Merlin had become positively jumpy ever since Lucas had announced that this was not the dry run and Malcolm's announcement that there were no less than three ways to detonate these bombs hadn't made things any better.
And Jo's mood wasn't much better. Her face was pale and her hands clenched into fists. Merlin remembered her telling yesterday that it was her first time back in the field since she was abducted. She had already been fretting about today and now it had just gone as wrong as it possibly could.
It didn't do much to calm him down to learn that not Nadif, but probably Marlin was the remote detonator. Merlin could not for the life of him figure out why Marlin would suddenly detonate bombs in London when he had been providing MI-5 with good, reliable information for years. The warlock had even thought him to be a nice kind of guy, although he had definitely some secrets he didn't plan on telling MI-5. But why would he do something like this?
But now was definitely not the time to ponder Marlin's motivations. Fox One was still alive and by now Marlin would know MI-5 was on to him and his bombers. If he would have been in the Pakistani's shoes, Merlin would waste no time in detonating his only remaining bomb, the bomb that was hidden away in a blue bag being held by the young man that was walking only meters in front of Merlin and Jo.
'Ros, what do we do?' he asked, noticing how tense his own voice sounded. He wasn't used to this. He wasn't used to dealing with bombs, he wasn't used to any of this and he could feel the panic fighting to take over, effectively making sure he wouldn't be able to lift a finger anymore. Give him evil sorcerers or magical beasts any day. This was just downright scary.
'It's too late to put down the mobile network,' Ros said.
'That means?' Whatever that meant, he was sure it wouldn't cause him to do an instant happy dance around the market. More like the exact opposite.
'Marlin will be able to detonate before we can stop him,' Ros replied.
Great. That bomb could go off any moment and there was, in short, nothing they would be able to do to stop that catastrophe from happening.
'What. Do. We. Do?' he repeated, emphasising every word.
As the Section Chief responded her voice sounded remarkably cold and ordering, not unlike Arthur in a crisis situation. 'Clear the area around the target. Repeat: clear the area around the target. The suspect must be immobilised immediately.'
Well, that made sense and it was something Merlin was good at. He immobilised suspects almost on a daily basis. Jo was already running to catch up with the suspect and Merlin followed hot on her heels.
From other sides Merlin could see very dangerous looking men with a lot of muscles pushing their way through the crowds, guns in hand, making their way to Fox One. He still hadn't noticed their presence and was still casually strolling towards his goal, wherever that was supposed to be.
'Everyone, clear the area!' Jo yelled at the top of her lungs, gaining her everyone's immediate attention, including the attention of the Fox. 'Clear the area, this man has a bomb!'
And all hell broke loose. People started screaming, running and pushing each other to get out as fast as they possibly could. Fox One tried to make a run for it, but the back-up people were a lot faster and literally jumped on their suspect's back, effectively preventing him from going anywhere.
Merlin could only watch as the market transformed into the best organised chaos he had ever seen. People were running as if their life depended on it, which it very well might, no one even paying attention to their surroundings, not caring what happened to the other people in the square. That was something that was completely alien to Merlin. In Camelot people always stopped to help one another, no matter what the crisis.
And then he saw it. Or rather, her. It was a small girl, maybe four or five years old, alone, separated from her mother, crying and perfectly scared. She was standing all alone as people ran around, looking completely lost in the crowd.
He didn't think. He started to run, pushing people aside as he went, exactly like all the others did, grabbing the girl from the street and holding her close to prevent her from falling. She didn't even really look at him. She just held onto him for dear life, hiding her face against his shoulder as Merlin ran over to Jo.
'Move!' she shouted at a youth that was staring at her, clearly thinking this was all some kind of joke. Then he saw the bomber being held down and changed his mind, opting on getting out of this place as fast as he possibly could.
The market was emptying out, the screaming slowly fading away. The girl was silently crying against his shoulder, but at least she was out of danger's way. He had her and he wouldn't let anything bad happen to her. Jo was with him too and the two back-up men held Fox One against the ground. For a moment everything looked like it could be fine after all.
And then he saw the look in the bomber's eyes. It wasn't fearful or disappointed. He radiated defiance and triumph. And Merlin remembered that it was too late to put down the mobile network, too late to do anything to prevent that bomb from going off. And it could happen any minute, any moment even. And if Malcolm was to be believed, they were right in the danger zone.
There wasn't any time to think, no time to shout warnings and definitely no time to get out of here, so Merlin did the only thing he knew he could do, the only thing he could do: he used magic. On the streets of London. Out there for everyone to see. For everyone to hear.
He threw his hand forward. 'Astrice!' he shouted, blasting the two CO19 men away from the suspect as far as he possibly could. They might get some bruises and broken bones, but at least they would live.
The suspect's eyes widened in surprise. He was unrestrained now, but Merlin didn't think that did really matter now anyway. He felt more than he actually knew that time had run out and that they had only seconds to spare. Fox One wouldn't have the time to get up and run into a crowd of people, just like Merlin and Jo would be unable to get themselves to safety in time.
He looked into those eyes, burning with the belief that what he did was right. So misled, so sure of his purpose. It reminded him so much of those sorcerers that thought it would be in their best interest to bring down Camelot.
Jo had frozen into place, staring at Fox One, the realisation that they were too late as clear as day in her eyes.
But they weren't too late. It wasn't too late, not for him. 'Stay behind me!' he ordered Jo and then he held out his hand again. 'Scildan!' he shouted, pouring all his fear and anxiety in the spell, hoping that that would make it stronger, would make sure that they were safe.
The shield rose up before them just as the explosion drowned out all the other noise, making it almost impossible for Merlin to think. He could feel the girl's hands grabbing his jacket as she clung to him as if her life depended on it, too afraid and confused to do anything else. Jo held on to him as well.
His shield withstood the power of the explosion, but only just. He could feel it pushing against the shield, demanding of it to give in and let it have its deadly way. He closed his eyes and doubled his efforts.
And he came out victorious. The pressure vanished as soon as it had started, leaving the market looking like a battle field. Merlin's jaw dropped. There was just nothing where the Fox had been lying. There were some bits and pieces that might once have belonged to a human being, but Merlin didn't exactly want to spend much time thinking about that. It was just too horrible.
The rest of the market looked slightly better, but not much. The stands had been blown over, the wares that had been lying on them were scattered all over the place. Merlin's eyes scanned the square automatically to search for the CO19 officers. One of them he spotted on the far end of the market, sporting a bleeding hand, but he was already getting to his feet again. His colleague had not been so lucky. He had still been within the range of the blast and now he his head was lying in an unnatural position, the eyes open, but not seeing anymore. There was a bloody mess where once his right foot had been. Merlin didn't feel the need to find out where that part had gone, at all.
This place looks like a battlefield, was the thought that shot through his head. No, not a battlefield, a graveyard. This was a place of death now. Somehow it only seemed fitting that the rest of the market looked accordingly.
His ears were ringing, he noticed now that the noise of the explosion had finally died down. Stupidly enough that was the second impression that got through the shock of what had just happened here. His ears were ringing, a high-pitched noise that made it hard to think and decide what needed to be done. Somewhere in the back of his head he knew that there was something, several things actually that needed to be done now. He just couldn't bring himself to do them, or even remember what they were as he was taking in the horrors that had happened right in front of him, the horrors that he had not been able to prevent.
So, of course he made mistakes before and of course people had died because of those mistakes, but it had never been so close to him as now. Things somehow seemed to be far more intense here than they were in Camelot.
The girl was crying, the force of her sobs making her shoulders shake. That was what snapped him out of his shocked state in the end. He put his free hand on her back and, not knowing what else he was supposed to be doing, patted her reassuringly, telling her softly that she was safe and that it would all be okay.
He knew it was a lie before the words had even left his mouth. Some meters away he could see the shape of a woman with the same shade of reddish brown curls as the girl, lying motionlessly on the ground. The mother had come back for her child and had died trying to get to her. Her daughter was safe, but that girl's life would never be the same again.
'Zulu Three and Four, respond,' a voice said in their earpieces. It sounded so tense and worried even that it took Merlin some seconds to realise that it actually belonged to Ros Myers. It took him some more seconds to process that it wasn't the first time she had said those words.
Jo was on her feet again, her mouth slightly open, her eyes wide with shock.
'Zulu Three and Four, respond.' Was he mistaken or was there an underlying tone of panic to be heard there?
That snapped Jo out of her shock. 'I'm here,' she replied weakly, still looking around her as if she could hardly believe it all. 'We're here.'
'Status update, Zulu Three.' Ros's words might sound cold and uncaring, but Merlin could hear the relief in them. Maybe sticking to the professional codes was just her way of dealing with it all. And the words she added to that in a softer tone only confirmed that theory. 'Talk to me.'
'One CO19 officer down,' Jo reported, her voice sounding like it didn't belong to her, but something else that spoke the words while the person still gazed out over this horrible place. 'And one civilian casualty.'
Merlin forced himself not to look at the girl's mother. It was just too awful to think about.
'Thank you, Zulu Three.' The Section Chief's voice was soft and strangely comforting, like the one normal thing when your entire world has just been turned upside down. 'We need you back on the Grid.'
The line went dead and Merlin took Jo's hand, trying to give her a reassuring smile. 'Come on, we've got to go,' he told her. He didn't know where those words just came from, but he didn't remember planning to say them.
But maybe this was what they both needed, a purpose to get them going again. Somehow it helped to be needed. And she took a deep breath and nodded. 'We've got to go,' she agreed. And so they did.
Arthur had never felt so helpless, never in his entire life. The explosion came, making their earpieces wail and bleep in protest and all Arthur could think was: Not Merlin! In that endless moment he didn't think a second about what he had just heard. The magic words that had come out of his servant's mouth were all but forgotten. The worry and fear pushed all those questions, all those hurt feelings away until there was simply nothing else to be felt than panic.
Lucas's face betrayed almost nothing. It was as if his face had been carefully wiped clean, leaving a perfectly blank expression. He didn't move. He could have turned into stone for all Arthur knew. Ben just looked at Arthur, his eyes wide, his mouth open. The look in his eyes told the king of Camelot that he didn't think Merlin and Jo stood any chance of survival.
And that hurt. When he had found out that Morgana was a witch he had been filled with rage and disappointment, but now that he found out that his own servant was one of those foul magic-users as well, all he could do was fear for his life. This is ridiculous, he thought as he waited for the noise in his ears to die down, to make out any sound that might just indicate that Merlin was still alive.
Merlin had betrayed him. It was plain and simple. No one used magic unless they were planning on bringing down Camelot and all its inhabitants. Yet Arthur could not escape the notion that his servant was somehow different. When he had shouted those spells he had sounded like he was… well, Arthur couldn't really say. It hadn't sounded offensive, or aggressive.
But it didn't matter anymore. No matter what Merlin had done back there, there was just no way he could have survived that bomb. Malcolm had briefed the pair of them on explosives yesterday and Arthur wasn't stupid. He could connect the dots. Merlin must have been close to the bomb when it went off. There was just no hope.
The noise died down, but Arthur could not rejoice or even feel relieved that whatever this was, was over. There was only fear. Please live, you idiot! How like Merlin it was to get too close to the heart of the trouble. He knew Merlin. The fool was more self-sacrificing than was healthy for anyone.
But he didn't know Merlin at all, did he? He hadn't known that the servant boy knew how to do magic. And it didn't sound like this was the first time he'd done it. Merlin's voice had been cold, commanding and most definitely not suffering from a lack of self-confidence. Yes, Merlin had been like a friend to him, but surely that didn't mean anything now anymore? All those things he had done for Arthur had been rendered meaningless by the two spells that had come out of Merlin's mouth just seconds ago.
Yet some part of his brain, or maybe it was his heart, still refused to believe that. There just were some things he couldn't have faked. Arthur remembered all too clearly what had happened some months ago: the two of them trapped in a dark castle with no fire and an awful lot of Dorocha around. He remembered being scared and Merlin trying to cheer him up, even though Arthur could see the fear in his eyes as well. And he also remembered that noble fool jumping right in front of one of those creepy things, saving Arthur's life, but nearly dying himself in the process. Wasn't that all the answer he really needed?
But it was too late, pointless to think about. Merlin would be gone by now. His earpiece crackled, still protesting against the amount of noise that had been unleashed on it. Arthur was kind of surprised that it still worked. But there was nothing else to be heard. The silence was so terrifying that he started to shiver.
'Zulu Three and Four, respond.' Ros's voice was as tense as Arthur felt.
Arthur held his breath in anticipation, but no one answered. The only thing he did hear was a child crying somewhere close to the microphone. God help them all, there had been a child involved in the attack. Was nobody safe from these maniacs?
'Zulu Three and Four, respond.' Ros kept repeating the same line over and over again, and with each time it went unanswered Arthur started to feel his hopes sink a little lower. It had been five minutes now and still nothing except the child's crying.
And then, finally, came a sound that felt heavenly to Arthur. 'I'm here.' Jo's voice, feeble and seemingly close to breaking-point, made it through to their earpieces. 'We're here.'
A sigh of relief escaped him. Ben actually looked like the weight of the world had just been lifted from his shoulders and the stone statue that had been Lucas started living again.
Arthur listened with half an ear as Jo reported the death of one CO19 officer and one civilian, trying to hear a sign of life from his manservant, but he didn't hear anything until Ros had ordered them to get back to the Grid, and then he heard a soft but very familiar voice tell Jo that they needed to go. It was the same voice as he always known, nothing strange or dangerous about it. As it was, it was even strangely reassuring. If he hadn't known any better he would have said that this was just another normal day and they had gotten themselves out of a tight spot in some kind of miraculous way, as per usual.
As per usual. That thought stuck in the king's head as the three of them made their way back to Thames House again. Somehow this all seemed very similar to how things were in Camelot and he didn't mean the nature of the attack itself. It was the dangerous situation and the lack of solutions to contain it in its early stages, so that it all came down to the very last minute. And even in the last minute it had all seemed hopeless and yet then something had happened and somehow it had all been miraculously fixed with the absolute minimum of damage. The only great difference was that Arthur now knew who worked the miracles in the first place. Because if he did that here, then how much of a coincidence would Merlin's presence in Camelot be every time something strange happened?
I have been so stupid. That wasn't something Arthur Pendragon was prone to thinking, as anyone who knew him could tell you. I have been so blind.
Because the only explanation, the one that made the most sense, would be that Merlin was different from every magic-user Arthur had encountered before, that he was doing what every other one of his kind would probably describe as deranged and even suicidal. The fool gave every impression of protecting Camelot, no, protecting Arthur. If it had been anyone else, Arthur might not have believed in this seemingly ridiculous theory. But this was Merlin, the servant who rode out with him into battle, never wearing one piece of armour, and who yet almost always came out with not as much as a scratch. Why had he never thought that strange before?
And then another memory surfaced and Arthur was back in the ruined castle, shivering with the cold and the fear as he hid behind a piece of wall still standing with Merlin, hoping and praying the knights would find them before the Dorocha. There had been name-calling at first, each trying to keep the other's spirits up. And the Arthur had confessed he had never been afraid of dying before and Merlin, not always the fool he seemed or pretended to be, had started telling him he shouldn't start doing so now, because they would defeat the Dorocha together. Arthur, not knowing what to do with that statement, spoken with so much conviction, had joked about how Merlin was a brave man between battles. Merlin had laughed. 'You don't know how many times I've saved your life,' he told Arthur.
At the time Arthur had taken that as a joke. He faintly recalled joking about making Merlin court jester when he became king, but what if Merlin's bold claim had not been a joke? What if it had been the truth, disguised as a joke, because that was the only way Merlin would ever be able to tell Arthur what he'd done over the years?
I have been so blind.
By the time he reached that conclusion, they had arrived at the Grid. Ben and Lucas disappeared to their respective desks and Arthur, not knowing what he should be doing, just let himself drop onto the nearest chair, which, coincidentally, happened to be Merlin's. He was nowhere to be seen and neither was his companion for the day. They must not be back yet.
He hadn't finished that thought before the sound of the pods opening and closing drew his attention. One of them held Jo, but Arthur couldn't care less about her at the moment. His gaze was inevitably drawn to the other person.
Merlin was dressed in twenty-first century clothes, but they were dusty and dirty, as were his face and his hair. The expression on Merlin's face was one that Arthur had seldom seen before. He could only remember one occasion when he had looked like that. It was after Arthur's father had died and the servant had looked just as devastated as Arthur had felt, although the king knew how to hide it better. Merlin hadn't even been trying to hide, just as he wasn't now. The sorcerer's face looked like he had been to hell and back again.
It was only when he established this that Arthur noticed the small figure Merlin held in his arms. It was a small girl, only four, maybe five years old. Her clothes and reddish brown curls were as dirty as Merlin's. He couldn't see the child's face, because it was hidden against Merlin's shoulder. The sorcerer held the child gently, stroking her hair and murmuring soft, probably reassuring words. Seeing him like that, caring for the girl, it was impossible to think of him as a dangerous man bent on Camelot's downfall. If he still had doubts, this sight made them disappear faster than he could blink his eyes.
'What's that?' he demanded, walking over to Merlin, beckoning to the child.
Merlin grinned, but the enjoyment didn't reach his eyes. He still looked like he had been to the mouth of hell. 'I believe they call it a girl.' The joke was out of habit, and more a show of bravado than anything else.
But the jokes might just help them cope, just as they had all those months ago in that ruined castle. 'I can see that, Merlin. What's she doing here?'
That had been the wrong question. There were actually tears shimmering in Merlin's eyes. 'Her mother died in the explosion,' he whispered. The child seemed to be sleeping, which meant that she at least couldn't hear what was being said. 'I never even saw her before the bomb went off. And her daughter was all alone there, when the people started to run. I couldn't do nothing.'
How he had been able to think that Merlin could actually harm another human being was entirely beyond Arthur. Merlin, harming someone? Please! 'You're an idiot, Merlin,' he told the servant.
He misinterpreted. 'Do you think I should have let her die there?' he demanded, the righteous fury obvious in his voice, something Arthur wasn't used to hearing.
Arthur shook his head. 'I didn't mean it like that. I meant: you are an idiot, practising magic right in the very heart of a kingdom where it's punishable by death of all places and then use it to protect said kingdom. Are you out of your mind? Do you have some kind of death wish you haven't told me about?'
Merlin just stared at him. 'You heard?' he whispered.
Arthur was tempted to roll his eyes, very much so even. 'I'm starting to wonder why I ever even considered you to be wise, Merlin!' he exclaimed. 'You're lucky if there's anyone in London who hasn't heard you. Yes, of course I heard you, you idiot.'
Merlin seemed puzzled. 'And you're not going to throw me in the dungeons?' he asked in a disbelieving voice.
Arthur snorted. 'And then who is going to polish my boots?' he inquired. 'Have you seen the state of them?' True, Merlin's boots were definitely in a worse state, but that wasn't the real point here. He was trying to convey the message that he wasn't angry, sacking or arresting Merlin. The truth was that he would want nothing more than continue as before, with the minor change that he now knew Merlin's biggest secret.
Merlin understood that message without Arthur having to spell it out for him. The hint of a smile graced his features, the tiniest twinkle sparked in his eyes. 'Oh, I think George would be more than eager to take over my duties.'
Arthur laughed, a real one. 'Ha!' he barked, ruffling Merlin's hair, causing the dust to fall out of it and onto the ground. 'I'd get bored listening to his jokes about brass all the time.'
The smile hesitatingly widened a little. 'I can provide you with one of those any time,' he warned the king.
'Don't you dare. I'll have you know I'll have you thrown in the stocks as soon as I hear the word brass coming out of your mouth.'
Merlin grinned, a hesitant and weary one, but a grin nonetheless.
Arthur replied with one of his own and nudged the younger man for good measure. 'You're an idiot,' he repeated, shaking his head in mock desperation.
'Dollophead,' Merlin muttered.
And somehow all was well with the world again.