"Gwaine! Where's Gwaine!"
Arthur skidded to a stop behind the last stone wall, turning his head away at the dust cloud blinding him. An explosion rocked him from his feet, sending him to the ground, and he almost didn't hear Leon replying over the radio.
"We lost him! I don't know --"
Gunfire recoiled over the line, a bap-bap-bap that ripped a roar of outrage from Arthur. He surged from behind cover and raced over the open terrain where Leon was located, rounding the corner in time to catch a rebel by surprise. A short burst from his semiautomatic took care of that; Arthur jumped over the crumpled body and kept moving.
Friendly fire. Separated from the others. Bad command decisions. Compromised position.
It was a clusterfuck of epic proportions.
Lieutenant Arthur Pendragon didn't have the words to describe how many different kinds of wrong the mission had wandered into, but he had plenty of words for the commander -- if they ever made it back from this one.
"Leon! I have eyes on you! On your --" Arthur paused, squeezing the trigger and forcing the second-floor sniper to pull back.
Goddamn it, I hate these fucking towns --
"-- six," Arthur finished uselessly, because Leon had turned around, gun leading the way, at the gunfire that dropped a couple of pounds of brick and mortar a few feet from his position. Leon recognized him with a sharp nod, and Arthur closed the distance. "I need eyes and ears out there."
Arthur grit his teeth. "Dead."
Arthur didn't want to think about how the Captain had blown apart nearly right in front of him. The medic had caught secondary blast damage. Davis had been dragged to safety, but there hadn't been much that anyone could do for Garney short of some major prescience and rewinding time. "Walked into a bobby-trapped door."
"He didn't --"
"-- check? You even have to ask?"
If there was something bigger than Garney's ego, it was the size of the black hole that formed in his head whenever there were high stakes, explosions, adrenaline, and gunfire -- in that order. Garney was -- had been -- a good man and an even better Captain, full of brash bravado and getting the job done, but he made mistakes, just like every other human being on the planet.
Normally those mistakes were with women -- notably the wife he had at home, the girlfriend in the MASH unit, and the base bunny in Germany. But not in the field. Never in the field. Why had Garney been such an arsehole and made a goddamn mistake now?
Leon was looking at him expectantly. There wasn't any time for Arthur to grit his teeth, to consider the situation, to do anything other than to react, because he knew that look in Leon's eyes. Well, you're in charge now. What do we do?
Damn right, he was in charge.
Arthur tapped his earpiece. "All squads, report in your position. Gwaine, you get your goddamn arse back on the line --"
The promotion to Captain came without ceremony and a five-minute mumbled speech that Arthur could barely remember now, and didn't try, because trying to remember an useless speech after spending a night in the canteen being plied with alcohol during his first few hours as Captain was a complete waste of energy. What he needed most, at the moment, were all his wits about him.
"Colonel Halligan will see you now," said the clerk, standing aside for Arthur.
Arthur walked down the narrow hallway and knocked on the plywood door -- they were a moving tear-down and pull-up station, with every luxury of a military base on the move, and real doors were something of a rarity.
"Come in," Halligan said.
Halligan was fifteen years Arthur's senior, but looked at least twice that. He was a career military man, complete with bullet wounds and shrapnel scars and war stories that would give even the most seasoned veteran nightmares, with the sort of ice-cold glare that could reduce a cadet to a jellified sack of goo after only thirty seconds of high-intensity exposure.
If there was one side benefit of being hungover and trying not to throw up all over the Colonel's desk, it was that he wasn't involuntarily quailing and stumbling and stammering as he came to attention. "Sir."
"Captain Pendragon," Halligan said. "Congratulations on your commission."
"Thank you, sir."
"You wanted to see me?" It was the Colonel's I have other pressing needs, so if you could hurry it up tone -- and it was familiar only because Arthur had heard it many, many times before from his own father. It was no secret that Halligan, then a young, junior-grade lieutenant, had served under Colonel Uther Pendragon, but few people realized just how much of Uther had rubbed off onto young Timothy Halligan.
That was to Arthur's advantage. If he knew how to manipulate his father, he knew how to manipulate Halligan.
"Yes, sir. This is for your review, sir." Arthur opened the file folder that he had tucked under his arm and placed it in front of Halligan.
"What's this, then?" Halligan asked, opening it up at the same time. He barely looked up at Arthur as he perused the file.
"My team, sir."
Halligan snorted, but he finished skimming the file before leaning back in his chair and checking his watch. "Eighteen hours."
"Major Kilgarrah estimated that you would have a list for me in under fourteen hours. I was expecting at least twenty four. I suppose we need to split the pot," Halligan said, clasping his hands in front of him.
"You were expecting this, sir?" Arthur asked, frowning. He wished he hadn't let Gwaine persuade him to drink so much. His brain was in a fog, and he wasn't quite following.
Halligan leaned forward, elbows on the papers before him. "Do you really think you're the first freshly-minted Captain who's come forward with demands? You want a new team. You're not getting a new team. You've inherited Garney's boys. Make do with what you've got."
Arthur knew a dismissal when he heard one. He took a step forward and interrupted before it came. "Sir. That's exactly the problem. I don't want a new team. I need a new team. I can't make do with what I have because they won't be around long enough for me to have a team. Sir."
Halligan raised a brow. "What do you mean?"
Emboldened, Arthur pressed on, "We lost six men at the opening salvo, sir. The same one that took Captain Garney. The empty slots are being filled with enlisted who have less experience in the battlefield than a cadet. Three quarters of the men who remain are expected to leave the Forces as soon as their end-date rolls through. They have no intention of re-upping, and the last one will be gone within four months.
"That's a collective thirty-eight years of experience that we won't have. All gone in one shot, sir," Arthur added.
Halligan shrugged a shoulder, but he looked thoughtful. "You'll have to train new men, then."
"Which will be a total waste of time, sir. Both yours and mine. You need me on the battlefield. You can't have me out of action on easy runs until the new boys stop getting spooked every time a bird flies overhead. You need me out on the front lines, running independent from command, because that's what I was trained for, and that's what I'm the best at."
"And this is your solution?" Halligan asked, tapping the list of names that Arthur had given him.
"Between getting the ranks refilled with thirty enlisted with no specialist training, and having a team half the size but consisting of my pick of men? I'd go with my choice in men every time, sir."
"You'll halve your team?" Halligan asked. There was a small laugh in his scoff.
"And be every bit as effective as a full team, yes, sir."
Halligan took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, and shook his head as he leaned back in his chair again, elbow on the armrest, tapping his chin with his fingers. "No, I'm not buying it."
Arthur nodded. He'd thought as much. He fished in one of the pockets of his utility pants and pulled out a thumb drive. He held it up and offered it over the desk. "Begging the Colonel's pardon, but I didn't think you'd take my word for it. I've worked up some battle scenarios for my team of fifteen men and compared them side by side with our traditional mixed squad approaches."
Halligan was smirking. "You're just like your father. Like a pit bull, never letting go."
Arthur nearly bit through his tongue to keep himself from saying something that would completely ruin his chances. Not only did he disagree with Halligan's assessment -- Uther Pendragon preferred brute force and overwhelming the enemy with sheer numbers and superior firepower while Arthur's approach was more like a surgical knife, precise and exact -- it was a low, low, blow.
For now, however, Arthur would swallow pride. If it got him his team --
"Take a look at the thumb drive, sir. Once you have, you'll understand. You will need me to have a new team."
The main difference between his old team and his new team was that Arthur's men were all specialists, all SAS-trained, and the vast majority of them already knew and trusted each other, but it wasn't enough.
It wasn't enough because the other squads didn't think much of them, the commanders handed out assignments to more established teams, believing them more capable of handling the job, and there was a growing tension in the ranks, coming down from both Colonel Halligan and Major Kilgarrah.
The unspoken threat was that if they didn't prove their usefulness soon, they would be split apart and reassigned to restore the status quo.
It was a frustration that Arthur shared in quiet conversations with Leon. The military needed to be progressive, not regressive. If they continued to wallow in the mud, if they didn't adapt to new situations, if they didn't embrace new technologies and the changing face of war, they'd be left behind. Halligan had been convinced by the modified battle plans that Arthur had presented to him months ago, Kilgarrah had looked him up and down, asked Are you certain that you're ready for this? and prepared the paperwork without waiting for Arthur's answer, but none of the other Brass were quite sold on the idea of a fast-moving, specialist team for rapid intrusion, attack, and recovery. If anything, there were more and more open remarks made on how it was a waste of resources to assign so many SAS soldiers to a single team.
It wasn't a new approach. It had been done before. But of late the mission commanders assigned and reassigned personnel to one team or another until SAS units were so spread-out that their original effectiveness had been removed, abandoned, even forgotten.
Arthur's plans brought it all back.
But now, he needed a new plan. If he was going to show the rest of the army that they were a team to be reckoned with, he was going to have to make them stand out.
This is ridiculous, Arthur. I mean, I've heard of shoot-me whites, but this? These had better not get you shot, Morgana wrote in her letter. And if Leon gets hurt...
Arthur didn't bother to read the threat. He had Morgana's entire repertoire of threats memorized, and she hadn't come up with anything original in years.
"I knew it," Arthur said quietly. His sister was madly in love with Leon. He'd always known it, but now he had proof. He was going to torture her with this bit of information for the rest of her life.
Or at least as long as it took before Leon found the courage to ask her to marry him.
The first time Arthur wore the bright red scarf -- a shade more vibrant than carmine, a hue darker than Valentine -- everyone noticed.
He was taken aside by the mission commander who had graciously allowed his team to join in on their mission, a big man with broad shoulders and a perpetual scowl written on his face with the paintbrush of old scars. "You looking to get shot?"
"Of course not, sir," Arthur said, hands behind his back, fighting to keep the smirk from his lips.
"Then what's with the red?"
"You've split my team up, sir. Scattered them all over your battalion," Arthur said, letting his words sink in. He waited until Mirren's expression solidified into one of yes, so? My prerogative. Are you challenging -- before continuing. "It's my team, sir. When the shite hits the fan, you want your men to fall under their command. This is the fastest way for my men to recognize me on the battlefield."
"Your men --" Mirren started, shoving a finger in Arthur's face.
"Yes, they are," Arthur said. "I'm glad we agree."
Before Mirren could rebuff him, before the blood rushing to his face hit critical pressure and caused him to erupt, there were multiple shouts of "Incoming!"
Arthur didn't wait for orders. He ran to the staging area where each of his men had instructions to scramble for the instant that they were able. The bombs were falling around them, the enemy planes flying close to the ground, and there wasn't much that Arthur could do about them beyond coldly, analytically calculating that these were advance scouts meant to force them into this low valley where the enemy would rush at them from both flanks, pinning them down.
They were sitting ducks, and Mirren didn't know it yet.
Half of the team showed up almost right away, the other half moving despite the buzz overhead and everyone screaming "Take cover take cover!"
Arthur could see Mirren's orders as they passed through the ranks. The slow advance crawl of the tanks as the gunners rolled the gears to increase the shooting angle of the 75mm cannons. The men breaking out the ground-to-air missiles. The subtle scatter of troops to minimize the damage should the bombs fall in the middle of the grouped battalion.
Mirren was an idiot.
The multiple overhead sweep by the jets weren't coming on a guaranteed flight plan, and they were travelling too fast for the tanks to adjust their hit angle, never mind predict the approach in the first place. While the ground-to-air missiles were being distributed among the men, they were focusing on the sky instead of on the enemy who would be attacking them from the ground. Scattering the men would help minimize the collateral damage caused by the bombs, but any pilot worth his or her salt would know to drop the bombs onto the area of highest density in the very beginning, but that wasn't what had been happening -- the bombs were falling around them, herding the troops in a tight circle.
There was a finite number of bombs and a finite number of enemy jets. By Arthur's count, the bomb run was almost complete and that meant that if the enemy ground forces weren't about to attack, they would very soon, while Mirren's men were still disoriented.
Arthur had a talent for evaluating the battlefield. Uther Pendragon crowed that it was an inherited trait. Arthur, on the other hand, had studied the Colonel's battlefield tactics and believed that if genetics were the source of this ability, that he hadn't gotten them from his father. He'd never pointed that out, though.
He grabbed Leon's arm and pointed him at several crests in the hills around them. "Have the ground-to-air focus their missiles in those areas. The primary force attacks are going to come from there. Take Perce and O with you -- have them take the first shots if you need to."
Arthur suspected that Leon would need to.
Leon received the first red scarf.
If the team couldn't center on Arthur, they would go to Leon. He'd proven himself more than able to take command after he'd single-handedly took over the ground-to-air missiles from an arrogant prick of a butterbar lieutenant -- Simon Zelman -- and directed a focused attack on the areas Arthur had pointed out.
The second scarf went to Perceval, who independent of anyone's orders, left Leon and Owain to man the missiles while he commandeered four heavy-gun machinists to hold off rebels that had emerged from a series of narrow tunnels out of the hillside while Mirren got his head out of his own arse and ordered reinforcements.
It was done without ceremony, without address. There was no need for rite and ritual.
When Arthur gave Leon a scarf and clamped a hand on his shoulder, the two men traded a nod born out of long friendship.
When Arthur gave Perceval a scarf, Perceval wrapped it around his neck, raised a brow, and mock-saluted.
The team clued in on the purpose of the scarves faster than Arthur had anticipated, but the scarves themselves had a significance attached to them that grew out of proportion to what Arthur had hoped for. In the end, it was better than he'd planned.
It no longer mattered to the team that they would be reprimanded for breaking the dress code, for wearing something that would attract undue attention -- the red scarves had become a symbol -- but a symbol of what, exactly, no one knew just yet.
Gwaine solved that problem for them.
They were hunkered down in a soft tent on a temporary base, stretched out on cots that were lumpier than the ground, their Kevlar vests and their hardcaps not doing much for the comfort level. The tent was dark, but none of them were sleeping; the base were on the receiving end of mortar fire that was incoming every twelve to fifteen minutes, like clockwork.
It was a psychological tactic to rob the advancing army of rest, to keep them on edge, running on adrenaline until they were too shocky to react properly when they were in a combat situation.
Parking the base and leaving it here was equally a psychological tactic -- meant to show the enemy that it didn't matter what they did. The army wasn't going anywhere.
Arthur was aware of the standing order for snipers to try to get a bead on the source of the mortar fire, for the handful of attempts to go in with an armed escort to track it down and eliminate it, of the many attempts the commander had made to order helicopters over the town so that they could blow the bastards to bits. Unfortunately, the mortar fire was out of sniper range -- anywhere from one-point-five kilometres to two kilometres or more, always with varying degrees of cover; the incursions were curtailed because the source of the mortar fire was always repositioned; and the helicopters were grounded by the higher chain of command until the mortar fire was resolved.
The rebels firing the mortars might be out of sniper range, but the base wasn't out of mortar fire range. The only reason why they hadn't suffered any direct losses had to do with the rebels being really piss-poor shots.
Still, the mortars exploded very close to the base, so close that their beds vibrated and shifted two millimetres to the left or to the right depending on where the blast was coming from.
"That's bloody fucking it," Gwaine muttered, tossing off his blanket, rolling over onto his side, picking up his rifle from the floor. He shoved his feet into his boots but didn't bother to lace them up, and stormed down the aisle between the row of bunks.
"Gwaine," Arthur said warningly. He went to stop him, but there was a determined glint in Gwaine's eyes, visible even in the pitch black. He hesitated, then asked, "You need a spotter?"
"Move your arse." The tension in Gwaine's shoulder eased, and a smirk appeared on his lips at Arthur's raised brow. "Sir."
It took Arthur less time than it had taken Gwaine to get ready -- and he stopped to tie his shoelaces. Neither of them spoke, and Arthur followed Gwaine, walking in step with him so that it wasn't immediately apparent which of them was leading whom. Neither of them ducked for cover when another mortar exploded nearby.
They climbed up the stairs to one of the watch points, and Gwaine's sharp voice startled the two snipers on the roost. "Let a professional handle this."
"Get lost, you wanker," said the one on the left, a young bloke named Aaron Jeffreys who wasn't half bad with a scope. The man with his finger on the trigger was Peter McCreary, a SAS sniper with a track record that was about as spectacular as any other SAS sniper who wasn't named Gwaine Taggart.
"You get out of here now, I'll make sure that the next mortar is the last one," Gwaine said.
"That you, Gwaine?" McCreary asked, without looking up.
"You know it is, Pete."
"You're not getting him tonight, Gwaine," McCreary said. "It's pitch out, no moonlight, and they've got smoke fires burning in a line across the rooftops. Can't make the bugger out. The wind's picking up, and there's two slopes between here and the target that are fucking with my SWAG."
"Your SWAG's always been crap," Gwaine said.
"Like yours is any better?" McCreary asked, but he shifted his position, drawing himself up. "I shift off, my C.O. will rip me a new arsehole."
"Your C.O. is probably trying to sleep right now, wishing to hell you'd hurry up and shoot the pillock," Arthur said.
"Who's this, then?" McCreary asked, blinking repeatedly while waiting for his eyes to adjust to the difference in lighting.
"My C.O., the one who's going to give me eyes on the bloke keeping us awake," Gwaine said, and Arthur could see a change in expression in both Jeffreys and McCreary. The two exchanged glances. Arthur knew that it was a rare officer to get out of bed in the middle of the night if they didn't need to.
"You dragged your C.O. out here?" McCreary asked, sounding amused. "That's some set of balls you've got, Gwaine."
"C.O. volunteered," Gwaine said, waving a hand between the two. "Captain Arthur Pendragon, Lieutenant Peter McCreary."
McCreary's eyes drifted down to the red scarf around Arthur's throat, and a thoughtful expression replaced the amusement. "Doesn't change the fact that Lewis is going to have my bloody head, I leave my post before dawn."
"Just give me distance and heading and get out of my way," Gwaine said. "Twenty minutes and you can come back, blow off your rifle, and claim the kill."
McCreary stood up, brushing himself off. "You know I won't do that. But if you haven't got him in twenty, you're buying me a beer next time we're in Kandahar."
Gwaine sputtered. "I have to buy you a beer for doing your job?"
"Haven't done my job yet," McCreary said with a snort. "On the off-chance your SWAG's better than mine and you get him, I'll buy you the beer. Come on, Aaron. Let's take a piss break."
They vacated after a trade of headings and other pertinent data, but without so much as a "Good luck". Gwaine wasted no time positioning himself in a splayed, secure stance, tugging his cap down low over his face, blocking out the light. Arthur shifted his seat, using his body to shroud Gwaine from the dim base lights.
"Check my heading," Gwaine said.
"There's a clothesline with a light-coloured sheet. Two degrees to the left," Arthur said.
"Got it," Gwaine confirmed. "Windspeed?"
Arthur spent a few minutes making estimates, verifying them, and calling out distances and directions and speeds. He noticed a few seconds later that Gwaine wasn't writing anything down, much less looking as if he were even remotely interested. "Your friend was right. There's eddies and directional shifts. The mortar source is somewhere in that mire of buildings, and that makes it worse."
"It's fine," Gwaine said. "Keep calling out any changes. Give me a thirty second countdown at the twelve minute mark, and if there isn't a strike, another one in fifteen."
Arthur read out two more changes in windspeed, checking his watch all the while.
"What's a SWAG?" Arthur asked.
"You really want to know?"
"Wouldn't ask if I didn't," Arthur said.
"It stands for scientific wild-ass guess," Gwaine said. "What's the time?"
Arthur stared at the back of Gwaine's head before shaking off his disbelief and really wishing he hadn't asked, because now the mystique of being a sniper was going to turn into even more of a mystique, and glanced at his watch. "Still two minutes."
At the twelve-minute thirty second countdown, Arthur held his breath, kept his eye on the scope, but there was no mortar fire.
For the next two-and-a-half minutes, Arthur continued to relay windspeed changes.
At the fifteen-minute thirty second countdown, adrenaline roared in Arthur's ears, and the flash of mortar blinded him through the scope. He didn't hear if Gwaine pulled the trigger -- he wouldn't have, even if it was dead silent, because Gwaine had modified his rifle to minimize the muzzle crack and recoil. But the wind was just right, and there was the faintest smell of gunpowder in the air.
Gwaine pushed back his hardcap, rolled himself into a sitting position, and secured his weapon. "Well, that's that."
"Did you get him?"
"Find out in fifteen minutes, won't we?" Gwaine asked, trotting down the stairs. "How about we get some sleep until then?"
The barracks was silent, everyone wanting to ask the same question that Arthur had asked. The minutes trickled down, second by second, and, unable to take it any more, Arthur checked his watch to confirm that the fifteen minutes he'd counted down had come and gone.
The only sound keeping them all awake wasn't the incessant mortar fire. It was the low, grating rumble of Gwaine's snoring.
Arthur sighed softly, struggling to keep awake long enough to do one last thing.
Dropping the red scarf on Gwaine's head did nothing to muffle the noise, but Arthur fell asleep anyway.
The brand-spanking-new tradition of superior ability in the face of impossible odds was continued on when the team, scattered throughout the squadron, was executing battle manoeuvres directed from the rearward command post, and those manoeuvres came to a crashing halt with a sudden halt of orders.
"Arthur! Arthur! You need to get up front! Now!"
He was already up front, leading a charge of men through a complicated pattern through the narrow city streets, but when Leon said up front, he meant from the command position somewhere at the rear of the attack formation. Arthur continued forward, leading his men to a secure location. He gave them instructions to wait for additional orders before racing back by a different route, ducking bullets all the while.
When he arrived, it was to find that they had been completely routed from the rear, and, while the men were doing their best to maintain ranks, they were hopelessly outnumbered. Most of their forces were concentrated on the advance; those following were men who were meant to occupy previously secured space and to fan outward to prevent additional flanking by the enemy. But they'd been surprised, and now the command transport was compromised.
Arthur quickly took scope of the situation and started barking orders to contain the rout.
And that was when he saw it.
Lance was performed field surgery to save the battlefield commander while the bullets were flying within centimetres of his head.
There was no cover.
The only thought to cross Arthur's mind was Gwen is going to kill us all.
He aborted his current orders and grabbed the nearest soldier. "Get that transport and move it. Give them some cover!"
As he watched, heart in his throat, Lance took two bullets clean to the chest, the Kevlar absorbing the bullets and transferring the impact force to the body. Lance jerked back, even cried out, once, but each time, he returned to the commander's side and resumed whatever he was doing.
Arthur couldn't stay. He had to get the situation under control. Nearly an hour passed before the advancing forces could do much more than hunker down and hold the line while Arthur directed their existing men into taking care of the rebels attempting to flank them.
It was later, much later, back at base with the news from the MASH doctors that the commander would not only live, but that he'd walk again, that Arthur entered the barracks. Lance was pulling on a clean shirt, the angry red bruises where the bullets had hit Kevlar but thank fuck hadn't gone through visible for a fleeting moment.
"Here you go, you stupid arse," Arthur said, handing Lance his scarf. He pointed a finger in Lance's face. "But you get yourself killed doing dumb stunts like that again, I'm dragging you back from the grave and letting you deal with Gwen when she finds out."
They were on another routine city patrol that was designed more to keep them out of the way while the "real army boys" took care of business when the call came in.
"IED in market crowded square," came the report on the line. "Need a bomb team ASAP."
Arthur's team was on the other side of town, and it took a few minutes -- compounded by Owain's raised brow and urgent hand-rolling motion to hurry it up -- before they received permission to abandon their current route and to go to assist the others.
There was another bomb team on site when they arrived, and Owain was left chewing at the bit, anxious for a chance to see the explosive device himself. To keep everyone busy, Arthur directed the others to clear the crowd of civilians from the site, including pulling people out of buildings.
"What the expected blast radius?" Arthur asked when the two soldiers came back.
"More than this," the sergeant said grimly, looking around.
"How long to disable?"
"Not long enough, Captain," the sergeant said, his eyes fixing on the red scarf around Arthur's throat in recognition. "It's homemade with a rat's nest snarl of exposed wires -- they completely stripped the copper. If any of them touch, we're fucked. We'd be better off waiting for the Torpedo."
The Torpedo was a cone of silence -- a dump-it-in, cover-it-up device designed to contain the blast.
"So call one in," Arthur said.
The sergeant hesitated. "We don't have the time. It's on a countdown clock. Best we can do is move people back another fifty yards in every direction. More than that if we can."
"Oh, for fuck's sake," Owain said, shrugging out of his pack. He shoved it at Arthur while he fished around for a small toolkit. "There's too many civilians for a full clear zone. There's no time to even try an evac. And the wind's picking up -- did you notice that? The clock's shite if you don't disable before the wires touch anyway."
Owain shoved his pack at Arthur, who caught it with a raised brow. "I'll take care of it."
"Hey! Wait!" The sergeant shouted, starting after Owain.
"Aw, let him go," Gwaine said. "If he says he'll take care of it, he'll take care of it. Man's good on his word."
The sergeant glanced at Arthur, who nodded and shrugged. "Give him three minutes."
It took Owain two minutes and thirty-eight seconds to disable the device. There were twenty-one seconds left on the freeze-framed countdown clock.
When Owain tossed the sergeant the disabled timer, Arthur handed him his pack.
And a scarf.
There was a dry spell for weeks until Geraint and Galahad went on a side scouting expedition for the main team.
They were gone for two days, returned smeared in mud and dirt, the near-miss of bullet holes in their sleeves, and with people who hadn't been with them when they'd gone out.
It turned out that the Brass' had their knickers in a bunch over three missing MI-5 spooks and a classified undercover informant, and here Geraint and Galahad were, walking them back into the base camp as if the lot of them had been out on a little stroll and had gotten lost in the wild.
Arthur gave the cocky bastards their scarves -- after yelling at them for not checking in when they were supposed to.
The team's reputation was on the rise. Not all of the commanders were sold on Arthur's model of a functional attack squad, but more teams had been given the nod to regroup their SAS personnel according to Arthur's design and to operate independently.
Arthur was proud of his men. He had a right to be. They worked hard. They fought hard. And in everything they did, in every order they obeyed without question, in every order they questioned but proposed alternate solution, Arthur could only work even harder, to be worthy of leading them.
"Lawhead!" someone roared. "You bloody fucking plonker! Why aren't you in a brig somewhere, rotting away?"
There had been something in the tone of the man's voice that brought Arthur up short, and he glanced to the side, trying to track the source.
"Spera," Kay answered, his tone low, subdued, dangerous, carrying the way a missile's whistle cut through the air.
Spera was only marginally taller than Kay, but Kay refused to be goaded in looking up even though the other man was right up in his face. Spera was hands-on-hips, elbows-out, his chest puffed, his body billowed into a larger-than-life grizzly-bear pose, his soft-cap covering his eyes in a way that was supposed to be intimidating. Kay was loose-limbed, his arms to his side, his shoulders down, relaxed in a way that only he could be relaxed when violence threatened to break out at any moment.
Kay was the predator, the cornered wildcat, his body tensing invisibly. He wasn't searching for an escape. He was waiting for the attack.
"How have you been?" Kay asked, his voice carefully neutral.
"That's what you've got to say to me?" Spera spat. "All that bollocks you pulled? That bloody fucking reprimand I've got in my file? That's what you've got to say to me?"
Arthur knew the man. The spiteful, bullying teenager who had nearly killed Kay had turned into an armed adult full of rage and hate with the look of one intending on completing the deed he should've finished years and years ago.
Andrew Spera was Kay's childhood nightmares come back to haunt him, a brute of someone's bastard with a sealed juvenile detention record rumoured to be as long as Arthur's leg. If the stories were anything to go by, Spera's criminal offences didn't stop when he joined the army, and why he had been allowed to sign up in the first place was something of a mystery.
Spera had been written up for more than one infraction, carefully skirting the edge between active enlistment and dishonourable discharge. Conduct unbecoming, reckless endangerment, wilful disobedience. The list was endless. Why he was still in the British Army -- surely that had more to do with needing cannon fodder than for any other strategic purpose.
"Honestly?" Kay asked, tilting his head, tucking down his chin. Arthur recognized the signs. Kay was ready for a fight, and Arthur didn't doubt that he'd be able to take them all on by himself.
At last count, there were four of Spera's cronies in the open square.
Arthur's hands clenched into fists. He wasn't going to let Kay fight this one alone. He'd made a promise to Kay once that Kay might have heard if he hadn't been in a medicated coma at the time -- that he would never need to be alone ever again.
He meant to keep to that promise. Arthur strode forward.
"Yeah?" Spera demanded, impatient.
Kay shrugged his shoulders, and shoved his hands in his pockets. "You're a thief, a drug dealer, a rapist, a murderer. Someday soon, Karma's going to kick your arse so hard, you'll be spitting shite out of your gob for weeks and weeks. When that happens, I'm going to stand on the sidelines, and I'm going to clap while they lock you up and toss the key. The only thing I'm sorry about, Spera, is that I didn't have anything else to tell the MPs when they came to talk to me about some irregularities in your record. I'm sure that, sooner or later, they're going to find someone who's seen everything you've ever done, and they'll sing like a canary."
"You --" Spera sputtered, his knuckles cracking, blood filling his face with tension and anger.
"Go on," Kay said, and he sounded almost pleasant, if Kay could ever be pleasant when he was smiling like that. "Swing first. Give me an excuse. But before you do, remember one thing. I'm not a skinny, underfed kid like the one I were when you turfed me out to the hospital. I'm a big boy now."
Arthur slowed down and stopped, lingering nearby under the shadow of a building just barely out of sight, because he saw the fight fall from Spera's shoulders, his arms falling slack on either side of him. Even his cronies traded uncertain glances. The seconds passed and nothing happened.
"Well, that were disappointing," Kay said with a chuckle. "Bloody shame. All this? That'll be five minutes of my life, flushed clean down the loo."
Kay brushed past Spera, whistling.
Arthur couldn't help it. He smiled.
That night, he gave Kay a scarf. Kay stared at the fabric in his hand before giving Arthur a confused look.
"For what it's worth," Arthur told him, keeping his voice down so that the others wouldn't hear, "Those were the best five minutes of your life I've ever seen you have."
"Um. Which one of you is Captain Pendragon?"
It was a greenie who'd come knocking on the door to the barracks, his uniform still starch-crisp from the supplies packaging, the cap on his head loose from a recent buzz cut, the lid awkwardly curled and doing little to keep the bright desert sun from burning his eyeballs. He was standing in the doorway, squinting in the gloom, his eyes going from one red scarf to another, his frown deepening.
"The Colonel said it would be the guy with the red scarf?" The corporal bit his lower lip. "But you're all wearing them -- I'm sorry, sirs. I'm confused."
"Don't be, kid," Gwaine said, squeezing through the doorway to get in, patting the corporal's shoulder. "You'll catch on."
"You're looking for me," Arthur said, getting up from behind the desk that Owain had appropriated from the supplies tent.
"Oh, thank God," the corporal breathed a small sigh of relief and came to attention. "Sir. Colonel Halligan wants to see you."
"Anytime you're ready, sir," the corporal said.
Arthur gave Leon a curt nod and collected his cap. He gestured to the corporal to lead the way, but the kid was so new that he got lost on the second makeshift road and Arthur took over, giving the corporal an impromptu tour of the base. By the time they reached the administration tent, they were probably a lot later than they should have been, but at least the corporal wouldn't take a wrong turn heading to the latrine in the middle of the night.
"Colonel, Captain Arthur Pendragon to see you," the admin clerk announced over the intercom.
"Send him in," Halligan said, his voice tinny and distant. Arthur walked into the office, only to be sternly told to "Shut the door."
Halligan wasn't alone. There was another man in the room. He was standing at the window, looking out on the base, his hands clasped behind his back.
"Colonel," Arthur said, coming to attention in front of Halligan's desk.
"At ease," Halligan said, leaning back in his chair. Someone had found him an old executive chair, the imitation leather worn and torn at the seams, the springs creaking under his weight. "I'd like you to meet Colonel John Mandrake."
Arthur straightened in recognition. Everyone knew Mandrake. Everyone wanted to be Mandrake, or at the very least, they wanted to work under him. He was the man in charge of the majority of the covert missions, the go-to person when the different branches of HMRS wanted something accomplished, the voice on the other end of the line when an assignment had gone critical, the fight had gone to the south end of shite and the personnel needed a way out.
Arthur had never heard his voice. It was a point of pride that he'd never needed to call in the emergency code.
The man at the window turned around. There was a curious flash of light, and for an instant, it looked like Mandrake's eyes glowed a pale yellow. When he moved to stand next to Halligan's desk, Mandrake's eyes were dark and foreboding, a brown that was almost black, deep and inky and evaluating.
Arthur felt himself being weighed. He couldn't help it. He stood at attention again. "Sir."
"Pendragon." Mandrake raised both brows in a gesture that could only be interpreted as the silent at ease of a man who was accustomed to people reading his mind, and Arthur did as ordered. Mandrake nodded in satisfaction, and said, "I've been hearing good things about you and your men."
"I'm flattered, sir."
"Don't be," Halligan said with a grunt of displeasure. "Coming to Mandrake's attention can only mean one thing."
A brief silence stretched into a prompt that Arthur couldn't help but voice. "Sir?"
Halligan shifted in his seat, shooting Mandrake a dark look. "Effective immediately, your team is transferred under Colonel Mandrake's chain of command."
"Yes, sir," Arthur said, struggling not to smile. Halligan had given Arthur a chance, speaking up for him when everyone else protested, and without Halligan's approval, Arthur would never have managed to pull his men together or turned them into one of the most sought-after incursion teams in their division. But they could only go so far under Halligan.
With the change in leadership came a change in scenery, pay grade, and security ratings. They would be entering areas with higher alert ratings, permitted a greater degree of independent action, and assigned dangerous, complicated missions. It was everything that Arthur had been working toward, and it came six months ahead of schedule.
"Do you have any objections?" Mandrake asked.
"None whatsoever, sir," Arthur said.
"Good. Come with me."
Mandrake didn't spare Halligan another glance, but Arthur paused long enough to salute the Colonel and say, "Thank you, sir."
Halligan grunted, but he said, "Good luck, Pendragon."
Arthur hurried after Mandrake and fell in step next to him. They walked to the command centre in silence. It wasn't until the tent flaps swung shut behind Arthur and he adjusted to the different lighting that Mandrake spoke again, handing him a file folder.
"Review the briefing notes and work up a mission plan. I want your boys wheels up at 1900."
"Yes, sir." Arthur glanced at one of the monitors suspended in the air to verify the time. He did a quick calculation -- he had an hour to prepare, ten minutes to present for approval, and twenty minutes to scramble. "I'll get started."
Mandrake dismissed him, but Arthur hadn't walked more than two steps before Mandrake called him back. "Your team is going to need a name."
"We have one, sir." Arthur let a grin slip.
"What's that, then?"
Mandrake looked at him for a long time before giving him a sharp nod. "One more thing, Pendragon."
"Are you keeping the scarves?"
Arthur schooled his expression to serious thought, and answered without any real hesitation. "Yes, sir, we are. Do you have any objection?"
Mandrake stared at him, and a corner of his mouth quirked into an almost-smile. "Have it your way, Pendragon. Keep the damn scarves."