you never found another? You'd…lost your confidence in your ability to see people for their true selves?"
"No, I think I'm a fairly good judge of character. You see, being so disenchanted was unpleasant, and if losing the illusion of love hurt so much, I knew losing the real thing would be worse. Besides, it seemed like too much trouble - all the rituals and trappings of courtship. If you could even find someone worth the trouble in the first place," he added.
"All women are not like Nimueh," Morgana said with a touch of sharpness.
"I'm aware of that. I don't mean to give the impression that I think badly of your gender," Merlin hastily assured her. "I just never thought I needed one - a significant other, I mean. But now here you are."
"I do hope my intrusion into your life of solitude hasn't been too substantial an imposition," Morgana said dryly.
Merlin laughed. "Not as bad as I feared, considering that I used to worry I'd have to marry some empty-headed nitwit. You were quite a pleasant surprise compared to what I expected."
"As were you; I used to have precisely the same worries. Of course Arthur's taunts about Uther finding a fat, hairy old man for me only made it worse."
"Yes, that would be awful. I suppose I was more fortunate in that regard, since most noblewomen don't let themselves get fat and hairy." After they laughed together over their narrow escape, Merlin said more seriously, "I meant it when I said there's no one I'd rather have by my side - not Freya, not Nimueh, maybe not even Arthur. Especially not Arthur - he isn't really my type. I wish you could believe that, Morgana."
"I agree completely; your differences may complement each other in matters of state, but I fear you and Arthur would make a terrible couple." Merlin just lifted his eyebrows while gazing steadily at her, wordlessly telling her that the moment for jokes had passed. "All right… What girl wouldn't feel insecure upon discovering she has a rival like Nimueh? Particularly when you and she are still so close even after she treated you so despicably."
"We're still friends," Merlin agreed. "As I said, Nimueh isn't perfect, but there is good in her too."
Morgana huffed and spun around, facing a tapestry depicting a knight battling a griffin. "I suspect she's interested in being more than your friend, Merlin."
"I know. She seemed to take our engagement as…not an insult, exactly, but a…challenge? She's accustomed to getting whatever she wants." He came up behind Morgana and rested his hands on her shoulders. "But I don't want you to worry about that. I'm no more interested in her than I am in Freya."
"Nimueh is a great deal more imposing than Freya. I shouldn't like to compete with her," Morgana murmured.
"There's no competition. I don't love her, Morgana. I will never love anybody else."
Her shoulders tensed under his fingers. "Does that include me? I wouldn't blame you if your experience with our lovely High Priestess left you wary of romantic entanglements, but I hope you know I'd never dream of treating you as she did."
"I know that. I know you're impulsive, hot-tempered, so prideful that it's ridiculously easy to offend you sometimes, even a little vain-"
"Merlin, while I'm pleased Nimueh cured you of the temptation to idealize people…" Morgana began.
"-But you are not selfish or cruel." Merlin turned her around to face him. "You're a better person than Nimueh has ever been, Morgana. As troublesome as love can be, you're definitely worth it."
"I've waited so long to hear you say that… I know I said we have plenty of time to move beyond friendship, but I had hoped we'd have progressed further by now. It's just that I received an update on my gown, which reminded me that our wedding day is getting closer, and-"
Morgana buttoned up her lips, an expression of consternation crossing her features. Merlin was looking very thoughtfully at her, or more specifically at her mouth, making her wonder if she had something on her face. Before she could ask, his fingers curled around her chin, making speech impossible. Merlin very deliberately tilted her head up and leaned in, as if to… Oh. There must not be anything on my face then. That was Morgana's last coherent thought before instinct took over; one hand found purchase on his shirt while the other found its way to the back of his neck, allowing her to play with his hair while she pulled him closer and-
The sound of footsteps heading in their direction reached them just before their lips met. Merlin and Morgana sprang apart. "Damn it!" she hissed.
"Shall we hide behind the tapestry?"
"Why? We're doing nothing wrong."
"But do you really want everyone speculating about what we were doing here at this hour?"
"Good point; the tapestry it is."
They ducked behind the thick wall-hanging, then peeked out to see who had interrupted their almost-kiss. The figure that swept past was shrouded in a silver cloak, but they caught a glimpse of red hair under the hood. "Was that-?" Morgana whispered.
"Lady Sirenia," Merlin confirmed in a hushed undertone in case she was still within earshot. "I wonder why she's out so late."
"A secret meeting with her latest hapless quarry, most likely. Though if she wanted to keep it secret, she shouldn't have worn such noisy shoes. I'm amazed she hasn't woken half the castle!" Morgana scoffed, furious that, just when Merlin was ready to kiss her at last, that harlot had ruined the moment.
She hoped they could pick up where they'd left off once Sirenia was out of the way, but Merlin didn't seem to be in the mood for that anymore; he was staring off in the direction the red-haired witch had taken, his brow furrowed.
He shook his head, turning back to her as if he'd just remembered she was there. "It's getting late; we should return to our chambers. Neither of us will be getting much sleep tonight."
So, who wants to strangle me right now? I know you've been looking forward to the first kiss, and this would've been an okay place for it…just not the best place. After all, even if they have been hinting strongly that they're falling for each other, neither one has actually managed to spit it out in so many words. At least now Morgana knows everything about Merlin's not-romantic relationship with Nimueh - and I promise there are no more girls that he's unusually close to - and he admitted that she's worth the hassle of dating. Unlike with Nimueh, he knows Morgana's vices as well as her virtues, and he still loves her the way he never has or will love anyone else. I hope that's enough Mergana progress to save me from a reader rebellion over the kiss!fail.