Matthew walked through the next day as though in a dream, his mind and emotions churning. He'd been texting back and forth with his mom all morning, assuring her he was okay, explaining where they were and how safe they were. Something in him desperately wanted to tell her what he'd found out, to ask if she'd suspected he was anything other than normal. Maybe she hadn't, but something about the way she replied made him think that wasn't the case.
Mom, have you heard what they believe?
-Listen to them. They can help you, Matthew.
But do you believe them? About me?
-You've always been special. But what I believe is that this is all beyond my understanding.
Mom. Do you trust them?
-I do. And they can keep you safe, love. That's what I trust more than anything.
Dr. Driscoll sent them on their way with plenty of food and water (they had refused money, as that was something they did not need, though Matthew had no idea why). Tabitha had come out briefly, wan and tired, to press a cloth-wrapped stone into Matthew's hand and whisper a quiet, "This may help you. It holds magic from your country. I'm sorry I cannot help you more. God bless."
Matthew wanted to ask questions, but she had already hurried away. His aura was apparently that horrifying and freakish. He could probably join the circus. Come see the aura of the man that time forgot!
What really bothered him was that he hadn't known his aura was so screwed up until she had told him. But now that he did know, it interfered with everything he thought, everything he felt, everything he wanted. He couldn't forget it for even a second.
Then they were back on the road, heading upstate and away from the place Matthew's connection to EVIL had last been established. That part worried Matthew, that this kind and half-crazy professor might be hurt for nothing more than helping him. He was very glad to leave, just in case that were true.
Arthur seemed sure that their nameless foe wouldn't be fooled, that Matthew's magic was so powerful it would call someone directly to him, no matter where they went, no matter whether the connection was destroyed or not. It was almost like being a gigantic bug zapper, only the bugs were more dangerous than the zapper.
So it didn't matter if they moved or not, Matthew argued via texting as Gwaine held the steering wheel steady.
Arthur replied that moving was their only shot at staying alive, so they were moving.
It was when he was aimlessly flipping channels on the radio that he found a news report broadcast from Crystal River. "Turn that up," Arthur commanded from the back.
"I'm gonna' tell you what I done told everybody else that's asked me," a sassy, Southern voice was saying. Tanya, Matthew's nurse, was being interviewed. "That boy's name is Matthew Hyde and he's special...or some'n. I don't know what he is. He don't talk, he just looks up at you with that big-eyed, sweet look of his and you just know something's going on in his head that you don't understand a bit of. I never did figure him out." She hummed in disappointment. "But that man in the hospital that guarded him and rescued him yesterday, that man was none other than King Arthur himself and I don't care if you don't believe me. Or you over there with the stupid Dr. Pepper t-shirt on, or you girl in them cute purple wedges, or even if every other one of God's children in the whole of the U.S. of A. don't believe me. I know what I saw. I know what he said and I know what I felt. That man is King Arthur and that means there is about to be some serious bleep going on down around here. Pardon my language."
"And what exactly did King Arthur say to you?" a slight, blonde reporter asked.
"That's for me to know and you to find out, sugar. I only have one other thing to say: King Arthur is a stud and once he gets to talking to you, you'll be begging to be one of his subjects, if you know what I'm saying."
Matthew looked at Arthur in the rearview mirror, eyebrows raised high. He was amused to find Arthur flushed and shaking his head.
"You did quite a number on her, mate," Gwaine said, laughing.
Arthur tilted his head to the side in acknowledgement. "Unintentionally."
The radio report went on to interview others from the hospital and the surrounding neighborhoods, but most of the information they already knew, having lived through it.
Another few hours down the road and Matthew found himself driving up the state of Georgia, trying to find a rest area for a bathroom break. He'd never been farther north than Macon, and was continually surprised at the lush beauty of Georgia's forests. It remained humid and there was less of a breeze than there was down in Florida. But the trees more than made up for it.
He pulled off into the next rest area where all three of the men used the ample facilities.
Matthew returned to the car first and stood there, irritated by everything. He didn't feel like sitting right now. Or driving. But then he didn't much feel like getting hunted by mythological creatures or having a freakish aura, either. Pretty much all he wanted was to go home to Crystal River and crawl in his bed.
A frown of mutiny pursed his lips; his gaze narrowed. They were far enough away from Dr. Driscoll, far enough away from everyone he knew.
Matthew stood. He was tired of doing what he was told, of just sitting there while everyone told him who he was and what he was worth and what they were up against. He needed to do something, to face up to whatever the hell this was and end it. So he did the only thing he knew to do. He pulled the stone Sister Tabitha had given him out of his pocket and carefully peeled away the protective fabric.
As soon as he closed his eyes, the world around him disappeared.
He was walking around in a haze, stumbling into people, weary and, like the rest of the crowd of Londoners, covered in ashy, black soot. It was only after the third person ran into him that he remembered he had made himself invisible in the last hour to keep his magic secret. He hid behind a bush and with a swirl of heat in his eyes, undid the spell, trusting in the weariness and distraction of the people around him to hide his sudden appearance.
Across the river Thames, a smoking skyline met his eyes, the ruins of the central part of the city of London. He'd nearly been too late to help at all.
With a violent shudder, Merlin began coughing and hacking, feeling as though something he'd swallowed was trying to come back up. Hardly any air was able to get in and he collapsed, someone smaller than him breaking his fall. His magic reacted instinctively, warming his eyes and sifting through his body to remove the foreign particles. The next round of coughing brought it all up in a greyish, phlegmy mess and suddenly he could breath again.
Someone helped him up so that he could stumble his way over to the riverbank and sit. A cup of water was shoved into his hand and he drank. He nodded his thanks, waved them off and sat still, feeling bruised all over and weary in a familiar way.
It had taken him far too long to get here, far too long to figure out that ending the strong east wind was the key to stopping the fire. But it hadn't been the horrible loss of lives that it could have been.
Merlin had been able to protect thousands by holding collapsing buildings in place longer and urging the stubborn Londoners to seek refuge across the Thames, where he had every intention of holding the flames by whatever means were necessary. Thousands of people had been saved and the fire had only ravaged central London.
But what he had seen these nights would haunt him forever. Merlin shuddered. Londoners had turned on each other in fear, attacking anyone, especially foreigners, who might have started the fire. Children had been lost, thousands of homes burnt and the beautiful, massive cathedral of St. Paul gutted.
Why would their god have let that happen? Why had he not woken Merlin sooner?
A stifled sob broke out and he stood, steeling himself to walk back out of the city walls, turning a deaf ear to the pitiful sounds of people trying to find loved ones, of buildings still burning and collapsing, of crying and screaming and anguish.
It was too much. Merlin froze time as he began his walk out of the city, unable to deal with humanity just then.
When would this end? Calamity after calamity. When there wasn't war crippling this land, there was sickness. Just last year, Merlin had suffered with the people of Britain as the plague had marched through the cities for the fourth time in a century. This time had been the worst, with three times as many bodies piling up and exhausted healers giving in.
Merlin had cared for the sick as well as he could, saving, with all his skill and magic and force of will, only about one in every hundred. Those he failed to save, he buried, coaxing the land into accepting another body, blessing its passing with his magic. In the end, the healers who fought the disease were the ones he cared for the most. He found that he did the most good by bringing them food, helping them think and caring for their own needs as they were too busy caring for everyone else. It was like serving Arthur again, fulfilling in a surprising way.
But it had exhausted him so that afterwards, he slept the sleep of the dead. He hibernated in his cave, as was his wont after times of deep distress and pain until this fire had stirred the magic in the land enough to wake him. Fear sent him flying to London in the guise of a falcon, where the smell of smoke and death had drawn him as surely as a the smell of decay draws flies. There he had labored and toiled in the noisome air for two days, until his very bones seemed to have absorbed stink of smoke.
Would he ever be rid of the stench?
He found his way to the lovely forest and with a violent wave, Merlin released time to plod forth once more, to do its worst and bring whatever calamity it would next.
There was no sanctuary, no love, no hope for him, only more demands and more needs from this never-ending parade of humanity. Something broke in him then. He fell to his knees.
"Arthur?" he whispered, cutting himself to ribbons with the word, feeling the sharpness of his misery and profound loneliness. "Please? Now?"
But there was no answering word, no rush of magic signalling his king's return...only the sound left when everyone and everything around you has died-silence.
Matthew came to himself in a rush, panting, aware of the asphalt under his knees and the sharp smell of vomit in his nostrils. Arthur was beside him, hand on his back, somehow managing to keep away from the pile of sick on the ground. Gwaine, as he always was, was cursing somewhere nearby.
A rush of memory hit Matthew again, of what he had just seen and felt and then he was on his feet, running.
He pounded across the asphalt, heading for the woods on the side, heedless, instinctive.
They were calling after him, chasing him, but Matthew didn't care. He couldn't deal with it. He couldn't deal with that-
Arthur grabbed the back of his jacket and hauled him up short, like he had done so many times before. "Where the hell do you think you're going?"
"Not safe, mate, not without us," Gwaine added.
Matthew held his hands over his ears. Why had he just thought that-that Arthur had done that very thing so many times before? It was a single thought, but it led to many more, crowding in his mind: Arthur's smug look when he'd won an argument, the ties on his nightshirt, the smell of the oil used on his boots, the heavy weight of armor slipping between his fingers...
"No!" Matthew shouted, putting his hands over his ears again. He jerked away from Arthur and faced the two of them, his chest heaving. Arthur had frozen in shock. "I don't want this!"
Gwaine was smiling softly. "Don't want what, mate?"
"That vision I just had-of death and burning and plague and loneliness-I don't want that!"
Arthur looked away. "I'm sorry," he finally said.
"Forget about that!" Gwaine said, coming closer. "There are good memories in there somewhere; you'll find them. But I don't think you've realized: you just spoke aloud. You're talking, mate. Actually, more like yelling."
Matthew's jaw dropped. "I am? I am! I'm talking. Why am I talking?"
Arthur smiled, shaking his head. "Ah, now there's the idiot I know and love. Are all your memories back then?"
"No. And I don't want them. I mean...I don't want to be him! I'm sorry," he said as their faces both fell, "but my God-his life was unending misery. Who in their right mind would want that?"
Arthur stared at him, his jaw tightening. Without a word, he turned and strode off toward the car. "We can't stay here," he barked. "Let's go."
Gwaine followed, subdued, leaving Matthew to pull himself and his guilt together on his own.
The first thing Matthew did when they reached a motel was call his mother. She had never heard his voice before. It was hard to know what to say to her. During the long, silent car ride, he'd had plenty of time to realize that he no longer believed that he was simply Matthew. All evidence pointed to the contrary and necessity was trying to kick his ass into believing it. But he wasn't going to go easy. He had too much to live for, while Merlin had nothing but hard memories and loss to return to.
Did he even have a choice? Well, if he did, he was going to stay Matthew forever.
His mom wept when she heard him, though she took some convincing before she believed it was him. He had to get out his laptop and hook up with her on Skype. When she saw him, she wept again and called to his dad. They both stood there and watched him talk like it was a miracle as he caught them up on their plans from here.
Matthew found himself hopeful for the first time in a long time. "We'll stay here tonight and who knows, if things are quiet tomorrow, too, maybe we'll come home." He caught the glare Arthur leveled at him, but ignored it. Even if he only made it home for a day or two, it would be worth it. There was a chance that the monsters had all gone and how stupid would they be to keep running from nothing?
His parents looked cautiously optimistic at the words and he told them he'd call tomorrow after they saw how the night went.
Only...the night didn't go so well.
Arthur paced like his life depended on it, even though he tried his best to stop. Matthew was talking now and remembering things and it was only his stupid, stubborn nature that kept him from acknowledging his past. Of course it did. Merlin had never missed an opportunity to do exactly what you didn't want him to, so why would he change now, even if his smile wasn't as bright and his nature as sweet as before.
But all that was Arthur's own damn fault, or the fault of whoever had kept him from returning for too damn long.
Arthur reminded himself to be patient, again. They were making progress in the right direction. That stone Tabitha had given Merlin had jarred his magic loose, made him remember so strongly that he'd been sick to his stomach.
Arthur cursed under his breath. He wasn't glad that Merlin's reaction had been that visceral and horrifying. Gwaine had told Arthur about the Plague in 1665 and the Great Fire of London the next year. If that was what Merlin had just remembered, as they suspected, then it was no wonder that he was rejecting it all. These events had broken his mind the first time, leaving Merlin a wild hermit for nearly seventy years before his magic healed his mind and helped him remember himself.
Patience, Arthur reminded himself, settling back down into the chair outside the hotel door. They had chosen a second-floor room and decided to keep watch outside for anything that moved in the dark. Hopefully, it would be nothing. But Arthur was ready for action. The fact that Merlin's magic had shifted in Matthew enough to let the man speak had to be sending out a signal to whatever it was that wanted him.
Arthur jumped as the door behind him cracked open. He stood and frowned when he saw Matthew there, eyes sleepily unfocused, hair mussed in an endearing way, his lanky frame clad in the sweats that passed for pajamas.
"Matthew, what are you doing?"
Matthew mumbled and tried to press past Arthur. Arthur caught him by the shoulders and shook him gently. His eyes remained unfocused and his mumbling continued.
"Are you even awake?"
But after a long look into his face, Arthur was convinced that he was sleepwalking. Sighing, he turned Matthew around and marched back over to the bed. He kicked at Gwaine in the other bed.
"He's trying to leave the room. Sleepwalking."
"Again?" Gwaine levered himself up on one elbow and looked at Matthew already folded back on the other bed. "Dammit. Where's he trying to go all the time?"
Arthur rubbed at his bottom lip as he watched Matthew twitch. "It would be an easy way to get to him. If he could just get past us, he'd be asleep, wandering about, fully as helpless as we used to think he was in the good old days."
"You mean as you used to think he was, princess. I always had the utmost respect for his wits and his luck."
Arthur paused. "Respect? Ah. Is that why you were always trying to get him drunk?"
"No," Gwaine said as he levered himself up off the mattress, "that was because he's a funny drunk. And because he was always so damn serious. My watch?"
Arthur nodded. "Maybe we should try that next."
"Yes. A tavern, though I think it's called something different here."
Gwaine whooped softly. "Finally! Tomorrow, we hit our first bar!"
It was Gwaine's watch after that, and he stood to make sure that he didn't fall asleep. It was a boring view: a nearly empty parking lot flooded with an awful orange glow from periodic street lights. A few cars sped by on their way to more important places. For hours, it was still and quiet except for the hum of the lights and the drone of insects.
There was little else to do but puzzle over their unknown enemy which was a frustrating pasttime since they honestly had nothing to go on. Just evil and woman and wendigos, which when put together in his mind...meant absolutely nothing.
If he was the one after Merlin, he would have changed strategies when the wendigos didn't work. Any clever person would and he had to at least ascribe that trait to his enemy, if only for the reason that he didn't ever want to underestimate her. Not the way he had Morgana.
So, if this mysterious, evil woman changed strategies, Gwaine asked himself as he leaned back against the stucco wall, what would be the next one down the list? From wendigos who cover the ground in no time at all and are fearless fighting machines, we move to...
His gaze strayed up to the sky and stayed there.
What is that?
Matthew woke to a muffled shout and a thud, taking a few seconds to realize that Arthur was shaking him awake. "It's time to go." Matthew stood shakily while Arthur moved across the room and peeked through the curtain. He cursed. "Get dressed and ready to leave now!"
Matthew nodded, trying to think, to remember what things he needed to grab and failing horribly due the horrific sounds coming from outside. Gwaine was yelling and things were attacking, screeching and splatting juicily against the window.
"Don't come out!" Gwaine yelled again, but Arthur wasn't going to listen. He was poised at the door, sword in hand.
"Stay in the room, Matthew. Lock the door."
Matthew didn't even have time to be indignant before the door was open and shut again, but the jolt of anger helped clear his head. He scrambled into his clothes, stuffed everything in his backpack and pulled on his shoes.
Meanwhile, what sounded like a massacre was going on outside. A sudden cry of pain from one of the men made him jump and Matthew had the familiar feeling of ants crawling under his skin. Heat bloomed in his chest and he knew it for what it was. Matthew began to tremble.
Gwaine and Arthur had emphasized how easy this room would be to defend. The only weak point was the large window that looked out over the walkway and the parking lot below. Two men blocking the door and the window should be able to repel any attackers, if they were as skilled as Gwaine and Arthur. But this attack sounded nothing like the roars, grunts and power of a wendigo attack. There were screeches, and something flapping-wings?
It wasn't fair to leave Arthur and Gwaine to take the brunt of the attacks while he did nothing. He didn't know of anything he could do. But what if he could use magic? What if this was-
Then Arthur was shouting-a warning-and a second later, the window exploded inward. Matthew saw, as he recoiled, that it was Gwaine who had been knocked through the glass.
That was all he had time to see before a large brown creature was coming at him. Wings filled the air as the creature lifted its clawed feet and slashed at Matthew, tearing through the backpack he'd lifted in defense. The thing screeched and its beady eyes glared. That face and body resembled pictures Matthew had once seen of a bat, only this one was enormous.
Matthew flung the damaged backpack at it and turned to run for the bathroom, thinking to get one more door between it and him. The creature attacked before he had a chance, sweeping into him hard enough to knock him into the doorframe. Then it leapt up on his back, clawing and flapping and pushing down on him until Matthew was on the floor hands over his head.
This seriously pissed him off.
He rolled over on his back and kicked out with both legs, catching the creature in the center of its furry body and sending him flying back a few feet before the wings stopped its momentum. Then Arthur was there glaring at the thing and sliiiiice-the bat was suddenly without a head.
Blood splattered and the body fell across Matthew's legs. He kicked it off frantically, and Arthur put down his sword to heft it through the window, where another couple of huge bat bodies already lay twitching.
Arthur and Matthew shared a twin look, a sort of mash-up of Are you all right and yes, I'm fine and oh my god have you seen Gwaine? At least that's what Matthew's look had meant and he thought he'd seen that in Arthur's eyes as well. Then they were at Gwaine's side.
The man's vest had protected him from the glass, but the bat had managed to catch him across the throat with one of its claws and the jagged, gaping cut was horrifying. Matthew clapped his hands over his mouth to stop the hysteria that was just beneath the surface. Gwaine was dying; there was too much blood to think otherwise.
Arthur took one of Gwaine's limp hands and fitted it to his forearm, clenching their arms together in a show of solidarity. "Friend, I fear it is your hard duty to die twice in this life. Do not linger. Go swiftly and safely and to all those that we love. You have served me well."
"Don't...exaggerate," Gwaine rasped out. "I'm no good at serving anyone. But this is what I wanted." He reached out for Matthew's hand. "This time I died protecting you instead of betraying you. This is what I needed to do. Understand?"
Matthew's face crumpled and tears slid palely down his cheeks. "No. I don't understand why. I don't understand any of this."
Arthur's sharp glance caught his and his look of remonstrance caught Matthew up short. Right. This wasn't about him right now. Matthew sucked up a deep breath and met Gwaine's agonized gaze.
"You have been nothing but a friend to me. Whatever wrong you think you've done me in the past is forgiven. Please. Be at peace." He didn't know where those words came from, but they seemed right and the gratitude he saw in Gwaine's eyes was worth it.
His last words were, "Thank you...my friend."
Then his face relaxed and his body followed suit. The light left his brown eyes only seconds later and Matthew found himself pulling away, shocked. Gwaine was dead.