Three weeks later, the red scarf still smelled like Arthur. It took an enormous amount of willpower for Merlin to keep from wanking with the scarf wrapped around his cock. An enormous amount of willpower and the knowledge that there was virtually no privacy on base, especially not in the barracks. How all these soldiers didn't give up the war out of wanton sexual frustration, Merlin didn't know. No. He did know -- Gwaine had told him about seven different places within a stone's throw of the barracks where someone could go for a few minutes of privacy.
Out in God's redneck backyard with the team's sniper less than three inches to his left was not one of those places.
Merlin checked over both shoulders, but he couldn't see hide or hair of their overwatch. Arthur had dispatched Gwaine, Owain and Perceval on a short-term skirmish which mostly involved staying put and waiting for the order to fire. Merlin was only along for the ride as an afterthought -- Arthur had imperiously waved a hand at him and said, "Why don't you go along too?"
Merlin had glanced between Gwaine and Arthur. Maybe Owain and Perceval had a fighting chance at following Gwaine when Gwaine was being his usual super-sneaky self, but Merlin? "Because maybe I'd like them to come back alive?" Merlin had said.
"In that case, while you're at it, make sure they do, too." Arthur's expression had been hard, his eyes dropping down to the red scarf that Merlin wore all the time, just like the team wore theirs all the time, as if he was having second thoughts about having given Team Excalibur's official badge of membership to Merlin in the first place.
"This is bollocks, man. Bollocks with a capital B," Gwaine muttered under his breath. He hadn't budged from his wedged position flat on the ground, his feet on a fallen tree stump, the gun brace on his shoulder, the scope on his eye. "I don't see any sign that they're coming on this road. Are you sure you got the coordinates right?"
Merlin checked for the eleventh time. Even if his memory was for shite, he'd written the numbers down in code in his little book -- a little book that was identical to the one that Gwaine was using to record his kills and supplementary data. Wind speed, angle of inclination, temperature, ammunition, directional notches on his rifle -- he recorded everything, as if he expected to one day suss out a mathematical formula to turn any greenie into a super sniper like him. Gwaine didn't actually do any mathematics himself when it came to making the kill -- he simply recorded the conditions and worked by feel alone.
For such a fun guy, when Gwaine was working, he was a bit scary.
"Yeah, I'm absolutely, one hundred percent sure," Merlin said. For the eleventh time.
"Where's the boys?" Gwaine asked. A conversational Gwaine in the middle of a mission usually meant that he was bored and needed entertainment. Merlin was starting to wonder if Arthur had sent him along for exactly that reason. He didn't have to be out here in the scorching heat feeding Gwaine bottles of water and bits of protein bar every time the half hour passed -- he could be back on base working on his Box now that the parts he'd requisitioned had come in. Plus, he owed his Mum a phone call thanking her for the care package that was sitting unopened under his bed, hidden from the pirates that he had for bunkmates who would plunder it the minute they realized it contained food, and Will had written a letter that he hadn't even read yet because things for His Highness, Captain Prat, kept coming up.
Merlin looked over his shoulders again, but he still couldn't spot Owain and Perceval. He would never admit that he couldn't find them, and it didn't matter anyway because Merlin had cast trackers on all of them, just in case the mission went all sorts of horrible sideways. "Oh. They're around, I'm sure."
"Details, Merlin. Details. If I'm training you to be a spotter, I need details."
"Training me?" Merlin startled, nearly jostling Gwaine -- something that would net him a stabbing, because Gwaine hated to re-set. "What do you mean, training me?"
"The only other good pair of eyes in this lot is Arthur's, and he's, you know, the guy in charge. Can't have him stuck to me all the time. He said you spotted a cave in the storm that he didn't see, figured out your position blind... That's more than the rest of those arseholes can do. Plus, you're decent in math, right?"
"Yeah, sort of." Good in math was putting it mildly, but he didn't feel the need to brag. Merlin's engineering degree was being put to good use on the field, what with the number of hardware problems they kept encountering on their missions. "Does Arthur know about this?"
"He's the one who suggested it," Gwaine said.
Merlin flushed, his ears hot, and that wasn't because of the sun. Why did Arthur have to be so difficult? He told everyone else what he wanted them to do, what he wanted from them. But Merlin? He bullied and bossed and ordered and expected Merlin to jump first and ask later, "Was that high enough?"
Merlin scowled doubtfully. "Did he really?"
"Yeah. So, go on. Where are they?" Gwaine's voice was quiet, friendly, and he didn't deserve whatever anger was bubbling up inside Merlin; he'd store it up to unleash on Arthur at some point. Later. Merlin pushed down his feelings with difficulty, and took a deep breath, reminding himself that he must have done something to convince Arthur that he was worthy of Excalibur, or he wouldn't have given Merlin the Pendragon red to wear.
Merlin sighed, and closed his eyes. In his mind, Owain and Perceval were two bright golden pinpoints, each one a different size. He had to look around again to see what the backdrop was and to gauge actual physical distance. "Owain's two hundred fifty feet on your seven, thirteen feet up, in the corner window. Perceval's sixty feet at our four. Middle window, third floor."
Gwaine didn't answer right away; there was a tension in his shoulders that Merlin had learned to mean he was checking something out through the scope. "Nice one, mate," he said finally, his tone pleased.
Merlin would have grinned if he hadn't been cheating. Gwaine probably spotted them with his first glance around the area before he'd set himself up good and comfortable.
"Call the windspeed," Gwaine said.
That one was easy -- when it came to the natural elements, Merlin could identify them by instinct alone. "Fifteen, south by southwest," he said, not even hesitating.
They didn't talk for some time.
"So, you got a package?" Gwaine asked.
"Keep your dirty mitts off of it," Merlin warned.
"Why, what's in it? Your girlfriend's panties?"
Merlin didn't answer.
"Some wank magazines? We could use some new ones, you know. The old ones are getting sticky."
"Yeah, thanks for sharing. That's disgusting." Merlin brought the binoculars to his face and looked down the road.
"You can get them at the black market," Merlin pointed out.
"Oh, yeah." Gwaine paused, and Merlin could hear him thinking. "Is it some bondage stuff? I didn't know you were into that sort of kink."
"There's a whole lot you don't know about me," Merlin said. When the late-night round table talk at the mess hall turned dirty, Merlin kept his head down, smiled a lot, and didn't rise to any jibes. Gwaine was out -- a huge step out -- of the closet and didn't give a shit, although he technically swung both ways. Good on him, Merlin thought, knowing at the same time that Gwaine would never (or rarely) have to deal with any of the garbage the more straight crowd would dump on him because Gwaine was a goddamn sniper who could shoot the wings off of a fly at a thousand paces.
And Merlin? As far as anyone knew, Merlin was good with gadgets. Not threatening or scary at all.
"Your file tells all," Gwaine declared. "Do I have to remind you that I know all of your carefully kept secrets?"
A cold wash of fear poured down Merlin's spine, but there was no way, absolutely no way that Gwaine could get access to the things that Merlin really wanted to keep secret, and those wouldn't be in his file anyway. They had better not be. He managed a strangled scoff that sounded genuine, and said, "You wish."
"If you're going to be like that, mate, I'm just going to hide your packages before you ever get them from now on." A betraying whimper escaped Merlin's throat and Gwaine barked a laugh of triumph. "Go on. What's in the box?"
"My Mum's baking," Merlin said with a heavy sigh, knowing he might as well just kiss the box goodbye.
Gwaine jerked slightly. "Baking? You've got honest-to-goodness down-home baking? You arse, you're holding out on us. You know you're supposed to share with the rest of the team."
"Where does it say that?"
"Which rule book? I've read them all, I'm pretty sure -- hold on." Merlin squinted through the binoculars. He couldn't be sure, but... He kept watching. "The wind's shifted. Twenty klicks per, and now it's a solid southwest."
"Good man," Gwaine said, making a note in his little book. Merlin noted that he didn't adjust his rifle, though, which probably meant that Gwaine was ahead of him. "And what do you mean, what rule book? It's the rule book."
"I am completely unaware of what rule book you are talking about," Merlin said, hearing in his own voice the formal tone he'd taken on when he had to play witness at a bogus court martial for a botched mission that nearly killed his entire team. He sounded dull, emotionless, distant, detached, and completely and utterly unimpressed by Gwaine's argument.
It made Gwaine laugh. Merlin smirked. Gwaine had an infectious laugh.
"Look, I was saving it, yeah? Waiting for all of us to be back together," Merlin explained, except it sounded really silly and rather girly now that he said it out loud. Excalibur had been split up into tiny specialist missions like this one, none of the ops taking them away for long. Lance, Leon, Galahad and Gareth had gone off on a job, but they were due back at barracks an hour ago. Now, it was Gwaine, Owain, Perceval and Merlin's turn, but after this mission, if it went well, they'd be back together for a week or so until the next time they got sent out again.
He hoped it would be together. The team was much, much happier when they worked together. Arthur was less of a prat then, although, if Merlin really thought about it, Arthur was kind of a mother hen, fretting over his chicks, making sure they were kept together, safe and sound.
"Oh, that's aces, mate," Gwaine said, and the grin in his voice. "Gives us something to look forward to. Your mum a good cook?"
"The best," Merlin said. He already knew what was in the package -- when his Mum got to baking, she started with every treat in the recipe book, and made up some of her own. "Knows how to pack a box, too. She's had lots of practice."
"From your last tours?"
"Yeah. My last tours." Merlin fell quiet, and after a moment, volunteered, "My dad's, too."
"Your dad? Didn't know he's in the military."
"Was. Died when I was a kid," Merlin said.
The silence stretched between them for a few minutes. Gwaine cleared his throat. "Sorry to hear that. Was he SAS?"
"Yeah," Merlin said, feeling ridiculously proud of a man he'd never met, but the way his mother talked about him, he might as well have. "Old school."
Gwaine made an adjustment to his sights, and Merlin couldn't figure out why. None of the environment's parameters had changed. "How come you don't ever talk about, you know, you?"
Merlin shrugged. "It's not a big deal, I guess. I'd rather listen to everyone else."
Gwaine didn't say anything, and they fell in the companionable silence of two men doing their jobs, with Merlin calling wind speed and changes of directions and mentioning that there was a turbulent eddy somewhere along the line of sight where they were expecting their target to appear.
"It's not going to fly for long, you know?" Gwaine warned.
Merlin glanced at him. "Sorry, what?"
"This bollocks of yours."
"What bollocks in particular are we talking about?"
"You're wearing Arthur's red, aren't you?" Arthur's red, and not Excalibur's red, Merlin noted after a surprised second. "You're one of us. You're family now. If you think we were merciless when we questioned you on your first day, wait till your month's grace of wearing the red for the first time is over. The bollocks I'm talking about is this James Bond double-oh all these bloody secrets that you're not telling us."
Merlin was glad that Gwaine's face was stuck to the side of his gun, that his eyes -- one of them anyway -- was focused through the scope. A cold rush of fear swept through him despite the desert heat. He hadn't been exactly subtle out in the Ravines when he'd saved Arthur from the dust devil, and he technically really shouldn't have seen the cave where they took shelter, either, but, then again, Merlin had used the cover of the storm to hide what he was doing. Had Arthur seen something? How could he have? The storm had been thick as carrot soup. He swallowed hard, and kept his attention on the road ahead. "Damn it."
"Damn it, I've been found out. You've revealed my secret identity. I'm going to have to kill you now," Merlin said, pleased with himself for keeping his voice even.
Gwaine snorted. The snort became a choked laugh. Merlin saw Gwaine's finger relax from the trigger so that he wouldn't accidentally fire. When he recovered, he said, "All right, mate. You keep mum, but we'll ply you with hundred-proof until you're so blitzed you tell us everything from the first time you ever smoked a fag..."
"I don't smoke. Never have," Merlin said.
"... to how old you were the first time you got a blow job..."
"Fifteen," Merlin said.
"Really? I was twelve," Gwaine said.
"Sucked yourself off, didn't you?" Merlin asked. "How was it?"
"Fuck you too," Gwaine said, without any real heat. The silence dragged, and in a quieter tone, he said, "I mean it, though. You're family. That means you're going to meet Uther. The man's going to tear you apart in interrogation, so you may as well get used to telling us everything. Better us than him, anyway."
Merlin tensed so tightly that he couldn't breathe for a full minute.
Uther. Colonel Uther fucking Pendragon. He was a legend even all these years after his retirement, a man who'd gotten field commission during war time and held onto it the way most men couldn't, and who'd gotten the opportunity for advancement all the way to a full bird, except he'd turned it down to stay on the battlefield where he belonged until he took his pension and went to build his own company. Some of the most critical victories were attributed to his sledgehammer tactics -- tactics that were still taught at the Royal Military College, and, hell, a quarter of the gear that any unit had on them, from communications to weapons, were manufactured by Pendragon Consulting.
If the stories were true, he was the man who could make or break a soldier's career, even without being in the military himself. Merlin shivered.
Gwaine must have sensed his apprehension, because he chuckled and said, "Too late to quit now."
"Great," Merlin muttered. "Maybe if I get myself shot..."
There was a crackle over the radio and Merlin fell silent. This was his real job -- intercepting the radioed orders so that Gwaine wouldn't be distracted by the chatter. There had been nonstop buzz over the wires ever since they called in and confirmed their position, but Merlin was good at filtering out the noise and paying attention only when certain key words were being used. The key word he'd been listening for was the group's call sign -- Rapier.
"Rapier, target confirmed and on the way. ETA for visual is seven minutes."
Merlin passed on the message, but Gwaine grunted. "Yeah. I see them."
It took a full two minutes of staring through the binoculars -- binoculars that should, in theory, have double the field of vision and magnification as Gwaine's scope -- before Merlin spotted the cloud of dust kicked up by the vehicle coming their way. He muttered under his breath. How in the hell... "You're a fucking mutant."
"The best kind," Gwaine said.
They waited in silence while the caravan crested over the hardpack, rounded the curve, and drove through the most treacherous part of the terrain, open and wide and in a vulnerable downhill position. The abandoned buildings that they were hiding in had the perfect vantage point -- clear line of sight, plenty of debris, long shadows. With the sun nearly right behind them, they could see and not be seen.
There were four Humvees and a transport, all of them in gunmetal grey. Thick reinforced rubber tires kicked up the dust, and from the engine sound whining at a deep rumble, they were carrying more weight than they should.
Gwaine waited. Merlin waited. The caravan entered the sweet spot zone -- the outermost of Gwaine's range at two-point-five klicks, one by one.
"Wind's picking up," Merlin said. "Thirty?"
"Looks right," Gwaine said, but he didn't make any adjustments, not yet. He was waiting for the order down.
Merlin spoke into the radio. "Command. Convoy is in range. Call the target."
There was no immediate response. Merlin frowned. The wind was blowing across the terrain with enough force to start whipping up dust from the hardpan far ahead of the caravan. "Wind speed's forty."
"Crosswinds," Gwaine said. "Fuck. Fifty."
Merlin put down the binoculars and scanned their location. The area around them was calm and quiet, just like it had been before the convoy came into view. "Something's not right."
"No shite something's not right," Gwaine snapped, adjusting the calibrated fine knob on his scope with gentle fingers. Merlin heard three tiny, minuscule clicks. That was a big correction.
The radio crackled. "Rapier, target confirmed. Second vehicle, front passenger. You're looking for a Caucasian man in his late teens, early twenties, short black hair."
Merlin relayed the description. He wondered where the other spotter was.
"Confirm, command. Target acquired. Waiting your go," Merlin said.
"Take your shot," he heard on the radio.
Merlin shifted slightly, adjusting the binoculars. "Whenever you're ready."
They were watching a small, localized storm erupt in front of their eyes, starting with the increased wind speed, the sudden chaotic crosswinds, the dust rising in front of the caravan like a shield.
"I see him," Gwaine said, his tone grim. Merlin didn't miss the but in his tone. He knew enough about how snipers worked -- he'd done a six-week training course to see if he was up to snuff -- to know what had made Gwaine cranky. It was bad enough that he was being asked to shoot a moving target in relatively mild conditions, but the sudden dust-up was making things worse.
A lot worse. Merlin reached out with his magic, questing over the terrain, listening to the change in the wind and the feel of the ground. Normal. Normal. And norm...
Oh. Not normal.
He could feel magic.
He squinted through the binoculars, tracking the magic to the source. It wasn't easy, because the magic kept moving. An impulse made him take a look at the second Humvee.
The radio crackled in his ear again. "Rapier, satellite is tracking a localized storm in your area. Take the --"
The communication line went dead. Merlin tapped at his earpiece once and reached behind him to adjust the Box, going by feel alone. "Fuck!"
"I lost the line with Command." Merlin tried a couple more channels and tried to raise Owain and Perceval on the usual frequencies. "With the boys, too. We're being jammed."
"I'm running out of room to work, Merlin," Gwaine said. "We're going to have to move to the secondary shoot point."
"Make the call," Merlin said. They wouldn't move until Gwaine decided he absolutely couldn't take the shoot in these conditions. The second Humvee would reach the bottom end of Gwaine's range in less than a minute, and they would have even less than that to go from their current location to the next and to set up. Moving would turn them into targets if there were people on the convoy keeping lookout.
"Fuck it," Gwaine said, jerking back suddenly, getting to his feet in one smooth movement, leaving Merlin to scramble after him to the second shoot point.
Gwaine didn't bother to brace properly; he was going to shoot cold. His fingers had already adjusted his rifle for the shorter range, and he was waiting for the sweet spot.
Merlin gave them a quick glance around. They were out of direct line of sight of Owain and Perceval -- their overwatch position would be shifted, but they would end up directly above Gwaine and Merlin -- and Merlin intended to help Gwaine make the shot despite the worsening conditions.
His heart raced. It wasn't the first time that he'd seen magic being used in war by people who weren't him, and by people who were on the other side, but there had been a twisted, dark, foul quality to the magic that he'd felt stirring up the wind and the desert floor. Whoever this guy was, there was a reason a kill order had come down.
Merlin reached out with his magic, this time less to quest and sense and feel, and more, now, to push and pull and disentangle the corrupted threads. Everything he undid was redone in a flash. Every stopper he put in was knocked aside. The knots in the magical tendrils tied up whenever he loosened them.
Alright, mate, the gloves are coming off, Merlin thought. He had to close his eyes for this one, just for a second, and he cast a protective tunnel around Gwaine's line of sight all the way to that second Humvee.
Lights exploded behind his eyes. His head ached. Merlin hadn't ever used his magic like this before, not to hold and sustain something, and it was sapping his strength in a way he wasn't used to. He trembled, fighting against the other sorcerer's magic, but he couldn't distract himself to tell Gwaine to start shooting.
He didn't have to tell Gwaine anything. Merlin heard one, then two shots. He saw the second Humvee through the binoculars. The Humvee continued on, undisturbed. Gwaine worked the bolt action of his semiautomatic and fired twice more. One of the high-powered, armour-piercing bullets cracked the glass of the Humvee. The second one hovered in the air before clinking down on the hood, sliding off.
"I never miss," Gwaine muttered in disbelief.
Through the binoculars, Merlin saw the sorcerer raise two rude fingers at them.
"Son of a bitch!" Gwaine snarled.
Merlin grimaced. He shifted his focus, and nearly dropped his binoculars. In the distance, two of the rearmost Humvees were breaking off and coming toward the town ruins. They weren't supposed to engage -- it was Gwaine's show alone.
He grabbed Gwaine's shoulder and pointed. No words needed to be said. They picked up their gear and took off at a run.
The caravan's passage through the desert was easy to follow on the satellite. The dust kick-up could be seen almost to the stratosphere, and without any weather cloud cover beyond that, the technician behind the joystick was able to zoom in to minute detail.
They were still a good twenty minutes away from the setup point. The team on site would be notified when they were closer to getting in range.
There was a hush in the command centre -- the way there was always a hush right before the execution of a mission. Chatter was kept to a minimum. The briefing had been thorough, and everyone knew their jobs. Or rather, they knew their jobs as much as the spooks allowed them to know their jobs.
All Arthur knew about the mission was that it was a to-kill call, with the target ID kept close to the vest, and the people who were really running the operation were the ones who had brought their own equipment in a couple of briefcase and who were directing the show from the corner of the tent that was closest to the fans. From the looks of them, they weren't MI-5. MI-5 agents had at least a little less swagger in their walk and they had enough manners to keep their condescension for regular military activity to a tolerable minimum. They spoke among each other in hushed tones, using their British mouthpiece -- a squirelly sort who had the long, thin face and heavy jowls of a man who had lost a lot of weight in a very short period of time -- to convey their orders.
Arthur didn't know who they were fooling. If they were trying to hide the fact that Americans were on-site running an op, they were doing a shite job of it. He didn't care about that. It wouldn't be the first time that he'd been involved, even peripherally, with a joint operation between allied nations. What Arthur wanted to know was why they couldn't do this job with their own men. He had it on good authority that there was an American platoon stationed a chopper hop away, and knew at least four good snipers -- though not better than Gwaine -- among their special forces.
Why was Excalibur requested for this mission? They had asked specifically for Gwaine, which came as no surprise. Gwaine's record of confirmed kills was unparalleled -- never mind the mind-boggling number of unconfirmed kills. They'd also requested for a demolitions expert, which was an easy default to Owain. The other two slots to fill were left up to the mission commander, who deferred to Arthur.
Perceval worked well with Owain, followed instructions to the letter, and was a passable substitute for a tracker when Gwaine wasn't available, with a bad habit of spotting the enemy sneaking up on them before almost everyone else. And Merlin...
Arthur swallowed a sigh. Merlin and Gwaine had been working on the range to improve Merlin's shooting, and Gwaine had remarked that Merlin was surprisingly good at eyeballing distances and conditions. Arthur couldn't, in good conscience, send Gwaine out on a mission without a decent spotter, and other priorities grounded Arthur on base for the time being.
And, really, there was no way Merlin could screw up.
Arthur didn't strictly need to be in the command centre for the op. He told himself that he was keeping an eye on his team. Not just on Merlin. The clench in his gut had nothing to do with needing to hear to Merlin's comforting voice over the radio confirming commands and transmitting information.
Absolutely nothing at all.
There was a brush of movement against his sleeve. A young corporal with big green eyes and too many freckles across her nose smiled nervously at him. "Captain Pendragon? Colonel Pendragon's chopper has arrived."
Arthur gave her a curt nod, returning his eyes to the display, watching the on-screen timer count down. Nineteen minutes.
He had plenty of time to greet his father and whatever entourage he'd brought along this time and still make it back to survey the operation itself. He had it on good authority that Morgana was tagging along and that Gwen would be snuck through the red tape as her assistant -- Gwen worked for another division of Pendragon Consulting -- which was why he'd made certain to have Leon and Lance back from their mission in time for this latest business visit. Morgana hadn't been able to tell him much more via email, but a lifetime of sibling code had boiled down to "Dad has new toys he wants to show off", "other companies got wind of it and it's turning into a damn convention" and "the Brass wants a war-game demo".
It wasn't the first time that Uther Pendragon arranged a visit to the area where Arthur was stationed. He used Excalibur to demonstrate his toys for the simple reason that Arthur would do his best not to embarrass the family business too much if the newest research turned out to be lacking. It rarely did, but the tradition of having Excalibur test them out continued regardless.
This time, like other times, Uther was bringing in his own team. Excalibur was going against some of Pendragon Consulting's elite in a showdown of new versus old technology.
Arthur tore off his earpiece and headed out of the command centre. He ran into Leon on his way to the tarmac. "I know you're itching to see Morgana, but do you mind keeping an eye on the op while I get them squared?"
"As long as you don't pull my weekend R&R," Leon said. He gave Arthur a curt nod that betrayed none of the disappointment at the delay in getting to see Morgana again.
"I'd have thought you'd be gagging for an excuse to clear out now that Morgana's touched down," Arthur said, handing him the earpiece.
"You're getting me confused with you," Leon said. "Bit of a coward, aren't you?"
Arthur scoffed. "More like I've developed a keen sense of self-preservation after almost thirty years of being her brother -- something that you've yet to acquire, you poor wanker."
Leon snorted. He held up the earpiece and nodded toward the command centre. "I'll let you know if anything happens."
Arthur nodded, Leon saluted, and they both turned away, heading in different directions. Arthur hiked up the hill, but he didn't need to hurry. Uther never arrived without a large contingent, and this time around, he was being trailed by some of the ex-military who'd been hired to supplement Pendragon Consulting. More than a few of those small units were hired out to protect convoys, support government troops, engage in training, deliver supplies, and to do the R&D on new technologies that the government didn't have the pounds and sterling to develop for themselves. Arthur found that he wasn't in much of a rush to find out which of the in-house for-hire combat units Uther had brought along. He already had a bad feeling.
The helicopter rotors were lazily swinging at a low frequency rotation, but the pilot was out of the cabin and doing a point check, which meant they were good and down and...
Uther Pendragon was tall and slim, but he hadn't lost the breath of his shoulders or the barrel chest of his younger years in active duty. Even if he dropped fifteen stone of muscle and gained a lot more grey in his hair, there would be no losing the authority in his bearing or the snap-to in his voice. He wore his expensive business suit as if it were a military uniform, and the only exemption for the hot temperatures were the equally expensive designer sunglasses that hid the piercing iceberg-blue of his eyes.
Even from nearly a hundred yards away, Arthur could hear the wind carrying his bark of commands. In addition to his own men, there were plenty of enlisted greenies jumping to follow his orders. Behind Uther was Morgana, who, for some unfathomable reason, was wearing stiletto heels and a black silk wraparound dress that plunged low in the cleavage while maintaining a modest below-the-knee hug, and the scarf keeping her hair from winding out in every direction was a painful shade of shoot-me white.
I know she read the safety precautions briefing, Arthur thought, shaking his head. She complained enough about it in her last email.
After a moment's consideration, he decided to make Morgana's inappropriate fashion style Leon's problem.
Thankfully, Gwen was dressed more modestly in a two-piece pantsuit in a classic business cut that hugged her curves while still not being over the top, and her scarf -- in a tasteful shade of umber that picked up the pale yellow pinstripes of her navy blue suit -- had slipped down past her curly brown hair somewhere between helping unload a few boxes and being swept up in Lance's arms.
Everyone was studiously ignoring the snogging.
Arthur recognized some of the other men that Uther had brought along, and it didn't take one plus one to come up with fuck, because Lee Hansom and Franz Johns were never a stone's throw away from Michael Valiant. Arthur spotted Valiant on the other end of the tarmac, blustering about with a lot of useless arm-waving, ordering a few hapless corporals to carry a load this way a few feet, then to bring it back where it belonged until someone with enough brain cells to rub together told them where the supplies were really supposed to go.
Excalibur versus Valiant's team.
"Colonel." Arthur greeted his father with a handshake and a nod -- Uther wouldn't accept anything else in a military environment -- and asked, "Have a good flight?"
"The in-flight movie left a lot to be desired," Morgana said, rolling her eyes. "How do you think it was? Windy, dusty, noisy, as usual. Now, where's Leon?"
"He's in the command centre," Arthur said.
"And what is he doing there?" Morgana's hands went to her hips, and she raised both brows with a raised arch that meant I didn't come all this way to see you.
"Nice to see you too, Morgana," Arthur said. "Leon's overseeing an op while I came to get you sorted out."
"Are your men involved?" Uther asked.
"Yes, sir. Gwaine, Owain, Perceval and the new man," Arthur said.
"And how long is this mission?" Uther asked, turning slightly to supervise the unloading of a large cargo box from a second helicopter. Arthur guessed that the top-secret tech was in there.
"Not long," Arthur said. "They'll be on their way back within the hour. I know you'd like Gwaine to look at the new scope mounts and for Owain to get his hands on the new compounds in the field."
Uther gave him a small, appraising look, and glanced at Morgana, who held her hands up. "I didn't tell him anything."
"Didn't have to," Arthur said, gesturing toward some of the other cargo bins. Although the outside of the boxes were unmarked except for a serial number in code, long exposure to military practices and the family business made it difficult not to come up with answers on his own. Uther gave him a brusque nod, and started toward the base camp. Morgana followed, leaving Gwen to Lance's mercies.
"Shouldn't you be in the command centre , Captain?" Uther said, and there was no missing the tone of disapproval that Arthur had been waiting for.
"They have it well under control, sir," Arthur said, managing -- this once -- not to bite off each word. It didn't help that he wasn't entirely sure about that, either. Not with Americans involved in the op.
Uther didn't answer. Instead, he said, "The debriefing with the Generals is at 1300. Morgana and Ms. Du Lac will be with me during this time.
"The demonstration of the new hardware is at 1800. The PR department is putting on a show; we're letting the other companies go first. The actual hands-on will be taken care of by Valiant's team. Your men are expected to be present for the demonstrations." Uther gave Arthur a sidelong look that anyone else would have interpreted as is this all right with you? but Arthur wasn't falling for it.
"We'll be there," Arthur said.
"Good." Uther walked down the hill, surveying the base layout like a King overseeing his land from the top of the castle towers. "We're quartered in our usual tents?"
"Yes, sir," Arthur said.
A few more steps, and Uther asked the question that Arthur had been waiting for. "Tell me about the new man."
"Lieutenant Merlin Emrys, formerly of 22 Division D, seconded to the Artists where he trained new recruits in cryptography, communications and search and rescue, transferred back to 22 and full active duty by Major Kilgarrah."
Arthur noted how Uther's lips pressed in a tight, thin line at the mention of Kilgarrah's name, but he nodded curtly for Arthur to continue.
"Double degree in engineering and telecommunications from Cambridge. Full ride, top marks, and came out with a patent for modulating encryption technology for wireless systems." Arthur's rank came with privileges, and among those privileges was unrestricted access to the Internet. A vanity "Merlin Emrys" search on Google had turned up an unsurprisingly small number of links, and the mentions all belonged to the Merlin Emrys who was in his unit.
He found newspaper articles about Merlin from university, a couple of science fair awards from his first forms, his LinkedIn site, and his Facebook page -- which was unfortunately locked with privacy settings forwards, backwards and sideways, and Arthur didn't get much more from the page beyond an user pic that showed a slightly younger Merlin laughing his arse off next to another bloke half-cropped in the frame.
Arthur didn't have a Facebook page -- not anymore -- and there had been absolutely no temptation whatsoever to reactivate his account. Not even a little bit.
He never clicked on the CONFIRM button, so no one could prove it.
"And?" Uther prompted, sounding interested in the same way he sounded interested when his stocks went up or he acquired a new prize for his division.
Arthur glanced at his father briefly, trying to read his expression, but Uther was playing stone-face as usual.
"Security clearance is higher than mine," Arthur admitted, and it tasted bitter on his tongue. That bit of information came by way of Gwaine by way of his squeeze in Kilgarrah's office -- and, really, Kilgarrah should get a new aide if he wanted to maintain security. "Probably because of his crypto work. The Think Tank goes to him to crack enemy hardware."
"Really." Uther raised a brow, then, and Arthur saw Morgana out of the corner of his eye, listening intently. "What else?"
"Two years left into his tour unless he re-ups," Arthur said, but he knew that wasn't what Uther meant. Ever since he heard that Uther was coming to the base to test some of his toys, he'd known that Uther would ask about Merlin. The man was constantly headhunting, looking for an edge over the competition. The majority of Excalibur's members had jobs waiting for them with Pendragon Consulting when they completed their tours. Arthur had been thinking what to say about Merlin for several days now.
He's got ridiculous ears.
It's a coin toss if he'll trip over a crack in the cement or tumble over a ledge.
He hasn't shot his foot off yet.
Can't cut a military corner on his bed worth a toss, but he can find a discarded transistor at a hundred paces.
There are days I can't stop staring at his lips. Or his hands.
Instead, Arthur said, "It's early yet, but he's solid."
That was good enough for Uther, who nodded curtly. "Make certain he's at the demonstration. I want to see what he can do against our encryption keys for the new communication system."
"Yes, sir," Arthur said. They reached the swell of activity in the base, and were walking past the command centre to the VIP quarters when Leon burst out of the tent. He took two running steps and stopped dead when he spotted Arthur. Arthur knew the look on his face and a pool of dread filled in his stomach.
"Captain! There's a cock-up!"
Arthur didn't hesitate. There were no forced apologies to the Colonel, no sidelong glances at Morgana begging forgiveness. There was no need -- of anyone, they would understand that the job, this job, came first. He broke into an undignified run -- dignity didn't come into play when his people were at stake -- and crossed the compound without care for the jeeps puttering down the makeshift road or by knocking over the aides and corporals walking past. Leon didn't even seem to notice that Morgana was there in the first place -- he was right on Arthur's heels in the command tent, but Uther wasn't far behind. No one stopped him despite the business suit -- the man's bearing told them that if he wanted to be there, he damn well would be.
Arthur grabbed one of the spare earpieces on the table and immediately scowled when he couldn't hear anything but static. His eyes scanned the satellite image, taking in the coordinates -- they were on the mark -- and the fact that the display looked anything like it had been less than twenty minutes ago.
"A dust storm kicked up as soon as the convoy entered the target area," Leon said, jostled by one of the technicians moving to another console, shoving aside the controller who was haplessly flicking switches and turning knobs. "Communications went down a minute later."
"What was the last clear image?"
What Arthur was really asking was, is the team all right?, but Leon shook his head. He didn't know.
Arthur reached past the Colonel in charge of the extended op -- Colonel John Mandrake -- and gripped the shoulder of the satellite tech. "Pull the image out."
He got a sharp look from Mandrake -- if it was meant to be reprimanding, the Colonel thought twice about it only because he hadn't given the order himself when he damn well should have. The technician slowly dialled back the satellite lens, and they got a view of the terrain.
The target area -- the abandoned town, the open ground, the road the convoy was following -- it was completely coated by a dust storm as thick as the soup that Excalibur had been in at the Ravines, but unlike the Ravines, this dust storm hadn't been swept in by a weather front. A perfect circle -- not counting the ragged edges that licked at the periphery -- smothered the area. And it didn't move.
Arthur didn't know how that could be, but it was. He glanced at a few other monitors -- at the radar that showed nothing in the flight path overhead, and definitely didn't show any localized weather in the area, at the radio console that didn't show the slightest flick of signal strength, at the cascading screen of continuous data being fed through the computers. None of it told him anything. None of it except for the American spooks who were calmly shutting their briefcase computers, trading grim looks, and adjusting their jackets.
Arthur checked his watch. He had the team's countdown going, and he knew by now that the explosives Owain had set on approach to the exit mouth of the road should have gone off, and that, at least, would have made an impact in the smooth smear of dust storm. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Americans inch toward the door, moving with casual whistling-innocently-hands-in-pocket meandering, hoping no one would notice.
"Don't you want to see how your op ends?" Arthur said, his voice like an ice pick.
Mandrake turned to look at Arthur and turned again to look at the spooks, and in one instant, Mandrake's annoyed expression turned to steel-cut hardness, because he gestured at the two large infantrymen standing guard on the inside of the tent, both of whom moved to block the Americans from leaving.
No one knew which "Sir!" the corporal was asking for, but Mandrake and Arthur both turned to look at the satellite. The sheer calm of the dust storm had been disturbed by a plume of black smoke.
It was the wrong place to be the line of ordnance that Owain would have set down.
Cold dread trickled down Arthur's spine and nestled in the small of his back. He turned to look at Mandrake, and only out of courtesy.
"Go and get them," Mandrake said, his eyes hard as he turned a dark glare at the Americans.
"Plan B?" Leon asked, tossing off his earpiece to join the one Arthur had left on the table, and Arthur nodded curtly. There was always a Plan B. It was a running joke in Excalibur -- Arthur's Plan B always had its own Plan B.
He turned around to see that Uther and Morgana had followed them out of the command centre. Arthur recognized the look on his father's face -- it was the look that warned that he wouldn't broker any disruption to his plans.
"1800," Arthur said. "We'll be there, sir."
There was a quiet, measuring moment in which Arthur and Uther sized each other up, just like they did every time Arthur did something that threatened to make his father look bad.
Uther nodded sharply. "See that you are."
Leon, finally realizing Morgana had arrived, took advantage of the distraction to sweep in and give her a hard, hasty snog before muttering, "Need to --"
"-- bring them back," Morgana finished for him. "I know. Go."
The trigger clicked. And clicked. And clicked.
"Bloody fucking hell!" Owain smacked the box with the palm of his hand, and the metal cracked under the force of his blows. "What kind of sodding piece of shite is this!"
"Are you sure the leads are in proper?" Perceval asked, taking a big step out of Owain's long reach. The man had arms like a bear and claws to match.
Owain glared. "'Course I did!"
Perceval grimaced and ducked into the shadow of the next window, squinting. The sandstorm had stirred out of nowhere, but if he narrowed his eyes just so, he could make out the convoy puttering along the road in the distance. The two Humvees at the end of the caravan line had pulled a 90-degree turn and were heading in their direction; a third was breaking off from the middle of the convoy and catching up fast.
Owain and Perceval had three jobs to do. The first was to run overwatch on Gwaine to make sure no one snuck up on him, and to step in if Merlin turned out to be pants at calling out the shooting conditions. Any assignment with Gwaine turned out to be a glorified hiking trip, because everyone knew that Gwaine never missed. Never. Not once.
In the extremely unlikely circumstance that Gwaine failed to carry out his job, Owain and Perceval's job turned from overwatch to messy assassination. There was a line of explosives at the other end of the road with enough destructive power to take out at least three of the armour-plated Humvees.
Except Owain had been flicking the switch for more than thirty seconds, and they'd missed their chance to hit the target vehicle. On top of that, they had a new problem. Not only did it look as if Gwaine had missed, but he'd also done something to give away their positions, because the bad guys were coming their way.
That meant they had to do job number three: causing a distraction that would allow them to get their arses out of there.
Perceval cast an uncertain glance toward Owain. The explosives hadn't gone off and didn't look like they would cooperate any time soon. The storm could be used as cover, but it didn't seem to be stopping the Humvees -- which, logically, should be ground to a halt after choking on a couple of tons of dust through the intake valves.
"Sod this," Owain snapped, disabling the trigger and shoving it into his pack. He shouldered his bag, adjusted the straps, and took the semiautomatic rifle from Perceval in exchange for a curt nod. "The boys should be at the meet point by now. Let's go."
When Gwaine and Merlin shifted positions the first time, Perceval enacted Stage II of Plan A and joined Owain in his overwatch slot. Now that things had gone South to Bollocks Avenue, they were well onto Plan B, which was to bug out. They were four against a convoy of heavily armed rebels; with three transports heading their way, the only thing they could do was to retreat and engage from a more secure location.
Perceval led the way down the stairs, rifle against his shoulder, clearing the way as he went, pausing to adjust his goggles over his eyes and to wrap the red swath of Excalibur fabric around his nose and mouth against the storm. A quick glance at Owain showed that he was ready to go.
Merlin kept his sights trained ahead of him. Gwaine had disappeared somewhere behind him and there was no use trying to locate the scout. He didn't have to worry -- and he didn't -- that he'd been abandoned, because he knew exactly where Gwaine had gone. Magical trackers were wonderful things -- he was glad he'd thought of it ages ago.
While Gwaine kept an eye out for the enemy coming on their heels, Merlin watched for anyone who would be coming after them from the front. It was hard to concentrate with the storm swirling around them -- not only was it putting him on edge with the magical equivalent of staticky television snow, every odd shape and shadow made him look twice (and reach out with his power to be absolutely certain) and he couldn't help but ad an extra quarter pound of pressure on the trigger of his gun.
He entered a building that he was fairly certain Gwaine had already swept ahead of him and tensed when he sensed two shapes behind the wall. Gwaine entered the building from the side -- by reflex, Merlin's gun trained on him for half a second before he wrenched away and returned his attention to the other two bodies he knew were on the other side of the wall, but Gwaine shook his head and whistled.
There was a sharp, sonorous whistle in answer before Owain and Perceval stepped out. They all traded relieved glances that faded as soon as they made sure that everyone was all right, because they weren't out of the woods yet.
"What the fuck --"
"They're jamming us," Merlin said, cutting Owain's rant in mid-sentence. He'd noticed that the explosives didn't go off the way they were supposed to when Gwaine didn't hit his target, and figured that was why Owain's knickers were in a bunch. "We're cut off from command. Switch to the E channel, that one's probably safe."
As safe as a little bit of misdirection magic can make it, anyway, but Merlin didn't volunteer that bit of information.
Gwaine raised a brow at him. "You're just telling us that now?"
"I was supposed to know they'd know which frequency to jam in the first place, how, exactly?" Merlin asked, raising an apologetic shoulder.
"Worry about your bullets, Gwaine. What happened back there?" Owain asked.
Gwaine's expression clouded, and his brows pinched in the middle of his forehead. He turned to look at Merlin with a pleading look. "You didn't see that?"
I saw your bullets pause in mid-air and drop off the hood of the Humvee, yeah. After that, I saw bullets kiss the windshield and not even make a scratch. By the way, high velocity armour piercers don't actually do anything but tickle when they hit a magic shield.
"I --" Gwaine reached for the words he needed to explain.
"You missed, mate," Perceval said, clasping a hand on Gwaine's shoulder. "Happens to the best of us."
"Not to me!" Gwaine sounded plaintive, almost on the edge of complete anguish. Merlin felt terrible, and wished he could tell him the truth.
Magic was real.
"Right." Perceval waited a moment, but Gwaine didn't answer, and Merlin wasn't going to volunteer any information. Owain moved to the doorway and kept an eye out. They were in the middle of the abandoned town, and all the buildings and ruins were blocking the worst of the sandstorm.
Before Merlin could suggest they head out before the rebels caught up to them, Perceval took charge. "All right. Switch to E like Merlin said."
"Testing," Merlin said, and was gratified to hear the voices echo over his earpiece. Perceval gave Merlin a curt nod of approval.
"Let's head for the truck. Gwaine, take the lead. Owain, you're second. I want you in there with the engine warmed up by the time Merlin and me finish the sweep. We'll give you a two minute head start."
Owain nodded, and Gwaine went out the door without another word, radiating about seven different sorts of pissed-off. Merlin turned and found Perceval studying him with a quiet, evaluating stare that stretched into a thin, grim smile.
"Don't mind him," Perceval said. "The last time he missed, he went on a sulk that lasted two weeks."
"He's a lovely bloke, really, but he's been hanging out with Athur too much," Merlin said. Arthur had the same insufferable perfectionist streak, but where Gwaine limited it to his shooting, Arthur applied an embarrassing amount of micromanagement to nearly everything.
Their transport was more of a half-size Humvee with a low, flexible chassis and wide tires that was a dune buggy clean out of Mad Max, with a modified engine tolerant of high temperatures while still being able to grind out Monaco Grand Prix speeds, parked less than a kilometre from their original location. In theory, there would be enough time to get to the truck before the rebel Humvees caught them, but the low rumble of engines in the distance and the high-pitched whine of inclination as they crested the hill and entered the city took away their safety blanket.
Perceval and Merlin caught up to Owain and Gwaine, the two men hunkering down against the corner of a building and looking grimly at the Humvees criss-crossing the roads, searching for them. Their truck was partially hidden behind a burned-out wreck of a van, but if those Humvees came any closer, they'd be spotted.
"We'll go together. Owain, you first. Go. We'll cover," Perceval said. Gwaine braced himself against the wall to give Owain a five-second advantage.
Owain didn't need any encouragement. He waited for the on-three gesture, and when Perceval counted up one-two-three with his fingers, he was out of the mouth of the alley like a bat out of hell, Gwaine on his heels, Perceval right after him, and Merlin on the rear.
Merlin stumbled when he felt a familiar magical prickle that had nothing to do with the wind or the storm. He turned on his heel and he saw two men walking toward them as casual as a Friday night stroll down Trollop Lane. One man was taller than Merlin, with dirty brown hair and a scraggly beard, his camouflage overcoat flapping in the wind. He was dressed in utility pants and a white button-down that smacked of Army Surplus casual, accessorized with harness holster, gun, and a canvas belt studded with bullets.
The second man was shorter and of gnarled build where the other was more of a stout oak tree, his face clean-shaven, his eyes big, his hair the colour of rotted hay. His clothes hung off of him, flapping around the hollow of his belly and the narrow of his waist, as if he'd dressed up for the occasion from whatever he'd grabbed off the neighbourhood clothesline, and coordinated the outfit in the pitch-black of a broom closet.
They weren't wearing Kevlar. They were armed, but weren't carrying guns. The bigger man was grinning as if he were coming down from the asphyxiation of a good joke, while the smaller man trudged along behind him like Igor out of Young Frankenstein.
Before Merlin could cry out a warning to his team, before he could pull the semiautomatic's trigger, the man in the front threw out his arm, palm out, a flare of sickly blue shooting out --
Owain was nearly at the truck; the others right behind --
Gwaine dropped flat; Perceval went to a crouch --
Merlin turned, raising his left hand to pull Owain from the truck, to yank him as if he'd been thrown by the blast, and covered everyone in a hasty shield --
The truck exploded --
The force of the magical missile knocked the truck twenty feet back, right past where Owain had been, and lifted it up twenty feet again in a fierce fireball of smoking red and black and searing hot that washed over them in a forty feet radius mushroom cloud that cracked a hole in the dust storm overhead --
The truck crashed down with a thunderous sound of twisted metal and strained rubber and shattered bulletproof glass, the back end burning diesel with the acrid rank of time returning to normal speed..
The sorcerer who had tossed the missile wasn't grinning anymore. Even from this distance, Merlin could feel him bristle with surprise and interest and intent, but before Merlin could steady the barrel of his rifle and start shooting -- because there was no way he'd start casting now that he was right in front of them and they were paying attention -- Merlin was smacked by an invisible hand that mimicked a tennis superstar's backswing and went flying.
He landed against a wall that toppled over on impact, the sharp edges digging into the bone of his hips where his belt had slid down, dazed, shaken, rolling to his feet as soon as he could. He stood up and saw Perceval and Owain and Gwaine firing while they retreated, but the second man, the crouched, stooping gnarled-branch of a man held out both of his arms, his fingers curled like claws, and the bullets ricocheted off an unnatural shield. The other man raised both of his hands over his head, power thrumming into him from the storm overhead, building in intensity and strength --
Merlin had enough sense to stumble behind a pile of rocks, to turn off his radio before casting a focusing incantation. The words spilled from his lips, sending his magic out, cruel and fierce, and he could feel the decay in the stone building, the strain of the earth to keep it upright, and...
It crumbled at first.
A stone bounced from the top of the sorcerer's shield.
Merlin yanked hard, bringing the two-storey building down on top of them in a clatter of brick and dusty mortar. The debris tumbled onto the shield, pressing down on it, and the gnarled sorcerer opened his mouth in a wordless shout as he strained to support the weight pushing down on them. A wall collapsed, a roof slipped forward, and the enemy was smothered under the weight.
A nearby scramble made Merlin hastily drop his raised arm and grab his gun instead, turning around in a wild swing that made him stumble over a loose rock. Gwaine caught his arm and pulled him along, shouting something that could've been "Let's go" or "Follow me" -- either way, Merlin agreed with him wholeheartedly.
Two of them!
Merlin couldn't believe it.
The four of them ran as far and as fast as was humanely possible from the still-tumbling debris, away from the two men who did weird destructive things just by waving their hands in the air, away from the Humvees patrolling the storm-struck streets in a criss-cross pattern that made Merlin think of video games, for some reason, except they were on the losing side. They followed Perceval who brought them into the dubious shelter of a narrow alley while a Humvee rumbled by. Gwaine took over and led them through a dizzying maze of side twists and turns and double-backs, and they hunkered down for five adrenaline-pounding minutes.
It was long enough for Merlin to feel the icy cold realization pour down his spine -- he'd outed himself to the enemy. The enemy knew he had magic. And with the trademark Pendragon red scarves they all wore, the enemy knew that Excalibur had a sorcerer.
Merlin banged the back of his head against the wall he was wedged against.
If there was one reassurance, it was that the enemy wasn't exactly on speaking terms with Merlin's superiors. Unless they had an informant. Which they had better not have.
"Storm's letting up," Owain whispered, his jaw moving beneath the red scarf over his nose and mouth, but the E-channel of their private radio brought the words out loud and clear.
As if to prove him wrong, the wind dumped a few tonnes of sand on top of them.
"I'm so sick of this bloody fucking shite!" Owain blurted out.
"Shut up," Perceval snapped.
"We have to keep moving," Gwaine said, getting up from his crouch. They hadn't gone more than a dozen yards when he gestured for the team to get down.
The storm was calming; the winds were less strong, now, and the sand and the dust were literally falling from the air like rain. Merlin watched a half-centimetre of dirt accumulate on the rim of Owain's cap.
They waited. They waited some more. A Humvee inched past so slowly that there was no way that the people inside could possibly miss them, but they did.
Merlin made sure of that.
They continued to move in short bursts -- stops and starts. The whipping winds eased; the last of the sand had fallen, and now there was nothing to slow them down -- but also nothing to hide them, either. Their footprints in the freshly-fallen sand were glaring Hansel and Gretel crumbs, and Merlin took the rear, doing what he could to smooth them down, or to transpose the footprints in different directions to create false trails. He had to be careful, because Gwaine made them circle back more than once to lose the rebels tracking them on foot. Merlin saw him frowning, studying the area carefully to make certain that they had come this way before, even though their footprints were gone.
The hide-and-seek game lasted almost an hour -- a long, torturing hour -- before they reached the other side of town and ran out of cover. Five hundred metres of wide-open, brushless desert stood between them and a rock outcropping, the rise of a hill, and the hard-pack of salt hills and ancient dunes.
Gwaine grimaced. Perceval's mouth was set in a grim line somewhere between disgusted and displeased. Owain looked like he wanted to strangle a cow. Five hundred metres was a lot of ground to cover when there were three Humvees of rebels eager to gun them down. They needed to make sure that they had the time they needed to get to the other side, and Gwaine took them up and down the edge of the town until it was starting to feel as if they were being herded into a small little circle with nowhere else to go.
Every few minutes, Merlin switched his Box to test the frequency to the Command Centre, but each time all he could hear was the empty hollow of jammed radio waves. There was still no way of letting them know what was going on, no way of calling in for help.
Thank God for Arthur's infinity loop contingency plans.
By now, Arthur must have noticed things had gone pear-shaped. By now, he'd rustled up whoever was free and geared up. By now, he'd commandeered whatever helicopter was available -- even if it was earmarked for another mission -- and was directing the pilot over to the in case of coordinates.
Coordinates that were just over the hill.
"All right then. Sod this. It's as clear as it's going to be. Gwaine, you're quickest. We'll cover you," Perceval said.
It was just over a minute of uncomfortable waiting while Gwaine hightailed it, gear and all, to the first rock outcropping, pulling a slider as he twisted around to position himself for firing.
Owain took off running, slower than Gwaine, but he made it past the outcropping all the way to the hillside, struggling for balance on the steep rise before positioning himself higher up. Once he was there, Perceval grabbed Merlin's shoulder.
A tickle of magic decided things. Merlin wasn't going to leave Perceval to whatever other sorcerer was out there.
"I'm faster than you," Merlin said. "Go. Then you lot can cover me."
Perceval looked as if he wanted to argue, shook his head instead, and got going. It wasn't until he was halfway to the outcropping that Merlin saw a shadow stretch out from a few houses down. He sighted his gun.
It was the Army Surplus runway model, looking none the worse for wear. He raised a hand and tripped Perceval.
A Humvee surged out of a road further up, driving up the hill toward Perceval, who scrambled to his feet and hauled ass.
Merlin squeezed the trigger. Several bullets dotted the far wall in a line inching toward the sorcerer before they abruptly ricocheted off an invisible shield.
A second shadow joined the first, but little Igor didn't come out to play.
Owain's bullets scattered dust and struck the front of the Humvee. Gwaine's single shot split through the bulletproof windshield the way it was supposed to and the Humvee abruptly jerked, shuddered, and weaved at seventy kilometres per hour at rocky rise, crashing to a stop. Perceval made it up the hill.
It was Merlin's turn to join the others. He hesitated. The way wasn't exactly clear.
He didn't see any other Humvees. The only threat were the sorcerers. Merlin inched out from his sheltered position and side-walked at a hurried trot toward the rock outcropping, keeping his gun trained on the sorcerer he could see.
There was another single shot. Gwaine. It ricocheted off a spot right in front of the sorcerer. He smirked, raised a hand, and brushed his chest with a mocking gesture.
Merlin kept moving.
"You. Who are you?"
The voice was in his head, loud, like an echo of kitchen pot and pans. Merlin winced and shook his head. Something intangible grabbed his ankle and hauled him off his feet. He landed hard on his back and immediately rolled to his side in instinct and self-preservation. It was a good thing, too, because a rock the size of his head landed where he was.
"Answer me, boy."
Merlin got to his feet slowly, carefully, and he kept backing away. He couldn't help it -- he glanced at the building next to the Army Surplus guy, his magic thrumming in his veins, questing out to feel the foundations, searching for a weak spot that would bring it down.
Then he remembered that he didn't really need a weak spot.
"You are not going to catch us with the same trick twice," the voice in his head warned. The sorcerer flung out his hand. Something bright and blue and deadly shot straight at Merlin.
Merlin jerked, his hand flying out in a stopping motion, and the missile trajectory changed. He dropped to his knees, covering his head, feeling the rain of dirt and rock and heat wash over him. When the roar of magic and destruction died down, he lifted his head at the sound of gunfire from behind him. The other two Humvees had arrived, and they were bearing down on him.
Merlin turned and ran. He felt the sorcerer's magic try to grab him again, slipping off when Merlin blocked it.
And finally -- finally -- over the hill behind Owain and Perceval rose three black choppers, looming and menacing and terrifying, two of them splitting off to release large-bore rounds into the Humvees while the third landed at the rise of the hill.
Merlin's legs were burning when he crested the rise of the hill, Gwaine right behind him. They dove into the chopper just as it lifted, and when Merlin shoved up his goggles to see, it was to Arthur Pendragon, Captain Prat, looking down smugly on him.
The Americans were gone.
Colonel Mandrake had shaken his head and given him a helpless shrug to accompany the under-his-breath "Word came down to let them go" mutter that Arthur got in explanation, but for Arthur, that wasn't good enough. It had been his men who were specifically selected for the mission, his men who had nearly gotten killed by whomever they were, and his men who seemed to have, by way of a few exchanged looks, agreed to keep whatever really happened out of the official debrief.
He was under-the-skin boiling mad about everything -- everything except whatever it was that his men were keeping mum about. If Perceval and Owain and Gwaine thought it was better not to go over every detail, then Arthur trusted them to have made the right decision. Arthur wasn't sure how he felt about Merlin going along with it without much persuasion -- or that Merlin had picked up on the unspoken cues on the flight back -- but now...
He took Perceval aside, first, because Owain and Merlin were in the infirmary and Gwaine had stormed off in a massive sulk of epic proportions over the missed target.
"It went wrong in all sorts of ways," Perceval said, his voice low, his eyes roving, his tone grim. "First, Gwaine misses, and you know he never misses. Then the radios get jammed. The bombs won't go off. Then those fuckers come right at us as if they knew exactly where we were, at least at first.
"The weird thing was -- those two guys. I mean, we get to the truck, and I swear Owain got kicked out by the impact waves ages before the missile even hit, and, you know, we're fifteen feet away..."
"Not fifty?" Arthur asked. He had a talent for remembering the faintest detail, and he used it to compare the stories the team gave the Brass with the one he was hearing now.
"Fifteen," Perceval confirmed. "Fifteen. We should've been blown back, knocked out, at the very least, singed from the heat. But there wasn't nothing. I remember thinking, my ears should be ringing, but they weren't."
"All right. Go on."
"Those two rebels we saw? They didn't have a missile launcher, so it must have come from somewhere else. But they weren't carrying weapons. I mean, one of them had a handgun, but it was holstered. And, then, fuck, I don't know, Merlin gets picked up and goes flying. Crashes through a wall twenty feet away. We fire, but the bullets aren't going anywhere except..."
Perceval made a gesture with his hand, using his index finger as a pointer to mimic a bullet at supersonic speed coming to an abrupt halt, then dropping before it reached its target. "It was very Matrix. Or Star Trek. Or... I don't know. Whatever. Then the building falls on top of them as if it was meant to fall on top of them right that instant, maybe because of the dust storm. I don't know."
Arthur listened as Perceval went into a little more detail for their circuitous escape, noting only a few slight differences from the official report -- at least until Perceval got close to the end of the story.
"Merlin volunteers to go last --"
"-- and covers me. I get halfway to the hill and I trip. Over nothing. It felt like I'd run into a log, though, and I've got bruises on my shins that are turning black to prove it. I turn around and I see the two rebels we saw when the truck got bombed, and I freeze for a second because, you know, there's no fucking way. A building fell down on top of them."
Perceval paused, glancing around, and lowers his voice. "I swear I started to slide back the way I came. Something grabbed my leg and pulled. A Humvee comes out of nowhere, and I keep getting pulled in its path, then whatever grabbed my leg let go because Merlin started shooting at one of the rebels, and Owain's shooting at the Humvee, and Gwaine lets out a round and the Humvee swerves and crashes, so I get the hell out of there thinking I've got to figure out a way to get Merlin clear, but Merlin's already moving, keeping his gun on this guy, walking backwards, you know. Then he trips, too. There wasn't anything for him to trip over, and I remember thinking, Oh, geez, Merlin, you've been aces up until now, why are you so fucking clumsy, until I remember the feeling of a hand on my leg and the log that tripped me.
"It was right fucked up, it was.
"I kept waiting for him to get dragged away like I nearly was. But he got up instead. Started moving toward us nice and slow again." Perceval hesitated.
Arthur waited. Perceval would give up the goods on his own time, and no amount of rushing could get him there.
"The rebel threw something at Merlin. Didn't get a good look. Maybe a grenade, but it was blue, like a mix of rocket fuel flaming in low oxygen. Merlin doesn't duck, not really. He does something..." Perceval imitated a wave of his hand in a gesture that Arthur couldn't interpret, and continued, "... then dives sideways, and the grenade or whatever it was blows up somewhere to his left, maybe two, three feet away, and I realize, shit, no, it's not a grenade because it burns, Arthur. It burned rock and sand and ground like napalm or Greek Fire or whatever, and there's no way it should've missed Merlin, but it did."
They stopped just outside their barracks, and Perceval took a steadying breath the way Arthur always saw him do when he was rattled, and he shook his head, giving Arthur a lopsided grin. "It was just weird. Real weird. I didn't want to get accused of, I don't know, desert sickness or drugs or hallucinations or a psychopathic break, because I know what I saw, and I know no one's going to believe me, so I..."
"Skipped some details," Arthur said with a curt nod. He gave Perceval a rough clap on his shoulder. "There's been enough weird shite in this war, and we've seen our share. Take a shower, bunk for a couple of hours. There's a demonstration at 1800, and I want you there."
Perceval nodded, a relieved smile crossing his expression, and Arthur went to find Owain -- it wasn't hard, since Owain was on his way back to the barracks from the MASH tent. Arthur detoured him for a quiet walk where it was nice and noisy and where they had less chance of being overheard.
"I'm fine," Owain said, waving aside Arthur's question. "It could've been worse."
It took only a little bit more persuasion -- in the form of a raised brow and a quiet "I already spoke to Percy" -- before Owain told his side, which was nearly a mirror image of Perceval's take, but with a lot more swearing, which meant it took Owain twice the time to tell the same story. There was enough differences -- for example, Perceval's fifteen feet had been three feet for Owain, but he'd been hauled (hauled, and not thrown) close to the rest of the group by something that felt firmly like King Kong's hand around him -- that Arthur knew both men were telling the truth. Not that he doubted them.
While Owain went off to lick his wounds and to get some horizontal time, Arthur chewed his lower lip in thought before heading out to track down Gwaine.
For a scout who could crawl up to within shoelace-tying distance of the enemy, Gwaine was surprisingly easy to find. Arthur only had to go as far as the on-base bar.
Gwaine was slouched in a makeshift booth, his back against an old-time jukebox that someone had gotten from only God knew where, the 1950s Elvis Presley rock and roll bleating the blues of a shaky-legged Jailhouse Rock, his arms crossed over his chest, his lips in a determined line, a half-empty mug in front of him that could equally contain water or a strong shot of gin.
"I don't miss," Gwaine said as soon as Arthur sat down, and Arthur sighed inwardly in relief that he wasn't going to have to pull his Gwaine from his sulk because Gwaine had graduated to the next stage -- petulance.
"You don't miss," Arthur agreed. He leaned over the table, his arms crossed, glaring at anyone who thought about taking a table next to them.
"The conditions were terrible."
"Storm came out of nowhere. One second it's near-ideal, the next, we've got hurricane winds coming at us from seven different directions and God's shite falling on top of us. Nobody could've made the shot."
"Nobody except you," Arthur said.
"That's right. Nobody except me." Gwaine straightened, elbows on the table, looking Arthur in the eye. "There was a moment -- a prime moment -- in the storm. Perfect silence, no winds, a tunnel with a straight bore to the second Humvee. It came out of nowhere. Shouldn't have been possible, either, but it was there, so I took the shot.
"My bullets went right for the target, Arthur. Hit some sort of a wall. I watched my bullets flatten as if I'd been shooting tank skin with copperheads. Then I got past whatever it was and shot the windshield except the bullets didn't pierce. Bulletproof."
"But you'd planned for that," Arthur said.
"You damn well know it! I'd planned for it! Barely cracked the glass! And then... You'll never believe it. Public Enemy Number One flies me the fingers. Looks right in my direction, like he knew where I was. Calm as you please." Gwaine raised the crude gesture and muttered, "Yeah, fuck you too, mate."
His fingers curled around his glass, and he took a long drag of his drink. One of the off-duty privates inched closer to their table, lingering just outside the moat of empty tables that no one, on pain of death, had sat down in since the early evening crowd had come in, and raised a questioning eyebrow to Arthur, who shook his head and gestured with a tilt of his head to fuck off.
Gwaine put the glass down with a muted slam, and stared at the table for a long time. Arthur waited. While he waited, he wondered how easy it would be to get Merlin's side of the story. Perceval needed time to put his thoughts into words, Owain needed a filter for his mouth but rarely used one, and Gwaine suffered the indignity of having missed, but Arthur hadn't yet had the opportunity for an at-length chat with the newest member of his team.
He'd been avoiding it.
"It was seven sorts of wrong, Arthur. You can't sell me on an isolated meteorological event. Hell, no. That was wrong."
"What else went wrong?" Arthur asked.
"How about this." Gwaine leaned in some more. "How about Owain getting blown back from a missile strike before the missile even lands? How about Merlin floating in the air and getting tossed into a debris pile?"
"How about a building falling on the bad guys, but then I see them walking around an hour later without so much as a bruise? Or Percy tripping -- he'll say he stumbled, but I saw it through the scope. His foot came down on nothing, then he got jerked backwards and upwards like he'd stepped in a spring trap. And how about... How about..."
Gwaine took a deep, shaky breath.
Arthur waited some more.
"I like Merlin. I really do. I don't mean him any harm or anything like that. I mean... Did you talk to any of them yet?"
"Percy and Owain."
"They said anything about a grenade lobbed at Merlin?"
Arthur's nod was grave. He ignored the sharp stab in his chest and the tight feeling in the pit of his stomach that followed on the heels of the rage he felt that some bastard had nearly blown up Merlin.
"It wasn't a grenade," Gwaine said, his voice hushed, almost overwhelmed by the music playing loudly from the jukebox behind him. "I don't know what the fuck it was. It was a bright glowy thing, like, you know, the special effects in the Harry Potter movies or something stupid like that. I'm damn glad it missed Merlin. I really am. But that thing was on the straight and narrow and coming as fast as a bullet from my gun, and there was no way it could've missed him. No way. But it did. Went from flying in a straight line to doing a ninety degree left a couple of feet away from Merlin. It should've got him. He's goddamned lucky."
Arthur nodded. He'd come to that conclusion in the original debriefing -- the one where everyone said it was a grenade that fell short and that Merlin leapt out of the way in time. But now...
"You all right, mate?"
"Do I look all right?" Gwaine asked, his tone even, looking none the worse for wear the way he always did after a mission, but this time, there was less of a haunted expression in his eyes for having taken someone's life, and more of confusion and fear. Arthur could almost hear Gwaine's thoughts -- a litany of what the fuck, what the fuck that went on over and over again.
Arthur had to admit he was thinking the same thing.
"Could do with a couple of scars to mark up your ugly mug," Arthur said, and Gwaine's laugh was half-hearted.
"Leon said the op strings were being pulled by the Americans," Gwaine said, and Arthur nodded. "You going to find out what it's about?"
"As soon as I can," Arthur said with a small grimace. "They slipped away. Mandrake tried to keep them, but a star General cut the strings."
"Right," Gwaine said, in a tone that was somewhere between of course, and let me know what you find out before checking the bottom of his glass with a familiar doe-eyed look that made Arthur cringe.
"No, you're not having another. Uther is here. Demo's at 1800, and I need you in one piece for tomorrow." Arthur stood up, and waited next to the table. "Come on. Get cleaned up and into your greens."
"In a second."
"I haven't stupid tattooed on my forehead, Gwaine. Minute I turn around, you'll pour another down your throat. Come on. Let's go."
Arthur had to listen to a lot of grousing on the way back to barracks with Gwaine in tow, and he was relieved to see Leon sitting at his desk, drumming his fingers impatiently for 1800 hours, when he would get a chance to see Morgana. He put Gwaine in front of Leon and said, "Make sure he gets cleaned up."
He took a long look around. Owain was flat on his back on his bunk, an arm over his head; Perceval was face-down in his pillow. Lancelot looked a few breaths shy of a heavy, despondent sigh, because his attempts to snog his wife senseless had been curtailed when Morgana dragged Gwen away to keep up the act as her assistant.
"Anyone seen Merlin?"
"You just missed him," Leon said. "Said he needed a bit of a breather."
"Which way did he go?"
Arthur walked all the way to the other end of the compound without seeing Merlin and considered making a full loop of the base, but a quick check of his watch showed that he didn't have the time. He was thinking about having Merlin paged on the base P.A. and thinking better of it when he spotted Merlin leaning against one of the Humvees parked near the tarmac. Arthur walked over and stood next to him.
Arthur studied at him for a long time -- too long. Merlin had cleaned up -- showered and changed into a clean uniform, his short black hair still wet-slick and tucked under his cap. His overcoat looked too big on him, and there was a tension in the long, lean line of his body that looked like it would snap at any moment.
Merlin didn't acknowledge him; neither of them said a word. The sun inched down and turned the sky a ripple of pastel colours that were pale against the beige horizon. Merlin shone in the sunset -- none of that girly inner radiance, either, his skin an ethereal alabaster that made Arthur think of the full moon. Merlin's eyes were half-closed, his long lashes -- impossibly long lashes that made some of the women on the base mutter in jealousy -- hiding the bright blue of his eyes. His jaw was set in a firm line, the muscle so tight that it jumped once or twice before he managed a deep breath that dispelled some of the strain.
Arthur was hit with a rush of deep, intense, multidirectional want. He wanted to take care of whatever was bothering Merlin. He wanted to pet Merlin until he calmed down. He wanted to bend him over and --
"Percy and Owain said they told you about the..." Merlin trailed off and shrugged a shoulder.
Arthur snapped out of it in a flush of heat and a stern reminder that Perceval and Owain couldn't possibly know about Arthur's hapless crush on Merlin, and forced himself to look away. It wasn't easy. "The weird stuff?"
Merlin's nod was stiff and jerky.
"They did. I talked to Gwaine, too."
Neither one of them spoke for a minute. A group of eight men jogged by, their feet thrumming in rhythm with counting cadence.
"Are you as freaked out as they are?" Arthur asked.
Merlin raised a hand -- an elegant, long-fingered, steady-as-can-be hand -- and rubbed the bridge of his nose, bumping up the lid of his cap. The shadow on his face fell at a different angle now, and Arthur caught a glimpse of the jewel blue spark of his sidelong gaze, fleeting, cautious, measuring.
"Yeah." It came out in the same tone as a flippant Yeah, sure.
Arthur liked to think of himself as a good judge of people. That he could take the measure of a man in a single glance -- though, he admitted, when it came to Merlin, he never really gave him a chance in the beginning. But right now, he was fairly certain that he was being lied to.
Merlin didn't have any of the poker tells of a man trying to hide how much he was struggling to contain his fear. Perceval and Owain and Gwaine -- they were solid men, experienced men who had gone against the most obscene disasters in war, who had seen every bad thing that there was to see, who'd suffered through nights and nights of endless bombing. They weren't easily frightened. But they were frightened now, because they'd seen something that they couldn't explain and were wondering if they'd gone insane --
-- the same way Arthur wondered if he'd gone insane when a freaking monster came out of the dust storm at the Ravines and tried to bloody well eat him --
-- and Merlin wasn't acting like a man who was afraid or who thought he'd lost the last few marbles he had left. His hands were too steady, his voice too soft, his gaze too intense, his body in a bowstring-tautness that might release at any moment and be flung out far, far away. Where Arthur might never see him again.
Merlin was angry.
"You've seen this before, haven't you?"
Merlin turned to look at him at whiplash speeds, his eyes wide open, his mouth a little slack with parted lips half-forming a word, stuttering after the tiniest hesitation, "No! Of course not! No, I haven't, I mean..."
There must have been something in Arthur's expression, because Merlin grimaced. He bit at his lower lip to stop himself from rambling, chewing nervously, and turned away before giving Arthur a brief, hasty nod.
"Can you talk about it?" Arthur asked, remembering Merlin's higher security clearance -- which didn't bother him a damn bit, not yet, because once he found out that it did, he was going to demand something be done to increase his own Need-to-Know rating.
Merlin leaned a little toward Arthur; the brush of fabric was like an electric shock. "I'd rather not," he admitted.
"Kind of," Merlin said.
Arthur breathed a quiet, frustrated sigh, and wondered what he could do to get his clearance upped. What it would cost him. He found that he didn't care, as long as it got him closer to Merlin, as long as it meant that Merlin could talk to him.
Merlin pushed himself from the truck, shifted his weight from foot to foot with nervous energy that Arthur could think of a million better ways to burn off. Finally, Merlin leaned back against the truck. "Are you going to report us for lying in the debrief?"
"And get four of my best men suspended for PTSD, drug use, or psychotic breaks?" Arthur scowled. "Don't be an idiot."
Merlin's brows twitched in a half-frown, and he raised his eyes to meet Arthur with the sort of pinch that hinted he was still processing what had been said, then, abruptly, he beamed with a smile that was wide and brilliant, his eyes bright and shining. It took Arthur's breath away, burned conscious thought out of his mind, and left him with a racing heart and lungs starved for air.
Deadly weapon. That smile needs to be registered as a deadly weapon.
His mind slipped on the tracks before he had enough brainpower to go over what he'd said, and he kicked himself for having said "four of my best men", because now Merlin would be insufferable.
"Come on," Arthur said, coughing a little to cover the awkward silence, putting a hand on Merlin's shoulder to guide him back to the barracks. "Get some rest. We've got a demonstration in a couple of hours and a bit of a show to do tomorrow."
If Arthur's hand lingered a little longer than it should have, neither one of them said anything.
"I want to meet the test pilot who wore those," Gwaine whispered in Merlin's ear.
"I bet he had a pair of brass balls," Merlin whispered back.
That did Gwaine in; he snickered behind his hand, but was too late to muffle the sound. A couple of senior staff glanced in their direction and Merlin did his best to look innocent. Arthur was somewhere up in front, next to Pendragon senior, hobnobbing with the Generals and the Colonels and the Majors who made the decisions and called the strategies, and Merlin thought he saw a tightening between his shoulders, a suppressed urge to turn around and glare.
The demonstration started with a presentation on all the newest technologies that were coming out of different firms' R&D departments. Pendragon Consulting had opted to go last. They weren't the only military-related firm trying to hawk their wares to the British Army, but they were the largest, most well-represented company, and the one that had the broadest range of military applications to show off.
The trot-out had started with soldier safety. The slide-show was mixed with video clips of body armour effectiveness and use. One of the smaller companies had shown off an astronaut helmet that was supposed to protect the user from concussion damage and tried to sell it as appropriate wear for infantry, but anyone who had been in battle -- which included most of the brass -- already dismissed it as an awkward piece of shite that would get a soldier killed, with the only benefit that they'd still look pretty for the funeral.
Arthur had come to the red-faced presenter's rescue by suggesting reworking the hardware as a demolition gear, and Pendragon senior took the man aside, giving him his card. Merlin didn't miss the predatory look on Uther's face -- the man might have been a military genius, but no one could suggest he was pants at the business side of things.
The source of Gwaine's giggling was the presentation on body armour -- and not just any body armour.
The principle was sound. It really was. There were so many arteries in that area that a tiny nick from shrapnel would kill a man deader than a grenade at twenty feet. The material wouldn't do much against bullets, though. Merlin was personally waiting for the day when there would be full body armour that wouldn't restrict movement and still keep bullets from his soft bits.
The accompanying video was painful to look at. The man in the clip demonstrated the Kevlar's effectiveness by standing bravely by while mock-shrapnel was shot at him at high velocity using a device that looked like a tennis-ball shooter, and he doubled over under the impact. In a spectacularly bad show of editing, the man was all right again, covered in tiny pellet cuts everywhere on his torso and legs. The groin area had a few mild bruises.
"They might as well have clubbed him in the nuts with a two-by-four," said the gorgeous brunette leaning against Leon. Not only did she fearlessly say what was on her mind, she fearlessly said it out loud so that everyone could hear, her voice smothering the presenter's, who stumbled in his speech. One of the Generals smirked.
Leon's lips pressed together tight with the tiniest curl of amusement, but he did nothing to try to silence her.
Merlin had heard stories -- usually over a few beers -- about Leon's long-time girlfriend, Morgana Lefay. Morgana was Arthur's step-sister and the public relations vice president of Pendragon Consulting, and every bit as beautiful and terrifying in person as she was in the photograph Leon had shown him. Still, her comment made him choke back a laugh, and he coughed to cover it up.
She appraised him with a long look, and he smiled and hoped she wouldn't turn on him next.
Merlin was safe until the end of the presentation, when someone announced that they would be taking a short break to set up for the next company. He felt an arm loop around his own and didn't realize it was Morgana until he was dragged outside the tent.
"So. Lieutenant Merlin Emrys, how are you finding Excalibur?"
There was a tone in her voice very much like a shark's test nibble to see if Merlin was edible, and he had to suppress a shudder and a desperate need to look around for someone to rescue him. Every member of the team was not only out of range, but they all had their backs to him.
"I think they're a bunch of traitors if they're happy to leave me to a dangerous woman like you," Merlin found himself saying, and when his brain caught up a minute later, he winced. "Sorry, I -- it's the mouth. I have problems with the mouth. It says things --"
Except instead of being angry, Morgana's expression lit up with delight, and a bubbly little laugh escaped her lips. "And Arthur? What do you think about him?"
"I try not to," Merlin said, biting his lip. He wasn't sure what it was -- the stress and strain from the mission earlier in the day, the impromptu rescue by Captain Prat, the surprise that Perceval and Owain and Gwaine had outright lied during their debriefing, or the absolute shock that Arthur had gotten the real story and wasn't going to nail them to the wall for being less than honest with Colonel Mandrake. Maybe it was the parade of weird inventions that were supposed to have military applications but looked like they belonged more in the circus than on the battlefield. Maybe it was even Morgana's delicious perfume, or her fantastic tits -- he might be gay, but he wasn't so gay that he couldn't appreciate perfection. Whatever it was, his brain wasn't working fast enough to keep a tight rein on his mouth.
He was telling the truth, though. He did try not to think about Arthur. Even trying not to think about Arthur made him think about Arthur in all sorts of ways that left Merlin in an awkward, uncomfortable condition -- and always when he didn't have a safe place to wank.
"I like you, Merlin!" Morgana exclaimed, and there was such sincere emotion in her voice that Merlin felt himself flushing in embarrassment. There was a knowing smirk on her lips, as if she could read his mind, or divine exactly what it was that Merlin was blushing about, and he suddenly had the gut feeling that he needed to be very, very careful of what he said to Morgana.
"Is that a good thing or bad thing?"
"It's excellent," Morgana smile grew wider, and her hold around his arm tightened until Merlin grew concerned for his circulation. "Have you met Gwen?"
"Not yet, no. She's kind of permanently attached to Lance's lips. Don't think even either of them would notice if God dropped down to say hello," Merlin said, and was rewarded with another laugh. "She's your assistant, yeah?"
"No, not really," Morgana said, leaning in to whisper conspiratorially. "Gwen actually works in our R&D department. I can bollocks my way through the tech better than the next person, but when it comes to these boys..."
She gestured with a dismissive wave of her hand toward the hyena pack of Generals and Colonels and Majors, all of whom were surrounding the representatives of the different consulting companies as if they were waiting for the bigger predators -- in this case, anyone from Pendragon Consulting -- to rip them apart so that they could have a taste of the remains. With a start, Merlin realized that Arthur was staring at them -- at him -- with an unreadable scowl. If Morgana noticed, she made no sign.
"... I've learned that bollocks only goes so far, and if I can have an expert answer their questions while they stare at my cleavage, all the better," Morgana finished. She gave him a devilish grin, as if revealing a deep secret that he hadn't figured out already. When it came to men, a bit of a nice view went a long way. "Speaking of experts. I hear that you're something of one yourself."
"Sorry?" Merlin blinked. "I am?"
"Full scholarship to Cambridge, engineering degree -- and if I hear right, because I made a few calls -- there's about ten different companies with rabid headhunters on your trail."
"There aren't... oh." Merlin gave up his denial in mid-sentence when he saw Morgana's right eyebrow arch warningly. "Twelve, actually. But I'm not thinking about that, not right now. More concerned with getting out of here with all my fingers and toes, to be honest."
Morgana's fingers brushed over his arm with possessive petting. "Thirteen. If you can crack the new communication system, Uther is going to want to add you to his collection."
The thought made Merlin shudder. The stories that he'd heard about Uther made Morgana look like a harmless, declawed kitten. "You make it sound as if he'll have my head mounted and hung on the wall, all proper-like."
Morgana gave him a long, unreadable look. "What makes you think that's not exactly what I mean? There's a reason why they're called headhunters."
Merlin decided that she was joking, and smiled. "What's this about cracking the communication system, then?"
"Haven't you heard? When Uther found out that you're one of the top crackers, he pulled a few strings. You'll be trying to hack our systems tomorrow. He thinks that, if you can't break the encryption, the Generals will be more interested in it."
Before Merlin could answer, Morgana called out, "Oh, Gwen! Have you met Merlin?"
Lance must have been called away, because Gwen was suddenly missing some two-hundred pounds-odd of husband and was chatting with Gwaine. As soon as she heard Morgana's voice, she turned around, put a hand on Gwaine's arm in laughing apology, and came over. Like Morgana, Gwen was gorgeous, though not in a deadly and terrible way. No, her beauty was light and earthy, full of joy and giving, and her smile was wide and genuine and even reached her eyes.
He liked her instantly.
"Merlin! I mean, Lieutenant Emrys! I'm so used to Lance calling you Merlin, because he talks about you all the time. I mean, not all the time! And it's all good! He never says anything bad about people, and I swear he doesn't think bad about you, not at all, and, oh..." Two pink spots appeared on her cheeks, and Merlin decided right then and there that he didn't just like her; he adored her.
Gwen took a deep breath, steadied herself, and gave him such a sweet, half-embarrassed smile, that he forgave her on the spot for whatever it was that she was embarrassed about and for anything she might be embarrassed about in the future.
"I mean, it's really nice to meet you," Gwen said.
"It's really nice to meet you, too. But you can call me Merlin. Everyone else does. Well, except for Lance, because every other word out of his mouth is your name," Merlin said, and as soon as he'd said it, Gwen wrapped her arms around him in a hug.
"Oh, gosh, I'm sorry!" Gwen said, letting him go suddenly. "It's just that I miss him so much, and even though he calls me every night when he can, I really like to hear that he misses me too."
Merlin smiled. "Oh, believe me, he does."
Gwen's smile grew brighter, if that were humanly possible, faltering in tandem with a flicker of her eyes at something behind him. She took two steps away from the shadow that had fallen over him, and it wasn't until that moment that Merlin realized that Morgana had retreated to a safe distance.
Colonel Uther Pendragon loomed over him, looking every bit in charge despite the civilian uniform. Where Morgana's gaze had been piercing, Pendragon senior's cool grey gaze was stripping, peeling him apart like an orange, sectioning him bit by bit until he'd gotten to the core, chewing the fruit and spitting out the seeds.
"Sir," Merlin said, saluting out of self-preservation.
"I look forward to your performance tomorrow in the war games," Uther said. "I hear nothing but glowing praise for your ability to crack enemy code. I'd wish you luck, but I'm sure you'll understand if I don't."
"Of course, sir." Merlin was surprised that his voice didn't squeak.
"Since you'll be hearing the specs of our systems during the presentation and seeing it in action during the demonstration, you'll be working with an advantage. If you have any questions about the unit, I suggest you keep them to yourself until after the war game is over."
"Right. Certainly. Um. Is this some sort of test, sir?"
Uther gave Merlin an inscrutable look before clapping a hard hand on his shoulder with enough force to send Merlin off his feet. He avoided tumbling to the ground, but only just. "Life is a test, Emrys."
Pendragon senior walked away to join the Generals, and Merlin stared after him with the feeling that whatever the test was, he'd potentially just failed it. Arthur stopped next to him, touching his arm. "You all right?"
"The stories about him are true," Merlin said without thinking. "The man eats babies for breakfast."
"Oi, that man's my father," Arthur said. There was no real heat in his voice, and he glanced over his shoulder at the Generals laughing at one of Uther's jokes -- at least, Merlin hoped it was a joke -- before turning back to Merlin.
"Yeah? Did he feed you babies for breakfast too when you were little? Made jam out of the kiddies and spread it on your toast?"
A smirk quirked on Arthur's lips. "Don't be an idiot, Merlin," he said. "I didn't eat toast."
Arthur moved away a moment later, joining Colonel Mandrake and a Major that Merlin didn't recognize. Morgana appeared at Merlin's side again, twining her arm through his, and gave him a look of sympathetic apology that he didn't quite believe, and when Gwen came back, he forgave her only because he didn't feel as if she'd abandoned him on purpose.
"He hates losing to competition," Morgana explained. "He wants to get you first. Tomorrow's your job interview."
Merlin didn't get an answer because the next presentation was ready and everyone milled into the tent. The company rep was describing the finer points of an infrared search and rescue scanner by the time Merlin wrapped his head around what Morgana had said -- tomorrow's your job interview and wondered when he'd applied for a job in the first place -- and was able to pay attention to the speaker.
There was another short break -- and Morgana and Gwen were nowhere to be seen, because it was Pendragon Consulting's turn. Morgana introduced Uther, which guaranteed that everyone stopped their side conversations to watch her at the front of the room, and once Uther started speaking, there was no looking away. Uther's talk was short, giving only the highlights of the presentation, and another Pendragon rep detailed each and every innovation that was coming out of their R&D.
Where the other companies focused on one specific -- but highly developed -- technology, Pendragon had its fingers dipped in every pot. They didn't just have body armour underpants, they had full bodysuits meant to be layered beneath uniform and additional Kevlar. They didn't just have IR long-range sensors, they expanded the search and rescue function to include three dimensional topographical displays with a sensitivity that put their nearest competitor to shame. Where a different company had pitched an unmanned airborne vehicle -- an UAV -- with controlling software that looked like a video game, Pendragon's version was a sleek bit of science fiction hardware with real-time video and controls that mimicked a jet fighter's with the possibility of not only surveillance, but unmanned weapon engagement.
The UAV portion received a lot of interest and a lot of questions that the rep couldn't answer, and it was Gwen who stood up and faced down the relentless interrogation with the confidence of an expert.
Lance, sitting beside Merlin this time around, smiled broadly and elbowed Merlin in the ribs. "That's my wife," he whispered.
There was a novel new sniper scope with a different lens system that caught Gwaine's attention; a new sort of soft explosive compound that completely captured Owain's; a heavy gun with larger ballistics that admittedly could only be carried by a few strong personnel that made Perceval drool. Merlin had all of his concentration for the bit in the presentation for the new communications system operating at a significantly-improved encryption key that would secure it against the enemy.
He wished he could ask questions, but he didn't dare, not after Uther glanced at him halfway through the man's speech.
There were demos after that, where Gwaine tried his hand with the scope, Owain went to check out the explosives in the field and inspect the new arming mechanism, and Perceval got a chance to heft the heavy machine gun -- one-handed, too, much to the surprise of the Pendragon rep -- but Merlin could only stare sullenly at the communication equipment from afar while other people ooh'ed and ahh'ed at the pretty lights and adorable little beeps that the buttons made when they were pressed. He could hear the thing from the other side of the tent, and it was as if his resistance was being waterboarded. With every beep, Merlin's resistance crumbled and his curiosity pulled him closer.
Eventually, the crowd dispersed and drifted away from the communications system, and Merlin was close enough for a good look. He told himself he wasn't going to touch. He was just going to look.
"You don't have authorization to be here," a man said next to him. He felt the hand on his shoulder and whirled around to face a brick wall.
He was tall but somehow looked shorter than Merlin, was muscled like a bodybuilder but moved like a cement truck, heavy and lumbering, and had the sort of cocksure I've got the biggest dick in the room that marked him the biggest arsehole in the universe. Bigger than even Arthur.
Merlin was impressed.
"Actually, I do. I have an invitation."
The man reached up and flicked at the red scarf Merlin had twined around his neck and barked a scoffing laugh. "This? Believe me, boy, this won't convince anyone that you're in Excalibur. You look as if a strong wind would snap you in two."
Merlin took a step back, but only to notice that the man was wearing black assault gear with a Pendragon Consulting logo on his arm. "You must be one of the gents whose arses we'll be kicking tomorrow."
"If there's going to be any arse-kicking, it'll be yours, and it'll be my pleasure to shove my boot up your..."
It was starting to get infuriating -- every time Merlin spoke with someone, Arthur would show up as if he were a knight coming to the rescue, except Arthur seemed to forget that Merlin wasn't a dainty princess in a stupidly large gown who needed rescuing in the first place. He didn't mind so much when one of the Generals had cornered him, it had gotten under his skin when he'd interfered when he was just getting to know Morgana, and it was positively emasculating to have him pop up when Merlin was standing his ground against a thick-neck with too much muscle and not enough brains to fight his way out of a wet paper bag.
"Pendragon." The man -- Valiant -- turned to Arthur with a slithering movement, his lips curled in distaste. "Ready for another spectacular loss tomorrow?"
"We won't be losing this time," Arthur said, his voice flat and even, but Merlin saw the tightening around his eyes and could feel the frost in the air.
"You sure about that?"
"I'm sure," Arthur said. He clapped an arm around Merlin's shoulders. "Meet our communication specialist. The one who'll crack the encryption. We'll be routing you this time."
Valiant eyed Merlin up and down as if he were a side of beef, and his lips curled into a mocking smirk. "We'll see, won't we?"
Merlin could've choked on the testosterone, but at least it was made more bearable when Valiant moved away, leaving Merlin alone with Arthur. An Arthur who was still holding him close. Uncomfortably close.
Merlin ignored the fact that there was nowhere else he'd rather be right now and snapped, "I didn't need any rescuing."
"You're welcome, Merlin." Arthur said, his amusement audible. He gestured toward the console. "Now take a good look. Commit it to memory. I'll get you what I can for the debriefing tomorrow. I want you to crack it -- not just a chip either. I want it broken into sharp bits and pieces I can shove up Valiant's arse."
Merlin shook his head, taking a deep breath in, staring at the console. If the science the rep had given during the presentation was anywhere near sound, it wouldn't be easy to break, and damn near impossible while under fire. "I don't know --"
"Then figure it out, Merlin," Arthur said, his voice low and threatening. His arm dropped from Merlin's shoulders, and he said, "I don't like losing."
The problem with Valiant was that he had no imagination. The war games against Pendragon Consulting always incorporated the hardware that was being demonstrated for the Brass, and after getting an eyeful of the toys that were being brought out for Valiant's men, it was easy for Arthur to figure out what the war game would be about -- something to do with snipers, heavy guns, with the communication system as the masterpiece -- and how Valiant was going to structure the challenge.
Sure enough, at the crack of dawn, Arthur was woken by one of the privates and hurried to the task tent to find get the team's orders. He would have less than fifteen minutes to scramble equipment and crew to the chopper to the attack site -- a training ground well within allied territory that was in regular use, secured and set up for this purpose -- and the duration of the ride to work out a battle plan.
Everyone else had already anticipated the task and had stashed their gear beneath their bunks. Nothing in the rules against that. Everyone else was ready to cut and run, everyone except Merlin, who looked like he'd stayed up half the night building his gear, then sprawled long limbs over his bunk, the lights still on, to pass out on top of his toolbox.
Arthur came back to the barracks to find his team loaded up for gear. Except for Merlin. Again.
"Let's go. Chopper's waiting, helipad one," Arthur said, reaching under his bunk for his kit, doublechecking to make sure everything was there and in working order. If it wasn't, well, advance preparation still gave him fifteen minutes to run to the quartermaster for a replacement.
The tent cleared out in no time at all, but a quick glance around showed that Merlin was still struggling with something in his pack.
"Oh, for... Merlin? Anytime today?"
"Just a minute."
Arthur waited. And he waited some more. He marched over to Merlin's bunk, arriving just in time to watch Merlin stash a laptop under his pillow and quick-disconnect what looked to be a homemade communication card from a handheld computer that was just a bit bigger than a portable gaming deck.
Arthur snatched it out of Merlin's hand. It was a gaming deck. "Merlin!"
Merlin glanced at the deck, took it away, and wrapped it in bulky soft-Kevlar, jamming the whole thing deep into his pack. "What?"
"We're going to an active site, not a LAN party," Arthur snapped. "What was that?"
Merlin shouldered his pack, picked up his gun -- to his credit, he checked it out and secured it before answering Arthur -- and asked, "What was what?"
His eyes were wide, baby-blue and totally not innocent.
"That was a PS game deck," Arthur said. "Are you done?"
Merlin glanced under the bed and around it to make sure that his tools hadn't dropped somewhere out of sight and were safely in his pack, hefted his bag as if weight alone would decide the answer to Arthur's question, and nodded --yes, I'm done, obviously. Arthur grabbed his shoulder and dragged him out of the barracks.
"What was --"
"Crack Box," Merlin said, before Arthur could finish asking the question. "It's a Crack Box."
"And that is?"
Merlin glanced around, and Arthur wondered if he was making sure none of Uther's spies -- like Morgana -- were nearby. "Every battalion should have one, but we don't, and, uh, you didn't hear it from me, but Crack Boxes break codes."
Arthur's right eyebrow shot up so high, he stumbled. He checked his watch -- plenty of time to spare, so they could afford to walk slowly, and that was a good thing because Arthur's curiosity was piqued. In the distance, he could see the chopper's rotors start to spin and warm up. "We don't have one because we don't officially have one, or because we don't have one, full stop?"
"Full stop. I asked everywhere," Merlin said. The tips of his ears flushed red, and it didn't have anything to do with the early-morning chill. "You've no idea how hard it is to ask about a Crack Box when most people don't even have the clearance to know about Crack Boxes."
That reminded Arthur that he had yet to storm into someone's office to do something about his security rating. "Do I --"
"No." Merlin had the decency to sound apologetic. "I checked. Like I said, you didn't hear this from me."
A muscle twitched in his cheek. He was definitely going to jack up his security clearance. "So that --"
"Brought the handheld from a kid selling it at the perimeter. Tore it to bits, then built it. Spent all night downloading my old firmware and updating the code," Merlin said, and yawned. He rubbed his face and muttered, "I need a coffee. Why can't we stop for coffee?"
Arthur ignored him. "What did you do all that for?"
Merlin gave Arthur a strange look. "You want to win, don't you?"
Arthur stared at Merlin as they walked, his brow furrowing in a frown, and he looked at the man as if he were setting eyes on him for the first time. There was something about Merlin that Arthur couldn't quite put his finger on. It wasn't the desire or the drive to do the job well -- all of Excalibur was like that. It was... the laid-bare, crystal-clear, absolute-pure I-trust-you loyalty, fierce and complete, and it rattled Arthur down to the core.
He knew his team was loyal to him. That they trusted him. But with Merlin, it was different.
"We might not even need it," Arthur said, swallowing hard. He didn't believe it even as he said it because he knew the mission, and he knew they damn well would need it. The question was how would Merlin have known they would?
"You're having me on, yeah?" Merlin scoffed, shooting him a quick glance. "Colonel Pendragon tells me specifically not to ask the rep any questions about the device. Morgana tells me that this is a job interview. They're sending us out in the field to test ourselves against their new hardware? Doesn't take a genius to put together what the gauntlet we're running is going to be. Gwaine with his gun, them with theirs. Owain versus their bomb. Me against their Box."
"Rate yourself highly, do you?" Arthur said, and was rewarded with a flush that he wished he could see on Merlin's cheeks in completely different circumstances. He shook his head and told himself to keep his mind on the game.
"Someone should," Merlin retorted.
Arthur snorted. He looked around and saw a skeleton crew getting everything ready, but there was one person there who stood out like a sore thumb, veiled in a cloud of blue smoke. Major Kilgarrah watched them approach, and Arthur knew that was as good a sign as any that he wanted to talk.
Arthur gestured toward the chopper. "Get stowed. I'll be right there."
He watched Merlin crouch as he approached the helicopter -- and did not stare too long at his rear -- before turning to the Major.
"Sir," he said, dispensing with good-mornings and how-are-yous only because The Dragon would blow a lungful of cigarette smoke in his face in answer.
"How do you rate your chances?" The Dragon asked, dropping the butt of his cigarette and grinding it with the heel of his boot. He was already reaching for his next smoke, the silver case flashing in the early morning glow.
"We'll get them this time," Arthur said. It wasn't a promise. It was a fact. The last war game had ended badly, and only because Valiant's team had two things to their advantage: superior firepower, and the poor excuse of a communication specialist that Excalibur had no choice but to bring along at the time. Sergeant Wallace -- Arthur only remembered his name because he had absolutely no intention of allowing the man anywhere near them ever again -- had failed to locate the enemy signals, failed to watch Arthur's back, and failed to mention that he was a gigantic nitwit who shrieked like a girl and fainted like a Victorian debutante wearing a corset just a tiny bit too tight whenever the guns went off.
This time around, they had Merlin. He wasn't a communication specialist -- he was a bloody expert, if his Cambridge degree, the vanity-Google, and his presence under fire was anything to go by. While Arthur was pretty sure that Merlin could squeal like a girl (and that he could make him do it, too), the man had a surgeon-steady hand when the world was falling down around his voluminous ears. And, if it came down to keeping the enemy off Arthur's back, Arthur was pretty sure that Merlin would do it, and he wouldn't leave him for dead either.
He didn't know why he believed that. The look Merlin had given him earlier -- sheer, blinding trust; absolute, complete loyalty -- still gave him chills.
"There's money on this," The Dragon said.
Arthur blinked away his surprise. "Sir?"
The Dragon lit up, his eyes narrowing into narrow, evaluating slits through the smoke of a fresh cigarette. "Don't tell me. You need incentive."
The only incentive Arthur needed to win was the satisfaction he would get in kicking Valiant's cheating arse on the field, but there was a tone in The Dragon's voice that made him wonder how much money he'd wagered on Excalibur.
Arthur scratched his chin thoughtfully, pulling his eyebrows into a frown. "What sort of incentive, sir?"
Major Kilgarrah sucked a few lungfuls of smoke, and blew them out with a considering, "Two weeks."
"R&R," he confirmed.
"I'm sure the boys would put in a whole lot of extra effort for that, sir," Arthur said, speaking slowly, deciding to seize the opportunity. "But I'm thinking... Maybe..."
"Spit it out, boy," The Dragon said, huffing.
"Add matching my security clearance to Merlin's to the R&R, and I guarantee you the win," Arthur said. "Sir."
He was putting his neck on the line by making it a guarantee, but he was pretty sure that The Dragon wouldn't turn his nose on a sure thing.
"You don't leave Emrys for a second," The Dragon said, his tone bordering on a threat.
"I'll stick to him like glue, sir."
Major Kilgarrah eyed him for a good long moment before giving Arthur a stiff nod and sticking out his hand for a handshake. Arthur returned it, trying not to wince at the other man's crushing grip. "And well you should. Always," The Dragon said, and let him go.
Arthur saluted, and hurried to the chopper. The rotor blades were whirling at almost maximum speed, and they were nearly ready for lift-off. He stowed his gear and put on the in-flight earpieces, nodding to his crew. Excalibur was at half-strength to match the Pendragon team, but each man was easily worth five of Valiant's.
"All set?" A familiar voice came over the intercom.
"All set, Anderson," Arthur said.
"Nice to have a friendly voice this morning," Merlin said. "I don't suppose you have coffee?"
"Sorry, Merlin," Anderson said with an audible grin, "I gave the stewardesses the day off."
"At least stop at the Starbucks on the corner?"
"For God's sake, Merlin! I will buy you your favourite every day we're home on R&R providing you focus. Can you do that?" Arthur shot him a dark look.
"I can focus," Merlin said sullenly. He rubbed his face tiredly, and slapped his cheeks a couple of times.
"R&R?" Gwaine asked, perking up. "We're getting R&R?"
"If we win this thing, we're going home for two weeks," Arthur said, glancing off to the side and watching the ground crew grow smaller as the chopper lifted.
"Two weeks?!" Owain nearly jumped out of his seat.
Lance's grin was blinding in the early morning sun.
"Sod this puny weekend R&R. I want those two weeks," Leon said, pulling a canister out of his pack. He passed it to Merlin. "Here."
"What is it?"
"Where did you get coffee!" Gwaine made a grab for the canister, but Merlin held it out of his reach, batting him away.
"Oh, a little place called Morgana's tent," Leon said, and whipped a finger at Gwaine. "Don't even think about it! If I catch wind of you sniffing around her tent for coffee or for anything else, I will kick your arse all the way back to England."
Merlin was petting the canister as if he was afraid it was a mirage. He uncapped it, took a deep breath, and sighed at the steam coming out before taking a small sip. Then a bigger one. He didn't finish making those sounds -- positively sinful, orgasmic sounds that Arthur had a hard time ignoring -- until he drained the last drop, fending Gwaine off with one arm the entire time.
Leon took the canister back, stowing it in his pack, and Arthur thought it was the end of it and he could get started on the debriefing until Merlin twisted toward Leon, put his hands on his face, turned Leon toward him, and planted a big kiss on Leon's lips.
Leon's eyes went startled-wide, Owain started hooting, Gwaine blurted out a scandalized "Why does he get a kiss and I don't?", and Arthur nearly doubled over from the painful stab of jealousy that nearly eviscerated him.
"My hero!" Merlin declared, and let Leon go.
Leon blinked a few times. "Um. You're welcome?"
The chopper burst into laughter.
"Does he kiss better than Morgana?"
"Morgana better watch out, she's got competition!"
"You better let her down easy! She can't hold a candle to Merlin!"
Out of all of them, Merlin was laughing the hardest. Arthur managed a feeble chuckle, but no one noticed. So it was all a joke. Of course Merlin wasn't gay. Arthur wasn't that lucky, and even if he was, there was still the little problem of being his commanding officer. He couldn't -- couldn't take advantage of Merlin, even if he were inclined toward men. Hell, at right this moment, with the bright pink of Merlin's lips, Arthur would settle for just a little bit bi.
But, damn it if that kiss hadn't looked downright real...
Arthur swallowed hard.
"Great. Leon, for fuck's sake, Morgana puts a whole damn bag of sugar in her coffee. The last thing we need is Merlin having a sugar crash in the middle of the mission," Arthur said.
"Caffeine counteracts it," Merlin said, his expression earnest. There was more colour in his cheeks now, and Arthur wondered how much of it had to do with the coffee and how much with the kiss.
He forced himself to concentrate.
"I don't know about you sorry lot, but I want those two weeks," Arthur said, glad for the vibrations in the chopper. They hid some of his nerves. "So listen up.
"I called it last night; it got confirmed this morning. It's a retrieve mission, but we've got roadblocks. Nothing we haven't seen before mixed in with some of Valiant's down and dirty cheating.
"The usual safety switches apply. Laser ammunition, mock bombs, all that crap. We'll pick the tag vests when we land. If it beeps, take yourself out of the game. The only thing that will be real will be the radio, and, Merlin --" Arthur paused, watching the man squirm in his seat as the sugar in Morgana's coffee started to hit. "Merlin! Make sure your gear's working."
"My gear's working," Merlin said, scowling.
"Expect Valiant to use jammers --"
"We're all set for that," Merlin said.
Merlin shrugged his shoulders. "Switch to E channel once we're on-site."
Merlin shrugged again. "Works on a different frequency. Non-standard. I told you before, it's secure."
"They're going to go for Merlin," Leon said. "Take him out first. They'll know we'll need him."
Arthur nodded. "Yeah, and they're going to expect us to cover him with everything we've got. Forget that. Leon, you're going to take the lead. There's going to be three hop points with demolitions for Owain. Any one of them or all three could be a sniper point. Count on Valiant to set up ambushes and hit raids..."
He pulled out the map he'd been given and indicated the warning areas. The map passed to Gwaine so that he could memorize it.
Gwaine held up a hand in the air, his head still bowed over the map. "Yeah, I know. Get to high ground. Shadow the boys. Pick off the snipers. There'll be more than one."
"What about me?"
Arthur looked at Merlin. "What do you think? We're swanning off at the first ambush point, and we're going to the retrieve point direct. Pass Go, pick up 200, grab the data, and call a retreat at another ambush location. Let them think we're throwing the towel."
"And slap them with the goods at the end," Leon said, approving.
"After the last bit they did us," Lance said, "They deserve that. I know they're representing your father, Arthur, but they played dirty last time. It's our turn."
Arthur caught Merlin staring dubiously at the group before snatching the map out of Gwaine's hands.
"What are you doing?"
"Memorizing the map."
"I'm going to have the map," Arthur said. It was one reason Gwaine was going with Leon's group -- he could hold the map in his head if he needed to, and be more accurate than GPS in calling out directions. "And you'll be with me, Merlin."
"Exactly what I'm worried about," Merlin said.
Perceval snickered, Owain let out a startled laugh, and Leon grinned. Arthur glared until Merlin looked up.
"Sorry. I meant, exactly what I'm worried about, sir," Merlin said, touching two fingers to his forehead in a mock Boy Scout salute. "You said these guys cheat. What makes you think they won't already figure out that you've figured out their plan, and switch it up on us?"
"Which is why there's going to be a Plan B," Arthur said, gesturing to Leon. "I want a head count at the first ambush. I'm betting no more than four laying down heavy fire then taking off. Two snipers for Gwaine to deal with. Two more keeping an eye out for Merlin and shivving him in the kidneys if can.
"If by the second ambush point you're noticing them getting light, you're to split up the team again. Gwaine and Owain and whoever else to the next bomb point, and the rest of you catch up with me and Merlin."
The team was nodding their heads. They were used to this -- Arthur planning the hell out of everything, adding contingencies to every possible predictable outcome, even coming up with alternative applications of chaos theory what-if situations. It wasn't one-sided, either. As soon as Arthur started with the Plans, the team threw in every possible curveball that they could come up with and offered up solutions.
The only one not contributing was Merlin. Merlin was studying the map. Every now and then, Arthur would look up at him, but Merlin was in a world of his own, staring at the piece of laminated paper in his hand, out the window, at the bulkhead. Arthur had the distinct impression that Merlin was making his own plans.
"Merlin? Do you have anything to add?"
"Huh? What?" Those bright baby blues threw Arthur again, trying to mask the very obvious fact that he wasn't listening and hadn't been listening for some time, but Arthur's question finally sank in and Merlin said, "Oh, no. I think you've got everything covered."
Which meant that he really had no clue.
"Do you know what you're doing?"
"Oh, yeah," Merlin said, holding up one finger. "Number one. Follow you. Number two. Hack their Box. Number three. Bring back the data."
Arthur sighed heavily. "All right. Fine. Let's go through this again."
The team groaned.
"Remember, when things turn sour, stay on my six," Arthur said, and turned away.
Merlin's eyes went right to Arthur's arse despite his best intentions, and he muttered under his breath, "Not a problem."
He caught himself a second too late and soundly blamed Morgana's coffee on the slip, since everyone was blaming the glitches in starting the mission on it as if it were an evil omen. The war game's rules were no live ammunition or ordnance, and they required special equipment to get started. And things would have gotten started, too, if most of the equipment wasn't missing, the sensors weren't faulty on the equipment they did have, and the transport in had mechanical issues.
Or, more accurately, Valiant's cheating. Obviously all this was happening, and all at once, because the formerly-military, now-civilian team was using psychological tactics to eat at Excalibur's mindset. It would work, too, except they'd found the missing equipment loaded (hidden) in one of the trucks, the faulty sensors were easily fixed (by Merlin), and the transport was missing a spark plug (replaced by Owain). They got underway within fifteen minutes.
Most of the team went on ahead. Gwaine was somewhere in the front, scouting the way, reporting back every few minutes by way of Excalibur's private channel. Arthur had decided to completely bypass the protocol frequency and the chance of getting jammed by screwing with Valiant and his team from the get go. It was only a little bit of payback, but a little bit of payback went a long way. Hearing Gwaine's voice was reassuring from the rear, where Merlin was positioned.
Arthur had gone up somewhere in front; he was expected to be there. Or rather, Valiant expected him to be there; all of Excalibur's past war games against Valiant's crew had established the pattern, letting the other man believe that Arthur micromanaged the team nearly as much as Colonel Uther Pendragon had managed entire battalions. It was a straightforward op; there was no reason to think that Arthur would be prepared for something more complicated.
Besides, the team seemed to think that the other team would be a little overconfident. Merlin wasn't so sure.
Perceval walked next to Merlin at the rear, and the both of them kept an eye out even though it was too early for a rear ambush. Merlin was tall, but he felt tiny next to the big man, who was gingerly holding the mock machine gun with two fingertips, as if more than that would crush the plastic construct to dust.
Merlin was willing to believe he could do it too.
Out of all of them, Merlin was the only one with a full pack -- equipment and two days of rations. It was two days worth of rations only because Merlin ended up sharing with other people and forgetting to eat himself. Everyone else carried a day pack with what they would need for exactly that mission and a few extras, but no more. The only other person who came closer to a full pack was Lance, and most of his kit was full of emergency medical.
No one spoke. No one needed to. There was a faint ripple from the front of the column as people split up and the caution level increased. Instead of a direct march in, Excalibur was frog-hopping, keeping an eye out for intruders even though Gwaine had cleared the way.
Merlin checked his watch. Right about now, Gwaine was in an elevated position in preparation for the first suspected ambush site. He was staying low and hidden, scoping the area for a sniper.
"Got him square," Gwaine's voice came over the radio a few minutes later. "And he's looking the wrong way. Keep heading down the route and you'll hit Valiant's boys. I see three people at the mouth."
"Copy that," Arthur said. Merlin could see him ahead of the line, gesturing to Leon. "Take him out on my go."
"On your go," Gwaine confirmed.
The team went left, straight down the plasterboard construct of buildings, lean-tos, and abandoned merchant stalls. Arthur, in the lead, and Leon, nearly right after him, paused before glancing around the corner and exchanging nods. Arthur signalled; the team split up and three ran at a crouch to the other side of the road, using a burnt-out vehicle as cover. It wasn't until the fourth man started to make his way across that someone opened the door to hell.
The semiautomatic fire was coming from the other side of the wall; there was direct sniper fire if the warning beeps on their sensors were any indication. Almost at once, on the flip side, two of Valiant's men started firing.
The warning beeps on the sensors were going crazy. Excalibur found shelter and returned fire.
"Gwaine!" Arthur barked.
It seemed like Arthur's "Go" for Gwaine happened nearly simultaneously with Valiant's "Go" for his own men, and Merlin got his first taste of just how much of a cheat the other team was, because they weren't on half-strength like they said they were. They had a full team, and then some, and it was a full force that was hitting them now. Never mind the souped-up laser tag -- it was turning into an outright brawl.
Getting paired with Perceval for the first part of the operation when Merlin had a target tattooed on his head anyway was the equivalent of inviting people to come and get him, but go through Perceval first, and, by the way, good luck with that. For a brief instant, Perceval looked like he wanted to club someone in the face with the butt of his tiny plastic gun, but thought better of it because it might break, and used his elbow instead.
Merlin had never seen a man quite as thoroughly clotheslined before.
"Don't mind me," Perceval said, grinning in the ten second lull that followed. "You know where you're supposed to be."
At Merlin's blank look, Perceval added, "Tall, blond, thinks he's our Captain?"
"What? Oh. OH!" Merlin nodded, and wished he could stand on Perceval's shoulders to spot Arthur, because the fight had turned into a right mess.
Perceval's rough shove sent Merlin down an empty alley that was probably in the right direction.
He caught a flash of blond under a camo hard cap, a familiar build -- familiar because Merlin spent a lot of time staring at it when he hoped to hell no one was looking -- and went running after it.
The concept of staying on Arthur's six was nice in theory but difficult in practice. For one thing, Arthur was a goddamned jackrabbit, and the jackrabbit wasn't carrying thirty extra pounds of weight. For another, putting Merlin in the back of the column where he would be initially protected by Perceval's larger bulk from any sniper with Merlin-crosshairs meant that Merlin had to duck and dodge, bob and weave through the skirmish and through whatever building happened to be in the way to try to catch up.
"Merlin! Merlin!" Gwaine's sudden shout over the airwaves made Merlin nearly trip over a pothole-sized crack in a bit of asphalt. "You've got bogeys on your arse!"
"The same ones from the clusterfuck back there?" he gasped out, glancing over his shoulder. He didn't see anyone just yet, but he ran faster.
Gwaine's voice was breathless -- he must be changing position. "No! Fuck me, no! Those cheating bastards! They're coming out of the woodworks!"
"Son of a b--" Merlin scrambled over debris and kept running. "Son of a bitch!"
He glanced over his shoulder, rounded another corner, kept going -- and was suddenly wrenched through a doorway, an arm wrapping around his shoulder, a hand on his mouth. Hot breath brushed his ear. "It's me."
Merlin sagged with relief. The tension in Arthur's arms relaxed a little but continued to hold him firm.
One shadow, then three, four whizzed past, and Merlin could barely concentrate. Arthur's hand was on his mouth, gentle but firm. He smelled good -- a mixture of the cheap, harsh soap from the community showers, the sweaty salt and desert dust, and the deep wild musk that was unmistakably Arthur. Merlin resisted the urge to flick out his tongue to see how he tasted, too.
Arthur wasn't letting go.
Merlin swallowed. Arthur was pressed tight against him, his arm holding him in place. Merlin wished that he wasn't carrying that goddamned gear, because otherwise he could be feeling Arthur's chest against his back, and... And... Who knew what else?
Merlin took Arthur's wrist and pushed it from his mouth. "Arthur," he hissed, falling silent a second later when he heard voices down the street.
"They're somewhere around here."
"Are you sure?"
"This thing is accurate to twenty feet. But there's a problem."
"What's the problem?"
"We're surrounded by fucking buildings, you moron! Start searching!"
Merlin held his breath. He closed his eyes tight, suppressing a shiver, when Arthur whispered in his ear, "We're bugged."
Merlin nodded his head -- a little too enthusiastically. "Yeah. The tag vests?"
"Can't be the stupid plastic guns," Arthur said. Merlin knew he was right. Guns could be lost, traded, or broken, but the tag vests were rigged so that if anyone took them off, they'd be marked as dead in the game and their equipment wouldn't work. A bug on the vests guaranteed they could be found wherever they were in the city.
"Buggering twats," Merlin muttered. "All right, turn around, I'll take a look."
Arthur's arm -- the one across Merlin's chest -- dropped, paused on his hip, and fell away. Merlin nearly jumped out of his bones, but Arthur had already turned. "Later. We've got to put some distance between us and them. If we're shot, we're done for."
He tapped his earpiece. "Gwaine? Leon? We're bugged. They're tracking us. We're going to lose these grunts, and Merlin's going to check the vests to disable the bugs. Band up at K-point. We'll bring our four to you."
There was a shriek of outrage from Gwaine, but it was Leon who answered, sounding somewhat out of breath, "That sodding narky tit! I'll shove those bugs up his arse and set them on fire!"
Merlin nearly choked on his strangled laugh. Leon never swore. A Humvee with spiked tyres could drive over his foot and he wouldn't swear, but apparently Valiant's compulsive cheating was a sore point with him. He caught a glimpse of Arthur's smirk, a bare glimpse, and it was gone. Valiant's compulsive cheating was a sore point with Arthur, too.
Arthur grabbed Merlin's arm, letting it go a second later, and headed out the back, keeping an eye and an ear out for Valiant's men. They moved; they stopped. They moved again, and stopped. It was a hopscotch manoeuvre, over and over again, with quick darting movements in between, and every time they stopped, Arthur said something quiet to Merlin before moving off, not waiting for an answer.
"The sniper Gwaine got -- he wasn't looking in Gwaine's direction. He was watching for us. The tags aren't that accurate. He must have gotten them cheap from somewhere."
At the next stop: "I hope Gwaine's not being a fucking conker. With the trackers, he's just as easy a target as the rest of us."
At the stop after that: "I'm going to have the boys scatter after K-point, then reconvene at the plaza. That gives you maybe five minutes to find and disable the bugs, depending on how fast Valiant's men get out of the tangle and come after us."
The wait point after that: "Goddamn it, I'm going to grab Valiant's balls and squeeze until his eyes pop out."
After the first stop, while Arthur was distracted, Merlin cast a general-purpose bubble around them. It had taken him a long time to figure out how to use his magic to scramble radio signals, and even longer than that to use it to weed out one single signal, but the bubble, as long as he could stay close to Arthur to keep them both within the sphere, would make them invisible to the other team.
He wished he could do the same thing for the rest of Excalibur, but the spell was fragile, and he could feel it unravel every time Arthur changed their position.
Whenever they stopped, Merlin strengthened the magic around them and ran his free hand over his vest, inspecting the nylon fabric for bumps, loose threads, or hastily-stitched pockets, anything and everything where they would've stashed a bug. He reasoned that they would've done it as slap-dash as they could have without making the tracking device obvious. The search didn't come up with anything on the fabric itself, but when he slid his fingers under the flexible sensor breastplate, he found a little bump.
It wasn't until the next stop that he was able to wedge his fingers in -- after blowing out his breath to get some give between his chest and the sensor -- and pop off a slim round metallic circle.
At the next stop: "All right, I don't see them, I think we've got a minute's grace. How long do you think it'll take you to --"
Merlin held up the shiny clear disc and gave Arthur a big bright smile.
"Merlin! When were you going to tell me that you found it?"
"I only just --"
"What are you waiting for, you idiot? Get mine off of me!"
Merlin's mouth went suddenly dry. He held his breath before taking a step closer to Arthur, wedging his fingers under the sensor pad, and with relief he realized that Valiant's men had put the bugs in roughly the same spot. The angle was wrong, though, and he couldn't wedge it off.
"Hold on," Merlin said, and went behind Arthur, wrapping his arms around him to work, trying very hard not to think about how nicely shaped Arthur was, how solid, how bloody fit, and finally, the damned tracker came off. He pulled away before Arthur wondered if the bulge poking him in the butt was Merlin's knife or something else, and forced his head somewhere else, anywhere else, but at how lovely it had been to be pressed against Arthur for the second time in a day.
"That's it, then?" Arthur asked, taking the disc from Merlin's fingers. He studied it for half a second before the frown cleared from his brow and he tapped his ear.
"You all right, men? You're still with us?"
One by one, Excalibur's members chimed in -- there had been no losses yet, thank God -- and Arthur met Merlin's eyes with an inscrutable look. "I have a new plan."
"Thank fuck for that!" Lance blurted. "Out with it. I'm getting tired of this cat-and-mouse bollocks."
"We'll meet up at K-point, but we're going to collect the trackers and give them to Kay. Gwaine, you'll hold on to yours for a while longer because they'll expect you to be moving separate to the rest of us, but if you can find a rat to stick it on..."
Arthur sketched out the bare bones of the new plan -- a plan which amounted to making Valiant's men follow the team's Houdini, thinking they were following most of Excalibur. It was a distraction that would cost them, because the rest of the team would shoot them out of the war game while Merlin and Arthur would head back to the original mission. As soon as Gwaine got rid of his tracker, he'd be giving them overwatch and keeping the snipers off.
Merlin gave everyone a run-down on how to remove the tracker, and within minutes the team (minus Gwaine) had collected at K-point, passed the handful of bugs to a resigned Kay, who took off at a run in the same direction they'd been heading. He was going take Valiant's crew on a merry tour of the training grounds before leading them directly into a track. Arthur gave Leon the map, because Gwaine would be leading them to the goalpost.
"Poor bugger," Merlin said, watching Kay disappear up the street in ten seconds flat. He was glad to finally be able to let the spell break up on its own; it was a pain trying to keep it up, especially when they were on the move.
"Kay will be fine," Arthur said.
"'Course he'll be fine. Wasn't talking about him," Merlin said, meeting Arthur's eyes with a grin. "Was thinking about Valiant. The boys get their hands on him -- what's going to keep them from bludgeoning him to a pulp?"
"Not me," Arthur said firmly, and grabbed the shoulder strap of Merlin's backpack, pulling him along until Merlin moved of his own volition. "And not you. He deserves whatever he gets."
From Arthur's tone, it sounded more as if Valiant would be getting a fate worse than death when Arthur reported back to his father, but Merlin perversely decided that whatever Valiant would be put through, it would only amount to a tongue-lashing at having been caught cheating. "A slap on the wrist, then?"
"Fired, more like," Arthur said, "And blacklisted. He'll never get another legitimate job in the business. Uther isn't going to let this go lightly. We didn't have proof that Valiant cheated last time, but we do now."
Arthur pushed Merlin in a narrow alley again, but only for a moment while the men who were following the trackers raced by. "Come on."
They'd managed to put half a kilometre of buildings between them and their last location when Gwaine's voice came over the line. "Arthur, I'm at your nine high. Don't step out into the open. I repeat, there's a sniper at your one o'clock high, waiting for you to cross the road."
"Goddamn it, Gwaine, your tracker --"
"-- is currently patterning the heretofore unknown mating habits of a feral tomcat --"
"And that's different from you, how, exactly?" Leon's voice came over the line, and Merlin bit his lower lip to keep from laughing.
"Jesus, Leon, don't be jealous. I warned you what would happen when you committed to a monogamous relationship. It gets boring."
"Monogamous? I did kiss Merlin this morning," Leon pointed out.
"Oi, I kissed you," Merlin said, his amused grin fading when he caught the look on Arthur's face. He was distant, stony, disapproving.
"Cheeky little slag you are, too, going off after someone else when clearly, I'm more than keen to bag you, if only you'd succumb to my charms. Quit playing hard to get and put out, already," Gwaine drawled, getting back to business in the same breath. "Second sniper at your eleven o'clock."
"Sorry, mate, not my type," Merlin said, inching forward a little to see if he could spot the sniper.
"What, me or the sniper?"
"Either of you," Merlin said, and wondered why Arthur picked that exact moment to relax. His answer was in the form of Arthur revealing his Plan, capital P.
"Gwaine, do you see a way in that's out of their line of sight? I don't want them alerting anyone else that we're in the area until after we've got the goods. That includes you taking them out."
The silence stretched for nearly a minute before Gwaine guided them down a route that included a bit of acrobatics that Merlin was nearly certain he'd included just to amuse himself with Merlin's scramble. "Watch yourselves inside. I can see movement. No actual warm bodies that I can shoot, though."
Arthur led the way, clearing the building room by room. Merlin watched their rear and kept an eye out for anyone else, but the movement he could see consisted of shifting shadows -- rippling shadows -- without substance across the sunlit-bits on the floor and windows. They were on the second level, sweeping out a long, oblong room, when they both froze at the loud, reverberating floorboard-creak near the stairs.
They both froze against the wall, whirling their weapons, itchy trigger fingers ready to fire, except there wasn't anything to fire at. There was that ripple again, that shift in the air, and out of the bare corner of his eye, Merlin thought he saw the tip of someone's boots walking toward them. Boots, and nothing else.
He shoved Arthur roughly into another room just as their sensor vests vibrated with near-misses.
Sod the job interview -- Merlin didn't care about getting a position with Pendragon Consulting. He cared about making sure he didn't disappoint Arthur. He wanted to win the game for him.
That was why, when Arthur's back was to him, Merlin whispered a few words under his breath and turned them both invisible.
The sensitive radio picked up what he'd said, though, and Gwaine said, "I didn't get that. Say again."
"Shh," Arthur said, darting behind the door. He made a gesture to Merlin that Merlin didn't catch -- a lot of his gestures seemed to stray from the standard army signals, and he was using a new one that left Merlin blinking in confusion. In desperation, Arthur whispered, "Where is he?"
Merlin raised his shoulders in an I don't know shrug that he aborted halfway through when the sound of footfalls approached their position.
Arthur peered through the crack in the door, and Merlin saw his expression change from there's no one there, to absolute, pure confusion, to understanding, and finally, to that bloody cunt!
Merlin had no indication of what Arthur was going to do until after Arthur had done it. In a rush of movement that he seemed to have timed for this exact moment, Arthur moved to the doorway and held down the trigger of the souped-up laser-tag gun.
His action was answered with the satisfyingly loud beeps of several direct hits.
Merlin followed Arthur out, watching, startled, as he caught up to someone running away and wrenched off...
The fabric crackled with electricity and colour and light, finally turning into plain satiny material with a torn dangled cord that was attached to a power box on Valiant's bum bag.
An invisibility cloak?
"Who's there?" Valiant asked, and Merlin belatedly remembered the invisibility spell. He half-turned his body away as if checking to make sure no one would get the drop on them, and released the spell. Valiant shrieked in surprise when Arthur suddenly appeared before him. "Where the hell did you come from? I didn't see --"
"Must be a side effect of wearing one of Pendragon's unfinished prototypes," Arthur said, holding it up. His voice had a frightening razor's edge. "One I'm certain that you don't have authorization sign out, much less to use in a war game just so that you can win. You dumb cunt -- I'm not on the board of directors as a figurehead or because my father thinks it's nice to have two Pendragons on the sign-in. I know what's coming out of R&D before R&D does. Uther will hear about this."
"No, he won't --"
Valiant's body thumped on the ground, sending up a flurry of dust and dirt, and Arthur shook out his hand.
"Nice punch," Merlin remarked.
"Shut up, Merlin." After a moment, Arthur said, "The system should be somewhere around here. Go and..."
He waved a dismissive hand in the air. "Go and crack it."
Merlin grinned and cracked his fingers.
The Pendragon Consulting communications system was tucked away in a front corner in direct line of sight of the two snipers, and Gwaine got Arthur's approval to take them down. Merlin dragged a stool over to the table once they were taken care of, pulled out his tools and hardware, and plugged in.
Arthur paced like a hungry tiger, back and forth, back and forth, and if it were anyone else, Merlin wouldn't be able to concentrate. As it was, he found Arthur's irritating presence rather soothing. He keyed in a few commands and waited for one of his programs to identify the encryption code. It came back as unknown.
He swore under his breath and thumbed in more commands, pulling up the source code.
"Fuck. I don't have the decrypt. This is new," Merlin muttered, and Arthur looked over his shoulder.
"You can't do it?"
Merlin didn't answer him for a few minutes, chewing his lower lip as he read through the code, pulling out patterns. It took him longer than he liked to figure out what it was -- the Monmouth Corollary code wrapped in a ton of garbage -- and he grinned. Professor Geoffrey Monmouth had been one of the members of his advisory committee at Cambridge -- if there was one thing he knew by heart, and only out of a sense of self-preservation, it was every paper that Monmouth had ever written and published.
Apparently whoever had used this code to encrypt the communication system wasn't up on the latest papers on the Corollary -- one of which included Merlin's crack.
"Never say never," Merlin said, his thumbs flying over the virtual keyboard on the touch screen. "Give me five minutes."
There was a long silence, and Arthur's warm hand squeezed his shoulder, almost fond. "You've got two."
It took Merlin three -- and only because it took a full minute for Merlin to focus after that touch.
Arthur had been on the wrong end of Uther's rage seven times in his life. That was seven times too many.
The first time was when Arthur came home with a bad grade on a paper.
The second was when the school called Uther because Arthur had been in a schoolyard fight. His anger, Arthur learned later, wasn't because he'd fought, but because he'd lost.
The third, fourth, and fifth times had been for mistakes at the footie games. The sixth time had been when he came out of the closet. The seventh had been when Arthur defied him and completed his degree instead of heading straight into the military like Uther had done.
It took seven times before Uther realized that his rages had little effect on Arthur, and that nothing could cut deeper than his disappointment. No disappointment had cut deeper than when Arthur lost a war game. When Valiant's team had beaten Excalibur -- and "beaten" was a loose term -- at their last engagement, Uther had turned away from Arthur after a long, emotionless frown, and walked away.
Arthur knew he had been a right bastard for months. He'd put his team through a misery of training that made most of the soldiers on base cringe just to watch. He'd put them on strict restrictions, on triple-daily runs, tactic training. He'd whipped every inch of fat from his team, and he'd been hardest on himself.
It took three months of hard training, three months of risky missions, and three months before his team took matters in their own hands and dragged Arthur to the base pub on their first R&R and got him completely and utterly pissed. Three months before Arthur started to shake out of his slump and calmed down.
Complete and utter satisfaction was too mild a description for the feeling that overcame Arthur as he watched every member of Valiant's team -- every single one, including the extra men that he'd brought over without Uther's approval -- march up the ramp of the transport that would fly them out of there. Arthur would not only not have to work with Valiant's goons once he finished his tour and took position in the company, he would likely never have to see him again.
Valiant and his men were fired, their employment at Pendragon Consulting completely and utterly terminated, their access revoked, their weapons stripped, and Morgana had confided in Arthur that Uther had already begun the smear campaign. Valiant would be lucky if he could get a job as a security guard over at the Brighton piers. Or at a warehouse. Or at the mall.
Arthur rather fancied seeing Valiant as a fat security guard at the mall.
"An invisibility cloak, Colonel? Really?" Arthur asked, keeping his voice low. Uther was standing beside Arthur, dressed to the nines in a navy blue business suit that his stiff-upper-lip military bearing alone kept from wrinkling, and there was the slightest revelatory shift in his posture. Arthur pressed on. "How did he even walk out of R&D with it?"
"I'm assuming that he would have worn it," Uther remarked, his voice flat.
"Of course," Arthur said, but he wasn't fooled. The security at Pendragon Consulting's R&D department was impenetrable -- they regularly hired external contractors to try to crack the system, and repaired the weaknesses from the ground-up. There was no way that a thug like Valiant would even have gotten wind of the latest technologies under development unless someone had told him, or because someone had been instructed to tell him. And likely conveniently left behind a post-it note with the keycode on their security card for easy access.
Arthur idly wondered what the bet between Colonel Pendragon and Major Kilgarrah had been about -- and how much Uther had lost. Uther didn't care about money -- shrewd investments, patents, and invaluable services ensured that he would be worth billions even if he lost a billion or so, and The Dragon wouldn't accept money, anyway, not unless it came in the form of a boatload of cigarettes. No, it had to be something more than that. Something that Uther had been after for years.
The Dragon's recommendation.
Uther didn't let it show, but it grated at him that a mere Major would have such weight against a decorated Colonel, even an ex-Colonel. Where Colonel Pendragon reaped the benefits of his military tactics and successes in the form of field commissions, Major Kilgarrah had pointedly refused similar advancements, and between his hands-on experience and extensive background, had the ear of Generals the way Uther never had. Arthur didn't think it had to do with that. Scuttlebutt whispered about The Dragon's membership to any number of advisory councils, and one of them must be involved in approving the purchase of Pendragon technologies.
But he didn't ask, and Uther didn't say, and this once, like many other times Uther had made a mistake, Arthur left it alone. Let the old man have his dignity.
Arthur added this latest life-altering event to the already-long list of reasons why he should stop letting Uther's opinion matter so much to him.
"I understand your team has been granted a two-week leave. You'll be returning to London?"
They would have their two weeks' leave, but it would be a week or more before they had their papers in order. In the meantime, there would be no major missions, only a few patrols, and a bit of light duty that everyone was looking forward to and considered to be extra R&R time.
"Yes, sir," Arthur said, clasping his hands behind his back. Both of them watched the transport take off in silence, and once it was a speck in the distance, they turned and walked down the hill to base.
"I haven't asked him what his plans are," Arthur said. He knew that wasn't what Uther was asking, but if Uther could play his games, then Arthur could play his own.
"That's not what I'm asking."
"You don't want to make the offer of employment yourself?" Arthur asked. He already knew the answer to that, too. Uther always left the recruitment of his men to Arthur. Most of them had been easy to lure -- not one of them ever thought of breaking up the team, Arthur least of all. The only person Arthur hadn't pushed was Lance, who was set on becoming a doctor, and Arthur had promised him a scholarship with no strings attached because Gwen was working for them anyway.
He didn't know what Merlin wanted. Morgana had whispered to him about Merlin's headhunters and the seemingly endless string of offers that he'd received right out of university -- offers that he still received now if the way he stabbed at the delete key when he checked his email was any indication. But Merlin had joined the military instead. No sane man who had guaranteed employment in the top labs in the industry walked away from offers like the ones Morgana gossiped about. What drove him?
It wasn't loyalty, either. Merlin was too new to the team to have the same ties to Arthur, the same desire to keep the team together. What would it take?
Uther didn't dignify his question with an answer. Instead, he said, "I'll expect his signature on a contract by the end of the week."
"He rejected Nicholson Industries, Orca Corp, and King Limited," Arthur said. Nicholson and Orca were the top two future tech companies, while King was one of the Pendragon rivals in the field of military technology. Their focus was on military armaments, but rumour was that they were expanding their engineering department. "I don't think aggressive tactics will work on him. I'll need more than a week."
Uther didn't answer for a moment. "As long as he signs."
Arthur nodded, but he felt a knot in the pit of his stomach. Not only didn't he know how he'd get Merlin to sign, he didn't know what he would do if he didn't sign. There were memories of the war games that lingered like the tingle of a phantom limb: the feel of Merlin's breath on his hand as he covered his mouth; Merlin's body against his; the heat from him. Arthur's emotions had ranged the gamut from hostile and obscenely jealous when Merlin kissed Leon on the chopper over coffee, to violently envious by the easy banter over the intercom when Gwaine flirted with Merlin openly, to absurdly relieved when Merlin declared no interest in Gwaine.
Which still didn't answer the question of what, or whom, Merlin was interested in. Despite his months as a full-fledged member of Excalibur, Merlin was still close-lipped about himself. The only details anyone was aware of were those gleaned from other sources -- his file, thanks to Gwaine's "friend" in Major Kilgarrah's office, the Google vanity searches, and now the gossip from Morgana. Merlin had started to relax, that was true, but he still played his cards close to his chest.
Arthur found that aspect of Merlin infuriating.
It was even more infuriating that it fuelled his wank fantasies of just how he was going to get Merlin to reveal each and every secret he had to Arthur, and to Arthur alone.
"I have to deal with this mess," Uther said suddenly, coming to a stop. "Your sniper likes the scopes but they don't add much to his range, and the trigger mechanism on the new explosives need work. And obviously, we're not going to receive a contract for the new communications system."
Arthur nodded politely. He thought it had been a bit premature for Uther to introduce those three items to the military Brass, but the remainder of the items that were demonstrated had received keen interest. The bonus was in the cloaking capabilities of the invisibility fabric that Valiant had stolen; the military was applying a pre-emptive contract as a sole-recipient by offering some funding dollars to correct the deficiencies.
"I'd dearly like to know how Emrys cracked the code." Uther said it not as a statement, but as an order.
Sadly, when Arthur had asked Merlin directly, Merlin had answered with one of his stupid-big smiles that made Arthur's blood rush to parts of his body that were not his brain.
"You shouldn't be surprised. Cracking codes is one of his specialties."
Uther gave Arthur a I want the details glare before heading in the direction of the command tent.
Arthur hid his smirk of amusement and went to find the team. He didn't make it more than twenty feet down the road before he was intercepted by a familiar and cringe-worthy "Arthur!"
He turned on his heel and would have kept walking, except Gwen was with Morgana, and no one could possibly be rude to someone like Gwen. He sighed inwardly and waited for the two women to catch up.
"Where are our men?" Morgana demanded. Coming from Morgana, it was always a demand. Arthur rolled his eyes and considered telling her happy hunting, but it was Gwen's earnest look that made him answer.
"Motor Pool," Arthur said. "Owain wanted to wash the transports assigned to our team. Something about leaving everything brand new, so that when we come back, he can yell at whoever dirties our trucks while we're on R&R."
"Sounds like Owain," Gwen said cheerfully.
"Did he need everyone on the team?" Morgana criticized.
"He doesn't have everyone," Arthur said. "Gareth and Bohrs are at the armoury, Geraint is in the comm centre, calling his girlfriend, and Merlin's... Merlin is probably somewhere..."
He waved a hand in the general direction of the big tents that belonged to the commanding Brass. Arthur was being vague on purpose -- not because he didn't know what Merlin was doing, but because he knew about the Crack Box when he wasn't supposed to know about the Crack Box, but because Merlin had built one, loaded it with code, and used it successfully in the field. It was a toss-up whether the Brass was pissed, or whether the Brass was pleased because now they had a Crack Box of their own, and either way, Arthur was trying not to chaff at the bit that he wasn't there to protect Merlin.
The Dragon hadn't come through with his security clearance yet.
"I like Merlin," Gwen said. "Lance does too."
"The whole team," Morgana put in, sizing Arthur up suspiciously. "Everyone except you."
"Why don't you like him?" Gwen asked. Her question was innocent, but her eyes widened as soon as the words were out of her mouth, as if figuring the answer out for herself.
"He's fine," Arthur said through grit teeth.
"Oh, let me play this game. I love this game," Morgana said, her tone gleeful. "Arthur hates Merlin because Merlin is exactly his type?"
Gwen shot Arthur an apologetic smile. Once again, Arthur cursed his long friendship with Gwen. He'd confided in her a few things he'd never meant for public consumption -- and definitely not for Morgana -- and one of those things was what he considered to be his type. Gwen patted his arm. "True. What else?"
"Arthur hates Merlin because Merlin doesn't put up with his shit?"
"I'm going to have to ask the judges about that one," Gwen said, adding, "Although I have it on excellent authority that they've had arguments that have left Arthur speechless."
Morgana's laugh grated on Arthur's nerves. "Put that one in the True column, then. Let's see, what else. Arthur hates Merlin because Merlin --"
"Will you shut up, Morgana?" Arthur snapped. "I said that he's fine. Just leave it."
Morgana's eyebrow quirked, and she eyed him speculatively. "Touchy, Arthur. Very touchy. Is it because you like him?"
Arthur glared, wishing he had the power to make her wither with a look, but if wishes were pennies, he'd be a trillionaire by now considering how many times he'd wished his sister rendered to a smoking pile of ashes.
That seemed to answer something else, because Morgana squealed and Gwen smiled bright. "Does that mean you're putting an end to the one-night pulls?"
A sharp pain throbbed in the middle of Arthur's forehead, and he pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Oh! You haven't..." was followed by a pause, a laugh, and a startled, sad, "Oh, Arthur. I'm sorry."
The first was from Morgana, the second from Gwen, and it was Morgana again, who asked, "Sorry about what?"
Arthur dropped his hand to see Gwen giving Morgana a meaningful look that Morgana didn't catch until Gwen whispered, "Maybe Merlin's not into, you know..."
Arthur couldn't have been more embarrassed by Gwen's up-and-down wave of her hand in his direction, which she finished with another gesture that was comprehensible only to other women, and a wash of realization passed over Morgana.
"Oh!" Morgana's expression had changed from mocking to gleeful to pleased as punch until it became the worst of all in Arthur's estimation -- sympathetic. "He's not gay."
Morgana frowned. "Are you sure about that, because --"
Arthur was saved from more of Morgana's very unsubtle interrogation and matchmaking by a raspy shout. "Pendragon!"
Major Kilgarrah stood outside his tent, the flap open behind him, ruining his aide's attempts to air the tent out by smoking right in front of it. Arthur glanced at Morgana and Gwen. "Motor Pool's down this road, turn left when you reach the end, and keep walking until you see them. I'll be there in a while."
He didn't wait for an answer, and instead headed for The Dragon. "Sir?"
"Your papers are in," The Dragon said. "Your team's leave is approved for the week after next."
"Thank you, sir. I know my men are very appreciative," Arthur said.
"As am I," The Dragon said, and for one of the few rare times in Arthur's commission, he saw Major Kilgarrah smile. It was a little frightening. Fortunately, the smile faded a few heartbeats later, and he said, "Your security clearance is another matter."
Arthur swallowed a bitter taste in the back of his throat. He knew it was too much to hope for. Whatever Merlin's clearance was, it had to be pretty high up if it was causing The Dragon this much trouble. "It's all right, sir. It was unfair of me to ask for it considering the circumstances."
"No, my boy, you don't understand. Your clearance upgrade has been approved. It'll come through in a few days. However..."
Arthur missed what The Dragon said, because his heart was pounding and he'd burst into a big grin. "Thank you, sir," he said, and realized that Major Kilgarrah was studying him with a frown. "I'm sorry, sir?"
"A Captain with higher clearance and a team of Excalibur's reputation is going to be reassigned to higher-value missions."
Higher-value meant greater risk. Arthur frowned in confusion. Most of their missions were already higher-value, but The Dragon spoke as if their missions to date had been child's play in comparison to what they'd have ahead of them. "Sir?"
"A few days ago, Emrys and three other men from Excalibur went on a short mission to eliminate a target. Do you remember that?"
Arthur remembered. It was an op that had left all of his men -- excluding Merlin -- spooked, because it had been riddled with a string of events that could only mildly be classified as "weird". That wasn't the only reason why he remembered it, either, because picking them up had given him a memory that he was not easily going to forget for the rest of his life.
Merlin sprawled on the floor of the chopper at Arthur's feet, his cheeks flushed from exertion, his unruly black hair in a sweaty, spiky mess, his perfect lips parted in panting breaths.
Arthur's cock twitched. He swallowed.
"The thing with the Americans, sir?"
"That's the one," Major Kilgarrah said. He smoked the last of his cigarette, crushed it under his foot, and lit another one. His eyes were thin and narrow beneath the cloud of smoke, and Arthur knew that look. Arthur wasn't going to like what The Dragon was about to say. "After the order came down to release the Americans, Colonel Mandrake came to see me. He had questions. I didn't have answers. So I went to get them."
Arthur waited. And waited some more.
"Fetch Lieutenant Emrys. There will be a debriefing in twenty minutes."
"Mer-- Lieutenant Emrys, sir? I thought he was being questioned about the Cr-- the thing." Arthur squared his hands in the approximate size of the Crack Box that he wasn't supposed to know about.
"They finished with him a half hour ago."
Arthur forced himself to nod, feeling relief that Merlin wasn't under a hot lamp somewhere being interrogated by MI-5's finest. "I'll find him, sir."
The Dragon dismissed him with a jerk of his head and a deep inhalation from his cigarette. Arthur saluted, took two steps back, performed a precise parade turn, and headed toward the Motor Pool. Maybe someone there would have seen Merlin.
Once he was out of sight of The Dragon, he wrung his hands together in anticipation. Answers. He was going to get answers about that whole American nightmare. Finally. He hated not knowing everything.
It didn't take him long to locate the team -- all he had to do was head straight down the road, hang a left, and follow Gwen's high-pitched shrieks. Arthur arrived in time to see Lance bravely taking the wet-soapy-sponge hit for Gwen, and Morgana was hiding behind Leon. He smirked in amusement and was about to muster his best drill sergeant what the hell is going on here when he saw Merlin.
Arthur's mouth went dry.
Merlin was stretched out on the hood of a clean transport, laying back on the windshield. His long legs were crossed at the ankles, his trousers were low on his hips, and his chest was bare except for the gleam of metallic circular ID tags. His hands made a pillow behind his head, he wore a pair of silver reflective aviator glasses, chin tilted up at the sky while he soaked up the sun as if he were some sort of Celtic god.
Fuck. He was gorgeous.
Thin and scrawny only applied when he wore the shapeless greens, but without his shirt, Merlin was whipcord lean and solid, every muscle taut in stark relief. Arthur wanted to kiss those ribs, run his hands over the rippled abs...
Arthur's chest hurt, and he realized that his lungs were burning because he'd forgotten to breathe. He also couldn't look away. Something out of the corner of his eye dragged his attention from Merlin, and it was Morgana -- looking at him with a devious smirk.
It snapped him out of his daze, and he marched into the open area, heading straight for Merlin. He grabbed Merlin's boot, and pulled him nearly all the way off the hood. Merlin's shriek made him feel a little guilty, but he didn't let it show.
"Put your damn shirt on. We've got a debrief."
Arthur turned away and headed toward the base command tents, ignoring Morgana's disapproving frown.
The debriefing on the Pendragon communications system took longer than Merlin anticipated, particularly when Merlin described how he'd broken the encryption code. The otherwise innocent statement "I built a Crack Box before we left the base on the mission because I found out we didn't have one in the battalion" opened a can of worms that one General, three Colonels, and four Majors would rather not have had opened in the first place. After everyone who didn't have the right security clearance was ushered from the room, Major Kilgarrah's aide was sent for Merlin's files to confirm that Merlin had the clearance to not only know about, but discuss the Crack Box, and that was another twenty-minute awkward pause of sitting in the hot seat while everyone cooled their heels.
"Colonel Weiss-Smith is down to the south trying to hold onto a strip of land. The terrain is working against him, though. Have his reinforcements arrived?"
"By the time they do, Smith will have figured out how to get himself out of his own mess," a general said dryly.
"They're on their way in any case. We should be focusing more on the material his men retrieved from the Ravines."
A few people glanced in Merlin's direction, but he'd perfected the art of looking as if he had no clue what was going on. Most of these people didn't know that Excalibur had been sent in to rescue Weiss-Smith's people or recover the super-duper secret device that had the Brass tied up in a knot -- whatever that device was. Merlin only got a quick glimpse of it right before it was wrapped up in a container for shipping to the Think Tank headquarters. The device was a small sleek black box that looked like an external hard drive.
It was a piece of technology, though, and not a piece of magic -- he'd checked -- and if the Think Tank lab coats couldn't figure it out, it would start making the rounds of the specialists. Eventually it might even end up in Merlin's lap again.
"I think it was a lot of trouble for nothing," one of the generals said.
"The information it's supposed to contain would give us an insight on their future plans, if not the future plans themselves," Colonel Mandrake said with a sigh.
It was an external hard drive, then, which made it a computer problem, and Merlin was privately glad that he wouldn't have to hack it. There were plenty of experts in that field.
The door opened and closed, and the questions started up as soon as the aide passed Merlin's file to The Dragon, and The Dragon nodded through the cloud of smoke coming from his nostrils to say, yes, go ahead.
"So you found out that we didn't have one? A Crack Box?"
"How did you find that out?"
"I very carefully asked around, sir."
"How does one carefully ask about something when no one has the clearance to know about it in the first place? You breached security --"
"Begging your pardon, sir, I think you'll find that's not the case. No one is even aware that Merlin was asking about a Crack Box, only about a device that we don't seem to have in the communication centre."
Merlin tried to look completely innocent. He had spilled the beans, a tiny little bit, when he'd explained about the Crack Box to Arthur, but he wasn't going to dig himself a hole right here and right now by telling them that.
The Colonel snorted, but dropped the matter. Someone else picked up the questioning.
"You built a Crack Box in under eight hours?"
"How do you build a Crack Box?"
"I, um. I can't tell you that, sir."
"I'm pretty sure you don't have the clearance to know that, sir."
The person asking was a two-star General, which earned Merlin a steely stare and a coughed snort of amusement from Major Kilgarrah, who said, "I'm afraid he's right."
"Why did you decide to bring a Crack Box to the War Game?"
"Because of the demonstration, sir. Since Pendragon Consulting was featuring a communication system, I thought that the game mission would be to break the system and to collect information. I didn't want to be caught with my pants down and knew I needed to be prepared for an in-case-of situation. After all this time with Excalibur under Captain Pendragon, I've come to see the merit in contingency plans, and my contingency plan was the Crack Box, sir."
"Well. On the bright side, the battalion now has a Crack Box that headquarters couldn't be arsed to send us," a different Colonel said, folding beefy hands in front of him on a table that didn't look like it could support the weight of either. "On the downside, the only person qualified to use it is Lieutenant Emrys."
"And that's a downside how, exactly?" Colonel Mandrake asked.
"No offense to you, Lieutenant Emrys, but I'd feel more comfortable if we had another qualified body in the battalion." The General turned to The Dragon. "Have headquarters transfer someone else with appropriate credentials. In the meantime, the Crack Box will go under lock and key, and you, Lieutenant Emrys, aren't to build another one without permission."
"Yes, sir," Merlin said.
The conversation dwindled into the honest-to-goodness evaluation of the hardware that ended with, "And your recommendation, Emrys?" from Major Kilgarrah.
"Ah, um. It's a nice system, but just barely a step up from what we have now. We can do better," Merlin finally said.
A quiet silence hushed over the tent before the squeak of a chair from Colonel Mandrake. "I concur. I mean, obviously Lieutenant Emrys is one of our best, and the odds of the enemy having someone of his experience is rare. It took him less than five minutes to crack the Pendragon communication system. At the very least, we should hold out for a system that would take Lieutenant Emrys ten minutes to crack."
One of the generals chuckled. "Only ten minutes?"
"At the very least. Fifteen, at the most."
The debriefing closed on a round of laughter and Merlin was free to go. He headed for the Motor Pool with every intention of helping the team clean up the transports and he'd been in the middle of doing just that when Morgana caught his arm and pulled him away.
"Really, Merlin. You've been out here for months, now, and you're still as pale as a common Englishman. What do you use? Sunscreen with SPF 50?"
"More like 10,000," Merlin retorted with a grin, and somehow -- he wasn't sure how -- his overshirt was tugged off and he was sent to grab some rays.
"Can't have you coming home on two weeks' leave with nothing to show for it. Now climb up there," Morgana said, pointing to the hood of the transport and giving him a shove for good measure, "And twenty minutes should get you nice and rosy."
With a sigh, he removed the olive-cream coloured shirt. "Why not."
"You bloody tease," Gwaine whistled at him. Merlin flew him a two-fingered salute.
He hadn't been on the hood of the SUV for more than a few minutes when he got yanked off, catching himself before he landed flat on his face. A stone-faced Arthur barked, "Put your damn shirt on. We've got a debrief," and marched away.
Merlin twisted around, grabbed his shirt from the windshield where he'd laid on it, and pulled it on. He hurried after Arthur but was pulled to a stop by a pale-faced Morgana. "Merlin, I --"
"It's all right. He's just being his usual Grade-A prat," Merlin said, forcing a grin on his face. He patted her arm and went to catch up.
The truth was, it wasn't all right. Not by a long shot. Merlin thought that Arthur was over this whole childish chip-on-his-shoulder complete-pillock stage. In fact, it almost seemed for a while there, that Arthur was even starting to like him. So what the hell happened?
Maybe a bug crawled up his arse and died.
Merlin tugged on his overshirt, buttoned it up, and stuffed it into his pants. He grabbed Arthur's elbow, pulling him to a stop.
"Look, Arthur --" He saw Arthur's expression change, becoming even more distant, and quickly changed tactics. When it came to Arthur, when the informal didn't work, sometimes the formal did. "Sir. Did I do something?"
"What are you talking about, Merlin?" Arthur pulled out of his grasp and kept walking. Merlin stopped him again.
"You've turned into Captain Prat," Merlin said, unable to stop himself.
Arthur raised a brow, and he didn't look pleased. "Captain Prat?"
"Ah. Um. What I mean is. How come you hate me again? I thought we were getting on. What happened? What did I do?"
A flicker of emotion passed over Arthur's sky-blue eyes, nearly completely hidden behind his utter and complete control, squashed by lifetime exposure to military discipline and what must be -- definitely must be, now that Merlin had met Uther and understood something about Arthur's upbringing -- a big boys don't cry and real men don't have feelings personality trait that did absolutely nothing for Arthur's likeability. Merlin made an encouraging motion, tried to look earnest and open and listening, but Arthur's lips pressed tight together, holding back everything he wanted to say.
He sure looked like he wanted to say a lot, and Merlin wished he'd just get on with it. Except he didn't.
Arthur's hesitation was palpable. Merlin didn't need it spelled out for him. Whatever it was that he'd done, whatever was bothering Arthur, Merlin wasn't going to find out what it was, not now, and maybe not ever.
Merlin felt a little sick.
"Nothing, Merlin. You didn't do anything. Now shut up and come on. We have a meeting with Major Kilgarrah."
At least Arthur was still talking to him. Merlin decided to keep him talking. "Did he say why?"
"The Americans," Arthur said, which didn't really answer anything until Merlin remembered the mission he'd been on that had nearly gotten him, Gwaine, Perceval and Owain killed. The mission where everything went weird -- the mission against the sorcerers. It was a little hard to forget that operation.
Merlin felt a cold chill down his spine.
"What about them?" Merlin asked carefully.
"Apparently, Merlin," Arthur said, taking a deep breath and glancing around, "My new security clearance means that Excalibur is going to be involved in more dangerous, higher-value missions, and the Americans are somehow involved."
"Okay," Merlin said slowly, his brows pinching in the middle of his forehead as he processed the new information that Arthur was giving him. Arthur glanced down at where Merlin was still holding his arm, and Merlin hastily pulled his hand away, but Arthur grabbed his shoulder and started them walking again. "Okay. Arthur, why do you have new security clearance?"
"Because I asked for it," Arthur ground out.
"You asked for it." Merlin raised a brow, and his mouth tugged into a grin. "Aw, Arthur, were you jealous? Because my clearance rating was higher than yours? Were you feeling a little inferior? A little out of the loop? Maybe a bit intimidated because mine was bigger than yours?"
Arthur nearly choked, and Merlin's ears burned when he rewinded and heard what he'd said. He hadn't meant it quite that way, but it was too late to take it back now.
"Hardly, Merlin," Arthur snorted.
Merlin pressed. "But why do you need it?"
"Because if you keep telling me things that I'm not supposed to know, I'm going to get in trouble," Arthur said, glancing at Merlin in a sidelong way that could be chalked up as a warning, or it could be put down as a flirtation. Considering the near-miss Merlin had during the earlier debrief about breaking security clearance by asking people about the Crack Box without really asking, Merlin had to admit that Arthur did have a point.
"You could just tell me to shut up like you always do," Merlin said. "Or pretend I never told you."
This time, the look that Arthur gave him made Merlin's stomach flip-flop, and he offered Arthur a big grin that he hoped was disarming. Arthur shook his head in what might be fond amusement. It could equally be interpreted as, don't be an idiot, Merlin.
"So what's your new clearance rating?"
"Same as yours, I expect, since that's what I asked for," Arthur said.
Merlin gave him a sharp sidelong glance. "What, you turned down the opportunity to have higher security clearance? To lord it over me?"
A fleeting smile crossed Arthur's expression, and some of the old stone face cracked. "I don't need a higher security clearance to lord it over you, Merlin."
He reached over and tugged the Pendragon red that was sticking out of Merlin's back pants pocket, holding it up in the air. "I've got this."
"Oi!" Merlin snatched it out of Arthur's hand. He didn't miss the arrogant smirk stretching across Arthur's lips, either, and knew that things between them were all right again. For however long it lasted. Goddamn it.
Arthur was infuriating. Men like Arthur needed to come with an instruction manual.
Merlin wrapped the swath of fabric around his neck, and there was another odd glint in Arthur's eyes before he looked away.
"So. The thing with the Americans? Are we in trouble?"
Arthur stopped, taking Merlin's arm, the heat of his hand burning through the fabric of the camo shirt, to the skin, through to the bone. "You tell me, Merlin."
They were close, closer together now than they had been at the war game when Arthur had his arm wrapped over Merlin's chest and holding him close, a hand over Merlin's mouth but a damnable backpack between them, and still they were close and too far away, the fabric of their uniforms barely brushing together, the only contact Arthur's hand on his arm.
"I don't know, Arthur. I honestly don't." Merlin frowned. "You really have the clearance?"
"I really have the clearance. Straight out of Major Kilgarrah's fire-breathing mouth."
Merlin chuckled. "Right."
He worried his lower lip, glancing around them. No one was paying attention; they were in a quiet area of the base, and private conversations like these happened all the time. People tended to ignore them out of self-preservation. He took a deep breath, and nodded several times. "Right. Okay. I've never dealt with the Americans before, but I have a pretty good idea what they're looking for."
The thought sent a deep jolt of fear down his spine.
Arthur was looking at him with go on in his eyes.
"My other ops? Before Excalibur? Before I got shot and put on training detail?" Merlin paused. "There were a couple that went weird."
"As weird as the sniper job?"
Weirder, Merlin thought. Instead, he said, "Yeah. The ops were run by a bunch of spooks that looked like they were MI-5 without the snazzy suits. Always acted surprised when we came back more or less in one piece, too."
Sometimes it was absolute dumb luck that got them out intact. Other times it was Merlin. Mostly, though, it was dumb luck, because Merlin didn't clue in on the other magic until much, much later. He'd spent a lifetime keeping his magic secret and not using it, so it took him a lot longer to realize that the tingling sensation he was feeling had nothing to do with his own magic, but someone else's.
He'd learned since then not to not use his magic. It had saved his life on more than one occasion. Hiding it, though, was starting to get harder.
Merlin didn't know if it was Excalibur's propensity for dangerous missions, or if the missions had always been dangerous, only, he'd gotten old and rusty and had forgotten, but his magic was coming out more and more lately, especially around Arthur.
It seemed like he needed the extra edge to keep everyone safe. Especially Arthur.
Arthur raised an eyebrow the way he did when he was being impatient.
"I had the clearance back then, too, but my Captain didn't, so we weren't told what was going on, you know. I'm getting the feeling that this thing with the Americans is something of the same sort of thing."
"Like the mission that nearly got your team killed?"
"No. That last one... That was something else. A bollocks officer with brass balls, shite for brains, a tiny little winkle, and something to prove." Merlin worked his jaw, bit his lower lip, and shook his head. He couldn't say more. It had hurt, losing most of the members of his team. It still hurt.
Arthur leaned back and away from Merlin with a speculative look on his face that was almost sympathetic. He glanced around them, and the sympathy became thoughtful contemplation. Merlin knew that look. Arthur was thinking, and when Arthur started thinking, it was never good.
"I don't need the security clearance to get the team pulled on high-value missions," Arthur said slowly.
"But it helps," Merlin said. "Just because we survived the missions doesn't mean we knew what we were doing."
"Or how to plan against their tactics," Arthur said with a nod. He let Merlin go. Merlin could see what Arthur wasn't saying out loud. This could be very, very good. Or it could be very, very bad.. Merlin was leaning toward the latter, but he hoped it was the former. "Come on. We'll be late."
They walked in silence for a few minutes before Arthur said, "You never told me how you cracked the encryption on the comm system."
"Yeah, well, you didn't have the clearance back then," Merlin said, grinning.
"So you get to pick and choose what kind of top-secret shite you tell me and what you don't?" Arthur smacked him on the back of his head, the hit fast and light. "In case you didn’t notice when I told you three times now, I have the clearance."
"Did you get a math degree while you were at it?" At Arthur's scowl, Merlin shrugged his shoulders. "I can give you the plain English version."
"If you don't mind," Arthur said, his tone dry.
"Your Pendragon lab rats didn't do their homework."
Arthur's laugh was a short bark. "What do you mean, they didn't do their homework?"
"Look, it's like this. Encryption tech and the math that goes with it changes all the time. There's always a genius out there cracking the last code and putting out the next one. What I'm saying is, the lab rats found the latest code, decided that it was good enough, and shoved it in the box. What they didn't do is find out if someone already cracked it, yeah?"
"And someone cracked it?"
"Obviously," Merlin said, spreading his arms. "All they had to do was a bit of Google Scholar search on the theorem and they would've found the paper I wrote breaking the code."
Arthur slowed down in his march to blink, but he didn't stop walking. "You broke the code. Of course."
"Had to," Merlin said with a grin. "I couldn't exactly graduate without thrashing my supervisor's work, could I?"
"Yeah, Professor Geoffrey Monmouth. The code in the comm system was named after him."
Arthur stared at him now, his expression blank for a fraction of a second before he burst out in laughter. "Geoffrey was your supervisor?"
"Why is that funny?" Merlin clued in on the familiarity and asked, "Wait. Do you know him?"
"He consults for Pendragon."
Merlin's frown faded and he snorted back his own laugh. "I bet he didn't expect me to be on the other end of the test run, yeah?"
Arthur gave Merlin a grin that was almost friendly, but it faded in a few steps when they arrived at the command tent. Major Kilgarrah's aide guided them to a partitioned room with frosted glass walls and embedded copper to foil wiretaps and distance surveillance. The door was shut behind them, and there was an ominous click.
They were the last to arrive.
Arthur entered the room first, bowing his head in a polite salute as he removed his cap. Merlin was a step behind and to his right, his hands clasped behind his back. They were both at attention, though they hadn't received anything other than a cursory glance from the people in the room.
Merlin, next to him, seemed to stiffen uncomfortably. Arthur was peripherally aware of Merlin's sidelong glance in his direction and wondered what that was about. He'd have to ask later; this wasn't the time.
Major Kilgarrah, Colonel Mandrake, and General Stephen MacNeil -- the man who was in direct charge of covert missions -- were representing for the UK along with a support staff of two additional analysts in uniform. MacNeil was a no-nonsense sort who operated on facts and details, and made decisions based on gut instincts. Mandrake operated operations under his command, so it made sense for him to be here. And The Dragon... The Dragon was there because he wanted to be. Arthur doubted anyone ever said no to him.
For the Americans, there were three men and one woman. They were all dressed in what Arthur had dubbed the CIA uniform: pressed black pants, long-sleeved button-down shirts, and designer-grade Kevlar vests that matched their outfits. They were armed and didn't look as if they had been remotely inclined to remove their weapons even in allied company, and there were two Toughbook computers on the table in front of them, the screens angled downward so that no one would be able to see what they had.
The woman's gaze lingered on them the longest before they returned their attention to the middle of the three thinscreen monitors on the far wall. The monitor on the left had satellite images of the war game city; the monitor on the right had a close-up of the main combat areas on satellite, while the middle monitor followed a virtual representation of the action. Arthur needed only a moment to see that they were on the tail-end of the mission, but it was always nice to watch his team corner Valiant's men exactly according to plan.
"I've seen enough," one of the Americans said. He shifted in his seat. He had short brown hair, a square face, and a boxer's nose. His body didn't fit in his chair -- the chair fit him. He swivelled it around to look at Arthur and Merlin with an unreadable but appraising expression. The man to his left opened his Toughbook and started typing. The man on his right didn't bother to acknowledge their arrival, and once again, the woman -- blond with washed-out blue eyes -- turned to watch them. Her lips curled in a smile, and Arthur ignored her.
Mandrake turned off the video and The Dragon gestured in their direction. "At ease, gentlemen. Sit."
"Sirs." Arthur stepped forward and took a seat; Merlin sat down next to him.
"Captain Arthur Pendragon and Lieutenant Merlin Emrys," The Dragon continued, introducing the two before pointing a finger at each of the Americans. "Robert Daly, William Aulfric, David Baker and Sophia Lee."
If one went by body language alone, the man in the middle -- Robert Daly -- was the man in charge, William Aulfric was the second in command, while David Baker and Sophia Lee were analysts. There were no ranks or titles, which meant that they were definitely CIA agents -- or some subsidiary thereof -- but the way Daly carried himself made Arthur think he might also be former-military.
"I have some questions about this... you called it a war game?" Daly asked, raising a brow at Colonel Mandrake with a dismissive gesture to Major Kilgarrah.
Arthur bit down on his smirk. That was the man's first mistake, dismissing The Dragon.
"Yes. A war game. A situation of training preparedness for tactics and equipment testing. Something I’m certain you're familiar with, given that you've copied your Special Forces training from SAS approaches," MacNeil said. There was the tiniest amount of bitterness in his voice that Arthur could understand -- the American Special Forces got all the glory and the attention. As far as Arthur was concerned, however, they could have it. SAS teams operated under cloak of secrecy, the identity of the members a closely-guarded secret.
Daly ignored the barb and gestured toward Arthur and Merlin. "I'm going to address them directly."
"Be my guest," MacNeil said, in a tone that implied do your worst with confidence that they wouldn't be able to get much damage out of whatever charge they were about to launch.
"How much information did you receive beforehand of the war game mission?"
Arthur glanced at MacNeil, who nodded, before answering. "We were invited to the weapons demonstrations from the consulting companies, where we received the usual public marketing spiel for the newest technology. We were present during the questions and were able to ask questions of her own. We were also invited to handle the hardware. The only exception was for the communications system. Lieutenant Emrys was asked to refrain from asking questions of his own on, and was not permitted to handle the equipment."
"And the mission itself?"
"A ten minute briefing sketching out the mission goals and expected opposition before a fifteen-minute scrabble to get to the chopper, with my men informed on the way."
"How much planning did you put into it?"
"The length of the chopper flight," Arthur said. He wasn't going to count the pre-planning time or the past experiences against Valiant's teams. The trip to the war game site had taken a little over an hour, taking them well into secure territory where they could operate in training mode.
"One hour and nineteen minutes," offered Baker, not looking up from his Toughbook.
"And your success was dependent on what factors?"
"Our ability to improvise, my team's trust in one another," Arthur said, sitting up a little straighter. "And, of course, the superior skills and tactics of my men."
"They cheated," Aulfric pointed out. "The Pendragon men, I mean."
"The enemy always cheats," Arthur said after a moment's pause. He wasn't going to rise to the bait Aulfric dangled -- a reason to dismiss anything related to his father's company. "We might plan an approach based on the information we have before we go in, but the on-site intel alters those plans or scraps them entirely."
There was a slight pause as Aulfric and Daly consulted, and Daly leaned back to ask, "How did you break the encryption of a system you weren't previously familiar with?"
Arthur didn't glance at Merlin, but he was trying to will into the other man, don't be an idiot. Don't tell them about the Crack Box even though they might already know about it. Merlin straightened slightly in his seat and there was a pause where he checked with his superior officers before answering.
"I pushed the right buttons," Merlin said.
Daly quirked a brow and scowled like a man who wasn't accustomed to getting roundabout answers. "And how did you know to push those buttons?"
"It's what I'm trained for."
"I'm going to need more detail than that," Daly said.
Arthur nearly bit through his tongue to keep from laughing at the way Daly's mouth tightened, as Aulfric turned a lovely shade of purple, and as Sophia shot disapproving glances in Merlin's direction while simultaneously pouting and sending imploring do something about him looks at Arthur. The only person who didn't react was the other analyst, Baker.
"Excuse me?" Daly's voice was positively frosty, but it was Aulfric who was giving Merlin an intimidating stare.
Arthur shifted his body slightly, shielding Merlin. He met Aulfric's gaze steadily, neither one of them backing off.
The General stepped in. "What Lieutenant Emrys is trying to say is that he isn't authorized to share this information with you. However, the methods used to disable and extricate information from a communications system isn't the point of this meeting, Robert."
There was a shift of body language and suddenly Daly was friendly again. "No. Of course not. We're here to discuss the loan of team Excalibur --"
"Not a loan," Major Kilgarrah said, his voice gruff.
Daly continued as if he hadn't been interrupted. "-- to assist in securing several high-value targets."
MacNeil leaned forward on his elbows. "I've made this clear to you before, Robert. We're not loaning you squat. Captain Pendragon and his men will remain under our command under the direction of Colonel Mandrake and Major Kilgarrah. Any mission that you have for them will be vetted by me, first, and if I hear that you're holding back information, I'll be cancelling this whole ridiculous venture."
"Stephen..." Daly smiled a sickly-sweet smile that made Arthur's stomach recoil in disgust even though he wasn't on the receiving end.
"Robert. You came to us. Granted, the mission was a wash because we weren't given all the information --"
"You know we couldn't --"
"And let's pretend for a minute that you're about to give me the line about not having all the information at the time and that I believe you. But you're back, and you've come back hat-in-hand. That tells me one thing. Do you want to know what that is?"
No one from the American's side of the table said anything. They sat back in their seats, looking sour and petulant.
"You've sent your own men -- your best-rated men -- against these targets. I don't know how often you did it, but each mission ended up being a cock-up each time. Your own boys aren't giving you any more muscle until you come up with a way to get them. Is that right?"
Daly leaned back and scoffed, but Aulfric's vacuum-sealed tightly-pressed lips gave away the answer.
MacNeil paused, leaning forward, elbows on the table, big hands like boxers' gloves clasped together over the table. "Well?"
Daly breathed out heavily -- it might have been a sigh, if it wasn't so full of aggravation -- and twisted in his chair, pointing a finger in Arthur and Merlin's direction. "What I want to know is how in the hell does your bunch get within fifty feet of these guys and survive the encounter?"
"It certainly couldn't be because they were properly prepared with all the information at their disposal," Colonel Mandrake said, his tone so dry that the humidity rating in the whole desert dropped several degrees.
The tension in the room ratcheted up to a level that was at least ten times as thick as when Owain disabled a bomb with nothing but a paperclip, nail cutters, and Arthur's pair of sunglasses. Arthur had the feeling that any minute now, the debriefing was bound to escalate to an all-out shouting match where everyone drew their guns and shot each other. He resisted the urge to move his chair back and to take Merlin along with him.
Daly's chair squeaked, and he twisted his body away. "David."
Baker connected one of the lines on the table to his Toughbook and turned the wall-mounted thinscreen monitors on. Daly started speaking even as an image appeared on the first screen.
"From the descriptions on the copies of the reports Excalibur's team filed, the two men that you encountered on the main street of the abandoned village, then again on the outskirts is this man."
Arthur studied the grainy photograph, but he didn't recognize the man. The slight bump of Merlin's knee against Arthur's leg -- enough to send a betraying chill up Arthur's spine -- was all he needed to know that this was one of the men his team had faced off against.
"His name is Jonathan Aredian. He's a freelance mercenary whose latest allegiances appear to be with a faction of the rebels that even the rebels steer clear of."
"Zealots?" Mandrake asked.
There was a pause, and then, finally, "No. He's South African by birth, but he's been seen all across the Eastern Union, most of Europe, and South America. He's dealt in exotic weapons, drugs, slavery, you name it, he's done it, and we're about ten years behind collecting evidence against him. His most recent career highlights include interrogation, torture, and the collection of information on new technology -- particularly battlefield technology. Lately, he's been observed using weapons of such an advanced design that our own weaponry is unable to circumvent."
"Like a force field," Sophia volunteered, and gave Arthur a big smile that didn't even waver when Daly glanced over his shoulder to glare at her.
"We've been trying to get our hands on his technology for some time now. We can't figure out who's supplying most of his gear -- the Chinese, the Russians, the Koreans. Either way, if his gear gets into mainstream usage, we're well and truly screwed.
"David," Daly said, and a second image appeared on the screen. It was of a scraggly-haired, stoop-shouldered little Igor of a man in a photograph from a zoomed-in telephoto photograph. "This man has several aliases, but the only one that seems to stick is The Jester. Like The Jackal, but a lot uglier, a lot less threatening, and a lot more visible. He likes the camera, he likes attention, and there's hell to pay if people ignore him. He's been in Aredian's company for the last eight months, also using some of the same technology."
He snapped his finger over his shoulder, and Baker added a third image to the third monitor. This one was of a young man in his teens, with long straight black hair tucked behind his ears, the bangs falling into his eyes, and those eyes were empty and hollow and crayon blue. There was no expression on his face, his mouth was set in a line, and there was a crease in the middle of his brows.
Arthur startled when he realized it was a school picture. He was even wearing an uniform.
The picture changed and became one much more recent, showing a man with the same flat, empty expression, looking to be only a few years younger than Merlin.
"This is Mordred ap Aneurin, lately of Wales, once upon a time a good student, nowadays a suspected weapons dealer and designer. He disappeared one day after school. It was suspected a kidnapping, but there were never any ransom demands, and the local police found video of Mordred walking off and getting on one of those tourist two-deckers of yours. No trace of him until recently. We believe he's the one supplying Aredian with his weapons, but we're not sure who's bankrolling Mordred's research."
Daly took a breath. "Mordred was the target you missed. His truck must have been shielded."
"Would have been nice to have known that," Arthur said, but he didn't add that Gwaine's armour-piercers hadn't done squat anyway. He pointed at the lower right of the screen, where a third photograph had appeared with a blow-up of an engraving on what appeared to be a heat-twisted and scorched piece of metal. "What does that say?"
"It's a bit of recovered weaponry from an attack site we attribute to Mordred's people. We think it's code --"
"Am gwymp hen y chwardd ieuanc." Merlin said, his voice quiet. Arthur turned to look at him, but everyone's eyes were on Merlin in the next instant, and he pressed his lips together, falling silent until Arthur raised a slight brow to tell him he might as well continue. Merlin sat up a little straighter. "It's Welsh. It means the young laugh when the old fall."
"So the kid's mocking us?" Aulfric asked.
It was Arthur's knee that nudged Merlin into silence, and Merlin shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "It's just a proverb."
"Yes, well," Daly said, twisting his chair around to look at the screen before tapping Baker's Toughbook. The images disappeared from the screens, which blinked off. Daly took a deep breath and turned back to the Brass. "Because the last mission was botched --"
"And whose fault was that?" Major Kilgarrah muttered.
"-- we've lost them for a while. If Aredian holds to his usual pattern, he'll drop off the radar for a month, and it's anybody's guess when Mordred will resurface. We might have better luck luring The Jester out. He likes his girls, and he likes his drink."
"And once you find them?" Colonel Mandrake asked.
Although Daly was facing the Brass, he pointed a finger toward Arthur and Merlin. "That's when they come in.
"We've had thirty men on Aredian. We lost half of them. Half of the men who survived are still in the hospital. The rest..." Daly shook his head. "Four of your men faced down not only Aredian, but him and the Jester both, and they walked away. Aulfric's boys had all the intel we could give them. You had the bare minimum.
"Something tells me that if we give you as much as we can, we might have a fighting chance in catching one of them," Daly said. "At least, that's the goal. What do you say?"
The only change in General MacNeil's expression was a slight curl at the corner of his mouth, and it wasn't a smile. One long minute passed before he spoke. "Call when you have a location. Then we'll see."
It was a dismissal if Arthur had ever heard one, but several minutes of back-and-forth negotiation that ended with MacNeil repeating we'll see three more times passed before the Americans packed up their gear and left. Sophia made a point of putting a hand on Arthur's shoulder, smiling brilliantly, and telling him that, "I hope we'll be working together soon."
She shook his hand, leaving a piece of paper in his palm that he found had a telephone number in it. Arthur sighed.
Sorry, ma'am. I'm gay.
He caught an amused smirk from Merlin as he crumpled it up, and shrugged, offering it to him. Merlin half-laughed, and said, "Oh, no. Thanks. She'd probably dip me in chippy deep-fry and have me for a snack."
"You and me both," Arthur said.
There was a bit of whispering on the other side of the table, and the General rapped a knuckle on the surface to get their attention. "Well, now, not much that we can do until we hear back from them again -- if we hear back. I trust you two will keep this to yourselves."
"Of course, sir," Arthur said.
"In that case, I understand that you've got some R&R coming your way. Take it easy on the ale, and try and keep up your PT."
"Yes sir. Thank you, sir." Arthur and Merlin both stood up at the same time, saluting. Before they could turn around and walk away, there was another knock on the table.
"Just one thing, Lieutenant Emrys," Colonel Mandrake said. "That proverb? It looked like you've heard it before."
"It's a proverb, sir. Of course I have," Merlin said, casting an unsure glance in Arthur's direction.
"Merlin," Arthur whispered, his voice harsh. Merlin flinched.
"It could be nothing, sir," Merlin said, glancing between Arthur and the Brass. "When I was in school, I heard that phrase passed it around a lot. It was usually the toffs saying it, though, and usually along with something called a new world order. Nobody ever paid them any mind. I mean, they never showed up for classes and always got expelled."
Merlin gestured at the black screens. "This Mordred guy looks like he's about the right age to have been in school at about the same time as me. I don't think he went to my school, but maybe the world order thing jumped around."
MacNeil glanced back at one of the analysts. "Run a check on that, would you?"
"Yes, sir," the woman said.
"Dismissed, gentlemen," MacNeil said. Arthur and Merlin saluted again and left.
Neither of them spoke until they were nearly back to the Motor Pool to give the team the good and bad news -- R&R was still on, but they'd have to keep up their training in the meantime, and if the Americans got wind of the bad guys while they were away, the R&R might get cancelled at a moment's notice. And Arthur... Arthur had some thinking to do. Some planning and some tactics.
He sighed inwardly. His R&R was going to be a whole lot of work.
"Merlin?" Arthur took Merlin's arm at the same time, and they both stopped and stared at each other. Arthur could see his own thoughts reflected back at him in Merlin's expression, with an added weight of concern that faded with effort. Even though Merlin was the only other person on the team with the right security clearance, something told Arthur that even if Merlin didn't have it, he would be the only person who could help Arthur sort out what needed to be done.
But he didn't want to think about it right now.
"I never asked. What are your plans for R&R?"
All the concerns -- even the fear -- in Merlin's eyes faded in a quiet, startled "Oh" and the softening of his eyes when he smiled. "Oh. Well, I called my Mum, and it's bad timing, really. She's going on a motor tour trip around Italy with some of her mates, but she said she'd take an earlier flight to London and stay with my Uncle, so at the very least I'll get to see her off when our plane lands."
"That's... Yeah, that's bad luck, mate," Arthur said, and suddenly, he couldn't hear over the pounding in his ears. "No other plans then?"
"Was going to visit a mate, but that's about it. My Uncle says I can stay with him."
"Why don't you stay at mine?" Arthur asked, the words out of his mouth before he could stop them. "I've got plenty of room, and the team, they all live around the same area. We can keep up with the training, make sure we don't lose touch in case we get called back, and..."
He stammered to a stop when he saw Merlin's big smile.
"That would be brilliant. Are you sure? I mean, I won't cramp your style or anything?"
"Yeah, I'm sure," Arthur said, because, clearly, a different body part had taken over control of his mouth, and it didn't seem to understand how much of a bad idea it was. "And you can't cramp my style more than you already do."