Just Another Normal Operation (Normal Days II)

Chapter 21

Chapter 21

Not many would call Merlin a gift from heaven, but that was exactly what he was at that moment. Arthur had asked the question Lucas had been wondering about as well. How would they ever get the bomb here without involving others? After all, anyone could in all ignorance be taking orders from Tiresias, that would not involve defusing this bomb as soon as they possibly could.

But there were other ways, magical ways, and in that way Merlin could help out. It still felt strange to him to think of magic as a real possibility to solve a problem of national security. If someone had told him this a year before, he would have laughed hysterically at the very idea of magic existing, never mind using it. Much had changed since then, and the strangest thing was that it seemed to work, the normal aspects of his job with elements of magic worked in. It was one of the strangest things that had ever happened to him.

'I know exactly how,' he told Arthur. It was a feeling of triumph that took up residence in his chest. They were not yet beaten. There was still a chance of doing what they had to do.

Arthur had followed his stare to Merlin. The twinkle in his eyes told Lucas that the king knew what he was planning. He might even approve of it.

'Me?' Merlin did a step back. 'What have I done?'

Lucas shook his head. 'It's not about something you have done, but about something you are going to do,' he corrected. It seemed to do very little to put Merlin a bit more at ease. 'The bomb's in Grosvenor Square. We need you and your magic to get there and bring it back here.'

There was a silence that felt like it lasted several minutes, but in truth could not have been longer than ten seconds. All kinds of emotions crossed Merlin's face. Lucas saw shock, refusal and one he recognised as Ros's will-you-bloody-well-pull-yourself-together-and-get-on-with-it-look. It was this last one that won out in the end. 'Of course?' Because of the confusion it came out as a question.

It was still an improvement over how things had gone during Operation Camelot, when Merlin would have refused without hesitating, stating that this would reveal his magic to the world at large and that was far more important than doing something with that magic that would make a real difference, no matter what it was that was even asked of him. If anything, this went to show that the warlock had become involved, a lot more involved than Lucas had believed him to be. He put it down to their alliance.

Still, he didn't know what they knew about the bomber and the offer Connie had made. No one seemed to trust her actions or her motives, but they didn't have a lot of choice; the woman had made a valid point about the possibility of bomb disposal being infiltrated as well. And there was only one solution that he could think of that would be any use; to deal with the device themselves.

He gave Merlin a very quick summary of what had passed in his absence, to clear matters up. He owed him that now that they were indeed in an alliance, strange though that may be.

'How do we know we can trust her?' Merlin clearly shared the common opinion of not trusting Connie James farther than he could throw her. Lucas couldn't blame him for that.

'We don't,' he admitted brusquely. If there was an answer he hated, that had to be it, but it was also the truth. They were colleagues now, no need for secrets. Wryly he observed that was not entirely true though; there had been far too many secrets on the Grid lately for his taste. 'We need to go.'

He thanked the heaven that Merlin didn't protest. It was clear that he was on the verge of doing so, but he stopped himself at the last possible second for reasons Lucas couldn't fathom. He was just glad of it.

'You need to hold my hand,' Merlin said. 'And you might get a bit dizzy.'

'I know.' He had done this magical transporting before, twice before, and Merlin should remember that. Judging by the violent blush he had only recalled that now.

No more words passed. It clearly went without saying that Arthur would stay with Connie; his hand was clasped around her arm so tightly that it was sure to bruise, although Connie would need to be glad that it was her arm that was hurt and not her neck the king's hands were clasped around. He just stopped long enough to give Arthur instruction to take Connie down, back into the tunnels. They had passed a work bench and some equipment shortly before they surfaced and that would have to do.

'And the bottle of gin?' Arthur asked.

'We'll manage without,' he snapped. Gin was a luxury they could not afford and he would not dismiss the idea that Connie had only mentioned it in jest. 'Take her back down, Arthur.'

Arthur didn't usually take well to orders and Lucas was not often in the habit of giving them to others – that was Harry and Ros's prerogative – but today had changed a lot of things and this was apparently one of them. Maybe once this crisis was over, everything would go back to normal. He found himself hoping for that. They needed it.

Merlin took his hand and transported them away. It was barely a second later that Lucas felt solid ground beneath his feet again. His stomach was still protesting the maltreatment, but the dizziness was becoming bearable. He imagined that if he only did this often enough, he might learn to do this without feeling disorientated all the time, but he had no ambition to make this a regular occurrence. Magical transport was something more for emergencies and this was one beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Merlin had chosen his spot well. They had arrived in between a few high bushes, and no one so far seemed to have noticed anything, too caught up in their own activities. There were some children running around, young couples strolling hand in hand and elderly people sitting on benches, discussing things as mundane as the weather and the latest celebrity gossip, completely unaware of the danger they were in. And really, wouldn't that be best? Even if the bomb went off, they would die before they even realised what was happening to them, their last hours untainted by the shadow of fear that had been hanging above Lucas's own head.

'Do you know what he looks like?' Merlin asked.

That was something he did know, at least, since the document had contained a small photograph and luckily not one that was thirty years out of date. Lucas would say that it was taken some years ago though, but it was better than nothing. 'Elderly man,' he said. 'Possibly alone. And he will have a suitcase with him.' He would have to, what with him carrying around a nuclear suitcase bomb.

They scanned the square, getting out of the bushes as inconspicuously as they could in the meantime. Some people did shoot them confused glances now, but Lucas pretended he didn't see them. He was more concerned with their bomber and any possible Russian snipers. So far he hadn't seen any, but that didn't mean they weren't there. Being shot once a day was more than enough for his taste. Fortunately his jacket hid the wound and the blood from sight, but he was tall enough to stand out in a crowd and since this was so near the American embassy, it would be safe to say that the FSB had this place under very tight surveillance. The Cold War may be over, but that didn't mean the US and Russia were suddenly the best of friends.

'Is that him?' Merlin pointed discreetly to a man in a business suit sitting across the lawn on a bench by his own. He was sipping water from a bottle he had taken from a rucksack that was standing next to him. He looked like the man in the picture, but it was the smallish suitcase underneath the bench that made him absolutely sure.

'That's him,' he confirmed.

'So, how do we get it?' was the logical next question. In any other situation Lucas may have thought it amusing that the greatest warlock of all time, who had hated him for most of their acquaintance, was now looking to him for leadership. In a way it was as if the world had turned upside down without him noticing.

Smash and grab would have been Lucas's option of choice, given that they were still very rapidly running out of time, but if there were snipers here – and he had no doubt that there were several – that would only serve to draw attention to them. That was the last thing they could use. No, they needed quick and inconspicuous.

'I distract him, you take the suitcase and we meet back here,' he decided. It was not the best option, but it was the only one they had time for. He could only hope and pray no bullet would take him down before the task was concluded.

'Good,' Merlin agreed. With a grin that was only this side of cheeky, he added: 'Wouldn't be the first time I've stolen something. Remind me to tell you the story of how I stole one of Morgana's dresses under Gwen and Arthur's noses and got away with it when we have time.' It was an attempt to lift the mood and one that was almost successful. Lucas was on the verge of asking what on earth he was talking about, but Merlin was already gone.

There was nothing else for it than to follow his example. His side was aching. It had started as a burning kind when he was first shot. Over time it had started to throb and demand ever more attention. There was little doubt that it was bleeding through the bandages now. It affected the way he was walking too. But he resisted the urge to keep his hands pressed against it, since that would give him away too easily. He forced himself to walk straight and keep his face blank – You can do this; you've had much, much worse – and walk over to the man he knew to be Walter Crane.

'Good afternoon,' he said. 'I'm ever so sorry to disturb you, but I'm afraid I've lost my way a bit. Could you perhaps point me in the direction of the nearest Tube station?'

The bomber put away his water bottle and looked up. 'I'm sorry,' he said. 'I'm not from around here. I'm afraid I can't help you.' The tone of voice was polite enough, but Lucas could hear the hostility underneath. Crane wanted him to go. Wouldn't want to be confronted with one of the people he was about to kill, Lucas wagered. Some terrorists could justify their cause to themselves as long as they could keep the people they were about to harm at arm's length. Crane seemed to be such a person.

He could see Merlin approaching and inconspicuously take away the case. No one seemed to have noticed anything so far. 'Are you sure?' Lucas insisted. 'You see, I'm already running late for an appointment and…'

'Yes, man, I am sure. Now, if you'll…' He trailed off, swivelling his head around. He must have caught sight of Merlin from the corner of his eye. 'Hey, you!'

Lucas was on him in a second, clasping his hand over the other man's mouth before he could make as much as a sound. 'Listen to me and listen carefully,' he said softly. 'I would stay very still and very silent if I were you.'

He pulled his hand away so that the bomber could breathe, an opportunity he took to talk right away. 'Who do you think you are?' he asked indignantly, eyes shooting back and forth between Lucas and Merlin, who was taking his precious bomb ever farther away from him.

'I am an MI-5 officer,' Lucas hissed. 'And I know exactly what you are planning. And if you do not want a bullet embedded in your brain in the very near future, then you will let my colleague take away that bomb to be defused.'

'You don't know what you're doing!' Crane showed clear signs of distress now. Distress there was, but fear as well. It was the kind of panic he had seen in enough suspects when he had caught them and they realised that their game was over, that they had lost and that there was nothing they could do to stop their own downfall from happening.

It was all Lucas could do not to grab the man by the collar and shake him to instil some sense in him. What drove people like this, people who betrayed their country for only God knows what reason, he would never understand, but it set his very teeth on edge. 'I spent eight years of my life in Russian prison because I stayed loyal to my country,' he growled, having lost his ability to speak normally. 'You, on the other hand, betrayed it. Now, if the Russians do not kill you first for losing the bomb, my people will find you soon enough to ship you off to jail. And you, unlike me, will have deserved every minute of that hell. I'll leave you to ponder about that for a while.'

He stood up and walked as slowly as he could back to the rendezvous point. Harry would give him a lecture for revealing so much personal information, but Lucas was beyond caring. He could hardly think further than his own anger and what would happen if they didn't make it past three pm. He was determined to make it, but that wasn't the same as actually making it and he knew it all too well. There still could be snipers in this square and that they hadn't fired a shot thus far was no guarantee for them not doing it in the very near future.

'Won't he come after us?' Merlin asked worriedly, shooting anxious glances in Crane's general direction.

'He won't,' Lucas said. He didn't know how he could say that with such certainty, but he could. Something in the eyes had told him that the bomber was genuinely terrified. And he was the bomber, of that he had no doubt. It had not escaped Lucas's notice that he had not tried to deny even once that everything Lucas accused him of was true.

'Are you sure it is the bomb?' Merlin still didn't seem very convinced.

'Yes.' The picture may have been slightly outdated, but it had been recent enough.

'Shouldn't we open it?' the warlock insisted. He glanced suspiciously at the briefcase in his hand, unconsciously holding it a bit away from him, as if that would save him when it exploded. Lucas knew for a fact that nothing would save either of them should this thing explode right here and now. If that happened, then both of them would be as dead as the proverbial doornail and there would only be radioactive little bits left of them, not enough by far to bury.

'Leave it for Connie,' he snapped. 'God knows what will happen if we do open it.' He was not in a hurry to find out. Neither was he very anxious to learn what would happen if the device was transported in a magical whirlwind, but that was a chance they'd have to take. The alterative was sit and wait for the thing to detonate on its own and take London with it. And that was not a choice at all. 'Let's go back.' It was the only thing he could do.

Arthur tried and failed to keep breathing calmly as he saw Lucas carry the bomb into the disused and dusty service tunnel. He knew the contents of the briefcase were lethal, to such an extent that he could barely grasp the consequences of, but it seemed too small for something that would have such power should it go off. Surely there must be some kind of mistake here. This could not have such power at all. It simply was too small.

Lucas's facial expression suggested otherwise. So, for that matter, did Connie's. She had been absolutely unreadable when Arthur had forced her back into the tunnels, being none too gentle about doing so. He had felt that he was kept away from most of the riskier things that were going on. He just had to bring Connie underground and make sure that she didn't try to make a run for it, while Merlin first drew off the FSB and now went with Lucas to get the bomb, risking being shot down by the FSB once again. It was the kind of care he found so smothering, but nothing he could say would change anything. There wasn't any time for protests either, not with that bomb out there.

And so he manhandled Connie back downstairs, to the work bench Lucas had mentioned. He was forced to let go of the former intelligence analyst then, if only to clear the surface and pick up the tool kit and working light. To his surprise she had even helped him to do it.

'I never wanted this, Arthur,' she'd said. For a moment there Arthur was almost in danger of believing her, but he quickly put those feelings of sympathy away. He was not in any danger of forgetting her treason any time soon and the sight of Ben's body lying in a pool of his own blood was not something that was easily forgotten either. She had done that and with it she had forfeited any chance of forgiveness. Some things were unforgiveable and this was one of those things.

'You should have thought about that sooner,' he said venomously. 'Before you sold Lucas out, framed Harry and murdered Ben.' He felt slightly uncomfortable with his own behaviour, but one of his first rules was that he never showed any unease about his own conduct to others. It was a fact well known that he never admitted to being wrong about anything and he wouldn't start now.

'You have a lot left to learn,' she had said and that had been the end of the conversation. Instead they waited for what felt like an eternity. He lost track of time, had done that a while ago actually. Arthur wasn't even sure he really wanted to know how little time there was left to them. It couldn't be much; they had spent a lot of time in the tunnels, not in the last place because Mordred had interrupted and shot Ros. The Once and Future King almost wished she was here. There was no doubt that the Section Chief would have no trouble at all silencing the traitor.

Arthur had started pacing when time dragged on and there was no sign of either his servant or Lucas, never mind the bomb. He was all too aware that the FSB was still out there hunting and it was not all that imaginary that they had died without him knowing. If that was the case, then they would not be far behind; he doubted he'd be able to survive a bomb of such a kind.

It was a relief when Lucas came into view, balancing a smallish briefcase in his arms. The very thought that such a case could contain such a lethal bomb was laughable and for a moment he was tempted to do just that, just to let out some of the tension. But Lucas's face was deadly serious and so was Merlin's, who followed the spy into the tunnel. Lucas was limping now, clearly exhausted from all the running and the blood loss. It was almost a miracle he had not yet passed out.

'Are you all right?' Arthur asked. The question came out without his permission. Maybe the characteristic that he didn't fuss about his friends, even less show it so openly, was changing as well, but a bomb had a remarkable way of changing one's priorities. He couldn't care. And really, why should it be a crime that he cared about his friends? They may be the last people he'd ever see on this earth.

Lucas nodded. 'I'm fine.' Arthur suspected he was lying through his teeth.

He stumbled on towards the table they had cleared. It was only then that Arthur noticed Connie, really noticed her, her attitude. Something about her had changed now. All day, ever since they had left the safe house and they had discovered that the FSB had been on to them all along, she had been moaning and complaining, urging them to get out of the range of the blast, by going deeper, by hiding like a mole. The look she now sent at the bomb was one of almost indifference. She was not visibly scared. Quite the contrary; she stepped forward and opened the case without batting an eye. One hand was already going through the tool kit.

Arthur meant to get as far away from the bomb as he could, even though he knew that it wouldn't make any difference if that thing went off, but for a moment pure curiosity kept him grounded into place. He had never seen an actual bomb before and he wanted to know what all the fuss was about.

It didn't look dangerous, not at first sight. It looked like just another piece of technology, with a lot of wires in several colours that he didn't understand the use of. Nothing that even vaguely looked explosive. No, maybe it didn't seem like something that could blow up and take an entire city with it, wiping it off the face of the earth, but there were numbers, red numbers. And they were counting. Down, not up.

It took him a little while to piece it together, but then a cold shiver went down his spine. Those red numbers were counting down to the explosion. When there was no time left, it would explode and they'd be dead. And they had all of three minutes to prevent that disaster from happening. All of a sudden he had a rather violent urge to empty the contents of his stomach on the floor.

At first he didn't understand his own reaction to it. He controlled the impulse to vomit and leaned against the wall. He was a knight of Camelot. No one had ever accused him of cowardice. He was a fighter and he didn't back away from a fight. He had never done so, not even once, sometimes even defying his father's orders to do it.

But this was not an ordinary foe, not the kind he could stab a sword in and come out victorious. This was not a foe whose attack he could fend off with a shield. It was too much like a magical attack; no defence possible. Maybe Merlin could protect all of them from the attack, but he didn't pin much hope on that; his servant was looking at the bomb as if it was a pack of hungry Wildren.

'Can you do it?' he demanded of Connie, the second question that left his mouth without his permission.

Connie had selected her tools, but looked up at him. Arthur would much rather have that she didn't; best let her keep her eyes on her work. 'You should leave,' she said. She may not look tense, or afraid, but there was something in her voice that betrayed that she was not as calm as she would have them believe. She was just as scared as the rest of them. 'You should all leave.'

'Get on with it,' Arthur simply barked at her. As much as he wanted to go, wanted to leave this horrible place behind forever, he didn't want to risk it that she would still make a run for it. He needed to see her defuse that bomb before he would go anywhere. And Arthur Pendragon was not in the habit of letting his actions be guided by fear. Besides, he didn't think Lucas could leave even if he wanted to; he had all but collapsed against the wall, face white as a sheet and one hand firmly pressed against his side. He didn't need to be a physician to know what that meant. It didn't mean well. Even Merlin shot worried glances at Lucas every now and then and Merlin did not even like Lucas.

Connie selected two wires and, without hesitation, cut both of them. Then she leaned back, as if she was finished now.

'Is that it?' It didn't look very difficult at all. Even a child could have done it.

The former analyst was halfway through her nod when the bomb started to bleep and make all other kinds of noises. The relief on her face froze, making it seem like a mask, something that wasn't real. And he may not be an expert of any kind on bombs and the defusing process, but he was no idiot, no matter what Merlin thought. This bomb was not yet defused and clearly Connie didn't know what to do with the thing as well as she thought she did.

But the look of defeat on her face lasted all of two seconds and then she was back with the bomb, already trying another tactic as she started an explanation that was far beyond Arthur's comprehension. It was one of the things he hated about twenty-first century London and Section D; there was still so much he didn't know, so much he didn't understand, simply because he had not grown up here. But even he understood the words failsafe and back-ups. It meant that whoever had created this bomb had made it very difficult to neutralise it, if not impossible.

'Can you do it?' he asked again, hoping for a positive answer.

'Stop it from detonating?' Connie asked without looking up from her work, whatever it was that she was doing. 'No.'

'No?' he echoed. He'd like to believe that it was disbelief in his voice, but he suspected it was more like fear.

'If I am successful, the bomb will no longer be nuclear,' she clarified briskly, as if this was just another normal day and she was explaining something to him that he didn't understand the first time, like she had done when he had come to London te first time, had done ever since. 'It will however go up in my face.'

Because she said it so calmly, it took him a moment to realise what it was that she really said. Did she really just say that she was about to die? True, he had wished her gone, even dead, a lot in the past few hours, had threatened to deliver death to her himself, but this was different. Something about this made him rebel against the very notion of her dying. This is not the way.

It was a part of the old Arthur resurfacing, a part of who he used to be before he stepped foot in Britain. He was even relieved he felt like that again; he had not been permanently changed by what he had seen here. 'What did you say?' He had heard her perfectly, but he could hardly believe that the woman who had been very adamant about not dying, was now signing her life away voluntary.

'The bomb will kill whoever disarms it,' she said. This time she did look up. 'So you should leave.' When she saw that no one was about to do as she said, she added: 'It's just another bomb. I am not afraid of bombs.' She even bared her teeth in a grin towards the device. She laughed at the danger. What a change from how she had been just ten minutes ago!

Lucas was dragging himself up with a little help from Merlin. His face twisted in pain and he didn't even bother to conceal it anymore. Not a good sign. 'Why did you do it?' When he spoke, though, his voice was steady.

Connie clearly knew exactly what he was referring to, even id Arthur didn't know. 'I had no choice,' she answered. 'I did what I had to, what was necessary.' There seemed to be some double meaning in her words, a hidden message underneath the one that he could piece together, and that he didn't have the skill to decipher. By now he had concluded that this was something to do with Lucas's captivity in Russia and Connie's part in his ordeal, and she was telling him that she had no choice. Arthur had heard it before and he had dismissed it as a cheap excuse. He started to doubt the truth of that now.

'Arthur, come on.' Merlin actually went as far as to tug his sleeve to drag him away, anxious to get him out. It was like it had always been. Merlin's first priority had always been to get Arthur to safety and he wanted to be safe, wanted to be away from the bomb, as far away as he could. He just knew that there were things in life than being safe. It was something he had learned from a rather young age. And something about this didn't sit well with him.

He let Merlin drag him out of the corridor and into the next. There was sense in getting out and Connie had clearly been prepared to die. And she was a traitor, so she deserved death. He had ordered Agravaine to be executed when he had the proof of his treason. It was needed and he had done it, even though it pained him. Connie was no better than his uncle had been. Neither of them had shown any remorse for what they had done.

Still, something was different and it took him a little while to realise what exactly it was that was wrong with it. Because Agravaine would never do what Connie was doing now. Agravaine would have stood by when the kingdom burned, and would have rejoiced in it. Connie, even though she was a traitor, was fighting to save lives.

The realisation hit with the force of a rock avalanche. This was wrong. This was not how it was meant to be. Not all that long ago they had established that whatever she had done in the past was history, that what she had done didn't matter anymore. He had compared her to Morgana, told her that the only thing he now remembered of her was the legacy she had left behind. It was only now that he realised that Connie would leave behind an entirely different legacy.

The past doesn't matter. All that matters is what you do in the present. In the present Connie was making sure that the citizens of London could go on leading their lives, sacrificing her own in the process.

'This is wrong.' He hadn't meant to say that out loud, but he did. And his feet were already acting on his words before he was even done speaking. This was who he was and he did the right thing. Whether or not that endangered his life didn't matter. This was something that defined him, the person he was meant to be. He wasn't the kind who threatened people and stood by as they died to save him.

And so he broke into a run, back into the tunnel he had just come from. He could hear Merlin scream his name, but he didn't come after him. Maybe Lucas was holding him back. Arthur didn't know and it didn't matter. What mattered now was that he saved a life that was clearly worth saving.

Connie was already bracing herself against the impact of the bomb, hands grasping the table top, eyes closed. It took him half a second to realise there were less than twenty seconds on the counter. Time was up. He didn't even know if he himself would be able to make it back to safety before it was too late, never mind that he took Connie with him. But he had made his decision now and he would not go back on it. It was not who he was.

He grabbed Connie at the shoulder and shoved her in the right direction. She had not anticipated this and so she stumbled more than walked the way he had pushed her, Arthur's hand grasping her shoulder, as he had done all afternoon. Something about this was almost too familiar.

'Arthur!' Her eyes flew open. He could read surprise in them. 'What are you…?'

'Run!' He growled more than he spoke.

Connie was opportunistic enough to recognise a chance when she came upon it and she didn't ask any further questions. Maybe she had been a spy long enough to know how to deal with the unexpected. She just did as she was told. Arthur was glad of it, because time had all but run out. All he cared about was to get away from here as soon as he could. Everything else came later.

But there was no later. He had hardly taken three steps before he heard the almighty roar and then the blast knocked him clean off his feet.

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