The Ink Still Drying. Merlin. Futurefic, OT4 entanglements. Rated R.
Anyway, ineptshieldmaid was asking for ficlets about love (or not love) and FIVE THOUSAND WORD LATER. Man. In conclusion, commentfic will be the death of me. My reaction to slashdragonsays was "Awesome!", quickly followed by "No, Lass, BACK AWAY. YOU KNOW HOW YOU GET."
The Ink Still Drying
Merlin. Merlin/Morgana, Arthur/Merlin, Morgana/Gwen, Arthur/Gwen. Rated R. Thank you to stealingpennies for her beta; all remaining fail are mine.
Futurefic in which Merlin begins to remember the future, Morgana reaches for her destiny, Arthur is kind of dense, and Gwen isn't an idiot.
ETA: The awesomeness that is zempasuchil has done an erasure of this fic, entitled "Then Sing". Click here to read it.
ETA 2: DVD commentary now available.
Together they have overcome enemies both magical and political, beat back conquering hordes from beyond the mountains and across the sea, but Merlin slips through his fingers and away from his touch, shies back from his looks and the things left unsaid. It is in the aftermath of things, the in-betweens during which Arthur tries to pull him closer, that Merlin just smiles tiredly and pulls away.
At feasts and banquets, Arthur sits with Gwen at his left hand and Merlin at his right. To Merlin’s right: Morgana. The four of them together, just like it has always been, as around them the color and music of a burgeoning golden age make themselves known. Camelot prospers and is at peace, and Arthur asks himself, who could want for more?
Merlin has begun to remember the future.
It’s crowding out the past in his head, demanding his attention like a spoiled child. His visions aren’t as clear as Morgana’s – “Not yet,” she tells him with a knowing smile – but she guides him as enthusiastically through the future as he had guided her through magic. She tells him much of the same things he had told her: don't fear it, don't try to stop it, don't lose yourself in it. She enjoys being the mentor, sees it as a way to repay Merlin for his comfort back when she thought her dreams would consume her. He neither needs nor wants any repayment, of course, but he does need her guidance, and he has become accustomed to her company, to say the least.
"You still push Arthur away," she says to Merlin one night. She sits in front of her mirror brushing her hair as he nurses a goblet of wine.
"I take care of him well enough," he replies, though he knows what she means.
"What have I told you about fearing the future?"
"I don't fear anything. I'm just trying to avoid distraction."
"You two are inevitable,” she says. “We both see it. We both dream it, in our ways."
"I'm not going to fall into his arms because destiny says so," Merlin scoffs. "I’ve sworn my loyalty and friendship to Arthur, and my counsel, though he rarely listens to it. Don’t I get to keep anything for myself?"
Morgana raises an eyebrow. “Like what?”
“Like.” My heart.
She meets his gaze in the mirror. "Your first mistake is to see destiny as an oppressive force, as something to bend for. We are all of us the eye of our own storm.”
The goblet lifts itself from Merlin’s hand and floats across the room to Morgana, whose hand is outstretched and eyes glow gold. He says, “I was drinking that.”
“Being with Arthur has nothing to do with destiny,” Morgana continues, sipping his wine, “and everything to do with who you are. That’s why destiny chose you for this in the first place. It’s just trying to capitalize on what’s already there.”
“All right, so what should I do?”
“Capitalize on destiny.”
Merlin rolls his eyes.
“You take fate and love entirely too seriously, Merlin," she chides. "I blame the dragon."
"The dragon was a huge twat," Merlin agrees.
"Listen, honor your promises and respect the ones you love, because that's what good men do, but don't forget that time moves on."
"Time is a huge twat too," he mutters.
Morgana laughs. "Oh, Merlin. We are all twats, in our ways."
"Some of us are prattier twats than others."
"Though, to some of us, that matters not a whit." And when she smiles, Merlin smiles back.
No one comments on Merlin and Morgana's habit of slipping into each other's rooms whenever they please, even when (especially when) it's the middle of the night. They are both sorcerers, and one is the king's right-hand man and the other his sister, if not by blood then by the word of the king himself. Arthur never comments on it, and neither does Gwen, for that matter, and so suspicion never manifests itself above the level of gossip.
Arthur doesn't seek out the rumors, but they cross his path sometimes: tales of romantic dalliances, magical conspiracies, and political coups. He dismisses the lot of them. He asked Merlin once what he and Morgana actually do together, and Merlin had replied, "We just try to help each other. She's learning magic, I'm learning how to See." Merlin shrugged and gave him a lopsided grin. "We try to make sure neither of us go too crazy."
"If this is what you two are like when you're sane, I'd hate to see what happens if you actually go insane," Arthur had commented, joking to defuse his own curiosity.
Then Arthur asks Morgana the same question, and she answers, "He's the only one who isn't afraid of what I am."
"I'm not afraid of what you are," Arthur says.
"Yes, but I am sometimes, and you don't know how to teach me not to be. Merlin has never been afraid of me at all."
He frowns. "That doesn't answer my question."
Morgana has developed the irritating habit of circumlocution ever since her powers blossomed. She evades questions and keeps everyone's futures under lock and key, only ever occasionally throwing them a bone, and when Merlin started Seeing, there was that same self-imposed distance between him and the world. They were kindred spirits by virtue of necessity under Uther’s rule, but even though Arthur has lifted the ban on magic, their connection has continued. It's Merlin and Morgana, watching everyone else the way someone might watch an anthill, watching how everyone goes about their little ant lives, doing their little ant duties and refusing to look up. Arthur is trying to look up, but they won't let him. It's like he is a child they don’t trust alone with the honeypot because he might eat it all and get some on his face and all over the furniture. It's frankly insulting.
"I'm sorry, what was your question?" Morgana asks.
"What do you two do?" Arthur demands.
Morgana grins. Then she raises her hands and waggles her fingers, widening her eyes comically until she looks like the parody of the crazy witch she knows everyone thinks she is. "Magic!"
Arthur rolls his eyes and walks away.
"You're a coward, Merlin," Morgana says, curled against his back. She holds him close to her with one arm, palm over his heart, and the breath of her voice is warm between his shoulder blades.
"Thanks," Merlin replies. "That's sweet."
"You're only avoiding the unavoidable, hiding in my bed."
"Would you rather I hide somewhere else?"
"If you like. I like you well enough, but I know we’re both tied to other things."
"If I'm hiding, you are too.”
"I'm not denying that," says Morgana, because she’s all about acceptance these days. It's a big part of her personal agenda, accepting what the future brings, and she's trying very hard to work it into Merlin's. Sometimes it's like dealing with the dragon all over again. Sometimes he thinks the fight has gone out of her, even though the fire hasn't, but now the fire doesn't have anything to burn except Morgana herself.
It used to put Merlin on edge when she said things like that, as if prescience has rendered emotions and morals obsolete. Because Morgana is connected to everything, she is connected to nothing; she flows like water through problems that would stop anyone else, undone only by things no one else can see or understand.
"But," she adds, "you're still tied to what you're hiding from."
He rolls over so they face each other, and Morgana lifts her hand to smooth his hair, growing long now, from his face. "And you're not?" Merlin asks.
"Only by my heart."
"Is that not enough?"
And that's the most Morgana ever talks about Gwen these days.
She tugs Merlin to her and he obliges.
The magic unfurls from Morgana’s fingertips and ignites his own, coming in jagged flashes, unhewn and unafraid. It settles warmly on Merlin’s body and sinks into his veins, then suddenly he feels her everywhere: the sound of her breathing and the heat of her skin. He closes his eyes and sees her light glow in the darkness.
It’s difficult not to feel an affinity with someone who shares your secret, especially if it is a secret that is wonderful and terrible at the same time. It forces you into a world no one else can enter, and you marvel at what you share and puzzle over your differences. You have no choice but to let each other in, and every moment is fraught with the knowledge that, if you don’t look out for one another, you will fall.
The first time they had done this, it had been clumsy and disorienting, neither of them knowing how to handle the magic that flared from their beings. But now it is familiar, having learned to bend the magic to their will, and they let it dance across their bodies and flicker from their touches, tweaking it here and urging it there until they are both breathless from it, until they are both spent.
“Morgana, listen to me-” Gwen is saying, but cuts herself off when Arthur walks into the room.
He stops in his tracks, takes in Morgana’s stony expression and her hands in Gwen’s. Gwen just gives him a despairing look.
Arthur says, “Am I interrupting?”
“Not at all,” Morgana replies, withdrawing her hands. She lowers her eyes and dips into a curtsy. “Excuse me, your majesties, I take my leave of you.”
“Morgana,” Gwen cries out, but Morgana doesn’t look back.
“What was that?” Arthur asks.
“Morgana is stubborn as a mule,” Gwen says, her voice tight.
“As always. Shouldn’t we all be used to that by now?”
But Gwen just gives him that look again. Well, what does she want? Morgana has always been hardheaded, but Arthur knows saying it won’t help, so instead he holds out his arms and says, “Come, Gwen, tell me what’s wrong.”
She hesitates before going to him, so when she does he presses a kiss to her forehead, and holds her tight. “I don’t know,” she murmurs against his shoulder. “Well, I do know. Things have changed.”
“For the better, I hope.”
“I suppose. It’s just different.”
“Are you saying it’s worse?”
Arthur feels her sigh. “No. Just different.”
“Walk with me,” he says. “I won’t have you looking so glum.”
“Yes, order my problems away, that will do the trick.” But she concedes a small smile, so Arthur smiles back and takes her hand.
The gardens are in full bloom, and the sunlight is golden and warm. Merlin had tried to teach Arthur the names of the different flowers and herbs that grow here, but Arthur has no head for botany and had jumped on the next opportunity to change the subject. Gwen probably knows what plants are called. “I like being outside,” she told him once. “You forget to love the earth and sky if you stay indoors too long.” She loves the gardens, and used to take her walks here with Morgana. They used to spend hours sitting in the shade of the oak tree, talking about whatever it is that women talk about when men aren’t around. Arthur expects the gardens to cheer Gwen up, but it seems to have little effect; her face is still withdrawn and her replies to his cajoling have an air of accommodation.
“I don’t want you to be so upset by her,” he finally says.
“She’s not giving me a chance to be upset by her,” Gwen murmurs.
“And this is a bad thing?”
“Well, it,” she begins, and stops. She says instead, “Arthur, don’t you ever miss Merlin?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“You may be an idiot,” she says, smiling, “but don’t think that I’m one.”
“I don’t think you’re an idiot. And how can I miss Merlin? We live in the same castle.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
Arthur raises his eyebrows. “Then what do you mean?”
“Arthur,” she says, and stops in her tracks, so he turns to face her. Gwen takes his hands, and Arthur wants to kiss her then, to forget about the strange silences that have made their way into their lives, but he knows Gwen would just call him an idiot again, and he would know why. They both know why. “Look at us,” she says. “The king and queen of Camelot and the world at our feet, and we still don’t have things quite sorted, do we?”
“Well, there are a lot of things to sort.” Arthur shrugs. “The duties of a king and queen, you know.”
“They never end,” Gwen finishes for him. She reaches up to tuck a lock of hair behind his ear, and he turns his head to kiss her palm.
Merlin starts having dreams of Morgana’s empty bed, of her defiant eyes as she lets the woods swallow her. He wakes up from these dreams wondering if every dream is an omen now. Can Seers still have regular portent-free dreams? Or is it just all portents all the time now? He should ask Morgana that.
He has dreams of Morgana’s magic burning across his skin, not between the sheets, but on a battlefield. In these dreams, she cries out his name as a call to arms.
“You dream so loudly,” Morgana murmurs beside him when he wakes up in the middle of the night.
“Sorry,” he mumbles, heart still thudding in his chest. “I’ll try to keep it down.”
“Don’t apologize. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”
“You’ve been dreaming it, too?”
“And I’ve been thinking it.”
“You think about killing me?”
“I’m not going to kill you, Merlin,” she says, sounding amused.
“So which part is just thinking, and which part is dreams?” he demands. “Which of it is just a product of your sick, twisted fantasy? And which of those are actual prophecy?”
“If I do it right,” Morgana muses, “all the parts can be all of those.”
He rolls over and turns his back to her. “You’re worse than the dragon.”
Morgana tuts at him. “That’s nasty, Merlin.”
“’S the truth.”
“Don’t be a fibber,” she teases.
“Not a fibber.”
But already in his mind, he is planning the buffers against the consequences of her actions: how he will cope with her departure, how Arthur and Gwen will cope, how the kingdom will. Even as Morgana snakes herself around Merlin now, trying to coax and distract him, he is thinking that they must learn what they can from each other while they still can.
He’s beginning to understand a little of Morgana’s haphazardness. If regular dreams are just your thoughts thrown back at you while you sleep, then Seers’ dreams are Time’s thoughts. Just as regular dreams reveal certain things about you, a Seer’s dreams reveal certain things about Time: it is capricious with power, though impartial, and it is messier than people would think. Having the Sight sometimes means you move on from someone’s death before they even die. Causality is a joke, as Morgana would say. It’s for lesser mortals who foolishly try to fight inevitability instead of harnessing it for their own betterment. He had scoffed at the arrogance of her words, but now, already beginning to lose her as she kisses his neck, Merlin is beginning to think she might have a point.
Morgana says, “You know I must leave Camelot.”
“No,” he replies. “I only know that you will.”
Morgana leaves in the middle of the night in late summer. Merlin tells Arthur before anyone else figures it out, and Arthur insists they inspect her rooms. Her rooms are spotless and her grimoires are gone, as is her sword and certain objects of magical value. She leaves a note on the table for Gwen.
“What are you doing?” Merlin demands when Arthur unfolds the note.
“I’m looking for clues,” Arthur replies, then frowns to find the paper blank. Then a message begins to write itself in Morgana’s elegant script across the page.
“Nice try, Arthur,” it says. “Now give this note to Gwen and stop going through my things.”
Gwen and Merlin bear her absence well, for they are both practical people, but Arthur knows them well enough to notice the distance in their eyes and distraction in their movements. Merlin is coping better than Gwen; Arthur doesn’t even know how to begin to breach Gwen’s thoughts, or even if he should. He finds himself relieved that Gwen is pretending everything is fine, and he doesn’t bring up how something has shifted in her, that something is strained. He tries to make her laugh instead. He teases her and kisses her. He becomes generous with gifts – brooches, necklaces, rings – and Gwen would respond to them with a faint smile and a kiss on his cheek, telling him he’s a good man. Still, sometimes Arthur would catch her rereading Morgana’s note, and his curiosity can’t help but be piqued. The last time Arthur tried sneaking another look at it, it just said, “Seriously, have you nothing better to do?”
Arthur respects his foster sister and loves her in his way, but over the years he has lost his sympathy for her. She has always had a talent for getting what she wants, and he knows she will be fine. To be honest, Arthur is not surprised that she left. There was something of a caged panther to her in her final weeks, bouts of restlessness and high tension from which no one could talk her down. She would go about the castle with magic visibly crackling off her body. Occasionally she was unaware of it, but often she was merely apathetic.
Merlin spends more time with him now that Morgana is gone, which delights Arthur, but it also makes him realize how Merlin has changed. There are still traces of the ignorant youth from Ealdor in him, primarily in his jaunty smile and his tendency to ignore rank and class, but Merlin has also become someone who listens to the stars and talks to the invisible world. There are parts of Merlin that Arthur will never know because Arthur will never understand them, but Merlin, instead of leaving with Morgana, has for some reason chosen to stay here and spend his time exchanging invectives with Arthur and occasionally saving his life. Arthur figures that must count for something.
“Go on, Merlin,” he says. “Can you take a nap and have your dreams tell us where she’s gone?”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“What use is a court magician who can’t do magic?” he jibes.
Merlin responds by changing Arthur’s cup into a frog, guffawing when Arthur yelps and drops the ribbiting thing on the floor.
The leaves turn and the air grows cold. The season changes. The end of autumn brings the return of Lancelot, and much rejoicing because of it. Eager for a distraction from the air of lingering malaise, Arthur embraces Lancelot like a brother, welcoming him back with an extravagant knighting and an even more extravagant banquet. Even Gwen is smiling brightly for once, really smiling, and it gladdens Arthur’s heart to see it.
Once the dancing at the banquet begins, Arthur swaggers up to Merlin and says, “You. Stop being a sourpuss and go ask a lady to dance. They’d all be chuffed to dance with Camelot’s court magician, I’m sure.”
Merlin shakes his head. “Nah.”
“Come on,” says Arthur, exaggerating his indignation as only the well-soused can. “You were chomping at the bit to make this guy a knight and now that he is, you’re just sitting by yourself looking like you bit into a lemon.”
Arthur follows Merlin’s gaze and his eyes land on Gwen and Lancelot, seated side by side at the table. Gwen laughs at something Lancelot is saying, and he is all a-blush as he tells his story, looking simultaneously pleased and overwhelmed by the whole situation. There is an unsettled look in Merlin’s eyes as he watches them, and finally he says, “Go ask your queen to dance, Arthur.”
“Don’t tell me what to do.”
“It’s my job to tell you what to do.”
“No, it’s your job to advise me. There’s a difference.”
Merlin rolls his eyes, but his tone is affectionate. “Sometimes I think my job is to just keep you out of trouble.”
Arthur clasps his shoulder. “Well, then you’re terrible at it.”
Merlin chuckles and covers Arthur’s hand with his own. “I’ll ask someone to dance if you do it first.”
“I suppose it’s up to the king to set an example.”
“Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” Merlin agrees.
Arthur makes his way to Gwen and Lancelot, switches on his king-voice, and says, “Sir Lancelot, I hope you’ll pardon this interruption.” He turns to Gwen and bows, offering his hand. “My lady. A dance?”
“My lord,” Gwen replies, amused. “Of course.”
Gwen is as merry as he is, and she giggles as he twirls them around the floor. She is beautiful tonight, exuding the easy warmth that drew him to her in the first place. For a blacksmith’s daughter, she has taken to being a royal symbol quite well: the minstrels sing of her gentleness the way they sing of Arthur’s courage, and their subjects praise the goodness of her heart. Everyone is mad for her rise from humble beginnings to queen of a powerful kingdom, and yet somehow Gwen has managed to emerge from the hullabaloo with her self intact and her feet firmly planted on the ground.
“Merlin says if I dance with you, he’ll also ask someone to dance,” Arthur says.
Gwen laughs. “Arthur, you know just what to say to win a woman’s heart.”
“Of course, I also just wanted to dance.”
“You hate dancing.”
“So do you.”
The king and queen banter and laugh their way through the song and, at the corner of his eye, Arthur catches Merlin watching them with a faint smile on his face. Everything in its own time, Arthur thinks. It is a new age in Camelot, and there is time and love enough for everyone.
With the help of a pan of water, a certain combination of herbs, and some words from an ancient tongue, Merlin seeks Morgana out. The water ripples and resolves itself into a hazy image of the woods, which then become misty mountains, and then the sea, and then woods again: a succession of shifting landscapes that brings him closer to her. He can feel the distance closing in his mind.
Finally she appears, wrapped in a dark-green cloak as she bends over a patch of earth, collecting bloodwort and feverfew in a basket. She doesn’t seem to have changed much: her skin still pale, her carriage still speaking of bridled strength. Then she looks up, frowning at the sky, and it is like she is looking right at him. He knows she is, in a way. She knows he’s there. Morgana grins, blows him a kiss, and waves. Her green eyes twinkle as she winks, and with a gesture of her hand and an incantation he can’t hear, she disappears and the water goes blank.
Merlin frowns and tries again, then he tries again with fresh herbs and a new pan of water. He scans mountainsides and fields and forests, and still nothing. Morgana has decided that she doesn’t want to be found, and there’s precious little he can do about it.
Perhaps it’s for the best, he thinks as he pours the water out. His duties at Camelot are enough to occupy him, and he knows Morgana will return when the time is right.
When Merlin has time, he goes to watch Arthur train the knights. There’s something about watching the mock fights that appeals to the part of Merlin that is still secretly eight years old, the part that used to duel with Will using branches for swords when they were supposed to be watching the sheep. It’s easy to believe in heroes, watching Arthur lead and watching the knights follow, all of them (save one) bonded to each other by the weight of years of trust.
“Join in, Merlin!” Arthur sometimes calls out to him. “Pick up a sword!”
But of course Merlin just shakes his head, and smiles when Sir Caradoc says something like, “Ah, he’ll just turn us all into frogs.”
Merlin also keeps an eye on Lancelot. He doesn’t understand the portents that occasionally hover around Camelot’s newest knight. They’re similar to the spectral wisps that curled around Morgana, suffused with Gwen and Arthur’s light - a strange combination. They’re difficult to spot, but sometimes Merlin can catch a flash of it, sees something like a trick of the light or the air bending around Lancelot’s head like a halo, but they are always gone too quickly for Merlin to comprehend.
“You look like you’re being driven into the ground out there,” Merlin had said to Lancelot after a particularly grueling session. Behind them, the knights staggered off the field, Arthur in their midst, the lot of them laughing and joking about who wouldn't know which end of a sword to hold if their life depended on it, who couldn’t shoot a deer if it weren’t held down.
“The king is right to work us hard,” Lancelot replied. His face was red with exertion and his hair stringy with sweat, but he couldn’t have looked more content. “I wouldn’t expect anything less.”
On the whole, Lancelot seems like a good man – unpretentious, steadfast, and with a way of winning the hearts of those around him without meaning to. Merlin knows Arthur likes the idea of undoing one of his father’s wrongs by accepting Lancelot back among the knights. Even Gwen smiles more readily around him, reminding Merlin of all those years ago when she had blushed and blustered her way through fitting Lancelot for his armor. It’s funny how things change, especially when they don’t.
Merlin has picked up the habit of staying with Arthur while he works. While Arthur looks over paperwork, Merlin would sit by the window and read. That way, Arthur has someone to complain to whenever he reads something disagreeable. For the most part Merlin would listen, and he would wonder at how shortsighted these politicians are. In Merlin’s dreams he has seen a thousand empires fall. He takes it upon himself to herd Arthur out into the sunshine when Arthur starts taking himself too seriously. Arthur would grumble and mumble about it, but for all that he claims never to listen to Merlin, he actually ends up doing a good deal of what Merlin prescribes.
They end up wrestling once, as a result of friendly shoving gone merrily awry. How a passer-by would have gaped at the sight of a king and his magician scuffling in the dirt like little boys, but no passers-by passed, for the fight is quickly over. Arthur pins Merlin to the dirt with ease and, despite the proximity of Arthur’s mouth to Merlin’s, despite the familiar energy between them and how easy it would be to claim and be claimed here and now, Arthur just grins and says, “I don’t know why you start with me. I always win.” And he gets up, offering Merlin his hand.
Merlin takes it and pulls himself to his feet, saying, “Someone has to keep you on your toes.”
They are patient. Everything in its own time.
On the way back to the castle, Merlin asks, “How’s Gwen? I don’t see her much these days.”
“She’s fine. I don’t see much of her anymore either.” Arthur shrugs. “The duties of a king, you know.”
“The duties of a king seem to include indulging overmuch in the whims of his magician,” Merlin muses.
“You were the one who practically dragged me outside, Merlin.”
“Well, yes, but maybe you shouldn’t bend to me so easily. You’re the king, after all.”
Arthur snorts. “What happened to trusting that things are how they should be?”
And Merlin thinks of Morgana winking at him from the water’s surface, of the light and shadow around Lancelot, and of the change he feels slowly working itself into the foundations of Camelot. He replies, hesitatingly, “I don’t know.”
“I thought Seers know all the answers,” Arthur says.
“Futures aren’t answers.”
“Depends on the question.”
“All right, so what’s the question?”
Arthur thinks about it for a moment. “Why are you such an idiot?”
“The answer to that is definitely not the future.”
“So you don’t deny you’re an idiot, then?”
The sun is sinking in the horizon, gilding the land. Arthur flings his arm around Merlin’s shoulders and lists the various ways Merlin is truly incompetent, and he smiles and lets himself sink into contentment. Change is coming, as change has before, but he fears nothing. Perhaps it’s just Arthur’s own reckless faith in everything influencing his own, but he and Arthur are often at each other’s side these days, and a little bleedthrough is to be expected.
“Tell me again why I keep you around,” Arthur says.
“Because I advise you to,” Merlin answers, and Arthur laughs.
The universe, he knows, will reveal itself in time.