Ros was torn between being relieved and being livid. Those two feelings had been fighting for dominance ever since Jo's first report and she still hadn't decided on either one. On one hand she was ever so glad that Merlin and Jo had made it out unscathed. Both of them were back in Thames House. Jo had disappeared to the roof, visibly shaken by what had happened, but otherwise all right. Merlin and Arthur had been making up the moment Merlin set foot on the Grid. The king of Camelot had taken the news of Merlin's magic better than anyone would have thought. Merlin had gone with some junior officer to clean up the girl he had brought with him and to find out who her family were. Arthur was now behind his temporary desk close to Lucas's and Ben's, trying to find that miserable excuse for a human being called Marlin.
The thought of his lies made her positively boiling with rage. That scum had lied to them, but that wasn't was made her so angry. It wouldn't be the first time an asset would provide them with false information and it was bound not to be the last time either. She was angry because she had believed Marlin, almost without question, even though she had felt there was something off. She had ignored Merlin's suspicion, blinded by the magnitude of what Al-Qaeda was planning and now they were paying the price in the form of one dead CO19 officer and the mother of the child Merlin had brought with him. So much for making no more bloody mistakes. Marlin and Nadif had been playing them from the start and she had let them. Yep, she was definitely more angry now than anything else.
The whooshing of the pods demanded her attention and a slightly dishevelled Harry Pearce entered the Grid, looking as if he had been running all the way from wherever it was that he had disappeared to in the middle of a bloody operation.
Where the hell have you been? Knowing that it wasn't fair to take out her anger on others, she swallowed it back however. 'Two fatalities,' she reported instead. 'One of them ours and one civilian.'
'Jo, Merlin?' Oh yes, he was definitely worried.
'Both still with us,' she replied. You should have been here. She could only just keep herself from saying it.
'What the hell happened?' Harry started to sound extremely pissed off now that he had established that his officers were still alive and unscathed.
I might ask the same question of you. 'We got our Mr Big wrong.' She was already short-tempered and the very thought of her own failure only increased it. 'Nadif was set up by Marlin, Adam's contact in Pakistani intelligence.' And I believed him, even when Merlin warned me about him. Hopefully this would teach her to take that clumsy warlock seriously in future.
'He'll be halfway to Islamabad by now,' Connie put in.
'We'll get him back,' Harry promised. Ros knew him long enough to know that he meant that. There was no way he was letting Marlin get away with this.
'Brilliant plan,' Malcolm said from behind his computer screen. 'MI-5 watches bombs being delivered, one of their own becomes suicide bomber.' That would indeed have happened if they hadn't found out that today wasn't the dry run. Well, look on the bright side: it could always have been worse.
'We would never have recovered. We'd have become a byword for incompetence,' Harry huffed.
But that wasn't the point now, was it? 'A bomb still went off,' she pointed out, carefully avoiding to meet her boss's eyes. And if she had been paying more attention, she might have prevented just that.
'And three didn't!' Harry said forcefully, his eyes sparking with rage. But she could tell it wasn't directed at her. 'If you had panicked, then all the bombs would have detonated: a massive propaganda victory for Al-Qaeda, as the security services are shown to be incapable of protecting their own citizens. That's what they wanted, Ros, and that's what we've stopped.' The way he said it, he made it sound like she was to thank for the conclusion of a successful operation. Last she checked, she wasn't.
'Yeah, well, you try to explain that to that little girl Merlin just brought here. Her mother died because we couldn't stop that bloody last bomb from exploding!' Ros now exploded herself. It seemed only fitting.
'Girl? What girl?' Harry demanded, his already bad mood reaching a new low.
Lucas stepped in. 'The little one Merlin saved in the market. Her mum died in the explosion, Harry,' he explained. How that man could keep so calm in situations like this was beyond Ros, but it was a bit annoying when everyone else here was still so much on edge. 'Merlin brought her in because we didn't know what else to do with her. Connie's trying to find out if she has any family around here.'
Harry's facial colour resembled that of a traffic light. 'We're MI-5!' he told them. 'Not the sodding child day care! Get her out of here now!'
That was met by a muttered 'Yes, Harry' but Ros saw no one walk off to get the child. She decided not to comment on it. The girl had practically clung to Merlin as if her life depended on it, too afraid to let go. She had enough shocks and hurt for one day. Ros wasn't sentimental, but this one had just been through a terrorist attack. She could take it easy, for now.
Harry hadn't noticed the lack of action following his command. He just marched off to his office with a face that would sent the bravest men run for the hills without hesitation. Something had vexed him, and Ros somehow doubted it was related to the operation. He had been acting weird ever since that morning, since he walked out in the middle of the operation. Even Malcolm, who knew Harry a lot longer than she did, had raised his eyebrows at that. No, something was wrong here.
But now was not the time. Now they had to deal with the aftermath of a bomb explosion and the very important question where Marlin had taken to hiding. And why? Why had he done this? Adam had sworn by him. The man had given them good information for years because he strongly disagreed with what Al-Qaeda did. So why this change of heart? Too many questions, and far too few answers for her liking.
'Hey, there.' Lucas's voice snapped her out of her thoughts.
'Hey, yourself,' she greeted.
'I think I may have left my phone on your desk,' he told her.
Ros beckoned at the desk. 'Be my guest.'
She hadn't meant that quite so literally, but Lucas obviously took it that way. He grabbed the phone and then perched himself on her desk. 'Harry was right, you know. We've got nothing to reproach ourselves for.' By the sound of it he even believed that.
Don't we? 'Yes, we do,' she said forcefully. 'Those bastards got one past us.' Somehow she had ended up on her feet when she said that. Lucas looked at her quizzically and she threw in some kind of explanation. 'Ever since I was a little girl I've been annoyingly competitive and perfectionist and that really annoys me.'
Lucas chuckled, shoving the phone in the pocket of his trousers. 'I bet it really annoys your friends as well.'
What friends? But she'd die before she'd say those words. Instead she settled for: 'What was it you said to Marlin about friends? Overrated, I think it was.' Come to think of it, Lucas didn't seem to have many friends himself, despite the fact that he was so easy to get along with. Strange really.
He chuckled, but she could see he understood.
'Not a big one for dinner parties myself,' she admitted.
'Colleagues, though?' he pressed.
What the hell are you really asking here? But she kept her face blank and mildly amused as she replied. 'Yeah,' she nodded. 'Lovers leave, friends annoy you and families mess with your head.' My lover died, my friends never existed and my family disowned me. But that was just one of those things she would never ever say. 'But colleagues are okay.'
Lucas nodded, but it seemed doubtful. 'But are they to be trusted?'
Ros tried and failed not to frown. What are you playing at? But she sure as hell wasn't going to let her team down. 'Yes, they are,' she therefore replied decisively.
'All of them?'
'All of them.' For heaven's sake, Lucas, just spit it out already!
'Even the most senior?'
So, that was what this was all about. Harry. Harry, who had behaved so strangely today. But that wasn't bothering Lucas now, was it? 'Particularly him,' Ros said, looking him straight in the eye. 'Harry sweated blood to get you back here. He'd rather die than let anything ever happen to you.' So if you even dare to suggest that he deliberately let you rot away in that Russian prison, I'll make sure you're decommissioned this very minute.
That had been spot on, she guessed. Lucas bowed his head, clearly processing it all. Ros waited, half expecting to have to explain to Harry why she decommissioned one of his best officers within five minutes, but when Lucas looked up again, he had a teasing smile on his face. 'And how about the most ancient ones?'
Ros's gaze wandered over to Arthur, who was writing something down and then marched off towards Harry's office. Merlin just entered the Grid again, the girl still holding his hand. The warlock walked over to Connie's desk and started to discuss something. She knew what it was that Lucas was asking and she knew they were good at this job, both of them, however reluctant she was to admit it.
'Yes, them too.'
Lucas gave her that lopsided grin telling her everything was all right again. 'Colleagues are okay,' he confirmed. Then his eyes darted to the pods, that were just whooshing open, again. 'Although, on second thought…'
Ros's head swivelled in that direction immediately. Shit. Coming in, looking like he practically owned the place, was Richard Dolby, the real boss. Oh, shit.
Arthur was still trying to get over the fact that he had a sorcerer for a manservant, one who was apparently stupid enough to protect the son of the most magic-hating king the land had ever seen. Trust Merlin to do something that stupid. And he had a lot of questions, but they didn't seem that urgent anymore, not now they had established that nothing would really change. Merlin was still his clumsy, name-calling self. Arthur didn't know why, but somehow he had expected his servant to turn into an evil sorcerer, like all the others Arthur had ever encountered, the moment he found out about him. To now find that he hadn't was a very reassuring idea.
And he felt pleased with himself, for not flying off the handle with Merlin, but also for his own contribution to the operation. It had been a difficult one and Arthur had personally made sure one of those bombs would never go off. So now he walked over to Harry's office to ask him about some contact's name of Marlin's.
'Is he busy?' he asked Ben, who was just emerging from said office, in passing.
'No, you can go straight in,' he replied. 'No need to knock, Arthur.'
It was good to be treated as one of them, he pondered. He remembered once getting really angry with the knights for giving him special treatment. Well, that was one thing that didn't happen here. Sure, there were differences in status, but when it came down to it they were all colleagues and they all took risks, equal risks. Lucas was a senior officer, but he had been in as much potential danger as Jo, who was far less senior in rank. He really liked the idea of that. Maybe he should consider getting a round table of his own, like the one he had seen in the ruined castle more than a year ago.
He walked into Harry's office without knocking. 'Harry…'
He didn't get any further. The head of Section D looked up from what he was doing and slammed his hand on the table, making a stack of paper fall off and several cups and glasses rattle. 'Knock, people! Are you all suffering from amnesia?'
'I beg your pardon?' Arthur said indignantly. 'Ben said I could just go in…' Oh. It dawned on him then. It had been a joke, like the knights did with the new recruits to welcome them properly into their ranks. Well, that meant they were at least looking at him as one of their own.
Harry was about to say something, but was stopped from that by the arrival of Ros Myers. 'Problem, Harry,' she announced.
'I might start thinking about removing those doors, for all the good they seem to do,' Harry remarked sarcastically. 'What do you want, Rosalind?'
The woman pulled a face at the mention of her full name. 'Richard Dolby's here,' she reported bluntly. 'Lucas is trying to hold him up, but he'll be here soon.'
Harry groaned as Arthur frowned. 'Who is Richard Dolby?'
Ros's smile was about as sincere as Harry's love for politicians. 'Our boss,' she explained. 'And he's not pleased.'
The head of Section D got up. 'Let's go. You as well, Arthur.'
'Where are we going?' Running away from the frightening Richard Dolby, whoever that was?
'If I know Dolby, the Home Office.' Harry picked up his coat and marched out of his office, into the corridor, followed by Ros and Arthur.
They didn't need to go far. They were hardly out of the office before another man in suit and tie and with a positively furious expression on his face came walking, or rather storming, at them. 'Where the hell were you?' he demanded of Harry. 'An operation like that going down?'
'Working,' Harry replied evenly.
If he was hoping to calm the other man down, he was failing. 'Oh?' That tone reminded Arthur of the tone he always used when Merlin told him something he didn't believe. 'And you left her in charge?' Clearly he didn't think very highly of her, something Arthur did not quite understand. True, she wasn't easy to get along with, but she was a good officer and it was mostly thanks to her quick thinking that only one bomb had detonated.
Ros managed to smile at the arrogant prat, there really was no other word for it, even as her eyes looked daggers at him. 'Starting to understand how the cat's mother felt here.'
Dolby glared back at her.
'Our intelligence told us that this would be a dry run,' Harry clarified.
'Well, your intelligence was wrong!' Dolby pointed out and he seemed to take extreme pleasure in doing so, making Arthur dislike him almost immediately. Quite the achievement, because that didn't happen often. His attitude reminded the king of the Home Secretary, although Richard Dolby seemed to have perfected it.
'What happened?' Dolby practically barked at the head of the section.
'It's not clear.' Harry started to get annoyed now, too.
'We are going in to see the Home Secretary.' Dolby managed to make it sound like a threat. 'It's not clear won't cut it!' He was halfway to the exit before any of them could even react.
Ros raised her eyebrows. 'Charming.'
That about summed it up to perfection.
Richard Dolby looked all too pleased with their supposed failure when he described it in detail to the Home Secretary. Arthur felt like being the bad boy being called to the carpet by his stern father all over again. This was not so different and the fact that Dolby was practically glowing with satisfaction didn't do much to control Arthur's temper. He knew he had to keep it in check here, but Dolby was trying his self-control pretty hard.
And after Dolby had gotten the umpteenth detail completely wrong, he snapped. 'Do you even know what it is you are talking about?' he demanded. 'It's not as if you were actually there.'
Dolby looked like he was choking, while Harry quickly averted his head to prevent anyone from seeing him laugh. Arthur suspected Harry of wanting Arthur to do exactly this. Last time he had let him say pretty much everything he wanted to say as well. Well, that was okay with the king, because there was quite a lot he wanted to say to this spy boss.
'You don't have the right!' Dolby fumed.
That had been the wrong thing to say. 'I have every right,' he disagreed loudly. 'Because I was there, out in the field, while you were in your comfortable office warming your feet by the fire, doing absolutely nothing. Are you even aware that one of my colleagues risked his life undercover and that one CO19 officer died trying to prevent a disaster from taking place right under your arrogant nose? And now you sit here pouring scorn on everything we have done today. Good grief, had I been home you would have been thrown in the dungeons ages ago!'
He only realised he had said a bit too much when both Dolby and the Home Secretary started staring at him and Harry and Ros looked at him as if they were wishing him a slow and painful death. He guessed Jo would have said 'oops' in this kind of situation. Oops seemed to be quite fitting now.
'The point is,' he continued, hoping to talk his way out of this. 'We were out there, he wasn't, so why, Mr Blake, don't you let yourself being informed by the people who actually do know what they are talking about instead of people like him, who haven't been out in the field for ages?'
'I beg your pardon?' Dolby said indignantly.
'So, you were there, Mr Parker?' Nicholas Blake asked in a pleasant voice. His eyes, though, were wary. He had not yet forgotten what Arthur had said about dungeons.
But he could still pull this off. He had been in tight spots before and they had been a whole lot tighter than this one. And so he started telling what had really happened today, taking great pleasure himself in correcting the points were Dolby had been wrong. The spy boss pretended not to notice. Quite the contrary, by the time Arthur had concluded his tale he was looking as if his birthday had come early.
'So, let me summarise this,' he began. The tone in his voice alone was enough to give Arthur strange urges to challenge this man to a duel, or something equally stupid. Apparently he wasn't the only one. Ros's hands had clenched into fists as well, even though her facial expression was still perfectly polite. 'While the ultimate authority lies with the head of Section D, the operational running was of course handled by a senior security officer. So it would be unfair for any blame to be attached to Harry.' Arthur got the impression somehow Dolby had a great dislike for Ros. He had no idea where that was coming from, but he was sure it was unfair.
'Don't you also think he's referring to me there, Home Secretary?' Ros asked in a friendly voice.
'I think he might be,' Blake nodded.
'Ros…' Harry and Arthur shot each other a strange look as they realised they had spoken simultaneously.
'No, really, it's fine.' The way she said it strongly reminded Arthur of his own way of saying it, after which he would kindly list Merlin's many duties for the day. 'I was in charge of the operation. I don't have a problem with that. I don't expect gratitude.' Meaningful look at Dolby. 'And I certainly couldn't care less about people's opinion of me.' By the end of that speech Blake was trying to mask his amusement, Harry looked thoroughly pleased and Dolby looked like he had just swallowed something very sour.
'That has become increasingly apparent,' he remarked.
Ros looked at him again. 'So sack me. Get someone better to do the job.'
And Dolby remained silent.
That seemed to please Ros. 'You can't,' she concluded. 'So please let's stop wasting time trying to find scapegoats. Our enemy is smart and if this were easy it could be dealt with by the number ten press office, am I right?'
And Blake nodded, a real smile on his face this time. 'Which part of Harry did they use when the cloned you?' he wondered.
Arthur had no idea what cloning was, but at least it seemed to clear the air. All most every occupant of the room was smiling again, with one exception of course.
'One of our officers risked his life on an undercover operation and two people died,' Ros reported. 'I think we can live with a few bad write-ups or the supercilious smirk from the officer class.' That last line was of course directed at the boss. 'It won't be the last time Al-Qaeda will get one past us, but we'll be better prepared next time.'
As Nicholas Blake started nodding again, it became too much for Dolby. 'Home Secretary, I really must protest.'
'Against what?' Arthur knew he should have kept his mouth shut after his outburst just now. He had made one mistake and he couldn't afford to make another. But he couldn't remain silent either when that man started picking on a defenceless woman. Okay, so he knew Ros wasn't defenceless, but he was raised to stand up for the ladies when they were assaulted, whether it was physically or verbally. And Dolby was definitely doing the latter. 'Against us doing our job or against Ros doing her job? What is it that you hate so much about her anyway?'
That caused a few jaws to drop, including Ros's. Unfortunately Dolby's wasn't among them. 'I think you are forgetting yourself, Mr Parker. I am your superior officer and…'
This wasn't smart. This really wasn't smart and yet the words left his mouth without him giving them permission to do so. 'No, you're not.'
Ros and Harry seemed to have stopped breathing. 'Aidan, sit down,' Harry hissed.
He had no idea when he had ended up on his feet and to be quite honest, he didn't care. This man was deliberately targeting Ros and he wouldn't stand for it, neither as king nor colleague. And if he needed to reveal his identity in order to stop Dolby from undermining a perfectly capable officer, whose efforts had made sure three bombs had not gone off, then that was what he would do.
'That's not my name,' he heard himself say. 'My name is Arthur Pendragon. I am the king of Camelot and I do not answer to the likes of you, who sit back and do nothing while their kingdom is in danger, only to undermine the people who did the dirty work after the job is done.'
It became silent after that announcement. Very silent. Everyone stared at him and not in a good way. Arthur was almost grateful when his phone started singing something about "we are the champions" which, according to Lucas, meant someone was calling him. And thanks to his study of the manual he knew exactly how to deal with that.
With all those present still staring at him, Arthur dug his phone out of the pocket of his trousers and studied the display. Merlin calling. Somehow he didn't think it would be a social call.
'Arthur Pendragon speaking,' he said after pressing the right button (the green one, not the red). He had heard his new colleagues do it. Hopefully he would do this right, since this was the first time he had a conversation on the phone himself.
'It's Merlin,' his manservant said.
He hesitated for a moment before acknowledging his friend, but the secret was out now. He might as well do it thoroughly. 'Merlin, what's the problem this time?' Because that was the only reason people ever called around here, wasn't it? To report problems.
And as soon as Merlin answered that question, he started wishing he had never picked up the phone in the first place. 'Morgana,' Merlin replied.