Summary: Modern AU. The only way for Hunith to protect herself from the monsters that roam the night, spreading the deadly virus that is slowly destroying humanity, is to hide away in her basement and pray they don't force their way in.
Until the night her brother Gaius arrives with two strangers ready to show her there's another.
Word Count: 4462
Author's Notes: Happy holidays! Getting this was a gift to me as well because I'm in love with both of the prompts you provided. I picked this one because I had hoped it wouldn't run away with me like I was positive the other one would, only to discover that it is very likely I will end up adding to this at some point. Oh well. It's the gift that keeps on giving then, I suppose! :)
Disclaimer:Merlin is owned by the BBC and Shine. No copyright infringement is intended and no profit is being made. Don't send us to the dungeons.
Hunith had barely pulled the trapdoor shut when the banging started.
Each pound resonated against her skin, forcing her pulse to echo the beat. Gritting her teeth, she slid the deadbolt into place instead of leaping to the floor and cowering in the corner. Now, more than ever, she needed to be thorough. With night already suffocating the countryside, a single wrong step could mean death.
The back of her blouse was damp with perspiration when she finally touched down on the cement floor of the basement. Above her head, the knocking went on, as relentless as the monsters that now threatened to shred the world, but she had to ignore it, find some way to block it out without falling into night terrors when (if) she went to sleep.
It wasn’t easy. It never was. On the few occasions one of the monsters stumbled across her home, she usually curled up in the corner of her tiny hiding place and read frothy romances by candlelight to try and forget she was only a few feet from being devoured.
She never used to read romances. Before the virus had started to spread, she’d been all about her thrillers and science fiction, adventures that took her beyond her dull little life as a home nurse in the wilds of Oakham. But with every day a fight for survival, she wanted no reminder of the excitement she’d sought before. Better to escape in candy floss stories. They might not be able to beat back dripping pustules and screams from the grave, but at least they wouldn’t make her dreams any worse.
The banging grew louder. Hunith’s hand shook as she reached for her battered paperback, but when a faint voice added into the noise, the book slipped from her fingers to splay across the floor.
“Hunith! Please! You have to let us in!”
Her gaze whipped upward, her heart in her throat. “Gaius?” she said, but no sound came past her parched lips, only the whisper of her breath.
Could it be a trick? Gaius was supposed to be safe behind Uther’s walls, helping protect his uni friend from the forces that were trying to destroy them all. To get to Oakham would take more hours than were currently in the day. Surely, he wouldn’t be so foolish to risk traveling after the sun went down?
It sounded too much like him to remain where she was. Though her instincts tried to hold her back, Hunith climbed up the ladder and worked at the locks that kept her secure underground. They took less time to open than they had to set—a frightening thought if she dared to dwell on it—and she heaved her shoulder against the trapdoor to lift it just enough to peer into the darkness of her small cottage.
Gaius’s voice was unmistakable now, and while she couldn’t see much past the nose on her face, Hunith scrambled upward to race to the front door. The windows had long been boarded up, and without light, she fumbled to open the latches that barred entry. Her nail caught on an unseen edge and tore. Please don’t be bleeding. I don’t need that right now, too.
She’d barely got the last lock open when heavy weight pressed the door open, causing her to stumble backward. Three figures blocked the faint light from the moon, and then one of them was throwing the door shut again, frantically trying to get the bolts back in place.
“Gaius?” she asked, pushing herself to her feet.
“I was afraid you weren’t here.” His voice came from the man at the door, which begged the question of who the other two were. Now that her sight had time to adjust to the lack of illumination, she could tell that while both were large, the bigger of the two leaned heavily against the other. “Get the door open to the basement. I’ll explain everything once we’re down there.”
Her body didn’t feel like her own as she obeyed his orders. She almost felt like a little girl again, following him around to do his bidding as if he was her father instead of her impressive older brother. He’d never complained about her presence, even defending her when his friends did, but then again, Hunith had idolized him to the point of taking the blame for more than one of his minor infractions. She could see how that could pave the way of good will for a young man with a penchant to take too many risks.
She hung back as he helped his two friends climb down the ladder. Their coats were filthy, muddy dirt crumbling from their heavy boots as they scraped off each rung. The largest of the trio wore a heavy scarf wound around his head and face, as if they’d been walking into a sandstorm, but Gaius’s other companion hadn’t even bothered doing up his jacket let alone covered his head.
The eyes he turned toward her as they set foot in the basement were dark and somber. “Thank you,” he said. “I thought we were dead, for sure.”
Though Hunith nodded at him in acknowledgment, she tore her attention away from his arresting face to focus on Gaius. “What’re you doing here?” she demanded. “I thought you were with Uther.”
At mention of Uther’s name, the man who’d thanked her snorted in derision. Gaius shot him a dirty look. “You would’ve done the same,” he said, but it was addressed to his friend, not to her.
The friend had the nerve to stare Gaius down. “I hope you live long enough to realize just how wrong that really is.”
The third man collapsed at the friend’s side, nearly toppling them both over. Gaius was on his other side in a flash, and the two put aside their momentary differences to guide him to the sole bed in the room.
“Do you have medical supplies down here?” Gaius asked as they stretched him out on top of the mattress.
Hunith couldn’t figure out where to look. Her brother and his surprising presence, the obviously hurt man who was now in her bed, or the enigmatic stranger whose gaze she could still feel on her skin. “What do you need?”
“Fresh water, to start,” said the stranger.
“Then bandages,” Gaius added. “Lots of them.”
Since explanations obviously weren’t going to come any time soon, Hunith went to the sink in the corner and filled a basin. She needed to find out how long they would be staying. Any longer than a night, and she’d have to make arrangements to get extra storage down here to accommodate everyone.
The stranger intercepted her when she tried to take it to Gaius. He’d slipped out of his coat while her back was turned, revealing some kind of uniform underneath. In spite of its obvious wear and the dried blood that stained one leg—not his, she thought, since the fabric wasn’t torn—it fit his long, lean body like he was born to wear it. He wasn’t the most muscled guy she’d ever met, but there was something about the tightly wound feral energy of his body that made her catch her breath.
“Thank you,” he said, then gave her a sad half-smile as he took the basin away. “You’re probably going to get sick of hearing that.”
“It’s all right.” She smiled, hoping he’d take it as encouragement to tell her what was going on, but he went to the help Gaius before he could see. She was about to follow when she remembered, “Bandages. Right.”
Her supplies were in a steel lockbox under the narrow two-person table nestled against the wall. Though Gaius hadn’t asked for them, she grabbed a syringe of morphine and a vial of antibiotics, too, cradling them in the crook of her arm as she clipped the padlock back on. All of it fell to the floor when she straightened and got her first good look at the man on the bed.
Like his friend, his coat was now off, as well as the scarf that had been covering his head. Iridescent scales covered every inch of his exposed face, like he wore armor instead of skin. His breathing was rough, his narrow lips split and bleeding. Though his eyes were closed, his eyelids were sunken and ashy, fluttering like fragile moths as he viewed whatever nightmares possessed him.
If it weren’t for the fact that he wasn’t currently trying to eat their brains, she would’ve thought he was one of the zombies that roamed the countryside.
She barely felt the strong arm curl around her back to guide her to a nearby chair. “He’s not a threat.” The stranger filled her line of sight when he knelt in front of her. “I know it looks bad, but you have to trust us. Gaius would never have put you at risk.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I’m Balinor.” Without taking his eyes off her, he jerked his chin toward the bed. “That’s one of my men. Kilgharrah.”
“One of your…?”
“My men. I was one of Uther’s generals.”
Was. No longer, but as her gaze shot to her brother, bent over the unconscious soldier, she couldn’t help but ask herself, What about Gaius?
“Why does he look like that?” she managed to ask.
Balinor’s lips pressed together. Gaius was the one who said, “He got bitten.”
Hunith shot out of her chair, only to be pressed back into it by Balinor’s strong hands. “He’s not a threat,” he repeated.
“How?” she exclaimed. “If he was bitten—”
“He’s immune.” Gaius finally straightened, rubbing at his eyes. Hunith wanted to slap his hands away from his face and douse them in hydrogen peroxide, but Balinor wasn’t letting her go anywhere. “Trust me, Hunith. He was bitten several months ago. He’s not contagious. Believe it or not, he’s actually our best hope to beat these monsters.”
Gaius had never lied to her, but this was the first time she’d ever heard of someone being immune to the zombies. “Then why did you bring him here? Are you taking him back to Uther?”
Balinor laughed, but there was no humor in it. “Uther’s an idiot who’s going to kill us all. We’re lucky to have got him out alive.”
Hunith sagged back in her seat. “I don’t understand any of this.”
Carefully, Balinor pulled out the other chair and straddled it in front of her. His body folded over the narrow frame, nearer to her than any other human had been since the virus started to spread.
“We’ve been slowly losing the battle against the monsters because their numbers are growing,” he said, his voice gentle. “We’ve been doing our best to barricade the uninfected, but people don’t like being caged up, even when it’s for their own good. They slip out, say it’s not going to happen to them. And little by little, the monsters get closer and closer to our safest havens.”
“But I thought it was your job to protect them.”
“I’ve tried.” Anguish shone so deeply in his dark eyes, she had to fight the urge to reach out and hug him. “There’s only so much I can do when Uther keeps cutting me off at the knees.”
“He’s not the reason your friend got infected, is he?” Hunith wouldn’t put it past Uther. She’d never liked him, not from the moment Gaius had first got swept up into his circle. He was greedy and selfish and absolutely certain he was God’s gift. She’d hoped getting married would tame some of his wilder ways and get Gaius out of harm’s way, but so far, nothing had changed.
“We were on a routine patrol,” he said. “Gathering supplies during the daylight while clearing out any nests we found. Kilgharrah went off on his own, even though I told him not to. Always doing what he wants instead of what’s best for the group.”
“Gee, I wonder where he learned that from,” Gaius commented from the other side of the room.
Balinor ignored him. “When I caught up with him, I didn’t even know Kilgharrah had been bit. He seemed perfectly normal. It wasn’t until we were back inside the compound that he started to exhibit…signs.”
She listened to him describe the changes, how he’d done everything in his power to hide it from the others, how he’d been slow to believe Kilgharrah wasn’t a threat just like she had. Through it all, his affection and admiration for his friend shone through, strong enough to help her relax in all of their presence.
“Uther was livid when he discovered what we’d been hiding, but nothing I said could convince him Kilgharrah was still one of us.” His voice had grown harsh, his lip curling every time he mentioned Uther. “As soon as I realized there was no reasoning with him, I got Kilgharrah out of there.”
“Ask him how he did it,” Gaius said in a dry tone.
“He’s not dead, now is he?” Balinor shot over his shoulder.
Hunith’s eyes widened. “You attacked Uther?”
“Don’t sound so pleased by it,” Gaius said. “He’s burned that bridge for good. There’s no way Uther will ever let him back in the compound as a free man.”
“Uther’s going to be dead if he keeps going the way he is,” Balinor argued. “I’m better off with Kilgharrah.”
“Why does Gaius think your friend will help us against the monsters?” Hunith prompted.
“Because the immunities in his blood can be used to inoculate others. That was the only way I’d let Gaius come with us.”
“You needed me to get to Hunith.” Stretching out his legs, Gaius groaned when he stretched and his back cracked. “You’re welcome, by the way.”
“Me?” That put everything into an entirely new light. They’d sought her out on purpose rather than found her as temporary shelter. “Why on earth would you need to get to me?”
Gaius closed his eyes. “Balinor needs a nurse he can trust.”
“But you don’t even know me,” Hunith argued.
Balinor twisted toward Gaius, but without opening his eyes, Gaius waved him off. “This was your idea. I’m going to sleep. Let me know in the morning if she’s crazy enough to listen to you.”
The sound of his snoring soon filled the small space, leaving Hunith all too aware of Balinor and how closely he sat to her. She couldn’t blame Gaius for sleeping while he could—there was no telling how long they’d been on the road or what they’d faced to get to her—but it had been a long time since she’d been in the presence of anyone who disarmed her as much as Balinor did.
“You never have to worry about Gaius again,” Balinor said, breaking the silence that had fallen between them. “The zombies can’t infect him anymore.”
“They could still kill him,” she countered. “Fighting has never been his strong suit.”
“He can take care of himself.” His gaze ducked, his long fingers rubbing at dirt that looked like it had been ground into the skin on his knuckles. “He’s talked about you for as long as I’ve known him. From the sound of it, you can take care of yourself, too.”
On the one hand, there was something deeply satisfying about hearing Gaius brag about her. She’d lived so long worshipping her older brother, knowing that he respected her, too, went a long way.
On the other hand, hearing the admiration in Balinor’s rich baritone sent different feelings coursing through her, heated reminders that she was more than a survivor, that she’d once had dreams about boyfriends and dates and long kisses that led to more.
“Coming from one of Uther’s generals, I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said, ignoring the fire in her cheeks.
“It’s all I’ve ever known. It’s not like I got to choose it like you did.”
She sat there and listened as he talked about growing up, the only child in a family that had served Uther’s for generations. He’d been one of Uther’s peers without any of the privilege, thrust into the protectorate while Uther wasted the resources he’d been granted. When the infection had started to spread, Balinor had been one of the first to ask to fight them, but Uther proved his usual selfishness by guilting those around him to protect the compound. Balinor had done the best he could, rising quickly as the men he’d known his entire life were taken by the monsters, but the losses took their toll, aging him prematurely, driving him to desolation at such a young age.
“Don’t get me wrong.” He’d long ago relaxed enough to occasionally meet her eyes, his lanky body unfolding from the chair to allow him to gesticulate as he spoke. She was enamored with the way his eyes shone as he talked about the men who served under him, proof of his true heart and purpose where words couldn’t match. “If I thought it would make a difference, I’d never abandon the compound. But Uther’s narrow-mindedness is infecting everyone around him. Nobody is willing to listen to reason.”
“Gaius did,” she said without hesitation.
“And you?” His dark eyes probed hers. “Do I sound like a madman with delusions of his own self-importance to you?”
“No.” And then, because he deserved to hear it even if she felt a little foolish confessing such an intimacy after knowing him for so short a time, “I think you might be the bravest man I’ve ever met.”
His lips twitched as if he would smile, but she was more relieved by the gratitude in his gaze. “It’s not bravery when this is all I’ve ever known. If you agree to help me, you’ll be the brave one, Hunith.”
“I still don’t know what you want from me. I’m just…” She waved a helpless hand around the basement. “Nobody,” she finished.”
“I want to spread the word about the possibility of immunity,” he said. “Kilgharrah can’t be the only one out there, I’m sure of it.”
“That’s not statistically likely, no,” Hunith agreed.
“Even if it takes us months to find someone else, if we spread the inoculation, people will start seeing that they can fight back. They won’t have to hide anymore. We can reclaim our world, see?”
He wasn’t saying the words out loud, but Hunith was smart enough to see what he could be suggesting. “You need someone to help you administer the inoculations.”
“Yes,” he said in a rush of relief. “Gaius took care of it back at the compound, but I need someone who’s willing to get out there where people really need it.”
“It’s not that hard. Why don’t you let Gaius show you how to do it yourself?”
“He did. But if I’m giving people shots, I’m not focusing on potential threats. What I want is a team effort. Me, to keep an eye out and fight anything that tries to stop us, and you, to make up the vaccine and distribute it.”
As flattered as she was that he considered her brave enough to venture out with him, there was one aspect she didn’t understand. “The compound is crawling with medical personnel. Why on earth would you risk coming all the way here to ask me when you’ve got so many others right on hand?”
“Because you’re no friend of Uther’s,” came the swift response. “I need someone I can trust. Someone who sees the greater good rather than his own needs as the priority.”
Everything he might know about her came filtered through Gaius’s eyes. While Hunith wanted to believe she was this person he described, leaving the safety of her little home was daunting when she knew the monsters that were out there. She didn’t have the same luxury of knowing Balinor like he did her. All she had to base her decision on was her gut instincts on the man and the knowledge Gaius had trusted him enough to bring him to her.
Was it enough?
“I need to think about it,” she said slowly.
Though he looked crestfallen at her reply, Balinor nodded. “Of course, you do. It’s a lot for me to ask, I know. And I won’t hold it against you if you tell me to bugger off. I’ve done nothing to prove to you that my intentions are good, or that I even have the ability to protect you once you’re beyond these walls. Whatever you choose, Hunith, I’ll understand.”
He stood, then, and went over to check on a sleeping Gaius and Kilgharrah, all so terribly reasonable and yet leaving Hunith feeling abandoned, even though she had been the one to put him off for the time being. She covered the loss by pretending to get ready for bed, fetching a spare blanket to curl up in her reading corner. Rather than read, she rested her head on her folded arms and watched the men, wishing she could’ve been privy to the conversations Gaius had had about her.
Once, Balinor glanced over at her and gave her a soft smile.
Hunith fell asleep moments later.
She woke to the soft murmur of voices, sending a jolt of alarm through her until she heard Gaius’s recognizable tone and remembered she wasn’t alone.
“…let me talk to Alice,” he was saying. “You know you can trust her.”
“I’m not asking the one woman who makes you bearable to be around to put her life at risk for this,” Balinor said.
“But you’re willing to put my sister’s life on the line?”
“I’d die protecting her,” he hissed. “I’ve told you that.” He sighed. “Not that it matters now. But at least I can leave knowing she won’t ever have to worry about turning into one of those monsters.”
Balinor spoke as if she’d already turned him down. Had he changed his mind about wanting her to come? Or maybe Gaius had talked him out of it, though considering how far they’d traveled, she doubted that possibility.
“I’ve drawn enough of Kilgharrah’s blood protect both of you—”
“No,” Balinor cut him off. “Just Hunith.”
“That’s folly, and you know it.”
“Someone still has to smell like prey to them if there’s ever a threat—”
Hunith bolted to a sitting position. “You’re going to fight them without being vaccinated yourself?” she asked, aghast.
Balinor and Gaius both looked at her, surprised to see her awake, while on the bed, Kilgharrah laughed. “Even someone as untrained in the field as she is can see how ridiculous you’re being,” Kilgharrah said. His voice was richer than she’d thought it would be, considering his appearance. There was an amused twinkle in his eyes that cast humanity there, too, so different from all the monsters she’d seen. Balinor and Gaius had been right about him. “It’s a shame she isn’t going with us. It’d be fun to see her put you in your place once in a while.”
Hunith pushed the blanket away and stood. “Why does everyone keep assuming I’m not going? I said I wanted to think about it.”
With a frown, Gaius glanced at Balinor. “You said she turned you down.”
Balinor rolled his eyes. “How many times has a woman said to you, ‘Let me think about it,’ and then come back to actually say yes?”
Folding her arms over her chest, Hunith glared at him. “It’s not like you were trying to pull me at the local pub. You asked me to leave everything I know behind and go out to face zombies with you on a nightly basis. I think that merits a couple hours of deliberation.”
At least he looked embarrassed. “It’s too much to ask. I know.”
“And there you go again, putting words in my mouth that aren’t there. For your information, I had decided to agree to your crazy plan, but now I see I might’ve been too quick about that.”
Gaius’s bushy brows shot up, while Kilgharrah shifted to regard her with renewed interest. Balinor hesitated, though, his gaze assessing. “What’re you saying?”
“I’m saying, you have yourself a partner—”
“—on one condition,” she went on, ignoring Gaius’s interruption.
Balinor squared off with her. “What’s that?”
She refused to let him scare her. “You get inoculated, too.”
His mouth thinned. “You don’t get to tell me what to do.”
“I’m not. I’m giving you a choice. Be stupid and go on your own, or arm yourself the right way—as any decent soldier would, I would think—and take along a partner so you have a better chance at success.”
In the background, Kilgharrah snickered, but it was the way Balinor remained quiet in the face of her declaration that she focused on. “You know I’m right,” she said when the silence got to her. “So if you’re serious about wanting to help people, you’ll agree to my terms. Otherwise, it’s a suicide mission, and frankly, I’d be better off trying my luck hiding here than going along with someone who’s so determined to kill himself.”
“You have to take her, Bal,” Kilgharrah said. “Because if you don’t, I’m going to throw my lot in with her instead, and you’ll have to listen to Gaius all the way back to the compound say ‘I told you so.’”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Gaius complained.
“Yes, you would,” Balinor said. To Hunith, “I’m not trying to kill myself.”
“Maybe not.” She could grant that concession, but he’d needed to hear how it sounded. “But is it really worth it to put yourself in the line of fire unnecessarily? Wouldn’t it be better not to offer them any extra bait at all?”
The seconds were heavy as he pondered her words. Not even Kilgharrah smarted off while she waited for his answer.
“You think like a tactician,” Balinor finally said. “Gaius never mentioned that when he talked about you.”
Hunith softened her stance and gave him a half-smile. “I love my brother, but I was nine when he left home. I’ll wager there’s a lot about me he has no idea about.”
“I’m starting to believe that,” Gaius muttered.
Feeling brave, Hunith stuck out her hand. “So do we have a deal?”
It felt like an eternity before he moved. When his hand engulfed hers, she couldn’t deny that the warmth that spread up her arm was not just from his body heat.
“I can’t say you’re entirely what I expected when I asked Gaius to bring me here,” Balinor said. “But I don’t think I could find a better partner than you, Hunith.”
Neither could she.