The sense of wrongness only increased when Gaius announced that there was nothing he could find on Jo that indicated that anything had been done to her since the moment Mordred had taken her. True, she looked as if she had been to hell and back again and it was quite frankly impossible to argue with the diagnosis of exhaustion, but there was something more. Arthur Pendragon used to be naïve, but those days were far behind him nowadays. He couldn't afford it anymore. And this situation with Jo set his teeth on edge. Wrong. Things didn't add up the way they should.
And he had a feeling Ros and he were the only two alert enough to notice the trouble looming ahead. Merlin was too visibly relieved to have Jo back with them to ask the questions he would usually have asked. He was hovering near her like a worried mother hen. At any other time Arthur would have mercilessly teased his servant with his clear obsession with the female spy, but not today. Today it made him blind for the suspicious elements and that was not something to be laughed at. No, there were not just suspicious elements, everything about this was wrong somehow.
Lucas seemed to be on another planet entirely, his face too pale to be healthy. The reason for that behaviour was easy to guess. Harry on the other hand appeared to be steaming with anger. Mordred would be very wise to stay well away from the enraged spy boss; an encounter between those two would certainly end in bloodshed, and even though the Druid had magic on his side, Arthur knew better by now than to underestimate Harry Pearce, especially when he was properly vexed.
But neither of them seemed to question the day's events the way Arthur and Ros were. It was quite the novel experience; Arthur was generally one of the last people to doubt something or someone. Merlin was usually first in line when it came to that. But even though Arthur Pendragon was not the most suspicious soul to walk this earth, that didn't mean that he couldn't see it when something was not as it ought to be, something Merlin frequently seemed to lose sight of, much to his king's annoyance.
It hadn't been sitting right with him right from the moment he had first seen Jo wandering around as if in a daze, as if she was barely aware of where she was and where she was going. Her behaviour when she saw and recognised him only alarmed him even more. Jo could be a sensitive young woman, but that wasn't all there was to her, he'd soon learned. She could hold her own. This, this helplessness he'd seen, the irrational fear that he wasn't real, that was nowhere even near her usual conduct. Of course, she had been through a lot, but that only allowed for so much.
The entirety of the journey he had tried to make sense of what exactly it was that was bothering him so much about this rescue – if it could be called a rescue when it was more like an coincidental run-in. It wasn't the fact that Mordred was nowhere to be found or indeed that the tracks ended in the middle of nowhere. No, eventually he decided that it was the "coincidental" that was setting off his every alarm bell. He'd seen too much "coincidences" in his life to believe in them any longer. And that led him to the heart of the matter: all of this reminded him in too many ways of how Morgana was found. Minus the attacking bandits beforehand, the situations were identical, right down to the way both of the women had walked and reacted to seeing him, although Morgana had been the easier to convince.
And Morgana had turned on them within the day.
No. He shook his head to rid himself of the thought that was trying to wriggle its way into his mind. No, that was nonsense. One only had to look at Jo to know that she was not a danger to anyone. He knew her. She had been gone for less than two days all things considered. It couldn't be. Even so, he knew himself well enough to know that couldn't be here had the meaning of he didn't want it to be. And when had anyone ever done what he wanted when it really mattered?
He caught Ros's eyes from across the room. The Section Chief had rapped her questions at Gaius and was visibly displeased with the answers she'd gotten. Just this once he couldn't blame her, even though her manners left something to be desired. But that there was nothing to be found on Jo was strange and unsettling. He was as likely to believe that Mordred had done nothing more damaging than give Jo a sleepless night as he was to buy the story of Gwaine giving up on ale for the rest of his life; it just wasn't possible. It didn't happen.
The look in Ros's eyes told him that she concurred.
Arthur was not a born and trained spy, but he liked to think he could be discreet. He gave a slight jerk of the head towards the door, knowing she'd understand what he meant. They needed to talk about this, work out what it was that was wrong and then act on it. Thus far it didn't have all the hallmarks of a trap, but it felt like one all the same.
Ros's exasperated look told him exactly how discreet she thought he was. Still, he trusted her to follow him out.
'I'll talk to the knights and instruct them to investigate the site tomorrow,' he said. It might be a good excuse to leave the room, but he also intended for them to really go and have a look around. They didn't have sufficient time to do that today, when the first priority had been to get Jo back to safety. And if there were clues to be found, they'd better find them, because clues were in very short supply at the moment.
He left the room, walked out the corridor and waited around the corner for Ros to join him. In the meantime he might as well try and work out what was bothering him so much about this. It took a few minutes, but then he remembered thinking that the search reminded him of the search for Morgana, just prior to finding Jo.
That was what rankled him. It reminded him too much of the search for Morgana, the day they found her. No, the day they were meant to find her, because they had been tricked. Morgana had been planted back with them, like a spy who'd gone undercover, so she was in the perfect position to sabotage whatever plan they had. Of course it had been months before they realised what was happening and who was to blame, but in the end they'd known. He snorted. It would have been hard not to know when she proclaimed herself the queen and had his father, their father, imprisoned.
Not that he thought Jo actually capable of betrayal of any kind. She just wasn't the type. She was too good-hearted, he thought. Morgana on the other hand had always had a bit of a temper, and not much love for his father. She clashed with him over practically everything they could possibly clash over. Was it that surprising that she had eventually chosen Morgause's side when she never agreed with Uther to begin with?
But he couldn't see that happening with Jo. She was too different. And it still didn't make any sense at all.
'It's a good thing you're not a real spy.' Ros Myers's drawl snapped him right out of his musings. 'Even a child would have gotten your meaning.'
'You are the spy,' Arthur pointed out. 'I am the king.'
'As you never tire of saying,' Ros retorted. She was one of the few who didn't care in the very least that he was a king who could command thousands. She was like Merlin in that respect. It was the only thing in which they were alike, though. They were as different as two people could be otherwise.
There was a brief moment of uncomfortable silence. Ros was clearly waiting for him to speak, a novelty if he had ever seen one, and he was trying to think of a way to convey his suspicions without sounding like paranoid lunatic.
In the end he decided that there was no such thing and he spoke. 'Something is wrong.'
If Ros's expression was anything to go by, the only wrong was in his answer. 'I know that.' He had a feeling that Ros was experiencing some trouble admitting to that. By now he knew her long enough to know that this was probably caused by the only proof for something wrong was in a feeling, a flash of intuition, while Ros Myers liked to base everything in fact, verifiable facts. There was no room for feelings in her line of work.
'It's like it was when we found Morgana,' he offered. It still wasn't undeniable evidence, but it was something. 'We had been searching for her for more than a year before we found her. There was a bandit attack in the woods, which we won,' he added for good measure, even though that must be blatantly obvious; if they'd lost, he'd be dead. 'We were cleaning up, assessing the damage when she just wandered out of the woods, looking right through us, and later, when she came to her senses a bit more, like she could barely believe we were there.'
He mentally scoffed at his own choice of words; Morgana had never come to her senses since that day. He still recalled everything that happened there, though. He could still conjure the image like it had happened only yesterday; the mists swirling, the smell of blood in the air, the sounds of injured men. He even recalled the dress Morgana had worn, even when he never paid attention to such things before that. He would look at her and forget what she was wearing instantly the moment he looked away again. Not that time, though.
'I thought you said she had turned against you?' Ros asked, eyebrow raised in a silent question.
'She acted,' Arthur replied.
He would blame himself till the sun turned cold for not realising sooner. Morgana had never been that talented an actress. He should have sensed something was wrong when she behaved so differently than before. Maybe he had just not wanted to see what was right in front of him, because having the old Morgana back with them made for a much more pleasant alternative. But that was a mistake he wouldn't make again.
'It was too easy.' That was the point he was truly trying to make. 'With Morgana, she was planted back with us.' Using spy terms still felt strange to him, but he was working with them, so he might as well use their words. 'Getting Jo back was too easy. Mordred would not have just let her go.'
He didn't know why he could say this with as much certainty as he did, but it rang true. And maybe it was easier when it was about someone he didn't care as much about as he had cared about Morgana. Jo was just someone he knew. True, he would fight as hard for her as he would for any other, because that was what it meant to be king, but he would not let himself be blinded.
And it was made harder only because he did not want to believe this, not of Jo. He might have found it easy to believe of anyone else compared with her. Guinevere might be even less likely to betray him, but not many others were just as unlikely. But none of that mattered if she was not in control of her own mind. And her actions were queer at the very least, out of character to be sure.
Ros had folded her arms across her chest, clearly deeply unhappy with the turn events had taken, and very obviously determined to let him do the talking. He was a little surprised she managed as much as a confirming nod in response actually.
His reasoning made sense, and it would seem to more people than just himself. It didn't alter the fact that Jo would be the last person to ever turn on the people she worked with. Not of her own free will at least, he felt compelled to add. There were ways to magically force someone to do something, weren't there? He was far from an expert on the matter and neither did he know Jo well enough to tell for certain what she would and wouldn't do. Unfortunately the only person who could lay claim to knowledge of both things was currently too busy worrying over her to be able to look at this the way he should.
I wonder if this is what Merlin felt like when he suspected Morgana and Agravaine and couldn't tell me because I would not have believed him. Their roles were very much reversed right now, and it was not a feeling he particularly liked. There was something oddly reassuring about Merlin knowing what to do. Not having that made him feel slightly lost, even if he'd rather die than admit it.
Eventually it was Ros who made the decision. 'We'll keep her under observation.' Her way of talking indicated that Arthur did not have a say in the matter, something that usually only served to set his teeth on edge, but with Merlin playing the lovebird over Jo Portman, he found it was good to have someone else to fall back on, which did not mean he could not handle his own business, thank you very much. Some things were just better done with two than alone.
And so he gave a nod of his own. 'Good.' This was uncharted waters for him and taking orders had never sat particularly well with him. But desperate times called for desperate measures and no matter what he did, he could not shake the feeling that something about Jo, about her behaviour was wrong, just wrong. 'Colleagues, then?' He conjured up the closest thing to a smile he could manage. 'I heard they are okay?' It was something he'd heard Lucas say one time or another.
Ros didn't wrinkle her nose at the proposal, but it was only just. Arthur Pendragon was not the material spies were made of, and he was grateful for that, because he did not want to be like them. But it was not as if he had much of a choice now that the real spies were not seeing what was right in front of them. Harry would say that they were emotionally compromised, although he would never use the term on himself. Right now Ros and he were the only ones who had seen the potential danger.
'Colleagues,' she agreed, throwing in a snort for good measure. 'Although you might as well be a friend, for all the annoying you do.'
She left Arthur wondering whether he was supposed to take that as an insult or as a compliment.
Something about Arthur set Merlin's teeth on edge. He had been looking at Jo queerly from the moment he had entered the room with Gaius and had not stopped frowning ever since. Then, neither had Harry, but Harry's infamous scowl had been directed at Gaius rather than the woman in the bed. It was Arthur who made him want to shout that Jo was not the one guilty of anything.
And he failed to see what had his king so antsy anyway. They should be glad to have Jo back. She must have been pretty resourceful to make it away from Mordred on her own, and he wouldn't deny that a fair bit of luck must have been involved to find Arthur's party so close. And then to think that he himself had been all over the kingdom trying to locate her and her captor, only to have her show up so nearby. That should make him learn his lesson about going out all guns blazing.
But here was his king, frown on his forehead as he kept a close eye on what Gaius was doing. And then there was Ros with her snapped questions, but Merlin did not expect any different from her. As much as he tried to keep his distance from her, it was hardly a state secret that the Section Chief covered up emotion with biting remarks and sarcasm, and sarcasm wasn't always required.
But the only thing wrong with her was exhaustion, and that was only to be expected after the ordeal she surely must have been through. They should let her rest and recover her strength and then they'd go after Mordred. He took one look at Ros's face and corrected himself. Ros would never wait until Jo was back on her feet before they went after the culprit. That thought was strengthened by Harry's attitude towards this. The search wasn't over yet.
He took a moment to wonder how they would proceed as Gaius took his supplies, but he had a lingering suspicion that it would involve questioning Jo about the past couple of days in the hope of gaining information that would lead straight to Mordred himself. Debriefing was their word for it. Under the given circumstances, insensitive demands was more how Merlin would like to describe it.
Deep down he was well aware that he was now falling into the category labelled emotionally compromised, as the spies would say. It wasn't something he was used to. Usually he was the one trying to get Arthur to look at people without his glasses of affection on, but right now he felt a simmering rage for the Druid who thus far had made attempts on the lives of three of his friends and, in Ros's case, sort-of-friend. But this last attempt was hardest to swallow and hardest to forgive. And Merlin was not even all that convinced that Mordred was worthy of his forgiveness right now.
But if he showed such sentiments in front of his allies, Harry would pull him off the case, never mind his usefulness and his rights to be there. Arthur might very well agree and get him as far away from the mission as possible. It really wouldn't do to let emotions get the better of him, hard though it was. The only one to benefit from such an attitude would be Mordred.
His resolve was tested soon enough and by the very man who had made it his habit to be selectively blind to the faults of those he cared about: Arthur Pendragon. He directed a stare at Ros and then jerked his head towards the door in a would-be discreet manner. Arthur could not be discreet if his very life depended on it.
And something about this felt wrong to Merlin. He watched as Ros took a minute before she followed Arthur out of the room for some sort of private meeting. Really, what could be so secret about this to warrant a discussion between just the two of them? They could hardly stand one another as far as Merlin was aware. If Ros wanted to discuss something in private, it was generally Lucas or Harry she went to, while Merlin liked to think he enjoyed Arthur's confidence.
Or maybe that ended during Operation Camelot. The thought wriggled its way into his head and made itself comfortable. The worst thing was that Merlin could not even come up with some good arguments for why that would not be the case. Things had changed since then, and they had never quite gotten back to where they started from.
So maybe it was that which made him invent an excuse for getting out of the room hardly a minute after Ros had taken her leave. He liked to think that it was more of his natural curiosity getting the upper hand.
He didn't have to search for very long. They were barely around the corner.
'It's like it was when we found Morgana.'
And apparently they weren't making a lot of effort to keep quiet. That was Arthur talking. But that was not what made this so strange; Arthur didn't really do whispering unless they were on a hunt. No, what struck him as odd was the tone of voice, the thoughtful way of talking Arthur only ever did when he shared his doubts with Merlin or Gwen, people he trusted unconditionally. Last he checked, Ros wasn't counted among their number. Last he checked, Merlin was. Unless he had been fooling himself about that last one. He tried to pretend that realisation didn't sting.
In his eagerness not to dwell on it, he focussed on what Arthur had said instead. It's like it was when we found Morgana. The it in this did not need any further explanation. Arthur was comparing the rescue of Morgana to the rescue of Jo, situations that, upon reflection, did seem to have quite a lot in common. He had not heard much about what had happened when they rescued Jo, but just enough to know the similarities. Young woman in a daze wandering aimlessly through the woods, with no sign of her captor anywhere near. And Jo had seemed to think that the whole rescue party was a delusion of some sort on top of all that.
Arthur in the meantime recounted the rest of the tale of Morgana's recovery to Ros. 'We had been searching for her for more than a year before we found her. There was a bandit attack in the woods, which we won. We were cleaning up, assessing the damage when she just wandered out of the woods, looking right through us, and later, when she came to her senses a bit more, like she could barely believe we were there.'
Merlin didn't need the details. He remembered. Sometimes he felt like he remembered entirely too much of the whole thing, especially because he had been the one who failed to see what was taking place right under his nose at the time. Not that he had allowed Morgana to delude him for long, but still.
He didn't know where Arthur was going with this, but it made him feel faintly uncomfortable inside. Ros asked a question, Arthur answered, but not the answer Merlin was looking for. What was he up to?
'It was too easy.' The moment the words left Arthur's mouth, Merlin wished he hadn't wondered. 'With Morgana, she was planted back with us. Getting Jo back was too easy. Mordred would not have just let her go.'
That was what he thought? That Jo had turned to Mordred's side? Willingly? Was he out of his mind? Jo would never do that, wouldn't dream of betraying her friends. It wasn't like her, and it wasn't like Arthur to even suggest that of someone. It was commonly known that Merlin was the suspicious one and Arthur the trusting one. It had always been like that. This, what Arthur was doing now, was taking suspicious to whole new levels.
He suppressed the urge to storm out into the other corridor like an angered bull in defence of Jo. That would gain him nothing but the confirmation that he was indeed too compromised to be involved with this any longer, and that would not help them at all.
Still, Arthur was not making even the smallest bit of sense at the moment. Yes, Morgana had turned on them, but that was Morgana. She had never loved Uther or his policies, even less so after she had discovered that she had magical powers of her own. Jo was different, nothing like her at all. She had no reason to turn on any of them. And heaven only knew how Arthur had come by that far-fetched idea.
Ros would tell him the same thing. The spies made their decisions based on evidence rather than illogical sentiments.
Except she didn't. 'We'll keep her under observation,' came the reply after a very lengthy silence. That could not be true, could it? Ros went along with this madness? What possessed her to do that? That Arthur had turned slightly paranoid was alarming enough in and out of itself, but surely someone must have put some sort of spell on the Section Chief if she agreed with him?
'Good,' Arthur said.
But nothing about this was even anywhere near good, not in Merlin's book. They should be concentrating on ratting out Mordred and dealing with him before the Druid dealt with all of them. He had hardly made a secret of his intentions. And while Arthur may occupy the bottom place on his list of targets, Merlin had little doubt that he for a matter of fact was on that particular list. He would not be allowed to live, and that was something Merlin could never stand for. So why were they discussing Jo and her non-existent change of allegiance when there was a much bigger threat at large?
Because Mordred would never have let her go, not that easily. He dismissed the thought as soon as it entered his head, though. Jo was a spy. They were a resourceful lot. And anyone would be prompted to be exactly that when facing the prospect of incarceration and possibly torture with one such as Mordred. And since he knew so little about her, he might have underestimated her, giving her all the opportunity she needed to knock him out and get away as fast as she could.
He was too caught up in his own thought process to realise that Ros had taken her leave, but that Arthur still remained where he was.
Given the fact that Arthur didn't even raise his voice, he must know that his servant was there. Nevertheless, the king could be easy to fool at times, and if he didn't move, then he might think that he had only imagined things. Wouldn't be the first time. Or the last.
'I've hunted deer that breathed quieter than you do, Merlin.' Annoyance coloured his voice.
So much for hoping to pass unnoticed. He stepped into Arthur's line of sight. He could not deny that he had been eavesdropping, but he could at least save some of his dignity by revealing himself rather than be dragged out of his not-exactly-a-hiding-place-at-all.
Arthur stared him down with more annoyance than anger, which was decidedly a good thing. 'What did I tell you about eavesdropping?'
Merlin produced that dazzling smile he reserved for when he found himself in a tight spot and he really needed to talk himself out of it very soon. 'Not to?' he offered.
That answer was probably not going to cut it, if Arthur's face was any indication, and years of being his servant had left Merlin with an ability to read it like a book. 'You're wrong,' he blurted out. 'About Jo.'
That may not have been the wisest thing to say, but then, he had already decided that playing the I-haven't-heard-a-single-thing card was not going to work. And since he had heard the subject under discussion, he might as well add his own opinion. Because what they were thinking was nothing short of utterly ridiculous.
To his credit, Arthur did not dismiss it out of hand. 'I don't want to be right, Merlin.' He sounded it, too.
Then don't be right was on the tip of his tongue, but he was fully aware just how childish that sounded, and so he kept it to himself. 'We should be trying to find Mordred,' he offered instead. Not that he had any idea how to accomplish that, but it should be their main priority all the same. Suspecting Jo just because she had managed to get herself out was not going to help them in any way.
The frown made a spectacular reappearance. 'Don't you think it strange that she just managed to get away from a sorcerer hell-bent on revenge when she didn't have any weapon on her? Even Lucas could not escape Morgana without our help.'
But Jo wasn't Lucas and Mordred was not Morgana. For all they knew his methods were different, and so he said. 'And you can't really think she would just help him,' he added for good measure, but can't think here having the meaning of please tell me you don't really think.
'You were never the kind of person not to be open to all possibilities,' Arthur observed.
You were never the kind to come up with such far-fetched notions, he mentally retorted. And he just couldn't see how one got from similar circumstances during the rescue to similar homicidal tendencies. Jo was the kindest person you would ever meet, which was saying something since kindness didn't go a long way in her chosen profession. And she was loyal, too. Was that really all it took, just under two days in the company of a murderous Druid, to persuade her friends into thinking that she was a murderous lunatic as well? If that was true, then Merlin didn't like what that said about them.
'You know Jo.' If called on it later, he would violently deny his tone could be best described as pleading. 'She isn't Morgana. She never has given any of us any reason to suspect that she wanted to kill us.' Something that could not be said for Morgana, even before she went missing. 'We all know her,' he emphasised.
Merlin thoroughly hated the sympathetic look in the king's eyes in reply to that. It made him feel like the small child corrected by the stern but well-meaning father. But much as that look hurt, the words cut even deeper.
'We all thought we knew Morgana.'
There was nothing he could say to that. And Merlin hated it.