Kilgharrah growled low, rumbling. "Merlin, what took you so long? How long can a shower take?"
"Kilgharrah, I wasn't that long. Stop whinging. We will make it to the gallery with plenty of time."
Merlin heard more grumbling, but couldn't make out any words. He tousled his curly mop dry and hung the towel neatly before pulling a t-shirt on, followed by Arthur's red hoodie.
Silence filled the room as he turned the video off and slipped Kilgharrah into the front pocket of the hoodie.
A short bike ride later and they had arrived at the gallery. Merlin didn't know why he felt so beholden to the engraved dragon, but there was a part of him that couldn't help humoring the creature. He supposed he felt a bit sorry for it. Also, he would do anything to stop that whining voice that often wormed its way in his ear and straight to some nerve in his brain that caused intense pain, as though someone were driving railroad spikes down his spine.
Merlin's student ID got them into the gallery for free, for which Merlin was grateful ; one of the few perks of being a student at a university, he supposed.
Merlin started with the Renaissance collection -- his favorite. He loved the pink cherubs floating in the clouds and dark devils lurking in corners. Renaissance art used a sledgehammer to get its message across and that appealed to him. He didn't understand the message behind modern art, especially those paintings where people just threw paint at the canvas or outlined boxes in primary colors.
The path brought him to sculptures next. Merlin always marvelled at how warm and moving bronze could be. That one with David holding Medusa's head took his breath away every time.
He felt a vibration in his pocket and reached for his cell phone only to realize it was the book that was vibrating. He sighed. Kilgharrah was getting impatient, but at least he hadn't roared and caught the attention of the guards.
Moving briskly, Merlin reached the Asian art. Chuckling, he pulled the book out as he sat on a bench. He perched the book on his knee and pretended to read. The vibrations changed to something resembling purring.
"Ah ha! I've caught you. I knew you were in love with that dragon," Merlin muttered under his breath.
A small cough emanated from the book, but then there was silence. Merlin closed the book in alarm and looked at the emblem embossed on the front. Kilgharrah was swirling slowly, lazily, in his circle.
"Kilgharrah, what are you doing?"
Green eyes blinked at him.
"Kilgharrah," Merlin hissed, "what is going on?"
The swirling and blinking continued at the same lethargic pace, like the spinning wheel on the computer when it hangs. Merlin’s heart seized and his arm, no, his tattoo, felt hot. Too hot for this room. He needed to get outside. Now.
Gulping for air, he rushed out of the building, barely aware of brushing past other patrons. He stumbled down the cement path and collapsed on the lawn, under an ancient tree. A soft breeze took away some of the heat, but it wasn’t enough. His tattoo burned and, without conscious thought, he pointed at a rubbish bin and whispered “Forbaernen.”
He fell back onto the grass, spent. Using magic still took more energy than he expected.
Kilgharrah had warned him many times during their study sessions that he should be careful about using magic or showing magic in public places. Merlin knew that most people did not believe in magic, but what Kilgharrah had taught him was that one never knew if there was another magic user around and what their intentions might be.
Merlin rested on the grass, thinking about what had caused his tattoo to burn like that. He was still too ignorant about magic to understand what would cause it. He desperately needed to talk to Kilgharrah. Making sure no one was watching, Merlin looked at the dragon again to see if it had changed. His stomach sank as he realized it had not. He put the book face-down on his chest, letting his hands rest on top of it, and closed his eyes.
A foot nudged his shoulder, causing him to open his eyes. He smiled at the golden visage above him.
“Arthur! You remembered our lunch date,” Merlin said with obvious pleasure in his voice.
“Yes, but why are you lying in the grass with a book on your stomach?”
Arthur had distracted him from the panic he’d been feeling and his words brought it crashing back. Trying to maintain calm breaths, Merlin sat up and said, “Um, I think something is wrong with Kilgharrah.”
Arthur arched an eyebrow. Damn it, he’d clearly picked that trick up from Gaius. Merlin was going to have to see that he kept them separate in the future. He held the book out.
“Look, Kilgharrah’s just spinning in the same lazy loops. He isn’t changing or stopping and he can’t talk to me any more.”
“I -” Arthur started to say, but was interrupted by a young woman dressed in clothes to rival Arthur’s best suit. The material was high quality, finely woven, and tailored exactly to her measurements, with just the right amount of ease. She wore her long dark hair up in a French knot which exposed her bright blue twinkling eyes and fair skin. She needed no adornments to her beauty.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” she said. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced formally, but I know who you are.”
Merlin perked up, because no one ever knew who he was. He worked in a lab in the middle of a concrete building and rarely got out. Arthur, on the other hand, rubbed his face with his hands.
“I have a proposition for you.”
Arthur and Merlin eyed each other warily.
“Just hear me out and then you are free to decide.”
The two men looked at each for a moment and then nodded. Arthur stretched out a hand for Merlin to help him stand. Side by side, they listened to her proposal.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Cara Nim and I would like to invite you to dinner,” she said sweetly. “I understand that Mr Pendragon has won a prestigious internship with Bayard Pharmaceuticals and I wanted to congratulate him and extend a counter offer from my company, Afanc Medicinals. I’d be quite pleased to present it over dinner, tonight.”
The men looked at each other again. Merlin’s stomach growled. Cara waited. Finally Arthur said, “What time?”
“8 pm. I’ll have a driver collect you at 7:45.” She turned and walked off.
Merlin hissed, “What were you thinking? We have a problem here and now you’ve just signed us up for dinner with some woman we don’t even know?”
“Merlin, I know who she is. She’s the CEO of the rival company to Bayard. This is one of the perks of winning. There is competition for me. Relax. We’ll enjoy a fine dinner, for once, with no repercussions to our wallets. What could possibly go wrong?”
Merlin snorted but kept his thoughts to himself as they walked to the noodle shop for lunch. He only had a hunch to go on and he knew Arthur would not listen care about his intuition.
At 7:30, Merlin was running around their room, throwing clothes about willy-nilly, looking for a tie. He knew he was woefully underdressed, if Arthur’s suit was anything to go by, but he was not going to look like he’d picked his suit out of a dumpster. He didn’t want Ms Nim to underestimate him based on his clothing. Arthur had insisted on going with or without him and Merlin knew he could not send Arthur into the lion’s den alone.
“Arthur! Where is my tie?”
Arthur, reclining in the overstuffed chair, looked up cooly and said, “Which tie?”
“You know. The one tie I own.” Merlin’s head was down as he continued searching every improbable nook. “The one my mother gave me.”
A tie dangled from Arthur’s hand. “Oh, this tie?”
“Argh! Why didn’t you tell me you had my tie in hand?”
Arthur looked at his watch and then beamed at Merlin. “Because we had plenty of time and you are so cute all disheveled and frantic. Come here. Let me make it up to you.”
Merlin stalked over to the chair but was careful to stay out of reach. He snatched up the tie, turned around, and started to mangle it around his neck.
Arthur stood behind Merlin in one liquid motion and with three deft movements, tied the tie and then smoothed it down his lover’s front.
He put his hands on Merlin’s waist and turned him around to tug on Merlin’s tie, bringing him in for a slow deep kiss. Merlin knew that Arthur operated best under pressure, but pressure just caused him to break into a thousand pieces and kissing minutes before a fancy ride to an even fancier dinner was not helping his stress level. He broke it off.
“Arthur, not now.”
Merlin patted his pockets again, checking for his phone and keys and Kilgharrah. He had come to rely on the little dragon and was feeling on edge. Arthur came over and put his hands on Merlin’s shoulders, attempting to soothe him. At that moment, a call came for them from downstairs. Merlin took in a breath, steeled himself, and walked downstairs, Arthur on his heels, where an unfamiliar man was standing dressed in a dark suit and wearing a cap.
“Sirs, Ms. Nim awaits you.” He gestured toward the front door and beyond, where the car waited.
Arthur put a hand on Merlin’s elbow and guided him out the door. They climbed in and got comfortable, or as comfortable as one could get in a hearse going to his own funeral, Merlin thought to himself.
The ride through town was quick and then they were on a road surrounded by fields. Although the sky was darkening, both men enjoyed the scenery while it lasted. Shortly, they were on a winding road that lead to a private residence on thickly forested land. At the gate, the driver pressed a button and spoke in low tones that they could not make out, but then the gate opened and they were approaching a large house with a marble facade and two pillars -- expensive, but without frills.
The driver stopped and another man was standing at the doorway, ready to show them in.
“Merlin, Arthur, how lovely to see you again so soon. Please, call me Cara,” the businesswoman said to them in silky tones. “Come, we will dine in the Rose Room.”
They trailed behind her, Merlin, with a lump in his throat, next to Arthur who looked completely in his element.
The table was set with the first course in place. Small curls of steam drifted up from the smooth surface of the creamy soup. Merlin thought he detected something fishy in the scent.
“Oh, no,” she laughed, “it’s chicken soup, but the broth is made from fish bones. We have a lovely stream on the property and it’s such a waste to let all those fish swim by without taking some of them for nourishment.”
Tentative at first, they tried the soup and discovered it was delicious. Then the salad arrived, full of young wild greens. Merlin tried not to laugh at Arthur’s expression when he bit into the bitter greens and tried to smile to cover his grimace.
Arthur and Cara were chatting energetically about business models and marketing schemes. They didn’t even seem to notice that the next course had arrived. Arthur was to have the last laugh at this meal because the next course was pheasant. Arthur loved the gamey dish, but Merlin preferred flesh from animals that had been domesticated. He always got a squirmy feeling in his stomach when he thought of wild animals being hunted; wild game only seemed to increase Arthur’s appetite.
Merlin poked with his fork at the bird, which had been artfully presented with those little paper crowns on the feet and what appeared to be gold dust sprinkled in with the herbs. Finally, he persuaded himself to take a slice. Sighing, he pressed the serrated knife into the skin. He thought he heard a squawk, but dismissed it as his own distaste, and put it on his plate.
He closed his eyes, put a bite in his mouth and began to chew. The bird jumped up from the middle of the table and ran across the surface, squawking. At the sound, Merlin’s eyes popped open and he turned to their host.
Eyes twinkling, she said, ‘Oh, no! The chef served you the wrong bird. Oh dear. Well, I’m sure it won’t be a problem. I’ll just tell him to send out a new one.”
“Er, that’s quite all right. I’m really not hungry any more,” Merlin replied, his face gone white.
Arthur had stopped eating and was looking at Merlin with real concern.
“Merlin, I think we’d better get you home. Sorry Ms. Nim, er, Cara. Thank you for the delicious dinner. I’m sorry we didn’t have time to talk more about your company,” Arthur attempted diplomatically.
He grabbed Merlin by the elbow firmly. “Are you alright?”
Merlin nodded, his lips were feeling numb and he thought talking was just not worth the effort. He tripped a little on the way out the door and fell asleep on the short ride home. Arthur jostled him, waking him enough for him to stumble up the stairs and flop onto their bed.
In the light of their room, Merlin matched the white of the sheet. Arthur blanched at that sight. He got a cold, wet washcloth and put it on Merlin’s forehead to no avail. He tried making him sit up. Desperate, he even kissed Merlin, only to get rubbery, non-responsive lips in return. Arthur smacked himself on the forehead and got up to pace, trying to work out what to do.
It didn’t take him long to reach the conclusion that he needed to call Gaius. The number wasn’t on his phone. Arthur reached into the front pocket for Merlin’s phone and found it missing. He tried to calm his breathing, but was quickly reaching a panicked state. Then, he remembered the computer! The phone number must be there.
Approaching a panicked state while waiting for the computer to boot up, he dug out his own phone and called Gwaine. Gwaine was ostensibly his study partner, but he was always bringing treats around for Merlin and offering to help him out with rides out to the fields to collect specimens.
“Gwaine? It’s Arthur. There’s something wrong with Merlin and his phone is missing. Can you call Gaius and tell him it’s urgent? Okay, thanks, mate. I owe you one.”
Feeling only slightly relieved, Arthur thought back on what had happened that evening. It had seemed perfectly lovely and above board. They had been chatting about Ms. Nim’s company. Arthur had qualms about it because they had a record of treating the environment poorly and there were rumors that wasn’t all they treated poorly. She represented her company well and defended those rumors, saying people were jealous and it was all big smear campaign, and then the pheasant had gotten up and done its dance across the table.
Armed with the facts of the evening, he was ready for Gaius, who arrived with Gwaine in tow. Arthur was not surprised. Gaius went straight to Merlin and examined the prone man. He looked into his eyes, took his pulse and checked his respiration.
Standing, he turned to Arthur. “Tell me again what you ate for dinner.”
Arthur repeated the menu, “Chicken soup made with fish stock, some weird salad with wild greens, and wild pheasant.”
“Ah ha!” Gaius’s eyebrow went up. “That wasn’t wild pheasant. It was zombie pheasant. You will need to hurry out to the Great Murky Bog five miles south west of here and get some tail feathers from the flock of the zombie pheasants that live there. Quickly now, off you go. You don’t have much time before Merlin will be in grave peril.”
Arthur looked at Gwaine, eyes wide.
“Come on, Arthur. We’ve no time to lose. There’s room for two on my bike, you know it.”
They tore down the stairs, Gwaine in the lead. Gwaine grabbed the extra helmet and tossed it Arthur, who caught it neatly and buckled it under his chin before seating himself behind Gwaine. Gwaine revved the engine and they took off through town, heading for the bog at a reckless pace. Neither man spoke, stuffing their fears down deep.
The night was clear and the moon lit their way. The wind, which had been refreshing earlier, was downright bracing now and by the time they arrived, Arthur thought his face had frozen stiff, although he didn’t take the time to notice. He hopped off the bike and ripped the helmet off.
Gesturing for Gwaine to follow, he stepped towards the trees ringing the bog and cocked his head, listening. He cupped his ear and then froze as a fractured call came back to them.
Gwaine blanched ever so slightly, clamped his lips together and then pressed forward in front of Arthur.
“Come on. I’m here to help a friend, and you heard Gaius -- we have no time to lose.”
Arthur might have muttered something under his breath that sounded like “pretentious git,” but he didn’t want to get into it with Gwaine. Not while Merlin was slipping away. Gwaine gestured that they should divide and conquer and Arthur nodded in agreement. They stalked the unnatural fowl by their eerie sounds. Moonlight filtered through sparse leaves and after what felt like hours, but probably wasn’t, Arthur finally spotted one of the creatures. Gwaine was nowhere in sight.
Arthur took in a slow, deep breath, and willed himself to move like molasses so as not to startle the bird in front of him. It had its back to him and the tail feathers were standing proud, a pure invitation to be plucked if ever there was one. Slowly, carefully, silently, with every muscle in his body screaming, Arthur reached out with his gloved hand as the bird took a step forward. Taking in another silent breath, Arthur inched forward and finally grasped two feathers between his thumb and forefinger. Jubilant, he whistled to Gwaine and stuffed the feathers in the pouch Gaius had given him.
They met back at the bike and jammed their helmets on. Gwaine took off even faster than before, and soon they were back in town. Gwaine did not slow down and shortly there were flashing lights and a siren pulling them over. Gwaine pulled over and the men fidgeted as they waited for the cop to come over.
“Gwaine,” Arthur hissed. “This was important and you blew it. We are going to be too late and Merlin is going to die. Damn you.” Tears filled his eyes.
“Arthur, we have time. Don’t worry. We’ll get out of here in no time,” he replied as the officer approached.
“Evening, gentlemen. Any idea how fast you were driving?”
“Er, no, sir,” Gwaine replied, trying to be both respectful and friendly at the same time.
“88 miles per hour, son. That’s almost triple the speed limit here in Camelot.”
“Officer, we have an emergency. We have to get back to our friend who is dying. We have the, uh,” here Gwaine hesitated, “medicine he needs.”
“Well, I’m afraid there are procedures that we need to observe before I can let you go. No, sir. You’ll just have to hope your friend can wait.”
The man went back to his own motorcycle and rustled around in the compartment for paperwork and a clipboard. At that moment, Arthur noticed Gwen, riding by on her bike. She gave a friendly wave and Arthur motioned for her to come over. Then he said to Gwaine, “Go over there and distract him for a moment.”
As Gwaine sauntered over to the cop, Gwen veered in her course and stopped in front of Arthur. He pulled her in for a hug and slipped the feathers into her purse. He whispered in her ear, “Get this to Gaius. He knows what to do with it.”
She pulled away and peddled off with more purpose than she’d had before.
Gwaine came back, winked at Arthur, and said, “No problem. I’ve got it in the bag.”
Arthur was relieved he’d had the good fortune to pass the feathers off to Gwen as it took hours for the cop to finish the “procedures” and paperwork he claimed were necessary before they could go.
When they finally got back on the bike, the sun was rising. Arthur felt his heart beat a little faster as they approached his house. Without waiting for Gwaine to come to a complete stop, he hopped off the bike and ran up the stairs, helmet still on his head. He burst through the door to find Gaius and Gwen hugging, jubilant, and Merlin sitting up, looking a little sweaty, but none the worse for wear.
He swept in and embraced Merlin, not even caring that everyone was watching.
“Merlin,” he said a bit hoarsely, “I thought I’d lost you. I will never again insist that you eat anything.” He coughed a little and then laughed, gently smoothing Merlin’s hair off his forehead.
Merlin looked a bit bewildered. “What happened? Wait, before we get to that, where’s my phone and Kilgharrah?”
“Nimueh fed you zombie pheasant and you got infected, but Gwaine and I were able to get the tail feathers and Gaius cooked up the antidote even though we got stopped by the police because Gwaine was speeding, but Gwen happened by at just the right time. But, what did happen to your phone and Kilgharrah? I looked for your phone to call Gaius, but it’s gone. And now you tell me Kilgharrah’s gone too?”
They looked at each other, worried. Merlin chewed on his bottom lip. “Um, I think Ms. Nim is not what she appears to be.”
“Really? What gives you that idea? I thought she was a nice little old lady,” Arthur said a bit snarkily, taking out his fears on Merlin.
“Arthur,” Merlin said exasperated, “she tried to poison me and now she’s stolen my phone and Kilgharrah. She’s up to no good. And I’m worried that she will get the formula that Gaius and I have been working on. It’s not finalized. I didn’t write all of it down, but parts of it are on my phone, and it could do some real damage in the wrong hands, but she won’t know that and she’ll just think she’s got the next best miracle drug.”
Arthur bent his head, putting their foreheads together. “Merlin, let’s get some sleep. She’s not going to do anything in the next few hours. We’ve got some time to figure this out.”
Arthur stood and shooed everyone out of the room. He slipped his shoes and trousers off, hung up his jacket, and unbuttoned his shirt. Merlin was already in his boxers, t-shirt, and socks, and Arthur spooned around him protectively, wrapping the covers over them both.