"Roman! Goddamn it, Roman! Get back here!"
Arthur darted a quick look around the crumbling wall that he was using as cover and jerked back when the second-rate brickwork job became dust under a steady spray of automatic fire. He'd seen enough to know that the new communications specialist wasn't a good fit for the squad. For one thing, he thought he knew better than Arthur. For another, he thought he knew better than Arthur.
As far as Arthur Pendragon, Captain of the SAS 22 Regiment, C detachment, team Excalibur, was concerned, that was a crime worth a court martial. He muttered under his breath the same curse he'd been muttering for the last eight months. Why couldn't Division assign him a replacement who had at least a couple of brain cells to rub together? MacGilvray -- the team's original member -- hadn't been a bad sort. He'd known how to stop and listen before mouthing off, and he didn't do a half-assed job of coming up with sit-reps and incursion plans. At least, he hadn't done a half-assed job before he'd gotten shot up so badly he wouldn't be returning to active duty with Excalibur ever again.
"Knight-2! You have eyes on him?"
"Confirm, Knight-1. I have eyes on our runaway train," Leon's voice came over the secure radio link.
"More like our runaway train wreck," Gwaine's voice cut in.
"He's wedged between the smashed Ford knock-off and what's left of the East wall on your two o'clock," Leon continued. "Pinned down on all sides by a sniper on the top floor of the northwest building and a pair of thugs with semiautomatics on the southeast -- on your ten o'clock. What are your orders?"
"Knight-3! Are you in position?" Arthur asked.
"Got a bit delayed by a burning wreck and a kamikaze bomber. I'll be there in fifteen seconds," Lancelot said, sounding breathless over the radio.
"Thug number two is in my crosshairs. If thug number three moves a bit to the left, I can get two for the price of one," Gwaine said, cocky as usual.
Arthur ran at a crouch across the width of the post-bomb building he was using as shield, checked and cleared the narrow alleyway at the very end, and zigzagged over the debris with stealth that would've made even ex-Colonel Uther Pendragon proud -- if the Old Man was even capable of emotion these days. It sure didn't stop Arthur from trying, though, and he came to a running stop at the very edge of the mouth of the alley on the other side, where he had a better grasp of the situation.
"Knights! Take your targets on my mark --"
"What the fuck are you waiting for? Are you even there? Help! I'm pined down! Help!" Roman, in all his glory, seemed to have forgotten the right frequency for broadcasting over the radio, and was shouting for his mommy in open air.
Arthur's hand tightened around the barrel of his gun, and he grit his teeth. He could almost hear Gwaine snickering from his position across the plaza and nearly a half-kilometre up in the sky.
"A cool hundred says he'll be gone two hours after we're back at HQ," Gwaine piped up.
"Shut up, Knight-4," Arthur said.
"I'll take that bet," Perceval pitched in.
Arthur ignored them. "On my mark -- Three, two..."
"Knight-1, I'm counting eight incoming, heavily armed, coming in at you on your six," Owain's voice crackled over the radio. "Three converging on Knight-2."
Arthur took a deep breath, unable to keep the small smile from appearing on his face. This was what he lived for -- the excitement, the thrill, the challenge.
"All right, Knights. You know what to do. I'll see you at the other end."
"Pay up." Perceval held out his hand in front of Gwaine's nose, wriggling his fingers. It hadn't taken two hours to get Roman transferred -- it took two weeks. Two long, painful weeks of Roman's whining and whinging and backstabbing threats and favours cashed in, though it seemed more to Arthur that the other people in the regiment were more inclined to make certain that Roman didn't come back to their squads than they were to force Roman any further down Arthur's throat.
Two weeks -- and not for lack of trying. As soon as they returned to the division's temporary headquarters, Arthur took his division commander aside and gave him the quick and dirty version of the official report, including how Roman disregarded a direct order to stay behind to watch the rear. It wasn't the first time that complaints ended up in Roman's file, and it wouldn't be the last time that transfer papers would be shoved at the pasty-faced lieutenant, but before the holy grail of army red tape could be navigated, Arthur's men were sent out again.
Roman got wind of Arthur's attempt to slag him off and everything went downhill from there until the papers went through, finally, that afternoon. Signed, stamped, and delivered. Arthur hadn't bothered to wave good-bye.
"Help me with the next round," Percy said, tapping Lancelot on the shoulder and holding up the cash. "My treat."
"With my money," Gwaine pointed out.
"Mine now," Percy said, giving the five twenties a fan-wave in the air before flashing a wide grin at the table. He didn't bother to ask for special requests. Most of the group had been friends before joining up, and they had been together as a squad by some miracle of bureaucratic luck for so long that everyone knew everyone else's preference.
There would be frilly drinks (mostly to mock Gwaine), and there would be the hard stuff (mostly for Owain and Perceval), and there would be beer. It was almost a requirement when they were on leave in the Merry Old, and on tap was a local microbrew that more than one squad had drunkenly plotted to relocate to their hometown when they finished their tours.
Arthur denied being involved in such traitorous planning. At least while sober.
The Regency was the unofficial off-base pre-R&R pub for the SAS squad. Uniforms were against the rules, the dart board was missing its' bulls-eye because everyone was just that good, and the pool tables had a reservation list at least a mile long and populated with the names of the newts fresh out of Basic happy to trade their slot at the tables to a more experienced soldier in exchange for combat tips or stories.
Arthur couldn't remember the last time they'd all been out on a Friday night, but he definitely didn't remember the Regency being this crowded.
"I see the bunnies are out in full force," Gwen said, following Lance's approach to the bar, where people made way for him more than they did for Percy. A pretty blonde in little more than a couple of handkerchiefs looped her arm proprietarily through Lance's, bumping her hip against his before he flashed his pearly whites and disentangled himself. Lance, always the gentleman, kept his eyes above her neck.
Percy didn't even try.
Gwen rolled her eyes and pointedly turned away.
"You can take her," Morgana goaded.
Everyone, especially Gwen, knew that she had nothing to worry about -- Lancelot was as true as they came, which made Arthur wonder why it was, yet again, that he hadn't tried for him once upon a time. The only reminder he needed was the wedding band on Gwen's hand and the matching ring she would wear on her necklace until Lance's tour of duty ended.
Arthur knew the day by heart. They had all signed up at the same time, and they would all get discharged at the same time, unless something disastrous -- like another war -- broke out and they were stop-lossed. Officially, they had eighteen months, one week, and three days left, and they hoped that was it.
"Who's taking who?" Leon asked, sliding next to Morgana, his arm slung over the back of her chair.
"Gwen versus the slip over there," Morgana pointed.
"No contest," Leon said.
"I dunno." Gwaine leaned forward, scattering the small city of pitchers and glasses on the table. "She looks a bit scrappy. Might even last a few minutes."
"In what reality?" Morgana snorted.
"The one where I win money," Gwaine said.
"Doesn't exist," Arthur said, covering his smirk with his glass, downing the last of his beer. He caught Morgana's eyes over the rim, and they shared a sibling grin before they both remembered they were supposed to barely tolerate each other. He saw her eyes narrow and her smile widen, and wished then and there that he hadn't said anything at all.
"Oi, sod you lot," Gwaine said, "I'd go where I'm appreciated --"
"And where is this fantasy land? " Leon asked.
"-- but fresh beer is coming," Gwaine finished, leaning back in his chair to see what was the hold-up.
"So," Morgana said, reaching past an empty seat to shove Arthur's shoulder, "Does Uther know you're on R&R?"
"Give me a break, Morgana. Can't a man have a beer in peace?" Arthur groaned, trying not to wince. He could take any sort of beating on the training course and on the battlefield, but the only thing that made him pause was the obligatory dinners on the days that he was in town. Ex-Colonel -- but call him Colonel or else -- Pendragon didn't take no for an answer, and the question was when was Arthur's enlistment up so that he could come and help with the family business that he'd built with his own bare hands?
The dinners invariably ended after several quiet "yes, sir" to whatever Uther found fault in, a reminder that he was joining Pendragon Consulting to head a division -- some weeks it was the weapons testing division; other weeks it was managing the support forces; and rarely, it was to head the R&D that came up with the newest gadgets for the military -- and, last but not least, a direct inquiry on the condition of his love life.
As if Uther already didn't know that he was single, had a strong and unyielding preference for men, and that, despite the abundance of very good looking men not only in his squad, but in the British Army, it wasn't as if Arthur had time for a love life in the first place, even if there weren't rules about fraternizing.
"Give me a break, Arthur," Morgana mocked, and Leon, sensing hostility, drew his arm away from behind her chair. "While you were off having fun ducking bullets in the playground, I was putting life and limb in danger having dinner with Uther every time he was in town."
"Probably yelling at him over whatever latest PR blunder the marketing division made," Arthur said. Morgana handled the PR, but an ongoing feud with the very vengeful head of Marketing turned Morgana into a very dangerous person to be around.
"Don't you try and change the subject," Morgana said, her eyes narrowing to sharp slits that could cut flesh if she got mad enough to throw daggers. "My point is, I haven't seen Leon for two months, and..."
"Why aren't you two married yet?" Arthur asked, trying again for a deflection. It didn't work. Not even close.
"... he's your father. He'd like to see you, and you owe me for the time you went off to the club with Padraig..."
Arthur sighed inwardly and glanced around. No one was near, and that was only something of a relief. While his squad and his friends might be perfectly fine with Arthur's preferences, and officially, the military attitude might be relaxed when it came to alternate sexual preferences, but it wasn't as if he wanted it posted in the lonely singles section of the on-base paper. The don't ask, don't tell mandate was something he took to heart, even if he didn't have to anymore.
"Padraig? Nice pull, man. I didn't think you were his type," Gwaine interrupted.
"What the fuck is wrong with you, I'm everyone's type," Arthur said. "Also, would you mind keeping it down? I don't exactly advertise."
"Not everyone's your type," Gwen pointed out. "You should probably advertise."
Morgana pounded a slim, delicate wrist on the table and all the glassware jumped three inches in the air. "... and unless you want me to tell him just what you were doing on his birthday instead of going to the conference gala as the golden boy he wanted to show off as his next executive, you're going to..."
"Fine, Morgana," Arthur said, putting down his glass wearily. He leaned back in his chair just like Gwaine had done a minute ago, wondering where the drinks were.
"You'll go tomorrow night." Coming from Morgana, it wasn't a question. It was an order. "And you won't cut and run as soon as dessert is served."
Arthur groaned inwardly. "Oh, come on, Morgana..."
"Just do it!"
It was well into the second course of what was already an interminable meal at a too-big table in a too-big house that Arthur caved in and checked his watch. They'd already covered all the safe topics -- Arthur's love life had been skirted only very briefly, and he had no interest in hearing about Uther's latest. Arthur's missions were classified, even though Uther seemed to know about them anyway.
"You're without a communication officer. Again."
"Done well enough without for this long, sir" Arthur said. "My men manage."
"Short range radio only goes so far," Uther said. "You should be concerned about losing your long-range. I understand that you nearly lost your last one in a firefight."
"He nearly got his head shot off, yes," Arthur clarified, but he knew a sales pitch when he heard one. "I take it that you have some new sort of lightweight long-range in development that will do away with the need for communication specialists entirely?"
Uther steepled his hands over his roast beef, his eyes hooded by a heavy frown. Arthur put down his fork, knowing that he was in for it now. "No man is indispensable in an unit. Each one has a very specific, very important role to perform. You may be training your men to take on as many roles as possible when in the field, but a specialist is just that. A specialist. Communication with headquarters is extremely important. The proper chain of command must be maintained, and if you lose that direct line, you lose important information that helps guide your decisions on the battlefield. Do you understand, Arthur? You've been with the SAS long enough. Or did you miss that lesson?"
"No, sir," Arthur said, feeling once again the green new recruit just out of basic training, compared to his father by his instructors, and realizing that despite growing up with a war hero in the household, he didn't know squat, and he'd never measure up. All these years later, all those successful missions he'd led, they were nothing compared to everything Uther had ever done.
It was a hell of a yardstick to measure himself by. No matter how many times he told himself he wouldn't, he kept trying to attain the golden ring that was always held out of his reach.
"It's a pity that none of your friends have the head for the delicate electronic work required for a good communications specialist," Uther said. "The models coming out of R&D have interested the Think Tank. Satellite hookup, thermal and infrared mapping, an entire naval deck's worth of capabilities in a device no larger than a breadbox."
"It sounds fascinating, sir," Arthur said flatly, agreeing only because he wanted to hurry through dinner and get back to his quarters on base, even though he had a perfectly good apartment that was being maintained in the city while he was on active duty.
Both places were empty, with no one waiting there for him, but at least the base quarters were smaller, homier, and a whole lot less sterile.
"The initial field tests are promising, but those have been under controlled conditions. We'd like to see them carried out on active missions, of course, to see how they perform..."
Arthur nodded at the appropriate intervals, experience telling him just where the conversation was heading.
"... and it would be to your benefit if you had the chance to see our equipment in action for when you took over the division. Unfortunately, unless you have a communication specialist... I understand that you'll be assigned a new one soon. Do try your best with this one."
Arthur forced a thin smile. "Yes, sir. I'll try."
"Do better than try."
Major Thomas Kilgarath was called The Dragon everywhere else but to his face, even by his seniors. He was a stern-faced man with small patches of skin burned by chemical fire, and the scars had healed with a bumpy, scaly texture, and while not a large man, he could make a large, empty room feel stuffy and over its maximum occupancy just by walking through the front door. It wasn't only the physical imposition he made that earned him the nickname. At any moment, it seemed as if he might eat someone for the simple reason that they looked like they'd make a nice snack, chuckling to himself while he chewed.
It was that same air of amusement that met Arthur when he returned early from R&R to get his squad squared away and ready for the next mission, whatever that mission would happen to be this time. The briefing wouldn't occur until the entire squad was together -- usually with Gwaine dragging down the rear, still drunk as a skunk or wearing some girl's underwear because he couldn't find his own, or both.
Squad assignments, however, had been coming directly from The Dragon more and more often recently, skipping a couple of pay grades in the process. Every time Arthur went to stand in front of his desk, The Dragon's nostrils flared wider, and more smoke came out of them.
It could be just the cigarettes, though. He was a notorious chain smoker.
"Well, obviously, we've run out of loose communication specialists to assign to your squad," Colonel Kilgarath said, cutting straight to the chase through a screen of blue smoke. "I'm not interested in splitting up other teams. So this puts you in an awkward position of no longer being the preferred team sent out on missions."
"What? No, don't do that," Arthur said, catching himself. "Sir. We've gone out on the field without a communications officer before, and we've always done well -- in fact, we've exceeded expectations, even a man short."
"I thought you'd say that. Then it occurred to me to imagine what you could do if you weren't a man short." Arthur suffered The Dragon's grave stare, resisted the urge to cough as another cigarette was ground down in the ashtray, and risked a sideways glance to the file folder that was under the Colonel's left hand. "So you're not going to be a man short."
"You said there was no one else, Sir."
"No one else in 22," The Dragon said, patting the file folder. "I'm calling someone up from 21."
Arthur nearly reeled from the surprise. "From the Artists? But, sir, those are the Reservists. They're nowhere..."
"If you're about to say that the gentlemen who serve as Reservists aren't anywhere near to your standard, I'd strongly suggest you shut up."
"I'm told that the boy is good. Very good. The sort that can cobble together wireless with a couple of pennies and some wire. He's willing to sign on a two-year bid if it works out with your team." The Dragon gave Arthur a hard look that reminded him of Uther. "And you are going to make it work out."
Arthur grimaced inwardly and squeezed out a quiet "Yes, sir."
"Excellent. He's on his way from Wales now, due to report in before 1700. You're dismissed."
Arthur saluted and turned around, and turned around again. "Sir? What's his name?"
The Dragon picked up the file folder and looked at it. "Emrys. Merlin Emrys."
Merlin held the envelope in the air and tried to read the letter without opening it.
"You know you have to take the thing out first if you want to know what it says?" Will asked, falling into step next to Merlin and shoving a sharp elbow into Merlin's ribs.
"Quit it," Merlin hissed. There were fresh recruits running manoeuvres on the nearby open field -- a field that was more of a rolling hill than anything else, with the trainers at the high ground advantage -- and he still hadn't lived down the last time Will had tackled him and they'd ended up crashing into the mess hall.
Getting into another wrestling match with Will over the contents of the letter was not going to improve his chances for the transfer he'd been hoping for. It didn't matter that they were among the senior personnel ("senior" coming with the dubious definition of "not a newb") and some of the toughest instructors. It was still impossible to get the fresh-off-the-bus to take them seriously after they'd been seen with potato mash on their greens and creamed corn smeared down their faces.
"You're fondling that letter like it's a skin mag," Will said. "What's taking you so long? Open it already."
"I'm trying to see if I should brace for bad news," Merlin said, folding the envelope in two and shoving it in his side pocket.
"Putting it away isn't going to help," Will said. "Just give it over. I'll peek, and I'll tell you what an idiot you are."
Merlin flashed Will a sideways grin. "You're such a pal. No."
"You're no fun."
"And you're going to get me in trouble. What've you got on now?"
Will pointed up ahead. "Firearm drills. You?"
"Crack and hack," Merlin said, scowling. It wasn't the official name, not by far, but that's what he called it, and he knew most of the people on base did too. The crack and hack was for breaking enemy frequencies and hacking their encryption, but the other way around worked too, where a recruit learned how long they could hack it before they cracked. "I hate that class. Two of the new boys aren't going to make it through, and I'm going to have to yell at them."
"Aw, you're gonna make them cry," Will teased. "Then you're going to cry."
Will shoved him, and Merlin skidded in the inch of snow that had fallen overnight. That bare inch was enough to ground most of England to a halt, and he could hear some nearby soldiers grouse that they wished it would ground the SAS to a halt, too. Merlin gave them a hard look -- at least, as hard a look as he could manage, and they gulped, mumbling breathless sorrysirs and "I've got somewhere to be and I'm going there right now" in the wake of their melting footprints.
"You've been watching those American drill sergeant movies again, haven't you?"
"Hey, the Viggo Mortensen glare is pretty tough to master, but I'll get it down before I'm done my tour," Merlin said with a grin. He patted his side pocket and felt the envelope crinkle through the padding. "That is, if I get the tour."
"You'll get it," Will said encouragingly, using the same tone of voice that he used when he thought Merlin was being stupid while at the same time trying to be nice in the split-second before he got annoyed with Merlin's insecurity. He smacked a hand on Merlin's arm and said, "Look, why don't we open it later, right after tea? Take a bit of a shot to celebrate before lights out?"
"Might be a shot to drown my sorrows," Merlin pointed out.
"Oi, don't make me hit you. My quarters, and don't be late, L-T." Will hiked backwards up the rise toward the firing range, giving Merlin a quick flick of his wrist in a lazy salute.
Merlin grinned and hurried to his class.
As predicted, his group screwed up not one, but two radios, shorted out a couple of handhelds, and he really didn't want to know how that all-thumbs greenie managed to turn cell phone parts into a flaming inferno, but Merlin eventually got the chaos under control and taught the recruits a thing or two about hacking onto carrier waves and eavesdropping on someone's conversation. All before dinner -- including a quick consultation with some of the Think Tank lab coats over a piece of enemy technology that he didn't really need to burn much brain cells over, either.
While he cleaned up his kit, he wondered why the enemy would construct tracking bugs with small-range transmitters, but he forgot all about it when his stomach rumbled.
The mess hall was the mess hall, and its nutritionally bland-but-healthy meal sat in his stomach like a heavy brick, making him miss the MREs on the field. At least there was some variety in MREs; he didn't know how much more cafeteria mash he could eat day after day, especially when the regular chefs were training some new cooks who were determined to get the cardboard taste down pat, by God, or they wouldn't be sent out in the field.
He added his tray to the wash pile and went to go find Will.
There was an advantage to being one of the instructors, and that was, between his own training, the fitness regimen, and teaching others, Merlin had a lot more time on his hands than a platoon sergeant did. They had to keep track of the recruits. All Merlin had to do was make sure none of them failed, and if they did, to put them through the paces again and again until they passed.
"Any sharp-shooters in your crew?" Merlin asked Will, sitting down on the bunk. Will was at his small desk, squinting at the evaluation paperwork, making notations here and there. Merlin had already filled out the preliminary evaluations for his students and filed them -- easy to do when he had less than twenty people in his group, but Will had a whole platoon of recruits to worry about, score and grade, along with the required personal comments that were necessary for the evaluation board to decide where the soldiers would be the best fit in a specialty, or if they really were that keen on the SAS after all.
Will made a wriggling motion with his hand in the air, and went back to making notes. "Maybe one or two who can hit the broadside of a barn at five hundred paces, and the rest... Why did we sign up for this?"
"Because there's only so much you can do with an undeclared degree," Merlin pointed out. They had both been at university together, but where Merlin had focused in engineering, Will had taken every easy course that he could sign up for while accumulating enough credits to count for a diploma.
Will answered him with two upraised fingers. "If I'd known there was this much homework in the army I would've joined the navy. Or the air force. Maybe definitely the RAF."
"Where you'd spend your tour either swabbing the decks or polishing a flyer's windshield," Merlin said. He reached into the foot locker and pulled out the bottle of whiskey that Will always kept hidden there for emergencies. He took a swing and handed it over to Will.
"As if they'd waste this on anything else but a fighter jet," Will said, using two of the fingers from the hand holding the bottle to gesture toward himself before taking a swing. He threw his pen on top of the stack and turned his chair around.
"So, the letter," Will said, handing the bottle back, "I was thinking. Maybe you should open it now, rather than later. What if it's time sensitive? The 'you must accept this mission within the next twenty four hours or you'll be summarily executed for your failure in this duty to Queen and country' type of Mission Impossible thing?"
"I've told you to try not to think," Merlin said. "Ooze comes out of your ears. It's really unbecoming, and it kind of smells."
"Quit being a chicken, Merlin," Will said. "Open it and get it over with. You've wanted to transfer back to active status for how long?"
"Seven months," Merlin said, trading the whiskey again. "Seven months, four requests. A man can only take so much rejection, you know."
"Actually, you don't, do you? You're kind of immunized against rejection or something. Last Friday..."
"Oi, we're not talking about me here, Lieutenant Avoidance," Will gestured at Merlin. "Open the damn letter before I open it for you."
The letter had been burning a hole through Merlin's pockets since he received it, and now it was jammed in one of the hip pockets of his pants. He took it out, smoothed out the wrinkled white, and traced his fingers over the letters as if he expected them to miraculously jump to life, which wasn't far from the truth. It happened at least once that he remembered, back in university, and the letters had waged war against the numbers using parentheses as shields, equal signs as cannons, and minus signs as swords. His exam was a bloody mess that was handed in just in the nick of time, with smudged pencil marks where the answers were supposed to go, and erased splatters where he'd tried to get the little soldiers under control.
He'd learned to always drink coffee and pay attention in class after that.
"What do I do if it's a another no?"
"Finish out this tour, don't re-up, get a plum job at one of the top companies that have been trying to recruit your ass for ages, and become my sugar daddy."
Merlin took a long pull of the whiskey. "That all sounds very attractive except for the last part where I just know I'll end up sexually frustrated because you won't put out."
"Sex change, mate. I keep telling you that you'd make a cute bird."
"Its creepy that you even thought of me as a girl."
"I was drunk and stoned and it was that Halloween back at Wendy's, and you'd drawn the bar wrench costume out of the hat. I still don't think you had enough padding up front," Will said, patting his chest. "The letter? Go on. It's like ripping tape off your mouth. Do it fast."
Merlin raised a brow. "Something I should know about? Ripping tape off your mouth? Did you have to resort to kinky S&M to get..."
"The redhead, okay? I left the pub with the redhead. Vi? You know the one, she walks around in Dominatrix gear. I'm still paying for it. Now open the letter," Will said.
His fingers traced the letters again, and he slipped a nail under the edge that he'd been slowly worrying at over the last few days. He tried to keep the envelope intact, but he ripped it open about halfway through the length and pulled the letter out. Not even a deep breath steadied him when he unfolded the letter, and he grimaced when he saw the familiar letterhead, the familiar formatting, the familiar beginning.
The letters blurred, and he read them again. His heart pounded.
"Give me the whiskey." He knocked it back and started coughing when it went down the wrong hole.
"Aw, Merlin. Not again. I'm sorry."
Merlin coughed some more and shook his head. "No, no." He held out the letter, and Will jumped to his feet.
"You're in! You're such a git! You're in!"
Merlin wasn't sure if it was the whiskey or if he was so pleased with himself that the euphoria was making him dizzy, because he stood up and did a little awkward dance that sent him tumbling back on top of the bed, Will pointing a finger at him and laughing. He was in. He was finally going back to full active service in the field, instead of teaching everything he knew to some kids who would never really understand half the things he had to teach them. It wasn't that he was an adrenaline junkie -- okay, maybe he was -- but ever since he was shot and transferred out so that they could make use of him while he was recovering, Merlin had felt that something was missing.
There was nothing like the camaraderie of soldiers-in-arms on the battlefield, nothing like the bonds that were forged between people who were on the brink of death, and nothing like the thrill of running with a group who knew what they were doing and could get the mission done. He wouldn't be going back to his old team, he knew that, because the team disbanded a few months after he was sent over to the Artists, then somehow Will got himself stationed at the same , but, still... It was good news. Great news. Fantastic news.
Then it wasn't good news anymore.
"Shit. Mum is going to kill me."
Will's broad grin faded like a splash of ice water had hit him. "Never mind you! Your mum is going to kill me!"
Hunith Emrys was a force to be reckoned with -- a force so terrifying that even the fiercest battle charge from the armed forces would stop dead in their tracks to see her standing in their way, with their top generals trying to puzzle out the safest strategy to get past safely. Once a nurse with the regular army, still an emergency room nurse, Merlin's mother knew the dangers that her son put himself in when he was active, because she'd lost Merlin's father when Merlin was young.
"You can call her when you get there," Will suggested. "Well out of reach of her rolling pins."
"What about you?"
"I'm the best shot this side of London," Will scoffed.
"Considering everyone else can barely hit the broadside of a barn, that's not saying much," Merlin said.
"Oi. Give me back my whiskey," Will said.
"Besides, you'd quail and knock knees the minute Mum looked at you. Spill all your secrets, you would, including how you hate her rabbit stew."
"Your Mum would make a great torturer. Never lay a hand on anyone, just look at them cross-eyed, and that'll do them," Will said. They both paled at the thought, and Will steadied himself with the last inch of dark amber. "So when are you going?"
Merlin sobered and looked at the letter again. "Soonish, I guess. The orders are being sorted out. I ship out the 28th."
"Today's the 26th."
"Oh, Christ," Merlin said, rubbing his head. "Good thing I opened the letter, yeah?"
"Good thing I made you open the letter," Will corrected, flipping open the trunk with his toe and rummaging around to see if he could find another bottle. "Damn it, I have to make one of the cadets run out and get me flush again."
"You get your greenies to buy your booze?"
"No." Merlin frowned.
"Lost opportunity," Will said. "They'll do anything for points with the guy who marks up their evals. You should've dropped hints while you had a chance. Tell you what. Tomorrow night. It's your last here, so why don't we go to the club, have a few rounds?"
"Could do," Merlin said, his mind already swirling with a wild list of things that needed to get done before it was time to leave. Packing, signing in what he'd signed out, sorting out a couple of the soldiers on the radios, filling out a mountain of paperwork...
He snapped out of it when Will hit him. "Hey. I'm talking to you."
"You're going to be careful, right? Keep your head down, don't do anything stupid?"
"You mean, don't do anything you wouldn't do?" Merlin asked, grinning wide.
"You damn well better not, you cheeky bastard," Will said. "You'll watch yourself over there, right? I mean, not everyone's keen on a poof in army greens."
"Watched myself this long, didn't I?" Merlin had learned his lesson very early on after he'd signed up. The word had gotten out, of course, and nothing had been done to him that he could prove, and eventually, people lost interest and went after the next person who was just a little easier to haze than someone like Merlin.
"And that other thing?" Will made a stunned-wizard abracadabra gesture with his hands, and Merlin barked a startled laugh. "I don't fancy you turning into a government experiment if you get caught."
"I don't either," Merlin said, sobering. He'd used his magic in the field before, saving himself and his team, and he'd always been careful. His magic never let him down except for that last time when the bullet tore at an angle through a weak spot in his Kevlar vest and lodged a centimetre from his heart. "I promised Mum. I'm promising you. I'll be careful. I won't get caught."
The pilot stopped Merlin before he'd even stepped out of the chopper and hauled off his kit, and for a brief moment, Merlin panicked that his orders had been rescinded.
Merlin flashed the pilot -- a good looking bloke with a bit of a Top Gun look to him -- a grin. "Thanks, mate."
"No, man, that's not what I meant, but, that too. I mean, I just got orders on down. Before you report to your C.O., you've got to have a chat with The Dragon."
"He's here?!" Merlin's wail was a higher pitch than the helicopter rotors, and the pilot -- last name Anderson -- grimaced.
"I see you know him."
"Yeah. Shite. This is bad." Merlin ran his hands through his hair. It couldn't be a good sign if Major Thomas Kilgarath wanted to see him as soon as he put foot down on base. After a moment's pause, he went and yanked his big kit bag off the flat, forgetting that he had lightened the load with magic. The momentum nearly sent him stumbling back onto his ass flat and the dusty tarmac.
The pilot didn't notice, and flicked off a few more switches before signing off the air. He twisted in his seat and gave Merlin a sympathetic look. "Like I said, good luck. I'll see you around, Emrys."
"God, I sure hope so," Merlin said. The pilot barked a short laugh. "Where do I find him?"
"Big green tent in the middle," Anderson said. "Can't miss it."
Apparently one could miss it, because Merlin walked past it twice until someone helpfully pointed him in the right direction. He left his gear outside Kilgarath's office and stood at attention in front of the big desk.
"Sir!" Merlin clasped his hands behind his back.
"Congratulations on your transfer, Emrys," The Dragon said. He put out a cigarette and breathed smoke into the tent. Merlin wished he dared use his magic to clear the air a little bit because his lungs were craving oxygen, but his eyes flashing gold would be a dead giveaway and an easy ticket to a government lab where he'd never see his Mum again.
"Thank you, Sir."
"Your transfer to active duty is contingent on an important factor, Emrys," The Dragon said, cutting right to the chase. He tore open a new package and pulled out a fresh cigarette that Merlin could have sworn he didn't see him light before fresh smoke filled the tent again. "You're assigned to one of our top teams. The best, actually. The majority of the unit have been together since the beginning, and that makes them particularly effective in the field. Unfortunately, they can't seem to keep a communications specialist to save their lives. The brass doesn't want to continue to risk them if they continue to operate without a critical member of the team.
"That critical member would be you.
"You have an unique opportunity here, Emrys. Don't let it go to waste. Do your best to fit in with the team, and you'll go far."
The pause was long enough that Merlin guessed that Kilgarath was done with his pep talk -- a pep talk that amounted to little more than "if you don't work out, we'll have to send you back", and to Merlin, it sounded more like a threat.
Merlin cursed inwardly. He should have known that he wouldn't be so lucky as to be brought back into active service if there wasn't a catch.
"Yes, Sir," he said, though it was through grit teeth. The Dragon noticed.
"Look at it as your destiny, Merlin Emrys. You wouldn't be here if there wasn't a great purpose for you. You will be an invaluable asset to your C.O. He's going to need you."
"Yes, Sir," Merlin said, feeling somewhat mollified and wondering if he'd manipulated. "I'll do my best."
"See that you do." The Dragon gave him a curt nod. "Dismissed."
"Yes, Sir," Merlin said, saluting automatically, and, hand still at his forehead, asked, "Sir? Who's my C.O.?"
"You're joining team Excalibur. Your Captain is Arthur Pendragon."
Who hadn't heard of Excalibur? They were the ghosts of Turkmenistan, the scourge of Operation Barrow, the devils of Baghdad. Everywhere they went, no matter how badly outnumbered, no matter the odds, Excalibur took their missions and owned them. On paper, the team members were no different than any of the other SAS soldiers. They received the same gruelling training, the same intense conditioning, and were matched together by skillsets and brotherhood, but in reality, every member of Excalibur had been handpicked by Captain Arthur Pendragon: men he'd signed up with, men he'd known for forever, the best of the best. Everyone, everyone except for Merlin.
Merlin could hardly breathe on his walk over to the Excalibur barracks.
Standard operating procedures for a SAS team was to bunk together, but Excalibur took it a step further, because their Captain bunked down with them, too. They were the closest-knit group and notoriously hard to get seconded to, because getting on with the team meant replacing a member who'd been badly injured or killed. No one ever wished for something like that to happen on another fellow SAS, but it also meant that the odds of joining Excalibur was virtually nil. Unless one happened to be a communications specialist, because Excalibur rotated them out as often as Merlin changed underpants.
Apparently, Arthur Pendragon ate comm-specs for breakfast.
Wonderful. Just, bloody wonderful.
The whole idea of joining up with Excalibur was exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time. Merlin didn't know if he should grin like an idiot or scream like a baby, so he covered his mouth with his hand and bit his palm while pretending to be hiding a yawn. The closer he got to the E-team barracks, the more the flutter in his chest tipped the needle toward scared as shit.
Merlin wasn't sure who the original comm-spec was for the team, or what happened to them, or why none of them lasted more than a couple of field trips, but between option number one (getting tossed by Pendragon) and option number two (getting eaten by The Dragon if he did), Merlin was having some serious second thoughts about this transfer. As in, he probably never should have.
The barracks looked deserted. Merlin made the usual attempt to get someone's attention from inside before ducking his head through, and it was someone calling his name from somewhere behind him that made him startle out as if he were a kid with his hand in the cookie jar. "Emrys? You're Emrys, right?"
The man coming toward him was a Latin God with curly black hair, chocolate eyes, and olive skin made brown by the sun, and Merlin would have drooled if it weren't for years of immunization against the drop-dead gorgeous. The British Armed Forces was full of bona fide billboard models -- it was no wonder why the bars around the bases were always full of women wanting to get their hands on a couple of good men. For Merlin, being in the SAS was an exercise in self-restraint.
"Yeah, that's me," Merlin said, half-wondering if this was Arthur Pendragon. The man had an easy smile and a calm radiance that made him instantly likeable -- which meant that he was probably not Arthur Pendragon.
The man held out his hand and the two of them shook in a firm, warm grip that ended with a slight pull toward the inside and an introduction. "I'm Lance Du Lac. I meant to meet you on the tarmac, but your pilot said you got called up to see Major Kilgarath. Did you get any rest on the flight in?"
"I mastered the art of sleeping with my head rattling against the bulkhead a long time ago," Merlin said with a grin, and Lance chuckled easily.
"Good, that means you won't crash out when I take you on the rounds. The rest of the team got pulled on patrol duty, and they won't be back for a few more hours. Plenty of time to show you where everything goes."
"Fine by me," Merlin said. "Where do I drop my kit?"
"Last bunk is yours," Lance said, pointing to the far corner. There were sixteen bunks in all -- fifteen for the men, the last for the Captain, which looked to be right across the front entrance if the desk set besides the bunk was anything to go by. Merlin's gaze must have lingered on the desk a little too long because Lance clasped a companionable hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry about Arthur. His bark's worse than his bite."
"Right," Merlin said, and headed down the rows to leave his bags on the bed -- he'd sort them out before lights-out, though one of them was already packed as his bug-out kit by default, but he needed to sign out some gear the first chance he got, which was now. He looked at Lance, and gestured at the Captain's desk. "So what's the buy-in?"
"Buy-in?" There was just enough hesitation in Lance -- but not enough guile -- for Merlin to know he'd guessed right.
"Oh, come on. You've had enough radioheads cycled through to have a standing pool on how long the new guy lasts. I want in," Merlin said. "I could use the cash."
Lance barked a surprised laugh. "That wouldn't be fair, letting you bet against yourself. But you know what? I think you'll fit in just fine. Come on. I'll give you the grand tour, then we'll see what we can do about sorting out your equipment."
Arthur was livid. The routine patrol ended up not being routine at all.
If anyone, even Leon, asked him if he'd accepted the patrol so that he wouldn't have to deal with the new comm-spec guy, he'd deny it until he was blue in the face. The truth was, he didn't think he could bear the thought of having to break in someone new, and he'd heard whispers that one of the non-SAS units had a couple of tech heads who weren't too bad with the communication units. When -- not if, but when -- Emrys dropped the ball and needed to be tossed out with the rubbish, Arthur could convince Kilgarath that there was a suitable replacement on-base, even if it wasn't a SAS soldier.
Not being able to go out in the field was eating at Arthur, and he knew that his men were feeling the itch too. That was why they were on patrol -- it was something to take the edge off the adrenaline junkies who didn't get enough action to keep them satisfied. But now it was looking as if the two regular-Army hopefuls were iPod gadget freaks who could program a setlist but not much else, never mind trying to locate a radio frequency that would let them home in on a second patrol who'd gotten themselves pinned down.
It had taken them too long to track down the other patrol, too long to locate the sentries who were shooting at a perimeter on the outset, and too long to get everyone back, especially considering that the other patrol's truck had blown up, they had to scramble for room for the injured on their Humvee, and run the rest of the way.
Arthur made the soldiers manning the radio run, too. They traded the equipment between them every kilometre, which was fine by Arthur -- the load, on top of their kit, could get grating. They weren't SAS; he didn't expect them to be able to shoulder that extra weight unless they were trained for it, but he did expect it. He expected the best.
At that point, Arthur just wanted to get the two patrol teams back to base before they were declared overdue, or worse, MIA, because the on-the-spot recruits for the radio couldn't remember the base frequency.
He was sweaty, hot, and tired -- so was everyone, to be fair -- but he was betting none of them was at risk for cracking a tooth because they were grinding their teeth so hard, they were in danger of crushing diamonds.
"It's not their fault," Leon said, falling in step beside him, keeping watch out along the lines and on high.
"Yes, it is," Arthur spat out. He spared a hostile glance for one of the army boys, red-faced, gasping for breath, and looking like he was going to pass out any minute now. He cursed under his breath and broke formation only long enough to roughly grab the soldier and shove him toward the Humvee, gesturing for someone else to take his place running alongside. When he got back, Leon was smirking at him.
"Oh, shut up."
"I didn't say anything," Leon said.
"They're worthless with the radio, and I'd love to throw them in the stocks for getting us lost, but I'm not going to have them fainting on me too," Arthur snapped.
Leon shrugged a shoulder slightly and turned his head to look down an alleyway, keeping an eye out for movement. "Whatever you say, boss."
Arthur snorted, but didn't answer. They ran in silence -- the whole of Excalibur kept running, three ahead, three behind, the rest in formation around the Humvee (their Humvee) carrying the soldiers, injured and otherwise, from the other patrol -- for another kilometre before either of them spoke again.
"Not that I'm complaining, but we could've waited for the new guy," Leon said. "We've done night patrols before. In fact, we prefer night patrols, because it's cooler."
"Lance will look after him," Arthur said. He tried not to think about Emrys. Arthur had hedged his bets on the regular-Army guys, but now it looked like he was going to have to hope that the Emrys kid was at least marginally better, and could keep up with the team. The Dragon wouldn't tell him anything about the SAS Lieutenant other than his rank, name, and specialty, putting more emphasis on making sure Arthur understood that while the pickings for a new comm-spec were already slim, they would get a whole lot slimmer if Emrys didn't pass muster.
Arthur's stomach had been in knots since he was given that unspoken ultimatum from Kilgarath. On the one hand, he couldn't afford not to have a comm-spec officer in the ranks -- a comm-spec guy was essentially his right hand on the battlefield, the person whom he had to rely on for the constant, steady stream of information that was necessary for a successful mission. On the other, he couldn't afford to take anything other than the very best for his team. It was a catch-22 of need and want, and if taking someone in that was less than perfect, but who had the potential, was the cost of making sure his men were kept happy and occupied by getting the assignments that challenged them, then he'd stick it out.
He just hoped he wouldn't be seeing the base dentist for cracked molars and getting the inevitable lecture that he was gritting his teeth too much.
The team didn't slow down until they were through the gates leading to the base, and went from double-time to time and a half to keep up with the Humvee. Arthur stayed with the soldiers while they unloaded the injured to the medical tent, but when he saw the two soldiers -- the ones who were supposedly good with gadgets -- slink off toward the quartermaster tent to get rid of their equipment, he stormed off after them.
Lance had taken him all over the compound, introduced him to everyone he needed to be introduced to, and got him started on the equipment spread, taking him up the queue. He'd left Merlin to take care of the paperwork -- sometimes there was just too much paperwork -- coming back when it was done for the next rung on the equipment ladder, and they'd put off dealing with the communications equipment for last.
After a half hour of talking tech with the quartermaster -- who knew all the big words but couldn't be arsed to test half of the equipment -- Merlin noticed that Lance was nowhere to be seen. Merlin hoped that Lance would return once he was done with the paperwork, because he was hungry, and he wasn't keen on trying to find his own way to the mess hall for a late dinner, or to the barracks, in the hopes that Excalibur had made it back.
He figured Lance had gone to check on them, too.
Merlin sighed at the equipment that was being shoved at him and reminded himself that he hadn't had much better when he was on active duty, that he'd been spoiled by the gear in the reserves. The Box was battered, bruised, and... he nodded thanks at the quartermaster when he dropped a few packages of spare parts that Merlin was going to need to tweak the Box. It wasn't much, the rest of the parts he would need were going on order, but it would be a good start.
He barely paid attention as two soldiers -- a couple of kids, really, though in comparison, Merlin wasn't much older than they were -- shoved their boxes at the quartermaster and turned away to leave as quickly as they could.
"Aren't you going to tell the Master Sergeant that those are broken?"
Merlin glanced over his shoulder and back at the circuits, and back again.
If there was ever a soldier that Merlin would lose his drool over in the army, it was this one. It wasn't so much the good looks, the chiselled cheekbones, the determined set of his jaw, the gold of his skin or the blond that was more sun-kissed than hair had a right to be, glued sweat-sticky on his brow. It wasn't the solid frame, the swagger in the walk, or even the flash of blue eyes that were a bit like looking at a crisp winter sky.
It was the whole package. On the "Merlin's Type" checklist, the man hit every single criteria and even a couple more that Merlin was hastily jotting down so that he wouldn't forget them later.
Merlin tried to look away, and he would have, if he hadn't felt sorry for the two soldiers trying to get out an explanation to the quartermaster.
"What do you mean, they're broken? I checked them out myself before they were signed out," the Master Sergeant said.
"Well, either they were broken on the way," the blond said, his voice on edge, "Or these two had no business signing them out in the first place. Which is it, boys? Did you pull a fast one on the Master Sergeant when you said you were vetted on those?"
Merlin glanced at the short-range radios and back at the two soldiers. They weren't highly complicated and were typical of the models that were assigned in the field, but once out of range of an encrypted repeater, communication was limited to between-units, rather than between-areas. One of the two kids had gone a little pale, and the other stammered, "We checked out on those, Sir. I swear it. They were working fine until we got into town. See for yourself, we can't even raise Base on them from here."
The quartermaster picked up one of the units and started pushing buttons. "They seem fine... no, wait, I'm getting static. I'm sorry, Sir, I'm not an expert. I'll have to get an engineer on these, try to see what the problem really is."
"Mind if I take a look?" Merlin asked, uncomfortably aware that the blond's intense gaze had shifted from withering the two soldiers to ashes to shooting laser beams in his direction for butting in. "It might be a problem with the modulator. The sand can get in them and..."
"I really don't care," the blond snapped.
The man tumbled from Merlin's Drool-Worthy list with those four words, and Merlin found himself forcing a smile on his lips -- in part to reassure the two soldiers who looked like they alternatingly wanted to sink into the ground or run away, in part to try to disarm the man from the deadly chip on his shoulder that could go off any second now.
The blond wasn't done talking. "One of two things happened, and I want to know which one -- substandard equipment, or people trying to make something of themselves that they aren't. Someone's being put on report for it either way. We nearly lost a patrol because we lost contact with HQ, almost didn't reach a downed Humvee in time, and couldn't radio in air support."
"You got them out, yeah?" Merlin asked. Those blue eyes could cut steel, Merlin was sure of it, because they darted sideways in his direction like a scythe cutting across a wheat field. He decided to cut the man off before he said something else, and tilted his head sideways, putting a hand on the blond's remarkably well-muscled shoulder to turn him aside and walk him a few feet away -- which wasn't easy, because the man resisted. He lowered his voice to keep the others from overhearing.
"Look, the kids feel bad enough about it already --" in fact, they looked like they were going to faint any second now -- "And those radios are prone to static and dropped connections if they get too much sand in them, or weren't cleaned out properly last time they were handed in."
"Who asked you?" the blond snapped.
"Nobody. I'm just saying, the situation might not be as cut and dried as you think," Merlin said. "I've just been through three Boxes before I found one that wasn't fouled full of sand, so I'm betting the radios are down the same road. If your lot was in a hurry getting out, the Corporals probably skipped the proper checks. That makes sense, yeah?"
This close to the other man, Merlin couldn't miss the smell of salty sweat or his natural scent, and it was hard to keep his eyes from drifting down to the firm set of his jaw or the curve of his neck -- but Merlin managed. He half-expected the blond to break away from Merlin, to knock him down and continue on the chest-thumping rant, but instead, Merlin found himself being studied by narrow eyes that carried more of the I'm considering it glint than the get the hell off of me glare.
Finally, he turned away from Merlin and went back to the quartermaster and said, "Open up the cases."
It was a matter of seconds for the quartermaster's expert hand to crack them open, one after the other. When he upended them to shake out the sand, there was half a tablespoon's worth of very fine, very abrasive white grains for each of the units, and no one had to tell anyone that this was far more sand than could have gotten into them during such a short patrol. The quartermaster went white, the two corporals were relieved, and the blond's lips went into a thin, kissable line that made Merlin look away.
"I want every communication unit stripped and cleaned by sunrise," he told the quartermaster, his voice like steel, and he turned his eyes to the two soldiers who suddenly quailed under his gaze. "And you're going to help him. Maybe, just maybe, if you're done by the time I walk in here tomorrow morning, I might not put the three of you on report."
"Yes, sir!" the three of them said in chorus.
Merlin was just about to go back to his Box when the blond clamped a heavy hand on his shoulder. "And you're going to show them how, since you're such an expert."
You arse! Merlin thought, but he nodded, preferring that the job be done right in any case. "Yeah, sure."
The blond gave him an odd look. It was a very familiar look that for some reason always took Merlin a few heartbeats to clue in on. Merlin gave him as sparkling a grin as he could manage, and repeated, "Yeah, sure, sir."
He didn't salute. He figured that would be too much.
The blond snorted, and stormed out of the tent.
Arthur fumed. It wasn't that he was still blistering over the snafu with the radios -- the number of times it had happened on active missions, he should be used to it by now. It was that some young punk had taken him to task. Arthur hadn't been wrong, not exactly, but he'd been about to blame the wrong thing, and he would have ended up looking a giant arse if he hadn't thought about what the man had said.
He couldn't remember when the last time was that he'd listened to someone outside of his team -- superior officers excluded. It wasn't that Arthur didn't listen to people or that he didn't take into consideration their advice. It was that he didn't normally pay attention to the people who didn't know what the hell they were talking about in the first place, who hadn't been there, and what did they know about it, anyway? He wasn't even sure why he had given this complete stranger the chance to say more than a couple of words.
More than likely, Arthur had given the other man the respect due any SAS, and that was only because he'd been sure that the man was one of them. SAS soldiers carried themselves differently -- and wore even at-ease greens differently, as if they expected that at any moment now, everything would go to shite. That was why he'd listened. It had absolutely nothing to do with bright, guileless eyes that were a startling jewel blue, like the sky at moonrise and the sky at sunrise had gotten together and made babies in that exact shade. It had absolutely nothing to do with sharp cheekbones that could break the heavy water crash on an angry English shore, nothing to do with lips that seemed perpetually set in calm repose except for when he grinned wide, nothing to do with the crazy hair that did what it wanted and begged for a bit of discipline. It absolutely, completely, did not have anything to do with the familiar, comfortable weight of his hand on Arthur's arm.
He'd paid attention only because the man was a SAS soldier. That was all. No other reason.
Arthur rubbed his face and only succeeded in wiping the crusted dirt into his eyes. He was either going to have to find out who that man was, and get this sudden spate of oh my God I must have him out of his system as soon as he could, or avoid him so that there wouldn't be any uncomfortable issues on base. He really couldn't afford to compromise his position, not now.
Arthur hadn't gone more than halfway across the rough road when it occurred to him that, if there was someone on base that he didn't know about who knew about communications systems, why wasn't he a communications specialist, and why didn't he know about their existence?
He walked back and was about to barge in and demand the man's ID, find out where he was stationed, and what his specs were to see if he could steal him away from wherever he was headed, at least to give him a try -- on the field, he reminded himself firmly, and not in bed, because that would be a disaster of court-martial and dishonourable discharge proportions, especially if he wasn't a commissioned officer -- when he heard the voices inside.
His voice. And it wasn't anything like the soft, encouraging tone he'd used on Arthur.
"All right, you lot. I've got somewhere to be, so I'm only going to show you this once. Are you sure these are all the models you've got?"
"Yes, sir," the quartermaster said.
"Okay. You each have one of these, right? You open it like this..." There was a pause, then, an annoyed, "Why don't you make people clean their equipment before they hand them in? Have them crack whatever they sign out open, and you don't sign them back in until you eyeball that it's clean and test that it works? That's SOP."
"SOP becomes SOL when they come back dragging arse," the quartermaster said.
"Now, that's bollocks. You make them do it, or I'll make sure you do get written up for not following procedures. Better to bend a few noses and have these operational for the next mission, and not find out at the worst possible that it's nothing but dead weight, yeah?" The tone was friendly, amiable, persuasive, even, in a way that was a slap on the back of the head without feeling like one.
"Yes, sir," the quartermaster said, and he didn't sound put out.
There was silent murmuring that amounted to the SAS soldier inspecting the cracked cases when one of the corporals said, "Thank you, sir."
"Saving our arses with the Captain, sir. He's a bit of an..."
"I wasn't meaning on saving your arses," the SAS soldier interrupted, an edge to his voice, "Fact is, I agree with him. Look at this, it's the third set I've opened, and they're all useless. This is a symptom of you lot being too damn lazy to clean up your own messes so you leave it to the quartermaster to deal with. That's going to stop. You hear me? You pass it on, or if I get wind that someone's being a spoiled princess and can't deal with their gear, I'm going to come back to you two and make you wish I hadn't butted in."
Arthur swallowed a laugh -- the man's voice was just a little too warm to be frightening. The man wasn't any real competition for the title of biggest bark in the compound -- Arthur had that one won by spades. But the frightened squeak from the second corporal made Arthur wonder.
"Good. That's better. All right, the next set. It's a pain to crack open, but don't force it. Here, right, you see that wedge?" The man's tone hadn't broken stride, not once, and now he was in teacher mode, quiet, calm, and patient in a way none of Arthur's teachers had been patient because they'd known he was Uther Pendragon's son and expected more of him than the usual run-of-the-mill greenie. Arthur found himself wanting to walk in, to observe, to watch, but he snapped out of it when a heavy transport rumbled past, and used the noise to cover his retreat.
He made a mental note to look for the SAS soldier later on. If he knew how to crack open the communication devices, then he must be a specialist. It didn't occur to Arthur that it might even be the specialist he'd been promised -- he couldn't be that lucky.
Arthur turned around to see Leon hurrying to intercept, sending a concerned glance over his shoulder to the equipment tent. "Do I have to send in a clean-up crew to remove the evidence?"
Was Arthur really that transparent? He hadn't been about to tear the corporals' heads off. Just beat them against the ground a few times.
"No," Arthur said, shaking his head, knowing full well that if the other SAS soldier hadn't stepped in that the tent would definitely have needed a good mop-up before it could be declared biohazard-free. "They're still breathing. Do me a favour, though. Tomorrow, send a couple of the boys in to request various equipment, open them up and make sure they're clean. Looks like some of the comm-crews are signing in and not cleaning their kits first."
"You're not serious?" Leon's eyebrow shot up. That was a violation -- and a danger to everyone who was out in the field if they were sent out with substandard equipment, especially if that equipment was communications.
"It's getting written up," Arthur said, flinching inwardly at the prospect of even more paperwork on top of the paperwork he was having to write for the patrol snafu. At this rate, he was going to be up all night.
Gwaine caught up to them at a trot, still bounding with energy despite the nearly 10k jog through the city with everyone's nerves on full alert. "Our boy's in," he said without preamble. "Ducked my head in barracks and saw his stack in the corner."
"Any sign of him?" Arthur asked.
"He's with Lance," Leon said, shrugging. "Or at least, he was. Lance spotted us on the tarmac and gave us a hand with the gurneys. Said he'd left Emrys with sign-out sheets to get his kit sorted, and he was on his way to fetch him for tea."
"Excellent," Gwaine said. "We all get to torture him together like the big happy family we are."
Leon coughed to hide his smirk. The members of Excalibur ate together, so that meant that Arthur would meet the poor sap sooner than later, and it meant a round table interrogation from which there was no escape.
"God, I hope he doesn't snore. Roman snored. I never slept," Gwaine said suddenly. At the look he got from Arthur and Leon, he said, "What? I have the bunk right next to. I have rights to complain."
"You snore," Arthur reminded him. His bunk was all the way across the tent, and he could hear it as loud as if Gwaine were next to him. Which he'd been, once. Back in high school, well before uni, well before the army, and it was a sound that Arthur neither missed nor cared to hear again that close.
"I do not."
"You bray like a mule with a hot poker up its arse," Leon said.
"Your mother doesn't complain," Gwaine retorted.
"That's because she's stone deaf," Leon said.
Gwaine chortled. "So you don't have any issues with her sleeping with me?"
"She's slept with pigs, why not with a mule?" Leon asked. He took a deep breath. "It's not like you smell any better."
"Speaking of, we might as well make ourselves somewhat presentable," Arthur said.
"Too late in his case," Leon said, thumbing toward Gwaine.
"Dump your gear, shower, and we'll meet at the mess in ten," Arthur said. "Make sure everyone shows up. We're due a late meal after today's clusterfuck."
Leon's stride increased. "Yes, sir."
Gwaine waited until Leon had ducked into the barracks before taking Arthur's arm. "Keen to meet the new boy, aren't you?"
"I want to get this over with. Either Emrys turns out to be halfway decent and we get back on the field where we belong, or we'd have better luck with the Corpsmen we had earlier," Arthur said. "We're scraping the bottom of the barrel, as it is. How good can he really be?"
"Better than you think, maybe?" Gwaine suggested. "I asked around. Turns out he's been active duty before, seconded to the Artists to train new recruits."
"That's not a great reference," Arthur said with a groan. "Look at the state of the greenies we're getting. If he had anything to do with those..."
Gwaine chuckled. "Fine. Hammer at him then and see if he breaks. Do me a favour, though. I could stand to win the pot this time around -- Percy's won it the last few. Don't break him for at least ten days. That's when I've got the pool blocked off for."
The team was freshly showered, the mess tent was nearly empty, and the food was fresh only because the kitchen knew they were coming and had thrown another scoop of mystery meat on the griddle. The small talk was small talk, compounded with occasional shared glances and the furtive look toward the tent flap every time someone walked or drove by. No one would admit it, but they were curious about this so-called Emrys who was supposed to be their saviour from the slow death of base boredom.
A couple of heads looked up when the tent flap -- more of a wooden door, really, but "flap" was more fun to say -- opened and closed with a faint little bang. Tall, browned, and fit, Lance walked in with a brush of fingers through his unruly curls, and everyone, even Arthur (though he tried not to be obvious about it), tried to see who was behind him.
He was alone.
"Aw, it's just you," Perceval said.
"Christ, Lance, you're that keen on winning the pot, you lost him already?" Owain said.
"I would never do that." Lance raised two rude fingers at Owain and went to the buffet line. They all had to wait until he had a hubcap-sized tray heaped with food, spoke quietly with the people behind the line with a gesture that couldn't be mistaken for anything other than there's one more guy coming, keep things warm for him, why don't you?, and finally came over, already forking a watered-down version of real food into his mouth.
"Make a hole," Lance said, sitting across from Arthur, putting his tray on the table without waiting for Geraint or Perceval to move theirs, but they moved just in time. He gestured down the row. "Suck in your fat arse, Owain, give us some room. Emrys will be here in a few minutes."
"What's he like?" Gwaine asked, but they all had to wait for Lance to finish chewing a quarter of a slab of what might be meat, but which was probably more gelatinous protein. The base was in between supply runs, everyone was hurting for real meat, but no one was passing up food no matter how grey it looked.
"Keen, on the ball, no dumb questions," Lance said. "A nice enough sort. Decent first impression. You'll see."
"Taking him a damn long time to get his kit sorted," Arthur said.
"Couldn't be helped," Lance said. "Major Kilgarath wanted to see him as soon as he got on base, and by the time I tracked him down, he was already heading towards our barracks. Between getting the incoming sorted at the med tent, finding him in supplies, and lifting the parts and the bits he's picked up from only God knows where to get his Box fixed..."
Arthur listened, but like everyone else, he'd make his own judgement when he met Emrys himself. Lance was a great judge of character, but he was also the last person to say anything bad about anyone, even if he hated their guts. For all anyone at the table knew, Lance didn't like Emrys -- which was a feat in itself, since Lance probably liked everyone on the planet.
He swirled the last of his peas into the potato mash and flattened out the grey protein snot before dropping his fork onto the plate and rubbing his face. For a brief moment, the chatter at the table fell silent, and he knew why, too -- his team knew as well as he did that they needed to catch a break, and they didn't like to see him frustrated. He lowered his hands, shook his head, and the conversation resumed, only to be interrupted a second later.
"Sorry I'm late," a familiar voice said, and it was familiar only in that Arthur had heard it less than an hour ago, and his insides squeezed tight like he was having a stupid schoolgirl crush attack. He looked up behind Lance to see Lieutenant Merlin Emrys, his blue eyes sparkling, his smile disarming. Emrys didn't seem to have noticed Arthur yet, because he looked over the table. "I got a bit waylaid. I'm Merlin Emrys."
Everyone looked at Arthur before introducing themselves, and the words were out of Arthur's mouth before he could stop them. "Is 'got a bit waylaid' an euphemism for getting a bit lost?"
Emrys almost gave himself whiplash, recoiling a bit, and catching his balance a second later. His eyes widened just a little bit, and they really were just like jewels, Arthur realized. The flash of recognition made those sparkles in them stay a little longer, like drops of molten gold had fallen into them, and Emrys' smile wavered. He glanced around the table once, as if taking in the camouflaged rank that was embroidered on everyone's shoulders and adding one plus one and coming up with Arthur was his new C.O..
"No, sir," Emrys said, catching himself with surprising speed, "It's polite for 'I encountered the biggest prat in the whole of the Merry Old in the equipment tent, stopped him from making an arse out of himself, and got stuck with showing a pair of greenies and an overworked quartermaster how to properly maintain comm equipment for my trouble'. Sir."
Besides Arthur, Leon choked on the limp and lumpy vegetable that might be technically broccoli but looked more like a mound of overcooked collard greens. The rest of the table glanced between Arthur and Emrys, sensing that they'd missed something. Gwaine, always quick on the uptake, looked from Arthur to Leon to Emrys, and started to say something, but thought better of it.
Arthur stared. Emrys had delivered his answer without stumbling, there had been no hostility in his tone, and there was no missing the I'm fucked, aren't I, so why don't I make it worth my while hiding behind that smirk of his. There weren't many people outside the team who would stand up to Arthur, much less speak to him that way, not once, but twice, and Arthur found himself getting to his feet. Everyone else tried to shy away without looking like they were ducking for cover.
Everyone else except Emrys, who seemed secure right behind Lance -- and Lance, still shovelling food in his mouth, was oblivious.
"Damn shame they took the stocks off the books as the going rate for insubordination," Arthur said.
"Ain't it just," Emrys said, his tone cheeky, his accent very American, very mocking all of a sudden, and Arthur couldn't decide if the man really was that stupid, or really that foolhardy. The stare-down silence stretched, and Emrys leaned forward a bit, as if offering some advice. "Can always set me up for the usual rota of toilet cleaning, floor scrubbing, dry-cleaning getting, and all the assorted shite you give your new radioheads. I mean, not that I'm a big fan of scut work, but if it'll make you feel better..."
It was Gwaine's turn to clamp a hand over his mouth to do something about his snorting laugher.
"Didn't you know? Those are standard duties for comm-specs," Arthur said, crossing his arms.
Emrys' grin went a little lopsided, falling on the sheepish side, and he said pleasantly, almost challengingly, "Looking forward to it."
Arthur raised a brow and glanced him over. He hadn't gotten a good grasp of the man in the equipment tent, but now he was acutely aware that the man was atypical of the usual SAS soldier -- and given the broad range of specialties and SAS personnel, that placed Emrys squarely in the outskirts of what was typical. Communication specialists had to carry the usual gear, plus the communication equipment, and that was easily thirty to forty pounds of additional weight. Arthur wondered if Emrys sacrificed rations from his kit to keep his pack down to a manageable weight, and how often Arthur was going to have to drag a fainting Southern Belle around just because Emrys had run out of food. That was a mark against him already. His uniform fit, but he was scrawny in comparison to any of Excalibur's members. Hell, he was scrawny in comparison to a 15 year old boy still growing into his limbs, and it looked like Emrys never got that far.
"You sure you can keep up with us?"
"We'll find out, won't we?" Emrys said.
They stared at each other for a little while longer, and finally, Arthur shook his head and thought nasty things about fate and prickly, chain-smoking Majors who thought they could pick a better team member for Excalibur than Arthur himself could, and he sat down slowly, waving his hand dismissively. "Feed yourself, why don't you?"
The team at least waited until Emrys was out of earshot before leaning in to whisper furiously, asking questions about the equipment tent that Arthur didn't want to answer, and it was Leon -- traitorous Leon -- who said, "That's one hell of a first impression, if he kept you from murdering those corporals -- and survived the attempt."
Owain leaned his head in and got Arthur's attention. "Can we keep him?"
Not even Arthur's patented how badly do you want me to hurt you at tomorrow's training? glare stopped the snickers going around the table.
If there was anything worse than finding out that his new C.O. was the same guy -- the same drop-dead, gorgeous, to die for guy -- as the one who'd barged into the equipment tent with a-vengeful-storm-in-and-take-over attitude, it was sitting across from him at the mess hall, trying to eat while following the rapid-fire conversation going on over the table, and the whole time, Captain Prat watched him and never said a word. In fact, the most he did was glower.
Merlin had the feeling that he had been screwed right from the get-go, and he couldn't possibly get any lower down on the man's shite list if he tried, so he did what he did best naturally, and that was to talk to people and listen. And that was a good thing, because he could tell that the team had a lot of questions for him. But first -- he had to survive the introductions.
His head was a whirlwind of names and specialties and one-liner backgrounds as everyone leaned over to shake his hand, and Merlin quickly got the feeling that everyone in Excalibur was an equal member, no matter who led the team and what rank they had, though there was no mistaking the born-to-lead vibe that wrapped around Arthur Pendragon like a second skin. When he spoke -- if he spoke, which was not once since Merlin sat down -- everyone shut up and listened, and there was no doubt that they considered him their undisputed leader, and one they'd follow to the very end. And somehow, at the same time, given how relaxed they were, it was as if the group was sitting in an ordinary pub in the backstreets of London cheering each other and talking dirt the way any other group would right after a footie game.
Merlin liked them all immediately, drawn to the camaraderie, and the only thing holding him back from joining in was the stiff, disapproving glare coming at him from the unblinking, stony Captain right across from him.
There was Lance, impossibly charming and terribly good-looking, who was the team's medic and planned on going on to become a doctor later, after this last military stint was done. He was two-years into a marriage with the lovely brunette in the picture he carried everywhere he went, even the shower, so it was a good thing he had a few extra copies. A "no-wedding-ring?" question was answered with a sad smile and a shrug, and a whispered, "She's wearing it for me until I come home" that sounded so sweet and endearing that it made Merlin's teeth ache.
There was Leon, who was Arthur's second-in-command in everything except rank, calm and quiet and self-assured, the voice of reason that everyone seemed to listen to except for Arthur himself, and that was somehow all right with Leon, because Arthur was the Captain. Leon's love life was three years in the making to a woman with dark hair and piercing blue eyes and runway-worthy looks, and she looked terrifying and dangerous in the photograph Leon handed him. Everyone told Merlin that was exactly what she was like in person.
Gwaine, a man who was drool-worthy in his own right with short brown hair that somehow looked as harried as Merlin's own -- but in Gwaine's case, it looked good -- was the one that everyone picked on and who picked on everyone in turn, the friendly, a-little-crazy runt of the litter sitting next to Arthur as if Arthur didn't trust him to behave if he was out of his sight. He had an easy grin, a blasé, laissez-faire demeanour and an inventory of wisecracks that he used as readily as he did his sniper rifle.
There was Owain and Perceval and Geraint and Galahad and the rest, for a total of fifteen people all included, not counting Merlin, and he suddenly knew more about his new teammates than he knew about anyone else in the army, not counting Will. And then there was Arthur, Captain Prat himself, who hadn't breathed a word even when everyone left an expectant lull in the conversation, hoping he'd fill it with something or other. Arthur was too busy warming the bench, his arms crossed on the table, and glowering.
"What about you, Merlin?" Lieutenant had become Emrys had become Merlin in three people flat, formalities dropped within the first thirty seconds of having tasted the grey protein slop without gagging too much. It was Gwaine asking, and Gwaine who asked with a sharp, pointy stick, because he pursued, "Got a girl back home?"
"Me? I've got a couple of years still, so from the sounds of it, you lot are off the reservations six months before I am. And, well, I'll go into engineering, obviously, and I haven't decided if I want to go back to school for the whole pretentious extra-letters-at-the-end-of-my-name thing, or if I'll just plunge into R&D and build people better toys," Merlin said.
"Better toys, definitely," Owain said. "Can't go wrong with fame and fortune in better toys."
"You just like blowing things up," Perceval pointed out. Owain was the team's demolitions specialist, though he sullenly admitted that he spent more time defusing devices than making them go boom. Merlin smirked and glanced around the team afterward -- except for Lance, who was determined to go to medical school, most of the others sounded as if they had job prospects post-SAS lined up already, but avoided going into real details.
"Wouldn't you?" Owain asked. A few people snorted.
"Anyone waiting for you back home?" Leon asked, before Gwaine could poke at Merlin across the table with his fork.
"No, no one," Merlin said, half shrugging. Definitely no girl, unless he counted his mother, and he was sure the rest of the team didn't. Except for one relationship with a girl named Freya in high school that lasted exactly two months -- and it only lasted that long because Freya was making another guy jealous, which was fine with Merlin -- he was absolutely bollocks with girls, even if he leaned that way. Which, he didn't. And the last boyfriend? That was ages ago, too, ending disastrously when Merlin signed up in the army, and except for a few random men since then, Merlin had been living like a monk.
A very frustrated monk.
He tried to ignore the still-glowering Captain. For one thing, the army was his job, not an all-you-can-eat buffet. For another, the Captain was his C.O. Not only could Merlin be so lucky as to get a transfer to active duty and get assigned to Excalibur all in the same night, but there was no way he would also be as lucky as finding out that blond, beautiful and glaring Arthur Pendragon was into guys. Then there was the other problem. Arthur was his C.O. That kind of thing was just not done.
"I heard you got shot," Perceval said.
Merlin nearly choked on the green mass of vegetables and looked down the row. "Where did you hear that?"
"Oh..." Perceval's expression scrunched up as if he were trying to remember, and he waved a hand in the air thoughtfully before his hand pointed accusingly at Gwaine.
Everyone turned to look at him.
"What? Why is everyone looking at me like that?" Gwaine tried to look innocent, but it wasn't a look he wore very well. "I heard it from a perfectly good source."
"About five-five, brunette, with pecs out to..." Galahad asked, gesturing with his hands over his chest. "Works in the Major's office?"
"You know Matty!" Gwaine exclaimed with a lecherous grin, but gave Merlin an apologetic look. "He looked in your file for me."
It was Arthur who asked, "What else was in his file?"
Gwaine shrugged and waved his fork in the air. "Oh, I don't know. We didn't get much past the oh my god, that's so hot, he got shot! part of the conversation. Too busy... you know."
"Jesus, Gwaine," Perceval said. "What about Marsha over at the MASH, with the American unit?"
"Marsha..." Gwaine sucked a tooth while he gave it some thought. "Oh, Marsha! It was a one-off. Turns out she's married."
Merlin managed not to raise a brow at Gwaine's revelations, but he noticed with some relief that the rest of the team only shook their heads and rolled their eyes, as if Gwaine's indiscretions -- indiscretions that looked to be equal-opportunity -- were a regular thing, and they would be more surprised if he stopped. Merlin hid his smirk behind a mouthful of slop, tried not to think too much about the taste, and realized that some of the team was watching him, as if worrying about his reaction.
He half-wanted to tell them that there was really nothing to worry about, but the first night with Excalibur was probably not the time for heartfelt revelations about his sexual preference. Merlin took another bite of what passed for food and decided that if there was one thing he regretted about the transfer, it was the foul slop that was served in-between supply runs. That, and the risk of getting bounced back to the training centre in Wales if he didn't appease the very critical wiles of the cranky Captain Prat.
"Well?" Arthur asked, an imperious eyebrow raised. "Were you shot?"
That eyebrow, Merlin decided, should be declared a dangerous weapon. He put down his fork and sighed heavily. "My last posting was 21, squad E, a teaching slot in cryptography, cyber-cracking, and telecommunications, and for fun, I hunted the greenies into the hills and ran search and rescue when they got lost."
Leon whistled, Gwaine looked suitably impressed, and Lance gave him an evaluating double-take, as if he hadn't expected that of Merlin.
"Hardly the place where I'd get shot, and even if I were, I wouldn't admit it," Merlin said.
Arthur, on the other hand, looked bored. It wasn't even much of an effort for him to look bored. Merlin didn't know why he wanted Arthur to at least show some interest.
"Before that," Merlin said, his hands damp with sweat, and he resisted the urge to put them under the table to wipe on his pants leg, "I was 22, squad D."
He didn't mention his old team designation on purpose. It was over a year ago, but the memories were fresh, and he didn't want to wake up everyone in the compound because he had another bad dream.
"Sniper," Merlin said, and shut up. He'd gone through it so many times that the story was burned in his head, even if he didn't dream about it sometimes, waking up in a cold sweat, screaming for Lucas to get down, for Mark to get his ass behind the firing line, for MacKay to snap out of it except he couldn't hear because he hadn't gotten away from the concussion grenade in time, and suddenly, there wasn't anything but red in his line of sight, blackness closing in, and warmth pouring down his chest where the bullet got him right where the Kevlar didn't cover, and at an angle that missed the artery right over his heart by a bare centimetre, if not less.
Merlin remembered the spell he'd been about to cast, a windstorm that would hide them from the rebels bearing down on their position. He remembered wanting very badly to find out who had sent the orders down to the team to go out to that precise location at that precise time on that exact day so that he could knock on their office door, wrap his hands around their neck, and choke the ever-blessed life out of them. He remembered the bullet in the chest. He didn't remember the mortar that blew up seconds after he fell or the shrapnel that left pockmarked scars on his legs and arms, but by then he'd been out like a light, most of his team had been killed, and the survivors took early retirement from the military.
He'd been lucky, very lucky, because Will, who'd been with another team, had heard it all over the radio and convinced his C.O. to detour from their escort duty, hike thirty kilometres out of their way, and mop up the carnage, because there wasn't anything else to mop up. The rebels were long gone by then.
"Stung like a bitch," Merlin said with a forced smile that was probably more of a grimace, but it was a grimace that Excalibur knew well, because a couple of them tucked their chins in their chests while a couple of others gave him a knowing nod. The silence stretched into bowstring-taut awkwardness.
"That's nothing," Gwaine said, his expression severe. He raised a hand to show a bandaged finger. "I have a paper cut."
There was a chorus of groans all the way around the table, with some of the cold, gelatinous remnants of the grey protein slop loaded into spoon-catapults, and even Arthur -- cold, stone-faced, unimpressed and glowering Arthur -- reacted by elbowing Gwaine. Someone snorted and said, "My God, Gwaine, you're such a fucking pussy."
"You don't get it," Gwaine half-wailed, still holding his finger up in the air. "It's my trigger finger. My trigger finger is critical to my performance. You don't want me covering your backs with an unreliable trigger finger, do you? I should have worksman's compensation or something like that. Or some prolonged R&R until I heal up. There might be scar tissue, too, and we want to avoid that because that'll alter my reaction time, you know, and reaction time is everything. You guys should be taking care of me."
Merlin couldn't help it. Gwaine reminded him so much of Will at right that moment that he snorted with laughter.
They were kicked out of the mess hall not long after that, with some of the team heading ahead, a couple of others ditching for a late-night shower when the water might still be hot, but most of them following Arthur, who was several paces ahead of where Merlin was walking with Lance. The medic didn't say anything -- the team's energy had ebbed out of them as soon as they stepped out into the night, as if they were exhausted and would only show it when no one could really see it and be sure that they saw it. There was pride here, and no fair bit of honour, and Merlin understood that. He still smarted, even all this time later, that he hadn't been fast enough to protect his team from the ambush.
He should have known that something was wrong. He should have done something. He could have, too, if he hadn't been so paranoid about keeping his secret quiet.
There had been a lot of could-haves and should-haves in the beginning, and that hadn't really changed.
"How bad was it?" Lance asked, his voice quiet, but a few people nearby -- Gwaine, Leon and even Arthur, ahead of them, slowed down or shifted their bodies or turned their heads or all of the above so that they could hear Merlin when Merlin answered.
Merlin found that he didn't mind.
"Bad," he said finally. "We shouldn't have been there. It was a cock-up of epic proportions."
Never mind his team, the people who died. Never mind that he'd nearly gone, too. It was what came after, when he wasn't so weak that he would topple over in a strong wind, sitting in the witness box at a military tribunal where everyone was trying to figure out what went wrong, because someone in the command centre had called bollocks and pointed fingers, and someone else called double-bollocks and had pointed fingers right back. It was that the tribunal adjourned with the usual round of slap-on-wrist punishments and that the man who'd given the order in the first place walked out of there as slimily squeaky-clean as he'd walked in.
It must have been on everyone's minds, too, because Leon asked, "Did it get taken care of?"
"What do you think?" Merlin asked. He tried, and failed, to keep the bitterness out of his voice.
No one answered him.
Two bodies were sleeping in their bunks, several more were on their way there, and three more came in at a run, still damp from the showers and trying to get into the warmth of the barracks to escape the desert chill. Merlin shed down to his bare minimums -- everyone had a different definition of bare minimum that they could get away with while still gearing up in thirty seconds flat -- and sat down on his bunk, careful not to dislodge the small packages of chips and transistors and wiring that he'd scavenged from the equipment tent. He pulled his Box -- it wasn't any bigger than a large box of tissue paper, if a little more rectangular and flatter on the front, but a whole lot heavier -- into his lap, dug into his backpack for his slim case of tools, and cracked it open.
Every good comm-spec customized their Boxes, and whoever was lucky enough to get their hands on a Box that had been in a SAS specialist's kit was getting a pirate's treasure of riches -- if they could work out how to use it first. The last thing Merlin wanted was for one of his Boxes to end up in enemy hands, and he reworked the controls to make it difficult for someone unfamiliar with his tricks to use, and then he went to work to boost the power and make sure the connections were good and solid and catching. He didn't realize how long he'd worked on it -- and he was far from finished at the end, because he needed more parts and he needed a stronger magnifying glass and a solder, and some blanks so that he could build a new short board or two, but the Box would suit him for now. On top of the electronic switches, he still needed to carve a rune on the inside of it and cast the spellwork needed to make it both impervious to damage and sandproof and waterproof and everything-proof, but that could wait until he wasn't in such a public place where people would wonder why he was muttering under his breath and why his eyes were bright and gold.
By the time he closed the Box and looked up, most of the lights in the barracks were shut off, everyone who was sleeping was snoring or breathing quietly, and the only two people awake in the room were Merlin and Captain Prat, who was sitting at his desk, holding his head up with one hand, and writing notes with the other.
The yellow light turned his hair into something invitingly soft and touchable, and if Merlin wasn't on the other end of the barracks, Gwaine's snoring adding a rhythm to the noise outside the tent, he would be tempted to reach out and stroke Arthur's hair. As Merlin packed away his tools and slipped the Box into the locked chest at the foot of his bunk, Arthur put down his pen and rubbed his face, reaching back with his arms a moment later for a spine-popping stretch.
Merlin turned away before he could get caught looking, collected a few more stray parts with pointy ends that he didn't want to be sleeping on, and put them away. Just as he slipped under the rough blanket and reached for the lamp to turn it off, he glanced at Arthur, and for a brief moment before the tungsten in the bulb stopped carrying the electrical current, their eyes met.
Arthur looked away almost at once with the guilty twist of someone who'd been caught doing something he probably shouldn't have. He stood up abruptly, put his paperwork together, and yanked the cord to the light on his desk with such force that the lamp nearly tipped over. Arthur didn't make any noise as he fumbled in the dark to kick off his boots and shed his pants before slipping under the covers, and Merlin didn't settle down until he heard Arthur's breathing slow.
He couldn't help but wonder.
What was that about?
It was routine patrol after routine patrol, and Arthur's reports were starting to sound the same.
He put down his pen and rubbed his face, sighing. He couldn't really complain. The patrols were boring, mindless, but his team was kept occupied while they broke in their new communications specialist, who, as it turned out, really was a communications specialist, and he didn't need a whole lot of breaking in. Merlin knew how things worked, he understood the rules, and he took his job seriously.
Except when he didn't, and slipped or tripped or dropped something, miraculously without breaking anything, accidentally firing his gun, or giving away their position.
Unlike everyone else, including the last replacement, Roman, Merlin fit in everywhere he went, charming people left and right the way Lance did, except not quite. He didn't have quite the same charm, and it was aggravating to Arthur, who had hoped that Merlin would antagonize everyone from the get go.
If Merlin antagonized anyone, it was Arthur.
The people who ran the mess hall saved Merlin some of the best bits -- which he shared with the rest of the team, and that made the seats next to Merlin a real estate premium. The local kids who hung out at the very edges of the base called for Merlin to join them in a game of footie, and if he could, he'd spare a few minutes kicking the ball around even though he was completely useless at it. Some of the troublemaker punks who watched them from afar would smile and wave at Merlin, and Merlin would walk over to them, share a laugh or two, and come back. Pretty soon, Merlin had himself an information network that was the envy of most, all without even trying very hard.
The team liked Merlin. They talked to him, they included him in the late night card games -- something else that Merlin was useless at, although he somehow always managed to break even. They took him out for the lay of the land and walked him through the black market where no one was supposed to get things, but did anyway, and as soon as they learned that Merlin was fluent in about five different languages, including the local dialect and not a bad hand at bargaining, the others took him along to get a few precious items, like the tin of tea that Merlin had scavenged from somewhere and left on Arthur's desk.
He picked it up. It was his favourite. He'd run out a few days before, and it took exactly twenty-four hours before another one turned up. Gwaine tried to take credit, but Leon said he'd seen Merlin leave it on the pile of papers where Arthur couldn't miss it, which left Arthur to answer the declaration with a snort and a grumpy feeling that didn't leave him for the rest of the day. He didn't want to like Merlin. He thought it was a bad idea to like Merlin when Merlin wasn't likely to stick around very long.
Arthur tried to hurry that up by finding fault in everything Merlin did or was. It wasn't easy.
Merlin was surprisingly fit despite his slighter frame -- he kept up on the morning rucksack runs, carrying the same weight as everyone else. He kept his equipment in top shape, even with the insidious sand that got in every nook and cranny no matter how well they buttoned down the tent in the occasional heavy wind. He wasn't as crack a shot as Gwaine -- no one was-- but he met the standard, and while his Krav Maga was utter bollocks, Merlin could fold his body in painful contortions of Judo twists and Aikido throws that shouldn't be humanely possible.
Never mind what this unexpected flexibility did to Arthur's imagination. He didn't want to think about it.
And worse, Merlin helped the others shoulder their loads. When he was done with his duties, he went to see if anyone else needed a hand, then once they were done they went to help the others, and then they all went to help someone else, until the entire team had completed their work so quickly, Arthur was forced to slot them for extra PT in the weight room just to keep them from getting idle and getting themselves in the brig.
Merlin looked good on paper -- except Arthur hadn't seen Merlin's files, and probably never would, getting the gist that some of his past missions had been rated as top secret as some of Excalibur's from some of the things that Merlin (but mostly Gwaine) had said. Merlin got on well with people, with the team, and that was a double-edged sword if it turned out that he was utter shite in a pinch. They'd rely on him, and only be disappointed when Merlin couldn't live up to their expectations.
Just because they'd had easy assignments so far with nothing worse than a couple of arguments in the street to break up didn't mean that Merlin wouldn't screw up at the wrong time.
It was why Arthur kept arms'-length away from Merlin, why he barely said anything to him, why, even though he sat in the middle of their table directly across from Merlin at the mess hall, that he'd never taken that extra chunk of meat or the piled-on helping of steamed carrots or the second tart that no one else seemed to touch, not even Merlin, because it had been strategically placed in the top middle of Merlin's tray, as if it was meant for Arthur.
Like a bribe.
Arthur grunted to himself, and put the tea tin down back where it was, unopened. He was desperate for a cup, but not that desperate. Cracking the tin open would mean admitting (even grudgingly) that Merlin was growing on him, that Arthur was actually hoping that Merlin would work out.
The tent flap opened, and of course, it was Merlin, coming back early from his rounds in the equipment tent helping out the quartermaster, a couple of boxes of parts under his arm, a tiny piece in his fingers held up as if it were a fragile crystal, his eyes squinting at it as if searching for a flaw.
"Skivving off work again, Merlin?" Arthur asked, unable to stop himself.
Merlin startled, his eyes bright blue and round and illuminating even in the shadows of the tent, but whatever he was holding in his hand, he caught it by dropping it into his palm and closing those long, graceful fingers around it. His mouth dropped open -- oh God, that mouth -- in a questioning "uh?" and both eyebrows rose in the expression of someone who'd been caught not paying attention, but who wasn't about to admit it if he could help it.
In the last few weeks, Arthur had catalogued a whole atlas of Merlin's expressions. If it was odd or awkward or if it felt like being a bit of a stalker that Arthur spent that much time puzzling out Merlin, Arthur didn't think too much about it.
He found he tried not to think too much about Merlin at all. Disaster lay down that route if he did.
"I'm sorry. What?" Merlin asked, clamping his mouth shut, his expression changing to something that bordered on the serenity of knowing he hadn't done anything wrong and the resignation that Arthur would find fault somewhere, somehow.
"Work. You know. The duties I assigned to you this morning? You couldn't possibly be finished assisting the quartermaster with his inventory already." Arthur felt somewhat guilty giving Merlin duties that should be by rights a greenie's to do, but told himself that if he were going to get rid of Merlin before Merlin did something that endangered Excalibur, he would rather it were because of something non-critical, like counting how many boxes of bits were in an even bigger box.
"All done," Merlin said. He pressed his lips -- oh God, those lips -- together tightly, raising his eyebrows again in a soft, smug, self-satisfied expression that infuriated Arthur to no end.
"Take this to the laundry, then," Arthur said, twisting a little in his chair to kick at a basket of dirty shirts that were left over from the physical training from the previous day. Merlin raised a brow with a really, you're going to have me do laundry now arch.
"Didn't the greenie come to pick it up?" Merlin asked. A corporal usually came to do the rounds, and either they'd been skipped, or the cart hadn't come by just yet. Arthur didn't care; he just wanted something for Merlin to do to get him out of his sight.
"I'm asking you to do it."
Merlin's mouth twisted into a curled line of outrage, his throat tense with the words that he wanted to say, but didn't. A muscle in his jaw popped, and he silently went to drop his treasures onto his bunk and came back, picking up the large burlap sack.
Merlin hefted it to his shoulders with a grunt and a mumble under his breath.
"What was that?" Arthur asked.
"Nothing, sir," Merlin said, and it was in a tone that dripped sarcasm, an inflection on the honorific that sounded more like sire.
Arthur stood up, bristling with challenge, thinking that if now was the time to be rid of him for insubordination, he would have to push Merlin even more. "No, really. Don't lie to me, Merlin. What did you say?"
Merlin hesitated, as if he considered keeping his mouth shut, which would have been too bad for Arthur, but then, he said, "I said you're an insufferable, arrogant prat."
Arthur took a step forward. "Is that right? You really think that?"
Merlin's eyes narrowed, and he drew back a single step. "You're baiting me. Is that it? You're hoping I'll say exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time and you'll bounce me from the barracks, tossing my kit in after me."
Arthur crossed his arms and waited.
Merlin took a big step in, getting into Arthur's personal space, and Arthur didn't move, noticing for the first time that Merlin was taller than he was, just by an inch or so, but the height difference didn't matter, because Merlin's shoulders were bowed under the weight of the laundry bag.
"Look, I didn't haul arse getting myself fit again just to stay on in a cushy desk job teaching the newest lot trying for the SAS, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let the biggest arse on base push me out of here, even if he's my captain. All I wanted was active duty; I didn't ask for Excalibur, and I sure as shite didn't ask for you as my C.O., but this is what I want, this is where I belong, and if you don't mind..." Merlin's eyes flared and it was almost as if the gold flecks in the bright blue had grown, and Arthur couldn't help thinking that he was gorgeous when he was mad. Merlin took a deep, steadying breath, held himself up straight, and forced a grin that bordered on the manic on his lips, and said, "If you don't mind, get out of my way. I've got a laundry load to drop off."
His shoulder brushed Arthur's with a jolt of electricity that he felt all the way to the bone. The barracks' thin wooden door bounced off the frame with a loud clank before sliding shut again, and there was a twinge of regret that lashed out from deep, deep down, curling around Arthur's throat and choking him tight.
He tried to ignore it. He went back to his paperwork and stared at it for God only knew how long before he realized that he was staring at the tea tin. His fist curled painfully, his knuckles white, and he struck the container so hard it made his hand sting.
The tin clattered almost all the way to the end of the barracks, tucking under Gwaine's bunk. The fading sunlight streamed through one of the roll-up windows and hit the tin's metallic base at just the right angle to catch Arthur's eye for the minutes that it took for the sun to go down enough and the shadow to fall and hide it.
Arthur squeezed a few more coherent words for the latest report when Leon burst in, a cowering Lance Corporal right behind him. "Sir? There's something going on."
That "something" ended up being a squad under heavy fire out in the Ravines, nearly thirty kilometres from the war-torn city, deep in the valley that was a maze of catacombs and caves and gullies, too far in for air support. At last report, they were surrounded on all sides, scrambling for cover, pinned down by -- at quick count -- three different bands of rebels with enough firepower and bodies to bring down an army if an army dared to come marching in.
Arthur did not want to know what they were doing there in the first place, but he knew what Excalibur would be doing -- getting the squad out of there.
"Captain Pendragon," one of the Majors said, "Your team will insert from the North to locate and extract the squad, and I want you to get them to a secure landing sight for pickup.
"Yes, sir," Arthur said. A few more directives were handed down to other teams, but it looked as if Excalibur was the only team that would be going straight in.
Leon was waiting for him outside the briefing tent -- normally, the whole team would be in there with him, but it was a multi-scale operation that would require some finesse to pull off, since the squad that was out-there had information that the brass over-here needed to have, and couldn't pass on because their radio contact was spotty and unsecured. He'd give his team the run-down on the way, and they'd come up with a plan once they were dropped off at the meeting point.
Gwaine was with Leon, and Lance was coming over at a controlled jog that might've been a leisurely stroll considering that most of the base was in a flurry of activity, with people running wild in every direction, trying to get to their assigned posts.
"All right. We're heading out. Get the team together, we've got an extraction in the Ravines."
"We heard," Gwaine said in a tone that implied that he'd heard, and well before everyone else, too, because he'd milked his contacts for everything that he was worth. Arthur knew that Gwaine probably even knew a few details that Arthur himself hadn't received in the briefing, and he couldn't help the flare of annoyance.
"If they're not already on the tarmac by now, they'll be there soon," Leon said. That was when Arthur realized that Lance was only just joining them because he'd stopped by the dispensary to grab extras for his medical kit.
"I didn't see Merlin," Lance said.
"Except Merlin. We don't know where he is. He wasn't in the equipment tent, but it looks like he stopped by the barracks at some point," Leon said.
Arthur forestalled the inevitable question of have you seen him with a blunt, "If he's not in the chopper in ten, we go without."
"Without comms?" Leon asked, his tone aghast. "Jesus, Arthur, the Ravine without Merlin? That's suicide."
"We don't need Merlin. We've got on just fine without him," Arthur said, gritting his teeth. Leon and Lance dropped off somewhere behind him, and he could feel their stares burning holes into his back. He snarled behind him. "What are you waiting for? Let's go!"
Gwaine kept up, glanced around and saw no one. He soundly smacked Arthur on the arm. "What the hell is wrong with you?" he hissed. "It's one thing to be a complete jerk to the new guy, and it's something else treating the rest of us like shite. What did you do to Merlin? Where is he?"
"How should I know?"
Gwaine grabbed, hauled, and slammed Arthur against one of the power poles stuck between two barracks. Arthur grunted, wrapping his hands around Gwaine's wrists -- breaking loose of the hold would be easy enough, but before he could try, Gwaine pulled, then shoved him at the pole again. "What are you trying to do? Kill us all? It's the Ravines, Arthur! Going in there without a decent hand on comm? We need Merlin."
"What are you on about?" Arthur said, letting go of Gwaine's wrists, planting his hands firm on his chest and shoving the other man off. "Merlin's just another pillock who's going to go tit over arse the minute the shite hits the fan. Do you really think that's what we need when we're in the goddamn Ravines?"
"He's done well so far!"
"Yeah, he's done well -- defusing a screaming match between shopkeepers, playing footie with the kids, making jokes with the locals. He's a regular Rambo. He hasn't been in a crisis, and I'll be damned if we'll end up dragging his dead weight out of the Ravines because he shat his brains out in a brick." Arthur ran his hand through his hair. "I'm not having us do another Roman."
"Roman was a dickwad," Gwaine said. "Merlin's not. And he's been on missions before --"
"Not with us," Arthur snapped.
"There's four people on base who know Merlin from before, Arthur! Four! And they've seen him out in action too. I tracked down some of his old mates, and --"
"Look, this isn't the time and the place, get your arse out to the chopper, Gwaine," Arthur said, shoving him aside, not wanting to hear the rest of what Gwaine had to say.
"-- they all say they wouldn't be alive today if it weren't for him! Goddamn it, Arthur! Why don't you just listen?"
Arthur kept walking. He stopped by the barracks only long enough to pick up his kit, race over to check out his gear, and meet the rest of Excalibur on the tarmac where the chopper's blades were only just starting to swing. The co-pilot relayed a few instructions that he'd received through his earpiece as the rest of the team loaded into their seats -- they'd be dropped down in two loads, and the second chopper was just being wound up now.
The growing rotor downsweep forced Arthur to raise his voice in order to be heard, and he barked a few orders that his men acknowledged with curt nods but no direct eye contact. There was no mistaking the growing tension that had nothing to do with the adrenaline rushing through the veins of soldiers about to go into combat, and everything to do with a team that was getting fractured because they were taking Merlin's side.
He wanted to shout at his men to snap-to, to shake off whatever this... this spell was that Merlin had cast over the team, but he wasn't going to cause a scene in front of people who weren't part of Excalibur. He climbed into the chopper, taking his usual seat, tucking his kit under the bench and securing his weapon, and looked at Leon, at Lance, at Owain and Perceval, and they were all studiously looking straight ahead, or had their gazes fixed to the floor, or were worrying at a loose buckle on their nylon straps.
Arthur took the earpiece that the co-pilot handed him, and there was a slight crackle before he heard the pilot's voice. "Right-o. Your lot's sorted, Captain?"
He tapped the earpiece to change the frequency, calling for a check-in, before switching back to the chopper's dial. "We're waiting for one more," he said, realizing that Gwaine wasn't with them yet. He was willing to wait for Gwaine; there was no way that he'd go into the Ravines without his best shot. As soon as he spoke, Gwaine got into the chopper, sorting himself out without bothering to look at Arthur.
Right behind him was Merlin.
The mood in the chopper suddenly changed. Across from him, Leon relaxed visibly, and Lance's shoulders slumped with something that resembled relief. Gwaine sorted himself out, Merlin shoved his gear under the seat but freed one of the devices he'd been working on, and everyone made room for them to sit down. Arthur had the misfortune of sitting right across from Merlin, watching as he slipped his earpiece over one of his ridiculous ears, and activated it.
"Sorry I'm late. We're good to go, Captain," Merlin said.
Before Arthur could give the OK to lift off, the pilot's voice cracked over the radio. "Merlin! Is that you? Good to have you onboard."
"Sure am glad you're our flyer today, Anderson," Merlin said, and Arthur groaned inwardly. Did everyone know Merlin? "You going to be there on our flight back?"
"Bank on it," Anderson said. "All right, ladies and gentlemen, please make certain your seats are in the upright positions and your trays are locked. It's going to be a bumpy ride past the ground-to-air rift along the Ravines, so keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle while it's moving."
The chopper lifted off, and although the mood in the chopper sweetened just because Merlin was onboard, it didn't mean that the team was any happier with Arthur. And the worst of it?
Merlin was the only one looking at him. He was glaring.
Merlin was seven million different types of pissed right now.
He'd dumped the dirty shirts at the laundry, stayed to chat with the people there until he felt some of his temper ebb, and hadn't gone more than four steps from the tent before he noticed the added edge of tension in the air. People were moving around faster, scurrying to their tasks with purpose and double-time instead of heat exhaustion and ambling speed. Merlin might not be the most observant person even on his best day, but that was sign enough that something was going on.
Unfortunately, he got nabbed by Major Kilgarath before he could head to the barracks at a run to see if the whatever it was would involve Excalibur.
"Major," Merlin said, aborting his run two steps in with a jarring stop that nearly sent him into another soldier and detoured to see what The Dragon wanted.
"How have things been with Excalibur?" Kilgarath tapped a cigarette out of a silver case and lit it with a squint of his measuring brown eyes. He seemed oblivious to the urgent activity going on around them, and it was unbelievable to Merlin that The Dragon wanted to talk about stupid things like feelings right now.
"Fine, Sir. I'm getting along well with the team. Getting used to their routine. They've got a few quirks but we all do, right? We've been on a few patrols already. It's been interesting so far."
The words came out of Merlin at a rush that only served to raise one of Kilgarath's eyebrows more and more until it nearly touched his hairline.
"That well, I see," Kilgarath said, his tone droll and monotone, his voice raspy and charred with cigarette smoke. "You do remember what we talked about, Emrys?"
Merlin stilled. The conversation Merlin had with Kilgarath right after his flight in landed had bordered on the threat to fit in or else, and he had thus far avoided the or else part of the conversation because he hadn't screwed up. At least, he was pretty sure he hadn't screwed up. He'd gone above and beyond the usual call of duty when it came to his job. Everyone in Excalibur seemed to like him, and he got on well with Gwaine, Leon, and Lancelot. The others were good sorts who invited him out for runs or drinks at the dispensary every now and then. The patrols they'd been on had been on the dull side, but Merlin didn't know of any soldier who wasn't happy to have things on the dull side every now and then. It was very hard to screw up in those sorts of situations.
The only problem was that "dull" didn't let Merlin showcase his abilities, never mind prove himself in the field. It didn't matter what he did now, in the relative safety of the base or on tame missions out into the city to patrol -- his C.O. didn't have any faith in him at all. Merlin could understand -- a track record of bad communication specialists would send even the most gung-ho squad leader over the brink, and come crashing hard on any new body through the barracks doors but the latest batch of animosity was beyond ridiculous.
After all, Arthur had sent Merlin out for the laundry.
He had half a mind to quit right then and there, to tell Kilgarath that he wasn't cut out for Excalibur, to sign the papers that would send him back to his last regiment, back to the teaching position that he didn't mind, not really -- in fact, he quite liked it, but it wasn't the same as being out with a team on active duty running missions. Maybe Merlin was a self-admitted adrenaline junkie, maybe he was out to prove something to himself by being out in the field again after getting shot, then nearly blown up, but whatever the reason was that he'd worked so hard to get back to full active duty, it wasn't worth... It wasn't worth this.
He'd been sleeping like crap since the night he'd arrived. He was plagued with headaches. His stomach was wound up in knots and he could barely keep his food down some nights -- and it had nothing to do with the chow. The stress and strain of being on a mission had never bothered him before, in fact, it barely registered, but this? He'd never been so stressed out, and that was because his C.O. was an arsehole.
A giant one.
"I remember, sir," Merlin said, a little stiffly. "I'm doing my best."
"Do better," Kilgarath said, blowing a blue cloud in the air. Merlin held his breath, but the noxious smoke bordered on the sulphuric and burned his eyes. "I understand that there is some unresolved tension between you and Pendragon --"
Understatement of the year, Merlin thought, and he grimaced inwardly when it seemed as if Kilgarath heard him anyway.
"And it's something that you're going to work out, and you're going to work it out immediately. There is nothing worse than having an excellent team that struggles to work together because they have a very big hole in their ranks, than having an excellent team that works together with two of its core people clashing."
Merlin wanted to tell The Dragon that he wasn't the problem, that Arthur was the prat, but whining to the brass about his superior officer wasn't going to get him any sort of brownie points, so he kept his mouth shut. "Yes, sir."
"I know that Pendragon can be difficult to deal with, but he's a man who gets results," Kilgarath said. "And you're just the person he needs to help him, whether or not he realizes it."
"Yes, sir," Merlin said again, wishing that he'd asked for a transfer back to his old unit a long time ago. In fact, he wished he'd never put in for the transfer to 22 in the first place.
The Dragon dismissed him with another puff of smoke and not another word, and Merlin nearly ran into Gwaine on his stalk back to the barracks. Gwaine was padded in Kevlar, full desert gear, and a forty-pound pack, and the collision nearly knocked Merlin to the ground. Gwaine caught him and dragged him at a run with the same movement.
"Christ! Where the hell have you been? We're scrambling. Come on, let's get your gear!"
Merlin was briefed in between Gwaine's "Hurry up!" and "Do you really need that?" while he struggled and hopped into his gear, barely shouldering the last of it in the requisite ninety-seconds or less, and they both double-timed it up the slight hill to the flattop that made up the tarmac. The biting scrub of dust whipped up around them and made Merlin's face burn and his eyes sting, and it was a wonder that he still had any skin left on his face by the time they reached their chopper.
It made Merlin envious for the red swaths of fabric that the Excalibur team carried on them, using it as an arm band to single them out in a crowd, as a head scarf when the heat was too bad, as a wrap against sandstorms, and, ultimately, a status symbol that the person wearing it was a member of Pendragon's Excalibur. He had a scarf, too -- a thin, colourless camouflage square of a scarf that he kept twisted and twined around his neck, the ends tucked into his jacket, but that red blotch on the team's uniforms was just another reminder that Merlin was the odd man out.
He sat down with a heavy grunt, using his heels to shove the stray octopus arms of his gear back under the seat, secured his weapon, and pulled on the headset he was going to need if he expected to know what was going on -- it was a debrief on the way type of thing, Gwaine had told him. He smiled when he heard Anderson's voice over the radio, and noticed how some people relaxed but others -- pointedly, Arthur -- tensed up now that he was on the chopper.
Merlin stared at Arthur. How was it that he always ended up across from him? It didn't matter where or when. In the mess hall, at the dispensary, on the transports through patrol areas, and now here? It was some sort of cruel joke, and probably one of The Dragon's, if The Dragon wasn't such a sodding humourless chimney.
Arthur was staring back, and neither of them broke eye contact while the helicopter rose up off the ground, listening in the background as Anderson and his co-pilot exchanged a last few pleasantries with the dispatch and turned into their heading.
"Hey, Merlin?" Anderson's voice came over the headset.
"I told you about my girl, right? That I'm going to ask her to marry me?"
Despite his sour mood, Merlin managed a big grin. "You did, mate. Did you find that ring you wanted?"
"Down in the bazaar," Anderson said. "I heard you have mad haggling skills and you're in good with the locals. Next time I've got a few hours, mind coming with me?"
"It'd be my pleasure," Merlin said, and he caught Lance grinning out of the corner of his eye, and Gwaine shaking his head, his lips moving to form the words, Another good man down. Arthur, however, was glowering even more, if that was possible. Merlin's grin faded, turning into a challenging smirk, and he told Anderson, "Anytime. Just drop by."
"Can the chatter," Arthur snapped. "What's our ETA?"
There was nothing but rotor noise in the silence that followed, and Anderson was in no hurry to answer. When he did, there was a clipped edge to his voice. "Thirty-six minutes, Captain Pendragon."
Arthur didn't answer him. The staring match between Merlin and Arthur continued, and Merlin was aware of the increasingly uneasy tension in the chopper. It had nothing to do with the mission that was waiting for them on the other end of the short hop, and everything to do with the shite that was going on between Merlin and Arthur.
It wasn't Merlin's fault. He'd tried everything from bribes of succulent pieces of the freshest that the kitchens had to offer to the tea tin of Arthur's favourite that he'd somehow managed to get from one of the small markets that crowded around the base, trying to get foreign attention and cash. He'd suffered Arthur's indignities in silence, done everything that was asked of him, but it looked like no one could measure up to Arthur's ridiculously high standards.
Merlin decided that it didn't matter that Major Kilgarath had more or less handed down an ultimatum -- it was Excalibur or bust, with nowhere to go but back down the transfer pipe, if he failed. It didn't matter that Arthur was his C.O. and a monumental pillock. It didn't matter that he wasn't hard on the eyes -- in a squadron of men who were fit blokes, Arthur was the fit bloke that kept attracting Merlin's attention no matter how much Merlin reminded himself that his interest was obviously not reciprocated.
He decided that, once this mission was over, he was going to talk to The Dragon again. Sod this. Who could work under these conditions? It wasn't even as if he needed the job, and as Arthur liked to tell him all the time, Excalibur was doing just fine without Merlin before he showed up on their doorstop like an abandoned orphan.
As much as Merlin liked Excalibur, he hated Arthur Pendragon. And obviously, at least, that was something that the two of them could agree on.
They were landing by the time Merlin came up with the conclusion that he was ready to throw his active service career in the can -- and head back to the chalk and blackboard. Merlin waited until Arthur took off his earpiece before signing off with a "Thanks -- and don't forget to look me up when you're on the base next time" to Anderson, and joined the team's scramble out of the chopper.
Someone had set up a hasty command tent next to a heavily-fortified transport surrounded by an enviable assortment of military fast-movement vehicle on the far end of the ledge -- the Ravines was just beyond, majestic stone arching up to the sky in bright white fingerlings that were tipped red from the quartzite dust from a nearby abandoned quarry -- which made the Ravines loom bloody and forbidding all at once. The team gathered just shy of the command centre and huddled in a half-circle around Arthur.
"Right. This is in-case-of," he began. "It's a S&R under fire in risky territory. The prelim briefing that the coordinates of the squad are within a day's hike from here, but they are on the move dodging the rebels. Task yourselves out -- collect extra rations, pick up more water, ammunition. It's the usual hurry-up-and-wait. Leon, Gwaine, you're with me. I'm going to get the most up-to-date and wait for the go."
Arthur turned and headed for the command tent. Leon exchanged glances with Gwaine, their expressions unreadable, and the only warning that Merlin got was a brief nod before Leon grabbed his shoulder and dragged him along.
"We're shite at remembering coordinates, frequencies, numbers, and all that rot," Gwaine said, which Merlin knew wasn't true, but he came along anyway, relieved that at least someone wanted him to do his job.
A haggard man met them halfway, introducing himself as junior lieutenant someone-or-other that Arthur barely gave a second look, and from the man's stumbling stammer in response to whatever Arthur said below his breath and the dust clinging to the wet behind his ears, Merlin wondered if the man forgot to address His Highness properly.
"So, anyway, they're waiting for you," lieutenant someone-or-other said unnecessarily, coughing to cover his earlier slip with an over-eager helping of bravado, and Merlin gave him a small nod that he held onto like a drowning man hangs onto a buoy, and hurried ahead to let the field C.O. know that the SAS team had arrived. Leon raised a brow, Gwaine didn't bother to hide his smirk, and Merlin shook his head and wondered if he'd ever been that young.
"There you are, then," Colonel Smith-Weiss said, standing up straight as Arthur approached, his shoulders set with the posture of a man who belonged at the strategic table. He was an unmistakable presence, his name well known throughout the army, a field commander whose reputation was well-earned and which painted him greater than life, which he was. He was a couple of inches taller than Arthur, a bit broader of shoulder, with a impeccably-groomed moustache that covered his upper lip and enough white shooting through his dark hair to provide its own sort of camouflage.
"Captain Arthur Pendragon, Excalibur," Arthur said, stepping forward to salute the Colonel, who returned the salute with an almost laissez-faire gesture as he took in the men that Arthur brought with him. The shift in attention was enough of an indication for Arthur to complete the introductions.
"Lieutenant Leon Cross, Lieutenant Gwaine Taggart," Arthur paused when he saw Merlin there, but whatever he was thinking at the moment, he hid it well, and continued, "Lieutenant Merlin Emrys."
They each saluted, the Colonel grunted a gruff "At ease", and there was a round-table introduction of the major players on the field that ended with a football huddle over a paper map with topographical contours and a clear plastic grid overlay with grease-pencil marks here and there. One of the adjuncts gave a brief summary of the situation, someone else updated what information they had on the rebel forces and locations, a third person piped up to go over a suggested battle plan against the enemy that Arthur immediately nixed.
"The orders are locate and retrieve," Arthur said. "That's my only concern. You want to paint them and blow them to hell, that's your problem, but you're going to do it after we've found your people and led them out of there. We'll insert in as three teams and intercept the rebel forces here and here, neutralize the snipers pinning them down, and lead them out to..."
He reached over the map and tapped one of the upper terrain sites with enough real estate to land pick-up choppers. "Here. Conservatively, that's a sixteen-hour incursion including the hike in and the hike out."
Merlin noted that Arthur was vague on the details, but that wasn't much of a surprise -- for the SAS, like most other groups, the objective was the key, the how would have to be worked out to adapt the changing situation, and it was a situation for which they didn't even have the luxury of satellite feed. While Gwaine went off with one of the sergeants to get copies of the map and Leon discussed logistics for the rescue point with the Colonel's assistant, Merlin studied the terrain as it was laid out on paper before him and committed it to memory. He was distantly aware of the Colonel's offer for additional men, Arthur's response that they would only slow them down and get in the way, and someone clearing their throat so loudly, it was almost as if they were hacking up a hairball. Merlin looked up.
"Who's your communications officer? I've got frequencies and coordinates for him."
Arthur barely turned from his quiet conversation with Smith-Weiss, making an almost dismissive gesture in Merlin's direction. "Emrys."
The lieutenant -- looking tired and harried and doubtful as he sized up Merlin -- laughed. "I should have known."
Something in his tone made Arthur turn around, Leon stop talking to the adjunct, and even Gwaine, across the way, held up a finger to silence the person trying to get his attention. Merlin knew the tone well -- he'd seen the way the lieutenant's eyes took a quick look at him -- and tried to defuse the situation before it got out of hand.
He was too late. Arthur spoke up first. "Sorry?"
"I mean, I should've known. With ears like that, no wonder he's your comm-spec," the lieutenant said, snorting. "He's his own walking satellite dish."
Merlin flushed. It had been a long time since anyone had made fun of him -- since A-levels, if he were being honest, or since boot camp when one of the trainers had a particularly bad day. He was still tall and gangly, but now it was lean muscle and he could keep up with even the most fit in the SAS, but there wasn't much that he could do about his ears.
Still... Walking satellite dish? Jesus! Merlin hadn't heard that one in ages. He was just about to retort, Yeah, like I haven't heard that one before when Arthur snapped around all the way, his eyes dark, an eyebrow raised, and enough steel in his voice to match the sharp of his gaze. "Excuse me?"
The lieutenant completely missed the warning cues and mockingly started to repeat what he'd blurted out earlier, "I said..."
"I know what you said," Arthur interrupted. "Did you just insult a member of my team?"
Smith-Weiss stiffened next to Arthur, and that was a warning sign if Merlin had ever seen one, but before he could frantically wave his hand to gesture for Arthur to shut-the-hell-up before he got himself and Excalibur in trouble, Merlin realized that the Colonel wasn't warning off Arthur, but his own comm-spec person. The officer had enough sense to notice that, to glance sideways between Smith-Weiss and Arthur and trying to understand why the Colonel was catering to a mere Captain. He was still confused when he frowned and looked at Arthur and shook his head sheepishly and said "No, sir", but Arthur didn't look away until Merlin got a half-assed apology, too. "Sorry, sir."
"Just don't ask me about my HD reception," Merlin said in the awkward silence, trying to defuse the tension, and it seemed to work because Arthur gave him an odd glance before returning to his conversation with the Colonel, Leon went back to talking to the logistics guy, and Gwaine disappeared behind a mass of bodies. The officer wasn't sure if he should laugh after what had just happened, and bowed his head and nodded gravely instead.
"Here are the coordinates, the frequencies, and let me show you..."
Merlin put it all out of his mind and concentrated on his job, but it came flooding back to him on the walk to join the other members of Excalibur where they would all have to wait for the official "Go." Leon and Gwaine were walking ahead, and Merlin found himself walking next to Arthur.
"You know, what the guy said back there..." Merlin frowned, glancing at Arthur and unable to read his expression. "Thanks, I think," he said, but before he could add, but that was a bit of useless, wasn't it?, Arthur turned on him, his eyes so bright and blue that it took Merlin's breath away.
"Nobody gets to insult you but me," Arthur said, his voice low. His eyes were measuring, almost considering, and Merlin felt a squeeze in his chest and a flutter in his belly that he knew he most assuredly should not be feeling.
Merlin willed his insides to stop being so damned girly.
Arthur was grateful when the order came down the line releasing Excalibur to their mission. It was a good, plausible reason to keep from dwelling on what happened in the command centre. He didn't know what he'd been thinking, coming blustering to Merlin's defence. It wasn't as if he liked the man. At all. Not much. Hardly. The answer came to him right before the crackle of the radio boomed with Smith-Weiss' voice releasing Excalibur.
He hadn't been thinking at all.
Proprietary instinct, passiveness, territoriality -- all those and more -- had made Arthur step in unconsciously, maybe even a bit consciously, too, because, damn it, no one insulted any member of Arthur's team and got away with it. Even if it was true -- Merlin's ears were completely ridiculous, and maybe he did look a bit like a walking satellite dish, but he was Arthur's walking satellite dish, and...
Arthur wondered where the hell all this was coming from. He shook his head to clear it and chalked it down to nerves.
But mostly nerves.
"All right, you know your jobs," Arthur said, and they piled into the transports that would get them closer to the Ravines, and hopefully also drive them out. Bohrs was at the wheel of the first truck, Perceval of the second, Gwaine was on the roof of the lead car, and whoever didn't fit inside the vehicle hung on the outside of it, keeping watch high and low and on the road ahead and behind. Merlin was in the second transport, thank God, giving Arthur the space and the time to sort out his thoughts and focus on the mission.
At least, until his voice, firm and crystal clear, came over the earpieces that Merlin had passed around, using the ones from his kit rather than the ones that were passed out at supplies. "Switch to channel E and report in."
It was automatic for Arthur to reach up and tap his earpiece to get to E, and his voice was the first over the line when he counted the faint beeps signalling the team's compliance, "Knight-1 confirms."
Leon's voice was second. "Knight-2 confirms."
It went like that all the way down the line before Merlin's voice was heard again, this time so absurdly clear and close that it was like a whisper in Arthur's ear. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw more than one of his men look around to make sure Merlin hadn't suddenly appeared right behind them. Even Bohrs, who never took his eyes from the road, glanced sideways.
"Greetings and salutations, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the very exclusive Knights network," Merlin said, and Arthur could hear the cheeky grin as if he was seeing it up close and personal. Leon, behind him, chuckled, and it was a contagious laugh that broke some of the tension in the transport. "We're locked down, on our own private band, no radio in, no radio out. Command is on A, squad one is on B, squad two is on C, and squad three is on D. Global in-network broadcast is on E for Excalibur."
Arthur fought back a smile. Merlin said "Excalibur" with a breathless hitch and a weight of Welsh accent that sounded so good, Arthur wouldn't mind if Merlin said the word over and over again. His mind drifted like the traitor it was, and he thought he would like hearing Merlin saying Arthur, Arthur in the same tone, helpfully providing very visual images for the compromising situation (and positions) that Merlin should be when he gasped out his name. Arthur shut his eyes tightly, reminding himself to focus.
It wasn't easy, not even when Merlin's voice came back on the line a few seconds later. If nothing else, hearing Merlin only made it worse. Arthur groaned inwardly.
"Here's the good news and bad news," Merlin continued, his voice soothing and calm. "Within-squad broadcast range is two-point-five klicks. In-network range is ten klicks. In both cases you'll get more range if there's direct line of sight. A is on a satellite line. The fidelity of range contact at all levels will be compromised once we hit the Ravines."
Arthur looked ahead. The naturally-carved fingerlings and crevasses were getting bigger with every passing moment. At the briefing, someone mentioned that radio contact with the lost patrol was spotty at best, and someone else mentioned the possibility of ferro-magnetic deposits screwing with the signal, and Merlin's expression had twisted in distaste, he'd huffed out a heavy breath, and spent a few minutes hastily making adjustments to the gear before he passed it around. In Arthur's experience, there wasn't much that anyone could do when the terrain worked against them, and he couldn't help being curious to know what Merlin had done.
"Don't worry, you're not S-O-L if you're out of range of the other squads," Merlin said, and someone behind Arthur snorted at the shit-out-of-luck acronym. "The units have been rigged to operate on the principle of the-more-the-merrier. You'll have more power if you're together as a group, and you'll be able to raise another squad.
"If you can't, or if you're alone, get somewhere secure and hit the orange button on the bottom of your unit. It's the reset but I switched it to use up all the radio power in one shot to mark your position via satellite, and we'll come and retrieve you."
"Nice," Leon said. Arthur grudgingly -- and silently -- agreed.
"Once in the thick, if you need to raise A, you need to get close and personal with The Box," Merlin said. "Which happens to be on me. Which means you'll need to get close and personal to me..."
"You wish," Owain said over the line.
"Don't we all?" Gwaine put in. Arthur bit back the unexpected flare of jealousy.
"Now, now. There's plenty of me to go around," Merlin said, sounding so damned pleased about it that Arthur wanted to shake him a few times to tell him, that, no, no, under no circumstance was Merlin to even offer, because he was Arthur's and only Arthur's, and... Arthur grit his teeth, trying to force his treacherous thoughts out of his mind. When did Merlin get so firmly lodged under his skin? The worst of it was, he didn't even know if Merlin liked guys.
In the next breath, however, Merlin's tone took a serious turn, and he said, "But, really, conserve the battery, stay on the in-squad comms unless you absolutely have to. The more battery you've got, the stronger the satellite hit if it all goes to shite."
"I'm seeing that dustup they warned us about," Gwaine said, his voice coming over the radio with the rough of a man strapped down and secure in a spot where he was guaranteed a face full of sand. "Coming in on our eleven. The last report said it'll hit in ten hours, and we'll be in the pitch then. Are your fancy toys still going to work then?"
Arthur craned his neck past Bohrs' thick head and saw the heavy cloud cover in the distance, the edges fluffy and stretching out like rotten cotton candy, grey and dark blue and mouldy just beyond the horizon. There was no missing it.
Smith-Weiss hadn't wanted to send in Excalibur unless he really had to -- Arthur could understand the pride of not wanting to admit needing help, but the latest feeble transmission that they'd been able to detect hinted that, while the patrol was in a sufficiently-secure location, they were trapped, and it was just a matter of time before they were ambushed or blown to bits entirely. That last transmission occurred hours before the team even touched the dusty makeshift landing site less than a klick from the hastily-constructed command post and the outlook was growing darker and darker by the minute. The "Go" order came down not because the urgency had increased, or because there was a storm coming in, but because the brass in the upper echelons were desperate for whatever it was that the patrol team had in their grubby little hands.
"They'll work," Merlin confirmed, sounding less indignant that Arthur expected at the implication that his modifications were crap, and more self-assured that there was nothing in the world that could possibly go wrong as long as he was there. Arthur grunted inwardly, hiding his disapproval. It wouldn't be the first time that he had to deal with an overconfidence problem with new soldiers in his team, and those new soldiers invariably didn't last very long. Merlin, however, seemed impervious to whatever Arthur said or did to knock him down his little perch, but that didn't stop Arthur from trying over and over again.
The transports stopped in a dust cloud that killed visibility by a good measure, but Arthur was already out of the vehicle before it came to a complete stop. It was a get-up-and-go mission, with no one dragging their asses -- Arthur was the first one heading toward the Ravines, with no need to check the map because he knew where to go. It wasn't long before the rest of the team fell in behind him -- there was a chokepoint at the entrance barely wide enough for two people side-by-side, and Gwaine was beside him for an instant before taking the lead from Arthur, the butt of his submachine gun firm against his shoulder, sweeping from side to side and up above as he ranged even further ahead.
Gwaine didn't need a map. He was raised a tracker and a hunter and no one in the universe held a candle to him when it came to getting from point A to point B in the shortest time frame possible. He had nearly washed out of SAS training because he hadn't been able to see the point in learning basic orienteering when he always knew where he was, and Arthur hadn't been about to lose the best scout he had because Gwaine hated sitting still long enough to learn what the numbers on a compass meant. The constant drilling and testing and tutoring had paid off, because Gwaine had passed the trials with flying colours.
He still didn't use a compass. Every year, Arthur bought him a compass for his birthday. Every year, Gwaine used it for target practice. He idly remembered that Gwaine's birthday was coming up.
They moved fast because they didn't have a lot of time, and also because Arthur hadn't given Excalibur a lot of wriggle room when it came to completing missions. The team had only ever failed to meet the mark once -- and that had been Roman's fault.
The team followed Gwaine for what seemed like hours before they started to see signs of human passage, but they were old, days old, and not a cause for immediate concern. The alertness level increased from that point on, and went up from there when they reached the split-up point.
"Switch to squad frequencies," Arthur said in the pause, giving everyone a chance to take water and check their gear. He did the same, inspecting everything by rote, looking them over again to make certain that routine and habit didn't miss anything. Before Arthur could ask someone to check the straps on his backpack, he felt a tug behind him as someone did it for him.
He glanced over his shoulder, but his thanks died on his lips when he saw it was Merlin, his lips pressed tight, his brows furrowed slightly in concentration as his fingers fastened a loose buckle. Arthur's heart raced, and he told himself that he was out of shape if he couldn't get his heart rate back to basal by now. It had nothing to do with the very adorable way that Merlin scowled and bit his lower lip a tiny little bit to make sure the strap was tied down good and tight.
Merlin patted the backpack to indicate he was done, but he stepped in front of Arthur before Arthur could give the signal to go. "Are you sure?" he asked.
Arthur knew what he was asking about, and of course he was sure. His decision to assign the comm-spec away from the main team had met with a string of raised brows all the way down the line, because it was rare, even unheard of, for the C.O. to split up from his only direct connection to HQ or the command centre.
"You're with Leon," Arthur said firmly.
"But what if --"
Whatever argument Merlin wanted to raise, it died on his lips the instant he saw the look in Arthur's eyes. "If you had a problem with that, you should've said so at command," Arthur said. When Merlin didn't say anything more, Arthur nodded curtly. "Squad to squad works fine, doesn't it? Relay the messages."
Merlin's bright eyes clouded with uncertainty, but he nodded reluctantly and said, "Yes, sir. Oh, I almost forgot. You've got priority on E. Hit it twice and for thirty seconds everyone will hear what you're saying."
Arthur moved away with a sharp nod of acknowledgement, aware that there were eyes on him, who had overheard the conversation, and who might wonder why Arthur wasn't keeping the weakest link -- weakest only in that they didn't know how Merlin would fare under fire -- close by where he could keep an eye on him, and he didn't care. It had everything to do with making certain the mission went off without a hitch, that they retrieved both people and whatever it was that the brass considered to be so important, and absolutely nothing with making sure that Merlin wasn't in the thick of it.
"Synchronize your watches, gentlemen. On three, two, one -- now." Arthur pressed a button on his watch and surveyed his men one last time. "You know what to do. See you on the other side."
The words I had better and good luck were implied, but never spoken. Arthur had an irrational superstition against jinxing the team by stating the obvious.
Merlin went off with Leon, Perceval, and Owain, heading off at a run to make up time now that wouldn't be made up later when they hit the cliffs they would need to climb to get to the other side of the engagement site and cover the main team's approach. One other team darted off toward the east at the same fast clip as Leon's team, and the last team went north-by-west to find the dry waterfall pit that they would need to climb -- and preferably climb out of -- before the storm hit, in case the storm came with a torrent of water that would wash them away, leaving their bones to rot somewhere in the limestones.
Arthur tried not to think of it. The team he'd picked for that route was full of the lightest -- Merlin didn't count because his extra gear gave him enough added mass to tip the scales past two hundred and making him even with most of the others -- and smallest of the group, never mind some of the best and most agile climbers. They'd make it.
"All right," Arthur said, checking his watch. He nodded to Gwaine, who led the way without hurrying -- they were the advance team, the attack group, and they had the most direct route in barring ambushes and unforeseen attacks. They would have to wait until the appointed time, giving the others a chance to get in position before they began the assault. Lance was with the squad in case the patrol had injuries that needed immediate care, and that was something that Arthur fervently hoped they wouldn't find.
It was a long silent trek made all the more silent when Gwaine spotted movement above or ahead of them, signalling for a pause, or a rapid advance, or a detour. Arthur checked the map as they hit landmarks, running his finger on the path ahead of them to see how many more kilometres they had to travel, comparing it to the countdown on his watch to make sure that they were keeping good time. Gwaine, the bastard, never checked his map once.
Finally the signal came -- a closed fist, and two fingers just ahead; Gwaine turned his head and raised his brows in a way that Arthur couldn't miss. Arthur gestured for eyes ahead, and Gwaine shook his head, pointing up above them at two o'clock, then again at noon, and once more at nine, and held up four fingers before twisting his wrist to say that there were four rebels hidden behind a large rock at eight o'clock, where they would be on their rear when Arthur's team burst through.
They would be dealt with first.
Gwaine signalled again, indicating where the patrol team was holed up. Arthur nodded, and checked his watch. Gwaine patted his shoulder and started climbing, crawling slow as a turtle to a ledge overhead for a better vantage point.
Four minutes was a long time to wait, but they waited, Gwaine more patient than the rest of them because he was used to waiting for everything -- except when he wasn't -- and finally, the adrenaline rushing to Arthur's head, it was now.
Gareth took care of the rebels at eight o'clock while Gwaine swept his gunsight and took care of the rebels he hadn't spotted on his first survey in, and almost simultaneously there was an explosion at eleven o'clock that took care of the pocket of rebels. The air burst with semiautomatic fire as Arthur and Lance ran across the clearing, bracing themselves against the jutting stone to glance around the side. After an eyeball confirmation that these were the patrol group and that they weren't under threat, Arthur shouted, "We're getting you out of here."
"Couldn't cut it any closer?" someone shouted back.
"Is anyone hurt?" Lance asked.
"Got a man bleeding bad, shoulder wound." Arthur grabbed Lance's shoulder and hauled him over and across, raising his gun to fire a single shot at a rebel trying to sneak in their direction. A single shot was all that he needed at this range. He didn't have a sniper gun like Gwaine, but he could pick it up in an instant if Gwaine ever fell, and no one would know the difference.
"You have the package?"
"We have the package!" the first voice confirmed.
"All right --" Arthur started to give instructions when a massive blast behind them blew out a large dust cloud and a thunderous cascade of rocks tumbled and blocked their escape route. Gwaine tumbled from his ledge, landing on his feet off-balance, catching himself by running forward for a few stumbling steps before getting cover behind a boulder.
"Way back is blocked," Gwaine shouted, even though Arthur could hear him clear as a bell over the headset. "I don't know how the fuck! There was nobody behind us! Nobody!"
Arthur swore. He had a contingency plan -- he had several contingency plans -- and the next least-bad option was to lead the patrol out of the Ravines through the gulley on the other end. He double-tapped the E channel and broadcast to everyone.
"All Knights, this is Knight-1. B continue to Alpha pick-up site. C and D, change of plans. We're going to the Bravo meet-point. Relay to Eagle. Confirm."
There was a few moment's pause, and Merlin's voice came over the line, sending an unexpected shiver down Arthur's spine at the deep-chested intensity in it. He could hear gunfire in the background and studiously ignored it. "Confirm, Knight-1. Message relayed. Confirm."
Arthur glanced over his shoulder. "How's the injured?"
"Good to go," Lance shouted back.
"All right. Let's go."
The rebels scattered nearly as soon as D team appeared, dropping on them like ghosts, and Merlin absolutely did nothing unusual to make them particularly sneaky.
Nothing at all.
Maybe a little bit.
The thing was, the rebels in the quarter that they were assigned to hadn't been clumped together, but spread out in a fanfold pattern over whatever open ground happened to be open, with a few gathering together here and there for a smoke that alerted Excalibur-D of their presence well before getting in range. In order to take them out, and eliminate the rest of the rebels who were hidden in nook and crannies, Leon had split up the team and gave them their targets -- but not before Merlin turned away, whispered something under his breath when no one was looking at him, and made his way up the line, making sure to touch everyone's backpacks without being obvious that he was touching them.
The added -- but temporary -- stealth accelerated their timetable, because suddenly they didn't have to worry too much about the firefight that they'd expected on their way in -- the majority of the rebels took one look at the SAS soldiers who'd appeared out of the Ravines like spectres and fled. The younger generation, less impacted by whatever superstition lingered in these parts, were the only ones who stuck around to exchange fire, American cigarettes hanging from their lower lips, automatic weapons braced against their hips in Hollywood movie-style, lacking in accuracy and purpose.
While B team's job was to take care of the enemy in the left branches of the Ravines, C team was in the process of recovering the patrol that was pinned down, and D was sweeping ahead to clear anthill of invaders. Merlin had a moment of panic that had power surge through him defensively when the rockface in the distance blasted in a terrific landslide, and from his vantage point he could see that their route back was blocked off. B team could make it back that way, but C and D were blocked off unless they wanted to take the circuitous route around, and...
He had one brief moment to spare on concern for his C.O. and absolutely no time for the painful clench of his insides when Owain shouted a warning and they were assaulted by the rebel veterans, who'd found their courage turtled somewhere down where their balls had sucked up when the SAS ghosts first appeared, and now, they were shooting back.
Arthur's voice crackled over the comm unit, and Merlin felt a surge of inexplicable relief at knowing that Captain Prat was all right.
"All Knights, this is Knight-1. B continue to Alpha pick-up site. C and D, change of plans. We're going to the Bravo meet-point. Relay to Eagle. Confirm."
Merlin committed the message to memory -- there was no time to relay it now, not when they were under a steady stream of fire. There weren't many rebels -- a little over a dozen, and they'd come surging in without regard for their rear, and Merlin's stealth spell was still working, because none of them noticed Perceval and Owain behind them. They were cut down and one or two ran for dear life, and no one relaxed, not even a bit, when the all-clear was signalled, but Merlin reached back from practiced habit and flipped the switch on his Box for the command centre and relayed the message while he still had the opportunity.
"Spider calling Eagle, copy, over," Merlin said, keeping his voice steady.
"Copy, Spider, continue, over."
Merlin winced when he heard the voice of the ha-ha, you've got satellite ears Lieutenant, but said, "Spider requests Bravo site activation."
"Negative, Spider, negative. Sky conditions are poor. Continue to Alpha point."
Merlin took a breath. Arthur had made it very clear that come storm or high waters, there was no changing pick-up points no matter what the command centre said. The team knew about the storm, they knew about the rebels, and they knew the risks involved getting out of the Ravines through a different point. Unless there was a thermonuclear bomb about to fall on their heads, Arthur didn't want to hear the command centre try to direct them anywhere else.
For C and D to try for the Alpha pick-up was tantamount to painting a big red bull's-eye on each of the team members. There was no way any of them could safely traverse the pile of rubble without making themselves targets for whatever and whomever would be on the other side, and without an easy way of getting to team B, they were setting themselves up for failure.
"Confirm, Eagle. We'll see you at Bravo," Merlin said, getting a raised brow from Leon. As the team's leader, he was automatically hooked into the A channel whenever Merlin switched to it.
"Negative, Spider. Negative! Return to Alpha point! I said, return to Alpha point!"
Merlin scowled, and reached back to fudge with the Box, mimicking static. "I didn't -- catch that, Eagle. Say -- again."
Merlin let lieutenant Satellite-Ears try one more time, making sure the fake static was loud and clear, and interrupted with, "Right, confirm, Eagle. Confirm. See you in two hours at Bravo."
A curl of a smirk touched Leon's lips, and Merlin frowned at him, trying to look innocent, and mouthed, "What?"
Leon saw clean through him, but instead of taking a breath for a retort to follow the command centre (who obviously knew better than a team in the field), Leon gave him a sharp, short approving nod, combined with a re-appraisal of the newest team member that was obvious in his expression. Merlin didn't give himself time to think about it before switching the Box to connect to the C team and said to Arthur, "Confirm, Knight-1. Message relayed. Confirm."
"All right," Leon was saying to the team, leaving them at their assigned positions. "Let's clear the way. Knight-1 and company will be joining us in a few minutes. Let's give them some space to catch their breath and recoup. Be ready to fall in at a moment's notice, and keep an eye out."
One by one the team checked their weapons cartridge -- never all of them at the same time or they would be caught with their proverbial pants down -- and called in from their position. There was a tense moment of waiting -- they could hear distant gunfire somewhere over the spot that B team was located, but it quieted over there after a moment, bit by bit, as if B team was systematically cutting down the rebels' offensive forces and moving forward. There was more gunfire down below echoing like the tinkling of delicate silver bells, and D team enclosed around C and the patrol squad they were accompanying as they climbed through the narrow gully.
Arthur went to confer with Leon; Arthur went over to talk to the sergeant leading the patrol group; Arthur went to check on the men in the patrol; Arthur went to look on the rest of his team and on D.
Merlin wasn't watching Arthur. Not at all.
"D team, switch to C channel," Arthur said, and Merlin heard a nearly simultaneous click as the formerly D became the newly C. Merlin scanned the patrol group and spotted their radioman easily enough, and walked over to check the man's unit.
The radioman chucked off his backpack with something that looked like relief, and went to sit, his back against the wall, to try to do something about the shaking hands he was desperately trying to hide.
There was an odd look on Arthur's face when he came over to stand beside Merlin, his hip dangerously close to Merlin's face, and when Merlin didn't look up to acknowledge him, Arthur sank down to one knee. "Can you fix it?"
The Box was smaller than Merlin's kit, but that was only because it was a newer model with an unidirectional, fixed radio frequency.
"Won't know until I look," Merlin said, and bit down on the glove of one hand, pulling it off with his teeth. He had a tool in his hand one minute; the casing popped off the top of the box in the next. He took a quick look at the innards, discounting sand, stray bullets, or corrosion as the contact problem. The battery checked out fine -- and... Oh. That's not supposed to be there.
Merlin glanced toward the radioman, discounted him as a possibility only because he was slumped against the stone as if trying to suck in as much rest as he could, completely unconcerned about having someone poke into his kit, and looked over the others. Most of them were wary, understandably on edge given the situation they'd been in for the last few days, checking their ammunition and counting how much they had left and knowing that pretty soon they'd be relying on the SAS team to save their hides. None of them seemed to be paying attention to them, except...
Merlin marked the brown-eyed, brown-haired, over-broad-shouldered corporal standing an uncomfortable three feet away with a mental notch and glanced at Arthur. "Looks fine to me. There's some corrosion though. That might be the problem. I won't know for sure until I take the whole thing apart."
He saw the corporal's shoulders fall with relief.
"We needed that direct line. Damn it," Arthur swore under his breath. A heavy hand clamped down on Merlin's shoulders and Arthur stood up, leaving Merlin with a warm, comfortable sensation that somehow seeped through his gear and the Kevlar. He looked up at Arthur in surprise, but he was already moving away.
"All right. Pack up and be ready on two," Arthur said over the headset, making sure everyone got the order. He went to tell the patrol sergeant the same thing. Merlin shook his head, muttered nasty things under his breath, and reconnected the patrol's Box the same way he found it and hurried to catch up with the others.
They were running -- running was a generous term since the patrol squad had a couple of injured bodies in them and could barely manage more than a dragging lope -- after Gwaine, who was somewhere in the lead, getting them out of the area as quickly as they could with as few casualties as possible. They had two hours to get to the Bravo point and to load the helicopter that would be waiting for them there. Arthur was somewhere in front, the patrol squad was in the middle, and the rest of the SAS were scattered at the front, rear and perimeters. For the moment, Merlin was alone, keeping the rear with Leon. The suspicious corporal was up ahead somewhere, out of earshot. Merlin glanced over his shoulder, touched Leon, tapped his ear, pressed one finger over his lips, and forced a three-way with Arthur with a click of a switch on his Box.
"Arthur. Don't react. This is a secure connection between you, me, and Leon. You asked me about the patrol's Box earlier. The Box wasn't fine. There was a high-frequency tracking bug interfering with their comm signal."
It hadn't been bigger than Merlin's pinky finger and it had been securely nestled next to one of the transmitters. If he hadn't been looking for anomalies, he wouldn't have noticed it, and the abnormal bump on the side of the transistor the size of half of a 9-volt battery was an anomaly. And if Merlin weren't the expert that everyone came to, and had seen one of these before when the Think Tank sent him bits and pieces from the field to evaluate, identify, and categorize back when he was stationed in Wales, he wouldn't have known what it was.
The tracking bug was drawing power from the Box to transmit coordinates, and the high frequency emission was enough to garble any message to the command centre.
"I've got something that can scramble the signal, but I need an excuse to screw with their guy's pack without Corporal Beady-Eyed and Twitchy noticing."
There was a soft snort over the line that could have been Arthur's muffled laugh, and a long silence. "You saw him too?"
Arthur's voice was quiet, almost subvocalized, which, because of Merlin's tweaks to the gear, was all that was really needed to talk over the wires.
"Hard to miss. Looked like he were about to have a seizure the minute I picked up their Box," Merlin said.
There was a long quiet that was filled by the sounds of Arthur's soft breathing, and Merlin thought he could hear how rough the terrain ahead was just by the tiny little hitches in Arthur's exhalations. Abruptly, he said, "Patch in Gwaine."
It didn't take much for Merlin to do just that, and he said, "Gwaine, you're in a secure connection with Arthur, Leon and me."
"Gwaine --" Arthur began.
"Tell me we're going to be doing something about the hotheads dogging our steps," Gwaine interrupted, sounding frustrated. "They're starting to clue in on where we're going and I'm having trouble getting us past them."
Merlin could almost -- almost -- feel Arthur's eyes on him, as if he'd looked over his shoulder to give Merlin a disapproving frown for having waited so long to let him know about the tracking bug.
"We'll take care of them," Arthur confirmed. "Is there a throttle point ahead?"
"Yeah, a four-way with two routes to Bravo," Gwaine said without hesitation, and Merlin suspected the man wasn't even looking at the physical map.
"Good. Take us there. We'll split up."
Gwaine didn't respond beyond a confirming grunt. There were a few clicks and dead air before Arthur came over the line again, sounding annoyed. "Merlin, drop me out of secure."
Merlin glanced at Leon, who was smirking, and reddened. "Sorry. One second."
The drop back to normal chatter was strange, like hearing rainwater drop in a bowl of still water, but secure or not secure, the channel was unique to Excalibur and the patrol accompanying them didn't have access to it. Arthur said, "We'll be splitting up into two teams at a throttle point ahead. Leon, you're in charge of team one. Owain, catch up to Gwaine, make sure you know where Bravo point is. I'm leading team two."
Arthur went on with assignments, splitting Excalibur into one group big enough to keep the patrol squad going, and into a second team that included Arthur, Gwaine, Merlin and two more Excalibur teammates with five of the more able-bodied members of the patrol squad -- including the radioman and the shifty corporal.
"Keep this Need-To-Know until we get there," Arthur added at the end.
The throttle point was a sheer-wall canyon too narrow that was too narrow to climb out of anyway even if the rock wasn't as slick as a banana peel on an ice rink. There were four avenues of escape -- the one they came from, two that diverged ahead, and a third that crooked sideways. Gwaine came back out of that last trail with a shake of his head, and went to confer with Owain before the three of them huddled in collusion with Arthur.
It occurred to Merlin that Arthur must have been a theatre major in a past life because his mannerisms grew immediately agitated, and he scanned the area around them with obvious concern that was in part real, and in part false, because Merlin had already heard that the roads ahead were as clear as they could be for the next twenty minutes over the radio.
The reassignments were short and brokered no argument from Excalibur, who were prepared for it, but the majority of the patrol squad groaned and the sergeant in charge looked dubious about splitting the group up, though he was equally unwilling to argue with a superior officer. The radioman muttered "I hope this hike isn't going to be longer than theirs" under his breath, while Corporal Shifty went from terribly nervous about getting split up to ridiculously relaxed as soon as he realized he was being saddled with both the sergeant with the mysterious high-priority package and the radioman with the tracking device. Merlin wondered why no one remarked that it was odd for the two communication specialists to be grouped in one team, but he wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
"We'll see if we can draw them off," Merlin heard Arthur tell Leon, which they would be doing anyway, by virtue of carrying the enemy's tracking bug with them. Arthur gave Merlin a long look that he wasn't able to interpret before looking away.
It was time to scatter, with Gwaine in the lead, though he stayed well within sight because of the increased danger and approaching sentries, and they double-timed it along a trail that most assuredly was not leading to Bravo point. Merlin bit his tongue to keep from blurting out the realization, and kept glancing up at the slowly darkening sky, feeling the tickle of the wind teasing just above them, the weight of the promised storm that was about to come thundering down.
Merlin's magic hummed just under his skin, rippling with the pins-and-needles sensation of an awakening limb, his raw power responding to the violence swirling above and straining to escape Merlin's control.
He kept his eyes firmly fixed ahead of him, counted off a mantra in Welsh under his breath, and steadied himself as the winds whipped overhead. His power whined like a dog wanting to be let out to play, and he placated it absentmindedly by relaxing, just a tiny little bit, and invisible questing tendrils sought out the trail ahead of Gwaine.
He'd figured out how he was going to suppress the tracker chip in the other Box. He had to wait until no one was paying attention to him for that, but once they got going, and a good half hour had passed with enough time for the rebels to pinpoint their location far, far away from the others, Merlin went to work. He slowed down long enough to drop behind the patrol's radioman on the pretence of keeping an eye on their rear, and he lingered there, far enough back, to let his magic come out, just for a second, without anyone notice the flash of gold in his eyes. He whispered a spell to enclose the patrol's radio, cutting off all communications from that Box. At least, that had been what he'd intended to do. Instead, he could sense a couple of chips blowing out, the tracking bug included, and along with that came a substantial drain of the battery.
Oops. Merlin winced.
They were C and D teams again, and C team was off for a cozy trip by helicopter back to the relative shelter of tent and metal, but D team was about to hunker down in what felt to be the worst storm in the area's history. If the rebels were going to attack, they would attack soon, before the worst of it came down and while they still had a chance to hole up somewhere. Excalibur was going to do everything they could to mess up that plan.
"They're coming," Gwaine announced, and there was a ripple of adrenaline down the line that peaked at the patrol sergeant and his men when the message was relayed. "Goddamn it, they're cutting it close. The storm's going to hit in ten, maybe fifteen."
"Is there shelter ahead?" Arthur asked.
"The map says there's a series of caves up ahead, but that's only if the map isn't wrong," Gwaine said. "Don't worry, Princess. I'll find something that suits your particularly extravagant tastes."
Arthur's snort came over the line loud and clear, and Merlin found himself grinning.
"It's taken care of, your Highness," Merlin said without having to be asked, his smile spreading wide when he got a snort, too, just like the one Arthur had given Gwaine.
The smile didn't last long. The rebels came crashing down on them.
The rebels came at them like ghosts out of the twilight, wide-eyed with fake bravado and white with fear, open-mouthed in a wordless scream, their semiautomatics braced not against shoulders for greater accuracy but against hipbones for a scatter-spray of wasted ammunition. Shouts, scatter, and return fire filled the small space with limestone and rock dust until there was enough of a cloud of distraction to keep on going at a breakneck run in search of cover.
Even though Merlin claimed to have taken care of the tracking bug, Arthur still expected the rebels to attack -- even if the signal went dark, the group was moving in the only direction afforded them by this section of the Ravines. The ground sloped toward Hell, the rocks reached ever higher, they were moving in what was perpetual shadow cast down from whatever light had been captured overhead, and the few degrees of cool temperatures was the only mercy against the otherwise harsh conditions.
Arthur shouldered a corner, aimed, and squeezed the trigger of his gun. A rebel jerked back slightly before collapsing under his own weight. The gunfire behind him was ebbing, even the pitch of it had changed; the turbulent staccato of paintbrush strikes were replaced by crisp clear notes of precision. Even that ebbed after a long, drawn-out minute that felt like hours.
Gwaine's gun silenced the last holdout of the standoff, and suddenly, the way was clear. A hundred feet around the bend was a Y path, and with the storm about to hit any minute now, they had better get going if they were going to wipe their trail entirely.
"Let's go! Let's go!" Arthur shouted, windmilling an arm to gesture for speed, and one by one, this part of Excalibur ran after Gwaine who was in the lead again, followed by the patrol who each bore tired and grim expressions, and finally -- finally! What was he doing? -- Merlin, who was taking up the rear, running backwards until he bumped into Arthur and jerked around and --
There was a flash of gold in his eyes, a bright glimmer that shone with its own light, gone in the instant of an eyeblink. A trick of light, Arthur convinced himself, glancing up to see the heavy storm clouds swirling overhead, black and grey and white, broiling and roiling like a pot of water at full boil, then it was over, just like that, and there was a gleam of whatever persistent sunshine was left, burning down through the thin sliver of open air overhead to shine down on Merlin like he was Blessed.
The breath caught in Arthur's chest.
He stared at Merlin; Merlin stared back, and it was Merlin who realized how close together they were standing. It was Merlin who took an unsteady step away from Arthur while still keeping in range of where Arthur's hand was clamped on his shoulder. It was Merlin who broke eye contact, abruptly, suddenly, and shy, his gaze darting over his shoulder every which way to pretend that he was looking out for attackers rather than acknowledge Arthur.
A deep flushed heat surged through Arthur, and he pulled and pushed at Merlin, shouting, "What the hell are you waiting for? An engraved invitation?"
"It might help!" Merlin shouted back, but he got moving, heading right on the fork in the open rocks.
"Goddamn it, Merlin! Left! Go left!"
Merlin stopped, twisted, turned, tripped, stumbled, and caught himself in an awkward tangle of uncoordinated limbs trying to balance the weight of his pack and his gun, and Arthur thought that if Merlin ever figured out what it was that kept him from falling flat on his face right then and there, he could bottle it and make a fortune among the masses of clumsy worldwide.
They ran in single file, the burn in Arthur's thighs telling him that they were going to higher ground, and abruptly the path sheared off into a ravine, at first shallow, deepening the further they hiked in. The roar overhead became a shrill whistle, high-pitched and piercing, and Gwaine had just barely crackled a warning over the radio that was shouted over to the patrol squad, "Sandstorm!"
Everyone stopped abruptly to prepare themselves.
Arthur tore at the twisted coil of fabric at his neck, unwound it and tied the ends behind his head, tucking the edges in as much as he could to keep the sand and wind from billowing down. He scrambled for the goggles in his pocket, swept the glass over his arm, and put them on.
"Single file! Keep a hand on the wall, the path gets narrow up ahead! Don't loose line of sight with the man ahead of you!" Gwaine was shouting. Excalibur's scout gave them just enough time to get themselves together -- enough time for the patrol, and a few moments of anxious idle time for Arthur's men -- and they were on the move again, much slower now.
An eerie silence fell for nearly a minute before a deafening whoomph crashed down over their heads like the breath of God slapping the earth, except it wasn't God at all, not hardly, but dust devils and demons that gathered up all the sand and stones and pebbles in the desert and dumped it down over their heads. It swirled at breakneck speeds, cutting, splicing, stinging at any and every bit of exposed skin, and slowed their movement to a desperate crawl.
"...shelter...?" someone asked. Arthur wasn't sure who; he could barely make out the word over the howling in his ears.
"Ahead... there... close..." Gwaine replied. At least, Arthur thought that it was Gwaine.
It took a minute for Arthur to realize that the man in front of him was Merlin. Ridiculous Merlin with his backpack stuffed with the regulation gear and the additional weight of the communication equipment digging the straps into his shoulders. Stubborn, idiotic Merlin who didn't complain about the extra load he had to carry, who always ate everyone's dirt at the rear of the line, who did all the garbage Arthur put him through without much more than a muttered "Prat".
The pang of guilt he felt in that instant vanished when he realized that the bands of Merlin's goggles made his ears stick out even more. He tried not to laugh. That would only get the dust into his mouth.
He kept walking, his shoulder brushing the rock face on one side, his foot making the ground crumble over the ledge on the other side. Merlin was a hazy presence in front of him, and there was no one behind him. Arthur hoped that the shelter Gwaine was taking them to was as close as Gwaine promised over the cracked communication channel. He generously decided to give Merlin the benefit of the doubt and to put the blame of the static on the raging winds whipping around them.
The whipping wind was heavy with sand and was making all of his exposed skin raw.
He kept walking, keeping his head down.
There was a sound behind him. It was a crying mewl. He dismissed it as the wind.
Arthur heard it again, louder, more directed this time. He slowed down and twisted around carefully, wiping the dust from his goggles so that he could see. There was nothing but wind and sand flying in a vertical, sometimes horizontal, arc around him. It was dizzying.
He kept walking, but he couldn't see Merlin ahead of him anymore. He hurried to catch up. He only looked away for a moment; he couldn't be that far behind.
The sound came again, a third time, but this time there was a distinct word. "Help..."
He tapped the earpiece. Nothing.
"Help me. Please."
He glanced to the side, where he'd heard the voice -- a woman's voice. It was soft and beguiling and scratchy from the sandstorm, and he squinted his eyes uselessly to try to spot whoever was talking. The storm should be muting her voice, but he was hearing it as clear as day, and he wondered if it was the interference from the earpiece, and the woman was actually somewhere far, far away.
Arthur continued to walk. He couldn't see anyone ahead of him, now. Not Gwaine, who was at the head of the line, not Merlin with his ridiculous ears, but, it didn't matter because if he walked a bit faster he would catch up and not miss the turn, or the hole, or the cave, or the overhang or whatever it was that Gwaine considered adequate shelter against the storm. As if trying to foil his attempts, the wind blew harder, buffeting him back, and he felt his boots skid on the suddenly-slippery ground, the tiny grains of sand like marbles under his feet.
"Help me. Please. Help me, Arthur."
Arthur whipped around.
Nothing. Just the wind blowing down through the crack in the ground overhead, pelting him with columns of sand. Then he saw it, just off to the side, a shape made more tangible by the sand swirling around it. A woman, her body curvy and small and frail, her arm up to protect her face. Ten, maybe twelve feet away, directly over the precipice.
That was impossible. Arthur could feel the edge of the narrow path with his foot, the ground crumbling dangerously.
The woman was walking toward him. He could make out her outstretched hand.
"Help me, Arthur. Free me."
She wasn't far away from him, and it seemed that it was far enough, because she couldn't come any closer, her arm reaching out for him. He could hear her crying.
"It's all right!" He shouted, his brain still processing the incongruity of a woman being out here, alone, in the Ravines in a dust storm. "I'll get you somewhere safe!"
Arthur immediately regretted having spoken, because fine grains of sand made it through the fabric he had wrapped around his face to cover his mouth and nose, aggravating the back of his throat. He kept a hand on the rock face, felt around until he found the edge of the narrow path and planted a foot there, and held out his arm.
He was close, but not close enough. "You have to reach out!"
He coughed and wished he could spit out the sand.
She didn't seem to have heard him. "Lady! Take my hand!"
Arthur strained, trying to reach her.
Cold fingers -- so cold that he could feel them through his gloves -- wrapped gingerly around his palm, then tightened. Arthur felt a measure of relief, and pulled his hand back, leading her to the ledge. He wished he could see the ground so that he could guide her, to tell her where to jump or to take a big step to reach the path that he was standing on. He braced himself in case she slipped.
A hard yank straightened his arm and pulled him away from the rock wall, then more, until he was holding onto the woman with both hands, his body leaning backwards to haul her closer, up to the ledge, because she must have slipped, and -- God! she was heavier than Arthur -- she was dragging him down. His thighs burned from the strain.
He whipped an arm back, trying to grab at the rock face, but something else grabbed his arm instead, pulling him back onto the ledge.
There was a shriek, feminine and high-pitched, and abruptly, Arthur's arm jerked upward, and he was pulled off the ground -- impossible! He hung suspended, desperate, trying to let go of the cold hand on one side while clutching at the other hand on his arm.
An abrupt change in the air left him floating, boneless, without gravity; the shape in front of him coalesced into something that wasn't a woman anymore, that was... A face surged out at him through the sand and the wind, all sharp edges and alien angular angles, black eyes glowing from an inner, unholy light, a mouth open wide with rows upon rows of sharp shark teeth.
It bounced off something. A wall. A shield. Something. Arthur didn't know what, because the face, the monster, the thing jerked back and quailed, shrieked and wailed, and was gone.
Whatever kept Arthur in the air suddenly disappeared. He stumbled down, catching the narrow ledge with the heel of one boot, the ground giving way, and he slid down the sand-slippery limestone, too surprised by the face-in-the-sand-in-the-wind -- shit! What the hell was that! It was going to eat me! -- to process the simple fact that he was falling.
And taking his rescuer down with him.
"Goddamn it, Arthur!"
Merlin. It was Merlin. Dependable, long-suffering, what was he doing, the stupid idiot Merlin. Arthur twisted his body, tried to slow down their descent by grabbing for handholds or footholds or anything at all, because if there was one goal in his life, it was most assuredly not to end his scintillating career in the armed forces by going splat on the rock floor in the Ravines. A second before he grabbed onto something promising, he felt himself stop, just like that, and he looked up where Merlin was tugging his arm and saw a flash of gold where a pair of eyes should be, but, no, that was a strange reflection of light on the other man's goggles, nothing else, nothing weird, not like that at all.
"Arthur! Climb up! There's a ledge!"
He didn't know why he was hearing Merlin so clearly when all he could hear was the roar of the wind and the rush of his blood through his veins, but he wasn't going to complain. He dug his boots in, slipped once or twice, hauling himself up inch by precious inch, working blind, following the guidance of Merlin's arm. The ledge couldn't be far, because Merlin's arm wasn't that long, and when did he get so strong, because he's toothpick scrawny finally, he reached something solid and flat and horizontal that wasn't going to crumble under him.
"Come on! I see a cave!"
Merlin scrambled to his feet, pulling Arthur up after him, never letting go of his hold around Arthur's arm, and led him ten, fifteen, twenty-two strides along the new path to this mysterious cave that Arthur couldn't even see in this goddamned storm, and for a moment, a blessed moment, it was as if they'd stepped into the eye of the storm, because the wind wasn't battering his body, the sand wasn't tearing at his exposed skin, and there was silence, not a sound except for his own ragged breathing.
Merlin pulled him deeper into the cave, far from the open mouth where the wind and the sand was billowing in, where it was cool and a little bit damp, finally letting go of Arthur's hand to drop on the ground and pull off his pathetic excuse of a neckerchief to gasp and pant for air.
Arthur fell on the ground next to him a second later. The knot on his red scarf didn't want to come undone, and he yanked it off along with his goggles with a painful tear over raw skin. It seemed as if it took forever for his lungs to stop wanting to burst, for his heart to quit pounding, but once he did, he pulled out a small torch from his bag and used it to illuminate the cave.
He looked over at Merlin. The man hadn't bothered to take off his goggles; instead, he sat there, slumped and beaten. Arthur beat him some more for good measure, shoving hard at his arm.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing, Emrys?"
Merlin stared at him, mouth falling open in shock -- don't think about those lips now, damn it -- and he pushed his goggles up over his eyebrows. "Saving your ungrateful arse?"
"I can take care of myself!"
"Doing a bang up job of it, yeah?" Merlin retorted. "Lagging behind, nearly waltzing off the ledge?"
"You were supposed to stay in formation!"
"So were you!"
A loud rumble of wind across the mouth of the cavern muted Arthur's "Pillock!" and Merlin's "Clotpole!" and Arthur fell silent, staring, before asking, "Clotpole? Really? What century are you in?"
"Fuck off," Merlin snarled, his voice low, slow, and sullen.
Arthur snorted. They didn't look at each other, they didn't say anything, and sat in awkward silence while the storm raged on outside.
"Are the others all right?" Merlin asked. Arthur had been wondering the same thing.
He turned and gave Merlin a dark look, wavering as he wriggled out of his backpack. "If everyone stayed together like they were supposed to, and followed Gwaine to that shelter of his, they're fine."
Merlin nodded, and kept his eyes down. "Yeah. You're probably right."
"Of course I'm right. I trained them. They're fine," Arthur said.
Another silence fell between them, filled with nothing but the shuffle of fabric, the scrape of metal on rock, and a scramble to find supplies. Arthur split a protein bar in half and gave the other to Merlin; no point in either of them running out of energy while waiting out the storm. He chewed the peanut butter-flavoured bar and chased it down with a few swallows of lukewarm water from his canteen.
"You're shite at following orders, you know," Merlin said.
"I'm not the only one who broke formation. You broke it first."
"Shut up, Merlin."
"I mean, who does that? In the middle of a storm? Can't see more than a couple of feet in front of you to the guy ahead? Did you stop to take a leak or something? See the sights? Do the tourist thing?"
Arthur rubbed his eyes and thought better of it a second too late; the rough of his gloves scraped at the sensitive skin around his eyes, where the goggles hadn't protected his skin. Merlin was a little worse off than he was, his pale, milky skin raw and red in wide circles that ranged from cheekbones to temples to eyebrows.
"You didn't see that?" he asked. He didn't know how to describe the woman he'd heard, the monster he'd seen in the storm, so he didn't try, but he still had to ask.
Merlin's lips parted into a small, little moue, his eyebrows rose, and he chewed the inside of his cheek the way Arthur had seen people do when they were about to lie, but the expression came and went so quickly that Arthur was sure that Merlin didn't even know how to lie properly.
"No?" Merlin answered, but it was more a question that sounded as if he wasn't certain that was the right response. Arthur didn't know if he wanted to slap him on the back of his head or be grateful. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. It was strange -- the woman's voice, the creature in the whirling sand, the way it bounced off something intangible but utterly solid in the air, the way Merlin's eyes had shone like gold... but that had been the goggles. The goggles. Right.
It seemed as if the storm was dying down, but every time Arthur sat up to look at the mouth of the cavern, the winds picked up and blew a violent buffet of wind into the cavern.
"How big was the storm spread again?" he asked.
"Couple of hours," Merlin said.
"Where are we anyway?"
"In a cave?"
Arthur was blessed with watching Merlin wither under his glare. Merlin shifted, yanked open his hip pocket, and unfolded a map, tilting it toward the light as he leaned over it with long, spidery fingers that scratched out their route. "How'd you even know this place was here?"
Merlin jerked a little. "I saw it. Um. There was a break in the wind."
There hadn't been a break. Not even a tiny little one. Even if there had, Arthur should have seen it too -- and even then, he would've scoffed and argued with Merlin that it was nothing but a mirage and push to join Gwaine's group instead. Arthur leaned back, wondering how he was going to explain all this in his report. "Right. A break in the wind."
He thought about how Merlin couldn't possibly have had the strength to haul Arthur up to the ledge, much less have stopped them both from tumbling all the way down to the bottom in the first place. He chalked it up to adrenaline.
"Oh, um. We're not far. See, I think this is where Gwaine was taking us, and we're probably down here somewhere," Merlin said, pointing to two spots on the map. Arthur had to lean forward to see it, but he nodded. It looked about right.
He jerked back quickly when he realized how close he was to Merlin, how he could smell him under the sharp tang of limestone-studded sweat. He swallowed hard.
"Are the comms working?"
Merlin startled again, either because he was surprised that Arthur was sill talking to him, or because Arthur was asking at all. "Well, yeah, they should. Unless we're under too much rock, and there's a mother lode of iron in between us. They're up there. We're down here."
Merlin waved his hand in the air helpfully, and pointed somewhere in the middle. "If there's a whole lot of iron in between, we'll have to wait to climb up to talk to them."
Arthur tapped his earpiece, but there wasn't anything but static. He raised a brow at Merlin.
"Wait. Hold on." He did something to the Box, then gave Arthur an encouraging nod, and a second later, he heard nothing but the sweet clarity of a clean line. "Gwaine?"
"Shite! Arthur! Where are you? Are you all right? Have you seen Merlin? When you guys didn't show up..."
"We're fine. A cave probably a buck fifty from where you are." He stopped Gwaine from asking how they got that far apart by asking, "Everyone's all right?"
"Everyone's in one piece."
"Good. The storm's probably scattered the rebels, and now that the bug's been busted," Arthur glanced at Merlin, who nodded confirmation, "We've got an open route ahead to the pick-up point. Keep an eye on the corporal. He might disappear, and I want him dealt with when we get to the other end. Tie him up if you have to."
"I hear you," Gwaine said. There was no missing how he wanted to ask what happened, but at least Gwaine had enough sense not to ask until they were drowning their aches and pains with beer and chasers.
"All right. Hunker down until the storm passes. Once it's clear, get on the trail. We'll catch up."
Arthur glanced at Merlin, who was making himself comfortable against a pile of rocks, and sighed, reaching over to turn off the torch to conserve the batteries. He'd gotten enough of a look into the cave to know it wasn't big enough to have any hiding places or even properly hide rebels, so they were safe enough until the storm died down. He sighed heavily. "May as well catch a few winks."
Merlin didn't answer him. Arthur poked him.
"Can't catch any winks if you keep poking me," Merlin mumbled.
Arthur sighed and shook his head. He leaned back and made himself comfortable while they waited out the storm.
By the time they caught up to Gwaine and the others -- the traitorous corporal had his wrists behind his back -- the helicopters had landed and everyone was loading up. Gwaine walked over to him, Lance right behind, and Merlin went on ahead, shaking the sand out of his Box on the way. Watching him, Arthur decided that something was missing -- or rather, Merlin had earned it -- and wrenched off his red scarf.
Arthur held up the swath of red cloth. "You dropped this."
"That's not -- What? Oh!" Merlin's expression changed from confusion to realization to delight in an eyeblink, and his smile was as bright as the desert sun.
Shite, Arthur thought. He keeps smiling like that, I'm in trouble.