Title: close your eyes (it will seem)
Summary: Years later, they'll look back and wonder at how easily it could have all gone wrong. AU from S1 on.
AN – I started this during early series three, so in this universe, Morgana and Arthur aren't half-siblings. Incest is not cool folks.
I re-watched series one and two while writing this, and it struck me repeatedly how many times things could have gone slightly differently, which got me wondering what the repercussions would have been.
Gwen is sweet and pretty; she smiles as easily as she breathes and when she gets nervous she babbles in a manner that is amusing and endearing, and there's just something about her that makes him smile too. She is his friend – his first friend, in this strange new city where everything is so different – and she believes in him in a way no one else ever has.
("Is it true, what you said about Valiant using magic?"
He'd nodded, and she needed no further proof.)
He can't let her father die. The knowledge is rock inside his mind, irrefutable. Her grief would be agonizing; knowing he could have prevented it would make it unbearable. The streets are quiet, the people scared by this new silent, invisible killer, and he passes through them without incident. The poultice works almost immediately; within a few hours, Tom will be fully recovered. He is leaving, almost at the door, when Gwen stirs slightly and he turns back to look. She sleeps still, but the small package draws his gaze, and, after a moment's thought, he carefully slips it back into his pocket.
Later, when the contents have been carefully disposed of, he for a moment entertains the thought of what might have happened if he had left it behind. The outcome is too horrible to think about, and he dreams that night of the stench of burning flesh, an agonising scream, a scrap of singed yellow cloth caught in the breeze.
Caution is something he learns quickly in Camelot.
(Tom spends several more days confined to his bed, clearly recovering, and the knights search his home, suspicious, but can find nothing incriminating. The only lasting effect is a sudden boom in business; news of Camelot's lucky blacksmith spreads quickly).
He has to seek her out for the first time after the goblet and the poison (and the kiss, but he's trying not to think about that, because when he does he finds he then can't think about anything else). He hurt her, he knows he did, staring at the fake handmaiden like he'd never seen a girl before, and then he went and nearly died without so much as a by-your-leave, and he's not sure which he's more sorry for.
She's sitting alone on a stone bench in a quiet corridor overlooking one of the small courtyards – he only finds her because he met Morgana on his search, and she pointed the way with a knowing smile.
"Gwen," he begins, trailing off as she turns to look at him. And then, "Thank you. Gaius told me…I mean, you didn't have to…stay. Look after me."
She continues to stare at him, her gaze steady and unreadable, and he finally forces his eyes up to meet hers.
"And I'm sorry." he adds quickly, determined to get this over with now he's started. "About what I said. About the handmaid."
She shakes her head. "No, you shouldn't…I mean, I've got no right to you, you're free to think what you like about other people…don't feel guilty just because you don't think about me the way I think about you. Not that I think about you. I mean, I do think about you, but…"
She's babbling so quickly he can barely work out what she's saying, but it seems to be distressing her somewhat, and so he leans over and kisses her. It's surprisingly effective; she doesn't speak again for some time.
(Things are awkward, for a while, after that, and then Lancelot comes, and something shifts. She is too preoccupied with Merlin – his presence fills her world whenever he is nearby these days, silly and sappy though she knows it is – to notice this newcomer as more than someone in need of help. And he…he is confused. It is all too much, on top of learning magic and keeping secrets and running round after Arthur all day, to try and unravel the tangle of thoughts and feelings that surface every time he sees Gwen.
Until… "Are you two…you know," Lancelot asks, and the "yes" escapes before he has time to think.)
Theirs has always been a strange relationship, from the moment the tiny pale ten year old, her eyes still red-raw with grief, turned up in the castle courtyard. Uther, king and conqueror suddenly so nervous of this strange silent child, so unlike his own boisterous son or her open, friendly father, small and fragile, had pushed her towards Arthur and told him to look after her.
And the boy had seen, what his father never could, the steel that lay within her, the loneliness and fear, yes, but beneath it strength and determination. His childhood too had been a lonely one, his position as the king's only child forever separating him from the other children of the city. But here was someone who apparently did not see the division, or at least not understand it, and maybe she was a girl, but she played as well as any boy would.
They were allies against Uther's rules on bed and lessons, in late night raids on the kitchen and long afternoons exploring the castle from top to bottom; enemies when they disagreed, for her temper was as fierce as his, and she would never back down when faced with his title. He wore the king down to win her the right to learn to fight; she leapt to his defence whenever she thought Uther pushed the young prince too hard. He told her, and only her, of the sadness and guilt he felt over the mother he would never know, and she in turn shared her fears over the nightmares that occasionally haunted her, the ones that had told her her father was dead long before the King's men had arrived.
And then they grew up. They didn't play anymore, and though she was still more than happy to thrash him on the training fields, the ladies of court who surrounded her now would go to the king every time she slipped away and demand he put a stop to it. Besides, it wouldn't do for the future king of Camelot to be seen to be bested by a mere slip of a girl.
But still they came together, at the end of a day when the weight of his future had rested more heavily than usual on his shoulders, after an afternoon when she had felt so stifled and suffocated by the simpering women who surrounded her that she thought she might scream. He became quietly, ridiculously jealous of her new handmaid, a mere servant girl who seemed to replace him in her affections as best friend and confident, until she came to his chambers, late one night, pale and shaking, eyes wide with such fear that he has not seen since those very early days, and told him of a dream in which Camelot burned while she watched and laughed.
"That will never happen." he promised her then. "That won't ever happen. I won't let it. You won't let it."
And now they are grown, and things are so very different., and yet so much the same.
"Has your father apologised yet for not believing you?"
"He'll never apologise. I hope you're not too disappointed Valliant's not escorting you."
"Turns out he wasn't really champion material."
"That was some tournament final."
"Tell me about it. It's not every day a girl gets to save her prince."
Indignation bubbles up – how dare she?! He is Arthur Pendragon, heir to the throne of Camelot; he does not need help, especially not from a girl…but then, over he shoulder, he catches sight of Merlin, standing quietly in a corner with Morgana's maid. Merlin helped, he can't deny it. Maybe if he can take help from a servant, he could take it from a girl…or from Morgana, at least. He is not his father, after all – he was right when he said Uther would never apologise, and Uther would never have given thanks, either, but maybe he should.
"No," he says after a pause. "No, it's not. Thank you."
Morgana blinks, surprised – she had expected denial, the flaring up of his usual arrogance, not this acknowledgment – and then smiles widely, bowing her head.
"Any time." she promises.
Something is changing between them, they know, even if they won't acknowledge it. Though they were raised as siblings, they are not, and never have been. They tease each other occasionally, about marriage and husbands who will expect a quiet, complacent wife who smiles prettily and produces five sons in as many years, wives who will look good on his arm, simper and agree with all that he says. They hide behind the jokes and the jesting, because the obvious is too much to face, the repercussions too great to think about.
And then Sophia and her father come, and Arthur laughs at her dreams.
It hurts – hurts more than she thinks it should – coming from he who has never laughed at them before, who has never tried to explain them away with tonics and potions, who has always listened when they scare her, and promised, when she needs it, that he will be there to see they do not come true.
She doesn't buy the story he and Merlin so inexpertly weave, either, when it is all over. Neither of them are good liars, and Merlin is always far too willing to take the blame when Arthur fails. She lets Gwen leave early that evening, to go visit her young man, hopefully with a bucket of water and a cloth, and sweeps her way into Arthur's chambers. She is the Lady Morgana, every inch his equal, and she will not let him know that he hurt her.
"You shouldn't keep doing this." she snaps as he looks up from the parchments he is reading.
"Morgana, how many times, haven't you ever heard of knocking? Honestly, you're as bad as Merlin…"
"He's a good person, Arthur, the best servant you've ever had – he's loyal and hardworking and he makes you think, for once in your life. He's you friend, and you've no right to keep treating him as a scapegoat."
"Don't look at me like that, I know it wasn't his fault you weren't at training this morning, and probably for the past few days, too. In fact, I rather suspect that if not for him you wouldn't be here at all."
He blinks again, her words far too close to the truth for comfort.
"Merlin will get over it." he insists instead, avoiding the barb. "I think he quite enjoys the stocks."
Morgana waves that aside. "That's not the point." she insists, though she has to admit there is some truth in his words. "You shouldn't abuse him like that, Arthur. Just because you know he'll stand up and take your punishments for you doesn't mean you should ask him to! He's not just your servant, he's your friend, and god knows you've got few enough of them."
Arthur looks truly hurt at that, and for a moment Morgana regrets her words. It has always gone unsaid between them, the knowledge that, for many years, all they ever really had was each other – not for the King's son the games and frivolity of the gangs of children who roamed Camelot. Things were different now, of course – Morgana had Gwen, and Gaius, and even a couple of the more astute ladies of the court, and Arthur had his knights, a few of whom were more than just comrades, and now Merlin as well, who refused almost without realising to be only a servant – but still the memory (watching the other children playing in the courtyard, the way they all fall still and silent when he goes out to try and join them, the attempts to hide the looks of relief when the strange pale girl with the dark hair and dark eyes walks past apparently without noticing) of loneliness remains.
"I'm sorry," she says, breaking the silence. "That was low."
He's shaking his head even before she's finished. "No, no, you're right, of course. Maybe I should listen to you, and, heaven help me, even Merlin too, more often."
"You should." she agrees and turns to leave, because she's said what she came to say, and she knows better than to expect anything more than what she's had. But then, Arthur's surprised her a few times lately.
"Morgana," he says, making her pause. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have laughed when you told me about your dream."
"No," she agrees quietly, not looking at him, "No, you shouldn't."
"You didn't tell me they'd come back." he says after a silent pause, sounding almost hurt to her incredulous ears.
She whips around to face him properly, instantly angry. "And why should I? Do you think you have some sort of claim to me, some right to know everything about my life?"
He looks surprised at her anger but, for once, does not rise to it. "No. No, I just…you always used to tell me."
She shakes her head – infuriating man, how does he always manage to do this, you'd think that after ten years he's have stopped taking her by surprise, and then he goes and wrong-foots her all over again.
"Well. Things have changed. We've changed."
"Maybe we should do something about that." he says quietly. "We've been friends a long time, Morgana. I don't want to lose that."
"No." she agrees. "Me neither."
Silence stretches between them, warm and comforting and familiar now, like the evenings they used to spend together as children.
"You'd better go," prompts Arthur softly at last. "That maid of yours will be wondering where you've got to."
"I gave her the evening off." says Morgana with a smile. "Merlin's going to need cleaning up.
Arthur groans. "Thanks. Now I'm going to have to put up with his dopey grin all day tomorrow."
"Come on, he's not that bad."
"You don't have to spend all day with him! Honestly, mornings after you've given Gwen the evening off are a nightmare. He whistles."
Morgana laughs. "Well, I think it's sweet. I can't imagine any man caring for me the way he does Gwen."
"Neither can I." Arthur snorts, but he is joking, and her mock-glare does not last long.
"And I was just beginning to think you'd matured. Goodnight, Arthur."
They spend more time together after that – not just during meals or when the court is gathered, but spare moments during the day, when it's just the two of them, free to talk about whatever they like as they have not done for years. Safe topics, at first – the new Knights, Merlin and Gwen, upcoming feasts and tournaments – but slowly they move on to other topics. He confides his fears that he can never be half the king his father is, and she forces him to face the fact that Uther is not perfect; she tells him, carefully and levelly, of the bitterness she sometimes feels towards the man who has raised her, and he tries to make her see the guilt the King also carries, the care and protection he has lavished on her in an attempt to make up for his failings, and the love that grew from it.
She still hates him when she finds Gwen after Tom's execution, but it is a different sort of hate, filled with pity for a man who could have been great bought so low. Killing him barely crosses her mind; her anger is as ever, quick to burn and red-hot inside her, but it is tempered too, bound by other emotions, loyalty and love – Gwen, sweet and gentle, would want no one hurt on her account, not even for this, because what would it change? And Arthur…she cannot do that to Arthur. Losing his father would destroy him, and then she in turn would lose him, because how could she face him knowing she is the cause of his misery and hurt?
They go to visit her father's grave – she's been thinking about him a lot recently, what with one thing and another – and there she does gain some understanding, which is better than nothing. She can't love him, not really, nor respect him anymore, but she tries hard to understand, and some days she thinks she's getting close. He is a good king in many ways, but his son will be great, she knows that as well as she knows anything, and the promise of the future is enough to get her through the present. She will be around to see it, of that she is determined.
She dreams again, not long after, of the destruction of Camelot, the castle falling into ruins, Gwen dead on the floor, Merlin broken and beaten beside her, Arthur kneeling, head down, dirty and bloody, pain and despair in every line of his body, and Morgana standing over them all, rage like fire in her blood, not for what has happened but because that is what she is now, anger and storm and burning might, she has caused this, her home toppled to the ground, the people she once thought of as friends dead by her own hand, the man she might just love bowing at her feet…
She wakes suddenly, heart pounding, clutching the bed sheets to her. She can still feel the echoes of hate and fury coursing through her, and that terrifies her more than anything else, because she knows better than anyone the anger she is capable of, but not at them, never towards them…
She doesn't sleep again that night, and when Arthur sees her the next morning, eyes shadowed, skin drawn and paler than normal, he can guess at what has happened. He drags her back to his chambers, sends Merlin away with a look, locks the doors and cajoles and bullies her into telling him everything.
He listens in silence, for once, as she tells him, every detail, and the silence stretches on long after she finishes.
"You must hate me," she whispers at last, all walls down, too drained to care anymore.
"Never." he insists at once. "It was a dream, Morgana, just a dream. And don't look at me like that, I know sometimes your dreams turn out to be true, but this one won't, I promise. I have before, remember?"
She does, that long ago night when she'd awoken with hazy images of Camelot burning, herself laughing, but this time it felt so much more real. This time, she knows herself well enough to know that it is something she is capable of doing.
"If I turn into that," she begins slowly, hesitantly, picking her words carefully, "No, don't shush me, I need to know. Will you be the one to stop me, if I turn from you all like that?"
He looks at her steadily for a long time, his face expressionless – God, when did he grow up so much? – and then nods, once.
"Yes." he promises. "Yes, I will."
She doesn't doubt him.
(Merlin makes the same promise, too, not long after, when she works out the truth of him and her and realises that there are some things Arthur can't fight, can't understand, no matter how hard he tries. But that is why Merlin is always there, for those moments when being king, being Arthur, isn't quite enough. They are equals, these two, and more; they balance each other so perfectly, two sides of the same coin. It doesn't make either man any less or any more than the other, and Morgana thinkshopesknows they both understand that.)
"I'm scared, Merlin. I don't understand anything anymore. I need to know what's happening. Please."
"Gaius will be back soon, he'll be able to help you."
"No he won't, I don't want anymore remedies, they won't do any good. It's magic, Merlin."
"I'm your friend, you know I wouldn't make this up."
"Then you believe me? You think it's magic too. Please, Merlin, I just need to hear someone say it so I don't need to keep feeling like I'm imagining it."
He pauses, heart fighting head as his next words battle each other on their way to his tongue. She takes his silence as a sign of his disbelief, and turns to leave, hurt and oh-so-very-alone. The sight of her retreating back is too much – he can't do this, can't leave her to hurt like he would have done without Gaius to teach him, Gwen to ground him.
There is a pause, in which it feels like the very universe itself is holding its breath. Time stretches, elastic, and two paths wait in the silence for the next step.
Morgana hesitates, and then slowly turns, moving back into the room.
The universe breathes out, time snaps back into place, one of the possible-futures starts to crumble.
"It's alright. Magic is not something to be scared of. Learn it, understand it, but never fear it, not in yourself. You're not alone."
And he tells her everything.
Morgana stands at a window, looking out over the field where the knights are training. Her eyes are drawn, as always, to Arthur, explaining, correcting, demonstrating with a patience the passing years have taught him but still that same dedication and drive, the sheer determination that everyone should be their absolute best.
Footsteps, and then Gwen is beside her.
"I wondered where you'd got to," she says, not accusing or questioning, merely stating a fact, and Morgana has to smile. It has been years since Gwen stood at her shoulder as maid, but still her friend has never shaken the habit of knowing always where her former mistress is.
"The new knights are coming on well," she says instead, and it is Gwen's turn to smile; she is not fooled for a second.
They continue to watch the session, Morgana's gaze straying from the knights to the far corner of the training field, where Merlin, never far from Arthur's side, has been ambushed by the castle children. The older ones are playing with sticks, copying the knights and waging war on each other with great aplomb, but the younger ones have surrounded the warlock, begging for tricks. One of his apprentices sits nearby, frowning in concentration as she levitates sticks and stones and pieces of discarded clothing, and it soon becomes a game, the other children trying to catch the objects as they float around. Every now and then one of them will find themselves up in the air too, and then Merlin is once more surrounded by pleading children, all desperate for their turn. From this distance it is hard to make out features, and if Morgana didn't know them as well as she knows the back of her own hand, she might have been unable to pick her own children out from amongst the melee, as scruffy and messy as the rest of them.
"We really should go and rescue him." she says with a smile - she smiles a lot these days, and though she hasn't noticed, her friends have.
Gwen shakes her head. "He seems happy enough,"
And it is true, he is; love begets love, and the adoration the children pour upon the warlock is matched only by his love for them. He moans frequently and at great length about them, seeking him out at every opportunity, attaching themselves to his side, demanding stories and bits of magic, but it reminds Gwen of the way he used to – and often still does – moan about the man who is now and forever their king.
(That long ago night, when it was all barely started. "You're proud of himreally, even though you complain about him constantly."
"I am not."
"You are! I can see it in your face!"
"Those socks are very clean, of course I'm proud of them.")
They stay at the window a while, a precious, stolen moment, but their attention is needed elsewhere, and they cannot put it off for too long.
It does not matter. Later, maybe they will go out and join Merlin and the children; maybe Morgana will be drawn into magicing sparks in the air, flames that will dance and weave, making every shape imaginable, while Gwen sits beside her husband and draws her youngest onto her lap, and Arthur will come, when training is over, flopping down on the grass with them in a most unking-like manner.
Maybe they'll have their evening meal like that, sitting out on the grass in the last of the evening sunlight, and they'll light a fire and gather round it as night draws in, the children lying back to look up at the stars while Merlin tells stories of a great Prince and his fearless Lady, the faithful maid who was full of heart and the loyal servent who finally tied them all together. Morgana and Merlin's student will weave their own magic into the flames and the smoke, shaping it to match the story Merlin tells, dragons and horses and monsters and knights filling the darkened sky.
(And this, Morgana often thinks to herself, is a far sweeter revenge against the old king than any she might once have dreamt of; magic in his kingdom, in his home, embraced and encoureged and enjoyed).
Maybe, one by one, the children will begin to slip reluctently home, until the only ones left are the King and his Queen, his most trusted advisor and her dearest friend, their own children asleep around them. And maybe things will stay like this forever, sitting together in the starlight, their strange, mish-mash family held together by bonds thicker than blood and insubstantial as air, and this, Morgana thinks, this is happiness.
(The dreams of Camelot burning by her hand never quite leave her, for the rest of her life haunted by might-have-beens and could-still-bes, but then she wakes and they are there, her family; weights, yes, but good ones, warm and heavy, her children on her lap, her husband's hand in hers, Gwen's bright smile, Merlin's quiet understanding. And she knows they are impossible, then, the visions that haunt her, because who can run wild when they are rooted like this?
And she shudders at the thought of another Morgana, another Arthur, another Merlin, another Gwen, who chose differently, and lost it all.)
Don't get me wrong, I like Arthur/Gwen. There's just still a bit of me that goes awww every time I see Gwen and Merlin together, and another part that is intrigued by Morgana and Arthur, their childhood and relationship. Morgana in general just fascinates me. But that's another story.
Reviews are love.