Solstice Mods (solstice_mods) wrote in camelotsolstice,
Solstice Mods

[Fic] Hidden in Plain Sight (pt. 1) - for camelotsolstice

Title: Hidden in Plain Sight
Author: Anonymous
Recipient: camelotsolstice
Pairing(s)/Character(s): Arthur/Merlin, some Gwen/Morgana if you squint
Warnings: Genderswap, character death (none of the OT4), canon timeline with an AU twist.
Spoilers: Nothing specific to season two that can’t be attributed to AU-ness.
Rating: NC-17
Word Count: 14,740
Summary: “No star is ever lost we once have seen; we always may be what we might have been.” –Adelaide Anne Procter
Author's Note: Huge embarrassing thanks are owed to the mods, who gave me the world’s longest extension because sometimes (oftentimes) I am made of fail. Thank you both for putting up with me for so long. Thanks are also due to my beta, miss {L}, who requested her initial be displayed in the sexy parentheses. You got it, babe.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction – none of this ever happened. No copyright infringement is intended. No profit is made from this work. Please observe your local laws with regards to the age-limit and content of this work.


Merlin slipped through the empty hallways, faint moonlight illuminating his path. He followed the distant sounds of scratching nails and a strange, reedy whine, curious and a little alarmed.

In the past week, chickens had begun disappearing from their coops in the lower town. The previous evening, all twelve butchered and well-guarded birds reserved for the royal household had disappeared.

The following morning, Arthur had leveled him with one of his impatient looks when Merlin had arrived in his rooms carrying only a loaf of bread and some cheese. “Breakfast is well within your duties, Merlin, which means that if you have to hunt down the army of invisible rats responsible for stealing all the poultry in the kingdom, then you will do so. Keep in mind that you won’t have any chicken to nick from my plate if it’s not there in the first place,” he’d smiled, cuffing Merlin round the head rather sharper than usual before grumbling his way out to the field.

This was how Merlin found himself prowling the castle in the middle of the night on the trail of who knew what sort of creature. A beast that could carry off a dozen hens on its own, apparently.

The problem, he was discovering, was that while his ears might be telling him he was almost upon his quarry, his eyes could never catch sight of it. There were too many convenient pockets of shadow, sudden turns in the darkness which made familiar walkways into an alien labyrinth.

Tired and cold, he anticipated his warm bed and pillow that awaited him once he’d produced something to show Arthur that he’d at least tried to solve the case of the mysterious disappearing chickens. Merlin risked a dim light. He kept it cupped in his palms, thinking it could be mistaken as a small candle by any guard or servant he might encounter.

A shadow flickered at the corner of Merlin’s eye; he lifted his hands and caught the silhouette of what looked like a large, bushy tail flitting away down a narrow corridor. He felt his heart thump in his chest—a wolf might be capable of eating a chicken or three on its own, and they traveled in packs. How a wolf pack had gotten into the castle Merlin couldn’t guess, but if he hadn’t gotten completely turned around in the dark, the creature he pursued was heading right for Morgana’s wing of the residence hall. The thought had him sprinting around the corner, lifting his hand high and calling for more light.

Caught in the glare of magic, the creature spun, yipping a warning. Merlin skidded to a halt practically nose to snout with the largest fox he’d ever clapped eyes on. Easily the height of a modest cart horse, its legs were long and narrow, ending in round black paws. The light in Merlin’s hand picked shocks of copper out of the deep red brush of its pelt. The effect was otherworldly, exaggerated by the intelligent golden eyes which assessed him like an unexpected visitor or a distant cousin encountered in a crowd, by chance.

The sound of boot heels and muffled voices, too near to have snuck up on them both without warning, startled them out of their mutual trance. Quiet as a phantom, the fox loped away into the shadows. Without thinking, Merlin spun and lifted his hand high.

Though it was a gentle yellow light, the glow Merlin had conjured couldn’t soften the harshness of Uther’s shocked expression, three guards bristling behind him with torches.

“You!” he said, face contorting with rage, eyes fixed on Merlin’s shining, upraised palm.

Terror swept through Merlin, delayed but solid like a hammer to the chest. He clenched his hand into a fist, extinguishing not only his own light in his panic but the torches as well. In the sudden darkness he heard Uther jerk his sword from its sheath; he gasped when the tip scored a deep line beneath his collarbone. Uther was fast – Merlin unplanted his feet and ran.

There was no time, he had no time—the stone walls blurred around him, patches of moonlight brightening his way before shuttering into darkness, the sound of pursuit still sharp behind him. A servants’ stair chimed softly at him when he made to hurtle around another corner; he spun, slipped, and darted forward, slamming into the opposite wall before throwing himself into the sharply curving descent of the stairwell.

He emerged in the kitchens, and immediately had to tuck into a roll to avoid six cooks heaving an ox on a single massive spit. They hardly seemed to notice, but he narrowly missed a kick aimed his way by the runner attending the carving table that broke his momentum. Clutching his head, Merlin stumbled to his feet and cast about wildly for a way out. The kitchen was sooty and hot, full of people and the smell of raw meat being butchered and dressed; a cool breeze swept around the bare skin at his hands and neck – there! Twisting between tables and bustling servants, he made it to an exit that was little more than a narrow arch in the far wall which led out to the large game pens.

As if on cue, the warning bell began to chime when he broke out into the night. The temperature outside the warmth of the castle was shocking, cold enough to make him curl in on himself and clench his eyes shut tight. Fat snowflakes collected on the steep drifts gathered up against the walls. The horizon was a series of unblemished white hills, and in the moonlight the whole world sparkled faintly. The pristine beauty of it seemed unfitted to Merlin’s chaotic heartbeat, throbbing sharply where Uther had sliced him.

This was a nightmare, it couldn’t be happening, after all the times he’d practically shouted spells into Arthur’s ear or risked his life for problems which could only be solved by magic he was caught in the most mundane of situations – following more of Arthur’s stupid orders, and by the king himself. It was absurd; Merlin was tempted to laugh but couldn’t open his mouth for fear of it immediately frosting over.

Putting all thought aside for the moment, Merlin focused on getting out of the shadow of the castle and away. The miserable weather proved to be a boon, making the guards sluggish and reluctant to leave the cover of the keep, giving Merlin time to get beyond the gates without incident.

By the time he made it to Gwen’s cottage he was shaking, his lips and fingers turning blue. He pounded at the door with the side of his fist, unable to unclench his hands.

“Merlin!” she said, eyes wide when she opened the door, wearing nothing more than a thin blanket pulled close about her shoulders over her shift.

“Gwen,” Merlin said, teeth chattering. “I might have made a big mistake.”

“Come inside,” she said, steadying him with one hand when he stumbled over his numb feet. The warmth of her home was incredible after the long trek through the snow, and Merlin felt inexplicably overcome with affection, his eyes stinging. “What’s happened?” she demanded, leading him to the only seat before the fire and shifting her blanket to his shoulders. “What on earth—Merlin, you’re bleeding!”

“I have to leave Camelot,” Merlin said, gently removing her hands from his chest. In a rush of unwelcome understanding, it occurred to him what fleeing in the night would mean. Morgana. Gaius. Arthur – he wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to any of them, to explain—

Gwen knelt by his side, her palm light on his knee, her eyes troubled. “I don’t understand.”

Merlin fingered Gwen’s sad blanket, looking over at her narrow bed with its single pillow, up to the corners of her home where the thatching of the roof didn’t quite block out the winter chill. Her fire was sparking merrily in the hearth, but wood cutting was heavy labor, and Gwen already worked so hard.

Merlin shrugged off the blanket, spread it over his knees between them. Gwen jerked when the quilt expanded and thickened beneath their fingers, the pile softening. He stood, shaking it out until it doubled in size, becoming a proper down comforter.

“Merlin,” Gwen said, hushed and awestruck.

“I’m sorry I never told you,” Merlin whispered.

She shook her head, dismissing the apology, still petting the blanket in mild wonder. “Is this why—?”

Merlin nodded, silent.

“Was it Arthur?” she asked abruptly, looking up into Merlin’s eyes.

“No—no it was Uther, I – there was a fox; it was just, huge. And Uther was there. He saw me.” The implications of that hung quietly between them; Gwen’s eyes were troubled.

“Where will you go?” she asked, standing with a sudden businesslike air.

“I don’t know. Not back to Ealdor; it’ll be the first place they’ll look,” Merlin shrugged, trailing off.

“You aren’t worried about your mother?” Gwen said as she lifted the lid of a heavy cedar chest, bending half over to rummage around inside.

Merlin snorted bitterly. “If Uther wasn’t willing to risk war to help our village, I imagine he’d have an even harder time justifying an invasion just to capture one peasant. What’s this?” He asked, tone shifting to bemusement when Gwen pressed a greasy pair of boots wrapped in a heavy woolen cloak into his arms.

“They might not fit,” she said apologetically, looking down at her laced fingers. “The boots, anyway. They were my father’s.”

Merlin stared down at his bundle, his throat tightening. The boots were of a fine, sturdy leather and lined with rabbit fur, an uncommon luxury. They’d been rubbed with animal fat, a treatment which would keep out the wet as well as the cold. Knowing Gwen’s father, they’d also probably been homemade, not bartered or purchased. The cloak was thick with a rough nap – resilient, mostly waterproof and good for travel. Merlin’s own shoes, by comparison, were misshapen and wet to the ankle, and of course his jacket was still up in his room.

“Gwen,” he said brokenly.

“I think… My father, you know, he didn’t like to let things go to waste. Blacksmith,” she offered him a wobbly smile, eyes shining, as though her father’s trade was enough to explain his more endearing quirks. Unbidden, Merlin thought of Arthur, of his red doublet with the fussy brass buttons, of his hand – easy on a sword or the reins of his horse. And then he thought, it was possible that it was enough. “He would’ve liked you to have them,” Gwen said, unbearably sincere.

Merlin gently set his gifts down on the table, then wrapped his arms tight around her, conscious of the brief time they had left to share. And he breathed.

“Be safe,” she whispered.

The morning came sharp and cold, with an unnatural silence riming the castle like brittle ice. Handmaidens walked the halls, draping black curtains over the windows to block the dawn light. In the king’s chambers, Gaius unbent from his examination of Uther’s body, spread cold and still across his bed.

The king was dead, and Merlin was gone.

Even when it was yet early enough in the day for the boy to return with a harried explanation about herbs or Arthur’s clothes or chickens, a fearful suspicion began to grow at the back of the physician’s mind, both unthinkable and implacable.

When Arthur battered him with questions in the weeks to follow, Gaius could only tell him his father had died of natural causes – a failed heart. He had no answers to offer the new king’s increasingly desperate theories for his manservant’s disappearance.

He never told Arthur about the single paw print, purple and mottled like a fading bruise, that he’d found at the center of Uther’s chest. At the time, it hadn’t seemed important.


The guards didn’t recognize her for a girl.

She was first spied by a page, who thought her the specter of one of old king Uther’s many victims come back to haunt his chambers, or so he said when he was collared by the cook’s apprentice mid-sprint away from the royal wing. The apprentice, being a practical sort, alerted the night watch to the possibility of a trespasser in the castle, though warned in a long-suffering voice that it might have just been Sir Wimbley gone sleepwalking again, poor soul.

By the time they caught up to her, she’d already let herself into the king’s rooms. There was a great commotion, beginning with three well-armored men tackling the intruder and ending with Arthur, sat up in his bed and bellowing for an explanation when he was woken by the clamor of three well-armored men flung bodily against the far wall of his chamber by no visible means of propulsion.

One of the guards got bravely to his feet and pointed at the sheepish looking figure on the opposite side of the room. “We found him nosing around your quarters, Sire.”

“I was just looking!” the girl said. Arthur’s eyes went wide at the sound of her voice.

“We’ll apprehend…her now, sire?” the guard offered reluctantly, pausing to adjust his pronouns.

“As your first attempt went so well, I’d really rather you didn’t,” Arthur said.

“They attacked me first,” the girl pointed out, reading the censure in the king’s voice.

“Yes, well, that can happen when you’re caught breaking into my rooms in the middle of the night,” Arthur sighed, rubbing at his face. “You’re dismissed,” he added, waving the visibly relieved guards away. Finally he turned to the girl, squinting through the darkness of the room. “Who are you? No, don’t answer that – I don’t care. Go…do whatever it was you meant to do before you wandered down the wrong hallway.”

“I’m pretty sure I know my way around the castle,” she said, before amending quickly, “I mean, I’m not a servant.”

“Oh. Are you an assassin then? I’m awake now, so unless you’re hiding a crossbow under that robe I’m afraid you’ll just have to come back and try some other time.”

“What? No, I’m not— I heard that Ga—that your physician, he’s taken ill?”

Arthur sat up, levering himself out of bed. “You know Gaius?”

“Not as such, no,” the girl hedged, fidgeting. “He’s a friend of a friend.”

“Then what business do you have with him?”

“I’m a healer. I believe I can help him.”

“If he can’t help himself, what makes you think you can do better?” the king said, not cruelly, but with a resigned air. He couldn’t see her face in the dark, but something in the way the mood shifted between them made him imagine she was trying not to roll her eyes.

“This,” she said simply, and a sheet of flame erupted from the bowl of her cupped palms.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Arthur muttered, leading the way through quiet halls with his candelabra, the girl (who called herself Anna) hurrying along behind him.

“I told you I could find my own way; you didn’t need to get out of bed on my account,” Anna said.

Arthur grimaced, letting himself into Gaius’ workroom and snuffing three of his four candles to dim the light. “That’s not what I meant, and we’re going to have a conversation about how well you seem to know my castle for someone who neither works nor lives here. You’re lucky I sent my men away before you started lighting fires.”

“Why, are they more apt to jump on people in the light?”

“A failed rescue attempt can be blamed on incompetence; conjuring flames without flint or tinder is a little harder to account for. Magic isn’t welcome in Camelot,” Arthur said, by way of explanation. “You may not have heard, foreign as you are.”

Anna stopped short at the doorway, letting Arthur and the light bob away until he noticed the sound of her trotting along behind him had died.

“Well? Come on,” Arthur gestured impatiently.

“You say magic is outlawed here,” Anna said slowly, as though she couldn’t quite believe her own words. “Why am I allowed to treat your physician?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You may examine him, under my supervision, and if you have some remedy that can ease his pain or return him to health then I will allow you to treat him,” Arthur said quietly. “If you find you can help him, then you will have payment and my gratitude, after which point you will leave here forever. If you cannot help him, then you will leave here forever. Is that understood?” Arthur held the last candle high until the girl’s face was illumined by its faint light. Her expression was odd, stricken, and he noticed her eyes were a pale, nearly colorless blue. Then her mouth firmed, and she nodded.

Gaius hadn’t yet stirred, in spite of their intrusion. He’d thinned since Uther’s death, and…well. Nothing had quite been the same since that night five years previous. Though he was an old man, grief and loss seemed to have prematurely crippled him. Under the forgiving cover of darkness his face looked peaceful, not quite so careworn and haggard as during the day.

Anna bent over him immediately, fingers long and white on his shoulders, a lock of fair hair escaping the cowl of her hood to drift across Gaius’ brow. Arthur coughed; she shot him a glare over her shoulder but leaned back.

“I can help,” she said.

Arthur lifted a brow. “That was fast.”

“I think I can help. I’m pretty sure I can,” she amended.

“Well then, by all means, perform your miracle,” Arthur gestured over Gaius’ prone form.

“You are annoying,” Anna said wonderingly. “I’d almost forgotten.”

“Excuse me?” Arthur sputtered.

“Magic is not that simple, and neither is healing,” she explained, as if to a small child. “I’ll need time to work with him; he has to want to recover.”

“Of course he wants to recover, what are you talking about? And even if I were annoying—which I’m not—how could you have known well enough to forget?” Arthur demanded.

“I only know what I’ve heard, sire,” Anna replied.

She watched, hands folded and expectant, while the king digested this, his brow beetling in irritation. He glanced at Gaius, then his gaze swung back to her, his eyes narrowed as though he could figure her out if he simply looked hard enough.

Finally, he said “There’s an extra room there, off of this workroom. I trust it’ll suit for your purposes?”

Anna smiled. “Most adequately, my lord.”

The market and the lower town were just as Merlin remembered. Of course, five years wasn’t truly enough time for much to change, but somehow he expected the world to turn on its head the day he crossed the border back into Camelot.

He paid for his small purchase, a tiny lady’s comb with white beads for pinning up long hair, thinking it would look lovely on Gwen. His smile of thanks inspired the boy at the stall to flush up to his hairline and duck his head.

They were both distracted by the sound of shattering pottery and squalling chickens. A thin, balding man who had the look of a travelling merchant peeled away from the crowd that had already formed around his stall and began to run, but a well-aimed stone took him in the head and brought him down. Several guards rushed to surround him, swords unsheathed.

“What’s happened?” A thickset man towing a wagon full of sticks nearby called out.

“Caught selling magical potions, that one,” an old crone gossiped as she ambled past in the opposite direction.

Merlin frowned, his hand lifting absently to his chest to trace the thin scar there. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected from Arthur’s reign, not since he’d abandoned his easy vantage point at the prince’s shoulder. He could admit he was disappointed to see not much had changed at all since he’d left. Even so, the people’s reactions to a sorcerer caught amongst them would have been far less casual the last time Merlin had been in Camelot.

“What will happen to him?” he wondered aloud.

“He’ll be tried before the court,” the market boy said shyly.

“Really?” Merlin asked, surprised.

“Yes,” continued the boy, growing bold. “When he’s found guilty, his property will be confiscated and he’ll be exiled.”

“Oh,” Merlin said, the bubble of hope in his gut deflating.

Arthur swept out of the audience chamber wearing a powerful scowl, his fingers clenching inside his stiff leather gloves.

There were days he regretted his father’s death in the most selfish of ways, wishing he’d only had the time to ask the questions that had never occurred to his young, thick head while Uther was alive. Like how to confront neighboring kingdoms for their heedless sprawling growth over Camelot’s borders without descending into war. Or how to take a reluctant gentry in hand and make them trust him as a king and not a prince-regent—a handy man in a fight but no more than a worrisome boy as a ruler.

Or how to stop wishing that those who were long lost to him were still there to smile at his foolishness.

Even knowing that his father’s advice probably would have been something unhelpful like recommending war to solidify a new rule or increasing taxes until his landed men fell in line or going utterly taciturn and brooding whenever the subject of Igraine was broached, it still would have been a comfort to have it.

But today was a day noticeably short on easy comforts, because Arthur remembered he’d as much as hired on a sorceress in a fit of weary stupidity the night before. The decision caused him some unease, which was annoying; he had always assumed that being king afforded a man more certainty, not less.

It was only that Gaius was old and could probably use some help around his chambers. And if there was any chance the girl could find a cure for his mysterious ailment, well. Arthur would be glad not to lose another friend. He snorted to himself, slowing his angry pace. Perhaps the only friend he had left, at this rate, since Morgana had stopped speaking to him around the same time she had relieved Gwen from her service.

With these thoughts fresh in his mind, Arthur found himself standing before Gaius’ closed door almost without knowing how he’d gotten there. He let himself in with a quiet knock, not wanting to wake Gaius if he was resting.

Anna turned at the intrusion, and upon seeing him didn’t bother to even bob a curtsey, frowning with rather explicit impatience instead.

“Good afternoon, Sire. This young woman seems to think that I need a healer. You wouldn’t happen to know where she got such an idea, would you now?” Gaius asked severely from his cot. It was surprising to see him sitting up with some good color in his face, but he supposed indignation occasionally had that effect on people.

Arthur scrubbed at his hair, feeling chastened for a moment before he remembered he was king and lectures were one thing he didn’t have to suffer anymore. “Basic strategy teaches us that reinforcements are almost never a bad idea,” he said with great authority. “I thought you might like a little help.” Behind him, Anna began to pound aggressively at some unfortunate specimen at the bottom of her mortar with a pestle.

Gaius sighed heavily. “I appreciate your concern, but as I’ve told you many times before, I am fine.”

“Yes, well. Anna here thinks she may be able to help you feel more than fine, so don’t be too cross with her, if you please.”

“There’s no cure for old age, Arthur,” Gaius said.

“More’s the pity,” Arthur said briskly, deliberately obtuse.

“Look up please,” Anna interjected, leaning over to peer into Gaius’ face. She snapped her fingers first in front of his left eye, light leaping from her fingertips, and then again in front of his right. Arthur jumped with surprise and tried to mask it by squaring his shoulders and lifting his chin.

They both watched her retreat, muttering, to pick over a clutch of dusty bottles on the far wall.

When Arthur glanced around, Gaius’ eyebrow was waiting for him, reared high like a snake poised to strike.


“I’m sure I needn’t remind you how much you risk just by having her here.”

“She’s perfectly harmless,” Arthur replied quietly, a touch defensive.

“She very well may be, but that makes you no less a hypocrite for assigning her a position in the castle.”

“Oh, I’m a hypocrite now, am I?” Arthur bristled, forgetting for a moment that Gaius was old and infirm, his neck prickling at the feel of a proper row coming on.

“Are you going to be here all day?” Anna interrupted again, successfully taking the wind out of that sail.

“No, I—” Arthur’s mouth fell open, a sharp retort halfway past his teeth before he remembered himself. “I’ll leave you two to get to know each other,” he amended, tilting a humorless smile at Gaius. “I’m sure you’ll get on famously,” he added for good measure – unnecessary, petulant, and nonetheless satisfying.

For no reason he could identify, he felt the day had been lost to bad luck and would only continue to be rubbish if he kept meddling. Thinking it would be best to avoid any more conflicts for at least a few hours, he resolved to go see to the litter of puppies his best hound had just finished whelping. Yes, puppies were the trick. Puppies who played and yapped but never talked back or looked at their king with anything less than complete adoration.

Anna followed him to the door, arms crossed over her chest. “I heard there was a man arrested for sorcery in town today,” she said quietly, apropos of nothing.

“Alright.” Arthur waited, but she only stared at him significantly. “And?”

“That’s all you have to say?” she demanded with the look of a girl who’d reached out for a rose and encountered a thorn. Arthur experienced a moment of dizzying double vision. Where had he seen that exact expression before? Probably Morgana; she was always disappointed by the strangest things.

So he laughed, incredulous, “What were you expecting, an apology?” It was apparently not the response Anna had been looking for, because a thundercloud settled promptly over her brow.

“Good day, your highness,” she said, before shutting the door in his face.

“You don’t like him.”

“Hm? Oh, I’m sure he’s just like every other oblivious noble I’ve known,” Anna shrugged, busying herself with finding and timing the pulse in Gaius’ too-thin wrist.

“He means well. It hasn’t been easy for him since his father passed,” Gaius said, lost in a distant memory. He shook himself, mustering a kind smile. “You’ve worked for a royal house before?”

Anna glanced up, hesitating before saying simply “Yes.”

“Ah,” Gaius nodded. He accepted the small vial she handed him, sniffing at it before swallowing it down and immediately fighting off a face. The wiggle of Anna’s mouth was telling of a suppressed grin. “Oh, go on,” he grimaced.

“Comeuppance,” she said primly, putting the back of her hand to his forehead.

“What’s the diagnosis, then?”

“Honestly? I don’t know.” She shook her head as if to clear it. “How long has it been since you regularly treated patients?”

“Just over two years.” This was said lightly, like it was nothing more than a voluntary break, like he hadn’t forced Arthur to retire him when he could no longer measure and chop delicate ingredients with his shaky hands or brew with his poor eyesight for fear of poisoning the castle’s residents. Anna nodded like she understood.

“I’ll have to gather some fresh herbs tomorrow.”

“Yes, I’m afraid I haven’t kept up with my stores very well. Perhaps it will be good to have a young body around to run the errands again…” Gaius mused absently. Anna jerked; a pitcher of fresh water toppled off of the table and crashed onto the floor.

“Ehm,” she said, embarrassed. A hand gesture and a quiet mutter later, and the pitcher was righted, wet and empty but intact. “My hand slipped?”

“I see,” Gaius said, his gaze gone oddly intent. “You should be careful with that.”

“With?” Anna mopped at the floor distractedly with her apron.

“Your gift. Especially in public. If a claim was brought against you, Arthur couldn’t ignore it.”

Anna paused, eyes fixed to a spot on the floor. “Why does he do it.”

“I imagine he thinks your company can somehow help me. And he’s never been as rigid as his father was about these things; if there was a magical cure for what ails me, I think he’d gladly overlook the means for the ends— ”

“No,” she cut in. “No. Why does he…”

“Persecute magic users?” Gaius finished for her. She looked away. “That I cannot answer for certain. I’m sorry,” he added, at a loss.

When she finally glanced around, her smile was wan. “For what?”

There was something soothing about herb collecting, Anna thought. It was late autumn in Camelot, colors crowning the trees in a vibrant spectrum from deepest reds to buttery golds, green conifers filling out the gaps in between. The loam was soft beneath her knees, the earth fragrant. And though the weather was still temperate, when she turned her face into the wind she could smell the cold on the air, the invisible outrider for winter’s somnolent embrace.

It was satisfying to walk up from the lower town, basket heavy with chamomile, rosemary, mint and feverfew over her arm. She smiled when the guardsman manning the entrance to the castle courtyard bowed at her elaborately, as if to a great lady, a cheeky grin just visible beneath his helm.

In the square, a tall figure in riding leathers whistled sharply, hands coming to rest on his hips when the young hound gamboling at his feet failed to heel and jumped on a passing leaf instead.

Anna snorted; the man turned.

“Morning sire,” she sighed, mentally cursing her poor timing.

“Anna,” he greeted, cheery. They looked at each other for a moment, awkward.

“Who’s this?” she asked when the puppy ambled over to gnaw at her shoe. He was a handsome blonde little thing, fluffy at the ears and chest and round in the tummy. His paws were large and clumsy, which Anna knew meant he would probably grow to a respectable size. He became very excited when she wiggled her toes in her shoe.

“This is Laelaps,” Arthur said, mouth quirking with dismay at Laelaps’ undignified behavior. “One day he will be a fierce hunter.”

“Of that we can be certain,” Anna agreed, turning the dog over with her foot and rubbing at his belly. His mouth fell open in apparent appreciation, tongue lolling out.

“Had any breakthroughs with my physician?” Arthur changed the subject abruptly.

Anna’s mouth thinned. “Not yet.”

“He seems to like you. Gaius, I mean.” Arthur clarified. “Laelaps is terribly indiscriminate with his affection, aren’t you, miserable hound?”

“Much like his master.”

Arthur settled back on his heels, eyeing her appraisingly. She knew the figure she cut – a girl of middling height and size, oddly colorless between her pale hair and fair complexion. She wore strange, foreign garments: a long, shapeless robe cinched by a simple white apron. Everything about her appearance was subtly nondescript, but the jut of her chin was defiant.

“Are you implying something, Anna?” he asked, finally.

“Me? Never,” she said.

“Really? Because I once knew someone who seemed to think I had to earn his approval before he’d address me properly. You remind me of him.”

“Hmm, he sounds like an idealistic sort,” Anna hummed noncommittally.

“Yes, it’s a peculiar habit you share. Imagining I care one way or the other what you think.”

The atmosphere shifted between them, charged in an instant with unspoken things.

“Do you know what I think, Arthur?” Anna said, voice sharp with rebuke. “I think…for your pride, you would seek the approval of every single one of your subjects. But,” she continued, holding up a hand to forestall an interruption, “it’s your honor which makes you want to be worthy of their good opinion.”

Arthur opened his mouth, then closed it. “Is that so,” he said.

Anna shrugged, the fight leaving her.

In the distance, the bell tower began to clang with the hour change. Arthur looked around like a man pulled reluctantly from a pleasant diversion.

“Duty calls.”


“The man caught in the lower town yesterday?” Arthur began. Anna nodded. “He’ll be tried today at noon.”

Arthur didn’t bother getting changed. There wasn’t much point in standing on ceremony anymore and hadn’t been for a long time. Instances of sorcery were on a steady decline in Camelot; the resistance of magic-users during Uther’s reign had dimmed to something more tired and resigned under Arthur. He didn’t know how to feel about that.

Arthur might not carry the blood on his hands that his father had, but he did shoulder the burden of a man who had ruined lives. Even more disturbing than that knowledge was the suspicion that he had acted without reason. Some of the sorcerers he’d judged in the past had been threatening, dangerous not only to his own wellbeing, but his people’s. But not all. Perhaps not even half.

It begged the question: why did he bother continuing his father’s legacy without his father’s convictions? He never examined his feelings on magic too closely, so the most he could say if pressed was that he was moved by a certain compulsion, a niggling need that to him, at least, felt more like a search for answers than blind prejudice. There were details about his father’s death that simply didn’t add up. He had always suspected that magic was at heart of the mystery.

But five years had come and gone, and he found himself no closer to the satisfaction he sought. If anything, the door of possibility seemed to be slowly shutting before him. Magic was dying in Camelot; he was aiding the bleed.

The sorcerer was led into the audience chamber unchained but flanked by two guards. Arthur could tell with one look that the man was about as threatening as an uprooted radish. Impatience and apprehension settled low in his gut. He hoped there wouldn’t be tears.

His mood took a turn for the downright uncomfortable when he spied a fair head slipping into the room at the last moment. He might have asked her not to come for this, but no doubt that would only convince her he was ashamed, which he wasn’t. He just didn’t see the need to foster more tension between them when they had yet to manage a completely civil exchange since they met.

“What’s the crime?” Arthur began without preamble, pinching at the bridge of his nose.

“Potions and enchantments, highness,” the guard on the right answered.


“We stand as witness,” the guard said, indicating himself and his fellow guardsman, “though there were others present when we apprehended him, your highness.”

“Is this true? Have you been selling magical potions to my people?” Arthur prompted the sorcerer, trying not to imagine a hot glare being aimed his way from the back of the room.

“I—” the man started, then cleared his throat and tried again. “I’m just a merchant, sire.”

“Do you trade in magic?”

“My tonics are h-harmless, for good health, sire—”

“I’ve asked you a simple question, now answer it. Are the accusations brought against you true? Are you a sorcerer?” Arthur demanded, striding closer, willing the man to do something – to get angry, defend himself; lacking that, to break quicker so that they could be done and Arthur could go find a young knight to pummel. “Tell me,” he said, and the man dropped his head.

“I am a sorcerer,” he choked out, voice thick.

Anger surged through Arthur in an unexpected rush, burning bright for the briefest moment, only to be replaced with sudden weariness. “You will gather your wares for my men, and you will see that they are safely destroyed. You may collect whatever valuables you can carry with you from your home, and then you will leave Camelot forever,” he said, loud enough to carry to every ear in the room.

“Yes sire,” the man whispered.

Anna stormed away from the audience chamber, dashing angrily at her eyes with the heels of her palms. The crowd of courtiers who’d been present for the trial were dispersing; she wove between them, heedless of the shoulders she bumped and toes she trod upon.

There had been a time, once, when she never would have believed Arthur capable of what she’d just witnessed; it felt as though her heart was being crushed under the weight of her disappointment. Somehow it was worse than what she’d tried to prepare herself for, pacing back and forth in Gaius’ workroom and simultaneously talking herself into and out of seeing what a magical trial was all about. Now, the thought of running into the king filled her with a sick sort of anxiety.

Needing only to get away, her feet took her up a narrow flight of stairs, across an equally narrow corridor, and up another flight of stairs, this one steep and curved. She realized she was climbing a tower the same moment she ran smack into an impeccably gowned figure coming from the opposite direction.

“Watch where you’re going,” the woman said sharply. At the sound of her voice, the window set into the tower wall above them cracked, hairline fractures snaking out from the center to each corner, as though it’d been hit with a heavy stone.

Anna glanced up in time to see the gold fade from the Lady Morgana’s eyes, just before her face paled and she stumbled forwards, trying to run away. On a mad impulse, Anna caught her wrist and held it when she struggled to pull free.

“Let me go,” Morgana hissed, panicking.

“Look,” Anna ignored her, glancing up at the window. “Look.” Lifting her free hand, she drew her fingers together until the cracks receded into the center, disappearing without a trace. Beside her, Morgana gasped.

“How did you—?” she demanded softly, eyes wide.

An idea, crazy and dangerous and utterly brilliant, dawned slowly in Anna’s mind. “Would you like me to teach you?” she offered.

Morgana hesitated for only an instant. “Yes.”

“Where did you learn?” Morgan asked later that evening, plucking a wedge of orange from the round and handing the rest over to Anna.

“Didn’t, really,” Anna said, accepting the fruit. “Mostly I practiced with my best friend. I destroyed his things half the time and injured him the other half. Stupid prat, he loved it.”

“He doesn’t love it anymore?”

“He’s dead.”

“I’m sorry,” Morgana said, regretful. She kindly pretended not to notice when Anna rubbed at her eyes. A quiet exhaustion rolled off of the girl in waves; Morgana felt weirdly compelled to take care of her, though they’d only just met. “So,” she said, changing the subject, “it—magic—was difficult for you at first?”

“Yeah,” Anna huffed a laugh. “Do you ever feel like…like a cup brimming over? Like all it would take is being tipped just that little bit too far, and there’s not much standing between you and a great big mess?”

“Yes, yes! That’s exactly it!” Morgana sat up excitedly. “Or like a bubble just waiting to burst, and the slightest thing can make you pop.”

“Yeah. So I figure, the best thing to do when you’re first beginning is to. You know. Let yourself pop,” Anna said, nibbling on her own section of orange.

“What?” Morgana blinked, suddenly dubious. “You really think?”

“Better that than because somebody makes you angry and you accidentally set them on fire. I did that, once,” Anna mused casually. Morgana’s brows knit in distress. “In private you push yourself into the magic, and at least it doesn’t take you by surprise.”

“Alright,” Morgana said, lifting her chin with determination. “How would one go about…popping, then?”

“Erm. I’m not sure?” Anna scratched at her temple. “I used to move things around?”

Morgana cast about for a likely object, catching sight of a tiny flower vase on her dressing table. It looked light enough to move; tentatively, she focused on it with her mind. The vase gave a little wobble. “Ha!” she crowed.

Anna grinned her encouragement. “Try again; it should feel like putting down a heavy load that you’ve been carrying for a long time. Relieving, you know?”

“Yes, okay,” Morgana said, distracted, already reaching out for the vase again. She made herself pause, and slowly, so slowly, forced the muscles in her neck and shoulders and back to unclench. It took an effort of will to clear the prohibitive instincts from her head and relax after keeping herself under such a tight rein for so long.

The effect, once achieved, was instantaneous. The vase rocketed into the ceiling with an explosive crash. The only evidence left to indicate it ever existed was a delicate rain of powder that fell like snow and a ring of porcelain dust on the ceiling.

“Wow,” Anna said.

“Yeah,” Morgana agreed, dazed.

“Maybe you should try it with a pillow next time?” Anna suggested helpfully.

The pillow burst, scattering feathers across the room.

“Maybe not,” Morgana bit her lip. Anna pulled a feather out of her mouth. They looked at each other and promptly dissolved into laughter.

Anna left Morgana’s rooms late that evening, surprised at the turn her day had taken. To have someone who knew about her magic, who accepted it as a matter of course and not a negotiated term to a temporary truce, was an unexpected balm to her spirit. Camaraderie had sparked easily between them, making the day into a productive series of successes that visibly helped to build Morgana’s trust in her teaching and restore Anna’s sense of purpose. It was good to be reminded that she was in Camelot for Gaius and not herself; she had no battles to fight nor injustices to fix save the ones she chose.

After the pillow they’d tried working with light in an attempt to spare Morgana’s personal effects from further damage. It had made Anna’s heart quicken to watch her coax radiance out of the air, control coming naturally after hours of practice. At one point they’d been forced to draw the shades to keep the unearthly glow from spilling out of her windows like beacons announcing their illicit activity. It was an image she knew she would carry with her always: the room bathed in so much perfect illumination the shadows had been all but chased away, and at the heart of it Morgana, like the center of her very own sun.

Content and full of the weighty, clean fatigue that comes from a long day of hard work, Anna pulled the blankets a little closer around Gaius’ shoulders before making her way to bed and her own dreamless sleep.

[Part 2]
Tags: gift: fic, pairing: merlin/arthur, rated: nc-17, round one: gifts, year: 2009
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