Title: as if you have a choice
Rating: PG/T (Strong PG, but I put it under T for ff for more adult themes.)
Characters/pairing: Merlin/Morgana, slight Arthur/Gwen
Spoilers: For 4.08, and general for the fourth season.
Summary: Merlin's encounter with the lamia makes him reconsider his relationship with someone very similar, and very important.
Disclaimer: Merlin and all its characters belong to the lovely people at BBC/Shine. "Run" is by Snow Patrol.
A/N: I don't know why I keep doing this to myself, but I do! Inspiration struck while watching 4.08 on Friday night, and I couldn't stay away. This definitely turned out a lot differently than I expected though.
light up, light up
as if you have a choice
even if you cannot hear my voice
i'll be right beside you, dear
- "run," snow patrol
She haunts his mind. The rest of the group is asleep, but the night settles on him with a chill, seeping into his bones, causing a shiver to run through him.
She looks like her – the dark hair, the pale skin. It's like this strange girl is a ghost sent by her, come to remind him of all his sins. He had been foolish, reaching out to her like he could help, even if it was just bandaging her wounds.
It's not just the way knights had turned on him so easily in their efforts to protect the girl, no matter how much the memory of Percival pushing him away reminds him of a time when he, so stupidly, let his passion overcome his sense and sent her flying out of harm's way. Her expression had changed that night, not softened exactly, but confusion was a step up from pure hatred in his book. It's not just that, their betrayal of the brotherhood he shares with them, even if he isn't a knight.
No, it's the way that exclusion had brought a similar instance to the forefront of his mind. There was another girl – another woman, rather – who sought to shut him out once, a woman whose lips he can't push from his mind, a woman who can make him come running with just a tug on his mind.
It's the way he lies awake right now and thinks of the twist her hips against his, or the press of her mouth against his collarbone, or the scrape of her nails across his shoulders. It's the way she seeps in and claims every molecule of space in his body, in his mind. There is no escaping her.
But he finds he no longer wants to try.
She's a demon, this girl, poisoning the knights' minds against one another, against him, against Gwen. They won't listen to reason, won't see sense, and he can't see a way to fix it. All he sees when he looks into this girl's eyes is danger, deceit, and his heart cracks with the realization that he could be the same as these knights. He could be under Morgana's spell just as thoroughly and unwittingly as the knights of Camelot are under Lamia's.
He turns away in desperation, stomping off into the trees. The forest air is cool, quiet, and once he gets far enough away from the noise of the camp, he sits down onto a fallen log to clear his head. It isn't fair the way she stays with him, never letting him be, when he is no more than a fleeting thought to her, like a beetle to a lion, like a leaf in the vastness of a forest. More than the control she exercises over him, he hates the way she is consumed by revenge, how that's overtaken everything else, even him.
And yet, weren't there times, brief and ephemeral though they may have been, that he swore he could see in her eyes that she loved him too?
In a better world, a free one, their love would be all that mattered.
His thoughts break off at the sound of footsteps, and he looks up in time to see Gwen appear. She approaches slowly, sits beside him.
"Everything okay?" she asks. He chuckles noiselessly, and she adds, "I mean, besides the fact that we're going in completely the wrong direction and that all the knights are acting really, really strangely?"
"Besides that, huh?"
"Yeah." She smiles, and he hates it because it's Gwen, his best friend, and he can't hide from her, not this. This isn't using forbidden skills to save a prince. This is primal, something he desperately needs but doesn't understand. Frowning, she says, "Merlin, whatever it is, you can tell me."
He's quiet for a moment, gathering his thoughts. Then, his voice nearly soft enough to float away on the mist, he says, "You love Arthur."
"Yes," she nods, "I do."
"And he loves you."
"I think so," she replies, brow furrowed now. "Merlin, what's this about?"
"You know that he loves you, though," he presses, "even if he doesn't say it, which makes him a prat, by the way. But even if he doesn't, you know it because of how he acts, what he does for you."
"Yes, I suppose so."
He swallows thickly, picking idly at one of his boot buckles. After a moment, he asks, "What if you love someone more than they love you? They're all you can think about, and yet you mean nothing to them. Less than nothing. All you are is a speck of dust in their life."
Gwen slides her palm over his. "I'm sure that's not true." She means well, but she doesn't, she can't, know. What happens when the day comes, and it will come, when she chooses her quest for vengeance over him? Still, she asks, the interest plain in her voice, "Are you in love, Merlin? Maybe that's what this is. Maybe you haven't been affected because you're already in love. Do you think that's it?"
"I don't know," he shakes his head. He hadn't thought of that, had chalked it up to his magic. "Maybe."
Gwen bites her lip. "Why do you think she doesn't love you back?"
Because she tries to kill me nearly every time she sees me, is probably not the answer Gwen wants to hear. He brightens the tiniest bit when he realizes how drastically the number of attempts has decreased recently.
"There are things more important to her," he shrugs.
"You're an amazing man, Merlin. Either she loves you for who you are, or she doesn't really love you at all."
That's what he was afraid of, that a love like hers, selfish and grasping and demanding, is not really love at all. All she does is use him, for distraction from her conscience, for warmth through the cold nights.
He presses the heels of his hands against his closed eyes, pressing into them. He doesn't want this. He doesn't want the pain or the separation or the doubt. All he wants is her.
"What should I do?" he chokes out, letting his arms fall down to his knees again.
Gwen places a light hand on his forearm and gives it a squeeze. "Make her choose you."
Moonlight pools on her shimmering skin as she stands in the doorway of the hovel she calls a home, arms crossed nonchalantly, an easy smile on her lips, watching him approach.
"I heard you had quite the adventure," she says as he comes closer.
He smiles in spite of the coldness pressing in on his chest. Because she's in front of him, because she's beautiful, because he can't deny how he feels.
"Yes, well," he replies, "I'm sure Agravaine did his best to steer Arthur astray."
"But he found you in the end." Her voice drops and she averts her eyes to add, "Good man."
She clears her throat and turns abruptly, whirling into the hut. He follows, the only light the flickering flames from the hearth.
She straightens again, cool confidence back in her clear gaze, and says, amused, "So, a lamia?"
"Uh-huh," he nods. He steps closer to her, slowly, backing her towards the bed where she can't run. "But I don't want to talk about that."
"No?" she queries lightly.
Her voice is calm, but even in the low light, he can see the tint of pink in her cheeks, the pinch of her lips as she swallows nervously.
"No," he says with a shake of his head. He places his hands on her hips, draws her to him. "What do you want with me, Morgana? Why do you do this to me?"
She squirms, but he tightens his grip. Her gaze locks with his, hardening to hide the struggle there. She says, "Then why have you come? Why do you always come?"
His grip slackens as he twines one arm around her waist. "Morgana . . ." he breathes, inclining his head. She can see into his soul, so what does he have to hide? "I can't stay away from you."
Her hands are clenched in fists against his chest. "If that's what you really want, I could ensure that you stay away."
His first instinct is to tear himself away from her, push her off of him and shout about how her thirst for vengeance is rending the fabric of this earth. He wants to rail and smash things and set this whole damn place ablaze with his eyes. But he is the only one who can see how broken she truly is, and she doesn't need to be chastised. What she needs is to be cherished.
"Stop it," he murmurs, lifting a palm to her cheek and running his thumb along her cheekbone. "You don't need to hide behind this mask any longer, Morgana, because I see you. I see you, and I love you."
"Don't," she says roughly, pushing away from him.
She stalks to the other side of the room and stands there with her back to him. His arms fall dumbly to his sides, and his mouth hangs open slightly as he watches her. How cruel Fate is, to dangle everything he's ever yearned for before him in the form of his mortal enemy. How much crueler to her, though, to leave her so alone and scared, and to make the only man who could help her such a coward.
He is sick of destiny, of being told that he must forsake her, leave her to strangle, in favor of a kingdom which neither respects nor appreciates him.
"Give this up, Morgana," he pleads gently. "Give it up because you've got me and what really matters beyond that?"
Gwen had said to convince her choose him, but what if it wasn't that simple? What if this really was all his fault, as he feared? What if the choice is his and he's been too blind to see it? He can't ask her to put him first when he can't put his love for her above his need to protect Arthur. But if he could influence her heart, if he could turn her aim from retribution to love, perhaps Arthur wouldn't be in so much danger after all. Maybe he can have all he's ever desired. Maybe the future he dreams of, where she's standing by his side as the king and queen usher in the Golden Age of Albion, really can come to pass.
"And what is this exactly?" she asks, spinning around. "Something you hide from everyone you care about, something that only matters to you when you get lonely, when everyone in the castle is too wrapped up in their own problems to pay you any attention. What can something like that mean when I'm banished to this godforsaken place and the world is falling to pieces around us?"
Her eyes reflect the dancing flames, but all he can see there is infinite sadness, sadness he could have prevented, he could still prevent if he tries.
The words fall out of his mouth before his brain can put a halt to them.
"Then run away with me."
In the end, he leaves a note. It's addressed to, simply, Those I love and those I've hurt, but he knows they'll understand who it's for. It's for the father who taught him so much, for the man he loves like a brother, for the woman who was his first friend here. It's much less than they deserve, but they also deserve to be told in person, to not be left at all. They deserve an explanation, too, but he finds all he can do is beg for forgiveness, and assure them that he carries their hearts.
He meets her at the edge of the Darkling Woods an hour before sunrise. She's wrapped in a rippled black cloak and carrying a leather bag full of food and supplies. Two saddled horses the color of freshly-fallen snow are tethered to nearby trees. She lowers her hood as he approaches.
"I thought you weren't coming," she says.
Boldly, he embraces her and presses a gentle kiss to her lips. She tastes of apples and tea. She tastes of hope.
"I'm here now," he tells her.
"Are you sure about this?" she murmurs. "Leaving everyone you love?"
He drops a kiss on her forehead, then takes the satchel from her and lashes it to the saddle. They untie the horses, and he gives her a hand onto hers before mounting his own. He twists backward in his saddle, but the morning is still dark and the mist is thick, and all he can see is the blurry outlines of the hills outside of the city, the shadows of the castle's turrets. Somewhere in that palace, a king sleeps, unaware of the abandonment to which he will wake. But right here, a woman waits, a woman who loves him, who trusts him, and he will not let her down.
"Are you ready?" he asks, turning to her.
She nods, a slight smile touching her lips. "For anything."
As they begin the journey north, he takes a deep breath of fresh air, feels the faith pumping through his heart. Darkness pervades the forest, and the deeper they ride, the darker it becomes. He can barely see her in front of him, but he hears the thundering of her horse's hooves, he feels the rush of wind from her cloak.
After all, the darkest hour is always before the dawn.
Gwen finds him in the empty throne room. He's dismissed everyone, even Agravaine and Gaius, and now he's standing at the window, staring out at the darkening sky. The letter lies on the table.
"Arthur . . ." she murmurs, more to alert him of her presence than because she actually knows what to say.
What do you say to a man whose closet friend has run off with his worst enemy? What do you say to a king who has lost his truest advisor? What do you say to someone you love when your own heart is breaking?
"I don't understand," he says, and she can hear the tears he's choked back, the utter disbelief. "Why would he do this?"
"They're in love, Arthur. Surely you can understand that."
He turns, his expression softening. "But why didn't he ever say anything?"
"Imagine what it was like for him, carrying such a weight around."
"What do I do now?" he shrugs helplessly.
"You carry on," she says, stepping closer and pressing a hand over his. "He may be gone, but he hasn't abandoned you." When Arthur chuckles doubtfully, she continues, "No, listen, what has your greatest worry been since you assumed the throne?"
"Morgana," he admits.
"And he's given her purpose, purpose other than hatred. You are a great king, and when you show them that they have a place here as well, they will return."
"Do you think so?"
He smiles sadly. "But until then?"
"You will have me, always."