Ros was torn between being relieved and being livid. On one hand they had succeeded in getting to Lucas and rescuing him from Morgana. It had been in the nick of time and Lucas was definitely not out of the woods yet. The Section Chief had turned to Merlin to demand an explanation, but he had met her eyes with a blank expression. Clearly being the most powerful warlock in existence didn't know everything there was to know about magic. It was hardly a surprise – by now Ros started to wonder if there even was something Merlin did excel in – but she had to admit, if only to herself, that it was a disappointment.
But feeling anger was easier and something she definitely knew how to do. Morgana had gotten away. Again. She had been injured and more or less powerless and she still got away. And this time she could not even reasonably blame Merlin for that disaster. Both of them had done whatever necessary, but when things became too difficult for Morgana, she just stormed out. Literally.
Ros Myers had never been a great fan of magic, but she found herself liking it less and less by the second. In her opinion it caused more problems than it helped solve. She told herself that she did not base that opinion on Merlin's uselessness, but she had a feeling that was not quite honest.
But at least Morgana had disappeared and they had Lucas back. That would have to do for now. With some luck they had seen the last of that bloody witch now and things would get back to normal. Arthur and Merlin would go back to Camelot and Morgana would be their problem. Hogan had been arrested and, if Ros had a say in the matter, that man would never see daylight again. Morgana had lost her ally in Britain and would hopefully back down.
Ten to one that was how the politicians would look at it. Ros could not even fully blame them for thinking like that. Morgana did no longer pose a threat to national security and that would be the end of it. She might end up on the terror watch list, but that was as far as it would go.
It was also one hundred percent certain that Harry was not going to leave it at this. The witch had made sure of that the moment she had laid hands on Lucas and the current state of the Senior Case Officer was unlikely to sway his mind. Ros remembered all too well how Harry had taken Adam's death and if Morgana would be "let off" as easily as Arkady Kachimov, then she was lucky.
And Ros found herself sharing the sentiment. She had no idea what that woman had done to her colleague, but something told her it had not been a nice get-together with tea and biscuit. Lucas was still unconscious and felt like he had a fever. Colleagues are okay, they had agreed. And Ros did not deem herself worthy of that okay until she had taken care of Morgana. And if it was up to her she would make that bullet look like a walk in the park to her.
Harry had kept up a sotto voce stream of curses through the earpiece stuffed in her right ear ever since she had first reported that they had found Lucas, but that Morgana had fled again. The Section Chief could all too easily picture her boss jump out of the surveillance van at a moment's notice, marching down to the hovel without as much as checking if the environment was even safe. Lucas may not realise it, but Harry's guilt over his imprisonment in Russia was enormous. And it had only been growing because of his failure to recognise Lucas's attempts to prove himself for what they were.
'Have you been able to find anything?' Ros snapped at the now-young-again warlock, who was examining Lucas's condition, trying and failing to make it look like he knew what he was doing.
Merlin seemed to be carrying the weight of the world around on his shoulders ever since he had first realised that he had been completely wrong about where Lucas's loyalties truly lay. It seemed to have increased when he saw what had been done to him. 'Nothing at all,' he replied, sounding very much like he wished that he had an answer. 'If we could get him to Gaius, he might know…' It sounded doubtful.
And Ros didn't have the time for this. 'Who the hell is Gaius?' she demanded. She had heard the name a few times before, but had not really paid it any mind at the time, because it had not been relevant to the operation. To be quite honest, she had mostly blocked out the warlock's happy chatter with Jo.
'He's the court physician.' Merlin started to look enthusiastic about his own idea. 'And he does have a lot of experience in dealing with magical damage.'
A lot more than you then. The snappy remark was already on her tongue, but she bit it back. Their failure to get their hands on Morgana was not his fault today and it would not be fair to take her own anger out on him. Not that she let herself be led by whether things were fair or not and she knew that Jo would have made sure that Merlin knew every sodding blot on her copybook, effectively assuring that he already expected the worst of her. Ros could not care less about his opinion, but bickering would cost them time and she was in no hurry to gamble with Lucas's life.
'And you can't come up with anything at all?' Ros found that hard to believe, especially from someone who was supposed to be an expert on magic.
Merlin looked a bit hesitant. 'Well, it looks like he's been bitten by some kind of snake…' His voice trailed off again.
It took Ros about three steps to march across the room and see the bite marks Merlin now pointed out to her. At first they weren't too obvious, certainly not the ones that were positioned on the skin that was already tattooed. But once she got a closer look she could see the marks all over his upper body and neck. 'What the bloody hell is that supposed to mean?' she growled.
Merlin did not get the chance to answer. Harry and Arthur came barging into the hovel, the king still in full Camelot armour. Over the last few days Ros had become used to his twenty-first century attire. Seeing him back in the local fashion made her realise that this definitely suited him better. At the very least it made him look more like a king instead of the loud-mouthed idiot she had believed him to be until quite recently.
It was hard to determine which one of the two was looking more anxious: the king or the head of Section D. Harry's eyes darted to Lucas, who they had carried over to Morgana's bed, since the owner of said bed had done a runner, and Arthur marched over to see it all for himself.
'How is he?' Harry demanded.
'Alive.' And that was the best that could be said of Lucas's current condition. Ros would feel easier if they could just get him to a hospital and have him checked out, but she would have to admit that it would be a hell of a job to get an ambulance here. But even if they would get him to a doctor, they had no idea what had even been done to the Senior Case Officer, and Ros doubted doctors would know how to treat magical injuries. Because she was convinced that whatever it was that Morgana had done to her colleague was not entirely natural. She corrected herself. There was no bloody way Morgana had done something natural.
Harry gave her a curt nod. 'What has she done to him?'
'Some bloody snake seemed to have used him as a chewing toy,' she reported, frustrated to no end that she had not something more substantial to go on. Ros liked to deal in facts, not in vague could bes. 'Merlin is convinced that it is magical.' She uttered that last word with all the loathing she could muster and she did not think this had passed Merlin by. He could be intelligent when he put his mind to it.
Harry's face predicted storm for the next couple of months. Ros was almost surprised when she didn't hear the thunder outside. 'Has anything been done to find said sodding snake?' he barked.
Ros knew that she could have come up with that notion herself and she gave herself a good mental scolding for not having done so. 'We've only found this out ourselves,' she replied. If her tone was a little more snappy than usual – even if some people in Thames House whispered that snappy was Ros's default setting – then that was purely coincidental. 'Arthur, take the left.' She would rectify that error here and now. 'Merlin, right.'
'But…' The warlock looked like he was about to protest her orders again. 'Shouldn't I try to find something?'
Ros gave him a sceptical look. 'And that would be because you've been doing such a splendid job of treating him so far?'
He at least had the decency to look a little ashamed, but apparently he was not yet quite done contradicting her. 'We should get him to Camelot,' he spoke up. 'Gaius might know what happened to him.'
Ros had no idea who Gaius was, but there were more ways to skin a cat. 'Or we could just ask Hogan,' she chimed in. Expert on magic or not, she was not about to place all her trust in medieval healing methods that were centuries out of date. 'He was rather close to Morgana. We might get her methods out of him. With some persuasion.' And she would not care at all if her methods of persuasion were a little less gentle than the cup of coffee she had already thrown into his lap.
Merlin sent her a filthy look that she pretended not to see. She really could not care less about what he thought of her. And it was his fault they had to deal with this situation in the first place, so she owed him nothing. And she was not even convinced Merlin was even prepared to go to the extremes for Lucas. For all she knew this was still his way of trying to get back into Arthur's good books.
'Your doctors know nothing about what Morgana has done to him,' the warlock pointed out.
He really made it too easy for her to counter that. 'Neither do you,' she snapped. Right now she did not have the patience for this. They were wasting time here. Lucas was still lying far too still and his face was paler than was healthy. He had relied on them to get him out of this bloody hovel and he still needed them to save his life.
'Ros, Harry.' Arthur had been examining some cupboard at the far left end of this house – even when house sounded like an awful big word for such a leaking shack. 'I think I've found the snake.'
Ros gave Merlin another filthy look and then all but ran over to the box the king of Camelot was holding. Harry followed behind and Merlin trailed after them like an eager puppy wanting to prove himself. Come to think of it, that could be exactly what he was doing. Arthur and Merlin had clearly fallen out over this entire operation. Ros had kept her distance from the petty bickering when they had been at it. She had other and better things to concern herself with. But it was pretty obvious that Merlin had taken this entire argument far too seriously.
The roof was leaking in this part. It had rained last night and since housekeeping wasn't very high on Morgana's sodding list of priorities, there wasn't even as much as a pan or bucket underneath the leak. Ros stood right under it and she moved aside as soon as she felt the drops. Water torture had been a part of Yalta's recruitment policy. She could still vividly recall those hours of being tied to that bloody chair in that half dark room with the water steadily dropping down on her forehead till she thought she'd run mad. Combined with the almost drowning experience on the Thames Barrier a few years previously, Ros had developed something of a dislike for water in general.
It was only when she stepped away from the leaking spot that she realised that the chains were hanging right above her head. Lucas had been held here. Right under the bloody leak. And his experiences with water in Russia had been far worse than Ros's own. She wondered if Morgana had known before she decided to chain her colleague up here, but if Arthur's tale about Lucas freaking out over rain drops hitting his face, then she would have found out soon anyway. It made Ros's blood boil. If anything it strengthened her resolve to find Morgana and finish this. The Home Secretary and Richard Dolby could go to hell for all she cared. If necessary she would make this a one woman operation. She had never been one to live by the rules anyway, her involvement with Yalta and her father's intended coup being proof enough of that.
'Harry, the roof.' Ros hated the fact that she seemed to have lost the ability to speak any louder than in a whisper.
But the head of Section D understood. If that expression was anything to go by he knew exactly what she was talking about. His face started to resemble an overripe tomato. 'We will have revenge,' he vowed. The tone and words reminded Ros of that talk they had in the bar on the evening of Adam's death. She supposed Harry needed to do something to ease his guilt over not trusting Lucas on the operation and revenge on Morgana would, admittedly, be a good way to achieve that goal. That they would do so in the name of national security was only an added bonus.
Arthur nodded in understanding. Now the Section Chief knew for sure that he had spent too much time around Harry. Their expressions were remarkably similar. Merlin seemed a bit more confused, but no surprise there. As far as Ros knew that was his default setting. He had been confused about everything right from the moment he set foot in twenty-first century Britain. He had been confused about what had happened to him, he had been confused about the Al-Qaeda operation and he sure as hell had been confused about the latest operation. Or maybe was delusional a better word for it. Ros would not yet rule out that option.
But she could not care less about Merlin's delusional and confused state of mind right now. She had a colleague to save. Said colleague was still lying far too still on his tormentor's bed, barely breathing at all. In a way she supposed it would be a blessing for him not to be awake right now, but she would admit, if only to herself, that she would feel better if she could see him awake. This made him look almost if he was dead and the fact that he could still die did her mood no favours at all. 'What is it?' she barked at the king. It was little more snappy than usual and the Section Chief knew it was unprofessional, but for just this once she could not bring herself to care.
By way of a reply Arthur held open the box, revealing a relatively small snake that was slithering around on the bottom of the box. There wasn't really a doubt in Ros's mind that this was the creature that Morgana had unleashed on Lucas and she felt the urge to pick up her gun and shoot the sorry beast, but she doubted that would do anyone any good, Lucas least of all. If its poison was what had made Lucas scream in agony, then they might need to identify it before they could get rid of the source of said sodding poison.
Harry gave it half a glance, nodding that he had seen it, before he addressed Merlin. 'This Gaius,' he said. 'Can he treat Lucas?'
He'd better. Ros knew that it would be next to no good to transport Lucas to a regular hospital. She didn't think they'd know what to do with the snake and the pain it had caused Lucas. She looked over her shoulder to the motionless form on the bed. It was that she could see his chest rise and fall with his breathing or she would have believed him dead. But he was not well and there was just no telling what that blasted snake had done to him. No matter how much she disliked the necessity to let her colleague be treated by some medieval physician, there wasn't exactly a list of other options.
Merlin nodded, not a hint of doubt on his face. 'Yes.'
Harry gave another tentative nod. 'Then find me the quickest way to Camelot.'
It was one of the strangest things Merlin had ever done in his life, and that was saying something. Harry had dismissed CO19 and had sent Connie and Jo back with them. The rest of the team that still remained had been ushered into the surveillance van. They had no other means of transport and Lucas's condition was still critical. The forest roads were not made for the vehicle, especially not when Ros Myers took the wheel. That was normally sufficient to induce nausea. Right now, on the bumpy paths leading towards Camelot, her driving made the warlock want to throw up even more. But he knew better than to utter such thoughts. The Section Chief already was throwing him looks that told him she loathed him entirely and he could do without her snappy comments about the state of his stomach.
And he would have to admit that his own discomfort paled in comparison with what Lucas must be going through. The Senior Case Officer had not regained consciousness ever since they had first found him. Now he was lying in the back of the van, unmoving, barely breathing and burning up with a fever. And to the spook it must be a blessing to escape his pain by passing out, Merlin supposed.
He could still see the image of Lucas writhing in his bonds, screaming in pain at whatever unseen torment Morgana had inflicted upon him whenever he closed his eyes. It was an image that he was sure would haunt his mind and his dreams for many weeks to come. It wasn't made any better by the knowledge that it had been his failure in the barn that had put Lucas in this situation. Surely the man must hate him for that. And Merlin could not even blame him for thinking like that. He had probably deserved all of it.
And yet Lucas had smiled when he had recognised Ros. There had been relief in his eyes. Colleagues are okay, he had confirmed when Ros reminded him of it. And in a way Merlin was a colleague of the spook now as well. But the fact remained that only Ros and Arthur had kept their faith in him when it really came down to it. All the others, including Harry, had at one point or another believed that Lucas had turned to Morgana's side, and that was bound to hurt.
But the main priority would be to make sure that he survived. Everything else could wait. He had no illusions about Arthur's reaction to the demise of the man he had come to regard a dear friend, never mind Harry's. Those two could be disturbingly alike in their reactions towards the things they were passionate about. It would be a leader thing, Merlin supposed.
The head of Section D was in the back of the van with Lucas, watching over his officer with a worried expression on his face. Arthur was in the passenger seat, giving directions to Ros. The way his fists kept clenching and unclenching betrayed his anxiety, but whether that was a result of his worry over Lucas or his uneasiness over Ros's lack of driving skill was not clear.
'Can you not go faster?' came Harry's impatient voice from the back.
Ros's eyes never left the road as she replied, a fact for which Merlin was secretly grateful. 'I can't make it fly,' she snarled. 'And if I drive any faster we'll end up wrapped around one of these bloody trees.' Merlin immediately took her word for it. He however wasn't reassured that they at their current speed would not end up wrapped around a tree anyway.
'We're nearly there,' Arthur spoke up. 'Left, Ros.'
Whatever alliance those two had agreed upon, it was still holding, Merlin observed. They were the most unlikely allies imaginable, but it clearly worked. Ros would have bitten anyone's head off when they tried to give her commands and for Arthur to obey orders without question had to be a first as well.
And Merlin saw that the king had been right. They were indeed very close to Camelot now. The trees blocked the view, but when they reached the edge of the forest, the castle was clearly visible. Merlin had found it to be quite a sight when he had first arrived here, but Ros did not give it as much as a second glance as she followed Arthur's instructions and made her way to the main entrance of the town. At least the road was better here. Merlin's stomach was grateful for that at least.
Trouble didn't start until they entered the town properly. The guards posted at the gates were too shocked by the appearance of something that was so entirely alien to do something even approaching useful and the town's people at least had the good sense to jump out of the way as fast as they could to avoid being run over by the van. Ros did not show any signs of wanting to slow down, not with her colleague's life on the line. That woman's loyalty to her team was probably her redeeming quality, because so far Merlin had been unable to detect any other qualities people might like her for. Even Arthur was only allies with her because they shared a common aim.
The gate to the citadel was closed and several knights had been found to guard it. From up on the walls they must have seen the vehicle approach and because the knights of Camelot were not about to let a possibly dangerous thing into the city, they had decided to close the gate.
'Halt!' Merlin recognised Gwaine's voice. 'Who… what are you?'
'Tell him to open the bloody gate, will you?' Ros snapped at Arthur. The Section Chief didn't look like she was anxious, but her hands were gripping the steering wheel so tightly that her knuckles turned white. For all her Ice Queen behaviour, this woman really cared about her team.
Arthur nodded. Again there was not even a trace of irritation at being bossed about by the Section Chief. 'I'll take care of it,' he promised. Merlin did not even doubt that Arthur indeed would take care of things.
The king got out of the car, his red cloak billowing out behind him. Their scheme to lure out Morgana had demanded that Arthur would once again wear his normal clothing. Right now that was something that would work in their favour. It would allow the knights to recognise their king instantly.
'My lord!' Leon was the first one to recognise the king.
Arthur had no time for niceties, a trait he seemed to have copied from his new ally. 'Open the gate, Leon,' he ordered.
Leon was eyeing the van as if it was a dangerous monster about to attack him, but he was also a loyal knight who never questioned his king's orders. It was an honourable quality, Merlin had always found, so even when he was clearly not convinced that this growling thing in front of the gate was not about to swallow them whole, he obeyed the order he had been given. The other knights still had their swords in hand, ready to attack at a moment's notice should this thing indeed prove to be dangerous.
Merlin recognised the feeling. He recalled the terror he himself had felt when Ros had first manhandled him towards a van, when she had just taken Arthur and him prisoner near the portal. The knights' attitude was understandable as much as it was annoying right now. Merlin didn't think Lucas was in danger of dying right here and now, but he could not swear to that. They would need Gaius to look at both him and the snake to determine what was truly wrong with the Senior Case Officer.
The gate opened and Ros hit the gas, making the car practically race into the main square of the citadel. 'Where do I go?' she snapped at Merlin. The warlock suspected that it was just the impatience and worry for Lucas that made her sound as unkind as she sounded now, but he was one hundred percent sure that the Section Chief was not his greatest fan and she would never be, not even when this crisis was over and Lucas would have recovered. He had lost every chance of her liking him when he had first distrusted Lucas and then failed to protect him in the barn.
'The main entrance,' he pointed. He could see Arthur snap at the knights in the rear-view mirror. The king seemed to have worked himself up into quite a state, but eventually it ended with several knights running with the king across the square, after the van. If the situation had not been so dire, Merlin would have laughed at the way their cloaks waving behind them like banners.
But he did not wait for them to reach the van. He was already out of the car, running up the stairs, taking two steps at a time. Arthur had been issuing orders while they had been speeding towards the castle, effectively making sure that everyone knew what was expected of them once they arrived. True, Merlin had been the one who had been on the receiving end of said orders, but he had not been in the mood to argue.
He sprinted across the castle, dodging servants and sailing past guards with practised ease. His job entailed that he had to do this on a regular basis and it felt good to be doing something that he actually knew how to do. Now he was back in Camelot and it made him feel so much more confident. Here he was at home, here he knew what to do and it was a relief. Back in London he had been improvising, pretending to know what was going on, even when he had no clue as to what was happening. Apparently he had done a good job of pretending, but that did not mean he liked it.
But he didn't have the time to bask in the glorious feeling of being home again, not when this operation was still far from finished. Lucas was still in danger, Morgana was still on the loose and Agravaine was still walking free as well. All in all, things were far worse than they had been when they had left Camelot for a hunt that fateful morning. It was only a week ago, but yet it felt like years, because so many things had happened in those seven days.
He barged into Gaius's quarters without knocking, as he was prone to do. His mentor and father figure was working on some potion or other. He was startled by Merlin's sudden entrance, but the shock of the moment soon made way for indignation. 'Merlin!' That tone usually did not bode well. 'Where have you been?'
That temporarily gave him pause. He suspected that his tale would sound like something incredible and even insane to those who had not been there with him. 'Long story,' he said eventually. 'Arthur needs you to check on a patient.'
Gaius knew him better than anyone. The old physician would know when his ward was evading the question. One eyebrow rose in a quizzical manner. 'What have you done this time?' he demanded.
'Nothing!' he defended himself immediately, throwing his hands up in the air. Yes, and that's the whole sodding problem, isn't it? The voice in the back of his head seemed to speak with Ros Myers's tone and words.
Gaius did not need words to convey the message that he did not believe that at all. He remained in front of his work bench, waiting for Merlin to come up with the entire story.
And they did not have the time for that right now. 'I'll explain later,' he promised, the impatience he was feeling seeping through in his voice. 'We've rescued a man from Morgana, but he's in a really bad state.' And Arthur or Ros is going to kill me if he dies. It just depends on which one of them gets to me first. 'So can we please, please save this for later? I can explain on the way there,' he added, knowing that this would probably do the trick.
The other eyebrow joined the first, but at least Gaius grabbed his supplies and followed his ward out of the room. 'And what kind of injury are we talking about, Merlin?' The tone was still sceptical. He sounded like he always did whenever Merlin had managed to create some kind of problematic situation again. Merlin knew he had every right to speak like that. It didn't mean he liked it, however.
To save himself from the endless stream of questions that he knew to be coming he gave his mentor the very brief version of events, leaving out the entire Al-Qaeda operation, brushing over most of Lucas's actions and conveniently editing out his own not so glorious role in that operation. He did explain the events in the barn and the rescue mission in Morgana's hovel earlier this morning. Gaius listened quietly and Merlin had the uncomfortable feeling his mentor knew exactly he had left several important parts out. The old man knew him well.
'Foolish boy,' he scolded when Merlin finally shut up. 'What did you think you were doing?'
Merlin bit his lip. 'I really thought I was protecting Arthur.'
And that was the point, he supposed. Because he could not really bring himself to regret his actions. If he were to do it all over again, he would do everything the same, because when it came to Arthur's safety, he really was rather safe than sorry. And if he were to choose between Arthur and Lucas, or Arthur and anyone really, his destiny would always dictate that he choose Arthur, for without Arthur magic would never return and Albion would never come into being. And that was a risk Merlin could not afford to take. Arthur would always have to come first. He had always known that, but this last week had, for the first time since he had been forced to poison Morgana a few years ago, drove the message home that this destiny of his could and would force Merlin to abandon other friends.
Gaius fixed him with his most pointed stare. 'Why, Merlin, why is it that it is always you that gets himself into situations like this?' The old physician had asked that question after every hare-brained adventure his ward had had so far and said ward had still not come up with a satisfactory answer.
And he really started to wonder about that himself. So far he had not been able to come up with one reasonable answer. All he could do now was hope and pray that this would not end in complete disaster.