Not for the first time, Leon walked into the barracks and found Arthur sitting behind his desk, leaning back in his chair, his elbow on the arm-rest, his chin in his palm and his fingers splayed over half of his face. It wasn't quite the hundred-yard stare, and it was close enough to the familiar expression of Deep Thought that came with a black-bordered KEEP AWAY on a red background sign that no one bothered him.
No one would dare. An angry junkyard dog might come barreling at them if they crossed the line.
Arthur had been snappish and surly since the mission in Algiers. To be fair, everyone was snappish and surly in their own way since Algiers. It had been their first up-close-and-personal encounter with magic, and while some of them took it in stride, like Kay, and Gwaine was flippant about it but drowned his worries in drink, the rest of the team were currently at every stage of stupefaction. Owain was in denial, Bohrs was taking out his anger in the makeshift gym, Geraint and Galahad spent their times arguing and negotiating possible explanations that didn't have anything to do with the supernatural, while the rest of them were slipping into varying stages of sullen despair and grudging acceptance.
Unlike the rest of the team, Arthur had more time to come to terms with the existence of magic, so that couldn't be it. Leon had known Arthur long enough; whatever had brought about this mood, it had nothing to do with their most recent combat experience, but because of something personal.
Whatever it was, it was getting out of hand, and it needed dealing with before it caused some real damage.
Leon stood in the doorway long enough to see that Arthur's personal cloud of gloom and doom had darkened from dark grey to charcoal and he'd retreated deep into his little castle. This time, though, the chasm had widened, the moat was full of hungry crocodiles with a bit of man-eating shark thrown in, the sort that jumped into the air like the flying sharks off the coast of South Africa.
He looked around for allies, but at the last minute decided that it would be best to wander through the minefield on his own.
Galahad was fussing with his gear at the rear of the barracks and arguing with Geraint; Leon caught his attention and signalled with a little thumb over his shoulder, a raised brow, and a tilt of his head to fuck off, and make sure everyone stays out for a while.
Galahad picked up on the hint right away; Geraint was a little slower on the uptake, but their friendly arguing whittled down to gruff counterarguments and elbow-jabs, hauling their gear onto their shoulders for the bit of regular patrol duty in the low towns.
Leon didn't approach Arthur's desk until they were gone. He grabbed the extra chair, dragged it in front of the desk, and sat down. When Arthur didn't react, Leon made himself comfortable. If experience was any sign, at some point in the next few minutes, some innate warning system would alert Arthur that there was something out of the ordinary, and he'd snap out of it long enough to glare.
Arthur had a glare that could make a charging bull stop in its tracks.
In the meantime, Leon amused himself by trying to guess where Arthur was staring. His chair was angled slightly away from the front entrance, as if he meant to watch the team, except no one on the team was in the barracks at the moment except for Leon and Arthur.
Gwaine was the betting man, but Leon was willing to put good money forward -- even Morgana's engagement ring -- that Arthur was staring at Merlin's cot.
"Any particular reason why you're here?" Arthur's voice was distant, distracted, but he was showing signs of life. He blinked repeatedly, tearing himself away from whatever had been on his mind.
"There's been a sighting," Leon said. "Smith's back on base."
"He's late," Arthur said, still otherwise engaged. "He said he'd be a few days."
"Is that good news or bad news?"
Arthur shrugged a shoulder, shifting his body, turning toward Leon. His mind had nearly joined them in the here-and-now, Leon saw, and he gave Arthur a few more moments to collect himself. "I don't know yet."
In many ways, Arthur and Morgana were as different as a pair of siblings could be, even if they weren't fully related by blood. Morgana was a high-strung, high-maintenance, world-wrecking whirlwind of a shrew who would get her way and damn the consequences, even if her way was wrong, because it was the outcome she cared about more than anything. Leon had learned a long time ago how to get out before he was run over, and when he should dress himself in a Howitzer tank and let her expend her fury on him, rather than the rest of the world.
Fortunately, he was much better at stepping aside and the aftermath of damage control than he was at growing a pair of cement boots and standing firm.
Arthur, on the other hand, was a tightly-wound, anal-retentive, world-dominating Hand of God who would get his way and damn the consequences, but his way would be the way of honour and valour, because it was the proper way, the lawful way, and while the outcome might not be what Arthur wanted in the end, he was the sort who would be satisfied that he'd done the right thing and that he would still live with himself.
Leon had followed Arthur blindingly when they were children, because he didn't understand what Arthur was at the time. He was a spoilt prat, set in these archaic ways that no one followed anymore and God only knew where he'd learned them from, but he was a leader, through and through, the sort of person who would take the burdens of the world on his shoulders if he thought it would ease another's suffering. Arthur was the man Leon wished he could be.
For example, he still ducked and ran when Morgana started throwing breakables across the room, but Arthur grit his teeth and charged in to save his mother's china.
Arthur was also an idiot. Leon was certain that for all this time spent brooding, Arthur had wasted it brooding on exactly the wrong thing.
"He was signing custody over to one of the chiefs," Arthur said, making a small whatever that means gesture with his hand. "He wasn't to be involved in the interrogation. His responsibility is here, playing interference against the CIA's offence, taking us through a training routine, and making a general secret-agent nuisance of himself."
Leon waited some more.
Arthur shifted in his seat again, straightening, crossing his arms on top of the paperwork on his desk. He stared at some of the notes for a long moment, his brow furrowed in a growing frown, collecting his thoughts in an orderly list.
Leon was used to this. It was all part of the Arthur Brooding Method. He'd learned the steps, knew roughly how much time it took to draw Arthur out of it, and sometimes he could even get Arthur to talk about it. But first, Arthur had to talk himself into talking to someone else about it, and that took bloody ages. That was why Leon had made himself comfortable in the first place.
"Something must have come up," Arthur said finally. "Knowing Smith, it's probably some politics involving the Americans, a new sighting of the key members of the NWO, or a potential new recruit."
"Okay," Leon nodded. "Start with the politics."
Arthur ran his hand through his hair and blew out his breath. "What, you want the semester course, or the pop quiz version?"
Leon checked his watch. "I don't think we have that much time. The short version."
"The CIA had their pick of the top crews in the American Armed Forces. They could've recruited from among their own people and trained them specifically for the missions against the NWO."
"But they didn't," Leon said, playing the part of the brainstorm board.
"No. They didn't, because they don't know how to train their people for the enemy. This enemy." Arthur paused. "I'm guessing they went to the people who did know, and the Directory told them to shift off. They shifted all right, right onto someone who pointed them in the army's direction, who pointed them toward the best of the best..."
"Us, of course," Leon said, feeling distinctly like he was channelling Gwaine's ego.
"Revenge," Arthur said with a nod. "They meant to toss a see how you like it in the Directory's face, except for one thing. It's no skin off the Directory's nose if we lost a few people."
"Except we didn't."
"It's like a the progress of a twisted relationship," Arthur said with some annoyance. "It starts with the pimple-faced boy asking the pretty girl out on a date, and the pretty girl says no. So the pimple-faced boy, instead of going off on a sulk, decides that he'll go after the pretty girl's best friend. The best friend says, okay, but just this once, and they go out. The pimple-faced boy decides he likes the best friend even more than the pretty girl and really wants to keep going out with the best friend. The pretty girl sees them having a wonderful time and gets jealous. She takes her best friend out for a night of debauchery and they make sure that the pimple-faced boy knows how much fun they had."
"Don't mock. You and Morgana --"
"I surrender," Leon said, immediately holding up his hands. He freely admitted that the road to dating Morgana had been a long and painful one, involving cargo hold full of rejections to his many attempts at asking her out, jealous fits when he had to sit back and watch someone else come to the door of the Pendragon house to pick her up for a date, and when she finally, finally said yes to him on the night before the biggest exam of his life, Leon had been gutted to have to say no.
On the bright side, he'd not only aced that exam, got his degree, and graduated with honours, but now he had the girl of his dreams chasing him. Between Gwaine telling him he should play hard to get, and Arthur staying out of it, Leon had erred on the side of caution and after one week of resistance, he had folded like a house of cards the next time Morgana asked him out. They'd been together ever since.
He never wanted to let her go. Never gave her the chance. He'd wanted to go on bended knee in front of her for years, but as long as he was in the army, he'd have to wait. It wasn't fair to her.
Arthur smirked faintly. "Right now, we're right about in the stage of the relationship where the pimple-faced boy does everything in his power to have the best friend to himself, while the pretty girl cock-blocks him every inch of the way."
"Right." Leon paused. "Just to be clear here, we're the best friend?"
Arthur raised a brow.
"We are. Good to know. Go on, I'm following."
"The big question is what are they going to do next in this little war of theirs," Arthur said. "You know, the big long drawn-out battle before they realize they're really mad about each other and go to a back room somewhere to fuck each other raw."
Arthur rubbed his face in his hands a few times before putting them down in tight fists on top of his desk. Leon winced before Arthur even continued. "So we're, what, not the best friend anymore? We're cannon fodder? Collateral damage?"
"Worse," Arthur said with a sigh. "And not just yet. First, the pimply-faced boy and the pretty girl are each going to make us an offer we can't refuse."
Leon sat quietly for a moment before shifting in his seat, leaning forward, an elbow on the desk. His voice was low as he asked, "What's that, then?"
Arthur shook his head. "I don't know yet. Anything from money -- because we all know how the Americans throw money at things -- to immigration with a full ride on one side, or an early out of this mire and an offer of New and Exciting employment with Her Royal Majesty's Very Secret Service."
The silence stretched, and Leon watched Arthur watching him with the sort of measuring, contemplative look that he had when he was trying to figure out how someone else would react if they were given those offers for real. Leon spread his hand, palm-down, flicking a pencil out of the way, and said, "Well, some of us were talking about taking a drive tour of the States. Morgana wants to go to New York, Owain wants to go to a baseball game, and Gwaine wants to go to Las Vegas, but none of us want to turn into stars-and-stripes rednecks."
There was a quirk of a smile at the corner of Arthur's mouth.
"There's no early out for us," Leon went on, "We're in this together. And after, well, we've got jobs, don't we? And you keep telling us that HMRS pay is shite."
This time, Arthur chuckled softly. "Yeah."
"None of us are defecting, so that's one worry taken care of. So, what has you really wound up like this for," Leon said, giving Arthur a chance to come clean and knowing full well that he wouldn't. Not without help.
Arthur leaned back slowly, his chair creaking faintly in the silence of the barracks, his eyes fixed on a distant point over Leon's head. His hands gripped the arm rests, long strong fingers that Leon knew could tear them off -- he'd done it before, with the previous chair, in a fit of temper that no one wanted to see again -- the knuckles white.
"I'm done being jerked around. The Americans have had their go at us. The Directory has, too."
"So, the best friend is getting pissed?"
"Too right we are," Arthur said, and for an instant, Leon thought he would say something more, but instead, he settled silently and thoughtfully in his seat, as if he weren't entirely certain what he was going to do next.
"We've got the option to say no," Leon said, but the dangerous glint in Arthur's eyes was all he needed to see. The option was there, but there really wasn't an option, not when the CIA seemed to have some pull with the British government, not when the Directory could tweak their records and their identities and their entire lives and incarcerate them until they were old and grey and bitter, sitting in rocking chair in some old folks home, shaking their canes at everyone who passed by. A cold wash went down Leon's spine -- they'd make sure that he never got the chance to propose to Morgana.
"They'd turn 'no' into a 'yes' and you know it," Arthur said needlessly. "And you can't tell me you don't want to see this through."
It had taken Leon time -- it took the team time -- to come to terms with the new threat that they were facing, but it had been Kay who put their feelings down as succinctly as he was known to: "So what. It's magic. They're still the bad guys."
They were still the bad guys, and Excalibur would continue to do what they did best, and that was to stop the bad guys from breaking through the line and gaining the upper hand. That it was magic they were facing, instead of another round of Kalashnikovs, or "stolen" missiles from a neighbouring nation that was friendly with the enemy, it didn't matter. What mattered was that getting all the information that they needed in order to defeat them.
"Oh, we want to see this through," Leon said. "But not the way we are now."
"Floundering in the dark with blinders on and hands tied behind our backs?" Arthur asked wearily. After a moment, he answered his own question with a firm nod and a steady, exhaled breath. "I know. They're giving us dribbles. Instead of the plans and the schematics, they tell us to jump and we don't even ask how high. And Algiers -- why the bloody fuck didn't they give us someone with the firepower to stop Trickler and that witch? Merlin nearly --"
Arthur's voice rose in a high pitch of oncoming hysterics that Leon was familiar from Morgana, though he'd never seen it in Arthur and probably never would again. Arthur caught himself and Leon swallowed a resigned sigh; if he wasn't going to come out with it himself, Leon would drag it out of him.
"We've got leverage, don't we?" Leon asked instead, wanting to run Arthur through his train of thought before addressing the real matter at hand.
Arthur nodded again, firm, resolute, knowing, his expression hardening, a muscle in his jaw popping. "Algiers. That's two that we won, that we lived through. More than the Americans have managed. More than the Directory. Two in our favour, and they don't dare do without us."
Leon could read between Arthur's lines by now and interpreted Arthur's tone to mean that if they would be seconded on special Directory-driven and CIA-guided missions, Arthur was going to bargain for full debriefing on the NWO, on magic, on everything, getting there however it took -- full security clearances for the team, intensive off-base training in a secure location, complete autonomy of action. But there was also that question in the air -- what would they do if they faced magic again?
For his part, Leon agreed with Arthur. They couldn't fight against magic again without having magic themselves -- doing otherwise was asking for disaster. Leon said out loud what Arthur had likely already considered. "I can't see the team warming up to a new member. Not one that comes from the Americans or from the Directory."
Arthur nodded, and there was that quiet sigh again. "That leaves us with two options."
"Only two?" Leon asked mildly.
"I let Smith test the team for his little magic sleight of hand trick and maybe someone has some talent for it that we can use, but that means losing a member or two to whatever extra training they'll need to go through before they're useful."
Leon leaned forward more, crossing both of his arms on the desk. "And the odds of that?"
"Slim. So slim, not even Gwaine's interested in taking a side trip to the bookies."
"And option two?"
"We keep on as we have," Arthur said, and he didn't sound as if he liked it. They had gotten lucky twice; they might not get lucky again, and no one wanted the next mission to be their last.
Leon resisted the urge to sit back in his chair, to protest, to argue that it wasn't the best approach, but instead said, "Then that's what we're going to do."
Leon waited. And he waited some more. He watched Arthur fold into himself, to close off, to take that deep, steeling breath that he would take before putting his personal needs aside and to think of the team first, and only the team, because they were what mattered to him above even himself. But Leon knew it wasn't much of a team without a leader, especially a leader with his head done in.
Leon did what he did whenever Morgana was having one of her epic tantrums, whenever Arthur buckled himself inside an impenetrable suit of armour. He waded hip-deep into the shark-infested waters and slit his wrist, offering himself as a sacrifice so that the others could survive.
"And then there's Merlin."
"Merlin?" All it took was a slight shift, a muscle twitch, and a slight pinch of his expression, and Arthur had defensive and protective written all over him. "What about Merlin?"
Leon took a deep breath and voiced what each member of the team would readily do -- well, nearly all, but no one could blame Gwaine if he sulked a bit, since he had claimed firsts, before any of them ever knew Merlin fancied men, but Gwaine would come around once he was over his pout. "You know that we'd cover for you two?"
"Pardon?" The imperious eyebrow of denial rose.
"Oh, come off of it, Arthur. There's not a single one of us who doesn't know. Perce was the first to see it, but after that show back at Algiers, when you wouldn't let anyone else carry him, when you damn near bit off Lance's head whenever he poked and Merlin sounded like he was hurting?"
Arthur's jaw clenched tight, his lips pursed as if wounded, and he leaned forward with the lowered chin and raised horns of a bull ready to charge. "And what, exactly, did Perce see?"
Leon didn't back off. That was one thing about those damned Pendragons. One couldn't help but feel overwhelmed by their sheer presence, but at the same time, they could smell a tiny drop of fear in an ocean. If Leon gave in, if he quailed, there would be no getting back to this, no chance of making Arthur (or Morgana) see the light of their mistakes.
"How long have we known each other? Nearly since we were out of nappies, yeah? That whole time, I've seen you moon over exactly one person, and his name is Merlin."
"I don't --"
"Bollocks," Leon said, not letting Arthur gain any momentum, because when the man started on something, he never stopped. "Bollocks. Bollocks a billion fucking times, Arthur."
Arthur clamped his mouth shut and looked very pale.
"You're in love with him."
Arthur's eyes evaded Leon's, and they went in the very telling direction of Merlin's bed before he realized that he'd given himself away. His lips pressed tight together, turning white, and he finally looked back at Leon, his gaze full of turmoil and misery and despair. "It doesn't matter."
"It matters," Leon snapped. "It matters a lot. You're not the only one who sees the duty roster, and I see the changes you make every day. How much longer are you going to assign Merlin to the other side of the base from where you are? You're miserable. And when you're miserable, you take it out on the rest of us. To be honest, we're a bit tired of being on the receiving end. In case you're worrying about it, everyone approves. Morgana wants to know when the wedding is going to be and if she's your best man -- and she'd better be your best man --"
"You told Morgana?" Arthur shouted, eyes wide with alarm.
"Your sister's not bloody blind! Why do you think she brought those girls to Merlin's party? She thought it would get under your skin enough to push you at him!"
Arthur stared at Leon. Leon stared back.
"Jesus, Leon," Arthur said quietly. "What am I supposed to do?"
Leon leaned back in his seat. "Really? You're going to make me explain the birds and bees to you? The dynamics of the pull?"
"Fuck you, Leon," Arthur snapped. "That's not what I mean. Even if he were interested --"
"Oh, bloody hell, Morgana might not be blind, but you are!"
"Leon! I'm his C.O.!" The anguish in Arthur's eyes was unmistakeable.
Leon was an idiot. He didn't know why he hadn't seen it -- it was right in front of him. Of course Arthur wouldn't have made a play for Merlin before now -- he was too damned honourable for that. There were rules, and the rules frowned upon fraternization in the ranks. Arthur was an officer, but so was Merlin, so that should make it all right, except he was directly under Arthur's command, and Arthur would never do anything to make anyone think that he was using his rank and position for his own ends and purposes. That included love.
Telling Arthur that the team would cover for him was telling him something he already knew. Even if Merlin weren't interested in Arthur, Arthur would at least try. But the two things he couldn't get past were the rules and his own righteous honour.
"Arthur," Leon started to say, drifting to silence when he realized that he didn't know what he wanted to say.
"Yeah," Arthur said, filling in the silence.
"You could get him transferred?" Leon suggested weakly.
"After everything we've gone through to get a decent comm-spec? Absolutely not," Arthur said, once again putting the team above his own needs.
Leon wanted to slap him. "Then quit being an arse. Quit sending Merlin to the rat's tail-end of the base. You're a bloody pillock when he's not around."
Arthur sighed and closed his eyes. "Algiers just about killed me."
Leon waited until Arthur opened his eyes again. "But you can't say you didn't have fun with him, yeah? "
The small, involuntary smile on Arthur's lips was the first smile Leon had seen in days.
"Yeah, I'm all right, Uncle Gaius," Merlin said, and not for the first time. He glanced surreptitiously over his shoulder at the deserted communication centre, rather pleased with himself for having come up with this plan. He'd traded a couple of hours of repairs, strengthening the communication line, and training some of the greenies in exchange for everyone taking their break at the same time so that he could have some privacy.
The downside was having to train greenies again -- as if Gilli wasn't already a drain on his time, his energy, his will to live. If he had to spend any more time teaching Gilli the fundamentals of code cracking -- that eventually, the codes in the Crack Box repository won't work, and he would have to break out the pencil and paper and start with the math -- Merlin would crack himself. There was a reason why he kept pushing for a transfer out of the Artists for active duty -- for every hour spent training idiots, he lost a year of his life.
The upside of his plan, besides the privacy, was being able to turn all the knobs one way, flip the switches in directions they weren't meant to be in, unplug wires and hook cables and go through a miasma of reconnections for the security of having an untapped line to the British mainland whenever he called home. Mum was pleased to hear from him on a regular basis, but it was Uncle Gaius, not his Mum, who heard bits and pieces about Algiers.
"Still a couple of spots where I'm cut up, but those have scabbed over since," Merlin said.
"That's not what I meant, my boy," Gaius said, his voice stern, and Merlin could almost hear the Dreaded Eyebrow of Doom creak to the rafters. "You were dragged through a shield. The pain must have been formidable. What were you thinking? Surely you could have broken it?"
"And show everyone and their mother how it's done?" Merlin retorted, shaking his head. He switched the phone from one ear to the next, glancing over his shoulder again. "The thing is, Uncle Gaius, I don't know what to do. If we go on more of these missions, and we will be..."
There was a silence and a faint rustling sound in the background. "I don't know what to tell you, Merlin. I can only tell you to --"
"-- yes, I know. Be careful," Merlin said resignedly, leaning forward, elbows on his knees, rubbing his hand over his eyes. "I'm always careful. I'm so bloody careful I'm going to get myself killed."
"-- I know, I know. I'm sorry. I'm just wound up. There's a lot of things doing my head in," Merlin said. The Americans. The Directory. The NWO. Trickler. Aredian. Mordred. And the worst of it... Arthur.
He could not get Arthur out of his head. The duties he'd been pulling lately had helped, sending him on the other side of the base where he was just about guaranteed to never run into Arthur, not even accidentally, but sometimes he would spot someone who had the right height, almost the right build. Sometimes there would be a flash of blond hair. Sometimes there would be a short, brief, mocking snort, and he'd look around, expecting to see Arthur, but it was just some young punk who thought he knew everything about communications and needed the piss taken out of him.
Fuck it, but he missed Arthur.
The silence stretched a few long seconds before Gaius spoke up, mindful of the long distance, even though Merlin had rigged both the line on base and Gaius' phone not to ever accrue a distance charge bill for the rest of his life (and beyond). "I looked into the Directory. There are... whispers. Talking to one person sends me to someone else who might know, who sends me to someone else..."
"So, dead end, then?" Merlin asked.
The hesitation was long enough that Merlin glanced toward the dial to make sure he hadn't lost connection with Gaius.
"I shan't be throwing in the towel quite that quickly, my boy," Gaius said softly. "But do tread lightly around this Mister Smith. I fear, if word gets out, that..."
He trailed off, and Merlin sighed.
"And the worst will happen? Of course it will. They've got magic users hunting magic users! I mean, Smith knows spells! They've got an alchemist that brews that exact same slop you used to give me when I'd come home all bruised up after a fight and I begged you to help me hide it before Mum came home. What else do they do, Uncle Gaius? Do they round up people and keep them in holding cells? And they've got that one, you know the one? I mean..."
"Take a breath," Gaius said sternly, and it was almost as if Merlin could see his bushy eyebrows frown and his eyes narrow. He took an instinctive breath, because otherwise, Gaius would cuff him on the back of his head. "You watch too much speculative fiction. What was the name of that show? Stargate?"
"You're thinking about Sanctuary," Merlin said, glancing over his shoulder. He pulled the phone away from his ear and could hear distant voices. "I have to go, it won't be very private around here for much longer. But, look, I'm not the one who should be careful, yeah? The Directory, I mean, they've got big guns, you know. If you're asking around --"
"I'll be careful, Merlin," Gaius said, and they made their good-byes. Merlin hung the phone on the hook, hanging his head between his knees, clasping his hands over his head. He sat there for ten long seconds before hastily getting up to put all the dials and knobs and switches back to their standard settings, plugging in all the wires that needed to be plugged in and yanking out the ones that didn't.
He had the bad luck of having Gilli be the first one in. "Merlin!"
Merlin raised a brow.
"I mean, Lieutenant Emrys. Sorry, sir. Sir, I had a question --"
"I'm off duty," Merlin said. "Besides, I've already told you everything you needed to know about the Allied encryption code and the WHO emergency codes and the European Union protocols."
"I know, sir, but --"
"Six times, Sergeant. If you push for seven, I'm enrolling you into the crypto program again, and this time, I'll be teaching it. I won't be as easy as the last punter, giving you a pass just because you know how to push a button."
Gilli was appropriately contrite for a fraction of a second. "They keep changing the codes, sir."
"That's where this comes in," Merlin said, tapping his own head and gesturing to Gilli's. "It might smell a bit like smoke burning when you start using it, but use it. I'm not around all the time, Sergeant. You can't come running to me when I'm four hundred klicks out in the middle of a gunfight asking me how to do a simple three-key encrypt."
"Yes, sir," Gilli said, sounding sullen. He cast a sidelong glance at the Crack Box, as if it had suddenly become a ball and chain.
"You'll get it, Sergeant," Merlin offered encouragingly, but he didn't feel very encouraging at this point. In fact, he was feeling downright snappish. Gilli had received the training and must have done remarkably well if he were assigned to a Crack Box -- he should be operating on his own by now. He left before Gilli could corner him with more questions and promptly ran into Colonel Mandrake.
Mandrake glanced from Merlin to Gilli and back again, raising a brow. "That wasn't like you, Emrys."
"No, sir. Sorry, sir. Have a lot on my mind," Merlin said. "Not that it's an excuse."
"You've got enough on your plate without that," Mandrake said, nodding toward Gilli. "You get out of here, yeah? Or I'll have to file papers to adjust your pay, since you're spending more time in here than the people assigned to communications. Don't make me do that, Emrys. You know how much I hate paperwork."
Merlin managed a faint grin. "Yes, sir."
His belly grumbled; he took a detour toward the food.
It was late -- late enough for the team to have ducked into the mess hall for an early tea, but no one was there. Merlin waved to a few people and left the mess hall before he got invited to sit with anyone, because, duty aside, he'd heard that Smith was back on base. He wasn't keen on bumping into the Directory agent without the team to hide behind.
Not that he had anything to hide.
Just his magic.
He was pushing his way into the barracks -- Bohrs was barricading the door, but he swung it wide and pulled Merlin inside. It wasn't until he spotted most of the team in a circle around Mister Smith that Merlin realized he might as well have stayed behind for extra tutoring sessions with Gilli, or sat at one of the tables to talk shop with Anderson and the others. It would have been safer there.
Merlin turned around to see if he could distract Bohrs into letting him out again, but Bohrs was standing, one foot wedging the door shut, his arms crossed over his chest, craning his neck to look over everyone's heads, trying to see what was going on. He glanced at Merlin and misinterpreted desperation for interest, and said, "No one's managed yet."
Merlin nearly gave himself whiplash when he twisted his head around, his brows furrowing in an alarmed frown, trying to see what was going on. "What?"
"It's Smith," Bohrs said. "Remember how he said he wanted to test us, see if any of us could do a little abra-bra-dabra?"
"Abracadabra," Merlin corrected automatically, because everyone else seemed to get it wrong and it had gotten on his last nerves when five people drunkenly tried to say it all together, but he was more concerned with the rest of what Bohrs had said. Hadn't Arthur said it was a waste of time?
Merlin slipped further into the barracks, past Geraint and Galahad, who were mumbling to each other and staring at an object in their hands, past Leon, who was keeping an eye on everyone, past Arthur, who was scowling and not liking this one bit. What was Arthur thinking? Why was he letting this go on? Smith wasn't the boss of them --
"What's going on?" Merlin asked, standing next to Lance. Lance watched the proceedings with a bemused expression on his face, his hands in his pockets, a little pinch in his forehead hinting thought, and Merlin wondered if he was fascinated with the psychiatric disturbances being demonstrated by his fellow teammates at right this moment, or with the social experiment on display.
"What it looks like, mate," Lance said, tilting his head toward Merlin to speak quietly, not wanting to disturb the others. "Arthur said to get it over with and out of the way or Smith will keep at us until we give in. You remember him wanting to test us for magic?"
"Yeah," Merlin said gloomily. Gwaine was over at the other end of the barracks, sitting on Merlin's bed, his feet up onto his own bunk, twirling a pen in the air with his fingers the way gamblers could do the coin-trick of having a silver dollar dance over their knuckles. Owain and Perceval were sitting on Smith's left side, while Kay was right in front of him, hunched forward. "You get tested already?"
"Yeah, big fat zero," Lance said. "Big relief it is too. Dad used to tell me stories about Houdini when I was a kid, scared me straight."
"And the others?"
"Arthur went first," Lance said. "Not a flicker. Then Leon, Gwaine and me. Perce and O went, Bohrs had a go... Geraint and Galahad don't want to give up so they're over there practicing."
Merlin glanced over his shoulder again at the two, and looked back at Smith and the others. "So what's the spell?"
"Say it again," Smith was telling Kay, keeping his voice in monotone. "Afléotan hearpenægel. A-float-an hear-pen-eagle. Hard G at the end. Again and again, until it feels natural. Put your own inflections on it."
A chill went down Merlin's spine.
"It's a levitation spell," Lance said. "That's all he told us. Taught us the word, over and over by rote until we got the syllables right, but I guess there's a knack to it that can't be taught."
"Smith must've been taught," Merlin said, carefully keeping his voice neutral. "Didn't he say he didn't have magic?"
"Oh yeah. Said he figured it out. Took him something like a few thousand tries to get it to work, then a few more to remember how he'd done it."
"He show it?" Merlin glanced at Lance, who raised both brows and nodded.
"Owain made Smith do it five or six times before the novelty wore off, and then he put the rest of us to the test."
Merlin flinched inwardly. Of all the simple, easy spells in the world that Smith could have picked, he had selected the one that Merlin had done instinctively since he was a child, making everything in his crib -- including the crib -- float. His Mum said that it was the only thing that amused him enough to drowse him to sleep, and that she had to put down thick blankets on the floor so that Merlin wouldn't wake up when he dozed off and everything clanked to the ground, crib included.
Gaius taught him the actual spell later, when Merlin was old enough to speak, but Gaius reminded Merlin often enough: Merlin didn't strictly need spells. They were nice to know, they helped focus his intent, particularly when he was in a rush and there was no time to futz around. On the one hand, sheer power could steamroll over most other spells, but letting loose like that exhausted him. Sometimes it was nice to be precise, the way Gwaine was when he shot the wings off a fly at a thousand paces.
"Afléotan hearpenægel," Kay said, the emphasis wrong, the accent not quite right, but it was enough to tickle tantalizingly at Merlin's magic.
Merlin shut his eyes and turned away, rubbing his temples. He dropped his hands, shaking his head. This was ridiculous. Completely and utterly ridiculous. Didn't anyone see that it was a waste of their time? What was a simple floating spell going to do, besides out any one of them who had a grain of magic? He thought that Arthur was smarter than this. Smith was doing one thing and one thing only: poking and prodding for any advantage the Directory could have over the Americans.
"Afléotan hearpenægel," Kay said again, and this time, Merlin stamped down hard on his magic, keeping the squirming strands from wriggling loose and causing havoc like a poltergeist on LSD.
"Maybe if you had a wand and did that Harry Potter wrist flick," Gwaine suggested.
"I didn't see it work for you," Kay retorted. He stared hard at the pen on the smoothed-down blanket in front of him. "Afléotan hearpenægel!"
"Old sports injury," Gwaine said, cradling his wrist close to his chest. "Wrist-flicking makes the carpal tunnel worse. I have doctor's orders to keep it rested and elevated..."
"Old sports injury? Is that what you're calling it now?" Leon asked with a snort.
"It is what it is," Gwaine drawled, spreading his arms magnanimously. "I was at the top of my game. Trained for four hours a day, ate what my trainers told me to eat, strict schedule and all that rot. I was a champion, making a name for myself in my sport --"
"Which was what, the Olympics of wanking?"
"Fuck you too, Leon," Gwaine said, his tone cheerful, raising two fingers in the air.
The rude gesture was the only thing raised when Kay declared, "Afléotan hearpenægel!"
He triggered a giggling titter through the barracks when he tried once more, this time with a nasal New York accent. "Afléotan hearpenægel!"
Merlin shook his head, catching himself at the last minute. Smith was staring at him with a thinly-veiled measuring look and shifted slightly, gesturing for Merlin to come closer. There was no missing the glint in his grey eyes, the glee of someone who had only been going through the motions until he reached the person he'd really meant to get his hooks into. "Ah, Merlin. There you are. Let's get you sorted on this, why don't we?"
The whole of the day's frustrations came tumbling down onto Merlin, adding to the already mountain-sized pile of aggravations that had been growing ever since he'd joined Excalibur, a pile that swelled to Everest proportions since Algiers. All of Merlin's good will, his normal affable nature, his innate need to help others even if he thought it was all rather silly -- it took a side turn past Aggrieved, waited in the long queue to pay the toll, and hopped onto the Rebellion Highway to get to the only place on the planet where he could purchase a steaming cup of fuck you, you wanker.
"How about we don't?"
Every pair of eyes in the room turned to watch him under raised brows. Even Merlin was surprised by the harsh tone of his own voice.
The only person who was unsurprised at his reaction was Smith himself. "It's a simple test, Merlin. A few minutes of your time. It won't hurt."
"Let me save you the trouble. It's bollocks." Merlin saw Arthur shift his stance, his expression carefully neutral, his body tense and tight. It was very distracting.
"How's that?" Smith asked, standing up.
Merlin glanced around the barracks. "It's a zero-probability of success test. A complete, utter waste of time. Maybe you can do it because you've practiced, or because you've rigged up a magnet set or some invisible threads, but however you've done it, it's all bollocks. You're asking people who've never done magic before in their lives, who probably still don't completely believe in it, to cast a spell to float a fucking pen in the air. And what for? To see if one of us has magic? What are they going to do, then, take a crash course in Magic 101 and take on the NWO single-handed?"
"One in fifty people have some mild latent magical ability," Smith said with a bit of an apologetic shrug. "The odds that someone here happens to be that one in fifty --"
"Sixteen people, mate," Merlin said. "There's sixteen people on the team. You've already tested a good half of us already, so that leaves eight. Your odds are a whole dimension less than one in fifty right there, never mind taking into account that this isn't a true random sample. Even the bloody Zenner card test has better odds than this."
"The Zenner test is a measured scientific method," Smith said, the corner of his mouth tugging faintly. There was a shadow in his eyes, and Merlin didn't know what Smith was thinking.
"Have to disagree with you there. The Zenner test is a bloody gambler's fallacy," Merlin said. "But this? It's shooting blanks in an empty barrel and hoping to net some fish out of it. Why are you wasting our time?"
Smith glanced at Arthur. Arthur was staring at Merlin. Merlin felt his mouth go dry, but not before getting a good look at Arthur's expression -- heavy with frown, coloured with confusion, with the tight press of lips holding back questions that he did not want to ask right now, in front of everyone else.
"For the occult-deficient among us, what's the Zenner card test?" Leon asked.
Merlin's shoulders slumped and he shook his head. "It's the card test for psychic phenomena. Telepathy, clairvoyance mostly. You know, the white cards with the star, the circle, the square, the wavy lines, the cross."
"Used them in Ghostbusters, didn't they?" Gwaine asked.
"Yeah, those," Merlin said. "Five symbols, deck of twenty-five. The theory is that you'll have a one in five chance of guessing right. You guess one in five, you're an average schmuck. You guess three in five, you're psychic. You don't even manage to guess one in five, not even after repeating the deck five times, you're psychic because you're consciously suppressing latent ability."
A few team members -- the ones paying attention, which included Arthur, Leon, Lance and Gwaine -- raised a brow, catching on, finally, to what Merlin had meant by the gambler's fallacy of Smith's test.
"There's three possible outcomes of this test," Merlin said, pushing forward a step until he was closer to the middle of the room. He held up a finger. "One. This bunch beats the odds and there's one person who does a bit of hocus-pocus on the side. Except you said yourself that it should show up right about when our voices start to crack and we get morning woods that last the whole bloody day. Well, we're all a little past blowing our wads in our pants whenever a pretty girl walks by --"
"Or boy," Gwaine suggested. Everyone glanced at Gwaine. "It could happen when a pretty boy walks by too, you know."
"-- so we just went past your one-in-fifty odds to the one-in-ten thousand odds, and this whole learning a spell bollocks? Forget it. If it took you as long as it did to learn this spell and to get it to work, what makes you think any of us are going to get it right in one night?" Merlin said. He held up a second finger. "Two, none of us have a drop of magic, we all fail, and you take a page out of the Zenner test and say that, well, that means one of us must be hiding it."
Merlin's fingers weren't trembling, his voice was steady, and he didn't flinch from the steel in Smith's eyes, but he was privately certain that once he was alone, he'd have a miniature breakdown.
He held up a third finger. "Three, none of us have a drop of magic, but one of us doesn't fail, because the person giving the test knows how to make the spell work, and can bollocks us all up by pinning us down while they play musical chairs letting the person think they know how to do magic, only, it's going to blow up in our faces, isn't it, because you'll have us thinking we can rely on it when we bloody well can't, yeah?"
Everyone's eyes went from Merlin to Smith.
"Merlin," Perceval said, breaking the silence.
"How's that floating pen trick working for you?" Merlin asked him. When Perceval shook his head and shrugged, Merlin turned to Kay, who'd been working on it so hard a few minutes ago. "How about you?"
It was desperation driving him to embarrass his teammates for being gullible, but it was self-preservation that kept him pushing on well past the point he normally would. He couldn't let Smith find out about his abilities. What little Gaius had told him rang in his head, full of bells and whistles and alarm.
Mister Smith shifted from one foot to the next, watching the group before finally reaching down to take the pen out of Kay's hands. He stood up straight, staring at it, before looking at Merlin sidelong, giving him a wry look.
"There's a tenet of psychology that comes to mind right now. Do you know what it is? It's that the person who protests the most is usually the guiltiest." Smith held the pen out for Merlin in challenge. "Go on. You try it. I won't interfere. Afléotan hearpenægel."
Merlin choked out a disbelieving laugh, but Smith wasn't backing down, and everyone was looking at him again. He snatched the pen out of Smith's hand, studied it, took it apart to make sure that there weren't any magnets or mystery strings -- all for show, he knew, because he was wasting time, concentrating instead on not making the pen float, to suppress his magic, to reign it back, to redirect it somewhere else, far away, where no one would link it to Merlin. When he had the pen in one piece again, he held it out at arm's reach, between two fingers.
He took his eyes from Smith, and stared at the pen. "Afléotan hearpenægel."
Messing up the pronunciation was easy. Shifting his inflections was a cinch. And all the while, he firmly concentrated on, Pen! Fall!
The pen dropped to the ground and rolled to Smith's boots.
They stared at each other for a moment of push and pull, and it wasn't broken until Merlin felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.
"Everyone who hasn't tried it yet, try it now." Arthur shoved Merlin toward the barracks door. "Merlin, I'll speak to you outside."
Arthur ignored the slightly raised eyebrow and knowing look from Leon and Perceval, and thumbed Bohrs aside to march Merlin out the door. He didn't let his hand drop from Merlin's shoulder until they had walked all the way from the barracks to the main road of the base. Arthur considered it a personal triumph that he hadn't let his hand slip further up Merlin's shoulder to rub at the spot where he'd marked Merlin back in Algiers like he dearly wanted to do.
He didn't say anything. Merlin didn't say anything. In fact, Merlin seemed to be grateful for the silence, for the opportunity to get out of the barracks, and if Arthur were pressed for answers, he'd have to admit he was glad to be out of there, too.
When Bayard found him shortly after Arthur learned he was on base, the conversation had been heavy-handed in Bayard's favour.
"You're late," Arthur had said.
"How are your men? Are they ready to scramble?" Bayard had deflected Arthur's indirect question with questions of his own.
"Is there a mission I should know about?" Arthur had asked.
"Didn't I mention this before? I need the team in perpetual state of readiness. We never know when the CIA will act next, or when the NWO will show up."
So much for being merely a mission advisor and an intermediary between the CIA and the British Army, Arthur had thought -- still thought. He'd tried not to let his aggravation show, but it had been hard. "I have to talk to you, Sol."
"What about? I need to get to command. We've tracked Daly's team, and their position is nearby. I want to get eyes on them, see what they're up to."
"About the test," Arthur had said, dangling the bait, and like a hungry fish, Bayard whipped around and took a big bite that nearly took Arthur's arm with it.
There had been an edge to Bayard when Arthur gathered the team together. He'd seen how Bayard counted everyone under his breath, scanning those gathered and not finding what he was looking for -- who he was looking for. When Bohrs let Merlin in, Bayard's body had tightened the way a tiger's did instants before it pounced.
Arthur wasn't a fool. He'd seen the way Bayard watched Merlin during the debrief on the way to Algiers. Even before Algiers. It was the same way that Olaf looked at Arthur, when Olaf thought Arthur couldn't see him, as if Arthur were a rare delicacy to be plucked and either savoured or preserved. Bayard saw Merlin as an asset, and once everything calmed down after the mission to capture Trickler, Arthur had sat down to try to figure out why.
It didn't help that his mind drifted off topic and pictured Merlin in his tight shirt and tight jeans and mussed hair, marked for everyone to see as Arthur's.
Bayard's interest had to have something to do with the background check he'd run on Merlin. The little that he'd shared with Arthur had come as a shock -- but it shouldn't have, because he already knew that Merlin's denomination was Pagan. It should have been perfectly common sense that Merlin's family would also be Pagan, that his friends would be, too. And, it seemed, it was logical for people who claimed paganism would also dabble a bit in the occult, if they weren't a bit supernatural themselves. Arthur had simply not made the connection until Bayard had spelled it out for him.
When Arthur thought about it -- really thought about it, there was nothing wrong with Merlin's background, nothing that should attract Bayard's attention. If the Directory were hurting for people who were familiar with the occult, they could probably throw a stone at a crowded Faire somewhere and hit one or two people who was on the one side a Professor of Mythological Studies, and the other a Professor of Occult Theory.
Bayard was the one who'd given Arthur the clue he was looking for -- Merlin's father. Balinor Emrys had been a member of one of the original SAS teams and had run most of his missions under the auspices of the Directory. Those missions were Eyes-Only, which meant either Bayard had no access to them, which made him curious about Balinor's boy, or he did have access to the files, and the contents made him curious about Balinor's boy.
Either way, the end result was the same. Arthur couldn't -- wouldn't -- let the Directory get their hands on Merlin. It didn't matter why Bayard was interested in him.
Even if the little voice in his head whispered, maybe Merlin was magic.
There was absolutely no evidence for it, of course. Arthur couldn't think of one single situation where Merlin might have used magic. Not at the Ravines when they were trapped in the sandstorm and Merlin got lucky and found shelter. Not during the war game when it turned out that Valiant was cheating again. Not in Algiers, when Merlin was dragged out of the wreck of a bullet-proof car and through a magical shield that damn near flayed him alive.
He would've used magic then, wouldn't he, if he'd been in that much pain? If he thought he were going to die?
Arthur glanced at Merlin as they walked. Wouldn't he?
The mere thought that maybe Merlin could have saved himself but didn't because he was trying to hide a stupid secret was enough to enrage Arthur.
Arthur directed them to the airfield. It was loud and busy there, with wide open spaces that kept people from lurking nearby, and was the general go-to place when people needed to have private conversations. Or private dressing-downs.
He wasn't entirely sure which one it was at this point.
They stopped at their usual spot -- it occurred to Arthur that it should be strange that they came out to talk so much that they had an "usual" spot -- about midway between the rows of heavy transports and the control tower, and watched a pair of choppers touch down, dumping their human cargo. No one was in any hurry, which told Arthur all that he needed to know: no one had been hurt on the patrol.
"Out with it," he said abruptly.
Merlin shot him a quick, short look. "Out with what?"
Arthur turned to face him, but Merlin kept his body pointed toward the airfield, his eyes on the horizon. "That was some show you put on."
Although Arthur agreed with every single one of Merlin's arguments to Bayard's little magic test, a part of him had been terrified to even attempt it himself (what if he were magic and didn't know it?), and another part of him had been secretly curious to see how Merlin would do (because what if Arthur was wrong and Merlin would do whatever it took to hide his magic from other people?), the outburst had been very much not-Merlin.
Merlin, now, was still very much not-Merlin. His shoulders were back, set as if at attention. His feet were firmly planted on the tarmac, bracing for some sort of impact. Graceful, talkative hands that were nearly as wordy as his expressive mouth were still, shoved deep in his pockets, while his lips were in a nearly bloodless line.
Come on, Merlin. Tell me. Whatever it is...
The silence stretched. And stretched. Eventually, the ice thawed, and Merlin cracked out of the glacier, shrugging one shoulder a minuscule, imperceptible fraction, shifting his weight from both feet to one, then the other, relaxing his expression long enough to chew his lower lip and ease some of the frown that was making a permanent wrinkle in the middle of his forehead. He rubbed his jaw with a rough hand, lowered his gaze to the ground, and heaved a sigh.
"I can't do this anymore."
"I can't. I'm done. I'm sorry, Arthur. I can't do this anymore."
No. No. Merlin. No.
"I tried. I'm trying. I really am."
No. You're not leaving me. Not now.
Arthur swallowed hard. He swallowed again to keep his voice steady. "What are you on about?"
"This!" Merlin blurted out, throwing his hand out in a broad swing that swept over the base as a while.
Arthur's tongue was thick, and he very nearly couldn't say the words. The question roiled in his stomach, making him ill. "Are you... Is this your way of telling me that you want a transfer out?"
Merlin's eyes were on him suddenly, bright and wide and stunned. He turned to face Arthur, his expression one of complete disbelief. "What? No. No! Why would you think that? Gods, no! I'm talking about Smith!"
The tension eased out of Arthur's shoulders, his heart started beating again, and feeling returned to his limbs. He breathed out a little bit and took a sharp breath, putting his hands on his hips. "All right. What about Smith?"
Merlin didn't answer. He chewed his lower lip again, and turned away, glancing at the crew from the second chopper on the tarmac, their kits loose on their shoulders, hard tops under their arms, laughing.
"I can't take his games," Merlin said finally, taking a step closer. "He swans in, pretends to be on our side, tells us that he's going to be advising us and helping us, but has he done anything of the kind? No, he took us to bloody Algiers and he had a plan all along, and he just dropped us in it, didn't he? His people held up Kay and Gwaine -- they could've gotten to us sooner! And when the shite hit the fan, did they come out to help? No, they let that Mary woman try to take the piss out of us! They've got sorcerers with them, any one of them could've put a stop to them --"
Arthur had never gotten a straight answer from Merlin about the skeleton specialist who'd been on the plane to Algiers, and he didn't know how Merlin knew that the Directory magic-users were strong enough to deal with Mary Collins and Trickler (if they even were), but he let it slide for now. He was witness to a rare spectacle: Merlin in a rage.
Merlin didn't unload often. He held it in, stewing in his own anger and frustrations, keeping quiet while the others ranted and raged, and it was a nice change to hear Merlin talking for a change.
It was almost as if Merlin trusted Arthur.
"-- and the fuck is it with the testing? We're not idiots! Well, maybe some of us are, but the novelty's going to wear off, yeah, then they'll feel right stupid, having gone around spouting afléotan this, afléotan that with nothing to show for it!"
Arthur noticed that Merlin spoke the spell, truncated as it was, in a manner that was far different now than they had been spoken front of Bayard. It rolled from Merlin's tongue like a native language, smooth like a fine snifter of port, flashing in time with bits of flecks of gold in his eyes, the same gold that seemed to come out in bright sunshine or when he was furious and angry.
Merlin abruptly glanced over Arthur's shoulder, his pallor going pale, and he clamped his mouth shut, his expression closing off, and he tore his eyes away.
Arthur looked behind him in time to see a soldier right a cargo container that had fallen askew, couple of chopper crews chasing after bits of kit that should have been properly secured.
He turned to Merlin. "The testing's my doing."
Merlin's eyes snapped back to him, flashing bright again, narrowing in a frame of long black eyelashes and a dark, disapproving brow. He took a step closer, and Arthur could feel the heat of his body, far more searing than the air. "You what? Why? Arthur! We talked about this!"
"And we -- by we, I mean the royal we, meaning I -- decided that I don't want a repeat of Algiers, Merlin. You," Arthur tapped him on the chest, dropping his hand down as he continued, "You nearly died."
Merlin shifted uncomfortably. "I didn't."
"That's not the point," Arthur said. "The point is, I'm not losing any of my team. I'm not risking anyone. And if that means playing Mister Smith's game, letting him do whatever testing he feels like doing just to satisfy his curiosity, then we do it, especially if it means that in the end, we'll be playing him into thinking we can't do with what we have, and we'll have him assign us a sorcerer."
"We don't need a sorcerer!"
"Oh, no?" Arthur took a step close, right into Merlin's space, and Merlin didn't move. "We got lucky. If the shield hadn't gone down, they would have had you, Merlin, and we'd have no way of getting you back. They'd have taken you, done... things to you, and they would've killed you."
Arthur's voice shook. He fell silent, giving himself a chance to steady himself.
"But they didn't," Merlin said, and to Arthur's ears, he sounded almost sullen. Arthur didn't know what he wanted to do more at that moment -- hit Merlin in the head for being an idiot, or to kiss him until he understood just how terrified Arthur had been when Trickler dragged Merlin through that shield.
He opted to put his hand on Merlin's shoulder instead, squeezing tight.
"We can't count on getting lucky again, Merlin," Arthur said. "And you know as well as I do the basic tenet of war. Right now, we're outmatched, and we're not going in again until we have a tactical advantage. I'll be happy if we have more even odds against them. If that means taking on one of the Directory's magicians, then so be it."
Merlin opened his mouth, closing it a second later, a troubled look weighing his expression. He tilted his head to the side, broke eye contact by looking away, his tongue darting out to moisten his lips in a way that diverted Arthur's brain from their argument to something else entirely. It was when Merlin started chewing his lower lip, tearing it to ribbons, that Arthur snapped out of his fantasies, squeezing Merlin's shoulder to get him to stop before he was a bloody mess.
There it was again, that chasm between them that Arthur had thought was gone, except now it was growing wider and wider with every passing moment, the edges on either side crumbling and fraying, and Arthur didn't have enough rope to throw to the other side to save Merlin. The only thing he had was a long journey and the hope for a bridge, man-made or otherwise, that he could cross to reach Merlin.
Come on, Merlin. Whatever it is, just tell me.
Merlin's expression twisted into one of confusion. "You really want one of their sorcerers with us?"
Arthur let his hand drop from Merlin's shoulder with a swallowed sigh. "Could do without, to be honest."
"Then do without," Merlin insisted.
Arthur frowned at him. "You're the one who's supposed to be all right with the twitchy fingers and fairy dust and things that go bump in the night."
"I am all right with it," Merlin snapped. "It's just... It's just..."
Arthur waited and forced the fidget down, willed himself to patience. He wasn't Leon, who could sit back and take everything in stride, reacting to things as they came with the even-keel of a man not often caught off-balance. He wasn't Lance, who was too good-natured to press, to push, to insist, letting things come to him in their own good time. And, he wasn't irascible, confident Gwaine, who could sit and wait an eternity of seasons in his hiding place until his target wandered into his sights.
He tamped down the urge to take Merlin in his hands, to shake it out of him. He bit back the roaring lecture he wanted to give about trust because it might make Merlin trust him less. He duct-taped his impatience to a chair in a locked back room of an empty warehouse slated for destruction because he didn't want to push Merlin. Pushing Merlin didn't work, and God only knew what would.
He waited, and waited, and waited.
Merlin's gaze shot down to the ground between them, and he shuffled his feet. His head shook faintly from side to side. There was enough bundled energy coiled in Merlin's lean frame that Arthur thought he would explode from the tension.
"It's the Directory, yeah?" Merlin said, his voice so soft that Arthur had to lean in to hear, glancing hotly at the noisy short-haul truck that sputtered past. "I mean, we don't know anything about them. It's not like MI-5. MI-5 is easy, we know what they're like, we know the games they play, the bollocks they'll tell us, the shite they'll put us through."
After what Olaf had put Arthur through, Arthur wasn't so sure that things at MI-5 were so clear-cut anymore, but he kept his opinions to himself and listened to Merlin.
"What are they really, Arthur? What do they do? What do they want? How can they be magic users and be hunting magic? Do the people working for them really want to be working for them in the first place? Do they even have a choice?
"I mean, fair play, it’s a good thing they're around to deal with the likes of Trickler and his sort, but what about ordinary people? Do they snatch someone's mum out of her kitchen and lock her up in a cell somewhere just because they caught her putting a luck charm in her kid's bag lunch?"
For once, Arthur kept his gob closed and listened, really listened to what Merlin was saying, putting it into the context of what he knew about Merlin, what Merlin had told him, what he'd learned from Bayard about Merlin, and he thought he understood, just a little bit, what Merlin was on about. He'd grown up with people who believed in magic, who could use it to whatever degree. Those people were his family, his friends. He wouldn't want to do anything that would risk them, and he wouldn't work for them if he thought they'd come to harm.
"And what if..." Merlin's gaze was distant, furtive, cagy in a way that a traitorous part of Arthur had to agree with Bayard, that the guilty ones really did put up quite a lot of a fuss, but why was Merlin playing devil's advocate now? What was he hiding? Was there anything to hide? "What if one of us could do magic, Arthur? What then? What would the Directory do after? What if it was Kay? He's got no family, no one but us, who'll notice if the Directory snatches him and locks him up because he can do a bit of magic?"
You're not talking about Kay, are you, Merlin? Arthur wondered, and he didn't want to follow the thought through to completion, because he didn't want to believe what might be waiting at the other end of the question, he didn't want to hear the answer that was already roaring in his ears. It was hard to breathe because an elephant had come by and decided to sit on his chest to suffocate him, and his vision narrowed as if someone slapped horse blinders on him, everything going to black, everything except Merlin.
Merlin, who argued against whatever Bayard had been doing in the barracks, testing the members of the team for traces of magic. Merlin, who was always there when there was something dangerous and weird and the team shouldn't come out of it alive, but they survived regardless. Merlin, who knew things that he shouldn't know, that couldn't be explained away by someone who claimed their religion as Pagan. He knew too much, mumbled explanations for things that even Bayard couldn't know. He had a book in a language that Arthur couldn't read, and he could say afléotan without a hesitating hitch, without stumble, easy as he pleased.
Merlin, can you do magic?
He didn't ask. He couldn't ask. Merlin was right. They didn't know enough about the Directory. For all that Arthur had known Solomon Bayard while growing up, the man who was his de-facto uncle wasn't necessarily the same Solomon Bayard who worked for the Directory. Not if the Directory imprisoned anyone who had magic. Not if the Directory took sorcerers away. Not if Merlin had magic, and Arthur wanted a hope in hell of being with him when all this was over and done with. Maybe he could trust his uncle, but he couldn't trust Bayard.
Not like he trusted Merlin.
Arthur wanted to run his hands through his hair, to walk away from Merlin, to gasp for breath, to reach for a moment of clarity to decide how he would feel if he asked the question, and Merlin answered. Or didn't answer. If he was right in thinking that, yes, Merlin was magic. If he was wrong.
Instead, he said, "Nothing's going to happen to Kay, yeah? Or to anyone else. Even if Smith pulled a false positive, you saved us from that, didn't you, with all that smart talk?"
The fight went out of Merlin in a rush. His shoulders fell, his eyes darted off to the side, wet with something but the dry air took care of that quickly, before Arthur could wonder if they were tears, or if he just had something in his eye. There was a flicker of emotion, quick and fleeting and far too familiar, because Arthur had seen it many times on his father's face when Arthur didn't meet his expectations, when Arthur fell short, when Arthur didn't do as he was told.
It was gone in an instant, brushed under the carpet as a not-never-mind, and Merlin nodded, raising his chin after a hesitating sigh, offering Arthur a small, sweet smile in exchange.
But it was too late. Arthur had seen it. It hurt, because he didn't understand what Merlin had to be disappointed about. What had he done wrong?
"So," Merlin said, raising a brow, "Are you saying you appreciate my smarts?"
"Merlin. Don't be an idiot." Arthur choked out a hoarse, feeble laugh.
A man didn't need to be particularly observant to know when a team member was hurting, and it was obvious to a bloody blind man living in Bora Bora that here in the desert, Merlin was cracking, and that he'd barely been holding himself together since Algiers.
"You think something's going on? You know, at home? Maybe his mum isn't well?" Lance wondered. He liked Merlin a great deal and wished he could have met Hunith when they were on R&R. He'd spoken to her on the phone once, when Merlin was out on patrol, and couldn't take the call out while in the field. She was a lovely woman, but she had a horrible time on her trip to Italy, and Lance had commiserated with her for several long minutes before suggesting that she come with him and Gwen the next time they visited Lance's extended family in France and Spain.
Sadly, he had learned no more about Merlin from directly asking Hunith than he had after months of indirectly learning about Merlin in the field. The Emrys family seemed mired in perpetual secrecy, with the ability to talk quite a bit without saying anything at all. It was difficult not to get swept up in their conversation, only to realize after they were gone that they had never answered the questions asked.
Despite the many uncertainties about the man, Lance thought highly of Merlin. He was competent, professional, loyal. He gave all that he had on the missions, stayed with the team no matter what, and taken more than his fair share of injuries both on and off the battlefield. Lance could wish for no better man at his back, or to come between him and Arthur when Arthur was being stroppy.
Lance hadn't decided if Merlin was immune to Arthur's brilliant moods, or if he simply had a knack for taking the piss out of their Captain when he was having a particularly bad day. The rest of the team had learned to scatter when Arthur woke up on the wrong side of his bed, but Merlin, him, he was a brave man, because he would cheerfully wander through the minefield that was the sometimes-unpredictable Pendragon temper without any sort of protection whatsoever.
Even Leon steered clear of Morgana when she was in a similar mood, and Leon was bigger than she was.
Lance wasn't one to talk, though. All Gwen needed to do was scowl a little bit and raise an eyebrow, and he knew three things: that he was in trouble, he'd better fix it, whatever it was, and, for the love of God, if he wanted to sleep in his bed next to his wife ever again sometime in this lifetime, he should apologize.
He made a mental note to ask Merlin how he'd managed to calm Gwen's growing flare of irritation when she'd been elbows-deep in feeding the team that first weekend they were home. Lance suspected it was Merlin's willingness to help her with the dishes.
Most of the team, Lance had observed, used Merlin as a shield when Arthur was on the warpath. It hadn't taken him long to work out why -- Arthur's temper deflated quickly, defenseless against Merlin's big, open smile.
Gwaine cracked open the latest care package from under Merlin's bed, the Tupperware making a familiar sound in the barracks. He took a deep whiff of the heady dark chocolate before plucking out one of the thick squares of triple-nut brownies. "Well, if we go by her treats, I'd say she's in more than good health."
"Put that away," Leon grumbled, but when the bin made the rounds, he wasn't shy about taking a piece for himself.
"I think it's Arthur," Perceval said quietly. Leon nodded in agreement.
"What about Arthur?" Gwaine asked, licking his fingers.
Lance traded a glance with Leon and grimaced. "It depends."
"On what?" Gwaine inspected the contents of another Tupperware bin, this one a quarter the size of the brownie box. He grinned like a pirate plundering a ship and coming up with untold treasures, pulling out a tiny cube of maple fudge.
"How do you feel about Merlin?" Perceval asked.
"What do you mean? He's a mate," Gwaine said, holding the Tupperware selfishly close. Lance decided it was better to leave him to the fudge, in case he might need it to console his hurt feelings.
"But you'd shag him, wouldn't you?" Perceval pressed.
"Of course I would," Gwaine said, frowning. He glanced from Lance to Leon to Perceval. "Wait, what's going on? We're not just playing poker here, are we?"
No one answered him. Gwaine closed the fudge bin and leaned forward, elbow on his knee, giving each of them the eye. Lance found that he had to look away, that he was something of a coward whenever Gwaine was keen on drawing answers out of people, and Lance wasn't sure what to say. Gwaine's eyes narrowed.
"Don't tell me, one of you has fallen for his pretty blue eyes. They are pretty, but I didn't think they were pretty enough to turn one of you lot into a poof. Now, Lance, I know you'd never cheat on Gwen, so it's not you. Morgana would have your balls if she heard about you kissing Merlin again, so it's not you, either, Leon." Gwaine turned to Perceval. "You little bastard, you'd change teams for Merlin, but not for me?"
Lance couldn't help it. The look on Perceval's face was somewhere between outraged why would you even think it was me and amused unbelievable, you're jealous.
"Oh, I've done nothing of the sort," Perceval said in a half-sputter of words, pointing a finger at Gwaine. "I love the ladies, and have absolutely no interest in cock, whether it's attached to you or to Merlin."
"Well, that's good then. Also a bit of a disappointment, but even I can't have them all," Gwaine said, cracking the fudge bin open for another piece.
Lance shook his head. Gwaine might be the man with the keenest eye on the team, but he was sometimes a little thick.
"Let me put it in clearer terms," Perceval said. "I don't suppose you noticed the way Merlin and Arthur were at the club in Algiers?"
"Bloody hell, everyone were watching them," Gwaine said. "I overheard a pair of girls say that it would completely turn them on if they could watch them two kiss, and I don't fancy they were half wrong. Stuck to them like glue as long as I could, I did, on the off chance that it might happen and that I'd get lucky by default."
"Yeah, because you can't get lucky otherwise," Leon muttered. "Give that over, will you? Give me the... Give me the fudge, damn it, Gwaine!"
There was a scuffle over the pile of poker chips on Gwaine's bed, and Leon came away the loser.
"I'll share if you tell me what this is about."
Lance glanced at Leon. Leon glanced at Perceval. Perceval glanced at Lance. Perceval and Leon glanced at Lance.
Lance flinched, feeling as if he'd drawn the short straw to dive headfirst into an exchange of bullets where there was a high probability that he'd be shot by friendly fire.
"Merlin is a bit mad for Arthur," Lance said, his voice low, studying Gwaine's reaction.
Gwaine raised both brows and scoffed. "That's an understatement."
Lance glanced at Leon. Leon glanced at Perceval. Perceval glanced at Leon. They all turned their eyes on Gwaine.
"Wait a minute. You knew?" Perceval asked.
"'Course I did, and a long time before you plonkers too, from the looks of it."
"How did --"
Gwaine barked a laugh. "Really? Look where my bed is. Now look where Merlin's bed is. Middle of the fucking night, when he's having a little wet one, whose name does he breathe out? Not mine, that's for sure. I might like to have heard my name once, just once, but I know a losing battle when I see one."
Lance glanced at Leon. Leon glanced at Perceval. Perceval glanced at Leon. They all had identical, relieved looks on their faces. The last thing any of them wanted was to have a sullen teammate who'd lost their love interest to someone else. Lance privately thought that it was even more important since Gwaine was their sniper. No one wanted to have an angry sniper.
He might miss the target. On purpose. And shoot any one of them in the arse. Lance had seen enough soldiers with arse wounds -- mostly from shrapnel -- to know that it wasn't pretty. And a lot painful. He didn't want to get shot in the arse.
"So when do you suppose Arthur will make his move? Because Merlin's been in bits since Algiers --" Gwaine stopped talking and looked around himself. "What?"
"You know about that?" Leon blurted out.
"Ha!" Gwaine offered Leon the fudge bin. "And if I might repeat myself, since you don't seem to have heard me the first time, I knew a long time before you plonkers too, from the looks of it. Do you not pay attention to the big blond bloke who's our Captain? The man goes soft every time Merlin's around. He's downright nice when Merlin shoots him a smile, for the love of God. You really don't notice? How the lot of you lived this long..."
"Arthur won't do anything," Leon said, interrupting Gwaine's long drawl. As much as Lance liked to listen to Gwaine go on and on -- he did tell the best stories, and he was as wont to take the piss out of himself as he was others -- they had a problem they needed to fix, and it wouldn't be fixed by Gwaine's mockery.
"Won't? Why not? It's not like Merlin would say no --"
"That's part of the problem," Leon said, and Lance nodded. He and Leon had spoken at length about it -- after Algiers, when they returned, at breakfast when the others weren't up yet, in snatches here and there. Leon had thought that if Arthur knew that the team would happily protect the two of them... but Lance knew something about Arthur's honour, and he had guessed that Arthur would have said no. He even knew why, understood it in a way that Leon said he did, but didn't quite embrace.
"How is that part of the problem?" Gwaine asked, collecting the pool of chips on the bed and dealing a new set of cards, though no one really looked at their poker hands. "I mean, beautiful, shaggable bloke and the only thing that bloke wants is him? I'd be all over that if I were Arthur."
"No, you wouldn't," Perceval said. "Hate to say it, Merlin's the marrying kind, and you're, well..."
"Not," Leon finished for him.
"Fair point," Gwaine said, shrugging a shoulder. "That doesn't explain Arthur's problem, does it? He's gone on the pull before --"
"It's not the same thing," Leon said, defending Arthur.
"-- but he hasn't so much looked at anyone else since Merlin joined us. How blue are his balls right now?" Gwaine asked. He looked speculative for a moment. "Does he even know Merlin --"
Gwaine paused, staring at each one of them in turn.
"He doesn't, does he? You're having me on. He doesn't know? How thick is he then? Does he need a repeat performance like in Algiers? Merlin was twisted around his finger, and willingly too --"
"Arthur won't," Leon said again.
Lance leaned in, glancing at his cards. A couple of Kings, a pair of nines. He tossed a few chips into the pile, and when no one answered Gwaine's plaintive question, he said quietly, "How can Arthur ever really know that Merlin's not liking him because he has to? Because of a mission, because he's our C.O.? You might not see the bars on people's shoulders before you lure them to a closet somewhere, Gwaine, but Arthur does. You might not follow the rules, but Arthur does. He won't do anything, anything at all, that might make Merlin feel like he has to. He'll want Merlin to want him for him, and that won't be until he's absolutely sure that there's nothing to stand between them. Not rank, not duty, not anything."
No one said anything for a long time. There was a round of quiet betting, an exchange of cards.
"Well, fuck," Gwaine said soberly. "That's just terrible then."
"Yeah. Poor Arthur."
"What?" Gwaine looked up. "Where's poor Gwaine in this? I'm the one who's going to have to listen to Merlin every damn night, aren't I? Hey, there's an idea, I could swap beds with Arthur, and then Arthur can't not know how mad Merlin is for him."
"That's an idea," Leon said.
"He'll never go for it," Perceval said. "He likes his big bed at the front of the barracks."
The "big bed" at the front of the barracks was no bigger than any of the other racks, but everyone called it the "big bed" anyway.
Lance prudently kept silent when the door to the barracks opened and slammed shut. Merlin stopped in the entrance, threw up his hands in frustration, leaned his head back, and blew out a heavy, exasperated groan instead of the scream he likely really wanted to belt out.
"Gilli again?" Lance asked when Merlin shook out his frustrations with a wet-dog shudder and wandered to the end of the barracks, shoving Gwaine over to make room as he sat down.
"Gilli again," Merlin said, rubbing his face. Lance had seen Merlin head over to the communications tent often enough to know that he spent a great deal of time either working on the equipment or tutoring the newest greenie -- a greenie that seemed to need a lot of hand-holding. He made a mental note to bump into Gilli sometime to see if he really was that incapable, or if he was the sort who would take advantage of Merlin's good nature.
The way things were, it seemed the latter was the more correct of the two options.
Merlin reached under his cot, pulled out the box from his mum, and fished around, a frown growing on his forehead until he looked up and saw the discarded Tupperware bins next to the pile of poker chips.
"You bloody pillocks. You couldn't have left me a few crumbs of fudge?"
"No, we couldn't," Perceval said. "You need to watch your figure."
"Want me to deal you in?" Gwaine asked.
"What, haven't you taken enough from me? My mum's brownies, my mum's fudge, my gummies? Gwaine!" Merlin ran his hand through his hair, breathing out in a heavy sigh before his fingers tugged at his red scarf, unwinding it from around his throat. He rubbed his face in his hands with the despair of a man who didn't see the light at the end of the tunnel. With a forceful shove at Gwaine, Merlin twisted his body around and stretched out on his cot, turning over on his side, his back to the rest of them.
Lance felt a pang of sympathy for Merlin, and was grateful that, at the very least, the new medical staff coming in were somewhere on the middle rank of the competency scale, and that was only by virtue of needing people to keep the soldiers mobile enough to ensure that this bunch of people gathered in God's rear end would still be able to qualify as an army. There was a reason why Gwaine wasn't spending any time on the gun field with the newest recruits -- for one thing, he was more inclined to shooting them than teaching them anything remotely useful. Arthur and Leon were too busy with the team's affairs, and the rest of Excalibur, although specialists, were on schedules far too unreliable to deliver any constant on-site training. Technically, Merlin shouldn't be teaching anyone anything. He was just as busy as the rest of them.
As Lance understood it, the only reason why he was doing any training whatsoever was because of something top-secret in the communications tent. No one had come straight out to say as much, but it was the only logical reason that Lance could think of.
He couldn't help but perversely wonder that, if the item in the communication tent was that top secret, why wouldn't they have sent someone competent enough to use it from the get-go, rather than have someone like Merlin train them up?
They played another round of cards in silence. Leon looked at Merlin, and glanced at Lance. Perceval looked at Merlin and glanced at Lance. Gwaine suffered Merlin's grumpy nudges and snarled it's my cot, gerroff in silence, and glanced at Lance.
Maybe something of what Perceval had said was right. Merlin's frustrations might have something to do with Arthur, but from where Lance was sitting, there were plenty of other things that were getting under Merlin's skin.
Gilli, for one.
Gwaine, who kept eating Merlin's mum's baking, for another. Not that the rest of the team wasn't as guilty -- it was just Gwaine who instigated the pass-around.
Gwaine wasn't the only one who'd noticed Merlin's midnight mutterings. When Lance's occasional shifts at the MASH tent kept him late, he would sneak into the barracks, put his kit down, and hear quiet whispers from Merlin's bunk. His bed was too far away -- and he didn't have Gwaine's keener hearing -- but it was obvious to Lance that something more than Arthur, Gilli, and Gwaine were bothering Merlin.
It had started with Smith's appearance. At least, that was the most obvious coincidence.
"Merlin, have you even eaten today?" Lance asked. Merlin's shoulders rose up and down in something that resembled a shrug, but could equally be his attempt to get comfortable. "You want to get some kip?"
There was a long silence before a sighing "Could do, I suppose," answered him, but Merlin wasn't moving from the bed.
"I'll keep Gilli from bothering you," Lance offered.
Merlin turned over, half of his body on his back, the other half twisted around Gwaine, who resolutely refused to move from his "lucky seat", the one he insisted on sitting on whenever they played poker, and sat up. "Yeah, all right."
"But the game," Gwaine protested as Lance collected what was left of his winnings and folded his hand. Galahad and Geraint came in, and Gwaine's protest died with an exuberant, "Boys! Come on over. I'll deal you in."
Lance and Leon exchanged glances -- less to share rolled eyes over Gwaine's latest antics, and more to silently discuss what to do about Merlin.
I don't know, mate. Just thread softly.
On eggshells, Lance promised, and followed Merlin out of the barracks.
He noticed then how Merlin had never let go of the red cloth that tied the team together, that he'd curled up around it as if it were a comforting teddy bear, and that now it was in a tangle of fabric around his fingers that he unwound and rewound and unwound again before wrapping it loosely around his throat again.
"Something's bothering you," Lance suggested. Merlin shook his head, but the heavy, stuttering breath that escaped him contradicted the physical "no". He went for the obvious, safest explanation. "How bad is Gilli, really?"
Merlin's short laugh was nothing short but chilling. "Really? You have to ask?"
"I don't know, do I?"
"I've taught hundreds of students -- some of them about as sharp as a thumbtack, with just as much depth, and I've never wanted to strangle someone half as much as I've wanted to strangle this one," Merlin said, keeping his voice low and conversational, because there were enough people walking past and lingering on the dirt street that he might be overheard. "He's smart. He is. He just doesn't want to do the work."
"Quit helping him then," Lance suggested, though he had to respect Merlin for his tenacity.
"Might come to that whether I like it or not," Merlin said, running long, graceful fingers through his hair -- fingers that Lance always thought were wasted on engineering and building things when they might be better suited for the delicate work of a master surgeon, and wished his hands were half as agile as Merlin's.
"What do you mean?"
Merlin started to shrug and shake his head but he glanced at Lance with thin lips and a dark look before saying, "You sit around the comms room long enough, you hear things."
Lance flinched involuntarily. He knew the tone of Merlin's voice -- it was the same one that Arthur had, sometimes, or even Leon, when they heard about new orders through the grapevine that they couldn't talk about yet because they weren't supposed to know, because they weren't official. And from Merlin's mood, those orders had to do with either the Americans, or Smith's Directory agents were going to put them through the wringer again.
Lance couldn't say that he was comfortable with the new sort of orders and the strange types of missions that were coming down the pipe and heading their way, that he damn near hadn't paralyzed when he'd seen the magic with his own eyes and might paralyze again, but he took a deep breath to prepare himself now for what would come soon.
Neither one of them said anything until they went through the line at the mess hall and sat with their trays at one of the tables in the corner, far from the others where they could speak in relative privacy. Lance waited until he was sure that Merlin was eating, and not only pushing his food around to make it look like he was.
"That was something that you threw at Smith," Lance said.
"Someone had to," Merlin said sullenly, not looking up. "He was full of bollocks."
"Did Arthur chew you out about it?"
"Not really." Merlin shook his head, crushing a lump in a mound of just-add-water potatoes. He put down his fork, looked at Lance with every indication that he was going to tell Lance about it when he suddenly froze, shoulders slumping with a heavy, defeated sigh.
Lance looked over his shoulder and saw Gilli. The man was standing between two tables, half at attention, with a keen, eager look in his eyes. He took a step forward, mistaking Merlin's reaction for invitation, but stumbled and stopped with the next step at Lance's raised brow. Gilli was as smart as Merlin said, because he took the hint and scattered.
Whatever Merlin had been about to tell him, it was gone, now. Lance sighed inwardly and gave Merlin his space for a few minutes, trying to come up with another approach. Maybe the direct route...
"So what's really on your mind?"
Merlin went from playing to his food to not-eating and dropping his fork again, putting his hands flat on the table while he tried to burn a hole through it with his eyes.
"Have you ever wanted to tell someone something so badly, and you had the opportunity but you didn't take it and now it's too late, and if you tell them now it will totally mess things up and they'll never trust you again and they'll never talk to you again and they might even never want you around ever again? Then you had another chance but you couldn't get the words out, but you tried, you really tried, and everything came out wrong, and then you're even deeper in the hole that you were before?"
The words came out in such a rush that it took Lance a few minutes of thoughtful chewing (also, required chewing, because the mystery meat was a bit fatty) to understand what he was getting at, and his first reaction was, he was going to tell Arthur that he was mad for him! with a bit of excited glee. He realized that Merlin might calm down, Arthur might relax a tiny little bit, and --
That was when Lance saw the panic and desperation in Merlin's eyes. That was when he realized that the panic and desperation had been in his voice during the nonstop ramble, too. And that panic and desperation had been the undertone in everything that Merlin had done since Algiers.
"Yes," he said finally. "A couple of times."
"And what happened?"
"I told them," Lance said, because there wasn't any other possible answer. Merlin would either have to tell Arthur -- or whoever else it was, but he was pretty sure that it was Arthur that Merlin was talking about -- or it would eat him up inside.
"And?" There was such a fragile helplessness in Merlin's eyes that Lance wanted to rescue him from whatever pit of despair he'd fallen into.
It didn't go well. Things had worked out between him and Gwen, but that was only because she felt the same for him as he did for her, and forgave him for taking so long to tell her the truth, to finally lay his heart bare at her feet. But there had been something else, in his early years in the army, when he'd been assigned to the MASH team, and telling the truth about the doctor who'd covered up his own negligence and the unnecessary death of a young soldier had nearly rushed Lance out of the army altogether.
Instead, Lance said, "You know, whatever it is, you're going to have to believe that whoever it is will still trust you. They'll get over the initial shock, but they'll get past it, I promise. And it can only make things better."
Merlin stared down at his plate, his shoulders slumped, his body deflated even more.
"Yeah," he whispered. "So, it didn't work out for you?"
"Well," Lance said, smiling, wanting to give Merlin at least some hope. "I did marry Gwen. One out of two isn't so bad."
Patrol reports. Perceval and Owain had returned from a four hour trek into town, an easy one-off escort from one of the independent military suppliers, only to return a few hours later when Owain noticed that the transport was riding a little light, and peeked under the back flap to see that some idiot hadn't loaded the truck.
Arthur's scathing remarks had included phrases like incompetent independent contractors, endangering the lives of not only his men, but the men who were now overdue for resupply, and bloody load of wasted time. And those were the mildest parts of his report.
Inventory review. Supplies accounting. Gwaine had put in a requisition, approved by Arthur, for three new scopes and two rifles, and none of them had arrived yet. They were overdue by a month. Perceval needed new body armour, preferably a set that fit him at the shoulders and arms. Also overdue by a month. And as much as Arthur mocked Merlin for the obscene amount of nerdy bits and pieces that he requested to maintain their electronic equipment -- which included helping Owain design new demolitions devices and to build new remote-fire platforms for Gwaine, Arthur had approved Merlin's long list of items over forty days ago, and there hadn't been any sign of them.
He glanced down the barracks at Merlin, whose bed was littered with transistors and resistors and chips and other assorted thingamabobs that probably had official names and designation, but Arthur didn't care to know them. Merlin was sitting with one leg tucked under him, the other one off the cot, a scrawled sketch of a schematic on his knee. He was arranging the bits and pieces on a piece of cardboard using two-sided sticky tape that Gwaine's on-again, off-again squeeze in Major Kilgarrah's office had taken off the Admin supply, but from where Arthur was sitting, Merlin wasn't concentrating on what he was doing.
Every few minutes, Merlin would glance up. Whether it was at the sound of someone outside, or the distant whoop of a chopper flying overhead, or even at Gwaine leaving the barracks and coming back a few minutes later, Merlin wasn't concentrating on whatever it was that he was supposed to be doing, which Arthur was certain was something important and that they would need at some point to save their lives. He didn't know why Merlin was jumpy, but he'd been growing increasingly jumpy in the last twenty-four hours.
Arthur certainly couldn't blame Merlin's twitchiness on Bayard, either. The old man had disappeared in the VIP section of the base sometime before noon yesterday and hadn't come up for air since. As concerned as that made him, Arthur was as grateful for the reprieve from "Mister Smith's" sudden appearances and training suggestions, because Merlin wasn't as weirded out.
Now, if only Arthur could do something about that knob who kept Merlin from having any downtime. Between the regular training, the additional work that Bayard was having them do, the occasional patrols, the short-range missions, the extra work he was making for himself, Merlin was straining the last of his resources.
Short of tying Merlin to the bed -- which was a mental image that Arthur most certainly did not need at the moment -- he didn't know how to get Merlin to get some sleep, to relax. One way might be to tone down on the duties that Arthur assigned him.
They were necessary duties, as far as Arthur was concerned, and he wouldn't be trimming the list down if he could help it.
Another way would be for a complaint to be put in against Sergeant Gilli Merriam.
Arthur tapped his pen on the desk. There wasn't much that he could do -- Merlin hadn't faltered in his duties yet, but Arthur was concerned about his future failures. He needed Merlin on the ball, not struggling to stay on it.
He glanced around the barracks. Lance was writing a letter to Gwen. Leon had tucked in for the night. Perceval was reading a book he'd been reading since their two-week R&R. Geraint and Galahad were taking the piss out of each other like they normally did. Owain was raiding Bohrs' beauty supplies for a bar of soap for the shower he desperately needed. It was life as usual, comforting, calm, easy.
In contrast to the rest of the team, Merlin was restless and uncomfortable and twitchy and noisy.
Arthur shook his head and went back to the supply requisitions paperwork. He completed a list of past-due items, put aside a note that a package had arrived from Pendragon Consulting, with a to-be-opened-only-by notice scrawled on top of it, requiring Arthur to view the contents and sign off on the arrival slip, and started on the new batch of forms for even more supplies. Part of his job was anticipating future needs and guesstimating how long it would take before they actually arrived, so that the delivery coincided with the actual requirement. Arthur counted down the months in his head, and decided that now would be a good time to put in an order for warmer winter gear, because the night temperatures were dropping.
Bohrs needed new boots, and if he needed new boots, it was a good bet that the rest of the team would, too, and soon, so he expanded the original request. Kay had patched his rucksack to within an inch of his life, and Arthur had noticed that Merlin's kit was getting threadbare -- mostly because of the extra weight and sharp corners of the equipment he brought onto the field. Gwaine needed his signature for some special ammunition he wanted to try out on future missions.
There was a small scrape nearby. Arthur glanced up, and did a double-take when he saw Merlin sitting in the chair on the other side of his desk.
"You busy?" Merlin asked. His hair was a ruffled mess, his ID discs gleamed silver against his tight olive shirt, and the black strap of his watch made the bone and sinew of his wrist and hand look all the more delicate.
Arthur tore his eyes away from Merlin's wrist and gestured with a broad sweep of his hand over the paperwork on his desk. "What do you think?"
"So, no, then?" Merlin said, grinning bright and keen, his cheekbones in sharp relief.
Arthur found himself sighing and putting his pen down. "What do you want?"
Merlin's smile faltered slightly. "Um. To talk. I need to talk."
Arthur faltered slightly; his heart chose that moment to stop pounding, then trip over itself in a flutter, while his mind offered every tantalizing outcome of I need to talk, and they included variations of I know where we can go to be alone, I was wondering if you'd be interested in..., and, even less likely, I know this might be the wrong time to tell you but I'm magic.
The still-functional part of Arthur's brain managed, "Yeah? What's that?"
"You know I go to comms sometime?"
"Is that sometime as in, every time that greenie can't be arsed to look it up on his own and uses you as his own personal Google search engine? Is that sometime as in, every time you're supposed to be on down time, or at tea, or, I don't know, sleeping?" Arthur asked, barely keeping the bitterness out of his voice. It was one thing for Merlin to be away from him because Arthur assigned him on the other side of the base -- something that he'd stopped since Leon had pointed out how miserable he was. It was something else entirely when Merlin's absences were caused by some greenie who wasn't a greenie, not really, not if he were a sergeant -- whom Arthur very obviously outranked, point in fact, and his desires and needs came first.
Merlin chewed his lower lip, took a deep breath, and nodded his head. He leaned forward, his arm on the edge of the desk. "I know. I'm spending too much time in there."
"That's going to stop, Merlin. Your responsibilities are here, with us. You're not eating, you're not sleeping, and half the time you're dragging arse when we're in training. I'm not the only one who's noticed. You're running the risk of getting yourself benched the next time we have a mission, and I'm starting to think that would be a good thing."
Merlin looked stricken.
Arthur knew he was going too far, that he was being a right bastard, giving Merlin an ultimatum, but the team was Merlin's job, first and foremost. Arthur was worried for Merlin, not just for what it would mean to the team if he weren't one-hundred percent ready for the missions, but for what it meant to him.
"Fuck, Arthur," Merlin said, his chin dropping, breaking eye contact. When he looked up again, he was contrite, apologetic, understanding, and a little bit angry. "I know, yeah? I know. I keep telling him he's on his own, but he keeps coming to find me. I'll deal with it."
"You do, or I will," Arthur said. He meant it. Filing a formal complaint, confronting Gilli to make sure he understood where he ranked on Arthur's list of All Things Important (which was to say, not at all), putting in a division request for the team to be swapped to another base unit, hell, even suggesting to Bayard that they move the team to some other location where they could train in private. He would do it.
"Not why I'm here," Merlin said. He cast shifty eyes over his shoulder at the door, then leaned forward even more, until he was practically half on Arthur's desk, and Arthur must be tired, because he had absolutely no control over where his imagination was taking him. He picked up his pen and kept his hands on it until the urge to pull Merlin all the way over his desk and onto his lap faded.
"So, go on," Arthur said, making a slight gesture with the pen.
"Right. In comms. I hear things, right?" Merlin paused, and Arthur elected to wait until Merlin's ramble was completed before he interrupted again. "Including things I shouldn't be hearing because they're not for me to hear. But what if one of those things affected us? I mean, a tiny, decrypted message for Colonel Mandrake that was copied to Mister Smith? A mission?"
Arthur rarely received direct relays for mission assignments. They were routed through Colonel Mandrake and Major Kilgarrah, who assigned the incoming missions to the teams on base as needed. For the mission to be copied to Bayard, that would mean that it was a mission request that involved the Americans. And if it was a mission that involved the Americans, Arthur had been under the impression that he was to be informed right away.
He checked his watch. Merlin's last round in the comms tent was just over an hour ago.
"When did it come in?" Arthur wanted to be sure. Bayard might still be reviewing the mission.
"Yesterday," Merlin said, and he paled when Arthur snapped his pen in two. "Morning."
Arthur leaned forward dangerously. "And you're only just telling me this now?"
"Wasn't supposed to be in the comms tent in the first place, Arthur. Wasn't supposed to be the one decrypting the message, either. Wasn't supposed to even know about this," Merlin said, the words coming out in a rush.
"Forget about the wasn't supposed to be, Merlin. Next time, you tell me anyway. What was the mission?"
Merlin relaxed slightly. He nodded again, this time more to himself, and glanced down and to the side, sorting his thoughts. Merlin might not have Arthur's near-eidetic memory, but it was a close second when it came to remembering details.
"Rebel activity has been erratic up to the north of here. They're turning onto their own people. The notes claim that they're not rebels, not exactly, just working for the NWO and not knowing it," Merlin said. "They've been raiding villages, stopping supply convoys, that sort of thing."
"Bandits, basically," Arthur said, but he raised a brow. He'd spent enough time in command to know that the upper echelons had already noticed the aberrant activity and was starting to get intelligence information neatly categorizing individuals as raiders, rebels, and bandits. At the moment, they were being treated as belonging to separate enemy cells, but if it turned out that they were working for the NWO, possibly unaware...
They would have a bigger problem than they thought.
"And?" Arthur looked up to see Merlin startle. "What else, Merlin? The Americans have their own forces. They wouldn't waste their one phone call on us if it was standard go."
"The transmission didn't say. They've got four people targeted, but no one we've seen, unless Smith has been showing you things that I haven't seen," Merlin said.
"Right," Arthur said, rubbing his thumbnail over his eyebrow, staring at the paperwork. He picked up his broken pen and tossed it in the garbage, found another wedged under a stack, signed the last of the requisition forms, and put everything in the OUT box, which wasn't much more than a cardboard square. Someone would bring them to where they were meant to be if they were heading in that direction.
He put away a few things, glanced toward Merlin's bed and saw that it was still a disaster area of spare parts and a geek-gasm in the making, and pointed at Merlin. "You. Clear off your bed and get some sleep. That Merriam kid comes in here to get you? He's going to be shot. He fetches you in the morning? He's going to be shot. He gets you on your downtime, he's going to be shot. I'll adjust your duty roster, have you over there during your work slots instead of babysitting the newest kid in training pants when you're supposed to be free. He comes at you outside of those hours, I'm going to borrow Gwaine's gun and I'll shoot him. I'll have you know that I'm just as good with that rifle as he is."
Merlin's smile was half-amused, half-relieved, and completely endearing. Arthur was around the desk, his hands squeezing Merlin's shoulders, and he gave Merlin a shove. "Bed."
The barracks door was in his hand and he was halfway out when he glanced back to make sure Merlin was doing as ordered. He caught Perceval grinning at him, abruptly raising his book to hide the smile.
Arthur growled under his breath and stormed all the way to the command centre.
It was after-hours in a way that it was never really after-hours on an active base, but when things went dark, the constant chaos dimmed to a dull roar, and the command centre was operating on a skeleton crew. It was also the most likely place that he would find Major Kilgarrah, who was chewing on the end of an unlit cigar instead of smoking his usual never-ending chain of cigarettes. The command centre was the only place that The Dragon didn't smoke, and that was only out of respect for the equipment, rather than the effect of secondhand smoke on other people stuck in close quarters.
The three main screens were each split in two, and it looked as if he were surveilling six different night missions. Everything looked quiet, and none of the personnel on duty were particularly concerned. They were alert, aware, their actions sure and precise, their voices and exchanged dialogue calm and quiet and sure. The missions must be going well, or else there would be just that tiniest bit more energy in the room.
And more than one senior personnel on duty.
"Major," Arthur said, acknowledging The Dragon with a curt nod.
"Captain," The Dragon said. The cigar hung from his lip when he spoke. "At ease."
Arthur nodded, and relaxed, standing next to Kilgarrah, staring at the screens, wondering if any of those locations included the mission that had been sent down for them, but that Bayard had intercepted. He was quiet for a long moment, deciding on how to broach the subject, when the Major did it for him.
"You're wondering about the mission that came down." The Dragon raised an eyebrow, glanced at him sidelong, and chewed at the cigar. "Don't look so surprised. Emrys was bound to tell you at some point. I had hoped that it would be sooner."
"So, Smith is sitting on the mission," Arthur said.
"It's not Mandrake," Kilgarrah confirmed, and Arthur suspected that was at least partially true. Either Colonel Mandrake, who was in charge of handling the missions, was swamped with the flood of new personnel, or he hadn't gotten through the big stack of paperwork and backlog of missions sitting on his desk, or both.
"Have you seen the orders, sir?"
Kilgarrah nodded and walked over to one of the controllers, whispering something in his ear. One of the six screens changed, the position adjusted. Kilgarrah took several steps back, studying the screen, before returning to his previous spot.
"Some of the information is contradictory," The Dragon said without preamble. "The Americans' sightings don't agree with ours. The identified are being verified against MI-5's database and coming up empty. Smith is doing his job."
"And cutting us out."
The Dragon didn't answer right away. He scanned the monitors through narrowed eyes, marking the position of each of his men, taking note of the enemy if the enemy was under the same area square as the British soldiers, and there was such an intensity to his gaze that Arthur felt Kilgarrah might just reach through the screens and pull out the enemy if they so much as harmed a hair on the heads of the soldiers. It was a chilling look, protective and paternal all at once, something that Arthur wasn't familiar with, but it terrified him all the same.
"Outside, Pendragon. Now."
"Yes, sir," Arthur said, feeling chastened by The Dragon's tone and unwilling to show it. He turned on his heel and walked out with a clipped march, stopping several feet from the door, away from the men guarding the command centre. He stood under the yellow-orange light, half-expecting Major Kilgarrah to be on his heels, but it was a good several minutes before The Dragon stepped outside.
He paused in the doorway, lighting the cigar with a flame that Arthur didn't see, and puffed several times, filling the cool night air with smoke that curled and burned with an acrid stink that bordered on brimstone mixed with the sweet fragrances of the tobacco. One of the guards coughed, which only made Major Kilgarrah puff at the cigar a few more times before he broke from the command centre to approach, then pass Arthur, leading him into the middle of the empty road where no one would overhear them.
"You don't know the enemy you're facing. Rushing to meet them can only end badly," The Dragon said.
"Never stopped me before, sir," Arthur said.
"Your past opponents have never been your equal. Nor will those you will encounter in the future, though the challenges will be greater. But this once, Pendragon, consider carefully who might be the enemy."
Arthur was silent for a moment, his brow furrowing in confusion. "The Americans? Smith?"
"Let's call a spade a spade, shall we? The Directory is no one's friend." The Dragon waited a moment to let it sink in, and Arthur was grateful for that moment. The bluntness of his statement had caught him off guard. "The Americans fulfill their own agenda. And the Directory... Despite outward appearances, those two have a common cause."
Arthur didn't know what to say. When he found his voice again, he asked, "And what's that?"
"The same thing that has driven men for centuries," The Dragon said. When Arthur's confusion only deepened, Major Kilgarrah took pity on him and added, "The quest for power."
"Power," Arthur repeated. He caught himself. "You mean the new technology --"
"I mean magic," The Dragon said bluntly.
"Magic," The Dragon said again, before Arthur could scrape up the energy and wits to scoff and to laugh, but instead he stared. "Both sides use it. Both sides want more of it. For the good of their nation and the peril of the others. You are in a situation where it is enemy against enemy against enemy, and none of them your friend."
"What do I do?" Arthur asked, feeling helpless. The Dragon was spelling out what Arthur had known all along, and hearing it spoken in so many words drove the hammer on the head and the nail deeper into the spine, crippling him. He was accustomed to having a fallback position, of having a clear chain of command, of people he could trust to provide additional support outside of the team. That was how things had been. That wasn't how they were now.
He answered his own question at the same time as Kilgarrah.
"Trust your men. Trust them. Like King Arthur used the sword of legend in battle, you, Captain Pendragon, should wield your team as the weapon you've forged them to become. And, just as King Arthur took his wizard's advice, you should take Merlin's guidance."
"Merlin," Arthur whispered, a forced smile finding its way on his lips, and he shook his head. The memory of every reluctant look, every hesitated word suddenly came to the fore, and he found himself saying, "Merlin doesn't trust me."
"You are two sides of the same coin," The Dragon said. "What one feels, the other feels as well. Do you trust him?"
Arthur stared at Major Kilgarrah and didn't say a word. Of course he trusted Merlin. There were times that he couldn't help but trust him even when he knew he shouldn't. If he thought about it, and he thought about it too often, Arthur trusted Merlin more than he trusted the men he'd grown up with, that he'd fought with for years, and that frightened him. He trusted Merlin so much, he would do anything to protect him.
Maybe, again, The Dragon was leading him to answers that he had all along -- that if Arthur felt that way about Merlin, wouldn't Merlin feel the same? That he trusted, but he was afraid? That he wanted to protect Arthur, just as Arthur wanted to protect Merlin?
But what did he have to protect Arthur from?
"I need the file," Arthur said. "An unaltered copy of the mission notes. Access to our intelligence on the people named in the brief."
The tip of Kilgarrah's cigar glowed unnaturally red through the thick swirl of smoke blowing out of his nostrils. "That can be arranged."
They were fifty kilometres away from the base in secure territory on a training round when Arthur dropped the bombshell.
"We're on our own."
The team exchanged glances. Gwaine coughed at the dust that blew into his face. Leon checked his watch. Owain fiddled with some of the new triggers that Merlin put together for him -- something that he wouldn't have the time to do if Arthur hadn't reassigned his duties and insisted that he take his downtime, or else and arranged for someone from the team to "happen by" just as Merlin was coming off duty to keep Gilli from chaining him to the communications centre again.
Merlin wasn't an idiot. He was, however, impressed. When Arthur was displeased, he was a bear to be around, a bull in a china shop thrashing at everything in his way until the passage was clear and everyone understood that it was simply safer and smarter if he damn well got his way in the first place. And where Arthur would normally elbow Merlin aside and cross his lovely, muscular arms over his broad, gorgeous chest and stare down the offending object in misguided protectiveness, this time around, Arthur was handling the situation with Gilli Merriam by taking a passive-aggressive approach.
He was letting Merlin handle it (which Merlin wasn't, if he was being honest), while still putting steps in place that would keep Merlin where he wanted him.
Which, at the moment, was out in the desert in full gear listening to Captain Prat point out the obvious. He must have realized it, too, because he half-rolled his eyes and continued on in a tone of you lot should be humouring me by acting surprised, "Five days ago, a mission requesting Excalibur came down the line as a joint mission with the Americans. Five days ago, the mission was buried under Mandrake's pile and discreet inquiries turned up that the file disappeared from Mandrake's desk entirely."
Merlin glanced at Gwaine, who was checking his fingernails with particular interest.
"Five days ago," Arthur went on, "Mister Smith received a copy of the mission, went to his VIP quarters, and hasn't spoken to any of us since. He's claimed the Quiet Room in Command more than once, taken up the communications bandwidth, and sent encrypted messages all over Europe, with more than a few delivered to the Americans."
It was Merlin's turn to check his fingernails.
No one on the team was shocked by the news. It wouldn’t be the first time that a SAS squad failed to receive the orders that were meant for them, and it wouldn't be the last. But the mention that Mandrake had no idea of the orders, and of Mister Smith going around behind everyone's backs made people sit up and pay attention.
Arthur leaned back with the self-satisfaction of a man who knew he had people's interest, and paused for one moment to bask in it before plunging through the mire.
"It's come to my attention that the Directory and the CIA are in the middle of a pissing match. No matter what the mission handed down is going to be, Smith is going to intercept and keep it out of our hands. He's supposed to be here to advise on the missions and to act as a facilitator, but all he's facilitating at the moment is his own agenda. He's not our commanding officer, not our supervisor, he's not our handler, but that's the role he's carved out for himself ever since he hijacked us and took us to Algiers.
"That's bollocks, and it's going to stop."
Merlin saw more than a few heads bob in agreeing nods.
"Now, the mission brief is five days old. Our intelligence has managed to define three distinct groups of rebels -- the cells that are waging the official war, privateers who are raiding for fun and profit, and bandits that are operating under the cover of the other two while either knowingly or unknowingly working for the NWO. Daly's people have been tracking three groups of bandits along the northern edge here, here, and here."
While Arthur had been speaking, he unfolded a topographic map. It was a map from one of the older missions, with the approach and attack area perfectly centred as was typical of mission maps, but this one was still useful because it contained the northern edge that Arthur was talking about, and using it meant that he didn't have to requisition a new one. Requisitioning a new map would've triggered alarm bells, and Merlin already knew that Arthur didn't want to come to Smith's notice just yet. Arthur pointed out the areas, his finger lingering on each location while his team crowded around the hood of the transport to get a better look.
"At the time that the mission brief arrived, an undercover team had arranged a meeting with Kanan, one of the bandit leaders. They were due to meet two days ago at this location." Arthur pointed to the map, and pulled a satellite image of the large village. "The meeting has come and gone. And so has the village."
He placed a second satellite image on top of the first. The village was a smoking ruin.
The wind whistled, teasing the fine grains of sand on the road, tugging at the red scarves at their throats.
"There's a Canadian Peacekeeper unit stationed to the Northeast of this location," Arthur said, returning to the map to tap a position. "According to our contact there --"
Merlin glanced at Lance, whose expression had been grim since they started out.
"-- a truck brought in three Americans in civilian gear and four more in camo, all with severe injuries. From the unofficial explanation that the doctors at their MASH unit received from the mouths of babes before the CIA brass came crashing down on the site for the cover up, the bandits knew that they were coming and laid out an ambush for them. On top of that, they're missing six personnel and a transport load of unknown cargo. Their bodies were not found at the attack site. At last report --"
Leon shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
"-- which was yesterday afternoon, following satellite contact that they've since lost, they're alive, but they're also in the NMZ."
NMZ was the No Man's Zone, the area where satellite surveillance was ineffective, electronic eyes using UAVs failed miserably, and the only reliable intel on the location was by trekking in on foot and taking photographs using film cameras in heavily-reinforced bodies. The few scientific measurements of the area revealed no radiation, no signs of nuclear devastation, no advanced (read: alien) technology that cancelled out humanity's feeble attempts to pierce the veil. It was an anomaly of geological, biological, chemical, physical, astronomical proportions, just like the other similar anomalies all over the world that puzzled scientists and sceptics and fuelled a vast array of crackpot conspiracy theories that were both political and supernatural in nature.
Having been through more than a few NMZs himself, Merlin wished he could tell the crackpots that their crackpot theories weren't so crackpot at all.
The army tended to treat those areas -- usually small, localized points worldwide, with a few dozen sites that spread over several hectares -- as uncontrolled attack areas and ambush points to be avoided. The location of the NMZs were classified, and it was happy happenstance for the enemy who stumbled in those areas, because they discovered safe havens through which no government would send their men through unless they were desperate.
No one was desperate enough to engage in a rescue mission for a few Americans, not yet, but Merlin imagined that the panic would come in due time, and new orders would come down the line soon enough.
Gwaine reached for the map. "Here, you say?"
He tapped the border between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, circling an area with the topographical markers of two towns, a tundra, and a small, lush forest around what looked to be a man-made lake.
Arthur nodded. Merlin glanced between the two men, spotting the tiny, faint smile on Arthur's lips, and the broadening one on Gwaine's.
"Not a problem," Gwaine said. Galahad, who was right behind Gwaine, nodded and grinned.
"I'm missing something," Merlin realized. "Anyone care to deal me in?"
"Fair few of our missions were in Turkmenistan," Leon said calmly. "We've gone in blind before."
"And we're going in blind again," Arthur said. He pulled out a new map, this one much, much older, a hand-drawn topographical map that looked as if it had been draw in crib shorthand by someone who'd been there themselves, recording the lay of the land the way it had been done before the time of satellites and GPS. The fold lines had been reproduced, and the distance scale looked to be someone's thumbprint. "As of 0300, an assistance request was sent from Daly's people straight to the Brass who forwarded it to us as the go-to on record for their mission slate.
"They have eyes on Kanen's crew and they've been located in a village tucked under some rock clusters. The prisoners are under heavy guard. Before the Special Forces team retreated outside the NMZ to radio in for assistance, they took some film photographs."
Arthur dumped some 4 by 6 matte-finish prints that looked a little off-colour, but that could be as much because of the localized and unexplained effect of the area as it could the lack of experience in running a colour photo developer. Since the digital age, it seemed that people who knew how to print film were headed the way of the dodo.
The photographs were slightly overdeveloped, giving a greenish tint to dark skin, greying out brown hair and a trimmed beard. The man's face was a sharp oval, with a high forehead and flat cheekbones, with a slightly spread nose that was a little larger than it should be, and the thin lips were drawn in a line of curling mockery at the edges. He wore a swath of white or off-white fabric around his throat, tucked into an army surplus jacket with too much flash and buttons and hints that it had been scavenged from someone's body on the battlefield. The only thing that the bad print job hadn't done was ease the intensity in his cool grey eyes.
"Intelligence confirms this man as Kanen, no known surname, unless that happens to be it. There is confirmation of association with the NWO from past dealings with Trickler, and with at least one intermediary of Jonathan Aredian. Local authorities have him marked down as a psychotic, brutal killer who has been known to shoot people at random because they were wearing the wrong colour. He's territorial, and he thinks like a Mongol warlord -- seek and destroy and conquer.
"These beauty queens," Arthur said, spreading a few more photographs on the hood of the truck, and Merlin craned his neck for a better look, "Are his seconds and thirds, just as bloodthirsty, just as brutal, and just as smart, which means not much, because as far as I'm concerned, this bunch is a band of thugs. Eyes-on-site confirmed anywhere between ten and fifteen enemy. Now, it goes to bear that the American Special Forces heard NWO from somewhere and said fuck no and pulled out. I'm assuming that's the reason we got asked a second time to get involved in this particular scenario."
A few people glanced over their shoulders at the low whop-whop-whop of helicopter blades cutting through the air, raising their red neckerchiefs to cover their faces as two choppers descended.
"Believe me, they asked real nice. Complete with a phone call from someone with weight. It's completely bypassed the Directory, and we are going in with no intel. There may or may not be active magic in the field," Arthur said, and he paused for effect, his sharp blue eyes scanning the group to see if there would be any objections. Merlin looked, too, but all he saw were the crinkles at the corners of people's eyes as they tried to hide their grins, struggling to look serious and thoughtful and appropriately outraged. "Our mission has been approved by Colonel Mandrake and Major Kilgarrah. Gentlemen, we have a go."
Every team member snapped to, and if Merlin was a little slower than the rest, it wasn't because he'd wasted a few seconds to beam proudly at Arthur for having the balls to do what no one else would dare to do, and that was to teach the Directory a well-deserved lesson. Mister Smith might have issues with the CIA's spook department and be happy to jerk Excalibur around to do it, but Arthur Pendragon was damned if he'd let someone else hold all the strings.
Merlin hoped that Mister Smith was a fast learner, or Arthur was going to have plenty of hard lessons for him to learn.
Eight men spilled out of each chopper, crouched low, running toward them. Arthur packed up his papers, folded them up, and gave the order for everyone to pick up their gear and get on the choppers. He traded a handshake, a shoulder-clap, and bent-head shouted words with his counterpart on the other SAS team before catching up to and passing Merlin on his way to the lead chopper.
"Come on, Merlin," he shouted. "Can't you move any faster?"
"Maybe if you carried my gear, sir!" Merlin shouted back, reaching the helicopter a few seconds behind Arthur, stowing and securing his gear before slipping in next to him.
Merlin remembered the hike across the border between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan as more of a haze of confusion. The NMZ didn't only affect electronics -- it affected Merlin, leaving his head floating in some sort of oversaturated magical fog that felt like the cotton that he'd stuffed up his nose during a three-day bender. It wasn't his first trip through a NMZ, but it was definitely the most potent site he'd been to since that overgrown temple in the jungle in deep, dark Thailand, and he estimated that this time, he figured that he would need at least five klicks before the fog lifted.
He'd been wrong. It was more than double that.
Merlin wasn't sure when Perceval's broad back -- which is what Merlin had been pretty sure he'd been following after the choppers dropped them off just shy of the border -- was swapped with Leon's thinner build, but he knew the exact moment when Arthur fell in step next to him. It was a combination of the searing heat at his shoulder and the mocking tone of voice that gave him away.
"I'm carrying three bloody stone of weight that I don’t need to be carrying," Merlin managed to retort, feeling grateful that his brain was returning despite the fog clinging at the edges of his consciousness. "Yeah, I'm really bloody bored right about now."
"Had to make it look good for Smith," Arthur said, and Merlin felt movement brush his shoulder like a shrug.
"By making me bring a Box that's a bit more than a paperweight," Merlin scowled. He hadn't tried to raise a band yet, but radio waves didn't work the same way in a NMZ, and any kind of attempt would require a complete rewiring -- possibly also a complete re-soldering -- of the Box if he wanted to get in touch with command. It was possible, but highly unlikely, because being out in the boondocks in a NMZ was kind of the point. The E-band would still work, he thought. He'd tooled it to work on a completely different level than the usual radio frequencies, complete with a tiny twist of magic to keep it functional and impenetrable. He hadn't tried it yet.
"Again, Merlin, we had to make it look good for Smith."
"The man wasn't even watching!" Merlin reached back into his pack as they walked, pulling out a few circuits, correcting them, turning knobs by feel and habit. He plugged one bud in his ear, and turned the coarse until he started to hear some semblance of static.
"Guaranteed that he'll check the barracks and notice if there's something out of place," Arthur said.
Merlin froze, turning to look at Arthur. "He's going to go through our stuff?"
"Definitely mine, most likely. Probably Leon's, too. To be honest, Merlin, I doubt Smith will do much more than give your footlocker a quick glance before deciding that he really doesn't want to stick his hand in that snarl of hardware." Arthur seemed unconcerned. "You did remember to lock it, didn't you?"
"Yeah," Merlin answered slowly, suddenly a little uncertain. He was sure he'd locked it. Almost, ninety-nine percent sure. But it wasn't the electronic bits and pieces that he was worried about. It was a combination of the practice sigils sketched in his little notebook and on some of the chips. It was the portable library of spells and books on magic that Gaius had put on the e-reader. What if Smith found them?
Sure, he might not notice the tiny, minuscule, engraved sigils on the chips, and he wouldn't be able to activate the secret library on the e-reader, but the hand-drawn sigils that he'd practiced before transferring them to a board -- why was he such an idiot? Why didn't he destroy them? -- would be hard for Smith to miss. He'd twig onto the fact that they weren't the usual run-of-the-mill sigils. He might even recognize them.
There wasn't anything that the could do about it right now except come up with a list of excuses that sounded plausible to explain the sigils. Why, no, I didn't realize I'd drawn the Eye of Carafax. I was doodling. I doodle. A lot. Um. Er. What does the Eye of Carafax do? I didn't curse myself by accident, did I?
Merlin grunted, and moved his fingers from the coarse knob to the fine.
"Don't bother with that," Arthur said.
"I almost have it."
"A comm line," Merlin said, glancing at Arthur, gratified to see the startled pause in his expression, the one that showed up every time Merlin tried to explain something complicated and Arthur mocked his use of big words. Merlin called it Arthur's "processing information, please wait" look, and the only thing it needed was a hourglass mouse pointer on top of his head. Or a swirling pinwheel.
Merlin locked the settings on his Box with satisfaction and flicked a switch. "There. E-line is active. Can't get a wire out, but our networks up."
Arthur stared. And stared. When he caught himself short of tripping over some loose rock, he shook his head with a grudging grunt of respect, and said, "Really, Merlin. You'd do just anything not to have to fall back on hand signals, wouldn't you?"
"You would too! Your hand signals are incomprehensible!"
"You won't believe this," Gwaine said, sliding on the flat rock next to Merlin while Galahad and Geraint helped themselves to a ration of MREs.
"You found them?" Merlin asked. He didn't look up from where he was trying to repair one of Owain's remote detonators -- the effect of the NMZ was something like an electromagnetic pulse, but finicky, affecting technology in a completely unpredictable, random manner. It would work, of course it would, but preferably, it should work well after Owain had gotten clear from setting the charge.
Gwaine frowned. "Of course I did, and why would that be so unbelievable?"
Merlin shrugged. The firelight wasn't enough light, and he didn't want to use his flashlight, because then he'd have to either grow a third arm, or ask someone else to hold it for him, and it was his experience that no one had that much patience. Casting a mage light right in front of everyone was out of the question. He narrowed his eyes and scratched the last few lines of the protective sigil -- a sigil that was meant to deflect the dubious effect of the NMZ on technology -- on the inside of the detonator. It looked right. The only way to be sure would be when he activated it with a bit of magic -- something he'd have to do when no one was looking.
Gwaine nudged him. "Come on. Ask me what I found."
"An untouched Tupperware bin from my Mum with some brownies?" Merlin asked.
Uncharacteristic silence lingered next to him. Finally, Gwaine said, "I'm wounded that you'd think I'd --"
"You did. Demolished my stash in a single sitting. More than once, too, you arse. I'm half-tempted to ask Mum not to bother sending me any more," Merlin said, clasping the trigger's casing shut.
"I might," Merlin said.
"You wouldn't dare."
"For my Mum's brownies? I damn well would," Merlin said. "Do you know, every time I come home, she asks me if I've been eating, and if I say yes, Mum, I've been eating, she complains that I'm too skinny and sends me more baking to fatten me up. Do you see me getting fattened up? Do you? That's because you and you lot get into my kit and eat every bloody crumb."
"You know what you need?" Gwaine asked, wrapping an arm around Merlin's shoulders and leaving it there after a companionable squeeze.
"You need a big man who will protect you and your mum's brownies from --"
"-- people like you?" Merlin said, glancing up at Gwaine and grinning. He jerked back a little -- he hadn't known that Gwaine had been sitting quite that close.
"Exactly. People like me," Gwaine's breath was warm on Merlin's cheek, and the involuntary shiver wasn't because he was attracted to Gwaine, but because it reminded Merlin of the time in Algiers when Arthur had pressed the length of his body against his back, pinning him to the wall, and breathed on Merlin's cheek and throat before... No, this wasn't the right time or place to be thinking about these things, not when they were hours from the attack point for the exfil rescue.
"Would I have to share my Mum's brownies with this man?"
"More than likely, yes, though I'm sure he'd welcome expressions of gratitude in other lavish, physical forms --"
"What did you find?" Arthur snapped, his voice a dull roar, his brows in a deep Vee, his mouth set in an angry line, elbows on his knees leaning forward like someone about to charge over the fire to throttle answers out of Gwaine in a fit of impatience.
Gwaine saw the look on Arthur's face and swallowed hard, drawing his arm away, but the smile on his lips was easy and teasing, and he spread his hands almost apologetically. "Like I said, you won't believe it. Two Americans, an older bloke and a pretty bird. She called him Aulfric. He called her Sophia. Seems to me that I've heard those names before."
Merlin barely muffled his sharp intake of breath.
"What were they doing?" Arthur asked, his tone low, almost as dangerous as it had sounded when Gwaine tried his patience by not telling the team right away what they'd seen.
"Having themselves a little campfire a couple of hours that way," Gwaine said, swinging his arm westward. "Doing a bit of battle-planning, trying to figure out how the two of them were going to rescue their people all by themselves."
Gwaine didn't know what Arthur's problem was. It was just a bit of fun. Everyone had a bit of fun when it came to Merlin. The boy was deliciously easy to embarrass, to throw off-kilter, to tease. Gwaine couldn't help himself. He was painfully aware that Merlin wasn't interested in him, and that he had eyes only for Arthur.
Why couldn't Arthur see that?
Actually, why couldn't the pair of them see that they were perfect for each other and completely mad for each other and put the rest of the team out of their misery by going off every now and then to snog and shag? Gwaine suspected it would put Arthur in a far better mood to know that Merlin really was his, and that Merlin would relax, for a change, instead being as twitchy as he had been lately.
(Gwaine didn't know why Merlin was being twitchy. Or rather, twitchier than usual. It might have something to do with wanking, and after Algiers, Gwaine couldn't blame him. Algiers had given him some good wank material, too, though he imagined himself in Arthur's role.)
Whatever it was, come morning after finding out that the Americans had agents out in God's backside, Arthur was in fine form. It had absolutely nothing to do with the Americans, and everything to do with Arthur's innards boiling and roiling and reaching a blowing point because he hadn't been able to stand seeing Gwaine's arm draped over Merlin's shoulders. Oh, he'd seen Leon's warning glance, and Perceval had waved his arms in the air and mouthed, what's wrong with you, and Lance covered his eyes as if he expected a bloodbath to occur within the next few moments -- as if Gwaine couldn't hold his own against Arthur.
Though, to be fair, Gwaine wasn't entirely certain he could hold his own against an Arthur fuelled by complete, utter, idiotic jealousy. The man really had it for Merlin.
Gwaine was already planning a betting pool -- how long it would take before the two of them shacked up (Gwaine was holding the square for the day their tours were over), and how long it would take before the two were so disgustingly happy together that they got married (Gwaine was betting on never, because Arthur had a stick up his arse, and Merlin might not care about such things).
He was obsessing about Merlin and he was obsessing about Arthur and Merlin, and Gwaine knew it. There was a time where he'd obsessed about Arthur, too, but that ended the day they realized that they just didn't work together. The sex had been good, but the fights hadn't been epic -- they'd been earth-shattering, and they'd gone weeks without speaking to each other.
Meanwhile, when Merlin and Arthur fought (it was more like bickering), anyone with eyes could see that it was foreplay.
It really wasn't fair.
Just like it wasn't fair that after Arthur gave everyone a lecture on how to deal with the two American agents, which included keeping mum about their functional radio network, and blinking dumbly rather than mention Mister Smith and the Directory, he sent Gwaine out to knock on the door to their campsite and invite them to join their little assault game of "capture the flag", where "capture" meant "free", and they really meant "your people" when they said "flag".
Gwaine watched the village through his scope, keeping track of the movement. It was late afternoon and the heat had sunk in a long time ago, turning the rocks a pretty pearly colour with a shimmery surface, and there was just the faintest bit of wind between the muzzle of Gwaine's rifle and any of his targets. The conditions couldn't be more perfect.
Only, they weren't.
After Sophia had her initial hissy fit -- she'd thrown a rather spectacular tantrum, demanding why Excalibur hadn't come to their beck and call the first time, which sounded so much like the CIA had been calling their dogs to heel that Gwaine had been tempted to leave the two of them right there. Instead, he brought them to Excalibur's campsite where Gwaine promptly dumped Aulfric and Sophia in Arthur's proverbial lap, and let Arthur deal with them.
Where Gwaine wanted to resolve the issue with a good, sound slap across the shrieking harpy's face and a boot to the glowering older agent's arse, preferably while he was on the edge of a deep, deep pit, Arthur waited until Sophia was breathless, stared at Aulfric until Aulfric withered a little bit, and calmly asked, "What were they after?"
Gwaine rolled his eyes at the memory. God, they'd wasted hours on those two, trying to get information.
"What were they after?" had been answered with hapless shrugs and wheezy "How should we know."
"Ransom demands" had been the answer to "Why are your men still alive?"
"Why are you here?" had been answered by "What does it look like?"
And they went round and round in circles while Arthur calmly asked the same questions over and over and over, and Aulfric and Sophia answered with the same answers over and over and over, until it looked as if not only Gwaine, but the rest of the team, wanted to shoot them both in the heads, execution style, to put everyone out of their misery.
Well, almost everyone. He'd been sure that Perceval would snap and crush their heads in his big hands, that Lance was concocting some complicated mode of death that would involve something hopefully painful and traumatic, and, well, Merlin...
Merlin had disappeared somewhere to the rear of the group, still within earshot, but out of sight of the CIA agents.
Gwaine noted that it had been a lot like the way Merlin was whenever he was around the Directory's people and wondered if Merlin was just skittish around secret agents, or if it was something else.
His fingers adjusted the scope -- less than a half degree correction. That should do it.
In the end, Arthur's infinite patience -- which wasn't as infinite as it looked, because when the man wanted answers, he wanted them now -- won out, because Aulfric admitted that a shipment of weaponry had gotten into Kanan's hands, and that those weapons had been purchased by the CIA through an intermediary of an intermediary of someone's third cousin who was married to the sister of the man who had a brother who knew a lorry driver who sometimes freighted things across the border and knew people, and that somehow, those weapons were NWO originals.
Thinking about the NWO made Gwaine's spine shiver -- less with fear, though there was some fear involved, and more with excitement. He half-hoped that Kanan's people had those shields with them, the ones that Trickler had used, because he was keen on trying the new bullets to see if those would pierce the magic and hit his targets.
If the weapons were NWO specials, Arthur had told the team in an aside after they'd left Sophia and Aulfric behind (because those two could only add to their problems in the field and were ordered to stay out of the way, preferably with their thumbs up their arses), then the team should assume that they were magical weapons and take all appropriate precautions. The unspoken assumption was also that if the weapons were specials, then the people most likely were, too.
All appropriate precautions, in this case, was Gwaine, Galahad, and Geraint, positioned at different sight vectors of the village shadowed by a tall rock wall that might have been a valley sometime in the distant past, but which looked more, now, to be a former quarry with the best limestone cut away.
Gwaine put Sophia and Aulfric out of his head. They were annoyances, and life-threatening ones, but at least as far as life-threatening went, they were as much out of sight as they were out of mind, staying behind at the meet point with Kay and Bohrs. There were enough snickers to go around when Arthur ordered them to keep their guns ready, and to shoot the Americans if they even thought about interfering with the mission.
With one last, niggling thought -- how did those two get this far in the NMZ without support -- Gwaine focused on the mission.
There were four bandits directly in his sight-lines. Two more that could be gotten to with a bit of sniper S.W.A.G. -- a term he'd coined to explain to people just how it was that he turned out to be so good, and it stood for scientific wild-ass guess, but he never told anyone what the acronym stood for. Through the scope, Gwaine could see Leon and Perceval advancing on the main cluster of buildings that Geraint had confirmed held the hostages.
The plan was a direct kill and retrieve. The overwatch -- Gwaine, Geraint, Galahad -- would take down the men patrolling the grounds, preferably when they were out of sight of each other to delay how long it would take before they called for help or raised the alarm, then move on to whatever additional targets happened to pop into their scopes. The exfil team -- Leon, Perceval, Lance -- would be entering the hostage building, exterminating the pests, and getting the Americans out. Arthur, Merlin, and Owain were tracking down the weapons with every intention of gathering samples and blowing up the remainder. The rest of the team were scattered in twos and threes to provide additional cover fire at ground level and to guard their sixes on retreat.
At the moment, there was radio silence. Everyone was in position by the clock Arthur had set. They were waiting for Arthur's go.
His voice was a crackling murmur over the earwig -- Merlin might have conducted a small miracle by getting their in-team radio network to function, but that didn't mean he had managed to restore it to crystal clarity.
Gwaine had played with the kill order while waiting for everyone else to get into position, calculating what-if scenarios, maximizing his resources by waiting for one guard to reach one spot, a different guard to get to another, all in the interest of optimizing the takedown speed and conserving bullets.
Now, it was time to put his plan in action.
One. A guard smoking a cigarette dropped before the cigarette did, falling just shy of his legs sticking out around the corner of the building.
Two. The second guard who'd been taking a drag of his cigarette, one hand on his semiautomatic gun -- what, did they expect trouble? turned around, saw that his friend had gone down, and was on the ground, bullet to the brain, before he could choke out enough smoke and breathe in enough air to cry out an alarm.
The wind had shifted. A slight adjust, and Gwaine was good to go again.
Three. The man working on the stolen transport truck slid out from beneath, a wrench in hand. The ground incline was enough to slide his body right back under.
Four. The man in the doorway dropped.
"Shite. I lost one," Geraint said. "No LOS. No LOS."
No line of sight meant that Geraint had no chance of shooting the bandit from his location.
Gwaine shifted his position slightly and saw a man running from Geraint's quarter, his bearded face red with blood splatter, his rotund belly jiggling, too out of breath and panicked to cry out.
Gwaine didn't have time to adjust his scope and operated on instinct, aiming just to the left of the target as he ran, optimizing an angle favourable to his elevated position and the slight slope of the ground that the man was running over, taking into account for the wind -- it was a mathematical jumble of calculations that a computer would spend a few seconds crunching, but Gwaine didn't bother with those. This was one of those instances where the S.W.A.G. came in.
"Have him," Gwaine confirmed, taking a deep breath that he let go slowly. When it was all out, in that instant between heartbeats, before anything could shift his position just a hair out of alignment -- and for a sniper at this distance, a single hair could translate into a hundred metres off-target -- he squeezed the trigger.
Two pounds of pressure. That was all that it took to kill a man.
"Clear," Gwaine confirmed.
"Clear," Geraint said, with Galahad offering his agreement a moment later.
"Team two, go," Arthur said.
Gwaine watched Lance and Leon and Perceval enter the building where the hostages were in, and promptly turned his scope away, because now he was the one without the line of sight, and it was Geraint and Galahad's jobs to provide oversight. Gwaine's responsibility was keeping watch over Merlin and Arthur and Owain, keeping any bandit off their backs while they did their job. He scanned the area around them, ahead of them, behind them, through windows, wondering if someday, soon, he would be able to get a scope that had powerful enough magnification to let him see through things.
"Hut three, clear," Owain said.
Gwaine spotted movement two buildings ahead of them. He watched the odd, oblong shadow until he saw someone's foot shift out from behind a flat wall. He waited some more, and saw the hitch of a gun and a muzzle sneak around the edge.
He squeezed out a bullet.
"Hut two, clear," Owain said.
Gwaine watched the team advance toward the largest hut at the village's border, catching distant road kick-up over the horizon. "Incoming, your nine o'clock. ETA five to seven minutes. Looks like two vehicles, unknown number of passengers."
"We have the hostages," Leon said over the line. "Five out of six mobile. Repeat, five out of six mobile."
"You need an assist?" Arthur asked.
"Not yet," Lance said, but his voice was tinny and distant, preoccupied with whatever he was doing.
Tiny dust bursts forced the weapons team back, pinning them down against the wall of the second building.
"Where is this fire coming from?" Arthur shouted, and Gwaine winced, twitching his head and wishing he could dig the earwig out before Arthur made another deep below that the network magnified.
"I can't see anyone!" Owain shouted. For some reason, Owain's voice didn't thunder through Gwaine's head the way Arthur's did.
"I'm going to take a tour around!"
"Merlin! Get back here! Gwaine!" It was testament to Arthur's faith in Merlin's secure network that he would use first names instead of codes, but it was also proof that Arthur at least trusted Merlin to be able to keep himself safe if he didn't go after him. Gwaine caught a glimpse of a lanky body dart down one way, and duck around the corner, out of sight, before shifting his position again, tracking the fire.
A good sniper would be thinking right about now. They'd watch the amount of dirt being disturbed by the bullets. The shape of the cloud. The hit vector. The angle of declination. Gwaine wasn't a good sniper. He was a great sniper. His gut told him that the shooter was right... about... there...
"He's in the levee. I don't have a clear shot. I repeat, I don't have a clear shot. You need to draw him out," Gwaine said.
"No problem," Merlin put in.
Gwaine risked a glance and thought he saw why Arthur's voice dipped toward complete panic. Merlin -- the idiot -- was side-stepping into the open, right in the shooter's direct line of fire.
Gwaine shifted slightly, his heart pounding with adrenaline for the first time since the mission began, adjusting his scope for distance, trying to secure himself in position for a good shot before the shooter hit Merlin and ducked down out of sight again.
His hands weren't working. He was breathing in jerky hitches. Gwaine shut his eyes and exhaled shakily, digging his elbows in the dirt. He tuned out Arthur -- he was yelling at Merlin to get back, and Gwaine didn't dare take his eye off his target out of fear of missing him before he got Merlin.
He squeezed the trigger. One shot. One kill.
Air came in with a painful gulp. Gwaine swung slightly, trying to find Merlin through his scope, but either he'd gotten out of the way in time, or he'd been shot --
"Merlin!" Arthur shouted again. "Answer me, God damn it!"
"I'm right here!" Merlin came around the building again, hitting shoulder against shoulder with Owain.
Gwaine's arms sagged, and he loosed his death grip from his rifle, wiping his brow with the back of his hand. He adjusted his lid, shook his head, and continued overwatch as the team moved on.
"Hostages are out! We're clear!" Leon announced. "Heading to meet point!"
"Hut one clear!" Owain said. "Setting charges!"
Gwaine kept an eye out for more bandits. The dust kick-up from the incoming transports was larger. "Incoming bandits, ETA three minutes."
He waited, settling himself in a new position. When the team was out of the village, Owain would set off the charges, and if they moved fast enough, it would coincide with the arrival of the transport. Galahad and Geraint would cover their rear, and Gwaine would stay behind long enough to confirm that the bandits were down for the count and that they wouldn't pick up on the team's trail.
Gwaine waited. Merlin was in the lead, Owain second, Arthur scanning the area behind them. They kept to the shadows, ducking behind every house down the line, and were out of sight in three, two, one --
The transports drove up over the rise, descending slowly, approaching, even passing the first hut. Anytime now, O, Gwaine thought. He did another silent countdown. Three, two, one --
Gwaine ducked his head and muttered a quiet prayer. Owain's demolitions were almost foolproof, but in the NMZ all bets were off. Unless Merlin managed to do with Owain's remote detonators what he'd done with the radio --
A thunderous whip crack made the ground rumble in an off-the-Richter scale shockwave. Dust burst through the windows, the open doorway of hut one, quickly followed by a deep, atmosphere-sucking breath that began to implode the building as if it were in the gravity well of a black hole. In the same instant, there was an stuttering crash as the building's support were knocked aside and the walls jetted outward in a mix of debris turned shrapnel and secondary flames turned dragon fire, because orange and yellow turned green and blue in a lateral flash that was a perfect, near-physical ring --
The lead transport truck's rear tires lifted from the road and flipped over. The second truck skittered away, front tires dragging marks on the ground.
A second wave -- and there was no way that this could ever come from anything in Owain's explosives collection -- was a double rubber-band snap of wild, transient yellow something that crushed the first truck as if were a soda can. The cab of the second truck creaked, crinkled, and flattened in an eyeblink when one of the yellow tendrils crashed down like a tentacle.
Gwaine stared. And stared. And stared.
Only distantly did he hear confirmation that Arthur's team was on their way to the meet point. Only from far away was he aware that Galahad and Geraint had left their posts. Only the fact that he was blinking more to clear his vision in the thickening dusk tipped him off to the fact that he'd been prone on the hilltop, camouflaged by dust and dirt and vegetation, for hours, his eyes fixed to the gasoline-fire scorched wrecks of stolen military transports.
There had been no movement ever since.
Gwaine permitted himself a short little laugh, still dazed from the memory of what had looked -- to him -- like an armament of magically-imbued weaponry letting off the stored energy. He packed up slowly, keeping an eye on the village, pretty sure that if nothing had moved by now, nothing was going to move, much less track them down. It was that thought that made him pause, completely and utterly aghast at the sight and realization for the first time in his life, eclipsing all the horrors that he'd seen in the Hell that was war, because if what he'd seen before was Hell, this was the Perdition of Hell, the absolute, bottom-of-the-pit Hell of Hells.
For the first time in his life, Gwaine felt a tightness in his chest that he could only attribute to fear. If the videos hadn't made it clear, if Algiers hadn't driven the point home, this massive destruction from a few magical weapons painted a terrible picture.
Magic was real. And Excalibur was the only thing between the enemy and the rest of the world.
Gwaine grinned, got to his feet, and moved at a slow pace until his legs stopped buzzing with the pins and needles of numbness, and he started off at a slow jog toward the meet point.
Off to one side were the six rescued Americans, all of them male, all of them at various fitness levels that ranked them from desk slugs to I hit the gym sometimes, and none of them were soldiers. Except for one of them -- the only one who was wearing military greens, though what he had on was more desert beige, swathed in whatever medical supplies that Lance had brought along to patch up whoever was injured. There were a few black eyes, a lot of bloody lips, a fair number of patchwork bruises, but the soldier -- apparently the convoy driver -- had a lovely broken leg.
Apparently Perceval carried him all the way to the meet point. And the soldier had whined the whole way.
That bloke, Aulfric -- the one who looked a bit pinched, as if he'd sucked on a lemon, and went about disapproving everything Arthur said and did -- was with that lot of Americans, crouching down close to the centre, glancing over his shoulder every now and then the way kids did when they pretended to be checking to make sure no one was eavesdropping, but what they were really doing was making sure that the others were watching so that they could see how absurdly jealous everyone else was of their little clique.
The problem was, no one in Excalibur gave a rat's toss about them. The mission was to get them back out of the NMZ, not to cozy up and simper until they were grudgingly invited into their bloody exclusive group.
On the other side of the camp was the rest of the team, scattered around in their usual seemingly ramshackle fashion. Gwaine put down his gear, taking a minute to check everything, and moved to sit down between Perceval and Merlin, taking one of the MREs being heated up by the fire.
He shook it to mix the contents and tore it open without seeing what the printed label claimed it contained -- always safer not to know, that way the taste buds couldn't be disappointed -- and tore it open. He'd stuck his fork into the dirt-brown sauce and perfect square bits that were uniformly-brown and possibly imitation meat, and was halfway through it when he noticed that the men around the low fire were uncharacteristically silent.
Lance and Leon were trading frowning glances. Perceval's legs were up, his elbows were on his knees, his hands were clasped between them, and he was staring at his bruised knuckles -- must have punched someone in the building where they held the hostages -- as if it were safer to look at his hands than anywhere else. And Merlin, sweet, patient, daredevil Merlin that Gwaine wanted to throttle for jumping in the line of fire, and wanted to know why Arthur hadn't beaten him to it first, had a sick, stricken expression on his face.
While Gwaine ate, trying very hard not to taste the food, he figured out where it was that the others were studiously trying not to look.
At Arthur half-hidden by the shadows away from the fire and away from everyone else.
At Arthur, half-hidden by the shadows away from the fire and away from everyone else, snogging Sophia.
The MRE went down the wrong pipe. Gwaine choked, coughed, and tried to breathe. Perceval whupped him a couple of times on the back with blows hard enough for him to spit out a bloody lung, and Lance straightened, ready to come over to help, but Gwaine swallowed hard, and cleared the obstruction.
This was why he hated being the last one to the meet points. He missed important stuff.
"When the bloody hell did Arthur start liking girls?"
Perceval's elbow was a little delayed, but it was sharp, and it knocked the wind out of his chest while probably breaking a few ribs in the process. Gwaine knew what it was -- a reminder not to talk about Arthur's unshakable preference for men -- but why wasn't anyone boggling over the fact that Arthur was sucking face with a woman? That woman?
Gwaine considered himself something of an expert, having dated Arthur for however long it had been -- weeks, maybe? If a woman were to turn Arthur's head, it wouldn't be that one!
He turned to Merlin, looking for an ally, but all he saw were those big, gorgeous eyes, bright like turquoise moons, staring at him with shock.
Oh, shite. He didn't know.
Gwaine could've kicked himself for spilling the beans. If he'd kept his mouth shut, then, maybe, Merlin would have given up on Arthur and succumbed to Gwaine.
Merlin's heart didn't stop pounding like a construction worker's jackhammer until they hiked past the Zeid Reservoir, ghosting the heels of Leon's team and the former prisoners.
He'd been able to sense the magic imbued in the weapons from the outskirts of the village, as if the essence pinged off the strange, mystical fog that made up the NMZ, causing it to echo oddly in his head, and as much as he was tempted to lead the team to the proper building so that they could be destroyed immediately, there were protocols to follow -- namely, not getting shot, and he followed Arthur's lead. There had been one sticky point in all this when they were under fire and running short of time, and Merlin was still surprised that Arthur hadn't torn his head off for splitting up the team to run behind their cover building.
He'd been equally surprised that the illusion he'd created of himself had been so vivid. He'd meant only a shadow, big enough and mobile enough to catch the sniper's eye, and had nearly pissed himself in surprise when he saw himself waltz out into the open.
The NMZ wasn't good for technology, and it wasn't good for people with sensitivities to or affinities for magic. But when magic was used --
Merlin would have to remember that the NMZs weren't all that bad, that there was some use to them, but at the time he didn't have much opportunity to experiment, because Arthur had finally led them into the building where the weapons were stored and Owain had laid out the explosives while Merlin checked the boxes -- and there were a lot of boxes -- before taking a couple of the most common devices from one side. Arthur had done the same on the other side of the room.
Blowing up the building hadn't come with the ease of flipping a switch, no matter how many magical modifications that Merlin had done to Owain's remote trigger. It had been only after the eleventh cursed "bloody fucking NMZ" and the fourth "I'm going to have to go in to trigger it manually" that Merlin had taken advantage of Arthur and Owain's distraction to detonate the explosives.
And, almost immediately, raise a shield to protect them from the magically-magnified pressure wave, re-shaping it a fraction of a second later against the tidal wave of released and destructive magic.
They'd been out of range of conventional weapons. None of them -- not even Merlin -- had thought of the effect of destroying magical weapons. Well, Merlin sure as shite wasn't going to forget that little detail now.
None of them would. Arthur's eyes had been wide with shock for the hike back, and Owain's mouth had dropped open, and it was almost as if he'd run out of swear words appropriate for the occasion.
The Zeid Reservoir was south of Kyzlajak and Kizyldha, two large towns that were close enough that when the cities grew and grew into modern times, they conglomerated into one large sprawling field with two distinct names. The artificial lake was something of a tourist attraction, but it was too close to the border between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan to receive much foreign visitors, even if those foreign visitors were able to cross into the NMZ without frying their expensive digital cameras in the first place. Gwaine had told Merlin that the last time the team had been by the Reservoir, they'd come across a fair few people sunning themselves on the beach, not even looking up when they had sand kicked in their faces by hulking soldiers in full assault gear. Now, though, the area was deserted, but to be on the safe side, their meet point was beyond the rise, deeper in the greenery that sprung lush and vivid in the veritable oasis.
Arthur took his elbow before they reached the meet point, using the distraction of their arrival and the relieved moans from the prisoners to pass the weapons he'd taken from the bandits to Merlin. "Here. Hide these. I don't want those two to know that we have them."
By "those two", Merlin knew Arthur meant Aulfric and Sophia. He nodded wordlessly and stuffed them in his pack, careful to wrap them in bits of extra clothing that he'd brought along -- mostly socks, a spare undershirt, and a pair of undies, because one-off missions like these could take a surprising turn, and instead of returning to base only slightly smelly, they might be stuck out here a lot longer than expected and come back rather rank and with a potential case of crotch (and foot) rot.
Nobody wanted a case of crotch rot.
Merlin secured the weapons and put his pack in a hidden spot out of the way, casting a quiet spell to hide them from anyone and everyone except himself. There was a risk in using magic to cover up magic when trying to hide having magic -- especially from Aulfric and Sophia, but Aulfric didn't twitch, and Sophia, well, there was no sign of her.
Until there was, and she was all over Arthur, touching him with the freedom of a trusted lover, leaning against him, reaching up to stroke his face, to bring him down to her level, to kiss him, and Arthur -- oh, Arthur was letting her, and it killed Merlin to watch.
So he didn't. And after a while, he hung his head down enough to cover up his ears so that he wouldn't have to listen to them two sounding soppy sweet (Sophia) and proudly demure (Arthur) in between the fumble of hands over fabric.
Fucking hell, just twist the knife in my gut already. Reach in, tear my heart out, and stomp all over it, will you?
Merlin knew that his was an unrequited love -- as was always the way when a man loved another man who didn't like men in that way, but that didn't stop him from hurting whenever he saw proof that he'd never be with Arthur except in his fantasies.
He barely registered Gwaine coming back to the camp some hours later, of sitting down next to him, of choking on his MREs and Perceval smacking him so hard, Gwaine nearly went into the fire, but eventually, Gwaine's surprised exclamation sunk through the heartache and the pain.
"When the bloody hell did Arthur start liking girls?"
Merlin sat up straight. He took in for the first time everyone's confusion -- Lance's heavy frown, Leon's question-mark expression, the distaste written all over Perceval's face. Gwaine's shock reverberated in the air like its own personal NMZ.
"You... what?" Merlin frowned, not sure he'd heard right, but with the question came his answer, because no one wanted to meet his eyes. "You mean he's... And no one's told me? You wankers, you made me drink a full liquor shelf because you didn't like that I weren't telling you anything, and you -- you, Leon, you waxed philosophical about the no secrets rule in a team, and, and, no one could tell me about... About Arthur?"
It was a bit of useless information now, because his head was bound up in a swirl of thoughts and none of them coherent, with the excitement that suddenly the impossible wet dream wasn't so impossible after all, and the despair that maybe he wasn't Arthur's type if Arthur wasn't showing any interest in him in the first place. And, oh, Gods, that explained how Arthur could push all the right buttons, because he couldn't have been so bloody good at manhandling Merlin in Algiers otherwise -- and, and...
"We don't talk about it," Lance said, his voice low, calm, reassuring, and infuriatingly full of common sense as he went on, "You know what it's like, Merlin. It's hard enough for you, and you're not even out, I know no one dares to be out, but he's our commanding officer, and it's worse at that level. So we keep mum, and, well, it just doesn't come up in conversation --"
Hearing the phrase our commanding officer was the splash of a bucket full of cold water, because it sounded so much like the outrage Will had shown at the bar the first night the team had gone on R&R -- but he's your commanding officer, Merlin! What are you thinking? No, wait, you're not thinking at all, are you -- that Merlin's mind stopped swirling and ran into the wall.
Right. Arthur was his commanding officer. And there were rules. Stupid, stupid rules.
"Aren't I part of the team?" Merlin said, his voice hollow and hurt in a way that made his words pale in comparison. "You couldn't have at least mentioned it?"
It hit Merlin then, the why, why, why that Arthur was snogging Sophia now. Was it a cover? Or was it --
He risked a quick glance in Arthur's direction, and saw a desperate flash in his expression, there one instant, gone the next, replaced by the smirk of a man who was about to get very lucky --
It had to be a compulsion, like the one Trickler had tried on Arthur, but Arthur had fought it, hadn't he? And now --
The realizations came crashing down on Merlin faster than he could process them --
Sophia was a Sidhe
Sidhe were good at compulsions -- it was their life's blood
The NMZ enhanced the effects of magic above and beyond the normal
Arthur didn't have a chance against the compulsion. Not one. Not here, where it was probably so strong that it overrode even his basest instincts
Merlin swallowed hard. He didn't realize that the others were speaking to him, that they were pleading with him not to say anything, because it was supposed to be a secret and Arthur had asked them not to say anything a long time ago, before Merlin ever came on the scene, and besides, they thought Merlin knew, that Arthur had told him when they were on R&R --
Sophia was leading Arthur away, deeper into the forest.
He stood up abruptly.
"Merlin, please, don't --"
Merlin shook off Gwaine's hand and rubbed his face. "No, look. I get it. Joke's on me. Well, I'm not laughing. But I get it. There's being part of the team, and then there's part of the team, right? And I'm not there yet. I probably never will get there."
"Merlin," Perceval said, standing up. He glanced at the fire as if he meant to step over it, but Merlin moved away.
"Leave me alone, all right?"
"Where are you going?"
"I have to take a piss," Merlin snapped over his shoulder, heading in the opposite direction that he had seen Sophia take Arthur, his heart threatening to burst through his chest. He had to catch up to them. He could cut through the forest, and, maybe, it looked as if Sophia was taking Arthur to the Reservoir, to the lake -- he could cut them off, maybe, and...
He noticed that Perceval wasn't the only one standing now, that Leon had gotten to his feet with a dark look of concern on his face, that Gwaine had turned around and was giving him a strange look. Merlin stopped, and barked a hoarse laugh. "You want to come along and hold my dick for me, be my fucking guest."
None of them followed him into the forest. Not even Gwaine, who would probably have jumped at the invitation at any other time.
Merlin went in one direction until he couldn't see the firelight anymore, until he couldn't hear the distant voices from the camp, and abruptly detoured at a breakneck run toward the Reservoir. He was too far away, the forest too thick in these parts, the ground too hard and rocky and there was a tangle of reeds and weeds and shrubs, and by the time he reached the rise on top of the hill, he thought he was too late.
No one was in sight.
The artificial lake was crystal clear, without the faintest shimmer of the wind rippling the surface, the star light scintillating and reflecting from the Reservoir. A faint mist steamed from the water where the warmth of the lake met the chill of the air, spreading and coalescing from the center toward the shore.
Two figures emerged from the hillside, a woman in the lead, her arm extended backward, pulling, pulling at Arthur.
Merlin wished he'd brought his rifle with him. He should have. It was drummed into every soldier to never leave their rifle behind. He'd seen soldiers kicked out of the army for that breach in training -- but he couldn't think about that, not now. At least he still had the handgun strapped to his thigh, but his hand trembled, and his magic arced like a wild electrical discharge, reacting to the fear and panic coursing through him. He doubted he would be able to shoot straight.
The gun was a familiar weight in his hand, rooting him, steeling him for whatever was going to happen.
He couldn't see very well -- there was only the slightest sliver of moonlight, and although there were only wisps of clouds in the sky, the starlight could barely cut through the growing mist that spread on the surface of the lake. But he didn't need to have a nocturnal animal's keen sight to be able to see that Sophia was pulling Arthur toward the shoreline, to the sand bars, and that Arthur was leaning backward, reluctant to follow, but following all the same.
The downhill scramble was a disaster of broken twigs and crunchy ground and leafy slaps in the face as he hurried down, muttering a spell of silence and stealth that would leave even Gwaine mystified as to how he'd made it this far down without being detected given the absolute wreck of a trail that he'd left behind. Once he reached the bottom and climbed out of a dip in the ground that was a watershed levee, he searched frantically for Arthur and saw him in the water, hip-deep, Sophia still pulling him in. There were two tiny points of light over the water, and those were Sophia's eyes, a strange burnished red like fireflies in the gloom.
Merlin started forward, but movement and voices off to the side made him stop -- he could hear Aulfric's voice barking orders. Five men that the team had rescued from the bandits were with him, and it looked as if they'd left behind their injured man, the soldier who didn't seem to fit in with the rest of them.
If they were here, why wasn't Excalibur here, too? Wouldn't their departure have raised flags? Where was the team?
Merlin paused his advance and watched. There was no way that he could cross the beach without being seen, not when there was nothing that he could hide behind. One by one the men trailed after Aulfric, wading into the water, calf-deep, knee-deep, hip-deep, until they were lined up behind Aulfric, who held Sophia's hand, who held Arthur's.
And they chanted. Their voices were low and snake-hiss sibilant, the syllables long and flowing and ethereal, familiar and foreign at once to Merlin's ear. He could understand, without understanding, what they were doing -- the mist thickened on the surface of the lake as they opened a passage.
They all had their backs to him. Merlin crept forward, crouching low to the ground, glad for his dark hair, for the camouflage he wore, but not so glad for his pale skin.
As he approached, as he watched, the centre of the mist became still as the lake's surface, a mirrored doorway that stood straight up over the water. There were faint images from the other side that Merlin couldn't clearly see. Straight lines. Wavy lines. Curved lines. All of them blurred, as if it were an unpolished mirror.
One by one, the men walked underneath Aulfric's and Sophia's outstretched arms, dipping beneath the water before rising to swim to the doorway. Once they reached it, they seemed to float -- but that was a trick of vision, an optical distortion, because they climbed a staircase and walked to the gate and disappeared on the other side.
When the last had gone through, Sophia asked, "Should we join them?"
"We should. The illusion we left at the campsite won't last for much longer," Aulfric said, his voice low and disembodied, and Merlin cursed his stupidity, everyone's stupidity, because if he'd stayed behind instead of running off like the jealous, completely insecure, utterly blithering idiot that he was, he might have sensed something wrong, noticed that magic was thick in the campsite, and he would have said something, and he wouldn't be here alone, and...
He didn't know what, then. He was lost, without his footing, as if his anchor was hanging from the boat but not hooking anything below the deep waters to keep him stable against the rocking waves. He needed Arthur.
"And this one?"
"Let him sink. The gate will take its sacrifice," Aulfric said.
no, no, no
"A pity," Sophia mused. "This one is adorable. Perhaps I should have taken one of the others?"
"Actually, I applaud your choice. Without their Captain, Excalibur will be at loose ends. The Directory won't be able to use them." The tone was ominous. It was obvious that this was some sort of payback.
Merlin splashed into the water and angled in their direction. The spell of stealth and silence was still upon him; he didn't make a sound as he approached. The water lapped and stirred; every movement sent ripples through the lake, and those ripples ebbed toward the gate and the shore. Merlin raised his gun.
"But neither will we. They could have come in useful."
"Yes. They could have. And perhaps, they will continue to be useful. I imagine in the aftermath, the members will be split and sent to different units. We'll salvage what we can from them." Aulfric gestured. "Let him go."
"Stop!" They didn't hear him. Of course not. Merlin was too anxious to feel stupid, but he released the stealth spell with a jittery word. "Stop!"
Aulfric whirled around. Sophia gasped and turned, trying to draw her hand away from Arthur, but Arthur wasn't letting go.
He was fighting the compulsion. Arthur was still in there.
"I'll shoot. Stop what you're doing!"
Aulfric's eyes flashed and his hand flicked to the side; Merlin's gun went flying out of his hand with such force that it skipped on the surface of the water all the way to shore.
Idiot. I'm an idiot
He'd known since he'd first met them that William Aulfric and Sophia Lee were Sidhe, members of a fairy race of people that had absolutely no resemblance to the cute little fairies portrayed in Disney movies. He'd grown up on stories about the Sidhe, their great courts, their powerful magic, and their inhumanity.
They might look human. They might look like anything. But beneath the skin they wore, they did not feel human emotion. Merlin had to remember that. The Sidhe did not know fear the way he did. They did not suffer anger the way he did.
"You're a foolish boy," Aulfric said.
"Use him as the sacrifice," Sophia suggested. "Then I can keep this one."
The only warning Merlin had of an incoming attack was the slightest tilt of Aulfric's head before a pale blue burning light appeared in his hand, zipping toward Merlin without so much as a throwing swing of the Sidhe's arm.
Merliln reacted on instinct -- this was not Uncle Gaius' high-speed tennis balls -- and rather than waiting for the ball lightning to reach him, rather than to allow the sphere to touch him, swept his hand and arm upward, forcing the Sidhe's magic up through the mist, up, and up until it reached clear air, where it suddenly burst and exploded in a fireworks palm pattern, blinding bright like a rescue flare.
He hoped the others could see it. He hoped the others would come.
Aulfric stared at him, his piercing gaze changing from a too-human aloofness to something that might be anger. If it were anger, it was twisted, fierce, enduring a slow-burn and a rapid rise. Sophia's mouth fell open in a familiar expression of shock, but her eyes hardened and mirrored Aulfric's terrible emotion.
"You have magic," Aulfric stated, flat, displeased, annoyed the way a man was annoyed when he couldn't catch the pesky fly darting here and there in front of his face. "It won't help you now."
A string of pale blue lights appeared simultaneously, darting at Merlin in a staggered firing pattern, moving too quick, far too quick, to be simply brushed aside. He raised shields --
Lightning crackled on the outside of the erected field, white light with a faint tinge of blue pounding in art nouveau designs against a shield that shone like diamonds. It was a non-stop barrage of high-velocity and high-powered ballistics, and the contact hits were blindingly bright in the glow of the mist rising from the lake, reflecting from the mirror door in dot-dash Morse code.
Merlin felt the first few hits as sure as if he'd been shot by bullets, his Kevlar absorbing the hits to leave him stunned and gasping for breaths. He tuned the shield, altering it the way he'd seen Mary Collins do in Algiers, right before he passed out from the pain of his injuries, and took the power being pounded at him, that meant to shatter the shield, and used it to power it instead.
Frustrated with his lack of success with the small white balls of light, Aulfric shifted to something that was the shade of fire and burst in a spider effect against the shield, crawling up and above, around and to the side, searching for a weak point, any point --
"Sophia!" Aulfric shouted, and Merlin thought his voice warbled with uncertainty. "Go through!"
"Go through now!"
Sophia dragged Arthur deeper and deeper into the water, until the water was chest-deep, and suddenly, suddenly, he slipped and started to drift in the water, aimless, without support, without strength, slipping down, down, into the depths.
Several star-shaped attacks the size of Uncle Gaius' car hammered into the shield, the spikes no doubt meant to pierce Merlin's magic, but splintering like glass instead.
Sophia disappeared under water, just like the men had, and resurfaced in a burst of water as she raced up the stairs. There was a pause, a brief hesitation, and she glanced back in what looked like fear before she dove through the mirror, through the gate, and was gone.
"What are you? WHAT ARE YOU?" Aulfric roared, but Merlin had eyes only for Arthur, who was gone beneath the waters, out of sight.
Merlin moved toward Arthur; Aulfric stopped him with a burst of water that soaked the shield, then kept him from moving forward with a concentrated effort as he inched toward the gates himself.
No, no, no
Merlin glanced between Aulfric. He looked at where Arthur had gone under. He'd been under water too long. Far too long.
He'd had enough.
The shields dropped with a thunderous crash that made Merlin think of Owain's explosives at the bandit's village. All the stored power from Aulfric's attack collapsed in a massive ring of magic that radiated outward and flattened nearly everything in its path. Aulfric threw his arms up in the air to protect himself, but the ring tore through him, through the gate, through the mist.
A loud clatter that was the sound of glass breaking and shattering and the deep bass gong of a brass bell resonated with a deafening blast. The gate was gone, leaving in its wake a vacuum in the mist that faded in a whirlwind of boiling heat. It was searing, and as the mist faded, so did Aulfric's floating body, disintegrating into nothingness.
Merlin dove underwater without hesitation, but the waters were too dark, and he couldn't see --
He didn't know how the light appeared -- he couldn't focus enough to summon anything at this point -- this tiny little blue light that reminded him of fireflies, and it set the lake alight as if it were the clear blue water in the Caribbean. He saw Arthur, sinking toward the bottom, enfolded in something misty and dark and menacing, pulling him down, down, down.
Merlin shouted -- afléotan -- and the irony of having to use Mister Smith's spell wasn't lost on him. The water bubbled around Arthur, pulling him away from the entity swirling, roiling, twisting deep beneath the waters. Merlin reached Arthur just as he rose, and hung on as the magic carried them both off to the surface. They breached; Merlin gasped for breath, but Arthur wasn't breathing at all.
He swam -- he didn't know how he swam so fast, dragging Arthur after him. The lingering effect of the spell clung to Arthur, making him light enough for Merlin to pull him to the beach, where he collapsed on his knees, pressing his head against Arthur's chest, listening for a heartbeat, but there was nothing, no thumping, no heave, no gasp for air --
Merlin's lips pressed over Arthur's, his fingers tilted his chin, and he blew air in again and again, shifting his stance to press his fists on Arthur's chest in a practiced rhythm. He repeated the pattern again and again, but he didn't know if it was working, he couldn't see, his eyes were blinded by tears, his panic was roaring in his ears --
He paused, trying to catch his breath, trying to get a grip, wiping his face with his hands, ready to start CPR where he'd left off. He crouched down again, whispering, "Please, Arthur," and sealed his lips on Arthur's own again.
Except instead of coolness, there was warmth; instead of softness, there was tension. He froze, not daring to move, not daring to break the instant, the set of conditions that had made Arthur stir and wake, and he didn't know how long that he'd knelt there, hovering over him, their lips locked together.
All he knew was that he would stay like that forever if he had to.
A hand snaked behind Merlin's head to hold him there, weak and gentle, and the breath of life became a kiss, a firm kiss, a sweet kiss, chaste and gentle, with questing lips begging for him to respond, and he melted into it with a sob of relief --
The pounding of his heart had never been so loud before.
It wasn't his heart, Merlin realized. It was the sound of Excalibur racing down the beach toward them.
Arthur's hand dropped limply to the side. Merlin pulled away, giving Lance the room he needed to work, to save Arthur.
Between his foggy recollections and the stories told by each of the members of Excalibur, Arthur was able to piece together what had happened.
Sophia had done something to Arthur that felt a lot like the time Trickler had put a compulsion on him in Algiers, and his body did everything that Sophia wanted it to do while his brain, his soul, his consciousness was locked in some sort of magical prison. His body had laughed when she told a silly joke. He'd smiled indulgingly when she detailed what she was going to do with him down at the lake. He had kissed her when she kissed him and all the while, Arthur, the real Arthur, was trapped deep inside his own body, could do nothing but quail in utter disgust. He'd been completely, utterly, helpless.
He had wanted to vomit. He might even had vomited a little bit during one of those open-mouthed kisses when Sophia's tongue had been stuck down his throat.
He still wanted to vomit. He felt dirty, used, violated. His skin crawled. Every now and then, he would get a taste in the back of his throat and want to bend over and retch.
Arthur was furious, angry, embarrassed, humiliated. No small part of his rage had to do with how easy it was for these sorcerers to lay a compulsion on him. To control him. To impose their will on him.
Damn them. Damn them all.
He hated sorcerers. It was as if something had broken in Arthur at that moment when Sophia lured him from the others and cornered him in the woods, whispering foreign words in his ear and leaving a tickle of magic on his skin. Something had heaved and cracked at the stone inside and revealed a deep ore vein of loathing. He would like nothing more than to see all the sorcerers on the planet brought together to the same place and executed by firing squad. They were men and women of great power with absolutely no respect for that power, and they wielded it unheeding of the consequences.
They had to be stopped. They had to be destroyed. Arthur couldn't allow them to do to someone else what they very nearly had done to him.
How easy had it been for Sophia to lure him away? How easy had it been for her to lead him to his death?
They'd left the Zeid Reservoir at the fake dawn, marching through the dark, continuing south as the dawn broke through the clouds lingering at the horizon and seared the sky. They had nothing to show for this mission except for one American soldier with a broken leg being carried on travois, a few weapons that might be magical in nature, and a Captain who had been magically frozen, nearly fed to some sort of creature that lived under the water, and still in a bit of a daze.
Lance fretted over Arthur like a mother hen, but there was little that he could do; Arthur hadn't actually drowned. The paralysis that had overcome him had arrested all of his bodily functions, preventing any instinctive systemic reaction -- as his body sank, he couldn't fight to stay afloat; as the water filled his nostrils and mouth, he couldn't swallow or cough or gasp for air. He'd sunk and sunk underwater, dragged down, and the closer he'd gotten to the bottom, toward that indescribable blackness that resided below, the more the cold pervaded his body, the more his heartbeat slowed until it stopped.
He woke up to a sore chest that wasn't as sore as it could have been if he hadn't been wearing his body armour and Kevlar. He woke up to Merlin's lips, warm against his own.
Arthur hadn't been thinking. He'd reacted. He'd been so close to dying, so close to never having this chance. He'd kissed Merlin...
And he wanted to kiss him again. And again.
Arthur glanced at Merlin on the march toward the border. He hadn't missed how Merlin would cast a sidelong look in his direction, his expression full of worry and concern. He couldn't forget how Merlin had shouted for him on the lake. How desperate he'd been. How he'd cried for Arthur.
His head hurt. His heart hurt. His soul hurt. He wanted. He wanted to pull Merlin close and to hold him until neither of them could breathe. He wanted to tell Merlin that he was all right, that Merlin had saved him.
He wanted to tell Merlin that he knew. He wanted to tell Merlin how pissed he was that Merlin didn't tell him. He wanted to tell Merlin that it didn't matter.
He wanted to kiss Merlin again and again. He wanted. He wanted Merlin so much that it was tearing him apart.
He wanted, and he couldn't have him. He couldn't.
He didn't dare.
Instead, he kept his eyes straight ahead, following the trail that Gwaine was breaking for them, and worked on an explanation to get them out of this bloody mess.
"And this is the story you want to go with?" Bayard asked.
Arthur and the rest of the team had come up with two stories on the hike to the border and across the invisible line of the NMZ. With the radio restored to proper working order, Merlin had called for a chopper, and they had plenty of time sitting on their arses waiting for the pickup to base to smooth out the rough edges of their reports and to answer any questions that might be asked.
The Brass got story number one: the team answered a distress request call for an exfil of an American soldier, or soldiers -- numbers unknown -- whose transport or transports had been hijacked by bandits. Intel led them to the location where they found only the injured American soldier, the transport, and the cargo. There was no way for the team to drive the transport and the cargo across the border for recovery, and rather than to let the enemy keep the weapons, the weapons were destroyed in a deliberate explosion.
Colonel Mandrake and Major Kilgarrah exchanged glances, the sort of glance where both men knew there was more to the story but that knowing more to the story would mean a stack of paperwork that neither one of them wanted to deal with, and Mandrake asked one question, and one question only: "Do you expect any blowback to occur as a result of this mission?"
"None whatsoever, sir," Arthur said, secure in the knowledge that the American soldier decided that he had been hallucinating from the pain -- and the morphine that Lance had given him -- because he'd been so sure that he'd been imprisoned with five other people, and that those five other people had come out with him, only to mysteriously disappear. The team looked at him as if he'd lost his marbles, hating having to lie, but in the end it was safer for the soldier not to know the details. If the man worked it right, an early psychiatric discharge was in his future.
The only downside was if Aulfric and Sophia returned, but Arthur fully intended to shoot them on sight if they caused any trouble. If they said anything at all. And on principle -- he wasn't going to let either one of them lay another compulsion on him, on any of the members of his team.
Colonel Mandrake leaned back in his seat, studied Arthur's expression for a long time, and finally nodded dull acceptance before dismissing him.
Bayard got story number two: the team answered a distress request call for an exfil of six Americans whose transports had been hijacked by bandits purportedly working with, or associated with the NWO. On the way there, they'd surprised William Aulfric and Sophia Lee, two known CIA agents, and received additional intel from them confirming that the weapons that had been taken by the bandits were weapons of a magical nature. Neither agent would confirm, nor would they deny, that the weapons belonged to the Americans, and as equally uncertain was the matter of whether the weapons had been manufactured by the Americans, or if they had been purchased by the Americans, for whatever purpose.
Arthur overrode Aulfric's insistence that they recover both the people and the weapons, and an entry plan to the location was worked out with the specific intent to recover the people and to destroy the weapons. There was visual confirmation that the weapons had indeed been destroyed and that none of the bandits who were present at the village at the time of the attack survived.
Sometime during the night, the watch was overwhelmed by magic cast by Aulfric or Sophia or one of the recovered Americans, and they disappeared, leaving behind the injured (and quite clueless) driver of the transport.
It was just enough information to feed Bayard a line, and not quite enough information that Bayard would suspect the absolute truth of what happened.
And this is the story you want to go with?
Arthur sighed heavily and spread his hands, knowing full well that there was no way that Bayard had watched them with eyes-in-the-sky over the NMZ where they'd gone in to rescue the Americans, because the eyes-in-the-sky plain and simple didn't work, returning nothing else but a blank screen whenever the surveillance satellites were tilted toward the zones. There was the possibility that Bayard had watched them using other means -- Arthur had flipped through enough magic books when they were on R&R to know about things like scrying bowls and crystal balls, however preposterous those were -- but that would be on Bayard to reveal, not Arthur.
"What other story should I go with, Sol?" Arthur asked. "This is what happened."
Bayard leaned forward threateningly, elbows on his knees. "And why, exactly, did it happen?"
There was a hammer-strike to Bayard's tone, and at the moment the hammer was a rubber mallet swung with just enough reproach that Arthur raised a brow and asked, "And what, exactly, do you mean by that?"
Arthur was rewarded by the slight pinch of Bayard's expression, the momentary downturn of his lips, the glint of recalculation in his eyes as he evaluated what Arthur had said and what Arthur might say next and not quite certain what to make of it all.
He settled on, "Your team could have been killed."
"We're in the army. That was in the fine print when we signed up," Arthur said.
"It was an unnecessary mission," Bayard said, trying again. "This was the Americans' cock-up and their mess to clean."
The request for assistance came from on-high, high enough that not even Bayard should have turned them down, nor should he be protesting to the degree that he was now, but Arthur didn't say all that out loud. Instead, he thought about Aulfric and Sophia and how the team had debated telling "Mister Smith" a slightly different story instead, where Lance realized that they were being fooled by illusions when he checked on the injured (which was true), Leon scrambled most of the team to locate them (also true), Gwaine tracked them through the woods until tracking wasn't necessary anymore because someone had set off a blue-white flare that led them to the Reservoir (again, true). There would have been a firefight (completely false) in which the rescued Americans would have escaped through some sort of a doorway (plausibly true).
Although they all had misgivings about keeping critical information from Bayard, apparently Bayard had no such misgivings, and the guilt went away fast. Arthur didn't like Bayard's tone.
"And who makes that call? You?" Arthur asked, his voice low, dangerous, deadly, because he didn't like being jerked around for useless political posturing. He was here -- his team was here -- for a purpose, and that wasn't to fulfill someone else's random whim.
"My role --"
"Your role is to consult and advise on matters pertaining to missions involving the CIA's supernatural branch," Arthur interrupted, "Not to sit on missions that have been assigned to us because you've decided that it's a waste of our time, or because you're fancying using us for some sort of personal revenge for some imagined slight they've made against you and against the Directory."
Bayard's lips pressed in a thin line, and he recoiled, tilting his head as if re-evaluating Arthur again, realizing for the first time that the man he saw before him was not the boy he'd watched grow up.
"You are outside our chain of command," Arthur said, "As far as I'm concerned, that means that we owe you absolutely bollocks. You wanted to teach the CIA a lesson? You wanted them to learn that they're not in charge of anything that falls under Her Majesty's purview? Congratulations. I'd say that after Algiers, they're more than aware that you've tossed them the fingers. But here's a lesson for you, Uncle Sol."
Arthur got up slowly, deliberately, and walked out of the tent without another word.
The door to the VIP tent slammed shut behind him. He kept walking.
The team had agreed that the Directory and the CIA needed them more than the team needed them. The list of missions that crossed Colonel Mandrake's desk was never-ending, and there would be no shortage of demand for Excalibur's special skills. They would keep on doing what they'd been doing until the end of their tours, with no plans to re-up once they were done, and they'd walk away from the British Army and try to return to their lives without looking back on what they were leaving behind.
Leon had been the one to say what everyone had been thinking, what Arthur had long considered to be a very real possibility before now, but which was now a very real certainty to the loud fuck you that Arthur had just given Bayard: that they were running the risk of being seconded to the Directory's service, falling under a completely different chain of command, with no end in sight to their conscription, running mission after mission against supernatural enemies in a seemingly endless war against the NWO and against whatever else was out there.
The team had fallen quiet for a good portion of the march on their way to the pick-up point, and one by one showed their cards. It had been nearly unanimous. Each one would do it if the team stayed together, if they were immersed in what was really going on, because this being kept in the dark bollocks didn't sit well with any of them. Gwaine's "I'm good with that" was followed by Leon's "If that means we're stateside more", with Lance grunting a rough "Someone's got to patch you up" but what he really meant was, he wanted a sample of the potion that they'd given Merlin, wanting to see just how it had healed Merlin up so fast.
Perceval had shrugged his shoulders and said, "You lot need muscle", Owain put in "Can't let you guys have all the fun", while Geraint and Galahad tossed in their chips with "Does this mean we get new toys" and "I always wanted to be a secret agent". Kay had snorted the water he'd been drinking from his canteen through his nose at that, and said, "Oi, I have dibs on 007 as a code name!"
Arthur was proud of his men, of their courage, of their desire to go in all guns blazing, sacrificing of themselves to continue fighting in a battle that no one would ever know that they were fighting.
But there was one person, only one, who hadn't thrown his hard-cap into the ring.
Arthur wouldn't consider allowing his team to be seconded to the Directory unless Merlin came, too. They were a team. Excalibur needed Merlin.
Arthur needed him.
No one knew where Merlin had gone.
He wasn't in the communications centre, not in the command tent, not anywhere near the MASH unit, not at the airfield, not at the mess tent, not at the PT course. Before Arthur passed the tipping point before complete and utter panic and let his imagination run wild -- had Bayard found out about Merlin? Had he kidnapped him? -- he decided to check out the last possible place on the base that Merlin might be.
Merlin was Pagan; there was no reason for him to be in a small building that had as primary purpose to act as the place of worship for any denomination of organized religion -- the secondary purpose was to act as a meeting place for whatever reason for the non-coms, if only the chapel wasn't booked up first.
It was late -- past 2200 hours late -- and none of the lights in the chapel were on. Arthur grimaced, slowing down in his step, covering his mouth with his hand, and looked around wildly, wondering where else Merlin could be. He didn't know why he continued on, why he went to the chapel and opened the door and went inside, peering around the privacy partition that blocked off the door, but whatever it was that drove him to check anyway, he was grateful to it, because he found Merlin.
Merlin was sitting on one of the backless benches, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped between them, his shoulders bowed and his head bent. His heavy jacket had been cast aside, folded on the bench next to him, and he wore a drab green shirt, camo pants, and little else by way of uniform.
The moonlight streamed through the window, and Merlin was sitting right in the beam, cast alight like an angel mourning his fall from grace.
The sight of him took Arthur's breath away.
His short hair was unruly and messy even at the best of times, but the black was set raven-purple and soft by the same silver light that put his skin aglow. He was bowed and fragile, beautiful to behold, and Arthur didn't dare move lest he break the tableau and the serenity in the vision shattered beyond repair.
It was Merlin who moved first, who unclasped his hands to wipe the back of it against his cheek, to shift a little in his seat before he returned to his earlier pose, still in the moonlight, still penitent.
Arthur should leave him alone. Merlin wouldn't have come here if he didn't want some peace. A tightness around Arthur's heart kept him from leaving the building.
Slowly, quietly, Arthur moved forward, approaching the bench, climbing over it to sit next to Merlin, leaving a tiny gap of space between them that felt like the Grand Canyon, a chasm that he'd never be able to cross alone. Merlin startled slightly, his body tensing, but he remained as he was, turning his head away and quickly wiping his face a second time.
Arthur's heart ached.
"Smith ranted and raged at Mandrake for the better part of a half hour before Mandrake tossed him out of the command centre," Arthur said, filling the silence with the first bit of nonsense that came to mind. Usually it was Merlin who did the chattering, who kept Arthur from losing his mind, darting from one topic to another with the flitting skittishness of a newborn colt, entertaining while being entertained himself. Arthur didn't blather on. He didn't know how; conversations in the Pendragon household were either an exercise in conciseness or a riposte and parry of sarcasm. "He'll probably pack up and head out or try to shoulder his way into the communications centre to figure out what to do next from his bosses. It would probably be a good idea if you gave the comm centre a pass for the next few days."
Merlin bowed his head in what might have been an assenting nod, and he stretched out the fingers of both hands, rubbing them the way Arthur always imagined Lady Macbeth rubbing her hands, trying to get the blood from them.
"I don't know what he's going to do. He plays his cards close to his chest," Arthur continued, rubbing his forehead. If he knew Solomon Bayard, it was that he was notorious for his intense calm, and his equally intense rage. He hated being told no. He hated being put in his place. He hated not being in control. In many ways, Bayard was like Uther Pendragon -- difficult, irascible, single-minded, driving through everything while wearing blinders and not caring about the carnage left behind. There would be repercussions, and they would involve Bayard cashing in all his chips in one go, but hoarding them until he knew he had a sure thing. "He's still on base, though. I don't think it's going to be long before he puts the paperwork in to get us put under the Directory."
Merlin didn't answer. If anything, he was rubbing his hands harder.
"We won't do it without you," Arthur said after a long silence, immediately feeling guilty for saying anything that would impact on Merlin's decision. The team had enough time to reconsider their decision, but they hadn't changed their minds yet. The final call rested on Merlin. "We're a team. We all go, or none of us go. Any one of us says they're having second thoughts, then that's it, we don't do it. There's no pressure, Merlin. Let me know what you decide when you decide."
Merlin nodded dumbly.
Arthur wished he knew what to say. What was he supposed to say, anyway? He was still trying to wrap his head around it. Not around Aulfric or Sophia or how they'd created an illusion good enough to nearly fool the others. Not on how Sophia had bewitched him with every intention to lure him to his death like a siren of legend. Not on the gateway that had appeared in the lake to lead the others somewhere else. Arthur had filed all that away under the category of I don't know but I'll find out later.
What he had trouble understanding was Merlin. There was no "later" with Merlin. He wanted to know now.
Merlin's story to Arthur, to the team, had been different from what Arthur had seen through the distant haze-cloud of Sophia's compulsion. He'd told them that he'd heard a noise in the woods when he went to go for a piss. He followed it and followed Sophia and Arthur, not sure what they were doing, and he was going to leave them alone until he saw Sophia do some sort of magic -- and that bit might well have been true, because Arthur had been too busy fighting Sophia to pay a lot of attention to what she was doing in the first place.
He didn't react until he saw Sophia shove Arthur under the water, and by the time he'd reached the water and dove in after Arthur, everyone else had already gone through a mysterious shiny doorway on the water and disappeared. He'd found Arthur and dragged him to shore and that was where everyone else came in.
Arthur, however, remembered magic.
A light that had gone straight up like a flare. More and more lights crackling against an unyielding surface. The electrical sensation of power floating over his skin became stronger and stronger, and it was at that point that Sophia's compulsion eased off, just a little, and Arthur had seen Merlin
head bowed down, his eyes burning like molten gold, his expression one of intense concentration. Intent, determined, a chaotic edge of pure, unbridled power curling to his will and bending to his command
and he had heard the quailing waver in Aulfric's voice, the undertone of rumbling fear beneath a raging gorilla chest-pounding and the man had lashed out, again and again, ordering Sophia to cut Arthur loose so that they could escape.
Up until that point, Merlin had been on the defence, and it had been in that brief instant after Sophia released him and right before his body started to drift that Arthur had seen Merlin
snap, as if someone had flicked a light switch, or had poked him with a sharp stick too many times, or had taken away his favourite toy, because until then he was happy to take the abuse that Aulfric was throwing at him until he tired and went away but Aulfric's command to let Arthur go had shattered him and he roared Arthur's name with such anguish
but Arthur wasn't sure that he'd heard the shout, or if it had been in his head, or if it was Merlin's magic resonating in his soul. The only thing he knew was that the instant he'd sunk beneath the water's surface, right before the magic paralyzed him all the way, trapping him and freezing him to feed monster lurked beneath, he'd seen the lake burst with light and cower from the power unleashed above.
Merlin, Arthur had shouted back, with everything that he had, not wanting it to end like this, not until he'd told Merlin how he felt, because he couldn't not --
And now that he had the chance, his throat tightened, his mouth was cotton-thick, and his mind was blank.
He stared at the non-denominational religious display at the head of the room. At the regulation table, at the plain tablecloth, at the cabinet that no doubt held bits and pieces of whatever faith happened to be on base at the moment.
Merlin had magic.
It seemed unbelievable, a truth too deep to grasp, a concept too large to behold no matter how many steps back he took to be able to take it all in. Merlin -- his Merlin -- had magic.
A lot of it.
Ever since he woke up on the beach of the Zeid Reservoir, all through the night while Lance kept an eye on him, from the march out of the NMZ to the long wait at the pickup point where they'd meet the choppers. All through his more thorough examination at the MASH tent, during the night staring at the ceiling of the barracks, while he debriefed the Brass, then Bayard.
It was all that he could think of.
Merlin had magic.
It was yet another secret of Merlin that Merlin didn't trust him with.
Arthur had been rattled to the core of his being, but when the shock wore off he realized that he shouldn't have been surprised, because all the hints and signs were there for him to see, only he hadn't put them together until now, because hindsight was perfect. The shock faded only to be replaced with anger, and it was an anger that grew in exponential proportions, barely held in check.
He'd had a weapon at his disposal that he could have used against the enemy, if only he'd known.
All those obstacles they encountered, all that danger, it could have been avoided, if only he'd known.
His battle plans would have been more direct, more straightforward, more able to ensure his team's safety, if only he'd known.
How much more intel could he have gotten, how much more advance preparation the team would have received, if only he'd known?
All his anger paled in comparison to how much it hurt that Merlin didn't trust him, that Merlin couldn't have shared this secret with Arthur. It hurt in a way that Arthur didn't realize that he could be hurt, with a cold, sharp, stabbing pain that burst in his chest every time his heart dared take a beat.
Arthur hated magic. He hated sorcerers. A tiny, inconsequential part of him was even afraid of them.
It wasn't until he'd walked into this building and saw Merlin sitting stoop-shouldered on the bench, fragile and broken and vulnerable, that the torturous pain in his chest eased, even if only a little, because all he could really feel now was how much he trusted, how much he wanted, how much he loved.
He couldn't hate Merlin. He couldn't even find it in him to be afraid of Merlin. He could only be angry, truly, white-hot angry, that Merlin was crumbling under the weight of a secret so great that he would rather not use his magic to save himself, to protect himself from Trickler, who'd nearly killed him...
But that he'd use it without hesitation, that he'd reveal it to save Arthur. How many times had he used his magic to protect the team? To protect Arthur when Arthur wasn't looking?
Arthur wanted to shake him, to shout at him, to tell Merlin that he was a bloody idiot for not saving himself when he could have, because the last thing Arthur wanted on this world was to lose Merlin.
He almost didn't notice when Merlin shifted in his seat, as he straightened a little only to succumb again, to shake his head in dismay and sorrow. He almost didn't hear Merlin whisper, "I can't."
Arthur didn't understand. Merlin was unraveling before his eyes, struggling to hold himself together, fighting some sort of internal battle. Arthur wished he could hear the silent argument Merlin was having with himself, that he could be a fly on the wall of Merlin's soul.
If it were anyone else but Merlin, Arthur would take advantage and push and push and push until he broke, getting the answers he was looking for, to hear the secrets that Merlin was still hiding from him. But it was Merlin, and Arthur looked away, giving Merlin a chance to sort things out in his own head, to make the decision for himself.
"You can tell me anything, you know that?" Arthur whispered.
Merlin didn't answer. Arthur wasn't even sure that Merlin had heard.
The night chill swept into the chapel, wafting past the unused heaters. Merlin shivered in his shirtsleeves, too wrapped up in his personal hell to think of putting on his coat, and that shiver shook out a strangled sob from his lean frame.
Arthur pretended he didn't hear. That he didn't see Merlin reach up to wipe his face again.
"You saved me, Merlin," Arthur said, his voice soft.
Merlin didn't move. He stared at the floor. Finally, he shook his head and said, "No. That was you. You were fighting her the whole time. I didn't do anything. Then it was Lance. He brought you back."
Arthur shifted slightly and stared at Merlin's profile, his eyes trailing the long eyelashes, the sharp cheekbones, astounded and disbelieving. How much more would he deny the truth? How much would he hide what he'd done? How he'd risked himself for someone else? For Arthur?
"You saved me, Merlin," Arthur said again, emphasizing the word, trying to make Merlin understand that Arthur knew. The subtle hint of invitation rolled off, unnoticed, and crashed on the floor.
They sat in silence for a while.
Arthur did something he would never normally do. He let it go, hoping that Merlin would tell him when he was ready, and changed the subject.
"So," he said, as casually as he could, because the subject was a little touchy, still, and it had been driving him mad trying to figure out an answer. "Why do they keep trying to control me?"
Merlin shrugged a shoulder.
"Do I have a target on my back? Some sort of sign that only people with magic can see that says, please pull my strings?"
Merlin glanced at him sidelong once, then twice, then a third time, each time favouring him with a look longer than the last. "I don't know. Maybe?"
Arthur sighed in frustration.
"Maybe you're just easy?" Merlin suggested, and there was just enough cheek in Merlin's tone that Arthur rolled his eyes.
"That doesn't help, Merlin," Arthur said, grunting. "How do we stop it from happening again? I am getting rather sick of being a passenger in my own body."
Merlin didn't answer right away. "Kay... Kay said he'd call his friend again, you know the one, his old foster sister? Get her to hurry up and send those protection amulets?"
"You think those things will work?" Arthur asked, having some serious doubts about anything after what he'd gone through. Twice. He wasn't so sure if he wanted to trust a maybe-witch who didn't have a fraction of the magic that Merlin had. He'd feel safer if the protection came from Merlin.
He wished he could tell Merlin that.
The shoulder went up in another shrug and Merlin's eyes dipped down to stare at the floor in between his boots. His voice was quiet. "I don't know. I mean. I'll look at them. I've seen protection runes before. Maybe I'll recognize whatever she puts on the amulets, see if they're useful?"
Tell me, Merlin. Just tell me. Tell me about your magic. I trust you. I won't be mad. Instead, Arthur blew out his breath, made a mental note to leave the amulets on Merlin's bed and contrive a way to get everyone out of the barracks to let Merlin do whatever he felt he needed to do to in private, to make sure that they would work. "Yeah, do that."
The silence that fell between them was the first in Arthur's memory that was cool and uncomfortable. Arthur hated it. He didn't want to let it linger. But before he could decide to get up and leave, Merlin spoke.
"I know... about you, Arthur," Merlin whispered. It was a gentle admission, a confession perfect for the chapel, almost wistful.
Arthur froze in place and immediately frowned. "What about me?"
"About you," Merlin said, more insistently now, sitting up a little straighter but still not turning to look at Arthur. "It's. Back in the NMZ. Gwaine saw you with Sophia. And. He didn't mean to blurt it out."
"What did he say?" Arthur said, impatient and at the same time dreading what might have come out of Gwaine's big gob.
"When the bloody hell did Arthur start liking girls?" Merlin said, a soft, hurried whisper that somehow still sounded like Gwaine at the same time, each word sinking like a brick to the pit of Arthur's stomach.
"Oh. That." Arthur came up with seven or eight different things to say and none of them sounded right, and the longer he tried to think of something else to tell Merlin, the more the awkwardness grew. Instead of what he really should say, a short laugh escaped him. "He'll say anything, won't he?"
"I suppose." Merlin bumped Arthur's arm with his elbow, the contact hot and searing even through Arthur's jacket. "So. Is it true?"
The seconds trickled by.
"Yeah," Arthur admitted, though he had to shake his head and clear it, first, because -- damn it, what you do to me, Merlin -- he'd been thinking of something else. Involving Merlin and body heat and... He swallowed hard, remembering that he had never wanted Merlin to known that Arthur was gay, and wondering what Merlin would have done if he had known -- and not daring to imagine how quickly his own resistance would have crumbled if Merlin gave him the slightest indication that he was interested. "Would've thought someone told you before. I suppose I could've mentioned it."
"Yeah, you could've," Merlin said, his voice stronger now, more like himself, full of reproach.
Arthur half-chuckled. He shook his head and said, "Don't get any ideas, Merlin."
There was a sharp, short laugh to his left, and Merlin rubbed his face, dropping his hands to his knees. His voice was low and husky, a sweet whisper that tickled Arthur's senses. "Too late. Far too late for that, believe me."
Arthur turned to look at Merlin, not certain that he'd heard right. But there was Merlin, his head bowed, angled toward Arthur, his eyes bright and blue and shining in the moonlight that streamed through the window, his gaze flirtatious through the long black lashes, and that look, that look alone, it did things to Arthur.
His breath caught in his throat. His gaze trailed from Merlin's eyes to the sharp cut of his cheek, the angle of his jawbone, all the way to his lips, those soft, cherry-red lips that always had a little corner of it chewed and cut from the perpetual worry that plagued him. Those lips pressed together, a little bit of his tongue slipped out to moisten them, and they glistened with invitation.
Oh, God. Merlin.
Arthur would love nothing more than to taste those lips, to taste him, first in a gentle kiss to convince himself that it was real, that it was happening, before succumbing to the greater, overwhelming need of more, more, now.
He looked up again, unsure, uncertain, and Merlin was watching him, but he wasn't meeting Arthur's eyes. It took a moment to work out that Merlin was staring at Arthur's lips in much the same way Arthur had been staring at his.
"Merlin," Arthur whispered, and he couldn't help the pleading keen that was in his voice, torn between wanting to give in to the overwhelming urges that he'd been keeping bottled tight, to give in despite being his commanding officer, despite being on this base, despite not having anywhere to go where it would be private, despite... despite... despite everything and needing to do the right thing, to follow the rules, to make it real and not some one-off, not wanting to risk losing Merlin.
The decision was made for him when the entrance to the chapel suddenly crashed open, and both Arthur and Merlin jerked around, startled, the moment broken. A couple -- clutching each other so closely they might as well have been one person -- fumbled into the dark of the chapel, clothes dropping from the instant that they crossed the threshold. Jackets, caps, shirts thumped to the ground one by one in the wake of foot-shuffling sounds, and a blonde woman with a nearly-bald man attached to her face crashed against the far wall.
Merlin grabbed Arthur's hand, long, delicate fingers entwining in his.
It surprised Arthur so much that he glanced at Merlin, but the urge to pull away before anyone else saw them together like this -- before the potentially reputation-ruining rumours could spread -- died in an instant at the fading golden glow in Merlin's eyes.
What have you done?
Arthur wasn't given much of a chance to wonder, because Merlin reached back to pick up his jacket, standing slowly, quietly, tugging Arthur along with him. He tilted his head toward the exit, mouthed a soft "Come on", and led the way out almost on tip-toe.
The answer to how the snogging pair failed to notice them was a combination of their being completely in their own world of tangled limbs and uncooperative clothing and whatever it was that Merlin had done with his magic.
Merlin's magic. Arthur found his lips tugging into a smile. Merlin's eyes glowed like gold when he did magic. He loved it. He wanted to see it again.
Merlin let go of his hand when they were outside, pulling on his jacket against the chill, but there was nothing colder than the sudden absence of Merlin's heat against Arthur's bare skin, and he found himself reaching for Merlin, even if it was only to put a hand on his shoulder to maintain contact.
Merlin turned to look at him, and there was a stumble. Arthur didn't know who was responsible -- if Merlin had tripped and fallen back against him, or if Arthur had walked into him, but the electrical crackle between them was enough to power a small town.
Arthur cleared his throat. "Let me buy you a drink."
Merlin's lips pulled into a smile Arthur hadn't been sure he'd see again, not after catching him in the chapel, torn up with tears, but it was what Merlin said next that robbed him completely of words.
"Careful, Arthur. I might think you're asking me on a date."
And what if I am?