Arthur (And Gwaine)
No sooner did Arthur's eyes shoot open, lungs gasping for air, than he had them clamped shut again, trying to steady his breathing.
His whole body felt taut as a bowstring, linen twisted through his legs and fisted in his hands. Arthur spent every painstaking second it took to loosen each finger, relax his grip on the sheets, before he opened his eyes again. It was muted, dark. Speckles of amber red light from the dying ashes of the hearth across the room made it possible to discern the canopy above him from the room beyond, but little else.
Then, like always, the dark of night proved a rather perfect canvas for those dreamed-up images to repaint themselves in Arthur's head.
He sighed. A good twenty minutes must have passed by the time he yielded to the truth that there would be no sleep again; Merlin would arrive all eager to wake 'King Lazy Daisy' for his morning fun, only to pout through breakfast over a missed opportunity and gripe on Arthur's 'moody sleeping patterns.'
Though Merlin's face the past few weeks slowly seemed to phase from amused disgruntlement to disapproving concern, since Arthur was more often than not these mornings perched at the window, regarding the dead hearth, or pondering the endless papers before him, still knackered as a sack of turnips with a whole other day yet ahead of him.
He didn't tell his manservant why. There was little to be helped, and he feared going to Gaius with symptoms Arthur still so vividly associated with Morgana, from the early days. Arthur could not afford to be rumored about like that, to be considered weak. He untangled his legs and slipped out of bed, stoic in this resolve still, wincing at the cold stone of the floor on his feet before padding the way silently to his hearth. Half-heartedly Arthur stirred the wood and ash up to flame once more, for a moment, contemplative.
Slowly it died again, as he finally allowed himself to think on that playful boy from his dreams. Peals of laughter, happy playing, a lightness in Arthur's heart; and then the abrupt lack thereof. The dream would cave into its heavy, inevitable course like always, Arthur in the dream himself placing it on the child's little head. The boy's neck nearly stooped with the effort to bear such a weight, and yet he stared at Arthur with such trust in his wide, innocent eyes. Arthur always felt proud, in that moment of the vision.
But it wasn't till this night he noticed it, as he stood above the kneeling child: that misery, that crown he held high, how it was dripping thick over his hands and onto the boy's dark hair—scarlet with blood.
Arthur had made the suggestion the next morning, exactly 124 days ago, and he almost regretted it.
First, there was outrage. The old counselors who he'd kept after his father's death spent a whole two months filling up the meetings with outcries of Ludacris whenever he brought the topic to discussion, raving about the afflictions magic had made sore on Camelot and how "Your father never gave sorcery the slightest of tolerance!"
Of course, it was that claim that really brought about shutting them up in the end, when Gaius had eventually stood and said, "I once was a sorcerer myself, your Highness, and practiced magic under his reign with no penalty. Uther tolerated it for years before his mind was changed."
For a heavy ten seconds no one breathed another word, all staring at the physician in varying degrees of shock and disdain. The shock mostly came from Arthur's appointed counselors, younger and unaware of Camelot's less-than-clean past. Disdain, mostly from those with older, longer memories.
Probably the most shocked actually came from a face off to the side of the room, clutching a pitcher of water like it was his lifeline. Arthur glanced worriedly over at his manservant, who looked like he was about to faint out of nowhere like he had once years ago. Face tinged a very pale-ish green.
Had Merlin not known?
Of course, Arthur himself had never heard Gaius speak of it so outright. At first as a young prince he only found it uncanny, how the old physician seemed to know everything about magic from poultices to killer griffins to the detailed rituals of the Priestesses of the Old Religion. It came to him, slowly and gradually, what Gaius's past must have entailed.
Then with shock, quite out of nowhere, when it dawned on him that Uther must know as well.
"His mind was changed then. Tell me, Gaius—what brought about my father's sudden hatred for it?" Arthur asked, temple-ing his fingers under his chin thoughtfully.
Gaius let out a heavy, shaky sigh. Like the answer weighed down on him. "Your Highness—"
"But of course anyone can answer that!" Areth, a counselor almost as old as Gaius, interrupted. "Attacks on the crown. Magic brought chaos to the streets, enabled any to more easily steal, deceive and murder their fellow man! Corrupted their very nature!"
"Areth is right! You would not remember, My King, the times before the Great Purge, before you were born—"
The old men went off again.
But their complete domination of the discussion had ended. The following days saw debates considering both sides on the morality of such an act, the cost of legalization, even on the nature of magic itself.
Did magic corrupt a man or woman? Did it simply enable them to act out the true intent of their hearts?
But the bigger question lay heavy under his rib cage through every meeting, as of yet unspoken and not even considered 56 days into the debating:
Could magic be used for good?
"What do you think?" Arthur asked after one particularly grueling meeting, his bones tired and his mind buzzing.
Merlin stumbled where he walked at the King's side in surprise, almost tripping on nothing. Arthur rolled his eyes, but held back an insult in favor of hearing his manservant's answer.
"I, uh, don't think I'm the one to be asking, sire," he finally said, opening the door to Arthur's chambers with his eyes down at his feet.
"But I am asking you."
Merlin's head shot up when he realized Arthur hadn't moved, his face hesitant and almost . . . fearful.
"What do I think?" he repeated quietly. "What do I think about what, Arthur?"
"You know bloody well what," Arthur said, exasperated now. He strode through the doorway, shaking his head. "Do you think there's even a question to any of this? Am I wasting their time, even making the suggestion . . . "
He sighed, walking over to the already-lit fire, staring into the flames with his arms crossed. Merlin said nothing, just came up in front of him to undo the clasp to his cape, take it off his shoulders. So Arthur continued: "I brought it up, knowing I'd wake a sleeping dragon. A few years ago I never would have even considered such a notion. To make magic, legal. After all it's done to us. Guinevere thought I'd been on the cider, when I first mentioned it to her. So I understand why everyone is so against it, I truly do, I just . . . "
Arthur shut his eyes tight, the images flooding his head in a moment. He rubbed his face, muttering, "I can't get his face, out of my head."
"What?" Merlin asked, then, sounding alarmed.
He opened his eyes and turned to the man, knowing he could trust him—with anything. "I keep dreaming, Merlin. It's happened a few times, through the years, but not nearly so much as the past few months. They vary, but the recurring one . . . the recurring one haunts me. Maybe it's magic, corrupting me now. Maybe that's what's going on. I've tried to convince myself of that so many times, but it makes no difference."
"You have dreams . . . like M-Morgana?" Merlin said, eyes wide. Looking at Arthur like he'd never seen him before.
"No! No. I don't think so, at least. Not about the future. It's . . . " he sighed. "It's always about this little boy—dark-haired, blue eyes, no more than five years of age. He runs through the castle, and I chase him into the gardens, both of us laughing. Then his eyes glow gold, and flowers blossom, butterflies appear. A melody, sweet as a songbird, floats in the air. It's . . . beautiful." Arthur blinked from the vision, so vivid still in his head. Merlin had turned away, back to him, sometime while he'd spoken. "His magic was good. Good, Merlin, not evil and harmful. And I think, in the dream at least, he was my son."
Arthur didn't tell the rest of the dream. He couldn't. It seemed unspeakable. He also didn't catch Merlin's reaction, but when the man finished preparing his King for bed, there was something strange shining in his eyes.
Gwaine did not have to sit at council meetings. Thank the Gods.
He'd been deemed 'ill-fit for rational discussion' according to Areth, the oldest and most pompous of Arthur's councilors. Gwaine could have kissed him, saggy wrinkles and all. The councils, as they were called, consisted of dry reports on grain reserves, army rations, amendments to such-and-such Law of Poultry and Cattle according to Act blahdeblahdeblah during Uther's reign, and so on and so on and so forth. When Gwaine wasn't questioning the importance of 'harping on the king with matters that you make up to hear your own decrepit, self-important voices,' he was sleeping through it.
Of course they had to get into the interesting topics after he'd been banned.
Leon, or whoever else occasionally sat in on the "Debate on the Nature of Magic" meetings to represent the knights, always came back with news that had Gwaine itching under his armor to stick his head in the door and shout "SHUT UP AND LISTEN TO THE PHYSICIAN, WILL YEH!"
Gaius was the only one actively representing the side of magic, or so it appeared. Leon said he would argue with whatever he believed to be fair and just, in the best interest of Camelot, but that meant very little. Gwaine could bet he probably just supported whatever Arthur said and suggested, as often as possible.
The other knights were on edge.
"What on earth made the King bring up the idea of legalization? Guinevere didn't turn out to be a witch, did she?"
"Shut it, Pellinore, before I decide to convince you," Elyan threatened in the weaponry room, taking a step near the wall of swords.
Percival put a hand on his shoulder. "Never mind him, Elyan. I'm sure Arthur has his reasons. Perhaps we have been too harsh—not on Morgana, of course, and her lot. But those from the lower town, sentenced to hang for the slightest suspicion, the slightest acquisition."
"But this law wouldn't just allow for that, now, would it?" Leon said, voice heavy. "Arthur's proposing magic itself, regardless of all it's done, would be henceforth condoned. If a man murdered a man, it wouldn't matter if he'd done it by sword or incantation."
"Well that's good, isn't it?" Gwaine shrugged, the others starting a little as he officially entered the scene. "I'd like to think my blade's considered at least as deadly as a job of cowardly voodoo or the like."
The men laughed, and the tension seemed to dissolve as they all voiced agreement.
Gwaine hoped in the firm nod he gave Arthur across the banquet hall, 93 days into the horribly drawn-out discussion of magic, his king saw his approval.
The first time Arthur saw him use it was two months after the law had passed, in his chambers of all places.
By now Arthur was at the least not cringing every time he saw another pair of usually familiar eyes glow an entirely revealing gold, Gaius being the first though certainly not the last (one of the maids, Mordred of all people, and perhaps that had been Cook's secret ingredient all along). But there really was no way to guess how he could have seen himself reacting to Merlin crouching down at a fire, muttering something, eyes lit briefly like the flames that immediately licked up in response, Arthur's own eyes recognizing it.
It wouldn't have registered, before.
How many times had Merlin lit that fire? How many times had Arthur silently remarked it seemed the one useful skill his manservant seemed actually capable of, since the very beginning? Literally his one and only virtue in the serving department. Besides, of course, being some of the best entertainment Arthur had enjoyed in his 30 years, though that wasn't technically on the formal list of duties.
It was most definitely, most assuredly, more likely than the sun's shining tomorrow, magic.
He immediately closed his chamber door again, wanting just a moment to control whatever expression was translating from his stupor-ed brain to his face. Gaius probably taught Merlin, since the ban was gone, he rationalized. Merlin always loved the traveling players, with their little tricks. He probably just wanted to be good at something, for the Gods' sake, stop assuming things Arthur.
Except just in this one circumstance, that simply didn't fit. Merlin could make a decent fire already . . . right?
Arthur nearly jumped out of his skin, caught. Merlin stood on the threshold, door open without Arthur's fine-tuned observant skills noticing, staring at him with an expression that clearly told Arthur how ridiculously guilty his face must have appeared. So much for schooling his features. "Arthur, is something the matter?" Merlin asked, not worried. More like entertained.
"Actually, yes," Arthur decided to play this off. "You're still in here. Isn't 'the work' supposed to be invisible, Merlin?"
"Aren't you incapable of undressing yourself, sire?" he shot back, eyebrows shooting up his forehead.
Arthur realized suddenly he did want Merlin to leave. To let him think, without that infuriating way the other man would prattle and nettle and pester. Not when he had this on his mind.
"I don't require your help this evening," Arthur said, maneuvering around him to get into his chambers.
"Do you want me to send for the queen, then?" Merlin asked, and rightfully so. It was what Arthur would usually request before dismissing his manservant early.
Instead he shook his head, crossing to sit down at the dinner waiting for him. "No, actually."
"Arthur . . . are you sure you're—"
"Yes, fine, as soon as you stop pestering and leave!" Arthur said, exasperated. Merlin rolled his eyes and then did just that.
Arthur was missing him an hour later of course, no further through his musings, his arms caught with no hope of sleeves to be found in his shirt. He ended up yanking off the damned thing, frustrated to no end, and begrudgingly added that personally unconquerable feat to the list of Merlin's serviceable qualities, bringing the number to a grand total of two.
Though Merlin, outside of servant duties, did have a knack for literally lying around during a battle and making it out relatively in one piece. Arthur usually attributed that to the lucky-for-Merlin's-sake superior skills of him and his knights, but it was a bit uncanny. Or the way Merlin seemed to make it out of practically any horrible situation life as Arthur's servant seemed to put him in, relatively unscathed.
Now his musings were getting him somewhere.
But magic had been illegal then, obviously. Merlin seemed like such a stickler to the law most of the time, as well – he told Arthur himself, during that nasty business with the Disir, not to legalize magic. He'd verbally agreed with practically anything everyone ever said against it, as far as Arthur was concerned. There was that bit at the beginning, with his dead friend turning out to be a sorcerer, but Arthur couldn't see how that exactly counted against him.
No. He probably learned a simple fire spell from Gaius, probably to up his already-high prowess of fire-making, probably just to show off to one of the maids, bother.
No. Arthur settled in for the night with that compromised, shirtless and a bit chilly. Running through every scenario he could possibly recall with firm dismissal, and yet not leaving a single one satisfied.
It was embarrassing, what he resorted to.
"So Gaius. Merlin has magic."
Gaius's face turned an impressive shade of chartreuse, his old skin not quite capable of paling anymore thus settling for a sick, yellowish sort of tone. Which was quite telling, in and of itself.
Arthur slapped his hand on the opened book before the old man, who jumped. "I KNEW it," he cried, rather pleased with himself, even enough to make up for the absolute shock of simply the confirmation.
"I never said—" Gaius sputtered, but the physician seemed to recognize he'd been caught. "Then . . . Merlin told you, I suppose?' he asked cautiously, and Arthur wanted to laugh harder.
"Of course not. I found out. Just now, really," he shrugged.
"Merlin—he doesn't know you know?"
"No. I saw him light a fire quite unconventionally the other night, and, well. My mind eventually put two and two together. He . . . he's been doing that ever since I met him, hasn't he?" Arthur could hear his voice slowly phasing from smugness to badly-concealed insecurity. Somehow, he was hoping that last part wouldn't prove true. Because what would it mean if it did?
"Yes," Gaius sighed, as if a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
Arthur swallowed this down, nodding, and told himself it was what he'd suspected anyway. No matter the betrayal it implied. "Well, I've got another meeting soon," he stood up abruptly, bumping the desk, and a few phials crashed to the floor. Arthur looked down at them dumbly, blinking, before he made a line toward the exit.
"Wait—your highness!" Gaius called behind him, sounding concerned. Arthur put his best, most convincing apathetic face on and turned around. "Do you want me to tell Merlin about this? Or, otherwise . . . ?"
Arthur barked a laugh. "Certainly not," he said, finding it easy once again to grin. Though it might have looked a bit maniacal. "Fair is fair—he's not going to have everything this convenient, get the easy way out. He needs to tell me himself still, Gaius. I deserve that."
And so a year passed, somehow.
Arthur waited for the first half of it with anticipation, as begrudgingly Gaius let more and more into the light: how Merlin had conquered against so many other sorcerers, the ones Arthur always assumed had just given up, how Merlin had counteracted Morgana's plots so many times, how the sorcerer he was was so many times greater than any other. Since birth. And since coming to Camelot, only for Arthur's sake.
Then the rest of the year passed, filled with comments like:
"Merlin, you are incredibly good at that fire. Want to tell me your secret?"
"Those Druids down there really need to invest in some clothing that does not look like holey turnip sacks. You don't happen to know a way to subtly communicate that kind of message, would you Merlin?"
"Merlin, honestly that was the fastest bath-drawing I've seen in my life. It was just like MAGIC!"
And then Merlin would stare at him for a moment, just long enough to get Arthur's hopes up, before the idiot would turn away and throw an unsurprisingly idiotic comeback in return, the idiot. And at first he would laugh, inwardly shake his head, and wait for the next opportunity.
Now his teeth sat on edge. Especially after Arthur came upon a little girl conjuring up butterflies in the courtyard as her mother sold flowers, and he happened to remark under his breath, "Beautiful."
Not really the butterflies. The child, so similar to the boy from his recurring dream. So innocent, not at all the malevolent, blood-sucking demons sorcerers had been painted by his father all the way back since Arthur's bedtime stories.
"Do you really think so, Arthur?" Merlin said in such a strange voice Arthur had to turn his head to see what expression accompanied it. He'd forgotten the servant had even been by his side.
Merlin's eyes were wide, hopeful, though his brow betrayed such strong apprehension it depressed the king. He was staring at Arthur like he didn't know him again, and like he was trying to squint past the deception of a mirage.
"Yes," he assured him, half-smiling. Hope against hope kindling in his own heart. "It's been more than a year, and a day hasn't gone by that I've regretted my decision."
His servant's face immediately grew cloudy, doubtful and unsure. "You don't regret it," he repeated dubiously, and Arthur wanted to scream in frustration.
"No, I don't. I'll never regret it, Merlin, I promise you. It's only the harmful actions of magic that should be answered for," he said in earnest, though that quickly died as he watched Merlin's face shutter in on itself.
"Of course. Erm, excuse me—" And . . . he left. That was happening a lot, lately.
Arthur was nearly ready to bludger his head against the battlements in frustration.