Title: Till That Hour
Summary: AU. Camelot's new queen unexpectedly finds comfort in the company of a servant.
Characters: Morgana, Merlin, Lancelot, Bayard, Arthur, Gaius, Godwin
Pairing: M/M, slight A/G
Disclaimer: I do not, and never will, own Merlin. I am just bored and have an imagination.
A/N: That's it, guys! Just a two-parter. And I know I keep saying this, and I keep coming out with new stuff (albeit spaced out, super random stuff), but I think this may be my last fic. Because, let's face it, although I still adore both Chuck and Merlin, the new seasons start up in October, and I don't have the access to them that I always did before. Which means I'm going to be weeks behind all the other viewers, my fics will be irrelevant, blah blah blah.
Also, I spent the summer with a bunch of free time that has disappeared now that work has started in earnest. I want to concentrate on using my free time to stay healthy and stay sane (both pretty hard to do), which means I want to shift my focus from fanfic to original stuff. For realsies this time. Anyways, I feel like I owe you an explanation, so here it is. I really have had a lot of fun writing fanfic (which maybe explains why I can't seem to stop, lol).
A/N That Actually Pertains to the Story: Aurelius is an Arthurian name, but I tweaked the genealogy a bit to take Balinor into account.
I did not know my heart could tell his tread.
I did not know I loved him till that hour. – Sara Teasdale
She twirls her blade into a hanging guard and pauses, waiting. Lancelot, breathing heavily, faces her, arms at his side, sword tip ghosting the grass. He's new to Camelot, but his life's ambition was to be a knight, and he's taken to the task like a fish to water, a bird to the sky. Arthur, Leon, and the other knights respect him, respect his skills, but he's lowborn, a commoner, and she finds him most often in company with Merlin, of all people. This morning, luckily, Merlin is nowhere to be found, probably off with Arthur somewhere, and they have the training ground to themselves.
"Your Majesty," he begins, ever respectful, "are you certain you don't want a respite?"
"If I wanted one, I would have taken one," she retorts.
His mouth twitches with an unspoken response as he steps into a fighting stance. She attacks swiftly, sloppily, and he parries easily before stepping forward to press his own attack.
"Has something," Lancelot asks between strikes and labored breaths, "upset you, Your Majesty?"
She feels the muscles in her upper arms coil and spring as she unleashes an assault aimed at his unprotected shoulder. He scrambles to block it, letting out a grunt when the blades clang together.
"Of course not," she pants. "Why would you think that?"
"You're unusually, er, zealous this morning."
She slices at him. He scrambles to find his footing, and a smile comes to her lips because she can hold her own with one of Camelot's best swordsmen.
"Tell me," she begins as the fight reaches a breathing point and the pacing begins, "what do you know of Merlin?"
Lancelot, wary eyes on her, lets out a long breath. "Arthur's servant?"
"You're often together."
He smiles. "He was my first friend in Camelot." She strikes again, but he continues to explain as they fight. "He's a good man, the best I know. Arthur is my lord. I would follow him wherever he asked. But Merlin . . ."
He stops to block a blow, then reverts with his own attack.
"What?" she queries as she hastily deflects a strike, their swords clashing. "What about him?"
"I'd follow Merlin to the ends of the earth, and he wouldn't even have to ask."
And before she realizes it, she's on the flat of her back on the grass, staring up at him across the blade of his sword.
The sinking sun throws orange and golden rays out across the sky, and she doesn't want to close her eyes for fear that she will miss a moment's beauty. There is too little of that in her life right now. A light evening breeze catches her hair, blowing dark wavy locks into her face. She reaches up to brush them away.
The sound of a light footfall on the stair reaches her ears, carried by the breeze, but, even as her breath hitches in her throat, she doesn't turn. She did not know her heart knew his tread. But she has no desire to converse with him.
He steps up to the wall, his hands resting on the stone barricade, just a few feet away from her.
What do you want? she wants to say, to spit, to demand.
Instead, what comes out is a timid, almost vulnerable, "How did you find me?"
"I . . ." he begins with a shrug, "went looking."
He has expertly avoided her for over a week now. What can he possibly want with her now?
"Why?" she asks, still looking at the sunset instead of him. She's afraid that if she does, she'll see the way the dying rays illuminate his dark hair, that she wouldn't be able to handle the swelling of her heart at such a sight.
"To apologize," he says, simply.
Now she does look, his reply is that unexpected. "Excuse me?"
"I was unfair to you," he frowns. "I sometimes forget that, however alike we are, we are still very different. You've been raised in privilege and I in poverty. What you were proposing . . . It means different things to both of us. It never occurred to me to think about why you were . . ."
"And what reasons have you ascribed to me?"
Lips pursed contemplatively, he twists to face her. "I think being queen is lonelier than you expected, lonelier even than being the king's ward was."
She turns away with a slight scoff. "Oh, well done. Every single person in history who has amassed power has been lonely. It's nothing I can't handle."
He stares at her openly. She can feel a tremor go through her as his eyes rake over her face.
"Then if it wasn't loneliness," he says, inching closer, "what was the real reason?"
Looking at him again, she asks, "Why did you insist on coming around every night? On finding new chores to do? Of always finding a way to be around?"
He holds her eyes a moment, then says, "I want to serve my queen."
A soft, bitter laugh escapes her throat. "You should find a worthier queen."
His abrupt, intense nearness unnerves her. Then she makes the mistake of looking into his eyes, and she finds she cannot climb out again.
"There is no one worthier," he murmurs. "And I promise, when I do kiss you, it won't be because you ordered me to."
She gulps, and he turns away to disappear down the stairwell just as quickly and quietly as he'd arrived.
"I must say, Your Majesty," Bayard begins with a smile, "I hardly thought it was possible, but you've grown even more beautiful since my last visit to Camelot."
She smiles, and it's almost genuine. There's a clatter from the far side of the hall which she pretends not to notice as Merlin, here to attend the prince, knocks over a tray. Arthur turns to direct a not-so-subtle glare at his manservant.
"You're too kind, King Bayard," she tells him, "but I assure you, you don't need to compliment me to secure the peace between our countries. And I'm afraid you'll put my brother off his appetite."
"Yes," Arthur interjects teasingly, "if you want to compliment someone, I won't object to a pretty turn of phrase, certainly."
The visiting king, a hint of a smile on his lips, gives a small nod of his head. "You'll forgive me if I pass, I think, but I only say what I feel."
"A virtue, I think, that not many men possess," she says before hiding her expression by taking a swig of wine.
Bayard wisely stifles a smile as he replies, "On behalf of my sex, I think that's a tad ungenerous of you. I think the prince will support me on this."
"Hear, hear," Arthur says dutifully. Turning to the king, he adds, "You know what I think it is? I think she just hasn't met the right man to change her mind."
Arthur waves for a wine refill. Merlin steps forward to top-up his glass without lifting his eyes. Maybe it's in her mind, but there's an uneasy tautness in his lean form that isn't normally there.
"Is that so?" Bayard muses. He suddenly straightens. "I have three sons, you know."
The half-siblings' reactions are nothing to Merlin's. As if a spasm suddenly runs through his body, he jumps, his arm jerks, and the wine goes everywhere, including all over Arthur's new tunic.
Arthur, ire in his eyes, rises abruptly. He pushes Merlin's hands away as the servant attempts to mop up the mess.
"You idiot," he seethes.
"I'm so sorry, sire," Merlin breathes. Eyes downcast, a blush on his cheeks, he looks as pitiable as a stray dog, starving in the streets.
And just like that, Arthur's anger vanishes. He sighs and gives a small wave of his hand. "Just . . . get this cleaned up."
Arthur takes his plate to the opposite side of the table while Merlin finishes sopping up the wine.
"I apologize for my manservant's clumsiness," the prince says with a frown. "You were saying?"
"Ah, yes," Bayard begins, "well, the alliance is secure as it is, I know. But there they are, and here you are, and you may want to meet them, just to see if they spark your fancy, that's all."
"Of course," she nods. "How considerate of you. I should be glad to meet them. Perhaps we can arrange a visit to Mercia soon?"
Bayard smiles genially, and she remembers why she likes him so much.
"I look forward to it."
The sun has nearly risen when she bursts through the doors to Gaius's chambers. It's early enough for him to still be abed, dawn's rays only just creeping in through the windows, but, in a stroke of good fortune, the old physician is already awake, already leaning over his work table as he conducts an experiment.
He looks up in surprise, that eyebrow of his nearly to his hairline, when she gusts in. "Your Highness? Whatever's the matter?"
She's noticed that he oftentimes has difficulty forgetting that she is no longer the young girl he took care of when she first came to Camelot, has difficulty remembering that she is sovereign now. The habit irks her sister, but if truth be told, it rather comforts her, gives her a small sense that not everything has changed.
One look at her face, and he already knows the answer to his own question.
"A nightmare?" he guesses, worry heavy in his voice. When she nods in confirmation, he frowns and asks, "Have you been taking your sleeping draught? You know -"
That damn draught.
"I don't need a sleeping draught," she tells him more angrily than he deserves. "I need answers."
He sits down on a bench, suddenly seeming older to her than he ever has. "If you'll forgive me, I was under the impression that Morgause was assisting you with your magical abilities. She must know more about Seeing than I do."
"This isn't something Morgause can help with," she says, beginning to pace now. "I dreamed of your apprentice tonight."
Gaius's eyes shine with concern. "Merlin?"
"Gaius, you have served me loyally and honorably. Now I need you to tell me truly: how powerful is he?"
Shaking his head wearily, he says, "It's hard to say. You know my history. Everything I know was learned, but he was born with his gift. He has the most raw, instinctual talent of any warlock I've ever seen, and I've been helping him study, hone those talents. But as to how powerful he may be one day . . . The answer may be: unfathomably powerful."
She sinks onto the windowsill.
"My lady?" he queries gently. "May I ask what sort of dream prompted this inquiry?"
"He's going to be the most powerful sorcerer Albion's ever seen, isn't he?" she murmurs.
"He's just a boy," Gaius says, a note of pleading in his voice, "can't even keep himself out of trouble."
She finally turns her eyes to him again, sees the affection for his young charge in his gaze. "Don't worry, Gaius. I am not my father. I won't hurt him. The kingdom could be in need of a man like him someday."
The question is: whose kingdom? Will it still be hers, when he is court sorcerer and chief advisor? Or will it be her brother's?
Bayard raises his wine goblet to her. "I won't say you look beautiful tonight," he chuckles. "I'll only think it."
"Thank you," she says, smiling in return.
Her eyes drift away, because at that moment, Arthur beckons to his servant, who walks forward and leans down to hear his master's orders. The candlelight throws shadows across his face, but she thinks he looks even thinner than normal. And then she recalls her dream, the knowledge that he will one day be the ruler of Camelot's right hand, possibly the real power behind the throne, and she has to force herself to breathe again.
"Have you considered my offer?" the visiting king asks quietly.
"Oh, yes," she finds herself saying, "I would be pleased to join our houses. If you have no objection, I will visit as soon as I can. Next month perhaps? And we will discuss it further then." Unexpectedly, Bayard frowns. "That doesn't suit you?"
He shakes his head. "I was always honest with your . . . predecessor," he says, and she thanks him silently for the amendment, "and I would like to continue the tradition. Not to mention, I feel it my duty, as your elder, to give you some advice, however unwanted. I've given it some thought, and I don't think any of my sons would suit you."
"Surely that matters very little when it comes to aligning two great kingdoms?"
"That's what . . . he would have said, yes, but I disagree. Why should love and sovereignty not coexist? In fact, I believe a monarch who makes a love match is a much better monarch because of it."
Her eyes slide over to Arthur again, but this time back toward the wall, where her own handmaiden stands at attention.
"I don't think I quite understand you," she tells him.
"No? You see, I've always noticed that it's best not to marry one, when you're in love with another entirely."
Her gaze shoots back to his. She grips the arms of her chair to keep her trembling hands from betraying her. "Excuse me?" she queries through a feigned chuckle. "Who on earth would I be in love with?"
But as soon as the question has left her lips, she realizes that this king beside her is shrewder than he appears.
"You've already shocked the world by usurping your father," he says gently. "Why not shock them even more by marrying a servant?"
In the end, she's accompanied by just Arthur and a half dozen knights. She'd had a hard enough time convincing the council, who – unsurprisingly, considering who sits on it – had wanted to respond aggressively. She's left behind Morgause for her unpredictable temper, Gwaine for the same reason, though he'd nearly thrown a fit when she'd informed them that Lancelot would be going in his stead. After hours of debate, and a touching if unexpected moment of solidarity from her half-brother, she'd finally gotten her way.
Though Arthur had insisted on bringing his manservant. Of course. He rides beside Lancelot, who attempts to engage him in conversation, and she is able to escape him for a while, though she cannot ignore how his gaze lingers on her. She pretends not to notice it as they reach Lord Godwin's camp and dismount. She and Arthur stand shoulder-to-shoulder while their retinue forms a semi-circle behind them.
Their father's old friend deigns to exit his tent upon their arrival, though he's dressed much differently from the last time they saw him. Gone are the courtly robes and long cape, replaced by chainmail and a sword.
"Lord Godwin," she greets with a small inclination of her head.
The old man grimaces. "And what should I call you now? For I can no longer call you Lady Morgana, but neither are you Queen Morgana to me. Perhaps . . . Usurper?"
"You should watch your tongue, sir," Arthur growls, and she hears the rest of his unspoken threat: or you will lose your tongue.
But Godwin only turns a surprised eye on the prince. "Oh? I find it curious that you support her so thoroughly, considering you were once the sole heir to the throne and that she deposed your father."
"My reasons for my conduct are my own," replies Arthur, and a bright flicker of pride and warmth runs through her.
"Oh, but I think they are mine, too, now. Unlike you, I cannot support this false queen."
"She is false neither by blood nor by right. State your complaint or leave our land."
As touched as she is by her brother's defense, she briefly considers whether she should have left him behind in the citadel with Morgause and Gwaine. She'd forgotten it, but he can have almost as sharp a temper as those two.
Godwin, a hand on his sword, squares his shoulders. "The pair of you usurped Uther Pendragon, the rightful ruler of this kingdom and your father, and I have come to answer for this grievous transgression."
"With what army?" Arthur queries, easily slipping back into his cocky manner. "Camelot's army is four times the size of yours, and the citadel is impregnable. What do you hope to achieve besides your own dishonor?"
She places a hand on her brother's arm to check his speech, and he draws back a step. She takes a breath and says, "I think you are forgetting, Lord Godwin, that our father took this kingdom by force. If we 'usurped' him, as you say, we were merely following his ruthless example. However, since the people of this kingdom no longer object to the overturn in power, then neither do you have any claim to do so."
Godwin stiffens. "And if I still do object?"
"Then the prince is right. Your forces are no match for ours. You may swear fealty and leave peacefully, or you may fight and be decimated. The choice is yours."
She turns away and strides back to her wild, white mare, leaving Godwin standing there dumbfounded. Swiftly, Merlin is at her side to hand her into the saddle. But she has barely a second to spare him a thought, for once she is astride, reins in hand, she looks down upon Godwin and says, "You have until sundown."
It's but a moment before Arthur and the knights are mounted, and once they are, they set off at a gallop for home.
"I would go with the white one."
She swivels to find him, a cheeky grin on his face as he rests his back against the closed door. He jerks his chin at her dresses spread out on the bed, white next to green beside purple. Of course he has to catch her in the act of choosing what to wear. She has half a mind to give Gwen a good telling-off when she finally reappears, but the desire softens when she considers whom her handmaiden has deserted her for.
"And what would you know about gowns?" she asks, a gentle smile on her lips.
He pushes himself off the door and comes toward her. "More than you'd expect. You should wear the white one."
"I'll consider it."
She levels an open gaze at him. "Why are you here?"
He tilts his head. "I need a reason?"
A frustrated sigh escapes her lips. He's unusually pert today. Of course he needs a reason. A servant can't simply waltz into the queen's rooms for a morning chat. "You usually have a sleeping draught when you come here, or a list of chores you've given yourself."
He begins a lazy turn about the room, dragging his hands along the bedposts. "I came because I wanted to say that I think you handled the situation with Lord Godwin admirably."
He's by the window now, illuminated by the late morning sun. She suddenly realizes that he'll never stop overstepping his bounds. Maybe it's the power constantly struggling to get out of him that makes him so irrelevant when it comes to authority. Whatever it is, he speaks his mind, and it's more often than not in praise of her.
"How is it you have so much faith in me?" she asks softly.
"You are my queen," he replies simply, smiling, turning to gaze out the window.
As they leave his lips, she realizes just how much meaning he puts into those two simple words: my queen. Never before has she felt as though she belonged to someone. Never before has she wanted to. She lays a hand on the bed post, watches him across the room. "Sometimes I don't understand you."
When he turns around, there's bewilderment etched on his face. "What's to understand?"
"I already told you."
"You barely know me."
A hint of a smile appears on his lips. "I know you."
"Then it's even more unbelievable that you put your faith in me. Why not Arthur?"
"Don't you understand?" he chuckles lightly, and she's so accustomed to his manner by this point that she's not even vexed anymore. "Believing in you is believing in Arthur. You're two sides of one coin, and only together can you unite this land."
There's such admiration in his eyes that she has to force herself to catch her breath. "Who said anything about uniting the land? I'll be happy if we can keep this kingdom on its feet."
"You will," he says, without a second's hesitation. "You will do more, so much more."
She shakes her head. "How do you know?"
He shrugs again, that adorably lopsided smile of his winning her over despite herself. "I just know." He crosses the room, already on his way out, moving to his own rhythm, one which she cannot discern. But just before he disappears into the corridor, he turns and says, "Besides, I like the white one."
She's wearing the white dress he likes so much when she gathers the court. Perched on her throne, Morgause behind her shoulder, she looks down on the hall. Arthur stands in the front with a small group of knights. Gaius occupies his usual place off to the left. Merlin and Gwen converse quietly together near a pillar.
The empty throne sitting to her right provokes stares and whispers, stares and whispers which she silences with just one command.
Arthur's grinning when he kneels before Sir Geoffrey, grinning when he steps onto the dais, grinning when he takes his seat beside her in his new official role of coregent. The gathered crowd, so small compared to the kingdom's population, cheers loudly, and she can only imagine what the commoners' reaction will be.
But as her gaze meets that of a certain dark-haired servant, she realizes that she hasn't done this to boost her own status. She hasn't done it for the additional approval it will bring from the townspeople. She hasn't even done it to repair her relationship with her brother.
She's done it for an impudent, maddening, idiotic, loyal, wise, compassionate boy – no, man – whom she has somehow, unwittingly, allowed within her heart. But as she looks into his eyes, she knows she's already a better queen with him by her side than she ever could have achieved without him.
The feast later that night is the merriest since she ascended to the throne. The wine flows freely, the conversation and laughter even more so. The best thing about Arthur's co-regency is that he's always been the chatty, boastful one, always willing to take away the attention. Tonight, he's the center of attention once again, and she's more than willing to stay in the background, simply observing. She's found that, sometimes, she likes it better that way.
She likes to watch Arthur laugh, likes to watch him throw his head back and let out that burst of sound that reminds her so much of their childhood, when they would chase each other through the trees, waving wooden practice swords, and their fights would inevitably end in shaking, uncontrollable laughter. She likes watching the blush that rises to his cheeks as his gaze swivels over to Gwen, the softness that suddenly comes into his eyes. She likes seeing the shy smile that blossoms on Gwen's lips in turn. She likes seeing the determination on Gwaine's face as he challenges Leon to a drinking contest. She likes Gaius's reluctant amusement as he endures the revelry of the younger crowd. Most likely he will be treating most of their hangovers in the morning. She likes the sight of Morgause lazily fending off the drunken advances of Sir Percival, a knight much too stupid for the likes of her sister. No, she's given it much thought, and her older sister would be well complemented by a quiet, sensitive, intelligent sort of man, not the hulking oaf speaking to her now. Most of all, though, she likes the warmth the scene sets off in her heart, a kindling spark that grows until it engulfs her, flows through her and banishes the once ever-present coldness.
Quietly, she rises from the table and slips from the great hall, slips out into the night for a breath of fresh air. Her head occupied with good thoughts, she scarcely knows where her feet are leading her until she ends up in the gardens, lush and full even as summer bleeds into autumn, the opulent blooms open and inviting. She reaches out a hand to a rose, blood red, runs her fingers over the silken petals. In the moonlight, with the din of the celebrations in her ears, the night feels alive, humming, with possibilities.
Even foggy with wine and with happiness, she should have known he would come. She closes her eyes and inhales deeply, inhales the scents of the flowers surrounding them, as she ponders whether she intended this, whether she bent her steps this way for the express purpose of his following.
And come he does. If she hadn't known, realized or admitted maybe, what her heart was telling her before, she knows it now.
"I owe you an apology," she breathes softly into the night before he can say a word.
He steps up beside her now, and she turns to face him. He's even more beautiful in the moonlight. Head tilted slightly as if to silently ask for clarification, his blue eyes settle on her comfortingly. It's in this moment, in the space of a heartbeat, that she realizes the truth that she's been fleeing since the night he first caught her attention, the truth that the most powerful woman in the kingdom has allowed her heart to be stirred by a serving boy. Then again, now that she knows the truth of what he is, she can see it written plainly. It's in the slight hunch of his shoulders, as if he carries the weight of the kingdom upon them. It's in the tautness of his every muscle, as if he is ready at any moment to spring to the defense of those he loves. It's in the grim determination in his jaw, as if he knows and has accepted the destiny written for him.
She wonders how she could have missed it before, missed the pure power brimming behind his eyes.
"What I did that night," she begins uncertainly, "it was wrong of me, and I'm sorry."
He nods slightly. "Thank you."
His shoulders lower as he exhales. He's calm now, unbothered, and if she were anyone else, she would respond to that stillness. But she isn't anyone else, and this is a great, big, complicated dance, and what a brilliant dancer she's become.
"So," he sighs, "now that you have a coregent, are you still lonely?"
"It's funny," she murmurs. "I thought, I thought I'd feel a loss. But instead, I feel . . . like he's more my brother than he ever was."
A smile grows on his face, making it near iridescent in the moonlight. Softly, but resolutely, he says, "You will be the greatest sovereigns Camelot has ever seen, ever will see."
"You have no reason to speak as if you know."
"But I believe."
"But why?" she presses. "You have no reason, absolutely none, to put so much faith in me, yet you do."
"Isn't that what faith is?" he shrugs. "Believing without proof?"
He holds her eyes for a long time, before she breaks down and whispers, "I don't know what you want from me."
He takes a small step forward, his head dipping to look down at her. "All I want is for you to be the queen I know you are."
The confession resounds in her head, but sends her off on another path entirely. "Why do you call me that?"
"Call you what?"
"'My Queen.' For everyone else, it's 'your highness' or 'your majesty' or 'your grace.' Never that. Only you."
That smile of his still tugs at his lips, and a sparkle grows in his eyes. It's one she recognizes from all his irreverent comments in the castle. He's even closer when he whispers, his voice barely audible over the breeze, "Because you are the queen of my heart."
Her jaw tightens as she takes a step back. "Stop talking nonsense."
"Why are you so afraid?"
"I'm not afraid."
"You are. You are beautiful, powerful, and yet you think yourself unworthy of love. Why is that? Morgana . . . you are my queen."
It's the first time he's said her name.
But then, the way he says that, it's as if time itself stops.
She's known what it's meant for a long time now, but hearing it from his lips stills her tumultuous heart, fills her with unexpected warmth. Even so, even though that warmth is the sweetest thing she's felt in years, since before Camelot, the defenses she's built since then won't tumble that easily.
"What right," she begins in a fierce murmur, pressing a fist to his chest, "what right do you have to steal my heart like you have?"
Surprisingly, he chuckles and grasps her hands, his thumbs sliding over the pale skin of her wrists. "Absolutely none," he acknowledges quietly, "except that you already own mine."
What he leaves unsaid is the promise, now that he has her heart, to never let it go, never let it break. She tenses again, like she always does when she gets too close to the truth that's lain dormant inside for so long.
He pulls away.
"Your guests are missing you," he says gently before turning and walking out of the gardens.
He's awake when she slips through the tiny door of his bedroom and closes it behind her. It's late, the moonlight streaming in through the only window in the room. She expects him to be asleep, dreaming off the revelry that's continued for the past few days, but he's there, sitting up on the edge of the mattress, his hair ruffled, his sleep shirt rumpled, his eyes on her as she creeps in.
She strides to the bed in two quick, light-footed steps and sits down beside him.
For the first time in their acquaintance, he doesn't say a word, though she can tell he's bursting to. But he waits, waits for her to break the silence she's imposed on them. Her problem, though, is that whenever she has this much to say, everything important always seems to get tangled on its way to her tongue, and nothing of significance ever makes its way out.
It's these moments that she often chooses to say nothing at all.
Bringing a hand up to his cheek, feeling her fingers thread into his hair, she leans forward and closes her eyes. She's barely breathing, but even her slight exhalation is enough to ripple over his cheek, to send the tendrils of dark hair poking out from behind his ear wafting. She runs her thumb over the curve of his ear, assessing how far she will let herself go. It's not often she gets this close to intimacy without throwing an obstacle in her own path. Or maybe assessing how far he will let her. Perhaps he despises her now for her cowardice.
But he's still as a shadow, holding his breath, holding her heart. It's as if an artist has captured them, stolen this moment and woven it into a tapestry. She can feel his breath against her neck, hot and yet somehow comforting.
She licks her parched lips, but her throat is scratchy when she whispers, "Be my king."
He brings a hand to her face now, his thumb skimming the curve of her cheek. She opens her eyes at his touch, finds herself staring into those boundless blue eyes of his.
He swallows. "I told you when I kissed you, it wouldn't be because you ordered me to."
"I'm not ordering," she says. "I'm asking."
She can tell by the change in his gaze that he understands. That this isn't Queen Morgana Pendragon who has sneaked into his room in the middle of the night. She sits before him, simply Morgana, a vulnerable girl asking for the patience and support of the man she's unwittingly given her heart to.
The seconds that follow her confession lengthen and linger and stretch until she nearly can't breathe, but then his lips are on hers, gentle and enticing, and her lungs are filling with something much more beneficial than simple air.
"Merlin," she whispers, because all the things that are amassing in her brain are cascading to her tongue now.
But he's Merlin, the boy who always knows exactly what's in her heart without having to ask or presume or even wonder.
"I know," he murmurs before sliding his arms around her waist and capturing her lips once more, effectively terminating all articulate thought in her mind.
She wakes up wrapped in him, in this tiny bed barely big enough to hold the two of them. She's struck by the thought that this is the last place in the castle anyone would think to look for the queen, and yet it's the one place she feels safe and secure. Even as she feels the pleasant morning sunshine on her face, she knows a blush is rising on her cheeks as well, and she buries her face in his bare chest, feeling the softness of his skin beneath her palm. He's awake, she can tell just by the way he breathes, but she doesn't know what to say to him. She can persuade nobles and soothe the egos of royals, especially her brother's, and yet moments like this, moments of pure bliss, silence her silver tongue.
He drops a kiss to her brow, and it occurs to her that he always knows exactly what to say, even if it means saying nothing at all.
"Merlin?" comes Gaius's voice from through the door to his workroom.
Merlin sits abruptly, and she falls down into the pillows with a surprised laugh, then belatedly makes sure the sheet covers wrapped around her everything important.
"No!" Merlin shouts. "Don't come –"
Gaius opens the door, his eyebrows shooting straight up at the sight he's greeted with.
"- in," Merlin finishes dejectedly, dropping back down to the mattress.
"Oh, um . . ." Gaius says, averting his eyes, "good morning, Your Highness, Merlin."
"Morning," mumbles his charge, his face beet red.
She stifles another bout of giggles and manages to stammer, "Good morning, Gaius."
"I'll just, I'll fetch some breakfast, shall I?" the old physician suggests as he backs out, closing the door as he goes. Merlin turns his face toward her, a forlorn expression in those deep blue eyes. She's still burying her laughter in the pillow, and the hilarity only gets harder to stifle when Gaius pops in again and says, "Will breakfast be for two or for three?"
Merlin nearly hurtles himself off the bed. "Gaius!"
The physician disappears again, and Morgana has to disappear beneath a pillow, she's laughing so hard.
Merlin bends his arm to run his fingers along her elbow. "That amused you, did it?" he queries softly.
Peeking out from beneath the pillow, she nods.
He rolls over to capture her in his arms, smiling as he nips at her neck. "Good," he murmurs. "You should laugh more often."
And the only thought in her mind as his lips travel up to hers is: Oh, hell, how will I explain this one to the council?
She can already see their faces, hear their reactions, as she explains why a serving boy is suddenly her closest confidant. She has a long road ahead, because this isn't something that will simply go away if she wills it. It's sticking to her, and she knows that, soon enough, she will have to figure out how to put what she feels for him above public reaction, how to keep him in her life.
The night is cool, but she stands before the open window, drinking in the sights and sounds of the town below. The celebrations – the singing, the cheering, the bonfires, the drinking – are as joyous as they were that night two years ago, when Arthur joined her on the throne. He's the center of attention again, but this time his new wife is at his side.
She smiles. There is no one who can make her brother as happy as Gwen has, and there is no woman she would rather have helping her keep him in line, or build this kingdom, than her best friend. Besides, the two have been dancing around each other for far too long, too worried about public reaction and royal precedent. She's glad they've finally decided to put their happiness above all else. She can tell – from the celebrations tonight and simply from the way they look at each other – that this wedding can only be a boon for Camelot.
She feels his presence as soon as he slips silently into their chambers. He doesn't say a word, and she doesn't turn, but they both know she's noticed him as he crosses the room. Standing behind her, he takes off his jacket and slides it over her shoulders.
The jacket is warm, made of expensive black leather and lined with wool against the autumn chill. It's part of his new wardrobe, the one she made him submit to over a year ago when she and Arthur decided it was time he started getting credit for everything he does for this kingdom and given him the position of Chief Advisor. The people had taken to him at once, as if they'd already known of his goodness, of his willingness to lay down his life for Camelot, as if they'd already known that he was the one responsible for the melting of their queen's glacial heart.
"You'll catch a chill, My Queen" he murmurs gently, his arms around her now.
She feels her heart skip, even after all this time, at hearing those words fall from his lips.
"Not with you here," she teases just as gently, because he's always had a way of dispelling the cold in a room, in her heart.
He chuckles softly, his nose buried in her hair. She turns in his arms, slides a hand into his hair, and presses a soft kiss to his lips. He responds eagerly, but tenderly, his lips moving gently against hers. As always, she's overwhelmed by the strength of the affection in his kiss.
"Marry me," she whispers against his lips.
She can feel the curve of his smile as he replies, "Is that an order?"
"Hush," she chastises, even while smiling, "I'm being serious. Can you hear that? The cheering, the joy? Do you know what that means?" He is silent, waiting for her explanation, and she continues, "The people adore Arthur, and they're rapturous over his marriage. It means, my love, that if they accept the marriage between the prince they worship and a former handmaiden, they will have no trouble accepting the marriage between the queen they tolerate and the court advisor they already adore. And I know you hate to admit it, but they do adore you."
"You really don't know, do you," he murmurs, his breath tickling her cheek, "how much they love you?"
"Merlin . . ."
"No, listen," he urges softly, "you are every bit as important to Camelot as Arthur is, more so even. You were the one who stood by this kingdom when it was falling apart. You were the one who saw how glorious it could be and risked everything you had to bring that vision about." He gives a short, frustrated shake of his head and pulls her closer. "But, no, forget about Arthur. Forget about Camelot. This isn't about being a queen. Morgana . . ."
But then he loses his words, not a common occurrence with him, and simply tightens his hold on her, pressing his forehead to hers. They stay that way for a long moment, framed in the moonlight spilling through the window, holding each other. She's come to appreciate the importance of small joys, being held by him, feeling his heartbeat beneath her palm, that she makes no effort to break away from his embrace.
Finally, he sighs and says, "I won't marry you because you think the people will consent. I want to marry you because I love you." He pulls back to cup her cheek and look her in the eye. "I love you, Morgana, every part of you – every smile, every smirk, every laugh, every tear, even the parts you'd rather run from. And even if it takes me a lifetime to do it, I'm going to prove to you how much you deserve to be loved."
She pulls her bottom lip inside her mouth nervously, like she always does when he starts to talk seriously about his feelings. Recognizing the habit, he simply smiles, tangles his fingers in her hair, and drops a kiss on her forehead. He moves away from her to close the window, effectively cutting off all the din of the revelry.
"I'm as ecstatic for Gwen and Arthur as you are," he grins, "but let's just forget about all this tonight. Just come to bed."
He crosses the room to begin changing, and she hears the rest of his unspoken entreaty. It's late. They've both had too much wine. Their heads will be clearer in the morning. She watches him for a moment, his pale torso visible in the darkness as he strips off his court clothes to exchange them for sleepwear. Once finished pulling on his sleep trousers, he kneels beside the hearth and breathes a fire into life with just a word, illuminating the room with its soft orange glow. He clambers into bed, settles comfortably, and fixes her with a playful, pleading look. And she knows suddenly what he's thinking.
He's worried that tonight's desire for marriage is simply jealousy over their friends' happiness. But he doesn't know that it's been a long time since she began to think of him in those terms, only she hasn't had the courage to speak of it till this hour. He's afraid that her feelings aren't as strong as his, even though he is the sun that brightens her darkest night, the life for whom her heart beats. He'd accused her of not being aware of her effect on the people, but there are times when she thinks he is completely oblivious to his effect on her.
"Are you coming to bed, or are you just going to stare at me all night?" he asks cheekily.
In response, the jacket slips from her shoulders, and her gown follows close behind, pooling on the floor and leaving her clad in only her shift. The nip that had hung in the chamber has been driven out by the fire and his presence, yet there are goose bumps along her arms. She climbs onto the mattress and slithers beneath the covers until she is lying across his chest. Twisting her fingers into his dark hair, she leans down to bestow on him a deep kiss. When they break apart, his eyes are clearer than they have been all night.
"Listen to me," she says softly. "I, Morgana of Cornwall, daughter of Gorlois, the frightened, vulnerable girl whose heart you saved from an unspeakable fate, want to marry you, Merlin of Ealdor, son of Hunith and Balinor, the man who showed me what it was to hope."
His steady, pensive gaze holds hers. "Have you ever thought about what it would be like? If you weren't a queen?"
She presses another kiss to his lips, softer this time, and admits, "All the time." She twirls a lock of his hair around her forefinger. "We'd have a cottage in the countryside, near your mother. You'd work in the fields, and I'd spend my days waiting for you to come home, and trying to turn myself into a housewife. And we'd have children, lots of them, little boys who have your cheekbones and your ears, little girls who have your eyes and your temperament."
"And how would they resemble you?"
"Mmm . . . they would have my propensity for getting in trouble."
He chuckles. "Very likely. They'll also have your passion, your fiery temper, your intelligence."
"They will be the best of you and me," she murmurs, nuzzling into him.
"But I am a queen," she says with a sigh, "and you are a royal advisor. We cannot retreat to a cottage in the country. But this life we have together, here, we can make it extraordinary."
He pulls her down for another kiss and whispers against her lips, "We already have, my love. We already have."
In the deep of winter, a child is born – a boy, with a shock of black hair, a ready laugh, and wide, striking blue eyes. His father bequeaths him a name, Aurelius, after his own father's father, while his mother bequeaths him a kingdom. His uncle, on the other hand, ever sensible, gives him his very first sword. It sits in the corner of the room, propped up and gleaming in the moonlight, a prediction and an expectation of the man he will grow to be. He also, despite the knowledge that this child has displaced his own as the first in line for the throne, bestows a kiss on his nephew's brow the first time he holds him in his arms.
When the announcement of the birth is made, celebrations begin in the town, in the taverns and in the streets. The festivities had begun with the news, even before the proclamations of a city-wide banquet, even before the promises filter down from the throne to the peasantry in honor of the new prince. Because he is the future, he is the new heir to the throne of this kingdom, the one they will teach to be strong and true and fearless.
He is the future, his mother knows, but not for the reason they all presume. As she looks down upon the sleeping newborn in his cradle, feels the swell of love within her heart, she also knows that they will shower this child with love, show him the right and wrong of it all, give him a better life. He is not simply the future of another royal family. He is the firstborn, the best of both of them. She can already see the man he will become – brave, honorable, good, just like his father.
On cue, Merlin appears, dressed in his court clothes for the feast. "They're waiting for you," he says gently.
But then he's next to her, fingering her crimson gown, a look of awe upon his face as he brushes a thumb over their son's brow, and she knows he's been pulled in as well.
"Let them wait a few more moments," she tells him in a whisper, so as not to wake their boy.
Chuckling, he laces his arms around her waist and drops a kiss against her neck. "He's perfect."
"You are quite right," she says with a kiss, "absolutely perfect."
They stand there for a moment, silently mesmerized, and then he breaks the silence with, "They love him already, you know. They're chanting his name in the streets."
"Drunkenly chanting," she amends with a soft laugh.
"They're drunk because they're happy. Because our son is . . . he's hope for them."
"No," she shakes her head, turning in her husband's arms, "he's not just an heir, Merlin. They love him because . . ."
"They love us," he finishes for her.
She used to think that she was a monarch who could never belong despite her birthright. She used to think, every time she stepped outside the castle, that all people saw was the woman who usurped their darling prince. She knows now, though, through the time it's taken her to grow into a queen, through the time it's taken them to glimpse behind her mask, that this was never about power. Somehow, while the four of them were grappling with the ruins of a kingdom and raising it to a glory it's never seen before, it became about each other, family.
And this son who sleeps before them, his head full of dreams, is not just an heir. He is the culmination of a promise made long ago, between a boy and his queen, between a girl and her king.
She threads her fingers into his hair and presses a kiss to his lips. "And I love you," she assures him, even though he doesn't need to be told. He knows, has known for years, even since before she trusted enough to open her heart.
He kisses her again. Smiling when he reluctantly pulls away, he says, "Are you sure we have to go to the feast?"
She laughs and pulls him closer. "I believe I could be persuaded," she replies before she surrenders to his kiss, surrenders to the future that lingers in every look, every promise, every sunrise.