Just Another Normal Operation (Normal Days II)

Chapter 24

Chapter 24

Something was wrong. Merlin didn't know exactly when this knowledge first started dawning on him, but he had a lingering suspicion that it was around the time when Ros stared him down, snapping at him that he should not have left Jo on her own. True, he had not forgotten Harry's orders, but he had not exactly been putting Jo at risk, had he? She really was upset, and looked like she could use some time on her own. It really had not seemed such a risk letting her drive to work on her own while he magically transported himself there. It was not as if she was much of a target anyway.

It was there that he had erred, he now realised as he stared in shock and disbelief at the phone, through which Mordred's voice had just come. This was not supposed to happen. Jo had never been meant to get caught up in any of this. She had not even been there when Morgana had been killed. So why her? Or had Lucas been wrong? Was this even about revenge for Morgana? Or did he simply not know who was really responsible, therefore going after all of them to make sure he got to the culprits for sure? Just when he thought he was starting to grasp what was going on, he found himself at a loss again. Jo hadn't had anything to do with Morgana's demise, not a single thing!

'That was Mordred,' he whispered in shock.

Ros fixed him with as foul a glare as he had ever seen her make, and this time he wasn't even that convinced that he didn't deserve it. After all, he had left Jo on her own, knowing full well Harry Pearce would bite his head off for it. But the, he had deemed Jo's state of mind more important. Not for even a single second had he anticipated that perhaps she could be a target for Mordred's revenge as well. He was starting to realise that was a mistake, a very big mistake.

'I'm sorry.' Those were the only words that could be said, and even that was too little and too late. Mordred had not even tried to disguise the fact that he wanted them dead. What would make him keep Jo alive? There was no telling if she wasn't dead already. And then it truly would have been his fault. He had made mistakes before, had made errors of judgement before today, but never had the results been quite this bad. And it was too late to change things now, may even be too late to bring Jo back alive.

'You'd better be,' Harry growled. 'Meeting room everyone. Now.' He turned to Malcolm. 'Try to trace Jo's phone.'

It didn't do anything to ease the anxiety he felt, but it was a reassuring feeling that someone was taking charge, and that something was being done to find Jo. It beat sitting down and doing nothing any time. And maybe it was one of those things that came with being a servant and never having as much as a minute to relax when he wasn't sleeping that he didn't know what to do with himself when there was nothing to do for a change. He needed the work, more so because his head would fill with worst case scenarios if he didn't.

Not that those worst case scenarios didn't come anyway. That was the problem with this. He could think of all the things that could go wrong – or had gone wrong already – and of only very few solutions, certainly because they hadn't had any leads so far, which was a very depressing thought to be sure.

The conference room filled up quickly, but there were too many empty spots around the table. They missed Jo, of course, but Connie's spot was empty as well. Merlin still wasn't sure what to think of Arthur's one-man-rescue, but he would readily admit that Connie had been a good analyst with a sharp mind. They could use the sharp minds now, especially in the current disaster. This was turning out to be a very Morgana-like crisis and they were two men – or, more accurately, women – down. And that wasn't even taking the fact that Ben had been killed two days ago – how could it be only two days ago, when it felt like so much longer? – into the equation. That was no way to begin an operation, even he could tell that.

Harry called them all to order with a bang on the table. 'Right, what do we know?' He hurled the question at his team, clearly expecting an answer. This would be a brainstorming session, guesswork, although no one would call it that in Harry's hearing. There simply was nothing else to go on.

'Mordred is out for revenge on the people he holds responsible for Morgana's death,' Lucas volunteered after a lengthy silence.

'But that is not entirely true,' Arthur objected. 'Jo had nothing to do with it.'

'But Mordred doesn't know that,' Lucas said.

Merlin shook his head. 'I think he does know,' he disagreed. He had been thinking about this for a while, ever since they had realised that it was indeed revenge the Druid was after. 'Think about it,' he urged the team. 'He never really went for Arthur, even though he had plenty of opportunity. He only ever targeted the three of us.' He made an arm gesture that included Lucas and Ros into the us. 'But Arthur was there as well, at the Isle of the Blessed, and yet he somehow seemed to know that he didn't pay an active part in the killing.' He inwardly cringed at the word. He had long since come to term with what had happened there, but that didn't mean it was easy for him to think about, even months after the event. He supposed he should be grateful for the fact that he had not been the one to actually pull the trigger; that would have been too painful.

'He magically spied on us.' Lucas was of course the first to catch on. 'He saw what we were doing.'

'If that is the case, then why Jo?' Ros retorted, bringing the question back to the main point. 'Because she was alone? The easiest to get his hands on?'

'Because she is someone we all care about.' Lucas looked like he had a sudden revelation. 'She's not the target.'

'She's the bait.' Merlin didn't think Harry could possibly look any more grim than he had already, but he could and did. 'It's like the bloody Redbacks all over again.'

Merlin had heard some things about that group, but he didn't know the details and so couldn't place the remark, but he could figure out that something like this had happened before, and that Jo quite possibly had been the one who had been used as bait then as well, although he didn't know for whom she had been filling that role. But he did know something about the problems Jo'd had with coming to terms with what had been done to her then, and the very thought of it made his blood boil.

Ros nodded, with a matching expression of grim determination on her face. 'Bloody brilliant of him, too, taking someone we all care about.'

She was right about that, Merlin realised. They all cared about Jo. Harry and Ros cared for her as a colleague, one of their own. He'd heard before that Section D looked after its own, and he'd seen it, too. It was only logical that they wanted her back, alive if at all possible. That would make sense. And he cared for her himself. Not that he would admit to any of this out loud – he could almost hear Arthur's annoying commentary – but he did. Jo was a dear friend, one of the first friends he'd made in London, and now she was kidnapped to bait him. He would take care not to walk right into a trap, but he would get Jo back if only he could. That was the thing one did for friends, wasn't it? Especially since it was more or less his fault that she was in this situation to begin with.

'So, that could mean that she is still alive?' The question was out of his mouth before he could stop himself. 'If she's meant to be bait for us to take?'

Lucas nodded. 'Very likely.'

Arthur nodded. 'So, he will make it easy for us to find him,' he concluded. There was that look in his eyes that Merlin recognised from when Arthur was planning strategy. The king may not be much of a spy, but he understood warfare better than most, and he was a skilled hunter on top of that, a skill that Merlin, despite years of tagging along, had failed to master thus far. This was right up his street, something he knew how to do. 'He'll pretend to make it difficult, but leave enough clues for us to follow and then he'll try to trap us.'

'Bit obvious,' Harry judged.

'Maybe,' Arthur said. 'But what's the point in making it difficult if he wants us to find him? That is what we're thinking, isn't it?'

Merlin saw Harry's face darken at that particular use of phrase. Last time someone had said something like that, the Section Head had all forcefully – and loudly – reminded them that there was no such thing as guessing in MI-5. They needed facts to build on. But facts were in short supply right now. They would have to make do with the little that they had, and that led to guessing almost automatically.

This time it was Ros who risked her boss's wrath by nodding. 'Yes.'

'So, where would he have taken her, then?' Lucas asked. 'One of Morgana's old places? But we don't know where they are.'

Harry hadn't spoken thus far, and so Merlin decided to risk it and join the discussion. 'Maybe one of the places where you met her,' he supplied. 'Or…' Another idea suddenly hit him. 'The barn. The place where the barn stood.' Where she failed to take Arthur, and took Lucas instead. Not that there was any need to voice that thought; they would all remember that incident rather too well. Lucas himself would be the last person to forget such a thing.

And it made sense. The barn itself had been reduced to a pile of broken wood on a meadow during that showdown, but some farmer or other had cleared away the rubble and had begun to build a new barn close to where the other had stood. And it was one of the places where they had beaten Morgana – in a manner of speaking – and it was relatively close to the portal, which meant that he had an escape route. Not that he needed one, technically speaking, since he could magically transport himself away whenever he felt like it.

Of course Mordred didn't need to be there, Merlin knew that well enough. There were other likely places, the number one on that list being the Isle of the Blessed. But Mordred had seemed a bit impatient, and travelling to the Isle might take a while. Of course, that too was relative, since they could travel magically now, but Merlin was not entirely sure how many people he could transport at a time. Three had taken quite a bit of effort already, and he wouldn't go to that place with only the three of them. No, until proven otherwise, the barn was their best bet.

He had hardly finished that thought when Malcolm burst into the meeting room, face a little too pale and too shocked to be healthy.

'Knock, Malcolm,' Harry said wearily. 'Do I need to put up a sign?'

Malcolm, in true Section D tradition, ignored that. 'I've traced Jo's mobile phone,' he announced. The tone of voice suggested that none of them were going to like whatever it was that he had found.

'Where is it?' Harry sounded weary still, hands rubbing his temples as if he was fighting a headache. Not that Merlin could really blame him for that. So much had happened lately, and this was just one thing too many. A break would be much appreciated, but each moment they took to sit back and relax was a moment in which Mordred could end Jo's life, if he hadn't done so already. Of course there was a chance that he would keep Jo alive, but it was still nothing more than a theory, and they all knew it.

They knew that it would be bad even before Malcolm replied. He only just gave the confirmation. 'Near the portal,' he replied. 'Where the barn used to stand.'

Merlin could have sworn a gust of ice-cold wind went through the room, he felt so cold. Logic told him that no such thing had happened, but it was a terrifying thing to realise all the same. He had been thinking about that barn just now, had been thinking how perfect a place it would be for Mordred to take his revenge. And here they were, hearing to the evidence that Jo's phone had been found in that exact spot. Coincidence was something Merlin had long since stopped believing in. This was no coincidence.

And clearly he was not the only one to think that. Ros cursed under her breath, and Lucas followed her example. The set of Arthur's jaw betrayed that he too knew exactly what this meant. But then, a fool could have put the pieces together. And from what he could see from Arthur now, the king was preparing to go to war. He had only ever seen that particular expression minutes before a fight, when he had put all other emotions and thoughts away, focusing only on the fight before him, and nothing else.

'Ros, Merlin, get down there. Find out if he really is there.' Harry took charge. Less than two seconds had passed since Malcolm had dropped this bomb on them. 'Lucas, Arthur, go to Jo's place and see what you can find out. Maybe one of her neighbours has seen something.'

Lucas looked less than pleased, but Ros was already on her feet. 'Will do, Harry.'

Her boss fixed her with a stern glare. 'No heroics, Ros.'

The sardonic smile that followed that order was rather predictable. 'Yeah.' Meaning no. Merlin didn't blame her for that. He himself had no plans to stay back and let Mordred get away. That was a mistake he had made yesterday, and he wouldn't make the same mistake again. They were rather alike in that, he noticed. Maybe they had more in common than he would have initially thought.

'I mean that, Rosalind,' Harry said, clearly taking Ros's answer for all that it was worth. 'No heroics. Just observe, find out if Mordred is there, and if that is where he's holding Jo, and then come back to report. And that is non-negotiable!' he added, pre-empting the protest Ros was clearly on the verge of making.

This time he got a curt nod for his troubles, which was clearly enough to satisfy Harry. Or maybe he knew it was the best he could hope for under the given circumstances. Ros and Merlin merely exchanged glances, pleased to note that the other had absolutely no intention to follow orders. In this particular case it was a relief to have Ros Myers on his side, because she had the same tendency towards her team that Merlin had towards Arthur, to protect them no matter what the personal cost.

'Yeah,' she said again.

'Merlin?' Harry fixed him with a stern glare. 'Only observation. Nothing else.'

Merlin gave him a curt nod. 'Of course.' Sometimes he really functioned best when he didn't listen to orders anyway.

Lucas felt like receiving the porcelain doll treatment all over again, and he wasn't even sure why. True, he was injured, and he may have winced once within Harry's sight when he made a wrong move, but that was as far as his display of weakness went. It certainly didn't warrant this, him being sent off on a relatively low-risk mission to find out what he could about Jo's abduction with Arthur Pendragon tagging along. Not that he objected to Arthur's presence, not at all; the king of Camelot was good company most of the time, and quite bright too when he put his mind to it.

No, Arthur wasn't the problem and neither, he had to admit, was the mission itself. Of course it was necessary to find out all that they could about the abduction, but it was something a junior field officer could have done. Which was of course the core of the problem. A junior field officer could have done this, easily, but there were no junior field officers available. One had died, the other had been kidnapped and could be dead. That left only the senior officers and the Camelot Division, as Ros had mockingly called them last night.

So yes, he understood perfectly that someone had to go and find out what had happened at Jo's. He only objected to the thought that it should be him, whereas Ros, who had suffered a far worse injury, was sent out on a far more dangerous mission that could lead to a very unfortunate run-in with the Druid they were hunting. Harry didn't seem to have any reservations about asking his Section Chief to take risks, but he treated Lucas with the kid gloves, and it was driving him up the wall. How many times would he have to prove that he didn't need the special treatment and that he actually could look out for himself? He certainly didn't plan on spending the rest of his career trying to point it out.

But there was nothing to be done about it now, and so he accepted his orders, made sure to stop by Malcolm's work station to pick up legends for himself and Arthur that proclaimed them Detective Inspector Peter Lawson and Sergeant William Milford, and then called Arthur to join him. Police was a good cover, Lucas knew, but as they made the walk to the car park in silence, he couldn't help but remember the day Ros and he had run into Arthur and Merlin for the second time, the day he had tried to extract some information about men playing at being knights from the village gossiper under the same disguise. It felt like a lifetime ago.

'So, what are we going to do?' Arthur asked when Lucas started the engine and drove out of the garage. 'Are we going to search Jo's place?' He seemed a bit uneasy about the prospect.

Lucas only arched an eyebrow at him. 'Problem with that?'

He got a shrug in response. 'Not really.' The expression on his face told Lucas that he most certainly did have a problem with it, though.

'Yes, you do. Why?' he questioned. Normally he wouldn't have been this snappish, but normally his colleagues didn't get abducted either. The strain this caused made him ill-tempered, and his mood wasn't helped along by Harry's special treatment.

To his surprise Arthur seemed almost embarrassed at the question. 'Long story,' he muttered. 'I had to search Morgana's chambers once.'

'It didn't go well,' Lucas concluded. Suddenly he found that he craved the distraction of the story Arthur would be able to tell, of times that weren't as dangerous as the one they were currently living in.

Arthur snorted. 'She made me look a complete fool.' He stared out of the window, seemingly lost in thought. 'It's strange. That was when we were searching the castle for a hiding Druid boy.'

'You mean Mordred?' That did manage to peek his interest. And it was a distraction at the very least.

'Yes.' Arthur nodded, but kept on staring out of the window with unseeing eyes. That was something the Arthur Pendragon of a few months ago might not have been capable of doing. Things had really changed.

'What happened?' Lucas prompted.

'My father had ordered me to take the knights and search the castle for the boy,' Arthur narrated. 'All of it. We were to turn every stone in search of him, and that meant that Morgana's quarters had to be searched too. It was all a bit humiliating, because that would make her look like a suspect for hiding him, and no one really wanted to implicate the king's ward, or wake her temper.' There was something akin to fondness to his voice as he recounted the tale, something Lucas found hard to imagine anyone could feel for a woman such as Morgana.

No, that was not true, he reminded himself. He himself had been dangerously close to sympathy for Uther's bastard daughter. They had been very much alike in some ways, and that was what had softened him towards her. He had never been close to anything like Stockholm Syndrome, and he had hated her in the end, beyond the shadow of a doubt. But still, he'd had some sympathy for her. Fondness, though? No, he had not, not the way Arthur and Merlin had.

'So you went?' he asked.

Arthur chuckled. 'She wasn't pleased to see me. Asked me to what she owed this pleasure, and when I said I came to search her chambers, she became angry with me for messing up her things. Taunted me, too. "If you can't even find your own servant, what hope do you have of finding the boy?" Of course I didn't know that both Mordred and Merlin were hiding in her room, out of sight, behind some dressing screen.'

That surprised Lucas. 'Merlin? He was helping her to hide Mordred?' As long as he had known Merlin, he would never help someone he considered a danger to Arthur. The prophecy mentioned both Mordred and Morgana, didn't it?

'They were as thick as thieves.' Arthur grinned wryly. 'Before…' He trailed off. 'Before.' He left it at that. 'Morgana said she would save me the time and that the Druid boy was hiding behind the screen.'

Lucas would not claim that he harboured any sympathy for the witch now, but he laughed. That had been a very clever scheme indeed. By pointing out the one place where the child was hiding, she had ensured that Arthur would never think to look there, because it would make him look like an idiot if he took her word for it and there was no boy to be seen. He hadn't known Morgana Pendragon all that well, but she had been the type to gloat. She would have gloated about that.

'She was clever,' Arthur allowed. 'The only one who dared to stand up to my father.'

None of them stated the obvious: that in the end her standing up to Uther had turned her into a merciless witch who would and did kill to achieve her goals. The more or less cheerful atmosphere that had filled the car during the story vanished as quickly as it had come, leaving Lucas to ponder about what he knew.

Which wasn't all that much. He had understood Morgana to a certain extent, but he would never claim that he understood Mordred, or could anticipate his actions the way he had been able to anticipate Morgana's. Oh, he understood vengeance well enough, and he had taken great and very unprofessional pleasure in taking down Arkady Kachimov for what the FSB official had put him through when he had been at his mercy. No, he was no stranger to revenge, but Mordred was different. He was unstable, Lucas thought, extremely passionate about what he was doing, and certainly very determined. But he was also intelligent, intelligent enough to fool the king of Camelot and even confuse Merlin, intelligent enough that his assassination attempt could be looked at as an accident. It was this combination that made him so unpredictable, and therefore dangerous. Morgana had been dangerous in her own way, but her plans had almost been transparent in comparison with Mordred's. They had been fooled by what he was planning before. They thought they knew that they were the target, and that therefore Harry and Jo and others were not in danger. It was now obvious that they had no idea what the Druid would and wouldn't do.

He didn't know if any clues could be found in Jo's house. Mordred wouldn't have needed more than three seconds, if that, to grab Jo and get out again. What were the chances of anyone seeing that, that early in the morning? It wouldn't have been fully light, especially not with the clouds and the rain. It wasn't raining now, but it had been pouring a few hours ago, and there was nothing to suggest that it wouldn't do so again very soon. Chances of anyone seeing anything were rather small, if not entirely non-existent. Although he'd have to admit that a whirlwind was a way to attract attention to oneself.

The street was deserted when they parked the car and walked the last two minutes. Jo's car was still there, but then, Lucas had not expected it to be gone. Mordred may have seen a car before, if there was some truth in the idea of him having been in London before, but he wouldn't know how to drive one, and he wouldn't need a car when he could transport himself over enormous distances in the time it took him to blink his eyes.

'What do we do?' All of a sudden there wasn't anything left of the decisive leader who had the command over an army of knights. In many ways Arthur Pendragon was indeed a junior officer who looked to Lucas, the senior officer, for guidance. Or, at least, he did that when he was in London, and not talking to Merlin. It would make him feel a bit better about himself that he was indeed looked at as the senior officer, but he wasn't able to forget that at this moment Ros was stalking around the remnants of the barn, looking for Mordred, while her shoulder was still very much injured, and she had rejected the offer of painkillers, so she would feel the pain.

He didn't really dislike her for getting the assignment he wanted. Ros hadn't done it on purpose, and she wanted Mordred badly. It was Harry he resented for this. And even that was not entirely true, either. It showed that Harry cared, something he had rather doubted for eight long years. This however was the other extreme, too much caring. It was suffocating, and it got on Lucas's nerves.

But Arthur couldn't help that, and so he answered the question. 'Ring the doors of the neighbours, find out what you can find about Jo's movements this morning. Tell them that she's a suspect in a robbery. That will make them talk.'

Arthur positively frowned at him. 'We'll ruin her reputation,' he pointed out. 'When she comes back, all her neighbours will think she is a criminal. We can't do that to her, can we?'

When, he'd said. When she comes back. It was good to hear that he hadn't lost his faith in happy endings, but Lucas didn't share his optimism. 'We need to find her back alive first. We'll deal with the fallout later.' He didn't add his own pessimistic idea that there may not even be a fallout to deal with when all was said and done. Mordred had clearly no reservations about killing his enemies, and he certainly didn't consider Jo a friend of his. Lucas was pretty positive that she wasn't dead now, but she might be so very soon unless they found her before Mordred realised they were on to him.

And at least Arthur was no longer protesting. He merely nodded and went off, police ID in hand to show to the neighbours, while Lucas proceeded to Jo's house. The car keys he found on the stones, right next to the car in a puddle. Merlin had mentioned something about her having been in the car already when he left, so she must have gotten out. The car clearly hadn't left the driveway. Surely that meant that Mordred had taken her outside, in plain view of at least six of her neighbours' houses. Surely someone must have seen something?

It was child's play to get into the house and find a way around the – active – security systems inside. Harry was in possession of the codes and had given them to him to aid him in his break-in. And if called upon, he could produce a police ID and a very genuine looking search warrant to justify why he was there.

The search of the house proved to be remarkably useless, though, as he had more or less expected. Everything pointed at Jo having been abducted outside, not inside. Mordred at least was clever enough to wait until Merlin was gone before he had made his move. Given the way the fight in the tunnels had turned out, that was only the clever thing to do.

'Lucas?' Arthur called his name when he was upstairs throwing a quick glance at the spare bedroom, that looked like Merlin had spent the night there. Interesting; clearly those rumours about them weren't true at all. He would have found it more interesting though if there was a less sinister reason for searching a colleague's house.

'Coming!' he shouted down the stairs, before doing exactly that. The tone of voice had been equal parts excitement and anxiety, and Lucas didn't like the sound of that.

He found Arthur in the living room, seemingly very ill at ease, the police ID of the non-existent Sergeant Milford in his hands, clasping it as if it was a lifeline.

'Did you find anything?' the king of Camelot asked.

Lucas shook his head. 'I didn't expect to.' He too remained standing; something about the idea of sitting on the sofa was off. His side wasn't hurting him as much as it could have done anyway, even without the painkillers. He'd had worse, and he could ignore the pain. 'Did you find something?'

'The first two houses were empty,' Arthur reported. 'But Jo's neighbour across the street reckons she's seen something, only she thought she imagined it. She claims she saw a young man appearing out of nowhere, and the next he was gone. So was Jo.' Arthur swallowed. 'She's old, and she certainly didn't want to believe that Jo had anything to do with illegal activities. Questioned my sanity about that.'

But that was not the most important thing, though. Of course Jo would never find herself on the wrong side of the law; everyone who knew her could tell you that. But the mention of the young man sounded far too alarming. 'Did she see anything else?'

'The rain blocked most of her sight,' Arthur reported. 'And she said that there was very much wind at the moment it all happened.'

The whirlwind that accompanied the magical appearances and disappearances. And judging by the look on Arthur's face, he knew what this meant. And of course it was nothing they had not already been strongly suspecting, but it did confirm it, and that was unwelcome news all the same.

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