Just Another Normal Operation (Normal Days II)

Chapter 36

Chapter 36

They did it. There was a giddy feeling starting somewhere in his stomach, but spreading out from there to every last part of his body, until he could have started dancing, until his face would be split by the most magnificent smile he’d ever smiled. Jo was wading out of the water, relief and joy written all over her face. This was the Jo he remembered. This was how she was supposed to be.

‘You’re back!’ It was quite an unnecessary comment, but Merlin didn’t care. Today he really didn’t care. He pulled her in for a hug the moment she was back on dry land again, really not caring that she was soaked.

‘Thank you, Merlin,’ she said.

‘You’re welcome.’ More than welcome. ‘I shouldn’t have left you alone. I’m really, really sorry.’ In a way he had only been setting right what he’d done wrong. Not that he was stupid enough to blame Mordred’s crimes on himself, but still. And it was not as if Ros had let him forget where he had failed.

Thinking of Ros made him let go of Jo, who now had her hand kissed by Gwaine and blushed bright red. The Section Chief had been in deeper water than Jo and she wasn’t out yet, and she didn’t seem in a hurry to do so either. There was that expression on her face that betrayed absolutely nothing. She was watching the happiness on shore, but didn’t seem to be wanting to participate in it. Instead she kept her distance.

And Merlin thought that maybe he knew why. He hadn’t expected the way she would choose to get through to Jo at all. He thought that maybe she’d appeal to Jo as a colleague, what with the way she was forever carrying on about how colleagues are okay with Lucas. It was like a bit of spy code, a dictate to trust their own. It was the only way Merlin thought Ros had stood a chance of doing it.

Except that was not what she had done and the moment those first words had come over her lips – I am good at betrayal. You’re not – and he realised what she was doing, he had been so shocked that it was a good thing he hadn’t needed to cast the spell there and then. For all that he had suspected Lucas of betrayal in the past, it was Ros who had really done it. Twice. Of course Merlin knew about it. It was not a secret on the Grid, but it had shocked him to the core to learn how little she actually regretted doing it. How did Harry still trust her? How did anyone trust her?

For him it had served to point out the differences between the two women. Jo was loyal to a fault while Ros was… The thing was that he didn’t know what Ros was. From what he had seen of her, she was fiercely loyal to her team, but then there were those words… I’ve betrayed my country twice. I’m not ashamed of that. I did what I had to do. In a way it reminded him of Morgana, who had been singularly unremorseful about her actions, convinced that she had done the right to her very last breath.

‘Are we going to stand here till kingdom come or could we get back to Camelot before we catch our death from pneumonia?’ The subject of his musings snapped him out of them. ‘And let’s drag that piece of garbage with us while we’re at it. You can keep him under control, can’t you?’

‘Yes?’ He meant that yes, but Ros had taken him by surprise, so it didn’t come out as convincing as he would have liked. Of course that was unlikely to make her like him better. There was always that dismissal she radiated when he was in her presence.

‘The best I can get, I suppose.’

‘Well, I can dry you up,’ he offered. He risked a cheeky smile. ‘Before you catch your death of pneumonia, that is.’

Ros’s look told him the humour went entirely unappreciated, but she didn’t exactly protest either, standing still while he did what he did best. He dried Jo while he was at it, too. In the current company everyone knew he had magic. He didn’t need to hide.

Gwaine was still charming Jo while they made their way back to pick up Mordred, leaving Merlin and Ros to follow. Ros was taciturn, looking in that way that made it obvious she didn’t want to talk. She seemed, for lack of a better word, uneasy. If she had been anyone else, Merlin might have thought she was embarrassed by what had happened and what she had said.

‘I don’t think you are a traitor,’ he said, not sure why he initiated the contact when neither of them wanted it. To clear the air maybe and because he meant it. He didn’t think Ros was about to turn on them now. She hated Mordred too much, would want her revenge on him. She hadn’t been that different with Morgana.

She directed a sardonic smile at him. ‘Let’s open the wine to celebrate, shall we?’

‘I just meant…’ he began. I just meant I am not going to turn on you like I turned on Lucas. That was what he intended to say, but he found that he couldn’t bring himself to let the words come out.

Which was why it was a bit of a relief that Ros didn’t let him finish. ‘I know what you meant,’ she said curtly. ‘The thing is, Merlin, it doesn’t matter what you think about me. I don’t care.’ She genuinely sounded like she meant what she said.

‘You care about what Harry thinks, though,’ he observed. ‘And Lucas.’

Whatever it was that was going on between those two – and it took a better person than Merlin to get the measure of them – it was strong. Even if only for that reason he contemplated telling her what the Dochraid had said about Lucas, about the magic she had sensed on him and about Lucas’s own concern about it. It had unnerved Merlin as well. There was something he had missed and there weren’t many people he could ask for advice. Lucas had made it perfectly clear he didn’t want Harry to know and Arthur was still tetchy about the M-word. He had considered telling Gaius, but he also felt he couldn’t do that without Lucas’s explicit consent.

Apparently he had been quiet for too long, because when he did look back at Ros, he found himself at the receiving end of her best scrutinising gaze. ‘What about Lucas?’ There was really nothing amiss with her intuition. ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, Merlin, spit it out before you choke on it.’ He didn’t think he imagined the unspoken warning that she would wring his neck if she didn’t like what he said about her colleague.

‘The Dochraid,’ he said.

‘What about the bloody Dochraid?’ Ros was getting impatient and she hadn’t been in a good mood to begin with.

Which was why he could not for the life of him understand why he responded with a quip. ‘Well, she was bloody when Lucas was done with her.’

‘Merlin…’ The tone indicated that she was seconds away from hitting him.

‘You sound like Arthur,’ he grumbled. Not that surprising considering the fact that Arthur had spent a lot of time around her when they were in London for reasons only known to himself. Ros’s eyes narrowed and he decided to speak before she could explode in true Myers fashion. ‘She wanted to hold his hand, said she smelled magic on him. She said he carried it with him, but she didn’t explain it. Lucas was a bit… anxious about it.’

Ros snorted. ‘And that is so strange? Of course he’d like nothing better than to be reminded of his stint in Morgana’s hovel. Of course he’d just love to relive those memories.’

You don’t understand, he thought. It could be that it was just his intuition, but he didn’t think it was just Morgana’s magic the Dochraid had talked about. She had said she smelled powerful magic and had sensed he had been touched by the Old Religion. Merlin knew enough to know that both his powers and Morgana’s derived from the Old Religion, so that could explain what she had sensed. It was natural that what she had done had left a mark somehow. He’d probably be able to find it himself if he made an effort. But she had made the distinction between magic and the Old Religion. The longer he thought about it, the more important it seemed.

‘That’s not…’ he tried to explain.

Again, Ros did not let him finish. ‘He gets enough of the porcelain doll treatment from Harry,’ she snapped. ‘He doesn’t need your bloody fussing as well.’

Merlin recognised a lost cause when he saw one, so he decided to leave it for the time being, at least until he could at least define what it was about the Dochraid’s words that kept tugging at the edge of his mind. Why the distinction, why those remarks? He hadn’t quite ruled out the theory that she had only said those things to make them nervous, to compromise them, but that seemed too petty a thing to do for one so ancient and so powerful.

Then it hit him. What if…? He hardly dared to finish that thought. It seemed too ludicrous to even think it. Magic was extinct in the land where they came from. He remembered only too well how much convincing Ros had taken before she even wanted to consider the possibility of magic and that was with camera footage at her disposal. Sometime between now and then magic had vanished completely. It was the sad truth, one that Merlin had trouble accepting, but with so much evidence it was hard to deny.

But what if that wasn’t true? What if it was still there, but just buried so deep because people reasoned it all away, declared it to be nonsense. When practising magic, it wasn’t just about the raw power and the spells; it took belief in one’s own power to do it. Most people could do magic once they put their minds to it, although admittedly some had more potential than others. Merlin was the exception to the rule, because his magic was instinctive, something he had been born with. But most sorcerers didn’t start out levitating objects from the cradle.

What if…?

Hope started to grow. He could see it, could see what it meant if it was true.

What if…?

‘What are you smiling at?’ Ros’s eyes were still narrowed, but in suspicion this time, not anger.

‘Nothing!’ he said quickly. ‘Just glad Jo is back.’ He was, he really was, but even that success was trumped by the realisation he’d just had. Of course Ros would not be half so pleased as he was. Quite the contrary, Ros did decidedly not like magic. And he’d not had so much of a realisation as a theory. It needed checking. And maybe it was only because he so desperately wanted it to be true that he thought that it was. But life did not work like that and so he had to temper his enthusiasm.

Ros nodded, but didn’t offer any verbal confirmation that she too was glad that Jo was her normal self again. But then, Merlin knew better than to expect such a display of emotion by now. In fact, he might start to suspect something was wrong with her if she suddenly would start being more open.

‘Where has he gone?’ It was Gwaine who gave him a good reason to direct his thoughts elsewhere. The knight and Jo had come to a standstill near the place where they had left Mordred tied to a rock. The rock was still there. Mordred was not.

Ros cursed and went for her gun. She didn’t have anyone to point it at and even if she did, Mordred was much faster than she was. The bullet would never make it to him before he erected one of those magical shields. But he suspected it made her feel safer to have a weapon in hand. It was better than to be completely vulnerable in the face of danger.

Jo frowned in confusion. ‘Where has who gone?’

‘Mordred,’ Ros hissed.

‘He was here?’ Merlin could have sworn Jo paled a bit. Not that he could blame her for that. He’d done a bit of reading about the Teine Diaga before they left for the Cauldron of Arianrhod and he knew that the ritual involved mandrake roots, making the victim suffer hallucinations of their worst nightmares. When he was done, he almost wished he could erase the information from his mind. How could anyone inflict that kind of suffering on anyone? Of course, maybe he should not have been surprised given the fact that Mordred had been so chummy with Morgana, who after all didn’t do kindness unless she needed something and that was the only way to get it.

‘With the emphasis on was, apparently,’ Ros observed, before she turned on Merlin. ‘I thought you said you could keep him under control?’ With just a few words she made it seem as though it was his fault that it had all gone south.

And that was not the case. ‘That blow should have knocked him out for much longer,’ he defended himself.

‘Maybe I am stating the obvious,’ Gwaine said. Merlin could swear Ros muttered a barely audible ‘you can say that again’ under her breath. ‘But is no one else wondering why he didn’t come after us? He seemed pretty determined to stop us earlier.’

It was hard to argue with the truth of that. Mordred had seemed intent on preventing them from reaching the Cauldron of Arianrhod, but now he had gone off to places unknown. And he had been unbound; he’d left the ropes as a nice reminder that he was perfectly able to escape. Now that he thought about it Mordred’s escape wasn’t the most remarkable thing about all of this, but rather the fact that he had gone without trying to stop them.

‘Maybe he knew he was too late,’ he offered. ‘Maybe when he woke we had already done it and he knew there was no point in confronting us about it. Or he was convinced we had failed anyway. And with Jo compromised, she was of no more use to him?’ It was only theory after all. Who knew what went on in Mordred’s head. He conveniently ignored the voice in the back of his head telling him he was starting to think like Ros did. That was not a thought he’d like to entertain.

Speaking of which, the Section Chief shook her head. ‘Not likely.’

‘Why, my lady, will you share with us what you think?’ Gwaine made a mocking bow to go with his mocking question.

‘Jo wasn’t his only plan,’ Ros said, looking as if the idea wasn’t exactly pleasing to her either. ‘He’s got a bloody plan B.’

Lucas could have sworn Harry smiled the moment Jo walked back onto the makeshift Grid and it became apparent that she was her normal self again. The smile however lasted for less than a second and it certainly wasn’t present when he welcomed Jo back on the team. Quite the contrary, it rapidly turned to something more resembling the angry smiley faces when Ros reported that they’d had a run-in with Mordred and that, to make Harry’s day, the Druid had escaped.

‘He escaped.’ Lucas knew his boss well enough to know that this particular tone had never preceded words of praise.

Ros must have sensed that and her mood was not as sunny as it could have been after the successful conclusion of a mission. ‘Well, I wasn’t about to have him wake up in the middle of Jo’s swimming lesson now, was I?’ There was something in her tone that made him believe she had already been on edge. Whatever had happened out there, something hadn’t quite gone according to plan and for some reason Lucas didn’t think it had to do with Mordred. He made a mental note to figure it out later.

‘You could have drowned him if he came in,’ Lucas offered, hoping a quip would alleviate the tension somewhat.

It didn’t work. ‘Ha bloody ha,’ Ros commented, giving him that look that said she was very much not impressed by his attempt at humour. She returned her attention towards Harry. ‘The thing is, Harry, he didn’t come after us.’

‘He’s got another plan.’

Uncharacteristically it was Arthur who interrupted. The king had been taciturn and moody ever since he had briefed his council and had given the command to have an army assembled as soon as possible to meet the threat. Lucas had made an offer to talk about it, which had been slapped down in Myers style – clearly the two of them had spent far too much time together – and Lucas hadn’t pressed the point; he valued his head attached to the rest of his body.

Ros turned to him. ‘What plan?’

‘One that involves Saxons and legendary battles,’ Lucas replied, hoping she knew what he was talking about. Generally Ros had no patience for anything that even remotely came close to fiction, but surely even she would have heard of this piece of legend. Seeing as how it included Arthur’s death, he sincerely hoped she would not blurt out that piece of information. Arthur was edgy enough as it was and quite frankly, Lucas was not quite ready to consider the man’s death in the near future. He’d become somewhat of a friend lately; he certainly annoyed him enough to deserve the title.

Ros’s face adopted the you’ve-got-to-be-bloody-kidding-me look Lucas had come to know quite well, so he assumed that she knew. ‘Isn’t that just bloody brilliant?’ she remarked. Easy on the sarcasm, Ros. ‘Where the hell do these Saxons come from anyway?’

‘They come crawling out of the woodwork every once in a while,’ Arthur said. ‘But they wouldn’t dare risk an attack on Camelot now unless they had some sort of advantage.’

‘Which is where Mordred comes in,’ Lucas finished. Don’t you love it when the legends come to life before your eyes?

Of course Ros had just about as much regard for legends and history as she had for the CIA. They were both useful for as long as they served her purposes. If not, she ignored them and did what she thought best and damn the consequences. Well, and since legends were so hazy and there were so many versions of the same story, Lucas didn’t really mind messing around in history himself. Neither did Harry apparently, given his decision to stay and unleash all kinds of hell on Mordred.

‘We need someone in there with Mordred, undercover,’ Lucas observed before Ros could respond. That was how they did it with the terrorists and while the Saxons were no terrorists in the traditional sense of the word, the idea was similar enough. At the moment they didn’t have a clue what they were planning, although early signs indicated they weren’t popping in for tea.

‘Which is a problem,’ Arthur stated. ‘There’s no one in Camelot that won’t look at least vaguely familiar to Mordred. Their covers would be blown in less than a minute.’ Judging by Arthur’s words, he had been too long in Thames House. Fortunately he didn’t point out that Section D was dangerously short on officers already. Even then, Jo and Ros were unlikely to pass themselves off as men, as soldiers and the idea of Harry as a Saxon soldier was only good for a laugh.

‘That’s not a problem.’ Merlin had been really quiet until now. He’d spent his time either grinning widely in Jo’s direction – no surprise there – and sending pensive glances at Lucas. He had no idea what had warranted such a treatment, but they were unsettling. ‘I can magically change their appearance and Mordred won’t be any the wiser.’ When the people in the room collectively stared at him, he added: ‘I can make myself look like an old man, remember? It’s child’s play to alter someone else’s appearance. Temporarily of course.’

Lucas took his word for it. It wasn’t as if he knew anything about magic at all and, if he was honest, he really rather liked to keep it that way.

Not that he was likely to get his way with that. This development made it perfectly clear that there was only one person qualified enough to go in. He wouldn’t trust any of Arthur’s knights to run a bath, much less an undercover mission, Arthur was needed here, Mordred would detect Merlin’s power and Harry was a leader who couldn’t be missed. And there were no women in the army in this day and age.

‘So, when do I leave?’ he asked briskly.

Unlike the time when he had volunteered to go undercover with Morgana there was no resounding chorus of no that met his offer. No one was even vaguely under the impression he was about to turn on them now. At least they’ve learned that lesson. There was still that trace of resentment and bitterness coming to the surface every now and then. Most of the time it stayed dormant, but it was never quite forgotten. Forgiven, yes, but never far from his mind all the same.

‘As soon as we’ve found you a decent cover story.’ Harry had shifted into operational mode. There was no doubt whatsoever that he was still not pleased with the latest developments, but they had moved past that. Later there might be some time to reflect on the sheer absurdity of running an undercover operation in the legendary kingdom of Camelot, but since there would be no legendary kingdom if the Saxons marched in and took it, that could not be a priority at the moment. The state of the Home Secretary’s health though as he learned of it…

‘That’s not a problem,’ was probably Merlin’s new motto. He’d said it twice this far. ‘He could pretend to be a sorcerer that’s hunted down because of his magic.’ There was a twinkling in Merlin’s eyes that Lucas did decidedly not trust. ‘Mordred’s really feeling strongly about magic and all. He’d be able to relate to being hunted when he was a child.’

‘Well, unless he’s discovered magical powers overnight, that’s unlikely to convince Mordred.’ Ros dismissed the idea without a second thought and even Lucas had to admit that it might have worked if they really had a sorcerer at their disposal they could send in, seeing as how they hadn’t this was not Merlin’s brightest idea to date.

‘But he has.’

For a moment Merlin’s objection did not make an ounce of sense. There was not a chance in hell that Lucas had discovered he was some sort of sorcerer. They had already concluded that magic was blissfully extinct in the twenty-first century, much to Merlin’s dismay. Lucas was leaning more towards relieved. Terrorists wreaked enough havoc with bombs and guns. The last thing they wanted was for them to discover magic. Guns could be taken away and bombs could be dismantled, but how did one deal with a rampaging sorcerer? No, this whole magic thing was best left in Camelot.

Harry’s face started to resemble an over-boiled lobster as he directed his best hurricane-look at Lucas. ‘What is he talking about?’ he demanded.

Lucas shrugged. ‘I was wondering the same thing.’ All that magic must have finally addled Merlin’s brain somewhat. It was either that or Ros had finally made good on that unspoken intention to whack the warlock over the head.

‘The Dochraid,’ Merlin said.

Lucas felt as though he had swallowed a glacier whole. It kept coming back to that, didn’t it? He’d known something was off with the Dochraid, but he’d put it down to his ordeal at Morgana’s hands, which quite frankly was terrifying enough. He had never contemplated that was not what she had meant.

Merlin interpreted Harry’s stunned silence as an unspoken request to elaborate. ‘She said that she smelled powerful magic on him, but also mentioned that Lucas had been touched by the Old Religion.’

Lucas didn’t know why that distinction mattered. If he had understood Merlin at all – and he had to admit he tended to zone out when Arthur’s servant dove into the particulars of magic; it all went over his head anyway – then they were pretty much the same thing. He’d assumed she only used those cryptic words to seem at least somewhat impressive.

‘Yes?’ It was testimony to Ros’s self-control that she was still sitting down instead of twisting Merlin’s head round. If Lucas disliked magic, then Ros hated it. Passionately. The same was more or less true for Harry, although he was opportunistic enough to make use of it as long as it suited his purposes.

‘Well, Morgana’s magic was tied strongly to the Old Religion and what she did would have left a mark of some kind,’ Merlin explained. There was no trace of insecurity; he knew what he was talking about and was confident in his knowledge of his powers. Lucas had seen that before, but it was so rare that it was still remarkable. ‘It’s just something that lingers, doesn’t do any damage. It’s like reading a file of his history with magic.’

That came out a bit more rushed, probably because Harry was giving him that look that suggested the prospect of a career spent in the paper archive. In any other situation Lucas might have found the sight of his boss so thoroughly out of his depth amusing, but not now. As it was, he had a sudden suspicion where this was going and it set his teeth on edge.

‘But she said she smelled magic on him, so I think…’ Merlin seemed to struggle for words, but not because he was scared. If anything, he looked delighted, as if he had discovered the greatest treasure known to mankind. ‘I mean, any old fool can do magic if they make a bit of effort, like Gaius.’ Disgruntled looks from most of the people around the table. Arthur’s shock stood out. He was positively gaping at his servant. Not surprising, that. Technically magic was still outlawed and Arthur was the one to enforce the law. He was unlikely to appreciate the idea that, with some practise, he was capable of most of the things his servant did.

I wonder how kindly Gaius will take to being called an old fool, Lucas thought. It was better to think thoughts like that rather than the ones that were preying on his mind.

‘Are you telling me…?’ Arthur appeared to choke on his tongue.

Merlin’s smile widened. ‘If you tried, you could do your own chores in the blink of an eye,’ he informed his king sunnily. ‘Although you’d probably still need help dressing,’ he added when he took in Arthur’s attire. He had made do without his servant that morning and the result looked… well, the less said about that, the better.

Harry’s fist on the table killed the banter instantly. ‘Merlin!’

‘Right,’ Merlin said, composing himself. ‘Well, the Dochraid said she had smelled powerful magic on him.’

The well of patience had well and truly run dry. ‘Which means?’ Harry prompted. The threat of dire consequences if this answer was not to his liking was not mentioned, but it certainly did not go unheard.

Merlin took a deep breath and then threw it all out. ‘That Lucas may have more potential to do magic than most.’

There, it was out now. Lucas was not even sure he believed all of that, but it went without saying that Merlin was the unquestioned authority on everything magic and if he said something like that, it was probably true.

And Lucas didn’t want it to be true, at all.

It was Ros who broke the silence and diffused the tension that announcement left in its wake. ‘You’re not going all Harry Potter on me, are you, Lucas?’ The sardonic smile was more of a reassurance than any comforting words would have been.

And so he found himself smiling back. ‘Nah, probably couldn’t keep my balance on a broomstick.’

He just couldn’t see it, the muttering gibberish and flashing eyes resulting in something there was no scientific explanation for, not when it was him muttering the gibberish and flashing his eyes. He tolerated Merlin’s magic as long as it was useful, but he’d seen it used for things he’d rather forget. When push came to shove it was a weapon and while he did not object to the use of weapons to take out the bad guys, it was only to fight the good fight. The only use for guns was to fight the bad guys with the guns. Fighting fire with fire, so to speak. In itself it served no purpose. And Lucas was not champing at the bit to try his hand at it himself. He preferred to keep it a bit more down to earth.

The joy had been wiped from Merlin’s face when he realised his revelation had not prompted unmitigated glee from Section D. ‘But…’

Lucas snorted. ‘I am no sorcerer, Merlin.’ And neither did he want to be. ‘We’ll have to find another cover story.’

He left the room before anyone could react to that.

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