Hey, all! I wrote this for the prompt below for the merlin-horror fest 2013 over on livejournal. It just got de-anoned, so I'm reposting this over here from the AO3 collection. Check out some of the other stories in the collection - a lot of them are really amazing! This is my first foray into the Merlin fandom, so hopefully I did the prompt justice. Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy!
Prompt: Merlin is a scientist and Arthur is his protection. They are both trapped in a compound that is half overrun with zombies. They know that it may not be long before one of them falls ill, so Merlin is working as hard as he can to find a cure before it's too late.
Warnings: Zombie-related gore, dubious sanity, character death (it's a zombie fic), kinda screwy timeline, horror, scary elements, etc.
The frozen Tupperware hit the lab bench with a loud crack and Merlin nearly jumped out of his skin.
"Geez, Arthur!" He snapped, straightening up. "What the hell is wrong with you? You're lucky I wasn't holding anything dangerous."
Arthur looked annoyingly unapologetic, pulling a stool towards himself with a loud scraping sound and perching on it, setting his shotgun next to the Tupperware. "You need to eat, Merlin. I pulled that from the freezer."
Merlin sighed and pushed up his safety glasses until they rested on top of his head, rubbing at his eyes tiredly. "How much food do we have left?"
"Not enough." Arthur's eyes followed Merlin's movements as he unfolded himself from the lab stool and moved around the lab bench, wincing as he worked the kinks out of his muscles from sitting hunched over a rack of test tubes for so long, and washed his hands in the sink at the end of the bench. "How close are you?"
Merlin shut off the water and flicked it off his fingers into the sink, reaching for the paper towel dispenser and ripping off a sheet. "I thought I was getting somewhere today… I've isolated a strand of the virus I'm running tests on, and it looked like Sample 6-D reacted to the stimulant, but…" He shrugged, feeling like his aching shoulders weighed a thousand pounds. "I couldn't repeat the results." He sat back on the stool and pulled the Tupperware towards himself, popping off the top.
Across from him, Arthur was methodically taking apart and cleaning his shotgun, hands moving quickly and efficiently. He worked like a machine, barely paying attention to his task as he continued to watch Merlin poke at his congealed partially frozen meal.
"Merlin. Eat. You're not going to do anyone any good if you starve to death."
Merlin glanced at him. "You're not eating." He muttered, half scooping, half stabbing a bit of whatever it was he was eating and putting it in his mouth. It tasted about as good as it looked, but in times like these, he couldn't exactly be picky.
Arthur shrugged. "I snagged something from the break room." He said. He'd finished wiping down the parts and was now focusing on putting the shotgun back together. They sat together in silence for a moment, Merlin chewing thoughtfully and Arthur working steadily. It had been more than a month now since the virus had hit their complex. It had worked swiftly, stripping away any traces of humanity and forcing Merlin and Arthur to fight for their lives. One by one, Arthur had fought off co-workers and friends alike, a grim determination in his eyes as he pumped his shotgun, while Merlin gathered anything he might deem helpful. They'd been under attack for over a month, and Merlin had been working on a cure for roughly the same amount of time. And he was just so close… he could feel it. He was just missing something. Something big and obvious that was going to make him want to kick himself when he finally discovered it.
Merlin stabbed his fork into the sludge and pushed it away. "I'm done." His eyes flicked to Arthur. "What are you doing tonight?"
Arthur pumped the action of his shotgun, listening to it carefully. "Let's see, I thought maybe I'd go out, catch a show, maybe get some ice cream…"
Merlin frowned, whacking him gently on the shoulder with the back of his hand. "There's no need to be sarcastic, Pendragon." He grouched, rubbing his eyes tiredly with one hand. Arthur huffed a short laugh.
"Hey." Fingers closed around Merlin's wrist and Arthur gently pulled his hand away from his eyes. "Come on, it's ok. You're close, right?"
Merlin looked at him. "Yeah, I guess."
"Come on." Arthur stood up without releasing Merlin's wrist, gently tugging him up off the lab stool. "Let's grab you a few hours of sleep while it's still quiet. I'll keep first watch."
Merlin almost protested that he wasn't sleepy – he had work to do, he had to find the cure. It was important, the stab of panic that shot through him almost in the breath of a single instant before vanishing almost as quickly. Sleep was a good idea – who knew when he might be able to sleep again? He needed his mind sharp.
"Ok." He mumbled. "Wake me up when you want to switch."
Arthur nodded but said nothing. There wasn't a lot of talking nowadays. In the beginning, they'd talked almost incessantly, chattering about everything and nothing, just trying to fill the silence, to push away the darkness, the gritty reality of what was actually happening.
Now it was more often silent than not, the dense quiet broken every now and then by noises that felt loud, obtrusive, and out of place.
Arthur guided Merlin to the small cot in the corner of the lab where they took turns sleeping fitfully. "Sleep." Arthur commanded, pushing Merlin gently until he sat heavily on the edge of the cot.
Arthur waited until Merlin had fallen over onto his side before moving across the room to take his spot across from the door to the lab. He perched himself on a lab stool, leaning against a fume hood as he crooked his shotgun in his elbow, eyes on the door. Merlin watched him settle in through slitted eyes before sighing, breathing out and closing his eyes all the way. He shifted uncomfortably, trying not to let the blanket catch on his shoes as he maneuvered into a better position.
Merlin's dreams were disjointed and broken, full of snatches of scenery and memories mixed with the blood and filth that seemed to soak his life nowadays.
Something was wrong – Merlin pushed through the crowd of people, recognizing almost every face. Arthur – Where was Arthur?
He shoved through Elena and Gwaine, who were standing together and laughing, when Gwaine reached out and grabbed Merlin's shoulder.
"Merlin! Where you running off to?" He was grinning, and Merlin tried to shake him off. There was a thick film of panic coating his throat and he didn't have time to talk to Gwaine, not when Arthur was in trouble.
"Gwaine! I can't talk, I have to find Arthur." Merlin tried to continue his search as the chattering around him rose in volume. Gwaine shook his head as Elena laughed brightly.
"Merlin, don't you remember? Arthur's over there." Gwaine pointed, and when Merlin turned to look, he was in a hallway. He frowned.
"Gwaine, there's no one—"
But when he turned to look at his friend, Gwaine was gone and Merlin was alone. He turned back around and blinked. The hallway shuddered and yawned, convulsing as it grew around him, like the esophagus of some gigantic creature. Merlin jumped violently as a sudden howl echoed through the hallway, reverberating off the walls until it became almost impossible to pin down the source. At the end of the hallway, a light snapped on, the inhuman florescence washing over a plain-looking door.
Merlin stared at the door as, behind it, something thumped ominously.
He wet his lips. "… Arthur?"
There was a loud crack, the hallway shuddered, and Merlin screamed.
Merlin snapped his eyes open. He couldn't move – something heavy was keeping him in place, arms pinned to his sides. He tried to scream, but something large and warm was over his mouth.
"Merlin, for God's sake!"
Merlin looked around wildly, eyes adjusting to the light as above him, Arthur dropped his head, letting it hang. "If I let you go, will you stop screaming?"
Merlin nodded and Arthur removed his hand, sitting back on his heels. It was only then that Merlin realized that Arthur had been straddling him, one hand on his mouth and the other trying to keep his arms from flailing.
Merlin let his breath out in an unsteady whoosh. "Sorry."
Arthur's eyes were dark. "The dreams are getting worse, huh?"
Merlin nodded ashamedly. He'd always been a fitful sleeper and being surrounded by hordes of bloodthirsty coworkers wasn't exactly helping. He could have alerted the creatures to their position. He could have gotten them both killed.
"Sorry." Merlin said again, trying to sit up. Arthur scrambled off of him then, as though he'd just realized that he was still straddling Merlin's thin frame, and coughed.
"Don't worry about it, Merlin." He said kindly, bending to pick up his shotgun from where he'd leaned it against the bedframe.
Merlin rolled his shoulders. Judging by the light from outside the tiny windows high on the walls, it was somewhere in the early morning. "You let me sleep way too long." He accused Arthur, who looked decidedly unapologetic.
"You needed your sleep."
"So do you!" Merlin protested. He stood up, stretching and cracking his spine. "Give me that. It's your turn to sleep for a bit." He held out his hand and Arthur handed him the shotgun.
"Fine. Wake me up if there's even the slightest bit of anything." Arthur poked him in the chest and Merlin nodded.
There wasn't anything, but there wasn't nothing either. Merlin spent the time he was on watch thinking about his experiments, and taking deep meditative breaths. It was something he'd done in college, when he'd been in the library for hours working on homework. When he finally couldn't take it anymore, he'd sat back, pulled his knees to his chest and breathed, in for a slow count of seven, holding it for a slow count of seven, and out for a slow count of seven.
Merlin breathed and thought, fingers curling around Arthur's shotgun as he mentally synthesized chemicals. If he was being honest, the real stopper to his research now was his lack of test subjects. He could synthesize and theorize and create as much as he wanted, but without anything to test his chemicals on, he had no way of knowing whether or not the cures he was making were actually going to work.
In fact, unless he got his hands on a real, actual, breathing zombie, he wasn't sure he'd be able to make any more actual, legitimate progress that wasn't just him theorizing about—
Merlin's grip tightened on the shotgun as the noise got louder. He swallowed, casting a glance toward where Arthur was sleeping, motionless on the cot in the corner. From this angle, and with the shadows, it was hard to make out Arthur's actual outline as more than just a pile of blankets and pillows.
Merlin barely breathed as he slowly got off his stool and crept towards the door to the lab. He stepped up and stood, back to the wall, as he carefully leaned over to try and peer through the small, rectangular window. The hallway beyond was dark as ink, and even though Merlin strained his eyes, he couldn't see anything moving. He waited, one beat, two, three, but the lab was dead silent.
He licked his dry lips and closed his eyes, leaning his head against the wall as he relaxed.
Merlin jumped, the shotgun slipping in his sweat-slicked fingers, as the undead half walked, half dragged itself past the lab door. No. No, this couldn't be right, they had barricaded the stairwells leading to the labs! The entire floor was zombie-free, there was no way—
The zombie groaned, and Merlin felt his toes clench inside his worn boots. His breathing seemed impossibly loud in the lab – there was no way the zombie outside couldn't hear him.
Seconds passed, seconds that felt like they'd been stretched out to hours as the zombie made its shambling way down the hallway, aimlessly wandering, and the groans and thumps faded away into nothing.
Merlin remained at attention for a long minute, listening with all his might, before he finally relaxed, breathing out shakily. His numb fingers fumbled with the shotgun for a moment before he got up the courage to peek out of the window again.
Maybe he hadn't gotten enough sleep. Maybe the adrenaline and fear was getting to him. Maybe his mind was finally unhinging after this never-ending nightmare that was his life now.
Whatever the reason, Merlin didn't realize what he was doing until the door was already open, and he was hesitantly leaning out into the corridor, straining to see in the dim light.
For a single, suspended moment absolutely nothing happened.
Then it was on him.
Merlin barely had time to scream, the noise more of a strangled yelp than an actual scream of terror before he was lashing out, punching, kicking, clawing. The shotgun was knocked from his hands almost immediately, skidding to a corner of the hallway. He jerked away from the zombie, looking into its stretched face, and he realized with a jolt that it was one of the security guards. Cenred, his name was. Merlin hadn't particularly liked the man, but the shock of seeing him now, drained and de-humanized, was making him feel sick.
"Arthur!" Merlin shouted, before lurching forward and driving his elbow hard into Cenred's face. It gave way almost instantly, the bone soft with the effects of the virus, and Cenred's nose collapsed, punching into the center of his face.
The zombie groaned, more confused and annoyed than in actual pain, and Merlin's stomach rocked unpleasantly.
"Merlin!?" Arthur's voice was sharp and clear, and Merlin had never been happier to hear it.
"Arthur!" He yelled back, and Arthur appeared in the doorway to the lab, his hair sticking straight up and a wild look in his eyes. He took in the situation in an instant, and didn't waste a second.
Merlin hadn't even known that Arthur had another little pistol.
He stood in the middle of the hallway, shaking like a leaf. How had this become his life? He stared at Cenred, motionless and disfigured on the floor, and realized that if he hadn't known him in life, he'd never have recognized him now.
He looked up at Arthur, heart pounding, and felt light, detached from the world. "Arthur." He whispered, and Arthur sighed.
In the next instant, Arthur was striding forward, stepping over Cenred and yanking Merlin into him, wrapping him in a tight hug. Merlin almost protested. He was disgusting, covered in sweat and dirt and he hadn't showered in nearly a week, and he smelled like acetone and sulfur, and—
"What were you thinking, you absolute idiot. You could have gotten yourself killed."
It was only then, with Arthur's breath hot in his ear, that Merlin realized Arthur was shaking just as hard as he was. Merlin let his eyes flutter shut and reached up, letting his numb fingers curl around the fabric of Arthur's shirt.
They stood in silence for a moment in the middle of the hallway, just holding each other. Merlin was counting Arthur's breaths, one, two, three. Steady, in and out. He felt his heart rate slow to a normal rate as little by little, his muscles unclenched.
"Yeah, Arthur?" Merlin whispered, not opening his eyes. Just let this moment last a little longer, just a little bit longer before he had to open his eyes and face the world again.
Merlin's brow furrowed.
Merlin jerked awake, his entire body thrumming with energy as he tried to catch his breath. His neck cricked from where he'd fallen asleep, slumped sideways on the stool, the shotgun still loose in his hands. Arthur leaned over him, brows meeting in the middle, and Merlin felt his entire face turn scarlet as he scrambled to sit up properly.
Arthur interrupted him. "Merlin, they got to the break room. It's gone."
Merlin felt his heart jump to his throat before making its long, slow, painful way down into his stomach. "What? Wait, how do you know?"
Arthur frowned, arms folded across his chest. "You were sleeping. Something woke me up and I went to investigate. I'd say this hallway is probably all we have left now."
Merlin looked down and away, trying to fight back the wave of guilt threatening to choke him. If he hadn't fallen asleep on watch like an ass… "Shit."
"Yeah." Arthur took a step backwards as Merlin rubbed his eyes, trying to blink himself awake. "Without the break room, I'd estimate that we have less than a week's worth of food left, even if we cut it down to one meal a day."
Merlin sighed, leaning forward and putting his head in his hands, sitting in silence for a few seconds as he tried to think. "Alright." He said finally, lifting his head. "Give me twenty-four hours. If I can't stabilize the cure in that time…" He trailed off. "Do you think we could make it out of here?"
Arthur licked his lips. "It'd be close." He said finally. "Really close. But do we really have any other options?"
Merlin looked around the dank, dreary laboratory, and tried to remember when it had been a place he'd been happy to spend time. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine the way it had been, when his entire life hadn't been soaked with the scent of rotting flesh and acetone. He tried to imagine that, if he were to open his eyes, the room would be bright and full of people, music blasting from the speakers as Gwaine argued cheerfully with Leon over whose iPod would provide that day's background noise.
Gwaine had made it almost a week before he'd been bitten, ambushed by a horde of interns from the third floor. Sometimes, Merlin swore he could still hear his friend's snicker right before it was suddenly choked off as an intern sunk its teeth into Gwaine's throat.
Merlin opened his eyes. "I know." He said simply, ignoring the sharp worry in Arthur's eyes. "I just…" He pushed himself up off the stool, unbending his long legs and forcing his mind to the problem at hand. Science. Think about the science. "I just wish I had a bit of fresh undead flesh." He made a face. How had this become his life, where he could say a sentence like that and have it be totally legitimate? "Something alive, I mean. Well, alive-ish. If I could separate the human DNA from the mutation, I might be able to isolate the virus. Then we can see if what I've been doing in here is actually worth anything."
Arthur raised an eyebrow and clapped his hands, rubbing them together. "Well then, let's go get you some zombie meat."
Merlin stared at him. "Are you insane!?" He squeaked. "There's no way in hell we're going to be able to get fresh undead flesh. I mean, have you seen the rate it degrades? We're going to need to kidnap a zombie!"
A grin was slowly growing on Arthur's face and Merlin shook his head. "No!"
"Do you have a better idea?" Arthur put his hands on his hips. "We need to do something, Merlin, and if getting you some fresh-off-the-bone zombie bacon is gonna get us closer to that cure then, damn it, we'll get you a zombie."
Merlin folded his arms across his chest, trying to quell the extreme sense of unease rising up in his throat. Something was wrong here. Arthur put a hand on his shoulder.
"Hey." He looked seriously into Merlin's eyes. "You know I won't let anything happen to you, right? We're not gonna be stupid about it. We'll take this seriously."
Merlin looked down and away. How was he supposed to explain that it wasn't himself he was worried about? That it wasn't his own death he had been dreaming about night after night?
It was easier to leave behind than to be left behind.
"Yeah, I guess." Merlin said finally, realizing Arthur was waiting for an answer. He tried to force a smile, trying to display a confidence that he absolutely didn't feel. "I mean, what could go wrong?"
Merlin led the way, Arthur at his heels, firing shots over his shoulder as he shouted at Merlin, urging him to run faster. The creatures chased them, snarling and spitting as they moved with startling quickness for the amount of body parts they were missing.
This had been such a horrible idea. What had he been thinking?
Merlin's breath was coming in short bursts, lungs stretched painfully tight, and, as they skidded around a corner, he could almost hear his mother' concerned voice in his head:
"Merlin, how many times do I have to tell you? You need to bring your inhaler with you wherever you go. You never know when you might have an asthma attack."
Merlin barked out a high shriek of hysterical laughter. Of all the ways to die in this godforsaken, post-apocalyptic nightmare, an asthma attack? Really?
"Move, move, move!" Arthur snapped at him, firing off another burst of gunfire. There was a sickening splat as someone lost a body part, but Merlin didn't dare stop running to look. They took the corner at almost the same time.
"Door!" Arthur shouted, the exact moment Merlin's head came up and he spotted the door at the end of the hall. For a split, suspended second in time, Merlin felt the rest of the world fade away until all that was left was the door, outlined in startling clarity while the world around it seemed blurred and unreal. It felt like a dream, the hall stretched away from him, like one of those dreams where he'd run and run and run forever and never get any closer to the end. Something heavy settled in his chest, and he knew suddenly, and without a shadow of a doubt that going inside that room would be a very bad idea.
Something hard rammed into his side and Merlin was sent spiraling to the floor. He hit heavily, knocking the breath from his lungs in a single painful burst. He had a split second to think one very colorful word that would have had his mother washing out his mouth in an instant before they were on him. The stink of the undead filled every one of his senses and he yelled out, kicking and punching and flailing as he tried to get them off of him. If one of them bit him, it was all over. He knew better than anyone the effects of the saliva on human flesh.
He could hear Arthur shouting his name, but couldn't answer, couldn't form a coherent thought through the terror that was clouding his mind. He elbowed one of the undead in the face, heard a crunch and felt his elbow sink into the soft bone as its nose cracked from its face and landed with a plop onto the floor.
He was going to die.
The realization trickled from his mind into his bones, turning his fingers and toes completely numb. He was going to die, and it was going to be a slow and painful degradation of his flesh. It would start with his outer skin, eating away at the color and epidermis layer. Then it would shut down his nerves, his ability to feel pain, and move through his muscles, until eventually it reached his brain. There, the virus would systematically destroy everything in his brain that made him human – all cognitive reasoning abilities, his thoughts, emotions, memories – all of it would vanish, leaving him nothing but a husk with careless disregard for anything but where his next meal was coming from.
Merlin choked out a sob as he wrenched his leg free from one of the undead's grasp. Where was Arthur? Why wasn't he doing anything? Maybe he'd fallen victim too, maybe it was already too late and they were both going to die, here, in this hallway. Why not? Everyone else at their complex had already fallen victim. Merlin had been a fool to think that he might survive – the skinny, pale, big-eared kid too smart for his own good. He wasn't the kind of person to survive an apocalyptic nightmare like this.
Pain lanced through his arm and he looked down to see one of the undead gripping his wrist, nails digging into the flesh as it lifted his arm to its mouth and Merlin closed his eyes, waiting for the inevitable.
Crack crack crack!
The hall went dead quiet, and the pressure on his arms and legs lifted so suddenly that it took Merlin a second to realize he wasn't actually dead. He cracked open his eyes to find himself completely mobile. Wonderingly, he lifted his hand and stared at his fingers, numb from disbelief.
Merlin's mind snapped back to the situation at hand and he sat up so fast in the hallway that he had to close his eyes again to stop the world from spinning. But… that voice… he thought he'd heard…?
"Gwen?" Merlin's voice was hoarse and thick and he was almost afraid to open his eyes. If he was wrong, and he hadn't seen Guinevere rushing at him down the hallway, shoving a pistol into a thigh holster as she swept her hair from her eyes, then he was almost certainly going insane.
"Merlin, Merlin, are you ok?"
Merlin opened his eyes and stared up into his friend's face, drinking in the wary concern in her human eyes. "Gwen." He rasped and her entire expression melted into one of relief.
"Oh, Merlin…" Gwen fell to her knees and wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him in tight for a hug. She was warm, and even the stench of dirt and filth and undead gunk that seemed to permeate every bit of his life nowadays couldn't cover up the smell of the Gwen's skin. Merlin felt his throat close as he hugged her back fiercely, pressing his nose into her shoulder as he tried to breathe normally.
"I thought you were dead." He whispered and Gwen gripped him a little tighter, squeezing him for a moment before they parted, and she sat back on her heels to look into his face.
"I wasn't working the day the complex fell." She said softly, brushing some of Merlin's hair out of his eyes. He really needed to cut his bangs. "I was at home when I got… when Lance managed to make a call to me before…" She stopped for a moment, closing her eyes briefly before taking a deep breath. "By that time, the entire western quadrant of the city had been overrun. It's bad out there, Merlin." She put her hand on the holster. "I took as much as I could from my dad's hunting stores and burned the rest of the house. I've been running ever since."
Merlin's mouth was dry. "Your dad…?"
Gwen's lips tightened into a thin line. "He didn't make it." She said flatly and Merlin put his hand on hers, wishing he knew something to say. But there really wasn't anything to say anymore. Words like I'm Sorry didn't really mean much in times like this. There wasn't time, and no one had the effort to care about anyone else's woes. After a moment, Merlin spoke.
"Why did you come back?"
Gwen turned Merlin's hand over and interlaced their fingers. "I had to see if anyone had made it out." She said softly. "I was worried about you." She squeezed his hand. "It's good to see you're alive, Merlin. I thought…" She paused. "I thought I might be the only one left." Her voice cracked and Merlin gripped her hand tightly, like a lifeline he was never going to let go.
"Well, you're not." Merlin said firmly. "I've been holed up in the lab this whole time, working on a cure."
Gwen's mouth fell open, eyes widening. "A cure!? For the virus? Merlin, that's fantastic!"
Merlin grinned almost involuntarily at her look of surprise and delight. The smile felt awkward on his face, like his muscles weren't used to smiling anymore and had grown stiff with disuse. "It's nearly there. I just need a fresh sample of undead flesh and I think I can finally break through the part of the virus that morphs human DNA. From there, it'll be simple to reverse it. That's what we were out here looking for when we were attacked by—"
Merlin's voice broke off as he remembered Arthur. Arthur! He looked wildly around the hallway, feeling his heart clench as fear and panic warred with each other for dominance in his throat. "Gwen, did you see—"
Merlin's head whipped around and he sighed, sagging with relief. "Arthur! You scared me half to death!"
Arthur stood there, frowning, his shotgun held in the crook of one arm. "Merlin, what are you doing? How do you know she hasn't been infected?"
Merlin frowned, standing up, releasing Gwen's hand. "She's not showing any of the signs…"
Arthur's gaze flicked to Gwen for a moment before looking back to Merlin. "They could be dormant. I don't like this – it's way too easy. She just appears like that, out of nowhere, right when you need to be rescued? Talk about a Deus ex Machina."
Merlin crossed his arms. "I kinda owe her my life right now, Arthur, which makes me inclined to trust her. Where were you while I was getting eaten, might I ask?"
Arthur looked away sharply. "I was coming for you." He muttered, gripping the shotgun in both hands. "I couldn't get through the swarm." He looked up into Merlin's eyes. "I thought… Merlin, I was so…"
There was a loud crash and an echoing groan, distant, a few hallways down. Arthur's brow creased as Merlin looked sharply in the direction of the sound. They held perfectly still for a moment, ears straining for some kind of sound in the dead air of the hallway.
"Go. Check the perimeter. I know you want to." Merlin tried a half smile, but could only get one corner of his mouth to twitch a little.
Arthur glowered at Gwen. "No. I'm not leaving you alone with her." He motioned at Gwen with the butt of his shotgun.
Merlin frowned. "Arthur." He hissed. "She's our friend, and we could seriously use an ally, so be nice. And look at her, she has none of the signs of the virus. Would you just relax?"
Very slowly, Arthur nodded once, eyes still on Gwen for a moment, before he slid his gaze to Merlin's face. "Just… be careful." He reached out, ignoring Gwen, and touched Merlin's face. His hand was cold as ice, almost to the point that Merlin could barely feel his fingers against his cheek. Arthur held Merlin's gaze for a second longer before squaring his shoulders and cocking his shotgun.
"I'll be back soon. Merlin. Watch your back."
"Be careful." Merlin watched Arthur as he headed down the dark hallway and around the corner, swallowed almost instantly by the shadows. "Perfect. And then when he gets back, we can get started. We'll take you back to the lab. I think with the three of us, we can finally beat this." Feeling hopeful for the first time in a very long time, Merlin turned back to face Gwen and paused, raising an eyebrow. "What's the matter with you?"
Gwen's face was ashen and she looked almost like she was going to be sick. A thin bead of sweat had formed on her forehead and her hands were shaking. "Merlin… Merlin, I…" She swallowed hard, and for one, split, terrifying second, Merlin wondered if she had the virus after all. Then Gwen spoke.
"Who were you talking to?"
The silence was almost deafening as neither of them moved or breathed. Merlin frowned slowly, his brows meeting. "What do you mean? I was talking to Arthur, Gwen, he was just—"
Gwen licked her dry lips. "Merlin, try and think." Her voice was slow and careful, like she was speaking to a child who might scream if she didn't tread lightly with her words. "Who were you talking to?"
Merlin frowned, his head throbbing suddenly, a spiking, pulsing headache that was making it difficult for him to think. "I don't—" He hissed in pain, ducking his head and pressing the heel of his hand to his eyes.
Gwen stepped a little closer to him, her cool fingers closing around his hot wrist as she tried to tip his head up so she could look into his face. "Merlin… Merlin, where is Arthur?"
Before he could stop himself, Merlin looked towards the door at the end of the hall. The light bulb on the ceiling was on the fritz again, and buzzed softly as it flickered, casting eerie shadows over the old door. He looked back at Gwen, who looked like she was going to be sick as she took a step forward and around him, towards the door.
Merlin's heart thudded hard, once, before seeming to stop all together. In that moment, he lost any sort of questioning or rational thought – all he knew was that he absolutely did not want Gwen to open that door.
"No!" He snarled, lunging for Gwen, hands outstretched, to grab, to stop, to pull, to yank, anything that would stop her from taking another step towards that door, that was his door, no no no stay away...!
But Gwen was too quick – perhaps she'd been expecting it – and Merlin suddenly found himself on the ground, head spinning and heart pounding as a sick taste rose up in his mouth. One of the motionless undead creatures that had tried to kill him was lying not five inches from his face, its face gaping and open. Gwen was running now, her footsteps sending sharp bursts of sound through the hall as she reached the door and threw her shoulder into it, hard, recoiling and then again, leaning on the door knob until with an almighty splintering sound, the door crashed in off its hinges. It hung there for a moment, distorted and broken, leaning awkwardly on one hinge against the wall, Gwen's panting the only sound, impossibly loud in the narrow hallway.
Merlin scrambled to his feet, heart in his throat as he stared at the room. Something was niggling at the back of his mind now – his own voice, choking sobs, and a name.
"Arthur." He whispered hoarsely as Gwen took a step inside the room, trembling with horror.
"Oh, Merlin." Gwen choked, hand over her mouth. "What did you do?"
It snarled, straining against the chains that kept it held in place against the wall. The whole room stank of rotting flesh and blood. On the floor, maggots writhed in the putrid meat that had plopped in pieces onto the floor and baked in the sun that streamed in weakly through the dirty, broken window. What had once been Arthur Pendragon spat flecks of rancid saliva, lurching at Gwen but unable to move more than a step away from the wall. Gwen's hand went to her thigh holster and Merlin launched himself into action before he even realized he was moving, charging Gwen and crashing into her.
"No, no, don't hurt him!" He howled, yanking on her arm. The handgun fell from her hand and clattered to the floor as Gwen shrieked, hand making contact with a loud smack. Merlin stumbled, cheek stinging, and Gwen lunged for the pistol.
Merlin's eyes widened. "No—!"
The shots were impossibly loud, three in a row, and seemed to shatter the world. There was a moment of deafening silence followed by a thud as the body crumpled unnaturally to the floor as far as it could fall, hanging eerily from the chains.
There was a single suspended moment where Merlin stared at its slumped form dangling from the chains like a broken marionette. A few strands of dirty, grimy blonde hair hung down in front of its eyes and it was like a punch to the gut, the way the memories slammed into Merlin.
Arthur's eyes, bright and blue, above one of the most beautiful smiles Merlin had ever seen…
Merlin choked and stumbled backwards, headache tearing at the inside of his skull. At the edges of his senses, he could barely hear Gwen, her voice high and worried.
Arthur laughed, reaching forward and ruffling Merlin's hair, hand warm and heavy with affection. "You're such a nerd, Merlin."
Merlin choked out a breath, gasping for air, dimly aware of someone screaming, loud and desperate.
Blood, there was blood on his hands and the air, it stank like rotting flesh. Merlin shut the door, tears streaming down his face and hands shaking so badly he could barely turn the key in the lock, cutting off the snarls from the creature inside.
"I'll save you, Arthur." Merlin sobbed, gripping the key. "I'll save you if it kills me!"
"Merlin!" Gwen was begging and crying, pulling on his wrists and Merlin suddenly realized that the tortured, horrified screaming was coming from him. His vocal chords felt raw and stripped as he blinked rapidly, trying to clear the tears from his eyes.
"… You killed him." Merlin whispered hoarsely.
Gwen's eyes widened. "Merlin… Merlin, I didn't— He wasn't—"
Something was bubbling up in Merlin's throat, a white hot anger that strangled him, heat and rage flooding through his veins. He was absolutely boiling with adrenaline that has shot through his entire body until his fingers and toes are tingling with it; black crept around the edge of his vision until all he could see was Gwen.
"You killed him!" Merlin cried, pointing at her wildly. "He was going to get better! I was making a cure!"
Gwen reached for him, tears streaming down her face. "Merlin, he wasn't, you have to see! They got him, Merlin, he was gone! Merlin, please…! The Arthur you were talking to – he wasn't really there, Merlin!"
But Merlin was beyond listening to her pleas, beyond the room, and beyond the motionless, rotting body between them because Arthur's voice was as clear as though he was standing right behind him, murmuring in his ear.
"Here, Merlin, take this."
Merlin took the tiny pistol dubiously. "Arthur, come on, you know I don't like guns."
Arthur's face was serious, his brows meeting in the middle. "I know, but… look, it's just a precaution. In case I'm not around. Keep it on you, ok?"
Merlin looked at the gun, heavy and awkward in his hand. "… Alright."
It didn't feel heavy or awkward in his hand now, the tiny pistol almost an extension of his arm, feeling as natural as his own fingers.
Gwen was screaming, but Merlin could barely hear her over the roaring in his ears.
"You killed him!" He yelled, trying to make himself heard over all the noise if everyone would just shut up and let him think…!
Gwen snapped forward suddenly, hands reaching for the gun in Merlin's hands, face stretched in terror and determination.
The shot cut through the air like a crack of thunder and it should have scared Merlin, the way she just crumpled to the ground like a broken doll, but the stench of blood was clearing away the heavy sense of rotting flesh that had settled into his brain, helping him think clearer, returning things to normal. Merlin slid the pistol back into his belt and stepped forward, around Gwen's limp and motionless form, crossing to Arthur's sagging corpse.
He crouched down, resting on the balls of his feet so he could look up into its face.
"I'm sorry, Arthur." He murmured, brushing what remained of Arthur's golden hair out of his eyes. "Just stay here for a bit longer. I'm nearly done with the cure… really close to a breakthrough." He smiled absently, leaning up and pressing his lips to Arthur's forehead.
And if its forehead felt a little slimy against his lips, Merlin didn't particularly notice.
Merlin shut the door to the lab, crossing the dim room and heading straight for the cabinet against the wall. He opened it, leaving smeared traces of some unidentifiable fluid he hadn't bothered to wash from his hands on the handle and pulled out the beaker. The chemicals inside should be almost done reacting by now.
The smell hit him then, all at once, and he breathed out heavily through his mouth. "Whew! You stink!" He informed the chemical concoction, turning around and placing it on the lab bench. He bent down and, slipping on his safety glasses, pulled an old, dirty, green plastic bottle from the cabinet under the bench.
The label had long since worn off, but Merlin didn't seem to notice or care. He unscrewed the cap, ignoring the words that announced that the code found beneath the cap could be entered online to win fabulous prizes, and very carefully poured some of the Mountain Dew into the beaker.
The sludge sat, innocuous and immobile. Nothing happened, but Merlin smiled, clearly pleased with himself. He scratched at the side of his face, leaving a streak of blood and gunk across his temple.
"Almost done, Arthur." He murmured, lifting the beaker to eye level, examining it with fevered eye. "Then it will all be over."
Above the door, the florescent light bulb buzzed and then popped, going out and leaving Merlin, standing alone beneath the last remaining lit bulb in a pool of dirty light.
Merlin closed his eyes, lowering the beaker until it rested on the lab table again, but not letting go of it, and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.
"Did you hear that, Arthur?" He called, eyes still shut. "I think I've made a breakthrough! We're getting close now."
The silence was heavy for a moment before Merlin opened his eyes, and turned towards the darkness at his left. "About two more weeks, I think." He answered, eyes slightly unfocused. He cocked his head, listening, and smiled.
"Yes, Arthur, I know…" He paused and laughed softly.
"I love you too."
Seriously, guys, check out the collection - everyone worked really hard this year. Thanks for reading!