The day had been a waste. It became all the more clear to Merlin as he tried to focus on the discussion going on around him. Harry had reluctantly accepted Ros's theory that Mordred could still be hiding out in London, if only because that was what none of them had expected. But it felt more and more like some wild goose chase. They didn't have a clue as to where Mordred was, and since no one had seen hide nor hair of him for months they had no idea where to even start looking. In short, the situation was looking rather bleak.
And Jo's name was hardly even mentioned as if by unspoken agreement. It didn't mean that they weren't all thinking about her. Merlin was at the very least. He had a feeling that Ros was too. But if the Section Chief was going to open up, she'd do it to Lucas or Harry. As far as the warlock was aware, she didn't like him all that much, especially not since he had disobeyed orders and had left Jo on her own. If she hadn't needed him, she'd never have agreed to work together.
And Arthur was still not back either. Merlin tried not to let that fact worry him – it was late in the afternoon, but not so late that the sun had set completely – but he worried all the same. No, Mordred had not tried to make an attempt on any of their lives, but Arthur could very easily become a victim if that was what Mordred was really planning.
'We need to know what Mordred wants,' Merlin pondered out loud. As long as they didn't know that, how could they ever take the right action?
'We thought we knew and we were wrong,' Lucas pointed out. That frown on his forehead had become permanent. 'He wasn't trying to bait us and we haven't found a body.'
Harry had left the Grid in favour of his broom cupboard-turned-office a few minutes ago in a cloud of anger and impatience. Ros had retreated to her desk on the other side of the room, subjecting the available maps to such close scrutiny that they would have burned under her gaze if she'd had the slightest bit of magic at her disposal. Lucas's desk was situated near hers, but he'd taken up his things and moved over to where Merlin was sitting.
'Shouldn't you be sitting with Ros?' he asked. Those two were usually as thick as thieves. And really, he was not good company today. All he wanted was to be left alone, a message Lucas either didn't get or chose to ignore.
The spy shrugged. 'Nah, best give her a space for an hour or so.'
Merlin translated that as Ros Myers being unbearable at the moment. Lucas was just looking for a place to sit that wasn't near her. Given all the sniping she'd done today, he couldn't really blame him.
'We'll find her, Merlin.' Lucas didn't sound convinced. Determined, yes, but not convinced. They all wanted to find Jo, more than they wanted to find Mordred, but that didn't automatically mean that they would. It was just wishful thinking.
In hindsight it had been so much easier to get Lucas back. They'd had Hogan then, and they had known how to play him so that he would give them the information they needed to find Lucas. That was all they had needed. Their own resourcefulness had done the rest. And the team had been just as motivated to find him as they were now to find Jo.
Except now they didn't have a clue about where to look, who to ask. They didn't even know if they should look in Camelot or in London. They were throwing theories around, but that was as far as it went. There was nothing substantial, nothing that led anywhere. Morgana's hovel and the Isle of the Blessed had been their best guesses, and it was painfully obvious that no one had stepped foot there in months. They breathed desolation and abandonment. If someone had been there, they would have found traces.
Truth was, they knew nothing about what Mordred had done before he had come to Camelot.
'What would he have done to her?' Merlin had been wondering that since the moment he knew Mordred had taken Jo, but the question was meant to stay inside his head. He hadn't meant to put it to anyone, least of all the resident expert on anything to do with kidnapped spies. He didn't want to know, not really. On the other hand there was a very good reason why he kept wondering.
'I don't know.'
Spies lied. It was what they did for a living. And Lucas was definitely not telling him the truth.
'You're lying.' Merlin blamed the exhaustion and the disappointment for his uncharacteristic directness.
Lucas didn't look at him when he answered. 'You do not want to know.' He threw a sideward glance at the warlock. 'And I think you already have thought up a few scenarios of your own. My guess is no better than yours.'
But it was. Lucas was the one who had been taken captive twice, once by the Russians and once by Morgana. And Mordred was far too close to Morgana. Judging by the evidence they'd already gotten, it was fair to say that he had absorbed a fair amount of her mannerisms over the course of their acquaintance.
'What did Morgana want from you?' he asked, again his mouth moving faster than his brain. Lucas seemed to have recovered well from his ordeal, to such an extent that it didn't influence his actions in the field, but he was never all that eager to talk about it. Merlin remembered the state they'd found him in, and found he understood the reason for his silence on the subject. He himself was never all that eager to recount his quick spell in Morgana's less than charming house.
To his surprise the other man answered, even though he kept looking toward the window as he did. 'Information.' He was definitely avoiding Merlin's gaze on purpose. 'Information about how to get into Thames House, about the team, the weak spots. I don't remember all of it.' Only now Merlin noticed that Lucas's face was paler than was healthy and his hands had been clenched into fists.
'I'm sorry,' he muttered.
One day he would get this right, this communicating with his London allies and friends. There would come a day when he would not accidentally put them all in danger. During Operation Camelot he had mistrusted Lucas, and the spy had been taken captive and tortured, and now he had tried to give Jo space, and she had been taken. Not that his track record in Camelot was any better. He knew full well that there was nothing he could do about it now, but he kept wondering what would have become of Morgana if he had been honest with her from the start. Surely she would not have turned into this evil witch?
But the past was dead and buried, and it was the present they had to deal with.
'We haven't found her,' Lucas observed. 'And he hasn't made any attempt to take us when we were out today.'
'You think he is questioning her,' Merlin understood. He had arrived at the same conclusion just before Lucas opened his mouth. It was not an idea he liked to entertain, but it was an option they had to consider now.
'He will keep her alive for that,' the spy said. 'As long as she doesn't divulge any useful information, as long as he doesn't have us, he will keep her alive. He needs her. She's his way in.'
'That's sick.' It was; the very thought made him nauseous. How could anyone even think about people like that, like they were thoughtless objects to be used and thrown away when they had outlived their usefulness? Yes, it happened, but that didn't mean he understood what could drive people to do such things.
But they do it too. That's how they know. They are not that different. The thought sneaked up on him, wriggling its way into his mind, trying to sow doubt as it went. Because there was truth in it, too much truth in it. The spies were not all that different. He'd seen with his own eyes how little regard Ros had for the welfare and survival of informants. He'd even seen her throw scalding hot coffee in a man's lap. Admittedly that man had been Bob Hogan, so Merlin's pity for him had been limited. All the same, they had done it to other people.
They are not good. He'd thought that before. They were on the right side, but that didn't make them good, not in the way for example Arthur was. Arthur refused to cross certain lines, but Section D operated under a different moral law altogether, one that was completely alien to him. And it unnerved him more than he was really prepared to admit. Because he also needed them.
'It is how some people think, Merlin.' If Ros had been the one to tell him that, she'd have snapped at him, acting every inch the experienced adult telling the little child how the world worked. Lucas was more patient. Merlin wasn't fooled, though; if it came down to it, he could be just as ruthless as the Section Chief. All things considered it was something of a miracle they had even ended up working together.
'It's still sick.'
It was a judgement of the spies' manners as much as of Mordred's. He had a lingering feeling that Lucas knew full well that was what he meant.
'You may not like it, Merlin.' Oh yes, he sounded distinctly more displeased now. 'But it is how it works. You can at least be glad that she'll still be alive.'
'Unless we've got it wrong again.' Hadn't they been thinking that it was Mordred's intent to lure the three of them out until a few hours ago? That had not exactly turned out to be true now, had it? Wasn't that the reason why Harry had made off to his office just now? Was that not the reason why Ros was glaring at the maps in front of her?
'Little ray of sunshine you are,' came a sarcastic comment from behind him. A quick glance over his shoulder taught him that Ros had abandoned her maps and had moved over to them.
Merlin suppressed the urge to make a comment involving pots and kettles.
'Anything?' Lucas asked.
'Except an old coot spilling half a cask of wine on top of one of the maps?' Ros asked, arching an eyebrow. 'Any chance you could magic it out of the parchment?' The question was directed at Merlin. 'God knows they are little enough help as it is, but it would help if I could actually see what's on them.'
Merlin forced himself to smile and throw in a joke to break the tension. 'And here I was thinking Gwaine had been banned from the library after he ruined the Essetir Chronicles with ale.'
It didn't do what it was intended to do, not exactly, but the glaring had ended. 'Do I want to know what he was doing at the time?'
Merlin grinned. 'Well, he hadn't meant to be in the library at all, but he'd been to the tavern and had drunk a few too many. He claims he tripped over his own toes and the ale accidentally spilled over the book.' The memory made the smile a bit more genuine. 'Anyway, do you want me to take a look at the map?'
'That was what I was asking you, wasn't it?' With Ros there was no such answer as yes, please. Merlin knew that, but he didn't have to like it. But it would be better not to test her patience now.
She spread the map in question out on the table in front of him. He knew the one. It was one of the southern parts of Cenred's kingdom. Or what used to be Cenred's kingdom. It had passed to his brother Lot after his demise at Morgause's hands. That was one of the few people he was very glad to be rid of. Not that Lot was much friendlier in his intentions towards Camelot.
'You think that's where Mordred has gone?' he asked.
He'd been toying with the idea himself. Magic wasn't outlawed there and there were plenty of woods in which he could hide. Merlin's own father had hidden there for twenty years without being found. It didn't bode well for their own attempts. And he was fairly certain that even if Lucas was right and Mordred would keep Jo alive as long as she didn't tell him anything, they didn't have twenty years. Only heaven knew how long they would have.
'You don't think?' Ros asked sharply.
'No, I didn't mean that!' he hastened to say, sure he had detected a hint of criticism in her voice. 'It's a good plan, a brilliant plan.'
'Remove the stain, will you?' Impatience took over once again. Ros Myers had found something to investigate and he was stalling. And that was really not a good place to be in.
He nodded, held his hand over the map and muttered the incantation. As ever Ros was less than impressed with his achievements. She merely nodded her thanks – he assumed she meant it in thanks anyway – took the map and moved back to her desk, calling over her shoulder to the two men to get back to work.
'She gets worse when there is no coffee,' Lucas remarked, almost apologetically.
'I thought you brought it with you?' Merlin inquired. Ros would hate it if she found out that her team thought her mood was dependent on the availability of caffeine. It wasn't, Merlin knew. It was just one of those jokes, and the truth was that Ros drank rather a lot of the stuff, but what really drove her was her team. She cared about them, and to have one of her people missing was putting her in a mood that was comparable with Arthur on an empty stomach.
'We're rationing,' Lucas retorted. God knows how long we'll be here. It went unspoken, but certainly not unheard.
Merlin knew better than to suggest going back to London to fetch them some more. They had better use for each and every one of them now. Not that there was something they could actually do right this very moment, but hopefully Ros would come up with something. She could be very inventive when she put her mind to it, and right now she was like a bloodhound chasing after its favourite bone.
'Shame,' he only said. 'I'll go get some maps.'
He needed to go and do something anyway. Sitting here, theorising about what could or could not have happened didn't make him feel any more optimistic about the future. Besides, he had never really been one to sit still. He was a servant; his job was all about running around, fetching things. Or running around after Arthur, saving his ungrateful backside for the umpteenth time. He'd long since lost count of just how many times he had saved the king from magical monsters, angry sorcerers and occasionally his own stupidity. Arthur, who had still not returned to Camelot. It was getting late, and Merlin was getting rather jumpy.
He made his way to the cupboard next to the window, where they had stored the maps they thought relevant for the time being, so they would have easy access. He opened the doors and then stopped dead.
He hadn't meant to look out of the windows; it had been an unconscious action, caused by the uneasiness over Arthur's prolonged absence. Except Arthur wasn't absent anymore. The search party had returned, Arthur in front of course. And he was holding a very familiar figure wrapped in a red cloak in front of him.
I've done this before.
And indeed, the scene in front of Ros Myers was currently very familiar. Not very long ago, just a couple of months previous, she had stood in this exact same square when a couple of knights had carried Lucas's prone form into the castle. The only difference was that back then she had been a part of the rescue party. Hell, she'd even driven a twenty-first century van at top speed through the lower town in order to get her colleague to a healer who'd have some knowledge of what had been done to Lucas.
This was slightly different. And it shouldn't be vexing her so much that the knights had been the ones to find Jo, while she had been magically dragged to all ends of the kingdom and had come back with empty hands. Good grief, she'd gone over every worst case scenario on her return, something Lucas, the bastard, clearly knew, if that look was anything to go by. And all the while she had been worried for nothing, because Arthur and his merry men had already found her in some godforsaken place in the forest. Only she could not have known this. Not for the first time she found herself cursing the lack of mobile communication devices in this age.
Arthur had dismounted already when Ros stormed into the courtyard, Merlin and Lucas hot on her heels, and Harry presumably following behind somewhere as well; she hadn't stopped to make sure once she had shouted the news in the general direction of his glorified broom cupboard.
'Where?' she demanded.
To his credit Arthur didn't point out that he was the king and that, when they were in Camelot, there were certain points of etiquette to be observed. 'Some miles to the southeast,' he reported. 'She was alone, just wandering around.' He smiled ruefully. 'Mordred was nowhere. I had my men spread out and search for him, but he was nowhere near.' He lifted Jo's limp body from the horse with a gentleness she hadn't believed him capable of.
'How bad?' The tension didn't do her ability to speak in full sentences any good. Altogether, she was treating this as if it was a debrief after an operation, which it rather was, she supposed.
Arthur shook his head, passing Jo on to Lucas's waiting arms, leaving him to talk to Ros. 'She seems all right, just exhausted.' Prolonged exposure to the Section D way of life had made him adopt their way of conveying information from time to time, Ros noted. 'Merlin, don't just stand there staring! Get Gaius!' he shouted at the servant who seemed to have frozen on the stairs leading down into the courtyard the moment he laid eyes on Jo.
'Gaius. Right. I'll… eh… I'll go get him.' The words had already left his mouth when his brain finally caught up with him, reminding him that it might be a very good idea to get a physician. Until then he had been too busy staring at Jo with a mixture of hurt and guilt that Ros herself understood only too well, but that she really had no time for today. The pressing need for help finally had seeped through to Merlin's brain, because he turned around and raced back into the castle. Lucas followed with Jo at a slower pace.
'But…?' Ros urged, demanding clarification for the word that had not been said, but that she had heard all the same in Arthur's explanation.
'She was hallucinating.' Arthur Pendragon had never been one for beating around the bush, and his hesitance in admitting this was probably the closest he'd ever come to it, which was a tell-tale sign that he was very ill at ease. 'She said we weren't real. "You never are," were her exact words.'
And that did not sound like Jo. Ros was well aware that the junior officer had experienced a great deal of trouble getting over her abduction by the Redbacks, but she had gotten over that. And she had never before had really irrational behaviour. Well, she had. She'd thought that she had seen her tormentor everywhere for a while, but that had stopped when Ros had shown her the photographs of the man's dead body. Good riddance too. Jo herself had been a bit shocked to learn she had killed the man, but Ros admired her for it.
But this, this was new. You never are. What the hell was that supposed to mean? There was this nagging feeling in the back of her mind that something was wrong here, something she could not quite put her finger on yet, but that went beyond normal trauma that could be inflicted by kidnappers.
Out of character. That was what this was, and nothing good had ever come from people suddenly acting as they were really not supposed to. It was always a prelude to something bad. When Adam had started to act out of character, it was an indication that he was going to pieces, same with Jo after her encounter with the Redbacks. Ros had a very good reason to have a healthy dislike of it. And it wasn't going to bode well now.
Bloody hell. What's he done to her?
It was one of those days that she really wasn't sure she even wanted to know; there was only so much bad news she could handle on a single day. For just once she wanted to be glad that she had her officer back and have nothing else to worry about. Well, except for Mordred, who had the pleasure of enjoying her undivided attention the moment she knew Jo would recover. She had a bone or two to pick with him, and the sooner she'd done that, the sooner she could go back to dealing with her preferred kind of terrorist, the ones that didn't use magic to cause chaos. Give her nuclear suitcase bombs any day. The sooner that happened, the happier she'd be.
'You never are?' she asked.
Arthur nodded. 'She said that every time she started to believe that we were there, we vanished. She said she wouldn't be fooled again.'
'The moment Merlin gets back with Gaius, tell him to start looking into what magical spells or bloody herbs could cause hallucinations like that.' Ros made a mental note to send a request back to Thames House for one of the desk officers there to research what non-magical substances could account for Jo's symptoms. Mordred may be a sorcerer, but that didn't mean he did everything by magic.
It was testimony to just how spooked Arthur was by recent events that he didn't even put up a token protest that he was the king and she had no right whatsoever to boss him about. It was slightly worrying to see. Grateful as she was for the cooperation, she'd have appreciated some recalcitrant stubbornness about now.
'Tell me about the rest,' she demanded.
'Mordred was nowhere near her,' Arthur reported as they began to make their way into the castle, some way behind the rest of the team.
Now that Ros knew that Jo was safe, there was no bloody need to run after her like a headless chicken. Merlin was filling that role well enough on his own. Ros Myers had more pressing business than to fuss at the young woman's sickbed. She wanted to know what Gaius had to say, but he was an old man; he'd not arrive before they did.
Arthur shook his head. 'None that we could find. I had my men spread out to look for something. Jo left a track that was easy to follow. Sir Leon reported that about ten minutes away from where we found her, the trail just ends. There's nothing there. She literally appeared in the middle of nowhere. Either that or someone covered the rest of them, which is possible. If I were Mordred, I wouldn't want to leave a trail leading right to my hiding place either.'
There were so many things wrong with this that for a moment Ros didn't know exactly where to start. The first, when she finally forced her thoughts back in a semblance of order, was that it now looked like Mordred had let Jo go of his own volition. Admittedly, he'd put her through hell first, but the long and short of it was that he had let her go. Why abduct her, and then let her go less than two days later? There was not an ounce of sense to be found in that course of action. Of course Ros would be the first to admit that some of the people here weren't all that good with making sense to begin with, but this was suspicious.
The second was that they had found Jo alive. If Mordred would really be done with her, if she had given him the information he wanted from her – which would not have surprised Ros all that much if that would have been the case – then it would have been the obvious course of action for him to kill her. Why risk that she lived to tell the tale of what happened to her? Why let an opponent have that advantage? She could tell them where he had been holding her for heaven's sake. And Ros had been in this line of work for too long to believe in the concept of a terrorist with a fully functional conscience.
'We'll need to debrief her soon as possible,' she said.
It didn't sit right with her. In truth it reminded her a bit of what the Russians had done when they had suddenly been as nice as to give them back Lucas North, after eight years of either pretending they didn't have him or simply ignoring Harry's efforts to get his officer back. When they had let him go, it was only because Lucas had promised them that he'd spy for them. They'd planted Lucas back with him. Of course they had severely underestimated Lucas's sense of loyalty to MI-5 and he had conveniently broken his promise to them the moment he was back in Thames House, but still, the intent was the same.
Arthur nodded. 'I'll have my men search the area again. There must be something we missed somewhere.' He looked at the sky. 'It will have to wait till tomorrow. We are losing the light. And maybe we will have some information from Jo herself that can help us.'
Ros almost smiled. Almost. When she had first met Arthur Pendragon, she had been less than impressed with the man who seemed to do little else than shout his displeasure at the top of his lungs and rather used his servant to get coffee from the machine than walk those few yards himself to get it. He'd grown into more of a leader since then, someone she could actually work with. It didn't mean she had to like the delay, but he had a point. She was not in London anymore, and she had to work with what was locally available. Electric light sadly wasn't.
To her surprise Gaius had made more haste than she had given him credit for – either that or Merlin had cheated by transporting him from one end of the castle to the other – because he was already leaning over Jo when Arthur and Ros entered the room. Merlin was hovering over her from the other side, the school example of a worried lover, no matter how much he may deny that.
Lucas and Harry had retreated to the other end of the room to give the other two men the space to work. Lucas's face betrayed that he was combatting some of his private demons, while it could be called something of a miracle that Harry had not exploded yet. If she was protective of her team, then Harry was ten times worse, although, in his defence, he had never committed treason because of it. On the other hand, she had heard a story of him arranging an assassination of the man who had stuck one of his officers' head in a fryer. We're equally as bad, the two of us. Ten to one that Harry would very much like a word with that Druid. A word and a gun.
'You okay?' she asked Lucas. If she was worrying over one of her team, she might just as well go all the way and worry about the bloody lot of them.
'I'm your colleague.' The answer was pretty standard, and by now Ros knew him well enough to correctly translate this to not okay at all.
She forced a smile. 'Well, we're friends. It's my prerogative to annoy you.'
He reciprocated the smile. 'I should upgrade you to best friend then.' It was more like a grimace than a smile, but it was progress enough, and at the moment Ros was not really in the mood for social chat. Some in Thames House might go as far as to say that Ros 'Thundercloud' Myers was never in the mood for social chat, but she had learned to ignore them by now.
'I should get paid extra for all that effort,' she remarked wryly.
Lucas was on the verge of a no doubt very witty retort, but Gaius stopped him from uttering it. He had gotten himself upright again, a solemn but mainly puzzled expression on his face. 'She is very exhausted, but there is nothing else I can find, sire,' he reported.
It came as no surprise that he gave his findings to Arthur rather than the assembled spies in the back of the room. They'd hardly made a favourable impression on him during their last stay, and Ros had not exactly been the school example of polite when she arrived here yesterday. No doubt he was the good guy around here, but she could never quite summon up the patience for his slow explanations.
Just exhausted? 'No injuries?' she questioned sharply, suspiciously. 'Bruises?' Oh, she'd love to believe that Mordred had given them Jo back unharmed out of the goodness of his heart. As it was, Ros seriously doubted the existence of a heart, never mind the goodness in it. Lack of goodness was probably a far more accurate description.
Gaius, reluctantly, turned to face her on Arthur's encouraging nod. 'Nothing I can find, my lady.'
Ros mentally snorted at the title; it was her father who had a knighthood – if they hadn't stripped him off it by now – not her. With her track record, she was unlikely to ever be singled out to be the bearer of any sort of title. 'And drugs?' she insisted when no one appeared to ask the obvious question for her.
The reply was the same as it had been. 'Nothing that I can find.'
It took Ros most of the self-control she possessed to stop herself from blurting out a very irritable 'Then make sure you find something!' She had to remind herself that she was not in Thames House, and she had no right whatsoever to call the shots in this place, but heaven knew she wanted to. Hallucinations didn't just appear out of thin air. They had to come from somewhere.
Her eyes met Arthur's. The king gave a slight nod and Ros knew that they were in agreement. Something was very wrong.