Just Another Normal Operation (Normal Days II)

Chapter 17

Chapter 17

Arthur felt like a target that was set up at the shooting range in front of a bunch of knights with crossbows, all very intent on hitting aforementioned target. The worst thing was the fact that he could not see any of the men who wanted to shoot a hole in him, all of them hidden on rooftops or in buildings. All he could see were the people that surrounded him. The crowds were entirely unaware of what was going on around them. They were having phone conversations, were talking to friends or were casting anxious glances at their watches, wondering if they would still make their appointments in time. Arthur found he now envied them their ignorance. Nothing, he decided, nothing was worse than the anticipation. He knew there was a bomb out there, knew that bomb could kill him if they did not get to it in time, and somehow time seemed to fly by, leaving them less and less time to locate the device and disarm it. It didn't help matters that the FSB still seemed very intent on killing all of them before the bomb got its chance. Both those things were making Arthur's skin crawl. It resembled a magical attack too much; there was almost nothing one could do to defend oneself from either a bomb or a bullet once it was fired.

The streets were crowded, too crowded maybe even, but for once Arthur would not be heard complaining. Normally all these people packed in so little space was sufficient to make him a bit claustrophobic, but now they had crowd coverage. They would be less easily seen and even if they were, it would be rather difficult to take aim, or so Arthur imagined. It would be better for his own peace of mind if this was what he believed.

He fell into step with Lucas, who was the tallest of their group, so it was up to him to keep a watchful eye out for potential trouble. Arthur caught himself staring at the rooftops of the buildings as well. He tried to be subtle about it, so that he would not draw attention to himself, but he didn't think he was very successful. It was difficult to remember being inconspicuous when he feared that any moment now a bullet might try to kill him.

'All well?' he asked.

Lucas concluded his own scrutiny of the surrounding buildings and gave him a curt nod in response. 'We're clear.'

He hardly finished that sentence when he seemed to be knocked forward by some invisible force. It was just a second and then he was back on his feet, walking as if nothing untoward had happened at all, as if he had only stumbled. This might have fooled someone without Arthur's training into believing that Lucas had merely tripped, but Arthur was a knight of Camelot, one who had a passion for hunting, which required, as he had once told Merlin, speed, stealth and an agile mind. Lucas was not fooling him now and it had not escaped his notice that Lucas was holding a hand against his side. Like Morgana had done when she had been shot and she tried to stop the wound from bleeding.

The realisation crashed down on him like an avalanche. They were under attack and Lucas had been hit already. It was a reflex to reach for his sword on his hip, but he came out empty-handed. A sword was too easily noticeable in twenty-first century London. He only had the small dagger he could carry with him out of sight and that was not going to do him much good against the FSB. Now that he thought about it, he didn't think his sword would be any use either. A crossbow would be better, but that, like the sword, would be too noticeable. Not for the first time since he had come to London he wished he knew that he had a gun and the knowledge how to handle one. Without that he was too easy a target.

Lucas had seen Arthur's reaction and shook his head. 'Don't,' he said. 'We need to get to the station.' It was the sensible thing to do, but at the same time it went against the grain to run and do nothing. It felt too much like letting their attackers get away with it and that was not something Arthur was in a habit of doing.

'Are you all right?' He wasn't in the habit of visibly and audibly asking after his friends' wellbeing – when he was in the mood to actually admit that he had them – but today was the exception and he found himself doing and saying things he would otherwise never dream of saying and doing.

'It's missed all the important bits,' Lucas replied. 'I'll live.'

Arthur rewarded that answer with a disbelieving look. He had seen the effect of such a wound on Morgana. It had weakened her, slowed her down, even almost a week later. It had done considerable damage to her and she had been shot in the same place Lucas had. Morgana had one advantage Lucas lacked though; she'd had magic to draw some extra strength from.

'It only grazed my side,' Lucas insisted. 'Keep moving, Arthur.'

He was not the king of Camelot here. In London he was only about the rank of a junior officer, although he had access to more information than most junior officers occasionally. For now Lucas outranked him and Arthur had to do as he said. And it was the best thing he could do as well, because really, Lucas knew his way around this city and this whole underground train system that still gave Arthur the creeps. Arthur had been on them exactly one time and it had left him with a desperate wish to see the sun again. Tunnels reminded him all too much of the variety that had Wildren crawling around here, there and everywhere.

He risked one last glance over his shoulder, but the FSB snipers he knew there to be, were not visible. The sooner they got into the station, the better it would be. Ros was still leading the way, having relieved Arthur of his task of manhandling Connie with her to ensure that treacherous cow, as Malcolm had referred to her in an angry whisper, did not go anywhere they didn't want her to go. Mordred was keeping a close eye on them in order to not lose sight of them and get lost in the crowd and Merlin was glaring daggers at the Druid's back. Had he still not ceased his bullying? When all this was over, they would need to talk.

Mordred did not belong here. He was out of his element, didn't know what to do with himself. Arthur had hoped the situation would more or less have resolved itself after he had been able to make himself useful in Moscow, but that did not seem to be the case. The sooner he'd be back in Camelot, the better it would be.

The station itself was – how was it even possible? – even more crowded than the street outside. Lucas motioned for Arthur to come with him as he took the lead. Apart from the hand that was still pressed against his side, he seemed to be all right. Arthur wasn't fooled though. He himself had been pressing on for longer than he should on several occasions. Lucas was the type to do the exact same thing and that was by no means wise to do. But turning back and finding a hospital was not an option and magic didn't work on bullet wounds, Merlin had once explained.

'Are we taking the train?' he asked.

Lucas shook his head. 'Too easily traceable. We don't know who's working for Tiresias. They could have a welcome committee out for us long before we get to our destination.'

This unfortunately made a bit too much sense. 'Then why are we here?' What else could they be doing in a station?

'There are other ways.' Lucas was clearly not planning on sharing any more of his plans and there was no choice for Arthur but to follow him to a blue door that looked very locked to him. It wasn't just a lock that could be turned with the right key. It was the kind of door that needed to be opened with a number code. Arthur's nose wrinkled in disgust; he remembered those things from when he had been locked into one of the basement holding cells in Thames House upon his first arrival.

'It's locked,' he observed when Lucas tried the door.

'Bravo, Sherlock,' Ros commented sarcastically. Arthur didn't know who Sherlock was, but for some reason he didn't think it was an intelligent person, not from the way Ros said it.

'Let me,' Merlin offered. He moved to stand in front of the door, glanced over his shoulder to see if no one was watching and then held his hand against the obstacle. 'Tospringe.'

For a moment Arthur worried that magic wouldn't work on electronic devices – it didn't work on wounds caused by modern weapons after all – but then the door opened and they could get through. He would not deny his relief as he ushered the others through and kept an eye out for what Lucas referred to as "company." He saw no one he would suspect of being with the FSB, but then, he was not the expert.

'Can you lock the door behind us?' he asked Merlin when everyone was through. 'Magically?'

Merlin merely rolled his eyes as he did an attempt at their usual form of banter. 'I am a warlock,' he pointed out.

'I know, Merlin.' Arthur went with it. 'Well, aren't you going to do it?'

'There really is no pleasing you sometimes,' the self-proclaimed warlock remarked, muttering not quite under his breath, which meant that he wanted Arthur to hear him.

Arthur smiled in spite of himself and the situation as Merlin did as he was told. It was good to have a few lighter moments now everything looked so dark. Soon that might even be literal, seeing as the road ahead only seemed to lead down into deep tunnels. Part of him was glad that he was not in the possession of a watch. If he had, he would not be able to stop looking at it, to see how much time they had left. But even without a watch he knew that time was very rapidly running out. And if the bomb went off, everyone would be dead.

But that was not entirely true. 'Merlin?'

'Shut up?' the servant guessed.

But this was no longer banter. 'If it looks like we won't make it in time…' he began.

'But we will be,' Merlin interrupted, throwing in his endless optimism. It was a part of who he was, Arthur had come to learn. He always tried to be like this when they rode into a dangerous situation. Arthur vividly recalled that the servant had done the same thing when Morgana had unleashed the Dorocha on the world. Even when things were most bleak, Merlin tried to crack jokes. It was one of the traits Arthur appreciated most about his manservant. 'We are going to get there in time, Arthur. And we will defuse that bomb.'

He wished he shared the optimism. 'How can you be so sure?' he demanded.

The warlock shrugged. 'Because I have faith in you. I've always had faith in you, Arthur.' He looked a bit uncomfortable when he confessed the rest. 'And I have faith in Ros and Lucas as well.'

That was something he had not expected. Maybe the part about Ros should have been not as much of a surprise; they had worked together on occasion. It was the part about Lucas that took him off guard. There had been distrust between those two, almost right from the start. Something must have changed to make Merlin change his tune so much. Maybe what had happened in Moscow had something to do with it. But no matter what had happened, Arthur was glad of it.

'If it looks like we won't make it in time,' he said again and this time slightly raised his voice to drown out Merlin's immediate protest. 'If it looks like we won't make it in time, I want you to grab as many people as you can transport and take them with you to Camelot, as far away from London as you can. I don't care who it is, and you won't waste any of your time looking for me. You get out of there if I give the word.'

Merlin's face was a study in unhappiness. Given the fact that he believed it to be his destiny to protect Arthur – the very idea of which still made Arthur's skin crawl with uneasiness – he was bound not to take well to the order to abandon the man he was sworn to protect at all costs. He'd better get to terms with it soon. 'I can't abandon you!'

'You can if I tell you to,' Arthur said. It was not that he was anxious to die, but some things were worth dying for, a concept Merlin did not quite understand yet. He'd never quite imagined this would happen in the twenty-first century, but if it was a choice to lay down his life in order to literally save millions of people, then that was not a choice at all. And he didn't have the power to magically whisk himself away at the last possible moment. But Merlin had that option and Arthur would have him take it, even if he was forced to make him choose self-preservation. 'Merlin, that is an order.' Harry's favourite phrase was a gift from heaven. 'I'll tell Mordred the same thing. It is non-negotiable.' Another one of Harry's that suited his purpose well.

The unhappiness increased in tenfold, but Merlin nodded.

Now for the hardest part. 'And I'll leave it to you to look after Mordred.' He started walking at a fast pace after the rest of the group now that the door was properly locked. It gave him a good excuse not to look at his servant. 'I shouldn't have taken him here. He doesn't understand what is happening here. If I die today…' He ignored Merlin's noise of protest. It would seem Merlin had a harder time coming to terms with the idea than Arthur himself. 'If that happens, you need to look after him. He admires you, I know, and he has nowhere and no one else to turn to.' Exactly why Mordred admired Merlin so much was a mystery to the king of Camelot; Merlin had been downright rude to the young Druid from day one.

Merlin nodded again. 'I'll most certainly take care of him.'

There was something in those words that Arthur did not like the sound of, but now was not the time to argue. They had a bomb to defuse and they were running out of time. This assurance would have to make do for the time.

They caught up with the rest of the group on an abandoned platform. It looked like a station, but it had long since fallen into disrepair. Some of the benches had been carelessly thrown onto the ground, as were several other metal objects that were less easily identified. What were they doing here?

When he voiced that question, Lucas was the one who answered. 'Disused service tunnel. London's full of them. One of them will lead us directly to London Bridge.'

Ros, for once, seemed sceptic. 'Have experience with that, have you?'

Her colleague nodded. 'About ten years ago. Long story.'

'We don't have time for this.' To Arthur's surprise it was Connie who said this. It vexed him to find that he agreed with her. Surely something was wrong with that?

'Let's go,' he merely said, not even looking in the woman's direction. After all, they had a bomb to find.

Ros Myers was not claustrophobic. Having said that, she was not at all at ease in these tunnels. It was better than the streets, she supposed, where they stood out like targets on a shooting range. It could be considered a miracle that no one had been hurt worse this far. She cursed herself for not having noticed earlier that Lucas had been hit. Of course he had been trying to hide his injuries; he was too much like her in that respect: job first and everything else be damned. And while she would agree that the job did come first, especially with a potentially mushroom-shaped disaster – or the receiving end of a Russian gun variety, take your pick – looming over their heads, she'd rather he told her.

Don't let him mess with your head, Myers, she reprimanded herself as she dragged Connie with her as fast as she could. She couldn't care less about the other woman's discomfort; she had lost any right for consideration when she had betrayed them to the Russians. That was something she didn't allow herself to think about too much though, because thinking about that would automatically lead to wondering about what it was that she deserved and what she had rights to, after her involvement with Yalta. Harry had given her a second chance, one she knew she could not have reasonably expected. God knew she had believed she'd been left to rot when she was freezing in Russia.

You never murdered a colleague, she reminded herself. She had turned to help MI-5 before Juliet Shaw had come at her with a needle, and not just because she had no other choice. She had turned back to that bloody manor of her own free will. Connie was only doing this to save her own skin and get to her new life with her new identity in New Zealand. Ros had never expected anything of the kind. Stop drawing comparisons and keep moving. Stewing things over would not keep that portable nuclear device from blowing all of London to kingdom come. It was in her job description that she was not to let things like that happen if she could help it. And that she could.

Arthur had a similar sense of purpose. 'I'll handle her,' he said to Ros. 'You lead.'

Ros nodded. She'd much rather that Lucas did that, but he was covering their backs. As he was the only one with a gun and the danger was most likely coming from behind if – when – it came, that was the most sensible thing to do. But it was in moments like these that she missed having a gun of her own. It would not go amiss in the given circumstances.

They all had to walk behind one another. Ros led the way, followed by Connie, who was pushed in the right direction by the Once and Future King. Mordred followed and Merlin and Lucas closed the column, both of them wearing similar expressions of wariness and general jumpiness. Merlin had rediscovered his scowl, the one he had worn when he had suspected Lucas of treason. But it wasn't directed at Lucas, for a change. No, it seemed that he was trying to glare a hole in Mordred's back and he kept up whispered conversation with Lucas that Ros, to her endless frustration, could not hear a single word of.

What the hell has happened that these two suddenly seem to have become best friends? Something was off about it. There was more to this than just bonding over a rescue mission in Moscow. Then it should have been Lucas who was being grateful and that was not what was happening here. As it was, he seemed to have adopted Merlin's unease. Ros could not escape the feeling that for one reason or another, Mordred had something to do with it. He had seemed well-mannered enough so far and legend was usually nothing more than a load of nonsense in her experience, so she didn't think he was really out to kill Arthur. As it was, the Druid seemed to all but worship the king of Camelot.

She kept an ear and eye out for trouble, but apart from Lucas's occasional direction and the noise of a train passing through a tunnel far away from them, it was utterly silent. It was a good thing, she supposed, because it at least meant that the FSB was not in here with them. Yet. There was CCTV in the station and with the sleepers of the Tiresias network still unknown to them, who knows what the FSB knew. She supposed she should be grateful that the tunnels were not filled with cameras.

It was difficult to measure time in this place and Ros forbade herself from glancing at her watch too often, but she thought that they were making good time. She set a fast pace and Arthur forced Connie on, even when the woman's breathing turned to panting. Like her, he could not care less about how she felt. If she wanted consideration, she should have thought about the consequences of her actions a little sooner.

Everything was going well, until they came upon the old train blocking their way. There was no way they would be able to squeeze themselves past, so there really was only one option: to go through it. Even if it was locked, Merlin would be able to deal with that, but that was not the problem. Ros simply disliked surprises.

'Whose idea was this?' she muttered angrily.

Lucas had heard her all the same. 'I forget,' he retorted sarcastically.

It made her smile in spite of herself. Humour might be just what they needed in this situation.

'We should go deeper,' Connie said, who'd clearly no intention whatsoever of doing what Ros had in mind. 'If the bomb goes off…'

The Section Chief heard herself growl. If this didn't tell her everything she needed to know about how the former intelligence analyst valued British lives, then this did. 'You'd do that, would you?' she snarled. 'Dig yourself in like a rat and let other people die?' Well, that was not in her job description and as long as she had a breath in her body, she would do whatever necessary to preserve lives. And her own was not exactly on the top of her list of priorities. It was with Connie, she realised, and Arthur's words sprang to mind again. She could not be more different from you. From the way he had spoken, Ros could tell that he believed in that with all his heart. She had been touched about his knightly behaviour earlier, but now she was slowly, slowly mind, starting to realise that he may have a point. When it came to matters such as these, she was nothing like Connie. And the heavens be praised for that.

'Like a mole,' Connie retorted, baring her teeth in what with a lot of imagination might pass for a smile. Ros was not in the possession of much imagination today. She had more important things on her mind.

She turned away from Connie in disgust, utterly repulsed by the idea that she would let millions of people die only to save her own skin. It was completely and utterly disgusting. 'And you say you're no friend of the Russians,' she commented wryly. For someone who made such claims, she was only too busy trying to prove the opposite and she did not have the patience for this.

They made it past the tube train with only the loss of her watch to a homeless beggar, who had found a new home in the abandoned train. The old woman, clearly half insane – if not entirely so – had been unwilling to let them pass without payment and Ros had offered her watch once she had recovered from the shock of encountering a living being where she had expected none. It would save her from watching at the time when she should be focussing on her job.

She let Arthur lead on when they came out. If she could listen to directions, so could he, and it had not escaped her notice that Lucas had been starting to fall behind. How bad was that wound exactly? She had asked when they were waiting for Arthur and Merlin to catch up, but he had told her that it had missed the important bits and that he'd be fine. She had not been able to get any other answers out of him and part of her had really not wanted to know. It would only make her worry – hang on, she didn't do worry – and that was something she could not afford under the given circumstances. And he had seemed fine then. He didn't seem fine now.

'Let me look,' she demanded.

Lucas grimaced and lifted his shirt, keeping moving all the while, obviously determined not to be the one to slow them down, but he winced in pain and with good reason; she could hardly see the wound because of all the blood.

'What happened?' she questioned.

'It grazed my side, just outside the station,' he reported curtly. 'Ros, I am fine.'

It could have been something she'd have said herself. Who cared about a minor wound when there was still a bomb to be dealt with? It turned out that it was quite another thing to watch a colleague being hurt and push himself to the edge. For goodness sake, did that bloody man still think he had to prove himself? Didn't he think he'd proven himself enough? They could go on without him if need be. Lucas too had limits and he was currently pushing himself too hard.

'We'll make London Bridge in time,' she told him briskly. 'We can afford five minutes rest.' Colleagues mess with your head, she thought, but there was nothing else for it. Lucas would be an asset to this task if he could go on, but in order to go on, he needed help first. It was as simple as that.

If Lucas knew, he didn't comment on it. If that wasn't testimony to in how much pain he was, Ros didn't know what would be. Normally he was too much like her and would have pressed on even when she ordered him to look after himself. He simply dropped the backpack at his feet and pulled out the first aid kit.

Ros frowned at it. 'Where did you get that?'

'Stole it from a car boot,' Lucas said. 'With some help from Merlin. You could sue us for theft if you wanted.'

She would do no such thing; she was just glad someone had thought of it. With the FSB on their heels, this could be a necessity of life. There was no telling if the FSB were already here in with them, but it was for sure that they'd know by now that they hadn't taken a train and had not left the station. The FSB would be looking.

'Just hurry up,' she told him curtly.

'I'll help,' Merlin offered. When he saw Ros's incredulous look. 'Gaius has made me help him for years. I know what I'm doing.'

Ros thought it wiser not to mention the fact that medieval healing techniques had been outdated for about five centuries. She was not in a position to turn up her nose at help. Instead she opted on sending a murderous glance at Connie, who had taken the opportunity to sit down.

'What happens if they wait for us when we surface at London Bridge?' she asked.

'Do they know we're headed there?' Arthur demanded, narrowing his eyes in suspicion.

Connie snorted. 'Of course not. That dossier is my insurance. Why would I tell them about it?'

'I don't know,' Ros said. 'They seem to know everything else.' And how frightening that was. But she'd rather die than admit to that.

'Do you think I want this to happen?' the elderly woman snapped irritably. 'A nuclear device in London?'

'You were the one to say that we should go deeper and wait for London to be obliterated,' Arthur remarked venomously. 'You sold Lucas out to the Russians and murdered Ben in cold blood. I think it's safe to say that none of us know right now what goes on inside your head.' He took a deep breath to control himself. 'And neither do I want to. In fact I am glad that I don't know.'

'I never wanted this!' Connie protested. It sounded almost like a growl. 'I am what I am, but I've done more for this country than you'll ever know.'

'I'm sure Ben would appreciate that,' Ros sneered. Her patience for this woman, if she'd had any at all, was in immediate danger of running out. She certainly didn't want to waste any of her time listening to her pathetic attempts at justifying what she had done. Ros could forgive much and had done so in the past, but there was one thing no one would ever get away with. If they touched her team, then it was over. There was no way back from that.

Arthur looked thoughtful. 'Morgana used to do a lot of good too, you know,' he told the former intelligence analyst. 'Before she met Morgause and changed so much. She was one of the few who had the guts to stand up for what was right, no matter what my father said. She used to tell me to do the right thing. When my father made a mistake or was doing something that she thought of as wrong, she used to tell him too. She helped when we fought bandits that had raided Merlin's village and she gave food to the people when there was a famine, even against my father's explicit orders.' For a moment he was silent. 'Strangely enough, none of that seems to mean anything now. The only thing I think of when I think of her these days is of what she became, the legacy she left behind. It's hard to see people's merits when in the span of such a short time they've undone all the good they did before. I personally find it hard to see what good you may have done when you have been working for the Russians for thirty years. If there's any good, it's history.' He turned away from her to inquire how things were going with Lucas.

Ros thought it a rather impressive speech from a king who seemed to get by on his good looks rather than his brain most of the time. Clearly Arthur Pendragon had done some growing up lately. In this situation it was something that was sorely needed too.

And it had Connie seething in anger. 'You don't know what you're talking about.'

Arthur rounded on her, eyes blazing. 'But I do, don't I? Because every single time it's me who's on the receiving end of betrayal. Believe me, I know exactly what I am talking about.'

Ros imagined that he did. She did not know him all that well, but he had known three betrayals that she knew of, two of them happening in the time she had known him. The only one who may have known more was Harry, but he had been in this job for ages.

'At least in Camelot you can have the death penalty,' she muttered. She'd pay good money to reinstate it for traitors in Britain, especially when they were like Connie, who didn't even seem to regret her actions. 'On your feet,' she commanded. 'We have a little more than half an hour before that bomb goes off. And I don't have any reservations about repeating my treatment of Morgana on you.' It's why you hate me so much. It's not because I'm a spy, but because you're looking in a mirror. There were differences too, but being reminded of her own mistakes had left her edgy and angry and with no patience whatsoever for Connie's well-being or continued existence.

She was about to forcefully haul Connie to her feet, but she was distracted by a gun shot. Her automatic response was to look around for the culprit, but then, normally a gunshot wasn't followed by a burning pain in her shoulder.

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