AN: Well... I am now doing my best to be... sort of consistent with updates. Hopefully I make a pattern out of this. BUT... in other random news, this week was far and away much better than the last two. My professor accepted my research proposal, which means I actually did some good research this summer! And it also means I will have no life from now until I'm finished with the project. xD BUT most importantly it means I will soon be a published author in academia. :D Happy day for me!
But you're not interested in that area of my writing career so... here's your next installment.
Merlin stirred awake with something soft tickling the inside of his ear. He opened his eyes halfway and ran a hand over his face to brush away the strand of hair. Freya looked as drowsy as he felt, and he could see a faint mark where the fold of his shirt had pressed against her cheek.
"You're still here," she said.
"'Course I am." Merlin smiled at her and pulled her close again. She leaned her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes for a moment.
"What time is it?" she murmured.
"Dunno. Does it matter?"
"Yeah… I have to go to work."
"Hmm… Call in sick," Merlin said, cinching his arm around her shoulders.
"Merlin." Freya gave him a push and tried to squirm out from under his arm.
"Alright, alright," Merlin grinned as he released her and sat up, rubbing his eyes with one hand. "Where's my phone?"
"You're sitting on it," Freya laughed as she disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Merlin in the silent main-room for a moment. Merlin let out a quiet sigh. The silence inexplicably worried him. He couldn't quite put a finger on it, but he had a vague sense that something was off. It reminded him of the feeling he got when another source of magic was somewhere near him—like a subconscious warning. But this was a bit different. He had a feeling he was in the wrong place; there was something he was supposed to be doing… Arthur… why was his flatmate the first person who sprung to mind, he wondered with a sigh. Admittedly, Arthur wasn't the greatest cook in the world, but he'd surely survived one night without someone to help him. Maybe he'd been too lazy to bother making himself dinner and gone to bed without it… wouldn't do the blond any harm, he reflected…. Or perhaps Arthur had managed to burn the flat down in his absence while trying to use the stove. He smiled. No doubt Arthur would clip him around the ear and give his head a good knuckling for either comment. He got up, stretching his cramped limbs. Half buried between the couch cushions, his mobile chimed a cheerful reminder, and he retrieved it and unlocked the screen.
"Oh no," he breathed. Morgana! He suppressed a groan. That was probably why he kept thinking about Arthur… Uther was slotted to arrive in half an hour and Morgana shortly after that. It would be too late to tell her not to come now, but if Uther and Morgana ran into each other at the flat, then God help him and Arthur both… Morgana would be furious. She might assume that he and Arthur had purposefully set the situation up. He ran one hand through his already tousled hair. How could I forget to text her last night? "Freya?" He trailed after her into the kitchen, slinging his coat over his shoulder. "I'm sorry; I have to go. I promised I'd meet a friend for breakfast this morning." Freya paused with the fridge door open and gave him a mock reproachful look.
"And you were trying to make me skive off work," she accused. Merlin grinned sheepishly, but her responding smile soon faded. "You're going right now?" she said. Merlin bit his lip.
"Will you be alright?" he asked anxiously. Her eyes darted down to her feet and she nodded. "I can walk with you to your work first," Merlin offered, thinking of the street and the place just a block from Freya's flat that was probably roped off with yellow police tape now.
"No, it's alright. I'll be fine," she said. She let the fridge door swing shut and reached out to flatten Merlin's unruly hair. He chuckled.
"Don't bother. It's a lost cause." He caught her hand with his own, buried the fingers of his other hand gently in her long, smooth hair, and gave her a kiss. He closed his eyes briefly when her arms wound around his neck and one hand buried itself in his hair again, carding through it. "I'll come back as soon as I can," he murmured when she turned to rest her forehead against his shoulder. She nodded, and for a while the pair stood still, leaning into one another. "You're safe. Remember that. No one knows but me," he said quietly in her ear. "As long as you're safe, you can keep it hidden, yeah?" She nodded against his shoulder, and he pressed his cheek against her hair. "If anything worries you, call me."
Outside, rainwater dripped from every gutter and leaf along the way. Merlin silently blessed it. He'd covered tracks carefully, but if any evidence had been left at the scene of Freya's attack, it would be long washed away now. He passed the scene at a leisurely walk, trying to quash his guilty feeling for leaving her so soon. He typed out a quick warning text and apology to Morgana, telling her to meet him at the same café as last time, and broke into a run once he was well away from Freya's block, just as a fresh drizzle started up. He wiped the rain off his mobile screen and squinted at it. Five till… He still had time to nip into the flat and get his wallet before Uther showed up.
Or not… Merlin sighed. It was like Uther to be early. He should've figured. He lingered a few steps from the door, watching the man, then approached.
"Morning," he greeted as levelly as possible, pulling out his key. Uther's brows were drawn together. Merlin recognized a gathering storm when he saw it.
"Where's Arthur?" he demanded. Merlin shrugged.
"Don't know. Maybe he went to the shooting range early." His key didn't turn in the door-lock. Merlin frowned, but he did his best to make it appear that he was still unlocking the apartment door. Uther didn't need another reason to criticize his son this morning. He pushed the door open and nudged a pair of trainers out of his way as he stepped inside.
"Arthur?" There was no answer. Merlin rolled his eyes. In the main room, a couple stray items of clothing were strewn over the couch and floor, and Arthur's wallet was balanced on a windowsill of all places. Dishes were piled in the sink, a bag of grapes sat open on the counter, a used frying pan with food caked on perched atop the stove, and a few crushed crisps lay scattered across the linoleum. Surely Arthur didn't expect him to clean up the mess before Uther showed up just so he could head off to his hobby in the morning? He tossed his keys onto the counter and let Uther shut the door behind them.
"Hang on. I'll look for him." You left the door unlocked again, he texted to Arthur as he headed down the hall. It was a little too late to salvage the mess that was their flat right now. Uther would just have to cope with it. Merlin didn't take his shoes off but headed straight for his own bedroom to grab his wallet. He'd figure out where his idiot flatmate had gotten off to, then he and Morgana could go somewhere and grab a coffee, and they could talk in a quiet, secluded place. And perhaps… he could put off telling her until a better time when they would have the apartment to himself. Talking too much about magic in a public place still unnerved him. He was halfway down the hall when a mobile phone chime stopped him. He looked sideways at the bedroom door to his left.
"Arthur?" No answer. Did you go to the range this morning? he wrote. He stood still in the hall for a moment, and sure enough a phone chimed again inside Arthur's bedroom. He frowned. Arthur never left his mobile behind. He nudged the door open with his foot and peered inside, and sure enough a heap of blankets lay on the bed, rising and falling in a steady pattern. The room was pitch black save for the crack of light from the door. Blinds were drawn, and even the laptop's charger light was obscured under a pillow. "Arthur, your father's here," Merlin said, edging through the door.
"Hmmm," was all the response he got from his flatmate. Merlin rolled his eyes.
"Look, he's already pissed that you didn't answer the door. I wouldn't suggest keeping him waiting." He flicked the light switch. The covers instantly rustled, and Arthur's blond head disappeared under them.
"No. Turn'toff." It was more of an incoherent groan than words. Merlin frowned and shut it off again. Arthur had been dragging all week, and he'd looked pretty wretched the day before, but he'd assumed his friend was just overwrought with his class load and finishing his term project.
"Not feeling any better then?" The covers didn't retreat from over Arthur's face, so Merlin edged a step closer and he started when Arthur rolled over abruptly and fumbled for something at the edge of the bed. Oh… Merlin's eyes, adjusting to the dark, discerned the dark shape of a bin near Arthur's clumsily grasping fingers. He lifted it where Arthur could reach and held it. He grimaced sympathetically, glad for the moment that he'd left the door only cracked.
"Finished?" he asked after a moment. Arthur nodded, and Merlin set the bin down and helped him lie back again. Even through Arthur's shirt he could feel the man's skin burning, but more than anything he was unnerved by the fact that Arthur hadn't even brought anything up. "How long has this been going on?" he pressed. Arthur shrugged, pulling the blanket up over his shoulders.
"S'fine… it'll go away."
"After you've coughed up half your stomach lining," Merlin said a bit harshly. "It's not fine, Arthur. Why didn't you call someone?" Arthur didn't seem to be paying attention though. His eyes were half closed and no longer focused on his flatmate.
"Merlin. Need t-to… tell Professor Sellers… tell him 'm sorry."
"It's alright. You turned in your paper yesterday," Merlin assured him. He put a hand on Arthur's forehead, trying to gauge his fever and bit his lip.
"I said I'd be there. Said I would. He'll think—"
"Be where?" Merlin blinked at him.
"Final… I missed the final."
"Arthur, it's Saturday. You haven't missed anything." Merlin withdrew his hand with a sinking heart. His fingertips were tingling. This was wrong… he could sense the same vague feeling he'd gotten the night before, from Freya. No… it couldn't be… Arthur was sick. Just sick. That was all. "Have you eaten anything?" he asked. Arthur gave muffled negative. "Have you been drinking water?"
"Not thirsty," Arthur mumbled. Merlin sighed.
"Hang on. I'll be right back." He backed out of the room as quietly as he could and stopped just outside, bracing himself. took a long breath, bracing himself. He tried as much as possible to look straight-faced as he returned to the main room to face Uther Pendragon.
"He's still here," Uther said. It was no question. Merlin gritted his teeth.
"Arthur's sick. I think he needs help." He grabbed the first glass off the counter that he saw and filled it.
"He said nothing of the sort to me." Uther scrutinized him with one of those expressions that Merlin disliked so much—as if Merlin had ever at some point given him a reason to be suspicious. Merlin lifted his shoulders, trying not to snap in response.
"I don't think he's in any shape to talk."
"I'll be the judge of that." Merlin opened his mouth to protest, but Uther was already heading for the hall. The warlock clenched his teeth angrily and followed with the glass of water.
"Arthur?" Uther both pushed the door wide open and turned the light on, making Arthur cringe in the glare and Merlin wince sympathetically on his behalf. Merlin stepped past him and coaxed Arthur into a sitting position.
"Here. You need to drink." He ignored Arthur's halfhearted mumble of protest and wrapped an arm around his friend's shoulders for support. "Drink," he repeated and pressed the glass of water into Arthur's hand. Arthur took a small sip and rested the glass on his knee, as if it were too heavy to hold up.
"You have to tell him," he said.
"Arthur you haven't missed the exam. I promise," Merlin insisted firmly. It couldn't be a good sign that Arthur had completely lost his sense of time. Arthur was shaking his head, and he caught at Merlin's sleeve with a fumbling hand.
"Just tell him. Please."
"Where was he last night?" Uther interrupted. Merlin glanced up in shock and outrage.
"He was here, with me," he said.
"Is that what he told you to say?" Uther asked coldly. For a second, it reminded Merlin so much of Morgana that he was shocked. Why… why did Arthur's own father and adopted sister seem so ready to assume the worst of him when all he'd ever tried to do was keep peace with them? He clenched his teeth and gingerly eased the barely touched glass of water from Arthur's hands.
"He's not hung over. I know what that looks like. But don't worry. I made sure to have him do a breath test when he came back from turning in his term paper." He emphasized the last few words with biting sarcasm. Uther's expression darkened, and Merlin wondered for the briefest of moments whether he'd gone too far. He breathed out through his nose. What good was it anyways? This wasn't going to help the situation. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Arthur tense. He wondered whether his friend was even paying attention to the conversation, wretched as he was. Arthur nearly pitched forward trying to reach for the bin again, and Merlin quickly braced an arm around his shoulders and fetched it for him. "Arthur, you need to keep that water down," he said in a low voice. Arthur only leaned his forehead against the edge of the bin and shivered. He squeezed his friend's shoulder and straightened up. He should've kept his mouth shut. This wasn't the time to pick a battle with the most stubborn man in Britain. "It doesn't matter anyway. He's sick. He needs help," he said, forcing himself to keep a calm tone. He ignored Uther's hesitation, desperate to get Arthur somewhere with proper help and care. If Uther was going to be an arse about this, he would call an ambulance, but he guessed that the man would help, however grudgingly. Arthur had leaned back against the wall now and closed his eyes. He opened them again when Merlin shook him. "We're taking you to the hospital, alright? Can you get up? There's a car waiting for you." He didn't ask; Arthur looked even paler at the mention of a car, but he nodded feebly, and Merlin helped him to his feet. A hand took the bin from Arthur's grasp, and Uther wordlessly came to Arthur's side, taking his other arm.
"It's not far, Arthur." His voice was, surprisingly, quiet and soothing. "We'll get you help. It'll be over soon," he promised. Arthur gave the tiniest of nods and leaned into their support as they steered him slowly out to the car.
The rain was pouring down in sheets again, just as it had every day for the past week. Merlin stepped outside and leaned against the wall of the hospital, closing his eyes. It was barely even ten, and he already felt utterly exhausted, stretched too thin to think straight for anyone. Gwaine had been texting him about something he left behind at the flat, Freya's dilemma still lingered at the back of his overtaxed mind, and the overwhelming sense of wrongness that he got from Arthur only grew with every minute. He pulled his mobile out and answered what was probably the third call from Morgana, taking a breath before he put it to his ear.
"Hey, I'm sorry," he said heavily.
"Merlin, where are you? I've been waiting here for half an hour. There's something you need to see." She sounded urgent. It made Merlin dizzy just to think about the whole problem of Morgana's associations. He wasn't sure he wanted to know whatever it was right now.
"I'm sorry. I meant to call you, but things got really out of hand this morning. Uther was at the flat, and Arthur's really sick. He's just been admitted to hospital."
"What?" Morgana's voice rose half an octave. "Is he alright?" There was a painful moment of silence. Merlin swallowed. Arthur was plainly dehydrated, running a high fever, and the soreness, light sensitivity, and headache all pointed to something akin to meningitis; that was the diagnosis so far. But it was wrong. Merlin was as certain of that as if Gaius had told him. He wanted to ignore it, but the presence of a foreign sorcery was more apparent every time he'd been near Arthur since returning to the flat, and far stronger than what he'd sensed in Freya. The hospital would find out soon enough that their treatments weren't helping… then they'd try something else that wouldn't help. Merlin took a breath.
"He'll be fine," he lied. He heard a quiet exhale on the other end of the line. "Look. I'm really sorry. I have to go. The doctors think Arthur's got meningitis, so I need to talk with Gwen, Lance, and Gwaine since they've been around him. They all need to pick up their course of antibiotics, just in case."
"It's fine. Don't apologize," Morgana answered quickly. "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help... and could you call tomorrow if…"
"I'll tell you if anything happens," Merlin promised.
"Thanks," she breathed.
"Sure. I'll talk to you later." Merlin ended the call and dialed in another number hurriedly. He had no answers or cures for whatever was going on with Arthur. So he'd have to start with someone who might… but he had to leave a message before he went anywhere. The guilt gnawed at his insides as he stood beneath the shelter at the door to the hospital. He had to do this now—had to find a way to help Arthur… but the thought of leaving Freya for so long made him feel sick with worry. Freya didn't answer. Merlin rested his head against the bricks and waited for the tone. "Hey, Freya. I'm sorry I won't be back as soon as I'd planned. Arthur's sick, and I had to take him to the hospital. I don't know how long I'll be out, but I'll give you a call as soon as I'm coming back. You can still call if you need anything, though. Let me know if you… run into any trouble at work, alright? Take care." He ended the message and stood with his eyes shut, listening to the patter of the rain. He breathed in slowly, inhaling the fresh, cool smell of the rain, and pushed himself off the wall, setting his jaw in a determined expression. It was time to visit an old friend.
The dark tunnel was just as Merlin remembered it, even the chill familiar as he picked his way down the slope. He trod carefully on the high side to avoid sloshing through the rainwater that flowed alongside him, illuminating the way with the pale blue orb he hadn't lit since he last visited the dark place. During his time in Gaius' home and his earlier terms at college in Camelot, he'd talked often with the dragon, and sometimes he'd wondered about the creature's tales of destiny and whether there was some truth to them. After all, how else could the dragon even know of Arthur's birth, locked here under the ground? If nothing else, the dragon was still a creature of powerful magic, and like Morgana with her prophetic dreams, he too might see things with the mind's eye, even things of the future.
Such curiosities had long drifted out of Merlin's thoughts, driven away by his studies and the rocky politics of the world above, and he'd rarely had a moment to think of the dragon, let alone make the journey down to see him. At the moment it seemed like his only option. The book Gaius gave him had no healing spells in it, but the dragon had seen many generations of sorcerers. He would know something. How he would take the visit was another matter. Merlin didn't know what the dragon might say, if he would want to help, or even if he could help, unable to get to Arthur himself… but after all his talk about the prophecy, about bringing peace between the peoples of England… surely he would want to save Arthur Pendragon's life.
Years of waiting no doubt made keen ears. The cave was not empty when Merlin set foot in it, and its occupant was wide awake. A pair of golden orbs turned slowly to fix on Merlin when he stepped into the open, and Merlin held his breath.
"It has been a long time, Merlin." Merlin bowed his head. He had no time for formalities.
"I know… I'm sorry. I need your help," he said. The great head shifted, and chains scraped harshly against the ground as he sat up to tower over Merlin. There was a look on his face which resembled that of a smug, contented cat as he stretched out his wings out to their full span and arched his back. When he spoke, his low voice rumbled through the cave, at once a challenge and a warning.
"Nothing comes without a price, young warlock."
AN2: Any ideas on what that price is...?