Matthew awoke groggily, his mind latching on to an image from his dreams and this time, saving it for him: a young boy with wheat-colored curls and round, gray-blue eyes that looked up at him somberly, as if they had seen the darkness of the world and couldn't imagine it away even in the full light of day. Matthew wanted to call the boy Arthur, but that made no sense at all. There was very little resemblance between the tall, strong and striking man loitering around the hospital and the young, thin boy, but his heart wanted to hold on to both with an affection that was slightly alarming.
Peeking around the corner was his girlfriend, Cricket.
His hands jumped up of their own accord, signing away. Where have you been? Why am I just now seeing you?
She laughed lightly at the vehemence of his gestures and walked quickly over to hug him, enveloping him in her sweet scent. "I know. It was my dad. You know how over-the-top he can get, and this just pushed all the wrong buttons." She grimaced and settled down in the chair by his bed, patting his arm lightly. "How are you?"
Better, he signed, awkwardly trying to sit up. She helped him use the controls to sit the head of the bed up so he didn't feel like such an invalid. Are you okay? Did it hurt you?
She smiled and shook her head. "Stop worrying about me, silly. You're the one who was bleeding all over the grass. All I got was a good scare, nothing more. Are you sure you're okay?"
Yeah, thanks to those two guys. I think they're still here.
Matthew trailed off, deciding in that instant to keep some of his confusion from her. He could in no way explain what the men had said, or how Arthur had looked as he'd said that he would protect him or die trying, or how the image of a boy he'd didn't know was stuck in his head and somehow in his heart. It was all too delicate to put into words, and she wouldn't understand. Because he didn't, either.
"I saw them while we were waiting that night. It's weird they're still here. Good, but weird, I guess, when you consider..." she trailed off, shifting in her chair. "But even for British guys, they just seem weird. That Arthur never relaxes, like, ever. And Gwaine, well, he's a gentleman, but only just and sometimes he zones out like he's...seeing another world or something." Her eyes met his and he reached for her hand, nodding. She gripped it like a lifeline, her gaze searching his intently before speaking again. "Matt, have you been watching the news?"
He shook his head, puzzled at the sudden change in her tone.
"There's been a lot of disappearances yesterday and today, some of them from the university. My Dad, well, both of my parents are freaking out. They want me to come home."
Matthew, stunned, pulled his hand away to sign. To California? Now?
"I've got a flight out tonight. I'm going straight from the hospital."
Matthew's hands stuttered as he tried to object, to ask for information and comfort her all at once. She held his hands gently to calm him and then picked up the remote, switching the channel to a local channel. "It's all they're talking about lately."
A news anchor was continuing a live broadcast from behind a desk, several pieces of paper were clutched in his hand. "We have been informed here at KMLT that this story has been taken live on a national level. My name is Jack Llewellyn and I'd like to welcome you to this broadcast. We'll be sure to get the most current information out there to you if you'll stay tuned. Amber Rodriguez is reporting live from the warehouse district this morning. So, tell us, Amber, what is the scene by the Granger warehouse?"
"Thank you, Richard, it's very grim here," said a blond news reporter facing the camera with a concerned expression. "And I have to warn viewers that if you are squeamish, you might want to skip the details on this one. Behind me, you can see the tape the barring entrance to the Granger warehouse. The Granger store, for those of you that aren't familiar with the name, is one of the biggest magic retailers out there, sending its games, cards and magician support paraphernalia to customers all over the country since locating here in two years ago.
"Since then, the city of Crystal River has become a hot spot for fans of magic. Businesses have sprung up linked to all parts of the magic business. Unfortunately, that may have drawn some negative attention as well. Many of the recent disappearances in Crystal River yesterday have the sole link that they involve people who frequent magic shops or work in the magic industry to some extent.
"Unfortunately, some of those missing persons reports have ended in tragedy. There are four bodies here at the Granger store warehouse, all mutilated to some extent. It's been difficult to get details because authorities are still exploring the area and identifying bodies. What we do know is that the bodies were found when employees showed up for work this morning and called 911. The bodies were dismembered and one witness said that they appeared to be partially eaten."
The screen split to show both Richard and Amber. The anchor looked shocked. "Did you say...partially eaten?"
"Yes, Richard. Despite being warned to the contrary, I feel that it's important to get this part of the report out to the public so that they can make more informed decisions about their own safety." Amber pulled out a typed sheet of paper and held it in front of her, "Part of what we're hearing from the police is that there have been a rash of rare creature sightings that seem to be linked to the disappearances and perhaps to these murders themselves. This creature has never been seen here before."
Matthew suddenly sucked in a breath and realized that he'd forgotten to breathe. Cricket's hands tightened on his own.
"But it has been seen in other parts of the country?" Richard asked.
"Yes. In unconfirmed reports," Amber admitted. "The most logical intersect of all this information is that we're dealing with a wendigo, a creature from Native American mythology that is inhumanly strong and ravenously hungry."
"Yet, we must underline the fact that it is only conjecture at this time. Have there been any eyewitness reports?"
"Yes. Two days ago, there was an attack on a student at Florida East University. The student was being dragged off by one of these beasts when two men came to his rescue. They were able to kill the beast and turned the body over to the police. No photos have been released from the autopsy, but I've just learned that the hairs found on these bodies in the warehouse matches the fur on the beast that was killed on the campus."
"Thank you, Amber for all of your hard work." The screen went to showing the anchor exclusively. "She'll continue to keep us updated from the warehouse district. This just in from the local authorities, the people of Crystal River are asked to stay in their homes and to restrict all movement in the streets until these creatures are found and restrained or destroyed. Classes at the university and all city schools are cancelled until further notice. Please follow the emergency pick-up procedures for your school. Anyone who sees one of these creatures is to call our hotline at the following number..."
As the anchor went on, Matthew pulled himself together enough to sign, I want you to go home, too. Any room for me in your suitcase?
Cricket swallowed, hard. "Oh, Matt. I wish there was."
Despite his worry and probably because of his depression, Matthew felt sleepy after Cricket left.
He dreamt again, a happier dream than the last.
He was in a deep wood, in a glade where no human had ever trod, as far from civilization as he could get. No one knew where he was; no one cared. Anyone who even knew his name had been long gone and he found that he preferred it that way. There were no ties to the life that was moving on around him, no ties to Time itself.
He was adrift.
He knew that he was waiting for something, but the details were submerged in his mind, crowded out by wonder at the beauty surrounding him.
The woods were full of life, deep in a cradle of Magic. He could feel it all around him, feeding him, strengthening him, renewing him. Creatures of all kinds came to him, magical and non-magical, and he knew them. There were naiads from the trees and dryads from the water and fauns, fairies of all types and animals that hadn't been seen for hundreds of years. Because he had let go all that made him human, they were not threatened by him and welcomed his command. He was a king, of sorts, and they brought him food from the bounty of nature, garments of soft moss and ivy, crowns of blooms for his hair and a new staff of rowan wood.
In a flash, he was wearing the strange, clinging clothing, running through the wood faster than he would have thought possible, laughing aloud as a herd of deer kept chase. His passing disturbed a flock of yellow butterflies and they took to the sky after him. The joy of freedom such as he'd never known swelled in him until he forgot all that was not here and now.
It was the best dream Matthew had ever had.
When he woke, the sense of loss was so keen that he first thought all the pain he was feeling was grief. He lay on his side and stared at the blank wall, covered in darkness and shadows and bereft of the life that had been in such abundance in his dream. Miserably, he tugged at the bandage on his face. It was cold in his room, strangely, bitterly cold. Why was his chest hurting? Pressing a hand to his sternum, Matthew turned over-and froze.
A spectre floated over him, glowing in the darkness. Her face was gaunt, her eyes narrowed in hate. The gown she wore floated in the air like a luminescent cloud upon the sea. When she opened her mouth, a shriek split the air. Matthew flung his hands over his ears.
The cold became sharper and bone-deep as she floated lower, hissing "She keeps telling me to hurt you! Who are you?"
Matthew was fumbling for the nurse's call button, wishing he had an Arthur call button instead. His trembling hands knocked several things off the tray table to the side of his bed. The girl's face flickered in and out and her hair floated straight out from her head like tentacles.
"Who are you?" she screamed, opening her mouth horrifyingly wide.
The door slammed open and Arthur was there, blinking, taking in the spectre and reaching for the weapon at his side that wasn't there. Matthew, who was once again helpless and hating himself for it, managed to feel slightly amused at the look on his face. Arthur cursed, then walked forward slowly, hands outstretched.
"Keep away from him," he told the ghost, who, surprisingly, did just as he asked, backing away to the ceiling with a hateful snarl. Arthur gestured and Matthew slid off the bed, stumbling and grimacing and leaning on the i.v. stand. Arthur reached out and pulled Matthew behind him, then turned to face the floating specter, who was hissing and gurgling in some other language.
What is that thing? Matthew wanted to ask as he stood like an idiot, one hand grasping his i.v. stand, the other keeping the back of his hospital gown closed.
"I don't suppose you know what that is." Arthur risked a look back at him. "I didn't think so."
Matthew fwapped him with one hand and glared at him, thinking, Do something!
"And what exactly do you suggest that I do? Magic was always your area of expertise, not that I knew that at the time," Arthur muttered under his breath.
Matthew fixed his eyes on the girl muttering threats and doing loop-de-loops on the ceiling of his hospital room and suddenly remembered: this man thought he was King Arthur and that his friend was Gwaine, a knight of the Round Table. They thought Matthew was Merlin! They were crazy, both of them. But then again, Matthew thought, looking overhead, crazy things were happening all the time here. If King Arthur were likely to come back, wouldn't it be when the world was going to hell?
As if she could read his mind, the ghostly girl turned to him and said, "Go away! Go away!" And she flew at them so fast that Matthew didn't register anything but her face, distorted with rage, and then Arthur pulling at him and then he was on the floor, half kneeling, half sprawled while Arthur blocked the ghost from sight. The next moment, she was gone.
Arthur was helping a groaning Matthew to his feet when the door cracked open and a small, mousy girl in purple scrubs walked in. She paused when she saw them. "Hi. I'm Stephanie, the night nurse. Is...everything all right?"
Matthew jerked the back of his gown closed and blushed to the roots of his hair. He only had boxers and a t-shirt on underneath.
"Yes, he's fine," Arthur groused as he led Matthew back to the bed, pausing as Matthew pulled his hand away, "since I was here to help him. Isn't that what you're meant to be doing?" Matthew awkwardly clambered back into bed, rolling his eyes at Arthur's attitude.
Stephanie bristled up fiercely for someone half Arthur's size. "Well, sir, I was helping Mrs. Little get settled after a horrible bout of cramps and I am sure you understand that I couldn't just leave her in pain like that. My patients' needs always-"
"Yes, that's all well and good, but Matthew is a special case. He's a danger to himself."
Annoyed now, Matthew grabbed the closest available item-his thick, plastic water cup-and chunked it at Arthur.
Arthur ducked but still received a satisfying thunk to the skull before glaring at Matthew.
Matthew gestured at him curtly. Shut up. Then he shrugged and smiled lopsidedly at the nurse, who gave him a terse smile back.
"It is my job," she said as she bustled Matthew back over to the bed and got him settled under the covers again. When he shook his head to her questions, she checked his i.v. and refilled his water cup. Before leaving, she stopped to level a glare at Arthur. "I understand why you're acting this way. I'm trained to deal with grumpy people like you who only care about their loved one and no one else. I understand." She smiled at Matthew. "If you need help again, just buzz me and I'll be here right away."
She closed the door quietly.
Matthew was still blushing at her words. Loved one? His gaze went to Arthur, who was grinning at him like a loon. Puzzled, Merlin shook his head at him. What?
"I'm laughing at you throwing a water jug at my head. It's perfect." He looked down, still enjoying his private joke. "Too bad Gwaine missed that one."
Feeling wrong-footed, Matthew glared at him. Arthur frowned. "What?"
Matthew gestured to the ceiling.
"The girl?" Arthur sighed. "I don't think she'll do you any harm. If she meant to, she surely would have by now. But she's confirmed what I've been feeling all day: we need to get you out of here." He walked over to the bed. "I know you need to recover. We're trying to give you enough time. But truly, I can't imagine a harder place to defend than this room. Too many windows, toomany people in and out-and not even a proper lock on the door."
Matthew shivered. Making sure to keep the blanket pulled up over his groin, he pulled aside his hospital gown and inspected his wounds. He had a gash on each hipbone, both of them glued shut and reinforced with steristrips. Some of the tape had popped off, but the wound itself was closed and not bleeding. His head and the gouges on his back were hurting worse right now, though he was sure the pain meds were keeping the worst of it away.
Arthur was watching him with a dark expression. "Is it any worse?"
Matthew shook his head and gestured a quick thank you, one of the few signs which Arthur had learned. When he reached for his cell phone Arthur swept it up and handed it to him. Matthew keyed in quickly, Aren't visiting hours over?
Arthur read it and smiled faintly before hanging the phone back. "Yes, but we've convinced the doctors, with the help of your parents, that we're your bodyguards."
My parents are telling the hospital that?
Arthur read the message and nodded. "Yes, they've been most helpful. I think because they're terribly worried about you."
Matthew had another question: If you're King Arthur then why here, now in the U.S.? Aren't Britons waiting for you across the pond?
Arthur broke out in a grin. "I'm here because you're here, you idiot." And somehow, even though Matthew wanted to bristle at the insult, Arthur's tone made it seem more of an endearment than an insult. "Believe me. I would dearly love to be in England right now, but...you're simply more important."
Matthew, dumbfounded, looked at Arthur, and there was a moment that stretched on far too long, their gazes locked on each other. Then Matthew yawned-couldn't fight it anymore. He'd had pain meds three hours ago, and they were still making him groggy.
"Go back to sleep," Arthur said with that fond tone in his voice.
Matt yawned again, ditched the cell phone and for some reason, didn't slap Arthur's hand away when the man pulled his covers up and tucked them under his chin like he was a child. He was pleased to discover that the air around him was a normal temperature now, just right with the covers pulled up tight. Arthur reached out to touch his hair, then apparently thought better of it.
"I'm not going to leave you alone," he said firmly.
Not unless Tanya tells you to, Matthew wanted to joke but was too tired to text. His gaze followed Arthur as he opened the door and stood just outside, calling to Gwaine.
The man was a puzzle. Suddenly, Matthew recalled those stunning words from earlier, the ones that had brought tears to his eyes and resounded in his soul with something more deep than he could understand. "I swear I will protect you or die trying." Who says something like that? Ever? Especially to someone they hardly knew. Which meant that Arthur truly believed him to be his long-lost friend.
Matthew carefully turned over on his side. If Arthur was crazy, then he was a determined, amazing kind of crazy. But if he were telling the truth...well, if what he said was true, then that would make everything that Matthew knew-his entire life-a lie. Tears bathed his eyes at the thought.
Would he have to leave? How could he choose a world of monsters and kings over the love of his parents and a future with Cricket? He just wasn't ready to do that, not yet.
Outside the door, the hospital was settling down, and Matthew's bodyguards were mumbling to each other about his safety. Eventually, the quiet sounds lulled him back to sleep.
Gwaine woke when Arthur called him, grumbling quietly and feeling like he needed coffee, a sandwich and a shower, in that order. He itched all over, but forgot it as soon as he saw the expression on Arthur's face.
After Arthur filled him in, Gwaine cursed, feeling suddenly wide awake. "So when are we leaving?"
"I'll talk to his mother in the morning. Maybe we can get him out tomorrow night." Arthur glanced away as he answered, obviously unhappy with the necessity of staying put. "It was only a ghost of some kind and did him no harm other than scaring him. Actually roused him a little, and he was acting more like himself." Arthur smiled. "He threw a jug at me."
Gwaine barked out a laugh. "Revenge is sweet. Well, that's a good sign, then, right?"
Arthur's answering grin slowly faded. "I think so. Step in the right direction, at any rate."
"Get some rest, Arthur. You look like hell. How long's it been since you slept?"
Arthur shook his head. "I haven't thought to wonder. It seems like I've needed it less and less. Stay with him."
Arthur moved off to the empty grief counseling room and the cot there that the nurses had taken to letting him use. It was amazing what his posh accent, a grin and unswerving devotion to a patient could get you, even in a place like this.
Gwaine didn't need a private room to sleep in; he was well known for napping wherever and whenever it was necessary. But, of course, Arthur had to have more privacy, ever the princess.
Once Arthur was off, Gwaine eased his way to Merlin's room and peeked inside. Merlin was asleep, twitching under the covers as though dreaming deeply. No sign of the floating lady, whatever that had been about. Gwaine shook his head. Nah. He knew what it had been about: Merlin's magic. He moved inside and settled himself in a chair at the doorway.
Merlin could believe all he wanted that he was normal and deny his place at Arthur's side, but Gwaine had a feeling that things were only going to get worse and they needed to get him some place safe before that happened. He wasn't sure how it was that Merlin had remained hidden for so long.
As a matter of fact, something about Matthew's mother and the way she had responded to the crisis made Gwaine wonder how "normal" the boy's life had really been. Seems like it had to have been more normal than the previous one that lasted 1500+ years. Such a long, sad life when Merlin deserved so much better.
Gwaine stood and walked over to the bed, watching the slack, beautiful repose of his long-suffering friend. Gwaine grinned wryly, wondering what these people would think if they knew that England wouldn't even be bloody England without the help of this guardian angel. Gwaine reached out and tucked Merlin's free hand under the covers-it was freezing cold. Man never could hold body heat.
Gwaine sighed. As much as he ached to have his friend recognize him, hug him and talk as they once had, maybe it was better this way. Merlin had found the oblivion that he had desperately wanted and needed in this new life. Ignorance was a kind of bliss, after all.
On the other hand...it wasn't a safe kind of bliss. Without his magic, Merlin was nothing but a target-a helpless, sleeping target.