Merlin was on his third cup of coffee since he entered the surveillance van by the time something finally happened. If he had to name one thing that was most definitely better here than it was in Camelot, it was probably the existence of this hot liquid. So far he had consumed six cups in the short time he had been in London. Other inventions were good as well, although he still felt sick after a trip in their cars. It just wasn't natural to travel so fast.
'All right, Merlin?' Lucas asked. He was staring at the images the outside cameras (CCTV, he thought it was called) provided them with, holding a cup of coffee of his own.
'I'm fine,' he said. It wasn't even a complete lie at the moment. It was just that Marlin's information had left him feeling nauseous with nerves. For the first time the true extent of what they were facing here had become clear to him. And they were meant to stop that horror from happening? That was bordering on impossible, surely.
But here they were, trying to prevent it anyway. Right after the meeting with Marlin Ros had dropped them off at the surveillance van, announcing that they were going to watch Nadif for the day. But Nadif had yet to make an appearance.
'So, when he comes out, what are we going to do?' he asked, changing the subject.
Lucas smirked. Doubtlessly he knew exactly what Merlin was playing at. The warlock had thought it would be nice to be around people not too thick to read subtle signs, but as it was, it was getting a bit annoying.
'You can go with Jo, following him,' the senior officer said. 'You could pose as a couple. It would be quite convincing.'
Jo's cheeks coloured bright crimson, no doubt resembling the colour of his own face at that moment.
'Okay,' he said, trying to think of yet another subject to discuss. The atmosphere in the van had become incredibly awkward only seconds after Lucas's playful comment. 'So, Nadif's definitely the man we're looking for?' he checked.
'Well, he isn't an innocent,' Jo offered. 'I don't know about you, but I've read his file.'
Merlin felt he had to explain himself. 'It's just… well, Marlin was hiding something,' he pointed out. 'He could very well have been lying.'
He had a lot of experiences with untruthful people and he had trusted them one time too many. He had learned being careful the hard way. So no matter what Ros said about multitasking being overrated, something kept gnawing away at him, urging him to do something with what Arthur would call his funny feeling. Those funny feelings tended to be right after all. Marlin's discomfort at the meeting could indeed have something to do with the Pakistani being afraid of getting caught talking to MI-5. That might be a part of it, but it most certainly wasn't all of it.
Lucas didn't avert his eyes from the screen as he replied. 'I suggest you have that conversation with Ros,' he said. 'As it happens, I do value my life.' And when he saw Merlin's disbelieving face, he added: 'Nadif is definitely up to something, Merlin. We heard his name from Samir first before Marlin came into the picture. You remember Samir, the man we were chasing when we first ran into you?'
Merlin remembered that all too well. Part of him wished that they had never discovered that magical portal in the woods and the places it led to. He couldn't escape the notion that they were now into all this mess up to their necks and he wasn't sure he liked that feeling. It was is duty to protect Camelot, not London. But by helping London, you'll get the help for Camelot, he reminded himself.
'Speaking of the devil,' Jo remarked, pointing at the screen that showed them Nadif's front door. Merlin had seen the man's face in a photograph, but seeing him for real, or as real as that screen was anyway, somehow made it all more real to him.
So now he studied the leader of the terror cell closely. He was average height, average build and to be quite honest, not at all dangerous looking. Dressed in his suit and tie there was nothing to suggest that he had more dangerous plans than just going into work, like every other morning.
Lucas bended over as well. 'Hello, Nadif,' he muttered, smiling faintly, the smile of the hunter directed at his prey. His entire attitude betrayed that he absolutely loathed him.
Jo took a closer look as well, frowning. 'How's Ben?' she asked. 'Does he know the danger he's in?'
Merlin needed a second to remember Ben was the name of the officer pretending to be one of Nadif's followers. Either Malcolm or Connie must have mentioned it last night.
'We learn by doing,' Lucas replied.
There was probably no greater truth in the world, Merlin suspected. At least that was how he had learned to do his job of protecting Arthur from all sorts of danger. In all these centuries time, that was one thing that had obviously not changed.
'What's he doing as a job, again?' Merlin asked, watching how Nadif dug up his mobile phone from one of his pockets and started texting. At least he thought that was what they called it. Ugh, there was so much information that it was almost impossible to keep up with everything.
'IT-manager,' Lucas answered.
He thought hard for a few seconds. 'Something with computers, right?'
Lucas gave him a reassuring smile. 'Something like that. It's a good cover, too. He's certainly able to get that waterfall flowing.'
Right, the noise on the internet, Merlin remembered. He wished he could understand it a bit better than he did, but he had to accept that this probably was not going to happen anytime soon. He had better stay on his job for the day.
Lucas had apparently been thinking the same thing. 'Right, go, you're away,' he said.
Merlin quickly downed the last remnants of his coffee and got up. He was actually glad to be able to get out of this place. They were with the three of them and this van wasn't particularly big, so after almost an hour of waiting things started to feel rather cramped.
Jo, however, seemed to hesitate.
Lucas smiled reassuringly at her as well. 'Don't worry,' he told her. 'I'll keep an eye on him.' And when she still made no attempt to get out, he added: 'Ben's a natural. He's going to be fine.'
She smiled back. 'Thanks.'
They got out of the van and started to walk after Nadif slowly. They didn't want him to know he was being watched, so they maintained a slow pace, just enough to keep him in their sights.
Jo's eyes never left her suspect's back, but she seemed distracted. 'You're worried about Ben?' he inquired.
She grinned sheepishly and then hooked her arm through his. Upon seeing his shocked face, she explained: 'We're supposed to behave as a couple, remember? Let's make it convincing.'
Merlin nodded. Right, he almost forgot. 'So, you're worried about Ben?' he repeated his earlier question.
She shrugged. 'A bit, I guess. It was his friendship with me that brought him into the Service in the first place, so I suppose I feel responsible for him. It's his first undercover operation, too, and this is a dangerous man we're dealing with.' They were more or less alone, so they could talk openly here. Nadif was out of earshot and they weren't near the centre of the city yet, which meant that there weren't that many other people around. 'I think I'm just being protective, like you are with Arthur.'
That last sentence caught him unawares. 'You noticed that?'
That earned him a small smile. 'Well, yes. It was a bit hard to miss, really. You're keeping him safe, don't you?'
He snorted. 'No one has ever noticed that before.'
'I'm a spook,' Jo reminded him. 'If I hadn't noticed, it would probably be best if they sacked me.'
Merlin glanced at Nadif, but he was too preoccupied by his mobile phone to pay any attention to them, or anything else going on around him. He had already only just avoided getting hit by a car, and that was more thanks to the driver's reflexes than Nadif's.
'Sorry,' he muttered. 'It's just that I've become so used to people not noticing, overlooking me just because I'm a servant…'
She studied him closely. 'That's just weird,' she told him.
Jo was clearly thinking how she could phrase this best. 'Well, in the legend as we know it here, you're an old man, kind of Arthur's right-hand man. I think we all figured you had to be this old, powerful warlock, not just an ordinary man.'
Merlin sniggered. 'Believe me, Jo, I'm not ordinary.'
Her cheeks coloured bright red again. 'I didn't mean it like that,' she said quickly. 'It's just, well, you don't look or act as we had expected.' Her eyes were again locked on Nadif's back. It didn't take a fully trained spy to realise she felt very embarrassed right now. Her behaviour reminded him of Gwen's when he had only just arrived in Camelot.
'So, I'm supposed to be old?' he inquired.
'Forget that,' she mumbled. 'Legend was obviously wrong.'
Not entirely. He wondered whether he should tell her about his regular disguise as Dragoon the Great. It could be wise to keep that a secret for now, but in the end Jo's discomfort won out. 'I tend to disguise myself as an old man,' he explained. 'With an ageing spell,' he added when she gave him a look that told him she did not understand what he meant. 'Even Arthur doesn't know that, to tell you the truth.'
Now she was curious. 'Yet you're telling me. I'm practically a stranger.'
It was his turn to shrug. 'Well, we're on the same team now, aren't we? I thought you said it wasn't necessary to keep secrets. Don't tell Arthur, though.'
That contradiction made her laugh. 'Sure,' she promised. 'I'll keep this record away from him.'
That startled him. 'Wait, we're recorded?'
He heard Lucas's low chuckle coming from the piece of technology that had been stuffed in his ear. 'Oops, caught me. Don't worry, though, I won't tell him.'
'Thanks, Lucas,' he said, relieved.
He actually liked the senior officer. He sounded like a good fellow and a good colleague. Anyway, he rather dealt with him than with Ros. He knew he had nothing to fear from her anymore, but he still kept his distance. The Section Chief had something that made her appear unapproachable, untouchable even. Maybe it was because of the loss of the man they called Adam Carter. It was a long shot, but people had done stranger things because of grief. He only had to remember Morgana's reaction to Morgause's demise to know exactly how strange.
'You're welcome,' the other man told him. 'Can I get a status update on our target in return?'
'Target's entering the building,' Jo reported. 'Breaking off surveillance, Control.'
Oops, he had completely forgotten to use the codes Ros had told him to use. He had no doubt he would be reprimanded for it later. Ros didn't strike him as the type to let such things go past unanswered.
He made to follow Nadif into the building, but Jo's pulling at his arm stopped him.
'We can't go in there,' she warned him. 'That's where he works.'
'We're not allowed to go in after him?' he checked.
She shook her head, directing them to a small café on the other side of the street instead. 'We don't belong there. It would be suspicious. Nadif has no known associates at work. We don't need to monitor him in there. All we have to do is to keep a close eye on that entrance to see if there are any suspicious individuals going in. We might as well do that from a comfortable place. And it's the natural thing to do.'
Merlin frowned. 'Natural?'
'We're a couple, remember? We've got to make it convincing.'
Right, he had forgotten.
Lucas laughed in his ear again. 'I think the two of you can handle this without any supervision, don't you think?' he asked. Judging by the tone in his voice he was very much enjoying himself. 'Put on a good show, will you?'
'Where are you going then?' Jo demanded.
'Well, it seems I have a Holy Warrior to meet.' His tone became a bit more serious. 'Don't worry, I'll look after him.'
Jo smiled, although Lucas couldn't see that of course. 'Thanks.'
The earpiece went dead and they crossed the street. 'What was that all about?' Merlin asked.
'He's going to meet with Ben,' Jo explained. 'Hear if there's anything interesting happening, make sure he's still safe.'
The warlock frowned. 'You didn't want to do that yourself?'
'I'm needed here,' she pointed out. 'And that's what the team is for. Everyone does something.'
Merlin smiled sheepishly. He tended to forget that while he was here he was working with a team. Maybe that was because he was so used to working alone. He had never had anyone who helped him before. But you're not on your own anymore, he reminded himself. The thought brought a smile to his face. Perhaps it had been a good idea to work with Section D after all.
Arthur would probably never admit it when called on, but he was glad to be back in Thames House. The meeting with Britain's Home Secretary had left him with a lot of anger and he had come very close to losing control and venting it all in the man's arrogant face. What a pathetic excuse for a leader that was! But apparently that was the way things were around here and since he was in no position to change that, he might as well accept it. He wasn't the king in this place. He wasn't anything in this place. No, that wasn't true. Here he was Aidan Parker, Senior Case Officer and Middle Eastern expert. Great.
The Grid was rather empty when they returned. Merlin, Lucas and Jo were what these people called out in the field to keep an eye on Nadif. Arthur didn't really know what to do, so he settled for taking a chair and taking it over to Malcolm's desk. In some ways the elderly man reminded him of Gaius. That familiarity made it easier to keep a conversation going.
'And how was meeting the Home Secretary?' Connie asked as he dragged the chair across the room.
He snorted in reply.
'Oh, that bad?' Connie seemed to be enjoying herself. 'Well, rather Harry than me. Politicians…' She shuddered.
'Thanks so very much, Connie,' he shot back.
'I said politicians, not kings,' she clarified with as much dignity as she could muster, before disappearing behind the screen of her computer.
'And those aren't the same thing?' he asked.
Connie didn't respond and Arthur decided not to push the matter. Given his recent experience with the Home Secretary he wasn't even sure he could blame her for feeling as she did. If one thing, Nicholas Blake was an annoying man who was entirely too concerned with his own image. That must be a future thing. As far as Arthur knew his father had never cared much about his image, and neither did Arthur.
Malcolm's screen was filled with all kinds of numbers and letters, none of which made any sense to the king of Camelot. 'What are you doing?'
'Monitoring the internet chatter,' he explained without averting his eyes from the screen.
'Monitoring?' Arthur repeated, not sure what it was supposed to mean.
'Keeping an eye on,' Malcolm offered. 'If Marlin is right, we should start to see a lot of threats on the net soon enough.'
Arthur gave up. He had no idea what the other man was talking about. He vaguely knew what internet was, because Connie had explained it to him last night, but the details of it continued to elude him. Oh, why did he even care? It wasn't as if he was going to stay in this time and place long enough to need any of it. A few days at most and then he would be back in Camelot, with help to find the traitor.
'I'm going to get myself another coffee,' he announced. He had been meaning to call Merlin to get him another cup, only realising just in time that his servant wasn't available at the moment.
And even if he was, it would be seen as strange here. He had learned that after he had ordered Merlin to get him something to eat a few hours ago. People had actually stopped and stared at him as if he had lost his mind. It turned out that people here didn't have servants. They did everything themselves. And there was no way these people allowed him to use Merlin to get him something to drink. Merlin himself had to try his hardest to bite back his laughter and Arthur had felt his face colour the brightest red at the humiliation. Oh, how he wished he was back in Camelot.
Malcolm merely nodded in reply, still too preoccupied with his computer.
Arthur strolled over the Grid towards the coffee machine, the only piece of technology he actually understood. Connie had told him that there was something in coffee that helped keeping one awake. That might be more than necessary. It was only midday and he had missed a night of sleep. In a few hours' time the fatigue would start kicking in and it didn't look like he was going to bed anytime soon.
He decided to be nice and brought an extra cup for Malcolm. If they were going to work together, he might as well make sure they got along well. There was no doubt in his mind that he could not boss these people around, not even once they were back in Camelot. He would have to treat them as if they were nobles, even when they so clearly weren't.
He was halfway on his way back when Malcolm almost literally shot up. 'This is it!' he exclaimed in an alarmed voice over the frantic beeps his computer was suddenly making. 'Ros!'
The Section Chief seemed to come from nowhere, striding over to his desk. Arthur, feeling that there really was something happening, increased his pace as well, dumping the coffee on the nearest desk. Something told him there wouldn't be time for that.
'What is it, Malcolm?' Ros demanded. She radiated tension with every fibre of her being.
Somehow that caused a shiver to go down Arthur's spine. Ros didn't strike him as the type that scared easily. She wasn't exactly scared now, but she was nervous and uneasy to say at the very least. For something to make that happen, it had to be bad, very bad. Noise, dry run, boom. Was this the first?
'Internet chatter,' he replied curtly. 'It's been climbing through the roof.'
Arthur glanced at the screen and saw an awful lot of words flash across it. The computer's bleeps were giving him a headache already. Maybe he should have taken the idea of noise literally.
'By how much?' Ros urged. Behind her, Harry had come in as well. The head of the section didn't say anything, but the expression on his face was quite enough. Connie slipped in after him, looking shocked, frightened even. Could it really be that bad?
'Four thousand percent,' Malcolm reported, still staring at the screen in what appeared to be disbelief.
'It's the waterfall,' Ros stated, turning back to look at Harry.
'They're going crazy on the net.' Malcolm sounded like he was somewhat amazed by it. 'All kinds of rumours, threats, semi-coded stuff…'
'They're starting,' Ros understood. 'They're getting ready to go. Red-flash Lucas,' she ordered. 'Get Jo and Merlin back on the Grid.'
'They're watching Nadif,' Connie pointed out.
'Then get a bloody replacement out there!' the Section Chief exploded. 'Just get them back here as soon as humanly possible.'
Connie gave her an indignant look, and then marched over to her own desk again, muttering under her breath.
'Is this bad?' Arthur asked. Everyone here seemed to have gotten a full-blown panic attack as soon as Malcolm had alerted them to what was going on. So yes, boom was probably not a good thing, a very dangerous thing even, but these people were supposed to be used to it, right?
The question had been intended for Malcolm, but it was Ros that answered. 'You were briefed on Nadif, weren't you?'
He nodded. 'Yes.'
'That he is the leader of the terror cell that's going to detonate a bomb in London,' he repeated Connie's explanation, pleased to find he had remembered it, even the words that didn't exist yet in Camelot.
Ros snorted. 'You don't have a clue, do you?' she asked. Arthur assumed it was a rhetorical question, so he didn't bother with an answer. 'Remind me to put together a summary of Nadif's activities before the meeting.'
'So, is it really that bad?' Arthur repeated his earlier question.
'Yes,' Malcolm replied.
'And if this is the signal for the dry run, I'd say we're less than a week away from their intended spectacular,' Ros finished, leaning over Malcolm's shoulder to get a better view. 'Come on, then,' she muttered. 'Show us where you will hurt us.'
Arthur watched with them as the computers kept throwing words, possible targets, at them. There were so many. How were they to know what was real and what was not? And for the first time since Arthur Pendragon had set foot in twenty-first century Britain he truly understood how dangerous it was right now. He suddenly found himself wondering why that hunt yesterday had sounded like a good idea.