This time, when he woke, Matthew's mind was clearer beneath the vague fog of pain. The dream he'd just had, deep and meaningful as it had felt, was already fading from his mind. He found himself relieved and saddened in equal amounts. It must have been some dream.
Instead he found his mind full of the recent past-the thing that had hunted, captured and pretty much had him but for the two strange men that had interfered. He was grateful to them, but this feeling of debt was uncomfortable.
There was a sharp stab of pain as Matthew breathed in deeply, sharp enough to take away all the air he'd just gotten. Tugging the covers down, he was surprised to see his chest and lower abdomen wrapped in bandages. Someone had put loose pajama bottoms on him. He breathed more shallowly this time and reached up to the side of his face. It felt numb and swollen and...were those stitches? Nope. Just bandages. Ouch.
"Oh, honey, you're awake!" His mother was suddenly inside the room and there by his side, in a flurry of kisses and love and frustration. "You would wake up the second I'm in the bathroom! How are you feeling?" She sat down by the side of his bed and put a hand on his arm, leaving his hands free to use sign language.
I'm okay. Head hurts.
"Well, that would be because of the giant lump on the back of your head. It's already gone down some, thank the Lord."
Did you hear about the...thing that attacked me?
She hesitated. "Your father is still with the police and the animal control officers, trying to figure that out right now. It's...terrifying, the pictures of it. And for some reason it just had to pick on you." Her eyes teared up. "Cricket said that it seemed to be hunting you. Do you know why?"
Matthew shook his head. It came out of nowhere. There was nothing I could do. He flushed to the roots of his hair, hating the memory of his own helplessness. Worst moment of my life.
"It's okay, honey. No one could have done better. But...we're considering getting you a taser, or something." He looked up in surprise, but his mother didn't appear to be teasing. "I've always wanted you to have some protection, especially If you're going to be on campus alone with Cricket."
Matthew's smile grew teasing. I don't think a taser would have worked on that thing.
"Well, it might have," she said, but he saw the doubt in her eyes and the exact second that she stopped pretending. "Oh, honey, why it is always you?" she laughed through her tears.
What do you mean, he signed, but she had already turned away.
"You know, those men who helped you are still here, in the waiting room. Arthur says that they're here to protect you." She turned back, her bright brown eyes searching his.
He just shrugged, baffled.
"Are you sure you've never seen them before?
Matthew shook his head, though the name Arthur had seemed to strike a chord in him the first time he'd heard it. He signed, I don't know why he said that, but I'd be dead meat if it weren't for them. Maybe they can give me broadsword lessons.
She laughed, but it wasn't hard to see past it to the worry in her eyes. "You need to rest first, sweetie, so you can heal. Please, try not to sleepwalk. You'll give the nurses fits."
"I know. You hardly do it anymore. Except for when something upsets you," she pointed out. He gave her a soft glare. "Well, who wouldn't be upset by that thing coming after them? But, fine, I'll drop it. Moving on, I'm here until six, so what can I do for you?"
Matthew didn't really need much except for sleep and painkillers. He slept most of the time, hardly even realizing it when his mother left and his dad came in for a few hours.
It wasn't until the next day when he was more awake and his parents were both at work, unable to run interference for him, that he witnessed first-hand the flurry of activity caused by the attack. People in authority don't like feeling flummoxed. Unfortunately, the appearance of an urban legend such as a wendigo on a college campus didn't cause as much open-minded strategizing as it did mindless panic and name-calling.
Matthew's room held a steady parade of experts, officers, and university representatives, all there to acquit themselves of blame. His inability to answer their questions aloud annoyed them and a sign language translator was eventually called in. But they still didn't like what he had to say. They spit out questions that had no answers, gave excuses, made accusations and hard-hearted predictions and left behind a general feeling of ill-will. It was evident that no one knew how to handle this nonexistent creature that attacked Matthew or had any idea how to prevent it from happening again. It all left him far more willing to consider the words of the two men from the previous night. Maybe they were his best protection after all, if this wasn't over.
At length, after the police had gone and the university president had been asked to leave (the jerk was far more worried about bad publicity in the papers than he was about his inept campus security), Matthew sent the nurse to ask the men to come in so that he could speak with them. What else was he supposed to do?
Arthur came in with a stiff smile on his face, giving a greeting before heading for the window. Again, Matthew was struck by how much emotion the man's eyes held despite the simple words; it made him very uncomfortable. Gwaine, thank god, seemed much more straight forward. He walked right up to the bed, grinning. "Merlin-I mean, Matthew, how are you, mate?"
Matthew held up a hand to signal wait and grabbed his cell phone from the bedside table, glad that at least his fingers weren't injured. He quickly typed in on his keypad Fine. Thank you for your help last night.
"Ohhhh, I see. Brilliant. Look, Arthur, he can write to us!" Gwaine held up the phone with a grin. "Told you we needed one of these. He said thanks for helping him last night and says he's fine. 'Course he does." Gwaine gave him a fond smile. "Like you'd say anything else when you're half busted-up."
Arthur gave a lighter echo of that smile before moving on to business. "We couldn't help but overhear some of what was said in here. They didn't seem to be very helpful for leaders of the city."
Merlin typed quickly and Gwaine read his note aloud. You two seem to know more than anybody else around here. What was that thing?
Arthur gave Gwaine a glance before answering. "We're not entirely sure, but we think it was a magical creature, one we've never encountered before."
Merlin's eyebrows rose. Magic? he mouthed.
"Crikey. Look at him-he doesn't believe us!" Gwaine started laughing, handing him back the cell phone.
Arthur didn't seem to find it funny. "You don't know anything about magic, then?"
Merlin shook his head, jaw tight, despite the motion making the pounding in his head worse. Truth be told, his mother's cryptic words had jangled his nerves before the questioning had even began with the police and officials. Now the pain medication was wearing off and these two were asking about magic and then acting as if he was the crazy one. He hated that.
Why the hell would I know anything about magic, he began to type angrily, but Arthur cut into his vehement rant.
"Calm down, Matthew. I promise you, we'll tell you everything we know. It's just that..." Arthur trailed off and gave Matthew a long, deep look before saying, "I don't know where to start. There's too much to explain. First, you don't need to thank us for helping you. It is we who owe you, many times over." He paused, giving Matthew just enough time to be overwhelmed by the man's words. "You still don't know who we are?"
Matthew shook his head and once again, saw that pained look come over Arthur's face. "That's fine. It just makes this a bit more difficult."
Matthew started a new message. Why do you think you know me?
Gwaine took the phone and read its message to Arthur in a more subdued voice.
"Because we do," Arthur bit out. "Think. My name is Arthur. His name is Gwaine. We knew you from before, from a long, long time ago. You must remember...something."
Matthew shook his head, still foggy from the medicine and the pain. None of this made sense. He was only twenty-two years old and he was pretty damn sure he'd remember meeting these two.
Gwaine pulled up a chair beside the bed. "Don't strain something in there, mate," he said, gesturing to Matthew's head, "it's not important who we are. But that thing that came after you last night is dangerous and it won't be the last. This country is young and hungry for old magic and you're powerful enough that it feels you here. Things have grown and started moving around simply for the purpose of finding you."
"Gwaine," Arthur said sharply, "that's enough." His gaze took in Matthew's wide-eyed gaze and visibly softened. "Don't be scared. That's why we're here. We won't let anything happen to you, Merlin, we promise."
I'm not Merlin, he started to sign, but a sudden realization bloomed in his mind. The names suddenly linked in his mind. Arthur...had the man said his name was Gawain or Gwaine? No matter, because they kept calling him...Merlin, as in the Merlin?
He stared at the blond man, searching for something and found that yes, he could see in the man's bearing the gravitas and visage of a king. Matthew swallowed and looked at Gwaine, thinking of the swordsmanship he'd seen briefly, of their accents. They really could be...them. But...
I'm not Merlin! he keyed in furiously, his mind filled with images of a mystical old man with long, white hair and beard. Gwaine read out his message with no great enthusiasm and the hope that had grown on their faces died.
"You don't know who you are," Arthur returned acidly. He leaned down and Matthew found himself pinned in place by his bright blue gaze. "Believe it or not, you are the most powerful warlock ever to walk the face of earth. You were sent here to rest and recover while you waited for me to return. And I have. Here I am, returned from the dead." He eased back from him and concluded, "Apparently, you won't be any good to us until you remember that."
Gwaine was standing now, his eyes narrowed at Arthur. "It's no good pitching a fit. You think he likes being young, helpless and American?"
"I'm trying to help him remember!" Arthur shot back over the bed.
"Yeah, and you're about as good at helping him now as you always were."
Arthur clenched a fist in an effort to stay calm. "I suppose you have a better idea?"
"I've got one," said a rich, sassy voice from the doorway. "How about you two stop yelling over my patient like an old, gay married couple in K-Mart?"
Arthur and Gwaine looked over to see a large, black woman in a garish purple nursing scrubs, glaring at them with one eyebrow raised.
"You've managed to raise his heart rate and his blood pressure and put his oxygen level in the red zone! It's time for you to go. Any questions?" The two men looked at her blankly. "Good. Now get you and your fancy-ass accents out of my patient's room 'fore I call security." When they started moving toward the door, she pushed past them to Matthew's side.
Arthur was appalled to see that Matthew had, indeed, grown pale and his forehead had a fine sheen of sweat as he struggled to take in enough air. "We had no intention of-I'm sorry. We'll leave."
She glared at them on the way out, then turned to Matthew. "Remember me, baby? I'm Tanya and you need to calm down 'fore you hurt yourself. That's it, baby," the nurse cooed,setting an extra-large travel cup of water with a straw on his bedside table, "just look at me and take in a big, ole' breath. In and out. Go-od!" she praised him, drawing the word out into two syllables. "In and out. You gonna' be just fine. Tanya's goin' to take good care of you."
After the men left, Matthew found that slowly, by focusing on Tanya's face, he was able to calm down and breathe better. Once he had recovered, she puttered about while his brain went on autopilot and finally faded into an exhausted sleep.
When he woke later, his mother was back and she was discussing the two men with Tanya. Matthew couldn't help but hope they would bar the men from returning. At least for now. He couldn't even think about the crazy idea they had put in his mind.
Arthur had years of experience at holding his emotions in check in public. A large part of his training as a prince had gone into learning to show what he was feeling only when it was something of which his father approved. Even when he'd gotten older, he found it difficult to shake the instincts that training had given him. As such, this should have been a far easier task than it was: traveling halfway around the world to find that your servant, your best friend who had given his life for you in every way that mattered, was not only not himself, but believed himself to be another person entirely and had no recollection of having ever met you. It was not easy in the least.
"This is intolerable," Arthur ground out from his position by the third floor waiting room window. The view, as always, showed a bewildering array of cars from under which many different kinds of creatures could be crawling toward them at any moment. Soon enough, Arthur feared that would be the case. His skin was itching to take Gwaine and Merlin some place where they could dig in and be fortified-some place safer than this building with so many exits and workers and patients and staff. Safety here was an illusion; did no one see that?
Gwaine was slouching in a seat nearby, his sharp eyes flicking from person to person. "What's intolerable? Your attitude?"
Arthur blinked several times, trying to keep the words in, but found that he had to say them anyway. "He doesn't know who I am," he bit out, turning to glare at Gwaine.
Gwaine looked affronted. "He doesn't know who I am, either, but you don't see me throwing a tantrum, do you? Face it, princess, no one knows who you are here."
Arthur let those words sink in, taking in the grimness of Gwaine's tone. "I don't care about that." And he meant it. Yes, he'd been trained to be king, and he'd set his entire being toward the goal of being a great king. But not for the glory, not for the fame. He'd done it because his kingdom needed him and that time...was long past. "But Merlin..." Now, only one man needed him.
"I almost wish we could leave him alone. He seemed so happy," Gwaine mused, and Arthur found himself agreeing. They had encountered Merlin as Matthew earlier in the day before the beast attacked, and had watched him and his friends on their lazy afternoon with interest, Gwaine nearly in hysterics when that boy had run into a tree. "If there was one thing Merlin wanted," Gwaine continued, "it was to be normal. And it looks like he finally got his wish. Or, at least, as close as he could get."
"No," Arthur scrubbed at the rough, short beard on his face that he couldn't get used to, "that wasn't what he truly wanted."
"Really? And what was it, then?" Gwaine sounded perturbed.
"He wanted to be known for who he really was, to stop having to hide." That's why Arthur's last words had been aimed directly to fill that need, the last gift he could give his friend. The irony was killing him: now that Arthur was finally back, ready to know the real Merlin, Merlin didn't even know himself.
Gwaine hunched over again, his face dark. "Why the hell didn't he tell me, then?"
Arthur found himself laughing. "Tell you? The first thing you would have done is dragged him into the court and demanded that I knight him and abolish the ban on magic."
"Yeah. So? Would that have been so wrong?"
"No. But I would not have understood. Things would have gone badly for Merlin when he revealed his magic had I not been mortally wounded at the time. It was only because I couldn't get away from him, and was in no shape to deal out any justice of my own, that I was forced to watch and listen. "
"So that's what it takes to shut you up-a mortal wound."
Arthur smiled briefly. "Perhaps. What I don't understand is why he can't speak. It doesn't make sense. Was there some sort of physical damage done during the transformation? I guess there's no way of knowing. And he certainly can't tell us."
The silence grew. By the time Arthur glanced over again, Gwaine's expression had gone hollow. "Really don't want to talk about this...but I don't think you get it yet. Fifteen hundred years, Arthur. That's a long time and, for Merlin...it got bad." He turned pain-filled eyes on Arthur. "There were times...times he begged for death and there was nothing we could do."
Arthur cursed under his breath and paced over to the window, automatically checking the parking lot again. He and Gwaine both seemed compelled to do this even though the place was about as fortified as Swiss cheese. But nothing looked sinister outside, and the distraction from his dark thoughts didn't work for long.
"Did none of you think of trying to wake me?" He turned to pierce Gwaine with a glance, but the man was hunched over in his chair, elbows on his knees, facing the floor.
"Course we did. We couldn't even get near you," he said simply. "Too much..." he gestured loosely, "magic."
Arthur could read the misery in Gwaine's body and imagined not for the first time what it would have been like to watch Merlin live unhappily for so long and not be able to help him. His temper cooled and, after a moment of thought, he walked back over to sit by his friend. "I wasn't given a choice in the matter. If I had been, I would have been by his side. Do you believe me?"
Gwaine looked over and studied Arthur's gaze briefly, then nodded before looking down again.
"Good. As I see it, you were chosen to be the witness of Merlin's trials. A very hard honor, perhaps, but one that, for some reason, I was denied." Arthur leaned over, resting his forearms against his knees. "Do you think you could fill me in on what happened to him while I was waiting?"
"Gods, why isn't there a tavern in this place? They have everything else," Gwaine groaned.
Arthur gave Gwaine a hard pat on the shoulder, then leaned back and settled his head against the wall. He paused a moment. "Whenever you're ready."
Gwaine sighed, his gaze passing to the other inhabitant in the room, an elderly man sleeping in the corner with his feet propped up. Visitors had come and gone all day, wrapped up in their own stories, their own tragedies and miracles. The foot traffic had grown heavier until after the evening meal, when it thinned out again. Now it was almost too quiet.
"I'll just tell you one bit to start off with. It's maybe the part that will be most interesting to you, or the most painful. Sorry if it is," Gwaine sent him an apologetic look.
"I'll tell you about Merlin's son...little Arthur."
Arthur's jaw dropped.
"He didn't name him that, you understand. He was Gwen and Leon's oldest. You know they married?" Gwaine paused to see Arthur nod. "They had Arthur first, then Eddis and then sweet little Hildie. Great kids. But it was a bad time. Camelot was on its last legs. Hated watching it, even from Avalon. Saxons were sneaking around. Mercia and Northumbria were sending small raiding parties and denying any part of it when they failed. Leon was injured badly in one of those raids and could no longer train the troops.
"That job went to Sir Gideon, a wolf in sheep's clothing if I've ever seen one. Bastard. He'd been planning all along to help Sir Lionel wrest the crown away from Gwen. Her children weren't yours, see? And there was a large bunch of idiots who thought since they weren't Uther's blood...well, you see where this is heading, right?" Gwaine smiled bitterly. "Sir Gideon made a pact with the Saxons, letting them into Camelot. Blithering idiot thought he could control them. At the same time, Sir Lionel poisoned the healer and the entire royal family, minus little Arthur, who had disobeyed his father and was on the castle walls watching the battle at the time with Percival's oldest son, Thirrin."
"Where was Merlin during all of this?"
"Keeping the Saxons away from the castle, using his magic to fight from the top of the tower. Looked a god up there, lightning flashing from his staff. You remember." Arthur nodded, seeing Camlann again in his mind-bodies flying as the dark sky was split by strikes of brilliant white, the cool air laden with smoke while a dark figure stands high above.
Gwaine continued, "But then the bells started ringing, and he knew something was wrong with the royal family. Merlin was given a terrible choice: save Gwen and her sons, or fight the Saxons and save Camelot. He ran to her side only for her to wrest the choice away from him. She ordered him to take Arthur and flee, said it was too late to save her and Camelot. So Merlin killed Sir Lionel, left Sir Gideon to rot and fled the city. Saxons overran the castle, killed Sir Gideon, and... that was the end of Camelot."
Arthur buried his head in his hands for a moment and breathed in and out, forcing himself to remember that this was all long past, that there was nothing he could do to change it. He himself had seen Gwen and Leon in Avalon; they were fine now. But heavy emotions drowned out anything else he wanted to say. He gave Gwaine a strong, comforting clasp on the shoulder before standing and pacing to the window again. In his mind's eye, Camelot still stood and it was harder than he expected to mentally deconstruct that image.
"But Merlin saved my namesake?" he prompted Gwaine.
"Yeah, he did. Raised him as his own, though he kept his promise to Gwen and told the boy where he came from and who his real parents had been. I don't think Arthur ever really understood, though. How could he? It was already a different time, and Camelot was...well, it was gone and nothing else was ever like it again."
"I guess Merlin was a good father."
"The best," Gwaine grinned. "He threw himself into raising that boy with everything he had. Hunith lived with them for a few years before she died. Then they went and lived with the Druids. But that was the end, really. Arthur fell in love with a Druid girl, wanted to settle down and leave his dad. It shouldn't have been the end of the world, but you know Merlin, never does anything halfway. He could tell they wanted space and time away from him. I think it broke his heart; he'd already lost so many people he cared about. So he left Arthur behind and went wandering for a while." Gwaine looked grim. "That was a dark time. He ended up in the Crystal Cave and fell asleep. When he woke up, it had been another hundred years and everything had changed."
"A hundred years?"
"A very bad hundred years. The King of Mercia, Penda, I think it was, decided he hated the Druids. Wiped them all out in systematic attacks. I didn't watch much of those years, since Merlin wasn't out and about. Eventually, Penda was killed by Oswy, the king of...Northumbria, I think. Strange name, innit?"
"So Arthur and his wife died then? No children?"
"They had one girl, but she died with her parents when Penda's hellions swept through. So the bloodline of Queen Guinevere was cut off. Merlin felt enough guilt over that for ten lifetimes. He hadn't meant to sleep that long. You know how he is-was-I mean, is." They exchanged a troubled look. "He thought he failed little Arthur as he had you and Gwen, and oh gods, everyone else. That was the first time he truly wanted to die." Gwaine paused, shaking his head.
"But, he found someone new to protect: the great, great, great-something of Percival, Bastion, who ended up the right-hand man for Offa, the newest king of Mercia. Bastion was a strong ox of a man, but smart and quiet like good old Percival. Merlin hid his true nature from them, of course, but lent himself to Bastion as a servant and kept him safe, as he had you. With Bastion's help, Offa became the king over all of bloody England, at least for a time. Finally, in a battle, Merlin had to choose between saving Bastion and saving Offa. Offa was the loser and his wounds led to his death."
"Merlin hid his magic from them?"
"Oh yeah. Magic was very much frowned upon. They'd have burned him at the stake. Well, they'd have tried."
Arthur shook his head, hurt by the thought that Merlin had hid himself away again. "So Merlin was a king-maker once more."
"And for the last time. When Offa died and Egbert became king, Merlin left it all behind again. All Egbert was good for was conquering other lands, bloodthirsty fool that he was. Merlin couldn't serve a man like that. Offa had been bad enough."
"So what did he do then?"
"He retired to the woods, deep in the Woods of the Forbidden Kings. That was the closest he ever got to happy, alone. He stayed in the woods and went kind of wild. The woodland spirits...oh, they like Merlin." Gwaine grinned. "They like him a lot. The tree girls came out to play and Freya sent water fairies and all kinds of creatures migrated just to be near him. Yeah, he was almost happy then."
"Good." Arthur was relieved to get to a part of Merlin's history that didn't leave him feeling cut to ribbons with guilt. "But I still don't understand. Why can't he speak? Why can't he remember us?"
"I think it's because he doesn't really want to," Gwaine said softly.
"But I know who he is now. I know that's what he wanted for all those years he served me and... " Arthur trailed off then sat straight up. "That's it. That's why I'm here."
"What? Why?" Gwaine sat up straighter.
Arthur stood slowly. "He doesn't know who I am, just like I didn't know who he was back when he was my servant. And I'm going to have to serve him and protect him while he's a young, idiotic American who doesn't know who I really am."
A slow smile grew on Gwaine's face. "You mean, it's kinda' like payback?"
"Exactly." Arthur strode straight for Merlin's door, but paused when Tanya came out of the room and raised an eyebrow at him.
"Can I help you?" she said with a neck bobble full of attitude.
"I need to speak with Me-Matthew for just one minute, to apologize for upsetting him. Would that be alright with you?"
After a long pause, she crossed her arms. "If I hear one cross word, I'm comin' in and you are not going to like what happens next. I don't care who you are, I will have you thrown out of this hospital like that." She snapped her fingers at him.
"You have my word," he said, smiling at her.
At that, she visibly relented. "Um-hmm. I bet that smile gets you all kinda' places with girls, honey, but it don't work on me." She hummed a disparaging note as she moved into position to overhear their conversation. "Go right ahead. Dig your own grave."
Arthur found himself taken aback by her fierceness, but decided that he liked someone like her protecting Merlin, despite her inane way of speaking. "Thank you," he said politely as he passed.
Merlin was lying in the bed, looking exhausted and pale beneath the stitches and bruising on his face. Pain stabbed Arthur in the gut again as he looked at his long-lost friend, knowing him to still be far away in mind even if he was present in body. Destiny was not kind.
Merlin's eyes flew open and he looked up at Arthur groggily.
Arthur sat beside him and fumbled with the right words. "Please. Forgive me for being so harsh earlier. This is difficult for me. What I meant to say is that I'm here to protect you, to serve you, in any way that you need me to do so. Do you understand?"
Merlin's brow wrinkled and that puzzled, unguarded look was so familiar that Arthur's chest constricted again. His eyes stung with tears and he had to refrain from touching Merlin or ruffling his hair.
"You don't, of course you don't. Just know this: I swear I will protect you or die trying."
The words seemed to stir something deeper in Merlin, and his gaze grew in intensity until Arthur half-expected him to exclaim that he recognized him now. But instead, tears grew in the boy's eyes and he once again looked too young, too fragile to be the Merlin that Arthur had known for so many years. Damn Destiny or whoever it was who reduced his friend to this state. He stood uncomfortably.
"If you need me, I'll be outside," Arthur said. The boy nodded, seeming unaware of the few tears that had slipped down his cheeks. Arthur tried to refrain, but found he simply had to lean forward and ruffled Merlin's hair, giving him a soft smile as he did so. Merlin watched him leave with something like awe on his face.
Arthur walked out feeling more right than he had since waking up a week ago and finding Merlin missing from his side. His conversation seemed to have done Tanya some good as well. She moved to let Arthur pass, waving a hand with manicured nails in front of her watering eyes.
He paused. "Was that all right?" he asked her.
"Was that all right?" she asked him right back, her voice thick with emotion. "Honey, that was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen." Her hand went to her ample chest. "It must just kill you that he doesn't recognize you."
Real pain lanced through him at her words and it took him a moment to meet her eyes again. "He will soon enough."
"I'm sure he will honey. And what you just said will do him a world of good." She patted his shoulder awkwardly. As she walked away, he heard her muttering, "'Was that all right,' he asks, like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth."