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The Jester

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It took two weeks, one day, six hours, five minutes and however many seconds for the team to show the first signs of revolt to the new training regime Arthur had implemented once they returned on base.

Gwaine cracked first -- he always did. After a particularly long rucksack training run with a double load, Gwaine dropped his pack at Arthur's feet, bent over with hands on his thighs, and gasped for breath. When he had enough air in his lungs to talk, he clamped a hand on Arthur's shoulder, his fingers digging in painfully, and hissed, "You had a single, beautiful, perfectly shaggable man in your flat for two weeks, Arthur. Two weeks! It's your own damn fault if you didn't take advantage of it. Don't take your sexual frustrations out on us!"

"Shut up, Gwaine," Arthur warned, just as out of breath as the rest of them, casting a glance around to make sure that no one had overheard (especially Merlin), because although there was no rule against it in the army, not anymore, he preferred to keep his sexual orientation a secret. There were fewer complications that way.

He couldn't help the way his eyes trailed toward the end of the line where Merlin was just crawling into view, slower than the rest of the team for the single and sole reason that Arthur was making him run with a triple load. Merlin had argued against it, and Arthur pointed out that Merlin carried more weight than everyone else, stone for stone, except possibly Perceval, and how, exactly, was Merlin supposed to build up strength if he was slacking off in the first place?

It was Owain who cracked second, and he waited five days, two hours, thirty-seven minutes after Gwaine's initial breakdown. It was during a night patrol after a double shift on less than six hours of sleep in the last three days combined, with everyone surviving on the last of their rations, on whatever ammunition and gear they'd left the base with, and in the balls-up crackling desert cold that left knuckles too frozen to bend and fog-mirages raising from the sand and exhaustion. The team had answered another squad's request for an explosives specialist to disable a backyard variation of a bouncing betty.

"I can't bloody well feel my fingers, Arthur!"

"I've seen you disable a bomb with your teeth," Arthur retorted.

"My teeth never chattered this much! It's colder than a witch's tit!"

"Get on with it already, O!" Arthur yelled, glancing at his watch from a safe distance away. He had to blink several times before the ice crystals on his eyelashes melted enough to make out the dials -- never mind try to see straight. He was operating on even less sleep than everyone else except possibly Merlin, who'd been staying up late whenever he could repairing his Box, reading technical material, and interpreting intercepted messages. "What's taking you so long? You're usually done by now!"

There was a brief silence, and finally, Owain shouted, "Arthur!"

"What?"

"ARTHUR!"

"WHAT?"

"Do you see what I'm holding up?"

Arthur risked a glance around the bend and saw Owain holding up two fingers in a rude gesture.

When Arthur burst into the barracks seven days, six hours, forty-five minutes later, barking get-up-and-go orders for another patrol, he received a loud-and-clear warning when Lance -- who never complained if he could help it -- whimpered and was the last one out of the barracks.

Two days, some random hour, some assorted minutes later -- Arthur was having trouble keeping time, because he was operating on fumes -- an announcement for a third round of PT that day was greeted with a collective, complaining moan. Even Leon twitched.

The only person in the team who didn't complain about the increased training regime, the doubled-up missions, the activities that Arthur assigned to everyone to keep them on their toes was Merlin, and that was because Merlin understood. The rest of Excalibur hadn't seen the video footage of very strange, very magic things being done that was in the illicit digital file that he'd received from Olaf when they were on R&R. The rest of Excalibur hadn't met with a secret agent -- never mind a secret double-agent -- who turned out to have magic and was intent on using Arthur as some sort of sacrifice on the altar of the NWO in order to get full membership. The rest of Excalibur didn't know about the NWO.

Since that night, Arthur had studied like he'd never studied before -- made all the harder when he didn't really know what he was studying for. He'd raided the local library shelves for every book on the occult ("They're all crap," Merlin had said. "What do you propose I read, then?" Arthur had asked, and Merlin returned the next day from his uncle's with a children's book about druids, a dog-eared copy of the Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were, and a history book about witchcraft in England.). He'd interrogated Merlin. He'd even dropped by to meet Merlin's mysterious Uncle Gaius himself, only to catch them loading strange equipment in the back of a car ("On our way to, um. Deliver this to. Um. One of Uncle Gaius' clients. He just fixed it," Merlin had said. "Let me help, then, it looks heavy," Arthur had offered, only to be put off by a hasty, "No, no, don't get your fancy clothes dirty, princess!").

Other than an annoyed text from Olaf that said, Lovely mess you left me, Arthur. You really should visit more often, Arthur hadn't seen or spoken to the MI-5 agent, which meant that that well of information had run temporarily dry while Olaf doused whatever fires needed dousing.

In the end, however, Arthur had come up with several strategies against magic. There were several flaws that he could exploit. Magic needed time to work; magic needed incantations and spellwork; magic was useful at a distance, before their opponents got close enough. The trick would be in evasive manoeuvres, in employing distraction tactics, even in borrowing from guerrilla approaches.

Arthur had all these plans, and absolutely no guarantee that they would work. Every time he had gone to Merlin to propose a new plan, Merlin would hesitate, frown a lot, sigh a little, and finally admit, "It's got potential."

"I don't see you coming up with anything," Arthur had snapped, more in frustration than anything else, because he knew damn well what Merlin wanted to say but was afraid to say out loud.

You need magic to fight magic.

And where, exactly, was Arthur supposed to find magic, if there was even magic that he could trust in the first place?

The most obvious sign of Team Excalibur's revolt came four days and whatever hours later, when Arthur ducked into the barracks to announce a surprise training session to interrupt the brief few hours of time-off and found only Merlin, sitting on his cot, his shoulders rounded, his chin tucked into his chest. Arthur frowned and walked down the rows. "Where's everyone?"

Merlin's muted shriek of surprise was made all the more girlish by the way he nearly dropped whatever was in his hands, and how he scrambled to catch and simultaneously hide it from Arthur. He pressed it to his chest, glanced over his shoulder with wide I'm guilty of something and I hope you're not going to ask what blue eyes, and said, "Oh, um. They said that they're on strike or something. It's all in the note."

"What note?" Arthur spotted a piece of paper on his otherwise-pristine desk, and went over to read it.

When you're done being a giant pillock, you can come apologize to us. We're in the canteen.

There was a postscript: And don't take it out on Merlin. He had nothing to do with the walkout.

"Gwaine," Arthur growled.

"Actually, it was Leon who wrote it," Merlin said.

Arthur crumpled the note in his hand with a twinge of annoyance, and watched Merlin try to very subtly put away the tablet and failing. "Why aren't you with them?"

Merlin froze, pressing the tablet against his chest a second time. He folded his arms over it and stared down at the creases in an otherwise near-perfect military-made bed. "Because I know why you're doing this," he said quietly.

Arthur rubbed his face with his free hand and wavered on his feet, feeling every last bit of exhaustion hit him right then and there. He'd been training his team hard, and he'd been right with them every step of the way. If the dull ache in his muscles and the complete tired of his bones was any hint of how his team was feeling, Arthur was surprised that they hadn't mutinied a long time ago.

"I'm starting to wonder," Arthur muttered, shaking his head. He knew why he was doing it -- the only way he could be assured that his team would survive future encounters was if they were in prime state of readiness. It was the other why that he wasn't sure about.

When he looked up, he saw Merlin watching at him, the tablet vanished somewhere -- under his pillow, most likely, which was where Merlin hid nearly everything else. There was that look in his eyes, that uncanny way he had to look at Arthur, without guile, full of trust, and completely, absolutely knowing exactly what was on Arthur's mind. "It's real."

"Of course it is," Arthur said, clipping his words with impatience. He'd seen evidence of it -- the strange creature in the dust storm in the Ravines; the meteorological non-event that blacked out the satellites on the sniper mission that returned his team in completely shattered shape after encountering an enemy with capabilities beyond their understanding; the video of the Jester doing magic in a crowd full of people; the video of the American Special Forces team going against that same magic; and, finally, feeling it for himself. Of course magic was real. He'd seen the evidence of it.

And somehow, hearing Merlin confirm the reality kept Arthur from thinking that he was going insane.

"We can't keep doing this," Merlin said, waving a hand toward the rest of the barracks. Arthur knew what he meant. The long hours training, pulling extra patrols, pushing his men as hard as he could so that they would be hardened and ready for anything.

"We aren't doing anything, Merlin. I'm the one setting the schedule."

"That's not what I mean," Merlin said, standing up with the sort of boneless grace that he exhibited only every once in a blue moon, which was often enough as far as Arthur was concerned, because when Merlin moved like that, like a cat stretching languid in a warm beam of sunlight, Arthur's thoughts were completely derailed, and he was left floundering.

"What do you mean, then, Merlin? Because, you know, as far as I can tell, neither one of us can read minds. Out with it."

Merlin grit his teeth, lowered his chin and shook his head in the sort of gesture that Arthur had seen on him more and more often lately, except he wasn't sure what it meant. "We have to tell them."

"Brilliant, Merlin." Arthur had come to that conclusion a long time ago, but telling the team brought with it its own slew of problems, the least of which included the security clearance issue. "Since you're showing a spark today, how about you tell me how --"

"You don't have to tell them anything that they're not supposed to know," Merlin said, closing the distance between them with a few short strides. "Show them the videos. Those aren't restricted, are they? You got them from..."

Merlin made a slight hand-wave gesture in the air.

Arthur had considered the videos. They were still on his laptop. "Merlin --"

"Look, we've got to do it. Aren't you the one who always says that we're a team? That we work best when we act like one? And this is new. This is serious and it's new. We don't know what we're doing going in, do we? We're blind as bats except for what we know about those others and what we've seen on the vid," Merlin said, hesitating a little before pressing forward. "I wasn't by myself that day, you know. Gwaine was there. Owain and Perce. You don't think they don't talk about it? That they don't wonder what they could've done to beat them? That they haven't already come up with a plan or two on their own if it happened again? And maybe the others will have ideas that we didn't have?"

Arthur held his breath and stared up at the fabric ceiling of the barracks.

"Arthur --"

"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur said, turning away -- but he wasn't quick enough to avoid seeing the hurt look on Merlin's face. He glanced down at the crumpled piece of paper in his hand and swallowed a sigh. "You're right."

"I am?" He sounded genuinely surprised and delighted.

"Don't let it go to your head," Arthur growled. "I've known that I'm needing to tell the team for weeks now."

"Right. Yeah," Merlin said, and when Arthur glanced at him, Merlin had that wide, broad grin plastered on his face, all sharp cheekbones under eyes that shone like jewels, that smile of his that shouted from the rooftops that he thought Arthur was doing something that was absolute aces.

It made Arthur feel at once impossibly warm and absolutely desperate not to ever let Merlin down.

"Well, what are you waiting for? Go and get them," Arthur said, waving a hand in the air. He didn't move until he heard the door to the barracks clang closed.

Letting Merlin stay with Arthur during R&R had been such a bad idea. God help him, but Arthur hated what Merlin's smile did to him because he couldn't do anything about it. He was an idiot, and he knew it. He'd wasted a prime opportunity twice so far -- first back in London, then again at right this moment. The team was at the canteen for however long it took them to drink themselves into forgetting what Arthur had been putting them through. Arthur had the barracks and Merlin to himself, but he'd gone and sent Merlin out after them.

Fuck.

After a moment of feeling sorry for himself, Arthur quickly ran through what he would tell the others when they returned -- if Merlin could convince them to return. He'd practiced the speech a few weeks ago, back when Galahad had risked life and limb to throw his pillow at Arthur at 3 AM when Arthur tried to wake them up for a very early-morning run.

Merlin was the only one who had gone running with him then. Not like the rest of the wankers who'd buried their heads under their blankets and ignored him.

Arthur retrieved his laptop, cracked it open, and pushed the power button, leaving it on one of the beds in the middle of the room, figuring that they'd gather around somewhere in the center of the barracks to watch the videos while someone -- probably Merlin, because Merlin had seen them before -- kept an eye on the door.

He sat on Merlin's bed, still warm where Merlin had laid down on it, and watched the laptop load.

Peeking at him from under the pillow was the tablet that Merlin had hastily put away when Arthur came in.

An utility vehicle rumbled by on the main road some fifty metres from Excalibur's barracks. There were voices and distant laughter. The usual bustle of early evening activity was starting to settle.

Arthur reached under the pillow and took out the tablet.

The screen was dimmed as if it was about to go on standby, and Arthur hastily tapped the screen before the tablet locked up. He had no illusions that he would ever be able to crack one of Merlin's devices -- it seemed as if the only way Arthur had a chance to look at what Merlin was doing, it would be if he were able to grab it before Merlin could lock it up properly, and that hardly ever happened.

The first thing that Arthur noticed was that this wasn't Merlin's usual tablet, the one that he used to sketch schematics of one sort or another of things that looked complicated and strange, with arrows and straight lines and triangles and squares that meant absolutely nothing to Arthur, now, but which he remembered from school to be some sort of electrical outline. It wasn't the usual tablet, because it didn't have all the programs that Merlin used -- most of which Merlin had written himself -- that Arthur knew he used to write code, to crack it, or to play games. No, this tablet was fairly simple in comparison to what Merlin usually had in his hands.

Still, Arthur knew that it belonged to Merlin, because the text on the screen was as incomprehensible as anything that Merlin had ever drawn or written, but it wasn't his handwriting. If anything, it was elegant, cursive, with calligraphy that made him think of the Middle Ages and border drawings that were works of art all on their own.

No matter how much Arthur squinted at the screen, he couldn't read it. Some time passed before he realized that it wasn't English. It wasn't even any of the other languages that he had a passing knowledge of by virtue of the SAS training -- every member of the team was fluent in at least one other language, and Arthur was fluent in several others beyond the Queen's English. He frowned, trying to remember what language Merlin knew that the text could be in and came up empty.

He flipped the pages. There were detailed drawings of plants, with arrows and notations on each part. There was a sketch of an unicorn and a bit of text that had been bolded, as if someone had drawn over the original letters over and over again, thickening it until it couldn't be missed. There were other images, too, of canticles and circles and squiggles that might even be alchemical and --

Arthur paused, flipping the page back. He'd seen those images before, in the books that Merlin had shown him from his uncle.

Why would Merlin hide the tablet, much less the e-book? Never mind that Arthur couldn't read it in the first place, but wasn't Merlin the one who'd been teaching Arthur about magic? What was there to hide?

Arthur frowned.

He flipped through more of the e-book, going back several times, not wanting to stray too far from the page that Merlin had left it on, but he wasn't any closer to deciphering the contents or coming up with an answer for Merlin's hasty attempt to hide it when Arthur burst into the barracks. Maybe he hadn't expected Arthur. Maybe he didn't want anyone to ask questions about the tablet. Maybe he'd been startled.

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

Startled or not, Merlin had seen that it had been Arthur who burst through the door in the first place. Instead of relaxing in the knowledge that their research into magic was a secret they both shared, Merlin had tensed up even more.

Arthur heaved a breath and shook his head. Trying to figure out Merlin sometimes...

Voices approached the barracks -- recognizable, loud voices, with Gwaine's in the forefront, laughing at his own joke while the others begged him to tone it down. Hastily, Arthur flipped the e-book back to roughly where it was, hoping that if he left it on the wrong page, Merlin would chalk it up to his earlier attempt to hide it, and slid it back under the bed. He hurried over to where he'd left his laptop, entered his password, and was loading Olaf's file to the right spot just as his team entered.

They filed in one by one, but none of them went to their bunks. Leon was pushed forward as the token spokesman for the group, and Arthur bit back a smirk when he saw Leon shake his head and shrug helplessly. Of anyone in the group, Leon would understand if Arthur was pushing the team hard, that there were some things he couldn't tell them. At the same time, it was hard not to get caught up with the others when they started bitching like old women.

It was Gwaine who broke the silence. "Merlin, you said he'd apologize."

"I said no such thing!" Merlin said, from somewhere in the back of the group, indignant. "I said that if he sent me to fetch you, then he wouldn't have to apologize --"

"When has he ever apologized for anything?" Perceval asked.

"Oh, sod this. I left a perfectly good beer --" Owain said, but Arthur stood up, leaving the laptop on the bed, and Owain and the rest of them stilled.

Arthur stared them down, one by one, until they lost whatever fight they had left, knowing full well that they were coming dangerously close to getting on Arthur's shit list, because even if they were friends, Arthur was still their commanding officer.

"You girls want an apology?" Arthur asked. "You're going to be disappointed. Sit down."

No one moved. Galahad and Kay exchanged uncertain glances.

"For pity's sake, sit down." One by one, the team moved closer. Lance was the first to sit, Leon taking a spot next to him. Arthur waited until the majority had curled around him, claiming seats with frowns and dubious glances, and gestured to Merlin. "Keep an eye out."

That simple order was like a button being pushed, because the mood shifted from outright rebellion to curiosity.

"This doesn't leave the team. You don't talk about it to anyone else. You don't talk about it if you're not sure you won't be overheard. This is way past your security clearance, and it's my arse, and Merlin's arse, if this gets out."

For once, Gwaine didn't make his usual but they're such nice arses remark.

Arthur looked over the team, seeing each of them nod solemnly before he reached down, started the video and flipped the laptop around.

 

ooOOoo

 

Keeping an eye on the barracks door involved turning away from the others, averting his gaze, and whispering under his breath, securing not only the entrance, but the area leading to the doorway and the few feet around the four walls with a buffer of silence. If anyone breached it, it would ring in Merlin's head at the same volume as if he'd stuck his head under the big bourdon bell in the South tower of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.

No matter how much he tried, Merlin never quite got the volume right in this spell.

Merlin didn't need to watch the videos again. Arthur had replayed them so often, the key scenes were burned in Merlin's brain. The Jester's tricks were nothing in comparison to the way the American Special Forces team were blown apart, and that was the video that Arthur was showing the team first, because it was big and dramatic, even if it was only a few minutes long. One by one, the men at the back stood up and craned their necks for a better look, and there was no small amount of jostling to get closer.

The video was run twice more -- once for the people who hadn't been able to see, and again when Perceval's trembling fingers reached for the laptop, jerkily moving the mouse pointer around until he hit the play button.

There was a long silence -- a silence almost as absolute as the one that Merlin had cast around the barracks. A collectively held breath had sucked all the oxygen in the small space, and when it was broken, bit by bit, by strangled gasps and shaky laughter and scoffing coughs and hyperventilation, there was a moment of doubt, a tiny moment, when Merlin didn't know how the team would react.

In the two weeks of R&R, Merlin had gotten to know each of the members of team Excalibur in a way he never would have known them during active duty. He'd been brought into their lives, had met their families, had seen the close bonds that tied them together no matter how angry they were or how far apart they might end up in the future. He knew that Kay had no family, that he felt just as much an outcast as Merlin, that he clung to Excalibur because he had no one else, and that Excalibur would never let either one of them go. He knew that Lance and Gwen were trying for a family, that Lance didn't want her to go through it alone and wanted to wait, but that Gwen didn't want to wait in case she lost Lance altogether -- though she never would have admitted it to anyone, she'd said, the way she'd admitted it to Merlin.

He knew that Owain's family was proud of him and a little disappointed that he wouldn't be joining the police forces after his tour, that joining the army wasn't a family tradition but that the police was, but that they understood that it was no more different an extended family. He knew that Galahad had run away from home when he was fourteen, and that seeing his family was always a test of his patience and everyone else's. He knew that Geraint wanted to punch Galahad's father in the face, and always dragged Galahad over to stay at his -- where his was with his grandparents, both young, still, because Geraint's mum had him out of wedlock, and that Geraint's grandparents treated Galahad like a second grandson.

He knew that Leon was terrified of proposing to Morgana, that he'd had the ring for years, now, and that Morgana was equally terrified that Leon would propose, but in very Pendragon style, she'd never show fear.

Merlin knew his team, but he didn't know how they would react to knowing that magic was real.

Arthur had surprised him. There had been moments, in the beginning, when Merlin had seen Arthur standing on the proverbial fork in the road, where the left-hand branch was the rough and tattered and beaten path of truth and knowledge, and the right-hand branch was the smooth asphalt ride of denial. Arthur had wavered, taking one step to the right before resolutely plunging left, taking his lumps along the way.

Merlin had never thought he'd see someone accept the concept of magic as readily as Will had -- but Will was Will, and had grown up with Merlin. But Arthur was a close second, because he had to struggle against everything he had ever known, everything he'd ever been taught, to become a victim, himself, before he finally realized that magic was real.

He hadn't wavered since.

Merlin felt ridiculously proud of him. And afraid. He felt as if he'd missed his chance -- a chance in telling Arthur about his own magic. It wasn't that he didn't think that he could trust Arthur -- because he did.

There had been one late night on R&R when Merlin told Arthur quite frankly that while The Witches of Eastwick had some good points about magic, and The Craft was outright amazing and scary, there was no way in hell that he was going to watch Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice or Hocus Pocus without at least half a bottle of tequila in him. Arthur had argued that it was research, and "what would he know about it anyway", and Merlin had stood there, biting his lower lip, wanting to tell Arthur...

And the moment was lost when Arthur popped Suspiria into the player.

Instead, Merlin had said, "I know quite a lot, actually -- enough to know that that isn't research."

"Of course it's not," Arthur had retorted, heading into the kitchen to pull out the electric popcorn popper. "It can't all be work and no play, can it?"

In the quiet that followed the first video, Merlin wondered if he should have tried harder to tell Arthur. But what would Arthur have done then? His only encounter with magic had been bad, and Merlin didn't want Arthur to think that having magic automatically made someone evil. He'd said as much when watching the movies.

"Aren't there any good witches?" Arthur had asked, changing discs for something else.

"I'm sure there are," Merlin had started to say, only to be interrupted when Arthur tossed an empty movie case at him.

"I suppose it wouldn't make good Hollywood flicks if they made movies about good witches," Arthur had mused then, and Merlin could only sit on the couch and bite his lip.

He was biting his lip now, half in anticipation, half in dread, trying to get a feel for how the team was reacting. It seemed split in three -- the majority doubtful, thinking it was special effects; a small handful silent and pale and believing, and the rest of them uncertain.

Perceval was among the believers, just as Owain was, and Gwaine, and it was Perceval who spoke up, loud enough to drown out the scoffs of "photo editing" and "Photoshop" and "CGI".

"My God, we got off lightly, didn't we?"

The barracks was suddenly shut up again, because who among them didn't know how badly the sniper mission had gone? They'd all been mum about it for a while, other than telling Arthur the truth of what happened that they couldn't say at the formal debrief, but it didn't take the team long to wonder why did Gwaine miss the target, because Gwaine never missed, and Perceval, who had led missions before, had a knack of wrapping things up in no time flat, but the four of them had still needed a heli and backup to get out. The story had come out, slowly, in bits and pieces over beers, at quiet late-night sit-ins at the mess hall, while on patrols. People talked, and people listened, and people mocked, but no one asked if Perceval or Owain or Gwaine were taking the piss.

The some of the team had cornered Merlin, once, to ask him about that mission, the spooky mission with weird stuff happening mission, but he'd never spoken to anyone about it. Only Arthur.

The weight of fifteen pairs of eyes were on him suddenly, boring holes through his back, and Merlin turned around warily, tearing his attention from outside the barracks to look at the team, at his team, because he was one of them now, and they were watching him, waiting for confirmation.

Why him? Why not any of the others?

Maybe it was because Gwaine's tall tales were good for the drinking table. Maybe it was because Owain couldn't tell a story without swearing seven times (at least) and always forgot the punch line. Maybe it was because Perceval was too pragmatic, always playing things as less bad than they really were.

Maybe it was because Merlin always called it as it was. Except about that one mission.

Merlin saw Arthur looking at him from the head of the semicircle of barracks beds pulled close together, from the huddle. His arms were crossed over his chest, and he gave Merlin a small, encouraging nod.

He'd thought about it, afterward, when they made it back, after the debrief, after Arthur hunted them down one by one and got the story out of them. He'd thought about it each time the story was trotted out on display, every time Gwaine told it exactly the way it happened because he didn't have the imagination to make it sound worse than it was, every time Owain threw out his hands to show the missile blast, every time Perceval described how he'd been running, and something tripped him and dragged him back.

He'd talked it out with Gaius. He'd stewed on it after the turncoat secret agent nearly killed Arthur. He'd laid in bed after a long conversation with Arthur about magic, staring at the ceiling until the early hours of the morning.

My God, we got off lightly --

Merlin met each and everyone's eyes. Owain. Leon. Lance. Perceval. Kay. Gwaine. Gareth. Galahad.

"That's two teams of twenty American Special Forces against three men. None of them walked away from it," he finally said, looking at Arthur over them all, hoping that Arthur would understand why he'd never said anything before. He was terrified -- not of the magic, but of the people using it. These were modern times -- fifty years ago, no one would dream of some of the depravities of war that were happening now. A hundred years ago? Two hundred? One thousand? Every unfathomable possibility was possible now, and the closest approximation to Merlin's greatest nightmare was a sorcerer who had the sensibilities of Hannibal Lecter and the blood thirst of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge.

"No. We didn't get off lightly. We got off lucky. We saw we couldn't win so we packed up and got out. We had a plan of retreat. We followed it. They didn't know that. They thought they had the advantage." Merlin swallowed hard. "They were playing with us."

"Playing --?" Gwaine looked pale. So did the rest of them. Even Arthur frowned and flinched, but they'd analyzed the videos from every possible direction, and even if neither of them had spelled it out quite as bluntly as Merlin had right then, he knew that Merlin was right.

But he couldn't look at them anymore, at the team, at his friends. He couldn't look at Perceval or Owain or Gwaine or -- or Arthur. He felt as if he'd just betrayed them with his words, because he wasn't telling them everything.

Merlin had tunnelled past the magic-induced storm that hampered Gwaine's efforts to achieve his target. He'd saved Owain from the missile that Aredian had thrown at their transport out. He had fought off Aredian and Trickler, bringing a building down on top of them.

They hadn't been merely lucky. They'd survived because Merlin had been there.

Merlin turned away and stared out the door.

The silence lasted so long, had been so thorough, that Merlin thought for a minute that his magic had gotten out of control the way it had done, once, when he was young, and he'd blanketed the inside of the barracks with the same unnatural quiet that he'd used to create a virtual moat around the building. But he couldn't look back, he didn't dare, in case the others could see it in his face that he'd lied to them.

"So, that's... that's what we've got going for us, then?"

The voice was so soft that Merlin wasn't sure who spoke.

"Seems like," Arthur said, his voice carrying, soft and calm and even.

"Did you know that, before --" Bohrs this time, his tone deep and rumbly, a profound baritone that could shake the firmaments if he was ever inclined to increase his volume.

"No," Arthur said, and his "no" was more firm than Merlin's had been. "The Americans told us that they're using technology --"

"Bollocks --" Gwaine said.

"Technology that's far advanced beyond what we've seen on our side of things, possibly from the Chinese or the Taiwanese or an independent agency," Arthur said.

"And you're putting stock in what the Americans say?"

"Does he have stupid tattooed on his forehead?" Gwaine asked, and Merlin glanced over his shoulder to see Gwaine giving someone else a smack in the back of their head for a change, instead of being on the receiving end. "Obviously he doesn't --"

"What is it, then?" Leon asked, his voice a little on the sharp side, if a little shaky, putting an end to whatever nervous energy was about to rise by asking the question no one wanted to ask.

"Maybe it's aliens," Owain said weakly.

"Are you sniffing your own piss?" Perceval asked. "Aliens?"

"Yeah, like in the movies, you know the one --"

"It's not aliens," Arthur said, and there was a guillotine's edge to his words, complete with blade thunking into wooden block and head rolling off the bench and into the basket.

There was a long enough silence behind him that Merlin dared another long look, and all he could see were rounded shoulders and Galahad trying to see past Perceval's broad shoulders. Arthur had sat down; he had likely loaded up and played the second video.

Merlin could tell what they were seeing on the screen by the sharp intakes of breaths, the small gasps, the long silences. Bohrs muttered under his breath, reading the subtitled dialogue. He went mute a few minutes later.

After it was over, Lance coughed and said, "Again."

Merlin stood by the doorway, shoulder on the frame, for so long that the small of his back ached, but he didn't dare move, not when things went silent after the second showing, not when someone gulped when they watched the end of the third go and read the damning explanation.

Magic.

The orange lights were flickering in the distance, just over the next barracks past theirs, the somnolent glow blurred by sand-heavy wind that would make the barracks doors and window flaps clatter and rustle the instant that Merlin released the spell. He cringed inwardly and wondered if he should relax the magic a little bit before anyone noticed how quiet it was.

"Magic," someone said abruptly, and Merlin froze, wondering if someone had seen what he'd been doing, but when he found the courage to look over his shoulder, he didn't see a single head that wasn't focused on Arthur's laptop, or colluding with whoever was nearest, sharing whispers and concerns and disbelief.

"Magic," Arthur confirmed.

There was another long silence.

"Who thinks I'm off my rocker?" Arthur asked.

No one answered him right away. Minutes trickled past, and it seemed as if no one was going to answer him at all, because they were giving it some serious thought.

Then, finally, Gwaine spoke up, his words slow and at a light drawl. "Well. You've always been a bit special..."

"About this," Arthur clarified, patient in a way that hinted his patience wouldn't last long.

"Not me," Kay said suddenly, standing up slowly, shaking his head. Merlin watched him, a little surprised, because Kay was the last one who would step up first. He was usually last, after he'd analyzed everything nearly as thoroughly as Arthur. Kay's cheeks were flushed now, aware that he had everyone's attention on him, and he shrugged. "You lot know I bounced foster homes until I hit sixteen."

Merlin only learned that during R&R, but he’d also learned that once Kay was sixteen, he’d bounced from couch to guest room to couch, equally adopted by everyone on the team, each of whom took turns keeping an eye on him.

“The last house -- I was there two years before I had to get out. There was a girl there. You know the one, B?” Kay asked. “That goth-looking suicide-seeking bird who was a little off in the head? Well, turns out she wasn’t all that off, because she could make things move without touching them.

“Like that guy,” Kay added, and Merlin saw Kay gesture in the general direction of the rear of the room, where the laptop was.

“She said she was Wiccan. Showed me her books, let me watch when she did these little ritual things. Never spent a dime on hair dye, either. She did that colour-changing trick, too, like that guy.”

Again, another gesture.

“I’ve seen it. I know it’s real.”

There was a pause, and Kay added, "I don't think you're a crackpot, Arthur. Well. Not more than usual."

Wry chuckling spread through the group, and Arthur said, "Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"My grandmam used to do stuff," Bohrs volunteered in the silence that followed. "Old country stuff, she said, that kept the Brownies from destroying her house and the leprechauns from stealing the grandkids away."

"I tried a love potion on a girl, once," Geraint said, and when the others snickered, he added, "I was twelve, all right? Not the brightest back then --"

"Not the brightest now --" Galahad cut in.

"-- and she was gorgeous and fifteen and the wrong girl drank it and she was pimple-faced and straw-haired and had a jaw wired shut and she wouldn't leave me alone for weeks afterward. Staked out my locker, she did, tried to get me alone with her in the yard when the teachers weren't looking --"

"Do you remember where you got that potion?" Gwaine asked. "I mean, not that I need that stuff, but... it sounds interesting --"

"Sod off," Geraint said.

"Does anyone remember that mission in Turkey? In the mountains?" Lance's voice was so quiet, so faraway, that the chuckling and teasing died down and everyone listened to what he had to say. Even Merlin turned around, though he couldn't see Lance because Perceval was in the way. "Gwaine and I went up the ridge, trying to track down a mayday while the rest of you went to secure the site. Arthur was with us but he got called back when some of the rebels started talking. We were -- I don't know, it was close to sundown, and there was a rockfall, and Gwaine and I got split up --"

"I told you to go on ahead, that I'd find another route up," Gwaine said, his voice just as soft, and Merlin could see Gwaine's brow furrowed in a frown, trying to figure out what Lance was getting at.

"Yeah. You got there before me, too."

"Looked a right wreck, you did," Gwaine said. "You slipped and fell, right?"

"No. That's what I said happened. I didn't fall. I was attacked." Lance's voice was shaky, a little rough, full of dread. It took him a while to find the words to continue. "I don't know what it was. Couldn't have been bigger than a goat, but... Didn't look like one at all, though. Kind of like a cross between a cat and a bird. Claws like a tiger, cut me right up. Got its hooked beak in me..."

There was the sound of fabric being rolled up, a rustle so faint that Merlin didn't know what it was until Lance said, "See this scar? That's it. The thing bit me. I..."

"You never said," Perceval grunted.

"You think that I wanted the rest of you to look at me like I'd gone off my meds? How was I going to explain it? That some little thing of a half-cat, half-bird came flying out at me from nowhere, used me as a scratching post, and checked to see if I was edible?"

Griffin, Merlin wanted to say. It sounded like Lance had been stalked by a griffin.

No one said anything for a long time. Then, more and more of the team pitched in stories, half-remembered, out-of-the-corner-of-their-eye anecdotes, some of which were debunked, but most of which couldn't be explained away. Gwaine was mocked; someone threw a pillow at him to get him to shut up about the time they were in transit through Transylvania, because those pretty girls were not vampires (maybe), and no one believed Owain when he claimed that his bombs didn't go off on a mission, not because he'd forgotten the blasting caps, but because some poltergeist had taken them out and put them back in his pack.

Another silence fell on the group before anyone spoke again, and it was Arthur who said, "This is why I've been running you hard. We don't know what we're going against. We don't know how to fight against it."

"Against all the technology, right?" Leon said, raising a brow.

"Yeah. Against all the technology that we'll be going after," Arthur said, but there was no irony in his voice.

"We're going to need a code word," Perceval suggested. "You know. So that we can talk about it and not have people think we're smoking something."

"Let's just call it the tech," Lance suggested, shrugging a shoulder, rubbing something unconsciously on his arm.

Arthur nodded. "Right. So, Merlin and I, we've been trying to figure out how to counter this tech, and we have a few ideas. If you've got any... I want to hear it."

There was a bit of grumbling and muttering among the men as they brainstormed dumb ideas and good ideas, and Arthur raised his chin while he waited for something coherent to come out of the group. Merlin froze when Arthur's eyes rounded on him, relaxing only when Arthur nodded as if to say, was a good idea, talking to them.

The imagined praise was short-lived, however, when Arthur scowled and said, "Merlin, didn't I tell you to keep an eye on the door?"

 

ooOOoo

 

Arthur trusted his men without question. In combat, on the battlefield, in high-stress situations. On the footie field, in the clubs, in a dark alley full of young punks with too much to prove. He trusted them to watch his back, to follow his orders, to do their jobs.

He also trusted them to take the piss out of him.

The conversation about the reality of magic had gone a great deal better than he'd anticipated, but it also revealed how closeted they'd all been. Events that they'd all dismissed as their imagination became more and more frightening when they realized that they had all seen the same thing -- and had been too embarrassed to talk about it afterward.

They'd come out of it sometime past lights-out with ideas on how to handle the different types of magical attacks that they might come across. There wasn't anything that they could do against the plasma-ball that had blown up Owain's transport except to keep an eye out for it and try not to get in its way. Gwaine wondered if the magic shielding was equally effective against bladed weapons or short range weapons or even a good cold punch to the jaw as they were against projectiles -- something that he wanted to test out up close and personal the next time out. Kay suggested wearing charms against magic -- something that might be completely bollocks, though he honestly didn't know, and said he'd call his former foster sister and find out for himself what use they were.

It seemed as if something had changed that night, well into the dark of it, right when everyone drifted away to their own bunks to lay down, though none of them really seemed to go to sleep, because every now and then someone would speak up and ask, "What if..."

To which someone else would snort and say, "You pillock, that won't work because..."

Someone else would object and argue, "That worked perfectly well in Harry Potter!"

And somewhere in there, Gwaine would start laughing, and Owain would shout out, you pansies! and Merlin would turn over on his side and fall very, very quiet, even though he wasn't the one who'd made the Harry Potter reference.

It took until nearly dawn for Arthur to work out what was different now than twelve hours prior. For a group of people as close as they were, who helped each other through every breakdown and every fear, who would always have someone by the bedside if they were stuck in a MASH unit, who would fireman carry anybody else and hump them over however many klicks there were until they were safe, who knew every bloody nasty secret about each other...

They'd gone a step further. Now they were trusting each other with the impossible, with the unknown, with a challenge that was going to push them above and beyond anything they had ever done before. Arthur never had any doubt that his men were up to the task. It was something else, however, to watch them come to the realization that they were up to that task.

Everyone except for Merlin.

Arthur hadn't missed how Merlin retreated to the shadow near the doorway, as he leaned against the doorframe, as his shoulders slumped and his head hung, his expression hidden by the darkness that was falling over the base camp, not even illuminated by a stray beam of artificial light keeping the base in something of a spooky, orange glow. When everyone offered their stories of the weird -- at one point, they were even trying to one-up each other, like they were in the locker rooms at school again, trying to brag about some sort of achievement on the footie field or which one of them had gotten to third base while completely bypassing first and second -- Merlin had kept quiet, pretending he was silent sentry when all he was really doing was listening to everyone else. It wasn't that he didn't have stories. He shared at least one of them with Gwaine and Owain and Perceval. And he'd admitted to Arthur that the reason he wasn't as spooked as the rest of them was because he'd had his share of weird things happen when he was in another unit.

While Gwaine had recounted a tall tale of encountering goblins and gremlins ("They don't even belong in the same mythology!" Kay had yelled, as if he'd suddenly become the team's expert on the supernatural), Arthur had watched a Merlin nearly stooped over with the weight of the world on his shoulders, his long, lean arms crossed over his chest so tightly it looked as if he would pull himself apart.

Even now, in the early hours before dawn, with the team finally dozing off to sleep, Arthur could hear the restless rustle of tossing and turning on the other end of the barracks, in the corner that Merlin had made his own. Slowly, Arthur turned on his side, looking past Leon, past Owain, past everyone else, and he watched the shadows shift while Merlin beat his pillow, as he kicked off his blankets, as he pulled them over his legs again, as he rolled onto his back one moment, then onto his side the next.

There was silence, blessed silence, for all of three seconds before Arthur saw the backlight glow of an e-reader, and he remembered the device that Merlin had shoved under his pillow, the electronic text of a book in a language that Arthur couldn't read, with familiar esoteric symbols.

Still keeping secrets, Merlin?

Arthur closed his eyes eventually, but not until exhaustion chased away the hurt that was keeping him awake.


Arthur was just coming back from Supply after a too-long hour requisitioning new equipment for his team -- he really didn't like paperwork half as much as he pretended to -- and from calling Morgana to ask her to send some select items from Pendragon Consulting's archived armoury that no one would miss anyway when he spotted Merlin dart out of the barracks. He stopped several feet from the door that was bouncing off the slightly-misaligned frame, his expression pale, his lips pressed white, looking completely and utterly gutted. There was an instant, a bare heartbeat moment, where Merlin took a deep, shuddering breath as if he were pulling himself together, and he turned around to walk back into the barracks.

And turned right around again, shaking his head, walking away.

Merlin was too far away for Arthur to catch up to him -- Arthur had yet to figure out how Merlin could run as if he had the very bats of Hell on his heels when he wanted to get out of the line of fire, but couldn't be arsed to do much more beyond dragging his ass on the morning rucksack runs -- and he headed into the barracks to find out what happened to send him out like that. The three G's were there, huddled around a couple of beds, uncharacteristically silent. Gwaine was shooting Bohrs -- laid out on another bed across the way -- a dark look, Kay looked a little ill, and Perceval was standing, his big arms crossed over his chest, frowning in confusion.

"Cold iron, that's what we need," Bohrs was saying, tossing a sand kick-ball up in the air, letting it land flat on his chest. "I'm sure of it. My granddaddy used to talk about it when my grandmam wasn't around. It can kill magic. I'm pretty sure. All we need to do is get some raw iron, hammer ourselves a few machetes, and get close enough to those bastards to slice them up."

"What's this?" Arthur asked.

Bohrs shut up suddenly and sat up, the ball falling on his face. "Just telling them what I remembered from my granddaddy -- you know, they're still old country, still pretty superstitious, and I remember --"

"Did your granddaddy hunt witches?" Arthur asked, his tone flat. "Did he go out and slice them up, like you said? Did he make machetes? Can we get ourselves some?"

Bohrs sat up slowly, almost as pale as Merlin had been, and Arthur wondered for a brief instant if Merlin had run out because he'd been disgusted by Bohrs' rare show of cold-bloodedness, or if he'd run out for another reason entirely. "I didn't mean that, sir."

"Sure sounded like it to me," Arthur said. "What did I say about keeping quiet on this?"

"We're in barracks," Bohrs protested, the words dying in his throat when Arthur raised a brow. He swallowed, and said instead, "You said to keep it to ourselves, because we don't know when someone might be listening."

"Brilliant," Arthur said, losing patience. "Think you can do that? Just for a while, yeah?"

"Yes, sir," Bohrs said, wincing and sounding subdued at the same time.

Arthur turned to Perceval. "Didn't I just see Merlin come out of here? Why didn't he put a stop to the chatter?"

"He tried," Gwaine said. He gestured at Bohrs. "Then balls-up over there said for Merlin to quit mithering like a girl and to start showing some support for the cause. Merlin asked, 'what cause', and himself said, 'eradicating everyone not like the rest of us'."

"I didn't say that," Bohrs protested.

"Said it," Galahad put in, shaking his head.

"Then Merlin asks, 'what's that exactly, then?'," Gwaine said, nearly imitating Merlin perfectly, and to Arthur it sounded with that stone-cold spine that he'd overheard Merlin use to dress-down a pair of technically-impaired corporals the very first time they'd met in the supply tent.

Arthur's eyes narrowed, and he turned to Bohrs. "And you said?"

Bohrs mumbled something incomprehensible.

"'Isn't it obvious? Everyone different'," Geraint supplied helpfully.

Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose. There was one very poorly-kept secret in the team -- Gwaine's liberal sexual views, one secret that was kept secret because they felt guilty about how they'd gotten the secret in the first place -- Merlin's orientation, and one very well-kept secret -- Arthur's preference. At one point or another in their lives, they'd all made tactless remarks about Gwaine and Arthur, remarks that Gwaine took in stride and that Arthur stopped with a solid rap on the back of their heads. They meant nothing by it, and had better mean nothing by it, or Arthur would have nothing more to do with them.

But Merlin hadn't grown up with the team, hadn't been in Excalibur for long, and in some ways, was still getting used to everyone's quirks and foibles. He couldn't possibly know that Bohrs -- like everyone else -- was a well-meaning idiot who really didn't care if the man watching his back happened to like boys.

"How much have you had to drink, B?"

Bohrs' particular quirk and his biggest failing foible, was that he drank when he was scared, and that when he was drunk, the creature driving his body took a sharp detour past his brain and crashed the vehicle right into the Pit of Stupid. Arthur didn't think Bohrs had anything to drink -- he wouldn't dare, not when Arthur had come down hard on the last two who'd broken the rule against alcohol in the barracks.

"I don't think he's snuck some," Gwaine suggested. "I think he's just got his head up his arse. As usual."

"My head up my -- what did I..." Bohrs stuttered, and he stood up with just the slightest trace of unsteadiness, his eyes a little round with slow, dawning realization. "Jesus, Merlin couldn't have thought I were talking about him? Because he knows I don't care about that, yeah?"

"You sure? You willing to cash your bank on it?"

"I'll go find him right now. I'll apologize. I have to tell him that I wasn't talking about him -- definitely weren't, I wouldn't," Bohrs said, stopping short of walking past Arthur because he was a little scared of his Captain, as he well should be.

"I think you've done enough damage right now. Tell him later. Buy him a beer. Offer to be his donkey on the next rucksack," Arthur said firmly. "I'll go talk to him."

There was a sharp rap on the barracks door. Arthur turned and a corporal came in. "Captain Pendragon? You're wanted in command."

"Yeah, I'll be right there," Arthur said, and moved past him.

The corporal flinched a little bit, following Arthur. "I have orders to bring you straight there."

"I'll find Merlin," Perceval volunteered, and Arthur gave him a grateful nod.


Colonel Mandrake looked up from his usual spot behind a technical panel, his arms crossed and his brow furrowed in a disapproving frown as the greenie fumbled through the controls. Mandrake gave Arthur a brief nod before returning his attention to the screen, shifting his stance slightly to look over his shoulder.

While Arthur waited, he glanced around the tent. Mandrake's obvious irritation at the new corporal's nervous ineptitude aside, there had to be a reason why Arthur had been called in. There were no signs of the Americans, or even the suited-up, heavily-jowled, too-thin-for-the-off-the-rack-suit bureaucrat who had accompanied them the very first time Arthur had seen him, but there was a new body in the equipment-cramped area.

He was tall, narrowly built, more like a former marathoner who'd put on more muscle mass in his later years, with rounded shoulders, a solid chest, and the sort of quiet, confident bearing of a man who would brace himself against whatever heavy weight was placed in his arms. He had short brown hair thoroughly laced with grey with a groomed goatee to match, the severe expression of someone who rarely smiled and showed his emotion only in his eyes.

They made contact -- blue eyes to grey, and the other man raised a brow, slight and faint and unnoticeable.

The man's face was familiar, but the name wouldn't be. For now, Arthur kept his mouth shut.

Arthur turned away with casual non-recognition and the concern of a Captain for a potential unauthorized person in a restricted area.

"No, that's enough," Mandrake said finally, clamping a hand on the greenie in front of him. The young corporal flinched, his hands pausing a bare millimetre from the controls, and froze like a deer in the headlights, awaiting execution. Mandrake gestured to another technician. "Joseph, take over. And you, Corporal, pay attention to what Joseph is doing."

Mandrake moved away from the terminal with an unhappy shake of his head, approaching Arthur. "We got a load of new personnel in. You know how it is. Takes forever to break them in."

"I don't think breaking is going to be a problem," Arthur said, glancing toward the Corporal, who seemed even more afraid of Joseph -- a young Lieutenant of something-or-other grade that Arthur never really looked closely at -- who was quietly chewing him out.

Mandrake chuckled humourlessly. "Breaking them is the fun part. I'm still trying to stop them from transferring out to a different department. By the time we put them back together enough so that they can actually work, they wise up and write up the paperwork to GTFO."

Arthur snorted. "Half of them can't even spell that."

Mandrake gestured toward the elephant in the room, guiding Arthur across the tent. "Captain Arthur Pendragon. Mister John Smith."

Arthur knew the man as Solomon Bayard, a man whose occupation had always been an enormous source of contention between Arthur and Morgana, because it was a toss-up between holding a high-ranking position in Her Royal Majesty's Secret Service or in an equally dubious government department so forgotten and so buried in paperwork that no one knew it existed -- if it ever existed in the first place.

Mandrake barely managed to keep the scoff out of his voice at the introduction. John Smith, indeed.

"Mister Smith," Arthur said neutrally, taking Bayard's hand in a firm shake.

"Captain Pendragon," Bayard said, equally neutral, and turned to Mandrake. "If we could take this somewhere more private?"

Mandrake led them to the copper-lined glass-wall cubicle and flicked the switch, sending an electrical current into the meeting room that immediately frosted the glass a solid, off-white opaque colour. Bayard was polite enough to wait until Mandrake indicated for them to sit down, and the three of them sat at triangle points at the oval table in a moment of silence before Mandrake leaned forward, elbows on the table.

"Mister Smith is our advisor on matters involving the American mission," Mandrake said, doing without pleasantries. If there was new staff coming in, Mandrake was a busy man and had somewhere else to be; he didn't need to be here if he was already read into the parameters of Bayard's job on site. "More importantly, he's fully aware of the situation and will be advising you, specifically, on approach and tactics."

"I see," Arthur said carefully, not sure what to make of that. "So, you're aware of the new technology that our targets have?"

"Technology," Bayard said, tasting the word and finding it suitable. "Yes."

"Weaponry, communications, defences?" Arthur asked, and Bayard nodded. "Weaknesses, flaws, countermeasures?"

"Yes." Bayard said, and there was a small curve to his lips, tugging at the corner of his mouth, and anyone watching would think that he was annoyed if they didn't notice the sparkle of amusement in his eyes.

Mandrake tapped his fingers on the glassy surface of the table, and when neither Arthur nor Bayard said anything more, stood up abruptly. "I'll leave you two to discuss the parameters of your new training regime."

Arthur stood at attention, Bayard stayed at his seat, and Mandrake marched out, shutting the door behind him. Arthur sat down again, and watched Bayard.

There was a brief moment of playing chicken down a long narrow highway in the dead of night with nothing but headlights to guide the way, wondering if the other driver would swerve first. Arthur raised a brow when Bayard twitched and said, "Olaf says hello."

"He sent you, then?"

"His proposal was presented to my department. I volunteered."

Arthur flinched because the last person that Olaf sent him to hadn't worked out quite as well as either of them had hoped. Olaf might claim retirement, but no one was under any illusions that he wasn't still in the backroom, pulling strings. Arthur bit back a wave of bitterness and asked instead, "And what department is that?"

Bayard lowered his head in a sharp little nod, as if he'd expected as much, and reached into his jacket pocket with the care of someone who knew that any sudden movement might result in his getting shot. He slid a business card -- plain and white stock cardboard -- across the table at Arthur. There was no name, no number, no address, no department number or identifier, only a familiar logo. A crown with a large stone set in the centre, a sceptre through the band, and a single runic symbol that Merlin had said was alchemical, resembling a mixture of mercury and transformation.

The Directory of Alternate Affairs The source of the mysterious video of Sam Trickler, with an undercover agent recording the scene on a hidden recorder.

Arthur kept himself from reacting by studying the logo closely. There was a tiny line of runic script in a horizontal line beneath the crown.

He tapped the corner of the card on the table, and pocketed it.

"All right. I'm listening."

Bayard nodded again, and the sparkle in his eyes darkened, a sure sign that what he had to say was serious. "Not here."

He got up and led the way out.

 

ooOOoo

 

Merlin had spent his life walking away from people who made fun of him because he was different. In school, being quiet and a bookworm resulted in escalating levels of bullying and humiliations that he would never quite forget. In university, he had the shelter of anonymity until an outing led him to the LGBT club and the general protection that they offered in return, though he wasn't completely immune from the occasional snarky comment, and partially escaped one beating by running clean into a hospital. In the army, he didn't dare breath a word because things could go wrong in all sorts of ways on the battlefield. Never mind getting beaten -- he could end up dead, and there wouldn't be any witnesses.

When Bohrs started talking about using Cold Iron, Merlin had to keep himself from telling him that Cold Iron only worked on the Fae, though for one instant, one bare instant there, he thought about asking for one of those brittle Cold Iron knives, because they might come in handy if they ever had any trouble with the Sidhe who were working with the Americans. But when Bohrs said that he meant to go after everyone who was different...

Those words alone were a trigger to an anger that Merlin couldn't help having, full of righteousness and self-preservation at the same time, and he walked out because he didn't want to be angry at Bohrs, he didn't want to hurt him...

And it wasn't until Merlin stalked out of the barracks and realized that he wasn't walking out because Bohrs had made a remark that could be interpreted as a slur against Merlin's sexual orientation. Bohrs could care less that Merlin liked blokes -- he hadn't even blinked when the news of Merlin's confession in exchange for coffee during a particularly painful torture session involving hangover and evil mates had made the rounds, and he certainly didn't seem to care about Gwaine, who was so open that he might as well be walking around with a sign that he'd shag anyone who smiled at him.

(which he would do, too, Merlin knew)

No. Merlin had walked out because it had been instinct to walk out.

In that brief moment where he caught himself outside the barracks, telling himself that he was being an idiot, Merlin understood something else.

He was different. It didn't matter how he looked at it or how secret he kept his magic. He would always be different.

And that was what Bohrs meant to see gone and taken care of. People with magic. People like him.

Merlin had turned right around then, and kept on walking, but it wasn't anger that brought him to the transport yard.

It was fear.

He'd found a place where he thought he could fit in, finally, only to find out that maybe, just maybe, he would never fit in. Not really.

Merlin's bony shoulders dug in the hard metal of a heavy truck fender, warmed by the sun on one side, cooled by the wind on the other, and stared off in the distance, not even watching the men jogging past a minute later, or the mechanics diving in head-first to repair a busted fan belt a little ways over, nor to see a chopper land some distance away and unload its human cargo.

He didn't look at anything. Not the horizon, not the mountain range, not the flat slope of land that dropped off into undulating dunes. He didn't know how long he was there when Perceval showed up next to him, shrouding him in shadow. Perceval leaned against the truck, the big several-tons-heavy-truck, and the truck heaved backward under his weight.

"Bohrs is an idiot. All mouth, no brain," Perceval said.

Merlin glanced sidelong and shrugged. It's not that. I know he couldn't care less about me checking out his arse in the showers. I only did that once, anyways.

He didn't say it out loud, because then Perceval might ask how many times Merlin had checked out his arse, and Merlin might say, Not half as much as I've been checking out Arthur's, and that was just asking for trouble. Then, Perceval might ask why Merlin had walked out.

And that was really asking for trouble.

Instead, Merlin shoved his hands in his pockets, shutting his eyes at the dust kick-up when a supply truck rolled by a little faster than it should have.

"He wasn't talking about..." Perceval faltered a little and leaned in, brushing his arm against Merlin's shoulder. "You know. He doesn't think that. He really doesn't. He was talking about, you know, the people with..."

Perceval took a deep breath, spread his hands helplessly, and said, "The people with tech."

Merlin chuckled without humour. Tech. Of all the possible code words they could have used to describe magic, "tech" wasn't the one he would have picked, but it was probably the best one of all. In a different time, in a different place, any technology would be considered magic. He supposed it was only fitting, in an ironic, twisted sort of way.

Perceval sighed heavily, creating his own localized weather, raising something of a dust storm around them, as if he could tell that Merlin wasn't really listening.

"He's scared, that's all. We all are." Perceval hesitated. "I mean, it's not fair. You and Arthur had plenty of time to get used to the idea, and we've barely had a day. I mean, I know I was there out in the town with you and Gwaine and O. I know I felt something grab my ankle, like fingers and a hand, and it pulled me over the ground, but I never thought... I never thought, you know. That it was..."

He paused, and blurted out helplessly, "Tech!"

Merlin's lips quirked.

"I mean, it's not like the word's in common use these days! And I haven't ever seen any... tech outside of a flipping circus!"

The silence lasted only a second before Perceval felt the need to fill it again.

"I mean, Gwaine used it! He was drunk at the time, and Owain snorted beer through his nose, and it was hilarious, but. Still. It's."

Again, that hesitation, then a sibilant hiss. "It's tech! And it's real!"

There were soft sounds a moment later, of Perceval taking in deep breaths and letting them go a moment later, soundless, wordless, because he didn't know what to say. He sighed again, this time softly, and the world-changing weather only lasted a moment.

"Don't be mad at Bohrs."

Another truck went by. Merlin shut his eyes, lowered his chin, and held his breath until the worst of the kick-up settled down.

"Mad?" Merlin asked, shaking his head. The sand ran out of his hair. "I'm not mad. I'm fucking terrified, that's what I am."

But not because I'm going to be the victim of an in-squad hazing. I'm scared of the tech.

He could feel Perceval's eyes on him and refused to turn around to look at the other man. He just couldn't. At the same time, he kept talking, the words in a half-rushed stutter, because he wanted to explain, he wanted Perceval to understand.

"I'm not Gwaine. I didn't have you lot. I had Will -- and fat lot of good that does when he's gone off his head after a bird or when he's in another unit, yeah? I only need to hear someone talk the way Bohrs did once, just once, to know what it means, to know that I've got to get the hell out of there before I end up in the hospital. Again."

Maybe back then it had been because of some hatemongering homophobe, but what was going to stop someone from coming after Merlin because of magic?

A dark look clouded Perceval's expression when Merlin said "hospital" and "again".

"You know he wouldn't. That we wouldn't. That we wouldn't let it happen," Perceval said, his voice low but insistent.

Merlin didn't answer, and Perceval's hand fell on his shoulder, firm and reassuring.

"Merlin --"

"Yeah. Yeah, I know," Merlin said, shaking his head. He forced a smile. You say that now. What about later, when I have no choice? What about when you see me use magic? What then? "Forget it. Bohrs is an idiot. I'm an idiot. I just... I just heard him talk like that, and something switched off in my head, that's all."

There was a squeeze on his shoulder, and after a minute, Perceval drew his hand away. They didn't talk for a long time, and Perceval broke the silence with a deep, rumbling chuckle. "It's funny. I don't see you scared."

"Oh, I'm plenty scared," Merlin said, holding out his hand in the air, but there wasn't the slightest shiver in them. "See me tremble?"

"That's just it, mate," Perceval said, pointing at Merlin's hand just as he pocketed it again. "That's you. All the time. Rock steady. Even back at the narrows. You didn't blink when Owain nearly bought it. Then you went flying. Just stood yourself right up again and kept going. I thought Gwaine was going to lose his shite. I know I did. But you -- you moved. You didn't hesitate."

"That wasn't me, Perce. That was you. You got us to the pick-up point," Merlin said, shaking his head.

"Even after," Perceval said, his voice low, rumbling and audible. "The... The tech, it doesn't scare you, does it?"

Merlin lowered his head and scratched over his brow with the flat of his fingernails, hiding his face. When he looked up again, he nodded grimly. "Sure it does."

His eyes narrowed at a flash of light reflecting from the windshield of a passing truck. When he glanced sideways, Perceval was studying him. "Yeah. Maybe it does scare you. Just not in the same way it does the rest of us, right?"

Merlin sighed. "Perce?"

"Yeah?"

I can do magic. I've seen magic. I know how magic can be used and twisted and corrupted. I'm not scared. I'm dropping fucking shite bricks. Merlin shook his head, trying to forget the words, pushing them away far from his mouth. Instead, he asked, "How do you feel about it? I mean, do you think he's right? Bohrs. That we should kill them all just because..."

Perceval shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. "Didn't you see the others? Didn't you see Kay? The way B was talking, he wants to do away with everyone, including the girl Kay was fostered with. I mean, what if it were my mum who had magic? Or Morgana? Or Gwen's little brother or her dad? Do you think anyone wants to do away with them? They're good people. If they have ma-- tech, does that mean we do away with them?"

"I sure hope not," Merlin said, the words spilling out of his mouth with ardent hope.

"He talks a lot of cack, B does. When he's drunk, when he's scared, when he's drunk and scared. Don't listen to him. He's not the Captain. That's Arthur, and Arthur will do what's right. We're not hurting anyone. At least, not anyone who doesn't deserve it."

Arthur will do what's right. Merlin nodded. He believed that. He couldn't not believe it. He held on to that because he wanted to believe it. Everything he'd seen of Arthur had been nothing short of honourable -- he couldn't think of any other word that described him better, or any man who fit such a rare and noble concept so perfectly. Merlin needed to believe that Arthur would stand by him.

There was a small part of him that was afraid to.

Merlin was quiet for a while. "Yeah. Okay."

Perceval stood with him for a few more minutes before saying, "You all right then? Want to go and take the piss out of B? He knows he let his mouth run from him, and he'll be tripping over himself to make it up to you. I've got a whole lot of ideas for that. We can turn him into the team's donkey -- have him carry all your gear..."

Perceval trailed off, looking past Merlin. Merlin followed his gaze to a greenie -- at least a greenie as much as a Quartermaster Sergeant could be, uniform a vibrant olive green drab that hadn't been washed out by the sun and too much hard water washing. He was shorter than Merlin, completely dwarfed by Perceval, with the sort of squashed, wiry build of a former Grecian wrestler and the foot-to-foot dance skills of a master fidgeter.

When he realized that he had both Merlin's and Perceval's attention, he darted forward in a long-legged stride that belonged to a far taller man, stopping short without coming anywhere near breaching safe personal distance, and glanced from Perceval to Merlin and back again several times.

Up close, the Q-Sergeant was the picture-perfect image of a brand-new army recruit, with short brown hair in a shorn-to-the-skin haircut on the sides and back and a generous quarter inch strip on top of his head. He had green eyes, a five o'clock shadow at two o'clock in the middle of the day, a round chin and a nose that looked like it had been broken on at least two separate occasions.

Realizing that Merlin and Perceval were waiting for him to say something, he tried to smile, but it came out forced and awkward, nodded his head with the hasty jerk of someone who was afraid to take his eyes away from them in case they'd disappear, and offered a salute that belonged more in the Boy Scouts than the British Armed Forces.

"Sirs! Um. Lieutenant Emrys?" He looked at Perceval with wide wary eyes, casting a hopeful glance at Merlin.

"Going about it the wrong way around," Perceval said, frowning. It was customary for the subordinate to introduce himself first.

The Q-Sergeant frowned and coloured from the neck-up. "Sorry, Sirs. I'm Sergeant Gilli Merriam. I'm, um. New."

"Gathered as much," Perceval said.

"The Quartermaster sent me to for Lieutenant Emrys?" Again, Gilli glanced between Perceval and Merlin and back again. "I was told, um. He was here?"

"And what does the Quartermaster need with Lieutenant Emrys?" Perceval asked in a tone that sounded like he was warming himself up for Bohrs, but that his fun would be spoiled if Merlin weren't around to help him make the other man absolutely, completely miserable.

"Um. There's a few Boxes, and there's problems with them, sir?"

"Are you asking me?"

Merlin lowered his eyes and shook his head, half-amused. He put a hand on Perceval's arm and pushed -- not that pushing Perceval resulted in much lateral movement. "I'm Merlin Emrys. Why don't we go see what the Quartermaster wants, Sergeant Merriam?"

Gilli smiled -- it was an odd, lopsided smile, just as awkward as the first. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

"Merlin --" Perceval almost pouted.

"You'll have to start on this little project without me," Merlin said with a grin, grateful for the interruption, because he wasn't all that sure he wanted to deal with an effusively apologetic Bohrs right now. He nodded to Gilli and gestured. "Shall we?"

They were halfway there, Gilli waffling between walking ahead of Merlin to lead the way, realizing a beat later that Merlin knew the compound better than he did, and walking next to, if not a bit behind. Somewhere past the mess hall, Gilli said, "The Quartermaster was right, sir. You're a difficult man to find."

"Only when someone wants me to do work," Merlin said dryly. A "few" Boxes with problems usually meant that a platoon had returned to the supply tent with equipment riddled with bullet holes, dents, and cracks, and those that were more or less intact had enough sand in them to get a good start on a sandcastle. That usually translated into hours of work that the Quartermaster himself could handle on his own -- or shift off onto the new Sergeant, if it came to that. It wasn't anything that the Quartermaster needed Merlin for, unless there was something else.

"Yes, sir," Gilli said solemnly, and after a moment, asked, "Does that happen often?"

Merlin startled, and frowned at Gilli. He softened his scowl with a small smirk. "Boot camp should have taken care of that cheek of yours."

"A couple of months of keeping a chair from flying away from a desk nailed to the floor doing enough clerk duty to go blind sure as shi-- sure brought it back, sir," Gilli said.

"Clerk duty?"

"Yes, sir. For a muckety-muck who wanted to single-handedly deforest all of Europe," Gilli said. "Put in for training and a transfer to something that won't have me on my arse all the time. Plus, I wanted to see some action."

Merlin didn't know what to say to that, so he nodded.

"Do you see much action, sir?"

"We're in a war zone," Merlin pointed out.

"Yes, sir," Gilli said, falling silent.

"So what does the Quartermaster really need me for?" Merlin asked. "He knows how to maintain the Boxes, and he's got you for the grunt work, don't he?"

"Yes, sir," Gilli said. "That's what I'm for. But he didn't send me, sir. Being the Quartermaster's assistant is just a cover. What I'm really here for is the Crack Box."

Merlin stopped suddenly, and Gilli nearly ran into him. A quick glance around proved that no one else was near enough to hear, and even if they were, they wouldn't have heard anything over the rumble of the truck going past. He studied Gilli for a moment, but the young man only looked at him, keen and earnest.

"You know that's not something you talk about in the open?"

"Yes, sir," Gilli said, and cast a furtive look around them. "Can't exactly tell you anywhere else, though, can I?"

Merlin chuckled. "No, I suppose not. So you're not really taking me to the supply tent."

"No, sir. Communications. They gave me the CB and told me to have at it, but I can't exactly do that when I don't know what I'm having-to, sir." They started walking again, this time in a different direction, and Gilli fell in step next to him, more confident this time. "They said you built it?"

"I did," Merlin said.

"From a handheld gamer? I didn't think that was possible," Gilli said.

"Anything's possible," Merlin said. Because he'd built the Crack Box -- a device that could break any encryption code if it had the countercodes programmed -- into something portable, the Brass had ordered him to open up the plastic console and fix the electronics into something that was less likely to walk off in someone's back pocket. On the one hand, the Crack Box the way that Merlin had built it was the safest, most innocuous object on the base -- there were enough soldiers who had their own handheld game devices that another one wouldn't attract attention. On the other hand, it was a walking security breach.

Right now, the Crack Box was in an official Crack Box cover, which was a two-by-two-by-two box of force-welded two-inch-thick bullet-and-bomb-proof tungsten-titanium alloy that was permanently fixed on a hundred-kilo metal plate and locked with an alphanumeric code so long and mathematically complex that another Crack Box was needed to crack the code.

"So you're trained for that, then?" Merlin asked. At Gilli's nod, Merlin asked, "What do you need me for?"

Gilli looked embarrassed. "I'm having trouble with the language, sir. The programming. I can't get to the source code to upgrade it with the latest."

"Ah. Right. Well, that's easy enough to do -- once we confirm your authorization," Merlin said.

 

ooOOoo

 

"We'll start with the training," Bayard said. "They've told me that you've stepped it up a great deal. Fast drills, longer runs, heavier weights, more physical training, even engaging martial arts specialists both on and off base. You've had three trips to a secure location for attack rounds, focusing more on close combat than distance hits, and you're using smaller teams and guerrilla tactics to distract and divide."

Arthur didn't answer. Bayard wasn't asking questions and he wasn't looking for confirmation because he already had all the details. He kept his tone even and neutral, so it was difficult to judge if Bayard was being disapproving. Instead, he marvelled that Bayard would find talking in public a far safer endeavour than talking in a small glass room built to prevent eavesdropping, but then, he dimly remembered Uther telling Morgana and Arthur that if they were going to play hide and seek with Uncle Solomon, they shouldn't hide in small dark places until he felt better. It wasn't until Arthur was older that he learned that Bayard had been a POW, and to this day, seemed to still suffer lingering effects of his confined imprisonment.

They walked in silence for a few minutes, a gaggle of personnel -- new people, from what Arthur could tell -- walking past wide-eyed and awed, their duffel bags either slung over their shoulders or being dragged behind them. Arthur shook his head, glad that they were heading in the other direction than Excalibur's barracks.

"It's a good start," Bayard said finally. "But it won't be enough."

"And why is that?" Arthur asked, playing dumb.

Bayard shot him a wry look. "Because of the enemy's technology. It's not like anything you've encountered before. If you don't know how it works or how it's being used, your team won't know how to react and how to stop it."

"And you do?"

Bayard didn't answer the question, giving Arthur the raised-brow look he always had when Arthur was asking a stupid question. "The Americans obviously don't. They plan on taking advantage of Excalibur's ability to get out of tight spots and send you to recover targets without the information you need to properly plan an assault."

"I gathered that," Arthur said. He stopped walking, and Bayard turned to look at him. "I also gathered that you're here not out of the goodness of your heart, but because you're just as interested in their targets as they are."

Bayard smirked in answer.

"Answer me something," Arthur asked, rubbing a thumb over a brow, smoothing down a raised vein that threatened to start throbbing with the mother of all headaches. "Do the Americans know about the technology?"

"They do," Bayard said, which confirmed Arthur's suspicion, and added, "But ask me if they know how to counter it."

"I don't need to, do I?" Arthur said, nodding when Bayard made a slight gesture with his hand asking if they could continue walking. "The Americans approach things in typical American fashion -- throw force at it and hope that it'll overwhelm the enemy."

"It usually works," Bayard said.

"Only, not this time," Arthur said, and again stopped, hands on his hips, waiting for another group of soldiers -- this time of the more seasoned variety, who saw Arthur, recognized him, and glanced askance at Bayard before continuing on, minding their own business. "Let's be clear here for a minute. When we're talking technology, we're really talking about..."

The silence lingered for a moment, and Arthur thought he was going to have to say the word, and he already felt silly just thinking it, even though he knew, beyond a doubt, that magic was real. But Bayard nodded.

"Magic." He took Arthur's arm and they continued to walk. "The sort of magic that hasn't been seen on the British Isles since the time of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and Merlin the Magician."

He said it with such a straight face and a calm, conversational tone, that Arthur's startled double-take was more of a raised eyebrow and a sidelong glance. After a second, he chuckled.

And Bayard actually smiled. It was a rare sight on the man, because Arthur had seen it a handful of times since childhood, and here it was again.

"The irony of it hasn't escaped me," Bayard said then. "When Olaf's report came across my desk, summarizing all the details -- you, Arthur Pendragon, a Captain of a team of men named Excalibur, with a communication specialist named Merlin, cracking the ranks of the NWO in a way that none of us have been able to do -- believe me, I had a good chuckle."

"Did it hurt?" Arthur asked, because Bayard laughed less often than he smiled.

"I may have pulled a muscle in my side," Bayard said. It took less than an instant for the transformation between amusement to complete seriousness. "It's magic, but it's also technology of a sort. We have examples of devices, mostly in the aftermath of their use, with few of them sufficiently intact for study, where it appears that they have managed to marry magic with technology."

"Bombs?"

"Bombs, projectile weapons, shielding, scrambling and jamming technology." Bayard paused. "Poisons."

"Poisons?" Arthur frowned. "That's... low tech."

"Not if you consider the method of delivery, the LD50 data, and the near untraceability of the compounds that we know they use."

Biochemical and chemical warfare training was a long time ago, but Arthur remembered that LD50 stood for the lethal dosage that it took to kill fifty percent of a test target population -- usually mice or rats, the numbers sometimes adjusted for their effect on humans. He wondered if Bayard would give them details -- Lance would have a field day with the numbers and demand his own laboratory to concoct antidotes.

"Any more bad news?" Arthur asked.

Bayard bowed his head in a slight nod. "Samuel Trickler has made an appearance. If he's made a blip in our radar, he's come to the CIA's attention as well. The question remains whether the CIA will wait for the others to surface or if they will go after him now."

Arthur thought about it for a few steps. "That's not really a question. If they know you're keeping an eye on them -- if they know that you're here -- they're going to make a grab for him first."

Bayard nodded. "If I know Daly, he's heard that I'm here by now. It's a toss-up whether he wants Trickler to question him about the others, or if he'll warn him off rather than let us get Trickler ourselves. Either way, if he uses his own people -- and his own people are starting to dig their heels in whenever he puts in a request for personnel -- they're going to fail. If he uses team Excalibur, he'll lose Trickler either way."

Arthur glanced at Bayard and snorted. "I'm flattered by your confidence."

He also wasn't fooled by Bayard's casual approach. If anything, going after Trickler ahead of the Americans was going to pound a message that the CIA might not have heard in the first place: that Excalibur was most assuredly not on loan, and that, if anything, Excalibur would be working on assignments directed by the British Armed Forces. Or, most logically, by MI-5.

"You'll be surprised at how high our confidence goes, Arthur. In one night, with one contact, just one, one of your men received an invitation to join a group by high-level members who normally don't talk to anyone outside their circle. In one night, with one conversation, you exposed a double agent, gathered intel that he hadn't been passing on to his handler, and identified him as a previously unknown magic user. The two of you neutralized him, and came out of it in one piece."

Mostly, Arthur thought, but he nodded.

"The Directory is impressed. And after several failed attempts to subvert the NWO and their agents, like Trickler, Aredian, and Mordred, the Directory intends on keeping ahead of the Americans."

"Which is why you're here."

"Yes," Bayard said. "To advise you, so that the missions have a greater chance of succeeding. Unlike the Americans, we have a long history of dealing with magic --"

"I know my history, Sol," Arthur said. "Subversion, corruption, conversion, and when that failed, mass murder under the assumption of an authority that wasn't our own. Invasions, territorial claims, conquerors, crusades and the Inquisition? Where does the Directory stand in all this?"

Bayard's silence lasted only as long as it took them to reach the corner where they would turn to head to the barracks. "National security."

That, unfortunately, didn't answer Arthur's question. Or perhaps it did. There were enough examples in history, both at home and abroad, to give Arthur an idea of how far governments would go in order to achieve their goal of national security. Internment camps, experimentation, brainwashing, deportation, imprisonment, outright execution -- the options were appalling infringements on basic human rights.

Arthur was certain that there was as valid an argument against imprisoning magic users as there was for locking them all up, but at the moment, the situation wasn't quite as clear-cut as he would have liked. The only magic users that he'd seen, heard of, and encountered were those who killed other people, attempted to eradicate his team, and who had tried to do the same to him. His only concern at the moment was to stop them from their plan for... for...

World domination?

Arthur didn't know what they wanted to do -- and he'd only got a vague idea for all his trouble, but he was certain it had something to do with what they'd told Merlin -- destroying society and replacing it with their own. But if he did know something, it was that both Edwin and Merlin had told him that they were starting in Europe.

"What's the American's stake in this?"

"Now, that's a good question," Bayard said.

Which was no answer at all, so Arthur waited for a patient few seconds before prompting, "Well?"

"That's something for another time," Bayard said, which was a smokescreen for I don't know.

Arthur scoffed.

They were standing just outside the barracks when Bayard took Arthur's arm, turning him around. "I'm on your side."

Arthur didn't believe it, but he exhaled a sharp breath and gave Bayard a sharp nod that satisfied the older man.

"Let's get your boys together. I want to meet them. Especially Merlin."


While they waited for the three G's and a still-contrite Bohrs to round up the team, Bayard made himself comfortable at Arthur's desk. There were no loose papers, nothing confidential, just a tin of the biscuits that Merlin's mum had sent along with ARTHUR written along the side. Bayard cracked it open and helped himself to a few.

He was dusting the crumbs from his fingers when he spoke again. "We did a full security check on both of you after the report came through from MI-5."

"We've already been through security checks," Arthur said. The clearance levels that Merlin and Arthur had were sufficiently high that a full background was required, even more so considering Merlin's cypher access. Arthur had nothing to hide, and obviously, if Merlin had the clearance he did, his background had checked out.

"The Directory looks for things above and beyond MI-5's standard workup, which is, for all intents and purpose, sufficiently adequate to ensure that people aren't bad guys."

"What kind of things?"

"Magic things," Bayard said, a small, tiny, smirk of amusement tugging at the corner of his mouth. "You passed, of course. Your family's reputation is unparalleled."

"My family has a reputation when it comes to magic?"

"On your father's side of the family, certainly," Bayard said. "The Pendragon line has royal roots that date back centuries. Kings and Queens and Knights who have done their duty for the Crown and for the Kingdom in one form or another. Your father has served; you are serving now."

"Against magic?"

"I prefer to think of it as against evil, but, yes, to a large extent, against magic," Bayard said.

Arthur didn't say anything for some time. "And my mother's side?"

"You've had no contact with your mother's side of the family," Bayard said, and Arthur knew full well that Bayard didn't need a security check to know that Uther Pendragon had cruelly cut contact with them when Ygraine died at Arthur's birth. Arthur only knew that his maternal grandparents were killed in a plane crash when he was ten, and that his uncle, who'd fought in the war with Uther, had disappeared and was designated MIA.

Still, the reminder that Arthur had never known his mother rankled.

"And Merlin?" Arthur asked, changing the subject. At the same time, he wasn't entirely certain he wanted to hear what Bayard had to say about him.

He could still remember the way Merlin had looked at him once, innocent and open, full of blinding trust and impossible loyalty, as if betrayal was a concept unfathomable to him, as if the mere thought of doing something that might hurt Arthur was tantamount to ripping out his own heart and soul in the process.

He remembered that look easily enough, because it remained shrouded in errant glances where only a ghostly glimmer of that faith could be seen, giving Arthur strength to pull himself together when he would rather come undone, strength to stand up to lead his men and to carry on. Arthur had never considered what it meant, what could possibly drive Merlin to look to him as he did, and he didn't want to think about it now.

Not now, when it was a dangerous thing to think about. Not now, when he couldn't do anything about it.

It didn't stop him from feeling fiercely protective of Merlin and wanting to hear what Bayard had to say so that he could tell him how wrong he was.

"He's interesting," Bayard said, leaning back in Arthur's chair to stroke his beard once, twice, three times, in a poker tell of epic proportions. Arthur waited, because whatever Bayard considered interesting was equally worthy of sharing. "His father was a Captain with the SAS in its early days, very highly decorated. He died saving his team and was buried with full honours. His mother was a nurse in the armed forces and is still a nurse at the veterans centre in Cardiff. His uncle also served."

"That's hardly a secret," Arthur said.

Bayard shrugged a shoulder and continued. "Although we have few records for Balinor Emrys, the majority of his missions were classified Eyes-Only by the Directory."

Arthur raised a brow and paced the length of the barracks, nodding to indicate that he was listening.

"That said," Bayard continued, "Gaius Lumney, Merlin's uncle, is a practitioner of Pagan faith, and associates with men and women who are known magic users."

Arthur stopped abruptly -- he was nearly to Merlin's bunk at the very end of the barracks -- and turned around. "Sorry?"

"Magic users," Bayard repeated. "Druids, mostly, celebrating Beltane and solstices and Samhain. That sort of thing. Hedge witches blessing harvests, priests preparing potions against illnesses, conducting rituals of one kind or another. Nothing particularly worrisome, although one or two fought in the wars under the guidance of the Directory conducting battle magic. Their magic, however, is no longer what it used to be."

Arthur stared, feeling very cold. Merlin hadn't mentioned that particular detail, and Arthur cursed that he hadn't asked Merlin why his uncle seemed to have so many books on magic. He immediately wondered about that text on Merlin's e-reader, the one that he couldn't read, with symbols and drawings of creatures that sprang out of someone's very vivid imagination.

It was a monstrous effort to keep from glancing toward Merlin's bed to make certain that the e-reader was out of sight, but he managed.

"And Merlin?"

If Bayard heard the croak in Arthur's voice, he made no sign.

"Merlin Emrys, like his mother, like his father and his uncle, is of the Pagan faith. As far as we've been able to tell, he has no magic, but that doesn't stop him from being a very useful asset." Bayard paused. "Unlike most of us, Merlin grew up following the Old Religion, surrounded by people who had some magical ability. He's seen firsthand what they can do, and he is likely to be able to distinguish between real magic, technology infused with magic, and advanced technology that has been constructed to mimic magic."

Arthur's mood soured. He didn't like secrets, but he hated it when he went into an operation without having all the facts. This little fact about Merlin would have been useful to know about, particularly when planning out approaches and tactics -- now, Arthur was going to have to go through all the plans one by one and adjust them to include that very distinct advantage.

What he couldn't understand was, after all those late nights talking about magic and discussing how to counteract the enemy, that Merlin wouldn't mention something about knowing people with magic. On the one hand, Arthur shouldn't be surprised -- he had known people who were now affiliated with the NWO, and that didn't exactly cast a scintillating light on Merlin's reputation. On the other hand, why wouldn't Merlin say anything? Hadn't he learned that keeping secrets from Arthur was a bad idea? Had he been trying to protect them from Arthur? Did he think that Arthur would attack them or hurt them or turn them in?

Turn them in to whom?

Arthur glanced at Bayard with suspicion. He supposed that the Directory might be where magic users would end up -- "Directory" sounded ominous enough -- but he wouldn't do any such thing until he knew more about them. About the Directory. About magic users.

He didn't have time to come up with answers that satisfied him, because Bayard said, "Don't worry. As far as we're concerned, for the moment, Merlin Emrys is one of the good guys."

"Of course he is," Arthur said, without hesitation.

Bayard leaned forward, putting his elbows on Arthur's desk, crossing his arms. His chin was down, his eyes tracing the surface of the table as if it was carbon paper and he was trying to read the orders that Arthur had written down the night before, that morning, a bare hour ago. When he looked up, the man's grey eyes were full of consideration.

"He hasn't been in Excalibur for long."

"No, he hasn't."

"You don't find it curious how he ended up with you?"

"Should I?" Arthur asked, taking a challenging step forward. Unless someone had the foresight to groom Merlin through his A-levels, into his years at university, through basic training and SAS training and cryptography, to finally manipulate all the mind-boggling strings of Fate that would be necessary to put Excalibur and Merlin together, Arthur couldn't see how anything about Merlin should be remotely "curious".

Except Merlin did rile up every curiosity that Arthur had, and for solely personal reasons.

Personal reasons that he couldn't explore.

Apparently Bayard agreed with him -- hopefully not for his own personal reasons -- because he half-chuckled and asked, "Do you trust him?"

"I trust him."

"I mean, do you really trust him, Arthur? Compared to the rest of your team, he's an unknown. Surely you've heard what happened with his other unit --"

"I've heard," Arthur said sharply, cutting Bayard off before he could dig himself a hole that Arthur wouldn't let him out of. "I trust him, Sol. Without question."

Steel grey eyes stared at him unblinking for several long moments before Bayard finally nodded. "All right. That'll make things easier, then."

Before Arthur could ask what things? , Owain, Perceval and Kay entered the barracks, all of them opening their mouths to protest that Bayard was in Arthur's seat, and he had to hurry to stop them before they grabbed Bayard and tossed him out.

 

ooOOoo

 

There were Crack Boxes, and then there were Merlin Crack Boxes.

After receiving confirmation from the communications head that Gilli really was the specialist that the Brass had brought in to deal with the Crack Box, and that he really did have the security clearances to handle the traffic that would come through the system, Merlin sent Gilli off on a treasure hunt for the most currently retired codes. It was mostly to get him out of the way while he rewrote the O/S to auto-boot the standard Crack Box program instead of the version with the DVD Extras and the NC-19 theatrical version that Gilli was probably not cleared to view.

Apparently clerking for a muckety-muck who usually had four or five other people working in the office gave someone plenty of time to look for other pursuits, because Gilli beefed up his computer skills on his own time while hunting everyone he could on base to teach him the basics of everything else. By the time he was finally accepted into the crypto-comm training program -- usually reserved for commissioned personnel -- he had the equivalent computer skill of an end-user of a fancy piece of bells and whistles, which amounted to knowing which button to push and be 99.99% certain that it wouldn't blow up the area with extreme prejudice.

Merlin wasn't being fair, he knew. Part of it was childish petulance. This was his Crack Box. He'd built it. He'd tweaked it. And if there was anything he hated more, it was having to restore the system to the factory settings and cache his mods. He idly debated building a generic Crack Box to crack the box housing his Crack Box so that he could rescue it, but he had a feeling that some people would frown.

Instead, he got rid of Gilli for the time he needed to change the programming, boot up the standard, restore the settings to British Army normal, all without hurting Gilli's feelings.

Gilli's only job on base was to sit in front of the Crack Box and run any suspect code through the program, and deliver it to the end-person. That, and doing whatever the Quartermaster wanted him to do. But Merlin double-checked Gilli's status anyway, mostly flabbergasted that he didn't know the basics, but he knew the big stuff, which made him worry. The officer in charge of the communications centre passed him on to a harried Colonel Mandrake who said yes, he's fine, and please get him trained up now before hanging up on Merlin.

Merlin had no choice. He went to work on Gilli, starting with Crack Box 101. Notably, Do Not Call Merlin When He's Sleeping Because You Do Not Remember How To Run A sub-B-1055 Decrypt.

Gilli looked at Merlin as if Merlin were joking.

Merlin was not joking.

"Did you know that the guy sleeping in the bunk next to mine is the team sniper?"

Gilli paled, smiled as if he were about to faint, and repeated, "I will not wake you when you're sleeping because I don't remember how to run a decrypt. I promise."

Merlin gave him a big smile. "Excellent. See, you're learning the important bits already."

Gilli, he learned, was bright, if a little on the nervous side, volunteering random pieces of information as they went through the details of the main screen. Some of the random pieces of information -- all of them about his personal life before he joined the army -- almost, but didn't, contradict itself, like the time he was nicked for shoplifting (again), but never quite got caught (again). It wasn't until the third story about Gilli's dad -- who was an officer, but who'd died in one of the last wars -- that Merlin twigged onto what wasn't quite right about Gilli.

He wasn't paying attention.

It was toward the forty-five minute mark that Merlin noticed that Gilli talked less and listened more whenever Merlin used big money words like "encryption parameter" and "alphanumeric decryption sequence", but that a serious attention deficit hit when Merlin went over the important basics that it took to get from point A (receiving a coded file) to point B (turning the garbage into something readable). It struck him then, that Gilli was yet another one of those kids who wanted everything now and he wanted it easy, however way that he got it, providing that all it took was a button-push to get medals.

Merlin cringed inwardly.

He decided not to mention the backdoor to the backdoor in the programming. He had a feeling he was going to need it sometime down the road.

Two painful hours later, Merlin pushed his chair away from the table. "Well, it's all yours."

Gilli's response was a wide-eyed moment of panic. Then, slowly, very slowly, as if hiding his initial fear impulse to run, Gilli swallowed hard and rolled his chair in front of the terminal.

Merlin watched for a minute.

"You all right? Got it all down?" Merlin asked a frowning Gilli, who sat slouch-shouldered in front of the attached terminal.

"For now, I think. Thanks, sir," Gilli said, looking up.

"Come and ask if you've got any questions," Merlin said, regretting the words nearly as soon as they were out of his mouth, and left the communications centre as quickly as he could, before Gilli noticed that Merlin had logged out, leaving him to find his own way back to the standard menu screen after a virtual maze of security prompts.

"Jesus," Merlin muttered under his breath, rubbing his hand over his eyes and forehead, feeling the same deep, foreboding worry that he always felt when he left one of the training classes that he'd been saddled with when he'd been with the Artists. He didn't know if things were better or worse since he'd left a few months ago, but he knew that if he'd stuck around for a few more months of training, he would have, as Will phrased it, "A serious case of PTSD." Sometimes teaching was worse than actual combat.

Merlin was halfway to the barracks by way of a detour to past the mess hall and an apple sweet-charmed out of one of the cooks when a sharp whistle pulled him out of the path of an oncoming truck to wait for Lance.

"Sweet bloody fuck, when you hide, Merlin, you sure hide well," Lance said. "Perce said you'd be in the supply tent, but the Quartermaster said he hadn't seen you since this morning. Where did you cop off to?"

"Comm tent," Merlin said.

Lance waggled his brows. "Making a few illicit phone calls?"

"I wish. No, looks like they've shipped us the next supply of cannonball fodder," Merlin said, lowering his voice so that no one would take insult at his words. "I got called in to do some impromptu training for a greenie."

"Sucks to be you, mate. I dodged the bullet there. They had a few new people in the MASH tent, but Gwaine stuck his head in and called me out. We're all looking for you, actually. Arthur's about to pull a S&R party together to find you," Lance said, gesturing Merlin toward the barracks.

"Shite. Is he mad?"

Lance was quiet for a moment, wavering between have you met Arthur, and he's throwing conniptions before settling on, "No, not really. He's the quiet he always gets when he hears something he doesn't like, and he's trying to think his way through it."

"Lovely," Merlin said, flinching. He considered slowing down his step, and wondered if the apple he'd filched would be considered a sufficient bribe to avoid repercussions. "I don't suppose you know what it's about?"

Lance nodded. "There's a suit in with him."

"Oh, shite," Merlin blurted out, and this time, he didn't just consider slowing down -- he out-and-out stopped. "MI-5? The Americans? Some posh rubberneck we have to impress?"

"Too well dressed for MI-5, too smart to be American, and if he's sitting at Arthur's desk and Arthur hasn't thrown him out yet, he's either some posh rubberneck we have to impress, or someone with information important enough that Arthur's willing to play the game."

"Shite, shite, shite," Merlin said. After spending two hours with Gilli -- the bloke was nice enough, but trying on his nerves -- Merlin wasn't in the mood to humour someone else. All he wanted was to sit on his cot, throw up his legs, let Perceval torture Bohrs a bit, and read the next chapter in the tome that Gaius had strongly suggested Merlin read again. "I don't suppose you could tell him that you haven't seen me?"

"And put my neck on the chopping block? What are you on about, mate?" Lance asked, putting his arm firmly around Merlin's shoulders and guiding him toward the barracks. "Besides, you wouldn't let Arthur do anything to me, would you now? Gwen would be a little upset with you if you did."

Merlin didn't want to imagine an upset Gwen, and he faltered, sighing, and gave in as Lance shoved him through the door to the barracks.

The first thing he saw was the rubberneck in question -- a man larger in presence than size, just shy of Merlin's height and that much lighter than Arthur, and still clinging to an air of menace that must have been formidable in his younger, less-grey years. He was sitting at Arthur's desk like Lancelot said, in the perfect vantage point to watch the team as they streamed through the door and to study them as they gathered companionably at a circle of bunks while still leaving a path for Arthur to pace, because Arthur was pacing.

Lance let go of Merlin's shoulders and forged on ahead, heading into the mire before sitting down at the foot of his own bed, because the rest of it had been claimed by Owain, and that was bulk enough for anyone. He left Merlin to pause, a deer in the headlights under the stranger's gaze, suddenly aware of how the man was measuring him, sizing him up, and comparing what he saw with whatever notes he'd memorized. The man had nothing on Arthur, though, because Arthur turned around and stopped in the middle of the rows, his chin down, the fringe of his hair in his eyes, his mouth set in the grim, familiar line of late again, Merlin.

Merlin smiled as disarmingly as he could -- he'd been told, once, that his smile could stop a bomb from ticking down, and he hoped to hell that it applied to angry Captains -- and tossed Arthur the shiny red Empire apple that he'd gotten from the mess hall.

Arthur caught it easily, and his eyebrow raised in a late again, Merlin, and no apple is going to help you get out of this arch that made Merlin smile even wider in the hopes of stopping the bomb ticking down. And it worked, this time, because Arthur waved a hand for Merlin to take a seat, and he took a bite out of the apple.

Crisis averted, at least for now.

Merlin sat down next to Perceval, and when he glanced toward Arthur's desk, the man sitting behind it was watching Merlin and Arthur contemplatively, his eyes darting between the two of them, studying body language and discerning... something. Merlin didn't know what, but he didn't have a good feeling.

"Psst. Merlin."

There was a rustling behind them, a shuffling of bodies, and Bohrs squeezed out Geraint to sit next to Gwaine. "Merlin."

His voice was a quiet whisper, his tone earnest, his eyes puppy-dog apologetic.

"Aw, man, don't pull that face. That's like an illegal weapon or something," Merlin grumbled. "'S fine, all right? Forget it. Your big gob just ran into my fragile ego, that's all."

Bohrs smiled, his soft sigh heavy relief that eased the tension in the room -- a tension that had nothing to do with him and everything to do with the posh nut job standing up from behind Arthur's desk. "All right, mate. I am sorry, though."

"You're still Merlin's bitch for the next two weeks," Perceval said.

"Three," Gwaine said, cracking open a familiar package. Merlin made a grab for it, missing it by his fingertips.

"That's my mum's fudge," Merlin protested.

"Here's a piece, then," Gwaine said, offering him a square. Knowing that he would never see the rest of the contents intact, Merlin took it before Perceval snatched it from his fingertips.

Arthur went to stand in front of the barracks, and the silence trickled back with enough weight that the quiet chatter eased almost in the same instant. "This is John Smith from the Directory of Alternate Affairs."

There was a sudden, choreographed inhalation from everyone in the room, sucking in all the free air that was left in one heaving breath that made the barracks walls constrict. Everyone knew about the Directory. Gwaine's eagle-eyes had spotted the faded symbol on the screen, but it was Owain who'd reached with the mouse to circle it again and again until Arthur explained what little he knew about it.

Merlin knew even less than Arthur, but in their late-night conversations during R&R, they'd decided that the symbol belonged to a secret branch of Her Majesty's Service, and Merlin fancied that the rune in the gem made him think of John Dee, an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. It had taken an hour of arguing, along with pointing at the Wikipedia page, before Arthur conceded the point that perhaps, just perhaps, John Dee advised the Queen on matters of magic. For Dee's rune to be affiliated with the crown, and the logo associated with a Directory, the organization was so high up, it was bound to the royal line.

There were a few exchange of glances all around.

Merlin recovered first, quickly enough to know that Arthur was letting the information sink in, for the team to get a grip on whatever inner protests that they might have had, for them to sit and be still and to actually listen for a change, because they never listened when they could be asking questions.

"Right. So, Mister Smith will be acting as both our advocate and our advisor in matters concerning the Americans. He will also be taking charge of particular missions directed by MI-5 that just happen to be running independent surveillance over the same areas of interest as the CIA."

"So, the Americans have enough pull to have a hand in it, and this is the bloke on the other end of our string? Does anyone else feel like a puppet?" Gwaine asked.

There was a bit of grumbling, but Merlin's eyes never left Arthur. He knew what it meant when that muscle jumped in his jaw. He was wedged between a rock and a hard place, with someone poking a sharp stick in between, and he didn't like it, not one bit, because he didn't have enough information to see if it was safe to wriggle out the other end. He'd made a decision, and it was the only decision that he could make.

For now.

Merlin leaned back, his eyes drifting from Arthur to Mister Smith -- who was still watching Merlin and Arthur -- and put a hand on Gwaine's thigh, squeezing his fingers in. Gwaine yelped. "Shut up, mate."

The silence that followed was just barely long enough, but Mister Smith knew when to press an advantage. "The situations that the CIA specialist branch would like to send you into, that they have already sent countless others into, are considerably dangerous if you don't know what you're facing, and how to get out of it. To date, they have demonstrated one very important fact: they don't have that knowledge.

"I am here to evaluate the battle plans that they put together, to adjust them accordingly to benefit the team's survival, or to refuse them outright. And above all, if you as a team believe that the situation is too dangerous to proceed, I will tell them how tightly to roll their battle plans and how far up to shove them."

Mister Smith's tone of voice was calm, patient, amiable, and he said the last line with his lips in a thin line and a sparkle in his eyes that hinted how much personal pleasure he would have in doing exactly that.

The silence that threatened only moments ago became a promise now, because a few of the team members exchanged glances and no one said anything until Kay stood up a bit, leaning a hand on Owain's shoulder because he was cramped against the wall, and asked, "So you're the expert?"

Mister Smith bowed his head. "I have experience in the matters at hand, yes."

"In English, mate," Owain said. "Is that fancy talk for I do magic?"

Merlin froze.

Mister Smith was looking at Owain and Kay, and everyone else was looking at Mister Smith, but when Merlin glanced over, he saw that Arthur was looking at him with a thoughtful expression, a small frown on his brow.

"I have studied magic and know a few minor spells, but I have no particular talent at it," Mister Smith said. "Certainly nothing to the extent that Jonathan Aredian can do, for example. I'm more of a poor man's magician, without the stage props, and only if I have the crib notes in phonetic spelling, because some of those words are rather difficult to pronounce."

There was an exchange of glances all around. Arthur's eyes dropped from Merlin's, and drifted over to study Mister Smith with a displeased set of his lips. Merlin swallowed hard and relaxed, loosening his hold on the scratchy blanket of the bed, stretching out cramped fingers. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and rubbed his face, hoping that everyone else would think he was overwhelmed.

He kind of was. And he kind of wasn't. He was relieved. If John Smith wasn't much more than a book magician, then the odds were good that he couldn't cast a spell on the team or anyone else, at least not easily. He also wouldn't be able to sense Merlin's magic if Merlin ever happened to use it.

His mum's warnings, Uncle Gaius' warnings, even Will's warnings reverberated in his skull. Be careful. Be careful, Merin.

It was Perceval's knee-nudge that made Merlin stop staring at the inside of his eyeballs, that made him stop listening to something other than a cacophony of voices in his head begging him not to get caught doing something stupid. When he looked up, it was to Perceval giving him a quick frown, a small nod, and questioning are you all right, mate? look.

Merlin nodded and straightened. Mister Smith was looking at him again. So was Arthur.

They were both distracted when Gwaine spoke up, his voice loud enough to echo in the small space. "So... what fat lot of good are you?"

Arthur half-shook his head, but did nothing to reprimand Gwaine. That lack told volumes about Arthur's thoughts about all this. Simply put, he didn't like it, but he was going along with the flow, and would step in only if things got out of hand.

"A lot more than you," Mister Smith said, taking a step forward, gesturing in Gwaine's direction. He gestured in Kay's. Then Owain's. Then Geraint's. "Or you. Or you two. I know how to counteract magic. I know tactics that are effective against this particular enemy's approaches. And, most importantly, I can train you..."

There was a collective groan from the tent.

"... although I will admit that Captain Pendragon has done a remarkable job preparing you with tactics and approaches of his own. There is still more that can be done. For example, taking advantage of your individual strengths..."

"Will you be teaching us magic?" Owain asked, and laughed.

"If any of you show any particular ability, then, yes, perhaps I will teach you a spell or two," Mister Smith said, glancing around the barracks, and Merlin didn't think that it was his imagination, the way that Mister Smith's eyes seemed to settle on him a little longer than normal. "For now, however, we'll make do with your training as it is. We have a mission. His name is Samuel Trickler."

The noise in the barracks drifted to a soft murmur, and everyone glanced from Mister Smith to Arthur.

"Be packed and ready to go in twenty. We'll meet at the airfield," Arthur said.

 

ooOOoo

 

The chopper flight went from the base to a secure airfield, and the team disembarked the heli and marched straight on board a passenger plane. It was a smaller jet, with a fifty person capacity but only twenty-five seats, because some genius had torn out the last half of seats and replaced it with electronics separated only by a slim partition that Merlin confirmed was a special metallic technofibre mesh constructed like a Faraday cage but far more technologically sophisticated, meant to prevent whatever the Directory was doing on that side from interfering with flight operations on this side, while still maintaining a modicum of impenetrability.

The plane was as secure, electronics and information-wise, as they could build it, Bayard had told Arthur when they first boarded, the team scattering to claim the plush seats with personal television screens and a selection of the latest movies available for purview. The majority of the gear had been stowed in the cargo hold, but everyone kept their ready kit on them, which included weapons only by the grace of Bayard's nod, which infuriated the flight crew to no end.

Bayard took Arthur's arm and gestured he sit at the front with him, which curtailed Arthur's plan to slip in the seat next to Merlin, first to berate him for not letting people know where he was when he was needed, then to find out where he'd been if he wasn't in the supplies tent like Perceval had thought he was. Then, Arthur was going to ask him why he had to find out from someone else that Merlin's entire life was embroiled in the mystical and the mysterious and the downright strange, and couldn't he have mentioned it before Arthur looked like a pillock in front of Mister Smith?

Which wasn't to say that he had looked like a pillock in the first place; but he'd rather felt like one, not knowing what it was that Merlin got up to when no one was looking, what that text was that he read on his e-reader -- an e-reader that Arthur noted Merlin had brought along. The more he thought about it, waiting for the flight checks to complete, hollering over his shoulders for his men to settle down, watching as Bayard went out to the back to speak with some of the invisible technical crew, Arthur realized that the clues had all been there, but that he had never asked.

There had been more important things to talk about, Arthur argued -- and arguing with himself was a fruitless endeavour, because he knew all of his own counterarguments. Merlin had spent a lot of time with his Uncle -- had brought back answers to Arthur's questions that Merlin couldn't answer, had brought back books, had brought back sketches and drawings done by someone else's hand that were battle tactics with an added bit of spice. Merlin hadn't hidden anything, not exactly, but he hadn't volunteered anything either.

Arthur's fingers were digging in the imitation leather of his seat, noting only by chance that the airlock was closed, the flight crew were preparing for lift-off, and that the back door was shut, now, with Bayard working his way up the aisle.

Leon was sitting in the front of the other aisle, giving Arthur a nod. As Arthur's second, he intended on being close enough to overhear whatever it was that Bayard wanted to tell him, and he was clever enough not to look as if he was eavesdropping. Lance was midway in the group, Gwaine somewhere in the rear, and Merlin, damn him, was sitting off to the side, on the wings of the plane, his Box claiming the aisle seat while Merlin stared out the window, with the physical curl of someone who didn't want to be there.

Bayard paused next to Merlin, catching his attention by leaning in between the two rows, but whatever it was that Bayard told him, it left Merlin with a pale, greenish tint, and he looked as if he were going to be sick.

Arthur said nothing when Bayard sat down next to him, remained silent while the plane taxied onto the runway, didn't say a word while they took to the air smoothly and the nose tilted up and to the left, heading northeast. The seatbelt sign clicked off, and a few minutes later, the back door opened, spitting out a man who was skeleton gaunt, the black turtleneck and black slacks doing nothing to make it look as if he had any flesh on his skin. He walked to the front of the plane, handed Bayard a file folder, and as he returned to the electronic pit, it seemed to Arthur as if he glanced at Merlin, and that Merlin cowered.

Arthur didn't know what to make of the overwhelmingly protective surge that nearly choked him, but he recognized the down-and-evasive expression on Merlin's face, as if he neither wanted to look nor wanted to be noticed from when they were on R&R at the Lockdown, when that smarmy git, Bryn, sashayed over to their table and slid into the booth, staring at Merlin as if Merlin was his next meal.

"Who was that?" Arthur asked.

Bayard flipped through the contents of the file folder before handing them to Arthur. "One of our specialists."

"Specialists." Arthur repeated the word with hammer-bluntness and monotone, and he was rewarded by a shrug from Bayard -- a shrug that was enough to hint that the skinny skeleton specialist, who was so thin, he made Merlin look like an over-muscular Mr Universe and the rest of them obscenely obese, was probably one of the more experienced magicians that worked for the Directory. It had been a private admission, coupled with a glare that translated loosely as, I'm trusting you with this, and I may kill you if you tell the wrong person, but it didn't make Arthur any less uneasy.

He was trapped on a plane with one of them. Maybe more than one. He would feel more comfortable if he could talk to Merlin to find out why Merlin seemed frightened of him.

Arthur shook his head, swallowed the angry lump in his throat, and flipped through the folder.

The first few pages were briefing points on the target, with special notations on known associates, habits, and abilities. Someone had put together what looked to be a complicated psychological workup on the target, from the reason why he put his left sock on and then his shoe, before fussing over his right (something about superstitious rituals stemming from a disturbed childhood) to the self-destruction behind his constant need for attention and the spotlight. It wasn't anything that Arthur hadn't already deduced from the data he'd received from Olaf, but it was nice, all the same, to have that information confirmed in black and white.

The next few sheets were still warm from a laser printer and Arthur could smell the faint metallic tang of the ink drying. They detailed the target's transit route, the expected destination, with what looked to be time tags from someone who was keeping tabs on the target while he was en route. Deviations were noted, and explained with something of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm: "Subject halted at a roadside stop to refuel and to purchase crisps and a neon-coloured orange drink that may be radioactive," followed with a time tag thirty minutes later, "Subject halted at a roadside stop to pee. Did not run a Geiger counter in the toilets to see if his urine glowed."

The life of a secret agent must be full of transient moments of boredom, if this agent was entertaining himself with glib reports. It only reaffirmed Arthur's decision to never join MI-5 if he could help it.

He glanced sidelong at Bayard, who wasn't MI-5, not exactly, and wondered what it was, exactly, that the Directory did again.

He finished reading the active report and flipped the page. The target's destination was...

Arthur glanced at Bayard.

"Seriously?"

"If you don't think your men are up to the task..."

"You might have let me make that decision back when we had feet firm on the ground," Arthur said, scowling.

"And your answer would have been?" Bayard's tone of voice was infuriatingly calm, with the placating tone of a master chess player who knew exactly what strategy the other person would have taken, what decisions they would have made on the board. Arthur shook his head.

"The same as it is now," Arthur said. He snapped the file folder shut and handed it back to Bayard. He had a bad feeling that while they'd managed to escape a loan that would put the team under the CIA's direct control, that after this mission they might as well consider themselves seconded to the Directory.

Bayard smirked, stood up, and left the file folder on his seat behind him. He went to the SmartBoard -- which was actually a more advanced version than anything Arthur had seen, with an opaque backing that went virtually transparent when Bayard hit a button on the side -- and started dragging folder icons onto the surface.

Arthur glanced over his shoulder at Merlin, who had his head down, and decided that there were enough bad feelings about the situation to go around. Merlin glanced up at that moment, his eyes finding Arthur's in that instant, and they stared at each other, one of them the lorry hauling a ten ton load, the other the little fawn frozen on the yellow line in the middle of the road, and Arthur wasn't sure which one of them was which.

Merlin looked away first.

Why Merlin had to sit so far away from Arthur, particularly now, when he wasn't sure he could trust Bayard's definition of magic and he knew Merlin would be able to tell him how much cow manure was being slung his way, he didn't know.

He decided to strangle Merlin later.

"Our target is Samuel Trickler," Bayard said without preamble, and the noise level in the plane suddenly muted, as if someone had hit the button on the stereo the minute that the teacher went to the front of the room. Bayard tapped one of the icon, which exploded in a full screen with several images of Trickler in one corner, vital stats -- including weight, height, and distinguishing features -- on the bottom of the screen, and a list of linked data files on the right hand side. "You know him as The Jester, and he has multiple aliases, and nicknames. The most recent incarnation is Christophe Lefier."

He paused for a moment, tapping one of the links on the right hand side, and the screen was nearly completely filled with a one-person point view video similar to the video that Arthur had received from Olaf. It followed Trickler through a crowd of people at what looked to be a private party not unlike the one he had been at in the previous video, except the atmosphere was different, the décor more Eastern European, the women beautiful and dressed in slinky little excuses for handkerchiefs, the men standing with broad shoulders and puffy chests in their best imitation of mob men, everyone with a drink in one hand and cigarettes in the other.

There were subtitles again, although it looked like Trickler needed to shout in order to be heard over the background noise. The way that the women were waving their arms, squirming their bodies and wriggling their behinds into the crotches of the nearest man, it looked like the background noise was mostly music.

Cicero! I find the best parties!

You sure do!

Arthur sat up a little straighter. It was the second video he saw with Cicero's name in it, and if he hadn't already suspected that Cicero was a code name for an agent, he certainly knew it now. A quick backward glance showed that most of the others were studying the screen on the backs of the seats right in front of them.

"Cicero is one of our best undercover agents," Bayard said. "He's managed to maintain contact with Trickler only because he has a knack for providing Trickler with the attention that he craves. He's the one who organized this party, let other people take the credit for it, and allowed Trickler to stumble on it on his own. When he goes underground, all Cicero needs to do is wait long enough, start the party planning, and let the word trickle out. Trickler is eventually bound to at least peek out of his hole -- if not for one party, then for the next.

"Anytime that we need to get tabs on him or if we need to lure him out, we send Cicero."

Bayard moved aside, letting people get an unhindered view of the screen, though most of the team was watching the movie in front of him. Merlin, though, got up and moved a few rows up, sitting in the row behind Leon, studiously keeping his eyes ahead, and ignoring Arthur's veiled glares.

On the video, Trickler was bumping shoulders as he barged to what looked to be the centre of the room. Cicero, however, seemed to glide through the crowd, because the video footage, which looked about chest-high -- a necklace, maybe? A tie? Arthur guessed -- was steady. Trickler grabbed a glass from the tray of a passing waiter, fondled the poor man's rear end when he tried to explain that the drink was for someone else, giving up the argument in his haste to get away.

"Looks like he's an equal opportunity pillock," someone said to the rear of the plane, and Arthur thought it might have been Galahad.

"Seems like," someone else said speculatively, and that was Gwaine.

"If it's pretty, vulnerable, easily impressed and impressionable, he's interested," Bayard said. He was trying to be subtle about it, and Arthur had a sinking feeling when he saw Bayard glance in Merlin's direction. "From his psychological profile, we know that he has an inferiority complex. On the one hand, if someone in a position of power, and by that we mean someone who has more magic and authority than him, happens to be in the area, Trickler shuts up and becomes the ultimate arse-licker. He will yessir, no-sir his way out of whatever situation he's gotten himself in, and he'll rise to the top."

"Like shite in sewage," Owain said. At least, Arthur thought it was Owain, and he didn't turn to look. At any other time, Arthur would have barked a reprimand for the language, but Bayard wasn't in his direct chain of command, and he didn't feel like being accommodating.

"However, if he's in a situation where he perceives himself as the top dog, he will do anything to ensure that everyone knows that he's in charge. That means grabbing hold of the weakest person in the room and parading them around until everyone knows not to fuck with him."

There was a pause. Bayard stopped the video clip with a touch, scrolled the list up to one of the latest files, and opened a blank screen.

"As it happens, the longer he's under, the more worried we become. Right now, Trickler is the only person who has known associates high in the NWO," Bayard paused to see if everyone knew what the acronym stood for, spared a glance for Merlin that made Arthur frown, and continued, "And he's the only person who appears to have any concept of their future plans. Until recent intel, we were under the impression that they were years from that goal. They're actually closer than we thought."

"What do they have planned?" Leon asked. The team knew about Merlin's conversation with the NWO at the Lockdown -- it had come out when they talked about the videos, and to Arthur, it had sounded as if they planned on destabilizing governments worldwide. Most of the team agreed with him, but there were those, like Kay, who thought that it would be something more. Merlin didn't offer an opinion.

Bayard didn't answer for what must have been a couple hundred kilometres of ground distance, giving everyone an expression that said, do the math. When he finally spoke, it was with a hammerhead strike, brief and sudden, that shut up all speculation.

"The planet is overpopulated, mismanaged, and in a state of decline. Our society has endured a lot longer than most in history, but it's riddled with corruption and decay when it should be a cooperative utopia. The old world has outlived itself, and it's time to crowbar its hold on civilization and make way for the new."

The delivery was chilling.

"Are those your words or theirs?" Perceval asked, his voice low and dangerous.

"Our analysts have put together a manifesto based on the psychological profile of the organization as a whole, taking into account information that our agents have gathered," Bayard said. "That was a summary that may or may not reflect their actual intent. We do believe, however, because of the heavy emphasis on magic..."

Someone coughed, the sound low and strangled, as if they couldn't believe the word "magic" had been said out loud, even though it had been spoken casually several times already.

"... and their directed targeting of both people who have either innate magical talent and power and of people whose faith predates today's organized religion, that they intend to, in some way or another, to reduce the technological level of today's population to an equivalent historical time frame where magic was predominant."

"How do they plan on doing that?" Kay asked. "Some big magical neutron bomb? A time warp spell?"

Bayard gestured to the screen behind him, touching it with a finger. A night time photograph of a sparkling city that made Arthur think of Paris in the Nile, with large French-era stone buildings and sculptures in a mixture of Catholic cathedrals and Muslim mosques.

"That's where you come in," Bayard said. "We're not the only ones hunting these people, but we're the ones with an advantage. This team and our intelligence network. The sooner we get Trickler, alive, if you please, the sooner we can find out how they intend on achieving their goal and the sooner we can work on stopping them."

And keeping the weapon out of American hands. Arthur knew Bayard well enough to read between the lines, but he also knew Bayard well enough to wonder what he planned -- what his superiors, if he had any, planned to do with this weapon. If it was a weapon that the NWO planned to use.

Bayard continued, "Since your encounter at the assassination point, Cicero has thrown two large parties that barely triggered a nibble from Trickler. One in Moscow, which fits with Trickler's usual m.o., to run away to the furthest point he can think of. He didn't surface. Another in Berlin, which seems to be a growing nest for the NWO, but again, there was no sign of him. Thinking that he might be able to draw him out closer to the area where he's working, the latest party is in Algiers."

Algiers was the capital of Algeria, curled around a bay of the Mediterranean Sea, in part a modern scintillating city of painful, neo-archaeology, in part an ancient city of the style of the old rulers of Algeria and Tripoli under the rule of the former Ottoman Empire that rose up a steep hill where it was crowned by the city's citadel. It was a scintillating city, a bustling financial centre, a developing tourist attraction -- and that was in the new section of the city, the parts that curled around the shorefront. Deep in the old town, away from the shopping centres and water parks and clubs with neon lights, there was an underbelly and an underground just as dark as the deepest pit of London, if not more so.

"Cicero has received confirmation that Trickler will be at the party. That's where we'll pick him up."

"A party, huh?" Gwaine said, his interest perked up. "Well. I'd be in for that."

 

ooOOoo

 

They didn't have a plan yet, but Merlin thought it was a bad plan. A bad, bad, bad plan.

They spent the rest of the flight looking over maps of the city, schematics of the building where Cicero was throwing his party -- apparently a pre-vetted, secured, wired-to-the-nines two-storey, former-mansion-turned-elite-club with its own exclusive casino tucked away in the west wing, where the servant quarters used to be. Experience and observation had taught the Directory that Trickler did not go anywhere alone, that he had an entourage of bodyguards of some sort or another -- usually hired muscle depending on the city he was in -- and that this bunch mostly stayed outside of the club, with a few select personnel following him inside.

Apparently, for all his dubious personality traits, his foul demeanour, his peculiar tastes, and a crude humour that was worse than the crude humour of everyone on the team, combined, the Powers That Be of the NWO deemed Trickler important enough to warrant some backup.

("Is that backup of the techy kind?" Kay asked.

"At present it's unconfirmed, but assume that, yes, there will be some magic users," Mister Smith said.

"Are we sure they're backup and not babysitters?" Perceval asked dubiously, after watching footage of some past party footage with identified NWO personnel.

"No," Mister Smith admitted.)

There were two options to the snatch-and-grab job, and Merlin could tell that Arthur didn't like that there were only two. The first was to subdue Trickler inside the club -- likely the easiest approach since most of Trickler's people would be outside, or hampered by the crowds, but then again, the crowds would get in the way of Team Excalibur, too. The second option was to lure
Trickler outside of the club, and have it out with his people in the open.

Arthur, not the sort to dismiss plans out of hand, led the team in a brainstorming session that hammered out an approach to both with a speed that impressed Mister Smith, but no one on the team was satisfied with the end result. They spent another twenty minutes coming up with other potential approaches, for which they outlined the mission every step of the way, much to the amusement of Mister Smith, who stood off to the side stroking his beard, nodded every now and then, and provided some suggestions and alternate options.

"Do remember that he's a magic user," Mister Smith said at one point, "And that being a magic user doesn't necessarily make him brilliant. Trickler might not notice sixteen people converging on him when he's busy showing off, but his bodyguards would."

"We haven't forgotten that," Owain said, grinning. "We were planning a distraction."

"Ah," Mister Smith said. "Well, then. Carry on."

Ultimately, however, it was decided that even the best laid plans would work out better if the team balanced the effort to contain the bodyguards who accompanied Trickler inside the club, and to restrain the bodyguards who kicked their heels up and waited outside. Arthur grudgingly agreed with Mister Smith's estimation that it would be best to lure Trickler away from the main crowd using whatever resources at their disposal, which could range from making him sick ("I know just what to slip into his drink," Lance said, though he obviously didn't look like he liked the idea) to having a pretty girl escort him to a back room for easy access.

It was, Merlin knew, one of those missions where they could only sketch things out as thinly as possible by placing some men outside, some men inside, and playing it by ear.

("So what do you need us for?" Leon asked, in the ever-pragmatic tone of someone who didn't actually mind being on a luxury plane heading to perform a dangerous assignment.

"Yeah, you're the secret agents, and we're not trained for the super sneaky stuff," Owain said.

"Speak for yourself," Gwaine said.

"Owain has a point," Galahad spoke up from somewhere in the rear, near the forbidding walls. "You've got people on the inside. Why not use them?"

"For the exact reason that they're people on the inside," Mister Smith said. "Cicero is a known quantity to them. He's provided quality goods and reliable services to not only Trickler, but to the organization as a whole using Trickler as a go-between. If Trickler disappears at the party -- or, better yet, following the party -- then Trickler is no longer a go-between, and the people he works for may be willing to deal with Cicero directly."

"In English, mate," Geraint said.

"We don't want to compromise our people until we have to," Mister Smith said, and Geraint nodded sagely, as if he understood perfectly. It was Galahad who explained it to him in shushed whispers and hand gestures, after which Galahad blurted out, Oh, that makes sense, why didn't he say so then?)

The biggest question remained, and Merlin dreaded it because no one had asked it yet, until someone did.

"How are we getting inside without attracting attention? It's not as if we have an invitation," Leon asked.

"As if we need an invitation," Gwaine said, leaning back in his seat, patting his chest with smug confidence.

"Not everyone is going inside," Arthur said, his tone grave. Merlin didn't need to see his expression to know how unhappy Arthur was at right this instant.

"But I'm going, right?" Gwaine asked. Arthur didn't answer right away. His eyes went back to the building blueprints on the SmartBoard, and he covered his mouth with one hand, wrapping his other arm across his chest in the very image of deep thought.

"We can provide plausible covers for three people," Mister Smith said. "The remainder of those who would be going in are going to have to stay in the background and not get involved directly with Trickler."

"What are those covers?"

"A posh type with too much money and dubious principles with aggressive personality traits and associations with the weapons industry. Someone who's not supposed to be there but happens to be there by invitation of someone who is supposed to be there, and who can pull off the attractive-but-vulnerable act. The third cover would be someone with magical ability, apparently without mentor or training, that Trickler can use to prey upon." Mister Smith paused, and Merlin prepared to sink in his seat, out of sight, if the man so much as glanced in his direction, but he continued, "Those are the most likely types to attract Trickler's attention. We have attempted similar tactics in the past, however, and they failed to catch his eye. Unfortunately, it's the best that we've got. At the very least, the cover stories are solid, and whoever steps into those roles will have a legitimate reason to be there."

This time, Mister Smith glanced at Merlin, but he looked at everyone else, too.

"Can't you put your boys on this?" Bohrs asked, sounding dubious.

"No, he can't," Arthur said. He was still staring at the SmartBoard, his shoulders squared, still held tight in that thoughtful pose that Merlin couldn't help glance at, over and over again, because his spine was ramrod straight, his muscles tight, and his hands twitched with the subconscious desire to rub the tension out of him. Arthur's quiet words were enough to silence the chatter and put a pause on the questions, and everyone waited to hear him explain why it was that Mister Smith couldn't send out specially trained agents to work on Samuel Trickler.

Even Mister Smith was waiting to hear what Arthur had to say.

Arthur uncrossed his arms and let them fall to his side as he tapped a few items on the blueprints, one after the other in quick succession, more as a diversionary tactic than to actually pull up information that he wanted the others to know about, because they'd already gone through ever bit of data that Mister Smith's people had compiled about the site and about Trickler. When Arthur turned around to face the group, he was staring accusingly at Mister Smith, and his tone sounded it, too.

"The first two covers are designed specifically for people in Excalibur. I don't know who the third person is."

Everyone's eyes went from Arthur to Mister Smith.

Mister Smith, stoic and serene and placid, had the balls to be smiling.

"This is Olaf's doing, isn't it?" Arthur asked, and Merlin had an inkling of what he was about even if the rest of the team didn't put one and one together to come up with Olaf's near-constant attempts to recruit Arthur into MI-5.

"He did suggest that you would be ideal for the primary role, yes," Mister Smith said. "You do have the background. The son of a wealthy weapons magnate with prestigious military contracts? How can we pass that up as bait for this group? Pendragon Consulting's research and development division is at the forefront of technological warfare, with a very important impact in areas that the NWO have not yet formulated an appropriate source. If they can make a connection with you, we can stage some covert thefts --"

"My father --"

"-- is aware, and he approves. In fact, he's the one who suggested the technology under development that would most likely attract the NWO's attention," Mister Smith said, his tone severe, inviting, daring. There was something between the two men that Merlin couldn't help but wonder about, and a quick glance around the plane showed that he wasn't the only one thinking the same thing. Everyone wisely stayed silent during the staring match, and it was Arthur who looked away.

Merlin's heart hurt to see Arthur's struggle against his father's shadow, a shadow that threatened to suffocate him even now, on a mission that should have taken him far away from Uther Pendragon's influence. There was nothing that Merlin could say or do to make the pain go away, not here, not now.

"And Merlin?" Arthur asked. Merlin sat up straighter, frowning, looking down the rows of seats to see if there was another Merlin that Arthur might have been talking about.

Perceval was obviously wondering the same thing. "What does Merlin have to do with this?"

Everyone turned to look at Merlin, and he glanced down at himself, wondering if he'd sprouted a second head or a third arm or something without realizing it. It was Gwaine who stood up, leaning an arm over the back of a seat, giving him a speculative look. "Well, if anyone on the team can pull off attractive and vulnerable..."

Merlin flinched inwardly, remembering Mister Smith's descriptions of the covers that his people had put together. At least "attractive and vulnerable" was a large sight better than "someone with magical ability". Still, it was the principle of the thing. He raised a hand. "I take offence to that."

"You resemble that," Bohrs said.

"Oi, aren't you supposed to be his bitch?" Perceval asked, and Bohrs flew him the fingers.

"The intent is to have Merlin continue the same role that he played in London when he made contact with one of the NWO cell leaders," Mister Smith said. "As far as anyone's concerned, Merlin Emrys has been couch-surfing his way across Europe and heading south, making more of a name of himself in the underground, as he's supposed to, doing freelance under-the-table decryption and encryption work. A paper trail is in place bringing him to Algiers where a past client has invited him to the party under the pretence of introducing him to other potential temporary employers, but as far as Trickler is concerned, Merlin's really there to be gotten drunk and taken advantage of --"

"He comes with me," Arthur said suddenly, and Merlin recognized the stone in his expression -- there would be absolutely no changing his mind. Merlin wouldn't even have the chance to say no, I don't want to do it, find someone else because Arthur had already decided how it would go down.

Also, if Arthur was going in, Merlin wouldn't let him go in by himself.

"It might look suspicious -- two favourable targets for Trickler --"

"It would look more suspicious if we weren't together," Arthur said, crossing his arms over his chest the way he did when he was digging his heels deep in the ground, with absolutely no intention of giving a centimetre. "If I'm playing the role of the posh type with too much money and dubious principles with aggressive personality traits and associations with the weapons industry --"

Merlin thought it was both a little scary, and a lot hot, that Arthur could quote Mister Smith word for word, and for a tiny, minuscule moment, Merlin almost forgot his original gut instinct that all this was a bad plan. A bad, bad, really bad plan.

"-- then I'm going to be making it my business to associate with whomever can further my interests --" Arthur uncrossed his arms and pointed a finger at Mister Smith just as Mister Smith looked as if he were about to protest, and continued, "-- and that includes someone with Merlin's credentials, especially if I'm right about the Pendragon technology that is being dangled as bait."

This time, Arthur didn't back down from the staring match, and Mister Smith pressed his lips together in consideration. Finally, he looked away with a curt nod.

"Very well. That should be easy enough to fabricate. A chance meeting through a mutual acquaintance, and you usurped his key programmer. I'll have the dossier written up." Mister Smith didn't look particularly pleased about the change of plan, but he didn't look altogether unhappy either.

"Wait," Merlin protested. "I can't go in. I've gone against Trickler before, he'd know me."

"We were in full assault gear with Kevlar, hardtops on our heads, goggles and scarves over our faces against the storm," Gwaine said after a moment's pause. "And even if he'd know you through all that, when would he have gotten close enough to get a good look in the first place?"

Merlin flinched. "Right."

His hopes of avoiding going in entirely were dashed thanks to Gwaine's big gob, but even if it hadn't been Gwaine who'd spoken up, Perceval and Owain would have said something. They were all keen on getting their own back after that very embarrassing encounter against Trickler, Aredian and Mordred.

With slumped shoulders, Merlin looked over at Arthur and Mister Smith. "Um. What technology is it that we're using? Shouldn't I know what we're talking about?"

Eye contact with Arthur right now was nothing short of electrifying, and Merlin saw a swirl of troubled emotion that was dizzying and breathtaking all at the same time.

"We'll discuss that later, Merlin," Arthur said. Quiet. Commanding.

Then, without another word, Arthur turned to talk to Mister Smith, his voice pitched too low for anyone to hear over the rumble of the plane's engines and the conversation going on in the background. Merlin scowled, feeling slighted. The only thing that was missing was the dismissive pat on the head.

Merlin worked his jaw, trying to find the courage to voice the oi! I'm not exactly chopped liver here that was brewing deep down in his belly, but before he could say anything, Kay spoke up.

"You mentioned a third cover story? A magic user? Who's that going to be?"

The question was out of left field, a reminder that most of the team had forgotten about number three, and the side conversations came to an abrupt halt, all heads swivelling toward the front of the plane where Arthur had taken a step away from Mister Smith and was waiting expectantly for an answer. When Mister Smith didn't say anything, Kay slid out of his row and took over the aisle.

"Because you said your people can't be compromised, and that we're the ones going in," Kay pressed on. "Far as I know, none of us would pass auditions with Siegfried and Roy."

Mister Smith moved then, a slight, predatory step forward, both hands on the top of the seats as he leaned forward with the intimidating stare of a drill sergeant, or a teacher who'd had enough, or even the bullied kid who had, in a split second, had enough of being bullied. When he spoke, his voice was a low rumble that mixed with the sound of the plane's engines, "You're making the assumption that magic is something you're born with. It's not."

Merlin wasn't sure if the cold wash down his spine was intense relief, or terrible fear. It was a combination of being glad that no one knew about him, and confusion that maybe there was something wrong with him if he didn't fit the known mould of magic users.

"Some people show signs inherent magical affinity when they're in their teens. Others, not until they're well into their sixties and seventies. Using that magic is something else entirely, and it requires learning and practice. That doesn't mean that a random schmuck off the street can't learn magic -- the only difference is that the magic won't come as easily and the spells won't work as well," Mister Smith said.

Kay glanced around the plane. "So... Who is it going to be, then?"

Mister Smith's lips split in a thin smile that didn't reach his eyes, and Merlin's original feeling of this being a bad, bad, very bad plan suddenly took a left turn, hit the curb, bounced over gravel, and hovered in thin air before dropping like a brick to the rocky shoals below. It landed with a fiery crash with flames quickly swamped by the salty ocean waves, the debris swept away in the next wash.

"When we land, I will teach you a simple spell. Your third person is going to be whoever gets it to work, and gets it to work well."

Merlin's eyes went to the SmartBoard, which was a screen full of brainstorming notes on top of the building blueprints, but he could still see in his mind's eye the image of Sam Trickler casting a spell in front of everyone, enjoying the adulations and uncaring of the spectacle -- and complications -- that he created. Mister Smith had spent enough time explaining Trickler's psychological workout for it to be plainly obvious that putting an inexperienced magic user in his path was bound to attract his attention, and not in a good way.

Trickler was bound to see the other person as a threat, as someone who would steal the spotlight away from him. He'd hunt them down, corner them like sheep, and destroy them. Maybe that was the lure, the way that the Directory thought they could get Trickler away from the others, but the risk associated with it was staggering. Against a magic user of Trickler's ability, a team member who'd only learned one spell would have absolutely no chance, and Excalibur might not be able to move fast enough to save them.

Mister Smith must have known that, must have computed the risks. It was a chancy plan to include this third cover, even if they could scramble personnel in the background fast enough to make certain that there were no fatalities on their side.

But that thin smile, that darkening of his eyes -- it dawned on Merlin then, that Mister Smith didn't intend to send in an inexperienced magic user, or even an experienced one. There wasn't going to be a third person -- at least, not in the sense that there would be a third person on the mission. This was a ploy. Mister Smith was going to root out any magic potential in the group for his own purposes. For the Directory's purpose.

Merlin knew enough about magic that he could not only botch whatever spell Mister Smith wanted them to try, but he could make it so that his attempt never came to fruition. He might even be able to force other people's successful attempts to fizzle out, putting an end to any conversation about a third person making it to the party. But he couldn't do it if there were other natural magic users nearby, distinctly looking for magic from someone.

Merlin cast a frantic glance in Arthur's direction. Arthur's gaze was fixed on a spot on Mister Smith's head, and if those gorgeous blue eyes were lasers, Mister Smith would have a smoking crater for a head right now.

"The goal here is getting Trickler on a solid cover story, not on the hinged hopes that someone here can do a card trick," Arthur said, his tone flat and casually dismissive, but Merlin knew, the way he always knew when Arthur didn't like a plan, that Arthur had seen through Mister Smith, and didn't like the game being played. "There won't be a third person going in under active cover. We don't have time for the abracadabra shite. Let's focus on the plan."

Mister Smith's scowl faded, but he wasn't pleased. The rest of the team returned to their preparations, but Merlin caught the wistful look on Kay's face.

"Merlin. Get up here. Let's get our story straight."

Merlin rolled his eyes. It figured that Arthur would be a natural at playing the role of a self-entitled spoiled prat.

"Yes, sire. Coming."

 

ooOOoo

 

Bayard took Arthur aside and took him through his briefing, familiarizing him with names, faces, affiliations and networked contacts in the dubious (and illegal) world of arms dealers. There was no mercy for Arthur as the information was bombarded at him in a dual stream of nonstop chatter from Bayard and a continuous feed from a computer screen. It was a crash course in the situation in the world-at-large that Arthur was already familiar with, a detailed explanation of the conflicts that he wasn't, and a swallowing of misgivings and pushing aside of personal righteousness. By the end of it, Arthur's head was reeling, his ability to memorize everything pushed to the limits and beyond, and he'd undergone the real test of his management skills when Bayard's briefing had been interrupted at least seven times by the team wanting input on their individual tasks.

The only other member of the team who was going through an intense briefing was Merlin, and even then, his preparations were very mild in comparison to Arthur's brutal immersion.

"Just do exactly what you did at the Lockdown," Bayard had told Merlin. "The same mannerisms, the same act."

Merlin had ducked his head and nodded, and Arthur wanted to hit Bayard on the head on principle. If Bayard hadn't done his homework and figured out that it wasn't an act, then he hadn't done his homework at all.

Arthur didn't know if he would ever forgive the people who had bullied Merlin when he was younger, who were still bullying him now, like that Bryn pillock had done in the Lockdown. He thanked whatever God looked over Merlin that Merlin's spirit hadn't been broken, because for all that Merlin knew to duck and cover when he was pushed into a corner, he could give as good as he got.

Where Arthur had a few hours to hurry up and get familiar with his new role as the petulant son of a weapons mogul who was being kept out of important business decisions -- not really that much of a stretch as far as Arthur was concerned -- Merlin was being updated on what he had been doing in his role as a NWO candidate while "he" had been backpacking through Europe, giving him a list of names and addresses and places and jobs that had been done by MI-5 and the Directory on his behalf, the communication that had taken place through the email address that the NWO had set up for him, and the route by which he'd taken to get to Algiers.

And, most importantly, how he'd ended up in Arthur's entourage and the elusive technology that he was expected to work on.

During all this, the team was outfitted in civilian clothing, issued standard Directory communication gear that Merlin was firmly told not to play with, and directed to their positions so that they could get an eyeball on the situation, getting information they wouldn't be able to get from two-dimensional maps.

Perceval and Bohrs, as the largest two in the team, would be with Arthur as his bodyguards, Merlin as his "plus one". Gwaine and Kay, as the two least physically imposing and scruffiest-looking people in the group (not counting Merlin), would be circulating the floor as part of the background. As much as Arthur would rather that Gwaine were on a rooftop somewhere, providing cover and taking care of any of Tricklker's bodyguards, Geraint and Galahad were equally capable as snipers in shorter-range urban settings.

The rest of the team -- one third of those remaining under Leon's, Lancelot's, and Owain's leadership -- were scattered at key points outside the club, both with the intention of stopping Trickler from escaping and helping Excalibur ghost him away.

Arthur went over the plan in his head for the eleventh time. He adjusted his tie in the mirror, ran his fingers through his hair, and cursed Olaf under his breath.

It was Olaf's fault. All this. All of this. Right from the day Gwaine, Perceval, Owain and Merlin went on that single-shot assassination detail, to meeting with the CIA, to getting assigned to the CIA should they require Excalibur's assistance in achieving their targets, to the cock-up that was the Lockdown, and now this.

Arthur was nearly one hundred percent certain that Olaf had engineered all this just to somehow get Arthur associated with MI-5.

He picked up one dinner jacket, curled his lip in disapproval, and tossed it on the plush hotel room chair. The closet was stocked with expensive designer clothing in his size, but someone, somewhere, had failed the fashion coordination course, because that jacket was a dark navy blue, and they did not go with the Armani charcoal trousers. The hooks made squeaking sounds on the rack as he thumbed through the hangers until he found the coat that went with the rest of his outfit.

Arthur was trying to decide which tie screamed more insolent bastard, rich plonker, daddy-defying wannabe arms dealer -- the off-grey silver tie with red piping, or the silk in solid blue when there was a knock on the door. A quick glance at the watch face of the Bulgari Ergon ("Really? Bulgari? Couldn't afford a Rolex, Uncle Sol?" Arthur had asked Bayard when they had a moment's privacy, and Bayard only raised a brow), then through the peephole, revealed that it was Merlin -- late again. He opened the door and waved him in, scowling.

The scowl wavered when he saw what Merlin was wearing.

If he thought watching Merlin leave his flat wearing tight jeans and a T-shirt in a look that would be considered downright scandalous in some conservative countries had made his own jeans a little snug around the crotch area, Merlin's current ensemble threatened to make Arthur lose every ounce of self-discipline he had and slam Merlin back against the closed door.

"Merlin," Arthur said in his best scathing voice, "Are you ever on time?"

He turned away quickly, but it was too late. The image of Merlin was burned into his brain.

In keeping with his image of a bum mooching his way across Europe, borrowing one couch after the other, Merlin wasn't wearing anything expensive, or even anything that would make him stand out. And because he didn't stand out, he stood out anyway, in the way only Merlin could stand out, because he was downright beautiful.

His jeans were stonewashed black skinnies that hung to his hips only by sheer willpower and a black leather studded belt, and there were just enough tiny holes in them in exactly the right spots to make them look well-worn, but cared for. There was no T-shirt this time because Arthur had explained, using very small words, that there was no way that he would allow his "plus one" to wear a T-shirt to a party as prestigious -- if the big arm-dealer "names" on the invitation list was anything to go by -- as the one Cicero was putting together. Instead, there was a black, slightly wrinkled shirt open at the neck, hinting at the fine hairs on his chest, the long sleeves rolled partway up his forearms, making the lean musculature and fine bone structure of his arms and hands stand out even more. The shirt wasn't tucked in, but it didn't need to be; it was snug enough to almost be a second skin, and long enough to cover the top of his jeans. Between the flash of smooth skin and the silver of the belt studs around his waist, Arthur was having a hard time looking away.

He didn't have a watch, any jewellery, or anything out of the ordinary. He didn't even have a gun -- it wasn't as if he could successfully hide one, not the way he was dressed. There was a phone was in his front jeans pocket; Arthur had the number programmed in his own phone and memorized in case his phone disappeared.

"Do you know, none of the clocks in this place have the right time?" Merlin asked. He almost sounded as if he were sticking his tongue out, and Arthur glanced at him in the wall mirror. Merlin shoved one hand into his jeans pocket, shrugged a shoulder and looked for all the world as if he were a sullen teenage kid, right down to the unshaven scruff on his chin, the tangled snarl of his short black hair, and the pouty lower-lip and know-it-all chip on his shoulder.

If Arthur didn't know better, he'd find the person who'd coached Merlin into the role and tell them to get a job teaching the big name movie stars in Hollywood how to act. But this was Merlin, down to a T, and someone was going to have to find some way to distil the essence if they wanted to replicate the look, the mood, the sense of him.

"The only time you need to be concerned about is mine, Merlin," Arthur said, watching Merlin's reaction in the mirror. The corner of his mouth scrunched up in a sardonic smirk that faded almost all at once, and there was a flicker of intense uneasiness and a little bit of fear.

"No need to be a prat behind closed doors, Arthur. We're not on the job yet," Merlin said, running his hand along the back of his head, ruffling his hair even more, and Arthur spent longer than he should have staring at Merlin in the mirror, wondering if his lips were really always that red, or if someone had put lip gloss on him.

Cherry lip gloss, Arthur decided. If it was lip gloss, it should be cherry-flavoured. He'd accept nothing less.

"Neither of those," Merlin said, startling Arthur out of his reverie. He turned away from the mirror before Merlin could see the heat rise to his cheeks at having been caught staring.

"What?"

"You're going for the obnoxious spoilt brat, aren't you? Tie number one's fine if you're going to a funeral, and if you wear the other one, it'll look like you're a smarmy used car salesman." Merlin walked toward the walk-in -- the Directory had splurged for a nice place in case Arthur was followed, just to maintain the persona in case they didn't get Trickler this time -- and came out with a blood-red tie with thin black diagonal stripes that rippled like velvet in the light. "This one."

"Right, you're one to talk about fashion and style," Arthur said, gesturing with a finger at Merlin's outfit, though he couldn't dispute Merlin's choice of clothing since it hit every single one of his trigger points. How he hadn't seen the tie hanging from the rack the first time, he didn't know. Arthur dumped the other two on a nearby table, and knotted the tie.

"I'm a bent science geek, mate," Merlin said with a roll of his eyes. "What I know about fashion and style could probably make one tiny little blip in a neutrino detector. But red's your colour. Always will be. Plus, it gives you just that edge of flash, yeah?"

Arthur didn't answer. He tied a Windsor knot, keeping an eye on Merlin. Merlin had moved to lean against the wall, one arm wrapped tight around his narrow chest, the other propped up, elbow on forearm, as he rubbed his eyes with forefinger and thumb. His hand was shaking a bit.

"There's an even chance that nothing's going to happen," Arthur said, wanting Merlin to look up, to take a breath, to calm down. To understand that as long as they held together, they would get through this just as they'd worked it out. To know that Arthur couldn't do this without him. That Arthur wouldn't do this without him.

Except Merlin didn't do anything of the kind. He didn't look up, he didn't move. Before Arthur knew what he was doing, he'd left his spot from in front of the mirror and had gone to stand before Merlin. He took Merlin's hand and lowered it from his face.

"I don't care how dire Smith's painted it," Arthur said, remembering to use Bayard's alias at the very last moment. "How he said if we don't play it by the book it's going to go bad. Forget it. We're doing this our way. Once we're inside, Perce and Bohrs are going to stick together. Kay's going to make sure Gwaine doesn't drink himself stupid, and Gwaine's going to make sure some bit of skin isn't going to flaunt her tits at Kay and walk away with him.

"And there's you and me," Arthur said, putting his other hand on Merlin's shoulder. He knew that Merlin knew all this, but he found that sometimes repeating the plan helped his team get settled. "Forget what Smith said. This is how it is. I'm the plonker you can't get away from, and you're not sure you'd want to, even if you could. You're wrapped around my little finger. You'll do anything I ask you to do."

God, Merlin was tense. Arthur's hand slid to Merlin's neck, his fingers on the back of his throat, stroking the muscle, trying to loosen the knot, trying to ease the big, stretched-taut rubber ball that Merlin had become.

"You'll be loud, you'll be an arse, you'll have a mouth. You'll tell everyone off. You'll tell me off. I'll let you get away with all of it until you push me too far, and then everyone is going to know that the biggest genius in the room is mine, that you're my pet..."

Arthur hoped that he wasn't showing how much he wanted that to be true.

"...and it's going to drive Trickler absolutely mad, and we'll have him. It'll be easy."

Merlin swallowed heavily. He bit down on his lip, chewing it. He shifted his weight from foot to foot in a tiny little anxious stumble. He took a deep, shaky breath, and it was the way he raised his eyes, those beautiful, sparkling jewels bright against the long black lashes, that robbed Arthur of his own. But Merlin nodded, slowly, then more assured, his mouth (that beautiful mouth) spreading in a cheeky grin.

"So, just act the way we normally do?"

Arthur's laugh was a little on the rough side. He pulled his hand from the back of Merlin's neck and patted his cheek. "Yeah. Pick up my dry cleaning, fold my clothes, polish my shoes, clean my guns."

"Right," Merlin said, "And I suppose you want me to draw your bath and wash your back while I'm at it, too?"

"Now, that's an idea," Arthur said. He took a step back, not realizing until that moment that he'd been holding Merlin's hand all this time. Their fingers were hopelessly tangled and it took a good yank before he could let go properly. He moved as casually as possible, as if he did that sort of hand-holding every day, which in a way he did, because there wasn't a time when he didn't clap someone on the shoulders, grab someone's arm, or physically manoeuvre someone into position. Arthur walked over to the bed where his equipment was laid out, and buckled on the shoulder holster with fingers that were suddenly less nimble than usual. He was checking his gun when there was a knock on the door.

"It's Perce."

Merlin moved toward the door -- and in a rare show of common sense, glanced through the peephole to confirm before letting Perceval in. The big man was dressed in smart slacks and a button-down shirt open at the neck, a black jacket over top that did nothing to hide the virtual armoury he carried on him. His hair was brushed back, he was fresh-shaven, and there was something of a mixture of secret service and personal bodyguard and bouncer in the way he stood politely in the doorway, his hands clasped in front of him.

"Everyone's in position," Perceval said. "Smith's waiting on you."

"Of course he is," Arthur said. He holstered his gun and took his time putting on his jacket. "We'll be late."

"Not if we hurry," Perceval said.

Arthur half-turned to look at him. "No. We're going to be late on purpose."

Perceval glanced at Merlin, who shrugged. "Apparently it's now against his religion to be on time."

"You'd know something about that, wouldn't you?" Arthur said, raising a brow at Merlin. He went over to the mirror and checked out his appearance, but the more he looked for an arms dealer, the more he saw prep school boy trying to look like a toff. He ran his fingers through his hair to muss it up a little, and that seemed to help. "We'll meet you in the lobby."

"Right. Just one thing, though," Perceval said.

"Yeah?"

Perceval pointed at himself. "I'm the bodyguard. No throwing yourself in the way of a punch, a knife, a bullet. None of that being a hero bollocks. That's my job."

Arthur snorted.

"I mean it, Arthur," Perceval said. "I'll have Bohrs sit on you if I have to."

Merlin laughed. The sound distracted Arthur so much, he didn't answer Perceval right away. "Fine. You're the bodyguard."

Perceval's eyes narrowed while he decided if he could hold Arthur to that. Finally, he nodded and left the room, shutting the door behind him.

Arthur turned to Merlin. "You'll be all right?"

"I'll be fine." Merlin gave him a jerky nod. He walked over to Arthur, put his hands on his shoulders, and turned him around.

"What?"

Merlin pulled at his tie, loosening it, undid the top button of his shirt, and ran his thumbs along the inside of Arthur's collar, giving him a delicious shiver. Arthur had to blink -- it wasn't often, if it was at all -- that Merlin reached out to touch someone, anyone, either in a gesture of companionable friendship or to flick a bit of lint from t heir shoulder. But this -- this was a lot more intimate.

"Merlin --"

Merlin turned him around again to face the mirror. The damage wasn't terrible. The Windsor knot was just a bit askew, the collar a bit rumpled, the slight hint of skin adding just that bit of extra that Arthur thought had been missing.

"That's not bad. I thought you didn't have a lick of fashion sense," Arthur said. He resisted the urge to straighten his tie.

"I don't, but I know what I like," Merlin said. He shrugged, trying for nonchalance, but there was something in the way Merlin was watching Arthur from over his shoulder that made those words go right to his cock.

Arthur found it suddenly impossible to swallow. His heart palpitated in loud bass compressions that drowned out every other sound in the universe. It was only in the reflection of the mirror as Merlin walked across the room to the door that he noticed that the very tips of Merlin's ears were red.

"Merlin," Arthur said.

"What?"

Arthur came up behind Merlin, moving quick and sure, grabbing Merlin's arm, his fingers tight around a slim wrist that might just break under his grasp. He twisted it behind Merlin's back, pushing him against the wall besides the door --

Merlin's startled little cry should have put him off what he was doing, because Arthur knew what he liked, too, but it only drove him on instead --

Before Merlin could react, before Arthur could think too much about it, his free hand grasped the back of Merlin's shirt, pulling the fabric to open the collar to nearly his shoulder and reveal that bare, delicious expanse of neck. He went for the flesh at the crook, right where the muscle curved between the shoulder before the smooth rise of his throat, his teeth biting the skin, his tongue tasting Merlin as if questing for the X where the treasure chest was buried. His lips closed on the spot, sealing it, and he sucked hard --

It wasn't going to be pretty. It wasn't meant to. Arthur would tell himself later that it was part of the act, an accessory that would keep Merlin in character, but he wouldn't believe the lie, not when he was marking Merlin out of sheer, instinctive need, because no one else could have Merlin, no one else but him.

Maybe he suckled at Merlin's throat a little longer than he needed to. Maybe he held Merlin against the wall, his chest pressed against Merlin's back, a little longer than he should have. Maybe that instant where Merlin's body relaxed in near-complete, blissful submission was the moment where nothing else mattered. Maybe that strangled, badly-muffled moan that came out of Merlin's mouth (that beautiful, cherry-red, completely kissable mouth) was the fuel to the fire that burned deep inside Arthur, rousing the low flames to an inferno of passion and desire.

All Arthur knew was that if his cell phone hadn't rung at right that damn moment in a bit of good timing -- or incredibly bad timing, depending on how Arthur looked at it -- Arthur would've...

torn open Merlin's shirt even more, bathing his throat and spine in kisses

reached down to stroke Merlin's cock through the tight fabric of his jeans, drawing more of those delicious moans from him

forced him to use his free hand to unbuckle first his belt, then Arthur's

... but he stopped himself from thinking what he wanted to do before he was too far down that hole, and hastily let Merlin go to turn away and reach for his phone, glancing at the call display with a wince that abruptly shunted the blood flow from between his legs to the other, thinking parts of his body out of sheer self-preservation, because it was Uther fucking Pendragon calling, and if nothing else, that was a sure-fire killer for the mood.

"Colonel," Arthur said, answering the phone after taking a sharp breath, but he barely listened to what his father had to say about the technology that he was supposed to dangle for Trickler only if all else failed, because the sound of Merlin scrambling out of the room, shutting the door behind him, was the only thing that filled his ears.

By the time Arthur reached the lobby several long minutes later, hoping to take Merlin aside to explain, to deliver the excuse he'd practiced on the elevator ride down ("It's for show, nothing more, to make it look good."), Merlin wasn't anywhere in sight, and there was only Perceval, the antique French chair he was sitting on looking as if it might crumble under him at any moment.

"He's in the car," Perceval said, answering Arthur's question before Arthur could ask. Perceval stood up, his expression odd and distant, the way it was odd and distant when Perceval knew that something had happened, but that he wasn't going to ask because it wasn't the time. Arthur was grateful for that, because he wasn't sure he had an answer to that question. "Stay behind me. Sir."

Arthur couldn't meet Perceval's eyes. Instead, he nodded and followed without a word.

 

ooOOoo

 

Arthur had done his head in.

From the moment Merlin was manhandled against the wall -- something that left a lovely ring of black-green bruises around his wrist on top of the purple blotch on his neck, neither of which could be completely hidden no matter how much Merlin fidgeted with his clothes -- to this very moment, when Arthur cast a dangerous glance in his direction without pause in his conversation with one of the top three arms dealers in the world (they were talking about footie matches and the upcoming Worlds, of all things), Merlin knew that he was absolutely, one-hundred-per cent in trouble, because he'd never been more turned on in his life than at that moment when Arthur said his name right before branding him.

It wasn't an actual brand, but the love bite on his throat had burned, sending searing bolts of heat all through his body, and Merlin could feel it even now, hours later, one beer and two seltzers made up to look like gin and tonics later. Every time Arthur glanced at him, his eyes hooded and knowing, Merlin couldn't help the flush rising up his neck and cheeks, because he remembered that moment against the door when his surprise gave way to yes, please, more.

Merlin still wasn't certain if he should be glad for the interruption that spared him the added humiliation of Arthur discovering just how much he'd been turned on. Of course, Arthur only did what he had done because it was for show, because they were playing a role, because it would be more realistic if Merlin was bruised a bit and showed signs of having been used. The logical part of Merlin's head knew that.

The rest of his body argued back with a growling, fuck that, can we go back to the room?

It was a while before Merlin could get his brain and his body to cooperate, because there was a job to do, and if it didn't pay attention he might just get people killed by accident, which would be bad, and that might also mean that he wouldn't ever get another situation with Arthur like that again, which would be worse, in his estimation.

While he hadn't been paying attention to the party (he was, now), the party had been paying attention to them. At first, there was the overall cold shoulder and hostility of a crowd who didn't care who the pillock was who'd come late, with an entourage, and proceeded to waltz through the building as if he owned the joint. Once enough people heard the name Pendragon, and someone put together the puzzle enough to match Arthur with Pendragon Consulting and premier weapons supplier, the crowds relaxed and watched him with interest.

They didn't pay much attention to Merlin. And then, they did.

Someone -- probably one of the MI-6 agents that Smith had said would be at the party, because parties like these always caused several different missions and undercover agents from a broad variety of governments to gather and interact with their targets and provide opportunities for information to be passed on to their handlers -- had started the rumour that Arthur wasn't in Uther Pendragon's good books, and Uther wasn't in Arthur Pendragon's good books. That brought about even more interest and something very much like a bidding war when someone mentioned, "So, I've met your father," and Arthur's expression turned stony, and he walked away from the number four arms dealer in the world in the rudest show of brass balls everyone had ever seen.

The attempt to retaliate for the snub had been curtailed by Perceval, who'd stepped between Arthur and number four arms dealer and smiled a broad, toothy smile that confidently broadcast that he could not only take on number four, but all of his bodyguards, all by himself.

Bohrs, behind him, only smirked and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, and anyone who makes it past him won't make it past me.

And still, no one paid attention to Merlin until the number two arms dealer caught Arthur's sideways and very proprietary glance at Merlin and asked, "Is he important?"

"Newest acquisition," Arthur said simply, as if that answered every possible connotation of the man's question, which apparently it did, because number two gave Merlin another, appraising look, and nodded sagely, grinning a little when he saw the bruises on Merlin. Arthur's two words were enough to crack open a big can of worms, because number two must have wondered, and questions started being asked, and someone -- probably another MI-5 agent -- must have said something, because suddenly people became very interested in Merlin.

"So, I hear you're a genius," a moxie of one of the lower ranked arms dealer (more of an arms wholesaler) said, because no one else wanted to waste their time on someone if they weren't worth wasting time on, and Merlin shifted from foot to foot, his hands shoved into his jeans pockets, and he glanced over at Arthur, who had chosen this moment of all times to ignore him.

"'Suppose so," Merlin mumbled, breaking eye contact to stare at the floor.

He hated this. He liked the background. He liked being part of a team. He liked having a place to belong to with a role that was well defined. He hated, hated, absolutely hated being a Person Of Interest, with people watching him like he was the meal for the next dinner course, and all that they'd been served until now were paltry crudités and wilted salad leaves. Fucking lot of cannibals, they were, just like the headhunters who'd swarmed him right out of university. It was one reason why he'd gone straight to the Army recruitment office and signed up.

"What was it again?" the woman said, and when Merlin glanced up and leaned in because he couldn't hear her the first time (something he was sure she'd done on purpose to get his attention), he saw that she was wearing too much purple eye shadow, and her cheeks had too much blush, and her lipstick was the wrong shade of red for the club's lighting. "I heard math."

Merlin shrugged a shoulder. "That's part of it, I guess. I'm an engineer. Telecom."

The woman gave him a practiced blank, but curious stare that was probably meant to prompt Merlin to explain. "The Internet?"

Merlin laughed a little, and it was the sort of small, nervous giggle of a man who didn't talk to women often, or anyone else, for that matter. "The Internet. Yeah. You could say that. More like, the code that the Internet and everything else sits on."

"The code?" Of course the woman would latch onto the only word that was interesting. "You mean like secret codes?"

Merlin smiled, remembering to smile, because his role was the über-geek, and people should be impressed by what he did, even if they didn't know who he was. He repeated the script that he'd been given by Smith's people. "Sure. If you want to call it that. Secret codes, encrypted codes, random codes. They're all zeros and ones. To me, there isn't any such thing as secret codes."

"What do you mean?" the woman asked, pretending to look stupid, but he'd seen the razor-sharp look in her eyes before, in one of his old uni classes where the professor was keen on cutting down know-it-all students, only, when he tried it on Merlin, Merlin turned the tables on him. This exact moment felt like just that. A challenge. Prove it.

Merlin took another look at the woman. She was dressed just a tiny bit more modestly than most of the other women in the crowd. Her clothes were a shade less flashy, her jewellery more upscale. Her hair was done up in fashionable style, coloured by an overpriced professional who took no less than a half thousand for a cut and a blow dry. When he glanced down at her shoes -- Louboutin it looked like, which he normally wouldn't know the name of, but he'd noticed Morgana's killer heels at dinner one night, and she proceeded to give him a lecture about being a gay man who didn't know shoe brands -- and when he looked back at her, he saw the change in her eyes. She knew she had absolutely no chance of flashing her tits at him and being able to hook him away from Arthur if he turned out to be the real deal.

He was the real deal, and her reaction amused him to no end. For once, the joke about gay men and women's shoes was coming in useful.

Clothes alone hinted that she was in a class above most of the other women in the room. And she was good -- very good -- at pretending she was stupid. Maybe once, he would've been completely fooled. Not anymore. Not after Freya.

The woman's question was on the script the Directory agent had given him to read, but the answer, he knew, wouldn't satisfy her, so he improvised. Merlin took a long look around. "How many cell phones do you suppose are in the room?"

"A lot?" the woman suggested.

"And how many people here do you think keep vital information close at hand... say, on their phones?"

The woman hesitated, looking uncertain. The conversation wasn't going where she thought it would go. "Probably a few people."

"Let's say one hundred, to make the math easier. From that hundred, what percentage do you think actually use the security features on their phones? Mostly, you know, because they don't see why they should bother with passcodes or silly things like that, not when they're surrounded by bodyguards and really, if a thief knew who they were, they wouldn't dare try to steal their phones. Go on. Guess. How many?"

"Uh... half of them?"

Merlin raised a dismissive hand in the air. "It's a whole lot less than that, actually. Maybe ten out of a hundred, one out of a hundred. But we'll go with your fifty. Of those fifty, how many do you think use security beyond the phone's original operating system? Maybe they've replaced the O/S, maybe they've changed the SMS card, maybe they've disabled the GPS, installed virus checkers, spyware software, that kind of thing?"

He waited a moment. She glanced around nervously and seemed to go pale when she saw someone nearby. While she was swallowing hard and trying to subtly signal to whomever she was with to turn off your phone because it has lousy protection, Merlin glanced over and saw Arthur sidle slightly, a sure sign that he -- or rather his character -- was starting to feel possessive. Perfect.

"Let's go with half of that fifty. That leaves us with twenty-five people in the room who might actually have a decent protection system on their phones. How long do you figure it'll take me to crack everyone's phone -- not just the twenty five with the secure cells? Ten minutes? Five? Two minutes? Less?" Merlin grinned, pulling his cell phone out of his side pocket, sliding the keyboard open.

"No, you don't have to --" the woman protested, holding up both hands with wide, panicked eyes.

"Oh, look, I've got a weak signal. There must be some copper in the building, they do that sometimes to enhance the whole privacy thing people are always harping about. They have a special setup for casinos, you know. They don't want outside interference, or people using little techy things to tilt the odds in their favour. So they wire up the building to cause problems with outside interference. Weak signal. Yeah. That could be a problem." Merlin glanced around, pulling a bit of silk scarf from a passing woman's excuse for a dress. A waiter walked by; Merlin stopped him and took his tie clip. "A problem for most people except me."

The woman's eyes were wide.

Merlin twisted the tie clip in an oblong, infinity-symbol shape, wrapped the silk scarf around it, made a show of attaching the clip to the phone antenna, and said, "See? That's about a sixty percent improvement in the signal, plenty of power to crack everyone in a seventy-fifty square metre area, give or take, it's more of a radius thing, though, but it's close enough. So now all I've got to do --"

Warm and callus-rough, a familiar hand closed around the back of his neck, pulling him firmly off his feet and against someone's solid chest. Merlin yelped, eyes wide and panicked, and the combination of silk and tie clip clattered to the floor, where it was promptly kicked away by a strappy black heeled sandal that looked like it might've cost someone's monthly salary.

"Merlin," Arthur said warningly, his lips against the shell of Merlin's sensitive ear. Merlin's knees buckled a little, and a half-terrified, half-aroused gasp escaped his lips. "What did I tell you, Merlin? You do what I say and no more."

He whirled Merlin around with such an easy movement that it was almost practiced, and Merlin scrambled to stay on his feet. He didn't need to worry; Arthur kept him upright, his hand firm on the back of his neck. He was dragged to the spot where Arthur had been talking with the number one arms dealer -- when did that happen. The hand stayed where it was, on Merlin's neck, tightening when Merlin tried to move, reach for a drink, or just breathe.

It seemed that the conversation resumed where they'd left off, as if there had been no interruption whatsoever, and the number one arms dealer in the room seemed amused, but dully respectful, of the show in front of him. Bit by bit, Arthur's hand relaxed, dropped down to the small of Merlin's back, and eventually joined the conversation, because Arthur was expressive and he talked with his hands, and the other one was holding a drink.

The minute Merlin inched away, though, Arthur's hand snaked out like quicksilver, his fingers wrapping around Merlin's wrist, tight and firm.

There would be more bruises before the night was out, Merlin knew.

He glanced around and saw the woman he'd been talking to earlier, speaking quietly but anxiously in a man's ear, and that man was staring at Merlin with an expression that alternated between grievous concern and enlightened interest. Word was getting around, too, because there were enough people who were close by to overhear whatever the moxie had to say.

That was when Merlin spotted him. The Jester. Samuel Trickler. He tugged at his arm -- the arm that had Arthur permanently attached to it -- to get Arthur's attention, but the sole result of that was Arthur letting go of his arm to grab the back of his neck again, giving him the shake he'd give a misbehaving dog.

It wasn't until the number one arms dealer moved away after an exchange of business cards and a handshake that could be construed as the beginning of a profitable mutual relationship that Merlin picked up on Arthur's cues -- now was a good time to throw that hissy fit that Arthur wanted him to throw. Merlin took one step sideways, escaping Arthur's hand, grabbing two drinks from a passing waiter and spilling only a little bit onto the floor. "Leave me alone."

"Merlin," Arthur said, his voice so sweet and reasonable that Merlin almost thought he'd done something wrong, and immediately felt guilty. "Come here."

"No, I'm done with this. I'm not your toy," Merlin said, downing one of the champagne glasses -- and immediately regretting it when it made his stomach roil. He'd forgotten -- he wasn't a fan of champagne. Arthur too the opportunity to relieve him of the other glass before he could drink the contents, leaving it onto someone's tray as they walked by.

"You are whatever I say you are," Arthur said. "Was I not clear when I explained the repercussions of failing to follow my instructions?"

"I don't care about your fucking repercussions," Merlin snapped. "Anyway, what are you going to do to me? Spank me a little harder?"

"Sounds like your boy needs a leash," Trickler said, coming up to them. He used the can of beer in his hand to give Arthur an amused salute, a mock smirk on his face, his eyes fixed on Merlin.

Trickler was even more off-putting in person. He stood with a bit of a stoop, his head angled a bit to the side, as if he were permanently looking around the corner of a wall, peeping on people, watching them, getting his perversions satisfied that way. He had short hair, thick on the sides, scruffy on top, brushed every which way in a vain attempt to hide the creeping M-shaped bald spot spreading on his forehead. He was wearing an olive-green silk shirt with a shimmer that turned it a shade of puke and an oak-brown jacket that made his beady eyes, well, beadier.

The longer Trickler stared at him, the more Merlin needed a shower. And steel wool, to scrape the scummy feeling that Trickler was leaving on his skin.

"No one asked you," Arthur said, crooking a finger at Merlin. Merlin winced, took a tentative step forward with every intention of turning around and running off, except Arthur grabbed his wrist again and dragged him away.

But not before Merlin caught a deepening of the frown lines on Trickler's face, a downturn of the lips, a gaping mouth. It was a scowl that could make the world stop turning -- and Trickler might just be able to do that if his magic was strong enough.

Merlin wondered if he could. That was something the Directory hadn't been able to answer -- how strong are these sorcerers?

"Arthur, I don't think..."

Arthur pulled Merlin to him roughly, grabbing Merlin's face with his hand. "One last time. You're not paid to think. You're paid to do what I tell you to do. If I want you cracking government encryption, bank security, military files, you'll do it. If it's bending over your computer with your pants around your ankles, you'll do it. If it's getting my father's prototype plans out of the mainframe, you have it done yesterday. Do you understand?"

"Yeah, I..." Merlin suddenly realized what Arthur was doing, because there were people close enough to overhear, even over the loud chatter of conversation and streaming music. He lifted his head as much as he could with Arthur's hand in the way, and swallowed hard, every last bit of resistance bleeding out of him because the mental image of standing in front of his computer with his pants around his ankles and Arthur right behind him had made the blood rush somewhere that wasn't his brain.

"So damn smart. So fucking stupid," Arthur said, gentle, caring, protective. He patted Merlin's cheek, his hand trailing down to his throat again, warm, possessive. "What would you do without me?"

Merlin lowered his eyes and stared at the floor, shrugging his shoulders, putting his hands in his pockets -- wishing he could loosen his pants a little to relieve the pressure on his cock. "I'm sorry."

"Yeah," Arthur said, suddenly disgusted. "Quit drinking. You can't handle it."

There was a cold wash of air in front of Merlin, and he looked up to see Arthur had moved away to join a group that made room for him as if he'd been one of them all along, a member of a clique so exclusive, no one had a rat's ass in hell of getting in. Unless their name was Arthur Pendragon.

Arthur had a knack for this. He really did. He could command a group of competent men, of men as formidable on their own as they were as a team, bringing them together in a way no one else could, winning their loyalty because he was a man worthy of it. He could waltz into a room full of men who would sooner shoot down a suspicious new character than to welcome him in, and make himself at home.

And, fuck, if Merlin wouldn't follow him anywhere. Right into that nest of angry hornets, the den of hungry grizzly bears, into the lion's territory to face the wrath of his harem.

Merlin shuffled along, a hanger-on no different than any of those women in slinky clothing, struggling to remember that this was all an act -- but gods, what an act. It was so believable, that Merlin was shaking, wishing at least a tiny bit of it was real.

Someone asked Merlin a question, and Merlin glanced at Arthur for permission like he'd been scripted to do, answering only when Arthur gave him an indulgent nod.

That was when Merlin saw Trickler somewhere in the crowd, talking to the number three arms dealer, both of them looking in Arthur's direction, their heads bowed together, whispering.

 

ooOOoo

 

It was well into the early hours of the morning with the vast majority of the partiers trickling out by the time Arthur met Cicero.

He'd seen Gwaine and Kay lingering at the very fringes of the party, keeping to the people who instinctively knew that to try to step out of their boundaries was tantamount to not only social suicide, but the real thing, with bloody death and misery resulting from someone else's gun fired by someone else's finger that somehow ended up in their hand. Perceval had maintained his act as Arthur's bodyguard to a T, stepping between people who had taken offence at something Arthur had said. Bohrs kept a protective eye on Merlin when Merlin wandered away from Arthur, letting himself be lured by people who were trying to hire him away.

As much as Arthur hated it, Merlin was playing his role to perfection, obviously having "learned" his lesson from his earlier detraction and the lecture Arthur had given him. Every time he was drawn from Arthur's side, he'd have shy, under-the-breath discussions with whoever it was, only to catch himself, interrupt the conversation, and shake his head, no, I can't, and come back to him.

Arthur hated Merlin's deference, the way the fight had gone out of him, the absolute, complete subservience that came without so much as a sarcastic yes, sire, angry you bloody pillock or rude gesture. It was an act, though. He knew it was. His Merlin was still in there somewhere, hidden by those impossibly long lashes and visible in the rare flash of gold in his jewel blues.

He hated what he was doing to Merlin, but it had been the only way he could think of to protect him. There was no way that he would let Merlin come to the party on his own -- just look at the number of people, male and female, who'd hit on him thus far. That number alone did very little for Arthur's mood, because the more people who flirted with Merlin, the more Arthur went to drag him back, to glare at people, to assert that Merlin was his.

At the same time, though, he couldn't deny that he was taking full advantage of the opportunity that the situation gave him. At what other time could he say the things that he did to Merlin? How else could he admit how badly he wanted to drag Merlin to the bathroom, drop to his knees, and suck his cock until Merlin came so loudly, everyone in the party would know what they'd been up to? What excuse could he use otherwise to put his hands all over Merlin, to move him this way and that way, to run his hand over the back of his neck, to feel the curl of his soft hair, to whisper in his ear (Arthur had been right, Merlin's ears were erogenous zones, if the way the man positively trembled in his arms was any indication), to thumb the mark he'd left on his throat and leave more bruises, all to show everyone how much that Merlin was his?

The hard part wasn't establishing himself as a VIP in the illegal world of the arms trade, of making everyone believe that he was coming out now because his father was an arse, of letting everyone know that he'd done his homework before he took such a sideways leap to antagonize Pendragon senior.

No. The hard part was ignoring Perceval's knowing smirk every time he reached for Merlin.

"Not a word to him," Arthur had warned, when Perceval came close enough to whisper that Trickler had been making the rounds, and had been watching Arthur with Merlin the entire time. Perceval didn't need to be told what he shouldn't say, and to whom. It was obvious to everyone who had half a brain -- which left Bohrs out of the equation, and Kay and Gwaine had hopefully been too far away to notice.

Arthur was mad for Merlin. It wasn't the sort of attraction that resulted from the need for a one-night pull, either. It was grown out of trust, reliance, familiarity, friendship (however rocky), and love, though that last one boggled Arthur's mind.

Love.

He forced himself to focus on the job. He didn't want to think about love. It scared him more than this whole operation did, than being around the people he hated on fundamental principle, the people that he knew his father dealt with, sometimes, when no one was looking, than risking his people just to help the Directory play inter-spy politics with the CIA.

Cicero was a short, swarthy man in his late fifties, wavy black hair generously peppered with white, his face olive-smooth and shaven, free of wrinkles except around his mouth where there was an easy smile, and around his eyes where they crinkled in amusement. He was handsome in the way Spanish men were handsome, suave and secure in their heritage as walking gods -- Arthur saw some of this come out in Lance, sometimes, though the medic would never admit to it. And, like Lance, Cicero bore the easy grace of someone who was accustomed to being trusted implicitly, simply because every there was that air about him, that difficult-to-resist trustworthiness that was dangerous in the wrong hands.

He smiled at Arthur, giving him a short, stern nod. "Mister Pendragon? You've been invited to a private party."

And just like that. There it was. It wasn't the first sign that they had Trickler's attention, but it definitely was the all-access backstage-pass that they needed to initiate the end stages of the plan.

"That's nice," Arthur said, waving a dismissive hand in the air. He turned away. "I have somewhere else to be."

"Yes, you do," Cicero said, the tone of his voice as friendly as it could get with the edge in it. Arthur looked back at him, and saw that Cicero's smile hadn't wavered, but that there was a hint of a threat to his expression. "The private party. Yourself and your guest. No bodyguards."

"And like I said, I have somewhere else to be," Arthur said, grabbing Merlin's arm.

Cicero cleared his throat. "I don't know how much plainer I need to be, Mister Pendragon, but you should know that this private party is for the unveiling of an item of great interest of our guests. I would suggest that you consider the common denominator among you, and decide for yourself if you want to attend."

Arthur glanced around the room, his eyes narrowing in contemplation. He saw Trickler watching the three of them, brow pinched in concern that Arthur wouldn't rise to the bait, lips quirking with eagerness at seeing a trap snared shut.

"My time is valuable," Arthur said, keeping to the script this once, because it was exactly what was needed right now to draw Trickler all the way in.

"Believe me, sir, you won't be disappointed," Cicero said, tilting his head and giving Arthur what could be considered an earnest look.

Arthur checked his watch with a heavy, annoyed sigh -- the slightest flick of his wrist to flash a combination of wealth and impatience as he checked out how much time he really had. "Very well."

"Your bodyguards can wait here," Cicero said.

"Sir, I must protest," Perceval said, stepping forward right on cue, dwarfing Merlin. "Your personal safety is my responsibility --"

"Invitation only," Cicero said, his expression stern. "No exceptions. Not for you, not for anyone. Now, if you will? Come this way."


It was a bad joke that only arms dealers would find funny:

Twelve arms dealers, twelve ditzy blondes whose clothing might fall off if someone looked at them wrong, and two undercover SAS soldier enter a private room at a big club. Some business suit comes out from the back room and puts a round, oblong case the size of a football on display. He says, "Gentlemen, how would you like to see a weapon of mass destruction in a box?"

Someone grabs their crotches and says, "How would you like to see a WMD in my pants?"

But that was exactly how the private party went -- a man in a suit going on and on about the item in the box without showing what it was, and pretty soon, everyone was bored out of their minds before the spiel was even done. Some people asked questions; other people milled away, disinterested, taking advantage of the fully stocked bar and the experienced bartender who could make every drink someone asked for without mistake.

A Frenchman named Landon hit on Merlin. A German with an obnoxious handlebar moustache offered Merlin a job. The bartender made Merlin a frilly pink drink that tasted like strawberries and there wasn't the faintest trace of booze in it. Merlin nearly drank the whole thing, but Arthur took it away after the first sip, and his glare stopped Merlin's protest while it was still in his mouth.

Arthur was polite enough to let the suit get through his spiel before he started poking holes in it. He played the arrogant, obnoxious prat to perfection, ridiculing the WMD concept until it was a little more menacing than a cherry bomb, and bit by bit, as he whittled down the grandiose sales speech that was big on hot air and empty promises, the rest of the arms dealers jumped in as well, because there was little else by way of entertainment.

"All right. We're done here," Arthur said, crooking a finger at Merlin, who broke away from the small clique of arms dealer girlfriends (their vapid gossiping was only a bit better than Desperate Housewives) to follow him. He caught up to Arthur just in time to hear him tell Cicero, his voice low, "Next time you have an exclusive, give it to someone who cares."

Merlin tried to ignore Trickler's steady gaze, but considering he was three feet away, it was a little difficult. All he could do was keep his head down and pray desperately that Trickler wouldn't realize who he was.

"He seemed genuine," Cicero offered by way of apology.

"Charlatans always do," Arthur said, but Merlin detected a tone of distinct irritation in his voice.

"And I suppose your people haven't ever had failures," Trickler asked.

Arthur turned to raise an eyebrow at him. "In my business, failure isn't an option. Those people don't stay with me very long."

"What if there was a way to ensure that there was never a failure?"

"No such creature," Arthur scoffed.

"It can be done," Trickler said, with snake-oil salesman's smarm that might work on anyone and everyone else, but Arthur wasn't easily convinced. There was back and forth banter that lasted for several minutes, and if Merlin hadn't been watching carefully, he would have missed the slightest red flash of Trickler's eyes, the whisper of moving lips, the faint pull of magic. It was subtle, almost a shiver that he would've otherwise attributed to a change in temperature, or an electric shock, except Merlin knew something of what Trickler could do, because he'd read Trickler's Directory dossier.

He froze, eyes widening slightly, glancing from side to side to see what it was that Trickler had done.

There was nothing.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. What spell did he cast?

"How about you come with me, Mister Pendragon," Trickler suggested. There was a sickly, oily, grimy feel to Trickler's tone, as if he had walked out of a swamp and was still chucking off the bits of bog from his shoulders, smelling like anything but roses. "I could show you something that never fails."

"What's that then?" Arthur asked, oddly interested.

"Magic."

"Magic," Arthur said, with a bit of an alarming, dreamy scoff. His hand reached for Merlin, holding tight, so tight, that Merlin had to bite his tongue to keep from crying out. When Merlin looked at him, he saw that Arthur's eyes were different, the pupils blown, the blue washed out with brown. Merlin wanted to shield him, to wrap him in a protective casing, to remove the compulsion that Trickler had cast on Arthur.

Merlin glanced at Cicero. There was a flicker of worry in his eyes, but there wasn't much that he could do without risking his cover.

It must have been a mild compulsion, no more, no less, because even magic couldn't completely override free will. Arthur barked a laugh. "Magic. Right. Is that the code name for a new sort of missile that I haven't heard about?"

Trickler laughed with Arthur, a ha-ha-ha that was high pitched and fake, and Cicero joined in, too. Merlin was the only one not laughing.

Abruptly, Trickler spoke a very familiar word, his eyes flashing strobe-light red, and he threw out his hands like a stage magician. Fire burst from his palms and shot toward Arthur, and it took everything -- absolutely everything -- that Merlin had to hold back his instinct and protect Arthur, because he could see that the flames would never cross the full four feet of distance between them. Still, it was enough to wash Merlin and Arthur in very real heat.

To Arthur's credit, he didn't flinch. Merlin bit his lower lip but was barely able to squelch the small cry that slipped through his lips.

After that, everything happened very fast.

Merlin would realize later that Trickler could only maintain one spell at a time, no matter how feeble or how strong it was. That was why he could only hold the shield while Aredian did all the work back on the shooting mission with Gwaine and Perceval and Owain. And that was why, now, Arthur took a step forward and took a swing at Trickler.

His fist connected. The sound was like the shatter of glass. Trickler tripped backward, falling on his ass.

It took Merlin an instant to take it all in.

Trickler had cast a fire spell. To do that, he'd dropped the compulsion that he'd cast on Arthur -- a compulsion that Arthur had been fighting all along. Maybe the physical contact to Merlin helped, maybe it was just his own strong will. Either way, Arthur had shaken off the residual effects of whatever Trickler had done to try to subdue him, and had retaliated.

Trickler was too dazed to do anything.

Cicero danced out of the way like a coward trying to avoid getting pulled in the middle. The chatter from the private party suddenly ebbed from full volume to a dull murmur of confusion and questions, and more than one man had a gun in their hand, each of them completely uncertain where to aim it.

Trickler's eyes flashed red again. His attention was fully on Arthur. He didn't notice how Merlin ducked his chin and shut his eyes tight and did magic. But he noticed how his magic didn't work, because Merlin pinched it at the source, stopping the power from coming to fruition.

Couldn't do magic if there wasn't any magic to fuel it.

Trickler sputtered and stammered and stuttered, swear words catching in his throat and never quite making it all the way out.

It was a heartbeat's space of time but an eternity of movement that caught Merlin by surprise the way Arthur always caught him by surprise, because he could do things so fast and so decisively. From one instant to the next, Arthur released Merlin's arm, reached down to grab Trickler by the cuff of his ugly olive-green shimmery shirt, and hauled him to his feet. Trickler's loafers were too slick to get purchase on the smooth stone floor, and he slipped and slid a few times before he braced himself against the wall and hunched over straight, one hand gripping Arthur's wrist.

"Are you trying to kill me, you dimwitted plonker? Do you know how much this fucking tie costs?" Arthur roared. Merlin saw him brush tiny bits of dust -- ashes -- from it. He was in full prat mode, arrogant and self-entitled and rude. "Fuck, if you're too cheap to buy a decent lighter, you're too bloody dense to be trying to light a fag. Get out of my way."

Arthur tossed Trickler aside with the ease of someone throwing a bit of rubbish out the window, and Trickler went stumbling and falling on his arse again, catching himself against the wall at the very last moment.

"Merlin!" Arthur snapped, and Merlin shook out of his daze, wondering what the hell Arthur was on about, because this wasn't part of the script, this wasn't what Mister Smith wanted them to do, and it dawned on him almost too late that Arthur was playing off the cuff, because he'd twigged onto Trickler's weakness, and it was a weakness that was in full force now. Trickler hated being shown up by someone he thought was inferior.

Arthur had no magic, and of course, to Trickler, he was inferior, but Arthur was showing Trickler up at every turn, and Trickler couldn't stand it.

There was that moment right before Merlin snapped-to and ran after Arthur that Trickler's face twisted into unbelievable, absolute, complete hatred. If the goal was to draw Trickler out of the club, away from the undercover agents from every international organization, away from Cicero, away from his own bodyguards and protection so that the Directory could get a hold of him, they would manage it now, because Trickler would come after Arthur.

And he'd do it willingly. It would require absolutely no work on Arthur's part, on the team's. None at all.

Arthur was making a show of brushing off his tie. Perceval and Bohrs were nearby, hovering the way the other bodyguards were trying not to hover, nervous that their employers were out of sight with other men who had terrible reputations for carrying grudges and taking whatever opportunity there was to take care of them.

"What happened, sir?" Perceval asked.

"Some bloody twat's cig lighter blew up, that's what happened," Arthur said loudly, attracting more attention. "Nearly set me on fire. Fucking conker he was, too, couldn't be bothered to apologize. Should send him the bill for a new tie. This one's ruined."

There was nothing wrong with the tie as far as Merlin could tell, but he figured Arthur was just playing things up.

"Who was it, sir?" Bohrs asked.

"The one who looks like he ran his face through a thresher," Arthur said dismissively, thumbing over his shoulder. In a quieter voice, he said, "Is he watching?"

"He's following," Perceval whispered. Louder, he asked, "Do you want us to take care of him?"

"No, forget it, complete waste of time he is. He'll do himself in, I'm sure, and when he does, I want video." Arthur's laugh was rich, and it carried.

Merlin could almost feel Trickler's rage burning holes through his spine.

"His bodyguards just stopped him," Bohrs whispered.

"Damn it," Perceval said.

Arthur's demeanour didn't change one whit. He slung his arm around Merlin's shoulder and tugged him close, their bodies aligning. Merlin was a little taller than Arthur, but not so much that he couldn't lean close and whisper in Merlin's ear, his breath warm and promising. "I want you to do exactly as I say. Look over your shoulder at Trickler. Try not to smile."

In English, try not to smile meant smile as mockingly as he could, and Merlin did just that, though he couldn't help to be a little nervous, because when he turned his head, Arthur's lips brushed against his cheek, and he didn't move away.

Oh, gods.

He turned his head back, bowing his head. Arthur's lips were right at his ear. He could feel Arthur glance back, too, his lips curling into a smirk. Arthur whispered, "If he doesn't look ready to bite clean through a steel bit, I don't know what he is."

Merlin couldn't help but bow his head down as if swallowing a snicker, which was exactly what he did.

"He did something to me, didn't he?" Arthur continued as they were walking away, though the crowd had thinned and there was no question that Trickler was watching their every move. "Felt like I'd been on a binge for a week, ran out of booze, and tripped out of the flat in my smalls, my wallet tucked into my waistband. Second biggest fog I've ever had to think through."

Merlin chuckled, and he was fairly certain that he shouldn't be laughing now, and equally sure that Arthur was telling him stories to make him laugh for Trickler's benefit. "Did that really happen?"

"I'm told there's witnesses and CCTV but I wholeheartedly deny it ever happened. Now, go on. Look over your shoulder. Laugh."

Merlin did. And as he laughed -- because it was funny, the image of Arthur barrelling down the steps to his flat looking for more to drink, and Merlin wanted to know why he'd been that badly blitzed -- Merlin saw Trickler break loose from his babysitters, bark out orders, and come after them.

 

ooOOoo

 

"Get the car, Bohrs," Arthur said, and Bohrs hurried ahead of them in what was going to be Excalibur's signal to get ready. He let his arm slide from Merlin's shoulder, though in reality, what he really wanted to do was to keep Merlin right where he was, warm and comfortable and secure. Merlin staggered a bit now that Arthur wasn't holding him skin-close, but he stayed where he was, in near perfect step with Arthur.

"What he did to me, is it still on me?" Arthur asked. He didn't expect Merlin to know for sure. He wasn't one of Bayard's so-called "specialists". He didn't do magic. But Bayard had said that, of anyone on the team, Merlin would see the spells and know them for what they were.

"It was a compulsion," Merlin said, sounding firmly certain. Arthur shot him a sharp glance that threw him off balance, because in the next breath, Merlin's brows pinched together and his gaze went right to the floor and he stammered, "I-I-I'm pretty sure. I think. It's gone now. I know it is. I was watching him. He can only do a spell at a time. When he did the fire thing --"

"All right," Arthur said, nodding. That was all he needed. It fit in with how it had felt at the time -- the fog in his head suddenly lifting, and the next thing he saw were those flames coming at him. Suppressing his instinct to dodge, to drop out of the line of fire -- figuratively speaking -- and to come up with a reaction appropriate for a cocky arms dealer who probably had never been to a circus or to a magic show in his entire life (he'd been to one circus, once, and all he remembered about it were the elephants) -- that had taken all of his concentration, all of his brain power. He was relying on Merlin to confirm his perceptions, and he was glad that he was right.

"That's to our advantage," Arthur said, nodding at Perceval, who moved in front of them and touched his ear to contact not only Bohrs, but the rest of the team, passing on the bit of intel. It hadn't been in Bayard's file on Sam Trickler, but it would be, now. As soon as they were in the car, Perceval and Bohrs at the front, he slipped the earwig into his ear and saw Merlin do the same.

"Keep Trickler distracted," Arthur ordered. "He won't be able to concentrate on maintaining his..."

He paused and glanced at Merlin. This wasn't Merlin's communication line, and he couldn't trust how secure it was. So he used Excalibur's code word, and finished with, "... tech. Watch out for the others. We don't know which one of them have the advanced weaponry that we're keeping an eye out for."

"They're in the car following you now," Gwaine's voice came over the line.

Merlin flipped one of the side compartments open, and twisted his long limbs into the harness, checking the gun and the clips.

The spare gun was the only thing they risked putting into the car. Arthur had body armour; Perceval and Bohrs did as well. Merlin was the least-well protected of the team, because they had all expected him to be the one fondled while on the club floor, a theory that had proven to be infuriatingly correct, and they thought it best if no one wondered why Merlin was all done up and ready for war. That also meant that he was the least-well armed of the team.

Arthur grabbed Merlin's arm, this time, his fingers soft, gentle, mindful of the bruises already there. "Merlin --"

"I know. I know. Stick to you like glue."

The alternative was to stay in the armoured car, but Arthur had a sick feeling in his stomach that the bulletproof glass and plating wouldn't do much against Trickler's magic.

Merlin was watching him with round eyes, the blues bright as if glowing from some sort of inner light, and Arthur swore he saw a sparkle of gold in them, there and gone in a flash. He wondered what his expression was like if Merlin was looking at him like that. "What?"

"I'm just surprised. You're actually listening to me, for once," Arthur said. Merlin's lips quirked into something of a smile, but he never got the chance to find out if it would turn into one, or if Merlin would just scowl at him like he always did

"Brace!"

It was instinctive, to hold onto the seat, one foot on the raised metal floor where the luxurious cab space was sacrificed in favour of effective bullet-proofing, to reach out to grab Merlin before he slid off the bench seat and collided with the front passenger seat. The car lurched forward with a loud crash.

"Twenty seconds to trap point," Bohrs said, both hands on the wheel.

The car lurched forward again from another fender hit.

"We're not going to make it," Merlin said, and Arthur caught another flash of gold in his eyes.

"Merlin --"

Arthur felt it then, the start of a sideways turn that could only happen if they'd been tapped at just the right point of instability, forcing the car into an impossible skid on a perfectly dry road with a skilled driver fighting to keep the car under control. Bohrs' hands had a white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel, his neck muscles tense, his jaw set in the grim line of strained effort.

The nose of the car dipped down, the back end rose up, the wheels whirled in a burst of RPM unhindered by the traction of the road. Perceval shouted, Merlin cried out, Bohrs swore six or seven times in his best Owain imitation, and there was a millisecond of weightlessness when the car flipped over. The car rolled onto the driver's side, and for one heart-in-throat moment the extra weight of the bullet-proofing plates rested on bulletproof glass that cracked into fine spiderwebs and on flimsy bits of metal that crumpled a good inch. There were sparks of metal on asphalt and cobblestone and cement, and there was another lurch that up-ended them onto the passenger side, and they skidded all the way into a building, coming to a rubber-wheeled stop.

"Shite! Shite! What the fuck!" Bohrs was yelling, and because he was the only one with the good sense to have put on his seatbelt, hung from it while reaching for a knife to cut the straps. Perceval shook his head, trying to clear it, and Arthur found himself resting on top of something nice and warm and -- Merlin.

He scrambled to sit, only there was nowhere for him to scramble to, sliding back down on top of Merlin, who grunted in surprise at the sudden return of weight on his chest and legs.

"Don't you dare make any fat jokes," Arthur warned, and Merlin wheezed a breathy laugh that Arthur would love to hear again, if only the situation wasn't so fucking awkward right now. Arthur rolled off, leaving Merlin to contort himself into something that wasn't completely upside down, and he couldn't even appreciate the way Merlin's shirt had slid up his chest, and he couldn't even stop to look at Merlin's tattoo -- a tattoo he hadn't ever gotten a good look at since Merlin had gotten it --

"They got us pinned three blocks from the trap point," Arthur barked into his earpiece. "Reset positions! Reset positions!"

They were safe in the car as long as the bullet-proofing held, but Arthur didn't want to risk staying in the car when he was almost certain that Trickler -- unless it wasn't only Trickler -- could tear the car open.

For what seemed to be the millionth time, Arthur wished that he knew more about magic, what the sorcerers could do and what could be done to defend against them. He wished he had a man that he could trust who could do magic, too, who could counteract the enemy, who could --

There was a torturous creak, a shattering of glass and metal that sounded like the crinkle of aluminum foil being crumpled and uncrumpled. The car trembled the way a jar trembles when the lid sticks, when someone can't twist off the cap, and there was a great tear and a shower of thick glass pebbles the size of newly-minted pence.

The pop of metal cinched it. Perceval shouted the words before Arthur could. "We're being opened like a goddamn tin!"

"Get yourselves ready! Get ready!" Arthur yelled, grabbing Merlin, pulling him away from the roof. "Stay behind me, Merlin!"

It was a torture of creaks, of cracks, of resonating pings like the splitting strings on a violin. There was a pause, a heavy heave, a metaphysical shove before an invisible hand took a good grip of an edge and ripped the roof clean off the car.

The car jerked.

Four guns fired.

And again.

And again.

It was a choreographed firing squad with one target and one target only, but the target was protected behind a shield that shimmered in bright red flecks at the bullet contacts. Arthur saw this almost at once, and called out, "Hold your fire!"

There was no point in wasting ammunition when they couldn't attain the target. They needed another way of buying time.

"How do you like my weapon now, Mister Pendragon," Trickler taunted.

"Is this your so-called twinkle-toes magic? Because all I'm seeing is a fucking coward using a car as a battering ram!" Arthur shouted.

"Arthur. Arthur." Merlin said, his tone urgent. Arthur shoved him back.

"You're blind, just like the rest of them! You don't see a good thing when it's right in front of you!" Trickler shouted.

"Arthur. He's not the only one," Merlin whispered. Arthur did a quick recon. There were two cars blocking the road behind them, the noses pointed away from them in a rough V. One driver was still in the car. Five men were standing off on the fringes, semiautomatics planted on their shoulders, trained on their car. There was Trickler, and there was a severe woman with a pinched expression of concentration, her business suit cheap and off-the-rack, brown hair peppered with generous grey tied in a tight bun. She was standing five feet to Trickler's left.

"The woman."

"Maybe. Yeah." Merlin took a deep breath.

Perceval and Bohrs glanced in his direction, waiting for instructions. Arthur knew very well that they couldn't stay here. Twenty seconds by car could translate into twenty minutes on foot depending on how much trouble Bayard's people were giving his team. If that were the case, he hoped Leon wouldn't have any hesitation to shooting Bayard just to get here on time.

"Put the gun down. Take off the holster. Follow my lead," Arthur hissed at Merlin under his breath. He didn't speak again until he felt Merlin do as he was told.

"Gwaine and Kay?" Arthur asked Perceval.

"They were behind us," Perceval said grimly. "If they had trouble at the club --"

"Are you going to stay there and cower like a frightened little baby?" Trickler barked. "Because that's all you are! I knew it from the minute I saw you prance through the club like you owned the place. Overcompensating with your big bodyguards, showing off your pretty boy-toy --"

Arthur took a step out of the car, his gun out and raised, squeezing out a couple of rounds of ammunition without really aiming because he knew he wouldn't hit what he was shooting for, but still hitting the area in front of Trickler's torso. He made sure to stagger to a confused stop, as if he'd only just realized that the bullets hadn't gone anywhere near Trickler, that he was being protected by a shield. The question he had was, who was powering it? Was it Trickler? Was it the woman? They didn't know the woman or her capabilities.

Trickler saw his expression and laughed. "Not so hot shit now, huh, hotshot?"

Perceval squeezed his big frame out of the car, coming to stand in front of Arthur, holding his gun out with one arm, using the other to shield Arthur, pushing him back. Arthur could hear Merlin's small little cries, heartbreaking keening noises, as Bohrs kept him in the dubious shelter of the car.

"Shut the fuck up, you slimy little weasel," Arthur said, and his voice was a little shaky. He didn't have to work hard for it to be shaky.

"I should kill you," Trickler said, throwing out an arm to point at Arthur. There was a tight sensation around his body, not unlike when Edwin had used his magic to suffocate Arthur, to keep him under control, but unlike Edwin, Trickler had no intention of doing that. The sensation was light, fleeting, teasing. "You embarrassed me. You humiliated me. Don't you know who I am?"

"Someone's cocksucker?" Arthur felt the magic tighten around him, and grimaced.

"You're nothing but a trust fund kind spoon-fed everything you've ever wanted, and now just because daddy's threatening to cut you off, you're suddenly the big man on campus? Fuck you! This is my show! This is my game! I don't fucking share the spotlight! You know what you're gonna do now? You're gonna get on your fucking knees, and you're going to lick my cock!"

Samuel Trickler might have a hundred aliases, but Arthur could distinctly hear an American accent in his voice, and suddenly understood something of the CIA's stake in this.

"Go to hell!"

Arthur couldn't feel the ground under his feet. The sensation was gone, and not because the tight squeeze around his body was cutting off the blood circulation, but because Arthur was no longer on the ground.

"Arthur!" He didn't know if he was hearing his name through the earwig or if it was Merlin shouting after him. Either way, Perceval reacted by shooting at Trickler on the assumption that he was the one maintaining the magical shield and that by casting another spell, this one on Arthur, that the shield was gone.

The bullets ricocheted off the shield. The woman, then. The shield was the woman's doing.

"I don't need you, do I? I can use your pretty boy. That's what you said, wasn't it? He can hack and crack and get your daddy's prototypes for me."

Arthur went flying through the air. Only years of athleticism allowed him to twist his body around, preparing to land in a roll. His shoulder took most of the force of the landing and he'd scraped his forehead against the cobblestones, but the miracle was how he managed to hold onto his gun. He stayed as he was, prone and unmoving, in case Trickler or one of the others were watching. Everyone's attention was on Merlin.

Trickler was dragging Merlin out of the cracked wreck of the car, away from Bohrs, away from Perceval, who wasted a couple more rounds on the shield but was stepping back, alarmed. He couldn't do anything except head over to Arthur, because Arthur was the one paying his salary. Bohrs struggled to get his frame out of the car, tottered undecided between Merlin and Arthur, and went after Merlin.

Merlin screamed.


I can take them. I can take them.

And yet, he couldn't. He couldn't. There were too many people. He was in the open. There were two other sorcerers who would see him. His team


Arthur.

His secret, his real secret, would be out to the people he trusted. Maybe more, if the rest of the team and Mister Smith's people caught up to them.

Merlin did the only thing he could. He acted like he didn't know what was going on. He clawed at himself to get the "hand" holding him off. It didn't work. He struggled and railed and waved his arms in the air. He ground the heels of his ratty shoes into the ground.

Why did I listen to Arthur? Why did I leave my gun behind?

He did it because he trusted Arthur.

Merlin screamed in frustration. He could take down Trickler. Trickler was a two-bit magician with sorcerer aspirations who could pull off cute tricks but not much else. He was pretty sure he could take down the wicked witch of the west, too, even if he didn't know what else she could do other than maintain a pretty good shield.

He could take them down. He could. And he couldn't.

He didn't dare.

Merlin punched and kicked and threw a tantrum with every limb, but he was dragged toward Trickler, through the shield -- it clung to Merlin, cutting him with razor sharpness as he was yanked through, and he screamed again, burning inside out, everything tearing, his shirt, his jeans his skin.

"Merlin!"

He thought it was Arthur. He wasn't sure. He was in too much pain.

"Mary," Trickler said, his tone conversational, only a little bit cross.

"He's through, isn't he?" Mary said, sounding impatient. "If you're done...?"

"I'm done," Trickler said. He let Merlin drop to the ground.

Merlin crumpled to his knees. He tried to stand, but his body was too weak, too riddled with pain. His hand slipped over the wet asphalt. It was wet with blood. His blood.

His magic flared with anger, simmering under the surface of his skin, bubbling with power intent on lashing out at anything and everything that would hurt him, that would hurt Arthur, that would hurt his team.

He felt hands on him, grasping his shirt, hauling him up a little. He could smell the garlic from the canapés that had been passed around at the private party, the bitter shrimp and the roasted coconut.

"You think that Pendragon brat had his fun with you? Kid, you haven't seen fun until you've been with me." Trickler let him drop to the ground a second time. "Put him in the car."

When someone lifted him up from the face-plant, everything went to hell.

There was a barrage of gunfire from behind him. There was a barrage of gunfire from the sides. Whoever had been dragging Merlin to the car let him fall a third time. The gunfire was closer, now, and Merlin felt magic rise. He opened his eyes to see Mary raise one hand to hold the shield against Arthur and Perceval and Bohrs, half-turning her body to raise her other hand for the part of the shield that hadn't been up a minute before, because they hadn't known that they would have to defend themselves against people from behind. Because they hadn't anticipated it.

One of Trickler's bodyguards was down and unmoving. Another one was injured. The driver in the car panicked and gunned the engine forward, the metal pushing through the shield, causing it to buckle and crackle in a rainfall of bright orange sparks that made the car burst into flames as it rolled on through.

Instinct kicked in and Merlin rolled closer to the sole remaining car in what he hoped was out of direct line of fire. As soon as his back hit the rim of a tyre, he realized that the sound of gunfire had receded, that the low thrum of magic had returned.

Shields. Shields. They were surrounded by shields.

Merlin blinked. He couldn't see through the haze. He rubbed a hand over his face several times to wipe the blood that was running down his brow and into his eyes. Excalibur couldn't get through to him, to Trickler, because of the shields.

"I'll hold them!" Trickler shouted. "You bring them down!"

No, no, no.

Merlin could feel the magic build up again, twisted and rotten and corrupted. It wrapped around Trickler, it braided into Mary's magic. He could see the handover, the tendrils of bright orange and sickly yellow meshing with dull, muddy brown. He could see Mary raise more magic, stronger magic in a swirling sulphuric cloud, and --

No, no, no.

He reached out, his fingers curling in the air, using every bit of anger that burned under his flesh, taking hold of the braided magic, shearing through it with the broad blade of a golden scythe, tearing them both down. Trickler. Mary.

The muted gunfire wasn't muted anymore, loud and resonating and comforting, and Merlin closed his eyes, just for a moment, one brief moment, steeling himself to take another deep breath, to reach for his magic again, to stop Trickler, to stop Mary...

But he was too tired, too slick and woozy from blood-loss, and his eyes wouldn't open, and all he wanted to do was sink down to the earth --

He passed out.


The woman's name was Mary Collins, and she was killed by one of her own men in the craziest crossfire Arthur had ever seen. The man in the car that burned up had died of complications when he hugged a magical shield -- or something along those lines, because Arthur hadn't really been listening. The rest of the bodyguards were considered collateral damage, because the only person that Bayard was really interested in was Samuel Trickler.

Although he would have liked to have Mary Collins, too. The only file they had on her included her name, her marital status (divorced), the name of her son (deceased), and a notation, "probable magical ability".

Well, check one in the "confirmation" column.

Taking care of Trickler's people was easier than taking care of Trickler himself. Arthur didn't know how or why the magical shield had come down, but he wasn't in a position to complain. After that, it was a simple matter of distracting him, keeping him off balance, feinting right while attacking left until one of them got close enough to knock him out and inject the horse tranquilizer Bayard had suggested they use.

Of course, that task fell to the sneakiest member of the team: Gwaine. Of course, Gwaine was still crowing about his little success.

"Are we done?" Arthur asked.

Bayard looked up from his notes, waving away the analyst who had come for his approval on a new set of orders. They were moving Trickler out that very night to a secure location, shipping him direct to England under heavy wards to suppress his magic and a hefty dose of tranquilizers that he would need to sleep off before they could begin the interrogation. Either way, Bayard had everything he wanted at the moment -- a direct source of information on the NWO, and a way to twist the CIA's balls.

And Arthur had nothing. He was exhausted, drained, numb. There was nothing left.

"Merlin!"

Arthur had let his men secure the scene, even though there wasn't much left to secure the instant Gwaine jumped from the rooftop of a low building, rolled onto his shoulder on landing, and stabbed Trickler with the hypodermic needle. Trickler had turned on him, had thrown a blue fireball that missed as Gwaine scampered out and Kay tossed a brick that connected with Trickler's head.

He'd run over to the lump that was Merlin's body, begging with every breath, please be alive, please be alive, because he'd seen what going through the shield wall had done to a fucking car, never mind the man who'd been inside, and he couldn't get it out of his head, the way Merlin had screamed and screamed --

Merlin had seemed so fragile when Arthur picked him up and cradled him in his arms. He'd been covered in blood from what looked to be a thousand tiny cuts. Lance had come out of nowhere and knelt besides them, performing a quick check of the vital stats with sure, knowing fingers, tearing open the tattered remnants of Merlin's shirt, and there was more blood, but there were no grievous, gaping wounds.

"He's fine, Arthur. He's all right. Come on, let's get him out of here," Lance had said. Perceval had tried to pick Merlin up, but Arthur wouldn't let Merlin go. He couldn't. He needed to hold Merlin, to know that he was all right, and, for once, Perceval didn't argue, and Lance shut up, and Leon took over securing the scene until Bayard's people got their goddamned heads out of their goddamned arses and did their goddamned job --

"You did well. Olaf was right. You have an unparalleled talent for this. Your team performed well above anyone's expectations," Bayard said. He compiled his notes into a file folder and slid it into a briefcase. "The plane will take your team back to the base in the morning. I'll be accompanying Trickler and sign him over to one of the supervisory chiefs. I should be back at the base in a few days, we'll begin the team's training then. The first thing we're going to start with is see if there's anyone with a talent for magic. It would make future missions somewhat easier."

Arthur rubbed his eyes with forefinger and thumb, looking down at himself, at his hands, at his clothes still covered in Merlin's blood.

There was a long pause, and Bayard said, "He'll be fine. The wounds were superficial, and Abelard's potions never failed to work before. He won't have a mark on him by the time you're back on base."

He won't have a mark on him

That was a punch to the gut that Arthur didn't expect. Because, despite everything, he'd like it if Merlin had at least one. Arthur's mark. The love bite on his throat.

"He's good, by the way. You work well together. I haven't seen a pair work as seamlessly as you two do without years of extensive training." Bayard closed and locked his briefcase and headed for the door. "I'll see you in a few days."

Arthur took a deep breath and followed him out, but Bayard had already taken the elevator down to the lobby. He pushed the UP button and waited.

The mission was a win -- everyone got out of it alive, and they acquired the target they were supposed to acquire. And yet, Arthur couldn't help feeling as if he was missing something, as if it wasn't a win at all. It had something to do with Bayard taking Trickler. Something to do with what nearly happened to Merlin.

He'd nearly lost Merlin.

There was no question of backing off on these missions. The NWO was planning something, and whatever it was, it wasn't going to be pretty, and Arthur was damned if he'd let any of them get away with it. At the same time, Arthur wasn't going to let Bayard lead them by the nose again. They were going to have to work harder. They were going to have to work smarter. And Arthur was going to get his hands on every bit of information that the Directory had on the NWO, not the little trickle that they'd gotten so far.

He rode the elevator up and got off on the wrong floor, except it wasn't really the wrong floor. It was Merlin's floor. He couldn't help it. He meant to see Merlin with his own eyes, to know that Merlin was all right.

Arthur knocked on the door. There was no answer. He knocked again. After a moment, he decided that Merlin was probably asleep. That he should let him rest. He'd suffered enough without Arthur waking him up in the middle of the night.

Lance had said that Merlin was fine, that it had been worse than it looked -- superficial cuts nearly everywhere on his body made for a lot of blood, and Merlin did have low blood pressure (even if it was in the normal range) that made him regularly pass out every time he gave a pint... And he had been drinking, and he hadn't had anything to drink, and with all the adrenaline, and, God, he must have been in so much pain when he went through the shield... Merlin was fine. Merlin was fine.

Arthur had almost convinced him of it when he turned around and walked down the corridor. He was halfway to the elevator when he heard the door open behind him, a cursed, "Jesus, Perce! Stop mothering me! I said I was all right --"

Merlin stopped, and they stared at each other.

Merlin was dripping wet, a too-small hotel towel around his waist, his hair slicked back and every bit of his skin glowing. There were faint lines on his chest and arms where he'd been cut the deepest, a thin cut still closing on his cheek and forehead, and Arthur didn't realize that he'd crossed the distance until he was right there, feeling the damp heat of the shower radiating from Merlin's skin.

"I -- I wanted to see how you were," Arthur said.

"All right. A little woozy, still. More than a bit drained," Merlin said with a little nod to Arthur's bloodied clothes. "Ruined your suit, though."

"Better my suit than you," Arthur said. His eyes went to Merlin's neck and he held his breath, because the faint purple trace that he'd left behind was still there. He glanced down, struggled to keep from following the line of dark hair down Merlin's chest, and slid his gaze sideways to the hint of the dragon tattoo on Merlin's ribcage, a dragon that was holding... a sword. It looked familiar, but he didn't trust himself to get close enough for a better look. He cleared his throat with a hard swallow. "Glad that you're all right, Merlin. You should get some sleep. We're heading out in a few hours."

"Yeah, I heard."

An awkward silence stretched.

"Anyway. Goodnight," Arthur said, heading for the elevator.

"Arthur?"

Arthur stopped and turned. "Yeah?"

"Next time, you be the boy-toy, yeah?"

For a brief moment, very brief, Arthur considered being on the receiving end of Merlin's rough treatment, to give in to him, and he found that it was a situation he wouldn't entirely mind being in so long as it was Merlin. He wouldn't do it for anyone else but him.

Arthur felt heat flush to his cheeks, at a sudden loss for a good comeback until his eyes went to Merlin's throat again, fixing on the purple, fading bruise he'd left behind.

"You're much better at it than I'd ever be, Merlin," Arthur said, his voice deep and rough, but it was worth it, because he was rewarded by the sight of Merlin's blush -- and it really did go all the way down his body, too, in a tantalizingly lickable way.

But what was best, absolute best of all, was the shy, uncertain, little smile that was on Merlin's face as he stood in the entrance to his room, one hand propping the door open, the other holding onto the skimpy towel around his waist, watching until Arthur reached the elevator, pushed the button, and walked in.

"Goodnight, Arthur," Merlin said, and for an instant, a very small instant, Arthur closed his eyes let himself imagine that Merlin had said, instead, Do you want to come in?, and that Arthur would follow him into the room, slamming the door shut behind them.

"Goodnight, Merlin," Arthur said, banging his head on the elevator doors when they finally closed.