Just Another Normal Operation (Normal Days II)

Chapter 31

Chapter 31

There were very few modern delights to brighten up his days here in Camelot, but coffee was one of them and Lucas practically clung to it after a night filled with entirely too much tossing and turning and far too little sleep. Seeing Jo like that had woken memories that would have best stayed buried deep, resulting in the night he'd had. But he'd be damned if he let any of it show. They needed all the people they could get and as long as he was able to do his work without resorting to sleepwalking instead, he would make an appearance on the Grid. Besides, he didn't think Harry's temper could bear it if he decided he needed a sick-day, correctly arguing that Mordred didn't believe in them, so neither should they.

And if he was to get through this day at all, he was going to need coffee, and loads of it. He briefly contemplated sending Merlin back to London to fetch some more, but decided against it. That would be a drain of manpower they could ill afford, great though the temptation may be. He would have to make do with what was available and make sure to leave some for Harry and Ros.

He managed to find his way to his temporary desk an hour before the meeting Harry set up to discuss where on earth Mordred could have disappeared to. It felt like a waste of time to Lucas. So far Mordred had been as easy to find and catch as a wisp of smoke. He'd been running rounds around them and they knew it. Ten to one that was the reason Harry stalked past him on his way to his glorified broom cupboard with a face that could have triggered a hurricane. Not that Ros was much better; she too was already on the Grid, having her face glued to a stack of paper and parchment. Lucas didn't doubt she had seen him enter, but a greeting of any kind had not been forthcoming.

Even though Jo had been found, it had not improved people's moods at all. Anger was the dominant emotion; he could almost taste it on the air. And he knew full well that it was not a very professional thing, but he had a feeling that it had progressed beyond professional a long time ago. It had ceased to be professional when Connie had killed Ben. From there, it had only gone downhill.

'Morning.' And the cheerful appearance of Gwaine was just about the last thing he wanted to see this morning. No one could accuse him of not being friendly, but when in a serious situation, his insistent happiness grated on his every last nerve.

'Morning,' he echoed, not looking up from what he was doing.

If Gwaine even realised that was a hint to get himself gone, he ignored it well. 'What's that then, sir Lucas?' he asked, giving a pointed look at the coffee cup on the desk. 'Some kind of London magic to keep one going, eh? I've tried asking the Lady Ros, but she would not tell me.'

And most certainly Ros's reply had been as unladylike as possible. She had taken it hard, the whole business with Jo's abduction, but instead of saying so, she had been all but unbearable. He had even actively tried to stay out of her way for a while, at least until she cooled down. He didn't think she meant it, but she could be hurtful when she was on edge and he for one didn't care to be in the line of fire. By asking unnecessary questions, Gwaine had practically painted a target on his own chest. And it was not as if Ros liked him in the first place.

'Help yourself,' he muttered. 'It's no poison, if you're concerned.'

He kept only half an eye on the knight as he took a careful swallow and then looked pleasantly surprised, before downing the last remnants still left, which had decidedly not been what he had meant.

'That's good,' he said. 'Not as good as ale.' Surprise, surprise. 'But not bad.'

Lucas managed a wry smile, but would really rather be left to his own devices. That was the thing about Gwaine; troubles seemed to slide off him like water off a duck. He simply did not seem to care as much. He would do his job well enough and he was a fair fighter – no denying the truth – but it was his attitude that annoyed him. Not that Lucas giving him the cold shoulder had done anything to deter him from trying to become friends with him.

'Could you go and ask Harry if this map is any use to him?' he asked, thrusting the aforementioned map into Gwaine's hands. It was of some interest, but it was nothing urgent, but he needed him gone before he pulled a Ros on him.

When asked, he would be hard-pressed to identify the source of his bad mood, other than another sleepless night and the sight of Jo in that bed. It was nothing more than a feeling that they had missed something somewhere. And the fact that Mordred still walked free somewhere did not sit well with him either.

One thing was for sure: he was not going to find any answers sitting here by himself and so he stood up and made his way to Ros's desk. With any luck she had cooled her wrath on Gwaine and anyway, she had monopolised the coffee pot, so if he wanted a refill – which he did – he would need to confront her.

'Morning,' he greeted.

He heard a sound come from her mouth which with some imagination might pass for a greeting in Myers style.

'Any coffee left, boss?' he asked, addressing the top of her head rather than her face; that was still turned down to study the papers before her. 'Gwaine drank all of mine.'

'Suit yourself,' she said, pushing her own cup in his direction. He could only just stop himself from saying he would content himself with whatever was left in the pot, only to realise that the pot was in fact empty.

He took the proffered cup and took a swallow, then grimaced. 'Ugh, Ros, never heard of sugar?' Stupid question, though; Ros didn't do sweet in any aspect of her life. It should not surprise him that her coffee preferences were no different.

She favoured him with as stern a glare as she could muster. 'You look like crap,' she commented.

So much for not letting the lack of sleep show too much. 'Cheers, Ros.'

'You're welcome. Any progress?' To his relief she didn't feel the need to ask him if he was all right – Harry did quite enough of that all on his own; he didn't need it from her as well – and went straight for business as usual.

'Nothing,' he admitted, braving another swallow of coffee before deciding that Ros was welcome to the rest. There was a limit to how much he needed the caffeine and this was not worth the price. 'On your end?'

Predictably, the answer was negative, but he had not been expected any different. It was not as if there were any CCTV cameras around here to record Mordred's every movement and so they had to make do with human intelligence. Jo was their best bet, but the debriefing would have to wait until she actually woke up and whatever their job entailed, they usually drew the line around there. Jo might have been to hell and back for all they knew and the debriefing process would have to be handled in a delicate manner, which meant keeping Ros away from it as far as possible.

'Maybe Merlin can pull another magic trick that can help us,' he offered.

Ros snorted. Her opinion of Merlin may have been slightly improving, but all the progress they had made had seemingly been undone when Jo disappeared. Lucas told himself he should not have been surprised; Ros's good opinion was hard won and easily lost. She'd work with him without complaints, but that was not the same thing.

'Maybe Mordred will present himself to us with the chains already around his wrists,' she retorted sarcastically.

'Wouldn't that be nice,' he grinned. This bantering with Ros was just so easy.

And there was a smile tugging at her lips as well, even though she tried to hide it by taking a swallow of coffee. 'Don't get your hopes up,' she said. 'Where the hell is Arthur? Shouldn't he have been here already?' It spoke volumes that she did not require after Merlin's whereabouts. But whether that was because she didn't care what he did – which would be bad news – or because she was convinced he was hovering over Jo's sickbed, he couldn't tell.

At that moment the subject of their discussion came walking into the room. It became obvious at once that he had not been attended by his manservant this morning. His tunic was sticking out of the back of his trousers, his hair gave the impression that birds had been nesting in it and now that he had a good look, Lucas was convinced his trousers were worn inside out.

'Can't the man bloody well dress himself?' Ros muttered incredulously.

The answer to that question was obviously a no.

'Has anyone of you seen my lazy excuse for a servant?' he asked of the world at large.

Lucas arched an eyebrow, despite his bad mood and the lack of progress rather amused by the state in which Arthur had appeared. 'Merlin?' he asked.

'Yes, Merlin.' Arthur may be a grown man and a king besides, but he strongly resembled a young boy who was on the verge of a temper tantrum. 'I wasn't woken, I had to find my own clothes and I didn't get breakfast.'

Lucas, who as it was had been in dire need of some morning entertainment after having been visited by Gwaine and drinking Ros's coffee, could only just stifle his laughter. Ros on the other hand seemed as far from amused as one could get. She was of the opinion that Arthur was old enough to know how to dress himself and fetch his own food. The rest of them were doing it and they hadn't dropped dead from the effort yet, so it certainly wouldn't kill him to fend for himself.

'That's why he's so moody, I reckon; he hasn't been fed yet,' he stage-whispered to Ros, making sure Arthur could hear it too, but taking care to plaster a grin on his face so that the king would know it was only meant in jest. They needed this too, the lighter moments and they had something to celebrate. At least they had Jo back and they would get Mordred eventually. He had slipped up when he lost Jo – and had lost her soon – so it stood to reason he could more mistakes.

Ros didn't even crack something that looked like a smile, but Gwaine was laughing – which wasn't that great an accomplishment as he was finding excuses everywhere to have a good laugh – and Arthur, after due consideration, treated them to something of a sheepish smile.

'Have you seen him?' he repeated in such a way that Lucas rather thought Merlin would do better to run for cover. 'If I discover he's spent the night at the tavern again…'

Lucas took pity on him. 'Hasn't he been keeping a vigil at Jo's bedside?'

To his surprise, Arthur shook his head. 'I've just been there,' he admitted. 'No sign of him.'

This had Ros frowning, and with good reason. The last time someone had mysteriously disappeared, Jo had been kidnapped and with that being only so recently and with Mordred still walking free, it was hardly a guess in which direction her thoughts had gone. Damn. Not him as well. But Merlin was hardly the easiest target. Lucas had suspected he would go for the more vulnerable victims first, and Merlin did not fall in that category.

'Was he with Gaius?' Lucas asked. 'Maybe he overslept?'

Arthur shook his head, some worry showing in his eyes, even though the rest of his face was still stuck in annoyance. He cared more than he let on. In that respect, he was very much like Ros. 'I went there first. He said Merlin had spent the night with Jo.' At Gwaine's suggestive grin, he added angrily: 'Not like that. You haven't seen him either?'

Lucas couldn't say that he had and judging by the ever deepening frown in Ros's forehead, she didn't trust this development in the least. Lucas too was starting the first signs of concern. In his line of work it was usually bad news when someone just disappeared and it would be even worse if it was Merlin, who all things considered was their best chance of winning this fight.

Not that he was given the chance to voice any of his thoughts; Harry came marching out of his office, sending Lucas a freezing glare on the way, silently telling him there would be hell to pay for inflicting Gwaine on him this early in the morning. He was wholly unaffected by the tentative cheerfulness Arthur's dishevelled appearance had caused and that the slight worry about Merlin had not erased entirely yet.

'Meeting, now,' he snapped. 'Where is Merlin?' he added when he realised they were a man short.

'Not here,' Arthur said.

Harry's face suggested he hadn't the patience to deal with Merlin's tardiness – if that was what it was – today and gestured for those present to gather around the table that now stood in for the table in their own meeting room. It was only a poor replacement, though. Lucas hardly thought he was the only one longing for a proper meeting room with proper equipment. Doing their job in Camelot tended to give him the feeling that he was entering the game at a distinct disadvantage. The normal methods would not work here.

'News?' Harry barked at Ros.

Lucas listened only with half an ear as Ros reported there was nothing to report. That would do nothing to improve moods either. Arthur gave the order to Gwaine to gather the knights and ride back to the place where they had found Jo to gather some more clues, if clues were to be found at all. They were grasping at straws and he was only too well aware of that. By the looks of it, so was everyone else.

Gwaine left all the same, but a little more subdued than he had entered. The mention of Mordred seemed to have set him straight. It would be hard for them, Lucas imagined; Mordred had after all been one of them. And such a betrayal stung. Lucas knew all too well what it felt like when those you trusted turned against you. Despite everything that had happened since, such memories were not so easily erased.

'You okay?' Ros whispered. He must have shown something of his unease then.

'I'm your colleague,' he replied, the standard answer, because he did not want to talk about this, so deflecting it was the better option. 'I'm always okay.'

Ros didn't buy it. 'You're my friend and you're annoying me.'

He flashed her the most dazzling smile he had. 'I'm doing my job then, boss?'

Before she could reply to that they could hear running footsteps and then the door was thrown open to let Merlin in. That was a relief; at least he had not been made Mordred's guest. Otherwise though he looked like he had seen an army of ghosts and had only just been able to make a narrow escape. But whatever had happened to him, it had left a bloody scratch on his cheek.

'So good of you to join us, Merlin,' Arthur said. His relief had already made way for royal irritation now that his servant was clearly in one piece and just late. 'Gaius might one day teach you how to tell the time.'

Normally Merlin would have made a witty comeback. He didn't do that today. 'It's Jo.' He sounded out of breath and in complete shock. 'She tried to kill me.'

Arthur was wrong. This Merlin knew with all his heart and soul. Arthur was as wrong as he could possibly be. Jo was not a danger to anyone, least of all to any of them. We all thought we knew Morgana, he'd said as if that decided the matter, that because there were similarities in how they were found they would act the same after they had been rescued. And Jo was nothing like Morgana.

True, after due consideration even he had been forced to admit that it had been too easy, that Mordred might have let her go for some ulterior motive. He could have realised that Jo was not the way in he needed with Section D and she was not the one he wanted to extract his revenge from; she had barely a thing to do with Morgana's eventual fall. And it was just a hunch, but he didn't think he was wrong in thinking that Mordred did not enjoy killing. I am sorry, Arthur, but you gave me no choice. Merlin remembered all too well what he had said in the tunnels under London. He did not want to do this, but felt like he had to. He hadn't wanted to hurt Arthur, so maybe he hadn't wanted to hurt Jo. If he had as much as a shred of decency left, he would have let her go once he realised it was not her he wanted.

Still, it was only a guess, but Merlin knew perfectly well that his guesses were generally rather good ones. And he liked to think that he understood how Mordred thought. He had rather shown his hand when he had been so reluctant to kill Arthur when he had the chance. No, instead he had left them after shooting Ros and had left them to be killed by a bomb. But he must have known that it would have been so easy for Merlin to get Arthur out. He had been certain to survive. No, Mordred did not want to kill and torture, but felt like he had to. And once Jo woke, he was fairly certain she would confirm his theory.

But he had to wait for her to wake up first and so he passed the night in her room. Gaius had thrown him a look that said he was exaggerating matters, but he had not moved from his spot. And Arthur knew better than to bother him. He could take himself to bed for a night; Merlin was sure he would be able to manage without too much trouble. And else he could summon George to do the job. That would make his day. George's day, certainly not Arthur's though.

To be entirely honest, Merlin was not all that sure he wanted to see Arthur at the moment. His distrust of Jo had set his teeth on edge and Arthur was like a dog with a bone once he set his mind to something; there was no chance that he would let go of the matter until he had gotten his way. And Merlin was not in the obliging mood.

He kept busy by cleaning the room – quietly – and wondering about what Mordred could be up to next. It would be a fair guess to say that he'd go after the ones who had really had a hand in Morgana's demise. That would mean Ros, Lucas, Arthur and himself. It was up for debate if Harry had made the list as well. So far he could only go on what he had seen. It was very well possible that Jo had been forced into giving him a more detailed account of the events that had taken place during Operation Camelot and Harry'd had the operational command, even if he had not been out in the field with the rest of them.

Really, it was frustrating to be so badly informed. Arthur always claimed to know everything while it was Merlin who really had the knowledge at his disposal. Today he really knew nothing. He could try the spying in the water he did sometimes. He'd done it not that long ago during the whole Sugarhorse debacle, so it stood to reason he could do that again. He'd give it a go after breakfast.

Though he was loath to leave Jo on her own, she would certainly be hungry when she woke and that could not take all that long anymore. Thanks to Gaius's sleeping draught she had slept through the night peacefully, but the workings of that potion would not last much longer and by then he would make sure she would be able to eat a breakfast that was fit for a king.

'You're up early, Merlin,' Sarah, one of the kitchen maids, remarked. 'Gaius woke you?' Arthur had been complaining about Merlin's love for lie-ins all over the palace – never mind that it wasn't true – and it was a hard rumour to kill.

'I've been up all night!' he protested. 'Looking after Lady Joanna,' he added.

The cheeky grin disappeared. 'Of course. Sorry. I didn't mean…' She recovered. 'You're here for the king's breakfast then?' Merlin was about to say that was not exactly true, but he was not given much chance to do so. As it happened, Arthur's breakfast had already been prepared and by the time he had gotten round to trying to explain that it was Jo's breakfast he was after rather than Arthur's, he'd already gotten the plate and goblet and cutlery. 'Be careful you don't drop it like you did last week; Mary's going to have your head if you do.'

Arthur might be the king of Camelot, but Mary was the head cook, the queen of the kitchen and she ruled her small territory with an iron fist and woe befall the poor sod who'd get it into his head to venture anywhere near her pies. Rumour had it that murder had been committed over less. That surely was an exaggeration, but Merlin didn't think it was exaggerated by much. And since Arthur had the habit to go throwing his breakfast around when he had woken up on the wrong side of the bed – which was at least once a week – that resulted in Merlin tracking back to the kitchen to fetch another plate. As a rule, he also got his ears blistered for wasting good food, never mind that the real culprit was the king who was forever out of humour in the morning.

'I wouldn't dream of it,' he informed her with a dazzling smile. There would be no dropping or throwing things today, because Arthur would never even see a crumb of it. Chances were he was looked after by George today anyway and George always seemed under the impression he should serve a breakfast to Arthur that could feed an orphanage for a week. This "scanty" meal was never going to do in his opinion. 'Thank you, Sarah.'

'Best get out of the kitchen before Mary catches sight of you,' she advised him.

Merlin found that was an order he could obey very easily.

'Merlin!' The well-known every morning chorus echoed through the hallways when he was only one corridor away from Jo's room. It looked like Arthur wasn't looked after by George after all. 'Merlin!'

But he was not intending to go out and face his king only to have another argument about things they did not agree on at the moment. They were not seeing eye to eye about Jo and that was fine; Arthur was entitled to his own opinions. As king it was his royal right to be wrong about matters and still insist he was right. But Merlin didn't have a stomach for any more arguments, and Arthur would only become more bothersome when he didn't get his way. Today someone else could play pacifier. Maybe Ros could, he thought angrily, since she appeared to be such good friends with him all of a sudden.

The angry shouting moved farther away from where he needed to go, so he decided to chance it and slip into Jo's room. Surely she would be awake by now; nobody could sleep through that angry bellowing.

True to expectations Jo was indeed sitting up against the many pillows when he entered.

'You're awake!' he said, pleased. She looked much, much better than she had done before, there could be no doubt about that. 'You're not looking so bad…' He realised that was hardly flattering and tried again. 'I mean, you're looking better than you did…' That was only marginally better, so in the end he settled on a not entirely truthful 'You're looking great.'

If he was being honest, he would have to admit that his first assessment of her condition was the most accurate one. She did not look as bad as she had when she had been brought back to the castle, but no one in his senses would say that she looked healthy. She gave an exhausted impression even with some hours of sleep behind her.

The smile she gave him in response was hesitant. 'Thank you.'

She was quieter than usual too. Jo was unofficial office gossiper, a woman who talked a lot if she was in a good mood, but retreated into herself when she was hurt. And she was doing the latter now. How badly has he hurt her? Merlin did not consider himself a violent person, but he wouldn't object to some violence directed at Mordred just now. It made him angry that it was either Arthur or him who were under attack, but it were others who took the brunt of the suffering. First Lucas, now Jo. And neither of them had been intended targets.

'I brought you breakfast!' he said, holding up the plate for her inspection. Ugh, he sounded far too cheerful for a day like this. 'I mean, I suspected you would be hungry and I didn't think Mordred would have fed you well…'

He trailed off when he realised that was not the kind of thing to be doing either, to remind her of the ordeal she had suffered. It was a good thing Arthur hadn't had him looking after Lucas when he had been brought here, because there was a fair chance he would have screwed that up, royally.

He began again. 'I thought you would like some food. It's fit for a king, I promise.' It was meant for a king, a very angry king who functioned even worse on an empty stomach, but Jo didn't need to know that. She just needed to eat.

Jo managed a feeble smile, but there was no amusement on her face. 'I'd love to,' she said before she bit her lip. 'But I don't think I can get out of bed yet, Merlin.'

It was only when she said so that he realised he was acting like a fool, waving that plate about out of her reach. Well, thank goodness that Arthur preferred to eat breakfast in bed, so he had some experience on the matter.

'Of course,' he said, happy smile still firmly in place. 'Hang on.'

As if she could do anything else. Gaius had said that she was completely all right apart from suffering from exhaustion, but Merlin had not bought that. Arthur had mentioned hallucinations and something must have brought those on. He would find out what, once he was done here and he had found a good place to hide from Arthur's imminent wrath.

He handed her breakfast. 'Fresh from the kitchens,' he declared. 'Might not be the same as you're used to from London, but it will do very nicely.' Arthur complained about a lot of things, but not about breakfast, except when he complained about the lack of it. But then, there usually was only a lack of it because Merlin had bits of it chucked at his head for some minor offence.

Jo smiled and took the cutlery from him, almost cutting into her own finger with the knife.

'Careful,' he cautioned, taking it from her and handing it back to her in a way that she couldn't do herself a harm with it. 'The cook likes to keep them sharp. All the better for cutting the meat, she says, but she's been known to keep one on her to scare people away from her pies. Woah!'

He jumped back when the knife missed his face by a hairsbreadth and that was only because he had danced out of its reach in time. For a few seconds it was hard to comprehend the sight in front of him, because it did not make sense. That had been aimed at him and had been aimed to kill. But it was nothing like Jo to even do that.

'What are you doing?' he exclaimed.

Jo was up on her feet, breakfast forgotten. She didn't look weak anymore, a look in her eyes that he had only seen in Morgana's eyes before today.


No, this could not be true. But she was holding the knife with every intent to swing it again, and in his direction. She didn't seem to prepared to answer either. Something had gone wrong here, had been so twisted beyond recognition that it took him completely by surprise. It was too suddenly too. He didn't understand.

But he had been fighting for his life too often for his instincts to abandon him now. He threw his hand forward and threw her back onto the bed, unconscious. His heart was pounding too loudly and he found he had trouble breathing, but the threat had been removed, the knife lying on the floor where it could only hurt the stone.

Arthur was right.

That was the first thought that entered his mind once he could actually find air to fill his lungs again. But he stood by his opinion too: this was not Jo. The Jo he knew would never let herself be turned by Mordred. She was too loyal for that. But Merlin also knew that there were ways in which a person's own will could be taken away and replaced by another's. That had to be the reason. Because it could not be possible that Jo would ever willingly change so much in such a short span of time.

Breathing was still hard, but he knew that he could not remain here, staring at Jo as if things would go back to normal if only he wished for it hard enough. And so he took the knife, left the room – locking it behind him – and broke into a run right to the temporary headquarters Arthur had given to Section D.

Of course everyone was already present – Merlin vaguely recalled something about a meeting being held – when he burst in.

Of course, it was Arthur's prerogative to greet him with as scathing a reception as he could muster. 'So good of you to join us, Merlin,' he said. 'Gaius might one day teach you how to tell the time.'

It was almost instinct to reply to such remarks with a witty retort of some kind; Arthur was practically begging for it what with him hardly being able to get out of bed in the mornings. Today, though he had more pressing concerns on his mind, even more pressing than knowing Arthur was never going to let him live it down that he had been right and Merlin wrong. 'It's Jo.' And it was pretty hard forcing the next sentence out of his mouth. 'She tried to kill me.'

He was met by silence and complete shock.

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