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Intermission

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Three weeks passed and there was no word from Mister Smith. He ranted and raged on base for four days, disappeared for seven, came back for three, vanished since then, and as far as the base commander was concerned, was persona non grata for the amount of shite he'd stirred up.

It didn't mean that he wouldn't be back, and Excalibur was on pins and needles until then.

 

ooOOoo

 

Arthur made a point of not checking out the package from Morgana that shipping was holding for him until he was absolutely certain that Bayard wasn't coming back to the base anytime soon. Once he arrived at shipping, the clerk flipped through his papers, nodded a few times, pointed at the lines where Arthur had to sign on his paperwork, and said, "Seeing as that you're by yourself, and I'm the only one in here today -- filthy greenie buggers pulled a sickie, something about being the only ones with food poisoning in a camp full of people who all got the same mess hall slop, if you believe that -- I'll loan you the trolley."

"Trolley?" Arthur had asked Morgana to raid the archival weapon depository of Pendragon Consulting, to send him several specific small items. He knew from experience -- working in the warehouses as a boy -- that the items he'd asked for would fit in a box that would be easy to carry. Maybe the box would be a little large, a little awkward, but not so much that he'd need a trolley.

Oh, God, what else has she sent me?

"Come on back, you'll see, sir," the clerk said. The clerk was shorter than Arthur and probably half a girth broader, with a thick neck and gigantic shoulders that could give Perceval a run for his money. He also had the beginnings of a beer gut that was probably a direct result of the bowlegged limp that followed him down the stacks.

The supply tent was remarkably orderly considering the amount of traffic that came in and came out; even working with only a quarter of the supply staff, the incoming had been recorded and put away and the outgoing was neatly packed up and waiting for the trucks to bring them to their next destination -- a patrol route, a mission point, or an air freight out of here.

"Who runs the tent?" Arthur asked, making sure to put curiosity rather than criticism in his voice, because he was impressed by the efficiency that could be gotten by one person saddled with a crew of greenies who were out for the day. It wasn't the first time he'd noticed how clean the place was -- it seemed out of place with the rest of the base, which often went off on disorganized chaos. His only gripe about supply was how long it took for supplies to actually arrive, but that had nothing to do with the base tent.

"I do, sir. I'm on even when I'm not supposed to be on. Staff Sergeant Jackson Page," the clerk introduced himself. They shook hands.

"You have long left on your tour?" Arthur asked. He estimated the man's age in his mid-thirties, maybe a little younger.

"I'd put in to be a lifer, just like my da," Page said. "Except I went and got my knee cracked a few months back when the last batch of greenies got the pedals on the forklift confused and had the gear in reverse instead of forward."

The man sounded more perversely amused than woe-is-me plaintive. Arthur could appreciate a man who took what he got and kept on going. "Sorry to hear it," Arthur said. "Wasn't bad enough to get you shipped out?"

"Wasn't bad enough for the knee replacement they said I'll need when I hit my fifties, sir," Page said. "I'm halfway tempted to take my pension and go when my tour's up next year instead of signing up again."

"You're from London?" Arthur asked.

"London born and bred, sir."

He gave Page a considering look. "If you're more than halfway tempted, come find me. I can pass on your name to people who are looking for good warehouse managers, if you're interested."

Page gave Arthur a long, appraising look, as if deciding whether he was the sort to keep his promises or the sort to blow hot air up his arse, and Arthur could tell the moment that Page put together Captain Arthur Pendragon with Pendragon Consulting, which happened to be the point of origin of the package Morgana had sent, and was all over the paperwork that he was holding in his hand right now. Page grinned -- a toothy grin with a gap in between his front teeth and a crooked jumble on his lower half -- and said, "Might take you up on that, sir."

The offer Arthur had made could work out in his benefit as well. Page might decide for himself that keeping Arthur's goodwill would cement the promise of a future job would be in his best benefit, and would put an extra push for the supplies that Arthur ordered for Excalibur whenever Arthur's paperwork crossed his desk. It was a win-win situation as far as he was concerned, and it didn't hurt him to recommend someone who was half-decent at his job for one of Pendragon Consulting's many warehouses.

They walked down the corridor to a holding area with several piles of boxes lumped together according to their next destination, and in one corner was a rather large case that was roughly one-point-five metres by two metres by one metre. In a tentative heave of the side panel, it turned out to be on the heavy side, though not obscenely so. Arthur took the manifest from Page; each sheet was filled with part numbers as identifiers only, with no descriptive to preserve confidentiality, but Arthur easily picked out the items that he'd requested. And he knew what most of the others were based on the numbers alone.

I'm going to kill her.

"Right," he said after a long moment, filling in the silence and ignoring Page's attempt to hide his amused smirk. "Seeing as you're on your own today, I wouldn't want to deprive you of a piece of equipment that you might need. I'll send some of my boys to pick it up."

There's a reason why I'm the Captain, Arthur thought. He wouldn't be caught dead dragging this case across base to the barracks, and, as Captain, he understood the power of delegation better than most.

Page apparently followed his train of thought, because he grinned and said, "That's generous of you, sir. Much appreciated. I'll move it to the front, make it easier for them."

"Thank you, Sergeant," Arthur said, and went to find Perceval and Owain.

Less than an hour later, the contents of the large case were divested in the barracks and the case itself sent back to supply for reuse. There were sixteen smaller cases, each marked clearly with everyone's names in white chalk, the largest belonging to Arthur's. The team, having heard about the potential goodies, had found the first excuse available to duck out of their duties and returned to the barracks, each of them alternating between glancing at their presents and at Arthur.

Arthur was still shaking his head when he tore off the envelope taped to his case, his name scrawled across it in Morgana's horrible scrawl.

You must have done something right. Uther's been ridiculously pleased with himself these last few weeks. Instead of throwing a fit when he found out that I was raiding the archives to send you a few things, he asked that I send you some extras.

I figured, what the hell, if it's going to be a bigger shipment, might as well ship big. Got everyone to pack some things to send too.

Somewhere deep, deep down, Morgana did have a heart. She didn't like to show it, and she would deny it to her dying day, but Arthur was planning on keeping this letter as proof that she really was a soft touch.

While I was crawling through the archives -- have you any bloody idea how filthy it is in there? You owe me for my dry cleaning -- I came across a few things along the same line of thought that you had with the knives. All of them are working prototypes. Sorted them through to those who might make best use of them. Send back if you have no use for them.

The second page was a list of the extra items that Morgana had found. Arthur glanced through them.

Everybody: flexible spider-silk nanotechnology body armour

Arthur, Leon, Lance, Perceval, Bohrs, Owain: flexible fanfold buckler, modifiable for full-sized kite shields

Lance: bag of holding -- one of our geeks named it, not me -- can expand his med kit three times its current size, but I don't know how it'll handle the extra weight

Gwaine, Geraint, Galahad: handheld, fully rechargeable, semi-automatic crossbows with carbon fibre-tipped bolts (production done in the same factory as the new 50mm calibre bullets, not much of a shift to produce a few gross of bolts, if needed)

Gwaine: string of two-inch throwing knives

Kay: a pair of carbon-fibre punch knives

Arthur: extendable quarterstaff (because you're the only one I know who might not smack himself in the head trying to use it)

Merlin: something that Gwen and Gaius (the head of our R&D is fruitlessly trying to recruit him) put together, and don't ask me what it is

There was another page of smaller items. Arthur skimmed through it, glancing when he heard a very distinct click, and spotted Gwaine trying to very quietly open his case without being noticed. Merlin, next to him, hid a smirk of amusement behind his hand.

At the end of the letter, Morgana finished off with:

Don't get my boys killed.

Arthur snorted. Her boys? Morgana's signature was a large flourish that took a quarter of the page, and there was a postscript.

p.s. have you shagged Merlin yet? Leon told you I wanted to be your best man, right?

Arthur rolled his eyes, folded the letter and put it back in the envelope. He frowned at his men and gave them a curt nod. "What are you waiting for?"

There was some debate as to whom opened their cases first, and who was more pleased with their toys, but nothing, absolutely nothing, could beat Merlin's egg, not even the flexible chromium steel long knives designed in the style of the old Gerber Mark II's -- knives that could now, thanks to modern technology, unfold into rigid arming swords.

"You got an egg," Gwaine said flatly, unimpressed at first.

"Is it a bomb?" Owain asked, curious. "Did you get it by mistake?"

Merlin frowned at the metallic egg for a short time before he realized, "Oh, hey. I know what this is."

"Well?" Arthur asked, just as curious as the rest of the team.

Merlin held out his hand, the egg balanced in the palm of his hand, and pressed a few spots on the metal where there couldn't possibly be any buttons. Almost immediately, the egg crackled, disassembled, and reformed itself into a small, winged device that...

"A dragon? You got a dragon?" Arthur asked, coming closer. He reached up to touch the extended wings, which seemed so fragile they might just be a bit of aluminum foil. The dragon twisted its long neck and nipped at his fingers. Arthur wrenched his hand away -- the damn thing had drawn blood.

"I got an UAV," Merlin said, grinning.

Geraint put his head in his case and came up pouting. "Are you sure our boxes didn't get mixed up? Shouldn't that be, you know, mine?"

"That's Merlin's," Arthur said firmly, interrupting the argument that was sure to erupt. "And only because..."

He couldn't come up something reasonable fast enough, stammered to a stop, and finished lamely, "... he might not remote-control it into a crash landing the way you would, Geraint."

Merlin grinned at Arthur, and Arthur turned away before he did something he really shouldn't, like kiss that damned grin from his face. Instead, he said gruffly, "Might."

When he turned away, Leon was smirking. He resisted the urge to fly him the fingers.

 

ooOOoo

 

Gwaine's birthday was synonymous with getting pissed drunk. As soon as he was off-duty, he enlisted the assistance of whomever was available to help him out.

It started with Lance, who was on duty later and who sipped club soda while Gwaine downed a couple of shots of hard whiskey that burned his pipes on the way down and required a tiny measure of CPR to ensure that he could continue drinking the night away.

Leon joined them a half hour before Lance had to leave, but where Gwaine continued with the whiskey for a few more shots, he eventually capitulated to Leon's wisdom and traded the hard liquor for beer, just so that he could make it through the night.

It was Owain who brought him an order of burgers and fries from the canteen; there was a candle stuck through the bun. "Happy birthday, mate," Owain said.

Gwaine checked for wires. The last time Owain brought him anything for Gwaine's birthday (it had been a chocolate cake), he'd rigged it with a tiny charge to explode. Gwaine had been picking chocolate out of his hair for weeks afterward.

Galahad and Geraint wrapped up a bottle of booze in a red ribbon for him. The bottle was promptly cracked open and shared. Arthur raised a brow in disapproval, but he took a shot anyway, especially when Gwaine pointed out, still not drunk enough, "Better here than the barracks, yeah?"

Merlin arrived late, if a bit frazzled after his stint in the comms tent, and Gwaine made room for him at the table. "You know, you could just tell the man to fuck off."

"You're disturbingly articulate for someone who's had..." Merlin glanced around the table to the multiple answering shrugs of we don't know and continued, "... too many drinks for us to count."

"I thought you were the math wizard. Can't you count up that high?"

"Maybe if I'd counted from the beginning, I'd have a fighting chance of keeping track. Right now, this is just a disaster of a mathematical chaos model that even the best brains in the universe couldn't solve," Merlin said.

Gwaine wrapped an arm around Merlin's shoulders, ignoring the dark glare that it got him from Arthur, and tugged him closer. "Not being here from the start for my party? That's your own fault, mate. Wait. No. It's Arthur's own fault, because he's the one who wrote the duty roster. If he really cared about you, he wouldn't keep putting you in harm's way, now, would he? He'd keep you nice and close and shower you with easy duty and plenty of bed rest, if you know what I mean."

He wraggled his eyebrows. A hermit would know exactly what he meant. A bloody rock would know what he meant.

And Merlin did, too, because he flushed red and glanced at Arthur over the growing mountain of empty shot glasses on the table. Gwaine looked at Arthur, too, but the pillock hadn't noticed Merlin. He was too busy coming up with his thousand and one ways that he'd use to kill Gwaine.

Fuck him if he can't take a joke, Gwaine thought, and tightened his arm around Merlin's shoulder, tugging him closer. "You know what would be a perfect birthday present?"

"My Mum's fudge?" Merlin revealed what he'd kept hidden (Gwaine blamed his lack of observation skills in this instance solely on Merlin, because he was so delicious to look at), and put a familiar Tupperware bin in front of Gwaine.

"That's my second perfect birthday present!" Gwaine exclaimed, cracking the lid one-handed, helping himself to a piece that he rolled on his tongue and savoured until the very last sugar crystal dissolved. If manna had a taste, an absolute, fantastic taste, fudge would be it. After he palmed himself a few more pieces, he generously passed the bin around the table.

"No, no, my number one perfect birthday present would be this!" He pulled Merlin y close, grinned at the startled, helpless little yelp to escape from those pretty lips, and kissed him.

It wasn't a good kiss, and it wasn't any of Merlin's fault, either. Well, it sort of was, because Merlin didn't relax like he was supposed to -- oh, no, he froze up, shoulders up to his ears as if he were protecting his throat against a vampire, leaned his head back as far as he could go in an attempt to escape, and although his lips were puckered up, they were stiff, and his eyes were wide open, staring at Gwaine as if he were a frightful bug that needed squashing before it crawled up his leg.

There was a strangled, outraged sound across the table from the approximate spot of Arthur's mouth, a scuffle that was Leon holding Arthur down, and a shadow that choose this moment as the most opportune time to use his body to block the whole bar from seeing this very blatant indiscretion.

That was only one half of the fun. The other half of the fun -- namely, Merlin -- was not cooperating. He wasn't kissing back. In fact, he seemed to have recovered from his surprise, put his hands on Gwaine's chest, and pushed, though later, Gwaine would remark on the bruises on his chest and wonder that Merlin was stronger than he looked.

"Jesus, Gwaine, you're drunk," Merlin said, scowling. And instead of being amused, he was unhappy, frowning, full of disapproval.

"And you're in my seat," Perceval grumbled from behind Merlin, not waiting for any sort of protest, because he pulled Merlin out of his chair, pushed him toward the other side of the table where a seat mysteriously opened up next to Arthur. Arthur draped his arm on the back of Merlin's chair in such a way that no one really noticed, but it screamed territorial and predatory and possessive all at once to Gwaine.

Gwaine gave Arthur his most meaningful look the instant Merlin was distracted by the fudge being passed around. Do something already, you plonker, he mouthed.

If it hadn't been obvious before that Merlin had no interest in Gwaine, it was painfully obvious now, in the way Merlin couldn't have gotten away fast enough from Gwaine, the way he couldn't even play along.

This was officially the worst birthday he'd ever had.

Gwaine drank, he told stories, he laughed, but eventually, one by one, people trickled out, starting with Geraint and Merlin, who had early-morning duties, then Leon and Owain, then the rest of them, until finally it was Arthur and Gwaine and Perceval.

"One last beer?" Gwaine was slurring a tiny bit -- on purpose. He wasn't the least bit drunk -- maybe a little buzzed. More than once, he'd complained that the bartender was watering down the drinks --

"I'll get it," Perceval said, sliding out of his seat.

"You're a star," Gwaine said, beaming at Perceval.

"Not for me," Arthur said, and Gwaine scowled, because Arthur was nursing the dregs from the same glass he'd started drinking four hours ago. It was supposed to be his birthday. People were supposed to have fun. They were also not supposed to be on an army base in the hind end of nowhere at a bar where the only choices were bad beer and sour whiskey, but beggars couldn't be choosers.

They stared at each other for several long minutes, during which Gwaine's attention faltered and drooped in boredom. He knew why Arthur was staring -- or rather, glaring, and he also knew the earth-shattering argument that was going to come along with it. "It was a fucking joke," he said finally.

"Merlin didn't find it funny," Arthur said, leaning forward. He moved a few glasses out of his way, and crossed his arms on the table.

"You mean you didn't find it funny," Gwaine hissed, shifting forward, meaning to move that mug before he knocked it over, and it went spinning toward the edge. Arthur, of course, caught it. "He doesn't belong to you."

"He's already made it clear that he's not interested in you," Arthur said. "Leave him alone, Gwaine."

"Or what?"

"You don't want to know the answer to that question, Gwaine," Arthur said, his voice slow, soft, warning.

"You were never like this for me," Gwaine blurted out, wincing at his own petulant tone, but it made Arthur draw back, and ease some of the frown from his face.

"What's this, then? You're jealous of Merlin?"

"Fuck, no," Gwaine said, but as soon as the words were out of his mouth he knew that it was a lie. He hung his head and shook his head. He lowered his voice, even though he didn't need to; at this hour, the base bar was practically empty, and the jukebox volume was as high as it would go. "All right, I am, all right? You never looked at me like that. You never stood up for me like you do for Merlin. You never protected me --"

"As if you need protection," Arthur said, raising a brow. "You fight dirty. I mean, you bit that rebel who got your gun away from you -- I'm still surprised you didn't need some sort of a rabies shot after that. Also, have you seen Merlin?"

Gwaine choked back a laugh. Arthur had a point. For all that Merlin could carry his own weight in equipment, that he could twist that lovely lean body of his into contortions that the rest of the team couldn't, that he could be as fierce on the battlefield as any of the members of Excalibur, Merlin really was a gentle soul, and that was part of the problem. Gwaine couldn't help but fall in love with him, and want to despoil him at the same time.

He was a horrible, horrible man.

"Is this about me, then?" Arthur asked.

Bloody fucking gorgeous, Arthur was. Gwaine took him in, from the fringe of blond hair that dropped into cornflower blue eyes, to the rise of his cheekbones and the way the muscle in his jaw clenched when things didn't go his way. He tried to imagine himself with Arthur again, the way they'd been before the army was even on the horizon, and failed.

"You cocky plonker, you think everything's about you --"

"Of course it is," Arthur scoffed.

"-- but not this time. We didn't work together. At all." Gwaine sat up straight and felt a few vertebrae pop back into place from his perpetual slump. He rubbed his face, and knew what it was that was eating at him. Arthur had found someone perfect for him, and it was a toss-up between being angry with Arthur for not doing something about it, and wanting the same thing for himself.

Truth be told, and he'd never admit it, but going on the pull all the time was getting tiresome. It was a battlefield almost as bad as the one they went into every day.

"He's going to slip out of your fingers, Arthur," Gwaine whispered, and he wished he hadn't said it out loud when he saw Arthur's expression cloud over and darken. Maybe he was a bit drunk after all. He wasn't usually this tactless.

Blunt, honest, a bit harsh, but not tactless. It was the beer talking. And the whiskey. And the tequila that someone had liberated from the personal supplies of someone who wasn't called Major Kilgarrah.

"Look, maybe not," he said hastily, "But you'll have to keep him on the hook somehow, until, you know, you get over being so bloody high and mighty about rules..."

He trailed off, knowing that look in Arthur's eyes, that tempered steel that had been quenched in blood, and shuddered. This was why they didn't work well together, them two. They were far too different at the core. Arthur was too noble, too bloody honourable. And Gwaine was, well. Not.

"We'd cover for you, you know," Gwaine mumbled, but he knew it was useless to try to convince Arthur. At least, something had gotten through to him -- he could tell that Arthur would at least try to keep Merlin close to him.

"Fuck," he said quietly, "When is it going to be my turn?"

Arthur raised a brow, and slowly, very slowly, shook his head.

"Maybe when you take your head out of your arse," he said, standing up just as Perceval returned to the table with two beers.

"Took you bloody long enough," Gwaine complained.

"See that he makes it back to the barracks without taking a head-dive into the latrine," Arthur said, but he was talking to Perceval.

"That happened once," Gwaine grumbled. Perceval laughed, but Gwaine didn't join in.

"And not once since we've started keeping an eye on you, yeah?" Arthur said, nodding to the both of them before walking out.

Gwaine took a deep draught of the beer. Perceval sipped his. They sat in silence for a moment, and Perceval broke the quiet by asking, "So what did you two talk about?"

"The usual," Gwaine said, waving a hand in the air, not bothering to throw an accusation at Perceval for leaving him alone with Arthur on purpose because of some sort of conspiracy, because that would be an useless waste of breath. Of course there was a conspiracy. They were all working against him. "The missions, Merlin, how Arthur's a stupid plonker, my shite love life and how I'm doomed to an endless string of nameless one-night stands for the rest of eternity, and the fact that this has turned into the worst birthday party in the history of birthday parties."

Perceval didn't say anything until he'd taken another sip of his beer. "Why'd you kiss Merlin?"

Gwaine barked a laugh that surprised even him. "I don't know. I wanted to, I guess. I'm not going to have a chance for anything else, am I?"

Perceval shook his head. "No, it's pretty much a done deal, them two. Just a matter of time."

Gwaine knew that Perceval was right, but he couldn't help the bitter, perverse feeling that overcame him. "Yeah, but how much time before one or the other gets tired of waiting?"

Perceval didn't answer him. They drank the last of their beers in silence before Gwaine thought to ask for another, and Perceval got up with his big hand around Gwaine's biceps and suggested they head back to the barracks instead. Gwaine decided that he really was drunk, because he wavered on his own two feet and held onto Perceval for support, and didn't argue for that last "just one more drink".

"I hate them, you know," Gwaine muttered under his breath, loud enough for Perceval to hear since Perceval was so close, with his solid arm around Gwaine's shoulders, supporting him, his solid body hard against Gwaine's side, the tree trunk leg brushing against Gwaine's. It was distracting. Perceval was distracting. When did he become so distracting? "They're so bloody perfect together. You saw them, right? In Algiers? Them dancing around each other, Arthur being a goddamn prat, And Merlin! If it had been me --"

"Can we stop talking about Arthur and Merlin?" Perceval asked, his voice sharp with annoyance.

"You hate them too?"

"No, I don't, but you're obsessing, mate, and I'm getting tired of listening to you fantasize about you and Merlin. He's been with us for months, and the most you've gotten to him is you forcing your tongue down his throat --"

"I wish!" Gwaine protested. The kiss hadn't even made it that far.

"-- and you damn well know that you don't have a chance in hell with Merlin, not as long as Arthur's around --"

"And what if he weren't?" Gwaine snapped, but whatever drunken plan he'd come up with to eliminate their dear Captain as his competition disappeared in a volatile puff of smoke when he stumbled in a pothole.

"-- so why don't you give someone else a chance?" Perceval's words were hushed and hurried and if Gwaine was in his right mind he would've recognized the quality in Perceval's tone. It was one that he was familiar with, but he was too far down the beer glass to notice.

Instead, Gwaine sulked. "Who would have me? They're right, they all are. I'm a selfish, selfish slag --"

The heavy sigh next to him was frustrated and long-suffering. A hand brushed up his back from where it had been supporting him to bury in his hair, and Gwaine stumbled in a half-circle as he was guided to press against Perceval's chest. There was an instant of mixed hesitation (from Perceval) and confusion (from Gwaine) before Perceval prevailed and bent down, his lips hard on Gwaine's.

It wasn't an inexperienced kiss -- far from it. It was uncertain, the way a man was uncertain when he was kissing another man for the first time, and trying to decide how it would be different to kissing a woman. But that uncertainty washed away, taking Gwaine's confusion with it, and the crash of lips for a second kiss was the sort of hungry that came from two men who hadn't realized that they had been hungry until the meal had been placed in front of them.

Perceval walked Gwaine back against the wall of an utilities shed, held him there with a firm hand on his shoulder and another holding his wrist, stopping him from fumbling down Perceval's clothing to rub at the surprising hardness there. Gwaine's hips jutted out, aching for the slightest brush, and after the first contact, Perceval pressed hard against him for one brief, tantalizing moment before breaking the kiss, cutting off the physical contact, stopping, stopping everything.

"What -- uh --"

Perceval was on him a second time, but there was no kiss, there was no brush of grinding bodies, and Gwaine's addled senses addled even more, dizzy with alcohol and the torturing promise of sex.

"I know you're going to remember this in the morning, Gwaine," Perceval breathed in his ear, his voice hoarse. "So I'm only going to say it once. Clean yourself up. Give someone else a chance. Then maybe, maybe, you won't have to be alone, all right?"

He broke away from Gwaine in a rush of cold air that Gwaine was too stunned to feel, and he stared at Perceval with every ounce of his earlier confusion. "I thought you said you didn't like cock."

Perceval ran a hand behind his head, looking embarrassed. "Yeah, well, I might be willing to make an exception."

"You mean you --"

Perceval half-shrugged.

"Since when --"

"Uni."

Outrage burst from Gwaine's lips. "Where was I in all this?"

"Between someone's legs most likely," Perceval said, sounding -- could it be -- a little unhappy with the image.

"You've been keeping secrets!" Gwaine glared. Then he saw the look on Perceval's face and realization dawned. "The others, they know, don't they? So it's just me. You've been keeping secrets from me. Because you -- because you fancy me!"

"That's quite enough for now," Perceval answered gruffly, putting a big hand on the scruff of Gwaine's neck and hauling him away from the stability of the wall. "Time for bed."

"Together?" Gwaine asked hopefully, noticing that his feet weren't working together in a very coordinated way.

"Not tonight."

Gwaine grinned as Perceval mostly half-carried him to the barracks, and Gwaine would never let on that he was leaning more on Perceval than he normally would on purpose. It was turning out to be a much better birthday than he could have hoped for.

Even without the shagging. He would have liked some shagging, but the future promise of potential shagging was just as good.

 

ooOOoo

 

By now, every member of the team knew Q-Sergeant Gilli Merriam on sight. Each member -- except for Kay -- had intercepted him more than once, saving Merlin from what looked to be a fate worse than death. Kay had avoided getting in the middle of it because he didn't want to rouse bad blood -- at least, not any more than he already had. In his early days in the army, he'd been involved in a few fights, gotten stuck in a bit of solitary confinement -- all for silly misunderstandings and because the other person couldn't take a joke.

Of course, Kay couldn't take a joke, either. That was more the reason why the fights had started and the reason why he'd ended up in the brig, and he'd been on his way to a career cut short by early (and dishonourable) discharge until Arthur made Captain and could put together his own team. Everyone questioned Arthur on Kay's addition in the early days; that had gone away when they realized that Kay wasn't getting into trouble anymore.

It had amused Kay to learn that the Brass tried to give Arthur other "promising" troublemakers, and that Arthur turned them down flat. The Brass would never understand that the reason why Kay hadn't gotten himself hauled in on charges since joining Excalibur wasn't because of Arthur's so-called strict discipline, but because Excalibur was family. He'd grown up with them. He'd suffered with them. They were his brothers as much as a man could have brothers that weren't his kin. Kay belonged with them.

He belonged because they understood, and where they didn't understand, they at least tried to. They didn't judge him; they didn't judge the other members of the team. As far as Kay was concerned, the team was home.

They took him in when he needed a place to stay while growing up, when the foster homes became Too Much in every definition of the phrase. Galahad and Geraint understood what it was like to have parents who were the very definition of dingleberries. Arthur understood what it was like to have lost his mother, to have lost his father -- though his had been lost to long absences and distraction. Owain understood what it was like to have family pressures, and Perceval understood what it was like to stand out in a crowd from sheer physical presence alone.

Although, to be fair, Kay was neither tall nor broadly muscled, and Kay's presence was a completely different kind. That was where his friendship with Gwaine could get them both in trouble -- where Gwaine was the swashbuckling rogue, Kay was more of the biker toff.

These were his mates, his brothers, and each of them represented an aspect of Kay's personality, that held Kay together through his worst times. He could share nearly everything with them, and until recently, Kay didn't think anyone of them would understand his interest in the occult.

For a long time, he thought that he had the CIA or the Directory to thank for what he termed the Great Transformation, where instead of staying in the jarhead mould, the team had grown into men who were educating themselves on the impossible.

Then he realized it hadn't been the CIA or the Directory. Not directly. No. It had been Merlin.

He'd found out that Merlin was Pagan only through the drabbles of conversation between Perceval and Owain --

("Why do you suppose Arthur keeps taking Merlin aside after his meetings with Smith?" Owain had asked. "Did I miss something and he got promoted? Shouldn't he be talking to Leon?"

"He talks to Leon," Perceval had answered, with his usual calm patience, something Kay wished he could cultivate. "I suppose he talks to Merlin because he wants to make sure we're not being given a line of shite from Smith."

"So, what, Merlin's our tech expert now? How'd that happen?" Owain had asked, snorting in amusement, and Kay had seen what was so funny about what Owain said only after thinking about it, because Merlin was their technical expert.

Perceval had thought it funny, too, because he half-laughed. "Well, he's our expert in this too, now, I suppose. He's the only guy we've got who's grown up in this. Didn't you know that he's Pagan?"

"He what?")

"He what?", indeed, because Kay had wondered the same thing. It was one thing to have a foster-sister, however odd, who was a Wiccan practicing witchcraft and had learned both the religion and the art from reading books, but it was something else altogether to be around someone who had grown up Pagan. For one thing, Merlin seemed so normal. For another... Kay had been watching Merlin, and there were times when he would get a thoughtful look on his face, as if he'd puzzled out what was happening, as if he understood things in a way that no one else could.

Kay had saw that look on his face at the Zeid Reservoir. That he not only wasn't baffled by what he'd encountered there, but he'd taken it all with calm (or as calm as he could be considering that their Captain nearly drowned) acceptance, as if he knew.

Kay craved that knowledge.

He'd been giddy with excitement at the thought of having someone he could talk to about the supernatural, so much so that he worked himself in a nervous knot, trying to come up with a way to approach Merlin that didn't sound like he was absolutely, obnoxiously stupid.

He'd been keen on getting Mister Smith's spell to work, if only to show off a little bit, to have Merlin see that Kay was a little bit like him just like he was a little bit like everyone in Excalibur, but he'd shut up in an instant after listening to Merlin's argument with Mister Smith. It was then that Kay knew what hadn't sat right with him this whole time -- the way Mister Smith kept challenging Merlin, the way he'd out-and-out accused Merlin of hiding something.

He'd heard in Merlin's voice what he should have known all along -- that it was dangerous for anyone to show that they had any power whatsoever. They didn't know what the Directory might do with them. The Directory was still a government agency, and the government would do anything they damn well wanted to do if they wanted to.

Kay had lost all desire to try the spell after that. But lately, and more and more, he really wanted to talk to Merlin. It was funny -- he was the roughneck toff on the team, the scrappy bloke, the one who needed to be muzzled and leashed before he was allowed out on his own, but he was really nervous to be talking to Merlin about magic.

No time like the present, he'd decided when Owain sent Kay to fetch Merlin from the communications tent, because it was Owain's turn today, only, he was a little indisposed at the moment.

Merlin was standing in front of the communications tent, pinching the bridge of his nose, one hand on his hip and shoulders slouched in irritation and defeat. There was a greenie, shorter than Merlin, broad-shouldered like a boxer, dancing around Merlin like one of those small, annoying purse dogs, yapping and yapping incessantly, demanding attention.

Q-Sergeant Gilli Merriam was, in Kay's estimation, a cockroach who needed squashing.

He worked his way across the busy street, twisting around the Jeep that someone had parked in the middle of the bloody road and left it unattended -- he had half a mind to hop in and take it for a joyride, but he couldn't, not right now, because he was busy. He had someone to save. Once he was within earshot, he called out, "Merlin! Sorry I'm late."

Merlin dropped his hand and looked at him gratefully, but the plonker, Gilli, kept circling Merlin, a little yappy dog that Kay really wanted to boot halfway across the length of a footie field. "Oh you can't leave now, we're in the middle of the G-series. I'm progressing, I really am, but I'd like to go through the D-series again."

"That was two books ago," Merlin said, impatiently patient, annoyance written all over his lean frame. Kay wasn't sure if it was the bulky over-shirt or Merlin's unzipped jacket, but he looked thin, almost gaunt. Gilli was a parasite, sucking off all of Merlin's strength.

His forced a thin grimace from his face. "Merlin, we're due at --"

Gilli cut in front of Kay in the rudest spectacle of cold shoulder and dominance, continuing on as if he hadn't been interrupted, and Kay's eyes narrowed. "Yes, but I had some questions about the series, and you didn't show me every step that's in the book --"

Merlin's hand went to his head again, the ends of his long fingers tapping his skull in a rhythm that might be meant to cancel out the throbbing in his temples, and he said, "Gilli --"

Kay had managed to do suppress his initial knee-jerk reaction to Gilli's interruption, which was to grab him by the scruff of his neck in one hand, the belt of his pants in the other, and to half-haul him, half-drag him to the latrines and shove him head-first down the hole. Instead, he clamped a hand on Gilli's shoulder in a heavy slap and tight fingers that whirled Gilli around when he didn't show any inclination of doing it on his own, and smiled.

Every member on the team had a look of them that people never wanted to see. Arthur, for example, had several different degrees of command authority and disapproval and disappointment. Perceval had that stone face that completely disappeared his smile. Gwaine had the cool wash of complete concentration. But Kay? Kay had his smile.

His smile was ice that never reached his eyes. Owain told him once that he smiled in combat, and that it was fucking scary and to please not smile when they were sitting down having a beer, because no one knew if Kay were going to snap at any minute and jump across the table to give someone a beating.

Gilli opened his mouth wide to yell at him, to shrug off his hand, but whatever words were about to come out of his mouth, they died at the sight of Kay's smile.

Kay could have left it at that, but he pushed some more and said, "You must be the right idiot monopolizing our Merlin's time. I don't think we've been introduced. I'm Kay, the team's close combat specialist. In English, that means I know about three dozen ways to kill someone with my pinkie finger."

He squeezed his hand tightly on Gilli's shoulder, and Gilli yelped. Kay let him go, and made a gesture to Merlin, his harsh expression fading in that instant. "Come on, mate. We're overdue."

Merlin didn't hesitate; he fell in step next to Kay. They'd made it to the side road and turned the corner before Merlin burst out laughing, a hand on Kay's arm in companionable amusement. "Really? I know about three dozen ways to kill someone with my pinkie finger?"

Kay grinned. "Okay, yeah, that was a bit over the top, innit? It's closer to two dozen ways. Maybe a bit over a solid dozen."

Merlin gave him an odd look, and Kay thought he might have gone too far the way he didn't always know when too far was too far, even with the people he'd known his entire life, but there was a sparkle of amusement in Merlin's eyes, and his relief never faltered. Kay could see what it was about Merlin that had made Arthur fall tits-over-arse for him in that moment.

He was fearless, even when he should be afraid, and he was a little bit stupid for being fearless, too. It was almost endearing.

Kay grunted. "You feel like some grub?"

Merlin ran a hand over the side of his face. "I feel like two days in a plush King-sized bed with enough blankets on top that no one would ever know I was under there and room service with waffles and ice cream and eggs and bacon..."

"Like back in Algiers?"

A troubled flicker jarred Merlin's expression, and Kay wondered if he'd said the wrong thing, as usual, and ruined the opportunity to have his chat with Merlin, but that flicker faded fast, and Merlin shrugged. "But I'll make do with runny pancakes and eggs out of a carton and the cardboard the mess passes for bacon --"

"Actually, I heard they got fresh supplies in, so if you turn on the charm you might get the real deal," Kay said.

"Yeah? Well, what are we waiting for then?"

There was no charm necessary, unless all it took was Merlin's big smile and Kay's apparent glower, because Merlin had a heaping first breakfast and Kay had a heaping second breakfast that would've been the envy of anyone on the team and Kay would've rubbed it in if only they were there to see the food for themselves. They tucked in, and Kay didn't speak until he was sure that Merlin had at least eaten most of his tray, because the rumour was that Merlin forgot to eat, or didn't eat at all, when he was upset or anxious.

"So," Kay began, uncertain how exactly he should broach the subject, biting his lower lip and raising a brow in deep thought (because it did hurt a little) before he went on, "You know that thing that Mister Smith had us do?"

Merlin's head snapped up, and he did a quick furtive glance around to confirm that no one was near enough to overhear, and leaned forward. "Yeah?"

It burst in his chest, wanting to be told, and Kay leaned in, too, and whispered, "Do you think anyone would've ever gotten it to work? Even if they did have magic?"

Merlin's eyes went round, and he startled backward, only to come forward again, his brows in a baby Vee in the middle of his forehead. He was quick to shake his head. "No. No, no. I highly doubt it."

Merlin's eyes narrowed suspiciously and he stared at Kay for a moment. "Why? Did you --"

Kay couldn't help his growing grin. "Yeah. Tried it a few times, and yeah, I can do it."

"That's... wow. That's amazing," Merlin said, shaking his head, and there was wonderment and amazement in his gaze, even a little confusion, and Kay was trying not to snort with laughter. "Can you show me? Later, when no one's around?"

It was almost too much; he couldn't hold it together. "God, no, I can't. I'm pulling your leg, Merlin. I can't do shite, but the look on your face --"

"You fucking wanker," Merlin said, but immeasurable relief settled on his shoulders, the press of weight at Kay's "admission" rolling off of him in a crash and tumble. "Did someone put you up to this?"

And that was when Kay's smile faded, collapsing like a pinpricked helium balloon, and he shook his head. There was a bit of hurt in Merlin's voice, and Kay wondered if he'd hit a sore spot. "Well, no. Just having a bit of fun."

Merlin said something too quiet for Kay to hear, because he'd ducked his head and most of the syllables were lost behind a forkful of oatmeal -- oatmeal that looked suspiciously thick enough to patch holes in concrete -- but it sounded like you and everyone else to Kay. He didn't push, because Merlin dropped his fork without eating, suddenly a little pale. He looked almost sick when he said, his voice a little hollow, "It's all right. I'm used to it."

"Have to grow thick skin if you want to survive the team," Kay said, frowning a little. He leaned forward. "You're a bit touchy about it, are you?"

"No, it's --" Merlin shook his head. "'S fine. We just have to be careful, yeah?"

"Careful's my middle name," Kay said, his grin returning.

"I thought it was I'll kill you if you look at me cross-eyed," Merlin said, and Kay relaxed, grateful that Merlin bounced back so easily.

"Nah, I changed it, it were too long, and I couldn't get a good nickname out of it. I go by Careful now. It's short for careful, you plonker, I might hurt you."

"Might?"

Kay frowned. "Yeah, you're right, I'll change it to I will hurt you."

"That's better, yeah. Makes for a long introduction when you meet people, though." Merlin chuckled faintly. "You should get that tattooed on you or something."

Kay glanced down at himself. "I don't think I have enough free space."

Merlin gestured to Kay's forehead, his mouth full of food, and he talked around it. "Right there, where people can see it."

"What, and mark up this pretty face?" Kay knew he wasn't pretty by a long shot, not like Lance, who was a bloody underwear model, or like Arthur, who was strikingly arresting. Kay's blond hair was more on the brown side, the cut of his chin was a little sharp, his nose had a bump where he'd broken it on someone's fist, and he'd had so many shiners that his left eyebrow drooped a little. His only redeeming features were his eyes -- more than one bird had called them his Bedroom Eyes. He didn't know why, though. They seemed like regular brown eyes to him.

"Better your face than your arse," Merlin retorted.

Kay stared at him. "I knew it. You look at my rear end in the showers."

"It's a nice arse," Merlin said, shrugging.

"Well, yes. Yes, it is," Kay said, his outrage deflating. He didn't care that there were poofs on the team, but he preferred thinking that none of them were checking him out. However, he couldn't exactly disagree with Merlin's assessment. He'd gotten compliments on it before -- from women.

Merlin was grinning.

"I don't want to hear about my arse from you," Kay growled, and decided that Merlin really was fearless, because all he did was grin wider.

They ate in silence for a few minutes. "Do you mind if I ask you a question?"

"Yeah?"

Kay waved a hand in the air, and continued, "What you said to Smith. You don't trust him, do you?"

"Would you?" Merlin asked, and Kay shook his head, and they left it at that. Merlin picked up his fork again, and moved the congealing mass of oatmeal on his tray with bricklayer precision, and when it hardened, a chisel was going to be necessary to clean it off. "No offence, mate, but why are you asking?"

Kay didn't answer right away. He lowered his chin and shrugged his shoulders and stared at the pineapple mash, realizing for the first time how truly disgusting pineapple mash was, and how much he didn't like it. "It's going to sound dumb, but I figured you're the only one who'd really understand."

Merlin didn't say anything. When Kay looked up, there was an odd expression on Merlin's face, a slight frown, a confusion.

"Because, you know, you're Pagan, right? You know this stuff. You understand it. I mean, my foster sister, you know the one, she tried to teach me a few spells, and they were just out of her stupid books, but they never worked, you know? I'm not into the touchy-feely praise the spirits and the Goddess thing, and I fought her tooth and nail when she tried to convert me --"

"Yeah, I don't see you in a sharing-feelings group," Merlin said, his tone unusually quiet.

"Too right you are, give me a gun and a knife and I'll show you my feelings after a bit of bludgeoning," Kay said with a grin.

"Do you cry when you do the bludgeoning?"

"Only if the club is shooting splinters in my hands. But really. This Smith bloke. How can you even tell if what he's telling us is the truth? You know about..." Kay lowered his voice to a hushed whisper. "Magic? Not just the Pagan stuff? It were magic too that you know, innit? I mean, you're not, like he said, a male witch or something? And you're just hiding it?"

Something changed in Merlin's expression, something that only a toff who'd been a former bully could recognize, and it had, for a moment, looked very much like the panic of a kid spotting the enemy and having nowhere to hide. But it was so fleeting that Kay wasn't sure he'd seen it in the first place, and maybe he'd been wrong, because Merlin's face crinkled in a big laugh that Kay might have taken offence from at any other time. He felt himself flush, his cheeks colouring with heat.

"Warlocks," Merlin said.

"What's that?"

"Male witches. They're called warlocks."

"Oh." Kay paused. "Like in Dungeons and Dragons."

"You played Dungeons and Dragons?" Merlin asked, an eyebrow raised.

"'Course I did. Massive nerd, me. Although, to be honest, I were only in it for the gratuitous violence. I were always either a fighter or an assassin. Lawful evil, though. How about you?"

"Err. Usually. Um. A sorcerer," Merlin admitted. "Lawful neutral, though."

"We'd have got on well, then," Kay said.

They shared a grin.

"Anyway," Merlin said with a shrug, glancing around before nodding. He lowered his voice. "I grew up around magic. Not everyone had some, mind. But I've seen enough done to know for sure what it looks like. It's like that spell Mister Smith tried to teach us, yeah? It's not a real spell."

"It weren't?"

"Weren't," Merlin said.

Kay groaned a bit. "Don't tell me Gwaine was right, and I needed a bloody wand to make it work?"

The short bark of a laugh surprised even Merlin, if the look on his face was anything to go by, and Kay chuckled ruefully. A thought struck him, and his smile faded.

"Those people you know, yeah? How do you know if any of them weren't, you know, like Trickler? That they're not evil?"

Merlin's face fell. "Just because they have magic doesn't mean they're evil."

"But how do you --"

"You've got a gun. You know how to use it. You're bloody nasty with a gun. Does that make you evil?" Merlin snapped, his tone dark. "You know three dozen ways to kill a man with your pinkie finger. Does that make you evil?"

"Whoa, mate," Kay startled, holding up a hand. "Sure, I can use a gun and maybe my pinkie finger should be on the short list of dangerous weapons but just because I know something doesn't mean I'll use it to go on a bloody rampage."

Merlin stared at him. His brows were raised in a listen to yourself arch, and Kay frowned, rewinding the tape recorder in his head.

"Oh. Right. Okay. So maybe I'm overthinking it."

"Being a bit thick, yeah," Merlin said. He relaxed, but Kay could see a bit of an edge to him, a sharpness ready to lash out in self-defence. "Look, the good ones follow a Way, or a Path, of magic. It tells them the right thing to do. It helps them do right by the magic, by everyone else."

"A Path?" Kay asked, mulling the word over in his mind.

"A code. Like a Knight's code of honour, yeah? The whole chivalry shtick, except for magic."

Kay frowned slightly. He'd never thought of it quite in those terms, but it made sense to him. Sorcerers or wizards or whatnot had to follow a set of rules, just like the rest of them. They couldn't go about willy-nilly destroying things. The rules system from Dungeons and Dragons popped in his head, but he decided not to mention it again in case Merlin really started laughing at him.

"I could get behind something like that," Kay said, and wondered at Merlin's small, relieved smile. "To be honest, I was always a little worried about my foster-sister -- Kathy, that's her name. She used to do all sorts of weird shite. You know the kind, dressed all in black, hung dried bits of animal parts on her door. Thinking back, it was mostly for show, I guess, but there was this one time when she cursed a girl, made her hair fall out, just because the girl told lies about Kathy in school. I was never really sure if she were actually the one behind it, or if someone else just put lye in the shampoo in revenge at the same time, but she was spooked enough to think she had, and, well."

He paused, feeling embarrassed, and rushed on, "I figured if it worked for her, I'd try it too, stole one of her books and cursed some bloody pillock who done went and broke into my locker and stole my last tenner, but it didn't do nothing."

Merlin half-chuckled. "Yeah, I don't blame you for trying though."

Kay gave Merlin a quick smile. "Well, anyway. That's when it started."

"What started?"

"Me, nosing around in places I shouldn't, stealing Kathy's books to read all about the dark arts. Necromancy, blood sacrifice, Satanism…"

"Satanism isn't necessarily bad," Merlin said, a little weakly, as if unsure whether he should start an argument about it.

"Oh no, I know, I've done enough reading on it. Mostly when no one's around to poke fun. I mean to say, I've read some of it, and I know some of it, and it's all history, but I don't know how… How it really works, you know. I just keep having questions, and I'm not finding any answers."

Kay paused when he saw Merlin's concerned expression. "It's why I were so keen when Smith were here. Wanted to ask him a few things, but…"

"You don't trust him either?"

"Fuck, no," Kay said. "Bloke looks like a vulture, waiting for one of us to keel over so that he can gobble down our eyeballs and nibble our bits."

Merlin stared at him. A small snicker became a chuckle, and the chuckle became soft laughter. Fortunately, he stopped short of howling.

"I'm serious. I can see him looming over us with his long neck and coldly evaluating eyes -- remind me of my old boot camp sergeant, they do -- jerking his head up and down, trying to decide which parts are tastiest." Kay shook his head.

Merlin bit his lower lip to keep from laughing more. When he sobered enough to take a sip of his juice without spewing it across the table all over Kay, Kay asked, "I'm wondering. Do you mind if I ask questions?"

"About magic?

"That, and other things, yeah," Kay said.

Merlin shrugged his shoulders. "'M not an expert, though. I'll do what I can. What sort of other things?"

"Well. You know." Kay felt his cheeks flush, and Merlin's eyebrows rose a fraction. A moment later, they shot all the way to his hairline when he realized what Kay meant.

"Oh, Gods, no. I don't know anyone who does sex magic, and even if they do, I don't want to know --" Merlin blurted out, fortunately keeping his voice low enough that no one overheard.

"But I feel randy all the time, and I can go for hours, and --"

"Too much information! Way too much information! Kay! You bloody sneak, you're as bad as Gwaine --"

"Hide it better, don't I? Keep myself all mysterious-like, because the ladies like that --"

"I don't need to know about your love life, for fuck's sake, and I definitely don't want to know about your bloody kinks --"

"It's not like I can help myself, innit? The urges just come and go --" Kay was shut up by the catapult stun of pineapple mash landing in his face, and he restrained (admirably, too, if he said so himself) the urge to start a food fight. He scowled at Merlin. "Thanks for that, mate."

"You're welcome," Merlin said cheerfully, but then he glanced sideways and his expression fell. "Don't get me wrong, but I wish you were Owain right now."

"What, I'm not pretty enough for you?" The mention of Owain triggered a reminder in the back of Kay's mind, but he couldn't, for the life of him, remember why.

"That's not it," Merlin said, pushing his tray away and pulling it back, not sure what to do with it. "It's. I mean. O is bigger, you know? Looks a little meaner. Plus, he does the whole bomb thing, and that scares people."

Kay stared at Merlin uncertainly, the rotors in his brain turning. They turned slow, but at least they turned: Kay might not be as book smart as Arthur, or like Leon, or Lance, or even Merlin, and he might not be as perceptive as Perceval or Gwaine (although Gwaine could be a bit blind when it came to certain things), but he'd grown up mostly on the street, and even a foster kid learned a few things about reading people. He put it all together, bit by bit by bit. Merlin's expression. What he said and what he didn't say. How he didn't quite make eye contact... It all added up.

"He's watching us, isn't he? That plonker --"

"Thirty feet away, the second table at your four," Merlin said.

"Orright," Kay said, sitting straight, squaring his shoulders. "You done with that?"

"Don't cause trouble, Kay," Merlin warned.

"Trouble? Me? I weren't going to do no trouble, not me," Kay said. "Just going to have a little chat with Gilli. Make sure he understands that being able to kill with my pinkie finger, well, that makes me some sort of bloody ninja or something."

"Or something," Merlin said wanly.

Kay sighed. "You'd rather I didn't?"

"I have to deal with him sooner or later, don't I?" Merlin sighed. "He's just so bloody persistent --"

"Then quit being such a girl about it --" Kay stopped himself.

"Owain!" Kay blurted out, blinking repeatedly. Merlin sat back in surprise. "Shite! I remember now. Owain! I forgot about him! I came to fetch you for him, too, but... Come on! Let's go."

"What --" Merlin stood up after Kay, picking up Kay's discarded tray and his own, bringing them both over to the multi-shelf cart for cleaning, and catching up to Kay just as he left the mess hall. "What's going on? Is he all right?"

"I won't be if he finds out we detoured for food," Kay said, pausing in the middle of the road, ignoring the honking horn of an oncoming Jeep to brush at Merlin's clothes and make him presentable. "Wipe your face, you've got crumbs. And for the love of God, don't let on that we were in the mess for the better part of..."

He checked his watch and cringed. "... shite! A half hour!"

Kay grabbed Merlin's jacket and hauled him along faster. "Double-time it, Merlin!"

He caught Merlin's confused glance but there was no chance to explain as they hurried toward the airfield. "You have small hands, right?"

"I wouldn't say they're small, not exactly," Merlin protested, and Kay glanced down. He was right; his hands were a normal size, but they were slim and lean with narrow fingers.

"Doesn't matter, they're smaller than Owain's shovels and my garden trowels," Kay said.

They raced past the maze of parked transport trucks and headed to a deserted part of the airfield, ducking around a foxhole built out of sandbags and concrete. The greenie Owain had been roped into training was still standing twenty feet away, paralyzed with fear; Kay didn't think that the kid had blinked once since he'd gone off to fetch Merlin. Owain was still as he'd left him, kneeling in front of a demolitions device. As usual, he wasn't wearing the protective gear, and, unfortunately, his hands were still trapped inside the narrow bomb casing.

"Sorry it took so long," Kay said cheerfully. "Took some doing, finding Merlin, never mind prying off that Gilli. He's like that sucker-face alien in the movie -- you know the one? Anyway, Merlin, give him a hand, why don't you..."

Owain's voice was very low and calm. "You. Bloody. Pillock. It's. Been. Forty. Minutes. Have. You. Any. Idea. How. Much. Pain. I'm. In. Right. Now?"

"A considerable amount?" Merlin asked, shooting a laughing glance in Kay's direction. He crouched down next to Owain, trying to get a good look at what was going on -- and doing an admirable job of keeping his snickers to a bare minimum. "Tell me that this isn't a live bomb."

"Do you think that one over there would've pissed himself if it weren't a live bomb?" Owain leaned in to Merlin, and spoke only loud enough for Kay and Merlin to hear. "It's not live. But don't tell him that. I'm trying to teach him a lesson, but I'm pretty sure he's had a heart attack instead and hasn't fallen over yet."

Merlin laughed.

Owain pulled back and frowned at Merlin, turning his gaze to Kay.

"Kay."

"Yeah?"

"Kay."

"I'm right here."

"Sad sight braver than that one, I see," Owain said, jutting his chin toward the greenie. Merlin was a lot closer than Kay, poking and prodding at the wires to see how he could get Owain out of his mess.

"Absolutely. I'm here for you."

"Would it have killed you to be here for me thirty minutes ago?"

"Well, you see, there was a thing at the communications centre..."

"Were they serving waffles and bacon there? Do you think you could fool me? I smell it on Merlin's breath -- syrup and bacon --"

Merlin backed away out of reach of Owain -- except his hands were still trapped in the bomb casing.

"Well, no, not at the comm tent," Kay said, taking a cautious step back. "But they were in the mess hall?"

Owain stared at Kay. Kay glanced at Merlin.

"Merlin. Psst. Merlin. Help me," Kay said. He turned around and started running. The greenie, thinking it was the End Of The World, dove flat on the ground and covered his head with a shriek. The last thing Kay heard was the sound of the mock bomb-box cracking open, Merlin's hysterical laughter, and Owain's stomping footsteps racing after him.

 

ooOOoo

 

It was three days later after the mock-bomb incident that still made Merlin smile, and he had a five-minute respite before Gilli returned from his smoke break. He considered escaping through the back door. Except there was no back door. And Gilli was probably protecting the only exit with the same hungry, watchful determination as Cerberus at the gates of Hell.

Merlin took a deep breath, leaned back in his chair, rubbed his palms into his eyes and ran his hands through his hair. His cap flopped down to the floor and he left it there, because in his stretch he could feel every single knot that had spread in his back since he started the latest training session with Gilli. A sympathetic murmur came from his left and a pretty blonde girl glanced at him sidelong with a soft, encouraging smile. The lieutenant on his right kept his eyes fixed on the screen, but he shook his head and muttered under his breath, "You're a bloody saint, Emrys."

Merlin exhaled a heavy sigh, glanced over, and said, "If you lived in my head, you wouldn't think so."

"If I lived in your head, I'd be a sight smarter," the Lieutenant said, smirking.

"If I were a sight smarter, I wouldn't be here," Merlin remarked. He reached for his cap, dusted it off and pulled it on.

"I wouldn't be here if someone hadn't ratted out my hiding place and my C.O. sent me here."

"My C.O. keeps finding my hiding places. Speaking of, if there were a back door in this building, I'd be out right now," Merlin said. He reached under his cap and scratched his head.

"I've got my nail scissors," volunteered the blonde on his left. "I'll cut you a hole. Merlin-shaped and everything."

Merlin chuckled. The beeps and squeaks of various consoles entertained him for a few minutes before he asked, "How is he really, when I'm not here?"

The Lieutenant tore his eyes from the monitor for a fraction of a second to look at Merlin and roll his eyes.

"He manages," said the blonde.

"Even a blind man flinging rocks willy-nilly in an open field manages to hit the ground sometimes," the Lieutenant said with a snort.

Merlin winced. "That bad?"

"He looks things up a lot." There was a sharp nod toward the pile of binders half-stashed away behind the Crack Box's desk. "Wastes a lot of time reading every page instead of going right to the section that he needs. Checks and double checks even if he's already handled the same code a billion times."

Lieutenant Avery Dean was a slim man with prematurely-gray auburn hair and small, narrow eyes that were barely visible behind his glasses. He was a self-proclaimed bookworm with no interest in active duty and very happy to be behind a desk, where he belonged, but he had as little patience for incompetence as the most experienced field commander. While he talked, his hands typed commands on the console, and he scanned a document that had nothing to do with what he was working on. Dean was a multitasking master who was in his element when there was a crisis.

"Don't you think you're being a bit harsh?" The blonde -- Sergeant Isabella ("Bella for short") Maris -- asked. She was a recent arrival, though not as recent as Gilli, but everything Merlin had watched her do spoke of nothing less than extremely competent.

"Harsh would be if I 'd said that we're better off finding a monkey and chaining it to the Box," Dean said. His fingers paused and he gave it some thought. "Or if I'd said that he'd have a better chance of getting through that pile of coded reports if he left them there until the next bonfire."

"Now, you're just being mean," Bella said.

"You're wasting your time with him, Emrys," Dean said.

"I'm starting to get that impression," Merlin said, rubbing his face with his hand a second time, grimacing at the stubble on his cheek. He'd meant to wash up and shave before his duty round, but there had been a line-up for the showers, and by the time he got through the mess hall to try for the showers again, he was five minutes to being late.

He leaned an elbow on his knee and rested his chin in the palm of his hand. He'd given it some thought ever since the rest of the team -- especially Arthur -- pointed out how much of Merlin's time that Gilli was eating up, even with the restrictions that Arthur had set on Merlin.

Gilli Merriam knew the basics; that much was clear. But where the basics involved button-pushing, the advanced levels of knowledge that were needed to handle the Crack Box encryption capabilities were very obviously above and beyond what Gilli could perform on his own. He would ask Merlin to go through every step of the decryption and encryption process for each of the communiqués that came through, but whenever Merlin looked at him in mid-explanation, Gilli's eyes were glazed over.

Either the man had mastered the art of snoozing with his eyes open and having a coherent conversation while sleepwalking, or there was something else going on.

Merlin made a decision. He glanced quickly at the guarded doorway. "I need a secure line to HQ."

"You want it logged?" Dean asked. He glanced at Bella.

"No, let's keep it off the books."

"In that case, gentlemen, I'm not here," Bella said, getting up. She saluted and walked out.

Dean pointed to a phone. "That line, sir. Don't worry. I'm not listening."

"Doubt you could," Merlin said, picking up the phone. He waited for it to ring through, identified himself and requested a patch-through to Wales, and once there, he switched from English to Welsh and asked for the Colonel in charge of the Cryptography program by name.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dean raise a confused brow.

"Lucky for you, sir. He's in. Just a moment," said his clerk, a lovely older woman who'd been Colonel Henry Locher's aide for nearly as long as he was in diapers, it seemed.

Merlin half-turned and glanced at the doorway again.

"Bella will give us some advance warning if he comes our way," Dean said, typing away.

"Nice lass," Merlin said.

"I'm thinking of asking her to the party on Friday. Think she'd say yes?"

"Might just," Merlin said, trying not to smirk. Dean had tried for casual, but the warble in his voice had been anything but casual.

A familiar voice came on the line, booming in Welsh, loud and reverberating like the echo at a rock hall with poor acoustics even over the tinny line. "Merlin! Caught me just as I were heading out the door, you were. Are you tired of getting sand in your knickers yet?"

Merlin couldn't help but grin. Everything about Colonel Locher was average -- his height, his weight, his appearance -- except for his mindset. He didn't fit the cookie-cutter mould of a Colonel in charge of one of the most top-secret programs in the military. He was loud and brash and a heavy drinker -- the sort of heavy drinker that could still keep a hold on his tongue no matter how much he was tortured, trading quips with the man twisting the screws into his thumbs.

Where Arthur had his connections at MI-5, Merlin had his connections at the top, too, starting with the Colonel, who thought Merlin was aces and ranted and raved when someone foisted an incompetent on his department.

His wasn't the only Crypto program, but Locher's department oversaw them all, and if Gilli Merriam had taken the course, Locher would know everything about him if there was anything to know.

"Not yet, sir," Merlin said. "Ask me again in a few months. Sir, I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm wondering if I could ask a favour."

"You have so many of my IOUs under your tally, I'm happy to knock one off . What is it?" Locher asked.

"I built a Crack Box --"

"You built a Crack Box," Locher said, in a I'm not surprised tone.

"-- it's a long story, but I needed it for a mission, and needless to say the Brass appropriated it when they found out --"

"Of course they did," Locher said, in a They'd have been better off leaving it with you voice.

"-- and they requested a vetted crypto to handle it so that they could have direct on-site receipt instead of routing messages through the main base." Merlin again glanced at the doorway, and went on in a hurry, making the long story as short as he could manage. "They sent us a greenie, name's Sergeant Gilli Merriam, service number --"

He rattled off an eight-digit number from memory. Arthur might be able to recite Hamlet backward and forward after reading it only once, but when it came to numbers, Merlin was King. There was a scratch of pen on paper over the phone.

"Okay," Locher said.

Merlin didn't need an intonation thesaurus to know that Locher wanted to know what Merlin wanted him to do about it. He stated his question as succinctly as he could.

"I want to know, is he real?"

Locher's sharp intake of breath was as audible as his regular roaring laugh. The man took his job seriously, and part of his job was maintaining a comprehensive list of qualified Cryptographers -- and to regulate their security ratings according to their ability. Merlin was at the top of his list with nearly every Crypto clearance available, and Merlin knew that Locher was sensitive to questions about someone's qualifications.

"Sir?"

"You have a good reason to be asking, Merlin?"

"Yes, sir," Merlin said. "I've been hand-holding the greenie since he arrived."

There was a strained emptiness over the line with the faintest sound of fingers tapping on what should be an otherwise soundless keyboard, but Locher was a bit of a stomper when he was dealing with bureaucratic bollocks. The spacebar squeaked on occasion.

While he worked, Merlin glanced over his shoulder, wondering if he was doing the right thing. He could be wrong. It was his imagination. He was being too critical of Gilli. Everything was fine.

"He's not in my database," Locher said, the unspoken Are you sure he's a Crypto? was audible.

Shite. Merlin had the rotten feeling that he should have asked questions about Gilli a lot sooner than now. That rotten feeling went well with the unease in his belly.

"He must be in someone's database," Merlin said. He stared hard at the doorway, searching for any shadow that might be shifting in their direction.

"Not in the main database, not in the se -- wait. I've found him. Regular corps, infantry, seconded out of boot camp two years ago. Seconded to..." Locher snorted. "Over my bloody clearance, my shiny, polished arse."

Merlin raised a brow. As far as he knew, nothing was over Locher's clearance rating -- a rating so high that even Merlin wasn't allowed to know what it was called. He waited and listened to Locher's under-his-breath muttering and ranting and glanced at the doorway, anxious, nervous, keeping an eye on the seconds hand of the big clock hanging from the rafters. The longest that it had ever taken Locher to crack an encryption was three minutes and forty-nine seconds. The fastest was twenty nine seconds.

He hoped this time around, Locher would err on the short side of the minute.

"The Directory of Alternate Affairs," Locher proclaimed, full of hacker cheek.

Ice poured down Merlin's spine. His eyes went wide and he had to turn away from Dean so that he wouldn't have to answer any curious questions.

Locher's voice hardened. "What the fuck were that? The Directory? I've never heard of --"

"Harri," Merlin said, calling the Colonel by the Welsh version of his first name the way he very rarely did because he respected the man -- but Gods, could he be infuriating sometimes, and Locher fell uncharacteristically silent at the urgency in Merlin's tone. "Get out of there. Cover your tracks. Don't let on that you've ever heard of them."

Merlin doubted that the Directory had people of Locher's calibre heading their IT department, never mind their security, but it didn't hurt to be careful.

"Merlin." There was a pause, the occasional sound of a squeaky spacebar as Locher did as Merlin had asked. "Is this something that you need help with? Because, you know, you've collected a list of favours done that I owe you for and that list is as long as my leg --"

"More like Sergeant Sayce's leg," Merlin said. Rhydderich Sayce was one of the Artists' base personnel, built like Perceval, though Perceval had at least an inch and a few stone more muscle weight than Sayce.

"-- and I wouldn't mind clearing off my tab."

"No, sir," Merlin said with a half-smile. "At least, I don't think so. Not yet, anyway."

"You'll tell me if you do?"

"Yes, sir."

"And when the sand down your britches gets to be too much?"

"You'll be the first person I call, sir," Merlin promised. He hung up with a fervent thank-you and a quick good-bye, hanging up the handset with a quick nod at Dean. "Appreciate it, Avery."

"Anytime, Merlin," Dean said, and half-smirked. "Handy, that, being able to speak in code."

"Weren't code," Merlin said, grinning at Dean's raised brow.

"Bloody heck, that's a language?"

They both fell silent when Bella darted through the doorway, gesturing across her neck and over her shoulder in a hasty cut it out, he's coming gesture. Merlin sat down with a heaved sigh, outwardly preparing himself for round two of working with Gilli, inwardly flailing madly with questions.

Directory. He's with the Directory.

Why is he here? Is he spying on us? Is he intercepting messages for Smith?

I have to tell Arthur --

Gilli took his seat, oblivious to anything amiss, picking up the next stack of incoming messages needing decryption. Someone somewhere must have become aware of the issues with delayed decryption because of their fantastic Crack Box technician, because they'd taken to flagging the inbound according to their urgency in plain English across the top. It was a breach of security to flag them that way, but an unfortunate necessity, because the Urgent and Rush messages were at least three days old.

Gilli passed them to Merlin, who glanced at the contents of the first sheet without reaching to take the stack, and suggested, "Why don't you try this stack on your own?"

"But it's a new code," Gilli frowned.

"It's the E-key," Merlin said with a heavy sigh. "You can tell from the way the data is keyed across the top. Didn't you just finish reading the decrypt documents for the E-series?"

He glanced pointedly toward the pile of thick binders half-hidden by the Crack Box. Another breach of security.

Colonel Locher would have a field day with the way Gilli was handling things. Colonel Locher would find some perverse glee in nailing Gilli to the wall with a railroad spike through his nuts for pretending to be a Cryptographer. Colonel Locher would trace the problem to the very head, and raise enough ruckus to shove every skeleton in the Directory's closet into the public eye -- and given the state of British media these days, the Directory wouldn't need to worry about the NWO. The paparazzi would tear them apart.

But Colonel Locher wasn't here, and Merlin felt right stupid for letting Gilli push him around all this time, for trying to be there for the greenie who really did seem to try, and for not verifying for himself that Gilli really was supposed to be here. Maybe the paperwork looked fine from Colonel Mandrake's desk, but from the other side, it wasn't fine at all.

Merlin tapped his fingers on the armrest of his chair while he watched Gilli frown over a piece of paper with three-inch blocks of incomprehensible text, pinching his lower lip between his forefinger and thumb, his brows knotted in a frown of concentration. It was a convincing picture, except his eyes were glazed over.

He's a bloody Directory agent.

The how, what, why of it wanted to be asked, but Merlin kept his questions to himself for now. Speculation swirled in his mind and he could only guess that the Directory's interest in an agent who was obviously not up to the intricacies of the cryptography program, but who had enough of a background in the army to pass muster under scrutiny, had something to do with it. He hadn't been snapped up for this specific mission, either, whatever this mission was, so, what...

Merlin resisted the urge to reach out with his magic to see if Gilli was magic in turn, because while Gilli might be a dolt on the Crack Box, he might be half-decent with magic and realize that the questing, questioning magic belonged to Merlin. And he'd report Merlin to the Directory.

He didn't understand why Gilli was in this position. Why communications? Why the Crack Box? Why not something easier, something he could handle?

"Do I start with --" Gilli handed the paper to Merlin in the same gesture, with the same question spoken in that mild, confused tone that had always pushed Merlin into taking over -- until now.

"Yeah. Give it a try," Merlin said, not giving Gilli to finish asking his question. He needed to think.

Gilli was here, in communications, and there, in the supply tent, because those were the areas that were usually assigned to Merlin when he wasn't performing his usual duties on missions or on base with Excalibur. The only person on the team that he was in regular contact with was Merlin. He was after Merlin.

The Directory was after him.

Merlin stamped down the paranoia, but it kept rising to the fore, unwilling to be buried.

Why was the Directory after me?

Gilli typed in the header code for the message, loading the electronic version into the Crack Box. There shouldn't be paper copies of the encrypted messages and orders lying about, either. A system was in place to store the incoming and outgoing messages on the internal server for a small amount of time before the shred and burn, but it was a system that Gilli either couldn't grasp, or didn't care about.

Why hadn't Merlin seen the signs? Why hadn't he been suspicious before now? Was it that Gilli maintained a certain level of competence while superbly playing Merlin for a sap?

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

He had to get out of there. He had to talk to Arthur. Arthur understood the politics, the guile, the plots that people played. He could fathom purpose and intent and outcome. Arthur would know. Arthur would understand. And Arthur would be able to explain to Merlin why the Directory was keeping an eye on him.

He couldn't possibly have revealed his magic to them, could he?

Merlin glanced at the wall clock. Gods. Two more hours.

He sank a little in his chair and watched Gilli poke at the keys on the wireless keyboard one by one by one, glance up every five, and erase his latest entry to start over.

"Lieutenant Emrys?"

Merlin sat up straighter and turned around, recognizing an aide from the Brass' office, low enough on the totem pole that she shouldn't be in this section of the communications tent, and high enough to know not to look at anything if she valued her head where it was.

"Yes?"

"If you could come with me, sir --"

"He's busy," Gilli said, not bothering to look up.

All the extraneous noise in the tent faded to the dull chittering of the electronics. No one was typing; no one was talking, and everyone was staring right ahead, their ears on the conversation. A sergeant did not answer for a lieutenant, and not in that tone.

"Go ahead. Um. Corporal Blais, right?" Merlin asked.

"Yes, sir," she said, struggling to keep from shooting a dark look in Gilli's direction. "It's Major Kilgarrah, sir. He'd like to speak with you. Immediately, sir."

Merlin got up without hesitation. He'd brave a meeting with The Dragon if it took him out of Gilli's presence right now. As he moved, Gilli moved, too, standing up and following Merlin toward the exit as if he were Merlin's shadow, stitched together by some funny prank played by Fate that hadn't been funny in weeks, now.

Merlin stopped dead. Gilli managed not to crash into him. "Where do you think you're going?"

"With you," Gilli said.

Merlin turned around, taking full advantage of his greater height to scowl down at Gilli, favouring him with every ounce of aggravation and irritation and frustration that had built up in the last few weeks but that he'd kept hidden out of a misguided act of goodwill. Gilli worked for the Directory; Merlin didn't want to be nice to him anymore.

He flicked a glance in the direction of the Crack Box and saw that the terminal was unlocked, the decrypted message on display to all the Gods and sundry. Yet another security breach in a long line of security breaches that had somehow not become a disaster of secrecy.

"Corporal, did Major Kilgarrah request Sergeant Gilli Merriam as well?"

"No, sir," said Blais from behind him, sounding ridiculously, vengefully proud of that little fact.

"Gilli --"

"You're supposed to be here," Gilli hissed. "This is your duty slot."

"Gilli --"

"I'm in the middle of a decrypt and you can't leave me hanging like this," Gilli whispered, his voice harsh.

"Gilli --"

"You're supposed to be helping me. It's your job, Merlin!"

"Gilli!" Merlin pressed his lips together, his abrupt shout drowning out everything in the room, winning him a cautious glance from Bella and a smirk from Dean. A few people shifted their seats away from them, adjusting for the best diving angle if they needed to fly for a foxhole.

Merlin kept his voice low, which had the effect of drawing all emotion from his words, and said, "Sit down. Get back to work. Also, my name isn't Merlin. It's Lieutenant Emrys, sir! Do you got that?"

Gilli blinked at him.

"Do you?"

"Yes, sir." Gilli was meek and small and uncertain, but there was a flash of fire in his eyes.

Merlin turned away and nodded at the Corporal. "Major Kilgarrah?"

"This way, sir," she said, fighting to hide her smile. Dean and Bella had no such similar morals.

 

ooOOoo

 

Major Kilgarrah stared out of the plexiglass window of his office, following the bustling activity on the principal road. Surveillance satellite pointed over the base would be baffled by the structure of the base and even more so for the positioning of the roads, though that was through no fault of the engineers who had built the base on this location in the first place. In the last few years, the base had grown and grown, and though the principal residents were from the British army, many members of the Commonwealth were in attendance, either as support troops under the British flag, using the base as a fallback position, or as a transit point.

The Americans were also a very visible presence on the base, not so much because they had significant numbers, but because they were loud, brash, and marched across the army campus as if they owned the place. In Kilgarrah's mind, the Americans were children who were taught to act that way not because they were inadequate in the face of superior allies, but because they were overcompensating, having realized that if the British had really been so inclined, the United States would still be a colony.

They were young, without the experience of their betters to guide their way, lashing out at the world with the temperament of a sullen teenager who should know better even when they didn't know anything, and it was with long-suffering patience that Kilgarrah tolerated them at all. Mandrake had no such temperament; he was younger than Kilgarrah and itching to crash a few heads together.

The only bonus in this lastest debacle with the CIA's supernatural operations unit was that there were two fewer agents to deal with directly. Kilgarrah wondered why the CIA had never given their department an official name (so he'd done it for them), much less a designated acronym, though the political circles sniggered under their breaths when they referred to the CIA's SOU as NOES. Kilgarrah didn't get the joke, but his underlings certainly did, something about Nightmare on Elm Street, LOL-Cats, and a dramatic "OH, NOES" image wafting about the Internet.

He missed the old days when jokes made sense.

Discreet inquiries had confirmed that five missing CIA agents had been happily returned to the nest, that William Aulfric was rubber-stamped KIA, though someone had stamped over top to mar the K with an M for MIA, downgrading him from cold-and-dead to missing-somewhere. Sophia Lee had not surfaced, though the whispers were that she was alive and well, and on a mandated leave from the agency.

In English, that meant that she was AWOL, and Robert Daly's problem.

Captain Arthur Pendragon's assurances that the CIA would not be a problem could be confirmed; if Sophia came at Excalibur, it would be under her own auspices. By that time, the CIA might even have their acts together enough that they would have Sophia in a sniper's crosshairs before she reached the team.

For the moment, Sophia wasn't the Daly's first priority. The CIA's SOU was scrambling to marshal their forces, restructure a hierarchy they hadn't expected to be destabilized, and to deal with the more immediate problem of the Directory having gotten their hands on an American National.

All this could have been avoided if only the Americans hadn't allied with the Sidhe. Daly might think he was in charge, but the Sidhe were a manipulative, insidious race, equally happy to play puppet master as they were to put humans in front of them to take the cannon fire.

Kilgarrah sucked his front tooth and blew smoke out of his nose.

He could see where all this was heading, the various tendrils in the strands of the Sister Fates' weaving, the pattern that might form in the yarn, the unravelling that would need to be knotted and curled to save the future. He didn't like it.

It was a given that Kigarrah didn't like much of anything, but if there was something that he disliked the least, it was their chances -- Excalibur's chances -- of success. They weren't horribly bad, but they weren't spectacular either.

Kilgarrah had spent a great deal of time thinking on how to improve those odds. The problem lay in the very little time they had to gather intelligence, to prepare a battle plan. They had a year, perhaps less, perhaps more. There were times that Kilgarrah believed that if he had heard the underground rumblings earlier, something could have been done at the very beginning to stop it, but it was too late now to be miserly and contemplative when hindsight didn't clear the view ahead. He had done what he could with the limitations that existed. The machinations to get Excalibur together had taken too much time -- government red tape was more cloying than troll spit -- but they were together now, and that was what mattered the most.

What was left to do was to ensure that the team stayed together regardless of outside interference. When it was originally created, the Directory of Alternate Affairs was a well-meaning disaster that had grown up to be an autonomous entity headed by men blinded by power and personal agendas, and Solomon Bayard was one of the elite who pulled the strings for his own ends.

There were whispers in the background, whispers that reached Kilgarrah even here, far away from the overpopulated regions that had once been his home, that action was being taken to put Excalibur directly under the Directory's purview.

It came as no surprise.

The British Army's SAS units were made up of highly-trained men at peak physical fitness and specifically assembled in a squad so that the strengths of one man balanced out the weaknesses of the others. Each team was a well-oiled, fully-functional unit that could operate independently with little interference from the chain of command and while in hostile territory, completely cut off from any friendly assistance.

On the surface, Excalibur was no different than the other SAS teams. They had received the same training, gone through similar gauntlets of missions in every possible environment -- in the frigid arctic, in the torrential rainforests, in the desert, in the mountains, over sea, and were as at ease in critical situations in urban settings as they were in the middle of nowhere.

The difference was in the details. Nearly all of the team obstacle course records had been set by Excalibur. Nearly every member of Excalibur held a record of some sort, or were exceptional in ways that other people could only dream to be exceptional. And best yet, no other team were led by Captain Pendragon, who had the absolute, complete loyalty of his men. Most of the members had known each other before the military, and they were as tightly knit now, and had missed only one important piece of the puzzle, banding together to make do until they had found it.

Or rather, him. And they hadn't found anything, not exactly. Excalibur would never had found Merlin if Kilgarrah hadn't found him first.

Since then, Excalibur performed not like a well-oiled machine, but perfection itself. They were a team, unbroken, unshakeable, always there for each other. And everyone saw it, recognized it, and wanted it for themselves. The missions that came through the pipe nearly always requested Excalibur specifically.

Colonel Mandrake and Major Kilgarrah met regularly to ensure that the actual missions on the rosters were equally distributed to all the other SAS team, reserving the missions requiring a particular set of skills for Excalibur. No sense in overwhelming them while simultaneously guiding them, shaping them, strengthening them.

Bayard's machinations threatened to destroy what Kilgarrah had put together before it was complete. Like every sword that was created, it needed to be forged, hammered, folded, tempered, sharpened and quenched.

Excalibur was nearly there. Nearly.

Kilgarrah breathed smoke.

There was a knock on the door.

"Come in."

The door creaked open, and the light footsteps stopped just inside the door. "Lieutenant Emrys for you, sir."

"Thank you, Corporal. That'll be all."

The plexiglass reflected movement. Kilgarrah watched the Corporal step aside to let Merlin through. Merlin walked in, taking two resolute steps forward, and stood at attention beside the chair on the other side of Kilgarrah's desk. The Corporal discreetly rubbed her nose and held her breath until she left the office. He scowled at her faint cough, still audible despite the three-inch hollowed-out excuse for a door.

Kilgarrah finished off his cigarette, turned around and stubbed it out in an ashtray. He wondered when anyone would ever notice that he didn't exactly smoke the fags in the first place.

"Sit down, Emrys," Kilgarrah said, reaching for a notepad and pen, putting both in front of Merlin. He picked up the pack of cigarettes, liberated a fresh stick, and "lit" it with a lighter that hadn't had butane fluid in it since the 1960s.

Merlin sat.

Kilgarrah pulled out a piece of paper from his chest pocket, unfolded it to skim the contents, and feeling annoyed, yet once again, that he could be confused by a simple set of jumbled letters. There was a time that he could read the code as surely as if they were written in plain language, but out of necessity, the code had grown more and more complicated to advance beyond what human technology and intellect could understand. Nowadays, he needed to sit down and work it out in his head, or on paper. Sometimes he wondered if he needed glasses.

There was no need for that, not when he had a mathematical genius who was also Balinor Emrys' son under his command. No one else would be able to understand the code. It was a very special code.

He put the message on top of the pad of paper.

"Decrypt this."

"Sir?" Merlin's gaze flicked down to the sheet of paper and back at Kilgarrah, uncertainly marring his expression. His fingers traced the edge of the sheet, smoothing it down, easing the creases from the fold, but he never glanced at the contents, intent on keeping his conscience clear of any secrets that were not his to have.

Kilgarrah nearly snorted. Merlin's cryptography training had been so thorough that it had only reinforced a lifetime of keeping secrets.

He was a foolish, foolish boy who didn't realize that there was one person in the universe that he could trust implicitly with his deepest, darkest secret. It was the same person who had managed to earn Merlin's trust in everything else. There were times that Kilgarrah watched the two of them walk down the street together, each of them silent or in fervent discussion or even sharing a laugh, and he felt as if he should march out toward the two and smash their heads together until they saw sense.

"I'll take it to communications. It shouldn't take long to decrypt," Merlin said.

"The key isn't in the system," Kilgarrah said patiently, turning around again to stare out the window.

"The Crack Box has an extensive database --" Merlin began uncertainly, trailing off as if he hoped Kilgarrah would offer him an explanation.

There were many reasons. One of those reasons was to minimize Merlin's exposure to the spy in the Communications Centre -- a person who had come to Mandrake's and Kilgarrah's attention when the mission in the NMZ had gone missing and they'd conducted their own quiet investigation on the people who could be responsible. Another reason was to keep the message out of the Directory's hands on the off-chance that Gilli Merriam was smart enough to recognize the code as dragon cryptocode.

"Pen and paper, Emrys. Do what you do best."

"It might take some time," Merlin said weakly.

"I'll wait."

"Can I --"

"It doesn't leave the room, Emrys," Kilgarrah said, and he clasped his hands behind him, his shoulders back, and waited.

And waited. He spent the better part of a half hour staring out the window, every physical being leaving drifting patterns and eddies in their wake, more difficult to see now that Merlin was in the room, bright and brilliant and drowning out nearly everyone else except for Arthur Pendragon, who was as bright and brilliant as the sorcerer in his own way. At the end of the half-hour, the interruptions began.

There was paperwork to be dealt with. New commands to be overseen. Mandrake was handling most of the heavy lifting until the message was decrypted, but it didn't stop people from coming to his door. Even though Merlin was in his zone, completely and utterly focused on the code -- Kilgarrah noted that Merlin had yet to put pen to paper, and had spent the last little while merely staring at the symbols on the page as if trying to decide why they were so familiar -- Kilgarrah left the office rather than to distract him any further.

He needed the message decrypted. It would confirm all the whispers coming through the cracks. It would help him decide how he would best handle the situation. Manipulate it. Twist it for his own purposes.

It was twilight, with the falling sun easing below the horizon in a ball of flame with bright orange plumes streaking into the night sky the way it had looked on the day Krakatoa erupted, though nowhere as vivid and powerful as Santorini's spectacular fireworks display, when he returned to the office to find Merlin sitting where Kilgarrah had left him. One foot was up on another chair, his hand tapping on the armrest of his own, his eyes glazed and distant, the pad of paper in his lap.

Kilgarrah had expected to see crumpled pieces of paper littering the floor. Whenever he was forced to decrypt a message, Kilgarrah could nearly completely break through a fresh pad. He glanced at the wastebasket, but it was empty, and he frowned. Had Merlin failed to crack the code? Had he been wrong about the boy?

He cleared his throat. Merlin startled and shot out of his chair, standing at attention. The pen bounced on the floor; the paper crashed in a rippled heap. The coded sheet swept in the air, caught by a breeze from the air conditioner perpetually humming in the background and floated down from side to side.

"Well?"

"Sorry, sir." Merlin picked up the debris and hastily stood up, offering Kilgarrah the pad of paper with the single sheet of paper on top.

He glanced at the coded message. There were a few random squiggles written in the margins, squiggles that looked more to be random doodling than a decryption attempt. An unhappy sensation resulted in a growling puff of smoke. If Merlin couldn't crack the code, that meant Kilgarrah would have to spend all night working on it himself, which would result in an unexpected delay that he might not be able to afford --

It was then that he noticed the lettering on the edge of the pad of paper. He swept the coded sheet aside and read.

He's cashing in golden favours and rattling the tree until the apples drop. The orders are on their way, and you won't like them. You have four days before the hammer hits.

Kilgarrah glanced at Merlin, who was trying his best not to reveal his curiosity. He had to be impressed; Merlin had translated the encryption and the language it was written in without intermediary calculations, but then again, his father had been much the same. Kilgarrah moved around his desk and sat down to read the rest of the message.

Confirmation: the boy is one of them. The usual cautions apply. Attempts have been made to recall him through the usual routes, but he has some powerful friends.

When Kilgarrah was unable to reassign Gilli Merriam to another base after he saw the amount of time and influence he was imposing over Merlin, he had decided that some sort of power play was going on behind the scenes and didn't push further, in case he attracted unwanted attention from the Directory. It didn't matter. If he couldn't reassign Gilli Merriam, he could do something about the Crack Box that was his entire excuse for being on the base.

His lips curled in a nasty smile, which faded as he read on.

Confirmation: your suspicions of their intent. The orders are to transfer chain of command immediately. Signatures pending; measures being taken to delay.

Kilgarrah glanced up briefly at Merlin, who was still standing, his body taut with a nervous energy that wavered equally between wanting to get out of the office and needing to ask questions. The boy, surprisingly, managed to remain silent.

Four days is the best I can do. It may be less. I hope it's enough.

It was going to have to be, Kilgarrah knew, but it meant moving quickly. Already, he was sorting through the potential solutions that he had worked out, and read the last line of the message.

Warning: I may have been compromised. The code will be changed.

He put down the notepad, remarking that Merlin had not only successfully managed to translate and decode the message, but that he'd been similarly able to retain the voice of the man writing -- deferential, while still managing a fair amount of his usual sarcasm. If he hadn't known, this unusual, frightening ease was further evidence that Merlin Emrys was a Dragonlord.

Best if he wasn't told. It would be inconvenient for Kilgarrah and his kin.

He put the decoded message to the side with the code; they would be burned to unrecoverable cinders later, when Merlin wasn't there to observe the mechanisms of it. For now, however...

Kilgarrah opened a drawer and pulled out several file folders. He rearranged the contents of the topmost folder, discarding one sheet to replace it with an item for another. It was several minutes before he was satisfied, and he leaned forward to leave one of the bundles on the edge of his desk for Merlin.

"For your Captain," Kilgarrah said, watching Merlin's eyes glance down at the file folder. He took it a moment later.

"Yes, sir."

"You're dismissed."

"Yes, sir," Merlin said uncertainly, snapping to attention once more, turning on his heel, and heading for the door. Kilgarrah glanced up when he didn't hear the door open and shut. "Sir?"

"What is it, Emrys?"

"Aren't you going to tell me to keep mum on this, sir?"

Kilgarrah leaned back in his chair. "Do I need to?"

"No, sir. It's just, sir. Everyone else does," Merlin said, sounding a little embarrassed. Kilgarrah didn't answer, and Merlin bowed his head, staring at his feet, and nodded faintly. "Yes, sir. Goodnight, sir."

"One more thing, Emrys," Kilgarrah said, and Merlin turned around, his hand still on the doorknob. "Advise your Captain to begin putting together a list of conditions."

"For what, sir?" Kilgarrah raised a brow. Merlin's expression startled into pale-faced understanding, and he cleared his throat. "Yes, sir."

Kilgarrah waited until the door shut behind Merlin before picking up the phone, dialling an extension. "Get me Mandrake."

 

ooOOoo

 

Over the last few days, Arthur noticed that Excalibur's duties were restricted to the base by the Brass. If he tracked the pattern, he knew exactly when the orders changed: the day after he'd sent Geraint and Galahad off on a short-stint mission escorting a transport that required snipers for the journey. They'd returned that morning, looking sour, because the sergeant in charge had sent them back with no explanation beyond, "You've been recalled to base."

Only, that was news to Arthur. He'd made inquiries, Leon had made his own, but no one in the command centre seemed to know anything about the change of orders beyond the fact that it had come straight from Colonel Mandrake himself. Rather than confront Mandrake to find out what was going on -- a rather fruitless endeavour given that the man was locked up in the Quiet Room and didn't seem likely to leave that den anytime soon -- Arthur ordered Geraint and Galahad to have some rack time, and further restricted the team's duties to little else beyond the daily physical training routine in case they were to scramble at a moment's notice.

Arthur could recognize the hurry up and wait gambit when he saw it. He'd been through it often enough, but this time, it had gone on longer than usual.

There had been a few other assignments on their agenda, missions that did not require a full team, including local patrols and short stints to the next base, but when Arthur went to get the intel, he was told that those missions had been pulled and reassigned to other teams. His nose had been bent out of joint over it, but by the third or fourth, he realized that something big was going on.

Big enough to put the team on a holding pattern that was interminable and mind-numbing. Big enough that the other teams had noticed what was going on and were alternatingly sympathetic to the dry well and jealous of the future promise of something that would pound the adrenaline through their addicted veins.

Arthur didn't like it. If something was coming down the pipe, Arthur had at least some notion of it ahead of time. Demanded it, in fact, as necessary so that he could prepare his men. That included ordering supplies, giving them time to ensure that their gear was in good order -- which was a given, regardless -- and making certain they knew everything they needed to know about what was waiting for them on the other end.

In fact, it was protocol for the head of the team and their second to be read into the pending missions. This being left in the dark until the last minute bollocks didn't sit well with him.

He glanced up from his papers and watched Leon shut the door to the barracks, struggling a bit with the strong wind. Leon met his eyes and shook his head.

It was either a I haven't heard word, and I've been asking shake of the head, or it was a I haven't any idea where Merlin is. Again. Why don't you put a leash on the man head shake. Either way, the answer was still no.

On the one hand, if there were still no news for an upcoming mission, Arthur was half-convinced that the lack of missions had to do with meddling at a level above the Brass, and that was as clear an indication as any that the Directory was involved. If the Directory was involved to this extent, to meddling with army business, then it was a good bet that their next orders would be a secondment.

He chewed the inside of his cheek in thought.

On the other hand, Merlin was nowhere to be found, which was only more of the usual, because the man was never where he was supposed to be even when he was expected somewhere. He wasn't in the communications tent; it had been Perceval's turn to fetch him and glare down any attempts from that Merriam plonker to have Merlin overstay his duty shift, but there had been a shift change in the comm tent before Perceval showed up, and not only hadn't anyone seen Merlin in some time, but Merriam came storming out in a right fit state, demanding to know where Merlin had gone.

He wasn't at his usual haunts, either, but all that Arthur cared about was that Merlin wasn't stuck in the communications tent, and that he was probably all right, if the number of times that Merriam had haunted the barracks was any indication. The growing storm was howling to a feverish pitch, nearly at strength to swirl the sand in the air to speeds where it would be strong enough to polish down the paint on any exposed metal surface, and it was doing a job of keeping the plonker away.

It was also keeping Merlin away, Arthur knew with a frown. Arthur glanced around the barracks. A quarter of his men were at the mess hall, and another quarter were at the showers, with the rest here -- and all he was missing was one.

He checked his watch and half-shook his head.

The door swung open wildly, scattering half of his desk, and it was a struggle to keep the other half from following. Gwaine and Perceval (mostly Gwaine, with Perceval looking on with a laugh) struggled with the door in the wind; already, the team were reinforcing the barracks as best as they could before they were overcome by the weather. The airfield was locked down, the transports grounded, the camp as braced against the storm as was humanely possible, and still, there was no sign of Merlin.

Arthur gathered up his papers with a glare at Gwaine, who dusted himself off, and nodded at Perceval, who helped him with the rest of the scattered sheets. "No sign of him, Arthur, but I've spoken to that Dean bloke, works in the comms tent? Turns out Merlin was called in to command, something about Major Kilgarrah wanting him."

"When was that?"

"Hours ago. Midmorning, like," Gwaine said. "Might still be there, if you go by what the girls say."

"And what do the girls say?" Arthur shoved his papers into a drawer, out of the way. He doubted he'd get any more work done until the rest of the team had arrived.

"That The Dragon locked Merlin in his office and that's all they know," Gwaine said. "Useless lot of them. Couldn't go about spying or gossiping like I'd have done."

"Of course you would," Arthur said, sitting heavily in his chair. At least that settled the question of Merlin's location, easing his worry somewhat, but it didn't help matters. There was everything else to be worried about -- had Merlin even eaten today? He hadn't been at the mess hall earlier, and from the sounds of it, he'd missed the midday grub. Bad enough that Merlin had been picking at his tray of late -- understandable, given the condition of the food, but to skip meals completely?

Arthur checked himself, shaking his head. He was a mother hen at the best of times, protective of his men, but with Merlin, it was more than that. He was acting like a bloody fretful wife..

The door swung open again, and he turned around, wincing against the wind, except there was either a lull in the storm, or --

the faintest glint of gold rimmed Merlin's bright blue eyes

-- damn it, Merlin had been using his magic again, because the wind had barely crossed the threshold. Arthur was no longer certain what infuriated him more, that Merlin was so difficult to find, or that he wouldn't tell Arthur about his magic.

Merlin lingered in the doorway, the door shut behind him, a beat-up, rolled-up folder tucked under his arm. "Arthur."

He was breathless, as if he'd been running, but it was equally likely that he was only breathless from the struggle of fighting against the storm. Arthur didn't care; the sound of his name spoken like that, hoarse and deep and a little desperate, did unspeakable things to him. He didn't dare close his eyes to give any notice to the very vivid fantasy demanding attention, because then he'd be in a very awkward, extremely compromising situation.

All because of Merlin's voice.

"You weren't at the comms tent," Arthur pointed out, his voice harsher than normal.

"I know, I was at command," Merlin said.

"Right. You couldn't have sent word?" He turned away from Merlin, glancing up to see Leon's disapproving frown and glared at him until Leon went back to what he was doing.

"Was kind of --" Merlin's hand wrapped around Arthur's arm, pulling, tugging, insistent, until Arthur turned around. At any other time, Arthur would revel in the simple fact that Merlin had reached out to touch him, but this time, his irritation won out. He started to pull his arm away, but Merlin's fingers dug in. "Arthur!"

"What?"

"I have to talk to you," Merlin said, his eyes big and shining, tilting his head insistently, gesturing to the barracks door.

Arthur didn't want to go out there if he didn't have to. He looked from Merlin to the rest of Excalibur and back. "Can't it wait?"

"No."

"Fuck," Arthur muttered under his breath. He reached for his jacket. "Have you eaten?"

"No, but that doesn't matter. Just. I have to talk to you. Now. It's important."

"All right. Fine," Arthur said, nodding to Leon. "We'll be back in a bit."

He twisted out of Merlin's hold, taking Merlin's arm, and guided him out of the barracks, ducking his head under the collar of his jacket when the wind blew the finest sandpaper against his skin. He held Merlin close, using the storm as an excuse, raising the front of his jacket to use as a barrier against the worst of the wind, and walked double-fast toward the mess hall in a route that he navigated blind. His arm was wrapped around Merlin's waist, his fingers through the loop of his belt, resting lightly at his hip.

More, his body craved, while his mind sternly recited the regulations against fraternizing with a subordinate.

Arthur let go of Merlin as soon as they were within sight of the mess tent, shoving him on ahead. He yanked the door shut behind him, the wind helping him this time, and he turned to push Merlin toward the buffet line.

They were among the double-handful or so of people who were braving the storm for grub, and the cook behind the counter looked grateful to see them. "Didn't think the weather were going to hit this hard. Hate to see the food go to waste."

"Haven't been here long?" Merlin asked.

"God, no. Just arrived a week ago, and I hope I'm not here long enough to get used to it," the cook said, giving Merlin a double helping of the choicest bits. Arthur took a tray for himself and followed Merlin quietly toward a table at the back of the large tent, the furthest away from anyone. It was also the noisiest location, with the wind slapping at the corners of the thick canvas walls that someone hadn't secured taut.

"So I was in the comms tent when I get called to The Dragon's --"

"Eat first," Arthur said, glancing down pointedly at Merlin's tray.

"I can do both," Merlin complained. "I said it was urgent."

Arthur thumbed in the general direction of outside and said, "Don't be an idiot, Merlin. Nothing's happening in this storm. Whatever it is, it can wait until you've eaten enough to sate that monster you've got growling in your belly."

"It's not growling." A second later, his stomach rumbled, audible even across the table and despite the howling wind. Merlin flushed red, ducked his head, and poked his fork at a few lumps that might be food before eating sullenly. Arthur tried not to pay too much attention to the rolling manila folder that rocked every time Merlin's hand brushed against it.

Merlin was a quarter of the way through his tray when he glanced up with those sparkling blues of his, as if asking permission, and Arthur nodded, gesturing for him to go ahead.

"So Kilgarrah -- wait. I'm ahead of myself." Merlin paused, and glanced around the tent. No one was near enough to hear them, but it looked as if Merlin was making sure that a certain person wasn't in the room. "I called my old C.O. in the Artists. Should've done a long time ago, but all his other paperwork checked out, and I didn't think to, especially since Mandrake confirmed his clearance. But, anyway, Gilli's not a crypto. He hasn't been vetted. No one's heard of him."

Arthur put down his fork. He leaned forward, feeling his anger rise, and it came out in a sharp, low, "What?"

"Yeah. That's not it either. He's Directory. He started off regular army, but he's Directory since Boot Camp. Two years ago."

"What?" Arthur said again, and this time, the edge of his voice was less razor sharp and more serrated like a tree saw's edge, cutting and absolutely brutal. He'd been stunned by the initial discovery, but the second jarring shock started the wheels turning. There was only one reason why the Directory would have an incompetent, wet-behind-the-ears piece of shite like Gilli Merriam on the payroll. It wasn't because he was any spectacular whiz kid with communications -- although the placement gave them an opportunity to control the influx of information and to suppress the outbound. It was because Gilli Merriam had magic.

That little fucking plonker.

"There's more," Merlin said. "It's Kilgarrah. Pulled me out of comms to do a pencil-crack of some code I've never seen before, and --"

"Merlin, you're not going to tell me something I shouldn't be hearing?"

Merlin looked gravely insulted. He reached over with his fork, speared a piece of Arthur's lemon pie (it actually tasted like lemons for a change) and chewed slowly, making Arthur wait a long, frustrating minute before he continued. "And, anyway, after he finished reading the message, he was spooked --"

"Are we talking about the same Kilgarrah? Major Kilgarrah? The Dragon?"

"-- and he told me to give you this. I got the distinct impression that it's an urgent, limited-time-only sort of thing." Merlin pushed the file folder toward him.

"How limited time?" Arthur picked up the folder and glanced around, thumbing at the cover before flipping it open.

"Well, that was part of the message that my C.O. doesn't think I should be telling anyone about." Merlin's eyes narrowed and he leaned in. "What's your security clearance again?"

"Don't give me your bloody cheek, Merlin. How much time?"

Merlin's expression darkened. "Four days. Maybe less."

"Did he say why?" Arthur cracked open the file folder. There were four sheets, all of them with the bare bones for four different assignments. He glanced through them one by one, taking his time with each.

"Only that I'm to tell you to come up with a list of conditions."

Arthur glanced at Merlin, took in his expression, came to his own conclusion and grimaced. "The Directory."

"Yeah, I think so," Merlin said carefully, the way he did when he knew something he wasn't allowed to talk about.

"We're getting seconded. And Kilgarrah wants a list of conditions? What for?"

Merlin shook his head and shrugged. "I have no idea."

Arthur had his suspicions, but he didn't voice his thoughts out loud. Major Kilgarrah was pulling strings in the background on their behalf, and wanted terms of agreement from Arthur, from the team, that had to be decided upon before the military acceded to the secondment. Excalibur didn't exactly have a choice if the order came down -- they went where the army told them to, but if someone else were pulling the strings to get them there, they were even less likely to have any say in the matter. What did The Dragon think he could do? Arthur knew that his father eyed Major Kilgarrah warily and stepped lightly around the man, so if someone like Uther Pendragon could be nervous around someone, it had to be for a reason.

If they had four days or less, the contents of the folder looked fully intent on extending the time frame by a good week -- possibly to give Kilgarrah the chance to do whatever it was that he was planning to do -- for his benefit or their own, Arthur didn't know. Four assignments meant four teams scattered all over the desert, making it easy to lose accompanying paperwork and coordinates. It would make them harder to find.

Smart man. It would buy them time. But it was also time that Arthur would be spending in the outskirts of nowhere with absolutely no control over the situation. He didn't like it -- he didn't like much of anything lately -- but he knew that whether he was on base or out on a mission, he wouldn't have any sort of control whatsoever.

He raised a brow at Merlin and pointed at his tray. "Eat."

"But..."

"Merlin, I know it's highly unlikely, but if you eat, maybe you'll be quiet long enough for me to go through these."

Arthur found himself staring at Merlin's grin, wasting precious seconds that he could have spent on the paperwork from Major Kilgarrah. He shook himself out of it, hoping that Merlin hadn't noticed, and went back to the first page in the folder, studying each one in turn carefully. He was smirking by the time he'd gone through to the final sheet, trying to decide if his luck was growing or if Kilgarrah was trying to tell him something.

He knew who to assign based on the rudimentary sketch of each mission. Lance, Geraint, Galahad, Bohrs on the first. Perceval, Lamorak, Gareth, Pellinor on the second. Leon, Owain, Bedivere and Lucan on the third.

The fourth mission would be Arthur, Merlin, Kay and Gwaine. His mind was churning out possible plans for each of the missions, though he trusted Lance, Perceval, and Leon to be able to come up with their own approaches and contingencies.

He glanced up at a tug on his arm, and studied Merlin's long fingers, tangled up in the fabric of his sleeve. Instead of pulling away, those fingers stayed where they were, dangerously close to bare skin.

"Arthur."

Arthur glanced up and met brilliant eyes full of worry that he wanted to brush away.

"What are we going to do about Gilli?"

"Works for the Directory, you said?" Arthur asked. Merlin nodded. If that were true, and Arthur had no reason to doubt Merlin, then that explained a lot of things that had been going on in the last few weeks, including how Bayard had manipulated things behind the scenes to take certain missions off the duty roster -- including the one that took them to the NMZ in Turkmenistan. He glanced down at one of the assignments and smiled grimly. "I have a plan."

 

ooOOoo

 

As soon as they returned to the barracks from the mess hall -- Arthur once again holding Merlin against him as if he were a rare bit of jigsaw puzzle piece that fit and was afraid that it would be blown away by the wind, shielding them both with his jacket -- Arthur began with the plans.

The first thing he did was outline what was going on without divulging any of the confidential decrypted information that Merlin had given him, leaving Kilgarrah out of it as much as he possibly could. The second thing was to hand out the assignments to the team leaders and to sketch out, privately, what he wanted each to do while simultaneously giving them the independence to handle the situations as they saw fit. The third thing he did was to emphasize one very important point: take your time. They should be in no hurry to get back to base, had the freedom to lollygag and sightsee and give a hand to whoever they encountered on their return routes, and the only reason they should cut something short was if they heard from Arthur himself. No one else.

That got an exchange of glances throughout the group, some uncertain, others amused, and Gwaine was the one who gestured with wraggling fingers, "Come on, now. Let's have the rest of it."

"The rest of it you already know," Arthur said. "We suspected that we'd get seconded to the Directory, and now there's almost a 95% certainty that it's going to happen in the next week, if not sooner."

Perceval glanced down at the mission sheet. "If that's going to happen, shouldn't we be here? These assignments are going to take longer than the week."

"That's the point," Arthur said smugly, crossing his arms over his chest. Merlin felt his glance, and did his best not to look up. "If they want us, they're not going to get us easily. We'll give them a list of demands."

Gwaine nearly choked on his own snort of amusement. "You're making us sound like terrorists, mate."

"Arthur, we go where they tell us to go," Leon said, his tone the easy calm of an orderly trying to quiet an unruly patient in the psychiatric ward.

"Leon's right," Perceval said. "It's non-negotiable. I'm not even sure if --"

Arthur uncrossed his arms, which had the effect of settling everyone down while they waited for him to say something more. "All true. You're right. The army can hand us over if there's enough pressure from on-high. And they will. But if the Directory expects us to cooperate as simple as an as-you-please, they've got another thing coming. They either agree to our terms, or we do the bare minimum. If the NWO gets away because we're on a fag break, that's not our problem, is it?"

They all stared -- even Merlin -- at Arthur as if he'd grown a second head, and it was Gwaine who broke the silence with a snicker. "Nasty, Arthur. Very nasty. I knew you had it in you."

Arthur's smile was the soft, arrogant, cocky world-in-the-palm-of-his-hand assurance that he'd shown when they were on their assignment in Algiers for the Directory, and it sent an unbidden shiver down Merlin's spine. When Arthur's hooded eyes, with just the faintest glimmer of blue in them, glanced in his direction, Merlin's capability for coherent thought went out the window, where it was ripped apart by the storm winds.

There was one, and only one reason why Merlin would agree to working for the Directory again, and that was for an encore performance from Arthur -- except this time, if Arthur, no, when Arthur knocked on his hotel room door again, Merlin would have the courage to ask him inside.

And damn the regulations.

Arthur broke eye contact first, and looked over the group as if there hadn't been a moment between them. "So? What sort of demands do you want to put down? I have two things. The first, that our service under secondment counts toward our active service with the army, so that once our time runs out, our time runs out and we're free to return to civilian life. The second, that they can only stop-loss us if we all agree to it, and for a term of our choosing."

"A salary increase," said Geraint.

"A danger pay bonus," added Galahad.

Of course those two would go for the cash first. Merlin rolled his eyes.

"They pick up my bar tab from now until infinity," Gwaine put in. There was an assortment of snickers.

"I don't think their budget goes that high. You might bankrupt them," Arthur pointed out.

"And that's a problem how?" Gwaine asked.

After a moment of musing, Perceval pointed out, "That might work in our favour."

The banter went on for a few minutes, centered over money and materialistic gains before dipping into the ridiculous (dates with movie stars) and the absolutely ridiculous (a trip to space on that Virgin jumbo jet thing). Merlin shook his head and wondered when Arthur's impatience would break, but it looked like he was content to let it run its course.

"Full disclosure in all of their affairs," Leon said, the first serious suggestion since Arthur opened the floor.

Arthur nodded and gestured to Merlin, and Merlin, flying him the finger, picked up his tablet and started typing. "Not a bloody personal assistant, Arthur," he muttered.

"Access to their gadgets," Geraint put in. "They had gadgets in Algiers. I want some of those."

"You don't even know what they do," Galahad said.

"Doesn't matter. They're gadgets."

Merlin glanced at Arthur. Arthur nodded. Merlin added it to the list.

"Training," Owain said suddenly. "Weren't we supposed to get training from Mister Smith? We got the bare basics, I think. We should have more of it, if we'll be expected to be in the thick of it."

Another nod from Arthur, and another notation on the tablet.

"Everything they know about magic," Kay suggested. "Their libraries. They've got to have libraries, don't they? With history and spells and databases?"

"Spells? What would we do with those?" Gwaine laid on his cot and put his feet up on the bar at the end of his bed. "It's not like we've got a sorcerer, do we?"

"No, but it's nice knowing what they can do, innit? Prepare ourselves and the like. That way we won't get shocked by little surprises. And besides, we've got Merlin. He'd understand that stuff, wouldn't he?" Kay asked. He turned to Merlin. "You would, yeah?"

Merlin's head shot up, and he stammered wordlessly. "I. Um. I don't. What?"

"The library, Merlin," Arthur said, his voice the calm chill before the storm, his expression like stone, his eyes clouded over. "Access to their libraries. We could all make use of that information, not just Merlin."

Merlin ducked his head, grateful for the distraction that Arthur provided, and added it to the list.

"Shouldn't we ask for a pet sorcerer?" Owain asked.

"That's not a bad idea," Gwaine said.

There were quiet, grudging choruses of agreement on one side, and reluctant murmurs on the other, and Arthur cut them all off with a firm, "I'm well aware that fighting magic with magic would be extremely beneficial --"

"I'd like a translation to the posh bollocks coming out of his mouth, please!" Gwaine grunted, snapping his fingers in the air.

"He said, yeah, you're right, but..." Perceval supplied helpfully.

"Oh, for the love of God! Of course it's an excellent idea. Why is there a but?"

Arthur cleared his throat, and it was the sound of a nuclear bomb dropping that had Merlin hold his breath in fearful anticipation. "Because I wouldn't trust anyone the Directory gives us."

There was a long silence, and Merlin risked looking up from his tablet. When he did, it was to the sight of troubled faces thinking what Arthur had said and admitting that he had a point. Even Gwaine sat up from his prone position and shrugged a shoulder in capitulation.

"We'll make do without the Directory's help," Arthur said, and Merlin wondered, why was Arthur looking at him like that? His eyes were still shadowed, but his gaze was intense, his jaw was set, and his shoulders rounded forward like a man who was waiting.

Merlin wasn't sure what he was waiting for, but his heart stopped beating.

Merlin was the one who broke eye contact this time. He could have sworn he heard a soft, resigned sigh in Arthur's voice when he asked, "All right. Does anyone have anything else?"


The teams took two days to finalize their preparations for their missions, and to pack up the majority of what they would need on their return if it turned out that they would be marched from the barracks straight to a Directory-owned transport to Only the Gods Knew Where. For all the team's good cheer about the possibility that they'd end up under the Directory's command, there was a grimness to their actions, a strained anticipation of the worst about to come raining down on them.

Merlin wished that he could reassure them, somehow, but he wasn't all that reassured himself.

While Arthur took their "list of demands" -- which did, in the end, include picking up the team's expenses, because as long as they were under the Directory's payroll, they were likely to be expected to act a certain way to maintain their cover stories -- to Kilgarrah, Merlin headed to the communications centre. He didn't go in until Gilli was off duty, not wanting to deal with him at the moment.

There would be enough of that later. Why did he agree to Arthur's idea again?

"Ah, Merlin, you've timed it perfectly," Dean said, grinning. "We're about to go on break. You'll handle the comms as usual, won't you?"

"As usual," Merlin said, flashing Dean a quick smile, feeling his gut wrench. It was going to be his last time handling the comms. He liked this group -- with exception of Gilli -- and he hated the thought that he might not be able to tell them good-bye.

He waited until they filed out, until the guard at the door gave Merlin a curt nod and followed after them, shutting the door for privacy. The usual switches, knobs and dials were toggled, turned and flipped, and Merlin kept an eye on Dean's console -- the primary for incoming alerts -- while waiting for the phone to ring through.

"Merlin?"

"How'd you know it was me?" Merlin felt some of the tension ease from his shoulders to hear his uncle's voice.

"Caller ID," Gaius said flatly, without humour, but Merlin could picture Gaius' eyes twinkling with teasing, because he well knew that this phone call was untraceable. "How are you, my boy?"

Merlin didn't know how to answer. The silence stretched, and he heaved a sigh.

"That well,?" Gaius asked, and the Bushy Eyebrow of Doom must have dipped into an unhappy frown, because Merlin could hear it in his voice.

"Worse," Merlin said, feeling sunk. "I'm out in the field for a week or so, maybe more if we can drag our heels."

"Dragging your heels out in a battlefield isn't an indication of sanity, Merlin," Gaius said, a teaspoon of admonition in his voice. "Why would you do that?"

Merlin rubbed his face. "Delaying the inevitable. When we get back, we're almost guaranteed to be seconded under the Directory."

There was a long pause, the hollow Doppler effect of the phone being shifted from one ear to another, the sound of a chair scraping and someone sitting down.

"Merlin. Have you… attempted to transfer out of your unit?"

Merlin's head dropped, and he stared at the scuffed wood floor, at the black duct tape holding down the wires and cables from one terminal to another, thinking idly that the army spent a lot of time concerning themselves about tripping hazards and not enough about keeping people safe from evil secret agents who work under no one's purview except possibly the Queen herself.

How could he explain to Uncle Gaius that however much he didn't want to be within a hundred kilometres of the Directory, he didn't want to leave his team to them? That knowing the threats that the team was going to face in the future, he couldn't leave them undefended? He had a duty to them, a responsibility… and if it made his heart ache to imagine them working for the Directory against the NWO's sorcerers and whatever other supernatural incidents without adequate protection or help, it positively shattered his heart to know that he would also be leaving Arthur behind.

He couldn't leave Arthur. Even if nothing happened between them, ever, because Arthur couldn't break the rules and Merlin didn't want to make him break them (however much he wished the opposite), if they were in the Directory for years and years, if Arthur ended up hating Merlin for not telling him about his magic… He couldn't leave Arthur. Imagining himself away from Arthur, without Arthur, hurt in ways Merlin couldn't describe.

Merlin rubbed a hand on his chest, trying to ease the pressure, the ache, the pain that was building there at the mere suggestion of being without Arthur.

"I see," Gaius said after a long silence, as if Merlin had answered his question. He sighed heavily, and said again, "I see."

"I'm sorry, Gaius. I can't. It's my team," Merlin said. What he couldn't choke out was, And I love him.

"No," Gaius said kindly. "Don't apologize for that. You're so much like your father, I should have realized. You can't abandon them any more than your father could have left his team."

"Even despite…" Merlin trailed off. His father had died protecting his team. At least, that was what he remembered. He'd been too young to really understand, and all he had were flashes of images. The uniformed soldier at their door. His Mum holding his hand tightly, then picking him up after the news was delivered. "Lieutenant Balinor Emrys is missing in action, ma'am. We're doing our best to find him, but he's deep in enemy territory, and… I'm sorry, ma'am. You should prepare for the worst."

Merlin's Mum hadn't cried, then. She'd been convinced that Merlin's dad would come home. She'd stayed awake for weeks on end, well into the early hours of the morning, waiting for him to come through the door.

The same soldier had returned to the house several times, to check on them, to make sure they didn't need anything, to update them on the progress of their searches, because Balinor Emrys was Someone Important, and that had always made Merlin's heart swell with pride.

Then one day the soldier stopped visiting, and, weeks later, came with papers for Merlin's Mum to sign. Widow's benefits.

"You're not going to… You're not going to try to talk me out of it?" It wasn't that Merlin had any particular want or need to join the Directory. They could all go sod themselves for all Merlin cared. He didn't want to come to their notice, he didn't want to be under their command.

But he couldn't leave the team.

"No one would ask it of you, Merlin," Gaius said softly, understanding what Merlin was really asking. "Not your mother, not me."

Merlin didn't answer. He closed his eyes. He held on to that reassurance, because it was the only thing he had right now.

There was a beep on Dean's console. Merlin walked over to see what it was, and typed a few commands to acknowledge receipt, forward it on to the appropriate party, and sign in the notification. A chopper was landing with some V.I.P.s, and Merlin had a bad feeling that the human cargo included Mister Smith.

Everything suddenly took on a deeper shade of urgency.

"Have you heard anything about them?" Merlin asked.

"Only a little more than what we discussed last time," Gaius said, his tone heavy, weary, as if he dreaded what he was about to say. He took a deep breath and steeled himself, continuing in his quiet way, that same way he would use when he was too exhausted from past anger to be angry any more.

"After World War II, things changed. The Directory's focus went from protecting the nation to actively seeking out the talented and recruiting them under a dogma of better them than us. The home-grown talent knew better than to step up because most of them had been conscripted for the war, and those who hadn't gone were warned by those who were returning home to keep their abilities secret. Unfortunately, the Directory cast their net wider, and it appears that the majority of the controlling members of the board, the surviving members -- they are foreign nationals."

Merlin stood up abruptly, the handset against his ear, tucking free hand under his arm. And he started to pace, chewing his lower lip, glancing every now and then toward the door, at the clock, trying to decide how much time he had left.

"How foreign?"

"Defectors from Russia during the Cold War, secretive arcane specialists from Vietnam and Korea, a few Americans. The French forces were under the Nazi regime; I have been told that at least one of the members of the Directory's board had been, at the time, a sympathizer who curtailed Allied forces in the war."

"Jesus. So, this means, what? That it's not about Queen and country anymore? That they swear the oath but keep an arm behind their backs with their fingers crossed so that it won't mean anything?"

"Merlin --" Gaius hesitated. "The old regime is aging and dying. Who knows what they told and what they taught the new generation? And who knows what direction their successors will take the Directory?"

Merlin froze. He'd heard words to that effect. Several times. All in relation to the NWO. "Uncle Gaius --"

A ping sounded on Dean's console. Merlin cradled the handset between his shoulder and his ear and signed in the new file coming in. It was a list of names from the V.I.P.s -- and it included Mister John Smith. Merlin flinched and checked his watch. He could almost feel Mister Smith breathing down his neck.

"Uncle Gaius -- I don't have much more time. But based on what you know -- are they the bad guys? Are they with… Are they with the NWO?"

"I don't know, Merlin," Gaius said, again with the heaviness in his chest and the frustration of someone who knew they didn't have all the information that there was to give. "It is not out of the realm of possibility. Either way they are a government agency. Politics and subterfuge are the order of the day, particularly when the agency happens to be the Directory. The people I've spoken to --"

Gaius caught himself, because even with Merlin's secure tweaks to the system, it wouldn't do to use names over the telephone. He continued, "-- but we've spoken of this before. You know what they've been through, what some of them are still going through."

Merlin knew, and he was even less pleased about coming within arm's reach of the Directory. The soldiers who had worked for the Directory in one capacity or another had never seemed to completely shake themselves of the agency's influence, called up at random for assignments even when they were no longer part of the armed forces. The Directory focused their attention on the magic users and used everything in their power to entreat them to accept their employ, from monetary enticements to outright blackmail.

Merlin's silence wasted precious time that Gaius filled with a scowl. "My boy, you know what you have to do now, don't you?"

Be careful was implied, but there was a lilt to Gaius' words, and Merlin raised his eyes to the ceiling, begging answers and salvation from Gods who were probably laughing at him right now.

"I know," Merlin said softly. I have to tell them. I have to tell Arthur.


The Crack Box, the bane of all their recent troubles, was the mission Arthur had picked for Merlin. He'd also picked it for himself, and elected to have Kay and Gwaine along on what was essentially going to be an escort mission. When Merlin heard about the missions that the other three groups were going on, he banged his head on a hard surface several times before Arthur stopped him.

"But I could've gone on the surveil with Lance! He could use my radio skills! What about my math! That could be useful, yeah? Or the thing with the thing that Perceval's team is doing!" Merlin had complained. "Or I could be marching in the opposite direction of nowhere with Leon, far, far away from Gilli!"

Arthur had ruffled Merlin's hair in an endearing, affectionate way that left Merlin utterly confused and at a complete loss for words. Instead of protesting further he'd stood there, watching Arthur walk off, and sighed wistfully.

He didn't understand Arthur sometimes. There were brief, random snatches, fleeting moments in which Merlin caught Arthur looking at him, but since that near-kiss in the chapel... Merlin wasn't sure how Arthur felt -- if he felt anything for him. Surely there was something. He was more physically demonstrative, reaching out for Merlin as often as he pushed him away, leaving Merlin in a completely bollocksed situation that had logic and emotion warring with each other.

Logically, Merlin knew the military's stance against fraternization, and he understood without being told that Arthur wouldn't -- couldn't -- bend the rules, not even for himself. Emotionally, now that Merlin knew that women weren't an issue and strongly suspected that Arthur harboured feelings for him, he wanted to throw all caution in the wind and push Arthur against the nearest handy surface, whether it was horizontal or vertical.

He rubbed his face in his hands, equally frustrated with the situation with the secondment to the Directory looming over their heads, and with not knowing where he stood with Arthur. No. That wasn't right. If anything, he was more frustrated with Arthur than anything. He didn't know if he should make the first move -- he was pretty sure that he had already made a few first moves that Arthur was either completely oblivious to, or they had been too subtle -- or if he should wait for Arthur.

In which case nothing might happen. Gods, this had Merlin's guts in a twist.

Merlin packed the last of his gear and sat on his standard-issue chest to lock it -- and double check the lock with a whispered magical word just in case Mister Smith came snooping. He verified his Box, zipped up his overcoat, and shouldered his kit. Everyone else was at the leeward side of the airfield where the transport was waiting, but Merlin's first stop was the communications tent.

If everything went according to plan -- yet another of Arthur's overly-detailed, exceedingly meticulous plans -- they'd be away from Mister Smith for anywhere from a week to a fortnight, but it seemed as if Arthur had forgotten an important detail. His plan didn't allow for what they were supposed to do about Gilli.

Merlin stopped at the communications centre on schedule, arriving to a small crowd of people. Avery Dean was there, doing his best to ignore the going-ons while simultaneously grinning in amusement. Two guardsmen were there, eyeing the operation dubiously. Two corpsmen were busy removing the Crack Box from the solid titanium base, unscrewing bolts that could probably have held together the hull of the Titanic.

Gilli was there, too, looking this side pale of mortified.

"Ah, there you are, Lieutenant Emrys," said Colonel Mandrake, picking up a clipboard. "I need your signature."

"Signature for what? What's going on?" Gilli belatedly remembered himself and added a hasty "Sir."

"There's an urgent need for the Crack Box at another base to be opened for repairs," Colonel Mandrake said, his tone flat and bored in a way that was almost contrived, and that was probably because it was. The Colonel, in his infinite wisdom, knew everything, including what was going on, even if Merlin didn't know how he could possibly know. "We're the nearest, so it's going."

"Why didn't they come here? Ours might get damaged in transport -- sir."

"We have the smallest, lightest and most compact Crack Box," Colonel Mandrake said, with the patience of a man who was about ready to slap someone if they didn't stop asking stupid questions soon. "Lieutenant Emrys will be escorting it to the base and overseeing the security of the device."

"But! Sir! They're not supposed to -- I should be there! I'm responsible for it, not Mer-- I mean, Lieutenant Emrys. Sir." Gilli's eyes darted to Merlin in confusion.

"We're going through a war zone," Merlin said with a shrug of his shoulder, his arms over the gear on his chest. "I'll take care of it."

"A war zone? But -- I'll come. I can go. I'm vetted for the field." He glanced at Colonel Mandrake. "Sir."

Mandrake stared at Gilli for a long, long time, not letting on what he was thinking until Gilli had been squirming for several minutes and the third bolt on the Crack Box had finally come loose with a screech of metal that set Merlin's teeth on edge. He tilted his head to the side.

"Get your gear," Mandrake ordered. "Sign out a weapon at the armoury. Be at the airfield in twenty minutes."

Gilli took two steps toward the exit before stopping short, saluting, and pronouncing a deep "Yes, Sir!"

Mandrake handed Merlin the clipboard with a knowing look that Merlin answered with a sharp, helpless nod. Yes, this is what Arthur wanted, and I don't know what he's been drinking, sir.

"There and back in one piece, Emrys. If you can," Mandrake said, and Merlin saluted. Mandrake shook his head and walked out of the tent, and Merlin wished he could go with him.

"Almost have the last one, sir," said the corporal, and it was a few more minutes of loud, noisy work before the final bolt came out. Merlin watched as they struggled to load the heavy box onto the trolley, and followed them to the airfield.

They were taking a land route to their destination rather than a chopper -- that was part of the security protocol, in case the chopper was shot out of the sky and the Crack Box went flying, though the same thing would happen if the transport was hit by a missile. No one adhered to the protocol when it was an urgent matter, but Arthur had opted for the transport for exactly the reason that Merlin dreaded: it would take them bloody ages to arrive at their destination, and give them plenty of time to deal with Gilli.

Merlin still didn't know what Arthur had in mind. Shoot him and bury him behind a dune, maybe?

Kay and Gwaine oversaw the loading, letting the corpsmen do all of the grunt work. Merlin stood next to Arthur, and the two of them watched in silence before Arthur asked, "Well?"

"He'll be here."

"Good."

The silence trickled, and Merlin thought about his conversation with Gaius from earlier that morning. It was now or never. He had the opportunity. No one was paying attention to them. He would prefer absolute privacy, but there was no bloody privacy on this damned base, and -- Merlin knew he was only coming up with excuses not to tell Arthur, if he was arguing with himself.

Now. Tell him now. His tongue thickened and his throat closed up; he swallowed a few times and glanced sidelong.

He elbowed him lightly. "Arthur?"

"Yeah?"

"I --" Merlin pressed his lips together. "I. Um. We. We need to talk."

Arthur didn't take his eyes from the transport; Merlin didn't take his eyes from the Crack Box. "The answer's no."

"What?" Merlin's eyes tore from the loading to frown at Arthur. "No, what?"

"I thought I made myself clear. I'm not signing any transfer papers. If you don't want to get seconded to the Directory, I understand. But like it or not, you're still part of the team. I made it clear on the list. It's all of us or none of us, and everyone has to agree. You've got time to think about it," Arthur said.

Merlin felt deflated. His courage waffled. He gathered what little of it he had left and said, "Yeah, all right. That's not what I want to talk about. It's --"

Arthur dug something out of his pocket. He handed it to Merlin. "From Major Kilgarrah. He said you'd know what to do with it."

It was a gaming console the same colour and style and size as the one Merlin had used to build the Crack Box. He frowned, turning it over, and finally opened it. A piece of paper slipped out, and he caught it before it fluttered away.

On the square sheet was more of Major Kilgarrah's strange code, the one that made his eyes hurt to look at it while simultaneously being unable to look away. He folded the piece of paper and put it in his pocket to puzzle out at another time, because he was trying to tell Arthur something important, and the prat wasn't giving him the chance.

He put the gaming console away. "I'll look at it later. Arthur, I have to tell you --"

"Can't it wait, Merlin?" Arthur nodded off to the side, and Merlin turned to watch Gilli -- poorly put together but fully equipped, and then some, running toward them with a hard-cap that slipped over his eyes.

Merlin heaved a heavy sigh and rubbed the back of his head in frustration before finally nodding. "Yeah. It can wait."

 

ooOOoo

 

Operation Little Weasel was underway.

The name was Gwaine's idea, and Arthur had to admit that it fit rather well. The more time Arthur spent in Gilli's presence, the more he realized that Gilli didn't only act like a weasel. He looked like one, too, right down to the way he tilted his head inquiringly but never going so far as to act a direct question to a superior, to the way he would anxiously brush his hands together every time Arthur, Kay or Gwaine walked away with Merlin.

As soon as he'd heard from Merlin that Gilli was Directory, Arthur had come to the conclusion that Gilli had been assigned to the base not to spy on the activities, not to keep the Directory informed of any rebel movement that might be associated with the NWO, but to keep an eye on Excalibur, or, more precisely, on Merlin. The way he watched Merlin was a tip-off. The way he dogged Merlin's heels like a second shadow was a sure sign. The way he riffled through Merlin's gear when he thought no one was looking was a dead giveaway.

Arthur had been ready to interrupt the weasel's scavenging through Merlin's kit, partially out of fear of what he might find (had Merlin packed that tablet with the tell-tale esoteric and arcane library?), and partially to make certain that whatever it was that Major Kilgarrah had given Arthur to pass on to Merlin remained unseen.

Whatever it was --

On the surface, it looked like any other gaming console. It operated like any other gaming console. As far as appearances went, it was a gaming console.

But it came from The Dragon, who had given Arthur strict orders to pass it on to Merlin as subtly as possible, and included a folded sheet of paper to pass on to Merlin. A coded message that Arthur thought looked more like something out of Merlin's secret books than any code he'd ever seen.

The Dragon had revealed that he knew about magic; Arthur wouldn't put it past him to have magic, too.

He should be more worried that everyone around him seemed to be magical to some degree or another, but the only person that really concerned him, that would ever really concern him, was Merlin.

What had the idiot been thinking? Had he really been about to tell Arthur something, something important, right there on the tarmac, where anyone could come close enough to hear him? And with that plonker, Gilli, running right at them?

Arthur was certain that Merlin had been about to tell him about his magic. There had been something in his tone, the hesitation in his movements, the way he'd ducked his head, his chin brushing the Pendragon Red fabric wound around his neck, that had made Arthur's heart clench. He wanted to know. He wanted to hear it from Merlin's lips. And at the same time, it frustrated him, too, because he was left protecting Merlin from himself.

He glanced at Merlin -- who had taken his turn behind the wheel -- with a feeling of intense fondness and terrible protectiveness, wrenching his eyes away from Merlin's angular profile before he was caught. He glanced over his shoulder.

Gwaine and Kay had been taking the piss out of Gilli since leaving the base. It started with an innocent enough "How long will it take to get there?" from Gilli, and quickly went downhill like a runway cart about to crash into something nice and hard.

"Oi, what are you, fucking five years old?" Kai had snapped, not bothering to hide how annoyed he was that Gilli was coming with them.

"Are you seriously telling me that you've been here this long and you don't know where Kandahar is?" Gwaine had said, amiably cheerful in the way a charging buck with sharpened antlers was amiably cheerful.

Arthur had spoken to the two of them in private, away from Merlin; he wanted Merlin to continue treating Gilli the way he always had, to keep Gilli from being suspicious. But the team had made it very clear what they thought of Gilli through weeks of coming to fetch Merlin from the communications tent, as if they were parents or older siblings picking up Merlin from school. Their attitude toward Gilli was not only in character, but it had a solid foundation, and Gilli wouldn't think it unusual if Kay and Gwaine stepped up their game now that they were away from base and it would be Gilli's word against Excalibur's.

And Excalibur's reputation was pristine.

The goal, Arthur had told Gwaine and Kay, was to get Gilli to make a mistake, to push him so far that he would snap, revealing a hint of who he really was, all to give them an excuse to push harder, until they had answers.

Until Arthur had answers. What did they want with Merlin?

He'd thought about it lying on his cot, staring at the ceiling in the pitch-black of night. He'd turned it over and over in his head. Did the Directory know about Merlin's magic?

It was possible that Merlin had used magic against Edwin Muirden when he attacked Arthur outside of the Lockout and that it had been caught on video, but Arthur trusted Merlin when he said that he took care of anything like that. Had he been seen then? By an agent watching Arthur, or watching Edwin?

It was also possible that the Directory had agents following them in the dark, when they were in Algiers, but Merlin hadn't done anything, not one bloody damned thing, not even to save his life, that could have been interpreted as magic.

Merlin's reaction -- admittedly extreme, even by Arthur's standards -- to Bayard's so-called magic test might have been a red flag drawing undue attention to himself (which was another time that Arthur wished he'd been close enough to Merlin, so he could have stomped on his foot to shut him up), but Gilli had been on base long before that happened.

If Arthur eliminated magic from the equation, it left a Hindenburg-sized void. What did they want with Merlin?

That was where Gilli came in. If Gilli had been assigned to keep an eye on Merlin, he had to have been given the particulars. If not the particulars, then certainly, someone would have coached him on what to look out for. If Arthur could find out what those were, then he could postulate the why.

The bitter jabs, the low-blow hits, the uncalled-for uppercuts from Kay and Gwaine -- they were having the desired effect. Gilli had been silent and sullen for the last hour, sitting in the rear row of the transport, cramped next to the Crack Box. The Directory might have selected Gilli for this mission because his natural help me, I'm stupid demeanour would automatically pull Merlin in, or Gilli had been instructed to act in a certain way to take advantage of Merlin's good nature and inability to abandon people in their time of need, but even a master spy couldn't keep up the act all the time. His true nature was emerging, and the vibe coming from the rear of the transport was positively sullen.

And not in an attractive way, either. Merlin could pull off sullen and adorable. Gilli could only manage sullen and vengeful.

If nothing else, the glances shot in Gwaine and Kay's directions were full of sharpened daggers. Arthur was certain that no few of those were meant for him, because he hadn't so much as raised an eyebrow to pull his men in line -- and why would he? The weasel was monopolizing one of his men's time, time that was better spent with Arthur.

Merlin didn't step in, either very obviously on his team's side, or not keen to get in on it with them. Arthur couldn't quite tell if any of Gilli's frustrations -- obstinately labelled don't you know who I am and what I can do to you and barely held in check -- were directed toward Merlin. If they were, well, Arthur was going to have to do something about it.

And gladly.

Arthur had automatically included the potential for Gilli's magic to come to the fore in his planning. He didn't know if Gilli had magic, only that he might. Bayard had hinted that not every member of the Directory had magic, that there was a balance between the magic users and the non-users. As possible as it was for Gilli to be just some other schmuck off the side of the road, Arthur couldn't forget that Gilli had been recruited from boot camp, and if his sparkling qualities were any indication, it wasn't because he could complete an obstacle course in record time, crack an encryption code, or charm the pants off of his superior officer.

He sat back in his seat and checked his watch, giving Gilli a few more minutes to stew. It gave Arthur a few more minutes to worry about Merlin.

If the Directory already knew, or found out about Merlin's magic, what, then?

Arthur had made a few last-minute additions to the list of demands that he'd passed onto Major Kilgarrah -- notably a stint of R&R so that the team members could see their family and friends before engaging in what was very likely to be a long-running mission with the Directory that would preclude any outside communication. He also added a very important bullet point to the list: that they work as a team, and only as a team.

That meant that there would be no surreptitious attempt on the Directory's part to usurp any individual member away from the team. If they wanted one person, then they would take them all, and it would be left to Arthur how to partition the duties and activities.

In other words, he would remain in charge just as he had been in Algiers, and there would be no chance, none whatsoever, that they send anyone, especially Merlin, to another division.

He glanced at Merlin. He didn't think he could bear it.

"Why don't I take over the driving?"

Merlin didn't take his eyes from the road ahead. "You sure?"

"You're getting road blindness, Merlin. You haven't blinked in the last thirty minutes. I need you alert. That goes for you two pillocks, too," Arthur said, glancing at Kay and Gwaine, making no mention of Gilli deliberately. He scored a point; Gilli's expression darkened.

"I can drive," Gilli said, just as Merlin stopped the transport.

"That's nice," Kay muttered, rolling his eyes. He elbowed Gwaine. "He fancies he can drive."

"Oh, entirely possible," Gwaine said, sickeningly sweet and cheerful where Kay's tone had been hammer-blunt. "But I don't think he can handle this girl. She might be a bit much for him."

"I don't think he can handle a girl, period," Kay snorted.

Arthur didn't hear the rest; he'd struck Merlin on the arm and gestured for him to get out. He slid out of the passenger seat, crossing Merlin at the front, both of them keeping a wary eye out for anyone who might be watching. With this much sun, it would be easy to pick out the reflection off a binocular lens, a shadow, even movement.

Merlin's hand on the crook of his elbow stopped him. "What's going on, Arthur?"

"What do you mean?"

Merlin shifted slightly so that his back was to the transport. "I mean, what's going on? Normally you'd be on them to shut up and leave the greenie alone, but it's like you've dumped blood in the water and set the piranhas loose or something."

"I don't know what you're talking about, Merlin," Arthur said. He felt Merlin's fingers tighten around his biceps and tried not to smirk when Merlin's eyes narrowed.

"No, no. I know you. You're up to something."

Arthur smacked his arm. "Of course I am. Now get in. The sooner we're there, the sooner this is over."

"But I thought you wanted this to stretch out as long as --"

"Get in the car, Merlin," Arthur said.

The rest of the drive was much the same, with Gwaine and Kay tag-teaming Gilli until he finally gave up the fight, capitulating against stronger opposing forces, falling silent to recover from the incessant, precise blows. Every now and then, Arthur would glance in the rear view mirror and see a reddish glint in Gilli's glare. The sight of it made him shiver and made him wonder about magic again.

The sun had long since set when they rolled up to the gates outside of Kandahar, Merlin radioing ahead to advise of their arrival. The guards checked the transport for stragglers and bombs before waving them through, directing them to the communications tent. They sat around waiting for the team of engineers to gather enough bodies to lift the Crack Box's titanium container onto a trolley.

"Which of you has the sign-off?" asked the lieutenant in charge.

"That'd be me," Merlin said. "I'll have to keep it in my line-of."

"All right. Emrys, right? You can come in. The rest of you, well..." The lieutenant made a sweeping gesture with his arm. "You can make full use of our wonderful resort here. There's beach volleyball over by the tarmac, a minus-five star restaurant in that direction, a canteen that serves watered-down beer and cardboard pizza just past that, and I'm sure our concierge will take care of your accommodations."

"It's my Crack Box," Gilli said suddenly. "I'm not leaving it."

The lieutenant raised a brow at Gilli. "It's my Crack Box, sir. I'm not leaving it, sir."

Gilli caught himself and swallowed. "Yes, sir."

Arthur watched an exchange of glances between the communications officer and Merlin, and knew that the next stage of his plan had been activated.

"Is he for real?" the lieutenant asked.

"Yeah," Merlin answered, I'm afraid so tucked nicely in his tone.

"You vouch for him?"

"Yeah," Merlin said, after some hesitation, in the same sighing sort of way that he'd say oh, hell, no.

The lieutenant must have picked up on that, because Arthur watched him rake Gilli up and down with exactly the sort of disapproval that he'd been banking on. "Fine, then. He can come. But he shuts up and stays out of the way."

"How long will it be?" Arthur asked.

"Long enough to unlock our Crack Box for repairs and to re-encrypt when done, sir," the lieutenant said, shrugging a shoulder. "Three hours if it all goes well. More than that if it doesn't."

"All right. Gwaine, Kay, secure the transport and get some grub. I'll check in with command, call home base, and see about getting some rack time." Arthur turned to Merlin, deliberately ignoring Gilli. "Send someone to get us when it's finished. We're due to turn around and head back as soon as you're done."

Merlin gave him a curt nod. "Save me some food, yeah?"

Arthur waited until the others had gone inside before turning to Gwaine and Kay. He pointed at Kay. "Try to get him alone. That beating you gave him in the car? He's definitely coming after you."

Kay clapped his hands and rubbed them together. "Let him at me."

 

ooOOoo

 

Merlin was content to hang back and let the technicians do the heavy lifting. They arranged the Crack Box in series next to their own, an older, larger model that would have been a bear to transport if they'd had no other choice, and set up a communication module between the two, triggering communication with the outer casing of the broken device. The lid popped open with a casket creak that reminded Merlin of every bad vampire flick he'd ever seen.

The base had imported engineering specialists to work on the Crack Box, and Merlin was glad for the ability to sit back and let other people work. The only thing that he had to do was to keep an eye on their Crack Box in case one of the people in the room could heft it on their shoulder and waltz out of the room unnoticed -- nearly impossible and hardly improbable.

He did his best to ignore Gilli, who was hovering over everyone's shoulders and getting in the way. Merlin could tell that the lieutenant in charge was quickly losing patience, but whether he was losing patience because of Gilli's meddling, or with the engineers was a matter of debate.

From the sounds of it, the repairs weren't going well.

Merlin wasn't going to volunteer his help unless he was invited. This was one of the rare occasions that he wouldn't have to actually work. He smirked in gleeful amusement and leaned against the table, listening to the professionals sit back and scratch their heads and come up with new and creative ways to say, "I don't know what's wrong."

At the same time, he couldn't help but to glance at "his" Crack Box and remember the gaming console that Major Kilgarrah had passed on to him.

He'd thought about it on the drive. And now --

While everyone was distracted, Merlin pulled out the sheet of paper that had come with the gaming console. The message was short, no more than ten centimetres square, the symbols tiny and crunched together in such a way that there was far more information in that compressed space than there had been on the full sheet of paper that he'd translated for The Dragon a few days ago. He stared at it for some time, his eyes tracing the contours of the symbols, from one square corner to the next until he'd come full circle, wondering how it was that he could read the message, to understand that each of these scratches, spirals, thunderbolts, jagged lines, ovals, inversed U's... how they were letters, how they were words. It wasn't only two-dimensional. There was a third dimension in there, too, the symbols and runes fitting together with depth perception in a way that he was sure wasn't entirely normal.

In the same way, Merlin understood the encryption that had been involved, using a fourth and fifth dimension, like a math chart gone mad on too many levels, and right away, the message jumped out at him.

Keep the original.

Only a handful of people knew that the Crack Box inside the nearly-impenetrable casing was a Merlin Crack Box, and that the Merlin Crack Box was a former game console. All those people were upper-echelon Brass. And Arthur.

He wondered if Arthur had already divined the purpose of the gaming console that Major Kilgarrah had given him to pass on. Merlin decided that he might have; the man could intuit the meaning, the significance, and the outcome of anything based on the tiniest scrap of information.

The gaming console in his pack was identical to the one he'd used to build the Crack Box, but he didn't have the time or the parts to build another one to replace the one inside the casing. Did Kilgarrah mean for Merlin to switch the boxes? How was he supposed to do that without anyone noticing? Did it have something to do with why Arthur had told him that Gilli was coming along for the ride? If Merlin switched the consoles, and he would need considerable time to hook it up properly inside the casing -- it would be obvious to anyone with half a brain cell (and that included Gilli) that something was definitely Not Right with the Crack Box the minute they turned it on. Were they going to be framing Gilli?

Merlin couldn't see -- couldn't fathom Arthur going along with this plan, even if it was under orders, because it was so disgustingly underhanded.

He took another look at the note. That couldn't be all that it said. Surely he misunderstood, that Major Kilgarrah didn't mean for him to sabotage the Crack Box and to commit what essentially amounted to as a major act of treason and espionage. It wouldn't get him a prison sentence if he were caught -- it would get him shot by firing squad. Or hung. Or guillotined. Or all three at once.

No, damn it. That was the message -- Keep the original.

He turned the sheet around. And around. It was upside-down now, but --

Merlin paused.

Ohh. Clever.

He read the second message. He read it again. He scowled.

Could The Dragon be any more cryptic?

Merlin folded the note and put it away, shaking his head, trying to figure out what the bloody hell Everything will happen as it should was supposed to mean.

It took him a few minutes to pick up on what was going on with the Crack Boxes. Two engineers were standing around, one rubbing the back of his head, the other cradling his chin, staring at the opened Box with confusion. A communications officer was at a terminal, while the lieutenant in charge was on a handset, throwing a hand up in agitation. Gilli alternated between peering into the Crack Box while inching closer to the lieutenant to eavesdrop on the conversation like a good little Directory Agent.

Merlin rolled his eyes. There was no need to eavesdrop -- the lieutenant was practically roaring into the phone.

"What do you mean, you didn't send us the wrong part? Of course it's the wrong part! It doesn't even fit! It doesn't even have the right part number! Serial number? Someone get me the serial number!"

One of the engineers ripped through the packaging material until they found the label.

"Have you any idea how much bloody trouble we're going through to get this fixed? Three weeks without decryption! And now the other base is without their unit because we had to break the casing open. Do you know how much coordination that involves? What? No, you shut up, here, write this down, I've got the serial number --" The lieutenant rattled off a long string of letters and numbers and fell silent. "Did you get that? Yes, that's the right number. It's straight off the packaging. No, there isn't a serial number on the original part -- that's because it's an original part, you thick! Yes, I'll hold."

The waiting was short.

"What do you mean, I need a specialist? I have two specialists on base. You shipped them to me. Are you telling me that they're not specialists? Oh, they are? Just not the right kind?" The lieutenant pinched the bridge of his nose, his body curled in what looked to be not only emotional, but physical pain. It was with preternatural calm that he asked, "All right. And how long will it take to send me an actual specialist? No, absolutely not, that's unacceptable. We handle critical data here -- No! I don't care if you come yourself so long as you walk through my door right now --"

There was another pause.

Merlin had a bad feeling that he was going to have to do some actual work in the very near future.

The lieutenant turned around to look in his direction, a confused frown on his brow.

"Hold on," he said into the phone. He covered the mouthpiece and asked, "Lieutenant Merlin Emrys?"

"Yes?" Merlin sighed inwardly.

"What's your ID number?" The lieutenant's expression clouded over when Merlin recited it from memory -- he didn't know any soldier who couldn't do the same -- and he muttered under his breath that was probably not something that could be shared in polite company. The lieutenant turned back to the phone, and said, "Belay that. I have him here. You want to -- what? Fine. Emrys, take the phone."

Merlin moved around the crowd, past the engineers, past Gilli -- who was in the way as usual -- and took the handset. "Lieutenant Merlin Emrys speaking."

He listened to the familiar, nasal voice of the clerk in charge of the Crack Box inventory kindly requesting that he fix the Crack Box so that she could get the bear of a lieutenant off her back, because he'd been calling daily for weeks, and as much as she enjoyed the attention, she was ready to murder him.

"I'll see what I can do," was all he promised, and he turned to the lieutenant, shrugging out of his bulkier gear, digging into his kit for his tools. "I suppose I should get started."

"You could've said," the lieutenant grumbled.

Merlin shook his head and thought, No, I couldn't have, because things like that were above security clearances and pay grades, but he shrugged his shoulders instead and went to inspect the carnage.

It was a good half-hour and elbows-deep in cabling and horrified realizations that this Crack Box was one of the absolute first prototype originals, because a few of the parts looked to be older than Merlin himself, when Merlin snarled at Gilli, "You're in my light. Again."

"Sorry," Gilli said.

"Sorry, sir," the lieutenant corrected with an annoyed snap.

"Yes, that, too," Gilli said, leaning forward to see what Merlin was doing again. It was when he lost his balance, knocking half of the precariously-balanced tools and chips into the Box, sending the soldering iron tumbling to the floor -- and everyone scattering out of the way before they were scalded -- that Merlin stood up and stared him hard in the eye. He'd had enough.

"You're dismissed, Sergeant," he said.

"But --"

Merlin didn't give him a chance to finish his protest, stepping over a few piles of equipment and tools to grab Gilli's shoulder and quick-marched him toward the door.

"Let me say it in English, Gilli," Merlin said, his voice low. "You're a nuisance. You're not contributing. You're in the way. You're hovering and lording it over people who outrank you, and you're pissing everyone off. You're pissing me off. This is your one and only chance to leave the tent before someone shoots you."

Gilli opened his mouth to say something, but Merlin cut him off.

"Say one more word, just one, and the person who shoots you will be me."

Gilli stared at Merlin. His Adam's apple bobbled in a heavy, thick swallow. A troubled expression crossed his face, he glanced toward the Crack Boxes once, and finally, reluctantly, nodded. He left the tent.

"If you hadn't done that --" the lieutenant shook his head and exhaled the heavy breath he'd been holding. Merlin didn't need to be told that his professional courtesy had been extended a lot more than it normally was.

"You could've tossed him yourself," Merlin retorted. "Then you could have had the pleasure."

"Oh, I wouldn't have stopped at the tossing, if we're being honest here." The lieutenant turned to the two guards keeping watch. "If he comes back --"

He didn't get a chance to finish. The guards broke into nasty grins.

"We'll hurt him," said the one on the right.

"Gladly," said the one on the left.

Merlin exchanged a glance with the lieutenant, half-chuckled, and went back to work.


Kay spotted Gilli storming down the bend. He marched right up to the canteen, bypassed the late-night queue for soggy, greasy lumps that approximated food, and lucked out at the bank of telephones available for soldiers willing to play Russian roulette on the off-chance that they'd be lucky enough to get a clear line to call home.

Like on every base, the bank of telephones near the canteen were prone to interruption of service, or no service at all, with the only guaranteed lines being available through the communications centre, and good luck to the sorry sap who didn't have a friend who worked in there. Ever since Merlin joined Excalibur, the team had been able to call home with a regularity that they'd never had before.

For Gilli to be out here, with the rest of the peons, trying to make a phone call -- Kay was interested.

He raised a brow at Gwaine, tilted his head slightly in a cover my arse gesture, and sidled up to the bank of telephones, leaning his back against the side of the wooden booth. Gilli had made things easy for him; he was using the last phone in the bank of four, which meant that Kay could lean against the railing, casual as he pleased, and eavesdrop outrageously.

Gwaine wasn't about to be left out, and since Kay couldn't do casual to save his life, came along to lean on the other side of the balcony, and pretend the two were having an in-depth conversation on the meaning of life.

The answer to which they had both agreed upon, ages ago, to be "Beer".

"I don't care, just connect me," Gilli snapped into the phone, imperious, rude, snappish, the way a sergeant couldn't afford to be when talking to anyone in the army if he expected to get anywhere.

Kay exchanged glances with Gwaine. Gwaine raised a brow and shrugged.

Arthur's plan had been to get Gilli so wound up that he would take a swing at Kay, and end up in the brig for his trouble, at which point Arthur would keep him company through the bars of the cell to have a nice little chat about the Directory. Arthur, however, always had a Plan B (in this situation, he had Plans A all the way through to the letter M), and Plan B was to gather intel in any way they could if it looked like Gilli might be slipping.

Kay judged this situation to fit the criteria.

"What do you mean, where am I?" Gilli asked, pacing in a little circle within the telephone booth. Whoever had constructed the bank of phones had been a genius -- there was absolutely no privacy. There was no way to shut the door, even if there was one in the first place (they seemed to have disappeared); the sides were made out of thin, quarter-inch plywood that would topple over in a strong wind (and by some miracle hadn't already), and the only soundproofing was the ambient noise of the camp and the occasional rumble of a transport puttering past.

"I left you a message. I'm in Kandahar. Yes, with Merlin. I'm keeping an eye on him like you asked. It hasn't been easy, I can't do anything about it when he's in the field. What?" Kay wished he could hear the other person speaking. "No. I don't know. Soon. We're supposed to head back tomorrow morning, once the work is done. I don't know that either. I've done everything you've asked. Yes. I did that. I did that too. I don't know how this assignment got through to them. What? Yes. Yes. No. Wait -- will you let me finish? That's not the problem! The problem is that right now, Merlin is alone with two different Crack Boxes and a bunch of oblivious wankers and I'm not there to make sure he doesn't bug them somehow."

Kay exchanged startled glances with Gwaine. He mouthed, Bug?, but Gwaine shook his head, as confused as he was.

"I'm not there because he tossed me out," Gilli nearly yelled, but kept his voice low enough that he wasn't spreading the news throughout the entire camp. "He's my bloody superior. You should have given me equal rank if -- What? No. No, of course it's not a secure line, he threw me out of the bloody comms -- What?"

There was a long silence, followed by a hostile "Fine!" and the sound of the handset slammed onto the hook.

Kay raised both brows. Gwaine raised one. They traded a quick, sure nod, tilted their heads in that direction, and when serendipity fell in their favour, grabbed Gilli's arms as he rounded the corner right into their laps.

"Well, hello there. I think you're needing a chat with our Captain," Gwaine said. "Be a good boy and come along nicely, or we'll call for the MPs and be well within our rights to shoot you in the back while you're running away. Please give me an excuse."

Gilli's expression crossed the spectrum of startled, frustrated, annoyed, and finally outraged, but he came along, quiet, wordless, without resistance --

-- until they walked down a semi-deserted path and Gilli wrenched his arms free. Kay followed the motion to grab Gilli. Gwaine took a step away to draw his gun.

Kay hadn't so much as grasped a handful of Gilli's jacket when he was struck by a full body-slam of something. It was solid enough to send him crashing back onto the ground, sliding into one of the barracks. His ears rang.

"I did warn you not to give me an excuse," Gwaine drawled, only to have the last word end on a high-pitched yelp when the gun went flying out of his hand and he skidded backward like stunt men did on a front-end camera view of a body being sucked through the porthole of a spaceship.

Kay scrambled to his feet and tackled Gilli, feeling the tickle of magic on his skin, pushing him back, trying to grab hold, but his momentum was enough that he slipped past and drove his shoulder into Gilli's gut.

Three things happened at once. Gilli's breath was knocked out of his lungs. The magic, released and without guidance, slammed down onto Kay, and drove them both to the ground. Everything went black for five seconds.

When he woke up, Kay felt Gwaine's hand on his shoulder and heard a hurried "C'mon, your head is harder than this. Wake up, you lazy fuck!"

Gilli's body was right under him, and when Kay blinked the double vision out of his eyes, saw that Gilli was unconscious.

And sporting a bloodied goose-egg on his temple that was roughly in the shape of the butt of Gwaine's gun.

"Shite. How long was I out?"

"Couple of seconds. Help me get him up, I can hear people coming."

The ground was the deck of a ship at sail in rough seas, but Kay managed to make his legs stop swaying under him. He took one of Gilli's arms and wrapped it around his shoulders just like Gwaine was doing, and they both started walking, the dead weight between them dragging marks in the dirt behind them.

"Gwaine." Kay nodded toward the end of the path at the doubled shadows backlit by orange lights grew progressively smaller and smaller, heading their way.

"Follow my lead," Gwaine said without hesitation, and suddenly staggered. If Kay hadn't known that Gwaine's follow my lead was tantamount to disaster, he would've been pulled down by the combined weight of Gwaine's theatrics and the weasel between them.

Gwaine started laughing in a hyena pitch, steadied himself, and lurched forward to the beat of the slightly off-key singing he was belting out at the top of his lungs.

"Oh, God, Gwaine," Kay muttered. For a sniper renowned for stealth and silence, Gwaine could be really bloody loud. At the wrong time. Like now. "We're trying to not attract attention. Rather not see the inside of Kandahar's brig, if you get my meaning."

"Trust me," Gwaine said in between verses, hiccupping loudly.

That's when I usually get in trouble, Kay wanted to say, but he kept his head down and prayed to every known deity that the people approaching them -- some pretty powerfully-built sergeants from the look of them -- wouldn't notice.

"-- many's the lonely traveller
has spent the night with me,
but there's not a man in all creation
gives content to me!

"Well, some can manage once or twice,
and some make three or four;
but it seems to me a rarity
is the man who can do more.
I'd do anything to find him,
In Heaven or Hell --"

Gwaine quit twirling around like a maid in a dress and threw up his hands. "Bloody blasted widow! Fuckin' cocktease she is! 'Course the devil couldn't get it up -- wait... Get me some... get me some... whatsitcalledagain? Vi... Veee... Viagra! Then, I'll take care of it. G'wan, an' let me at 'er!"

Kay sighed. Gwaine's drunk act was identical to his actual drunken stumbles. It made it hard to know when the man was actually drunk. If he ever was.

"Drunk as pissing skunks they are," Kay said when the largest (by a small margin) sergeant came up to them.

"That's kind of obvious," the sergeant said. "You need a hand with them?"

"Need a hand with this one," Kay said, gesturing to Gilli, because Gwaine had abandoned his post at the other side of their unconscious victim and was loudly proclaiming that he'd found the latrine. Kay rolled his eyes. "And that one, too, apparently."

A laughing sergeant trotted over and suggested that Gwaine keep it in his pants a while longer, because it might not be a good idea to piss all over the General's tent, and gently guided him back. The first sergeant looped Gilli's free arm over his shoulder and took up most of the weight.

"Where are you headed?"

"We got stuck in the last quarter," Kay gestured with a nod of his head. "A bit of a walk from here. Hope this lot isn't keeping you from anything?"

"Happy to help," the soldier said, raising a brow with an unmistakable glance toward Kay's shoulder patch. The SAS insignia was nearly indistinguishable from the British Army standard, designed that way to keep them from standing out and becoming enemy targets, but those in the know could tell them apart with a glance.

"I'll remember that," Kay said with a grin, firmly believing that a favour owed was a favour granted, at least in his mind.

"What happened to this one? He's got a knob on his skull --"

Kay tripped to cover up his hesitation at answering, and Gwaine helpfully choose that moment to crash into them. The big sergeant, however, was like a baby Perceval -- couldn't move him even with a forklift, and they managed not to collapse. "Jesus fucking Christ, Gwaine, watch where you're going. Sorry. What was that?"

"Shouldn't we take him to the medic?"

"Nah, our medic's at the barracks," Kay lied, adding a small laugh for effect. "Should seen this one go tit over arse. He got a Dear John letter from his bird, you know the sort -- hi, honey, I'm fucking your best friend, and by the way, the divorce papers, they've been filed, and I'm keeping the house and the dog. Poor sap ranted on the phone at her until his shilling ran out, tottered out of the booth bawling for a beer, and took a header off the canteen steps."

"Poor bugger," said one of the other men.

"You're not talking half," Kay said. "This one was already into his drink when he went and signed for another tour. If he weren't crying about his girl before, he's sure gonna be crying about the next four years in the morning."

The sergeant tilted his head to glance at Gwaine. "And that one?"

Kay sighed heavily. "That one just likes his drink. Our Captain's strict. Runs a dry team, says he can't have a pissed shooter --"

"Shite, he's a sniper?" The sergeant's eyes went wide and worried, and suddenly they were all moving faster, and they couldn't be rid of Gwaine and Kay and Gilli faster.

"Don't worry. He left his rifle back at the barracks, and he's a lousy shot with a revolver," Kay supplied helpfully, but before he knew it, they'd arrived at the barracks Arthur had secured for them. It was the perfect location -- at the very edge of the base, not far from the transport, at the butt-end of the tarmac where the planes took off and landed with roaring jets, within stone's throw of the whirlybirds. Plenty of noise to cover up Gilli's screams.

He thanked the sergeants for their help, hollered for Gwaine to get in the goddamn barracks and bunk down before the Cap smells him, and dragged Gilli inside. Arthur was at the other end of the building, sitting on a chair and going through his gear for what must have been the twentieth or thirtieth time while he waited for them to arrive, and he plucked a length of rope that he must have put aside for this special occasion.

Gwaine shut the door behind them, counted to thirty before sticking his head outside to check and make sure everyone was gone. Gwaine locked the door and helped Kay position Gilli on the chair. They stripped Gilli of knives and guns after as thorough a search as they could manage, but it was Arthur who tied Gilli's hands behind him, securing him to the chair.

Kay shot Gwaine a dark look while Arthur worked. "Follow my lead? How was all that following your lead? I did most of the talking!"

"Exactly," Gwaine said, beaming. "It went perfectly to plan!"

"You had a plan? Couldn't have let me in on it before you threw me at them?"

"What's the fun in that?"

Kay rolled his eyes and stared at Gilli. He had an overpowering urge to test the knots, to be on the safe side, but he knew there was no need. Arthur's knots were virtually impossible to escape from, short of cutting the damn ropes.

"Arthur," Gwaine said, taking a hesitating step back, "He's got magic. Clobbered us both with it. You’re wanting to be careful --"

Arthur nodded. He gestured toward the lump on Gilli's temple. "Figured as much, from the looks of him. I'm guessing this didn't go according to plan?"

"Not hardly," Kay said, keeping an eye on Gilli. The man's head had lolled down to his chest and he was breathing slowly, but he might be a master at appearing unconscious. "Man threw a hissy fit and made a phone call at the canteen. Happened to be near enough to overhear a bit."

"How much is a bit?"

"Enough to know that his panties are in a wad because Merlin's alone with the Crack Box," Gwaine said. "Apparently he fancies Merlin a bit of a spy."

"Merlin?" Arthur blurted out, an eyebrow shooting up, and if anyone in the bloody team needed proof that Arthur was madly in love with Merlin, all they would need was to see the look on Arthur's face right now. He was a cross between completely baffled by the possibility, completely disbelieving, and angered that someone had the balls to hint at it.

"Yeah, right ridiculous, innit?" Kay asked, scoffing. "Merlin's a smart boy, but can't lie worth his salt. Not to us, anyway."

"You noticed that?" Gwaine asked.

"Man knows how to shut up, but lying? He can't do it. Turns seven shades of red, especially if Arthur's around," Kay said. He glanced at Arthur and pointed at Gilli. "Should we wake him up?"

"Not yet," Arthur said, after a moment's thought. "I want Merlin here when we do. And put a gun on his head."


There had been a brief moment of opportunity that Merlin couldn't pass up.

After prying the essential chips loose from the new circuit board, popping off the damaged clonkers from the old circuit board, and re-soldering the whole thing in a jury-rigged repair job that would hold up even to the concussion blast of a nuclear bomb, the lieutenant in charge of the communications centre decided to test the Crack Box on the most difficult code that there was to break -- another Crack Box.

Merlin had been standing around, arms crossed on his chest, trying not to raise a brow of surprise at his good luck, managing as calm a "Yeah, sure, go ahead," to encourage the lieutenant to make his life easier. He needed to do a little swap…

At the same time, he was frantically trying to figure out how he would distract a room full of soldiers, all of them armed with guns with bullets that could kill him. A flash bang to blind them all? Render them oblivious to what Merlin was doing? Turn himself invisible? Erase their memories?

When the lid popped open and the lieutenant clapped Merlin on the back, exclaiming, "We're back in business," Merlin's magic reacted on instinct.

It took several seconds before he realized that no one was so much as breathing. He waved a hand in front of the lieutenant's face but he didn't blink, flinch, or move.

Merlin shuddered. He'd frozen time. He had frozen time around himself before, and he didn't like it. The effect was too strange, too alien, too... odd. It was strange to be standing in a room full of people who were as still as statues, their mouths twisted in mid-syllable, their arms and legs full of awkward angles and slapstick comedy. Their chests didn't inflate or deflate with breathing; their hearts didn't beat; the synapses in their brains didn't fire.

Fuck. I hate this. Just like a ghost town.

Merlin dove into his kit, retrieved the handheld gaming console from Major Kilgarrah, and took the thirty seconds he needed to swap out the cabling to the inner wireless interface from his precious Crack Box to the useless game console. He spent a few minutes putting everything away, making certain that everything was exactly as it was before he'd frozen time, went back to stand next to the lieutenant-in-charge, and closed his eyes, releasing the magic.

"--ll right, let's lock it up and get this place back in order," the lieutenant finished saying, giving Merlin a nod. "Much appreciated."

"Anytime," Merlin said, wondering if his voice really sounded as hollow as it did to his own ears. He watched as they used their newly-repaired Crack Box to seal up the former Merlin Crack Box with his heart in his throat, sure that they would accidentally jostle the lid and notice that the gaming console inside wasn't hardly anything like the one that it should be, but all that happened was that the encryption code was reactivated, the casing sealed and rendered nearly everything-proof again.

They carried the Crack Box outside, manhandled it into the back of the transport, and Merlin started to get behind the driver's seat to drive it to wherever the others were so that he could have a turn at the mess hall and some rack time, when Kay appeared and shoved him out of the way. "Get in."

Merlin wasn't going to complain. If he noticed Kay being a little too serious for comfort, well, that was just par for the course. "You want to take over, go right by. I'm starving. I'll hit the mess. Where are the others?"

"Get. In. The. Truck," Kay said, his smile that dangerous, twisted, fucking-frightening smile that looked a little bit like Arthur's when he was in no mood to broker argument.

Merlin got in the passenger seat. "The fuck's your problem?"

Kay pulled the truck away from the communication centre, casting a glance in Merlin's direction. "Oh, you'll see."

He parked next to a barracks that was nearly on the outskirts of the base, locked up the doors, and disabled the engine the way it needed to be disabled so that no one could drive away with the Crack Box. It wasn't exactly protocol to leave it in the back of a transport without a bloody armed guard, but Merlin wasn't given a chance to argue. Kay pulled him into the barracks, ignoring his loud protest -- a protest that died the instant Merlin saw an unconscious Gilli tied to a chair, Gwaine's gun on the back of his head.

"What the... What's going on?" Merlin asked. Arthur favoured him with a Really? Isn't it obvious? glance, but it was Kay who answered him.

"Man's spreading rumours about you. We want to know why," Kay said, clamping a hand on Merlin's shoulder and pushing him further in, making sure the door was locked behind them.

"Merlin. Stand where he won't see you. Kay, you're on lookout."

"'Course I am, because I can't join in on the fun," Kay muttered, but he took his rifle and went right out again.

"Arthur --" Merlin began, but Arthur shook his head, effectively silencing him.

"Merlin. You told me yourself that he's Directory. The Directory thinks you're a spy."

Merlin stared. He was sure his mouth formed the words A... what?, but no sound came out.

A spy? Spying on what? For whom? How could he be a spy? He didn't have any bloody time to look up top-secret information and arrange clandestine meetings with the enemy, never mind brush his teeth and get a full five hours of rack time. Merlin started to say, I'm not a spy when he saw that he didn't need to.

Arthur didn't believe it. Gwaine thought it was ridiculous. And they had Gilli tied to the chair for questioning, not him.

He couldn't help but to make sure. "You know I wouldn't --"

"Don't be an idiot, Merlin," Arthur said. The frown on Arthur's brow eased only marginally, and he hauled Merlin behind Gilli. "I think it's about time we find out what's going on, yeah?"

 

ooOOoo

 

Gwaine sometimes surprised Arthur with a rare show of tact. He’d waited until Kay had gone to get Merlin before asking, "Do you think there's a grain of truth to what --"

"No."

Arthur stared at Gwaine; Gwaine glanced away, but more to make sure that Gilli was still unconscious, nudging the large, rapidly-bruising lump on his head. Gilli moaned quietly, but didn't wake. "You're not letting your feelings for Merlin get in the way, are you?"

This time, Gwaine didn't wither under Arthur's glare. It forced him to consider that maybe Gwaine had a reason to be standing his ground, and he grit his teeth before asking, "And what do you think?"

Gwaine shrugged a shoulder. "I think you're like a lovesick puppy who's gotten himself tangled in his own leash and can't do anything more than flop down on the sidewalk and whine when the love of his life walks by. You realize if you'd do what any sane man would do in this situation and forget about the bloody rules --"

"About this, Gwaine," Arthur said warningly, not wanting to hear it. It seemed as if every member of Excalibur had an opinion on the matter, and that opinion was one and the same -- Arthur should make a play for Merlin.

Except not only didn't Arthur want to make a play for Merlin -- he wanted Merlin for the rest of his life, scary as that sounded -- he couldn't do it, not now, not with the situation that they were in. The members of his team were his friends, and they meant well, but even they forgot sometimes that Arthur was still their commanding officer.

It hadn't escaped Arthur's notice that Merlin was the only one who didn't push the issue. Arthur was at once relieved and uncertain -- relieved, because he suspected his resolve would crumble to dust if Merlin even made the invitation, and uncertain, because now he wasn't entirely sure if he'd misread what Merlin had said that night in the chapel. He was sure he hadn't. But, still…

"About this," he said again, trying to get Gwaine to focus. "Do you believe it?"

Gwaine had a strange expression on his face, one that Arthur didn't see very often. It was an expression of deep thought, and it was somehow very disturbing to see. "Let me play Devil's Advocate here --"

"Yes, why not," Arthur breathed, feeling his patience eroding.

"Merlin's brilliant," Gwaine said. "The things he does with his Box, they're downright scary. I haven't heard of anyone ever being able to keep up a radio signal in the NMZ. Have you? I don't understand half the things he talks about when he's nattering on about his job. If he were a spy, how would any one of us even know?"

"Merlin can't lie," Arthur said. "Not to me."

Gwaine twitched, making a small clicking sound with his tongue. "Now, that there's your cock leading your brain astray. You hope he won't lie to you. But that's where you're wrong. He has lied to you."

"When?" Arthur was aware of the edge in his voice. It was as rough as an old tree saw, all jagged teeth and lockjaw-rust. "And think very carefully before you answer, Gwaine. Make sure you know the difference between lying and not volunteering information."

That was the thing about Merlin. Arthur had absolute, complete faith that Merlin couldn't lie to him. He could withhold information and evade questions like a champ, but when asked a direct question, Merlin might hem and haw and stammer and stutter, or he might smile disarmingly while at the same time a betraying dimple would give him away.

Merlin might have pulled off that act in Algiers, and he might give the enemy a story that was anything but the truth, but Arthur was certain that Merlin couldn't lie to him.

And Gwaine seemed to think so, too, because a long silence passed and he hadn't been able to come up with an answer to Arthur's question. "All right, fine. So he can't lie to you."

Arthur snorted.

Unable to restrain the protective surge coming to the fore, Arthur asked, "Did you ever think Merlin was a spy? Even for one second?"

Gwaine rolled his eyes. "It's Merlin, mate. He can't even keep me from stealing his fudge and brownies. If he were some sort of master spy, you'd think he'd be a bit better than that, wouldn't you?"

Gilli groaned, this time a little louder, and there were faint signs that he was waking up. Gwaine glanced from Gilli to Arthur, gesturing to his gun. "Should I --"

-- give him another good smack?

Arthur shook his head. "Kay isn't back with Merlin by the time he opens his eyes, then by all means. But try not to crack his skull."

It wasn't much longer -- less than a half hour -- before the transport pulled up outside the barracks and Kay dragged Merlin inside. Arthur found he couldn't quite meet Merlin's eyes when he saw how they'd treated Gilli.

"What the… What's going on?" Merlin's glance flit between Arthur and Gwaine and Kay, looking for an explanation, but he'd obviously already worked out an answer for himself.

"Man's spreading rumours about you. We want to know why," Kay said. Kay shoved Merlin into the barracks, and went back to double check that the door was locked before pushing Merlin further in.

"Merlin. Stand where he won't see you." Arthur gestured behind Gilli, and nodded to Kay, pointing him back out of the barracks. "Kay, you're on lookout."

Kay said something under his breath that Arthur had a feeling he was glad he couldn't hear, but Kay took his rifle and headed outside.

"Arthur --"

Arthur shot Merlin a look dark enough to silence him before he said anything else. "Merlin. You told me yourself that he's Directory. The Directory thinks you're a spy. That's why he's watching you."

The little bit of doubt that had built up in the aftermath of Gwaine's questioning, that hadn't quite been cleared away, was demolished at the wide-eyed innocence in Merlin's eyes, and he cursed himself for even wavering in his faith in Merlin. He saw Merlin's mouth move, as his lips formed a question, but he'd been too stunned to put voice to his words.

Arthur agreed with him. The mere idea was ridiculous.. If Merlin was a spy, Arthur was the bloody Queen of England.

Merlin found his voice, and it was a disbelieving sputter. "You know I wouldn't --"

"Don't be an idiot, Merlin," Arthur snapped. He marched over to Merlin, grabbing the collar of his jacket, and had him moving enough that momentum carried him behind Gilli, who was making louder groaning noises. "I think it's about time we find out what's going on, yeah?"

Merlin nodded, a little pale, a lot confused, and still dumbfounded. He shrugged out of his jacket -- it was warm in the barracks -- and sat down on a rack hidden in the shadows.

Arthur shot him a keep quiet gesture that he hoped wasn't as "incomprehensible" as Merlin always claimed it was, and went to stand in front of Gilli, his arms crossed. It was a lot longer than he'd expected before Gilli came out of it all the way, griping about his head and moaning about the pain and mumbling incoherently before realizing that he was in a room, his hands tied behind his back.

Then his head snapped up, and there was that orange gleam of temper in his eyes again, brief and transient, and Arthur tensed slightly, ready to react if Gilli were about to attack. The gleam faded, and something changed in Gilli's demeanour -- his shoulders relaxed slightly, the anger dimmed, and a shrewd look came over him.

Wonderful. He's going to try to con me. Arthur thought, sighing inwardly.

"Why am I tied up? What's going on?" Gilli turned his head and his eyes went wide, because he hadn't realized until that moment that Gwaine was right behind him, a gun aimed at his head.

Arthur waited for the impact of seeing the barrel of a gun that close to his face to sink in before he spoke.

"Really," Arthur said, quiet and calm -- and frankly, very bored by the so-called I'm innocent act that Gilli was trying to pull before he even managed to get it that far. "My boys tell me they overhear you talking on the phone, something about accusing Merlin of being a spy? Then when they nicely ask you to come along to talk to me about it, you attack them?"

"Nicely? There wasn't anything nice about it!" Gilli roared, raising his voice as Arthur had expected. It was why he'd asked the base clerk to assign a temporary barracks out of the way -- the man owed him a favour. "I was defending myself!"

"You attacked them with magic," Arthur said, keeping his voice even. "Also. Yell as much as you want. No one will hear you."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Merlin shift, ducking his head down for a brief moment, and he thought he saw a bit of gold flash from his eyes. It was a struggle not to turn to stare at him.

Gilli processed the two pieces of information with a double-take. His mouth worked, his jaw moved, but no sound came out. Arthur waited, letting him think. It wasn't until Gilli looked sideways with something close to panic that Arthur spoke again.

"Save us all a bit of grief," Arthur said. "Yourself, mainly. You see, we already know you work for the Directory. We already know that you were assigned to keep an eye on Excalibur, but more specifically, on Merlin. We also know that you've intercepted high-level orders and rerouted them to Mister Smith."

"That is, in case you're not aware, a very bad thing," Gwaine suggested lightly. "Do they still shoot people for treason by firing squad?"

"I'm sure we can put a team together," Arthur said with a shrug. "Colonel Mandrake and Major Kilgarrah would be happy to waive the formality of a trial."

Gilli's eyes went wider, though there was some question about the physical possibility of such an act. "Wait. You. You set me up."

"Did I set him up, Gwaine?" Arthur asked mildly.

"You set him up, Captain," Gwaine answered.

Arthur waited.

"They know I'm with you," Gilli pointed out with a hint of desperation.

"I don't know about that," Gwaine said. "I mean, the route back to base? It's rough, and I'm not talking about potholes. I don't know, Arthur. The odds of this one getting shot? What do you think?"

"Fairly high," Arthur said. He shrugged a nonchalant shoulder.

"They'll want to know where I am! There'll be an investigation! There's satellites!"

"As if they'll doubt the word of their top-rated team," Gwaine said with a snort. "Also, satellite data gets lost all the time."

"There other ways of finding me," Gilli snarled.

"Magic, right?" Arthur said, uncrossing his arms to point an unconcerned finger at Gilli. "A bit of necromancy, some scrying?"

He half-chuckled, grinning broadly when he saw Gilli frown in confusion.

Arthur walked to the other end of the barracks and dragged a chair along behind him. He turned it around and sat down in front of Gilli, forearms draped on the back of the seat. He gave Gilli a slow nod, as if agreeing with every concern making an appearance in his expression. As far as Arthur was concerned, he wouldn't mind tossing the man under the wheels of a large transport, preferably something that would squash him into the bug that he was.

"Now here's how this is going to work," Arthur said amiably. "I'm going to ask questions. You're going to answer them. Simple as that."

"Go fuck yourself," Gilli snapped.

Gwaine shifted the barrel of his gun slightly, shoving it into the back of Gilli's head.

"You won't kill me, you won't fucking dare," Gilli said.

"Have we met, mate?" Gwaine asked. He leaned forward slightly. "You've seen me around, yeah? Picking up our boy, Merlin? Did he tell you anything about me? Maybe you've heard. I'm the team's shooter. Most active confirmed kills. I don't need to be anywhere near you."

"Go to hell! Go to fucking hell!" Gilli struggled, pulling at his bonds. For a second, Arthur was sure that Gilli would use magic to free himself, but nothing happened. He waited until the worst of the tantrum settled down before asking the first question, regardless of Gilli's attitude.

"So, you've been assigned to keep an eye on Merlin. Why?"

Gilli continued to struggle and stared at Arthur sullenly. Arthur stared back. Gilli broke first -- and that could have been because of the gun at his head. "As if they'd tell me."

"I think they told you a great deal," Arthur said. "Or they wouldn't have told you what assignments to hold back, which ones to reroute, what messages to decrypt or delay. For example. The Turkmenistan mission in the NMZ."

Gilli paled, but said nothing.

"There's something about those missions that they didn't want Merlin involved in, isn't there? What was it?"

Gilli kept his mouth shut. Gwaine loosened it for him with a rough smack on the back of his head. "Man asked you a question."

"Ow! I don't know!"

"What was it?" Arthur asked again, patient.

"I don't know! I bloody well don't know!"

Arthur believed him. The sad part was that Gilli was too far down the totem pole to be able to do anything directly against Merlin; he had to go through channels, and those channels were what ultimately made the decisions, telling Gilli what he had to do.

"What did they tell you, then?" Arthur asked.

Gilli stared at him. And stared some more. His leg thumped and fidgeted. He cast nervous sidelong glances toward the gun pressed against the back of his head. The silence stretched, and it stretched even more.

"He fits the profile," Gilli said glumly.

Arthur waited.

"The NWO," Gilli added, clarifying. "The first rank of them. Maybe even the people running things."

He paused.

"He's Welsh. He's the right age. Knows the right people. Has the knowledge. Plus..."

When Gilli wasn't exactly forthcoming, Arthur prompted, "Plus?"

"His father is Balinor Emrys."

Arthur could see Merlin shift slightly, straightening in his shadowed spot, but he was smart enough to stay silent and not let on to Gilli that he was there.

"And?" Arthur asked.

Gilli shook his head. "That's all I know."

"Must know more than that, if saying the name puts a quaver in your voice," Gwaine muttered.

"Who is Balinor Emrys?" Arthur asked.

It was a while before Gilli answered. "He was Directory. Signed up to the Army to work under their purview, trained SAS, ran special teams. His last mission went bad in a lot of ways and no one's talking about why or how. They think that something about that mission, maybe something he picked up or something he did, it found its way back to the family. Maybe even brought it home himself."

Merlin stood up behind Gilli. Arthur couldn't see his face.

"It's my understanding that Merlin's father is deceased," Arthur said quietly. "Are you saying that's not the case?"

"As far as the army's concerned, he was MIA. There were enough eyewitness reports for him to get status-changed to KIA to get him off the books to stop the investigation. They didn't want the army looking too deep, to find out what they were doing."

"What were they doing?" Arthur asked.

"I don't know. All I know is that either he took something, or he had something, and the Directory wants it, only, they have no idea where it is, and maybe Merlin has it, and they don't want the NWO to get it." Gilli pulled at his bound hands, his shoulders wrenching forward. "Can you untie me? My head really fucking hurts."

Arthur ignored him. "What is it that the Directory wants?"

"I don't know," Gilli said again.

"Don't know a whole lot, do you?" Gwaine asked.

"Fuck you," Gilli yelled.

"Don't make me club you, you bloody weasel," Gwaine threatened. "Crack that skull open once and for all, get the answers for ourselves --"

The only warning Arthur had was the orange-red shine in Gilli's eyes. "Gwaine," Arthur warned, standing up simultaneously, moving the chair out of his way. His hand went to his gun --

But it was Merlin who moved first, and had probably been moving even before Arthur reacted, because he was suddenly right behind Gilli, and there was the sound of the chair shattering and rope snapping and suddenly Gilli was free and on his feet --

Merlin's hands clamped down on Gilli's shoulder before he could twist around to get at Gwaine, who'd scrambled back, uncertain, because he had never really been going to shoot Gilli unless he absolutely had to, and hauled him around with surprising strength, whirling Gilli and slamming him into the far wall --

Gilli's eyes were shining molten fire, Merlin's arm was across his throat, pinning him there, but there was a struggle and the sound of blows landing and soft grunts --

and Merlin's eyes --

Gwaine lunged in to help; he stumbled back as if bouncing off a hard surface before he even got an arm's length away. Arthur drew his gun, trying to get a clear shot --

Then he saw what Merlin was trying to get to, something in Gilli's hand, only Gilli was holding his arm close to his body, away from Merlin, and there was desperation in Gilli's expression, all of his attention almost completely focused on Merlin now. Arthur moved forward fast, distracting Gilli for the few instants Merlin needed to knock Gilli off his feet --

They fell behind one of the bunks, out of sight. Arthur swept around one end, Gwaine climbed on top of the other bunk. Merlin stood up, triumphant, and Arthur saw the orange-red glow in Gilli's eyes fade completely.

All the fire went out of him, too. He laid there, stunned, not understanding how Merlin could have done what he had done --

Merlin held a ring in his fingers, holding it out for Arthur, his eyes never leaving Gilli.

"My dad is dead," Merlin said, his tone heartbreakingly soft. "We never even got his body back. How could I have anything of his? The hell with you, Gilli. The hell with the Directory."

He pushed the ring in Arthur's hands, keeping his eyes down, his fingers cold against Arthur's skin. "That does his magic. Don't let him have it again."

Merlin took a feeble, stumbling, stunned step away. There was broken in his expression, and he was as fragile as glass. Arthur watched him intently, wanting to catch him before he fell.

Gilli managed to get himself in a sitting position, and sneered, "Did you hear that? He's not denying that he's a spy --"

"For fuck's sake, Gilli!" Merlin said, catching himself with a hand on Arthur's shoulder. "Are you really that thick? I'm not bloody NWO!"

Arthur tossed the ring at Gwaine, who studied it. "Cheap bit of bronze this is. Is it circus magic then?"

Gilli got up; Arthur pushed him back down, a knee on his chest. His voice was pitched low, low, from deep down in his chest, and he said, "I don't want to see your face again. Find your own way back."

He leaned more weight on his knee, getting a rewarding sputter and gasp, and finally rose, gesturing to Gwaine. "Let's go. We're heading back tonight."

"No complaints from me, Captain," Gwaine said. Arthur saw him make a gun with his hand and mimic pulling the trigger at Gilli out of the corner of his eye, but he was too angry to be amused. All he wanted to do was pull Merlin into his arms.

And he couldn't.


It was a quick trip out of the base -- even with a side visit to the command centre so that Arthur could have a quick chat with the base commander about Gilli, for Gwaine to run through to the mess hall to grab some food for what had turned out to be an unresponsive Merlin, and for Kay to make a stop at the communications centre to quietly request that they be radioed if there was trouble brewing on the Gilli front.

No one needed to ask why. One look at Merlin was enough to know that something had happened, and it involved the wanker.

They were an hour into the trip -- following the original plan to take a circuitous route into heavily-active rebel territory, following Major Kilgarrah's very precise instructions -- when Arthur glanced at Merlin.

He hadn't touched the food Gwaine had taken out of the mess hall. He hadn't slept. He stared out of the small window square with distant, unblinking eyes, his features in sharp relief, the shadows of the streaming moonlight bouncing from the desert sand casting something of a death shroud on his face.

It was a chilling look, made all the more chilling when Merlin shook himself out of it, tilting his head back, breathing out a shuddering sigh. There had been a curve in the road, at right that moment, and the moonlight faded, slipping off like a blanket in the dark of night, leaving nothing but the air to warm the skin. Merlin was restored with that simple sound, an old ache and a dull pain pushed aside, released in a breath that stayed with Arthur, shaking him to the core.

Merlin was hurting, and Arthur didn't know what to do.

That wasn't exactly true. He knew what he wanted to do, what he needed to do, and it involved a physical show of giving a damn that he didn't want to do in front of Gwaine and Kay.

They'd bundled Merlin in the rear passenger seat; neither Kay nor Gwaine protested when Arthur slid in next to Merlin instead of taking his usual spot at the front. There had been only quiet chatter -- enough for Kay to find out what had happened when he'd been keeping an eye on the Crack Box and simultaneously keeping others out of the barracks while they "interrogated" Gilli -- on the drive, all business and only business, and not a sound since Gwaine corrected Kay's course, keeping them on the right heading for the next stage of the mission.

"I weren't even six," Merlin said abruptly, his whisper loud in the silence of the cab, barely loud enough to be heard over the crunch of heavy, reinforced tires on the icy sand, but he had their attention from the very first word, as sure as he were speaking through a megaphone.

"Mum was a wreck. This bloke in uniform kept coming to the house, once every week, once every two weeks, for nearly a year. Stretched out the hope that he would come home, that they were looking for him, that nothing was wrong, that they'd lost contact with him, is all."

Merlin rubbed his face with one hand, wiping at his cheeks. His voice was steady, his fingers weren't trembling, and this was Merlin, trying to bandage over an old wound, to put on a brave face.

Arthur waited until Merlin's hand came down, and caught it before it fell all the way, feeling streaks of damp across his palm that couldn't be anything else but tears. Merlin didn't pull away; didn't even seem to notice, and Arthur entwined his fingers through Merlin's, not liking to feel him so cold.

"He kept coming afterward, for months, but a little more time passed in between his visits until he quit coming to the door. It got so much that Mum got tired to see him, but she was too polite to say so. Bloke always had an excuse, too. Paperwork for Mum to sign. Widows benefits and the like. Follow up briefs about the investigation." Merlin paused. "Then he stopped coming."

Another curve in the road, and they headed along the same compass point as before. The moonlight streamed through Merlin's side of the transport again, but this time, he looked less like death and more like the wounded angel that Arthur had seen in the chapel.

"We were burgled the week after. We didn't have much to start off with. The Base house we were in was barely big enough for two people, never mind three. I were at school, Mum was working at the veteran's hospital down the road. Seemed like after the MPs had come and gone, Mum broke down, and it were like dad had died all over again."

Merlin's fingers tightened around Arthur's hand, twisting, twisting like the writhing of a snake seeking warmth and solace against the pain and the cold, until again their hands were entwined, locked together, impossible to disentangle.

"Never thought about it until now. I mean, I weren't even six. They didn't touch my toys. They didn't take the cash in the cookie jar. They just... They took everything that belonged to my father. Every book. Every scrap of paper. Every picture. Even that ratty old armchair that Mum hated because it were falling apart, but never had the heart to throw out just in case they were wrong and he wasn't dead and he'd come home wanting to sit down."

That was the end of it, the sudden stop, the ran-out-of-words tightness in the throat that welled up with a second round of pain. Merlin turned his head away, and the silence fell in the transport none of them speaking, none of them daring to make a sound.

Arthur squeezed Merlin's hand gently.

Merlin squeezed back.

Neither one of them let go.


Fifty-eight minutes after Major Kilgarrah received word from Merlin that they were on their way back to base -- far sooner than he had anticipated, which required a slight adjustment of his own plans and a few phone calls to spur certain people into action -- Mister Smith of the Directory of Alternate Affairs waltzed into the command centre and began breathing down Kilgarrah's neck.

He's got another thing coming if he thinks that's going to bother me -- Kilgarrah thought.

He managed to ignore Smith for eighteen minutes before Smith became unbearable. Mister Smith was sufficiently put-together not to be overtly obvious -- instead of the expected (and almost hoped-for) tantrum, Smith instead stared. And stared. And stared.

And worse -- made himself at home. He peered over people's shoulders; engaged in inappropriate conversation with the on-duty analysts, digging for information; skimmed through TOP SECRET folders on the tables until someone yanked them out of his hands. The moment a terminal came free, he eased himself into the seat, stopped short of running a full system search by the guards keeping close watch on him.

"Smith," Kilgarrah said finally, less because he was growing irritated, and more because he was concerned that Smith's distractions would cause a small disaster in the operations that were running even now. When Mister Smith deigned turn to look at him, Kilgarrah suppressed a snort of aggravation and thumbed toward the isolation room.

Smith might be an adept manipulator, a chess player on the equivalent of some of the top masters in the world, but Kilgarrah had millennia over Smith in those fields, and absolutely no patience for subtlety or games. This was his ground, his territory, and his men; they would be talking on his terms, under his purview, and with his advantage.

Starting with using Smith's apparent aversion to small, closed spaces.

The isolation room might not be as small as Smith's POW prison, but Kilgarrah deliberately allowed some of his magic to slip. His presence filled the room as soon as the door clanked shut behind him and the glass walls frosted over.

Smith visibly shirked, glancing around confused. His shoulders rounded like a whipped dog's spine did when it skittered to get away.

Kilgarrah was under no illusions here -- his current human position was not one with a great deal of power, but it was not without its share of influence, influence that he had gathered over the last forty years of his current persona. Smith could have his so-called shadow Directory; Kilgarrah worked well above and beyond those circles.

He sat down. "Mister Bayard. How nice to see you again given that you've been banned from the base by the General. What brings you by? A bit of tourism? Here to take in the scenery?"

If Smith -- or Bayard, rather -- was surprised that Kilgarrah knew his real name, he made no sign. Instead, he slowly and deliberately pulled out a chair and made himself comfortable.

"Let's not play games," Bayard said. "If you know who I am, you know why I'm here."

"Yes," Kilgarrah said, smiling a broad, toothy smile. He wished he had a cigarette or a cigar; right about now would be an excellent time to exhale and rid himself of the tense build-up of flame and smoke in his chest. "And the response to the order that has been signed and counter-signed by any random number of upper echelon Brass -- people, if I may point out, who have their heads so firmly up their arses that they didn't bother to wonder why an obscure and obsolete government branch was pursuing the issue of one single SAS team -- is a collective no."

Bayard's lips curled at the corners in something that might resemble a smile, but bordered more into outrageous mockery. "And yet, there is little that you can do about it. Your orders -- their new orders -- are clear."

Kilgarrah didn't bother to waste breath disputing Bayard's statement. Instead, he rolled his seat back to a locked cabinet, thumbed the combination, and opened a drawer. He flipped through several folders before locating the one that he'd slipped in earlier that day, pleased with himself for ensuring that it would arrive in the nick of time.

"This is a copy. You can have this one," Kilgarrah said, sliding the paper to Bayard. Bayard's smirk didn't fade until he pulled the paper close, read the contents, and reviewed the single signature on the bottom of the sheet.

The Directory of Alternate Affairs might fall outside the government's purview, but there was one dominion that still held absolute power over them: Her Majesty the Queen.

It was her signature on the bottom of the paper, invalidating every and all orders issued through, by, and for the Directory of Alternate Affairs through their agent, Mister John Smith, also known as Mister Solomon Bayard, where the SAS team, Excalibur, and their support staff, were concerned. The names, ranks and designations of each of the members of the team were listed, with bold and underscores highlighting Captain Arthur Pendragon and Lieutenant Merlin Emrys.

Bayard's look of intense, absolute hatred slid off of Kilgarrah's skin like Greek Fire from dragon scales.

"Now that I have your attention," Kilgarrah said, the sound of his fingers tapping on the surface of the table closer to the clack of razor-sharp talons than fingernails, "Let's have us a chat.

"Mister Bayard, you can, at your leisure, look into my security clearance, whereupon you'll find that it exceeds yours. I am well and fully aware of the situation encompassing the terrorist movement self-styled the New World Order and the implication that any success on their part will have on the current state of affairs. I am well and fully aware of the weapons at their disposal and their assumed distribution worldwide. I am also well and fully aware that your current, most reliable intelligence on this organization, particularly of late, has been obtained based on inroads that were involuntarily created by Captain Arthur Pendragon and Lieutenant Merlin Emrys, and that any future plan that you have to stop them relies heavily on their involvement in future missions.

"You don't need to say anything, Mister Bayard. You don't even need to nod. You need to sit there, and negotiate on behalf of the Directory the terms under which every member of Excalibur will be assisting you. Think of me as their agent."

Kilgarrah slid a thick folder across the table. It contained not only Excalibur's demands, but a number of Kilgarrah's own.

"I don't have the authority --" Bayard said, trailing off when Kilgarrah held up his hand.

"Yes, you do."

The two men stared at each other in challenge, and it was, predictably, Bayard who backed down.

"I'll give you a moment to review the terms." Kilgarrah took his own folder out and did the same, though he was perfectly aware of the contents -- contents he had reordered and reworded to make them ironclad and unbreakable. He had no intention of leaving them to their fates, not when the boys' destinies laid elsewhere, untangled by the Directory's endless red tape.

"Shall we begin with the first item on the list of the team's demands. Notably, addressing the issue of the cock-up in Algiers? Surely you realize that your interference is the reason why Excalibur very nearly lost several men. The Directory has shown themselves unable to manage the team's unusual and efficient approach to the situations they encounter. They would do best if they were handled by someone well aware of their techniques and approaches and who can organize the support they require as they require it."

Bayard's lips were squashed in a small, thin line of displeasure.

"Don't you agree?" Kilgarrah prompted. This particular notation was one of his own; he had no desire to see any member of the team lost because of the Directory's flagrant ineptitude.

Bayard hesitantly began, "I would argue --"

"Argue all you like," Kilgarrah interrupted, tapping the table again, and he caught Bayard glancing at his fingertips, as if he'd realized that the sound made by his claw was certainly not the sound made by a human fingernail. "The reality of the situation is that many -- if not all -- of these stipulations to Excalibur's secondment to the Directory are non-negotiable. The sooner that you accept that the Directory's archaic warfare methodology no longer has a dominating place in modern times and that your modus operandi is flawed where it comes to operating a group of this size as an unit, the sooner we can get to an agreement."

He paused meaningfully.

"And the sooner Excalibur returns to base."

Bayard hesitated and released a heavy sigh. "Very well. I assume that this particular stipulation doesn't come without a firm recommendation."

"That would be correct," Kilgarrah said.

"And would I be privy to knowing this person's name?"

"He's sitting in front of you," Kilgarrah said, allowing a bit of burning smoke to escape his nostrils in self-satisfaction.


They drove in silence for what seemed like hours, because the darkness had a way of stretching time into infinity and eternity, especially when the road ahead and the road behind were mirror images of each other. Merlin didn't really notice, sat there with his head turned to watch the landscape pass by through the window, conceivably keeping an eye out for enemy rebels -- though how anyone could see anything in the pitch-black, even with the pale sliver of moonlight and the still-bright stars, was beyond him. The only thing any one of them could do was search for bits of flickering light in the form of flashlights, other vehicles, or even muzzle fire.

In Merlin's case, it was to reach out with a part of his mind, searching for nearby bodies beyond those in the car.

He was acutely aware of one body in particular -- the one next to him. Arthur's knee brushed against his every time Kay drove over a bump in the road, and every once in a while, Arthur’s thumb would trace the back of his hand, his fingers tickling his palm. Arthur's presence was an inferno to Merlin's senses, not just because of the physical contact, but because it was Arthur, and he glowed bright and unfettered, drowning out the auras of even Gwaine and Kay, who sat in the front seat bare feet away from Merlin.

It took a long time for the chaos in his mind to settle down, and the only thing that grounded him, that brought him back to the here and now, was Arthur's hand, entwined in his own.

His father had been Directory. His father... had died for the Directory. And the Directory was after Merlin for some stupid, contrived reason. How could Merlin even have anything of his father's? They had taken everything. Absolutely everything.

It didn't matter how many times that Merlin turned it around in his mind, how he flipped the angle around, how Gilli had spoken the words. He wasn't altogether certain that it was all that was going on. An object? An artefact? A book? A confidential file? What was it that his father was supposed to have hidden away? How was he supposed to have gotten it to Merlin? It sounded hollow, as if something was missing somewhere, a bit of information that Gilli hadn't been privy to, and had filled in his own blanks because he'd watched too many spy vids and had guessed the reason, but wasn't really sure.

If anything, at least he now knew why Gilli had been watching him -- and whether or not it had something to do with his father, or because of something else, remained to be seen.

Merlin choked back a laugh. The NWO. They really thought he was NWO? Wouldn't that have rung any of the alarm bells when they'd picked apart his background before giving him the security clearance that he had now? The whole idea of the NWO was revolting to him -- why, how could anyone think he was with them in the first place?

Arthur hadn't hesitated, hadn't even blinked. Merlin's heart swelled, hurting impossibly, because Arthur's faith in him had been absolute. Arthur believed Merlin. He hadn't doubted him, not for a second.

It made Merlin feel like more of an arse with every minute that passed without him telling Arthur about his magic.

And at the same time, he couldn't help but bite his tongue. What if telling Arthur about his magic changed how Arthur felt? What if he couldn't trust Merlin any longer? What if...

Merlin glanced down at their hands, at Arthur's strong fingers around his own.

He had to tell him. He knew he did.

Merlin glanced at Arthur, at his profile, at the tuff of blond hair escaping from under the hard cap, thinking that he was overdue for a trim, but then again, Arthur was gorgeous in the morning, still rubbing the sleep from his eyes, his hair sticking out stubbornly. The line of his jaw, the muscle that clenched, revealing how tense he was, even if that tension didn't translate in the way he was holding Merlin's hand. The aristocratic profile, strong and sure, the calm knowing of his gaze, alert and aware, even though he must be exhausted, even now, from the long mission.

Merlin opened his mouth to speak, but Gwaine's voice filled the gloom. "We're approaching the coordinates."

He frowned slightly. Either there was something going on that he didn't know about, or he hadn't been read into an aspect of the mission on purpose. Did someone think he was a spy? Or had Arthur faked everything? Did he really think that Merlin was --

But why was he still holding Merlin's hand?

Arthur's hand loosened from Merlin's, and Merlin let go, raising a questioning brow that Arthur couldn't miss. Arthur's hand went from Merlin's to the bench seat to his thigh, squeezing reassuringly, and said, "Sorry I didn't tell you. I didn't want you to give anything away to Gilli. You know how you are with secrets, Merlin -- absolutely bollocks."

"Completely bollocks," Gwaine said, agreeing a little too enthusiastically.

"Yeah, thanks for that," Merlin snorted, hiding the flash of relief that ran through him. "Didn't think I did too badly in Algiers."

"That was you acting like you," Arthur said, and if Merlin wasn't imagining things, there was a trace of fondness in his voice. "Not too much of a leap, is it? All right, let's stop here, Kay. Pack up your kits and let's go."

Merlin frowned and followed suit, assuming that someone would tell him what was going on at some conceivable point in the future. Was he hearing right? They were abandoning the transport in rebel territory? What about the Crack Box --

"Ohhh," Merlin breathed, realization dawning. It made sense all of a sudden. The handheld gaming console, the cryptic orders from Kilgarrah. But he didn't understand why they would leave everything in this place. "What's -- Arthur...?"

Arthur came around the transport, pulling a few packs from the rear, leaving the Crack Box where it was. The casing made it too heavy to transport, but technically, the Crack Box wasn't in the Crack Box anymore.

"Mandrake thinks the Box is more trouble than it's worth, and he's probably right. Base Command got their hands on it ass-backward," Arthur said, giving Merlin an apologetic glance, but thankfully not revealing to the others just how ass-backward it had been, what with Merlin building it himself. "Without a competent analyst. The sooner it's blown up, the sooner it's out of our hands, and a requisition can be put in for the real deal."

"Right," Merlin nodded, following all that. His mind skidded to a stop and backtracked, and he took Arthur's arm. "Wait. What? Blown up?"

"Yes, Merlin. Blown up. How else do you expect it to get destroyed? We're not leaving this in enemy hands."

"But. Um. No, wait. I realize I'm not being particularly bright at the moment --"

Gwaine snickered, but for once, kept his mouth shut. Arthur, however, wasn't as gracious. "I hadn't noticed," he said, the sarcasm thick.

Merlin smiled thinly, sucked a tooth, and nodded, giving him that one. He restrained the overwhelming urge to slap Arthur in the head, and only because he was wearing the hard cap. "All right. Have a go at my expense. I'm used to it. But, no. Really. We're just leaving it here? Dress it up with explosives and claim the Rebels got it?"

"Close but no cigar," Gwaine said, hauling his pack over his shoulders and balancing it. He turned to Kay to check the buckles.

"We're just leaving it here and claiming the Rebels got it," Kay supplied.

Merlin stared at the both of them before turning to Arthur slapping him on the arm. "Check my pack."

Merlin went through the motions, tightening any belt buckles that loosened from the redistribution of weight, hefting it up a little to let Arthur adjust the pinched shoulder straps. When Arthur turned around, he grabbed Merlin's arm and leaned in. "Tell me you. You know."

He made an incomprehensible gesture in the air with his hand.

"What?"

Arthur raised a brow. "Kilgarrah's little present?"

"Oh, that. Yeah. Yeah, I did."

"Good. Then it's taken care of. Nothing to worry about," Arthur said. "Put on your pack and turn around."

Merlin scowled and did as ordered, turning around, ignoring as best he could the heat of Arthur's body that close behind him, hot despite the desert air, and still capable of arousing all sorts of fantasies of having Arthur behind him like that, only without the pack in the way, without so many clothes, and definitely without armour.

He coughed a little to cover the red flush he was sure was making his cheeks glow in the dark, and when he turned around once Arthur was done, it was his turn to grab Arthur's arm. "The casing's meant to be bomb-proof. Also, you know the protocol for high-value tech like this. The army will do everything they can to retrieve it, right down to collecting scraps for forensic examination to make sure that it's not a dupe. They'll know if we use our own explosives --"

"Never said anything about explosives, Merlin," Arthur said, patting his arm. The insufferable I know something you don't smirk on his lips was almost worth the brig time for hitting a superior officer.

"Missiles," Kay supplied helpfully, brushing past Merlin and Arthur, heading east.

"But we don't have missiles!" Merlin pointed out.

"No, we don't," Gwaine said, standing off to the side, squinting his eyes against the gloom. After a second, he pointed up the dune. "But they do."

Merlin startled, turned, and tried to see something in the dark, but all he made out was the vague shape of a dune. He reached out with his magic instead, and realized that Gwaine was right -- there were people over there that way somewhere, and coming fast.

Gwaine patted him on the shoulder. "Don't worry. You still have your looks going for you."

"Fuck off," Merlin glared.

Arthur chuckled, and asked, "G, get the truck going. The rest of you get in range. We'll be humping it eighty klicks out of enemy territory, and best if we're gone before they realize we weren't in the truck."

Gwaine went to do something to the truck, shut the door, and it started to roll down the incline, moving faster bit by bit as it headed downhill. None of them stayed to watch, and every one of them moved as fast as they could to get out of sight and out of range of the demolitions blast. Merlin assumed that the rebels would let loose a handheld missile -- how the bloody fuck did they know that we’d be here at this time, he wondered, before chalking it all up to Something He Wasn't Supposed To Ask Questions About -- when the truck was at the bottom of the hill, before it crested beyond the rise and out of sight, forcing them to give chase.

He was a little wrong. The rebel's desert transport arrived at the top of the dune faster than Merlin had expected, and a barrage of high-powered large-calibre ammunition blasted from the machine gun mounted on top of the truck, striking a line of bullets in the sand right before the gunner adjusted his aim and struck their transport.

Several clean hits shattered the glass but didn't quite penetrate the heavy armour of the body, and abruptly -- there was the low subsonic roar of a fighter plane overhead, startling Merlin off balance and into Arthur, who caught and steadied him, grabbing a hold of his vest to drag him along.

That's not a handheld missile launcher, Merlin thought, grateful for at least one thing -- it definitely wasn't one of their planes. He was hauled behind a dune, thrown against Kay, Arthur slamming right into his side, and all four of them covered their ears and waited... and waited...

The explosion jarred them even if it was more than a kilometre away, the shockwave buffeted by the dune at their backs but still a noticeable tremor in the ground and the air. Smoke, flames, baby mushroom cloud that was a mixture of transport parts and Crack Box "impenetrable" casing and sand all filled the air, raining down all round them.

They waited a moment, then two. There was no sound of the jet returning, none of the rebel transport coming in their direction. Arthur met Merlin's eyes and nodded.

"Let's go," he said, and Merlin was surprised he could still hear over the faint ringing in his ears.

Gwaine led the way, and Merlin grunted, tucking in for what was going to be a long hike back.

 


 

It was the fourth day of negotiations, and Bayard had been sweating for the last three hours while doing his best not to look as if he were sweating. The moment when Bayard resorted to calming meditative techniques was apparent: his eyes would droop slightly, his hands would rest on his thighs, and he would lean back in his chair, taking it all in while not letting anything out. That was usually the moment that Kilgarrah elected to tap a noisy finger -- claw -- on the table.

Kilgarrah was not above using a little pressure to get Bayard to agree to the terms of Excalibur's secondment to the Directory -- so much so that he refused to allow Bayard to take the document out of the secure room so that he could review them one by one with his superiors directly and come back with a complete agreement. While it would make things exceedingly easier, it wouldn't drive home the point that Kilgarrah was trying to make.

Essentially, that Excalibur was its own team, and if they answered to anyone, they would answer to Arthur Pendragon, and by definition, to Kilgarrah.

What Bayard failed to take into account in his negotiations was the assumption that Kilgarrah would stand in the way of the missions. It was the furthest thing from the truth -- if anything, Kilgarrah would be happy to see the NWO eradicated from the face of the planet, since it would make his own future plans far easier. But it was the game that Bayard was playing, and Kilgarrah was a patient man. A patient dragon, anyway.

He could outwait Bayard. He was certain that Excalibur could outwait him, too, even out in the desert wilderness without any support and in danger of being caught, captured, or killed.

That fact seemed to have escaped Bayard's notice, because while he seemed content to drag on the negotiations in the hopes that the boys would turn up, he didn't seem sufficiently concerned for their safety.

Which was why Kilgarrah had arranged for Mandrake to come into the room with terrible, terrible news.

Mandrake knocked first, but entered without waiting for an invitation. He rounded the table to Kilgarrah's side, bent down slightly, and whispered in Kilgarrah's ear, "I thought of having a body tentatively identified as one of them, but thought that would've been a bit much."

Kilgarrah fought not to smirk. He did his best to look concerned, and gave Mandrake a curt nod before studying the piece of paper that he'd been given. It was little else but a personnel report -- the form it was written on was a close match for a communications sheet.

"Well. That changes things," Kilgarrah said softly, in an undertone, mostly to himself. He gave Mandrake a curt nod.

Mandrake left the room without so much as a nod in Bayard's direction, moving with just the right amount of urgency.

Kilgarrah leaned back in his chair, a hand on the table, his eyes still on that sheet of paper. His fingernail tap-tap-tapped with a faint clink and enough force to gouge a hole in the surface. Abruptly, he got up, shuffled his papers in a hazarded mess, and headed toward the door.

"I assume negotiations will resume at a more convenient time?"

Kilgarrah stopped, turned around and gave Bayard the frown that could strike fear in the hearts of Generals. "A more convenient time will be when each member of Excalibur is back on base, safe and sound. Perhaps once you decide to stop dragging your heels, this matter could be resolved."

"Dragging my heels?" Bayard asked, scoffing. "You're the one with the ridiculous list of demands. All you have to do is call them back in, and they'll be fine."

"The list of demands are from Excalibur themselves," Kilgarrah reminded Bayard flatly. That wasn't strictly true -- there were a few things that Kilgarrah had inserted purely for his own benefit, but Bayard didn't need to know that. "And as much as I'd like to call them back, and I shall -- it will be difficult to do so with one of the teams. We've lost communication with them."

That woke up Bayard some -- he was a sleeping bear prodded by a sharp stick, grumbling grumpily and swatting it away with a paw. "What a shame."

Kilgarrah waited, turned, and went for the door again.

"Out of curiosity, whom did you lose touch with?"

"The Alpha team," Kilgarrah said, pausing with his hand on the door handle.

"Ah." Bayard paused. There was the squeak of a chair shifting, as he adjusted his weight, either to stand up or to make himself comfortable. "Who's on the Alpha team?"

Kilgarrah tossed a scornful, raised brow at Bayard. "You really need to ask? Pendragon, Emrys, Taggart, Lawhead."

Bayard stood up suddenly, his eyes wide, but he had enough sense not to say anything more.

Kilgarrah left the quiet room, letting the door shut behind him. He allowed himself a soft chuckle before hurrying to the command centre, where he proceeded to hover like a mother hen over the technicians.

Bayard came out a second later, looking white-faced and a little ashen. He approached Kilgarrah, thought better of it, and walked out of the command tent. Kilgarrah did not miss the slight bulge under his jacket, tucked under his arm, knowing full well that it was the list of Excalibur's demands.

There was nothing like pushing someone's buttons. If Bayard were smart, he'd waltz right over to the communications centre, request a private line, and dial up his superiors at the Directory to get the matter cleared up as quickly as possible.

Kilgarrah grinned.

A few people saw his smile and shied away from him.

 


 

By Gwaine's estimation, they were just outside the grey area that was still considered rebel territory, but had such minimal activity that they could risk a small fire to heat up the MREs without having to gag them down cold. Arthur firmly believed that Gwaine only insisted that they were in the safe zone because he was hungry. Their last meal had consisted of something lumpy and with floating chunks that turned Gwaine's stomach enough that the man with the bottomless pit of a stomach actually gagged.

Keeping his men healthy and fuelled for the remainder of the journey was Arthur's main priority. He had no idea how long they would be out in the desert, waiting for Kilgarrah to give them the all-clear signal to come back. They had planned for a week, stashing extra rations in their backpacks and taking what they could from the base in Kandahar on the what-if clause, which had a Murphy's Law corollary of of course you'll need it, because it will go bollocks-up no matter what. Arthur could not afford to waste the rations, much less risk Gwaine or any of them throwing up cold MREs just because they couldn't be stomached -- but, yes, heat made the food just a little bit more bearable.

Where Gwaine was the bottomless pit, and Kay had the steel-lined four-chambered cow stomach -- Arthur had caught him nibbling on a piece of vegetation he was almost positive wasn't for human consumption -- Merlin had been picking at his food like a bird, subsiding on pieces of protein bars to take the edge off his hunger during the day and subsiding on one MRE, eaten in the evening or on the go.

Arthur wasn't fooled. As the man who carried more weight, pound for pound, in his pack than anyone on the team except Perceval, who economized his pack to maximize space for the communication equipment and in-the-field tools, Merlin sometimes took shortcuts. It was why Arthur had opted to carry extra rations, not for himself but for Merlin, in his pack on so many of their missions.

It wasn't SAS protocol, not by far. Every man was expected to carry what they needed for themselves, because if they were separated, they had to subside on whatever they had. It didn't stop Arthur from packing extra, because if there was ever a tradition that had grown since Merlin had joined Excalibur, it was a bit of conversation:

"Merlin. Stick to --"

"Stick to you like glue. Yeah, I got it," Merlin would say, rolling his eyes.

Fair to form, no matter what, even if they were separated, Merlin would somehow find his way back to Arthur, or Arthur would find him. Leon had commented on it once, mumbling something rude about the two of them having a compass that homed in on each other, but no one made fun of it because it was downright handy, knowing that they would never be completely without their communications specialist when on a mission. It meant that Merlin was almost guaranteed to be close to a food source -- namely, Arthur.

That unconscious little "ability" of theirs was also useful in other times. There were moments when Arthur would wake up in the night, opening up his eyes to see the blanket of stars overhead, and knowing that Merlin was on watch a few feet away, his eyes on him, and that he was safe.

He didn't know how much more of this he could stand. His only way out of this awkward, frustrating situation of being in love with one of his men were two small, nearly-unnoticed demands that he'd added to the list he had given Kilgarrah. He could only hope that those would slip through.

Arthur knew the exact day that Merlin ran out of his rations -- it was two nights ago, when he ate only half of his MRE and tucked the other half away for the next night. And now, he was subsiding on the crumbs of his last protein bar.

That was part of the reason why Arthur nodded when Gwaine asked about the fire and slapped Gwaine's hand when he reached for the extra ration that Arthur plunked down to warm up. Merlin hadn't noticed; he was tinkering with his Box.

Merlin had gone radio-silent at the pre-planned time on Arthur's orders, raising a slight, inquiring brow, but beyond the question mark that had been written on his face, Merlin hadn't hesitated. Now, he was switching the Box around so that they could receive incoming messages without letting on that they were able to receive, and disabling the sending capabilities, at least for the moment.

Arthur cast him one last glance, wondering if it had been wise not to read Merlin into the plan from the get-go, because then he maybe he would have miraculously shown the common sense God gave a gnat and packed his rations properly for a change, but at the same time, he suspected that he was putting too much faith in Merlin. The man needed taking care of --

"So, I figure that we can keep heading south on our heading for four more days on the rations we have, if we stretch them out," Gwaine said, drawing a crude map in the sand. He dotted a line in a slick, sinuous route before marking a big X at the very end. "Right about here is an oasis. It's not much, but we can get clean water. We might luck out and cross paths with some of the nomads, if they've come this far north, do a bit of trading for more rations if we need to. It's early for that, but we might luck out."

"We'd stick out like sore thumbs," Kay remarked.

"Not all of us," Gwaine said, glancing to Merlin and pointing to himself. "Snatch some clothes from the line at night, walk in the next morning with some bits and pieces."

"They'll mark you both as foreigners," Kay said. "You sound like a thresher when you talk Arabic, and Merlin's too fair to pass, plus he's got those shiny bright blues --"

"I'll make as if he's my little trollop," Gwaine said with a lecherous grin, and Arthur felt his heart tighten in jealousy. He let out a slow breath.

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," he said, really not liking the image of Merlin as anyone's trollop but his.

He caught Merlin's sidelong glance before Merlin ducked his head again to do something positively scandalous with the wiring of his Box, his lips twisted in a smirk, as if he'd heard the undertone Arthur hadn't meant to put into his voice. Gwaine had certainly heard, and Kay, thick as he was, had picked up on it too.

"Oh, right," Kay said, feeding into the opening, "Sure, I see how that could work. He's slim enough, he could pass as one, I suppose. Swathe him in a big robe, wrap a veil around his head and face --"

"Yeah, and with those eyelashes, he could definitely pass as a girl --"

"Oi!" Merlin's head snapped up, his brow pinched in a disapproving frown. "If anyone's dressing up as a girl, it's Gwaine. Have you ever watched him walk? He's got a wriggle that would make a runway model bloody envious --"

"I've got nothing on you mate," Gwaine said, glancing sidelong at Arthur, who had lost his train of thought at the idea of dressing Merlin up as a girl. Certainly, a skirt would make access a lot easier --

He snapped out of it with a shake of his head and glared at Gwaine. "What's the alternative?"

Gwaine sobered. "If we're steering clear of safe ground, then we want to go over here..."

His hand swept in the opposite direction, his finger stopping at a location that looked painfully far. "Say four days' hike, night time fast-march, do a sidewinder route to avoid rebels, maybe get ourselves a change of clothes so that we don't stick out like sore thumbs, maybe borrow --"

Gwaine made borrow sound more like liberate.

"-- a car or a truck. Small town, guaranteed shelter and supplies --"

"And smack dab in enemy territory," Kay pointed out. "As nice as that sounds, you're doing a piss-poor job planning the travel package."

Arthur snorted. "Not to mention extraction. Push comes to shove and we get in trouble? No backup, no easy way out, and no pickup. Let's leave that off the books for now, and we'll keep hoofing it south."

"South it is," Gwaine said, nonplussed. He stretched out to check the MREs. "Dinner's ready."

He helped himself to his ration, tearing open the bag, fumbling in his side pocket for a spoon. Kay was a little less enthusiastic, but he chowed down. Arthur picked up the two rations that were left, and put one in front of Merlin.

Merlin glanced at it and shrugged his shoulders the way a big dog shook water from its fur. "That's yours."

"It's yours, Merlin," Arthur said. "Packed extra for you, since you didn't know about this side trip."

In the firelight, Merlin's eyes changed colours, making Arthur's breath catch, except it was the wrong shade of gold. His mouth fell open a little, there was a crease on his brow, and, finally, he smiled. "Oh. Thanks. I'll eat it later."

"Now, Merlin," Arthur said. He took the partially disassembled Box out of Merlin's lap, trying not to think too much of the way Merlin jerked his leg away, startled, when Arthur's hands brushed his thigh. "I've been keeping track. You're barely eating one-third ration. I am not carrying you to the oasis. Eat it. All of it. Or..."

Merlin's brows raised slightly in worried anticipation.

"I'll feed it to you."

Merlin stared at him as if he were strongly considering his options.

"You don't want that," Gwaine warned. "He's a terrible nursemaid."

Arthur nodded agreement. "Terrible. Quite awful. I'm more like to sit on your chest, pinch your nose, and pour the slop down your throat. You'd be better off trying to choke it down on your own."

Merlin took the MRE with a scowl. "You know, I feel sorry for the poor sap you end up spending the rest of your life with."

What makes you think it won't be you? Arthur nearly said, and instead he raised a brow. "I'll hire him a nursemaid and sentence him to quarantine at the other side of the flat. Can't let myself get sick, now, can I?"

The MREs were high-protein, high-fat, high-carbohydrate, high-everything with a precise balance of nutrients meant to keep the working soldier on the go, but somewhere in there, science got in the way of taste, because whatever was in the Beef Stroganoff, it raised a string of protests on the taste buds and the back of Arthur's throat nearly revolted. He choked it down just a little faster than Gwaine, made certain that Merlin finished his, and went about cleaning up the camp before the small fire died.

There wasn't much natural fuel that they could use to keep it going, and they were all both dressed warmly enough and sheltered from the elements that they would be able to make it through the night with little else but a slight chill. They would each catch a few hours of sleep to get going before dawn, covering as much ground as they could before the sun was high in the sky and scorching the skin from their bones.

"I'll take firsts," Gwaine said, picking up his rifle to head for the high point on the ground.

"Fine by me," Kay muttered, tipping his cap down over his head, stretching out to make himself comfortable, raising his arms to fold them behind his head. "Get me up for second. You two, sort it out who's next and tell me if I got the right one when I wake you."

Merlin finished twisting a few wires together before putting the Box away without testing it -- it looked like it had an unfortunate encounter with an IED that left it nowhere near functional, but knowing Merlin, it might be able to pipe in music from the other side of the planet even in its current state. He didn't stretch out for a quick forty winks the way Kay had done and the way Arthur very nearly did, if he hadn't seen the anxiety in Merlin's eyes. Merlin wrung his hands together, shot sidelong glances at Arthur, and his lips twitched trying to say something, but he didn't know how. His gaze went from Arthur to Kay, as if he couldn't bring himself to say anything in front of the other man.

It reminded Arthur of how Merlin had been back on the base, before they'd left, wanting to tell Arthur something so desperately that Arthur had been gutted to have to stop him before they were overheard. Seeing Merlin like this, now, all wound up and tense, tightened the muscles in his chest and made it difficult to breathe.

There was no better opportunity for absolute privacy, what with Kay about to nod off and Gwaine somewhere out of earshot. Arthur nearly raised a brow to nod at Merlin, to urge him to go ahead and spit it out, for the love of God.

Instead, Arthur stayed up instead of settling down for the night, sitting, pretending to go through the maps on his own to come up with a better plan than Gwaine's, listening for the familiar sound of soft snoring -- Kay had the Guiness World Record for the quickest nod-off -- before looking at Merlin again.

"You want to go for a walk?" Arthur asked, his voice soft.

Merlin glanced up at him, and in the red embers of the dying fire, his eyes were shadowed and glistening, nearly orange in the dark. Orange, like Gilli's eyes, nearly red like the eyes of enemy sorcerers, but that wasn't right, because Arthur knew that Merlin's eyes shone gold. A beautiful, molten gold.

"Yeah," Merlin said, with a stuttering nod, glancing at Kay. "Could do. Need to stretch my legs."

Arthur snorted, because it wasn't as if they hadn't been stretching their legs since they'd dumped the transport, leaving it as a tasty target for whatever back alley deal Major Kilgarrah had brewed up -- probably something to do with assisting an undercover MI-5 agent establish their street cred. It didn't matter, because now he was going to get answers from Merlin.

He stood up, taking his rifle with him. Merlin did the same, waiting for Arthur, and Arthur decided that, well, if Merlin wasn't going to lead, he would.

They stayed within sight of the camp -- visible by the faint earthbound glow of the fire, audible by the carry of Kay's faint snoring. Arthur had no idea where Gwaine was, but knowing him, he'd be up on the rise right behind where Kay was snuffling and swatting sleepily in the air. He'd be flat on his belly, his gun roaming the area.

"I have to talk to you about..." Merlin hesitated, and when it didn't sound as if he were going to continue -- Arthur raised annoyed eyes to the sky to plead, why me and decided to prompt him with something innocuous.

"If this is about the rations, Merlin," Arthur said, "Don't worry about it. I packed for you, remember? We'll have plenty to reach the oasis provided we stop Gwaine from eating like a pig."

There was a soft laugh from Merlin. Arthur wished his eyes had fully adjusted to the dark, because he knew that laugh, and he knew the smile that came with it. It was a sweet smile, stripping away all worry from his expression for a precious moment, broad and genuine and full of cheek.

Arthur didn't see it very often. He wished he could see it now.

"If only we had my Mum's fudge to distract him," Merlin said.

"Chancy tactic at best," Arthur said.

"Yeah, you're right. We can't count on him not having raided the fudge already."

Arthur could hear the amusement in Merlin's voice, and, now, he could see it, his eyes finally adjusted to the gloom, and there was Merlin by starlight and moonlight sliver. Somehow, the night time light made Merlin look all the more like the angel Arthur had seen in the chapel, only more ethereal and furtive, with the slightest hint that all he would need to do to escape was take a single step back.

And he would fade.

The thought frightened Arthur.

He watched Merlin's eyes dip down, and when he raised his chin, Arthur swore he saw the sky reflected in them, dark with the sparkle of stars. Gone was the amusement, the smile, leaving behind resignation and sadness.

"That's not what I wanted to talk about," Merlin said. "It's. It's about the Directory."

Arthur waited, but Merlin didn't speak, instead turning his head away.

"If it's what Merriam said about your dad," Arthur said, his voice low, "I understand. If they were involved in something, if my father was involved in something -- and he died for it, for them, and they covered it up... I'm not sure I'd want to deal with them either if I were in your shoes."

He paused, but Merlin didn't react, only shaking his head a little. "I'm not being fair, am I? Springing this on you, this whole thing about the Directory. You never did tell me if you wanted in with the rest of us. I don't suppose I gave you much of a choice --"

"No," Merlin said softly, shaking his head. "If anything, it makes my decision for me, don't it?"

"How do you mean?"

"If it's true, if anything of it is true, the only way I'm going to find out is if I go, yeah? Dig around when no one's looking, then maybe I'll know what really happened to him?"

"Yeah," Arthur said, feeling worried and relieved both at the same time.

The silence stretched, and the only sound in the gloom was their soft breathing, steaming in the desert cold.

"It doesn't have to be this way, Merlin. There's other ways. When we get back, we'll tell Major Kilgarrah to forget it, tell Smith where to shove --"

Merlin surged forward, seemingly crossing the distance between them in a single step, one hand behind Arthur's neck, another one covering his mouth. Arthur startled, but he didn't resist, and the tension in Merlin's fingers and arms and arms eased.

He didn't move; Merlin didn't, either.

Slowly, Merlin leaned in, resting his forehead against Arthur's, and he couldn't help but shiver, wanting to be closer still. Merlin's hands were cold against his skin, but the rest of him radiated a low broiling heat, and he ached to feel more.

"Shut up, Arthur. Just. Shut. Up. If you keep talking..." Merlin sighed, exhaling slowly, and Arthur trembled to feel Merlin's eyelashes brush against his temple.

"You keep talking, Arthur. And I can't ever get the words out. You keep talking, and I think, it'll be okay even if I don't say anything, because maybe you'll understand, and maybe you'll keep looking at me the way you always do when you think I'm not going to notice.

"I want that. Whatever it is you're holding back. All those times... When you reach out and adjust my collar when you don't do that with anyone else. The way you kept grabbing at me when we were in Algiers. Holding my hand in the truck when I was cracking. Taking care of me when I'm too stupid to do it myself. I want that. I want you Arthur -- you have no idea how much.

"But I can't. I can't. Gods." Merlin's voice crackled into a soft sob, and Arthur reached out for him, his hands at Merlin's waist, stroking one side to try to get him to calm. Arthur's brows pinched, because he wasn't sure he knew what it was that Merlin was on about all of a sudden, but his heart was pounding so loud in his ears that he thought he wouldn't be able to hear everything that Merlin was telling him.

He needed to hear it. He'd been waiting for something else, but this, this not-quite declaration of infatuation, of attraction, of... of whatever it was, it hammered at his resolve to wait, to claim Merlin, to make him his the way he'd fantasized doing for so damn long, because now was not the time, because there were rules.

Arthur suddenly hated the rules very much. And Merlin -- what was it about can't?

You can, Arthur wanted to say. You can. You can have me, Merlin. Because it's driving me mad. We just have to wait. It might be weeks. It might be more. But you can...

Merlin's hand still covered his mouth, tightening slightly when he felt Arthur about to speak.

"I've never told anybody. My Mum always knew. My uncle knew by default. And Will..."

Will? What did he have to do with --

"You're going to hate me. I know you are. Please don't hate me. I could've told you a long time ago. I wanted to. You have no idea how much. It. Just. It just. I can't. I couldn't."

Now, Merlin was babbling and Arthur had no idea what he was on about now, even though he knew. He wanted to tell Merlin that his secrets weren't so secret after all, that there was no need to wind himself up like this, and, God, if only Arthur had known that this was the mess that Merlin would turn into the longer he stayed shut-up about it, he would have gone to Merlin and told him everything that he knew, from the incident at the Zeid Reservoir all the way back to that time in the Ravines when the dust devil nearly swept him up --

Abruptly, Merlin stopped, took a deep breath.

"I'm hiding, Arthur. I've always hid. I had to. Nobody would understand. Then, this. The Directory. I'm hearing things about them, Arthur. What they might do --"

There was an intense, unyielding fear in Merlin's voice that cut to Arthur's core. He didn't know what it was that frightened him so much, but Arthur wanted to protect Merlin from whatever it was.

I won't let them do anything to you, Arthur swore, hoping that Merlin would see it in him, that he would feel it. But they were too close, sharing the same air, and Arthur didn't want to move away He wanted to move closer. So he did. A tiny step. A slight shift. His fingers digging into Merlin's jacket.

"I don't want to hide from you, Arthur," Merlin whispered, his breaths brushing Arthur's cheek in short, hyperventilating puffs. "I can't. Not anymore."

He lowered his hand from Arthur's mouth, slipping away from him a step, then another. Arthur's hands dropped away.

"Arthur. I. I'm magic, Arthur."

There it was. The Great Revelation that Arthur had been waiting for. It seemed to have been a century waiting for it when it had only been weeks, maybe a bit more. He wanted to nod, to applaud, to react the way he was supposed to react. But he didn't say anything, he didn't have the words. His mind was swirling from the onslaught of information, the rush of promise, the heady weight of sheer emotion.

Merlin wanted him.

If they were at the end of time, if the world stopped spinning, if they were the last two on the planet, that sentence alone would be enough to keep his heart beating.

Merlin's shoulders slumped, his expression filled with worry, turning into the very definition of crestfallen as the seconds trickled by and Arthur didn't respond.

He'd thought about the words that he'd planned to say when Merlin finally told him about his magic. It's all right, Merlin. I already knew. Wish you told me before, we could've used a bit of it on some of those missions, yeah? Also, are you a bit thick? You nearly died in Algiers because you were hiding that bloody secret! He had a whole speech prepared. He'd memorized most of it, and had a few bullet points that he wanted to hit when he winged the rest.

That speech, that little practiced bit -- it didn't seem right. Not now. Because Merlin wasn't only telling him about his magic. Merlin was telling Arthur that he loved him.

Merlin's head dipped, and he nodded, as if to himself. His foot slid back, the desert crackling under his boot.

It sank in then that Merlin was moving away. That every limb was taunt with coiled energy, a deer about to spring away from a predator, bounding out of reach, never to be found again.

Arthur went after him.

He didn't have the words. He didn't need them.

He caught Merlin before Merlin moved out of reach. Before he could turn to follow the path to the camp. Before he could lay down on the ground on his side, curled with his back to Arthur. Arthur stopped him, because he didn't ever want Merlin to turn away from him.

He pulled at Merlin's arm, yanking him around. He slid a hand behind Merlin's neck the way Merlin had done to him. Instead of putting his other hand on Merlin's mouth to silence him so that he could have his turn to talk, Arthur silenced him with a kiss.

It was an awkward crash of lips, one pair intent, the other set stunned, but Arthur kept Merlin against him with an arm snaked around his back, their lips pressed together until under all the body armour, under the equipment vest he hadn't shrugged out of, under all the ridiculous gear, he felt Merlin relax. He pulled away a bare fraction, a few millimetres, enough to nuzzle at Merlin's lips with his own, trying for a second kiss that was gentler, softer, real, the way he had hoped their first kiss would have been.

His lips were dry and soft, chapped from the desert air, and there was that corner of his mouth that was worn and raw, made that way by Merlin's incessant biting and worrying. All those little flaws, rough spots and soft spots, came down to one thing for Arthur.

Bliss.

Merlin leaned against him and Arthur stepped against him, his weight the counterweight to Merlin, somehow in perfect balance. His lips relaxed against Arthur's in a gasped realization of delight that trembled through Arthur. The chaste kiss full of held-back emotion shrugged off its shyness, and Arthur wasn't sure whose lips parted first, if it was his, or if it was Merlin's. It didn't matter. The hint of wet, the hint of heat, the teasing touch of tongue was absolute heaven, the sound of Merlin's soft moan electrifying and dangerous because of the promise it held.

The moment went from soft and tender to frantic and hungry, and they were barely three kisses, four kisses in before they panted for air and returned for another, and another, and another, searing and starved and desperate, trying to make up for all the months of frustration in one brief moment. Fingers tangled through hair; arms wrapped around the other to pull him close, a groan of despair at the realization that they were geared in a complicated net of nylon webbing and Kevlar and buckles and uniform --

They broke again, breathing hard, clinging tight with fingers numbing under the strain of trying to climb into the other's skin.

"Arthur," Merlin whispered.

"Merlin," Arthur said, his voice pitched low, rough, rough with need and desire and wanting. He lowered his head, pulling away, and it was his turn, now, to rest his forehead against Merlin's temple, to silently curse the cards that Fate had dealt him. "I can't."

Merlin could change emotions the way a racehorse could surge out of the starting gate, and he turned from pliable and needy and wanting to cold and hard and distant, a huff of breath on Arthur's cheek like the gasp of a man punched in the gut. He pulled away, but Arthur stopped him and held him close. Merlin lips parted and a strangled, whimpering sound left his lips, but Arthur covered his mouth with his hand.

Merlin didn't struggle, but there was no missing the pained plead, the questions in his eyes.

"I know about your magic," Arthur admitted. "I've known for sure since the Reservoir. I saw you, Merlin. Bright and brilliant like an avenging angel. You saved me. It was always you.

"I don't care. I'm not afraid. Not of you. Never of you. I've been waiting for you to tell me. For you to trust me, Merlin. I won't let anything happen to you. We won't. There's no way we'll let them have you, not the Directory, not the NWO, not anyone, because you're ours. You're mine, Merlin. Mine. I'm not letting anyone else have you. Not now. Not ever."

Arthur licked his lips, his throat suddenly dry, his heart slowing down until he thought he might have died, because the next words were suffocating him before he managed to say them out loud.

"But I can't, Merlin. I can't do this." And to impress just what this was, Arthur kissed Merlin's cheek, followed the line of his jaw, and licked the smooth curve of his throat where the damned red scarf was wound. "It's killing me. But I can't. Not now. There are rules. I'm your Captain. It's the end of us if we're found out, if we get caught. We have to wait. Just a while. Can you wait, Merlin? Because I can. I'd wait forever for you."

He was afraid to look up, to see the answer in Merlin's eyes, to know that the answer might be no, because if their positions were reversed, if it were Merlin asking that question, to wait, to suffer the waiting, he would rail against it, he would shout and scream, he would strike and hit. He didn't want to wait. He couldn't wait. He wanted Merlin now.

Merlin's breath was warm against his hand, slow and sure, calming from the adrenaline surge of need, want, have, but he didn't draw away, the two sharing body heat in a close intimacy that Arthur didn't think possible.

It was Merlin's fingers that curled around his wrists. Merlin who pulled Arthur's hand from his mouth, who held onto it. It was Merlin who leaned in even closer, if that was humanely possible, eradicating the last few microns of space between them, and pressed chaste lips, warm lips, loving lips against Arthur's own.

The kiss was brief, a bare touch, filled with regret and confusion and acceptance, and when he drew away again, it was to caress Arthur's cheek, his fingers rough with calluses and burns and cuts.

"So would I," Merlin said.

They stayed like that, for only God knew how long, clinging to each other, afraid to let go. Arthur's fingers twisted in the red scarf around Merlin's throat. His lips brushed Merlin's jaw. He ran his hand through Merlin's unruly black hair, sliding it down his back and revelling in the sensation of finally, finally holding Merlin against him.

Then the moment was broken.

"You fucking bloody wanker, Gwaine!" Kay roared.

Merlin startled and pulled away. Arthur tightened his hold against Merlin, keeping Merlin close, unconcerned, untroubled -- every member of Excalibur had told him in their own way that they would cover for them, even if, right now, there was very little to cover for. Only the smallest twinge of guilt for having broken the rules, even this much, ate at him, heavily outweighed by the knowledge that he'd just kissed Merlin.

Merlin made soft insistent noises until Arthur let him go, reluctantly, exhaling a small, annoyed sigh.

"You could've given me some warning! You knew they were snogging!" Kay shouted. He had his back turned to Merlin and Arthur, waving rude gestures toward the campsite, presumably at the spot where Gwaine was positioned. "You utter, fucking bastard!"

Tinny, somewhat-hysterical laughter streamed toward them, carried by the wind.

Kay still didn't turn around. In a considerably calmer voice, he said, "I'm right happy for you two, I am, but at least tell me you're presentable? No bits hanging out or anything? I get enough of an eyeful in the showers -- totally by accident, too, and, you know, I don't need more."

Merlin ducked his head, his smile a broad, wicked thing, and he scratched his lips with mischief. Arthur knew that look -- he had catalogued nearly all of Merlin's expressions -- and this one veered on the very thin edge of putting Kay out of his misery or adding to it.

Before Merlin could say something incriminating along the lines of still tucking ourselves in, mate, won't be a second, Arthur cleared his throat. "What do you want, Kay?"

Kay risked an over-the-shoulder glance in their direction, and when he saw that they were more or less dressed, if a little rumpled, dared turn around a little more.

"Bloody wanker," Kay muttered again, shaking his head. He took a deep breath before gesturing toward Merlin. "Well, it's not me. It's his Box. Squawking like a damn bird it is. Started chirping away out of the blue. Inconsiderate thing woke me out of a clean sound snooze."

"And?"

"And, what? Do I look like the communications specialist to you? All it's doing is blasting the radio equivalent of television snow --"

"I'll go check it out," Merlin said, giving Arthur a last long look of locked gazes in the dark, and he turned away, heading back to camp.

Arthur started to follow, but as soon as he reached Kay, there was a brush on his arm. Kay tilted his head in a gesture to hold on a minute, and watched Merlin walk all the way back to camp, digging the Box out of his kit, before turning to Arthur.

"So?"

Arthur raised a brow. "What?"

"What do you mean, what?" Kay muttered, glancing first toward Merlin, and back at Arthur. "Are you two --? I mean, is it done? Can we, you know, stop tip-toeing around --"

Arthur clamped a heavy hand on Kay's shoulder, squeezing tight.

"Ow! Arthur!"

Arthur turned him toward the camp. "When and if there's a reason for you to stop tip-toeing around me, I'll let you know."

Kay wrenched himself free. "If you don't mind my saying, mate, you're wound up too tight --"

"Don't make me hurt you, Kay," Arthur said. Kay studied him, hands on his hips, trying to decide if he had any chance of surviving the threat, and capitulated with a Boy Scout salute.

They hadn't been that far behind Merlin when they returned to the camp, but by the time they arrived, Merlin had his Box splayed out in bits, wires sticking in every direction. One of the earphones was in his hand, pressed against his ear, and he was twisting and untwisting a few wires, listening to the sound that resulted before fiddling with the switches and turning the knobs until he hit the right frequency. While he worked, Gwaine came down from his post, shooting Arthur a cheeky grin that Arthur would have knocked off his face if Kay hadn't beaten him to it first.

"Arthur," Merlin said, waving him over, holding up the earphones. Arthur took them and listened.

It was a repeating message at a command frequency, alerting their designation and requesting immediate response. The wording was just different enough from the usual message that Arthur knew that it was Major Kilgarrah's signal that it was time for them to come back to base.

He hoped that they'd be coming back to good news -- notably that the Directory agreed with every single one of the team's demands. That might be too much to hope for, but it would be nice -- particularly if some of those conditions were accepted.

Arthur glanced at Merlin and tried not to give anything away, but he couldn't help but press his lips together and taste Merlin still on them.

Arthur looked at his men for a moment, deciding whether he wanted to push them through the night to get to a secure location for pick-up. "All right. Let's get a bit of rack time and we'll head for the safe zone at first crack. Merlin, fix the Box. I want to call for a ride as soon as we're clear."

 

ooOOoo

 

They were the last to arrive, but the first to find out what was going on.

Major Kilgarrah was waiting for them at the airfield when the chopper touched ground, and Arthur went to talk to him, leaving the others to sort out the last of their gear. Merlin glanced over his shoulder more than once, trying to be inconspicuous about it, wishing he dared whisper a spell to eavesdrop on the conversation going around some few hundred metres away, out in the wide open with people milling about, but steering as clear as they could from The Dragon, their heads down, their eyes averted, trying not to attract attention.

Arthur might know about Merlin's magic now -- had known, and apparently for some time, something that still made Merlin's innards twist and his lips tingle in a confused tangle of emotions that he couldn't quite separate -- but no one else did, and there would be no explaining his eyes turning momentarily gold to cast the spell, or his reaction when it was cast. It was loud enough on the airfield that he would be on the tarmac, holding his ears and writhing in agony at the enhanced and magnified whop-whop-whop of chopper blades and rumbling roar of jets, rather than playing pretend spy.

It was a spell he was going to have to refine. Somehow.

There had been no more kissing on the journey out of the desert, no more touching, no more chances for a pretence of privacy, but Gwaine had taken off far enough in the lead, and Kay was content to wander on ahead of them. Once or twice Merlin had been able to talk to Arthur in brief snatches of hushed conversation.

"Why didn't you tell me if you knew?" Merlin had asked, Arthur answering with a small shrug and a calm, "Why didn't you tell me, full stop?"

Merlin was elated, relieved, even ridiculously pleased that Arthur knew now, that Arthur had taken it in stride, that he wasn't afraid, but there were so many things that they needed to talk about now, that would have to wait until it was quiet enough for them to talk. The unspoken was easily agreed on -- they'd tell the team about his magic later, when things were sorted by the Directory. Merlin only wished that there was more to tell them about than the magic, because he was far more anxious and twitchy because they'd kissed.

Gods, how they'd kissed. He was absolutely in love with Arthur's kisses.

It wasn't until later that Merlin had answered one of Arthur's attempts at questions by explaining in a hurried rush, before Kay could reach them, "Don't you wonder what they're doing to Trickler right now? I mean, sure, he's a bastard, but do you think they'd think twice about doing to me what they might be doing to him? I'm not joking, Arthur. I'm bloody well terrified. What I can do -- you don't think they'll try to dissect me, trying to see how they could harvest it for themselves?"

A muscle in Arthur's jaw had clenched and stayed clenched, the only sign that he had heard what Merlin had said, his eyes fixed straight ahead on an imaginary point in the distance. No more words were spoken until they crossed an invisible border into safer ground, and Arthur had stopped them both a few feet on the other side of the line.

"No more secrets, Merlin," Arthur had said, his eyes drifting to where the others were waiting.

"You know my big ones," Merlin had said, feeling heat touch his cheeks that had nothing to do with the sun, ridiculously, frustratingly horny from the unbidden memory of Arthur kissing him. If it hadn't been for Kay's interruption that night, if it hadn't been for Arthur's honour, Merlin would have debauched him right there and then, under the desert sky.

"There's no one else, is there?" Arthur had asked, his eyes averted, and it hadn't been until Merlin followed his gaze all the way to where Gwaine chatted with Kay, both of them casual and relaxed, but still wary and attentive, keeping an eye out for danger, that Merlin heard the suppressed jealousy and possessiveness in Arthur's voice.

"Arthur." Merlin hadn't spoken again until Arthur turned to look at him. "It's only ever been you."

The chopper was quick to arrive at the coordinates after Arthur called them in, Merlin making certain that there was the perfect amount of static on the line to make the cover story believable, and then, after that point, there was no more conversation, no more questions, and neither of them dared trade the most innocent of glances for risk that the other soldiers and pilots on board would notice something untoward.

Half of Merlin was eager to hear what Major Kilgarrah had to say, wondering if the secondment would mean the end of their army tour and enough freedom from military rules to actively pursue the things that mattered -- like Arthur. The other half dreaded it, because if they had been recalled, and so quickly, it meant that they were going to be given the orders to finish packing gear and to head on over to the proverbial dark side.

"Merlin."

Anderson climbed out of the chopper, pulling off his gloves. "I'll see you at 0400. Have to say, mate, sucks to be you."

Merlin could see Kay stiffen nearby, turning slightly to listen.

"What do you mean?"

"Shite, you don't know yet?" Anderson winced slightly. "Me and my big gob again. Sorry about that. Look, when they tell you, don't let on that you know. Your lot is being airlifted out to Turkey on priority."

"Oh," Merlin said, and that was all that he could say, because it was a wash of cold confirmation that the Directory was getting its way. They'd been seconded.

"Yeah, you're just off this bloody cock-up -- that Merriam pillock is getting cuckolded for passing on the wrong route coordinates to you, up for trial for incompetence with some question why, exactly, he rerouted you boys in that direction, in case you haven't heard --"

"I haven't," Merlin said, and struggled to keep a concerned look on his face rather than the amused smirk bursting to come out. He could just imagine the Brass reacting to the news that a Crack Box had been lost.

"-- and now they're sending you on this other thing."

"Where in Turkey?" Merlin asked. He didn't ask about the other thing, because it was highly unlikely that Anderson would be privy to details.

"Hell if I know, mate," Anderson said. "It's one of those trips. Point me in one direction, give me coordinates en route. Drop you off at the other end, pretend I don't know where we are, and ask no questions."

"Lovely," Merlin said.

Anderson half-chuckled, giving Merlin a good blow on the shoulder. "Get some rack time, yeah? You look like you don't half need it."

Merlin glanced at Kay, Kay glanced at Gwaine, and Gwaine glanced at Merlin with a raised brow, and it was a few seconds more before Arthur finished the conversation with Major Kilgarrah and rejoined them.

"Merlin, you're with me. We have to debrief." There was no question of why -- Arthur and Merlin had the security clearance that allowed them to discuss what had happened in more than mere generalities. Arthur would be the one to comment on how the mission had gone "wrong" while Merlin had the expertise to report on the condition of the decryption device after an air-to-ground missile impact.

Which was to say, even if it had been an actual Crack Box in the special titanium-tungsten-indestructible material casing, it was reduced to nothing else but micron-sized bits of the actual.

"You two," Arthur said, nodding to Gwaine and Kay, "Everyone should be back by now. Get them together and start packing."

"Wheels up at 0400?" Gwaine asked mildly.

Arthur blinked, cast a suspicious glance at Merlin, who held his hands in the air in as best an innocent, I weren't using magic, I promise, but it's not my fault people tell me things gesture as he could manage. Arthur scowled, shook his head slightly, and gave the others a firm nod. "That's right. 0400. Don't spread it around yet. Check whatever gear needs checking in, check supplies to see what we still have on hold and get me the reqs forms to have them forwarded on if we still want them. Get Page from shipping to dig out the larger transport containers for the equipment we got from Morgana, tell him it's for me. Have someone stop at the laundry with whatever needs cleaning, check the mailroom for whatever's come in while we were gone, and leave a forwarding for whatever comes here before it's rerouted."

"Where do we forward it to?" Kay asked.

Arthur hesitated. "Home."

No one said anything right away. "Home, home?"

"I don't know yet," Arthur said firmly. "Merlin and I are getting debriefed, then I'm to speak with Mister Smith and Major Kilgarrah about the conditions for secondment."

Gwaine leaned in slightly. "You wouldn't dangle tasty bits in front of us if there weren't some chance of it, Arthur. There's some reason why you're having us ship things home, isn't there?"

"If there were," Arthur said, grabbing Gwaine's vest and pulling him even more off-balance than he already was, "And someone's lips started flapping before I received confirmation, I sure hope that person kept it to themselves before they were given one last toilet duty assignment before wheels up, yeah?"

"Uh. Yeah?" Gwaine offered helpfully, eyebrows raised.

Arthur let Gwaine go with a smirk, and Gwaine staggered back, rubbing his chest with exaggerated care. "Glad we're on the same page."

"Come on, Merlin," Arthur said, and Merlin fell in step next to Arthur, neither one of them speaking on the way into the base, through the maze of mismatched makeshift roads until they reached the command centre.

They were questioned separately, with Arthur going first to give his recounting of the events, an accounting that took less than forty minutes of yes, sir and no sir after the first ten minutes of sketching out the circumstances requiring their late departure, the way Gilli had demurred from joining them on the trip back, and the altered route that sent them right into rebel territory, ending with the spectacular explosion that took out their transport and their narrow escape.

If Merlin hadn't been there himself, he would've been awed at the sequence of events. It was something out of a movie.

Merlin's part consisted of "Lieutenant, do you agree with the Captain's report? Do you have anything to add?" where the only thing he put in was that he was pretty sure that there had been a laser-guide mounted to the rebel transport truck to paint them for the jet. The conversation went back to Arthur for a second, "Captain, do you concur?", to which Arthur nodded gravely and said, "It was pitch black, even with the moon. There was no way for them to see us and to get a direct hit on the first go, sir."

The pendulum swing returned to Merlin, and Merlin made up a story of checking out the area under infrared after making certain that the jet wouldn't come for a second go and the rebels had long-gone, and confirmed that he'd not only found the twisted, steaming wreck of a so-called nearly-impenetrable Crack Box, but that everything inside it had been blown to bloody smithereens with no chance whatsoever of putting anything back together, much less to assemble enough parts to reverse-engineer the hardware.

"You have to understand that it's not the actual physical Crack Box that's important," Merlin said, "But the software. The software's broken up into quarters or eights depending on the model and their active modules retained in the ROM of several different steady-state drives. When you use the Crack Box, you're loading each module together in the RAM of a completely separate drive for active use. When it's not loaded, it's not operating, and even if someone got their hands on an intact steady-state drive, it's only a fraction of the actual software and worthless without the other three or seven modules, never mind the RAM drive that has the decoder key to compile the modules together. I'm pretty sure that the Crack Box is destroyed, sir."

There was a long-lasting period of blank looks from the Brass, and a small, amused smirk from Arthur, before someone asked, "How certain is pretty sure, lieutenant?"

"Oh. Um. One hundred and ten percent, sir." Merlin offered. He was that certain. Particularly considering that the real Crack Box -- his precious Merlin Crack Box -- was safely nestled in the bottom of his pack, under a broad assortment of gear, spare clothes, and dirty socks. He hoped he wasn't letting on how nervous he was that someone would ask to inspect his pack at right this moment, as if he were still a greenie.

"Also, there's a heavy sandstorm approaching the area where they were hit," offered one of the analysts in the room. "Even if there were any intact pieces, they'll be lost within hours. They'd need to pan for gold for at least a thousand years before they find anything, sir."

That satisfied the Brass in a way that Merlin's explanation hadn't -- much to Merlin's annoyance, because he thought for once that he was speaking in plain English and that they'd get it this time, and the worst part of it, Arthur knew, and the prat was laughing at him. The debriefing was adjourned with a stern, "You may be recalled to bear witness at trial to Sergeant Gilli Merriam's conduct."

"Yes, sir," they both said simultaneously, leaving the tent when they were dismissed.

"Merlin," Arthur said, shrugging his pack from his shoulder and shoving it in Merlin's arms. Merlin grunted under the weight. "Take care of this."

Merlin shoved it back at him. "I'm not your bloody servant. Take care of it yourself."

Arthur passed it into his arms a second time. "Just put it on my cot. Sort through the equipment, put my laundry in with everyone else's, return the MREs to supply, check in what you can, and I'll take care of the rest."

But that's everything --

Merlin squawked a protest, but Arthur was gone before Merlin got the first word out, walking away at a leisurely pace toward the command tent, presumably to look for Major Kilgarrah. He groaned inwardly.

Merlin wasn't sure if it was the combined weight of his loaded pack and Arthur's, or just the fact that he was galled at having to play pack mule and manservant, but either way, when he arrived at the barracks, he resolutely dumped it on Arthur's cot and went to take care of his own gear.

There was a flurry of activity as everyone else was doing much the same, moving back and forth and tossing objects here and trading -- "Does anyone have room for this in their kit?" -- under what seemed to be a blare of rock and roll music from the barracks radio. Talking, laughing, pranking -- it was going at full strength, with everyone else blowing off steam while avoiding talking about what really needed talking about until Arthur got back.

He'd dumped everything onto his cot, sorted out what needed to be returned where, put the personals in his locked (and fortunately, un-tampered, magically or otherwise) chest, making sure the "game console" was carefully hidden away, and added his laundry to the pile. He showered, changed, even grabbed what might be his last mess tent meal before returning to the barracks to what amounted to chaos boiling at low heat.

"Any word from Arthur?" Leon asked.

Merlin glanced over his shoulder where Arthur's bag rested, untouched, and felt a pang of guilt. It had been more than an hour, nearly two, since Arthur went to find The Dragon and find out the state of things. He was as exhausted as the rest of them, and dealing with his pack and gear was likely the very last thing he would need dealing with when he got back.

"No, not yet," Merlin said. "All I know is what he told us on the airfield."

Leon nodded and went to fuss over his kit some more.

Kay used the beds as a walking platform -- with all the boxes packed up, there wasn't a lot of room to move in the single aisle, and, by Gods, for a team that could bug out with little else but the clothes on their backs, they sure accumulated a lot of crap -- and dropped an opened cardboard box on Merlin's bed.

"Arthur said you'd take a look at them when they came in," Kay said, sitting on Gwaine's bed, picking up one of the magazines that Gwaine was struggling through, deciding whether to keep them or recycle them through the camp. He leaned over, tapped Gwaine's shoulder, and held up the one in his hand. "You're seriously giving away your Penthouse?"

"Already read the articles in that one," Gwaine said.

"Right," Kay muttered, dropping the magazine, wiping his hand on the blanket.

The box was a tangle of leather cords and knotted copper rings, almost all of them identical, the surfaces smooth and polished and shiny the way copper didn't stay shiny for long, and Merlin gave Kay a curt nod.

"Why's he want you to look at them?" Kay asked, and Merlin coughed to cover up his attempt at a stuttering answer that wasn't an outright lie, but at right that moment Gwaine saved him by throwing yet another magazine into the rejects pile -- and Kay was in the way.

Merlin blew out his held breath and slipped past everyone, skinny enough to weave through the pretence of a corridor, and went to deal with Arthur's gear.

Jesus Christ. I feel like his wife, Merlin thought, picking out the items in the pack with irritation that gave way to amusement and downright giddiness when he realized that he wouldn't mind being in that sort of situation, but he'd be damned if he were the girl. When he finished sorting everything, he looked up to see Perceval watching him, big arms crossed over his chest, smirking knowingly.

Merlin rolled his eyes and flew him a two-fingered rude gesture before saying, "How about you help me get these checked in?"

"No, mate," Perceval said, flopping down on his cot and kicking off his boots. They landed on the side with soft thumps. "I'm done in for the night. Besides, I'm not sure Arthur would want anyone else but you touching his dainties."

"Oh, fuck off," Merlin said, hurriedly dumping Arthur's dirty clothes in the laundry pile, realizing that he might have been holding on to them for a little bit too long. He gathered the gear and went to sort everything out that he could, which turned out to be just about every bit of equipment in Arthur's pack.

The second trip to the supply sections took longer than the last, because he had the misfortune of ending up behind some greenies who had gotten their reqs forms written up wrong again, and he resisted the urge to stay behind to show them how to do it with a stern reminder that he didn't need another Gilli hounding him.

"Finally, Merlin," Arthur said when Merlin slipped into the barracks, suddenly the centre of attention because everyone was standing up, arms crossed over their chests or shoved in their pants pockets, looking at him with the impatience of people thinking, where have you been? Don't you know we're waiting to hear the news? and brokering no excuses. Apparently Arthur wasn't, either. "About time you got back. I wasn't about to repeat myself."

"Well, here I am," Merlin said, making a grand, sweeping gesture with his arm before leaning back against the door to shut out any interlopers. "Go right ahead, your highness."

Arthur snorted. He shrugged out of his shirt and stood there bare-chested, tossing it into the laundry pile -- which seemed to have grown since Merlin left earlier. He ruffled his hair, and dirt dusted the air, catching the dim light in the barracks and shrouding him like a god.

His god, if Merlin had anything to say about it, though he'd never tell Arthur that. His head was swollen enough.

"All right. Before I take a much-needed shower, here's where things stand. With exception of Gwaine's off-duty bar tab, every condition that we've put forward has been accepted."

There was a round of head-nods, but Gwaine exclaimed, "That's an outrage! I say we protest! Go on strike!"

Perceval reached for Gwaine, wrapped his arm around his shoulders, and soundly clamped a hand on his mouth. "Go ahead, Arthur."

Merlin noted that Gwaine didn't put up much of a struggle. In fact, it looked as if he were leaning against Perceval. Merlin caught Perceval's eye and raised a brow, doing his best to blister him with a knowing smile.

The arm around Gwaine shifted slightly, and Perceval folded the fingers of his hand into a two-fingered fuck off.

"We're wheels-up at 0400," Arthur continued. "The choppers will be waiting for us and the gear by 0300, so we have plenty of time to load up. We'll be landing at a secure airfield and transferring flights, setting up our new location, getting used to the surroundings, and getting debriefed.

"A good deal of our time there will be spent in an off-the-map location receiving intensive training under Directory protocols." There were a few scowls about that, but none of it counted as a surprise. Arthur had warned them that this would be an item on the list -- they badly required this training if they expected to have a chance against the NWO's sorcerers.

"In three weeks, gentlemen, we will be home."

Arthur paused for the laughter and applause and the cheers, but what was loudest were the heavy sighs of relief.

"Thank fuck," Lance said, and everyone else echoed the sentiment.

"You'll have some time with your families. Some of us will be on active duty establishing cover stories. Effective immediately, you are all on Pendragon Consulting payroll pulling full pay. You will all be working for me, but in reality, during this time, our employers are the Directory." There were impressed sounds from the team, and Merlin could only assume that a Pendragon paycheck was substantial enough to warrant it.

"The bad news," Arthur said, his tone serious, "Our tours have all been extended to match the remaining time of the team member whose out-date is the latest. We have an eight-month extension on top of our remaining five."

Merlin didn't need to be told that he was the one who had the longest time remaining in his current tour, but there was surprisingly very little grumbling. Merlin warmed at the realization that the rest of the team didn't seem to mind staying longer on the condition that they stayed together. He relaxed.

"I'm not sure if this is more bad news or worse news -- take it as you will. Because the cock-up in Algiers nearly got us killed, Major Kilgarrah has added some conditions of his own to the list. He'll be our handler on Directory missions."

There was a long silence. Someone -- probably Geraint -- said, "Oh."

Arthur nodded. "Yeah."

He let that sink in for a moment.

"The flipside is, we'll be on army time. When we're out, that's it. We're out. It'll be our decision at that time to continue our employment under the Directory." Arthur looked around, meeting everyone's eyes, searching for... hesitation, doubt, questions. When there weren't any, he nodded curtly.

"That said, since our pack-and-go time is on the butt-end of God's clock and our new assignment is confidential, everyone's restricted to barracks. That means no talking, no heading out, and no drinking," Arthur said, and he was obviously staring at Gwaine as he said it.

"But we've got to celebrate!" Gwaine complained, having gotten himself out of Perceval's stranglehold. "If we can't drink..."

"There'll be plenty of time for drinking later," Arthur said.

"I know! Merlin's stash!" Gwaine started for the back of the barracks, but caught himself and turned to Merlin. "Merlin. Can we...?"

Merlin rolled his eyes and waved his hand in the air in a resigned go ahead motion, raising a brow when he noticed that no one was moving to retrieve the box under his bed. It was the last thing that he planned to pack in case the others had munchies, but now that they would be restricted to barracks, there were going to be a whole lot of hungry men at 0300.

"Where did you put it?" Gwaine asked, eyebrows up in something that might be innocent, but probably wasn't.

"It's under..." Merlin sighed, and squirmed past the packed boxes, defaulting to walking on the beds to get to the very end. He reached under his bed and pulled out the box with a grunt. It was heavier than he'd expected, considering that he'd been out of the barracks for hours while the others had free reign at his mail.

He stared at the box for a long, dumb moment. It was still taped shut. Untouched. Unopened.

That never happened before.

It took a minute for Merlin to register that there was a note taped to the box. He turned it around to read it.

If any of you wankers open this box and help yourselves to anything before Merlin has had firsts, you'll be answering to me --- Arthur.

Merlin's head snapped up and he grinned wide, so wide that it hurt his cheeks, feeling his heart swell with laughter and bubbled joy, the sort that could only come wrapped around impossible, ridiculous love. He scanned the barracks for Arthur, finally spotting him at the door, a towel over his shoulder, clearly on his way to the showers. He lingered in the doorway, watching Merlin with a small, soft smile.

The moment stretched and stretched, and Merlin wouldn't mind if, this once, it lasted forever. But it was broken when Owain jostled Arthur, and Arthur broke eye contact and left.

"You two are absolutely, bloody sickening," Gwaine said. "Now, give over. Where's your mum's fantastic fudge?"