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The Good Fight, Part III

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Part II



Chapter Three: A Remedy to Cure All Ills

He was so used to walking to Gwen's that he no longer looked up at the buildings on his way. His eyes were on the ground, and his ipod was in his ears, blasting out Shit Music (You Know You Love) #3. Some godawful song – Erasure, he thought – came on, and it jerked him out of the bubble he'd created. Looking up, he realised two things: firstly, he was slowly becoming one of those people he judged – the grey ones with no personality and no ambition; and secondly, he was the only person, bland or otherwise, on the streets. Now, Merlin left the office at odd times; Arthur always had a new errand for Merlin to run, whether it be procuring fifty freshly-sharpened pencils or sending an email round the gossip desks advising them to stop copying and pasting from ONTD. Even so, there were always some other people about, no matter if he escaped at five or at nine.

It was half-past six. Not only should there be other people, but he should be being jostled and bumped as crowds streamed past him to tube stations and bus stops. Camelot was empty.

Merlin stopped walking.

“Always I wanna BE with you and MAKE BELIEVE with you, and live in harmony harmony OHHHH LOVE--”

He pulled out his earphones.

The air was still, and save for the tinny music emanating from his ipod he couldn't hear a thing.

“I think I saw a movie like this,” he said, because he had to break the silence and it was either that or “It's quiet. Too quiet.”

Merlin started walking again, and fast. He checked the skies above him: clear. He wasn't an expert on these things but it certainly didn't look like a hurricane was imminent. All the conspiracy theories he'd forced himself to read in the Daily and the Crier started to repeat themselves in his mind. Perhaps there really was a plague in the water. Perhaps Camelot was being attacked by an army of the undead. Perhaps someone had let Wilderen into the tube.

Either that, or he was Legend. Merlin wished he'd bothered watching that movie properly. How had Will Smith killed the zombies, again? For the life of him he couldn't remember.

Merlin looked at the office blocks surrounding him, and saw that many of the windows were lit up. He didn't suppose that zombies were energy efficient creatures who made sure to switch the lights off after feasting on brains, but the lights calmed him a little. Everything was fine. Everyone was alive and well. Maybe his watch was fast, and he'd left work at quarter to three, or something, and the rest of Camelot was still working. Today was, he told himself, a perfectly normal day.

The large shadow drifting over the glass walls of the Camelot Stock Exchange stuck a pin in that theory.

Merlin looked up, a thrill at the pit of his stomach screaming Dragon! Unless dragons had feathers, though, he wasn't in luck. The beast – the griffin – hovered above him, flapping its immense wings as it decided whether there was enough meat on his bones to warrant an attack. Merlin could feel the air whooshing past him as the griffin's wings beat steadily. He tried to stay very still, hoping against hope that he could pass himself off as a piece of concrete, or a traffic bollard, or something. Though Merlin doubted his audition for the part of stationary object had saved him, something caused the griffin to change its focus. It had risen about thirty feet, uttered an unearthly shriek, and Merlin had had time to think this is it, I'm going to be eaten by Buckbeak and then regurgitated into the gullets of its bald squawking babies before it dived behind the pyramid dome of Mercia Mercantiles.

As soon as it disappeared, Merlin regained his senses. He was a warlock, and though he didn't know what to do about griffins, presumably he could do something. Whatever victims the griffin was divebombing right now would be utterly defenceless.

“Bollocks,” he said, and jumped.

~

When Merlin landed on the other side of the granite tower, it took him mere moments to locate the action. As with the street he'd just been on, the roads were deserted. The griffin was attempting to claw its way in to a narrow alleyway between Mercia Mercantiles and the neighbouring DOXY block. It flew upwards to get a better angle of attack, and Merlin saw the intended victim who did, admittedly, look a great deal tastier than Merlin himself. He appeared to be using a bin lid as a shield, but there was no way the griffin could be held off for long.

As this thought crossed Merlin's mind, it dived again, talons first, plunging towards the man's spine, ready to lift him away to wherever it lived. The man tried to drop and roll, and whilst he managed to evade capture he was unable to stop one curved claw from piercing his shoulder. Even from his vantage point, twenty or so metres away, Merlin heard the man cry out.

The next second, the man lay on the ground, Merlin standing over him. He glanced up at the griffin, who exploded above them in a comical puff of feathers.

“Oh, shit,” said Merlin. He looked at the terrified hunk of manflesh staring up at him, and then at the CCTV cameras that hung on the lampposts like malevolent fruit. He could fix the security, no problem, and luckily enough there were no windows overlooking the alleyway, but he'd never done a memory curse before and he wasn't going to start now. “Please don't kill me,” he said.

“Shouldn't I be saying that?” said the man. He was smiling though (and maybe Merlin was getting cynical about Camelot, but something about the smile – the very fact of it, for one – screamed out of town), and he stood up, bracing his good arm against the wall to his left. “You just saved my life.”

“Um, yeah,” said Merlin. “Don't tell anyone.”

“Merlin,” he added, holding out his hand.

“Lance,” said the man.

“Where are you off to?” Merlin asked, as they shook hands. “Because, you know, I could escort you back. Make sure you don't get attacked by any more supposedly extinct creatures on the way, that sort of thing.”

Lance winced, and for a moment Merlin was sure that his words had come out wrong, tumbling over friendly and straight into sleazy, or that Lance had glimpsed his face and was simply repulsed by his appearance, or that he was a thaumist and couldn't bear to be indebted to someone who … but it was his shoulder. Lance gripped his elbow tight to his side, and blinked rapidly.

The man looked like he was about to fall onto the ground again. He was paler than Merlin, and was swaying gently. His injury was less of a gash and more of a hole; from what Merlin could see the griffin had plunged its claw into Lance's shoulder, like a hook into meat, and simply ripped it through.

“Oh, shit,” Merlin said again. “My place is just down here.”

“In the middle of the offices?”

“Yeah,” said Merlin, getting his ancient Nokia out of his pocket and motioning for Lance to lean against the wall. “Gwen. Hi. Uh, you'll not believe what just happened – is it all right if I bring someone back? No! No, not like that – he's injured. No. No. No. If you let me—no. I'll explain when I get there. Can you look out bandages and the like? Yeah, will do. Bye!”

Lance raised an eyebrow, but it had nothing on Gaius, so Merlin wasn't intimidated in the least.

“Gwen,” Merlin explained, somewhat redundantly. “She's – well, I suppose she's my landlord. She makes nice cake.”

“Cake and bandages?” Lance asked. “How could I possibly refuse?”

~

Merlin was sure even his crappy healing skills could do a better job than what Gwen called nursing. Still, he wasn't going to offer to step in. He liked to think he knew chemistry when he saw it. From the moment Lance had entered the coffee shop there'd been a spark.

“I was told there'd be cake.”

“Never listen to the promises of creepy men on the street. Stranger danger.”

“Maybe I should follow strangers more often, if I end up in these expert hands.”

Despite the awful lines and the awkward pauses, Merlin was thankful for it: Gwen was far less inclined to pay anything resembling attention to their garbled lies about how they'd managed to simply outrun the griffin.

She'd led them up to Merlin's room, and had insisted that Lance ('short for Lancelot', he'd told her) lie down on his bed as she cleaned him up. Gwen had ordered Merlin down to make tea, and he'd come up to find this endearing first aid failure playing itself out in front of him.

She was currently trying and failing to wrap a bandage around his shoulder. It kept slipping down over his arm every time she let go of it to grab the microtape, and she was growing increasingly flustered. Gwen made a small exasperated noise and tried to bring the bandage up once more, but she ended up pulling the pillow out from behind Lancelot's back instead, and he hit the headboard with a whump.

“Sorry! Oh my god, I'm such an idiot.”

“Hey,” said Lance. “It's okay.”

Gorgeous, shirtless Lance smiled up at her in a way that was reassuring and charming all at once. Lucky, lucky Gwen, Merlin thought, and he prided himself that he felt only the tiniest hint of jealousy.

“I'll hold the bandage here, okay, and you tie it?”

“Yeah,” said Gwen. “Yeah, all right, I can do that.”

Merlin waited until the dressing was finally secure before coughed to announce his presence. “Earl Grey, right?”

~

“Uh – it's just pizza, I'm afraid. Well, it used to be pizza.”

The pair of them had been far too polite to ask Merlin to leave so they could get back to their rom-com moments, so he'd volunteered to make dinner. Unfortunately, this meant that dinner was a burned mess. There was no salvaging it, even with magic. Gwen's dad looked at him disbelievingly as Merlin placed the tray on his desk.

Gwen's dad - “Call me Jonathan,” he'd said, but Merlin was apparently eight and kept calling him 'Mr Smith' like he was a teacher or something – spent most of his time in bed. His cheeks were sucked in around his skull like the skin of an overripe apple, and he had a habit of sucking air in between his teeth. Merlin had no medical knowledge whatsoever, but it was clear that the cancer was making him very ill. Merlin guessed that there was nothing more that the hospitals could do for him, and wondered why he wasn't in a hospice. He got the feeling, though, that making him leave Gwen would be a death knell.

Mr Smith had a desk where he ordered the food and equipment for the shop, and that was where he was sitting when Merlin entered. He looked lost inside his pajamas. His elasticated waistband hung loose around his hips, and seemed to stay on only by virtue of the fact that he was sitting down. The first few buttons of his nightshirt were undone, and Merlin glimpsed dark, papery-looking skin and the uneven bumps of his ribs, poking through in an uncomfortable reminder that inside him was a skeleton just waiting to appear.

“I brought fruit and toast as well,” he said in his defence. The charred remains of the pizza were staring up at him acridly. John and Greg would laugh him out of the kitchen. He would be the laughing stock of this hypothetical Masterchef. “I'll bring up some ham, or something. Don't touch the pizza – it might kill you.”

Merlin was instantly mortified at mentioning dying around a dying person. What was the etiquette for this sort of thing?

Mr Smith laughed drily. “I don't have quite the same constitution as I did when I was your age, no. Still,” he said, picking up an apple, “it was good of you to give Gwen a night off caring for me. Did you see in the news – there was a griffin on the loose. Two dead, three injured.”

“Really?” said Merlin. “Um. Well. Four injured, actually. I found someone, and got him away from the creature. I won't say much more, because I'm guessing Gwen'll want to tell you all about him herself – she says she'll be down soon, actually.”

Gwen's dad smiled, and he almost looked his age again. “What do you think? Is he nice?”

When Merlin had first met Gwen's father, he had had a gleam in his eye as he'd shaken Merlin's hand. “So, Gwen tells me you grew up in the countryside?” “So, you plan on becoming a high-earning reporter, am I right?” “So, are you single?”

Gwen had cut off his interrogation with a quelling look and a pained “Da-aad”.

Hopefully Lance would fit the bill more than he had.

When Merlin went upstairs – having given up on the whole Masterchef thing since everything went Hell's Kitchen, and settled for grabbing all the chocolate and beer – Lancelot appeared to be telling Gwen his life story. He was speaking about palm oil and orangutans when Merlin came in: though this was perhaps too idealistic for a practical man like Gwen's father, Lance had said earlier that he'd come to the city hoping to become an investigative journalist. Whilst Merlin privately thought that in itself was rather idealistic, as Pendragon Press controlled all the media in Camelot bar the internet, and as such it was about as transparent as a brick, there was something about Lancelot. The earnest look in his eyes as he explained that he no longer ate chocolate containing palm oil ('they label it as vegetable fat, see, so you don't know you're killing apes') or wore gold jewellery ('not that, um, I'm a particularly 'bling' person') – it was a certain kind of innocence and of hope, one which Merlin suspected had been ground of Gwen as she grew up in the city.

Lance nodded at him as he made his way to the bed. Upon hearing of Lance's passionate boycott of chocolate, Merlin had hidden the kit-kats in his back pocket, so it looked as though he'd simply brought them all some alcohol. No one complained.

“Take thaumism, for example,” Lancelot continued. “I wish people could realise it's not magic that's bad – it's the choices people make. Magic can save lives.”

Merlin would be lying if he said that Gwen's wholehearted agreement didn't mean anything to him.

~

Later, after they'd all bonded over Friends reruns, Merlin had forgotten about the chocolate in his pocket and made a mess of the sofa in a way that looked so awful Merlin had decided that the lesser of two evils would be to confess to his corporate indoctrination and shameful love of kit-kats, and Merlin had perhaps inadvisably stated that he knew the vice-president of Pendragon Press and would without a doubt be able to get Lance a job, Gwen bid them goodnight.

Through a pleasant four-beer haze, Merlin remembered the blankets strewn on the armchair beside her dad's bed.

“Sleep well,” he said.

“Yeah, 'night Gwen. I'll take the sofa, shall I?” said Lance.

Merlin levelled him with what he thought was a disbelieving glare. Lance turned away and started gathering up cushions and shawls with his good arm.

“You're taking the bed,” said Merlin.

“No I'm not.” Lancelot dropped some cushions on top of Merlin, which bounced off easily. “I'm the guest here.”

“Yeah, you're a guest who's left bloodstains all over my bed. I'm not sleeping on sheets you've bled on.”

From behind him, he heard Lancelot sigh, and took it as a sign of defeat. “I bet you could do something about the mess, Merlin.”

“Shut up, Lance” Merlin grumbled. “I'm already on the sofa, anyway.”

~

“I thought you might have been attacked,” said Arthur. He sounded extremely disappointed to see that Merlin was in one piece. “When you left – early, might I add – yesterday, there was a griffin flapping about killing civilians.”

“Really?” said Merlin. “I thought they were all dead. The griffins, I mean.”

Arthur placed the lid on his fountain pen; for him not to be wholly engrossed in something else whilst talking to Merlin was a minor miracle. He clearly wanted something.

“You didn't … see it, did you? Maybe get a picture on your phone?”

Ah. An eye-witness account.

“My phone doesn't have a camera,” Merlin said, trying his best to make it sound as though a camera on a phone was a bourgeois affectation, rather than a commonplace accessory which Merlin didn't have because he'd dropped his phone in a puddle the day after shelling out eighty quid on it and was thus stuck with an ancient brick of a thing. “I didn't have a clue about the griffin until right now.”

“You don't have a clue about much, Merlin.”Arthur's disdainful expression changed into one of paternal fondness, which was rather creepy and wholly false. “Today's a big day for you,” he said.

“Yeah? How?”

Somewhere, even as Arthur corrected his 'yeah' to a 'yes' with an irritated sigh, there was the hope that he would be able to write something. Proof-read something, even. Right now he was a bottom feeder with no power in the company, but if he could start moving his way up – if he could gain trust and acquire influence – well, then Lance could find himself a job. He'd proved himself, hadn't he? He'd been there for weeks, stapling documents and resisting the urge to mess around with the photocopier.

“Today,” said Arthur, “You get to tidy my room. The code is--”

“I know the code,” Merlin said, and left.

~

Arthur wanted him out of the job so he could get some pretty bimbo or – or bimboy, or himbo, or whatever the correct terminology was – in instead. Merlin wanted out so he could start to lift the iron curtain between magic and the public. Uther wanted Merlin to move up in the company so he could make Gaius happy. There was literally no upside to keeping him in this job, apart from pure schadenfreude on Arthur's part.

And the look – the look on his chiselled, detestable little face as he said, with all the timing of a cabaret compère, “today … you get … to tidy my room, Merlin”, like it was some sort of honour to be allowed to enter the temple that was Arthur's bedroom. Like he should feel exalted as he fumigated the damn thing, as he incinerated unwashed clothes.

The way Merlin was feeling, there would be a lot of incinerating going on in the near future.

To top it all off, the voice in his head would not shut up. As his fury and frustration increased, and as the lift took him up towards Arthur's room, the voice grew louder and louder. It had been harder to block out since he arrived at Camelot, but he'd been getting the hang of it. He supposed the sheer amount of anger bubbling within him was putting him off.

“Do not fret, young warlock. This is your destiny.”

Merlin kicked the corner of the lift. What good was a voice in your head if all it did was tell him to like it or lump it? It had branched out, yes, in the last few days, calling him 'warlock' and 'Emrys' and 'fated one', but it hadn't been useful in the least. If he was going to have internalised narcissistic personality disorder, it would have been nicer to have a Gok Wan rather than a bloody prophet. His imaginary friend should be more complimentary of the things he did, rather than constantly going on about the things he was supposed to do.

“It is written--”

“Shut up!” said Merlin.

“You have a great destiny, Merlin. Young warlock, you--”

Instead of going into floor forty-whatever and magicking a messy room clean, as destiny would have it, he pressed the button that said 'roof', staring for a few seconds as the corridors to floor forty-whatever were revealed to him and then obscured.

“Finally,” said the dragon, when he walked outside.

~

So, dragons were also apparently not extinct. Though Merlin hadn't read about any stone dragons, and was fairly sure that this situation represented a logical step ahead from hearing voices. Either that, or he was in the Matrix. Now was not the time to be questioning his sanity, however: a fifty-foot dragon was looming over him, and was engaging in menacing small talk.

“The weather's lovely, isn't it?” the dragon said. “I'm Kilgarrah, by the way. You've been wholeheartedly ignoring me for the past twenty one years.”

“To be fair, for three of those I couldn't technically speak English.”

Merlin was rather surprised he could think, let alone string a sentence together. His frantic rationalisation ran as follows: dragons are not real, especially talking dragons. Especially gigantic talking granite dragons – oh, shit, did it just blink? It just blinked! - that sit on top of buildings. Therefore, this is an imaginary dragon. Thank you, Carl Sagan. This is an imaginary dragon that I have imagined. Therefore, its pointy granite teeth and its razor-sharp granite claws are merely imaginary granite teeth and imaginary granite claws. Therefore, I have no reason to be scared. This is an imaginary dragon that I have imagined from the voice up, and therefore I can speak to it in any way I choose.

The imaginary dragon curled its lips back to reveal more imaginary meat-shredding teeth. “You are smaller than I expected,” it said. “Can one as puny as you really have the power to free me?”

“Is that my destiny?” asked Merlin. “Free an imaginary dragon from the roof of an office block so it can wreak havoc on a city?”

“No,” said the imaginary dragon. Its gravelly voice rang in Merlin's head, and from the way its lips moved – clumsily, as though operated by an inebriated crew member from Jurassic Park – it was clear that Merlin wasn't good at imagining the details. “Your destiny is to use your magic to help Arthur Pendragon.”

“Oh, I see where this is going. This is a pep talk from my subconscious. Wonderful.” Merlin walked over to the railings, and stared out at the rest of the buildings. Pendragon Tower was one of the tallest, and he could see the mountains to the south, where it was rumoured Wilderen still lived. “Look, I know I have to work for Arthur for a while longer. I just – I promised this man I'd be able to get him a job here, and I can't, so--”

“A while longer? Boy, your destiny is to be by Arthur's side always. You must use your magic and protect him. You must guide him on his way to greatness.”

Merlin was so shocked by the dragon's calm statement that he forgot that it was imaginary. Arthur. Always. Greatness. He didn't know which part of that prediction was the most ridiculous.

“You must be thinking of a different Arthur, because this one's an idiot. Greatness, my arse.”

“You are two sides of the same coin,” said the dragon sagely.

“Okay,” said Merlin. “So we're polar opposites, is that what you mean? Arthur deliberately sets me the most ridiculous tasks – knowing him he'll have committed a brutal murder or something in his bedroom, just so I'll have more cleaning to do! He thinks I'm too poor to be around and too annoying to employ. He hates me.”

“The half cannot truly hate that which makes it whole.”

“What?” Merlin took a step back so he could better read Kilgarrah's expression.

Merlin, said another voice, one which labelled itself Reason. You just took a step back to better interpret the expression of a statue. Of a dragon. That you think you're having a conversation with.

He ignored the voice.

“Did you seriously just say that? What are you, a screenwriter for Disney? Or, like, Mills and Boon? Harlequin?” The dragon raised a single eyebrow. “Never mind,” said Merlin. “What I'm saying is if I get to use magic to protect people, it won't be prats like Arthur.”

“Well,” said Kilgarrah. “If you could make an exception this once …”

~

When Merlin made it downstairs, there was a massive vase of lilies sitting on Arthur's desk. The vase was tall and pale blue, its facets making the entire thing look ice-still: elegant, yet somehow lifeless.

“I was spying on you,” said Arthur, feet up on the table. “A virtue of this new security measure. You didn't even go into my room. No, no, the great Merlin Emrys is too good to do basic things like, oh, I don't know, his job. What possessed you to go straight up to the roof – a place where, might I add, you don't have permissions to go – and then spend ten minutes having a good chat with yourself?”

Arthur didn't seem particularly angry. He was more mock-exasperated, in the way a family was when the new puppy chewed up someone's slippers, or the way a parent was when a child was caught with its hand in the cookie jar. And Merlin was glad that Arthur had come to terms with having an incompetent slave such as himself, he really was. Maybe it would mean that he would be set fewer impossible tasks (“schedule me an interview with Harper Lee, Merlin”; “how about Salinger?”; “maybe even Hunter S. - how about that?”). But, at that moment, there were bigger things to deal with.

“Where did those come from?” Merlin asked, pointing to the white flowers.

“There was no card,” Arthur said smugly. “The receptionist brought them up a couple of minutes ago. Why? Are you jealous?”

“Have you touched them?”

“What? Have I—Merlin, what is wrong with you?”

“They're poisoned. There's this beetle – it burrows into the stem, and releases this juice, so that when someone touches the plant the poison goes inside them, and—I don't have time for this. Did you touch the flowers?”

“That,” said Arthur, “is the most ridiculous thing I've ever--”

Merlin glared at him. Arthur had spent the past ten minutes watching Merlin have a heated argument with a stationary object; the sensible thing to do would be to humour the madman.

“No, Merlin, all right? I've not touched the bloody flowers. But if I did,” he said slowly, “I'd be fine. The girl who'd brought them up was fine. I'll be fine, and do you know why? Because poisoned flowers is a worse assassination idea than exploding cigars. Who touches flowers they're sent, especially if they're already in a vase? Look,” he said, picking it up at its base.

He reached out his other hand to the flower, but Merlin, lunging forwards, knocked the vase out of his hands. It shattered into iridescent shards on the floor, but a lily flopped out as the vase cartwheeled. It brushed greasily against his bare arm, and the world began to swim.

He tried to pick himself up after rugby-tackling the vice-president of Pendragon Press, but overcompensated and fell back on his arse. Merlin took a second to think about how ridiculous he looked and how embarrassed he should be, but the last thing he felt was a vindictive sort of pleasure.

“I was right, you cock,” he tried to say, but he couldn't get his lips to move. This, he thought, not a little hysterically, was how the dragon must feel. The three-tonne stone dragon that had just provided proof of its reality.

He heard shouting, but it was as indistinct as the mass of colours into which his vision had deteriorated. The noises drew together, the familiar rumbles of Kilgarrah and the panicked shouts of Arthur multiplying in number, growing in volume, and rising in pitch to an all-consuming whine.

Make it stop, he thought, and he didn't have time to regret tempting fate before everything did.

Part IV

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