Title: The Kindest of Kisses Breaks the Hardest of Hearts
Summary: Future!fic. Merlin tries to repent for the past, but Morgana's not quite ready to trust him.
A/N: Hello! It's been a while since I've posted in this fandom, hasn't it? Well, that's because I disappeared to the other side of the planet and have very limited internet access, haha. However, it has given me the chance to rewatch seasons one and two, and I curse myself for not bringing season three with me! Maybe I will find it here.
Anyways, this is a little idea that started out much differently and ran away with itself, so I'm not sure how I feel about that. Let me know what you think! I've got a companion piece of sorts in the works, and I'm toying with a follow-up to Beautiful Unfolding. Feel free to let me know in a review or PM whether you'd like to see either of those.
As always, please don't favorite without reviewing. That just makes me sad . . . and I'm already in the doldrums this week.
There is love in your body, but you can't get it out
It gets stuck in your head, won't come out of your mouth
Sticks to your tongue, and it shows on your face
That the sweetest of words have the bitterest taste.
Darling heart, I loved you from the start
But you'll never know what a fool I've been
Darling heart, I loved you from the start
But that's no excuse for the state I'm in
- "The Hardest of Hearts," Florence + The Machine
"I love you, Merlin," she whispers timidly, dropping her gaze, and sharp guilt rips into him like a sword through his heart.
He pulls her closer so she won't see the remorse in his eyes, murmurs his response into her ear. They're ensconced on the parapets of the castle that she shares with her sister and Mordred, the one they are using as a sanctuary and a center for their troops. He can hear the sounds of the soldiers going about their evening activities, can hear their laughter and conversation drifting up from below.
He isn't supposed to be here, isn't supposed to be with her at all, but he hasn't been able to keep himself away. She's the breath filling up his lungs, and all he wants to do is take her hand and run away with her and leave this draining war behind them.
He looks out upon the view with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. The afternoon light is quickly fading. The attack will be here soon.
Morgana turns in his arms, her back against his chest, to follow his gaze, and he wishes he had the power to stop time. He wishes he could go back and undo the last few years. He wishes he could have figured out another way, any way that would save them from this destiny to which they've been doomed. He wants so much, but he's never felt more useless, not when he had to face Nimueh, not when he had to stop Kilgharrah's attack on Camelot, not when he had to rally Arthur to drive Morgana from the throne.
He thinks destiny doesn't know the meaning of justice.
He swallows hard, gently strokes her hair, and simply holds her as the sun dips closer and closer to the horizon. She says nothing more, rocking slowly in his embrace. He's never seen her more at peace, or more vulnerable. With him, she seems almost . . . happy, he thinks, a far cry from the harsh, violent side of her he sees so often in battle. Just the thought is enough to pierce him.
He starts to shake as the sun slips below the horizon.
"Are you all right?" she whispers. "Are you cold?"
He shakes his head, holding her tighter to control the trembling. "I'm fine, I'm fine," he assures her quietly, his voice so soft it's barely audible above the breeze.
The words have barely fallen from his lips when the first wave of Camelot's knights steals out of the woods. The gathering darkness shelters them well enough, but he can see them from his vantage point, and he can tell by the stiffening in Morgana's shoulders that she's seen them too.
She pulls away from him abruptly, her hands trembling violently as she leans on the ramparts to look out into the night. His breathing comes raggedly, and his mouth is suddenly too dry for him to swallow. He feels as if the stone beneath his feet should open up and envelop him, as if he should be struck down by lightning right where he stands, as if she would be utterly justified if she turned and drove a dagger through his heart.
When she finally looks back at him, her mouth is open in shock.
"What have you done?"
He finds that he has no answer.
"Merlin," she gasps. "What have you done?"
She breezes through the front door, her long curls tousled from the autumn wind, and a grin breaks over his face. She tosses her messenger bag near the door, throws her scarf over the back of one of the kitchen chairs.
"How was work?" he asks, setting out the washed vegetables to chop for dinner and wiping his hands on his apron.
She shrugs, walks around him, and reaches up to retrieve a mug from the upper cabinet. Her shoulder brushes against him lightly, but then the warmth dissipates as she turns toward the stove to pour herself some tea. A frown creasing his brow at her chilly silence, he begins chopping the onions.
She leans against the countertop beside him, watching him calmly. After a moment, she says, "Work was fine. How was your day?"
A tiny smile quirks at his lips. "You know, work," he replies.
It's a private joke, because work has gotten a little old for them both over the last thousand years, but at least they've managed to find professions that interest them this time around. She toils away at the history museum all day while he plays the intellectual at a tiny used bookshop around the corner.
She hums thoughtfully. "What are you making?"
He finally glances over at her, his eyes watering slightly from the onions. "I thought I'd make some chicken and rice with vegetables. Would you like that?"
"Sounds good," she confirms with a smile, "but here, let me do that. You cry like a baby when you chop onions." She shoos him out of the way, swiftly takes the knife from his hand, and takes over the chopping, pausing only to bestow a brief kiss on his cheek before giving him a gentle shove towards the table. "Have some tea."
He takes a sip of her tea before moving beside her to begin cutting up the thawed chicken. Grabbing a knife from the drawer, he sets to his task. His smile grows as his elbow brushes hers, and they work in silence side-by-side. He's comfortable here, comfortable next to her, basking in her presence.
The next moment, though, he feels a gentle shudder from her direction, hears the teary sniffle. He sneaks a glance, his heart thumping when he sees the tears gathering in her eyes. She sniffs again, lifts a wrist to rub at her eyes. Her lips are twisted in a sorrowful frown, and it's one of those moments that he can't help but feel these aren't normal, onion-induced tears. He can't help but feel that there's more hidden behind them she doesn't want him to see.
"Hey," he murmurs gently, nudging a bit closer and reaching for the knife, "here, I'll just do it with magic."
"Dammit, Merlin, I'm fine," she insists through a sniffle. "Everyone cries when they chop onions."
"Fine, fine," he frowns, wiping his hands on his apron. "You don't want my help; I get it."
She scoffs. "Stop taking everything so personally. You're too sensitive, Merlin."
Normally he lets comments like this slide. He lets her taunt him, lets her point out his failings. But can't she see that all he wants to do is help? That all he wants to do is love her?
He chops angrily at the chicken, the knife thunking dully into the cutting board. "Yeah? Well, maybe you're too callous."
She shovels the chopped onions into the pot and begins work on the peppers. "Let's just try to get through dinner, okay?" she sighs.
He squeezes his eyes shut, hating that she brushes aside his concerns so easily. Each time she shuts him out, each time she turns away, the burning in his chest grows a little fiercer. He returns to his task, but the anger inside only simmers, increasing with every swing of the blade. By the time he's done, the chicken is a mangled mess, and he's gripping the knife so tightly his knuckles shine white.
He slams the blade into the cutting board and swivels to face her. "No, Morgana, I do not want to 'just get through dinner.' I'm not going to let that become my life. I'm not going to let that happen to us." He grasps her hips and pulls her closer. A little more gently, the yearning still shining through, he continues, "Do you understand me? I don't care how much you try to run, I don't care how much you remind me of all the mistakes I made all those years ago. I love you, Morgana. I love you, and you can't run from that."
She swallows nervously, squeezed against him like that, but he's not letting her off so easily. He snakes his arms around her waist and holds her tight. "It's now or never, Morgana. I'm mad in this, but I can't keep on when you don't seem to care. I can't do this alone."
Her expression hardens. "What are you saying, Merlin?"
He stares at her, eyes boring into hers as searches for any reason to stay, any flicker that gives him a hint into her heart. He loosens his hold a bit, shifts so that she feels right in his arms. He licks his lips hesitantly.
"Do you love me, Morgana?"
She wriggles in his embrace, but reaches up to thread her fingers through his hair. Leaning forward, she presses her forehead to his and whispers, "Don't ask me that."
He drops his arms, and turns away, and dinner remains uneaten that night.
He sometimes thinks they're playacting at this, that all of this is just an elaborate ruse designed to break his heart as thoroughly as he broke hers so long ago. Because she's the same woman he knew then – gorgeous and strong-willed and vengeful, and every inch of her reactivates a memory he thought he'd tucked away for good. Her raven-black hair, her pale emerald eyes, her dazzling smile all serve to remind him of how much time he's wasted. And through it all, that familiar tug of magic that won't quite let his heart rest.
She's exactly the same as he remembers, and yet she's different, too, not quite as vibrant as she once was, those eyes not quite as lively. He spends whole days contemplating those eyes, never sure if he is the cause of the sadness behind them, spends whole days in constant doubt, wondering what she sees when she looks at him. She's had a millennium to hate him, a millennium for that hatred to gnaw at her, and he's terrified that it's gotten the better of her at last.
He's weighed down by the chains forged by his own mistakes. She could ease his mind, ease his heart, with three simple words, yet she does nothing to lighten his burden. Instead she lets him strangle, teases him with her half-affections, keeps him enchanted even as she refuses to open up her heart.
And he endures his punishment stoically, knowing somewhere deep down that he has brought this upon himself. Maybe he is mistaken, and there is no second chance for them. Maybe he's trying too hard to start over when it's too late, when he's hurt her too acutely. Maybe there's no hope at all, but he's spent a thousand years without her, a thousand years aching for her, and he will not give up so easily.
No matter how much the anger fills up his chest, he cannot leave her. She may stomp on his heart with every chance she gets, but without her, he feels as if the world will crumble to dust. He's been an empty man for far too long now, and he won't lose her again.
He won't lose her, but he's not quite ready to forgive her so easily this time. So he stays out walking, wanders through the countryside, stops at the lake, until the stars are glimmering in the sky. They used to picnic here, in happier days when her smile came much easier.
When he finally returns home, it's past midnight and his heart is heavy with misery. He walks through the door, though, and she's sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea, and he wonders if maybe he's being too hard on her.
"You're still up," he says, half-statement, half-question.
"Of course I am," she replies, like he shouldn't even be asking.
She gets up to retrieve a mug from the cabinet and pour him some tea. He takes the cue to sit down, watches forlornly as she stands at the counter, pours the tea, and sets it before him on the table. She moves to retake her seat at the opposite end of the table, but he reaches out and grasps her wrist, trapping her there. She won't look at him.
He studies her face, the curve of her cheek illuminated with moonlight, looks at her hard for any inkling of what may lay within her, but those eyes he loves so much have always been guarded.
She lets out a little gasp as he pulls her down onto his lap, wraps his arms around her waist, and buries his nose in her neck.
"For everything it's worth," he whispers, his breath tickling her wavy locks, "I am sorry."
Morgana, taking a deep breath, curls a hand into his hair. She has a tendency to regard him pensively these days, and he can never tell if she does it warily or contentedly. "I understand you, Merlin," she tells him softly, "and I think you understand me sometimes."
He knows what she's saying. She's saying that they come from different places, that they are trying so hard but maybe they simply cannot meet each other in the middle. Maybe they are finally realizing that they stand on opposite banks of a river, no bridge between. Sorrow fills his heart. Why would fate give them another chance only for them to fall to the same mistakes? Only for them to be unable to find middle ground yet again?
"Sometimes," he acknowledges hoarsely. "But I don't want sometimes, Morgana. I want all the time. I want to know everything you think and feel. Right now, though, I feel as if I don't understand you at all."
Her lips ghost over his temple as she murmurs, "How is it you don't remember?"
He shakes his head, perplexed. "Remember what?"
Cupping his cheek, she lifts his face to look into his eyes. "The last time I told you . . . how I feel. And the first, I suppose . . ."
The memory hits him in a rush. The parapets, the deepening night, the force of his betrayal. His jaw tightens. "And so you cannot forgive me for one wrong decision made centuries ago?"
"No, no," she hums, shaking her head and stroking his hair, "of course not. But I've lived for centuries, Merlin, and I've only said those words once in all that time."
"And you were repaid with my disloyalty," he finishes for her, shame coloring his cheeks.
She presses a kiss to his brow. "It is long past now. But perhaps you understand, perhaps you remember, why it is difficult for me to express how I feel about you."
He does understand. He understands that their first lives haunt them constantly. He understands that he's so weary of his past mistakes dogging his present happiness. And he thinks maybe it's time that they finally forgive each other.
Tenderly, he tucks her hair behind her ear and caresses her cheek. "Destiny made a fool of me, Morgana," he confesses, voice low and husky. "Or maybe I did that on my own. But life without you is positively unbearable, and I don't intend to let that happen again. I'm well aware of the sins I've committed; I only wish you would allow me to atone for them."
She opens her mouth to reply, but he stops her with a finger pressed to her lips.
"I understand it's difficult to trust me," he concedes sadly, "but I promise you, Morgana, I will not betray you again. I want to love you. I want to have what we were denied all those years ago." His arm around her waist tightens, holds her a bit more protectively. Softly, the desperation shining through his voice, he tells her, "And I just want you to stop hurting, if only you'll tell me how to fix this."
She's silent for a long moment, in which he feels as if she holds his heart hostage. Her fingers curl in his hair as she drags him closer and presses their foreheads together. "I'm not sure I know how either," she whispers, and his heart cracks in two. He feels as if she's sealed their fate yet again. But then she adds, "But I know that I want this, too."
She leans forward to seize his lips, and he suddenly feels as if he's soaring. He's been wrong about this all along. She hasn't been keeping him dangling, hasn't been punishing him. All she's been doing is trying to find her footing, finding her way back to him after being lost for so long.
"Morgana," he breathes between kisses, at a loss for words but desperate to communicate all the emotions that are welling up inside him.
She kisses him again to silence him, then rises and, after a flickering hesitation, pulls him down the hallway.
She won't ever tell him she loves him, won't ever say it in so many words. But it's in the way she talks about him, it's in the way she brushes her hand across his shoulders when she passes by, it's in the way her eyes sparkle when she looks at him.
And it's in the way she kisses him, twines her arms round his shoulders, and drags him down to the bed.
And Merlin, with the taste of her on his tongue, falls willingly.