The fic you are about to read is set somewhere between Season 3 and 4. No slash.
Title: Evaluation of Loyalty
Chapter 1: The Mysterious Fog
"Merlin! Run! Get out of here! I can't hold it off forever." Prince Arthur hollered at his manservant who was lying half-dazed among the fallen debris a few feet behind the Crixobus.
"I'm not leaving without you." Merlin cried loyally. Breathing quite heavily, he looked around frantically for something, other than magic, that would help Arthur.
A sickening, thunderous grumbling sound emerged from the Crixobus' throat, echoing off the remaining walls of the ruins. Slick black fur covered a bony four-legged frame, not to be underestimated at all with its wiry appearance, pounced through rock, crushing everything in its path. It had a boar-shaped jaw that held a mouth full of razor sharp teeth and two black holes for nostrils. Above its rubbery nose was a single orb-shaped eye that occasionally blinked. It stood on clawed feet and had a massive lizard-like tail that swept back and forth in anxiousness as it approached its prey. The mystical beast stood on its hind legs and raised his talons high above the fair-haired Prince of Camelot, about to strike.
Arthur had lost his sword during the scuffle and was currently using an old battle axe he found to defend himself. Cornered, he braced himself for the oncoming blow. Suddenly, the beast became distracted and turned its head.
Merlin was hurling rocks at the Crixobus, striking it squarely in the head. The beast growled in anger and swung its body around to face the young warlock.
"Merlin, you idiot." Arthur muttered under his breath.
The four-legged beast ran full speed towards Merlin in attack mode. It may seem that Merlin was clueless about what to do next, but in fact, he knew exactly what was about to happen. The spell he had in mind was already on the tip of his tongue. It was either flee or fight. Since there was no place left to run, Merlin could do only one thing – fight. He knew he risked Arthur finding out his secret, but under the circumstances, it was do or die. He will somehow manage the consequences when or if they make it out alive.
Merlin stood calmly facing the approaching beast. He allowed the strong magic to consume his mind and body. The intensity of the power rendered him lightheaded but he was nonetheless in control. It was only a matter of seconds before he would release the bolt of energy that would kill the Crixobus. Just as the gold began to flicker in his eyes, the beast stopped in his tracks and roared, as if in pain.
Arthur had flung the battle axe at the beast. The beast writhed in agony for a moment, and then it swung around to face Arthur. With the axe still lodged in between its shoulder blades, it walked threateningly towards the prince. Bluish blood poured from the lesion making small puddles on the ground. Arthur could smell the stench of the beast's hot breath upon him. Unarmed, he grabbed a long piece of wood from the debris to use as a weapon.
"No!" Merlin cried in horror as he watched the Crixobus' claws come down on Arthur.
Arthur, however, was quick and blocked the blow with the piece of wood. He took a swing at the beast, only to bruise it gently on the mouth. The next attempt with the piece of wood proved to be completely useless. The beast caught the wood in its mouth and snapped it in half like a twig, leaving Arthur unarmed once again.
Out of the corner of his eye, Merlin noticed a silvery object partially covered under the rubble nearby. He dove for it and pulled out the sword that Arthur lost during the scuffle earlier.
"Arthur!" Merlin shouted as he tossed the sword to Arthur.
Arthur caught it skillfully and drove the blade into the Crixobus' belly without hesitation. The giant beast shrieked in pain and staggered around in circles, seeming to be on the brink of toppling over. It twisted in agony and anger. With sword in hand, Arthur slipped out of the beast's view while keeping an ever so careful eye on his adversary. Just as the Crixobus caught sight of Arthur run by, it gave way to chase. Arthur spun around and, with all his might, forced the blade into the beast's single eye, blinding it in the process.
The Crixobus tottered about with puss running out of its empty eye socket. Arthur's first instinct was to protect Merlin, who appeared to be petrified by the towering beast twisting around in an attempt to shake the axe out of its back and at the same time get a sense of its surroundings. As Arthur ran towards Merlin, the beast groped the air with its claws, knocking down walls and things that were in its way. Debris crumbled and sprinkled all around a wide-eyed Merlin.
Blinded, but not deaf nor scentless, the Crixobus grew calmer and focused on the mission. It might have been a simple-minded assassin with an animalistic nature, but it wasn't a completely stupid assassin. Habitually, the beast relied more on hearing and smell rather than sight. Two black nostrils sniffed the air carefully and perked its pointy ears in the direction of the slightest noise. Upon hearing Arthur's footsteps, the Crixobus turned and in doing so, its thick slithering tail swung around.
"Merlin! Look out!" Arthur yelled, but it was too late.
The beast's tail caught Merlin in the chest and knocked him entirely off his feet. Merlin landed on his back some yards away with a loud thud. His head spun painfully and staying conscious was becoming an extremely difficult task. He groaned and desperately tried to remain awake.
Meanwhile, Arthur had the attention of the Crixobus. It sniffed and snorted in Arthur's direction. A swing of its claws was blocked by a jab of Arthur's sword. The beast was resilient and overpowering, not to mention its enormous height. Arthur lunged forward but the Crixobus in turn encountered the attack with a lash of its claws. The hit snagged Arthur on the arm and ripped his chainmail. He cried out in pain as the claws made contact with his skin. It was a minor graze and Arthur recovered ever so quickly.
The prince kept a watchful eye on Merlin, making sure that his servant was out of harm's way. He knew he could beat the Crixobus, but he just didn't know how at the moment. He had trouble figuring out its weakness. Each time Arthur moved location, the blind beast seemed to know exactly where Arthur had gone. He repeatedly blocked the blows the Crixobus set upon him. It finally dawned on him that he and Merlin could get killed.
Arthur was rapidly tiring and needed to think of something fast. Merlin pulled himself up in time to see Arthur backed against the wall once again by the blind beast. With its main focus on the prince, the beast seemed to have forgotten about Merlin, who approached quietly from behind. Merlin saw a window of opportunity when he noticed a large piece of the palace's high ceiling hanging dangerously above the Crixobus.
Without a second wasted, the young warlock's river blue eyes turned fiery gold and the magical words rolled off his tongue effortlessly. As a result, the ceiling came crashing down on the Crixobus, giving Arthur a chance to escape. Arthur did not retreat from his position. Instead, he sought this as a way to gain an advantage on the beast. He quickly climbed several platforms of rock until he came nearly face to face with the Crixobus. Arthur gripped the hilt of his sword with both hands and with all forced it into the beast's chest.
More rock fell as the Crixobus shrieked and thrashed about, knocking over pillars and half demolished columns. The unsteady rock dissolved beneath Arthur's feet and sent him plunging downwards. A quick stab of pain in the back of the head was the initial sensation upon impact with the ground. His vision blurred and numbness reached him limb by limb.
I failed you, Merlin. Arthur thought before letting the darkness envelope him. The last thing he saw before blacking out was an image of the beast's claw coming down on him.
Arthur may have thought he failed Merlin, but Merlin had no intentions of failing Arthur. Just as the beast was going to crush an unconscious Arthur, Merlin's eyes flashed a fiery gold and released a giant ball of energy onto the Crixobus. Electricity penetrated through the beast's body and fried every inch of its being. Gray smoke fogged the sky and for a moment, the air smelt of charred flesh and fur. The power from the blast carried the remainder of the beast weightlessly into the air. It slammed against a wall about a mile away and lay in a smoldering heap. The Crixobus did not even have a chance to make a sound before it died. This was Merlin's idea of humane killing – fast and effective.
Merlin muttered some enchanted words and reached out his hand. Like a magnet, Arthur's sword emerged from the pile of rubble and found its way into the young warlock's palm. He hurried to Arthur's side. Dropping down next to the unconscious prince, he surveyed the injuries and came to the conclusion that nothing was broken.
"Arthur, wake up." Merlin gave his master a nudge. A soft moan passed Arthur's lips before his eye lids fluttered open to reveal a pair of glassy blue eyes. As Arthur's vision came into focus, he saw the pasty face of his manservant looking down at him with concern.
"Merlin." Arthur groaned as he struggled to sit up and shake off the dizziness. His breaths were shallow but strength was gradually returning to his muscles. "W-what happened? Where'd it go?" He rubbed the back of his neck with a hand.
"It's dead." Merlin swallowed. "You killed it. Don't you remember?" He lied.
"Huh?" Arthur was confused and still dazed.
"You ran it through with your sword." Merlin tried to sound as convincing as he possibly could and presented the weapon to Arthur, who took it by the hilt.
"I did?" Arthur questioned as he studied the blade, trying to remember the beast dying by his hand.
"You did." Merlin insisted. "It stumbled over there and died." He nodded towards the dead beast.
Arthur alternated a glance between the lump of black fur in the distance and Merlin, who was sitting on his heels in front of him. It was most peculiar because that wasn't the way he remembered it. After he ran the blade into the beast, the rock beneath him crumbled and he had a fall. The beast looked very much alive, last he saw. And while on the ground, the beast had the advantage. But then again, that knock on the head was pretty hard and perhaps he'd been wrong about the whole thing. He rubbed his head again.
"Merlin." Arthur's face suddenly hardened. "You idiot! What on earth were you thinking? Throwing rocks at a Crixobus? Have you lost your mind? You could've gotten yourself killed."
"B-but Sire. You were in danger. I-I had to do something." Merlin stammered.
"I had it under control." Arthur retorted proudly. Secretly, he was grateful to have such a noble servant who was willing to sacrifice his own life for his master.
"Sure you did. No doubt about that." Merlin smirked.
"Oh shut up." Arthur blurted in annoyance. "You're giving me a bloody headache."
An eerie prickly feeling ran down Merlin's spine and distracted him. Something unexplainable made him suddenly uneasy about the old palace in ruins. It was a queasy feeling spreading from the pit of his stomach. Perhaps the magic in his veins was trying to warn him that something really bad was going to happen. Either way, he just felt something wasn't right and they needed to leave.
The fearful look in Merlin's big saucer eyes was something Arthur mistook for an offense – a hurt feeling. Arthur was by no means unappreciative. He just had an odd way of displaying affection for his servant. Harsh words were often easier to dish out than compliments. If it came down to it, Arthur would not think twice about risking his own life for Merlin.
"Well, you did manage to distract it long enough so I could get a clear shot with the axe." Arthur said, trying to give Merlin a little credit.
"We should get out of here." Merlin interjected nervously. He got up and extended a hand to help Arthur up off the ground.
"You are right for a change. This place gives me the creeps." Arthur replied and took Merlin's hand.
Merlin and Arthur were about to set foot out of the ruins when a sudden strange whirring noise came about. It was a rather odd pitch that was neither pleasant nor irritating. Each second that passed, the pulsating noise grew a decibel louder. The boys looked around trying to locate the source of the sound but it appeared to be coming from all directions. An eerie feeling got under Merlin's skin and he shivered slightly.
"What is that noise?" Arthur asked inquisitively.
Before Merlin could give any reply, a thin line of dusty grey smoke swirled out of the air. It had the same consistency as if someone was smoking a pipe. The smoke circled around the boys several times, catching their attention, before transforming into a fog-like state. It weaved and spread around them quickly. The dense fog became so incredibly thick that they could barely see their hands in front of their faces.
"What's going on?" Arthur gasped as he drew his sword and stood ready for a fight. Although, he couldn't be sure what it was that he would be fighting since he could see nothing beyond the fog.
"I don't know." Merlin answered, still rather confused. He knew this was magic and like Arthur, he was not sure how to defeat it. It frightened him to see everything being swallowed by this fog. It was like some sort of vacuum sucking all the colors of the earth and spun into a grey nothingness.
"Stay close Merlin." Arthur ordered.
"Arthur?" Merlin hollered as he grabbed a fist full of fog, trying to locate the prince. It was only a second ago that he was staring at the back of Arthur's blond head when the fog closed in and took everything away.
Arthur turned around to find Merlin's face disappearing into the thick fog. With his free hand, he tried to get a hold of Merlin before they became separated in the murky grey clouds. But it was done in vain. He was too late.
"Merlin!" Arthur yelled, hoping to get a reply. But all he received was an echo of his own voice. The stale taste of fog entered his mouth. It soon clogged his ears and suffocated his nostrils. He shook his head to gain control of himself, though his vigorous movements only made things worst. The fog found its way around his neck. Before long, he was choking and gasping for air.
"Arthur?" Merlin cried to no avail. Somehow, he knew there would be no answer from Arthur. He suddenly became unusually calm. The thought did occur to him that there was something more to this fog than meets the eye. Until he knew what he was up against, it was pretty absurd to start casting spells into a mysterious cloud.
"Who are you?" Merlin shouted daringly into the fog. "Show yourself. What do you want?"
"I want lots of things." An enigmatic voice whispered in Merlin's ear. Merlin nearly jumped out of his skin. Startled, he looked all around to find out where the voice came from. It took him a while to figure out that the voice came from within his ear.
"Why are you doing this?" Merlin inquired.
"Because I must." The voice answered. It was cold and raspy, like that of an old man. "In the end, it's all about survival. We do what we must."
"I don't understand." Merlin said in frustration.
"Oh but you will….young Emrys." The voice said most calmly. "You will."
"W-what did you call me? Who are you?" Merlin stammered nervously.
No one could describe the amount of terror and confusion that Merlin felt right then. Merlin was told repeatedly that it was imperative that he kept his identity a secret. He needn't ask for reasons and explanations anymore. He already knew why. He was supposed to progress into something great, something that would change history and fulfill destinies. It was also true that people with bad intentions wanted to find Emrys so they could harm him. Luckily, many sorcerers and witches have only heard about a certain Emrys, but were never able to match a face with the name. Some continue searching and still others remain ignorant, but as far as Merlin was concerned, the old physician would never sell him out.
There was something ambivalent, yet dangerous about this voice in the fog. Merlin couldn't quite determine if this entity had intent to harm. He thought about creating some lame excuse or logical explanation that it was a matter of mistaken identity. But somehow, deep in his gut, he had a feeling it was useless.
"You heard me." The voice said patiently. "I know who you are."
"Y-you seem to think you know who I am. Yet, I have no idea who you are or what you want." Merlin breathed in the fog and his throat suddenly felt parched.
"My identity is not important." The raspy voice whispered. "And as for what I want. Well, I'll get to that part eventually. You must have patience, young Emrys."
Merlin recoiled when the voice hissed the word "Emrys." The sharpness of the voice stung his eardrums. Merlin cupped his hands over his ears and waited for the ringing to subside. It really was a strange kind of pain for a few seconds, nothing like he'd ever experience.
"The prince is very stubborn and has the most erratic ways of going about things. He constantly manipulates and degrades you. He treats you like the dirty at his heels, well - like most people with power would. You speak your heart when you're with him. You don't always tell him what he wants to hear. You disobey and try his patience. You anger him, yet he oddly values your advice. You're not afraid of him." The voice said after a pause.
"How do you know all this?" Merlin asked.
"Your question is irrelevant. Let's just say, I have my sources." The voice said bluntly.
"Arthur may be difficult sometimes, but he's a good prince, and will make a great king."
"On a first name basis now, I see." The voice humored. "Your devotion to him is most peculiar. I just don't understand why he hasn't executed you yet."
"My job is to serve and protect my master." Merlin said proudly and desperately held his tongue against saying something he'd regret later.
"Oh, how noble." The voice said with a hint of sarcasm in his voice. "Ah, but not many would risk his own life the way you just have."
"You saw what happened?" Merlin didn't know whether to be scared or be at ease.
"You killed my Crixobus." The voice reminded in a solemn tone.
"It was you. You're the one that sent the beast to destroy our lands?" Merlin said.
"Land – I'm not interested in land. I wanted to see for myself – if it was true that you'd do anything for him."
"So, this was all a game to you?" Anger seethed in Merlin's veins. He could feel the warm tingle of magic circulating in his blood. He stared into the fog in search of something but he saw nothing but a vast cloud of gray.
"I can feel your fury growing. You are very strong." The voice observed. "You should save your energy, young Emrys. Your magic will not work on me."
"Stop calling me that!" Merlin cried irritably. "You don't know me."
"Alright then, Merlin." The voice toyed. "What if I was to tell you that Prince Arthur will die?"
"It's not going to happen. Not if I can help it."
"How much are you really willing to sacrifice for him?" The voice teased. "Everything?"
"Yes. I would." Merlin said firmly and without a doubt.
Merlin saw something shiny appear in front of him within arm's length. It didn't take Merlin long to recognize it to be a dagger. This dagger was different than any dagger Merlin had ever seen. But then again, daggers were not an overly familiar territory with Merlin. He'd only seen a few in his life thus far. To the knights and as taught by Arthur, daggers were considered dishonorable and unethical. It was a violation of the code because of the fact that they could be hidden and used as an element of surprise.
This dagger twirled slowly in front of him as if flaunting its beauty. A spiral of gold wrapped around the hilt in an intricate design, which gave way to the curved cross guard encrusted with an array of precious gemstones. A sparkle of liquid silver color rippled in the sharp blade as it rotated hypnotically before Merlin. He was intimidated by the control the dagger had over him.
"The Jeweled Dagger of Tintagel." The voice sighed admirably. "But a dagger nonetheless. The dagger is not the most honest weapon of choice and certainly not preferred in a fair fight, but you must admit that it gets the job done. Small, yet deadly."
"Why are you showing me this?" Merlin's eyes grew wider as the dagger flew from left to right, as if mocking him.
"Ah, now you are asking the right sort of questions." The raspy voice sounded pleased. "Tintagel is where it all began. It may not be familiar with you now…but you will understand soon enough. For now, you are looking at the weapon that will be used to kill the prince."
"No!" Merlin snapped.
"I had a feeling you would object. Well, we'll see about that, won't we?" The sense of irony in the voice's humorous tone confused Merlin. "Let's just see how loyal you really are."
The thickness of the fog shifted and Merlin could feel a breeze of air move around him. Light gray, dark gray and every shade of gray in between knotted together and rolled forth like a big dusty rain cloud. It turned and spun restlessly. Merlin felt the stickiness and humidity waft around his hands and face. He kept an eye on the dagger still spinning majestically in the air like some sort of bedazzled gyroscope on display.
Arthur, who had been trying to fight the fog around him, felt a similar sensation of a sudden light breeze. It didn't take him too long to realize that the more he struggled and fought, the harder it was to gain control over the fog. He watched in amazement as the fog eventually lifted itself and he could see the earth beneath his feet again. The colors of the world came back layer by layer and once again, he recognized his surroundings. With sword still in hand, Arthur whipped his head around in searching for an enemy to fight, but instead, he saw nothing but the dusty mass of fog thinning out into a mist.
To Arthur's surprise, he found Merlin standing about twenty feet away from him. Before the fog descended, he remembered Merlin to be standing not more than just a few steps behind him. He wondered how the fog managed to put so much distance between them. When Arthur deemed it safe and that no immediate threats were apparent, he slid his sword back into his scabbard.
Arthur called Merlin but somehow, Merlin seemed deaf to his voice. He noticed his manservant starring at something that appeared to be drifting in midair. Arthur was too far away to see what it was exactly but he observed it to be a shiny object glistening in the sunlight. He was about to make his way to Merlin when something stopped him in his tracks. Something felt wrong.
Meanwhile some twenty feet away, Merlin was watching the Jeweled Dagger of Tintagel suspended in the air. The word 'Tintagel' echoed in his head. Why did that word sound so familiar, yet so unfamiliar? Merlin swore it was completely foreign to him, but there was something in that word that made him feel like he'd heard it somewhere before. Suddenly, the voice reappeared. But this time, there was no fog.
"He will die. The beginning shall meet the end." The voice hissed in Merlin's ear one last time.
As soon as the voice vanished, the dagger was no longer suspended in the air. Like the hand of a compass gravitating towards north, the dagger swung around in its position and located the target. The dagger twirled in place with the blade pointed in Arthur's direction. Right then, Merlin snapped out of his trance and it finally dawned on him that the voice in the fog was serious. Arthur was going to die.
Merlin's river blue eyes widened with fear, anger, and despair all at once. He couldn't think of a spell fast enough that would stop the dagger from what it was about to do. He recalled how Gaius constantly reminding him what a powerful warlock he was and that he was capable of so much. But at that very moment, he was as useless as he felt. There were no spells or charms or any sort of magic that came to him. In fact, he was so petrified that he completely drew a blank, forgetting the talents he possessed.
Just before the dagger flew towards Arthur, Merlin could only think of one thing to save the prince. And that was to push Arthur out of the way. There was no time to waste. It was imperative that he got a head start. Somehow, he had a feeling the dagger was going to outpace him. Merlin suddenly sprinted towards Arthur. And just as he began to run, the dagger made a beeline for its intended target.
"Arthur! Arthur!" Merlin hollered frantically as he ran with all his might to save Arthur – to push him away or to shield him from the path of the dagger. There were no other words or sentences he could think of to say in such an intense situation. He only concentrated on getting there in time.
He saw Merlin running towards him with the enchanted dagger following closely. A sort of madness in Merlin's eyes made Arthur aware of the situation. He'd seen the same wildness in Merlin's eyes before. Merlin often wore this look when he was about to do something dangerously stupid – like try to sacrifice his life for Arthur.
Arthur had the reflexes of a cat, but right then, he couldn't move a muscle. Every inch of his being screamed for him to dive out of the way but both feet were rooted to the ground. He stood there and watched in horror as the blade of the dagger closed in on Merlin. Nothing could've prepared him for what was about to happen.
As Merlin just about reached Arthur, the gray fog came upon them again. It grew thick and suffocating. The fog took away the earth around him and deprived him of seeing anything except swirls of gray. Although Arthur could no longer see Merlin, he thought he surely would've felt his tackle by now. Merlin was only a few steps away, last he saw. But he felt nothing.
Instead, to his absolute horror, he heard a sickening sound like that of a sharp weapon running through cloth and flesh at a fast pace. This was followed by a loud agonizing cry of pain.
"No!" Arthur shouted. "Merlin! Where are you?"
He groped desperately in the fog, trying to grab anything he could get a hold of in front of him. He ran to where he thought Merlin was, but it was useless. The more he ran, the more it felt like he was going nowhere. He didn't want to believe it was Merlin's cry that he heard. He kept telling himself that Merlin is alright, that is all some evil trickery. The sick feeling grew in his stomach.
"MERLIN!" Arthur screamed on the top of his lungs, hoping he would get a response - perhaps a sound or a moan, or anything that would indicate Merlin was still alive. Instead, there was only a slight echo of his own voice. It just cannot be true. He refused it to be true. Merlin had done some pretty insane and outrageous things in his lifetime but he was his friend – his good friend. He couldn't afford to lose the one and only true friend he had.
The fog lifted itself suddenly and ascended into the sky revealing the earth and all its surroundings to Arthur again. His eyes followed the mysterious dusty gray cloud rise and dissolve into the sky. He realized the fog moved him once again because he was no longer standing at the same spot. He immediately looked around in search of Merlin, half expecting the servant to be standing somewhere waiting for him.
His heartbeat got caught in his throat when he spotted a dab of roan-colored fabric nearly hidden by a large slab of rock. The fabric was very familiar. He'd seen it before. It was the exact color Merlin wore that day. The very blood in his body ran cold. Arthur wanted to pretend that it wasn't what he thought it was, but he knew he'd just be burying his head in the sand. So, he quickened his pace.
As Arthur drew closer, he could see the fabric was really a shirt and the shirt had a body in it. Before long, he was staring at the back of Merlin's head. Merlin was lying flat on his stomach with his back facing Arthur. There was nothing but stillness in the air. Merlin did not stir. Arthur stared at the scruffy black hair, silently begging Merlin to make some sort of movement. Arthur's heart hammered violently against his chest as his weak legs stumbled towards the body. He couldn't bear the thought of losing Merlin.
Arthur was taught at a young age by his father that servants and other hired help were expendable and replaceable. They were worthless and existed only for the purpose of serving the royal court. Deaths, injuries and other ailments of the hired help were not important. As long as they got the job done, that was all that mattered. The rules for all employees were the same and if anyone should upset or disobey royalty, it was off to the dungeons or worse. From the start, Merlin had never been one to comply to anything if he didn't think it fair. He voiced his opinion, whether desired or not. Some would call this an act of foolish bravery but Arthur called it outspoken truth. Merlin was the only one ever to come eye to eye with him and allowed him to see things through a different perspective. It infuriated Arthur most of the time, but there was a reason why he kept Merlin. Merlin had become more than just a lowly manservant. He was a friend.
Dropping down to his knees beside Merlin, Arthur focused on Merlin's back, watching and waiting to determine signs of breathing. It worried him when he couldn't detect anything. Arthur wanted so badly to wake up from this horrifying dream.
Prepared for the worst, Arthur took a deep breath and with a shaking hand, he reached over to turn Merlin over to inspect the damages. He promised that whatever happens, he will seek justice and revenge for his best friend, Merlin.
End Chapter 1
Author's Note: For anyone wondering about my "The Amulet of Avalon" fic, I'm still trying to piece things together. Anyway, thank you for reading and please sign a review. Should I keep going with this fic?