The meeting room was deathly quiet again, but Merlin had no illusions. As soon as the meeting would start, this room would soon be filled with the sound of raised voices and slamming fists on the table. All it took for it to start was Harry's arrival. Right now the head of the section was still in his office, trying to calm a very upset American official who was under the impression that MI-5 had just accused his country of working together with Al Qaeda. Harry of course denied this, but Arthur's a little too innocent expression told Merlin all he needed to know.
But Arthur's threats against another kingdom were the very least of Merlin's worries. Because he had been in the surveillance van that should have been overseeing Lucas's meeting with Morgana. But, as he already feared, the Senior Case Officer had shaken them off his trail and he had disappeared into the chaos that was the London traffic. Merlin had barely been able to bite back the I told you so that was dying to come out, but he had the feeling that Ben Kaplan would not be too pleased to hear that. The young man was on Merlin's side in this matter, the warlock knew that, but he was reluctantly so. He had worked together with Lucas and felt like the other man had watched his back in the Al Qaeda operation. Merlin supposed he could go easy on him just this once. After all, he knew how difficult it was when someone you considered a friend turned on you. He had seen it with Morgana and it had very nearly broken his heart.
It had not come as a big surprise however that they had tracked Lucas's vehicle to a huge parking lot, abandoned. Soon the surveillance they had put on the park where Arthur was supposed to have his meeting reported the arrival of a small van with three people on the inside. They all remained inside until almost a quarter to three, when the van had left. Merlin and Ben, who had waited with Lucas's car, had seen that same van dropping off a wholly unconcerned looking Lucas North a quarter of an hour later.
There was no doubt left in Merlin's mind. Lucas had gone to the park with Hogan and Morgana in an attempt to snatch Arthur off the street to do God knows what to him. He had never been so grateful for Harry's suspicious spooks nature that had urged him to hold the meeting in another place. It had quite possibly saved Arthur's life.
What he had not expected was for Lucas to just turn up at Thames House as if nothing untoward had happened. He had walked through the pods, greeted a flabbergasted Jo and had walked on to the kitchen to make himself a coffee. But by the time that he had emerged again and Ros and Arthur were back on the Grid as well everyone had recovered from their surprise and Harry's commander yell had made them all but run for the meeting room.
And there they were sitting now, waiting until Harry had smoothed some foreign official's ruffled feathers. The silence in the meeting room was intense and in a way murderous. Most people were by now totally convinced of Lucas's betrayal, many of them wondering why he had even come back to this place, Merlin among them. Ros and Arthur were seated on either side of the Senior Case Officer. Their matching glares were possibly the only thing that kept the silence from breaking, the warlock observed. He had no idea Arthur was even capable of such cold behaviour. Merlin had always believed him to be stern, but honest and compassionate. But there was no compassion in his eyes today.
Lucas was distressed. There was sweat on his forehead and his fists kept clenching and unclenching just within Merlin's line of sight. The face was hidden behind the expressionless mask, but the eyes betrayed a restlessness that made it perfectly clear to everyone with a brain that Lucas was fully aware that they knew what had just happened.
He had to give up his analysis of the occupants of the room when Harry literally marched into the room, slamming some files on the table with so much force that one of the cups fell from the edge of the table. Only Jo's timely interference could save it from a collision with the ground.
'Explain!' the head of the section demanded.
'What is there to explain?' Lucas asked wearily. 'You sent me in with false information. I think that it is you that needs to do the explaining here today, Harry.' The tone became angrier now.
'You would have handed Arthur to them on a silver platter!' Harry's voice rose to a shout. 'What the hell did you think you were doing?'
The weariness disappeared from his features entirely, making way for unadulterated fury. 'You gave me the information Morgana needed. You all but commanded me to act on it. Why else would you conveniently have dropped that piece of information while I was still in the room?' Sometime during this speech Lucas had ended up on his feet, pointing his finger at Harry's chest. There was something very threatening about this situation. 'You knew she still required me to show my loyalty to her. You knew I would have to act on your information.' He turned away from the table, pacing the meeting room, rubbing his chin, too restless to remain in one place. 'Why did you do it, Harry? Morgana doesn't believe me anymore. You almost made me blow my cover with this.'
That's what you like to make us think. True, it all sounded very plausible, but Merlin closed his ears to the logic of his reasoning. The moment he let himself see Lucas's point he would be in danger of starting to doubt the man's loyalties to Morgana and then Arthur would surely be in great danger. And that was something he would never let happen.
Harry, to the warlock's surprise, leaned back in his chair. 'That's an interesting way to look at this,' he observed in a mock admiring tone. 'You would have handed Arthur to Morgana in order to gain her trust in you?'
'Yes,' Lucas admitted. He had come to a halt near the wall and let himself lean against it, seemingly exhausted.
'Explain to me how that works,' Harry commanded. 'You would give Morgana the person we were trying to keep out of her grasp in the first place in order to gain her trust, to convince her you are on her side…'
'In order to bring her down,' Lucas interjected.
This earned him a disbelieving snort from his boss and half of the rest of the team. 'This is actually pretty good,' Harry said. 'Come on, Lucas, amaze me once again with your ability to talk your way out of this.'
If that was a challenge, Lucas was fully prepared to meet it. The traitor folded his arms across his chest and stared at Harry. 'I would have given her Arthur, then she would have trusted me. She might have done that today if you had not been so keen on double-crossing me.'
Harry ignored the accusation. 'And in what universe would I ever have agreed to let you take Arthur Pendragon to Morgana to do with as she pleased?'
Lucas's eyes sparked with rage. 'A universe where you still trusted me to keep him safe.' A fist came slamming down on the table and it wasn't Harry's. 'What the hell did you think, Harry? That I was going to let her tear him limb from limb in order to gain the intelligence we are looking for?'
That was exactly what Merlin was thinking anyway. He had to admit that Lucas really did a good job of pointing out his "side of the story", but the fact remained that he had actively tried to abduct the man Merlin had sworn to protect. Actions spoke louder than words. It was a lesson that Merlin had been forced to learn the hard way. In the past he had let himself be blinded by words and smiles and thus he had put the kingdom in terrible danger, because he had recognised the danger too late. The Lady Catrina, aka the troll, had been a fine example of that. It was a mistake he would not make again, not with Arthur's life on the line.
Harry too now was on his feet, staring at his officer in sheer disbelief. 'You're off the case,' he announced.
He could as well have physically hit Lucas for all the effect that it had. The spook staggered back, shock evident on his face. 'You can't do that, Harry!' he exclaimed.
'You are too vulnerable to pull off this operation.' Harry's tone was harsh, but there was still a fatherly concern audible in it, something that worried Merlin. He knew that the head of the section would not allow Lucas to continue with the operation, but that was not enough for Merlin. He could tell the boss was not about to kick Lucas out of this Section for his treason, blaming his actions on some kind of vulnerability caused by his imprisonment in that country they called Russia. Lucas would be allowed to remain here, right on the Grid. Heaven knew what damage he could still cause then. Harry's misguided loyalty towards Lucas was clouding his judgement and with that he was putting Arthur right in the line of danger, even if the king was not willing to see it that way.
'You're afraid I've gone through Traitor's Gate,' Lucas accused him.
Harry kept his head down, ordering some of the files in front of him.
That of course was answer enough. 'God, Harry, at least say it to my face.' Lucas turned around and resumed his pacing. 'You're thinking it, aren't you? All of you.'
This questioning of his loyalty spurred Arthur into action, as Merlin had half suspected it would. Arthur was a good king, but far too trusting for his own good, in this case bordering on naivety. 'That's not true!' he protested loudly.
Harry's groan told the warlock all he needed to know about what he thought of this interference. Why couldn't Arthur just keep his mouth shut on occasions like this?
But Arthur in anger was an almost unstoppable force. 'I say we should continue with the operation,' he declared. When that earned him more than one incredulous look, he added: 'We're closer to Morgana than we have been ever before. To stop now would be the biggest mistake we could possibly make.' Only Ros and Lucas nodded, but that was no surprise either. Merlin did wonder why the Section Chief was still in favour of the operation, though. He didn't think she was a traitor and last time he checked she seemed to be in her right mind, so why she would support such a dangerous operation was beyond him. Arthur's behaviour he could blame on naivety, but Ros was bordering on paranoid at the best of times. She of all people should see Merlin's point in this.
Harry's fist came down on the table again. 'You would offer yourself up to that witch willingly?' he demanded sarcastically.
'Yes, if that was what it took.' The response was immediate, without as much of a hint of hesitation.
This scared Merlin. He knew his king, self-sacrificing dollophead that he was. He had made up his mind on this. As long as he thought it was safe enough – which he now believed it was – he would go to Morgana like a lamb to slaughter, to save innocent lives. Merlin had seen it before. Arthur believed it to be his duty to protect his people first and foremost. Now they had a chance to deal with Morgana once and for all, or so the king believed, and he was not giving up on that plan. It was as infuriating as it was predictable.
Harry's eyes widened. 'Do you have some kind of bloody death wish you may have forgotten to inform us about?'
Arthur snorted. 'Lucas will keep me alive,' he stated. His icy gaze challenged the head of Section D to contradict him.
'No.' The refusal was simple and Merlin let out a breath he didn't really realising he had been holding at all. Even when he knew Harry would never allow this, he had been half expecting him to go with it.
'Why not?' Arthur demanded. 'What else are we going to do? Morgana isn't someone we can catch by conventional means.'
'We'll find something,' Harry said dismissively. 'But I am not about to let one of my officers out into the field to be handed over to that bloody witch for slaughter.'
Arthur's voice rose as well as he jumped to his feet. 'I am not one of your officers to command as you see fit,' he growled. 'I am the king of Camelot and you will listen to me.'
That was a dangerous tone and Merlin knew it. He had been on the receiving end more than once. And he stepped in. 'Arthur, Morgana will kill you given the chance. Not even Lucas can stand a chance against her.' Even if he would want to, which Merlin seriously doubted. But Arthur's temper was already running low and he wouldn't want to rile the king any more.
But it would seem he had done that anyway. 'You are the only one who can adequately protect me, is that what you mean to say?'
The honest answer to that question of course would be yes. Morgana was a powerful witch, more powerful than even Arthur was aware of, and she was growing stronger still. He had fought her, had felt the strength of her spells and it had scared him, more than he was prepared to share with anyone. He had bested her, that much was true, but it had taken a toll on him. Part of that may be blamed on him being in his Dragoon disguise, but not all of it. She was strong and Merlin knew normal weapons would be little use in fighting her. It would be his task, his destiny, to finish her.
His silence was all the confirmation Arthur needed. 'Outside,' he ordered.
'What?' Harry asked.
Arthur's stare was deadly. 'I need to have a word with Merlin in private.'
Uh oh. This was bad news, Merlin knew that. Something about what he had said or done had angered Arthur. He nodded and exited the meeting room, following the king to his desk. It wasn't like him to do so without protest, but felt it would be wiser not to make a fuss of something so small.
Something had changed between them, maybe even forever. It had begun with the revelation of his magic. They were no longer just master and servant, even though that aspect was still there. They were also equals in some respects and that meant that Merlin's opinion was just as valuable as Arthur's. Merlin had thought that would lead to their friendship becoming stronger, which would give him far better opportunities to protect Arthur. As it turned out the opposite had become true. This operation had driven them apart until they were where they were now.
'What do you think you're doing, Merlin?' Arthur demanded once they were out of earshot of the team.
There were no chores to hide behind, as he usually did whenever Arthur was mad at him, so he settled for the honest answer. 'Protecting you.'
'Did I actually ask you to be my protector, Merlin?' The tone was downright venomous. Had they been spoken in any other tone they might just have been exchanging witticisms. But they were definitely not keeping up their usual banter here. This was a king demanding answers. 'Did I even do half of the things you told me I did or was that you as well, eliminating the danger while I was conveniently unconscious?' Arthur must have been doing a lot of thinking lately and while this meant that he had figured out a lot of things that happened, it didn't necessarily mean Arthur liked this.
'It was necessary.' He was painfully aware of how stiff the words sounded.
And so was Arthur. 'Necessary?' he echoed. 'Like it is necessary for you to treat Lucas like a common criminal?'
'Arthur, you have to see!' he pleaded. 'He is dangerous!'
But warning Arthur in this case was just as useful as trying to tell him about first Morgana's and now Agravaine's treason. The king wouldn't hear of it. He had faith in Lucas and only when he saw their betrayal with his own eyes would he see the truth. But by then it might be far too late already.
Arthur's eyes flashed in a very dangerous manner. 'Don't you dare, Merlin,' he warned the servant in a way not unlike Lucas had spoken in the meeting room.
'But…' he tried.
Arthur cut him off. 'No, don't you dare. I won't hear of it. This isn't the first time you've mistrusted a person the first time you as much laid eyes on them and I won't have it anymore.'
Arthur had actually noticed that? 'You…' he stammered.
'I am not blind, Merlin, and I have had some time to think some things over the last couple of days.' The king's eyes were narrowed in suspicion. 'And don't think I haven't noticed that these persons you distrust always seem to disappear in a very mysterious manner. So don't even so much as think about touching Lucas.'
That was the last straw, Merlin guessed. He snapped. 'What else am I supposed to do?' he yelled. 'Am I supposed to sit back and watch while Morgana gets her hands on you? I'm meant to protect you!' Surely Arthur must see that too.
But Arthur obviously didn't. 'You are saying I should trust you to do the dirty work for me?'
'Not exactly like that…' Merlin hesitated, knowing how much Arthur hated the special treatment.
'But that is exactly what it is, isn't it?' Arthur questioned. 'Because that is what you have always done, isn't that right, Merlin? You've gone behind my back, using magic to keep me safe from God knows what and it never even crossed your mind to trust me with that knowledge?'
'I was scared!' Merlin heard how frightened he sounded now. This was it, this was what he had feared for so long. The fear had subsided a little when Arthur had seemed to accept his magic without question after the Al Qaeda operation, had even encouraged him to use it. There had been no hurt feelings, no anger, no betrayal. But they were here now and the panic flooded back in, trying to overwhelm him.
Arthur didn't seem to notice. He was still in the grasp of his full-blown temper tantrum. 'You have no idea, do you, Merlin? You have no idea how suffocating it is, you doing all the work while I am hiding behind you. Good grief, I didn't even know you were acting like a glorified shield until I started to think it over! And what have you even done that I don't even know about? How many have you killed with your magic?'
That was one question Merlin could tell the king wanted answered. It was only one of the few questions that the warlock was not prepared to answer. Unfortunately Arthur seemed determined to hurl all those questions at him in the span of the last quarter of an hour. 'I…' he began, unsure of how to proceed.
But there was no need to. Arthur had reached his own conclusions. 'This makes me sick,' he muttered. 'This actually makes me want to throw up right here and now. Who do you even think you are? Do you think it is all right for you to just go ahead and kill everyone you think will be a threat to me?'
Yes. That however would be a most unwise thing to say. 'Arthur, you don't understand…'
The addressed man however refused to listen. 'I understand far more than you think!' he snarled, something Merlin had never ever heard him do before. 'And I know you don't trust Lucas on this operation, but I do. And I am telling you right here and now, as your king, that you will stay away from him. If you can't bring yourself to trust the man who was the first one to believe in us, who helped us in this unfamiliar time and place, you can sit back and wait until you're called for. I have no need of you right now.'
Every word felt like a blow to the heart. He shivered, staring up at the person who was supposed to be the other side of his coin. Arthur couldn't really do this, could he? 'Arthur, please,' he begged, one last attempt to get him to understand.
'Unless you plan to end with an apology, I really do not want to hear it.' This Arthur reminded Merlin strongly of the arrogant and proud prince Merlin had met all those years ago.
'You've got to see what he is really like, Arthur!' he exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air in desperation. 'He agreed to hand you over to Morgana. You can't trust him!'
'Enough!' Arthur bellowed, probably loud enough to be audible in the meeting room. 'Get out of my sight, Merlin.'
'That is an order.'
The words hurt like nothing else had ever hurt him. All he had ever done was try to keep Arthur safe from his many enemies. He had never meant for this to happen. He had never even considered that this could happen, because he had long since accepted that he would always be at Arthur's side. They were friends, best friends, even though Arthur had yet to acknowledge that. Right now however he doubted that would ever happen. Right now their friendship had just been smashed to pieces, broken beyond repair.
And so he obeyed.
These sleepless nights were becoming a habit, Arthur observed as he sipped from his coffee. The clock on the wall told him that it was at least still two hours before the first officer would show up on the Grid, but Arthur's body refused to act on that knowledge and go back to sleep. He was awake now and the thoughts were running around his head like a treadmill spinning wildly out of control.
The Grid was strangely empty. There were no officers and the absence of the usual buzz of working machinery somehow started to bother the king of Camelot. It was too silent. In Camelot this was normal, but in London it wasn't and in the last few days he had become used to always hearing something.
Right now he was not only wide awake, but also frustrated to no end. He was still practically locked up in Thames House, the only place where Morgana could neither see nor abduct him. Merlin had done some more mysterious spells that made his eyes turn flaming gold and the building impenetrable with magic. Apparently that also meant that no sorcerer could possibly appear magically inside. Arthur had to agree, albeit reluctantly, that it would make sense to keep him here until they had caught Morgana, but the restrictions of his movements started to really bother him.
And then there was of course Merlin's strange behaviour. Arthur had been thinking about that one long and hard. He had always known that Merlin was strangely protective of him, but until recently he blamed that on their unacknowledged friendship. But now he knew better. Merlin protected him because he was destined to do so. Even worse, Merlin had killed people, with magic, to protect Arthur. The very thought made the king sick to his stomach.
So yes, he would not deny that he himself had on occasion been guilty of killing other people, mainly bandits and evil sorcerers, to keep his people safe. He was a warrior after all and he was, as he had once told Merlin, trained to kill since birth. It was another matter entirely to know that these things were also done by his gentle servant.
But how well did he know Merlin really? There were so many sides to him that Arthur had never seen before and it scared him. He didn't even know how real his friendship with the younger man had been. What if Merlin only acted like that because he had to be at Arthur's side because of some stupid destiny Arthur himself had never even heard about?
All these questions had kept him up till late and made him wake early, secretly grateful to have the place to himself for once. He had stayed again in one of the rooms close to the Grid while the rest of the team headed home. Merlin had gone with Jo, he thought, but he couldn't really bring himself to care. For now the absence of his servant was a blessing rather than a nuisance. If the younger man kept this behaviour up Arthur may yet be converted to Lucas's view on friends.
And speaking of the devil. The pods made the by now familiar whooshing sound and let in a bleary-eyed Lucas North. The spook looked as if he hadn't slept at all, which may not have been far off the mark. Arthur knew of the man's insomnia and nightmares and with such stress as he had to deal with, it was not strange if sleep eluded him. Arthur was experiencing a similar problem at the moment.
'Morning,' he called out.
Lucas had been making a beeline for his desk, but changed directions towards the kitchen join Arthur. 'Morning,' he greeted. 'Or should I say good night still?' He conjured up a smile that was close to the one he had smiled before this whole mess had begun.
'Morning will do,' Arthur replied. 'Coffee?'
Lucas nodded. 'Why aren't you doing a beauty sleep?'
'Same reason why you aren't, I suppose.' The king handed him a steaming mug of coffee. 'Thinking about the operation,' he clarified, before grimacing. 'Or rather the lack of an operation.'
Lucas studied his face. 'You said you trusted me, back in the meeting room. Why?'
Arthur shrugged. He couldn't really put a name to it. He just had this feeling that the other man was trustworthy. But, as Ros had so eloquently phrased it, the Service didn't base its decisions on the feelings of its officers, so he repeated the explanation he had also given to the Section Chief. 'You spent eight years in prison without betraying your kingdom. It would be strange for you to do it on practically your first operation after all that.'
Lucas gave him a wry smile in reply. 'Some would consider it the very reason why I would be vulnerable to Morgana.'
Arthur knew that. He had heard the talk on the Grid. And maybe it was a good reason why anyone would turn traitor, anyone but this man he was now talking to. He had a stronger sense of loyalty than even Arthur had. For this man to betray his team, his home would be beyond ridiculous and it would be about time that Harry started seeing it as well. Right now, the head of Section D was behaving like a headless chicken, something he may have let slip in passing the other night. It hadn't been very much appreciated.
The king threw his spoon back on the counter with more force than strictly necessary. The whole turn of events was frustrating him more and more by the minute. 'We were so close to getting to Morgana,' he growled. 'If only Harry would allow us to go in there under the pretence of you handing me to her…' He let his voice trail off.
Lucas merely sipped his coffee, staring towards the Grid, lost in thought. Arthur wondered if he had even heard him talk. But that didn't really matter anyway, because the king of Camelot just had an idea. It was a foolish, reckless idea. Some might even call it suicidal. But it was a plan all the same.
'We could still do it,' he muttered thoughtfully.
It must have been the tone that snapped Lucas out of his musings. After all, it was very unlikely for Arthur to talk in that manner. 'Do what?' he questioned.
'Go to Morgana together,' he clarified, realising he had not been very clear just now. 'We don't ask for permission. We'll just do it.'
The spook stared at him as if he had just lost his mind. 'Didn't you hear Harry at all? He explicitly forbade us from going.'
Arthur snorted. 'I am the king of Camelot,' he reminded the other. 'Harry Pearce is not really in the position to command me to do anything. And I am coming willingly.'
It was silent for a while. Lucas was rubbing his chin absent-mindedly and Arthur let him think it over for a while. After all, he was asking him to risk a lot. He had no illusions that if they did this, they would not only break every rule in existence, but they would also place themselves in enormous danger without having the luxury of back-up. Suicidal, as some might say.
But it was also a chance, a chance of finally catching and killing Morgana. It was Arthur's duty to do that. No matter how much he struggled with his feelings of regret over her turning evil, no matter how much he wished for her to see reason and repent her crimes, she had also caused so much damage already. Arthur vividly recalled her reign of terror in that short time she had held the throne. And it were no longer only the citizens of Camelot at risk here. The station bombing had claimed forty-one lives so far. It was his duty to stop her from creating any more carnage and it was for sure that Harry's approach would never do the trick.
'If this goes wrongly, Harry will have both our heads,' Lucas pointed out eventually. He was still looking right ahead, not meeting Arthur's gaze.
If this goes wrongly, they'll be collecting bits of us to bury. But Lucas would know that as well. He had been in this job far longer than Arthur could ever hope to be. 'I am prepared to take that risk.'
The spook nodded slowly, finally turning to look at the king. There was a thoughtful look in his eyes. No doubt he was already planning what to do. Merlin had the exact same twinkle in his gaze whenever he was plotting something rather illegal. 'Give me a few minutes to prepare,' he said.
Arthur nodded. He felt a little nervous, although he would never admit to that when called on it. But the nerves were drowned out by the excitement that was taking over his system. It was the thrill of the danger and knowing that he was doing something that would surely earn him a stay in the basement holding cells of Thames House if anyone was to find out what they were planning before they were well on their way.
He downed the last remnants of his coffee quickly and quickly scribbled a note for the first one to come across his desk. This mission was secret for now, but by the time the team would start arriving it would be too late to stop them anyway. He might as well stop them from worrying.
A few desks away Lucas was doing something similar, Arthur supposed. He was laying something on Ros's desk and then came over to where Arthur was waiting, a small bag in his hand. 'Ready?'
Arthur ignored that treacherous voice in the back of his head saying that he was everything but ready and nodded. 'Ready.'
Without another word they left the Grid, taking the stairs down to the abandoned car park. Somehow the complete absence of people made the nerves worse and he was glad there was no need for them to keep up some kind of conversation.
'When we leave this building we will become visible to Morgana's visions,' Lucas suddenly said as they walked over to the big black car they were apparently going to use.
Arthur nodded thoughtfully, feeling stupid for not having thought of this before now. 'You will need to tie me up or something to make it look believable or she will suspect something is off,' he agreed. 'She knows I trust you, but still.'
He stopped when Lucas came to a halt as well. 'You're right,' the spook nodded. He produced an apologetic smile. 'I am really sorry about doing this.'
Doing what? Arthur meant to ask, but he was distracted by a stinging sensation on his right hand. He looked down, just in time to see a needle being removed from his flesh. 'What…?'
He wasn't capable of saying anything else. His world swam out of focus and he knew no more.