Just Another Normal Operation (Normal Days II)

Chapter 20

Chapter 20

It took Merlin all of a minute and a half before he realised that he had unknowingly lied to Harry. He had believed that the FSB didn't know where they had gone and even if they had, they would not easily get past his magic. Not easily, but it was possible, especially since he hadn't had long to make his defences. And he had mostly experience in defence against magical intruders. Non-magical intruders were another matter entirely and suddenly it seemed like a very foolish thing to neglect that. Especially now that Lucas told him they were in this tunnel with them.

Lucas looked pale, he observed. It may be the blood loss, but Merlin rather thought this had something to do with the current crisis, and more with the FSB than it had to do with the bomb. The Russians were a more immediate threat and Lucas had more than enough reason to be afraid of captivity. The Russian treatment was hardly something he'd want repeated and his experiences with Morgana might have increased his fear of the idea. It was something he could not relate to, but he could observe and that was what he had seen. And he himself could feel cold shivers go down his spine when he realised they were being chased again. For some reason it was infinitely more frightening than it had been on the streets of London. It had set his teeth on edge then as well, but at least there were alleys and streets aplenty there; more than enough ways to change route and escape should the need arise.

These tunnels were something else entirely. There were only so many options and sound carried in here. But the worst was the enclosed space, the feeling of being trapped and having nowhere to go. And if that wasn't enough to make him jumpy, there was always the chance that Mordred returned to wreak merry havoc again. He had as good as sworn that he would see all of them dead: Lucas, Ros, Arthur and Merlin himself. Just the four of them. Those were his intended victims and whether he himself killed them or that the bomb did the dirty work for him – taking millions of civilian lives with it – he didn't care.

He told himself that right now he had more important business on his mind than Mordred. He wasn't here anymore and clearly hadn't come barging in during the time that he had been away. What a mess. In such a situation it was hard to know what he should be more focused on: the FSB, Connie, the bomb or Mordred. Of course the first three were linked, but at the same time they were different things.

FSB, he decided eventually. Mordred wasn't here, Arthur had Connie under control and the bomb would only really become important once they had access to the information Connie had stashed away at London Bridge. The FSB had the chance still to cut them off before they got to their destination, which decided him in the end.

'I can draw them off.' The offer was made before he had thought it through, but once he had done that, he didn't regret it. Lucas was in no fit state to lead their opponents on a merry hunt – and he was the only one who knew the way to London Bridge besides – and Arthur was hauling Connie along with him. And if that wasn't enough to convince him, then he knew that he was also the only one who was the best at self-defence. He may not be able to heal bullet wounds, but he could hold them off.

Arthur clearly didn't share his optimism. 'You?' That hurt a little. Surely Arthur knew what he could do by now? Had he so little faith in him, even though he had saved one of the king's closest friends from almost certain death in Moscow only yesterday? He tried not to let it get to him, but it was hard. If he could, he would make time turn back on itself so that he could act differently during Operation Camelot, knowing what he knew now. That loss of trust was still present and sometimes he wondered what he could do more that he could prove to Arthur that he was not the kind of man he thought him to be.

'I'm good at dodging guards,' he pointed out. That was one of the few truthful things Mordred had ever said, no matter how ironic it was. 'Of course you wouldn't know; you never caught me.' The banter sounded wooden and awkward, but he couldn't help throwing it in all the same.

Lucas simply took him up on his offer and gave him directions. It felt wrong that the man he had wronged so horribly once was now the one who trusted him to pull this off where Arthur didn't. It had nothing to do with him personally, though. It was just a part of Lucas's job to put the operation before any personal matters.

'How long ago since you last were there?' he asked, not sure if he even wanted to know the answer.

'Ten years,' Lucas answered promptly. Brutal honesty. It reminded him of Ros.

There was no sure way out and the FSB could end his life with one well-aimed bullet, but he could still transport himself away, if it really came down to it, no matter how reluctant he was to show his magic to people, never mind his enemies. He couldn't even say why he was so nervous about this – he had his magic after all – but he blamed these dark tunnels for his uncertainty; he told himself that Arthur's scathing remark had nothing to do with it. 'I'll see you at London Bridge.' Merlin was not entirely sure who he was trying to convince with that, probably Arthur, very likely himself.

'Don't get yourself killed.' To his surprise it was Arthur again.

'Why, would you cry?' Merlin demanded. He tried not to sound bitter, to make it sound like their own unique kind of banter.

'Don't be ridiculous, Merlin. I never cry,' Arthur retorted.

Merlin could hardly keep the smile from his face. This was their kind of banter, not just Arthur at his best. He cared. It was difficult not to smile like a lunatic. But that was hardly the appropriate thing to do under the given circumstances. He had offered to lead the FSB along by the nose and that was what he had to do. Lucas was right after all; they were catching up.

The spook must have been thinking along the same lines. 'Let's go,' he said, just as brusquely as Arthur had been. It didn't escape anyone's notice that he firmly ignored Connie. She herself seemed only too aware of it. 'Good luck. I'll look after him,' he added to Merlin. The warlock could not explain why, but for some reason it felt like he was treated as he would treat a colleague.

Lucas ushered Arthur and Connie into a tunnel that would lead them straight to London Bridge, leaving Merlin to realise one of his biggest mistakes all day: he had no idea how to distract the Russians from exploring the tunnel his friends had just disappeared into. He briefly considered doing the same thing he had done to lure Caerleon's soldiers into a trap, but dismissed it almost right away. Standing in the middle of the corridor, shouting 'Oh, hello there!' and then making a run for it would have distraction written all over it and the FSB may be many things – dangerous, lethal and hostile being among them – but stupid wasn't on the list. He would have to come up with something non-magical and subtle. But since Arthur had never required subtle – sometimes Merlin wondered if he would recognise a hint when it danced naked in front of him with a neon sign over its head – he had never needed to think much on it.

But he'd have to come up with something clever and he'd have to think of something quickly, very quickly. It wouldn't do to be caught here, pondering what to do. They'd believe something was wrong immediately. No, he needed to be away from here soon as possible and he needed to make that lot trail him instead of his companions.

In the end it was Lucas who gave him the idea. He had been dripping blood from his wound on the ground occasionally, before they had stopped and dressed it. That would have left a clear signs for the hunters to follow. Really, all he needed to do was to make the trail a bit longer. They already knew one of their number was wounded, to such an extent that he was dripping blood on the floor – he didn't even want to know what they would make of the place where Mordred had shot Ros – so they would not be suspicious of more blood.

There was a sharp edge on his belt, he knew, and before he could think about it any longer, he brushed his hand forcefully past it. It was a burning feeling when the palm of his hand was grazed open, but it was nothing he could not easily remedy once he was done. And it did the job of making him bleed nicely enough; a few drips fell to the ground.

Merlin stepped in it, so it got underneath his shoes as well, making the trail all the more obvious for it.

He noticed just how far he was willing to go for his friends as he started to make his way to the abandoned station Lucas had mentioned. He was putting his own life at risk – now, that was nothing too new; he did it all the time for Arthur – but he usually didn't intentionally harm himself to do it. In general it were his enemies that did the harming bit. If anything, it served to remind him just how involved he had become in this operation. And it wasn't just for Arthur's sake anymore. He was not entirely sure how that had even happened.

Lucas had told him to lead the FSB away from them, towards a long since deserted station that should have an exit that led back to the street, but there had been a hint of uncertainty in his voice when he said it. His knowledge dated back ten years ago, he had admitted, and much had changed since then. He could be walking into a trap.

No, normal people could be walking into a trap. But he was hardly normal. His mother had told him that since the moment he was old enough to understand her words. He could transport away when things began to look tricky. And by that time the FSB would be too far from London Bridge to get there before Lucas and Arthur got their hands on Connie's insurance and with any luck, they might even defuse the bomb before all hell broke loose. In theory it was a brilliant plan. He could only hope it was just as brilliant when he tried putting it into action, because that was another matter entirely.

He left a trail of blood drops for his opponents to follow. Twice he had to re-cut his hand when the bleeding stopped and that did hurt. The flesh was already tender in the area where he cut himself, and re-opening the wound was somehow much more painful. The last time he had to stop himself from groaning aloud in pain. Arthur would call him a girl, but in his defence, he didn't think Arthur had ever needed to cause himself any physical damage. He really didn't have the right to speak.

Thus far he hadn't heard or seen any sign of his pursuers. The seed of doubt told him that all his efforts were for nothing, that the FSB hadn't fallen for his clever scheme and that they had long since caught up to and killed. You would have heard the gun shots, he reminded himself, and that did indeed calm him down, if only for a short time. Besides, they were hardly going to announce themselves by marching through these tunnels like a bunch of clumsy elephants. They had moved quietly thus far. There was no reason why they should change that now.

Nevertheless, he slowed down once he reached the station itself, continuing on walking instead of running. The platform he moved over breathed desolation and disrepair. A bench was lying in the middle and Merlin had to climb over it, leaving a bloody handprint on it in the process. There could be no doubt that he had been here.

He was nearing the exit when he heard it: shouting voices. A feeling of triumph blossomed in his chest; they had taken the bait. Now he only needed to string them along as far as he could and then he had to get out of here, preferably straight to London Bridge. The station itself would be under surveillance, but he could transport himself into the tunnel near the entrance to the station itself, where no one would come.

There were shouts in what he presumed to be Russian, since he could not make anything of that strange language, several voices. Four, maybe five. That would account for all of the kill squad, since Lucas had killed one of them before his return. The relief grew; they had not split up, but had sent all their might after him.

It was the outcome he had been hoping for, but he could not deny that he was also growing rather nervous now. It was one thing to know that he had his magic to protect him, but it was quite another to remember that with a kill squad on his heels. He started running again.

But there wasn't far to run. He took the stairs to the exit two at a time, only to find himself confronted with a very closed and very locked gate. He could blast it out, but that would probably spook his pursuers. If he was going to play this, he needed to play it well. He'd let them come as close as they could and then only would whisk himself away. This diversion was about buying time and that was what he would do.

'Don't come any closer!' he shouted. His voice echoed down the stairs. 'I am armed and I will shoot if you force me.'

The thought had risen that he could indeed kill them, but he had never been able to really do that when there had been no other options. There were other options now. Lucas might call him soft and he might even be right, but Merlin was reassured in knowing that he could do what needed doing if need be, but only then.

The footsteps on the stairs told him that his command had blatantly been ignored.

'He's trapped!' a male voice shouted down to his comrades when he saw the closed gate. The fact that he had a gun in his hands didn't do much for Merlin's peace of mind.

'I'm warning you,' he said, his voice low now that there was no need for yelling; they could hear him perfectly. 'Do not come any closer.'

The man laughed mockingly, confident in his own abilities and the fact that he outnumbered his intended prey five to one. 'You are not even armed,' he said in a heavily accented English.

He was raising his gun and Merlin rather took that as his cue not to linger here any longer, unless he had a serious death wish. 'Is that what you think?' he smirked. Knowing Morgana had given him enough lessons on how to do so most evilly. The FSB officer seemed a bit unsettled by it.

'You have no gun,' he pointed out.

'I don't need to,' Merlin retorted. He cast the spell in his mind and saw the man instinctively do a step back when he saw the gold in Merlin's eyes. 'Pleasure to have met you all. Don't bother to visit again.'

Several jaws dropped as Merlin transported himself away.

'How long do we have?' Arthur demanded as he forced Connie on in front of him. The pace was murdering for her, he'd imagine, but he had more pressing matters to think of than the welfare of Connie "Traitor" James. Lucas's welfare was a bit more important. The spook was limping more than walking and he was deathly pale; Arthur had a lingering suspicion that he only kept going by sheer force of will and not much else. He'd ask about it, but that would not help anyone and Lucas himself might very well tell him to stop fussing and focus on what needed to be done instead.

Nevertheless it warred with Arthur's own sense of responsibility, of caring for those he had under his command or in his custody. Lucas was not strictly speaking one of his men – if anything, it was the other way around – but that sense of responsibility was there all the same. And with Merlin out on a limb, his concern went to the only one he could bestow it on, not that he would ever admit to such a thing aloud of course.

Lucas glanced at his watch. 'Twenty-five minutes,' he replied curtly. 'We're almost there.' At least that saved Arthur from having to ask the childish question of are we there yet. Heaven knew it had annoyed his father when he did that when he had to go somewhere with him as a young boy.

Arthur only nodded in acknowledgement. 'You can open that locker?' he demanded of Connie. Normally he would have asked of Merlin to do that magically, but his servant was currently unavailable.

Connie cackled. There really was no other word for the sound she was making, but it made Arthur want to throttle her with his bare hands. How had he ever been able to put his trust in this woman? 'I am a traitor, Arthur,' she said. 'Not senile.'

'That's debatable,' he snapped. 'Treason is one of the stupidest things one can do, which speaks volumes about your intelligence.'

'Leave the insults for your betters,' the former intelligence analyst scoffed. 'You're making a mess of it.'

If anything, that made Arthur only want to hurt her more.

'Leave it,' Lucas said. 'You're only playing her game now.'

And so he was, and he cursed himself for a fool for taking the bait. It was almost as if Connie took pleasure in provoking him and maybe she did. She was rubbing their noses in all the crimes she had done, knowing that they could not harm a hair on her head, not with the deal they'd made. It was utterly frustrating and infuriating.

He wasn't a vengeful person at all, but Connie was getting on his every nerve. In his opinion she didn't have a right to have her freedom at all, and yet that was what she would get if they managed to survive this. The world wasn't fair, he had known that for a long time, but this was taking unfairness a bit far. It felt more like injustice to him.

But if Lucas could ignore Connie's taunts that must be getting right under his skin, then Arthur could surely do the same. After all, she had done worse to Lucas, the likes of which he couldn't even imagine.

'Move,' he snapped at Connie, giving her a forceful shove in the right direction. He may have been told to be kind to women, but he had never been told to be nice to traitors.

'I can't go any faster,' Connie protested. She was wheezing more than breathing.

'Yes, you can,' Lucas growled. 'Unless you want to be reduced to radioactive bits within the hour, then yes, you can.'

Arthur wryly noted that he was the only one of their current company who was capable of walking without panting or groaning in pain. Lucas was obviously doing his best, but Arthur was no fool, despite popular belief. Not for the first time he wished he had his sword with him; as it was he was the only one in a fit enough state to fight should the FSB have a welcome committee out for them when they surfaced at London Bridge. Of course they could always use Connie as a human shield.

He was a bit surprised at the harshness of his own thoughts. This was not the kind of person he usually was, but maybe he had seen too much to remain entirely the same as he had been. He had seen too much betrayal.

Connie was slowing down again, but Arthur didn't let her. 'You can rest when you're on the plane to New Zealand,' he snapped at her. 'Wherever that may be.' It would be far away though; she wouldn't want to be anywhere close to Britain after what she had done. 'Jeopardise this operation and that deal's off.'

Connie merely cackled at his threat. 'You don't have the authority to make such a decision,' she reminded him. 'It has always been one of your greatest faults, Arthur. You're not the king here; your threats mean nothing.' Like with the other things she had said, this too went right under his skin, because it was true and it was something he didn't want to hear. But she had been doing this since the safe house, taunting all of them. For some reason she knew exactly what buttons to push to make people completely lose their temper, knowing there was nothing they could do to her, because they needed her. She was miles removed from the elderly woman who had shown him the ropes. The only rope he wanted to show her now, was the one he'd hang her with.

'And you'd think Harry would countermand that?' Lucas scoffed. 'You only need to give him one excuse and he'll have you shipped off to Nemworth, regardless of the deal he's made with you.'

'You know what happened to Bob Hogan,' Arthur added. That should make her stop gloating as if she was the laughing winner.

'Harry still doesn't trust you, you know,' Connie said, aiming her poisonous arrows at Lucas now. 'He told me. You might still be a double agent.'

Lucas met the comment with an icy look. 'You know what that feels like, not me. Move.'

Arthur increased the pace and that was what shut her up eventually. She needed all her strength to breathe and to put one foot in front of the other. That way he killed two birds with one stone: they would get to London Bridge in time and he didn't have to listen to her any longer.

Sounds were seeping through to the tunnel and it didn't sound like a pursuit. It wounded more like the sounds of people moving about, a lot of people going about their business in the station. They must be really close now and that was a relief. They had at least made it ahead of time, with about twenty minutes to spare. Now they only needed to get to the bomb itself before the thing exploded. And that would be no small task at all. The nerves twisted his stomach into tight knots.

'Where?' he demanded.

Connie pointed ahead to a wall with lockers. It was a very inconspicuous place. No one could have guessed that in one of them was lying highly classified information. That was the brilliancy of it: hiding in plain sight, in a public place. It sounded like something Merlin could have done.

'Open it,' Lucas demanded. He was taking something out of the rucksack. It was a small device that looked like a very small computer, but Arthur was still hopeless where twenty-first century technology was concerned and he had better things to think of. 'That didn't come from the car, did it?'

Lucas shook his head. 'Ros gave it to me.' He glared at Connie. 'Get on with it.'

Connie clearly thought it better not to try his patience, or lack thereof, and handed Lucas a memory stick. That was one of the things Arthur did recognise. It seemed remarkable small to contain so much intelligence, such important intelligence. In Camelot he'd have been expecting stacks of parchment and the prospect of needing days to wade through all the text. In that respect London was easier.

'Password,' Lucas demanded. He was leaning against the lockers as he entered it. It was a miracle that he was even still standing on his own two feet. Quite frankly it was ridiculous that Merlin was unable to heal his injuries, but he supposed that was because he had not yet invented a spell that could heal bullet wounds. It was a different kind of injury than the ones made by swords, arrows and spears.

Arthur looked over Lucas's shoulder when the password was accepted, one hand still clasped tightly around Connie's shoulder. A whole list appeared on the screen and left him gasping at the magnitude of the Tiresias operation. He had known it was big, but he hadn't known how big. He certainly had not been expecting this. How had the FSB ever managed to recruit all those British spies?

All of them traitors, he realised with a shock. It made him go all cold inside. Good grief, would it ever end? And of course this wasn't personal, but it was a shock all the same. All these people betrayed their country and for what? People usually turn traitor for fanaticism or reward, Ros had said. Was that what had driven these people as well? Fanaticism, reward, both of those?

Lucas was already ahead of him, scanning the list. 'It's all here.' He sounded in awe of Connie's work and not even Arthur could deny that he was right to do so. Unless she's deceiving us again. There was of course every chance of that. The woman was a traitor; could they trust in anything she did or said?

She can't afford to lie to us now, he knew. Not now.

'250025,' Lucas said, which Arthur recognised as part of the code he had mentioned earlier as belonging to the Russian agent who would detonate the bomb that would obliterate him as well as millions of others. Suicide terrorist, was the correct word for such a person, and according to Ros, they were the most dangerous, since they didn't care about their own lives; they were prepared to die for their cause after all.

'Walter Crane,' he read from the screen. For the first time their suspect had a name. 'And he's in Grosvenor Square.' The name rang a few bells, but he couldn't quite place it yet. 'Why does that sound familiar?'

'The American embassy,' Lucas replied curtly. 'It's bloody brilliant of them too.'

At first he didn't understand what exactly was brilliant about it, but then he thought about it again and he did understand. The Americans had come up with the idea of the missile defence shield that had angered the Russians in the first place. The English had made them kill their own people and had kept Sugarhorse out of their hands. They were killing two birds with one stone as well. Brilliant indeed, but also very, very dangerous.

'Can we defuse it in time?' That was the real question. If they failed to do that, then them finding all this information was entirely useless. Then they had made this race across London all for nothing.

Lucas was already digging up his mobile. 'One way to find out,' he said. 'I'm calling bomb disposal.'

'It won't work,' Connie said.

And Arthur had just about enough of her endless pessimism. His grip on her shoulder tightened. He was sure that would leave bruises, but he didn't care. 'If you have nothing productive to add, would you please keep your mouth well and truly shut?'

She returned his glare with interest. 'That is not what I mean, Arthur. Even if bomb disposal is not infiltrated by Tiresias, even if they get there in time, they will be dealing with a Cold War weapon they have never seen before. They won't know how to defuse it.'

Arthur did not know enough himself to say such a thing with complete certainty, but it made sense, especially the part about bomb disposal being possibly infiltrated. He had seen the list for himself, he knew how likely the prospect was. And if they were indeed under Tiresias command, then they wouldn't defuse that bomb at all. London would still be razed to the ground.

'You have someone better in mind?' Lucas snapped. 'One of your Russian friends, perhaps?' He too didn't trust her.

The glare shifted to him now. 'I'll do it,' she said. 'I know the kind of weapon and I am trained on bomb disposal. I can take it down here, minimalize radioactive fallout.' She looked at them. 'All I need is a working light, a tool kit and a bottle of gin.'

The offer was so unexpected that Arthur for a moment found himself lost for words, something Merlin would testify did not happen very often, if it ever happened at all. All day long she had been nagging them to go deeper, to save their own skin. She had never given off any signs that she wanted to go near the bomb and for some reason it set Arthur's teeth on edge. Would she be sabotaging them at the very last second? But then, she wanted to live and if she helped the Russians now, she would be dead regardless. Maybe all this was, was just plain old self-preservation. Or maybe his threat about calling off the deal had hit home. The thing was that he just didn't know.

And Lucas just didn't care. He accepted Connie's offer with a curt nod of the head that made it very clear that he just wanted to get the job done and didn't stop to think about Connie's motives. And they did not really have the time for that anyway. That bomb was still counting down to three pm and they were rapidly running out of time. 'Good,' he said.

Arthur frowned, having another problem to solve still. 'How will we get the bomb here?' he asked. He didn't know how far away Grosvenor Square was, but he was fairly certain that it involved leaving the station and walking into the sight of one, possibly more, Russian snipers. That would not give this mission a very great chance of success, even with Connie's offer.

Lucas frowned, but didn't get the chance to answer. 'You're all right!' a relieved voice said.

Arthur swivelled around to see his manservant exiting the tunnel. His hand was bleeding and he looked a bit breathless, but other than that he seemed perfectly all right. Of course, it was not yet three pm, so they'd have to see about his health after that, but for now it was a bit of good news they were in dire need of.

Lucas's face had shed the frown. To Arthur's surprise he even seemed to smile. 'I know exactly how,' he said.

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