Just Another Normal Operation (Normal Days II)

Chapter 26

Chapter 26

Lucas didn't think that he would ever really get used to the feeling of being in one place the next second and then turn up in another the next. Well, really that was not all that bad, if only it wouldn't involve being transported in some kind of whirlwind that did things to his stomach that made him feel a little queasy.

And, by the look of things, someone was rather displeased to see him. Merlin had transported Arthur and him into a small room that he could not remember being in the last time he had been here, but he knew the occupant, an elderly man with grey hair who had been in the process of stirring in a bowl with an undefined substance. Gaius, his memory provided. He was the court physician, the one who had treated him after he'd been rescued from Morgana's hovel.

'Merlin!' he exclaimed at a volume probably audible at the other side of the castle. 'What are you doing!'

'Emergency,' the warlock replied, moving his feet uncomfortably. 'I wouldn't have done it if there had been time to take the long way.'

'And how exactly did you think to explain their sudden presence in Camelot?' Gaius inquired, shooting very displeased glances in the general direction of the two spooks accompanying his ward.

For just this once Ros refrained from commenting. Her face had a greenish shade and she clutched her stomach as if she was in danger of throwing up. Not that Lucas could blame her for that. Magical transport was a feeling you needed to get used to. It was very disorientating at first. Even after a few times he still felt faintly seasick.

'Secret entrance,' Merlin said without thinking. 'There's a secret network of tunnels running underneath the castle. That's how we got in.' He said all this without even batting an eye, betraying the fact that he had got a lot of experience in the art of telling lies. 'We wouldn't want Mordred to know we're back here.'

That wasn't such a bad explanation either. For all they knew the former soon-to-be knight was keeping a very close eye on the castle in case they were coming back here. It would help if he could be tricked into believing that they were still in London on a wild goose chase. Not that he thought that the deception would work for long, but at this point they would use whatever advantage they could get.

Gaius clearly didn't approve of Merlin's course of action, but at least he didn't protest any more. 'So, what will you do now that you've got them here?'

'I'm going back to get Arthur and Harry,' Merlin explained, a hint of his trademark smile on his face. It looked forced, though, and it certainly didn't reach his eyes. The worry for Jo must have something to do with that. And he certainly wasn't alone in that, Lucas thought wryly. If Mordred was anything like Morgana… He'd dread to think what could happen to her then. 'They can do the explaining. Be back in a minute.' He disappeared before Gaius had the time to comment or object, and by the look of things, he had been about to do both.

Nevertheless, his annoyance faded the moment Merlin had disappeared out of sight, and even though there were some mutterings about 'that idiot boy,' he complained with a half-smile on his face that was bordering on fond and affectionate.

'Sit down,' he invited. 'You can't be seen strolling around the castle until Merlin gets back with the rest of your team.'

The rest of your team. It sounded wrong since it only included two other people now, and one of them was not even a true member of Section D. They were three men down. One dead, one imprisoned and one kidnapped. And of all the remaining team, four of them were the top of Mordred's hit list. Well, of course there was Malcolm, but it had been decided that he would stay in London to keep an eye on the Russians. Besides, he wouldn't be able to contribute anything to tracking down Mordred in these medieval times.

Ros had stumbled over to the nearest available surface she could find, a stool standing near the physician's work bench. In any other situation Lucas would have laughed at her for suffering from seasickness, and then teased her mercilessly about it for weeks, taking her death glares for granted, making it up with a cup of coffee.

'I'll get you a potion,' Gaius said to her, quite coolly. His relationship with Ros had always been strained. Lucas had been unconscious for that part, but he'd heard from Arthur that the Section Chief had driven him to distractions with her demands for answers. That unsurprisingly hadn't warmed Gaius to her. But then, unless you got to know Ros a bit better, unless you managed to work your way past that mask of hers, she was a unlikeable person who certainly didn't care about all the hurt feelings of the people she insulted. 'To settle your stomach.'

'Thanks,' Ros grumbled, which was further than her gratefulness usually went. That was telling about how bad she felt. It would also explain why she hadn't yet opened her mouth to cut Gaius down to size.

The physician nodded at Lucas, and he managed a small smile in return. The transporting hadn't done his injury any favours, but he could manage. The bullet had only grazed his side, and it had been more the blood loss slowing him down than anything else. The pain was manageable. He'd had far worse. Ros on the other hand looked dead on her feet. She'd had a bullet through the shoulder, Lucas knew for a fact that she hadn't slept any better than he had and it was obvious that transporting didn't agree with her.

He did a few steps away and pretended to be busy checking the messages on his phone. There was something a little awkward being in a relatively small and enclosed space with the man who had probably saved his life, but who had seen him at his worst. It had been a vulnerable position to be in, and the awkwardness wasn't lessened by the fact that they'd hardly spoken a word since.

Fortunately for him he had distraction ready at hand when the door slammed open and Gwaine swaggered – there really wasn't any other word for how the knight moved – in, keeping a strip of cloth wrapped around his arm. Not that it seemed to bother him very much at all, since he had that trademark goofy smile plastered all over his face. He was one of the few people in Camelot who actually knew about Merlin's magic and who had been delighted to find out; according to Merlin himself he kept insisting to use it for childish pranks.

He perked up when he caught sight of the room's occupants. 'Lucas!' he exclaimed happily. 'Good to see you. Merlin brought you here.'

Lucas managed a smile in return. 'He did.' Gwaine's enthusiasm was difficult to deal with at times. The friendship was more or less one-sided for that reason, something the knight either didn't notice or didn't care about.

'And Lady Rosalind. You are a sight for sore eyes,' Gwaine continued.

'If only that feeling could be mutual,' Ros muttered. She, unlike Lucas, had no patience for him, or his flirting attempts, whatsoever, today even less than usual. Her cheeks had a bit more colour and she had drained the contents of the mug Gaius had given her, but her mood had already been in the danger zone before they made the trip. Worry for her colleagues translated into snappiness with Ros, and if his previous experiences with her were anything to go on at all, she was pretty worried now. Lucas couldn't fault her for that. He himself was hardly relaxed now.

Any more supposedly witty remarks Gwaine had to add were pre-empted by the arrival of the rest of the team, drawing his attention elsewhere, namely Merlin, who found himself on the receiving end of Gwaine's compliments on having mastered transporting, plus the request if he could have a go. He however backed off when Arthur brought him back in line by mentioning the fact that Jo had gone missing and that they had more pressing business to attend to. Arthur hadn't been aware of Gwaine's knowledge of Merlin's powers, and normally he would probably have dwelled on that longer than he did now, Lucas imagined. The king of Camelot didn't like being kept in the dark after all. They had all heard his displeasure during Operation Camelot.

It all felt somewhat surreal to Lucas, all of this. Here he was, making his way towards the old makeshift Grid, now back in business, while Arthur assembled the council to make the announcement that Mordred had betrayed them and was now to be regarded as a highly dangerous enemy, and Merlin was tagging along for reasons unknown. He didn't think it would be easy on Arthur to admit that he had made the wrong call concerning the Druid, but it might be even harder still to deal with the blow of the betrayal itself.

Harry had gone off to heaven knew where, leaving only Ros and Lucas in the dusty room. Ros had gratefully sunk down on the nearest available chair as soon as everyone else had left the room and there was no longer a need for her to pretend that she was perfectly all right when she was really not. Lucas supposed he should feel honoured that she didn't feel like she needed to pretend for him as well, but he was hardly in an appreciating mood. On top of that Harry had walked out without leaving orders, and although he certainly was trained to make independent decisions, he didn't have a clue about what to do. It wasn't as if they could actually walk out of this castle on foot and start a search party of their own.

'You should rest,' he told Ros when she suddenly realised they were not supposed to sit back and do nothing while Jo was still not found. 'Let that shoulder heal.'

True to expectations, she all but bit his head off for implying that she was not as fit as she wanted to be. 'First Harry, now you!' she complained. 'Will you for heaven's sake just stop fussing?'

At first Ros in a fit of temper had woken memories of interrogation sessions in Russia that he was trying his hardest to forget. He instinctively shied away from the harsh voice and the steel in her eyes, until he got to realise that Ros's manners may be as pleasant as an FSB officer's at times, but that she was made of different stuff entirely. Where her team was concerned, she'd go to extreme lengths to keep them safe. And he was on her team, so that meant he was safe.

It didn't mean that she would appreciate his prodding or his interpretation of her snapping, but some things needed to be said all the same. 'It wasn't your fault,' he reminded her, perching on a desk, sneezing as the dust entered his nostrils. No one had been here in quite some time. 'You couldn't have done anything to prevent this. We haven't got anything to reproach ourselves with.' As he said it, he recalled saying the same thing to her after the market bombing. Well, he couldn't help it that it was true in both cases, could he?

The sardonic half-smile that met his eyes was proof enough that Ros remembered it too. 'Course we do,' she disagreed. 'The bastard put one over us.'

'Then we'll put one over him.'

He really hoped that sounded more confident than he felt. It had been less than a day since Jo had been taken, but Morgana hadn't needed long to get to the bits that had him screaming in agony either. Of course the theory was that he would use Jo as bait to get to the rest of them, but there was also a possibility, that no one so far had even dared to mention, that he would use her as a source of information. Said information could then be used to get to Section D. He'd gotten enough experience in this job to think of the possible scenarios in a minute, with seconds to spare, and no doubt Ros could do the same. He'd bet a month's salary that was what had put her in this foul mood. Her injury had nothing to do with any of it. That was just an inconvenience.

'How can you be so sure?' she demanded suspiciously, as if she thought he had some piece of information only he was privy to, and he was holding out on her.

Because you are Ros Myers and you'd do just about anything to keep your team safe. But she'd bite his head off if he said that, and really, the last thing he needed to do now was to load even more burdens on her injured shoulders. She wouldn't thank him for that.

And so he settled for the second best reply. 'Well, we do have the most powerful warlock of all time on our side,' he pointed out. 'And he seems rather intent on getting Jo back.' To his own surprise, he had a bit more faith in Merlin these days. He didn't think he'd ever could trust that man, not after all that had happened, but that had been before Moscow, that had been before they had realised that Mordred was not who he claimed to be, and they could not tell anyone about what they had found.

'He isn't the only one,' Ros muttered under her breath. Lucas thought he could hear a touch of anger, as if he had insulted her by implying – even if he had meant to do no such thing – that she wasn't just as hell-bent as Merlin was to get Jo back to safety. He knew he should not take this personally; there were days that no one could get it right with the Section Chief. But after the days he'd had, he really could not summon up any more patience for it. He'd reached the limit.

'I'm going to see that librarian, ask for some maps we can use,' he announced. No doubt he could get someone to fetch them for him, but right now he was glad of the opportunity to stretch his legs and get out of this dusty room. The wound in his side really didn't appreciate the treatment, but he could handle that. Ros Myers in one of her foul moods, he could not, not right now anyway.

Still, as he looked back at his colleague, just before the door fell shut, he could see the slumped shoulders she would never have shown him if she knew he was watching, and he suddenly felt rather sorry for her.

It was a relief to get out of the council chamber, leaving the cacophony of voices behind. Normally Arthur Pendragon enjoyed the sounds, the noise. He liked having people around him, but not today, not when those voices were commenting on how he had been fooled by Mordred. Arthur hadn't pointed out the obvious, that they themselves had been completely taken in by the Druid, that no one could have imagined him being anything less than kind and absolutely devoted to the king. No, because Arthur was the king, people expected him to have all kinds of very developed senses of detection, which should have realised immediately that Mordred was one of the bad guys. At that thought Arthur had very nearly snorted. It was Merlin who had those, not Arthur, certainly not Arthur.

And the critique was all that more difficult to handle because, like it or not, there was some truth to it. Arthur still maintained that based on the evidence of his own eyes, there was no way he could have come to any other conclusion about Mordred, but he could have listened to Merlin at least. It wasn't as if his servant had not tried to tell him about the danger. It had been Arthur who refused to even hear him out, scandalised at the mere idea that Mordred was not as much of a friend to him as he pretended to be. He hadn't listened, hadn't paid attention to Merlin's behaviour towards Mordred, and on the rare occasion that he had, then only to dismiss and condemn it.

And now it turned out that his servant had every right to have been so suspicious, and Arthur found this very hard, if not impossible, to handle. Could he even be trusted to assess people right after he had been fooled and betrayed so many times? Morgana, Agravaine, Mordred… He'd trusted those people and they had betrayed him. Who was to say he would make better decisions in the future? Who was he to think that he had what it took to be king at all?

He supposed he could find solace in the fact that his own father had been blind to Morgana's faults in the same way Arthur had been, but that was hardly a fit excuse for his blindness in the cases of Agravaine and Mordred. And really, he should have known better than to think that there was no truth at all in prophecy by now.

His chamber was not as empty as he had hoped. Merlin was there, performing his normal duties. In fact, he was performing them way better than he usually did, and he wasn't even using magic to do them, as Arthur had given him permission to do.

He lingered in the doorway. 'Merlin, what are you doing?' he demanded, a bit confused as to why he was even here instead of with the spooks, overseeing the magical part of the rescue mission. True, they wouldn't leave today yet – there were too few hours of daylight left to be effective – but there were always preparations that could be made, and this was hardly the place to make them.

If he had blinked he would have missed how Merlin quickly donned that far too cheerful smile of his. Arthur had been fooled by that in the past, but nowadays he noticed that it didn't reach his eyes. 'I'd have thought that'd be obvious,' he said. 'What I'm always doing, cleaning up after you. It's quite interesting, really. Even when you're not there, your room still ends up in a state of chaos.'

On a normal day the distraction might have worked. Today however was not a normal day by any stretch of the imagination. 'You should be with Ros and Lucas,' he pointed out. He didn't mention Harry. The head of Section D had been at the meeting, but had not returned to the makeshift Grid as far as Arthur was aware, instead opting on going with the knights to organise the search. 'I thought you said you were going to take them with you tomorrow?'

'We know where to go,' Merlin said. The smile had vanished and the reply was clipped and short, almost in Ros Myers fashion.

'You should get some rest,' Arthur tried again, hoping for once to get Merlin out of his room by subtle means rather than to command him to get out, which was very unlikely to work anyway.

If Merlin understood the hint, then he chose to ignore it. 'And leave you in this mess? You'd be complaining for weeks.'

If there was anything Arthur sometimes hated about his servant, apart from the secrecy and the lies, then it was his tendency to try and deflect subjects he didn't want to discuss. He never said he didn't want to talk about anything, which would have been better, all things considered. Instead he did… this. It was infuriating.

The only approach that left was to cut through the babbling and get to the heart of the matter. 'Merlin, will you just get out!' It was his most irritable king's voice. He didn't really think it'd have any effect at all, but at this point it was very much worth a try.

At least it succeeded in making his servant drop the – empty – bucket he was holding. Guilt flashed across his face. 'I'll… eh… I'll go then.'

Arthur knew better by now than to think himself the brightest star in the sky, but he was fairly certain he knew where that guilt had come from, and it was more than sufficient to make him realise that Merlin had not heard Arthur's desperate wish to be alone for a while. He had heard an accusation.

'You're not blaming yourself, are you, Merlin?' he demanded sharply. Oh, how he wished he could be alone right now, but it seemed solitude would have to wait. 'What happened to Jo was not your fault.' Not entirely. Granted, Merlin should not have left her on her own, but if Arthur had realised the truth about Mordred sooner, as he should have done, then they would not be in this situation either. They would be dealing with angry Russians instead. Right now, he would take the Russians over this any time. At least they were somewhat predictable. With Mordred it was a guessing game. And his magic didn't make things any easier either.

He supposed it was too much to hope for a straight answer; Merlin had been spending too much time with that dragon for that. 'It's Mordred's fault,' he replied without conviction. It is my fault, was what Arthur heard.

Oh, will you two for heaven's sake just look at yourselves, wallowing in your guilt! Arthur could almost hear Ros's voice, reprimanding him for what she surely believed to be a waste of time and effort. And quite frankly, she was right. It didn't mean that he didn't feel guilty, because he did, but it wouldn't help them in getting Jo back.

'Yes, it is,' he said. 'Mordred's fault.' This called for one very specific action, one of Arthur's most hated, if he was being quite honest: admitting that he had made a mistake. 'I should have listened to you,' he confessed. It was one thing to admit it in the privacy of his own head, it was quite another to say it out loud. His father had never apologised in public for things he had done wrong. He was the king; he was above such things. That was what Uther had thought. It didn't mean that he was right, but it was part of the legacy he'd left behind. 'You were right about Mordred and I should have listened. I am sorry.' Never had three words been harder to say. But sometimes needs must, and this was one such time.

And apparently it was so unexpected for Merlin to hear it that he stared at Arthur for a good few seconds before he even seemed anywhere near formulating a coherent reply. And then it was just more of his usual tactics. 'Arthur Pendragon? Apologising? What has the world come to?'

'It was necessary,' he replied curtly. 'Merlin, sit down.'

He wasn't surprised when Merlin didn't. Had he ever really obeyed any command given to him? If he had, then Arthur couldn't remember the last time it happened.


'You never say you're sorry.' The warlock seemed suspicious more than anything else. Was it really that rare that he was telling Merlin he had been smarter than Arthur. Yes, a little voice in the back of his mind answered immediately. Arthur squashed it.

'It was right to say it, though.' As the spies would say it, Arthur Pendragon was well and truly out of his comfort zone. And that had never done his mood any favours. 'I was wrong, about a lot of things apparently. And I just don't know how to deal with any of it. I don't know what to do.' He had no idea where that last bit had come from.

Or, actually, he did. He'd always had these moments, when the pressure was on and everyone was looking to him to make things right, that he confessed to Merlin just how uncertain he was, just how much he doubted his own ability to do what needed doing. Normally he hid his doubts behind a mask of arrogance and witty banter, except for when he was truly at his wit's end. Like he was now.

It was only because moments like these hadn't happened since Operation Camelot. Something had changed then. When all had been said and done, they'd had a talk and after that they had returned to their normal behaviour, as if those events had never even happened. Merlin had been allowed to practise his magic in private, they had bantered like they always had… To an outside onlooker it would seem as if nothing had changed.

But of course something had changed. The trust had gone, that unconditional, instinctive trust between them. They were walking on eggshells around one another, terrified that the smallest reference to past events would break the frail truce they had. Forced normalcy, Arthur believed it was. Merlin seemed very reluctant to really show Arthur his magic and Arthur in turn had stopped confiding in Merlin about the things that weighed heavily on his mind.

And he missed that. Of course there was Guinevere, always supportive, always there when he needed her, but she wasn't Merlin. She didn't insult him to shake him out of one of his moods, she never raised her voice, she didn't use that special brand of sarcasm. And as much as Arthur needed her gentle support, he needed all those other things too.

But here he was, trusting Merlin with his deepest thoughts, the ones he couldn't utter to anyone else because the king could not be seen doubting his own commands, as if nothing had ever changed. And it felt right.

Maybe Merlin sensed that. He was in general quicker to cotton on after all. A smile, a real and genuine smile, lit up his face, his entire face. 'Well, you're Arthur Pendragon, officially qualified clotpole, nominated dollophead. You'll do what you always do.' It was the mocking, the banter that was normal for them, but it was real this time.

'And what is that, Merlin?' he questioned, trying in vain to stop the corners of his mouth curling up in a relieved – relieved, why relieved? It wasn't as if he had been nervous, not at all – smile.

'You'll pretend to know what you're doing and everything will work out.' Merlin appeared to be very pleased with his solution-that-wasn't-a-solution-at-all.

'You mean that I get the credit and you'll do all the work behind the scenes,' Arthur translated. They were out of banter territory now, back to the serious business. They were having the sort of talk they should have had after Operation Camelot, he reflected. And of course they were not having that conversation during a time of peace and stability. No, instead they were having it with one of the biggest threats they'd ever encountered looming over their heads.

'Well, that is my job.' The smile was still on his face, but it had left his eyes.

'Not the behind the scenes part,' Arthur argued. 'It isn't fair.' He didn't think he'd ever said those words again after he'd been refused a second helping of roasted chicken at six years of age.

'It's useful,' Merlin said.

'Your secret isn't going to last forever,' he pointed out.

Arthur was not even entirely sure what he was getting at, only that what he was about to do was probably going to cause riots and chaos at some point. He meant what he said, though. Yes, he still distrusted magic, and the people who used it – he'd seen too much of the bad of it not to – but this was Merlin. He couldn't even recall one single time that Merlin's magic had endangered his life or the lives of his friends.

To his surprise Merlin didn't look pleased. Quite the contrary; he looked properly horrified. 'We can't tell them.' Them were not specified, but Arthur took it to mean everyone who didn't already know about him. 'Not now!'

Reason told Arthur that would indeed be a very bad idea. On the other hand, though, all of a sudden he was rather fed up with all of the secrecy. That had been what had caused the fallout in the first place, lies and secrecy. 'We'll need your magic,' he reminded the warlock. There was a very vivid image in his mind, of Merlin fighting off Mordred in the tunnels underneath London.

Merlin literally staggered back. 'I can't. Not where everyone can see it.'

'Not where everyone can see it.' Arthur hated it when Merlin was being the sensible one. And this still wasn't turning out to be the conversation that solved everything, as he had secretly hoped it would turn out to be. Maybe conversations like that just didn't happen. No quick solutions readily available. 'But you can do what you always do,' he added.

The smile was back, not full force, but back all the same, even if it was still laced with worry. 'Of course. You wouldn't be able to last a day without it.'

Arthur very much objected against that kind of thought. But since telling Merlin to just shut up about it was going to be just as effective as telling Gwaine to lay off the ale for the rest of his life, he settled for the second best approach. 'But, Merlin, if it's a life or death situation, I don't care who sees it, I order you to use your magic.'

He didn't think he imagined the unadulterated terror on Merlin's face when he finally obeyed Arthur's initial order to get out of his room.

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