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Thursday, 0230 hours

There weren't many places in Paris where someone could meet in the open without being observed, but Gwaine had passed on coordinates that fit the criteria: relatively isolated, with sufficient cover for the team -- snipers and ground support both -- and for Arthur.

Arthur should have known that Gwaine would send him to a cemetery at night. He always picked cemeteries. Never an open field. Never a deserted parking lot. Bloody cemeteries.

Arthur should be grateful that Gwaine hadn't sent them to Jim Morrison's grave or the catacombs for this meeting with Kilgarrah and Balinor. That was probably more because Gwaine considered the revolving door of tourists trespassing on Morrison's grave to be sacrilege, and the catacombs wouldn't give him line of sight.

At least a graveyard ensured that there would be some privacy. And given the hour? The only people who would be watching were the ghosts.

Arthur didn't pace. He didn't check his watch. He stood motionless in the middle of the World War I memorial at the cimetière de l'est, his hands in his coat pockets.

He couldn't let on how much he was struggling.

It had been bare hours ago. Hours. And they'd missed Merlin by minutes. Minutes.

As grateful and as relieved as he was that the team had recovered Kay, that Kay would be all right once he had a few days of solid rest, he couldn't come to terms with how close they had been to rescuing Merlin.

He hadn't been able to make eye contact with his team. He still couldn't. He didn't want to see the sympathy in their eyes, the guilt and grief that they must feel, too. It had been hard enough to have to tell Hunith that they'd come so close, only to be too far. It had been impossible to watch Will as he guiltily approached Hunith and apologized, as Hunith was hugging him, because Arthur had wanted so badly to return Merlin to her. To have Merlin again.

He had been fraying at the edges ever since the prototype testing grounds, and now there was a very physical tear. It felt as if he were bleeding through his skin, that nothing was holding him together anymore except sheer force of will.

The cemetery wasn't quiet. Birds chirped; branches clinked. There was a scurry of movement -- rabbits or squirrels. The wind whistled, ruffling his hair and pulling at his clothes.

Arthur ignored the background chatter over the radio, but he didn't turn the earwig off. He was only distantly aware that Leon had called the hour, that Gwaine muttered something about being stood up, that Lamorak announced an all-clear on the east road, while Gareth, Geraint and Galahad chimed in that the other cardinal directions were equally devoid of movement.

Stood up, Gwaine grumbled again.

Arthur's body sagged. He wanted to sit down. He wanted to rub his face. He wished that his eyes weren't burning with the tears he was fighting to hold back, that his throat wasn't thick with them.

He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He gave his shoulders a minute shrug to adjust the weight of his gun holster. Except for the gun and a spare hidden in his boot and a pair of knives, he was unarmed, dressed in civilian clothing. If the police patrolled through, if anyone saw him there, he could lie and say that he couldn't sleep and wanted to see his great-grandfather's grave.

It wouldn't be a lie. He was sure that his mother's grandfather was buried somewhere in this graveyard.

"Sighting. Your two o'clock high," Gwaine said, all the wisecracks gone, suddenly all business again.

The air thundered with rapid, hummingbird-speed fwwaaa-fwaaaa-fwaaa-p and crashed with a single rat-tat-tat that sounded like four feet touching ground. The night was drowned in a rush of wind, a crinkle of leaves, and the creak of a hundred graves six feet below ground adjusting for the combined weight of topsoil and dragon. The dragon's shape was difficult to make out in the gloom. It was half-hidden by a field of graves and buildings, and shadowed by the faint few spotlights around the war memorials. It was small -- if one's definition of small was the equivalent of a school bus or a transport lorry -- and sleek, sinuous like a snake. Its wings hung low against its body, its head down, its tail curling and swirling and somehow never knocking into anything.

"Incoming," Gwaine said. "He's alone, if you don't count the pet iguana. Looks like his picture. It's him."

Twenty-four hours ago, Arthur knew exactly what he wanted to tell Balinor. He had an inventory of questions prepared, all precisely meant to convince Balinor that they should work together. He had suspected -- he still suspected -- that it wouldn't be easy. A man like him? A team like his? Working on their own, without support, never knowing who to trust except for the single tenuous link that was Kilgarrah? If Arthur were in Balinor's shoes, he doubted that he would have come at all, no matter how convincing Kilgarrah had been.

Arthur couldn't think of a single thing that he wanted to say to Balinor. There was only one thought floating through his mind.

They'd missed Merlin. By minutes. And none of this tremendous catastrophe would have happened if Balinor and his men hadn't intervened on the testing ground.

If they'd just… if they'd just have minded their own business, if they'd… if Kilgarrah hadn't… Arthur stifled a frustrated growl.

He couldn't afford to think like that. Accusations would get him nowhere but deeper in the pit.

Arthur watched as Balinor approached. He was a little shorter than Arthur. His hair was tied back in a ponytail, and his face was half-hidden behind a short, scruff beard. He wore a leather coat that was cut to his hips, dark trousers, knee-high boots. He was armed, but his hands swung empty at his sides as he strode purposefully across the open ground, coming to a stop five metres away from Arthur.

They stared at each other wordlessly. It felt almost like a power play, waiting for the other to cave and attain the upper hand. Arthur had always intended to speak first. Except now, he didn't have the words.

His legs would collapse under him if he hadn't locked his knees. His hands would tremble and betray his desperation if he hadn't shoved them into his pockets.

Arthur was afraid that if he spoke, Balinor would know just how badly Arthur had cocked things up.

Balinor was braced -- his legs were a shoulder's width apart, maybe a little more. His knees were bent. His arms were loose and relaxed at his sides, but there was no missing the nylon straps half-hidden by his jacket. He had a semiautomatic weapon tucked under his arm, two handguns that Arthur could see, spare clips if he needed them. Arthur had asked to meet with Balinor alone, but Balinor wasn't stupid.

Neither was Arthur.

He watched the dragon out of the corner of his eye. It shifted restlessly before appearing to move away. Except it wasn't moving away; it was a trick of light. It was making itself smaller, curling onto itself, hiding from watching eyes. Arthur had seen the dragons in the air, under cloud cover and black smoke, and knew how graceful they were, how fast.

How fast were they on the ground?

There was a thin set to Balinor's lips. An intensity in his eyes that could burn a hole through a tank's armour plating. A tremble of nervous energy in the faint twitch of his hand before he muted it by shoving his thumb into his belt, rolling his shoulders back. He was posturing and making himself bigger, Arthur knew.

Balinor didn't have the upper hand here. He didn't have the luxury of having Major Kilgarrah tell him what Arthur had planned. Arthur was so far off script that no matter how well Major Kilgarrah knew him, he couldn't possibly anticipate what Arthur would do next.

The truth was, Arthur didn't know himself.

Merlin. All he wanted was to get Merlin.

"Captain Arthur Pendragon." Balinor was the first to break the silence, his voice full of contempt. He raised his chin and tilted his head, eyeing Arthur up and down.

"Lieutenant Balinor Emrys," Arthur said, his tone low and even. "Unless you've had a field promotion?"

Balinor's expression darkened, his scornful evaluation forgotten, his gaze sharp and severe. "You're Uther Pendragon's son."

Arthur could hear volumes spoken in those four words. An epic poem or song or novel of tumultuous drama and tenuous plots. Of gangrenous wounds lashed open again and again. There was blame in those words. Accusation. That this, all this, wouldn't have happened if not for Uther Pendragon. This man would have been a father to his son. A husband to his wife. Perhaps a Colonel or a General in the army by now, unless he would have elected to retire instead at the first opportunity and lived a civilian life. He was certainly so well decorated before his disappearance that the army would have been foolish not to try to keep him on, and any private sector employer would have been idiots not to offer him whatever they could to get him on their payroll.

And none of it had come to pass. He'd gone into hiding. He'd left his wife and son. He waged a battle in the shadows that no one had ever seen and that no one would ever see. His sacrifice --

Arthur closed his eyes.

Had it really been necessary? Had Balinor truly needed to go to the extremes that he had? Hadn't there been another way -- or was this it? Had he not had any other choice at all?

"I'm only here as a courtesy," Balinor said, filling in the silence. "I won't treat with a Pendragon."

"I'm not my father," Arthur said quietly. He opened his eyes. The faint cemetery lights were bright; but the stars overhead stood out in stark relief against the night sky. Everything was crisp and clear, and it hurt. It contrasted with the swirling fog inside his mind, his heart, his soul.

Balinor shrugged. "That remains to be seen."

The night chill sank through clothing and skin and settled in Arthur's bones. He swallowed hard to get past the grief in the back of his throat and took a sharp breath, struggling to focus. To regain control.

"My father…" Arthur paused. A rueful chuckle escaped his throat. "Do you know how many times I've called him that over the last ten years? I can't even remember. It was always Colonel or Sir. I don't think he's been my father for a long time."

Balinor tilted his head, unimpressed.

Arthur moved his hands from his pockets slowly; the sweat on the palms of his hands dried quickly in the night air. "Do you have the prototype?"

"You're not getting it back. It doesn't matter what you're offering --"

"Just tell me that you destroyed it," Arthur interrupted. "I don't care otherwise."

Balinor's brows pinched. He lowered his chin. "You want it destroyed?"

"Do you think we meant to let the NWO have it? The Directory? That we ever meant for anyone to have it?" Arthur paused. "It's a WMD. It doesn't matter who has it or how it's used or how non-lethal it is. It's a weapon of mass destruction, and it will bring about the end of the world. So tell me, Lieutenant. Is it destroyed?"

Balinor took a half-step forward. "That bomb we found inside of it? It was yours?"

"Yes." Arthur spread his hands. Owain and Leon hadn't had the time to get clear and detonate before they were attacked, and by the time they got away from the field, the prototype was in the air, out of transmitter range. He waited a moment and asked, "Well? Is it gone? Or am I going to have to go after you, too?"

Balinor snorted. "You'd come after us? Do you even know --"

Arthur waved a dismissing hand with more bravado than he felt. "Dragons. Magic. Yeah. We would still come after you."

The look that Balinor gave him went from open surprise to long and critical. He turned his head and looked off into the distance. The way the shadows fell on his face made Arthur's heart clench; he could see something of Merlin's profile in this man's. "It's disassembled."

"Good," Arthur said.

"Is that it, then? You had me come all this way for that?"

"No. There's more. Much more," Arthur said. "Starting with you and I combining forces to go to war."

Balinor snorted again. It became a coughing fit to suppress his laughter. "Why would I want to work with a Pendragon?"

Arthur took a frustrated step forward. "Because this shadow war of yours against the NWO? Against the Directory, against the Crown? Against every worldwide organization?"

Balinor's expression soured, and Arthur knew he hit the mark. He'd been guessing with that last one, with only a photograph and Hunith's anecdotal stories to support the theory, and it was gratifying -- and terrifying -- to know that he was right.

"This war that you've been waging for over twenty years? It's going nowhere, that's why. You're barely a step ahead of them -- it's more like you're behind. Way behind. You're not fighting battles -- you're scrambling to catch up, reacting instead of planning ahead --"

"You don't know what you're talking about --"

"Don't I?" Arthur closed the distance between them. Balinor was shorter, but he had years of experience weighing on his bones, muscle that was there not because of a gym membership, but because of training and action and strain. This close, there was a sparkle in Balinor's eyes, a set to his jaw, a heavy peppering of white in his hair and in his beard. "Do you want to test that theory?"

Balinor's brows pinched in the middle -- it was a faint, quick movement, an unavoidable giveaway tic.

"The NWO spouts returning-to-our-roots propaganda and they mean to destroy the infrastructure holding civilization together, worldwide, in order to achieve their goal. The Directory claims that it wants to stop them, but what they're really after is power and more power and they don't care what has to happen before they get it. MI-6 is just another government organization among government organizations that is over its head when it comes to dealing with magic, and they're handling the situation like any another terrorist threat when they're the ones who started everything."

The muscle in Balinor's jaw tightened.

"Other government agencies are in on it. The artefacts that were recovered as part of some grand plan to prevent them from falling into wrong hands are scattered in storage units around the world where anyone can get to them when they probably were safer right where they were in the first place. Less savory types --" Arthur bit his tongue rather than to say like the Witchfinder, "-- have somehow gotten wind of all this or were involved in this from the beginning, but it took them longer to catch onto what it was all for because they're getting involved now. It's a fucking complicated mess of organizations fighting for the upper hand while the rest of us try to keep them in check without really knowing why we're trying to keep them in check in the first place."

Balinor's hands clenched and unclenched, as if this was some sort of sore point with him.

"You've spent twenty years trying to get a handle on the situation. Major Kilgarrah, Colonel Mandrake -- those are just a few people who have been keeping you informed from the inside," Arthur said, pausing for breath. He saw how Balinor's lips pressed together, how he dug his fingernails in the palms of his hands, how the muscles in his arm twitched and telegraphed how much he wanted to reach for his gun right the fuck now. Arthur put it all together and continued with, "If not outright controlling what you do and where you do it and how, because nothing in the last year, if not the last two decades, has gone the way you've meant for it to go."

Arthur waited, and he waited some more, ever watchful for signs that he was correct. When it came, it was in the form of a frustrated sigh, a reconsidering look, a controlled relaxation of the tension that had bunched around Balinor's shoulders.

It lasted barely a spate of seconds before Balinor's eyes hardened and he spat out again, as if it was something he couldn't see past, "You're Uther Pendragon's son."

"So the sins of the father fall on the child?" Arthur pressed, closing the distance between them. Balinor stood firm, but it was a near thing, if the way his foot slid backward involuntarily was any indication. Arthur took a deep, steadying breath before he said, struggling to stay calm, "Believe me, after everything I've figured out about him over the last few months, over the last bloody week, I really wish that I was not his son."

The last few words were more vehement than he'd meant them to be, but they rang heartfelt and true, exposing a shameful darkness that had taken root and grown ever since the evidence, subtle as it was, started to point toward his father's complicity in this mess. For all the bitterness on his tongue, the weight lifted from his shoulders; he found himself standing straighter.

The pervasive silence of the graveyard gave Arthur's declaration a resounding echo that sounded like a call to war. It wasn't until it ebbed that Arthur spoke again.

"You've known him," Arthur said. "Do you really think him generous enough to let me in on his plans? That he'd tell me the truth if I ever asked him where the new technologies we've been developing have been coming from? That he'd trust his own son with them?"

Balinor's shoulders rolled back, the heel of one foot grinding into the grass as he turned to face Arthur more fully. "I've known him. I wouldn't put anything past him."

"How long has he been hunting for you?" Arthur asked. "How long has he been sending dogs to nip at your heels, to herd you back to England, to give him that last piece that he's been looking for all this time? That same piece that everyone's been looking for?"

Balinor showed teeth then; it wasn't so much a smile as it was a snarl, like a wolf grinning in warning. "No one will ever get it."

The laugh that escaped Arthur was strangled. He rubbed his chest, trying to ease the sting of the hurt that was left behind. "You bloody fucking pillock. You have no idea."

Balinor snorted and turned away, waving a hand in the air. "Go home, Pendragon. Stay out of this."

"Stay out of what?" Arthur's voice raised until he was nearly shouting. "Stay out of a war that you've been losing for decades? To keep an artefact safe and from the wrong hands? Because he's not an artefact to me. I'm in love with him. I'd lay down my life for him."

Balinor stopped some thirty feet away, halfway up the rise, but didn't turn.

"He's sat at a dinner table with Uther Pendragon. He's been under the Directory's eye. The NWO tried to court him and tried to take him by force. The irony's killing me. They don't know what he is. They don't know who he is, and we've almost lost him too many fucking times until we did lose him."

Arthur waited, wondering when it would sink in. He had told Major Kilgarrah that the enemy had Merlin; surely the Major had informed Balinor.

Or, maybe, just maybe, he didn't tell Balinor anything at all. It occurred to Arthur, too late, that Balinor had been suspiciously calm when he'd arrived. That, maybe, he wouldn't have come at all if he had known.

"What exactly are you telling me?" Balinor asked. He bowed his head for a moment before turning to look at Arthur over his shoulder. His voice was low, with a sharp, rumbling edge, almost warning Arthur to tread carefully.

"It's…" Arthur steeled himself. "It's Merlin."

Balinor's entire body tensed.

"He's one of my team," Arthur said. He was assigned to us by Major Kilgarrah, he didn't say.

"We were pulled under the Directory's command to run an undercover mission against the NWO," Arthur said. And Major Kilgarrah was on board with that, he didn't say.

"Nobody but the team knows who and what he is, and as far as I'm concerned, it's staying that way," Arthur said. How much did Kilgarrah really know, he wondered.

"He… He was on the testing field, setting up the trap for the NWO, when everything went to hell," Arthur said. Was it because of Kilgarrah? Was Arthur wrong? What if it hadn't been Bayard, but Major Kilgarrah who had been betraying them all along?

"They… They took him. He's gone. We've been looking for him, but --" Arthur couldn't speak any more. His voice was swollen with frustration and anger and grief.

Balinor whirled around in a rush of fury, explosive and angry, a flail of movement and a gun raised in his hand. Arthur had known, had sensed that Balinor would draw a weapon. He hadn't gone for his own. He stood there and watched as Balinor's eyes darted to the left, to the right, as they lowered. His mouth opened and closed, but Arthur couldn't hear him; he shifted, but he didn't move.

"You… you let them take him?"

Arthur knew that he should be afraid. He should be worried about the gun pointed to his head. Whatever fear he felt was washed away in a surge of fury.

"You weren't supposed to show up on the testing grounds," Arthur said. "It was a fucking trap that I'd set to draw them out and to find out who the fuck was betraying us. We knew they'd try for Merlin -- except I didn't know he was your precious artefact back then. All I thought was they'd go after him because he's a bloody genius and no one else can hack his codes. I'd planned it so that even if they had taken Merlin, they wouldn't have gotten far. I was going to end all this once and for all.

"Except you went after a bloody useless prototype that probably burned itself out after that last shot. You got in my way. I couldn't fucking save him. I couldn't… I couldn't get to him."

Arthur's voice broke.

"I don't know where he is. I have to… I need to get him back."

Balinor's gun trembled. It fired.

Arthur flinched, drawing away, reaching for his own gun, but Balinor wasn't shooting at him. He'd swung his gun around and was firing it until he emptied the magazine, until the only noise to fill the air was a weak click-click-click. Balinor's arm fell to his side, his entire body sagged.

The hollow in Arthur's heart only grew to know someone else suffering a grief as great as his own.

Balinor threw his head back and roared, deep and terrifying. It was the cry of the very earth itself raising up to rage against its chains, to shake off the firmament and to fall free, no longer held back, ready to reap and rend at an universe that had held it back for far too long.

Arthur shivered at the sight. He quailed at the sound.

Balinor's dragon reared onto its haunches, its wings outstretched, its head raised to join in a mourning wail, but it was nowhere as deep, not as profound, not nearly as scarred.

A mere heartbeat later, a chorus rose in the darkness, surrounding the cemetery. All around them, dragons roared.

Arthur hadn't thought that Balinor would agree to coming alone, and he'd been right. The last thing that he had expected was for a whole fighter squadron of dragons to pierce the night air with an unearthly sound that sank down to the very bones of a man and awoke long-forgotten nightmares. He felt a wash of death and destruction, the promise of vengeance, a rampaging rage making the air vibrate and the ground tremble.

There would be reports on the news later, he knew. Of the earthquake that had shaken France, of the strange epicentre where there was no known geological fault line. It would stump researchers for decades until everyone forgot about the terror that had seared the sky with a primal roar. But now -- Arthur had to worry about the now. People would have heard the noise. They would wake, call the police, send security to investigate. They couldn't risk being seen.

Arthur ran at Balinor, catching the man before he crumbled to his knees. Arthur felt a stab of pain, of grief, wanting so desperately to succumb to it like Balinor had allowed himself to do. He couldn't, because there was no time, because Merlin was out there, alone and trapped and hurt --

"They at least tried to keep us alive, for whatever reason," Will said, his lips pressing tight. Arthur didn't want to hear it, but he needed to. More than anything, he didn't want Hunith to know what Will wasn't saying.

He didn't want her to know that the enemy was keeping Merlin hurt and injured. That he was in bad shape.

Arthur suspected that Hunith knew, anyway.

Arthur rubbed the bridge of his nose. He couldn't think about that. He couldn't think about those things. He would be more than useless if he let himself drown in misery.

"We were close," Arthur said, blinking repeatedly, his vision blurring. "We were so close. And I mean to get him back. But I can't do it alone. I can't. None of us have magic. None of us have bloody dragons. And worse --"

Balinor fought him off. Arthur let him go. He took a step back, looking at his father-in-law and hating that Merlin wasn't here with him to meet his father for the first time since he had been a child.

"You didn't know where he was. You didn't know that Merlin was with us. That he was undercover, running missions for the Directory, putting himself in the line of fire. You didn't know -- but Kilgarrah did."

Murderous eyes were half hidden by the loose strands of hair that had escaped the tie holding them back. Balinor straightened and half-turned away, his lips parting as if he were about to say something, only to clench his jaw rather than to give them voice.

"I don't know whose side he's on. What agenda he has. Who he's working for -- who he's working with. I don't know what he's got planned, but he's manipulated us into this, and he didn't tell you what he was doing with your son. He knew everything that was going on, and he didn't tell you."

Balinor brought a hand to his face and covered his eyes with light fingers; even in the dark and the long shadows cast by the graveyard lights, Arthur could see that his hand was trembling.

"Why wouldn't he tell you?" Arthur asked. "What is he doing? What does he have planned?"

It was a push too far, because Balinor lashed out blindly with a wild arm holding an empty gun. Arthur dodged the first blow, blocked the second, and disarmed him on the third scuffle, the gun dropping to the ground. Balinor made a sound -- something that was half a growl of frustration, half a whine of sorrow -- and stumbled back two steps before lunging at Arthur. They grappled, hands pulling and tearing, twisting and shoving, yanking and twisting --

It only took a lucky hit -- Balinor's fist scraping Arthur's cheek, Arthur averting his head in time to avoid the full force of the blow -- for the skirmish to escalate from the feeble struggles of two betrayed men weighed down by their grief to a heated no-holds-barred fight full of rage and blame. Arthur took a knee to the gut that blew the wind out of him; he blocked an overhead blow that was meant to knock him out and punched, aiming his strike just above the groin where Kevlar didn't cover. He surged to his feet, shoving a shoulder against Balinor. Arthur took one, two, three bows to the kidneys as he drove Balinor back, back, back, finally letting him go with a heave.

Balinor crashed against a memorial, gasping for breath. Before he could rouse himself for another attack, Arthur was against him, pinning him down.

"I'm not your enemy. I'm not."

They breathed, hot and panting, until Balinor had enough; his body sagged. Arthur took a step away. Balinor doubled over, hands on his knees. He slid down until he was crouched, until he sat awkwardly on the ground, his knees up, his head back.

He looked ready to murder. Arthur had no doubt that he would murder someone. He was just glad that he didn't seem to be the target anymore.

Arthur waited until he caught his breath. He worked his jaw where Balinor had gotten a hit. His lower back ached, but it was barely noticeable. If anything, he hadn't been hurt enough.

He sat down next to Balinor, their shoulders brushing, neither one of them speaking. Over the radio, he could hear Gwaine muttering how did I not spot them under his breath; Leon quietly giving the orders to stand fast, because the dragons and Balinor's men hadn't advanced, hadn't done anything against them. Gareth was making soft cooing sounds; Arthur sincerely hoped those cooing sounds were for a dragon, because otherwise he'd have to talk to him about focusing on the mission, rather than Lamorak's arse. Galahad announced the footie score.

None of them had been alarmed by the fight. If anything, they'd probably expected it.

Arthur pulled his earwig, letting it dangle from his collar. He clasped his hands together. He leaned his head back and stared at the sky.

"You could care less about the NWO," Arthur said quietly. "Maybe you got into this because you saw what everyone was doing, what you were being ordered to do, but it didn't stay that way. It hasn't been about the artefacts and the NWO and the Directory and whatever it is that they're planning to do for you, not for a long time."

"He's my son," Balinor whispered, his voice hoarse.

He's my love. He's my life, Arthur wanted to say. Instead, he said, "We'll get him back."

Balinor nodded, as if there was no other option. "How?"

Arthur stared at his hands, at the shadows that they cast. He thought about Aredian, and how it was a matter of tracking the bastard down.

But it wasn't only Merlin.

It was Gaius, who had disappeared. It was Vivian, tucked away safely with Hunith's friends. It was Hunith, who had fled.

They would have the whole world against them soon.

Arthur rubbed his face in his hands.

"Let's start with... where's Major Kilgarrah?"

 

 

ooOOoo

 

Thursday, 0444 hours

 

"Drink this."

Merlin blinked blearily, focusing on the small cup in front of his face. Something smelled familiar -- and not in a good way.

He raised his eyes, following the hand holding the cup to the arm, to the shoulder, to the face. Mordred raised the cup encouragingly. "It smells foul, I know, but it's not as bad as the tinctures that Aredian's men gave you. It's my personal recipe."

Merlin pushed himself onto his elbows, wincing. The shot of pain down his side didn't abate quickly, and he neither hurried into a sitting position nor answered Mordred right away. Instead, he asked, "What tinctures?"

The calm, reassuring mask on Mordred's face twisted and changed: his cheeks reddened and his eyes narrowed. "They didn't… They didn't give you anything for your injuries while --"

"While I was a guest at their luxurious resort?" Merlin wriggled into something of a sitting position and glanced around. The room was small, spare, without any personal touches; the bed was comfortable, the blankets thick and clean. There was a side table, a lamp, a chair -- that Mordred was sitting on -- a closet with the doors removed and a window. Gauzy pink curtains didn't do much to hide the fact that it was pitch black outside. "I guess I should've paid extra for the all-inclusive package."

A ghost of a smile pulled at the corners of Mordred's mouth, but the combination of rage and concern didn't leave. Merlin thought that strange. Why would Mordred even care?

It came crashing back a few seconds later when he remembered the dossier on Mordred. For however little that they knew about the man, there was no doubt that he was somehow associated with the NWO. And possibly a half-dozen other organizations, but that didn't matter right now.

Merlin leaned against the headboard of the bed, closing his eyes. He let his shoulders slump and grunted in discomfort at a twinge of pain

"I apologize," Mordred said.

Merlin's eyes flew open and he stared at Mordred; the man was sincere, his expression contrite. It was either genuine or an Oscar-winning act -- he wasn't sure.

"I was meant to be here in the beginning, but I was waylaid. I could have stopped this --" Mordred trailed off, shaking his head.

"Are you his boss?"

"No." Mordred paused. He put the cup on the bedside table. "Not exactly. It's difficult to explain."

"Try," Merlin said. A second later, he shook his head. "On second thought, please don't. I don't care. Are you going to let me go?"

"No," Mordred said. He spread his hands in apology. "But you're not our prisoner, either."

Merlin sat up a little straighter, pushing the pillows out of the way. He swallowed a groan of frustration and pain and glanced at the cup that was in arm's reach. "What's that?"

A wry smile appeared on Mordred's face; he tilted his head and raised a brow. "Really, Merlin? You're going to pretend that you don't know? Your uncle Gaius surely must have given you variations of tinctures against colds, to mend broken bones, to make bruises disappear. Please don't play stupid. I'm not Jonathan. Give me more credit."

Merlin grunted. He let his head fall back against the headboard; the dull thump was a distraction against the pain. "Was worth a try."

"I would have thought less of you if you hadn't made an attempt," Mordred said, and Merlin hated, hated him, because it wasn't fair. He hadn't expected Mordred to be so personable, so likeable. It was either that or he was suffering from Stockholm syndrome. Merlin reminded himself that these people were not his friends. They were the enemy.

He didn't answer. Instead, he brought his knees to his chest, but even that hurt.

"Drink it," Mordred said. He gestured at the foot of the bed. "I've left you a change of clothes. There's a shower down the hall. Come downstairs when you're ready."

He stood up and went to the door.

"Aredian?" Merlin asked, and if he winced at the croak in his voice, Mordred made no indication of having heard it when he paused and turned around.

"He's not here," Mordred said, his tone kind. "But he will be coming back."

They stared at each other for a few seconds. Merlin had the distinct impression that Mordred was trying to communicate to him silently -- a warning, perhaps, or just an exasperated plead to please behave, because Mordred didn't know what else he could do at this point to defuse the situation, to diffuse Aredian. That was such a study in contrast that Merlin didn't even know where to begin; Aredian had been the one to be downright terrified when Mordred had arrived.

Merlin pushed the blankets off. He picked up the cup and studied the contents; it was thick, a bit on the brownish-green side, and smelled faintly of peppermint -- as if the mint had been added as an afterthought to make the tincture more palatable. But the rest of it -- the St John's wort, the witch hazel, the other scents, including one that Merlin had dubbed eye of newt -- it all seemed above board.

And besides, they wouldn't poison him now, not after all the trouble they'd gone through to get him. Merlin drank it down in four swallows, screwing his eyes shut against the vile taste -- which was, as Mordred had promised, not as bad as it smelled -- and put the empty cup down.

It was only then that he considered that they might have put something in the tincture to make him more malleable, more susceptible to suggestion --

Oh well. Too late now.

The clothes at the foot of the bed were new, price tags and all. Jeans and T-shirt and a button-down; socks and pants. They'd even given him a belt. It almost made him feel civilized.

Merlin picked up the clothes, not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth. When was the last time he'd washed, never mind gotten into a fresh set of clothes that wasn't caked with dried blood and stiff enough to stand up on their own? He went to the shower, pausing to study the building.

It was a house; another one, but in better shape than the last. The wallpaper wasn't peeling, the paint was reasonably recent. The windows were clean, with light curtains and horizontal blinds. The carpet had track marks of having been recently vacuumed; footprints pushed down on the raised threads. For all that it was still dark outside, the house was open and airy, the white ceilings reflecting the light from the floor below.

Merlin moved slowly, mindful of his injuries. The tincture seemed to work fast. He didn't feel as sore as he had several minutes ago. By the time he reached the bathroom and closed the door behind him, he didn't feel any worse than he did after being run ragged on the fortieth or fiftieth circuit around the park in London, harangued onward by Arthur's thorough PT program.

Arthur.

Merlin dropped the new clothes on the corner of the sink and leaned over it, his head down; he ran the cold water of the tap, watching it for a long time before washing his dirty hands on the bar soap that someone had left there. He rinsed his hands and cupped them together, drinking, drinking, drinking, half to rid himself of the foul taste on his tongue, half because he was so thirsty.

He turned the tap off. He wiped his mouth with the back of a torn sleeve. He stared at himself in the mirror.

The bruising was fading; the splotches were a dark mottle-yellow now. The cut over his eye was receding; the scrape along one cheek was fading.

He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. The twinge in his ribs wasn't half as bad as it had been, but it would take more than one tincture to clear up all his injuries.

Merlin wondered about Kay. If he was all right. About Will. Arthur should have found them by now. They were safe. Kay was getting proper treatment. Will…

Arthur.

Merlin blinked back tears. He was all right. Arthur must be all right, too. Merlin could feel him, faintly, through the bond. He wished there was some way of letting Arthur know where he was without alerting anyone to the fact that he was casting a magical Mayday.

He needed to bide his time, to wait until he was healed well enough to escape on his own.

The shower was tiny, tucked between the toilet and the wall; a small window no bigger than Merlin's head was frosted over, the cross frame painted shut. He turned on the water, twisting the faucets until the temperature approximated something he could tolerate.

Stripping out of his clothes didn't take long. His shirt was a ruined mess. His jeans…

He kicked everything in a corner. He wanted to burn them.

The hot water sluiced over his head, down his body, barely making a dent in the dried blood on his skin. After several long minutes of watching the water remain a constant shade of russet brown, Merlin scrubbed at his skin with his fingernails, scratching and scratching until he was nearly drawing fresh blood. He washed; he stayed in the shower until the water ran cold; he shivered under the cold stream, a hand on his tattoo, willing Arthur to know that he was all right, that it wouldn't be long before he got away.

He was keeping his promise. Sod the mission.

He shut the water off before his teeth started chattering. He dried off and dressed. The clothes were a surprisingly good fit, though he stared dubiously at the belt before putting it on, not sure why they would give him something that could be used as a weapon. He ran the towel through his hair and didn't bother to style it -- he wasn't out to impress anyone -- and dumped the towel in the tub.

Come downstairs when you're ready.

He wasn't ready. Not by a long shot.

Merlin sat on his bed and rubbed his face in his hands, taking stock. Kay and Will were gone -- they were safe -- and that was one less worry he needed to deal with. Mordred was a monkey wrench in Aredian's plans and a potential ally, unless all this was a show to mess with his head. Arthur was alive.

He was hurting less, now. He could move, but he didn't want to move, not exactly. He laid down on the bed and onto his good side. He listened.

Faint footsteps. Quiet voices. Silence.

Merlin was jarred awake when the front door slammed open. He froze, conscious of the sunlight streaming through the window, pale and faint, cutting through and reflected by the nearby buildings. Someone had brought a plate of food while he was asleep. Nothing fancy. A sandwich, cheap cold cuts, cheese, iceberg lettuce that defied wilting, some crisps on the side, a glass of water. The water was lukewarm, but condensation had ringed the table, and there probably had been ice in it at some point.

There was a crash downstairs. Merlin ate, because he was hungry, because he didn't know when he would get his next meal. Someone shouted -- it took a second before Merlin recognized Aredian's shrill tones. He finished off the crisps -- plain salted -- and drank the water without stopping until the glass was dry. There was another crash, the sound of someone being struck. Aredian's tantrum came to a sudden stop.

Merlin paused outside his room, tilting his head, listening. He could barely make out someone speaking, their voice hushed and low, as if scolding a child. He went to the bathroom, emptied his bladder, washed his hands, and searched the cupboard for anything that he could use to defend himself, to escape.

He found a bog roll and a small screw.

He would have laughed if his situation wasn't so pathetic. He splashed water on his face, and when he put the towel down, his fingers were trembling.

Merlin reached for his magic, half-expecting to find it out of his reach, hiding, shy. But it came to him without effort, strong, bold, obedient. His eyes reflected back at him in the mirror in pure, bright gold, no different than they had ever been before, but something had changed. Something --

Merlin stared at himself in the mirror, his brows furrowing, his lips pale -- his whole countenance pale. His magic had changed. It was stronger, wild, like a frantic dog on a leash trying to get away, and the leash was worn, the collar's buckle strained, ready to snap.

He sat down heavily on the toilet. He stared at his hands.

At the other house, it had been like breaking free of a net, of not knowing that he'd been restrained all this time -- that his magic had been restrained. He'd been disoriented, the rush of power had been heady and addicting, and he'd released the build-up in manic desperation to give Will and Kay a chance to get away. He'd felt empty afterward. Even more so than when he'd been struck by the EMP disruptor.

Now, though, his magic hummed contentedly below the surface, an unleashed dog that was chewing happily on a bone now that it had all the freedom in the world, disinclined to go anywhere.

Merlin just had to make sure that it wouldn't do anything without his permission. He took a deep breath, and another, and another, relieved to feel that his body didn't ache as much as it had several hours ago, and giving credit where credit was due, Mordred's tincture might taste as bad as Gwaine's dirty socks smelled, but it was effective.

He closed his eyes, looking inward, searching for a way to absorb and control, and the strength of his magic stole his breath away, but there was nothing to absorb and control. It was a part of him, the way it always had been.

Just… grown up, somehow.

Merlin sighed and stood up. He didn't have time to navel-gaze, to figure out what had happened to him. He chalked it up to a side-effect of the disruptor. With a hesitating glance at the mirror, Merlin held his breath, and opened the bathroom door.

He headed downstairs. No one came to stop him. He went down the corridor to the front room, pausing at the edge of the entrance. He saw Mordred sitting on a flower-patterned sofa pushed against the window, the curtains behind him pulled askew. He was on the edge of the pillows, leaning forward over the coffee table as he worked on a small object with deft fingers, glancing every now and then at the screen of a tablet beside him.

Someone was pacing the length of the room. Back and forth. Back and forth. Every now and then, there would be a barked order in Afrikaans.

Mordred raised his eyes, caught his gaze, smiled reassuringly. He glanced at someone else in the room, returned his attention to his work, and an instant later, at Merlin, shaking his head.

Wait.

"This is a complete waste of my time," Aredian said. He paced three steps that way, three steps this way. There was the creak of something being bent, folded, put away. "If not for your interference --"

"Don't finish that sentence," Mordred said. Where Aredian's voice bordered on the shrill, Mordred kept his tone flat and calm. Merlin watched as Mordred reached for a small tool, twisting it between his fingers before leaning down over the object on the coffee table. "I would hate to remind you how you are being well-recompensed for your time."

There was a stifled pause, a sharp intake of breath. Merlin couldn't see Aredian, not from this angle, and he was happy to stay where he was, though he would pay a great deal to see the look on Aredian's face right now.

"We had a deal," Aredian said. "The prototype and the schematics. Failing that, the schematics -- which, I remind you, are on a hard drive that your little protégé locked up nice and tight. The NWO promised me --"

"The NWO could have promised you the moon for all that I care," Mordred said, his brows furrowing as he concentrated on the task at hand. He paused, twisting the tool around, before making a small, satisfied sound and putting it aside. "That is not why I am here. We had an agreement, you and I, and I am holding you to it."

There was an uncertain pause.

"The schematics --"

Mordred put the tool back down with a slam, and everything in the room shuddered. A thud and a crash and a crackle of broken glass made Aredian dart forward, just within line of sight, before he turned away. Merlin hadn't missed the way Mordred's eyes had flashed a pale orange-gold. "You're a bloody dog after a bone. Did you bring it?"

"It's here."

"And the rest of his equipment?"

"If you think, for one instant, that I'm foolish enough to return those, knowing what he can do with them --"

"He won't be doing anything that I don't want him to do," Mordred said. He put his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands; while he didn't raise his chin, he looked up at Aredian's looming form with something of a withering gaze. "Where is his equipment?"

"You're mad."

"I have been accused of worse," Mordred said, shrugging faintly, sighing in resignation. His expression hardened a moment later, and he added, "I shall ask one more time. I am feeling particularly generous today. Where is his equipment?"

The sound Merlin was hearing was almost like the sound of grinding teeth. "I'll send a man for it."

Mordred made a small, disappointed sound. He waved a hand in the air. "Have Merlin's bag brought to your house. We'll discuss our next steps then."

Aredian didn't answer. He didn't storm away, either, and even without seeing him, Merlin knew that Aredian had swanned off, leaving behind an air that he was too important for middling things.

A door slammed in the distance, hard enough to make the house shake. Mordred rolled his eyes and sighed a long-suffering sigh. "Like a child," he muttered.

"That's the boss you're talking about," a new voice said, but it wasn't chiding. If anything, it was amused.

Mordred glanced at Merlin and made a gesture to come in; Merlin hesitated before creeping out from behind the wall and lingering in the entrance.

There was another man in the room, his blond hair ruffled, his beard shaggy. For a second, Merlin thought it was Leon. His heart squeezed tight with hope, only to fail when he realized that this man was much shorter than Leon, not quite as broad, his eyes the wrong shade and not anywhere as kind. The man wore dress trousers, an off-white button-down with long sleeves rolled up to his elbows; his forearms were heavily muscled and tattooed in a style that hinted at Tribal, but the lines were far too thin. His wrists were cuffed in thick leather bands.

He met Merlin's gaze without reproach and gave Merlin a curt nod. "All right, mate?"

Merlin glanced at Mordred. Mordred was watching him, his eyes evaluating. He sank back on the sofa, a tool twirling in his fingers. He gestured. "This is Cennydd. We went to school together, didn't we?"

"That's how you introduce me, then? I'm wounded," Cennydd said, a hand over his heart. "I thought we had a more profound relationship --"

"We went to school together," Mordred said tersely. Cennydd chuckled hollowly before leaving the room; he lingered just inside the other, keeping an eye on them. "He was ahead of me by a few years, already gone to pursue his studies before I left, too."

The house seemed abnormally empty all of a sudden; Merlin wondered how many people were in the house now. It wasn't a large building -- the two bedrooms and single bath upstairs, a kitchen and a sitting room downstairs, as far as he could tell. It was surreal, to have gone from being heavily guarded to only having two minders.

"Studies?" Merlin asked, in the interest of stalling for time, to gather more intel, to consider his next move.

"He's a druid," Mordred said simply. He leaned forward and picked up the mechanism he was working on. There were small screws precisely placed to the side; several nuts were in a neat row beneath the screws. There was a ratchet, a long metal bar, some other bits and pieces. Merlin couldn't fathom what it was for.

"A druid," Merlin repeated, somewhat dumbly.

"Are we back to that?" Mordred asked. All the sang-froid that he had shown in his conversation with Aredian had melted, and his tone was warm and friendly, now, if a little detached and aloof. "I thought we were past this, Merlin. I've done my research. Your uncle is a practitioner of the arts, a faithful of the Old Religion. Didn't he teach you anything, or are you devoutly atheist?"

"Agnostic," Merlin said.

Mordred stopped what he was doing and raised a brow. "Really?"

Merlin shrugged a shoulder. "No."

Mordred blinked up at him, and after a moment, barked a sudden, startled laugh that seemed to surprise even him. "I asked for that, didn't I?"

Merlin shrugged again. He shoved his hands in his pockets and stood aside stiffly, casting a glance to the other room where Cennydd had gone. There was a clatter of pots and pans, a rattle of the kitchen pipes.

"Cennydd doesn't really work for Jonathan," Mordred said. His head was bent over the mechanism in his hand, his forehead pinched in a line of concentration. "We let him think so, though. It had seemed like a good idea in the beginning and simpler to let it continue. I only ask that you assist us in maintaining his cover. When Aredian and his men are around, please call him Kenneth."

Merlin tilted his head, scratching his temple. "So who do you really work for? Both of you? Are you with… Are you with the NWO?"

Mordred made a strangled sound and nearly dropped his tool; he saved the small machine only because it fell into his lap. Merlin took a step forward to help -- and berated himself for even caring in the first place.

"Are you all right?"

"Horribly insulted, but otherwise undamaged," Mordred said, smothering his laughter behind the back of his hand. Cennydd paused in the doorway, a quizzical look there one moment, gone the next, and he shook his head.

"Either of you fancy a cuppa?" he asked. "I've put the kettle on."

Mordred sobered almost immediately. He glanced at his watch as he asked, "Have we the time for that?"

"We have all the time in the world -- except when we don’t. The car's packed, we can leave whenever we're in a fit mood for it," Cennydd said, disappearing into the kitchen at the kettle's whistle.

"Where are we going?" Merlin asked.

Mordred sighed. He made a vague gesture in the air. "You heard Jonathan. Another house. A safe house. His men are making all the arrangements, so I wouldn't trust it not to be warded against escape, with bugs and cameras to observe our every move. I'd be cautious if I were you."

Merlin shut his eyes tight. His head swirled; he was having trouble wrapping his head around this. He took his hand out of his pocket and ran a hand through his hair. "So you're not with Aredian, and you're not with the NWO, and what about this place? Isn't it bugged?"

"Hardly, though our relationship with Aredian is complicated, as is our connection to the NWO, though I would be more than happy to explain. As for this place? It was never meant to host anyone. Cennydd went through it earlier, before Jonathan came stomping in. It's clean; we can talk freely."

"All right. Be my guest," Merlin said, sweeping his arm out in invitation. "Talk freely."

A faint smirk crossed Mordred's lips, and it stayed there while he replaced a panel on his little device, tightening every screw in an alternating pattern that made Merlin think that it was somehow spring-loaded, or just a matter of course and habit. Cennydd came out of the kitchen with three large cups full of steaming tea. He placed two on the coffee table and made himself comfortable in the only armchair, leaving Merlin with the choice to stay where he was, or sitting next to Mordred, between the two of them.

"If you take milk -- sorry, seems no one was bothered to pick some up at the grocery run," Cennydd said, squirming in his seat until he was settled.

Too comfortable. Completely relaxed and unconcerned.

"It's fine," Merlin said. He didn't move, though, taking a few minutes to look around the room again. He couldn't help but want to scratch at an itch between his shoulder blades, because he was suddenly in uncharted territory, off the script, well past the Directory's mandate and Arthur's personal mission to finish all the bollocks so that they could get on with their lives.

Mordred put the mechanical box on the coffee table and slid his fine tools in a leather satchel; he closed the flaps, rolled it up, and tied it with strings. He glanced at Merlin. "I suppose the simplest way to put it is that Jonathan and his men believe that they are working for the NWO. The NWO believe that Jonathan's men are overpriced mercenaries meant to do their every bidding, particularly when it comes to getting their hands dirty, but it's worth it because the NWO trusts that they retain the exclusivity of the mercenaries' services. Jonathan disagrees, however, but that's to be expected; he can't help but try to find ways to exploit the NWO's actions to reap a profit for himself. It's in his nature; he's a bit of a…"

"Self-important pillock?" Cennydd suggested. Mordred gestured vaguely and nodded.

"Where do you come in?" Merlin asked. He inched across the room, an eye on Cennydd, until he was on the other side of the sofa, as far from Mordred as he could get. Cennydd was closer to the kitchen, and if he needed to make a mad dash for it, jumping over the coffee table would be the easiest way to go. Crashing through the window behind the sofa was the fastest way out, though.

"I put the two of them together," Mordred said. He shrugged, and sipped his tea.

"You have me confused, mate," Merlin said, leaning back in the surprisingly comfortable sofa, spreading his hands.

Mordred turned, adjusting his seat until he was facing Merlin properly, his tea balanced on the knee of his bent leg. "You've heard the propaganda that the NWO spits out? The manifesto being circulated? That the Generation Zeros put together a plan to restore civilization to its proper state, one in which everything is in balance? Life and death, Man and nature, magic and mundane?"

Merlin chuckled humourlessly. "Couldn't have a conversation with Bryn without him bragging about it," Merlin said cautiously. He didn't hide how he was craning his neck to look out the window, to check out the kitchen.

It was approaching noon if the clock on the stovetop was anything to go by, and the city street behind them was quiet, lined with middle-income housing and quaint knee-high wrought-iron gates, without much by way of traffic or pedestrians.

"They established themselves in the 1950s or thereabouts -- after the second World War, wasn't it?" Mordred asked, glancing at Cennydd. The man nodded. "Created a leadership structure, established recruitment schemes, situated strategic personnel in key position, from the man who picks up our rubbish to the Queen's personal assistant -- or so they say, I've never been able to confirm for sure. The plan -- the one that's been under investigation by the appropriate secret agencies worldwide for some time now -- is to destabilize country governments, destroy the infrastructure, and to drown the planet in a modern Dark Age."

Mordred paused.

"Your tea's getting cold."

Merlin reached for the cup slowly, taking a small sip. He held onto the cup, just in case he needed to throw it at someone.

"They're doing all this for one reason and one reason only -- to establish magic users at the top of the food chain, the hierarchy, so to speak. It's some sort of twisted attempt to establish supremacy in a Nietzschean superman worldview, which, quite frankly, is morally wrong and not helping anyone. The NWO is doing all this under the belief that they are a new movement for the betterment of mankind, when, really, their origin is in a militant faction that splintered off from the Druids."

Merlin's eyes snapped from Mordred to Cennydd and back. He opened his mouth to speak, but Mordred was still talking.

"They called themselves the Priests of the Old Religion, the True Faithful, the --"

"Speakers of the One True Way," Cennydd said, rolling his eyes.

"And among the NWO they're known as Generation Zero. A small, secret, select group of the most powerful sorcerers that the NWO has to offer, thoroughly vetted and tested to ensure their absolute loyalty to the complete destruction and domination of the world." Mordred made a soft, scoffing sound. "It's all very Illuminati-esque, with several pages taken out of the Evil Overlord handbook, with a mad dash of completely nutters thrown in, but there you have it. They don't just want to take over the world, decimate humanity, and establish themselves as the status quo. They mean to destroy the world, and rebuild it in their image, twisting the magic of the Old Religion to do their bidding."

Merlin stared at Mordred for a long time. He heard every word, and it was sinking in far too slowly that Excalibur had been pulled into a situation far more complicated than anyone had even imagined. He put his cup of tea on the coffee table and leaned back against the sofa, stretching an arm out.

"Nutters," he said.

"I'm afraid so," Mordred said, and he looked almost amused.

"All of them. You, too." Merlin shook his head, struggling to appear unaffected. "Where are you even getting this from? Is this some sort of elaborate plot to... Gods, I don't even know. Should I be looking for candid cameras?"

"Cennydd is a Druid," Mordred said.

"You mentioned," Merlin said.

"No jokes involving Stonehenge, please," Cennydd said.

"Uncle Gaius beat them out of me a long time ago," Merlin said, though that wasn't true at all, but he was grasping for anything and everything to buy himself some time to sort everything out in his head. Was Mordred saying that there were precursors to the NWO? "So... all those neo-Pagan Druids that put on white robes and laurel leaves and petition the Council of whatever to get permission to perform sex rites in Stonehenge?"

"I said no jokes about Stonehenge," Cennydd said, frowning, but his tone was light. "But, no. There are the druids who make up shite the way some witches and Wiccans make up shite, because no one taught them what to do, not properly. Then there are Druids. Like us."

"Us?"

"We're the real thing," Cennydd said, and an easy smile spread across his lips. He gestured with his cup, swaying it toward Mordred, then towards himself.

Merlin snapped his head toward Mordred. He'd already known that Mordred was a magic user and that he was particularly strong -- the incident in the desert had proven that. But that Mordred was a Druid -- in the classical sense of the word? Mordred was younger than Merlin, and...

And it seemed that he had been embroiled in this entire mess for quite some time.

"Right," Merlin said. He ran his hand through his hair, tilting his head to the side. He waved his hand ineffectively in the air, not even sure what he wanted to say. His eyes fell on the cup of tea balanced on Mordred's knee. "Your tea's getting cold."

Mordred smirked. He took a sip.

"I mean," Merlin said, filling in the silence, "What are you even telling me for? Are you, like, some sort of Druid police? You want to stop the NWO. What does that even have to do with me?"

Mordred put his cup of tea down. He looked at Merlin for a long time before glancing away, his expression contrite.

"Because it has everything to do with you, Lieutenant Emrys."

 

 

ooOOoo

 

Thursday, 0745 hours

 

"Do you think he slept?" Morgana asked.

Leon woke groggily beside her. He mumbled something under his breath that, at any other occasion, Morgana would ignore. She elbowed him until he stirred, a little startled, his hand automatically scrambling to reach a gun that wasn't on his hip, and neither was it on the cheap plasterboard table on his side of the bed. That wasn't because Leon had forgotten to put it there -- it was because Morgana had moved the gun to where she could make a grab for it.

"Morgana. What?" Leon groaned, sinking back on the pillows.

The blankets were threadbare and scratchy. The pillows were thin and lumpy. The duvet that they'd stolen from Gwaine's bed when he wasn't looking was nice and comfortable, even if it gave Morgana hives.

Leon's arm snaked across her waist, his fingers tight at her hip, and he tugged at her with a plaintive sound that long familiarity interpreted as please go back to sleep.

"Did Arthur get any sleep last night?" Morgana asked again, leaning back against the headboard. She smoothed down the T-shirt she'd borrowed from Leon's pile. The shirt smelled like him, and despite how it hung large and loose around her body, it was as warm and comforting as being tucked in.

"I don't know," Leon muttered, his lips pressed against her forearm, his face partially hidden under the sleeve of her shirt. "I'm not his wet nurse."

Morgana pinched his arm. Leon hissed but didn't pull his arm away.

He hadn't let her go once since that night, when they'd burst into the Pendragon Consulting office and stolen her from the kidnappers. He was being clingy, and Morgana didn't mind. More often than not, she found herself searching for him if they were apart, reassured only by his voice in her ear or seeing him across the room. She couldn't calm down or relax until they were together, this close, side by side on the bed or one on top of the other, clutching as if afraid that they'd never see each other again.

They almost would never have had.

As much as Morgana had hidden her nerves when the team had gone out to meet with Balinor, she had done nothing to hide her relief when the vehicles pulled up, one after the other, coming in from different directions. Lance and Gareth had returned on foot, having taken the bloody bus, but Lance had returned with a bouquet of daisies and a bucket of peanut butter ice cream for Gwen in apology for having taken so long to get back.

At the time, Morgana hadn't noticed Arthur's closed-off expression. She hadn't even noticed him come in. She had been completely and wholly focused on Leon, because he'd taken her in his arms and half-carried her to bed without a word.

He'd told her what had happened that night. He'd told her about the dragons. He'd told her about the fight that Arthur had had with Merlin's father. He'd told her about the plan.

A plan that was no plan at all, however much that Leon kissed her body and attempted to distract her. Now that the sun was up, the starkness of Arthur's emotions came back to haunt her. Distant, walled-in, detached.

"Has he gotten any sleep?" Morgana couldn't let it go. She would keep asking over and over until she had an answer.

There had been times when Morgana thought that Leon would do better for himself and his career in the military if he broke from Excalibur and started his own team. She'd mentioned it to him a few times, too, but he always gave her a long, patient look and shushed her. "I'm Arthur's man however long he needs me for, 'gana. And he's going to need me for a good long while. No one else's going to put up with him, are they? And what are they going to do when he goes off in the wrong direction and I'm not there to set him straight?"

"Fend for himself, for once," Morgana snapped. She wanted more for Leon. He was a good man, a good leader, a good everything.

It wasn't until Leon smiled sadly and nodded that she understood, but Leon, being Leon, explained it to her. "And what do I do when I've got no one to set straight. I need him just as much as he needs me."

They'd been best mates nearly their entire lives. They'd been family nearly as long. They would be family, soon, if Morgana had anything to say about it. Leon would never walk away from Arthur or the team.

It was where he belonged.

And right now, she couldn't help remembering the drawn look in Arthur's eyes and wonder why Leon wasn't with Arthur, setting him straight.

Leon must have sensed something, because he shifted in the bed. His arm slid from her waist like a silk ribbon as he rolled over onto his back and pushed himself up, propping his shoulders against the headboard. The early morning light was barely cutting through the window -- their room faced the wrong direction for that -- but there was enough to see by, and Leon's mouth was pulled in a straight line, curled at the corners in an unhappy downturn.

"All told, he's probably slept as much as I have the whole time you were with them," Leon said quietly. He reached under the blankets until he found her hand and twined their fingers together. "Maybe less."

"Leon --"

Leon squeezed her hand. "Don't. If he doesn't want to sleep, there's no forcing him. Believe me, there's nothing worse than closing your eyes and seeing that moment again. I'm going to have nightmares about it forever, do you know that? That second when we found out that you'd been taken? I thought I was going to die right there. What do you think it's like for him? He watched Merlin fall, Morgana. Merlin dropped like a bloody bag of stones. I won't blame him if that's all he sees when he tries to sleep."

Morgana pulled her legs up and dropped them down again. But you know Merlin's alive, she wanted to say. Instead, she said, "But he can't lead like this. He's not thinking straight."

"I can't believe you're even bringing this up again. The answer's no. We're not going to Uther to ask him for help. I'm not even going to suggest that," Leon said, letting go of her hand and giving her a dangerous look out of the corner of his eye. He sat up straighter before pushing the blankets aside and slipping out of bed. He shook off her hand when she tried to pull him back. "I can't believe you're... After everything we found out?"

"He's our father," Morgana said. After a heartbeat, she corrected, "He's Arthur's father. He would never turn his back on him --"

"Morgana." Leon shook out a clean shirt and gave her a good, long look before he pulled it on. "Stop. There's a lot that you don't know."

"So tell me," Morgana said. She kicked at the blanket tangling her legs, but by the time that she stood up to stop Leon, he had already put on his trousers and was reaching for the door.

As close as they'd gotten over the last few days, there was a great deal of strain, too, and it came up every time when Morgana questioned Arthur's plans, his motives, his agenda.

Instead of answering her, Leon asked, "Has Arthur ever given you a reason not to trust him?"

"No, but --"

"Have I?" Leon asked. His tone was serious, unyielding, without hint of humour. Morgana was taken aback, horrified, offended that Leon would even think that she didn't.

"You know I trust you."

"Then leave it, Morgana. Arthur asked you not to call Uther. He asked you not to contact anyone. For all intents and purposes, we're all dead. Once Uther knows we're alive, that will change."

"Did Arthur tell you that?" Morgana asked, crossing her arms. The too-big shirt billowed around her.

"He doesn't have to," Leon said. There was a tightness around his mouth. "You said it yourself. Morgause --"

"You'll trust what my kidnapper said over knowing Uther yourself for most of your life?"

"You've known him your whole life," Leon countered. "You ran away. Twice."

"You found me," Morgana said.

"Arthur found you." Leon gave her a pointed look. "You dated all those pillocks, and don't even look at me like that, Morgana. This isn't me being jealous. This is me saying that you went with all those blokes because you knew it would drive Uther mad."

"It worked," Morgana said. It had worked, but it had made her miserable, too. She hadn't liked any of those boys -- those men -- , and to make matters worse, she'd flaunted them in front of Leon. Morgana could argue that she hadn't known Leon had loved her even then, but that would have been a lie.

"You tried to cut all ties to him and the only reason you didn't was because of Arthur, yeah?" Leon said, his voice softer. "And you did all that research. You're not sure about Uther, either, are you?"

Morgana crossed her arms and lowered her head, staring at the floor.

"I don't…" Morgana trailed off and shook her head. The skin of Leon's hands was rough, callused, familiar. He placed them at her neck, his thumb stroking her jaw, his fingers rubbing lightly against the tension in the back of her neck. When she finally looked up, she saw nothing but understanding in his eyes.

Leon had been a steadfast presence in her life ever since he'd become friends with Arthur. He was always there, at the periphery; always at the edge of her awareness. It shouldn't surprise her that he would know how much she waffled between pushing Uther away and trying to win him over.

Morgana and Arthur weren't so different. Arthur was the golden boy, their father's favourite, the heir. But he was also the one weighed down with expectations, evaluated against an impossible scale of perfection, criticized at every turn. Arthur struggled and fought tooth and nail for even a glimmer of Uther's approval, an approval that came in grudging dribbles and drabbles -- rare as a fine wine, tantalizing enough in its promise that there might be more.

But of Morgana there had never been any expectations. She had always been free to do whatever she wanted -- and in that freedom, she wasn't free at all. She had always felt as if Uther held her to a completely different standard than Arthur -- inferior, poorer, measurable but not worth measuring. She didn't doubt that Uther loved her, but he had never seen her, he had never encouraged her, supported her, challenged her.

Even her position in the family business came with aspersions of nepotism. Uther hadn't offered her the position; it had come as a matter of course when Arthur had argued with Uther that they wouldn't be able to do better than Morgana. She'd shouted at Arthur for it, but she'd taken the position only because of what Arthur had said -- never mind what Uther thought of her. Arthur had wanted her. Arthur believed in her.

And still, even knowing that Uther would never feel the same way, Morgana wanted him to. Even now, even knowing Uther's weaknesses, his crimes, his underhanded, criminal behaviour, Morgana wanted…

She wanted her father to be her father.

Morgana didn't condone what he'd done. And she still wanted him to look at her with a fraction of the approval that eluded even Arthur.

Maybe… it was time that she let that go. Like Arthur seemed to have done. Morgana could only wonder at how hard it must have been for him. How hard it was going to be for her.

"You're keeping secrets from me," Morgana said instead.

There was a flash of guilt and regret in Leon's eyes.

"You all are," Morgana pressed. "I don't like secrets, Leon --"

Leon shook his head. His hands slid from her neck and his fingers tightened around her shoulders. "Morgana. Morgana. Please. If I've ever asked something of you, if I've ever needed you to do something, it's to drop it. It's not my secret to tell. It's none of ours --"

"But if --"

"There's no but and there's no if," Leon said firmly. He paused; he chewed his lower lip in thought before he added, "I will tell you this much. It's not a danger to us. Not to any of us. Especially not to Arthur. Do you understand?"

There was something so earnest in Leon's words, so pure, that Morgana frowned, struggling to understand. Why especially not to Arthur? Why Arthur --

"Merlin," she said, and although Leon flinched, he nodded in faint confirmation. "It's to do with Merlin. Leon, you have to --"

Leon gave her a look -- the look that she'd seen so many times, when she pressed for details on his missions, the ones that she wasn't supposed to know about. It was the look that said, and you're not getting anything more out of me, no matter how hard you try, and if you try to find out from someone else, Morgana, you and I are going to have words.

Morgana tilted her head, her brows furrowing. She grasped at straws and they kept slipping out of her hands. She didn't like secrets -- especially not secrets that were being kept from her -- and it stung more than anything else in the world that Leon was keeping them. "It means that much to you?"

"It means that much to all of us," Leon said. "Just wait, yeah? Wait and be patient and… and leave Arthur alone. It's hard for him right now."

Morgana bit her lower lip and nodded. Leon kissed the corner of her mouth, sweet and lingering, reassuring and gentle, and pulled back. "I'll see if Gareth's up. The sooner I'm done with this assignment Arthur gave us, the sooner I'll return. I'll take you to lunch before we hit the warehouse. I'll even take you to this little boutique I found on my patrol yesterday --"

Morgana rolled her eyes. "You think that everything will be fixed by shopping."

"For you? Absolutely," Leon said cheekily, and paused. "I'm not wrong, you know."

Morgana didn't have to ask Leon what he wasn't wrong about. He was never wrong about anything. Not about Morgana's foul moods and how to handle her. Not about buying that car when she was in uni -- and that had been a lemon, though she'd never admitted as much to Leon. Not about going out on a date with him, moving in together, getting married.

If he wasn't wrong about those things, then there was a chance, however slim, that he wasn't wrong about keeping this secret, whatever it was, or about leaving Arthur alone.

She would give him this much, at least.

"One day," Morgana promised him. "One day, you will be wrong, and you'll let me have my way with you. You'll be at my mercy."

"Is that a promise?" Leon asked. His hands slipped around her waist and pulled her close. He was nothing but hard muscle under the rough shirt and the cheap trousers, and Morgana wrapped her arms around his shoulders, wondering how long they could make Gareth wait.

Except she knew that one reason why Leon wanted to get the assignment over with quickly was because there would be few people at the house later on, and he didn't like the idea of leaving her in this house without enough people there to protect it from a revolution.

"It's a promise," Morgana said, leaning in for a kiss that went from affectionate to passionate in four heartbeats and very nearly did keep Gareth waiting.

Leon gave her one last kiss before pausing with one hand on the door, his clothes rumpled, his hair ruffled, his lips a flushed red that couldn't be mistaken for anything else but making out like teenagers. Morgana liked to see him like this, to know that she could do this to him, and she smirked.

Both of his brows rose up and he held up a finger.

"I won't say anything to Arthur, I promise," Morgana said.

"I was only going to ask you to stay out of trouble," Leon said.

"A likely story," Morgana said, waving him off. "Go."

The one side benefit of being a part of a military team -- even if only as the future spouse of one and sister of another -- was that, even when on R&R, the men crawled out of bed at a God-awful hour of the morning, showered, changed, ate, and were ready to go. It meant that the shower was free and had been for some time; Morgana took advantage of the full hot water tank to take as luxurious a bath as she could manage with just a hard bar of soap and someone's shampoo.

The shampoo smelled faintly of cucumbers and aloe.

Probably Gwaine's.

By the time she went downstairs, most of the team had left already. Those who remained behind were working on their equipment or were heading out to patrol or grocery shop. Gwen was with Lamorak, talking tech. Hunith was off to the rear of the house, staring out the window, sipping her tea and trying not to look as if she were worrying. Lance dashed across the house, curled himself around Gwen before pressing a kiss to the back of her neck and rubbing her belly, even though she hadn't begun to show yet. And Arthur --

Arthur was in the kitchen, rattling around like a man who'd never been in one before.

He grunted what was possibly the most curmudgeonly good morning that she'd ever heard -- and after sleeping with Leon for so many years, that was saying something.

"Good morning," she said, reaching for the bread and the toaster. "Want one?"

Arthur shook his head.

Morgana studied her brother out of the corner of her eye, keeping track of him as she went about the kitchen, finding a cup that looked somewhat clean and the nearly-empty box of tea. The kettle was an old stainless steel monstrosity with a dent on the side that was picked up at the consignment shop. Morgana mused that the dent was about the right size to be the end-result of smashing it on someone's head. She filled it with water and set it on the stovetop.

Arthur was…repeating the same thing that he'd been doing when she first came into the kitchen. Opening and closing cabinets, moving things around, searching for something that wasn't there. Morgana wasn't entirely certain that Arthur even knew what he was doing, never mind what he was looking for.

There was an empty cup on the counter in front of him, but there was also an empty plate off to the side, a spreading knife, a napkin. It was as if he'd been about to make himself breakfast and his exhaustion had gotten in the way of realizing that the next step was actually getting food.

Morgana added another slice of bread to the toaster. She surreptitiously dropped a second tea bag in Arthur's cup. She found the marmalade -- someone had taken pains to pick up Arthur's favourite, and no one had touched it -- and set it on the counter.

The kettle whistled. Morgana made the tea, spread jam on the toast, and left it on Arthur's plate. And, since he didn't seem to notice the fine details of what was going on around him, she helped herself to a generous quantity, spreading it over a second piece of toast.

"Arthur," she said, and when he turned to look at her, she tilted her head toward the mug and the plate. Arthur followed her gaze, staring down at the china for a long time before processing what he was seeing, and…

He leaned forward, hands on the counter, and collapsed. His shoulders sank, his head dropped. He exhaled long and slow, and it sounded as if it hurt.

"I told Hunith that her husband didn't want to see her," Arthur whispered. Morgana barely heard him over the still-bubbling water in the kettle; she moved closer and nudged Arthur gently with her elbow, and he said it again, his voice lost and broken.

"Oh," Morgana said, because what did one say to that? She thought about Hunith, who had stood with one arm across her chest, supporting her other arm as she held her mug of tea in front of her. Hunith's hair had been pulled back, not a hair out of place, military-efficient and precise. Her clothes were functional and she wore them as if she were about to go in to her workplace. There had been exhaustion in her features, as if she hadn't slept the night before, as if she hadn't slept, truly slept, for the last twenty years, and it had come crashing down all at once, breaking through an impenetrable barrier. "Did he say why?"

Arthur shook his head. "He can't face her."

Morgana put a hand on Arthur's arm, but he didn't look up.

"He feels guilty. He's angry. He feels he failed. He can't face her."

"Did he say that?" Morgana asked, because Arthur's answer sounded too assured, too personal. And she knew Arthur -- he wouldn't talk about his feelings if he could help it.

Arthur shook his head again.

"She'll forgive him, you know," Morgana said.

The corner of Arthur's mouth twitched. Morgana didn't know how it was even possible, but Arthur's head hung down even more. She resisted the urge to grab his chin, to physically manoeuvre him into a standing position, to shove strength and pride down his gullet until he was stuffed so full that he would at least resemble the shade of the man that she knew he was.

Instead, she said, "She loves him. She'll forgive him. I'm not sure she even thinks that there's anything to forgive."

"She's lost her son," Arthur said. Morgana heard what he didn't say out loud. And it's my fault.

"And that was the plan all along, wasn't it, you bloody pillock," Morgana said. "You needed an inside man to get the information to bring them down --"

Arthur turned his head in her direction, though he didn't quite look at her. There was faint but rapidly fading amusement in his tone when he said, "Didn't mean for this. But. Thanks. For trying to make me feel better."

"I'm not trying, damn it. I'm succeeding, you're interrupting. And, you're just being stubborn," Morgana said. She hit Arthur on the shoulder for good measure, putting some force into it. "I also know you're not talking about Balinor. I know you're talking about you --"

Arthur turned away. He pushed himself from the counter to stand and swayed before catching his balance with a hand against the ugly olive-green cupboards. Morgana caught him before he could walk away, before he could escape. She wrapped her arms around his waist and put her ear against his chest and hugged him tight.

"No one blames you. No one. Are you listening to me?"

Arthur's body was as rigid as a telephone pole and just as aloof. He held his hands and arms away from her, as if he weren't sure about the creature that had glued itself to him, afraid to touch it lest he become even more entangled.

"No one blames you. Not me, not Gwen. Not Leon, not Lance, not anyone. Especially not Hunith. I don't know Balinor, but he doesn't blame you, either. And Merlin. Merlin doesn't blame you. Merlin --"

Arthur's hands came down on Morgana's shoulders and pushed. She held on tightly.

"Merlin loves you, Arthur. This was out of your control, out of your hands. And -- and… quit shoving at me, Arthur. Just listen. When you find him, when you get him out of wherever he is, I guarantee you that the first and only person he's going to want to see is you."

Arthur dropped his hands. He lowered his head. "I hope so," he whispered. "I really..."

Arthur wrapped his arms around Morgana's shoulders. He was trembling. Morgana was surprised -- she wouldn't have known him to be shaking like a leaf just by watching him.

The tea was getting cold. The warm, crisp toast was probably soggy by now. But Morgana didn't let Arthur go, and she wondered which one of the numpties on the team she was going to have to harangue for being idiots and not seeing how much Arthur needed telling that all this... it wasn't his fault.

She might have to start with Leon. Him and his whole ridiculous leave Arthur alone bollocks. Just what was Leon thinking?

"You'll get some sleep, yeah? Can't let Merlin see you in this state," Morgana murmured. "All pale and drawn out and not eating. And those bags under your eyes. Honestly, Arthur. I didn't buy that much makeup. I don't think there's enough concealer in bloody Paris to take care of the bags under your eyes --"

Arthur snorted, suppressing a quiet, exhausted laugh.

"It'll be all right, yeah?" Morgana rubbed his back.

Arthur didn't answer. He tilted his head and rested it against hers, and she felt his short, hitched breaths against her neck.

"I miss him," Arthur said, the words hoarse, strangled. He startled, as if surprised.

The emotion in those three words made Morgana's eyes prickle with tears, and those tears threatened to fall down her cheeks when she realized that Arthur hadn't meant to have spoken out loud.

 

 

ooOOoo

 

Thursday, 2250 hours

 

One by one, the team returned to the safe house from their assignments. Geraint and Galahad from a café not far from l'Arc de Triomphe where they subtly kept an ear out for suspicious activities. Owain and Bedivere from the gendarmerie, using fake IDs and the pretence of being in the country as part of a police exchange program to obtain a copy of the preliminary evidence report for the house and the mid-street explosion. Lance and Gwen from a shopping trip for supplies -- clothes and electronics and tools -- and a doctor visit to check on the baby's health.

Leon and Morgana had broken into one of the remote Paris warehouses and taken several pieces of equipment -- they didn't need a database for that, not with Morgana knowing exactly what was being stored there. Perceval and Gwaine had gone on a walkabout through the neighbourhood where Merlin and Kay had been held prisoner, canvassing the area, but it was Gwaine who had hit on the brilliant idea of asking kids what had been going on and had gotten a vague idea of the number of Aredian's men.

It was Lamorak and Pellinor who had brought back information gleaned from their contacts -- some in the army, some long-retired and working for security companies -- but it wasn't particularly useful data, because none of their contacts had the security clearance or the connections needed to access Aredian's files. Still, it was enough to discover that although there was a warrant for Aredian's arrest in multiple countries, someone had downgraded priority on his file at Interpol over a week ago -- only to have it raised to for immediate capture in the last twenty-four hours.

That struck an alarm bell. Interpol had been, thus far, Morgause's domain, and if this had happened in the last day, it was a strong indicator that Morgause was still alive and kicking, despite Arthur's best attempts to put her down.

Based on what Will had told him, Arthur wasn't surprised that Morgause -- if it was Morgause -- had reacted right away and manipulated Interpol for her own use, though he wasn't entirely certain what, exactly, she would get out of it. Aredian had evaded Interpol for decades and had never remained long in anyone's custody. At most, bringing Aredian to Interpol's attention would do little else but add to whatever pressure he was already feeling from other government agencies before Aredian was extradited to another agency or country who would do whatever they wanted to him.

If nothing else, it might -- might -- cause Aredian to make rash decisions, decisions that would come at the cost of Merlin's life, and Arthur twitched helplessly.

The most important piece of information came later, much later, when Lucan stumbled into the house, reeking to high Heaven of bad wine and cigarette smoke, but he was stone-cold sober, almost detached, when he said, "They're moving him again."

All the chatter in the house came to an abrupt stop. Arthur bolted to his feet. "What?"

Lucan held out his hands. "I don't know where they have him now, but I came across this bloke who knows a bloke who heard that some cracky bloke is paying through the nose for anything and everything about our Will and Kay. He said, and I quote, Muttered something about shooting him dead, he knows too much, and a whole load of other shite. But it comes down to -- they're moving Merlin."

"From where to where?" Gwaine asked. He hopped to his feet, still favouring his injured leg, as if he fully intended to lead the rescue.

"Fuck if I know, but I'm betting they think Will knows --"

Across the room, Will squawked, his eyes open, shaking his head in a desperate I told you lot everything, which amounted to the three houses that had been completely deserted when the team swarmed on them.

"-- and they're in a hurry to set up a new place. They'll be careless. Someone will see something, and I spread enough dosh around; I'll get word if it can be shaken out," Lucan said.

"So. A dead end, essentially," Gwaine muttered, sitting down heavily.

Arthur was conscious of everyone looking at him, as if they expected him to put together all the bits and pieces and come up with not only a firm location, but a retrieval plan on the spur of the moment. He rolled his head back and stared at the ceiling; a second later, he stared at the floor. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. He dropped his hand. He turned and walked away from the group.

Useless. He felt so fucking useless.

He heard Leon say, "Lucan, why don't you get some food? Gwaine, shut up."

"I wasn't going to say anything," Gwaine protested.

"Yes, you were," Perceval said.

"The rest of you, pack up non-essentials and get some rest," Leon said, and half of the room groaned. All of the non-essentials were already packed up; this was busy work, and they knew it.

Arthur didn't hear the rest of it. He headed up the stairs and crept down the corridor, stopping in the doorway to Kay's room. Hunith was inspecting the stark white bandages across his chest.

He couldn't remember the last time that he'd seen Kay laid up. A few years ago? Yes, definitely, it was a few years ago. He'd had the flu, then. They'd had a fight -- Arthur insisted he go to the MASH unit, because he looked pale; Kay refused, saying that they needed him on the mission. They'd both been right -- without Kay, it would have gotten bollocksed up, because Kay had a knack for being at the right place at the right time, but they could all have done without having to drag his arse back to base, hacking and wheezing with a bout of pneumonia.

Kay's colour was better than it had been when the team had found him -- him and Will -- but he was still pale, unnaturally so, with dark circles under his eyes and his veins standing out in stark contrast against his skin.

"He'll be fine," Hunith said, her voice soft. "He's resting. He needs to rest for a while. I hope we're not moving again soon?"

Arthur shook his head. "No. Not for a while."

They would move the instant they knew for certain where Merlin was. And they would mobilize once Balinor tracked down Major Kilgarrah. They'd contrived a story for Balinor to pass on -- full of lies and half-truths -- and hoped that it would be enough to lure him out. There was only one thing that they wouldn't hide from Kilgarrah, and that was only because there was no way that Balinor would be able to hold back his rage at having been kept in the dark about Merlin.

"I find out where he is, and then what?" Balinor asked. He slumped against the memorial stone, cracking his fingers one by one. "He couldn't betray us. He couldn't."

Arthur didn't answer him, because the facts spoke for themselves.

"He must be playing his own game," Balinor said. "I wouldn't be surprised if he was. It wouldn't be the first time. Gods. I could kill him."

"After we ask him our questions?"

"After. Yeah. After -- that is, if he answers our questions. I'm not even sure I can get him to tell me anything anymore. He's too old. He's too strong."

Arthur stared at Balinor for a long time, parsing the words, putting them together. In the distance, the dragon Balinor had ridden in worked its way through the graveyard until it was out into the open, and it made a small smacking sound of contentment when it flattened itself over the grass, spreading its wings.

"Sorry, are you telling me that The Dragon is actually a dragon?"

"You're a little slow," Balinor said, but there was no sting to his words.

"I have the occasional bad day," Arthur said. His eyes stung with suppressed tears, because there was nothing more that he wanted at that moment than to be exchanging insults with Merlin.

It would take some time before they could consolidate their resources, to draw on all the contacts that both teams had built up over the years. Balinor's information network was old, made up of retired pensioners who had contacts of their own, and his access had grown increasingly more limited over the years until his only reliable source was Major Kilgarrah.

Relying on Major Kilgarrah had been a mistake, Balinor admitted, but it wasn't as if they had much choice.

Arthur's men had friends and associates in almost every branch of the government. Getting current information would be a little easier, a little faster, but there were two problems with relying on those sources.

Any contact that they made at this point would reveal that the team was still alive. They would have government agencies after them in no time. And, even if he were to convince their contacts to help them, how were they going to explain magic to those men? It would come to that, eventually -- it had come to that -- but the team was careful to only use sources that they trusted absolutely.

He was going to need to make a decision, soon.

"Hunith?" Balinor asked, his voice steady despite the tremble of his lips.

"She knows. She's safe. She's with us," Arthur said, and Balinor's shoulders sagged in relief. "Do you want to talk to her? To see her?"

Balinor didn't answer for a long time. "No. I can't. I can't face her. This is my fault. I'm the one who did this to our son."

"No. Don't think like that. Don't. I need -- Merlin needs you to focus on getting him safe. Don't... don't blame yourself. Help me fix this."

Arthur's words were hollow in his own ears. He was a hypocrite; he should take his own advice. He couldn't, and that was why he didn't say anything when Balinor shook his head and insisted: "It's my fault."

Hunith moved around the small room, packing away the unused gauze, preparing for a quick exit if one was necessary. Arthur saw her fretting out of the corner of his eye, rolling and unrolling a strip of gauze before catching herself and throwing it in a small black plastic bag.

He turned to look at her. Her greying hair was pulled back in a ponytail, out of the way. There were frown lines that hadn't been there before, on her brow, at the corners of her mouth. Someone had found her a change of clothes, but she couldn't be fussed with anything fancy and was wearing a pair of dark trousers and a plaid shirt over a tank top, the sleeves rolled up. Even without her army or her nurse's uniform, there was a strong, silent quality to Hunith that drew attention and commanded respect.

"I'm sorry," Arthur said again. His voice croaked. He would never be able to express just how sorry he was. He wished… he wished that he'd been able to convince Balinor that Hunith needed him. Arthur had his family; Hunith was alone.

He didn't know how someone could still be so strong.

She squeezed his arm. "Can you..." She paused, pressing her lips together before trying again, this time with far more fire and steel in her tone. "You were doing your job. And Merlin is still alive. There's nothing to apologize for, and that's the last time I'll say it. Just bring him home."

Arthur bowed his head and nodded, unable to ignore the sting that kept pinching under his skin. He'd been so close, and it ate at him.

"Sit with Kay," Hunith said, letting go of his arm. "If he wakes up, there's some water on the table. Make sure he takes his pills."

"I will," Arthur said, but he didn't sit down on the chair next to the bed until long after Hunith had left the room and gone down the stairs. The light in the room was dim, and except for the distant chatter from the first floor, the only sound that Arthur could hear was Kay's slow, even breathing. It was easy, deepening every now and then with a laboured hiccup.

Arthur leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped together. He made himself look at Kay, really look, to see the evidence of the torture and the beatings that he'd suffered. Those were there because Arthur had failed Kay. Because his plans hadn't been as perfect as they'd needed to be. His men shouldn't have been in danger. They shouldn't have fallen to the enemy.

And this... this was what Merlin was suffering, too. Will had refused to tell anyone, even Hunith, what kind of shape that Merlin was in. "Merlin's fine, all right? They treated him better than the rest of us, that's for sure. They need him, and they can't exactly get him to do their dirty work for them if they go and break his fingers, can they?"

Arthur wondered what Will wasn't telling them, but Arthur didn't have it in him to push. He wanted to know, but at the same time, he was a coward. He didn't want to believe that Merlin would come to harm.

He lowered his head. He closed his eyes.

He had a list of things that he needed done and not enough time to do them. He shuffled and reshuffled them in order before he had to accept that he needed to split the team.

Balinor would be in contact after he spoke to his men. His team had been on the run for so long, working in the background, that surely they would look forward to the time when their long mission would finally come to an end. Hardest would be convincing them that maybe, just maybe, they couldn't trust Major Kilgarrah.

Who was a dragon.

Arthur was still wrapping his head around that revelation, and he didn't think that it would really sink in until he saw it for himself.

Arthur wanted to meet Balinor's men. He wanted to meet the people who had given their lives to protect someone that they had likely never met, that they might have known when Merlin had been only a boy. The sacrifice, the dedication, the courage. What men they must be, to let an ideal drive them this hard for so long.

It made Arthur feel as if he were lacking. That he was letting Merlin down by not working harder, working smarter to find him.

"He saved us, you know," Kay whispered. Arthur's head snapped up. He reached for the glass of water on the bedside table without thinking, dragging his chair closer. Kay sat up with a struggle and a glare to keep Arthur from helping him. He reached for the glass, and his hand shook, but he managed to drink without spilling anything. "Told us to go. Kept the sorcerer busy. Made us go."

His voice was hoarse from disuse, heavy with pain. Arthur found the pills that Hunith had left for Kay and waited until Kay had taken them before he said, "I know. Will told us."

"Will's a wanker," Kay said. He shoved the glass at Arthur and slumped into the pillows. His lips curled in a faint smile. "We'd be dead if it wasn't for him."

"I'm not willing to give him that much credit," Arthur said. Kay laughed. It was a tiny chuckle, barely audible, and almost right away he pressed a hand against his side. A flicker of fear appearing in his expression, as if he were worried that the wrong movement would split his new stitches apart.

Arthur didn't realize he was staring until Kay hissed at him. "I'm not out for the count. I'm not."

"Kay --"

"No. Don't even think about it. I was supposed to watch out for him. To keep him safe. You don't think I'm pissed at what those bastards did? That I'm not pissed at Merlin? He shouldn't have made us go. We shouldn't have left. I shouldn't have left him behind."

Arthur shook his head. "Don't, Kay. Don't. Just -- just concentrate on getting better. Please."

Kay clamped his mouth shut. A muscle popped in his jaw. He turned his head away, and a shadow fell over his face, hiding his expression, but Arthur didn't need to see it to know what Kay was thinking. Kay's hands were clenching and unclenching, fingers pulling at the blankets.

"They had a potion," Kay said finally. "Fed me just enough to keep the worst of it off, not enough to heal me all the way."

Arthur didn't answer. He'd heard about that from Will, too, how they forced Will to drink almost a liter of it because they needed him mobile, but how they were stingy and sparing with Kay, because they needed him docile and under control. Will wouldn't tell them if Merlin had ever gotten any, letting them think that Merlin didn't need it anyway, but Arthur knew better. Will might talk a lot to cover what he really wanted to say, but that didn't change the fact that Merlin had been hurt, was still being hurt, and that Will thought he was doing the team a favour by keeping it from the rest of them.

Whatever feelings of guilt and responsibility Will was suffering, he was going to have to get over them quickly. No matter what Kay said, they were down two men, and Arthur couldn't afford that. Not now.

"I don't suppose you found any when you swept the other houses Will told you about?" Kay asked.

"No," Arthur said wearily. "But I'll pop over to the local apothecary and see if they can whip us a batch."

The silence stretched. Arthur raised his chin, his frown deepening, just as Kay turned his head to look at him. Aredian's men wouldn't have bothered setting up a miniature alchemist's chemistry set in a kitchen somewhere; they would have gone to someone who could produce whatever they needed.

"Apothecary," Arthur repeated. It wasn't as if they had a list of all the magic users in France, never mind Paris, who could prepare healing potions, but it was something. Arthur nodded to himself, a knot loosening between his shoulders. However small, however infinitesimal, it was something, the first twist in a series of bends, and everything started slowly slotted in place, a plan building itself slowly and surely.

There was burning curiosity in Kay's eyes, a recognizable desire, a craving to know, to be included, to give back to the mercenaries twice, ten times, twenty times as hard as he'd gotten from them. He didn't speak, waiting, raising a brow in an unmistakable spill the beans prompt.

Arthur didn't. Kay was in bad enough shape; he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he didn't give Kay the chance to recover from the physical injuries. He turned to the door.

Kay's hand lashed out and locked around his wrist.

"Kay --" Arthur could break his hold easily; Kay was as weak as a kitten right now. Granted, it was a kitten of the tiger variety, but he could still get free.

"No, listen. I remembered something earlier, when Lance was stitching me up." Kay didn't let go of Arthur's wrist even when Arthur down again. "Didn't put it together at the time, didn't think it was important, but it kept rattling around in my head because it didn't fit, you know?

"It was right before we got out of the house. Me and Merlin, we were up on the stairs, waiting for Will's signal. There was one of the S'Affa blokes below us to our five somewhere, talking on the phone. He sounded… Not afraid, not exactly. Worried. He mentioned Aredian. Said something about them coming over. Repeated it a few times, as if whoever was on the other end wasn't getting it."

Kay let go of Arthur's arm and reached for the glass of water. Arthur refilled it from the pitcher and waited while Kay slaked his thirst and caught his breath again.

"I thought he was talking about Aredian, that he was going to be at the house in no time, that they had to get their shite together. Obvious conclusion, right?"

Arthur nodded, but he didn't speak. His mind was already racing and making connections. Aredian was a mercenary. He offered his services to the highest bidder. It seemed that, for the present time, the highest bidder was the NWO, but Aredian's records had proved that he wasn't above selling his people's time to more than one person, often in direct conflict with the other.

The NWO wanted the hard drive with the Pendragon Consulting database on it, Aredian wanted access to the prototypes, and the only way that they could get either was by having Merlin unlock the drive and decrypt the contents. There shouldn't have been any reason not to hand Merlin over to the NWO, particularly if Aredian only wanted the plans for the prototypes.

Arthur had made the logical leap and assumed that Aredian would also try to sell Merlin's skills as a crypto and reap the profits. It was the only thing that he could come up with to explain why Aredian refused to give Merlin up -- just like he had refused to eliminate Kay, a refusal that was based on the false pretext that Kay was a sorcerer.

His assumption had been wrong. What if Aredian was keeping Merlin because someone else wanted Merlin?

"I'm running it over and over in my head when it hits me. The bloke was actually warning Aredian that they were expecting company. That someone else was coming and they were over their heads and they needed him there right away."

"There's a new player in the game," Arthur said, his voice a little hollow. He wasn't surprised. First Balinor and the dragons. Who else was there?

"Yeah," Kay said. He sagged a little, as if he'd been holding himself up through sheer will alone.

"Did you get a name?" Arthur asked.

Kay shook his head. Arthur pressed his lips together, rubbed his forehead, and stood up. This time, Kay didn't make a grab for him.

"Get some rest, and that's an order, Kay." Arthur hesitated. He gave Kay a curt nod. "That was well done."

Kay gave him a weak smile full of guilt and self-recriminations, and Arthur knew there wasn't anything that he could say or do to make those go away. It would take time. Getting Merlin away from the enemy, safe and sound, would be the topper that would ease everyone's guilt.

Maybe even Arthur's.

Arthur headed downstairs. It was quiet. Lamorak was tapping on his laptop, Geraint and Galahad were packing up some of the gear, arguing half-heartedly in low tones that no, this is the proper way to pack it with a questioning who taught you to pack, this is awful and a grumpy retort of look in a mirror, mate. Leon and Morgana weren't in the main room, but Arthur could see them in the small kitchen with Hunith. Gwen was in Lance's lap, quiet and comfortable. The instant that Lance saw Arthur, he tapped Gwen's leg and started to push her off, but Arthur shook his head and gestured for him to stay there.

Kay was all right.

"I've got a long shot," Arthur said, leaning over Lamorak's chair. He glanced at the screen as Lamorak watched footage after footage of traffic CCTV, trying to track down the vehicle that had taken Merlin away. The satellite footage hadn't been as helpful as they'd hoped, and they needed better equipment if they were to hack the national database

"At this point, no such thing as a long shot, yeah?" Lamorak shifted slightly, tilting his head; his fingers stilled over the track pad. Nearby, Gwaine sat up, easing his injured leg down on the floor, staring at Arthur intently.

"Apothecaries," Arthur said. "Any pharmacy that has its own lab. We're looking for someone who made up the healing potions that they gave Kay and Will. They had to have made it somewhere -- someone they know, in their pocket, I don't know. Maybe places that double as a herbal shop, an occult store."

Lamorak held his breath and nodded slowly, but it was Gwaine who swore under his breath and reached for the phone book and maps that were scattered on the floor. "Why didn't we think of that?"

"Because you're not Kay. He's the one who brought it up."

"So you think we can track Aredian through the -- what did you call it?" Gwaine asked.

"Apothecary," Lamorak said, already opening an online directory.

"Yeah, I think so," Arthur said, nodding slowly. He was grasping at straws, but at least those straws were tangible. As much as Arthur didn't want to think about any harm coming to Merlin, he also couldn't see Aredian or his men clapping Merlin on the shoulder, and having a good laugh over his near-escape, before putting him in a plush room somewhere. He also couldn't imagine Merlin not fighting back. At least, as much as he was able to fight back. Someone would be hurt, and someone would need healing potions, and it was the best option that they had right now.

But he didn't say all that to the team. A quick glance around told him that he didn't need to; their quiet mood spoke volumes.

"I'll help," Hunith said. Perceval stood up to give her his seat, and she sat down next to Gwaine, taking the telephone book out of his hands. "My French is rusty, but I know what Gaius put in the tinctures that he gave Merlin when he was sick. If it's anything like that, we can at least narrow down the number of places in town that don't have the right ingredients."

"Tell me whatever you remember," Gwen said, squirming out of Lance's lap. She rummaged in a nearby bag for a piece of paper. "We'll start making calls and ask for the weirdest thing on the list."

Gwen paused.

"It's not something gross like ground-up toad tails or something?"

"Oh, good Lord, no," Hunith said, shaking her head. "If anything, the toad tails make it taste better."

The room fell quiet for a moment before Gwaine nudged Hunith's arm and asked, "Are you pulling our leg?"

Hunith gave Gwaine a cagey look. "Would I do that?" It was so much like Merlin that Arthur's heart ached.

Morgana chuckled, Leon shook his head, and Gwaine's laugh became a sober grunt of confusion, but it was Gwen who broke the mood entirely with her unsure, "So if we asked for toad tails… will they hang up on us?"

Arthur left them to it, ignoring the nervous titters and teasing barbs, but glad for them all the same. They needed this, a break from the strain, from the seriousness of the situation. He walked through the house until he found Will in one of the bedrooms, sitting on the edge, his face in his hands. Arthur sat on the bed next to Will.

Will lowered his hands at once, but he didn't sit up straight. He turned his head to glance at Arthur and, subdued, asked, "What do you want?"

Arthur debated his next words, letting the silence linger. He didn't know what he was expecting -- squirming, furtive glances, hands rubbing together, an urge to fill the silence -- but he didn't get any of that. Will wasn't hiding anything. He sat, unmoving, his shoulders slumped, his head down, touching his forehead with his fingertips.

A man in pain.

Arthur knew this pain, too.

Arthur loved Merlin. The separation, the not knowing killed him a bit more every day. But Will loved Merlin, too, the bond between them fraternal, and he was just as lost, just as disoriented as Arthur was.

Arthur felt guilty all over again, discarding the tactic he had been about to use -- one full of accusation and interrogation -- and instead, softly asked, "Kay said he heard one of the men say something, right before you pulled out all the stops."

Will turned his head toward Arthur. He wasn't making eye contact and he didn't raise his head, but the gesture was enough; he was listening.

"Did you ever hear the men talking about another client? Someone other than the NWO?"

Will frowned. He rubbed his forehead with his thumb. Arthur waited, letting him think. "They didn't say much. Not around me. Not in English, anyway. They mostly bitched about Aredian not being around, keeping an eye out for Interpol and whatever, whose turn it was to get the groceries. They had fucking poker games over who got to --"

Will clamped his mouth shut, and his expression darkened. Arthur didn't press him. He didn't want to know.

"Look, I wasn't meant to go in deep with them, was I? The NWO was my gig all along -- well, them and the Directory both, MI-6 doesn't do anything by halves -- and I'm shite with languages, those were never my thing. The most I could figure out was when they swore at me, and that's only because I've heard Gaius shout at his girlfriend over the phone often enough." Will rubbed his face.

When he dropped his hands, he met Arthur's eyes briefly before looking away.

"Fuck if I know what to do. I've cocked it up, haven't I? The NWO won't look at me twice now --"

"Sooner shoot you at this point," Arthur said.

"Fuck that, they wouldn't waste the bullets. They'd sooner kill me with a stray abracadabra. Turned on them for Aredian, shot one of their lieutenants, yeah, I'm doing well, here. And Aredian's bunch? Well, they didn't like me much to start with, something about not trusting the bloke who'd shoot his own teammate, it were like in fucking school again, getting odd looks because Merlin's my mate --"

Will paused.

"There was one guy." Will sat up a little straighter, his brow furrowing deep, now. "Only saw him a few times. He'd look at me strange, not say a word, then leave, as if I wasn't supposed to see him. He never said much. But then again, no one else said much when he was around, either."

Arthur tapped his fingers on his knee. That could mean anything. A top-level enforcer in Aredian's organization, an external agent, someone that Aredian trusted to keep tabs on things. It was an X factor he wasn't able to judge, to consider in his plans.

There were far too many players in this game, and Arthur knew there would be no way to plan ahead, to implement contingencies, to secure ditch-and-dodge escape routes. They had no support, no background information, but they had resources of their own, and they had allies.

They needed all the allies they could get.

"All right," Arthur said quietly. He stopped drumming his fingers on his knee. He nodded to himself. "All right. This is what you're going to do. You're going to call Olaf."

Will hissed through his teeth. "He's probably heard about the cock-up by now. What makes you think that he'll pick up?"

"He'll pick up," Arthur said. "He'll pick up because I'm going to give you a burner phone and his direct line. He'll probably figure out where you got the number from, but don't, under any circumstance, tell him if he asks. He won't, he's smarter than that."

Will nodded, the frown replaced by an expression of intense concentration. "What do I say?"

"You tell him to hand over everything he's got on the artefacts. A full list of the men who were on the team. Who else was involved, what countries. Everything you can squeeze out of him."

Will raised a brow. "He won't like that, I suppose."

"He won't, not at all," Arthur said.

"Orright, I can do that," Will said. "Turn on the bluster, avoid the questions, sink in my heels. That's easy, I was born for that. What else?"

"Merlin --" It hurt to say his name on so many levels, and it hurt to hear it, if Will's flinch was anything to go by. "He said your last team worked with the Americans. Are you still in touch with them?"

"Went radio silence for the mission, but I can ring up a few blokes." Will gave him a sidelong look. "Why?"

"Pick someone you trust, with enough rank to give him clout. I want him to pass on a message."

"What sort of message?" Will looked as if he already had someone in mind.

"I'll write it down for you. Don't worry, it'll be short, but the person it needs to get to will understand. That friend of yours that you're thinking about? Make sure he's steady, because he's going to be our go-between."

Will nodded, the tension relaxing in his shoulders. "Can do. Now ask me for something hard."

Arthur hesitated. He stared down at his hands. He stood up and turned, looking down at Will. "I need you to go back to England."

Will exploded off the bed, crossing the space between them in a heartbeat, his face twisted with anger. "What? Now? When Merlin's up the duff? You're getting rid of me now? What kind of fucking --"

"Gaius is missing," Arthur said, fighting to keep his tone quiet and even.

Will startled, shaking his head as if he'd been splashed with a bucket of cold water. All the fight went out of him, but he still tried to get in a few punches. "I can't leave Merlin."

"Believe me, I hate asking you to do this," Arthur said, and Will's murderous glare proved that he didn't believe Arthur one bit. "But you're the only one of us who knows Gaius well enough to figure out if he left of his own free will or if he was taken. And it's important, Will. From the sounds of it, the NWO's clueless, they don't know about Merlin's magic. Aredian thinks it's Kay, and thank fuck for Kathy and her necklaces, yeah? If there's a chance, even a small one, that no one knows about Merlin's magic, then I want to keep it that way. But if someone's taken Gaius -- and you know that Gaius knows --"

The moan that Will made was small and pathetic.

"It's only for a few days. If you're lucky, you'll find him -- if you do, get him to safety. Bring him to your father. Tell Alan to go to the mountains or wherever it is that his group is hiding. You grew up with Merlin -- you know his family, you know his friends. They need to be told what's going on. I don't want them to turn into targets."

Will exhaled slowly, his lips set in a tight, thin line. He was holding back everything that he wanted to say but hearing what Arthur wasn't saying out loud: you need to do this. There's no one else. Will closed his eyes and turned away. He stood with his hands on his hips, letting his head hang down, worrying his lower lip.

"You find him before I'm back, you get him out, yeah?"

"That goes without saying,"

"And if you're mounting some sort of big mission to get him out, you're calling me back in. You're going to need another gun. And if you say no --"

"I'm not saying no," Arthur said. He also wasn't saying yes. If they had a chance at Merlin, they wouldn't be waiting until Will got his arse on the Chunnel to and arrived in France.

Will didn't answer. Finally, he nodded. He dropped his hands from his hips and gestured. "Anything else? My firstborn? My left nut?"

"One more thing." Arthur hid his wince before Will turned around, waving an angry hand in the air.

"What? Out with it. I've got to pack, don't I? Find my way back to the Merry Old, go in all guns blazing to save the day. What is it?"

"You're taking Kay with you."

Will whirled around on his heels in a half-flail that almost sent him to the ground; he was that surprised. He stared at Arthur with wide, disbelieving eyes, his mouth opening and closing, gasping in air like a fish. "Well, fuck," Will said, once he worked his way through the short-circuit. "Never mind waiting in case you hurt Merlin. I should've shot you the bloody day we met, you fucking arse."

 

 

ooOOoo

 

Friday, 1500 hours

 

Somehow, Lucan knew that he'd get stuck with all the legwork.

The list of known apothecaries in Paris -- the ones that were actually listed in the directory and advertised their business as pharmaceutical laboratories -- was actually quite small. None of them had even heard of the ingredients that Hunith had vaguely remembered being part of Gaius' healing tinctures. One man had answered the inquiry with a long silence before bursting into laughter and asking which one of his daughter's friends was calling.

Galahad had joined him at around noon, his hands shoved deep in his pockets and his coat collar turned up to his ears, his hair wind-ruffled and his face rosy-cheeked against the wind as he hurried to catch up. "Arthur said to come and give you a hand."

"Threw you out, didn't they?" Lucan had mocked. Galahad had given him a half-hearted shrug.

Lucan knew better, though. As much as Galahad played video games and regularly trounced everyone on the team -- except Gwaine -- in Call of Duty, he had no imagination or guile when it came to doing Internet searches, and could only manage the most basic of hacks. He had probably driven everyone mad with distraction with frequent huffs and an off-hand declaration of boredom so intense that he was going to murder someone. Arthur could have given Galahad another job -- God knew that Arthur had an endless list of jobs for them on any given day -- but he'd sent Galahad here.

Galahad's only saving grace was that what he lacked in technical know-how, he more than made up for it in theatrical talent. While his French wasn't nearly as good as Lucan's it was good enough to pass for a transplanted native.

It helped that Galahad was also a fair face to look at. Lucan didn't see it, but he supposed that there was some appeal in the perpetual scruff on Galahad's cheek and in the miserable attempts he made to style his hair now that he didn't have to keep it military-short. It was almost as if he didn't know what to do with himself as a civilian, and he gave off some sort of mystery vibe that only women could pick up on, begging them to look at me, I'm hopeless, please help me.

It was a neat trick that Lucan was not, in any form, jealous about, even though he was nowhere near as suave with women as he'd like to be, but he didn't do half-bad, either.

Though, now that Perceval had Gwaine tied up like a love-struck pretzel and everyone cooed over Arthur and Merlin now that they were finally together instead of continuing their track record in being clueless idiots, Lucan had to admit that he was having better luck in the dating department. Even if he hadn't actually been on a date lately, not exactly.

Too many people to beat up for information, not enough time.

Galahad and Lucan had spent a good twenty minutes at the occult shop -- a tiny, cramped den in the back room of a bookstore so old and musty that it made Lucan's eyes water as soon as they walked in -- talking to a middle-aged woman with wild white-blond hair. She had a high-pitched nasal tone to her voice, like fingernails on a chalkboard, and Lucan had to physically stop himself from recoiling every time she spoke.

"I don't get how you even managed," Lucan muttered. He would have thrown in the towel a long time ago, well before Galahad had somehow charmed the location of another shop out of the woman. Things were looking up -- it might even be one that would have the ingredients that they were looking for. The shopkeeper had made some sort of vague gesture in the air to say that she liked their auras and that they were good men and maybe, if they hurried, they could meet the alchemist who prepared her twice-daily rejuvenation tea before he left for the day.

"It's the bedroom eyes," Galahad said, opening his eyes so wide that Lucan could see a sea of white in what was a scarily psychotic gaze. His eyes were an off-shade of brown, almost hazel on some days, almost grey on others, but he had long lashes and a heavy brow -- and, again, Lucas really didn't see the appeal, but if it worked in their favour…

"Yeah, they're a bloody deadly weapon, should have the army issue you a special dispensation to use them during combat," Lucan muttered. "You're screwed if you ever use them outside of the army, though. You'll get arrested the instant a bird has a heart attack because you winked at her --"

Galahad was looking at him funny.

"What?"

"You know I heard all that? I mean, it's not hard, you're right here, I'm right here, we're about two feet apart, there's no traffic around, the wind's a bit cold but not blowing that hard, and --" Galahad paused. "I like it better when you just lurk in the background, you know. You're kind of an arsehole."

Lucan made a rude gesture.

"Why do we keep you around, anyway? What is it that you do in the team? I don't know, I think I heard Leon mention something about cannon fodder one day, then giving you the signal to take the lead, so, I don't know. Is that what you are? The expendable body on the team? Oh! I know. You're the red shirt. You are. The Captain invites you along on a mission and you're the one who gets killed first --"

Lucan made another rude gesture. Then, after a second, "If that's really the case, why did they give the command officers of TNG their very own red shirts?"

"Because --" Galahad faltered. He didn't say anything for a long time. They crossed a street to avoid a blocked-off sidewalk and headed up the hill past a public pay-for toilet. When he finally spoke again, he began with a confused grunt. "I have no idea but I'm sure it's a good reason."

Lucan smirked.

The silence lasted all of thirty seconds -- a record for Galahad when he wasn't sniping. "Alright, so. Occult shop?"

"It's our best bet at this point," Lucan admitted.

All the apothecaries -- fancy pharmacies in disguise -- that might have fit the criteria had been a bust. The more esoteric stores ranged an entire spectrum from pre-packaged and mass-produced to a little old lady who grew more daring herbs in her balcony garden than the traditional basil and thyme.

From their training at the Directory, they knew that there would always be a magic shop somewhere in town, whatever town that happened to be. Getting to them was easy enough, but finding the real places was the hard part. Only two or three shops in London operated out in the open, using the ignorance of the general population of the actuality of magic, but even those were extremely careful, aware that they were under surveillance from the government's not-so-secret watchdogs. One false move was one false move too many.

Still, in a city as old and with as rich a culture as Paris, it shouldn't be this difficult to find practicing occultists. They were winnowing down their list, starting from the most public to the least, until they were directed by word of mouth to a back alley between an industrial building so ugly, it didn't have any right to being this close to the center of the city, and a somewhat run-down string of 1940s-style houses built on top of ancient foundations.

It smelled like a trap.

Lucan exchanged a long glance with Galahad. Galahad nodded and held back, slowing down and meandering about, looking decidedly too interested in the pile of garbage wedged over a sewer grate, the cat hissing at him, and the graffiti tag on the wall. Lucan continued on until he reached the doorway that the woman had described: three steps down, below street level, the door squat and wide, with dried calycanthus -- whatever that was -- and heather in a bouquet, stem side up, a white ribbon keeping them tied together.

Lucan knocked.

He glanced down the street, up at the rooftops, behind him.

The door latch rattled, clicked, and there was a squeak when it was opened by a small man that couldn't be more than four feet and change in height. His white-blond hair was trimmed short, his bald pate gleaming, round wire-rimmed glasses perched at the tip of his nose. The man's bright blue eyes appeared smaller when he tilted his chin up to look at him.

Lucan was six foot two; it was a lot of looking up.

"Bonjour," the man said, his mouth quirking in a welcoming smile. He gave Lucan a second once-over before adding, "Les amis à Christianne? Entre, entre, s'il-vous-plaît. Je pensais que vous étiez deux?"

"Oui. Mon ami -- attendez un moment," Lucan said, taking a step back. Galahad was watching him without seeming to be watching him, and Lucan gestured for him to come over.

The man backed into the room, inviting them inside. Both Galahad and Lucan had to duck their heads to get in, but the ceiling in the building proper was thankfully high enough that they could stand tall. The first thing they did was to give the area a quick scan, searching for hiding places and additional exits. There was a door at the back of the room, but it was wide-open, and they could hear the sounds of the television set; from the lighting and the glimpse of the décor, it looked like a private living room. There were stairs going up to a second level, but the door to that floor was in clear view. The main room was large, every wall covered in shelves, and there were tables and ladders scattered throughout. At the rear of the room there were several sinks; in the middle of the room, off to the right-hand side, was a chemistry set that looked more like a sophisticated distillation setup than the usual stereotypical alchemist's kit.

Every surface was covered with something -- small square glass jars with heavy T glass lids, corked medium round bottles, impressive customized jugs that were nearly as large as their owner. There were stirring rods, spatulas, weighing dishes, beakers, flasks -- all of varying sizes. There were measuring cups, columns, spoons, made out of brass, out of glass, out of Teflon. There were chemicals in Winchester bottles, in plastic containers, in amber glass. There were substances in burlap bags, in paper bags, contained in plastic.

There was even a small enclosure in the far corner, humming faintly. Lucan knew a jury-rigged fume hood when he saw one.

This wasn't an apothecary. It was an alchemist's shop. And while he didn't think that Christianne's friend, Jean-Marie St. Charles, was a bad man, he was still someone to work around cautiously. The almost overwhelmingly friendly demeanour that he was projecting was difficult to resist.

Jean-Marie spread his hands before clasping them together, his chin tilted upward as he turned his head first to Lucan, then to Galahad, and back, a small smile on his face. "Christiane m'a dît que vous avez besoin d'un mélange pour..."

He trailed off, letting Lucan and Galahad fill in the blanks.

"La santé," Lucan said, watching out of the corner of his eye as Galahad wandered around the room, picking up an object, inspecting it, putting it down. Jean-Marie's mouth pinched in a little moue of concern, but once he realized that Galahad was only looking around but not taking anything or touching the actual equipment, he turned all of his attention to Lucan.

"For health reasons," Jean-Marie continued, still speaking French. He wrung his hands together. "General health, or do you have something specific in mind?"

Lucan hesitated. He glanced around the room.

"C'est privé," Lucan said.

"C'est pour toi?" Jean-Marie asked.

"Non, non. Pour un copain," Lucan said. When Jean-Marie's concerned glance darted toward Galahad, Lucan shook his head. "Pas lui."

"We're alone here," Jean-Marie said. "And I keep all information confidential."

Lucan hesitated. He had to make this look good, and, of course, that was when Galahad jumped in, continuing the conversation in French. "Our friend lost a fight. He was really beaten up. The thing is, he's got another fight tonight, and there's a lot of money riding on him, but his opponent's going to mop the floor with him, and, well, we heard that another fighter got this super protein shake or something, and he was good to go in a few hours --"

"G," Lucan said, his tone harsh. Galahad shut up.

Jean-Marie didn't seem perturbed at all. His eyebrows had risen to the middle of his forehead, his eyes had rounded, and he wagged a finger in the air even as he turned around, gathering a few ingredients.

Lucan noticed that the ingredients were all on one workstation, as if they'd been used recently.

"You don't seem surprised," Lucan said.

"Non, non pas du tout," Jean-Marie said. "There have been many requests for a tincture similar to the one that you are requesting now. I imagine that they are involved in the same scene as you are."

"Scene?" Galahad turned around, but he was squinting at the label on a bottle, trying to make it out. "Gland pulverisé, licorne -- c'est pourquoi, ça?"

"La virilité," Jean-Marie said, tilting his chin up to look through his glasses before turning to Lucan. "I imagine your friend has not seen a doctor? Because this fighting that he is doing, it is part of the illegal underground?"

"Oui, c'est vrai," Lucan said. He caught Galahad studying the vial in his hand with a bit more interest, and said pointedly, "G, that's pulverized horse penis that you're holding."

"Oh, ew," Galahad said, putting it down. He surreptitiously wiped his hand on his chest.

"Licorne," Jean-Marie corrected. He turned to Lucan. "A pity that your friend has not received medical attention. An official diagnosis would assist in the preparation. On the other hand, sometimes that is best, because the medications prescribed can interfere with the tincture's effectiveness. Describe to me his injuries."

"I'll do you one better," Lucan said. "A friend of ours is a nurse, she treated him. I can get her on the phone for you."

He spent the next few minutes listening to one side of the conversation between Jean-Marie and Hunith. He picked up on several mentions of the items on Hunith's ingredient list, the one with items that she remembered Gaius regularly added to his healing potions, and stopped listening in when he realized that Jean-Marie's attention was wholly and completely focused on the task at hand. He left Lucan's phone on the counter, turned on the speakerphone, and now, Lucan and Galahad could hear the conversation between the two.

They covered the breath of pain levels, consciousness, blood loss, injuries using blinding medical jargon until, finally, the agreement that the patient in question -- Kay -- would need more than one dose if he was going to be brought to full health again.

Jean-Marie decided to make the first two doses as strong as he could make them -- the first to be taken immediately, the second after the fight, and the remainder on a strict schedule to ensure that the internal damage was given ample opportunity to completely heal -- as long as he wasn't going to be fighting for a week afterward, at least.

"Vous pouvez payer?" Jean-Marie asked, covering the mouthpiece so that Hunith couldn't hear.

"C'est combien?" Lucan asked.

Jean-Marie named an amount that ran to the several thousand Euros. Lucan wondered why Jean-Marie didn't move to a more upscale neighbourhood, but nodded even though he didn't have the cash on him, having used the last fifty to grease the information pathways a few occult shops prior.

Galahad knew that, because he volunteered, "I'll get it."

They'd seen a bank on the walk up the street; Arthur had made certain that they all had access to a blind bank account that couldn't be traced.

"I'll wait," Lucan said. Galahad nodded and left.

"You can sit in the back, watch the football game," Jean-Marie suggested. "This will take some time to prepare. Turn up the volume so that I can hear it, yes?"

Lucan nodded. He lingered long enough to listen to Hunith say her good-byes in a lilting, somewhat awkward and entirely archaic French that made Jean-Marie quirk an amused smile. He picked up his pone and headed to the back, entering slowly, scanning the room for threats, escape routes, ingress.

There was nothing particularly interesting about the sitting room. There were several elevated windows with heavy horizontal blinds, all of them above Jean-Marie's eye level, but about even with the street, the edges of the plastic blinds crooked and askew and covered with a layer of dust to hint that they hadn't been touched in a while. There were heavy bars on the windows and a low metal fencing around the window's gutter, shielding the room from everything but the most diffused, reflected sunlight. There was a short, cozy sofa that was more of a loveseat, a reclining leather chair that was well-used and loved, a side table with a cup of now-cold coffee. There was a small refrigerator in the corner of the room next to a miniature kitchenette; there was a bowl of fruit on the island separating the television from the stove.

However homey, the room itself was sparsely furnished while somehow managing an overabundance of personal tchotchkes tucked into every nook and cranny. The wall shared with the front room was a literal wall of books that were tucked between the other and shoved into every spare square centimetre. The majority looked to be older than Lucan, while the rest were likely older than Paris, and where there were titles, those titles were in another language. Latin. Arabic. Italian. Russian.

Lucan pulled out a scroll that was in Chinese, all elaborate and gorgeous calligraphy and official-looking red wax stamps and ribbons. He let it roll back into its natural state, replaced it on the shelf, and started toward the front room when he heard the door open and shut.

Then he paused, because it was far too soon for Galahad to have returned.

"Vous êtes de bonne heure," Jean-Marie said, sounding cross. "Ce n'est pas quinze heures --"

"Is it ready?" someone interrupted, his English broken and foreign.

Lucan inched closer to the doorway. He drew his gun from the belt holster. He thumbed at the safety and chambered a round slowly, muffling the sound.

"Oui, oui," Jean-Marie said. In heavily-accented English, he said, "Please, one moment, or I will need to repeat this step --"

"Now," the other man snapped.

"Non," Jean-Marie said, his tone sharp and angry. "You will wait."

There was an answering huff, and Lucan strained to listen over the raised volume of the television, the sportscasters chiding a bad call by one of the referees.

The silence dragged on despite the crackle of flames, a clinking of glass, and the tink-tink-tink of something being stirred.

"Bon," Jean-Marie said. He moved around, coming close to the living room door. A paper bag crinkled, objects were placed inside, and he retreated deeper into the shop. "La monnaie?"

"Here," the man said curtly. There was a slap of papers on the counter. "Is everything --"

"Oui, oui," Jean-Marie said. "Everything that you asked for. The healing tincture, prepared to the specifications requested. The sleeping draught. The tea for... l'altération d'humeur. Is there anything else?"

"Not now," the man said, his footsteps retreating. The door opened; the door shut with a slam hard enough that the walls rattled and the books -- already packed tight -- shifted.

Lucan waited. He waited a little more. He secured his gun and holstered it before entering the main room. Jean-Marie was humming quietly to himself, his head down, his brow furrowed in concentration. He had a mortar in one hand and was adding herbs to the bowl.

Healing tincture. Sleeping draught. Tea to modify moods -- though, to Lucan's ear, it had sounded more like an euphemism for a mind-altering substance. Brainwashing.

Lucan had a bad feeling.

He reached for his phone, but it buzzed with an incoming message before he could text Galahad.

Saw him. Am following. On foot, hdng N. Twrd Metro.

Lucan nodded to himself. For all of Galahad and Geraint's foibles, the two of them really were good at their jobs. It was why Arthur assigned them to the scout positions whenever they were out on missions. They could smell a skunk from a mile away, and their instincts were always spot-on.

Lucan texted back. Call A. Bought hlng tinc, sleeping potion, smtng 4 brainwashing.

Galahad's response was one word.

Shite.

Lucan lingered in the main room for a few more minutes, but Jean-Marie seemed oblivious to his presence. He retreated to the back room and started sending a few text messages of his own.

The preparation of the healing tincture was taking a long time, but Lucan didn't think he should rush the alchemist. He paced, checked in regularly with Galahad, exchanged texts with Arthur and Leon. He tapped his fingers on the counter before emerging into the main room.

"I'm going to see what's keeping my friend," Lucan told Jean-Marie in French, who nodded but barely seemed to acknowledge what Lucan had said; he was in the middle of an incantation that sounded suspiciously like the spells that the Directory sorcerers would cast, except Jean-Marie was obviously more practiced.

"Presque fini," Jean-Marie said, just as Lucan stepped out of the door.

He checked his surroundings, and half-walked, half-ran toward the bank. He withdrew what he needed and then some, and headed back to the alchemist's shop.

He knocked again, and didn't enter until he heard Jean-Marie's invitation to come back. When he walked in, the alchemist was in a far better mood than he had been when the other man had barged in. It was definitely best to stay on the man's good side, Lucan suddenly realized.

"Un autre moment," Jean-Marie said. He poured the tincture in two glass bottles before returning the mixture to the heating element and adding a clear liquid, diluting it down and bringing it to a boil. While he worked, he cast several glances toward Lucan before finally breaking his silence with, "That man who came in earlier? Was he familiar to you? Do you know him from the scene?"

"Oui," Lucan said, wanting to see where Jean-Marie was going with this. "I don't know him well, but I've seen him around. He's not very nice."

"He is rude," Jean-Marie agreed. He went to a cabinet, crouched down, and rummaged around until he emerged with a few bottles. He rinsed them out at the sink and tapped them against a towel, getting all the moisture out. He lined them up in a neat little row and used a funnel to fill them up with the contents of the little pot. He took a piece of paper from a side drawer and started writing instructions in tight, neat handwriting that flowed across the page in large, elegant loops. He found little stickers in the drawer, wrote letters on them, and affixed A and B to the larger two bottles, the remainder going on the smaller containers. "Les instructions. Make certain that your friend follows them to the letter."

He smiled at his own joke.

Lucan chuckled companionably.

Jean-Marie held up a finger and went to the rear of the room, coming back with a paper bag and a small jar of clear liquid. He packed away the small jars of healing tinctures, folded the instructions and tucked them in, and held the extra jar in the air between them.

"This is... no charge," Jean-Marie said. He waved toward the door and continued, "The man. Not very nice, no? Really not nice at all. He asked for potion to make someone sleepy but not fall asleep. He also asked for a mixture to make someone more susceptible to... to suggestions. I am thinking he is doing this to hedge his bets in this fight of yours."

"It wouldn't surprise me in the least," Lucan said quietly.

"I used to coach," Jean-Marie said. "Long ago. Boxing, no?"

Jean-Marie popped the air in a six-punch combination that, while not fast, was tight and precise.

"And, this thing?" Jean-Marie pushed his glasses up his nose and waved his hand dismissively in the air. He scrunched his face in an expression of displeasure and shook his head. "I understand... underground boxing. Not all of us can be professionals, no? Even amateurs need to make money under the table. But it was above board. With honour. And what he asked me for? It is not so much sportsmanlike."

Jean-Marie held up the small vial in his hand before dropping it into the bag.

"Give this to... to your fighter. Or to whomever it is that he is giving the mixtures to. It will counteract the sleepiness and the suggestions. Return them to their own mind, hm?" Jean-Marie gave Lucan a small smile. "Even out the odds properly."

Lucan took the bag and nodded. "You, sir, are a gentleman among men."

That was the right thing to say because Jean-Marie didn't simply smile -- he beamed, as if that was important to him. Jean-Marie waved a hand in farewell and said, "Do come by. Tell me how the fight went."

"I will," Lucan said. He left, muttering under his breath -- thank fuck for crazy fuckers -- and headed toward the Metro, checking his phone for the address. Galahad wasn't far. He'd followed the other man all the way to the Marais district, over the river to the Bastille, and found Galahad surveilling a house in a block of houses, waiting for movement.

Lucan ducked past a crowd of tourists, narrowly avoided being stopped for directions, and was nearly sideswiped by a Mini when he crossed the road illegally. He took the long way around to the location, texting Galahad that he was on the way. He detoured past the back streets to watch the rear entrance of the house until Galahad texted back.

May as well come up frnt.

Lucan started to text ??? before he looked up and realized that there was a direct line of view from the front of the house to the walkway from the rear, and Galahad wouldn't miss anyone leaving unless he was asleep.

Which he was, nearly, by the time that Lucan found him. Galahad was wedged in the front stoop of a building, his coat turned inside-out, his cap low over his head, a newspaper over his body. He looked like a bum, which was the point; most people would see him but not acknowledge him, walking on by without committing him to memory.

Lucan went past him to the café down the road, meanly thought about making Galahad get his own, and bought two coffees, with Galahad's heavy on the sugar and whitened with cream until not even the most generous description would call it a coffee in the first place. He came back, dropped a few coins in the cup that was set out at his feet with a cardboard scrawl of "J'ai faim", left the coffee next to him, and leaned against the wall some distance away.

Galahad's hand snaked out from under the crumpled sheet of newspaper, patted around until he found the coffee cup, and caught it before he knocked it over. He straightened a bit in his little doorstop, one foot against the frame, and tipped his head back for a surreptitious glance toward the house before shaking his head.

"Bloke walked to the house, seemed surprised to find it locked. Banged on it until someone answered. New guy's medium height, decent trousers and shirt, no weapons on him. He was probably one of Aredian's sorcerers. Didn't let the bloke in, stood in the way and wouldn't move. Took the paper bag and shooed the messenger off with a pat on his head."

Lucan nodded once. It was unusual behaviour, but at this point, everything fell in the category of unusual behaviour. He catalogued it and put it aside to bring up to Arthur, because Arthur would figure out what was going on better than Lucan ever could. "Did you do a walkaround?"

"Who am I, Geraint? Of course I did a walkaround. No triggers from the pendant, so no magic on the house at least going up to the door. It's quiet. No movement. I heard the radio, saw a light come on and off upstairs. There's no car in the back, so if they're going anywhere, they're going on foot, or making a bloody show of coming and going." Galahad sat up a little straighter and reached for his dented little can; he shook it and scowled. "You're a cheap bastard."

"Spent nearly five thou on a homegrown remedy for everything that ails Kay, I don't qualify as cheap."

"Big spender, yeah?"

"Damn right."

"And it not being your own money in the first place?"

"Made the whole thing less painful," Lucan said, grimacing a little.

The fund had originally come from the Directory, but some Merlinized subterfuge had shifted the funds to an untraceable location. The original account was still receiving cash -- some sort of automatic payment that no one had bothered to turn off since they had been "blown up" at the testing grounds -- but no one wanted to touch it in case the Directory was paying attention. No need to tip their hand early, like Arthur would say. Their available funds might be getting low, but there was still a substantial amount, and everyone knew that Arthur was supplementing it out of his own pocket, even if no one talked about it.

Galahad and Lucan stayed where they were for a few minutes more before they parted ways and relocated; it wouldn't do if they were spotted. Lucan was fidgeting impatiently an hour later -- there was nothing worse than a stakeout where nothing happened -- when he threw in the towel and walked past Galahad.

"Any movement?"

"Not even a curtain-twitch," Galahad said.

"Did you check in with Arthur?"

"He said to keep watch, let him know if there's movement, wait until it gets darker, get a closer look inside --"

"It is darker now," Lucan said, squinting at the sky. It was late afternoon, going into dinnertime, and his stomach grumbled a complaint that he ignored. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, flicking his collar. He twisted around to glance up and down the street. "Fuck this."

He walked across the road, barely registering Galahad's indignant squawk, and worked his way up to the house until he was at the front stoop.

Lucan knocked. He didn't know what he was going to say if someone answered the door -- he would worry about that when someone answered.

The knock echoed through the house. Galahad was right; there was a radio playing music that he didn't recognize. He knocked again when there was no answer and leaned to the side to peer through the window. Without the sun high in the sky, the inside of the building was gloomier, and there was just enough contrast between the outside and the inside light to be able to see inside.

The curtains were diaphanous but not opaque. The front room had a sofa wedged against the window, and a large plush chair some distance away, between the sitting area and what he was pretty sure was a kitchen in the background. There was a coffee table with three cups on it, a side table that looked like it had been pushed aside. But no one was coming to the door.

He tried a third knock.

Still no movement.

He tried the doorknob. It turned. The door slipped open.

Shite.

Lucan knew that the knocking had only gone unanswered for one reason and one reason only -- whoever had been inside was no longer inside, and they'd known that Galahad and Lucan had been watching them all along. And worse, they'd gotten away without being spotted.

Fuckshite.

Lucan waved for Galahad and gestured for him to head out to the rear of the house. He counted down, giving Galahad time to get to the other entrance, and readied his gun before pushing inside.

He paused to listen. Of course, he didn't hear Galahad -- fucking scouts -- and he didn't hear anything else, at least not right away.

A drip-drip-drip from the kitchen. The buffeting whip of the wind against the windows. The hum-rattle of the heater switching on. The creak of the floor under Galahad's weight --

Lucan wished he could laugh at the scrunch-cringe of Galahad's expression as he tried to decide whether it was worth it to put his weight on that spot, the damage already being done, or if he should draw back -- and risk the floor creaking again. Galahad looked up, made eye contact with Lucan; Lucan gestured what are you waiting for, you pillock with his hand.

Galahad bit the bullet and moved quickly; the floor groaned only mutely as he crossed the kitchen and joined Lucan in the front room. They exchanged a glance; Galahad pointed to a doorway and to himself. Lucan nodded and gestured upward. They split up.

It didn't take them long to clear the house. It wasn't very large. The basement was crowded with rubbish, the bathrooms were too small for even a dog to turn around and lay down, and the bedrooms didn't have enough furniture, never mind closet space, to hide behind. There was no attic.

Lucan exhaled slowly, feeling the tension bunch up in between his shoulder blades. Galahad muttered under his breath, alternating between swearing at whoever had been in the house and cursing himself for having been spotted. Lucan silenced Galahad with a heavy hand up the back of his head.

"Not your fault," Lucan said, his brow furrowing as he looked around.

Everything in the kitchen was neatly put away; the cups and the saucers deliberately set, as if someone had been having a tea party recently; the dregs in the bottom were room temperature, so there was no telling how long ago. There were only crumbs of food in the refrigerator -- obviously they hadn't meant to stay here long in any case -- but there was a plate covered in crumbs and an empty glass in one of the bedrooms upstairs.

Only one bed out of the three in the house had been used, the covers rumpled and left unmade. The upstairs bath had been used recently, too -- the tub was still damp, the curtain covered in condensation and dew, the soap slippery-wet, the damp towel cast aside.

There were bloody clothes on the floor, kicked out of sight. Lucan nudged at them with his foot until he saw bloodstains on the dirty floor.

He exchanged glances with Galahad and exhaled a heavy sigh.

"Call Arthur."

 

 

ooOOoo

 

Friday, 1830 hours

 

"Don't worry," Mordred said, his tone calm, low, soothing, the way someone would speak to a wild animal, trying to keep them from kicking the barn door open or mauling someone. "Your secret is safe. The Directory did a phenomenal job with your cover story, they truly did. The NWO is none the wiser, and Aredian?"

Mordred shrugged a shoulder.

"If he's not led by the nose to something that would be of interest, he wouldn't realize that it existed," Mordred said. He glanced at Cennydd for confirmation. Cennydd nodded amiably.

"And even then, we can't be sure," Cennydd said, his mouth splitting into a nasty grin.

"You see, Merlin, the only reason that I know who you are is because , before my so-called recruitment into the NWO, I decided to investigate the individuals who could possibly rival me in terms of technological innovation. Granted, you have far more formal education than I, and your publication track and patent applications did come to a sudden stop, but it wasn't too difficult at the time to trace your path toward the army and your exemplary career."

Mordred paused, but his expression pinched in a frown.

"Except for that one unfortunate incident. I was pleased that the voice recordings that I captured were of use to your defence counsel, though I had my doubts at the time."

Merlin stared at Mordred.

He stared some more.

They were here again, sitting in the main room and enjoying a cup of tea, in exactly the way they had been the day before, and Merlin was no less calm than he had been when Mordred had revealed that he had known who Merlin was all along. He'd thought of escaping. There were only two of them; surely he could --

But, no.

He had to know.

Mordred had smiled wryly at Merlin's panic, had glanced at the caller ID when his phone rang, and had said, almost kindly, Why don't we chat more tomorrow? I need to attend to some business. Cennydd will see to whatever you need. I trust you understand if he restrains you from leaving.

Merlin had spent the night in a panic. He'd eaten what Cennydd had brought him, tried to sleep when it got late, attempted to sneak out the back door in the dead of the night only to discover Cennydd watching him from the main room, a smirk across his lips, and a ward barricading the way. Merlin had showered again -- no fresh change of clothes this time -- and had his breakfast, and had come downstairs to Mordred using the coffee table as a workstation, disassembling a different device.

And now, Merlin blinked slowly as Mordred's words sank in.

I was pleased that the voice recordings that I captured were of use to your defence counsel --

"That was you?" Panic turned into abject horror, and whatever amounted to Merlin's brain-to-mouth filter, never much even on a good day, suddenly evaporated, because he blurted out, "What are you, some sort of bloody stalker?"

Cennydd snickered. Mordred shot him a cross look. He leaned over the coffee table and left his cup on the saucer and sighed heavily. "While it has been pointed out to me that I have an unusual interest in your well-being, there are few who truly know the reason why --"

"I know," Cennydd said smugly, and this time, Mordred's glance was full of withering death.

"Haven't you something else to do?"

"Possibly," Cennydd said. He shrugged, unconcerned.

"Perhaps you could get to it?"

Cennydd checked his watch. "Yes, I suppose I could do. The delivery will be here shortly, best that you're gone by then."

"What delivery?" Merlin asked, looking between the two.

Mordred exhaled and rolled his eyes. He didn't move or speak until Cennydd stood up, leaving his cup on the coffee table, and headed up the stairs.

"We really don't have the time I wish we had, but please believe me when I say that I hope you will soon realize that you and I, we are on the same side. I need you to trust me, to follow my lead --"

Merlin shook his head and muttered, "Unbelievable."

Mordred pressed his lips, studying Merlin. He drummed his fingers on his knee before sitting up straight and coming to a conclusion. "I assume that, once you have your equipment returned to you, you will have a way of contacting Excalibur?"

Merlin froze for the second time. When he blinked, he had to blink again, because his eyes were dry from having stayed open so long.

"Oh, come now, Merlin," Mordred said, throwing a hand in the air. "You called me a stalker; surely a stalker would do their homework. I didn't expect you to return to active field duty or to be assigned to one of the best SAS teams the British army has --"

"The best," Merlin corrected, unable to help himself.

"The best," Mordred amended, glancing to the stairs as Cennydd descended. "When your files vanished from the army database and were replaced with some bare-bones bollocks about washing out of basics, I thought something had happened. It wasn't long before I heard rumours of some master cryptographer named Merlin, and wasn't that a coincidence that his current employer was Arthur Pendragon? The same Arthur Pendragon who, until his own files also vanished into the ether to reappear as the Captain of the dishonoured Red Caps, had been the much-lauded Captain of Excalibur?

"Do give me some credit. I may not have all the information, but I know how to piece together details. The sequence of events that bring you here are quite serendipitous, because I had resigned myself of contacting you through a series of coded messages, but that's a story for another time --"

Mordred paused, and turned to Cennydd. "Yes. What is it now?"

"I'm done; there wasn't much to set up," he said, and he almost sounded contrite.

"Well, sit and shut it, or fetch me the keys to the car --" Mordred rolled his eyes when Cennydd produced a keychain and jingled it noisily. "Is that a hint that we should be going?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so. Aredian's errand boy called. He's a Metro stop away, and he's fairly certain he's picked up a tail --"

"Oh, brilliant. They're quicker than I'd expected." The tightness of Mordred's features relaxed, and he stood up abruptly. "And the note?"

"It's in place, and let's hope it doesn't take them too long to find it," Cennydd said. He made a shooing gesture with his hand.

"Merlin?" Mordred raised a brow.

Merlin relaxed from his aborted crawl over the back of the sofa in an attempt to send himself through the window and sat on the edge of his seat, his feet firm on the ground, his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands. Somewhere in the last twenty-four hours, the mission had taken a comedic twist, and he felt as if he were wandering aimlessly in circles in a desert during a blinding sandstorm, his skin slowly flayed from his bones.

"I'm so confused," he admitted. "Who are you again? Is this a new interrogation technique that involves warping my reality and tossing me into some sort of horrid game show where I'll get splattered with green slime and electrocuted while sliding down a ramp slicked up with habanero pepper juice into a cooling foam pool of liquid nitrogen?"

"That's barbaric, though it does paint an interesting mental image. Fortunately, no, this isn't any of that. Please, Merlin, come along," Mordred said. "I'll tell you more in the car."

Merlin rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands and stared up at Mordred blearily.

Mordred held out the keys. "I'll even let you drive."

The keys were real, not plastic mock-up keys, and definitely not hypnotic-trick keys, if the heft and weight and feel of them was anything to go by. Merlin studied them for a long time before spreading his arms and shrugging. "Sure, why not. Because there's nothing wrong or suspicious about aiding and abetting in my personal kidnapping and torture, and I haven't just crash-landed somewhere in Stockholm."

"I realize that it is a lot to take in --"

Merlin waved a hand in the air, cutting Mordred off. "I just want to know one thing. Two things, actually. And tell me the truth, if you don't mind."

"Certainly," Mordred said.

"Whose side are you on?"

The corner of Mordred's mouth twitched into an almost-smile. "What makes you think that I am on any side but mine? In any case, it's --"

"Complicated, yes, I know. You said," Merlin said, rolling his eyes. He stood up and gestured for Mordred to lead the way. "And you'll tell me all about it in the car."

"Certainly," Mordred said, pausing. He nodded at Cennydd, and asked, "You'll be all right?"

"It's only a matter of leading them where they need to be," Cennydd said. "I shan't be long."

"Best not," Mordred said. He glanced at Merlin, but Merlin was following him through the kitchen, not disguising how he was searching for a weapon. Nothing handy -- or portable -- was available. Mordred didn't speak again until he stood next to the passenger side of the car, patting the roof. "You had two questions. What was the second?"

Merlin stood a respectable distance away from the car and thumbed the key fob; he was a surprised, and not a little disappointed, that the car didn't explode. He approached the car hesitantly and opened the driver's side door, pausing to look at Mordred over the roof of the nondescript four-door sedan.

"You're not surprised that your bloke's being followed. You're staging a scene in the house. You're leaving bloody notes behind. Why?"

"Why, for Excalibur, of course," Mordred said, as if it were perfectly obvious. "It's a precaution. There's no guarantee that Jonathan didn't damage your equipment out of spite, and we do want Arthur to find you, don't we?"

Merlin didn't react. He didn't know how. How, exactly, was one supposed to respond when their kidnapper wanted their kidnappee to be rescued?

Several things bubbled to the surface at the same time. It was a trap; they wanted to capture all of Excalibur, except it didn't seem as if anyone but Mordred and Cennydd were aware that the team was alive. It was a ploy to gain Merlin's trust, a reverse psychology tactic to take full and complete advantage of how unbalanced Merlin was right now. It was --

Fuck if Merlin knew what this was. Some elaborate plot with underhanded schemes and too many interconnections to follow, though Merlin was willing to bet that Arthur would know exactly what was going on without needing a bloody map.

Still, it didn't stop Merlin from wanting, from aching so badly to get out of this situation, to track down Arthur, to --

Mordred was watching him speculatively. Merlin gave him a stony look, opened the car door, and slid behind the wheel. "Where are we going?"

Mordred reached over and turned on a dashboard GPS, thumbing through the menus and sub-menus until he programmed in an address that Merlin didn't catch. A synthesized female voice gave the initial direction -- Take your first left.

In Welsh.

Merlin glanced at Mordred, an eyebrow raised. Mordred shrugged. "How many people in France speak Welsh? If someone gets their hands on the GPS, it'll at least slow them down and give us enough time to move to a new location."

"Or you could, just, you know, use a map?" Merlin asked. He pulled out onto the road.

Mordred's expression was sour. "That's far too easy."

"Right, because we don't want easy right now," Merlin said, stopping at the red light. The GPS chimed in with muted directions that Merlin registered only as an afterthought -- how far to their destination, the estimated time of arrival, potential traffic detours, please take the first cross-street -- and he asked, "Is that what was in the note you're leaving behind? An address?"

"Yes, let's make it obvious to Jonathan and his murdering ilk that Cennydd and I are not what we appear," Mordred said, rolling his eyes. "No, I simply requested that your team waits until you make contact."

Merlin didn't answer right away. Turn right and continue for 1.5km. "And if I don't?"

"Then I will make the call myself," Mordred said, sounding resigned. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a handheld device, flicking at the touchscreen. "Really, Merlin, I thought you would be keen to return to your team."

"Not if it means leading them into a trap," Merlin snapped.

"That's hysterical," Mordred said, his tone flat. "But also understandable. Believe me when I say that I, personally, mean them no harm. I cannot guarantee the actions of Jonathan's men, however, though I do hope I won't be shot and killed during the rescue."

"All right," Merlin said. "I have no reason to believe you, I don't trust you, and you're really an annoying little fuck, do you know that?"

Turn right -- you have missed your turnoff. Proceed to the next intersection and turn right. You have missed your turnoff. Recalculating route change.

Mordred barely glanced up; he was tapping on the device in his hands, his brow furrowed in concentration. "You have complete control, Merlin. I won't force you to do anything."

"You mean you can't," Merlin said, slowing down at a red light. He glanced at Mordred; Mordred met his eyes and smiled a creepy, self-assured smile. His eyes glinted a faint yellow-orange.

Merlin hadn't forgotten Mordred's magic. Not at all. But if he were keeping up appearances, as far as Mordred was concerned, Merlin had no plausible reason to know anything, anything at all about him. And yet, Mordred acted as if he knew perfectly well that the Directory had given Merlin his dossier.

"I could," Mordred corrected. "But I will not, Merlin. It's more important that I have your confidence."

Merlin snapped his head away, tightening his hands around the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white, and clenched his jaw so tightly, his jaw popped. "You're one of them."

"You make me sound like an undesirable," Mordred said, almost -- almost -- sounding offended.

"Well, right now, you are. You think I want to be here?"

"You wouldn't be here if you weren't undercover and on a mission," Mordred pointed out, but he lowered his device and spread his hands. "But I take your point. You are undercover and on a mission, and here I am asking you to play along --"

"And you haven't said what, exactly, I'm playing along to," Merlin said. He shot an angry glare at the GPS when it insisted, Turn right. Turn right. Turn right.

Mordred sighed. "Do you want the long version or the short version?"

"I don't care. Make it good. And start with who do you work for?"

"Everyone and no one," Mordred said. "It's --"

"Complicated," Merlin mocked, rolling his eyes. He stopped in traffic, resisting the urge to put the engine in park, to get out of the car, and to walk away. "Well, uncomplicated it. Right now."

"I told you about the Druids," Mordred said, sounding amused. "I didn't tell you that my father was one of them, once upon a time. Or that I'm one, myself. And just like my father, I am Generation Zero in the NWO. While that affords me a great deal of liberty in an organization that operates under a twisted manifesto for the betterment of mankind, it also allows me to continue to implement the checks and measures necessary to keep them from --"

He paused, looking like he was searching for the right term.

"Going absolutely fucking nutters on the planet and blowing it up?" Merlin offered.

"Yes. Essentially, yes," Mordred said, nodding.

"So, the Druids. Who runs the Druids? I mean, what's their angle?"

"Very much against the going absolutely fucking nutters on the planet and blowing it up approach. We -- the Druids -- place emphasis on balance. You know how the NWO goes on and on about restoring magic the way it used to be? With sorcery at the reins, ruling from a medieval throne?"

Merlin nodded.

Mordred exhaled in a quiet, frustrated sigh. "The idiots that they are, they don't realize what a bloody pain it was back then. Magic is magic, no matter what the era. There are better ways to bring magic back into the world, and never mind that it's already here. It's just a matter of… making people aware of it again."

"For good or for bad?" Merlin asked, glancing sideways. "I mean, not everyone's going to react well to knowing that pulling down the curtain in their bedroom won't keep their next-door neighbour from watching them undress, not when they've got a scrying bowl. How do you think things are going to go if you try to put someone with magic in power?"

Mordred made a small, pleased sound. "And in less than thirty seconds, you grasp the root of my argument. The NWO --"

"The NWO are a bunch of elitist blind-as-fuck supremacists who don't get that there's more people without magic than there are people with it, and that they'll get their bloody hind-ends handed to them, never mind the death toll," Merlin said, feeling sick. His head swirled, his stomach roiled, and he wasn't sure if it was because the sandwich hadn't been enough to ease his hunger. "I mean, why even bother? Nothing's stopping you from using magic. Why do they -- why do you even want to --"

"It's going to happen regardless," Mordred said. "In time."

"What?"

The GPS was throwing out random driving suggestions in an attempt to get Merlin to turn around. Perform an illegal U-turn, continue 1.4 km until you reach the exit ramp. Take the next left --

"It doesn't matter what anyone does, or who is driving the revolution," Mordred explained patiently. "It will happen no matter what."

Merlin's fingers squeezed the steering wheel again. Nutters. Absolutely fucking nutters.

"So if the NWO's gone, the Directory gets discharged from Her Majesty's Service, and the Druids go back to wherever it is that they go when they go a-groving and tree-hugging --" Merlin offered up a silent apology to Gaius, who would give him a raised eyebrow and a stern look for the insult. "-- it's going to happen anyway?"

"Yes."

"Are there more of you? More secret organizations that we need to know about, which I realize defeats the purpose of their being secret, but this is a little mad. No, it's a lot mad. Who thought up all this? The Illuminati?"

"The Illuminati would actually get the short end of the stick should magic return to the world, so I don't see why," Mordred deadpanned.

Merlin turned to look at him, eyes wide. "Are you serious?"

"No, Merlin," Mordred said, a small smile touching his lips. "There's no such thing as the Illuminati."

"Says a member of one conspiracy about another conspiracy, because you'd know," Merlin muttered. He relaxed one hand from the steering wheel. He rubbed his forehead before running his fingers through his hair, grabbing hold and pulling -- the equivalent of pinching himself. This was fucking ridiculous. He just had to keep telling himself that. "So, what? What is all this then? What do you need my team for?"

Mordred didn't answer him for a long time. He stared out the window, studying the distant city, the cars behind and ahead of them. When he spoke, it was with a low, subdued voice. "To make sure that it happens the way that it should."

Merlin looked at him once. Twice. Three times. Mordred's expression never changed, the look in his eyes soft, honest, genuine. The man truly believed what he was saying. He had faith and belief that Merlin couldn't understand, and he couldn't understand it because --

"Why?"

Mordred startled and glanced down at the vibrating device in his hand. He thumbed through the menus and brought it to his ear. "Yes, Jonathan?"

Merlin drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. He couldn't hear what Aredian was saying, and from the placid and unconcerned look on Mordred's face, Aredian was either asking where they were, or he was getting their lunch order. Merlin couldn't be sure; Mordred was difficult to read. One instant, the man seemed young and earnest; the next, he hid himself behind a mask, detached and aloof, someone who was serene and in control only because they held all the cards.

It was annoying.

Merlin couldn't decide if Mordred really was nutters, or if there was something more than he was letting on. He was banking on the latter. He tried to sort it through in his head, he really did. There was a pattern in there somewhere that he couldn't see because he didn't have the decryption key, the solution that would allow him to plug in additional data and return with a new solution.

There were Druids who were the precursor of the NWO, but, if Mordred was to be believed, they were the lesser of two evils where the evil still amounted to a plot from which nothing good could possibly happen.

Mordred was a double-double-double agent -- who was, at root, a Druid masquerading as a Generation Zero in the NWO while simultaneously being in Aredian's employ and being the employer in turn. The connect-the-dots was a three dimensional fractal that would only make sense in a completely different sphere of existence.

Mordred knew about Merlin. He knew about Arthur and the team. And somehow, he not only knew that Arthur and the team was alive, but he meant for them to rescue Merlin.

"No, Jonathan," Mordred said calmly. "It has been taken care of. We'll be there shortly. Yes, I realize that. Yes --"

Mordred's brows pinched together, and he closed his eyes as if in pain.

Merlin still didn't know what Mordred wanted with him. With Excalibur. He still didn't know what anything had to do with anything.

He stared at the road ahead. Mordred wasn't doing anything to stop him. The GPS had long since given up trying to guide Merlin down the proper route and the screen was prompting for a new destination.

"Certainly," Mordred said finally. He drew the device away from his ear and jabbed a thumb on the display with a little more force than was necessary, and pocketed it. After a moment, he said, "That was Jonathan. He's fretting."

"Hm," Merlin said.

Mordred reached over and turned on the radio, scanning through channels until he found a station that was broadcasting in English -- British pop music, with some American top chart thrown in for good measure.

Merlin half-listened through two songs and six kilometres before breaking the silence. "You're really not going to stop me."

"No," Mordred said.

"At all?"

"To be honest, I do wish you would consider that it would be simpler for all involved if we turned around."

"And why's that?"

"Do you trust me?"

"Still waiting on that reason, mate," Merlin said, shooting Mordred a sidelong glance.

"You already know the reason, Merlin," Mordred said.

"Because of some sort of stupid competition you've got going on with the NWO? Because that's what it comes down to. You're both trying to achieve the same thing --" Merlin trailed off with a small, scoffing huff of breath escaping his chest. His ribs twigged, reminding him that however effective the healing tincture had been, he still wasn't at a hundred percent. "And it's just a race to see who gets to the finish. Only, you're asking me to throw in my lot -- and my team's -- with you, and you still haven't given me reason one to even consider it."

Merlin knew that if he kept driving, there would be no going back to the mission. No more undercover work -- because their covers would be blown. How would they even begin to get back to the NWO if --

"Fuck this shite," Merlin said. If he left now, they would lose whatever tenuous leads that they had, what little progress they'd made. The core of their mission was stopping the NWO from carrying through their plans -- and if it just so happened that another organization was working on the same thing, then, well, all the better to take them down, too. If he left now, all the work that the team had put in, all the sacrifices he'd made, all the pain that Kay had suffered -- was still suffering, and oh, Gods, I hope he's all right -- and never mind Will…

They needed to get something out of this. They needed some satisfaction, however small.

"All right, all right. Fine. Let's say I'm on board with this. What makes you think I could convince my team to work with you to stop the NWO? Because, if it comes down to picking the lesser of two evils --"

Mordred snorted. "Thank you."

"-- I'd rather it be a bunch of tree huggers. Oh, no, don't fucking thank me yet. What even makes you think that my team will want to help?"

"Because, Merlin, despite what you think, I'm fairly certain that your goal and mine is one and the same."

"Right. Goals. What's yours, then?"

They passed one exit. Another. The radio started to crackle.

"Fulfilling a prophecy," Mordred said finally. He was so sincere, Merlin's teeth hurt from the sheer purity.

Merlin hit his head against the seat rest. He squeezed the wheel until he felt the plastic crack. He reached over and stabbed the radio until blessed silence filled the car. He grabbed the GPS, wrenched it off the suction cup, and tossed it into Mordred's lap.

"I'll fucking kill you if it goes wrong," Merlin snarled. He changed lanes and took the next exit. It was a long, circuitous route before he found his way back and reversed course, but by that time, Mordred had re-set the GPS, and hooked it to the window. Merlin glanced at it a few times. "Why do you really have that in Welsh?"

Mordred stared straight ahead, his posture slumping. His voice was quiet, barely audible over the faint hum of the engine, the rumble of the tyres on the road. "I miss home."

Merlin remembered the file on Mordred. How he'd gone to a street corner, was last seen on CCTV getting on a bus, and was never seen again. "When was the last time you've been there?"

"It's been... quite some time," Mordred admitted.

Merlin didn't say anything. Mordred had left school young. He was still young. He'd abandoned school, he'd given up his future. He'd followed in his father's footsteps to build a reputation for himself in several highly exclusive circles -- all to carry on, shouldering the burden of belief, however true, however wrong.

Whatever he had been as a child, whatever he had experienced and endured in the years since, Mordred was changed now, quiet, subdued, solemn, but determined and set.

"Maybe we should... I don't know. Talk about what you want me to do," Merlin said.

"Continue as you have been," Mordred said without hesitation. "Petulant, rebellious, mouthy. It throws Jonathan off-balance."

"And leaves me with a fat lip and bruised ribs," Merlin muttered.

"I'm afraid that may be unavoidable. I will do my best to protect you, of course, but there needs to be some give and take, and the sooner you give... the sooner we can take," Mordred said.

Merlin glanced at him.

Continue for 28.2 km.

"What are you taking?" Merlin asked.

"Not me, Merlin," Mordred said. "I haven't the skills. I'm afraid that it needs to be you."

If he took his hands off the steering wheel to rub his face now, Merlin reasoned, they would die a bloody and fiery crash and none of this postulated unavoidable future would happen, and he'd never need to be near Aredian again.

Instead, Merlin's hands tightened around the steering wheel. He chewed the corner of his mouth, shaking his head, running a litany of swear words under his breath until he'd repeated all the ones.

Turn right at the exit in 200 metres.

"What am I taking?"

"I'm not sure yet," Mordred said, his tone soft, almost pinched. "A file, a database, a map. Perhaps schematics, photographs... Jonathan has a clever little man hiding information in every possible form, and I am unable to decrypt the contents and verify that it's what I'm looking for."

"And what are you looking for?" Merlin shot him a dark glance. "Gods, mate, you're like... It's pulling teeth with you, isn't it?"

Mordred offered Merlin a small smile, "I am -- we are -- looking for a directory of ancient artefacts."

"Artefacts. Right," Merlin said, staring straight ahead. "Of course. Because never mind James Bond. It's now Indiana Jones."

Turn left, the GPS directed.

"And we're going right to the bloody Temple of Doom."

Mordred huffed a laugh.

 

 

ooOOoo

 

Friday, 2000 hours

 

Arthur stood in the middle of the front room, his hands in his coat pockets, turning around slowly, soaking in every detail. To the casual observer, Arthur was meticulously recording and dissecting the scene, picking up the faintest trail and sussing out the sequence of events as surely as if he were a tracker on the hunt, following a false trail.

To those who knew him well, Arthur was looking around and not seeing anything at all. If Owain were being honest, Arthur was lost.

He was still their Captain, still their leader. That would never change. But he'd been hollowed, as if someone had taken a melon baller to his insides and scraped them all out, padding him up with crinkly paper and musty filler the way the Egyptians did when it came time to mummify their dead, all the while that he was operating on one cylinder and grinding his third gear.

Owain knew he was mixing his metaphors. He always mixed metaphors. It was a thing he did. If he could lie to himself and make himself believe that when the countdown reached zero, the bomb wasn't going to explode, then he damn well could make connections between metaphors and come up with something that made sense. Even if it didn't make sense to anyone but him.

He spared another glance at Arthur. He was wearing civvies -- they all were -- and somehow he made the cheap slacks and creased button-down shirt and off-the-rack sports jacket seem as if they were worth a thousand pounds more than the ticket price. The rest of them looked as if they were wearing the frumpiest clothing from the bottom of the thrift basket. Owain envied that talent. He'd worn an Armani suit, once, years ago; it had been a hand-me-down from one of his uncles, acquired after an undercover stint with the murder and mayhem division of the London police, too beat-up for anyone to ever want it back.

It fit Owain in the shoulders back then, and his mum had sewn up what she could and disguised what she couldn't, and it hadn't been a half-bad job she'd done of it, either, because he looked like a million bucks for a night -- right up until the trousers finally gave up the ghost and split right up his arse. Him and his mates had been too drunk at the time for it to be anything more than a footnote they would all remember -- at least one of his cousins had threatened to tell the story on his wedding day -- but, damn it, Owain missed that suit.

He hadn't been able to find another that didn't make him look like he should be standing bouncer outside a club.

Pellinor nudged him. Owain looked where Pellinor pointed and saw Arthur's attention riveted to something in the kitchen. After a moment, Arthur broke from his trance and left the room.

Finally, they could breathe.

It wasn't as if they didn't understand. They were gutted too, all of them right down to the last. It had been hard to focus just knowing that Morgana and Gwen had been taken, but it had been downright paralyzing when they had figured out that the enemy had gotten Merlin and Kay, too. Most of the ache had eased since the rescue mission, and they had all made a point of hugging the girls every chance they had until they begged for mercy. They would've done the same to Kay, too, except everyone was afraid that he'd break if they tried, and Will…

No one was entirely certain about Will.

Except for Gwaine, that was, but Gwaine was a wanker.

"Nothing on this cup," Pellinor said, keeping his voice down.

The last thing any of them wanted was to give Arthur any more bad news. Lucan had been the one to tell Arthur that they'd had a lead that brought them here, and they'd lost it. Now, Lucan was making the entire building vibrate from the fury boiling just under the surface. Owain didn't know if Lucan was pissed because all the footwork he'd put in had come to this, or if it was because Galahad had weaseled out of being the one to give Arthur a call -- the latter was more likely, but it was probably a mixture of both.

And given how Lucan hated not coming to a satisfactory completion of his assignment -- however he achieved it -- no one was surprised that Lucan was still here, not doing anything but standing out of the way in the corner, waiting for his next instructions. .

"Here, you do it. I haven't the knack," Pellinor said.

Owain took the fingerprint powder from Pellinor and spared a long look for Lucan. Lucan was a leashed dog, chained to a post, waiting to be released. Owain would never want to be in his sights. Never. People didn't pay Lucan any mind because he was so quiet and reserved. He stayed in the background a lot of the time. He rarely spoke when it came to brainstorming a mission, but his contributions were always spot-on. And when it came down to it, Lucan was a lot like Kay -- one did not piss them off, and one did not get in their way.

Owain started working on the second cup while Pellinor cleaned up his mess; they would be leaving the house in exactly the same state that they'd found it. It didn't take long for Owain to find several clear fingerprints; he taped them off and stored them mechanically. They didn't teach evidence collection in the army -- not the sort meant for criminal prosecution, anyway -- but when someone came from a long line of coppers, sticking to protocol and procedure was something that was in the blood. He already knew what he would do with the fingerprints -- he'd scan them, then run them first off-line against their own personnel files to look for Merlin's.

If they didn't pop up, Owain would run them through the smaller databases -- local police first, working his way up through the departments -- until he found a match. He'd have to borrow Geraint or Lamorak to run electronic interference. They weren't as good as Merlin, but then again, no one else was, and before Merlin came along, those two were still the best the SAS had to offer. He knew that Lamorak was itching to use the tricks that Merlin had taught him.

Owain focused on the task at hand. It was mindless work and mindless work was always quickly done. Between him and Pellinor, they cleaned up every trace of fingerprint powder and restored the coffee table area exactly how they'd found it. A cursory search of the sofa didn't turn up anything; a check behind and under the furniture -- except for a couple of pence, there was nothing.

Arthur still hadn't come out of the kitchen, and a quick peek inside found him hunched over the sink, carefully removing an item.

Owain left him to it. He gestured at Lucan with a rude finger and a raised eyebrow. "Look out for him. I think he's cracking."

Lucan glanced over his shoulder, making sure that Arthur hadn't heard Owain's strained whisper, and nodded.

He smacked Pellinor on the arm and jutted his chin upward. "Help me upstairs."

Lucan and Galahad hadn't touched anything. Or at least, they swore up and down that they'd done a quick clearance of the house and hadn't disturbed any of the evidence. Owain wasn't sure if he believed that -- his team was full of wankers -- but neither he nor Pellinor proceeded up the stairs or through the rooms until after Pellinor took photographs with a pocket-sized digital camera for future reference.

Two of the smaller bedrooms weren't anything to sneeze at. No immediate evidence that they could see, but they weren't equipped for trace collection anyway. They ran UV lights through the rooms first, but there was no sign of blood or bodily fluids. No indications of habitation, really.

Not until the third room. The bed had been slept in. There were flakes of dirt on the sheets, but no hints that someone was injured. An empty plate with food crumbs, an empty glass. Owain and Pellinor took more fingerprints, cleaned up after themselves, and went to the bathroom.

Owain hated working bathrooms. There was just something about bathrooms that attracted the worst scenarios. Back when he was on an urban incursion team, before Excalibur, they always found the body -- or evidence that a body had been there -- in the bathroom. Bloated from accumulation of gases, impacted by the presence of maggots, swollen up from having been immersed for so long, the skin finally splitting open to mix putrid and decomposed organic material -- formerly human -- in the bath. Or they would find someone collapsed around the toilet, where the poor sod had passed out from a drug overdose and never woke up. Sometimes the body would simply be splayed out, half-naked and barely covered by a towel, a knife in their back or a bullet wound in their heads.

Most memorable of all was the toilet bomb, which was reminiscent of a scene in Lethal Weapon, except with a far less happy ending. Owain had stayed there long enough to assess the damage, guesstimate the type of bomb, and scrape his way through the brain matter that had been ground into the walls, ceiling and floor and nibbled on by cockroaches and rats until he found an intact finger that he could use for fingerprints.

But he didn't talk about that mission. He had nightmares about that mission.

That was why he held his breath when he walked into the bathroom. Lucan had shaken his head and said that it was fine, there was no body, but…

It was the but that did Owain in. There was always a fucking but. He waited in the corridor while Pellinor took photographs; when Pellinor emerged, he was ashen-faced, a grim set to his jaw. Owain steeled himself and went in -- you're the token copper on the team, mate -- and paused.

Having the worst expectations meant that Owain was pleasantly surprised when he walked inside. There was no blood on the walls, no smears on the ceiling, no dribblings on the floor. The shower curtain was a bit on the mouldy side, water condensing in the folds from recent usage. The tub was sparkling clean if he ignored the ring around the bath that had probably been there since the 1970s. There was a bar of soap on the shelf, a clean towel in the tub -- thank fuck, there was no blood on it -- and nothing out of the ordinary.

Until he glanced to the left and saw the dirty clothes wedged between the tub and the toilet.

He ignored the clothes. He looked at the loo. It was clean; no traces of blood or vomit or anything of the sort. The sink, too. There was a spare bog roll. The rubbish bin was empty -- no needles, no bandages, no gauze, nothing.

But the clothes.

Owain closed his eyes, counted to ten, and exhaled slowly He looked at Pellinor. Pellinor shook his head. They'd both seen how badly beaten that Kay had been -- it was hard not to, the state of him when he'd been brought back to the safe house -- and it wasn't much of a stretch to assume that Merlin had suffered the same fate, no matter what Will had said or however much Kay had tried to downplay it.

Owain pulled the clothes out carefully. They were folded and rolled, which was strange, given that they'd been shoved. Owain started with the shirt. Torn with deep gouging tears, stains of sweat, blood, and dirt. The blood was old, crusted and brown, but it was hard to tell the age. The edges of the cuts were frayed and discoloured; they were old. He checked the front pockets as a matter of course, but he figured that whoever had taken Merlin would have made a point of emptying his pockets, too.

Owain waited for Pellinor to take more photographs. He rolled the shirt back the way it was and put it aside. He repeated the same with the undershirt -- the damage was all the more evident because of the lighter colour of the material, and the majority of the gashes matched those on the button-down. Unlike the shirt, the stains had smeared, washed off, run off, somehow, as if whoever had worn the shirt had been soaked not once, but several times.

Someone. Owain knew damn well that these clothes had belonged to Merlin. Arthur had made them all memorize what Merlin had been wearing that day.

Photos; more folding and rolling.

The jeans were a little more difficult to unroll. They were stiff from the caked-in dirt and ground-in blood. The knees were gutted, there were scrapes down the sides, a few torn belt loops.

Owain had to put the jeans down for a second, leaning against the bathroom sink. He took a deep breath. His mind was swirling madly; he couldn't focus. It was one thing to see Kay in the state he was in. There hadn't been any lasting damage, though if they'd cut it any finer in rescuing him, they'd be telling a different story now. It was something else altogether to suspect the truth and to see the evidence of it for himself.

Just the evidence, and no body to give him confirmation or closure. Owain's imagination ran wild, and everything in him tightened.

This was Merlin. Merlin, who was his mate. Who instinctively knew when Owain was pulling a prank on the others, or when Owain needed help. Owain was no different than the rest of the team -- he fucking hated that Kay and Merlin had been kidnapped. He was bloody murderous about what had been done to Kay.

If he felt like this about a mate, a brother-in-arms… Owain shook his head. How the fuck was Arthur managing?

"Fuck," Owain breathed, straightening up.

"Owain?"

"Just take the goddamn pictures, Pel," Owain said. He held the jeans up in the air, turned them around. When Pellinor was done, Owain checked the pockets.

Something crinkled. Owain froze and exchanged glances with Pellinor.

There was a note in the front right-hand pocket, a page torn out of a spiral ring binder, then torn again in half. It was folded along its length, twice, three times; the edges a little crumpled, but the sheet otherwise immaculate. Fresh.

Owain's heart pounded in his ears.

He unfolded it carefully, knowing that he should know better; the spooks at the Directory had warned them that there could be spells hidden in any sort of object and activated by the slightest motion or presence. Even temperature variance could do it. But he didn't care. A fresh piece of paper in Merlin's jeans. What if it was from Merlin? A quick glance to Pellinor only told him that Pellinor was wondering the same thing -- what if it's a trap -- while holding his breath, hopeful.

There was a note written on the sheet -- tight, flowing handwriting. A man's, Owain could tell that much, didn't need to be a handwriting expert for that. It wasn't Merlin's writing, though. Merlin wrote in a scratch and scribble that looked like someone had dipped a spider in ink and set it upon a page; the only time he wrote legibly was when he block-lettered. And, even then…

Pellinor crowded over Owain's shoulder to read.

Follow. Track us. Stay close. Wait for Merlin's signal.

"What the fuck?" Pellinor asked, and Owain nodded his head in agreement.

He folded the note carefully, but he didn't bother putting it back in the jeans pocket. Someone had left them this message. Someone was helping Merlin, or setting them up for ambush -- Owain couldn't be sure. Arthur would be able to figure it out.

"Arthur needs to see the note," Owain said. He folded the jeans, rolled them up, restored everything in the bathroom the way it was. He checked the vents, the bog roll, under the lid on the toilet, but he didn't find anything more.

There wasn't much else to check on the second floor of the house and they went downstairs. Someone had turned off the lights in the front room, but the faint glow from over the stovetop led them to the kitchen, where Lucan lingered in the shadows like the thug that he liked to think he was, and Arthur was meticulously replacing things in an otherwise empty rubbish bin.

"Arthur?"

"Something's not right," Arthur said, his voice low. He finished what he was doing before making eye contact with Lucan and turning to look at Owain and Pellinor. Owain kept his mouth shut, the note burning through his gloves. He knew that look on Arthur's face. It was the look he got when he was processing the most minute detail, because he'd seen something important, and was figuring out what it meant.

Arthur stood, a hand on his hip, the other scratching behind his head, his eyes tracking from the rear entrance to the rubbish bin to the kitchen sink. He twisted around to stare at the polished kettle on the stove -- polished, Owain finally realized -- and containing a few fingers of water. It was new. Out-of-the-box, still-smelling-of-packaging new. New enough that it stood out of place against everything else in the room.

In the house.

The tea cups and saucers were new, too. Now that Owain thought about it, the kitchen cabinets were empty. Why were there three cups in the house? Didn't they come in sets of four?

"It's been staged," Arthur said. There was a wrinkle in his brow, the one Owain knew meant that Arthur couldn't sort out why. Arthur pointed toward Lucan. "At the alchemist's -- what does he put his mixtures in? What sort of containers?"

"Glass vials, square bottles, cork-stoppered or waxed shut, paper bags, burlap bags," Lucan said without hesitation, almost as if he'd expected this question and had prepared for it. "Nothing artificial."

"Two types of tinctures. One to heal. The other to tranquilize. Loose leaf teas. Three containers," Arthur said, walking around in a small circle. "There's two water bottles without labels in the bin. One of them has some greenish shite in it like Will described, that healing tincture he told us about. The other one's just water from what I can smell. There's a half-empty box of tea there, too. Three bags."

He raised his chin and glanced up at the ceiling as if he could see through it.

"Only one bed was slept in. One plate and one glass," Arthur said.

"That's right," Lucan said. Owain and Pellinor nodded in confirmation.

"The shower's been used. There's bloody clothes in there," Arthur said. His voice hiccupped faintly. His gaze was so intent that Owain could feel it in his bones. He hated it when Arthur looked at him like this, because it meant he was cracking and there wasn't anything that Owain could do to stop it from happening.

Owain wasn't Leon -- Arthur's oldest friend and the one man in the team who could weather a Pendragon's moods and defuse them. He wasn't Gwaine, who could haphazardly wave a hand in the air and make Arthur's anger disappear in an unbelievable magic trick. Owain had known Arthur for a long time. He liked the man. He admired and respected him on a level that he had never admired and respected anyone. He knew the question that Arthur was about to ask, and hated that he was going to have to answer it.

"Merlin's?"

"Merlin's," Owain said, and immediately felt sick. Arthur took a deep breath and nodded, breaking eye contact. Owain held up the piece of paper in his hand. "This was in his pocket."

Arthur took the note, unfolded it, and scanned the contents. Owain knew that Arthur was reading it again, more carefully, from the way that his eyebrows had shot up.

"Follow. Track us. Stay close. Wait for Merlin's signal," Arthur read out loud. The pinch in his brow was gone -- that must have been the last puzzle piece. Arthur turned to Lucan again. "Galahad said the bloke had the items in a paper bag."

"He did."

"It's not here."

"Didn't find anything fitting the description," Pellinor said, his voice low, like someone had strangled him.

"The delivery boy from the alchemist's shop, he left pissed, yeah?"

"That's what Galahad said."

Arthur was nodding. The piece of paper was half-crumpled in his hand. He took another long look around the room, but Owain knew that he'd already come to a conclusion. It was maddening, this waiting. Owain wanted to yell at him to spit it out, already.

"This place's has definitely been staged," Arthur said. Owain exchanged glances with Pellinor; Lucan was frowning, staring intently at Arthur. "And not for us, either. For them. All this, it's a show. Healing tincture for Merlin to -- to heal him. Teacups to make it look like he drank that tea you told me about, Lucan. Everything's set up to make them think that whoever was holding Merlin here, they're doing exactly what they've been told to do. And they left just enough information for us to figure that out. Even the note --"

Arthur stared down at it.

"Aredian's people wouldn't have a reason to search Merlin's clothes. They would have searched him when they got him. They would've monitored him to make sure he didn't get his hands on anything. The note's been left for us."

Lucan's brow furrowed.

"A trap?" Pellinor asked, immediately heading to the front room. Owain saw him shoulder the edge of the window, shuffle the curtains just out of the way, barely making them shift, and peering out.

"No. Not a trap. Whoever left it took a risk, hiding it the way they did," Arthur said, and he sounded so certain that Owain wished he knew how Arthur could be so confident. "They know we're alive. The cat's out of the bag. But we're here, so where are they if it's a trap? Lucan and G watched the house for hours before we came in. No one's here. There's no bugs, no cameras, no --"

"No nothing," Lucan said. He sounded angry. "Even if it's staged, fat lot of good it does us. They want us to follow them? To track them? How the fuck are we supposed to do that? They vanished under our bloody noses."

"Because they don't want us to find them too quick and cock things up -- whatever that is," Arthur said. "But we'll find them."

"And if that's a trap?" Pellinor asked, wincing even as he spoke.

"Well, there's traps, and then there's traps," Owain said, sounding cockier than he really felt. Still, Arthur gave him a nod, as if Owain had hit it on the nail. "Just need to show them the difference, don't we?"

"We'll do them that courtesy," Arthur said. "When we find them. And we will find them. Lucan, grab that box of tea from the bin. It's one of those fancy Darjeeling blends, can't be that many shops in walking distance that sells it or that sells a lot of it --"

Lucan rolled his eyes and nodded, as if, of course, he fully expected to pound the pavement some more.

"Pellinor, go with him, back him up just in case. Just --" Arthur waved an imperious hand in the air. It was such a familiar Arthur gesture that Owain nearly laughed. Instead, he choked and coughed, because it was almost as if he was watching Arthur pull himself together, at last. "-- don't talk. Your French is painful. Find out who's bought any in the last twenty-four hours, if they said anything, if there was anything peculiar. That sort of thing."

Lucan fished the box out of the bin and took out a single tea bag from inside. That would be enough to get them started. Pellinor handed the box with the collected fingerprints to Owain, switched cards in the camera and gave that to Owain, too.

"O, we'll head back. I need you to get started on those fingerprints. I want to know who we're dealing with," Arthur said. He headed toward the back door, pausing to glance at Lucan and Pellinor. "You watch yourselves, boys."

"Yes, sir," Lucan said. Pellinor had to stop himself from saluting outright. They were in the field, undercover; they weren't supposed to salute, but it was hard not to, especially when this... this was their Arthur.

They hadn't seen him in a while.

Owain and Arthur left Lucan and Pellinor to sweep up after them. Galahad had taken Pellinor's car to bring the healing tincture to Kay, leaving Lucan to face Arthur alone like the coward that he was. That left Lucan and Pellinor to walk the neighbourhood while they took the other vehicle.

Arthur drove a long, slow, circuitous route to the safe house, one hand on the wheel, the other running repeatedly through his hair, his expression intent and determined. His jaw was set, his eyes focused, and Owain couldn't help holding his breath the way he did sometimes, when he was about to defuse a hair-trigger bomb.

They kept getting closer. Always closer, but always just too far away. Owain didn't know how much longer Arthur could keep pushing himself, that he could keep holding himself together before he'd snap. Owain opened his mouth, only to snap his jaw shut a second later. He didn't know what to say. All this time that they'd been looking for Morgana and Gwen and Kay and Merlin, Owain didn't know what to say. Everything that he came up with sounded so stupid in his head, and even stupider when Gwaine happened to say exactly the same thing ten seconds before Owain could, saving him from himself.

Owain was quiet during the trip. He didn't think Arthur noticed. If anything, Arthur barely glanced in his direction, alternating with pursing his lips and tapping his thumb on the steering wheel or rubbing the back of his head. Those were all signs of preoccupation, planning, over-planning. Owain knew it was best to leave him be.

The safe house was practically empty when they arrived. Leon and Morgana were out again; Lance and Gwen had gone to get food. Lamorak was staring at a laptop with far too much intensity -- Owain figured he'd forgotten to blink again. Galahad stuck around long enough to see that Arthur's attention was otherwise engaged and disappeared to the back of the house on some unfathomable task. Will was speaking quietly with Hunith in the kitchen -- Will would be leaving in the morning with Kay, if Kay was up to it.

Arthur went -- Arthur went wherever it was that Arthur went. His room was up on the third level, but he rarely spent time in it. The attached garage was a likelier bet, because that was where most of their supplies were, but he had probably gone in search for Perceval, because in Leon and Lance's absence, Perceval was Arthur's next-favourite sounding board.

There were times when Owain wished he was closer to Arthur than he already was, that he had more experience, that he had the right skills to be able to help Arthur. Owain supposed that he did have the right skills -- while everyone else on the team knew the basics of evidence and fingerprinting, no one had grown up instinctively understanding the fine details of evidence collection. Still, fingerprints were fingerprints, and any bloody punker off the street knew that, even if they didn't know how to start comparing them.

Owain took a bottle of water from the refrigerator and laid out all the collected fingerprints on the table where someone had set up a terminal and hooked it up to a small but high-resolution scanner. The scanner was new; Owain figured that Galahad or Geraint had gone to get it when they were out at the house, dusting every conceivable surface.

The scanning software was an exercise in patience to get the right base settings for fingerprints. After that it was easy going. Owain downloaded fingerprint matching software off the web, installed it, and went through the menus, loading the fingerprints.

Step one was eliminating fingerprints that were in common because they belonged to the same person. One of the teacups from the front room and the plate and glass from the upstairs bedroom from the house belonged to the same person. Owain's heart stuttered, and he knew even before he compared it to their personnel database that it was Merlin.

The software confirmed it several minutes later. Owain nodded to himself, and if the room wasn't deserted -- Lamorak didn't count -- he probably would have told someone, but for now --

Despite all the fingerprints that they took, only one other set was viable, and that came from another cup in the front room. Owain ran them against the personnel database as a matter of course; the software returned No Match in less than three minutes, and that was with using the least stringent comparison criteria.

Owain scratched the side of his head and sighed. He glanced over at Lamorak; he was hunched over his laptop, and Owain was pretty sure that Lamorak hadn't blinked since Owain had arrived. The odds were high that he was sleeping with his eyes open, though, and he'd have better luck enlisting Geraint's help. He had just stood up to go track him down when Geraint came into the room, wiping his hands on a rag.

"Arthur said you might need me?"

"Not might. Definitely do. I need access to a police database, and then you're helping me work my way up to Interpol."

It took almost an hour, and that was only because the two of them were working together. None of the members of the team were anywhere near Merlin's weight class when it came to hacking or dealing with encryptions, but they weren't slouches, either. They might each be specialists in their own fields, but SAS training involved a whole lot of cross-over in other fields, mainly to ensure that they weren't left hanging when they needed a particular skill, but the expert was too far away -- or worse, incapacitated -- to immediately assist.

That was the case here, with Merlin otherwise... engaged.

The majority of the work involved getting the fingerprint matching software to communicate with the gendarmerie database, with Owain muttered fuck it and nearly yanking an USB out of the computer to head over to the nearest prefecture to do it himself in person -- before they had it all sorted out. Geraint scrolled through the options, selecting each one to be sure, when --

"Why don't we just try the national database?"

"Interpol, you mean?"

"No, I mean --" Geraint squinted at the screen. "DCRI?"

Owain nearly slipped out of his chair. "DCRI?"

"Direction centrale du renseignment --"

"Interieur," Owain finished for him. "Yeah, yeah, I can read, you numpty."

"Should I try that one? I figure, why waste with local elements when it's Aredian that we're dealing with --"

"Can we even do that? I mean, it's not like we haven't, before, but that was in the Ukraine, and the Embassy didn't have shite when it came to web security --"

"When did you become a such a Charlie Howard?" Geraint said, pulling back to give Owain a curious look. "This is Merlin we're talking about. Getting tracked back? Least of our concerns, mate."

Owain reached over and slapped Geraint on the back of his head. "Don't be an arse."

"Any case, it'll be trouble, but here, let me try something. Merlin told me about this site, once. Completely underground, on the down-low, and --"

Owain watched over Geraint's shoulder as he telnetted to an IP address. He logged onto a bulletin board, navigated through multiple menus, sub-menus, and sub-sub menus, and pulled up a list of topics.

"Hacker dot net. Best thing ever invented, and worries me a bit that Merlin seemed to be on name basis with most of these blokes," Geraint said, gleefully putting in a request to mass-hack both the French gendarmerie and the DCRI, specifying distraction tactics and nothing serious, please, we just want them to be busy while we track down a mate of ours who's gone missing. The response was almost instantaneous and resoundingly positive.

"Christ," Owain muttered. He nodded and rolled his hand for Geraint to get on with it.

Geraint switched out of the window and opened a few more programs; Owain wasn't sure what everything did, but he spotted a spoofing firewall to supplement the worldwide network-bouncing that they were already doing to access the gendarmerie website and figured that Geraint was beefing up their own security before running the search.

Owain held his breath the instant Geraint clicked Start.

Searching a database for a fingerprint comparison could take forever, or it could take minutes, if someone was lucky. The constraints of the search were wide open, but the comparison match filter was tight -- within ninety percent or better. A lower setting would flood them with false-positive possibilities, and a higher setting would eliminate everyone, including possibly the person that the fingerprints actually belonged to.

Still, however well organized the French secret service's database was, it was still large, and it would take time.

"Keep an eye on this," Geraint said, tapping the screen.

"I am," Owain said.

"If it goes red, you need to tell me."

"I know," Owain said.

"I'm serious, don't even wait. The second you see a red bar," Geraint insisted.

"I know," Owain snapped. "You do whatever it is you're doing, I'll make sure our arses are covered."

Owain didn't know how much time had passed, but his back was sore, his eyes were dry, and he was getting twitchy, because more than once, the alert bar had turned yellow. Each time that had happened, Owain forgot to breathe.

Lance and Gwen arrived with food. Geraint and Owain took turns eating and keeping an eye on their setup. Lamorak never woke up. Galahad spoke quietly with Arthur, answering questions; Arthur disappeared as soon as he'd eaten the bare minimum. Perceval followed after him, Gwaine cracked a few jokes that weren't as heartfelt as usual. Pellinor made an appearance, citing that Lucan wanted to get him out of his hair when what really happened was that they had found the shop where the tea had been bought, but that the person who had sold the tea hadn't been in when they arrived.

Lucan was probably tracking them down right now. It wasn't a long stretch of the imagination to picture Lucan banging on the poor sod's door, hauling them out of bed, and interrogating them. Lucan had more finesse than that, normally, but all bets were off when he was forced to chase his own tail in order to get information. He hated that.

"You shouldn't have left him," Owain said. "What if --"

"Look, I had this whole argument with him already. It was hard enough getting him to stop long enough for something to eat, all right? I think he's living off of coffee at this point --"

"We all are," Geraint said helpfully. He didn't lift his eyes from the computer screen.

"And he snarled at me. He's like a dog after a bone," Pellinor said. He picked his way through the leftovers in the crumpled take-away bins. There wasn't much, and he was making a mess of it, anyway, eating with his fingers. "You know what he's like."

"Too right we know what he's like," Owain said. "Except the dog's not a fluffy, yappy Pomeranian in some bird's purse. The dog's a bloody Alsatian who'll do anything and everything to get its master's approval, and he'll use every trick that the Army's ever taught him --"

"And then some," Geraint said. Owain glanced at him and nodded before continuing.

"-- to get it done, and he won't necessarily stop to make sure there isn't some fucker behind a door fumbling with a gun, ready to shoot him."

"Oh, Christ," Pellinor said, rolling his head back. He stared at the ceiling. "I'm not going back out there after him."

He reached for his coat anyway and performed a circus clown juggling act to put it on at the same time that he thumbed in a text message into his phone, probably to find out where Lucan was located.

They all froze when the computer running the fingerprint search abruptly pinged.

"Oh, shite," Geraint said, because he was sitting in front of the monitor and got the first look at the fingerprint match.

Owain moved around the table and stood behind Geraint. He stared uncomprehendingly at the screen for several long minutes, unable to parse what he was seeing with the current situation, and it wasn't until he was jostled by Gwaine, who'd appeared out of nowhere and hopped his way over to them, that it finally, finally sank in.

It was Gwaine who broke the stunned silence.

"Well. I'm right confused now. Anyone else with me?"

 

 

ooOOoo

 

Saturday, 0258 hours

 

Arthur was never more jittery than when his team was split up and out on their assignments, but there was a particular edge to his nerves ever since Owain and Pellinor had found the note left in Merlin's soiled and bloodied clothes.

It was oh-three hundred and change when Lucan called in and gave a quick and dirty report -- they'd found a specialty shop that sold the particular brand of tea, though they hadn't sold it in months. "Too expensive," the person behind the counter had whispered, as if there was some sort of conspiracy. "It doesn't even taste that good. I don't get it, I like Earl Grey myself."

That was a sure sign that Lucan was tiring, because instead of the highlights, he was giving the short version of unnecessary details. He'd been walking the city and following clues for the last forty-eight hours, and Arthur berated himself for not checking to make sure that Lucan had been taking breaks and getting some rest. Arthur muttered under his breath. He wasn't taking care of his men.

He wasn't taking care of himself, either, because he hadn't slept more than an hour or two in fifteen minute snatches since they rescued Morgana and Gwen, but that was beside the point. He was the Captain; he should be keeping an eye out for his team.

It was oh-six hundred and change when Lucan called in again. "Why did you send Pellinor back? He can't keep his gob shut, people are looking at us funny --"

"They're looking at you funny. You're so tired you're slurring like you're on a four-day bender," Pellinor said in the background.

"-- but the good news is that we spoke to the clerk who was on duty when the tea was bought. Said she remembers the bloke real well. Matches Galahad's description to a T. Friendly, stayed at the shop for a while, carried on a conversation. She was talking about school, he suggested a few books she should read, asked about her future plans, she wants to be a Poet Laureate or whatever, but figures that she'll teach literature once she finishes her doctorate, which is not the point. The point is, it sounds as if he deliberately stuck around to leave an impression --"

"Now who won't shut their gob?" Pellinor said, his tone half-amused, half-impatient. "Just tell him."

"I'm getting to it," Lucan snapped. "Anyway, he asked her if she lived around here, she said yes. She asked him if he lived around here, he said no, and we're in fucking walking distance to the house. He said he lives out in the 17e arrondissement, is just in this neighbourhood because he's visiting a friend, which we know is a load of bollocks. Better yet --"

"For fuck's sake, give me the phone," Pellinor said. There was a small scuffle, and Pellinor's voice came through the line, crisp and clear. "They traded phone numbers. We have his phone number."

They had more than that, Arthur wanted to say, but he was busy scribbling the information down. They had a probable location for Merlin and a way of tracking them -- just like the note had promised. So far, their "ally" was holding up their end of the bargain, whatever the bargain was, though the note implied rather heavily that they wanted out. They wanted to be rescued along with Merlin, to make it look like he was leaving against his will, possibly to maintain their cover.

If it was a cover.

Arthur was having a difficult time rationalizing that Mordred ap Aneurin was trying to defect. They didn't have an extensive file on him -- Hell, neither did the army, MI-5, or the Directory, never mind the French secret service or Interpol. He knew that because Geraint had cautiously attempted to access Mordred's files, but there wasn't much in them that they hadn't already known.

He did not discount the possibility that it was a trap to lure them out into the open. He couldn't take that risk. There was too many questions in the air -- how had Mordred known to leave a note for them in the first place? How did he know that the team was still alive? Who else knew?

"All right. I want you both back here."

"I could go canvas the area, and already be there when you pinpoint the location," Lucan said over Pellinor's squawk of protest. "We'll be ready, scope out the area, see if we can narrow down --"

"You'll both get your arses here and get some rack time," Arthur said, hardening his voice. "Or I'll send Bedivere and Perceval to haul you back. I mean it, Lucan. And if you even think for one fucking second about going off the grid, I will send Gwaine to hunt you down himself."

"He's got a gimpy leg, what can he do?" Lucan asked, but his tone was lower, slower, lighter. He would obey orders -- he always did -- but when he was tired, he got punchy and cranky and needed someone to take him by the ear.

"Shoot you in the arse, mess up that tat you're so bloody proud of," Arthur retorted. Most of the team had more than one tattoo beyond the swords that they all shared as members of Excalibur, but Lucan had more than most. Even with the veritable forest of long sleeves and back pieces, it was hard to miss the tattooed gaping bullet wound in his right arse cheek that Gwaine swore up and down was an invitation.

"You wouldn't give that order," Lucan said, but he sounded both unsure and capitulating.

"Try me. Back here in an hour, or Gwaine and his gun are heading out." There was no need to tack on the threat, not when Arthur knew that Lucan wouldn't disobey a direct order, but lightening up the mood with a threat seemed to help, because there was a faint half-laugh over the phone before Lucan grunted in answer.

There was a shuffling sound, and Pellinor came on the line. "Back in an hour. Got it, boss."

They hung up without another word.

Arthur turned around. Except for Lucan and Pellinor, the team was in the house. Leon and Morgana were sleeping. They'd taken advantage of the weekend and the lack of personnel to access the Pendragon database at one of the smaller office branches, which made for a long, frustrating day when they discovered that Morgana's access codes had been suspended. They ended up using one of the dummy accounts that they'd set up and were searching for the devices and artefacts that were on the photocopies that Gwen had stolen before the warehouse went up in flames. Lance was upstairs, checking on Kay and monitoring the effect of the healing tincture. Perceval had gone to bed, but Gwaine refused to sleep; he was buzzing with energy and was being a bloody pillock ever since Arthur told him he couldn't come to the house.

Gwaine was of a mind that he could find Merlin faster than any of them, but at the house? He would have only gotten in the way, anyway.

Lamorak was half-sprawled in the plush chair, his feet up on the ottoman, a laptop on his thighs. His eyes were wide open, and he was staring at the screen, but he wasn't moving or doing anything, and Arthur knew that he was asleep. Owain and Geraint were looking for more information on Mordred through his former school and some old fashioned Google searches. From the flagging expressions on their faces they were not getting anywhere, and they were starting to get tired.

The entire team had been running hard for far too long.

"You two, go to bed," Arthur said. "I'll need you fresh tomorrow."

Neither of them complained.

Arthur pulled the laptop out from under Lamorak's hands, moving slowly to avoid jarring him awake -- always a bad idea with SAS soldiers on high alert -- and put it on the floor. He slowly tilted the chair back, and once he was nearly horizontal, Lamorak's eyes closed. He snuffled and curled up onto his side. It was almost cute, right up until he started snoring.

There was a blanket on the floor next to the couch; Gwaine had been napping there earlier. Arthur picked it up and dropped it on Lamorak.

"You take good care of them," Gwen said softly.

Arthur glanced over his shoulder, dropping his gaze an instant later. She was coming out of the kitchen, a bowl with a spoon in one hand, a glass of milk in the other. She must have been in bed, and came down when Lance woke to check on Kay, because she was wearing one of Lance's shirts and boxer shorts.

"Not well enough," Arthur said finally. "Not lately."

"Don't make me hit you on the head," Gwen said. "For one thing, my hands are full."

Arthur snorted. "Your propensity for physical violence in the face of my inherent stupidity is comforting."

Gwen tilted her head. She gave him the look he'd been trying to avoid ever since the cock-up at the testing field -- pitying and sympathetic, understanding and comforting.

Arthur looked away.

"Yes, because that's what it is," Gwen finally said, her voice harsher than Arthur had ever heard it. He turned around to look at her. "You're being stupid. You're riding yourself harder than anyone. What good are you going to be to Merlin when we find him?"

Arthur flinched.

"Now give it over," Gwen said, putting her glass and the bowl on the table where Geraint and Owain had been working. She held out her hand.

"What?"

"That piece of paper you're shoving in your pocket, Arthur," Gwen said, rolling her eyes. "Give it over. What do you need done?"

"I, uh." Arthur glanced down at the crumpled piece of paper in his hand. "It's a mobile number. I need to track it. It's all right, Gwen. Go to bed."

Gwen huffed. She crossed the distance between them and snatched the piece of paper out of his hand. "Were you thinking of monitoring the towers until it was used?"

"Something like that," Arthur said, rubbing his face.

"Oh, Arthur," Gwen said, shaking her head. She sat down at the table and flicked on the monitors. "What would Merlin tell you to do?"

"To go sit down before I pass out, probably," Arthur said. He could almost hear it, too. If you pass out I'm not picking you up. I'll just let you sleep like that. Maybe I'll toss a blanket over you, put up a few signs to keep people from stepping on your head --

God. He wanted to hear Merlin's voice so badly. Arthur pulled a chair out at the table and sat down.

"What else would he tell you?" Gwen said, a small laugh in her voice, as if she'd been thinking about Merlin, too, and how he'd tell Arthur to take care of himself. She glanced at him from around the monitors, and returned her attention to whatever she was doing a second later. "About the mobile?"

"I don't know. What he always tells me. That I'm wasting my time planning for things that are a statistical improbability. That I'm over-thinking things. That --"

"You're over-thinking things," Gwen said, nodding. "Arthur, we don't have to run a trace and rely on cell phone towers or anything like that. All the phones have GPS."

Arthur slumped a little in his chair; he put his arm on the table and propped his face up in his palm. "Not if it's a disposable. Not if they've disabled the GPS. Not if the phone is off."

"Well, this phone is on, it's not a disposable, and I can give you the address --"

"Huh?"

"The mobile's on. It's not a disposable, because I plugged in the number in the program, and, here, come take a look, they're in the 17e arrondissement somewhere --"

Arthur nearly fell off his chair in his haste to get up and see for himself; the chair wobbled precariously on one leg before toppling over and falling mutely in the thick shag carpeting. Arthur winced. Lamorak made a small snuffling sound and burrowed deeper into his blanket.

"Right, show me," Arthur said, leaning over Gwen's shoulder. Sure enough, on the map, there was a bright blue blinking dot in the neighbourhood that Lucan had given him. The dot was nothing but confirmation.

A wave of excited giddiness swept through him. So close. So much closer. Finally, a break. The break that he'd been waiting for, that little bit of information that gave him the upper hand, for once -- assuming this wasn't a trap. He couldn't forget that there was always a chance that it could be a trap. He had to take into account several factors that would influence the situation, and the most worrisome was not knowing where Mordred fit into all this.

Still --

Merlin

-- they had a chance at getting Merlin back. If he wasn't at that particular location, then the person who was at that location would know. They had to know. Why else would there have been a trail of clues for them to follow? This wasn't a particularly elaborate one, not by far. It was less of a scavenger hunt and more of a directed hand-holding and guiding along, which was somewhat insulting, but --

Merlin

-- Arthur would take it. He could ignore the note instructing them to wait until Merlin gave the signal. What if Merlin never gave a signal? What if he was stopped from getting in touch with them at the critical moment? What if Merlin needed them right now?

Arthur exhaled and stood up straight. He tried to think of who was rested and awake. He couldn't send Lucan back in, even though he was the ideal person to send on a recon mission. He wasn't a scout, but in an urban setting, in Paris, he was the one most likely to fit in. No, Lucan was off the roster until he'd gotten some rack time.

Perceval and Gwaine were out -- at least for now. So were Leon and Lance. They had as much sleep over the last few days as Arthur had, and considering what had happened, Arthur wasn't willing to separate them from Morgana and Gwen for long. Owain and Pellinor needed a break, Galahad and Geraint could go out but only after a few more hours of sleep, because no matter what they said, they were the walking dead.

Bohrs and Bedivere were possibilities, but they'd stick out like sore thumbs. They were both big men -- broad shouldered and thickly muscled -- and at this hour of the night, the gendarmerie would look on them with suspicion.

No, Arthur needed an advance scout. Someone who could do proper recon. He glanced at Lamorak, but Lamorak was as exhausted as anyone. He'd spent most of the day screening security tapes from the warehouse, from the Pendragon Consulting offices, even grabbing accident footage from the telly, meticulously picking out faces to see if they could identify any more players in the game. He'd spent hours going through satellite footage to see if he could track down Aredian's men, but there was just so much of it, and trying to connect a possible location from spotty satellite footage and Google maps was a job that Arthur wouldn't wish on anyone. Still, he hadn't stopped Lamorak from volunteering.

That left him.

"Give me the address," Arthur said. He mentally ticked off the equipment that he would need. Light body armour, if he needed it. Sound amplifiers for distance listening-in. Infrared cameras for body heat, a DSLR camera to photograph anyone going in and out of that location.

"No," Gwen said, reaching for her bowl of cereal.

Arthur grabbed the mouse and scrolled over to click on the blinking blue dot. Gwen swatted his hand so hard, it stung.

"I said no." Gwen raised a brow. "What did I tell you about being stupid? You're exhausted. You'll trip over your own two feet and make more noise than alley cats screwing around in a rubbish bin -- why are you looking at me like that?"

"I'm awed by your motherly instincts, frightened for your child, and horrified that you compared me to alley cats crashing around the rubbish," Arthur said. "I may not be the G's, but I'm a fair hand at stealth --"

"That's nice, but you're still not going. Get some sleep. Please, Arthur."

It was the please that nearly did him in. Arthur rubbed his face with his hand. "It's Merlin," he said, his voice small and broken. He couldn't stand leaving him in the enemy's hands any longer.

"I know," Gwen said, putting a hand on his arm.

When Arthur met her eyes, they were watery with tears, and Arthur had to look away before all the emotions he'd been holding back and refusing to acknowledge came bursting through the dam.

A creak and a groan distracted him. An arm stuck out from under the blanket on the reclining chair, the hand patting around until it found the handle and pulled. The chair came to a reluctant sitting position and the blanket fell from Lamorak's head.

His hair was tousled on one side, sticking up on the other. He ground the heels of his hands into his eyes and rubbed until the spider webs were gone. He scratched at the five o'clock scruff on his cheek absentmindedly. He blinked as he looked around in confusion and lifted up the blankets in search for... something, and didn't relax again until he found the laptop on the floor next to the chair.

Lamorak stood up, a little wobbly when he tried to take a step through the blanket tangling around his legs, his hand dropping down to rub at an ache on his chest before reaching up to do something about his hair.

"I'll go," he said. "I'll grab Gareth. He can back me up."

"Lamorak --" Arthur began, but Lamorak stopped him with a wave of his hand.

"I slept. Or, I did, before you tilted the chair back and wouldn't stop yammering on," Lamorak said, rubbing the back of his head. Every time he woke up -- or rather, every time that they weren't on mission and needed to get moving quickly -- Lamorak went through an elaborate ritual that got him from sound sleep to full wakefulness. Arthur judged that he was in the just-barely-lucid stage, and hoped that Lamorak would be out of the room before he got to the vigorous crotch-scratch portion of his morning routine.

Nobody needed to see that.

"May I have the address, Gwennie?" Lamorak asked. He was the only one on the entire team who got away with calling Gwen by that ridiculous nickname. That was only because… well, Arthur didn't know why, and he wished he did, because whatever Lamorak was holding over Gwen's head, it was surprisingly effective. Even Lance couldn't call her that.

"You may," Gwen said graciously, but she kept the piece of paper out of Lamorak's reach and gave him a narrow-eyed glare. "If you promise not to call in with any other update beyond the bare basics when you get there. I don't want Arthur waking up everyone just because you saw a shadow shift."

"Yes'm," Lamorak said, which mollified Gwen, because she gave him the address without noticing that Lamorak hadn't promised, not exactly. When Lamorak turned around to head out of the room, he gave Arthur a nod and a wink. "We'll call in soon as we get there. Find a place to set up, keep an eye out, start with the surveillance. If we see him, you'll be the first to know."

There was no need to elaborate on who "he" was. Arthur returned Lamorak's nod and said, "Thank you," as he walked past.

"Your turn," Gwen said, scraping her spoon on the bottom of the bowl, raising a pointed brow. "Go to bed, Arthur."

"Not yet," Arthur said.

"You should listen to her," Lance said, coming into the room. He looked from Arthur to Gwen, his expression shifting from wary and exhausted to warm and relieved. "I found your vitamins. Are you hungry again?"

"What do you mean, again?" Gwen scowled. "It's my first bowl. Breakfast."

"I…" Lance shot Arthur a glance that could be interpreted as this is your fault, though Arthur couldn't fathom how, and quickly turned back to Gwen. "Right. Sorry, I lost track of time. What time is it, anyway?"

"Roughly half past why-isn't-everyone-in-bed-including-me," Gwen said. She put down her bowl, finished off her glass of milk, and stood up. "Which is where I'm going, now that you're done with Kay."

"How is he?" Arthur asked.

"Better. Not at a hundred percent, no matter what he says. That healing tincture was worth it, and I don't know why it's not on the market, that alchemist would make a bloody fortune. You should expect an argument from Kay before he sets out with Will. He really doesn't want to go."

Gwen went into the kitchen with her dirty dishes; Arthur heard the water in the sink running. It kept running, and he figured that she was washing up. There weren't enough plates and dishes to go around.

Arthur rubbed his face, trying to focus.

"I know he doesn't. But Kay doesn't have his pendant, and Will's never had one. I can't risk them getting in the middle of it without protection," Arthur said.

He had a long list of reasons why he was sending both Will and Kay to England for a few days, and he rearranged their order of importance depending on the changing situation. First and foremost was finding Gaius. Second was getting Kay where he could recover, though that was dropping in priority fast the less it became applicable. Third was getting Will out of the way, because he was a bit of a loose cannon, and Arthur wasn't sure that he could work with a man who had never trained with his team before. Besides, Will needed to sort out a long string of affairs, including keeping people safe, and he was the only one who would know who to contact immediately.

He was also the only one that people would know on sight and trust, but Arthur wasn't going to give Will any more reason to get a swelled head.

There were other reasons -- the lack of magical pendants notwithstanding -- but Arthur was keeping them in reserve. He knew Kay. Kay would come up with a counterargument for every reason Arthur gave him, but if Arthur surprised him with yet another good reason that Kay didn't have an answer to, he might actually stump Kay long enough to get him on the bloody Chunnel.

Lance crossed his arms, his brow faintly furrowed. "Go to bed, Arthur. You look like you're going to fall flat on your face."

"Ringing endorsement, that," Arthur muttered, but he nodded and went.

His mobile rang as soon as he shut the door to his narrow, uncomfortable room. The caller ID flashed unknown number, and Arthur answered with a curt, "Yes?"

His heart was beating a rapid staccato rhythm until he heard Balinor answer. "Arthur?"

Arthur rubbed his closed eyes with his thumb and forefinger. "Yes. Is there anything new?"

There was a pause too long for comfort. Arthur could make out a muffled conversation in the background; Balinor must have covered the pickup with his hand. He couldn't make out the sounds and syllables, but he definitely could tell something about what was said from the tone and volume alone.

He was pissed.

Arthur waited. The volume changed, but not by much and the tone stayed the same, harsh and brutal and almost guttural, and Arthur wondered if this was what Merlin was like when he was truly angry -- something he wasn't so sure he'd seen yet. Did Merlin's voice drop down that deep? Did the words turn rough and mangled? Would they send a chill down Arthur's spine? That was what Arthur was feeling now, shivery and fearful, and he wasn't entirely sure why.

There was a long silence.

"My men are with us," Balinor said without preamble, his voice sounding as if it had been scratched by a cheese grater. The more he spoke, the more his voice returned to normal. Arthur knew that some sorcerers had to change their tone and pitch with certain spells, and while he had never asked outright, he suspected that Balinor had magic of his own. It only made sense, if a man wanted to ride dragons. Surely dragons wouldn't let a mere mortal climb onto their backs for a quick hop to Spain.

Arthur shook himself out of his mental ramble. "Good. I'd hoped they would be. I may need their help soon. Are any of them still in Paris?"

He suspected that continued surveillance -- particularly up close -- of the new location would be problematic. Aredian and his men no doubt knew who Arthur and his team were. They were too easily identified -- but Balinor's men wouldn't be.

"Some," Balinor said. "Phillip and Michael. What do you need them for? I'll send them to a meeting point."

"We may have --" Arthur swallowed down the lump in his throat. "We're not sure yet. I have Gareth and Lamorak heading there now to initiate surveillance and try to confirm, but --"

He hesitated. He took a deep breath.

"We may have a location on Aredian and his men," Arthur said. He closed his eyes. He didn't know why he didn't say that they had a location on Merlin, but he knew that only one part of that reason had anything to do with not wanting Balinor to rush in and rescue his son.

Whatever else was going on -- Mordred notwithstanding -- Arthur meant to rescue Merlin. He didn't have time for anything else.
"As soon as you know for certain," Balinor said, stoic, severe, quick, barking an order but couching it somehow, aware of the difference in their ranks.

Fuck ranks.

Arthur was too tired, too worn, too desperate to get Merlin back to take offence at Balinor's command. Balinor had years of experience undercover and Arthur wasn't stupid -- he would take advantage of this experience when he needed it.

"And Kilgarrah?" Arthur asked.

"I have him." There was a faint scuffle on the other end of the line, but Arthur couldn't make out what it was. "We'll come to Paris. I'll call again when we arrive."

There was a pause. Arthur imagined that Balinor was checking his watch, because the next thing he said was, "In seven hours."

"Seven hours," Arthur agreed. "Before you hang up, ask the Major something for me."

Silence filled the air while Balinor waited for Arthur to continue, and Arthur sat down on his bed, the covers strewn about and littered with maps and reports and coded plans. He picked up a few pages, the words and images blurring while he worked out what he wanted to ask.

He opened and closed his mouth a few times. The words wouldn't come. He ran a hand through his hair in exasperation, leaned forward with an elbow on his knee. Finally, he said, "Why Excalibur? Why my team?"

Almost at once, Arthur winced. It felt as if he were asking the genie in the bottle for his three wishes, and he'd already wasted two and couldn't afford to waste more. He already knew the answer, and that made it worse. It wasn't just that Excalibur was the best at what they did. It wasn't that they were the ones who had managed to successfully counteract the use of magic in the field without any training. It wasn't that they'd caught the Directory's eye.

It was all those things and the tenuous link between father and son. They'd been brought in because Arthur was Uther Pendragon's son. Because Uther was just as involved in this mess as any of them.

Before he could take it back, Balinor said, "One moment."

Once again the telephone pickup was muffled. Once again, Arthur heard the low tones that weren't half as low as they had been when Balinor had first called. Once again, the words and syllables were a guttural grumble that made something deep and dark and primal within Arthur quail and take a step back.

There was a long silence on the other end of the line.

Arthur heard Balinor speak again; his voice was rough, with a querying lilt, as if asking for repetition, for clarity, for confirmation.

The time trickled past. Arthur counted his heartbeat. He knew his resting rate as surely as he knew how many steps he needed to take to walk a kilometre. A good three minutes passed before Balinor returned to the phone.

"He said… He said it's not your team. That your team was a bonus." Balinor stopped, and Arthur started counting his heartbeats again when the silence dragged on too long. Nearly another minute. Balinor's voice dropping low, as if his shoulders were slumping in defeat, as if his words were causing him physical pain. "He said it's you. That you… That you and Merlin are two sides of the same coin."

Arthur felt his heart rate spike.

The universe felt suddenly too big for him, the room too small. He couldn't fit it all in his head, and he wasn't sure he even wanted to try. It was a disorienting feeling far too similar to the rock and rise and roll of a small ship in too turbulent a sea, only there was no ship, and he was overwhelmed by claustrophobia.

There was a long silence on the phone again. Arthur started to count his heartbeats but couldn't. He felt them come and go, to pulse and ebb, until the sound and feel of it roared in his ears and nearly drowned out Balinor's voice.

I'll call tonight.

Arthur didn't answer.

He barely noticed when the line disconnected.

It's you.

That made no sense. What did Arthur have to do with the artefacts, with the world teetering on the brink of a war between mundane and magic? What --

Two sides of the same coin.

Arthur's heart pounded.

One. Two.

He closed his eyes and counted his heartbeats again, because it seemed easier than drowning in the face of a revelation that he didn't understand, that he couldn't accept.

Eight. Nine. Ten.

It seemed that he had to wait forever in-between heartbeats.

Twenty-one.

He felt the mobile slip out of his hand.

Twenty-two.

The phone never hit the ground.

Twenty-four.

And, finally, the next heartbeat never came.

His vision went white and weightless. A rapid blur of images flashed past, too quick to absorb.

Red. Something bright and red.

A golden circlet.

A fleeting sense of comfort, a sound that was a laugh of delight.

Scratches of lettering along a strip of metal that gleamed in the sun.

The colours faded, blended, darkened until Arthur had gone from blinding light to blinding night, and he could feel his heartbeat again. It was slow and steady and calm.

It shouldn't be.

And suddenly it wasn't. It stuttered and startled, speeding up before settling. Arthur counted his heartbeats, but it didn't seem right. The rate was a little faster than it should be, which made sense, all things considered -- he was exhausted, and his mind was playing tricks.

Only --

He started counting again. He tried to time the beats.

This wasn't his heartbeat. He was hearing someone else's.

This was Merlin's.

Merlin.

"Arthur?" Merlin asked, confused, sleepy, sounding as if waking from a dream and not altogether certain where he was. His voice was so crisp and clear that it was almost as if Merlin was next to him.

Arthur startled. The shock was like the lash of a whip, sharp and sudden, because, because --

Arthur remembered. The bond. How Merlin tried to tell him how to sense for him, too. That it wouldn't be easy, that -- you have to listen to that space between heartbeats --

Merlin. Merlin. Merlin --

Arthur heard another heartbeat, distant and faint, and he knew with absolute certainty that it was his own. He knew he was losing it, this, whatever it was. He scrambled to hold on, to keep in touch, to never let go, but just as soon as he felt something grasp at him, as soon as he reached for it, it slipped out of his hands.

No. No! Merlin -- Merlin! Merlinmerlin. I'm coming for you --

His heartbeat thudded against his skin. It was deafening. It hammered in his head, racing as if he'd run a marathon. Arthur's body jerked --

The mobile fell to the floor in a dull thud.

-- and he gasped for breath, shooting to his feet, a hand pressing against his tattoo as if he'd been burned. He took two running steps to the door and yanked it open. He rounded the corner and crashed into Will.

The collision knocked them both off balance, and they caught each other to keep from falling over. A duffel bag fell to the ground at Will's feet.

Behind Will was Kay. Kay was looking better though he was still pale, drowning in a jacket that was a size too big for him, his shoulder pulled down by a second duffel bag.

Right. Right. They were leaving to catch the first train to London.

"You all right, mate?" Will asked. "You look like you've seen a ghost."

Arthur steadied himself with several deep breaths, getting out of Will's space. Will huffed and picked up his bag, shaking his head. "Try to help a bloke."

Will elbowed past him.

"It's Merlin," Arthur said. He couldn't believe it himself and it helped to say it out loud, to give it substance. To give it reality. "Merlin's alive. He's absolutely, one hundred percent alive."

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Saturday, 1000 hours

 

They'd gotten from Chunnel to the Underground just in time to hit rush hour, which meant getting packed in as snug as a tin of sardines. Still, the fact that they really weren't in Paris anymore didn't sink in until Will nudged his arm and said, "Time for your dose."

"It tastes like camel dung," Kay muttered, but fumbled through his pocket for the bottle that he'd stashed there before they left. The healing tincture really was working as advertised, because he was feeling a million times better, already.

There were still some sore spots on his body, the cuts on his face and hands had scabbed over and itched like Hell, his body was a mottled mess of bruises in varying stages of fading, and the stitching was going to need to come out soon. He got dizzy whenever he stood up too fast -- "From the blood loss; it'll get better when you rebuild your blood cells, so make sure to stay hydrated," Major Emrys had said -- and his extremities tingled, but the only thing he could really complain about at this point was that he wasn't a bloody invalid.

At least, not anymore.

"You'd know, what with you eating that for breakfast for the last, what was it?" Will's question was more of a somewhat-interested inquiry than the sarcastic jibe that Kay expected, considering that they couldn't stand each other.

They'd spent enough time in each other's company that Kay could tell when Will's heart wasn't in something. It was fairly easy to tell. The man was either all in, chips to the middle, or he'd fold and make a big stink about having been dealt a bad hand. Right now, Will wasn't doing either.

"What's eating you?" Kay asked.

"Pendragon," Will snapped. "He's fucking nutters. What was that bollocks when we left? Doing my head in, it is. He knows... He knows --"

Will cut himself off when a large man in a tweed suit and a too-small bowler hat -- like someone done out of the late 1880s -- squeezed his way between them to get to the doors before they closed. More people got off than got on, and when the doors finally shut and the tube got underway again, there was actually some breathing room and fewer people glaring at them for daring to bring their duffel bags along.

"He knows Merlin's like my brother. Pulling this shite." Will huffed. His lips twisted into an angry grimace and he shook his head. "Spouting that rubbish, blathering on about Merlin, saying he had a lucid fucking dream, that Merlin contacted him, that Merlin's all right --"

He made a rough gesture in the air. Kay narrowly caught Will's arm before he knocked an older gentleman off his feet.

Of anyone, Will should have been pleased to hear news that Merlin was all right. Kay had been relieved -- even if it was just a dream, because Kathy had taught him that dreams were just as real as seeing it with his own eyes. Combining Arthur's announcement with everything else that they had found out so far, including that someone on the inside might even be helping them -- it was the only reason he hadn't dug in his heels and insisted to stay and help. But Will? He was acting like a bratty five year old who refused to accept the truth. It was a truth that he should accept more easily than any of them, because he’d known about Merlin’s magic for all this time and that was because --

"You're jealous," Kay said.

"You what?" Will snapped. He stared at Kay as if Kay had grown a second head. "Jealous? Of that twat? Why would I be jealous --"

"You're jealous," Kay repeated, putting a hand on Will's shoulder and squeezing. "Because Merlin contacted Arthur and not you."

Will gaped. A second later, he shrugged off Kay's hand and snorted. "What are you on about? I'm pleased as punch he got in touch with any of us. Making myself sick with worry, I was. I mean, you couldn't have felt any better about it, him making us leave him behind? Us leaving him behind? That's not it at all."

Kay couldn't help smirking. Of course it isn't, he wanted to say. Instead, he waited as more people got off at the next stop and picked up a few more passengers. The doors hissed shut, and this time, when the train moved, it was with a bit of a rough jerk.

"What is it, then?"

"It's Arthur, isn't it?" Will said, shooting Kay a sidelong glare. He pressed his lips together, as if remembering who he was talking to -- Arthur was Kay's Captain; Kay and Arthur had been friends for a long time -- and reeled himself in. "Look, I know he's your mate, but I can't stand the bloke, yeah? How do you put up with him? Sanctimonious, pretentious, arrogant, thinks he knows everything -- what is he doing, sending us out here when we'd be of more help there --"

Kay rolled his eyes and glanced around the car. Most of the seats were taken, some people, like them, were standing and hanging onto the overhead and vertical bars, and no one was making eye contact. Even if they weren't keeping their voices down to hushed whispers, just barely audible over the grinding of metal wheels on metal tracks and the rumbling roar of the engine, no one would be paying attention to them, anyway. Either way, Kay scanned faces and looked for threats as a matter of rote, because if there was one thing that he'd learned, long before he'd ever joined the army, was that he was never, ever safe, and he couldn't take even the most mundane action for granted.

"-- and what was that, anyway? That bloody babble that came out of his mouth?" Will continued, unaware that Kay had tuned him out for a few minutes. "It didn't make sense. Did it make sense to you? It didn't make sense to me. I mean, it's Merlin. If he wanted to get someone's attention, he'd get their bloody attention. You saw what he did to the house. He's back the way he was. He's got his... you know..."

Will made a complicated jazz-hands abracadabra woo-woo gesture with his hands and wriggled his eyebrows in an expression that didn't look anything but completely psychotic.

"... so nothing's stopping him, yeah? He's not limited to a stupid Vulcan mind-meld --"

"You need physical contact for a Vulcan mind-meld," Kay said, instead of what he was really thinking: What if something was stopping him? What if he can't do much more? What if he's too hurt to do anything else? He suspected that the thought crossed Will's mind, too, because Will shut up and didn't say much more until the next stop.

They got off the train and followed the crowd to the exit. It wasn't until they were out into the open air, jostled by pedestrians heading in the opposite direction and bracing themselves for the long walk to Gaius' house, that Will spoke up again.

"Maybe I'm jealous. I mean. Pendragon?"

Kay smirked.

"Why Pendragon? Of all the useless blokes on the face of the planet, why the fuck would Merlin contact him?"

"They're close," Kay said.

Will snorted.

"You haven't seen them together," Kay said.

"So they're shagging like rabbits, it doesn't mean they're bloody soul-mates," Will snapped.

Kay clenched his jaw. There was something in Will's tone. If it wasn't for how Merlin and Will were together, Kay would think that Will was being anything but brotherly. Kay didn't have any siblings of his own -- all his foster brothers and sisters didn't count, none of them except for Kathy, and he knew how annoyingly protective he could be whenever Kathy brought home a date. Granted, it hadn't been often, and he'd made a point not to be around when she invited her latest over for a family dinner, but he understood Will's sentiment.

He didn't trust anyone with his best friend. Kay didn't trust anyone with his Kathy, either. But as far as Kay was concerned, if Kathy ever found someone who looked at her the way Arthur looked at Merlin -- the way Merlin looked at Arthur -- he would be happy for her.

He'd grouse about it, he'd fume and stomp, and he'd be a pillock to the bloke, no different than Will was being now, but he'd be happy for her. Will would be, too, once he realized what the two of them meant to each other.

"So where are we going? You've got a plan?"

"'Course I don't. Who do you think you're with? Prince Prat?" Will smacked him in the chest -- right where he still had a blooming, but fading bruise, and it stung -- and veered course, heading toward a little shop. The front window was covered in security bars and packed with electronics. In the upper right hand corner, an obnoxious neon OPEN sign blinked in and out. "Wait here, I'll be right back."

Kay wandered up the street, paused, and came back, because people noticed when someone loitered, but when someone was going with the flow and turning back, well, it was annoying, but by the time anyone thought to get more than a glance at his face, they would be half a block ahead and in no mood to turn back. Kay did that twice before Will emerged from the shop, already peeling a disposable cell phone with pre-paid minutes out of its packaging, tossing it in the nearest rubbish bin just as Kay fell in step with him.

Will dialled a number and brought the mobile to his ear. He listened for a few seconds before thumbing in a complicated string of numbers and listened again.

They crossed an intersection -- or they tried to, because Will stopped in the middle of the road.

"Dad! It's me. What do you mean, who's this? How many sons do you have? Is this your way of telling me I've got a half-brother hidden away somewhere?" Angry motorists leaned against their horn, and Will's voice rose until he was shouting toward the end, throwing his free arm in the air.

The driver of an ancient, held-together-by-rust Jaguar stuck his head out of the side window and yelled, "Get out of the way, you idiot!"

Kay grabbed Will's arm and dragged him to the kerb, not letting go until he'd pushed Will against the wall of a building, getting out of the way of a wave of people rushing to catch the tram. They didn't need to attract more attention.

Will didn't seem to have noticed that Kay had kept him from turning into road kill, because he was in a vehement argument with Allan. "Of course I'm all right, or else why would I be calling? God, no, Dad. I don't need money. What's wrong with you? I'm an undercover double-agent with some sort of alphabet soup covert secret organization that even the Queen herself doesn't know about and MI-5 or 6 or whatever it is they've numbered themselves now, and the best you can come up with is, do you need money?"

Kay rubbed his forehead. He didn't know whose bright idea it had been to bring Will into the fold and to use him on a mission. It might have been smart in the beginning -- it seemed to have worked out, at least. Kay didn't doubt that if Will hadn't been there, Aredian's men would have done far more damage to him and to Merlin. Except for one thing: obviously, Will skipped secret agent class the day they talked about the importance of being discreet.

"No, all right, shut it, I've had it with you harping in my ear. If you're answering this number you've gotten the fuck out, so, well done. Where are you in any case?" Will paused, rolling his eyes dramatically. He looked at Kay and pointed at his phone in an expression that could only be interpreted as do you believe him? before returning his attention to the phone. "No, of course not, I'm not asking you to tell me where you are over an unsecured line, and no, I'm bloody well not stupid, this is a disposable --"

Kay shook his head, feeling somewhat nauseous. He leaned against the wall and crouched down, letting his duffel bag hit the ground.

Someone dropped a few coins at his feet and kept on walking past; he wondered if he really looked that bad.

He picked up the coins anyway.

Kay was only dimly aware that the conversation that Will was having with his father had segued into a shouting match in Welsh. He mused on the fact that Welsh really was a good language for cryptographers, because it had its own improbable syllables and spelling and was couched in a long history of myths and legends and metaphors. It was a bit like the Navajo code talkers during the second World War, he supposed.

Just a bit more infuriating, given, well, Will.

Eventually, the shouting stopped, the dramatic arm gestures eased, and Will hung up the phone, tapping Kay on the head.

"All right, that's one done. Let's go," he said. Will didn't wait for Kay; he marched resolutely down the road.

Kay debated the merits of letting Will go on his own and decided that they still needed to find Gaius. He caught up -- dropping the coins from earlier into the hat of a busker who really was misplaced, he'd have more luck closer to the station -- and asked, "So your dad's safe?"

"Yeah, he bailed. Says he was gone in an hour after your lot took off after Hunith, had that much confidence in them, blah blah blah. Shut down the farm for a while, left the far gates open so that the neighbours can watch the cows, passed the word out to the rest of his old crew. He's out at the bunker where they're keeping Vivian, says she's a right prissy bitch, doesn't know how anyone can stand her --"

"All right," Kay said, hoping it would stop Will's ramble. "Did he say anything about Gaius?"

"I didn't ask," Will said.

"Why not?"

"'Cause if Gaius were kidnapped, it's not like they're going to call my dad with a ransom demand. And if he's run off because something smells rotten in London, he's still not going to ring up my dad and say, Hullo, I'm in a bit of a pinch, mind if I drop by for a cuppa. No, what he's going to do is --"

Kay spotted the van first. He grabbed Will's arm and yanked him behind the building. Will shot him an angry scowl before he noticed that someone was watching Gaius' flat.

"-- I have no idea, to be honest, but that answers the question, yeah? Nobody thinks that he's been taken, so that means he's done a runner," Will said.

"Or they're waiting for us," Kay said. And, since he was the one making a spectacle of them even on the relatively empty residential streets, he let go of Will and straightened himself up. "All right, here are our options --"

He turned around, but Will was already on the phone.

"What are you --" Kay snatched the phone from Will's hand. "What are you doing?"

"Taking care of the situation. What do you think?"

"You're not taking care of the situation. There is no situation. If anything, you were going to cause a situation," Kay snapped.

Will gave him a hurt look before his expression coloured. "What do you mean, I'm going to cause a situation? I'm here because Pendragon wants me to find Gaius, and you're just incidental --"

"I'm not --"

"You are, you're a crippled little fuck, couldn't do much until Lucan got you that healing potion, and, really, when did this turn into some sort of Diablo game? Because I'm waiting for someone to show up with a resurrection scroll --"

"Will you shut it?" Kay's eyes flicked to movement down the street, coming their way. From the glimpses he got between fencing and trees, it was a man Leon's height, but with stoop-shoulders hunched almost to his ears, his coat collar flicked up against the wind. That wasn't what triggered a warning. It was the way his eyes swept left and right, left and right, perpetually scanning until he found something that matched his search parameters.

An agent, then, probably young, like the one that Lance had told him about when the team had captured Vivian. Kay wished he'd been there to see it for himself.

God. He hated Vivian. She was a prissy little bitch just like Will said. She always flaunted her tits and threw them at whoever she fancied at the moment. She'd never fancied Kay, but Kay sure as shite had fancied her tits. It was hard not to, considering that her tits made the perfection list, right under Morgana's.

The team figured that the other bloke that Vivian had been with was a junior agent, or someone who had washed out of MI-5. It was well within Olaf's character to contact rejected applicants to the service and dangle a second chance in front of them without telling them what they were really getting in for.

A more experienced agent would at least not be as obvious as this one.

That wasn't the problem, though. Whether the man coming toward them worked for Olaf or the Directory or the NWO, Kay and Will ran the risk of being identified, and wouldn't that just be keen, blowing everyone's cover the bloody second they got into town?

"What are you looking at?" Will asked, and he started to turn around.

Kay could grab Will and yank him away and they could give their backs to the man walking in their direction, which was not in any way suspicious at all. There wasn't anywhere they could duck into to hide in time without bolting and catching the man's attention. The man would have to be bloody blind not to notice them. If he didn't recognize Will and Kay right away, he'd figure out who they were soon enough.

So Kay did the next best thing. If he didn't want to be noticed -- if he didn't want Will to be recognized -- then they had to do something that would be noticed more. An experienced agent wouldn't be swayed, would notice everything, but Kay was counting on the man being distracted by --

Kay grabbed Will's coat and yanked him close He smashed a kiss on Will's lips and hoped to God that Will realized that this wasn't a come-on, that he would play along.

There was surprised yelp -- muffled, of course, and thank fuck for that, or it would have given it away -- and Will's body tensed. At first, there was nothing but an uncomfortable press of mouths trying to fit together, one daring the other to do something first, and finally, there was the faintest huff of breath before Will tilted his head ever so slightly and let Kay pull him the rest of the way in.

It was... a dry, artificial, mechanical kiss, with all the form and function and none of the passion. They both might as well have been kissing a mannequin or a CPR resuscitation doll, but damned if either of them were going to give anything but their best performance. Will leaned against Kay; there was a bit of teeth in a kiss that suddenly turned open-mouthed, with tongue pressing insistently against Kay's shut lips. Kay snarled, and alternated between shoving Will away just enough to adjust his position before pulling Will back in to get his tongue in Will's mouth. Will made a startled, surprised sound, and a tongue war broke out, trying to stop Kay's invasion.

Will might have grown up with Merlin, but Kay had had to put up with Gwaine and his antics for a damned long time, but Kay was willing to bet he was far more inured to this sort of thing than Will. He was not going to back down.

Kay let go of Will's jacket and snaked one hand behind his neck, holding him in place just as he tried to retreat. Kay felt -- and heard -- Will gag, as he relaxed slightly and caved in, as he --

Will's hands gripped Kay's hips so hard that it hurt, torn between holding Kay close and throwing him off. He did just that less than a minute later when the man walked past, looking away from them.

They met each other's eyes.

Kay took in the frazzled mess of Will's hair, the rumpled look of his clothes, the red and the wet of his mouth. He didn't imagine that he looked much better himself.

Abruptly, they both looked away.

Kay bent down and picked up the duffel he'd dropped when he grabbed Will; Will adjusted his clothes and rebalanced the weight of his own bag. They both started walking in the opposite direction by mutual unspoken agreement.

Will cleared his throat and spoke first. "Don't know why we went there in the first place. Clearly, Gaius isn't at his house, and the Directory or whoever didn't find anything to lead them to him."

"Your idea," Kay muttered. He nodded to himself in agreement. They weren't going to talk about the kiss. The kiss was not a subject of conversation. They were denying the kiss ever happened. "Got any other bright ones?"

Will wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve; Kay did the same a second later, passing his hand over his mouth.

"I suppose there's a few places we can try, easier if I make a few calls somewhere that's not in the open," Will said. "Come on, I know a place."

The place in question turned out to be a crowded coffee shop full of university students, every table taken. It was standing-room only in an atmosphere that heavy in roasted, fresh-ground beans and the sickly-sweetness of caramel and whipped cream. While Kay waited for their order, Will headed to the rear of the room and came back with several pages out of a phone book.

"Good morning, this is your friendly neighbourhood telemarketer and no don't hang up --" Will stared at the mobile and dialed the next number on his list.

"Good morning, I'm wondering if you'd be interested in --"

"Hello, I'm a male stripper and I'm offering free shows to drum up business --"

"Would you be interested in receiving a free high speed internet package for the low, low price of --"

Kay sipped his coffee and pulled one of the sheets out from the pile. It was a long list of names, a page from the "ME" section of the phone book. It was hard to tell who Will was calling, because it seemed to be completely at random.

"Good morning, I apologize if I'm interrupting an early-morning booty call --"

"Good morning, this is the concierge, and I appear to have fucked up your breakfast order --"

"This is your favourite loudmouth from Capital FM, here to let you know that you've won a trip to a pig farm --"

Will flipped a sheet and ran a finger down a long sheet of paper before he settled on another block of names. "I don't actually know how to spell her last name," he said.

"Who?"

"Hell-o, are you the young lady who left your phone number under my windshield wiper last night --"

There was a small pause and Will's face split into a grin.

"Alice! Alice, is that you? Fancy that, the last I heard, you were somewhere in the Siberian wilderness, communing with nature. I didn't know you were back in London. When did you -- What do you mean, who is this? It's me. It's Will. You can't possibly have forgotten me, I'm the one who trampled your rose bushes --"

Will winced.

"-- actually, forget I said that. It was totally not me. Anyway, I'm back in town temporarily and I can't seem to remember the address of a mutual friend of ours. You know the one --"

Will paused the way Kay had seen him do when he fully meant to let the other party fill in the silence, but it didn't appear to work because his shoulders sagged and he rolled his eyes.

"Really? You're going to make me come up with random innuendo that's possibly sexual in nature in an attempt to convey a message over a telephone that might be bugged? I distinctly recall you asking me many times to stop. You even offered me money."

Will made an urgent give me motion with his hand, and Kay raised a brow. Impatient, Will tucked the phone between his ear and his shoulder, tore a piece of white paper from the phonebook pages, and yanked a pen out of a pretty girl's hand to jot down an address.

"Life or death, my love. Life or death. You may have averted a national crisis," Will said when he hung up his mobile and returned the pen to the startled girl. "While I'm at it, do you think I could have your number?"

"For fuck's sake," Kay said, shaking his head. He finished his coffee while Will chatted up the ladies at the table, and unbelievably, one of them actually did give Will her phone number. Either that, or a fake number to get rid of him.

Will shouldered his duffel bag and they squeezed their way out of the coffee shop; they ended up in the Underground again by the time either of them spoke.

"Alice is Gaius' girlfriend, yeah?" Kay asked.

"Yeah, though they've been together a million years -- knew each other back when dinosaurs walked the earth, I guess, so they might as well be married for all I know," Will said, his eyes darting up and down the empty train car; for once, they were the only ones there. "Didn't expect to get her, to be honest. I was planning on trying everyone that I remembered, and it just happens she was first on my list."

"And we're meeting her?"

"We're meeting her somewhere," Will said. "She said, I have company, and I don't have time for this bollocks of yours, kid. We're heading out tonight and I need to get ready, and I'm hoping to get lucky, if you know what I mean, so you're not allowed to call me again today. Tonight. And definitely don't call early tomorrow, because I'm getting laid if it's the last thing that I do, do you hear me?"

Kay's eyebrow shot up so high that his forehead twinged; he might have sprained his eyebrow. "She said all that?"

"What? No." Will made a face and shook his head. "I was paraphrasing."

"Oh. All right."

"She was way more crude. So much more. Like you wouldn't believe. I can't even repeat it."

Kay gave Will a sidelong glance and decided that he really didn't want to know. "She has a guest."

Will made a resolute nod. "That's what she said."

"Think it's Gaius?"

Will shook his head, shrugged, made an I don’t think so grimace that morphed into It's entirely possible, another shrug and a nod. Then, he said, "Who knows."

Kay stared at him for a long time before moving a seat away from Will, shaking his head. "I don't know how Merlin put up with you all this time."

"Oi, I'll have you know, I was the one put out of sorts, yeah? Always bending over backwards for that boy --" Will paused. "And not in that way. Definitely not in that way."

"You're the one who went there first, mate," Kay said.

"Only because I knew you were thinking it," Will said, spreading his hands in protest. "I'm not into blokes."

"I don't know, that kiss was actually pretty good," Kay said. "You must have had lots of practice."

"Yeah. No! No! With girls, all right? Girls. I don't kiss blokes."

"I don't know who you're trying to convince, but whatever helps you sleep at night," Kay said, fighting to hide his smirk.

"I sleep at night just fine --"

"I'm sure you do," Kay said. "Dreaming about worshipping my dick, I bet."

"What! If anyone's worshipping anyone's dick, you are. I'll have you on your knees sucking my cock --" the doors opened and two attractive young women in business suits walked in. One of them raised a brow; the other didn't appear to have heard what Will had said. The one whispered to the other, and they both went to sit some distance away, shooting appraising looks their way. Will groaned and buried his hands in his face for a few seconds before sitting up straight and telling them, "It's not like that."

"Oh, so it's like that, then? You're ashamed of me? I can't believe I put out for you. I should've known that your drunken confession of your undying love for me was just that, a drunken confession," Kay said, his voice in a flat monotone. He turned to the two women. "It was exactly like that. He let me do whatever I wanted to him --"

"You're such an arse," Will said.

"You love my arse."

The two women smirked.

"I never said that."

"You eye-fuck my arse whenever I walk past."

"I don't."

"You do."

"I don't. It's not that nice of an arse," Will said.

"What. My arse is perfect."

More people came on the train at the next stop, and Kay grudgingly gave up on the teasing and sat closer to Will. "So, we're meeting her now?"

"No, in a while," Will said, glancing at his watch and sighed. "Three, four hours, maybe. What are we going to do for the next three, four hours? I'm in no mood to call Olaf. I'll do it tomorrow, when I've got my head on right."

"I'm bloody well not sitting in the tube waiting," Kay said. "Give me the phone."

Will handed it over. There was barely a bar; it kept flashing in and out. Kay squinted up at the map and patted Will's shoulder until Will snarled an irritated what do you want now, my pants?

Let's switch tracks," Kay said.

"Why?"

"Let's just --" Kay stood up, duffel bag in hand, and left the train; Will scrambled after him. Kay went through the maze of tunnels to the next train, keeping an eye on the bars on the mobile. Once the signal was stronger, he dialled a number. It was picked up after three rings.

"Beth speaking."

"Hi Beth, is Kat there? Can you give her your phone?"

"Is this Pete? How did you get my number? You know what, never mind, I don't care. Don't call this number again. If you want to try and make up for your fuck-ups, call her on her own bloody mobile, you plonker --"

"Don't you dare hang up, or I'll make sure to superglue every door in your flat this time, not just your bedroom," Kay said.

Beth was Kathy's boss, though the last he heard, Kathy had put in enough capital to become a partner in the small occult shop. They catered to all levels of clientele, from the teenage curious to the several covens in the area; they were close enough to several campuses to get frequent business. Their incense and jewellery section was the biggest draw.

"Kay?" There was a dead silence for a second, a scramble across the room. "Christ on a fucking pogo stick. Where have you been? She's been worrying herself sick --"

"Just put her on."

"Why didn't you call her? Kathy! Don't tell me you've lost her number --"

"It might be --" monitored, Kay had been about to say, but he had to yank the mobile from his ear when Beth screeched at her highest volume.

"Kathy! It's your boyfriend --"

Kay blinked several times. Boyfriend? Beth damn well knew that they were foster siblings and nothing more, why would she even --

There was a loud thunk and clatter on the other end of the line, a scramble of footfalls, a hissing shriek between two women at a pitch Kay hadn't thought was even humanely possible, and the sound of a door slamming. He could hear someone taking a deep breath, then another, and it was a husky whisper that finally greeted him.

"Kay, is that you?"

"Hi, Kat," Kay said, suddenly at a loss for words. But that was all right, because Kathy blurted on as if he hadn't said anything at all.

"You're in town. Tell me you're in town. And you're calling Beth and not me because you think I'm being watched and you're right, I am, but not all the time, and less and less lately, if you know what I mean. My flat's not safe, but you could go to Beth's --"

"She won't mind?"

There was a pause before Kathy responded; he heard muffled voices, but it was hard to tell over that New Age music that was playing in the background. Will started walking in the wrong direction; Kay caught him, tilted his head, and guided him to a different connection.

"As long as you're not gluing her doors shut, and when the Hell did that ever happen? Why would you do that?"

"When she put that love potion in my drink," Kay said, and beside him, Will burst out laughing. Kay shot Will a look and a scowl that only sent him into conniptions. "I don't know what she was thinking, and she must've bollocksed it up somehow, because the most attraction I've ever had for her was when she jammed her tits right in my face at that Faire, and I don't care what she says, she did not trip --"

Kay trailed off when he realized that Kathy wasn't listening to him. He heard snatches of conversation -- "… love potion?... I know I didn't have … permission… Why would you… hurry things along… mind your own business… getting tired of all this… serves you right if he glues everything in your flat …"

Finally, Kathy came back on the line. "You know where she keeps the spare key, yeah?"

"If all else fails, I'll kick the door in," Kay said.

"You would," Kathy said.

"Are you going to come over later?" Kay asked. "Because if you do, be careful, watch yourself, use some of that witchy stuff you used that one time when I couldn't follow you --"

"You told me never to use it again --"

"That's when you're dating plonkers I don't trust, that's when," Kay said, scowling. He could feel the rush of air as the train approached, and he knew he'd lose the signal on the cheap disposable as soon as he stepped on board. "Just do it, make sure you're not followed, and do me a favour?"

"What is it now?"

"I need another pendant." Kay glanced at Will and remembered Gwen and Morgana. "Actually, four more? Same as they were before. One of them's for me. I, er. Lost the other one?"

"You lost the other one," Kathy said, and Kay winced at her unimpressed tone. He could picture her in his mind's eye, standing one hand on her hip, one foot stuck out, an eyebrow raised, a glance heavenward in a plea to the Goddess or whomever to spare her fools.

"More like it was stolen," Kay muttered under his breath. "Look, I've got a mate with me, we'll be at Beth's in an hour, don't do anything out of the ordinary, don't leave work early --"

"Blah blah blah, yes, I know. Pick up some takeaway if you're hungry, Beth says she's got nothing in the flat." Kathy hung up.

The train came to a screeching stop and the doors clanked open. Kay handed the phone back to Will, who was smirking.

"Love potion, huh?"

"Oh, shut it. Let's go," Kay said.

 

ooOOoo

 

Saturday, 1215 hours

 

Merlin sat slouched over the hard drive and poked at it uselessly with a miniature screwdriver. He didn't understand why he'd been given tools, of all things. He needed a bloody computer. Preferably his own computer, but he wouldn't volunteer information until someone asked him a specific question, and, so far, no one was speaking directly to him.

His new accommodations -- such as they were -- could be considered more comfortable than any he'd had thus far. There was a Queen size bed, for one thing, and the sheets were freshly laundered, the bed made with hospital corners and covered with a plush comforter. The pillows didn't look as if anyone had pissed on them, and there was an en-suite bathroom. There were windows letting in direct light, and if not for the blackout ceiling-to-floor curtains that covered the balcony door, Merlin would probably have woken up with the dawn.

He'd woken up before the dawn, but that was beside the point.

The point was, he was being kept prisoner in a semi-secluded three-storey gated house that was, for all intents and purposes, a bloody mansion. From what he'd seen earlier, the house sprawled across enough property for three townhouses lined up next to each other like dominos. There were other homes nearby, just as opulent, and those properties were separated by a very green and perfectly manicured lawn, cement and brickwork fencing, and greenery.

There was a lot of greenery. A lot of coverage. Merlin thought that the G's would have a field day playing hide and seek with the guards.

He hadn't seen much of the mansion itself when they'd arrived the day before. One of Aredian's lackeys had stormed in from wherever he'd been watching their approach, directed several guards to taking Merlin to what seemed like a master bedroom but was probably more of a servant's room, and had barked for Mordred to come with him. Now.

All that he had managed to see of the house so far were the bare walls, the spiral staircase and the winding corridors. While he waited, he took another shower -- the water pressure had been bloody luxurious, particularly now that the majority of his bruises had faded and all that remained was a dull, throbbing ache in his ribcage. He'd puttered around the room, opening and closing every drawer in the dresser and the bathrooms; he'd confirmed that the closet was large enough to hide him, if only it weren't so empty.

Merlin had spent some time checking out his injuries now that he had the privacy to do so. He really had healed -- what was probably several weeks' worth of recuperation had been taken care of in a few slow, torturous hours. Merlin made a mental note to ask Mordred the ingredients of the healing tincture; he was certain that Gaius would like to have the recipe for his continuing experiments.

He'd been fed and watered that morning -- eggs on toast, with a side of bacon and strong coffee served blacker than he liked, but he wasn't turning up his nose at something semi-decent, for a change -- and given enough time to wash up before the guards came for him again. This time, though, he was invited to join them in the main dining room where the hard drive sat on a crocheted lace tablecloth and a rolling belt of tools had been laid out.

One of Aredian's guards walked closer; Merlin ducked his head down and covered his eyes, trying his best to maintain his act. He tapped the screwdriver on the edge of the hard drive and made a quiet "Hm-hm" noise to make it look like he was doing what he was told. Once the guard walked past, Merlin glanced up and around long enough to notice that nothing had changed.

The Face -- Merlin couldn't even remember the name that the others had called him by, his perpetually-flickering face was too distracting -- was sitting on the other end of the long table, leaning back and making occasional noises. Merlin imagined that he was sneering; it was just hard to tell when someone didn't have a bloody face. He tapped his fingers impatiently on the table, as if that was meant to bother Merlin, and he stood up and paced the room a few times before sitting down again.

The Face's antics had been on a lather, rinse, repeat cycle ever since Merlin had been brought downstairs. It was just after lunch, if Merlin's grumbling belly was any sort of accurate time-keeping device, and he'd been sitting on his arse on a hard wooden chair for the last five hours without a break. He'd opened the hard drive's casing; he'd disassembled the components that could be disassembled; he'd worried off every bit of glued-on piece. Then he'd put it all back together.

Twice.

(He forgot a screw the first time.)

But in five hours, nothing had changed. It was Merlin, several guards on a rotating schedule, and the Face in the dining room, with no other instructions than, "Fix it." When he tried to explain that he needed a bloody computer, for fuck's sake, he was shushed even before he could get out word one.

So he sat some more. He drummed an inconsistent pattern on the plastic cover of the hard drive. He napped -- for five seconds. He wondered where Aredian was and where Mordred was and where Cennydd had gone. He stretched out his legs, he stood up once to crack his back, he changed chairs to see if the others were any more comfortable. They weren't.

He tried everything he could to not think about why he'd woken up that morning.

Arthur.

Merlin had woken up drowsy, confused, reaching out for something he knew should be there but wasn't, if the cold, empty expanse of the bed next to him was anything to go by. He'd idly swatted the air and muttered, not time yet, five more minutes, only to feel a transient press and pull that he couldn't place. He had woken up a bit more, sitting up in the bed that he'd become more and more aware wasn't his own, and stared at the sliver of light coming through the blackout curtains of the balcony before his current situation sank in a rush.

And then, there it was, that presence, that awareness, that whisper -- Merlin --

"Arthur?" Merlin had said, feeling a bit stupid, because why would Arthur be here, in this posh house that belonged to Aredian, when he --

That had been when Merlin had sat up bolt upright, looking around wildly and desperately, half-afraid that someone in this building could sense Arthur's presence through the bond. Sanity and logic and intelligence had returned after a frantic gasp, because there was no way anyone would be able to sense this connection that he had with Arthur. It transcended even magic.

But if Arthur had been calling his name, if Merlin had been able to feel him, that meant that Arthur had figured out how to track him through the bond, something that he'd wanted Merlin to teach him a long time ago.

Merlin wished that he hadn't been so bloody cryptic when he had explained how it worked. Hell, if anything, it had been more of a not-explanation than an explanation, and he couldn't help but feel unbelievably proud of Arthur's cleverness and awed by his determination.

Something must have happened, because the connection had been broken and lost, and even though Merlin could have chased Arthur across the bond to feel him again, it hadn't seemed as if Arthur could feel him.

Arthur had done it, though. On his own. It left Merlin with a giddy pleasure that went far beyond mere pride. And if Arthur could do it once, he could do it again and again until it became an unconscious habit, until that awareness permeated his senses, until it was second nature.

That knowledge had left Merlin struggling for the rest of the morning -- to maintain his cover, to keep from smiling, to concentrate. There were things that he was needed for -- Mordred had explained it in greater detail the closer they came to their destination, but as soon as Merlin parked in front of the house, Mordred had fallen silent, turning suddenly stoic and distant.

"Do what I say, no matter what it is," Mordred had told him when they got out of the car. He had taken Merlin's arm and led him up the stairs before delivering him to Aredian's men.

Merlin still wasn't convinced that Mordred's intentions were pure. It was too elaborate a plot, too far-reaching a history, with everything too muddled to make sense, to see where everyone fit in. Still, there were just enough elements to his story to make it plausible, to make it believable, and Merlin…

When it came down to it, when it came time to sending Arthur a signal -- even if he could send a signal, despite Mordred's assurances that he would make certain he had the tools required -- Merlin wasn't certain he wanted to do it. He didn't want to put Arthur at risk. The team. Anyone.

Merlin tapped the plastic cover of the hard drive with the small screwdriver and covered his eyes with his hand. He wished he knew what he had to do, what plans that Arthur might have, how he could help. Maybe if Merlin was the one to reach out for Arthur, to keep the connection stable, they could talk actually... talk? Merlin wasn't even sure how that had even been possible. He had never heard of anyone being able to hear the other through a bond. To be aware of the other, yes, but...

The mood changed in the room. It was too early for a shift change, but the guards left one by one and didn't return. Face sat up straighter, brushing his hair back and smoothing down his shirt. Taking this as a cue, Merlin knuckled an eye and lowered his hand.

Aredian was in the doorway, his fists on his hips, blocking the entrance. Behind him and off to the side was Mordred, his body turned away, his head down. Mordred scratched an eyebrow, and what Merlin could make out of Mordred's expression amounted to intense boredom.

Merlin rubbed his other eye and kept rubbing as he sat back in his chair, putting down the screwdriver and. He slumped a little, his elbows on the armrests and his shoulders to his ears; his body was partially hidden under the table, helping him make himself look as small and as non-threatening as possible.

There was some sort of a standoff going on, but Merlin refused to look up to confirm. Time trickled past in awkward tick-athunk from a Grandfather clock that was just out of sight. The man with the blurry illusion over his face -- Jacob? -- squirmed uncomfortably and tried to start a conversation with aborted ahems, and Mordred exhaled an impatient sigh.

"Well?" Aredian said.

When no one answered, Merlin tentatively looked up. Aredian was staring directly at him, and once he saw that Merlin was paying attention, he raised a brow and tilted his head.

Merlin sucked his lower lip and nibbled at it, his eyes darting all over the table except at the hard drive. He pushed himself up into a more acceptable sitting position, but kept his body slumped, slouched, and bowed.

"I don't know what you expect me to do," Merlin said in the smallest voice that he could manage. He made a quick, furtive gesture at the hard drive. "There's nothing physically wrong with it except for a couple of dings on the case where I guess he got mad."

By him, Merlin meant Face, who sat up noisily, scowled darkly and cleared his throat repeatedly, but he didn't get a word out before Aredian. "Did you describe the problem?"

"I did. Of course I did." Face snorted and gestured dismissively toward Merlin. "Maybe he's not as smart as everyone thinks he is."

"Excuse you," Merlin said, sitting up a little straighter, because it didn't matter how intimidated or beaten he was supposed to be. No one insulted him. That was non-negotiable. "You want me to fix a problem on a hard drive. Fine. The hard drive's non-responsive. Cool. Maybe something got loose. Maybe you burned out the solid-state. Maybe the cooling fan up and died or maybe it short-circuited because you jacked off on it. Not my problem."

Merlin flicked a quick glance in Aredian's direction. Aredian was unimpressed. Mordred was fighting a smirk.

"But I told you. You tried to crack the drive. The password hacks didn't work. The cheap decrypt module you got off the Interwebs didn't work. Your own personal version of the sneak and grab?"

Merlin paused dramatically.

"Fail."

Merlin poked at the hard drive. It bounce a little on the table.

"You knocked on the back door and it got slammed in your face." Merlin shrugged. "Blame the hardware if you want, but if you ask me? If you fucked up, you fucked up. Be a man. Own your mistakes. And get me a fucking computer if you want me to fix it."

No one said anything. It seemed as if no one was breathing except for Merlin. Merlin shook his head, ran a hand behind his head, and systematically started putting away all the tools that he'd taken out but hadn't needed, filling in all the little slots in the roll-up satchel.

"Told you to leave it alone, you fucking plonker. You didn't listen. You made it worse. It weren't me, it were your incompetent --"

The Face surged to his feet with a snarl, coming at Merlin; his chair scraped along the floor, and from the feel and sound of it, he'd left gouges in the hardwood. Aredian's gaze drifted down. When he looked up again, he tilted his head, less than impressed.

"Bring him your laptop," Aredian said.

"What? You -- what? Give him my lappy? Are you fucking bonk--" Face whirled around. His rant cut short under Aredian's withering gaze. Face lowered his head and hunched his shoulders and muttered a feeble, "I'll be right back."

They waited in silence for a long time.

"In my experience, it has always been more expedient to allow someone to have the use of the best tools to resolve a dilemma. Jonathan, surely in this case you can agree that returning his equipment -- as I have asked -- would be best," Mordred said. His voice was pitched low and wasn't meant to carry, but it did carry. Aredian turned to give Mordred an imperious glare, but he didn't answer him.

Face returned with his laptop, practically flinging it across the table at Merlin; the power cord and adapter came tumbling right after it. He started to storm out of the room when Aredian asked, "Where do you think you're going?"

"I'm not sitting around to watch him massacre my lappy --"

"You will sit and you will observe to ensure that he doesn't do anything untoward," Aredian said. "Disable the network. Encrypt your files. Do whatever you need to ensure that he only works on the hard drive."

"Right. Thanks for telling me my business," Face said.

Aredian gave him a cold look.

Face fidgeted before releasing a stuttering exhalation. "Right. I'll just... do whatever."

There was a strained tension in the room while Face booted the computer from an USB memory stick that he wore around his neck and locked down the system to its bare bones. It didn't take very long -- or at least, it shouldn't -- but Face was working slowly, double and triple-checking his own work before gruffly shoving the laptop at Merlin. He pulled a chair and sat down uncomfortably close to Merlin; Merlin could barely put his hands on the keyboard without Face being in the way.

"Do you mind?" Merlin asked.

"No, not at all," Face said, showing teeth in an absurd grimace that resembled a melting Salvador Dali painting. Between that ugly smile and the ever-shifting features that Merlin was convinced had to be the result of a curse, Merlin wanted to hurl.

He very nearly did, hiccupping a little to keep the bile down, and ignored Face as much as he could.

Face's laptop didn't look like much, at least not on the outside. It had a cheap, no-name brand casing. It was covered in dings and scrapes. There were corners held together with duct tape. The camera had been removed. Several of the ports had been modified for high speed firewire, the DVD player had been exchanged for a different model that didn't quite fit, and there was a slot along the side, open like a gaping wound, where an external card needed to go. The screen resolution was shite, there were a few burnt-out pixels, and the keyboard clicked as Merlin typed.

He navigated through the Unix operating system and opened the system parameters.

"You don't need to see that," Face snarled.

Merlin gave him a disgusted look. "I've got to know what this can do before I do shite that will burn it, don't I?"

The staring match lasted all of ten seconds -- any longer and Merlin really would have thrown up his breakfast all over the table, the hard drive, the laptop, with a good splatter on Face himself for good measure -- before Face turned away, capitulating.

Under the hood, the laptop was a combination of a hacker's dreams -- two years ago. The massive hard drive was in the high Gigabytes, the RAM acceptable for an off-the-shelf laptop, the network broadcast and receive capabilities bordering on the embarrassing. It would do for what Merlin needed to do, which was figure out what damage had been done to the hard drive.

The files within the Pendragon database on the portable hard drive was protected by an encryption key, but access to the database itself was protected by several additional layers of security. Face had tried to hack his way through the initial password screen, and when that failed, he'd tried to access the database through a backdoor. Tampering the backdoor had initiated a third layer of security that no password -- not even the one that Merlin had given Aredian -- could circumvent.

At most, that password had given Aredian access to a superficial directory and just enough access to see how badly Face had mucked up. It would still take time to fix it, and fixing the hard drive...

Merlin wondered if he could use the situation to stall for extra time.

He skimmed through the installed programs, found a few that were shareware off Hackers.net, but useless for what he needed. A bit of exploring through the hidden files -- and ignoring Face's increasingly high-pitched protests -- led him to the programs that Face had written himself. Merlin opened them up one by one. At this point, Face was so furious that the blur protecting his identity was a bright red smear.

"Look, shut it," Merlin said, losing his temper. He waved a hand at the laptop. "I can't get on the 'net to get half-decent programs to work my way backward through your fuck up, and I don't have the time to write a routine to do the work for me, so I've got to make do with what you've got, which isn't much, but it'll have to do."

The proprietary squeal from Face wasn't human, but Merlin ignored it. He was only peripherally aware of Aredian speaking and Face forcing himself to shut up, of Aredian leaving the room and Mordred going with him, of the guards drifting into the dining room, resuming their earlier posts.

He didn't care about any of it because he burrowed deep into the laptop's logs; hidden files that Face really should have taken more care to remove but were child's play to restore. Merlin went through several of the text files until he found those that related directly to attempts to crack the hard drive, and he scrolled backwards, scoffing and shaking his head in increasing disbelief at the hit-and-miss approach. It was as if he were watching a blind man driving down a busy street with no brakes and no power steering.

Damn the torpedoes, and full speed ahead.

"Who trained you how to hack?" Merlin asked, shooting Face a sideways glance. "A baboon?"

"I'll have you know that there's three international agencies after me, because I'm that good," Face snapped.

"Yeah, as a comedy act. They want you to do an encore," Merlin said.

"Fuck you, it's not as if you've got anyone after you," Face said.

"'Cause I'm so good, they haven't figured out I exist yet," Merlin retorted. "I don't have to go around looking as if I'm a freakshow reject --"

His words touched a nerve. Face lunged at him with a strangled shout, his hands squeezing around Merlin's throat. Merlin suppressed his trained instincts to defend himself and disable the attacker, opting for slaps and scratches. His magic threatened to rise up and devastate the building, and it was a struggle to keep Face from suffocating him and his magic from turning into something Hydra-headed and hungry.

Merlin coughed and gasped. His vision greyed around the edges. It blurred. His chest burned. He managed a few strangled sounds -- presumably they sounded enough like help me -- before one of the guards hauled Face away, leaving fresh scratches and bruises behind.

Merlin doubled over. This time he threw up.

The guards scattered -- none of them wanted to get half-digested eggs or bile on their boots and nice trousers, Merlin supposed -- but they kept watch on him. It was only faintly that he could hear Face hollering, "Did you hear what he said to me?" but whoever he was talking to didn't seem interested. Merlin coughed again, and it triggered dry heaves that cramped his stomach and tightened his torso until it felt as if he were in a compressor, every wracking movement making everything hurt again.

His ribs were the worst.

Someone crouched down next to him and put a cold, damp towel on the back of his neck. A glass of water was pressed into his hand, fingers covering his own to keep him from dropping it. "I did tell you that it was pointless to give him substandard equipment," Mordred was saying, his hand rubbing Merlin's shoulder with far too much familiarity. Merlin wrenched away, managing to keep from dropping the glass. He rinsed his mouth out and spat on the floor, adding to the mess.

"As if his equipment is any better?" Face said. "His lappy's a piece of shite. He hasn't got any half-decent software on it --"

"As if I'd leave it for any schmuck off the street to find," Merlin muttered. It was loud enough to be heard, though, because Face made a strangled sound. "It's there, believe me. Unless you fucked that up too?"

Face was dragged away at a gesture from Aredian. In the last hour, Aredian had shed his jacket and tie and had rolled up his sleeves. There was dirt on his hands as if he had been working on something right before his men let him know that his pet hacker had gone nutters, and there was that look on his face, the one Merlin always saw, except it was more pronounced now.

He wasn't running out of patience. He was out of patience.

"What do you need to fix it?" Mordred asked, his tone soft, as if gentling a spooked horse. Merlin rolled his eyes at him.

"Ideally?"

"Yes."

"Another hard drive and access to the Pendragon servers."

Mordred's lips twitched in a suppressed smile. "And what is option two?"

"I get my gear back. I'll need something with more processing power so that I can loop a decrypt through it as soon as I repair the damage to the locks. I can build a new system quick if I need to -- I'll give you a list of what I need, or at least the min specs of a desktop if you've got a spare one lying around. That'll take time to build. Then, once I'm done with that, I'm going to need web access to get my files out of a drop space. I'm going to need forty-eight hours and a whole fuck-ton of energy drinks."

"Energy drinks are bad for you," Mordred said, his tone scolding.

"So's being the prisoner of a bunch of mercenaries who could probably snap my neck with their pinky finger," Merlin said. He drank his water; there was a bad taste in his mouth, , but at least he didn't feel like throwing up anymore. His throat felt like shit, though. He touched his neck gingerly.

"You'll get some food and some coffee, Merlin," Mordred said. "Can't have you too jittery to concentrate."

"Whatever," Merlin said.

Mordred stood up and took a step away from the mess; one of the guards had a roll of paper towels and was crouching down with a look of complete distaste as he cleaned it up. Merlin wanted to take some pleasure out of the sight -- he recognized the man as one of those who'd used him as a punching bag during his first few days as a prisoner -- but he opted for the better part of valour and listened to Mordred.

"Well, Jonathan? The decision's yours, of course, but I believe I've made my point. Merlin's fully aware of the consequences if he fails, and he is proving himself willing to assist."

Aredian's expression was sour, as if he was sucking on a lemon and had just reached the pith. His expression was calculating as he looked from Mordred to Merlin -- Merlin tried to make himself very small in the furthest corner of the dining room without looking as if he were doing exactly that -- and back to Mordred again.

"You are confident you can monitor his activities? That you can jam him from transmitting anything?"

"I am certain," Mordred said, and somehow, he managed to sound as if he were humbly cocky and confident. "You have witnessed the effectiveness of my equipment, haven't you? I believe you have received a quite substantial profit from it -- one that I am yet to see."

"And which you won't see for some time, ap Aneurin," Aredian said, his voice harsh, as if he didn't like being reminded of their collusion. "Once I see your debt to me repaid, then we'll talk."

It was Mordred's turn for a sour look. "And when do I see the books? I'd like to see for myself how many more devices I must make before we are even?"

"So eager to settle," Aredian remarked, tilting his head with interest. He reminded Merlin of a magpie spotting a shiny object. "Do you have plans?"

"We've talked about this," Mordred said with a heavy sigh and a half-roll of his eyes. "I would like to work on other projects."

Aredian pointed at Merlin. "This is your other project. Twenty-four hours, not forty-eight. Scavenge whatever he needs from here, send out for whatever we don't have. Twenty-four hours, and if he fails to deliver, he dies."

Merlin swallowed hard.

Aredian left the room with a retinue of guards; Merlin hadn't realized until then that the room had nearly filled with them during the attack. Face was nowhere to be seen, and he could well still be there, disguised as one of the men, but his illusion could only mask his features and change them to something else. There was nothing to be done for his height or his clothes, and no one in the room matched those two features.

"Well?" Mordred asked, both eyebrows raised, his expression eerily calm and serene. "Come and sit at the table. Give me a list of what you need."

He pulled out a notebook and a piece of paper, shoving both at Merlin.

"Bring me the bag," Mordred instructed a guard, who left and returned by the time Merlin completed his list, reviewing it one last time to be absolutely certain. Mordred collected the notebook and raised a brow; he gestured at the guards and pointed at the bag. "He doesn't touch it until I return."

Merlin fiddled with Face's laptop until a new guard came in and retrieved it. He drummed his fingers on the table in a rhythmic pattern. He stood up abruptly, startling the guards, and started pacing. He finished off his glass of water; he rubbed his aching ribs; his hand drifted down to brush over the spot where his tattoo was, and he idly reached out.

Arthur.

There was no response.

He'd told Arthur that it wouldn't be easy at first. It might never be easy. If Arthur had magic, there would be no question; they would be aware of the other all the time. But he'd done it once, surely he could do it again --

Two guards brought in a pair of LCD screens. One left and returned with a desktop computer. Merlin was on them in an instant, only to be shooed away. They found an extension cord and came back, plugging things randomly; Merlin couldn't help but whimper at the tangle of cords, because leaving tangled cords was just plain wrong. They booted up the computer, made certain that it was working, keyed in a few commands, and, just as Merlin was about to launch himself into his seat and start working, he was stopped by a finger in his face.

"Wait for Mordred," he said.

"Right. Okay. Right," Merlin said, crossing his arms over his chest and hugging tight, making himself appear small. That apparently satisfied the guard, because he left the room.

There was waiting. There was more waiting.

"I hope my twenty-four hours doesn't start until I actually get to work," Merlin muttered, but no one answered him.

He paced the width of the room. He sat down. He rolled his head on his neck. He rubbed his forehead. He picked up his glass and walked up to one of the guards and asked hopefully, "Can I get more water?"

The guard looked at him dubiously before taking the glass and leaving the room.

The distant Grandfather clock continued to tick-athunk and it was distracting.

"Can I use the loo?" Merlin asked.

A guard took him there. Along the way, Merlin counted the number of guards, the windows, the entrances. He mapped out the house in his head. He shut the door to the bathroom, waited a moment, and turned on the water tap to make it seem like he was taking a piss, and peered out the window. More guards.

He washed his hands. He washed his face. He sniffed his shirt and grimaced; it smelled faintly of vomit. He washed his face again and considered soaking his shirt to get rid of the stink when the guard knocked impatiently on the door.

Mordred was already in the dining room, setting up several small devices. They were black boxes, one no bigger than a shoebox, the other slightly larger than a pint glass. One connected to the other; they were placed in the rough middle of the table. Mordred checked a new laptop -- a sleek silver thing that looked like it belonged to a professional gamer -- and adjusted a few of the knobs and dials on the larger of the two boxes.

Merlin spotted his backpack on one of the chairs. He inched closer until he realized no one was stopping him. He opened the flap and rummaged through the contents. Most of the items weren't packed the way he'd packed them originally, which wasn't a surprise. They'd found the gun, too.

Dammit.

Merlin searched some more, but he couldn't find… "Well, fuck."

Mordred glanced at him. "Problem?"

"They took my chocolate bars."

"You really should eat better," Mordred said. Merlin gestured rudely.

"You really should eat better," Merlin mocked, unwinding and untangling the power cord. "What's wrong with chocolate bars?"

"They're not really chocolate, for one thing," Mordred said. He tapped lightly on the keyboard of his laptop and made one final adjustment before sitting down. He reached into a nearby bag and took out several small circuit boards and RAM cards. He gave them to Merlin and gestured. "For the desktop. It meets your minimum specs except for processing power."

Merlin swallowed his surprise and picked them up. "This isn't half what I asked for."

It was actually triple what Merlin had written down on the piece of paper -- Mordred must have made his own adjustments. Mordred didn't bother to answer; he raised an imperious brow.

"It'll slow me down," Merlin said.

"Make do," Mordred said, and he raised his eyebrow even more. Merlin couldn't miss the message that he was receiving -- they only had twenty-four hours.

If that.

Merlin swallowed hard. If they only had twenty-four hours, that meant that Mordred was reasonably confident that Arthur and Excalibur were nearby and that they would be ready to respond at a moment's notice. Merlin's heart pounded.

He reached down, deep, deep down. Arthur?

Again, there was no response.

Merlin ran a hand over the back of his head. He exhaled in frustration, gave Mordred a stern nod, and powered down the desktop to install the new RAM.

It was time to get to work.

 

 

ooOOoo

 

Saturday, 1322 hours

 

"Coffee, black, two sugars," Gareth said, elbowing Lamorak. "Come on, take it. It's hot. There's nowhere to put it down."

"Croissant," Lamorak said, offering one of the two brown bags that he was carrying. "I told them to go heavy on the chocolate."

Gareth perked up. He'd been in a foul mood ever since Lamorak crawled onto Gareth's bed and poked him in the ribs until he got up. Lamorak didn't get it. Gareth could put up with all sorts of shite day in and day out -- really, he was the team's weirdness magnet -- but he was right cranky if someone disturbed his beauty sleep. He would be a terror on the battlefield if the enemy ever woke him up. "Which one?"

"They're both chocolate," Lamorak said, because he knew that Gareth would end up eating the second one, too.

"Don't think this makes up for the wake-up call at the arse-crack of dawn," Gareth warned.

"Wouldn't dream of it," Lamorak said.

They did an awkward half-juggle of too-hot Styrofoam cups and don't-crush-the-croissants paper bags until, somehow, Lamorak felt like he was on the wrong end of a small-change swindle, because Gareth had one cup of coffee and two bags of chocolate-covered croissants and Lamorak was left with the paper napkins and his black, two sugars coffee.

They were on a street corner, with a direct line of sight of their target location. There was just enough foot traffic that they didn't stand out and obstacles to hide behind. There was a small, nearby park, several houses down the way, and a shop or two on the other side.

A few tourists walked by and took photos of the building in question, oohed and ahhed at the architecture and good grounds keeping and moved on. Lamorak and Gareth moved a new spot on the pavement.

Gareth propped his foot up on the lamppost and balanced one of the croissants on his knee; he used his teeth to tear his way through the paper bag in his hand, taking a bite of what Lamorak had been assured by the bakery's owner as the perfect combination of absolute bliss and orgasmic taste. If there was bliss in the croissant, Lamorak didn't see it, because Gareth was still not happy.

They spent most of the early hours of the morning scoping out the area. It didn't take long to find the exact address that Gwen had tracked down, and it took even less time than that to pick out the men patrolling the neighbourhood. Several furtive snapshots, multiple phone calls, and a quick conversation with Leon all confirmed that these were Aredian's men.

Over the last six hours, Gareth and Lamorak had picked out all the buildings with direct line of sight, explored the neighbourhood under the guise of lost tourists, flirted with every shopkeeper in the area and asked questions in search for places to rent. They'd counted at least three men on rotating patrol on the outside of the house at any given time, each of them only going so far as to walk the block before returning. It wasn't a very efficient patrol as far as Lamorak was concerned, but fuck it. He didn't care. If Merlin was in there, Lamorak would be well pleased that the mercenaries were a bunch of incompetents.

Lamorak was pretty sure that they hadn't been spotted. They changed their position every so often. They'd pulled their coats inside-out and exchanged jackets. Gareth had worn a hat for a while, then tossed it in the bin and made Lamorak wear a ridiculous baseball cap with a wide brim. Lamorak carried a shopping bag for a while; Gareth carried a guide book and flipped through it, occasionally looking around like he didn't have a bloody clue.

Something was going on at that house, that was for sure. It was just a sorry pity that they couldn't get close enough for a look inside. They didn't dare, not with so many guards popping outside for a smoke or to stretch their legs. Plus, there were all those windows.

There wasn't much more that they could observe from their current location and without a few spy tools. Arthur had told them to stay back and keep watch anyway -- not that either one of them were leaving if they could help it, even if it meant sitting back and…

Well, they'd been watching, and there was a reason why Lamorak hated doing stakeouts. It was all the bloody watching.

Memorizing the outside architecture, spotting where the plaster was cracking, where someone must have scrubbed at the brick to get graffiti to wash off, only to have to paint it over in a mismatched shade afterward. Lamorak knew that they were gathering important intel, that they were keeping an eye on the situation, that they were --

Oh, Hell. Lamorak was armed. So was Gareth. They could handle a few mercenaries between themselves, but...

"What do you suppose they needed the computer parts for?" Gareth asked. He finished one croissant and started on the second.

There was a smear of chocolate on the corner of Gareth's mouth. Lamorak gestured. "You're being a pig."

"It's good chocolate," Gareth said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, careful not to spill his coffee in the process.

"You're still being a pig. No, worse than that. You're being an uncivilized pig. Do you want a napkin?"

"Not yet," Gareth said. He took a bite of the second croissant, and, cheek bulging with food, asked, "So what do you figure? Computer parts. Merlin's in there, yeah?"

"I don't know," Lamorak said. He sipped his coffee; it had cooled just enough that it didn't scald his mouth. He'd spent the last hour wondering in which room that Aredian's men would be keeping him. Someplace safe and secure, away from access to a quick exit. The second floor, maybe. Toward the back of the house and under heavy guard. There were a couple of windows on the upper levels that were heavily curtained; it could be any of those places, but that wasn't the main concern. They worried about the condition that they'd find Merlin in.

The alchemist had given Aredian's errand boy a healing tincture, so someone was probably badly injured -- most likely Merlin, though they all wanted it to be someone else. There was also a sleeping draught, which made Lamorak wonder if they were having trouble keeping Merlin under control. And there was that tea -- the mood-modifying, brainwashing tea -- that was supposed to make someone more... amenable.

Lamorak twitched involuntarily.

"You all right?" Gareth asked.

"No," Lamorak said.

Gareth nodded but didn't press.

Of course Lamorak wasn't all right. He'd been shot. His shoulder still ached and the stitches were itchy -- it was probably time to take them out. He'd have to ask Hunith about it when he had a chance, but he didn't want to bother her. She was... She was the strongest woman he'd ever met, bar none, and that included Morgana and Gwen, and Morgana was bloody well terrifying while Gwen… He was in awe of her. But he watched Hunith when she thought no one was watching, and...

She was far more fragile than she let on.

Hunith wore her sadness like a shield, using it to fuel her, to keep herself moving forward, but the press of keeping secrets, the weight of her sacrifice and the damage caused by knowing her son in the hands of the enemy, hurting and alone -- it was starting to show. Not a lot. Not if someone wasn't looking for it. At the core, Hunith was solid, immoveable, determined, but at the edges? She was fraying, crinkling, breaking. It fucking hurt to watch, and Lamorak just wanted to make everything better.

Except none of them were all right. It didn't seem as if anyone would be all right until the team was whole again. Getting Merlin back would fix that.

Lamorak sipped his coffee. He was sure that he wasn't the only team member who had come to that conclusion. Leon and Lance had damn near crawled out of their own skins when Morgana and Gwen were kidnapped, and it was to no one's surprise that they were the ones who were the most together now that they had the girls back. It wasn't fair, though. It really wasn't. Leon was a good man, a good leader, an excellent strategist, but he wasn't their Captain. And Lance? Lance could pull their arses out of the fire if he needed to, but he preferred to not need to.

They needed Arthur. And as much as Arthur had fought and was fighting to keep himself from falling apart, pulling himself out of the pit of despair and shock...

If Lamorak thought it was painful to watch Hunith struggling, it was downright gutting to see Arthur break down and put himself together each and every day, every hour, every minute.

He hadn't known Arthur half as long as the others. He'd been one of the last to join the team. He hadn't even thought that he'd be asked to join Excalibur.

It wasn't normally handled that way. Soldiers were assigned to a team by the Brass, most of the time, a Captain didn't have much of a say in it. But one day, Arthur had come up to Lamorak, said, On me, and Lamorak had never looked back.

He fit here, as if there had been a Lamorak-shaped hole all along, just waiting for him to show up and fill it.

It had always felt like that, being with the team. And from that moment when Arthur yanked Lamorak out of a tight spot and shielded him while they crossed an open battleground three missions later, Lamorak stopped seeing Arthur as his Captain and saw him as the one and only man that he'd ever follow straight into Hell.

Nothing had ever flooded Lamorak with more relief than when Gwen pinpointed the GPS location on the phone. Now, there was something that he could do to try to fix things, to keep Hunith from breaking, to keep Arthur from having to find the strength to pull himself together again.

Find Merlin.

"Do you suppose Merlin really did --" Lamorak couldn't finish the sentence.

They'd left nearly as soon as Arthur had given the order, and they'd missed Arthur's outburst. Half of the team had been convinced that Arthur was nutters, while the other half…

Geraint was the one who called Gareth, asking where Gareth had stashed the empty equipment boxes, because they were packing up again as if Arthur anticipated that they were moving to a new safe house soon.

"Under the stairs," Gareth said, rolling his eyes. "No. The other stairs. There's a door, you -- no, you numpty. Not the basement. Literally under the stairs. Did you find them yet? Yeah? All right. I'll talk to you -- wait. What's got Arthur's britches in a knot? We just finished unpacking --"

Lamorak glanced at him when Gareth fell silent, raising a brow even as Gareth's pinched. Gareth made a few encouraging sounds, prompting Geraint to continue.

"That's… an interesting development," Gareth said. "Yeah, all right, go pack up."

He hung up, shoving the mobile in his pocket.

"So?" Lamorak asked.

Gareth shrugged a shoulder. "They're packing up again."

"Yeah, I got that part. What about the rest of it?"

Gareth sucked a tooth and shook his head. "Not here."

It took all of Lamorak's willpower to keep from grabbing Gareth when Gareth walked away, wandering up the kerb, ducking the early-morning pedestrians. Lamorak scowled and walked in the other direction, because it wouldn't do to attract attention by standing there or chasing after Gareth; he would find out later.

"So, get this," Gareth said much later, spreading out the newspaper across the tiny table outside a café that hadn't even opened yet. "Geraint thinks Merlin contacted Arthur."

"What?"

Lamorak's voice was pitched too high, too sharp. A few people passing by glanced in his direction, but they kept walking.

"Yeah, keep it down some," Gareth said, and Lamorak flew him a two-fingered salute. "Anyway, that's what he said. Arthur came out of his room not ten minutes after we'd left, firing all cylinders, just about ready to run outside starkers if it came to that, because he's sure that Merlin contacted him. Galahad thinks Arthur just had a vivid dream, you know the kind --"

"Oh, God," Lamorak said, flinching, because he did not need to think about his Captain having wet dreams.

"-- but Geraint says Arthur's... more like our Arthur. The old Arthur, you know the one, the bossy self-entitled know-better-than-the-rest-of-us prat? The one we've missed the last while? Well, anyway, he hasn't slept yet, but he's focused, somehow?"

Lamorak held on to that. If Merlin had contacted Arthur or if it was just a bloody dream, it didn't matter, because any mention that Arthur was himself again, it was a good sign.

"I don't know," Gareth said, shrugging a shoulder. "Weren't there, were we? You're the one with ants in his pants that we get out here --"

"Only because Arthur would've come out himself, and he hasn't slept --"

"He still hasn't." Gareth paused. "Or, maybe he has by now, I don't know. Either way, Arthur thinks it's Merlin that's done it, whatever it is, and you remember what Will said? That the device on the testing ground did something to Merlin? That it shut him down? That it took all this time for him to get his magic back?"

"If he's got it back then why doesn't he break himself out of there, save us all the trouble?" Lamorak asked, glancing meaningfully up the street, covering his glare with a squinty-eyed sip of his coffee. He already knew the answer to that, but he needed to hear it.

"Because Merlin's as stubborn an arse as Arthur, and if he sees a way to bring them down, he's going to take it," Gareth muttered, and it sounded as if he was reciting by rote because he'd been telling himself the exact same thing, too. He crumpled up the torn-up paper bag and tossed it in the nearest bin; it hit the edge in a rebound before tumbling in. Gareth rubbed his palm over his stubbly chin.

Lamorak silently offered him a napkin.

"Should've been relieved a couple of hours ago," Gareth muttered, his words muffled behind the paper. He pointed to his face questioningly. Lamorak nodded to say, Yeah, you got it all and checked his watch. Stakeouts were usually assigned in four hour shifts because anything longer risked losing the surveillance's interest and being spotted, but they weren't sitting on their arses in a car, struggling to pay attention. Besides, coming to this location before the sun was fully up meant that they could get away without being noticed for just a little bit longer -- at least as long as it took before they ran out of costume changes.

Speaking of, they were probably due for another one.

"Who's coming in next?" Lamorak asked, fishing one-handed through his coat pockets before finding the balled-up scarf he brought along, a colourful thing that clashed with the rest of his clothes and would catch the eye, drawing it away from his face.

"Geraint said Lance and Gwen were going flat shopping," Gareth said, which was code for they are checking out the list of places we put together to find a new base for us. "Luc and Pell insisted on the next shift."

"Lucan," Lamorak said with a sigh. "Great."

Gareth shot him a sidelong glance and didn't say anything, but he fidgeted with his jacket and shifted his weight from foot to foot.

"What?"

"What's with you and Lucan? Did you lose a bet and haven't paid up yet? Did he steal a bird out from under you? Did he profess his undying love and you turned him down? Or have you been fucking behind our backs all along and have had a lover's spat? " The questions came rapid-fire, as if Gareth thought that Lamorak might withdraw the invitation, but by the time Lamorak recovered enough from the verbal attack, Gareth had run out of breath.

Lamorak gave Gareth a long, considering look. "You've been thinking about this for a while."

Gareth shrugged. He wandered in a small circle around Lamorak and avoided eye contact. He walked halfway up the block and stayed there, pulling out his phone to thumb through it.

Annoyed, Lamorak called Gareth.

"You're killing my battery power. Also, what if the team calls?"

"We've got call-waiting," Lamorak said. "And besides, you're the one who ran away instead of sticking around to talk. What makes you think something's up with me and Lucan?"

Not that Lamorak hadn't thought about it. Lucan was a billboard underwear model -- though that wasn't any different than any of the other members of the team -- and for all that he stayed in the background, when Lucan came out to the pubs with the team, he was as physically demonstrative as any of them. And, unfortunately for Lamorak, Lucan was as straight as a rail.

Despite Arthur being open about his orientation -- within the team, anyway -- and his relationship with Merlin, despite Gwaine's absolutely ridiculous antics around the bases until he finally realized that he'd had a good thing under his nose all along, Lamorak had never exactly declared his preferences. Not that anyone would care, but if Perceval didn't feel the need to let on that he liked men, why should Lamorak?

Besides, it wasn't as if…

It took Lamorak a full second to realize that Gareth had been trying to answer him in a long string of aborted syllables before choking on air and…

Gareth hung up on him.

Lamorak redialled. "I'll just keep calling."

"Look, I shouldn't have said anything. It's none of my business."

"And yet…"

Gareth sighed. "It was months ago. Months. Back at the, you know, the special ed training."

Lamorak nodded encouragingly. Gareth glanced over his shoulder, breaking eye contact.

"It was after the fuck pool," Gareth said quietly. "I was heading for the showers. You were… You were talking to Lucan in the hall. Actually, it was more like you were yelling at each other. I heard him say, why don't you just bloody well admit it? And you said, As hilarious as it is to do it to Arthur and Merlin, I don't want us to be the subject of a goddamn fuck pool --"

"Oh," Lamorak said, because he didn't know what else to say. Well, that wasn't strictly true. He knew what he could say, and what he should say, but it all stuck in the back of his throat.

Neither one of them spoke for a while, and Gareth broke the silence with a frustrated sigh. "Forget I even brought it up."

There was movement down the hill -- it wasn't much of a hill, more of a faint incline -- and Lamorak watched it for several minutes, noting the movement as a car stopped in front of the house, as the passenger went to the door and knocked, as a second person exited the house to join the first and they both went to the car. He made a mental note that the occupancy of the house was now minus one. "All right, look --"

Lamorak glanced at his mobile -- Gareth had hung up again. Lamorak raised his eyes to the cloudy sky and wondered why he had to suffer idiots.

He called back. "I told you I'd just keep calling."

"You didn't answer."

"Did you notice the car that stopped in front of the house? Taken note of the license plate, perchance? Which, that reminds me, hold on --" Lamorak switched to the text messaging app and let Bedivere know about the new development. Bedivere was in charge of compiling information and dealing with the satellite surveillance -- he'd find out who the car belonged to, though Lamorak would put a fiver on it being a rental or something equally disposable. Lamorak hoped that it was a rental; most agencies put a GPS in their vehicles, and that made them more easily traceable.

Thank God for modern technology.

"-- sorry, I just passed it on to Vere. Anyway, I want to know, why are you bringing that up now? Why didn't you ask me about it back then?"

Gareth didn't answer right away. If anything, he was making it really damned obvious that he was looking down the street, and Lamorak wanted to swat him on the back of his head. As if he read Lamorak's mind, Gareth turned away and slumped against the wall, rubbing a hand over his eyes.

"It's doing my head in, all right? Ever since -- ever since then. I mean, it's fine if you're with Lucan, it's not like the team doesn't have its fair share of match-ups that just don't match up, you know? But you're…" Gareth sighed, and the silence stretched so long that Lamorak wanted to press, But I'm what. Gareth's intake of breath hitched, and he blurted out, "You're all over me. All the time. You're always touching me, you're always asking me to come along, you're always there when something's about to go to shite and stopping me from getting the worst of it. And this morning --"

Lamorak felt simultaneously as if someone had punched him in the gut and someone ran a cold knife down his spine. He couldn't move, but he was pretty sure he was opening and closing his mouth like a fish out of water.

"-- this morning. You. You cuddled me. What am I supposed to think?"

Oh. Lamorak had really been hoping Gareth had been sound asleep for that. He'd found Gareth half-curled up under the covers, sleeping on his side as usual, the pillow over his head, his arm thrown over it to keep it down, a block against the light. No one was in the other bed in the room, but everyone on the team were a bunch of bastards and would flick the lights on if they couldn't see, and --

And.

And if Lamorak had watched Gareth sleeping with an intense longing that he'd ignored for months, no one needed to know that. If someone walked in on them when Lamorak stretched out besides Gareth for a few minutes, looping his arm around Gareth's waist and just holding him, well, no one would bat an eyelash, because the entire bloody team had fallen asleep on each other, sometimes in compromising positions, at one time or another. But if Gareth had noticed how Lamorak had pulled the pillow just enough out of the way so that he could curl up as close as possible…

Well, fuck.

"I wasn't talking about me and Lucan," Lamorak said, the words out of his mouth before he could stop them. He managed to stop an embarrassing confession, though, and only because he spotted Gwaine and Perceval coming their way.

"Oh." Gareth paused, finally glancing in his direction uncertainly. He pulled the mobile from his ear, only to put it back and ask, "Um. Who were you talking about?"

"We'll talk about this later." Much later, if Lamorak had anything to say about it.

"But --"

"Gwaine. Perce," Lamorak said, right before he hung up and put the phone away. He could hear Gareth's very unmanly squeak from half a block away.

Gwaine wasn't limping, but he was leaning against Perceval. For all that he complained that Lucan could've gotten him some healing potions, too, Gwaine's leg was mending nicely, though the more tired he got, the more he favoured his leg. On closer inspection, it was more that Perceval was keeping a tight grasp on Gwaine to keep him from running up the street and barging into the house.

"I thought Lucan and Pellinor were on their way?"

"They are," Gwaine said, giving Lamorak the big grin he always wore when he'd caused trouble. "They wanted to take the Metro for some reason."

"And that reason had nothing to do with us taking the car," Perceval deadpanned, though he glanced over his shoulder with a pained look. He probably expected Lucan to appear out of nowhere and punch him in the kidney a few times. Lucan was a dirty fighter when he was annoyed.

"Lucan does like wandering the city. I suppose he wanted to show Pell around," Gwaine said cheerfully. "We really have to get him more focussed on the job --"

"Speaking of," Perceval said, glancing past Lamorak until he spotted Gareth; Gareth had turned away from them and was helping an older woman with her grocery bags, though how Gareth had gotten roped in that situation when there hadn't been anyone around mere seconds ago, Lamorak would never figure out. "This one won't settle down until he hears that you've spotted Merlin."

"Not yet," Lamorak said, and Gwaine's expression turned momentarily stony. "Couple of rooms on the second and third with heavy blackout curtains, so he could be in either one. Can't get close enough for a walk-by, even if it weren't for the bloody gate, they've got patrols every twenty minutes, always someone different, not regular enough, but it's always the same three blokes rotating in and rotating out, so they might get glazed-over. We've seen Mordred, though. Briefly."

"Mordred," Gwaine repeated. His lip curled up a little. He was no doubt still sore about having missed that shot in the desert, and Lamorak had just enough tact not to bring it up.

Perceval, on the other hand… "Maybe you'll get another go."

Gwaine growled.

"Touchy, touchy," Perceval said, flashing a rare grin. The two were bouncy, Lamorak realized; energized and aware and active in a way that they hadn't quite been before.

"You think he's in there?"

"Arthur's certain," Perceval said. "And when Arthur's certain --"

"It's a done deal," Gwaine said. He pulled out his mobile and scrolled through the text messages. "Come on. Let's check the flat that Lance and Gwen found for us, yeah?"

"Where is it?"

"Down that way," Gwaine said, making an offhand over there, just a street over, around the corner gesture. "But we're taking the long way." He pointed up the road.

"You're going to glare at them, aren't you?"

"Pft. Me? Why would I go and do that?"

Perceval stood immobile for a moment, his eyes off to the side, his mouth set in a reconsidering my life choices line that had been appearing more and more ever since he and Gwaine got together, much to the team's amusement. Then, apparently deciding that it would be too much trouble to try to convince Gwaine otherwise, he nodded and pulled his cap down over his eyes a bit more. He gave Lamorak a curt nod, and said, "Watch yourself. And Gareth."

"'Course," Lamorak said.

Gwaine leaned on Perceval until they had crossed the road and were now on the pavement leading up to the house. Gwaine was chatting animatedly, his arms flying in the air and doing most of the talking; Lamorak had no idea what he was saying, and he was pretty sure that Perceval didn't, either.

Lamorak shifted his position, heading across the street so that he could watch them go, sticking his hands in his pockets while surreptitiously examining the menu at a small bistro. It was past noon, his stomach was grumbling, particularly now that Gareth had eaten the croissants, and he figured that they might grab something along the way back to the safe house and before they were recruited for another assignment. There would always be an assignment to do, especially in the winding hours before a mission, and there were a lot of missions underway.

One of the guards was walking down the pavement, heading toward Gwaine and Perceval. Gwaine's antics grew bigger and broader, his elaborate arm-waving slapping the guard and knocking him off his feet.

Lamorak winced. On the one hand -- Goddamn it, Gwaine, way to be subtle. On the other -- Lamorak really couldn't sympathize with a mercenary who was oblivious to his surroundings -- a child could have ducked that blow easily.

Gwaine reached out to help the mercenary to his feet, taking hold of his arm and getting in close; an instant later, the man threw out his arms and shoved Gwaine out of his way. Gwaine held out his hands in the classic, Whoa there, mate, I was just trying to help, no need to be a pillock about it pose; Perceval grabbed Gwaine's arm and pulled him along. Gwaine's body was twisted toward the mercenary, his expression a caricature of apologetic, and a few seconds later, they'd rounded the corner.

Idly, Lamorak wondered what Gwaine had planted on the man. A bug, most likely. Hopefully, the team would be able to hear what was going on inside. If the flat passed muster, if they could move in right away -- and maybe they would, since it was one of those for tourist rental places that he'd tracked down off the internet -- and start setting up surveillance equipment. There was no telling when they would get Merlin's signal, but Lamorak sure as shite hoped that it would be soon.

His mobile buzzed. "Yeah?"

"Can we talk now?"

Lamorak glanced across the street. Gareth's head was down, and he was scraping dog shite from his shoe -- Lamorak suppressed a laugh -- while simultaneously picking off some flower blossoms from his jacket.

Lamorak had no idea where those had come from. He glanced up; it looked like someone had trimmed their balcony garden.

"Lam?" Gareth said, his voice low and uncertain.

Lamorak hesitated. He ducked his head and got out of the way of some tourists with a map wider than the road. Across the street, Gareth turned around and looked at him meaningfully, but fuck if Lamorak knew what he wanted.

"When I said later, I meant much later, when we're not working," Lamorak said finally.

"How much later -- oh, you know what, never mind," Gareth said, and there was a bite to his tone that made Lamorak wince. "Just answer me one question."

"It depends on the question," Lamorak hedged.

"Who were you talking about? When you were talking to Lucan. If you didn't mean you and him, who did you mean?"

Lamorak held his breath and glanced around the way he would when he were pinned down by heavy fire and searching for an escape route. That was when he saw Lucan heading his way, Pellinor splitting off to a different position. Lucan spotted Gareth easily, and when he returned his gaze to Lamorak, it was accompanied by a grin.

Well, fuck.

Lucan needed to mind his own business, sometimes. For all that he didn't talk much, and kept in the background, he was a bloody nosy bastard, and --

Lamorak had to get it out before Lucan came close enough to hear, and before Gareth went to Lucan for answers -- because he would, too.

"Look, I -- I was talking about us, all right? You and me. And I understand if you're not --"

"Hey, Pell," Gareth said on the phone, loudly and meaningfully, and hung up.

Lamorak stared at his phone for a second before spreading his arms in disbelief. He caught Gareth looking at him, and a second later, a text message came through.

We'll talk about this later. Over lunch. You're buying.

Lamorak put his mobile away and turned to Lucan, who kept on walking past him, but not before he muttered an annoyed, "Save the eye sex for later, yeah?"

"Fuck you, too," Lamorak said, but he caught up to Lucan and gave him the sitrep.

 

 

ooOOoo

 

Saturday, 2110 hours

 

The streetlamps were peppered in a random pattern and gave the park an unearthly glow, the light diffusing through the branches and leaves. The winding path had led Arthur here, to this place tucked deep on the outskirts of St-Germain, a blink-and-miss-it avenue with few signs to point it out and fewer people to guide him there. The gardens were beautifully manicured, the lawn carefully maintained, and the once-upon-a-time that was a Roman arena was now a round pit of sand and stone, with two entrances at the front and the back for opponents and tiered seats all around.

It wouldn't be hard to imagine a garrison training here. Or slaves pitted against each other in battle. Or wild animals set loose on criminals given hope that they might live if they survived. Of gladiators sitting in one of the chambers at ground level, waiting for their turn on the field. Of hard-faced generals looking down at the spectacle. Of spectators cheering and booing, depending on how the fight was going, who they were rooting for.

At any other time, Arthur would appreciate the history and the importance of this site.

Instead, he finished his third circuit around the park, assured himself that everything was in place, and descended the steps, entering into the arena.

Arthur sat in one of the cubbyholes and checked his phone.

He wasn't sure who had set it up -- probably Bedivere, who had weird ideas, sometimes, but they worked -- but he was getting a constant Twitter-like feed from all the members of the team who were watching the house. It was his only concession to not being there himself, however badly that he wanted to be.

There hadn't been much news in the beginning. Then, slowly, thanks to Lamorak and Gareth, information trickled in -- first to confirm, yes, the address was not a random residential family home, and they weren't wasting their time. After that, they learned patrol frequencies, the license plates of their automobiles -- some rented, most recently purchased with false identifications -- and made an estimate of how many men were in the house based on the take-away that someone had brought in.

Lance and Gwen went through Lamorak's list of flats and found a small apartment on the third level of a house that was across the street and one building over, as clear a line of sight as they were going to get. The team moved in over the space of several hours, taking care not to be observed or obvious, and set up surveillance equipment.

It didn't take long to confirm that the estimate of personnel had been close -- there were between twelve and fifteen mercenaries in the building at any given time, with an additional four that had been confirmed as Aredian, the hacker from the garage in London, Mordred, and --

Merlin.

The bug that Gwaine had planted on the mercenary had only worked for half an hour -- they hadn't heard much beyond the usual, nonsensical prattle -- before it started transmitting only intermittently. As best as Leon could figure and Gwen could calculate, the mercenary was walking in and out of a jammed area.

That was where they were keeping Merlin. Arthur was sure of it. He didn't need confirmation; it was a gut feeling.

It was a gut feeling that Gwaine hadn't been able to confirm, not even when he did a bit of recon on his own -- over everyone's objections -- and found an elevated location giving him a better angle on the house. He spotted movement through his scope, and watched the window until a guard parted the curtains to look out.

Arthur hadn't known that he'd been holding his breath until Gwaine's disappointed I can't see shite came over the line.

"Stand down," Arthur had ordered, because he couldn't afford -- Merlin couldn't afford -- any more of Gwaine's stupid stunts.

Arthur had shut off his comms and ignored the pseudo-Twitter feed protesting his order, and sat down heavily on a chair, putting his head between his knees. His chest had felt like it had been about to explode -- it still felt like it would explode -- and everything had gone a fuzzy monochrome in his vision.

Morgana had dragged a chair over and silently rubbed circles between his shoulder blades; she hadn't said anything even after Arthur fought off the worst of the anxiety attack and went back to work, studying the building plans that Bohrs had found from somewhere.

And when Balinor finally called --

The comms crackled and Geraint's low whisper announced, "Must be them. Can't be that many dragon-shaped hang-gliders in the area, can there?"

Arthur involuntarily glanced up at the dark sky, caught himself with a shake of his head, and spared another glance for his cell phone. There weren't any changes since the last update. Gwen was trying to find a way around the jammer blocking the house --

… but I'm not Merlin, so I'm not sure if there is a way around it. If half of what the boys have been saying about Mordred is true, there may not be a way around it…

"Coming from the East. Just the two of them." Geraint paused. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"

"No," Arthur said, putting his mobile away. He stood up, brushed off his jeans, and unzipped his jacket. It was cold, but Arthur didn't want to trade warmth in exchange for the security of easy access to his gun. "When have I ever had a good idea?"

"I think back in 2009," Galahad said cheekily. "It were 2009, yeah, G? Called bollocks on a mission plan, cut out all the shite, retrieved the device in two hours, and let us spend the rest of the day in the pub?"

"That is a cherished and memorable occasion," Geraint agreed. "Got us bloody well bladdered on the Colonel's card."

"Where did you get Mandrake's card information, anyway?" Galahad asked.

"He won't say," Geraint groused.

"And forged the signature. He forged the bloody signature. You know he could've signed off on all our R&R requests at any time? Holding out on us, he was --"

"We'll have to step up our attempts to corrupt our good Captain," Geraint said, pausing. "Dragon's gone, there's just the two of them, and weren't that just fucked up. I guess he really is a dragon. The fucking irony. We've been calling him one all along -- heading your way, Arthur. ETA two minutes, coming from the south of the pit."

Arthur reached up and tapped the comms, turning the volume down low. He knew the chatter would continue in the background; Geraint and Galahad would go radio silent, but they would all be listening with half an ear to the feed coming in from the other location, ready to drop and go if they were needed for an immediate evac.

It would fucking help if Balinor hadn't picked such an isolated location on the other side of town from the house where Merlin was being kept for them to meet. Even with the late evening traffic, it would take a good forty minutes to get to the other site, and it was already forty minutes too much, as far as Arthur was concerned.

He went to stand in the middle of the ancient arena, the sand dipping under his boots. He kept his arms loose and relaxed at his sides, ready to react. Geraint and Galahad were keeping an eye out, but if they said they were alone, then they were alone, at least for the moment.

Balinor's hair was tied in a ponytail, wind-teased strands falling down the sides of his face, no different than the last time that Arthur had seen him. He wore something out of Top Gun -- a cross between a 1950s flight suit with a modernized version of a bomber jacket over top, and was tucking gloves into his pockets. He was in the lead, striding along resolutely, not even checking to see if Kilgarrah was following.

Kilgarrah was right behind Balinor, trudging reluctantly after him, but he was coming, hands shoved into the pockets of his textured leather coat -- if Arthur squinted, under this light, was almost like reptilian skin. Kilgarrah's hair was slicked back, his expression was dour and distant, and, for once, he went without the illusion of chain-smoking. There wasn't a cigarette in sight, and smoke steamed out of his nostrils.

Balinor gave Arthur a curt nod. There was a glint in his eye, a tug at his lips -- he wanted to ask about Merlin, but he knew better than to ask about Merlin here and now, in front of someone who had strung them along since the very beginning. Arthur returned the nod, hoping that he conveyed, Yes, we've found him, he's safe for now, we're waiting. Balinor glanced away without letting anything slip in his expression and stood to Arthur's left, out of reach, crossing his arms over his chest.

Kilgarrah, in complete disregard for personal space, came to a halt in front of Arthur. His dark eyes were challenging and measuring, but he gave nothing else away.

There were no other sounds beyond the soft huff of their breathing, the rustle of the wind through the leaves, the faint crackle of sand underfoot. If Arthur tilted his head and shut his eyes to concentrate, he was sure that he would hear the distant sound of clashing swords, frantic cries of the desperate, the unforgettable tear of flesh, the thump of bodies on the ground.

Some places were haunted by ghosts. Other places, like this one, were haunted by history.

He didn't close his eyes.

"Who do you work for?" Arthur asked.

"What makes you think I work for anyone?" Kilgarrah snorted.

"I don't know," Arthur said without hesitation. "Maybe it has something to do with how you've been manipulating us all this time? Moving us like we're chess pieces, until we're right where you wanted us?"

"I'm in check right now, aren't I?" Kilgarrah gave Arthur a long look, quirking an eyebrow. "What do you want?"

"The truth. All of it. From the beginning. What are those artefacts? What is their purpose? What do you want with them?"

There was a long silence. Kilgarrah's mouth quirked into a smirk. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and lowered his chin. "You know as much as I do."

Despite the chill in the air, the anger radiating from Balinor scalded Arthur's skin. Arthur shook his head in warning when he saw Balinor about to speak. Balinor snorted and looked away. Arthur let the silence stretch. And stretch.

Several minutes passed. Kilgarrah's gaze drifted past Arthur again and again, as if he were worried about Balinor. It was almost as if he was trying to pass a message to Balinor, a silent, pleading communication, but Arthur didn't take his eyes from Kilgarrah, not trusting the man.

The dragon.

Thinking of him as a dragon -- a real, live dragon -- was taking a great deal of getting used to.

After a few minutes, Arthur realized that Balinor was glaring at Kilgarrah, one eyebrow raised, and that Kilgarrah, for all that his back straightened and his shoulders pulled back, was withering.

"You think you'll wait me out?" Kilgarrah asked. There was a sneer of false bravado in his voice. "I've waited a small eternity, Pendragon. I can wait another one."

Arthur didn't speak. Balinor met Arthur's gaze, shook his head, and turned his back on Kilgarrah, which -- if Arthur was any judge of body language, however suppressed -- was taken as an affront. Kilgarrah twitched; his chest rose and fell in a momentous heave. Arthur watched the Major, trying not to breathe in the sulphuric smoke that drifted from his nostrils. It looked almost involuntarily, the rise and fall of the steady stream.

Arthur suppressed the urge to cough. He couldn't help but to squint, because sulphur burned.

Kilgarrah sucked a tooth. The motion made a tsking sound, like a father disapproving of a child's behaviour, and there was a faint flounce in the way he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, a faint eye-roll.

And, finally, capitulation.

"Dragons were the first magic of the Earth, did you know that? Did the Directory bother to mention us in the early lessons, before I made it on campus to supervise?" Kilgarrah paused, and when Arthur didn't respond, he continued, "No, I didn't think so. Did they tell you that the magic, it's the heartbeat of the planet. The rhythm. The ebb and flow, like the pull of the moon on the ocean's tides?"

Arthur gave Kilgarrah a small, firm nod. That seemed to satisfy him, because he continued.

"There was a time when dragons ruled. Sky and Earth, tooth and claw, magic and flame. But magic is fickle, and when the first humans came, dragons were no longer the sole bearers of the burden that magic gives. Some of those early men were as powerful as dragons; those men became our brothers." Kilgarrah glanced at Balinor.

There was something unspoken between them, something that Arthur did not know -- and, by now, Arthur was of a mind that there was quite a lot that he did not know, that he would never know. Still, there was a weight in the look they shared, an acknowledgement of something greater than the two of them, and this, Arthur decided, was something that he very badly needed to learn.

But he would wait. There were other questions that he needed answered, other things that he needed to do.

"Magic spread and thrived. There was a Golden Age that lasted a thousand years and spanned a thousand lands. The Old Religion ruled with a steady hand, a kind hand, fair and just, and the dragons, seeing that they were no longer needed, began to fade. Their time had passed; it was the time of Man.

"It lasted only so long. Some coveted what they did not have, and bit by bit, the Old Religion crumbled under the weight of war, until it was so persecuted that the old ways, the old faith, the laws, they faded, too, forgotten. No one remembered anymore. And power -- power is a heady thing when one doesn't understand the weight of it, the consequences that follow its misuse."

Kilgarrah paused.

"However that it's taken, however that it's earned, even great power fades. It is the heartbeat of the world, to rise and fall, to thrive and falter, to rouse and rest, and this is the way that it will be until the end of time."

Riddles, Arthur wanted to say. He would have better luck divining nefarious plots by reading his horoscope for the next month.

"The magic is cresting, Pendragon. It can't be stopped. It shouldn't be stopped. There are those who will try. Those who are close."

A shiver ran down Arthur's spine. He felt terror on the back of his throat and paralysis freezing his limbs at the unbidden memory of Merlin falling, falling, struck unaware and helpless, his magic... his magic broken and disrupted.

"Do you understand?"

Arthur studied Kilgarrah's expression. He looked him clear in the eye. Once, Arthur could look upon a man and know if they were lying. He would be right, too. But Kilgarrah wasn't a man. He had fooled Arthur before, and now, Arthur couldn't trust him for anything.

Arthur lowered his head and turned away. He would not, could not, take Kilgarrah's words to heart. He would not, could not, ignore what Kilgarrah said, either.

Arthur chewed the inside of his cheek. This all sounded familiar, somehow, but instead of the twisted and oft-massacred rendition of the NWO's manifesto, Arthur was hearing the original version, pure and pristine. The rise and fall, the push and pull, the heartbeat of the world.

Everything worked in cycles. Everything had a beginning and an end and a new beginning. If magic was cresting, if it was returning in strength --

More puzzle pieces fell into place. Arthur almost had the full picture. He ran a hand over his face. He exhaled slowly. He turned to take in the park, the ancient arena, the heavy frown on Balinor's brow. The man hadn't known all this either.

But it made sense. For all of those who wanted magic to return in force, there were those who wanted it stopped, to maintain the status quo.

Do you understand?

Arthur closed his eyes. He saw Merlin crumple on the testing grounds. He felt his heart stutter to a stop in that instant, how it hadn't started to beat again until that morning when he'd known, when he'd felt Merlin through the bond.

I understand.

If magic stopped, the world would stop.

What a fucking game Kilgarrah had been playing all these years. Planting seeds and watching them grow. How many organizations had sprung from those? How many people believed that they were preserving the future by restoring the past, all in the name of furthering an agenda that they couldn't possibly understand? An agenda that a dying race, hidden among Men, was struggling to maintain? How many games had the dragons needed to play over the years to make sure that nothing would stand in the way of magic returning again?

The way that it should. The way that it was meant to.

Arthur was suddenly dizzy, light-headed, disoriented. It was too much, all beyond his understanding. Excalibur had been a pawn in a mission bigger than they were, and now that he knew, he felt suddenly very, very small. What had he gotten his team into? What was he supposed to do?

Save Merlin.

The world was too big. All he cared about was Merlin. The world could wait.

Arthur flashed back on the memory of Colonel Mandrake, his eyes fixed to the monitors, his jaw set, his expression grim. Neither one of them could have done anything to clear up the dust storm on that sniper mission -- or maybe Mandrake could have, there was no knowing at this point -- but what stood out to Arthur now hadn't been Mandrake's anxiety. No. It was the helpless hatred, the furious anger. It had been more than merely concern for the soldiers under his command. It had been --

It had been despair. Hopelessness.

Had Kilgarrah sent Arthur's men against Mordred? Against Aredian? Had it been an attempt to stop them? Arthur struggled to grasp at a slippery thread, to understand.

There were those who wanted magic gone forever. There were those who wanted magic restored.

A heart that didn't beat. A heart that could not stop beating.

In the end the effect was the same.

Arthur closed his eyes again. He took a stumbling step back, steadying himself quickly, but not before he saw it again the way he relived it in his dreams.

Merlin collapsing, falling, gone.

Walls of flame rising from the ground.

The sky a whirlwind tearing and shredding.

Arthur stared at the sand at his feet, at the edges of a faint shadow limning the carved stone that surrounded him.

Morgana's vision. It hadn't been a vision heralding the catastrophe of the testing grounds. It was a sign of events still to come.

Bollocks, Arthur wanted to say. The future wasn't set. It could change. It would change. They knew what was coming; they should also know how to alter the course of events --

It struck Arthur then.

That was exactly what Kilgarrah was doing. What he had been doing for only God knew how long.

There were things in common between the NWO's manifesto and Kilgarrah's blathering -- and it was that magic, for all that it existed now, was destined to return in full force. Where Kilgarrah preached balance, the NWO pushed for an extreme -- and the other side, whoever and wherever they were, were doing the same.

They wanted either/or. Kilgarrah and the dragons wanted the middle ground.

Arthur took a long, slow breath and held it in his chest until it burned. He exhaled, feeling his blood pounding in his ears.

There was a problem with what Kilgarrah was telling him. If there had been a time of dragons, if there had been a medieval Golden Age, why didn't anyone know about it? Why wasn't it recorded in the history books? Was everything only... a legend?

There was a saying that Arthur knew far too well, having been on the receiving end. History was told by the victors, and if the last millennia had been ruled by the mundane ebb of the planet's heartbeat, of course magic would be nothing but a myth.

Except Arthur believed in magic. He believed in Merlin.

"Tell me about the artefacts," Arthur said, his voice with a bark of command. That was a piece of the puzzle he didn't understand. How did they fit in, why were they being sought after --

Kilgarrah looked away, avoiding the question. Arthur glanced at Balinor, but Balinor shook his head faintly, his brow furrowed -- it seemed that Balinor's brow was permanently furrowed -- in confusion. Maybe neither of them knew. Except Kilgarrah must have, or he wouldn't have been involved in the very same search as Arthur's father, as Merlin's.

"What do they do?" Arthur asked. Kilgarrah didn't make eye contact. "What can they be used for?"

Again, Kilgarrah didn't answer.

"Are they weapons?"

Balinor made a strangled sound.

Kilgarrah raised his eyes. "You know the answer to that, Pendragon."

Arthur stared at him. Kilgarrah stared back.

The puzzle pieces slid into place. It wasn't a perfect fit, but he made it work. And when he spoke, he blurted out, "Fucking Hell," the same time that Balinor said, "You son of a bitch."

Kilgarrah's gaze darted to Balinor, skittering past and bouncing back. He studied Arthur with a unfathomable intensity. Balinor's jaw worked, but no words came out. He threw an arm out frustration.

In despair.

"Every side has weapons. Every side has an agenda. To keep the magic at its crest. To destroy it and preventing it from returning."

"And yours?" Arthur took a dangerous step forward. "You talk about balance like it's a new religion. Is that what you're going for? If it's all about balance, what's your weapon?"

Kilgarrah hesitated. His body was stock-still, frozen, unmoving. Kilgarrah's hesitation became a growing dread in Arthur's belly.

Because what did the balance need? When the world was see-sawing between magic and mundane, crest and ebb, a heartbeat and a pause, what maintained the balance?

Son of a bitch, Arthur thought, finally catching onto what Balinor had realized bare minutes ago.

"A pivot point," Arthur bit out.

Merlin was a fucking pivot point. If either side had him, they could shift the balance in either direction. The pendulum's swing would err to one end until it couldn't reach an arc high enough to reach the other.

Arthur glared at Kilgarrah. "The artefacts, Major. You knew what they were. You know what they can be used for. Why did you let them take the artefacts? Why didn't you destroy them?"

"We did. We tried," Balinor said quietly. "We destroyed what we could. Too many of them went missing."

"Locked up in government archives where you can't get to them," Arthur said.

"They're safe enough there. You try getting anything out of the archives. You'd spent a lifetime trying to find them first," Balinor said, his tone wry, but there was something off about his tone.

"Are you sure about that?" Arthur asked. "Absolutely sure? And what about the artefacts that went wandering? The ones that aren't in the archives? What about the artefacts that the other governments acquired before the British teams did?"

"You know about that," Kilgarrah said, and Arthur couldn't decide if Kilgarrah was surprised or disappointed that it had taken Arthur this long to figure it out.

"Who else is in the fight? Who is on whose side?" Arthur asked, pushing for answers he wasn't entirely sure that he was going to get, answers that he needed to have if he was going to do anything about it. "Who's walking the fine line?"

He paused.

"Obviously we know what the NWO's plans are," Arthur said. Kilgarrah nodded faintly. "And it's not too clear where the Directory stands, but I'm willing to bet that at its core they're against, or you wouldn't have elbowed your way into our mission if it wasn't to make sure they didn't corrupt us either way."

Again, a minute nod.

"You're not sure about the CIA," Arthur said, remembering the events that triggered everything.

"When is anyone ever sure about the CIA?" Balinor said. The humour fell flat because no one found the situation funny at all.

"The other government agencies? Aredian?"

"The agencies are… blissfully unaware of the underlying history. For the most part, when they see the NWO and see terrorists, which isn't far from the truth," Kilgarrah said. "At best, I believe they are more interested in stopping the NWO from a global war. At worst…"

"They want the weapons for themselves. And that includes Aredian. Selling it to the highest bidder," Arthur said, and if he had hated knowing that Merlin was Aredian's prisoner, he hated it even more now. Arthur looked heavenward, at the clear sky, the stars washed out by the City of Lights glittering bright. He had more questions. He had a billion questions. The one he wanted to ask the most, the one that he didn't dare ask at all, was about his father.

He already he knew where his father fell in the struggle. He didn't know how Uther had chosen a side or why.

It didn't matter.

At all.

The only thing that was important to Arthur was Merlin. It had nothing to do with the balance, but by God, he was not going to let anyone have him, to turn him into a weapon.

Arthur rubbed the back of his neck. He reached into his pocket and checked his phone, scrolling through the status updates. The activity levels at the house where Merlin was being kept hadn't changed, and in Gwaine's opinion, the mercenaries looked as if they were bunking down for the night. Prime time for rescuing our boy, one of the messages said.

Arthur had to agree. There was no reason to wait anymore. Arthur had the information he needed, and fuck it all. The mission was that there was no mission anymore except getting Merlin somewhere safe, and if the rest of the word went to war over magic, they damn well could go ahead and leave Arthur and his team out of it, because Arthur wasn't putting Merlin in any more danger than he already was. Still, a nagging sense of responsibility kept Arthur from walking away right now, from putting his mobile to his ear to give the go, to tell his team to do whatever it took to get Merlin out of there. He needed to know what was going on. He had to know.

How much longer would they have to wait for the signal that Merlin was supposed to send? What was going to be the signal?

"And me? What do I have to do with this?" Arthur asked.

"You don't know?" Kilgarrah asked.

"We don't have time for this, Major," Arthur said testily. "Save the cryptic bollocks for the Directory. What do I have to do with this? You said something about a coin and sides?"

"Two sides of the same coin," Kilgarrah said, a small, smug smile spreading across his lips. "Merlin is the heir of a legacy that finds its root in the Golden Age. A legacy of balance and peace. And you, Arthur, are the descendant of a King who ruled in a time of myth and legend, your blood running true through your mother's line."

Arthur stilled. There was a great deal that he didn't know about his mother's family, but he had been assuming that the connection he had with this entire ridiculous business was either some sort of contrivance on Kilgarrah's part to keep him involved, or, at the very least, it had to do with Uther. "What?"

"Kilgarrah," Balinor said, his voice low and quiet. "You can't --"

Balinor stopped himself.

"Can't what?" Arthur pressed. "Can't tell me? Can't --"

"Can't put that on your shoulders," Balinor said. "Not now. There are more pressing things to discuss than mythology."

Arthur stared at Balinor for a long time before reluctantly letting the matter drop. He turned to Kilgarrah.

"What about Mordred?"

Arthur was greeted with the slap of silence -- the paralyzed, stunned sort that came after a boulder thudded on the ground.

"Mordred?"

"Yes. Mordred. ap. Aneurin," Arthur said slowly, sliding close to Kilgarrah as he spoke. There was something about Kilgarrah -- as if he'd been taken aback, surprised by a new detail that he hadn't considered -- that sent a chill down Arthur's spine. "Whose side is he on?"

"He… is a Druid," Kilgarrah said slowly, each word spoken with more certainty. It didn't answer Arthur's question, though.

"And?"

A flash of uncertainty -- the first that Arthur had seen in all the time that he'd known the Major -- crossed his features. Finally, he repeated, "He is a Druid." As if that answered everything.

It did Arthur's head in.

Balinor shifted and stood next to Arthur. "And that means what, exactly?"

"You tell me, Balinor," Kilgarrah snapped. "Half of your men are Druids."

Arthur turned on Balinor in time to see the confusion and concern colouring his expression before it faded in a neutral mask. Carefully, Balinor said, "There are druids, and there are Druids."

"I'm guessing that we're not talking about the grove-walking tree-hugging solstice-ritual-at-Stonehenge druids," Arthur said slowly.

The crash course at the Directory had touched on many different types of magic users, and only briefly on Druids, capital D, and what little there had been was not flattering in the least. There had been mention of strange practices and rituals -- sinking the bodies of the dead in a bog, orgies for fertility, altars made up of fall harvests to appease the gods -- but there were also hints that they imprisoned people in wooden effigies that were later set aflame, of living evisceration to read auguries, of stone slabs with carved grooves for collecting blood following sacrifice.

Sacrifice.

Sacrifice.

Arthur looked between Balinor and Kilgarrah, fighting to tamp down his alarm. If Balinor's men knew about Merlin, if this Mordred knew about Merlin…

Kilgarrah raised his chin and nodded, as if he could sense the fear that had run down Arthur's spine.

Arthur took a steeling breath. "What's the plan?"

"We stop them. Obviously," Kilgarrah said.

"Excellent," Arthur snapped, his patience wearing thin. "Yes, please do state the obvious in the most useless and banal way possible. You brought us into this. Balinor, his men. My team. You manipulated us. You sent us on these missions. You, you, you. This comes down to you. Surely you have a plan --"

Arthur trailed off when he saw something in Kilgarrah's eyes.

"You don't." Arthur ran his hand through his hair. "Bloody Hell. You don't have a plan -- you've been shifting us about, trying to keep the dam from bursting, having us shoving fingers into the leaks --"

Arthur dropped his hand. He was furious. "All this -- for what? This pinch we're in? No intel, no backup, no army. They've got Merlin, you pillock, and it's your fault. If you hadn't kept us in the dark, if you'd told us what was going on, it wouldn't have been --"

There wouldn't have been a wall of flame between them, keeping Arthur from reaching Merlin and Kay before the enemy did. They wouldn't have had to lose Merlin. They could have coordinated their assault, crippled enemy forces --

"-- it wouldn't have been a fucking disaster --"

"Kilgarrah," Balinor snarled, his voice low and bone-trembling, sonorous and terrifying. "He's my son."

"You think I don't know that?" Kilgarrah's body vibrated, growing in an impossible shiver. Arthur took a step back, and another, only distantly aware of Galahad's stunned Holy shite as Kilgarrah transformed into a dragon, almost as if he had been bidden to do it, as if he had no control.

He was majestic, filling up the arena with his body, his wings unfurling to tent the area. The lamplights cast nightmarish shadows on the ground, dire and ominous, each of them shifting and alive. The shadows swirled like a carousel around them, telling stories of darkness and menace. There was the starkness of the aftermath of ancient battles, bodies on the ground, weapons stuck at angles like gravestones. There was movement, people shifting, countries changing. There was the swirl of smoke with the fire and rage of ancient times, ghostly figures both monstrous and calm, the passage of time of castles crumbling down and buildings of steel and glass rising in their wake.

And in it all, Kilgarrah settled into his form, all firm lines and full strength, muscles solid under dragonscale that glittered as he moved, the flesh thick and solid and impenetrable. His wings were lined with bone and scale and diaphanous flesh, like a bat's wing, only not.

Arthur was stunned by the transformation, numbed by the magic that had swollen into the air and crackled in a thunderous roar, leaving a ringing echo of silence in his ears --

Only...

There had not been a single sound.

Arthur took a step back. Another. He kept backing up until he hit the edge of the sandy arena, the stone digging into his thighs, and swallowed a squeak of surprise and awe.

Kilgarrah lowered his head to look first at Arthur, turning to Balinor. "Do you think I meant to lose him? The only advantage that we have? Do you think I meant for the enemy to have him?"

"I want the truth," Balinor roared. "Did you plan this?"

"There is no truth but this," Kilgarrah said, baring sharp teeth, his breath hot and sulphuric. "No truth but this and this alone. Now is the time of Albion's greatest need. You know what needs to be done."

Kilgarrah's wings swept down in synchronicity with the tensing jump of his hind legs, and his bulk swept up into the sky, crashing through the tree branches that cracked and broke and littered the ground.

He was gone in an instant, lost to the sky and darkness, leaving Arthur with more questions than answers.

Arthur turned around, a pinch of a frown in his brow, and he looked past the grief weighing down a man who had already sacrificed so much.

All he could see was fear.

 

 

ooOOoo

 

Saturday, 2150 hours

 

"No," Perceval said, not even looking up from his book.

The book was Rivers of London -- Gwaine had brought it for him back in London, living the good life -- and Perceval was only just starting to read it now. It was somehow gratifying for Gwaine to see that Perceval had held onto that book despite the fuck-up that their life had become over the last few weeks, and he was going to have to thank Bedivere for the recommendation at some point.

But not right now, because Gwaine was annoyed. He sat back down with a huff, adjusting his seat.

The bistro was tiny and cramped and getting more and more crowded by the minute. For a neighbourhood that didn't have a lot of tourist attractions, there were a fuckton of tourists cramming into the restaurant, all of them jockeying for tables. No one had tried to tell Gwaine and Perceval that they'd overstayed their welcome -- a waiter had looked like he'd wanted to try, earlier -- and that was probably because no one wanted to annoy the gentle giant reading a book and looking all intellectual.

Which was sexy in its own right, but Gwaine wasn't thinking about that. Much.

At all.

No, what he was doing was lamenting on the tragic loss of the chair he'd been using to prop up his leg. Granted, his leg was fine; the wound had closed, the stitches could come out in a few days or at the earliest opportunity -- whichever came first -- and if Gwaine never saw another tree branch sticking out of his thigh, it would still be too soon. He'd been milking the injury for all that he was worth, and there was a reason for that; every now and then, it would throb painfully.

Perceval, the unsympathetic git, had stopped with the leg massages a few days ago and told him to work it out, go take a walk. Gwaine had suggested sex. They compromised with a blowjob.

To be fair, with everything going on, maybe Gwaine had been milking it a bit too much, but he couldn't help himself. Merlin was missing, and having people annoyed with him was the only distraction he could tolerate right now.

The waiter hovered at a nearby table under the pretense of taking the orders of an older American couple on vacation when he was really waiting to see if Gwaine and Perceval would be getting lost any time soon. Instead, Gwaine plucked a menu out from under the waiter's tray, flipped through it quickly, and ordered ,"Deux bières --"

Perceval snorted in amusement and it had nothing to do with the book he was reading. Gwaine really did know how to order beer in every language in Europe, despite misconceptions that he was an illiterate wanker.

" -- et puis, l'esc --" Gwaine sighed. He tried, but he knew his accent was atrocious, and there really was no need to pretend he fit in when he obviously didn't. "The snails for me, the frog legs for him."

Perceval looked up then, raising a brow.

"Frog legs?"

"Taste like chicken," Gwaine said.

"Right," Perceval said, and went back to his book.

The waiter looked between the two of them, as if waiting for more, and Gwaine resisted the temptation to make little shooing motions. Instead, he added to their order. "And that burnt cream stuff for dessert."

"Crème brulée?" the waiter asked.

Gwaine nodded. "Yeah, that."

"Très bien, monsieur," the waiter said, and moved off.

Gwaine picked up whatever the waiter muttered under his breath; he was pretty sure it was French for wow, big spenders. God, I hate foreigners.

Perceval must have heard him, too, because he was smirking. "I see you're making friends everywhere you go."

"You know me, mate," Gwaine said mildly. "I'm loveable no matter what the language."

"You're something, all right," Perceval said, putting the book down flat on the table. "You all right? You're less like yourself than usual."

Gwaine shrugged a shoulder.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"No?"

"Yeah, I didn't think so," Perceval said with a sigh. He dog-eared his book and closed it, reaching over with his big hand to rub the back of Gwaine's neck. "First off, I know you hate operating in cities."

Gwaine gestured in the air to dismiss that notion. Of course he didn't like working in cities -- too easy to lose track of someone, too difficult to get clear lines of sight. It helped a great deal that they had trackers on everyone, but the second that they had the chance, Gwaine was going to get one of those under-the-skin injectables and he was going to tag everyone, Merlin in particular, with a tracking chip. He wondered if it was going to be too much if he programmed them with "If found, return to Gwaine Taggart."

Bohrs would get the joke; he wasn't sure if anyone else would find it funny.

"Second, you haven't been sleeping."

Gwaine studied Perceval up and down. Next to Arthur, Leon and Lance, Perceval had been the one to operate on even less sleep than anyone on the team. Where Arthur had been next to useless, and Leon and Lance at loose ends without their birds, it had fallen to Perceval to hold everyone together, to keep the team occupied with busywork, to make sure that everyone had a fair chance to rest and to feel as if they were doing something productive. Now that Morgana and Gwen were safe and sound in their little love nests, Leon had stepped up again and was barking orders as if nothing had happened, while Lance wasn't bumping into things like he was some sort of zombie anymore.

Finding Merlin -- or, rather, finding Merlin's possible location -- had boosted the team's morale. It had even done something about Arthur's self-flagellation. Arthur was better, a whole lot better than he had been a few days ago, but Gwaine knew, just like the rest of them knew, that Arthur wouldn't be right until they had Merlin back.

But Perceval was holding himself together and keeping himself going out of sheer force of will, if the slump of exhaustion in his shoulders and the dark circles under his eyes were any indication. Half the time, it was Gwaine supporting Perceval's weight, not the other way around. And he was the one who was injured. It wasn't fair.

Gwaine didn't say anything about that, though. As much as he was worried for Merlin and for Arthur, a great deal of his fretting had to do with making sure that Perceval was taking care of himself, which was why Gwaine had taken to surreptitiously following Perceval around and splaying himself out on the first horizontal surface. With a blanket and pillow, in case he could persuade Perceval for an impromptu nap.

Hadn't happened yet, but Gwaine was nothing if not persistent.

"And you'd know I'm not sleeping, because you're wide awake running things in the background like the underappreciated lout that you are," Gwaine said. He gestured with his finger, drawing half-moons in the air. "I should've asked Morgana for some of her makeup, done something about those bags under your eyes, make you pretty for the show we're about to have --"

Perceval pointed at him menacingly. "Don't you dare."

"A bit of blush on the cheeks, do something about your cheekbones, some lip gloss -- peach is my favourite --"

Perceval exhaled in annoyance. "I don't know how your head works sometimes, Gwaine. I swear, one minute we're in a shoot-out, the next, you're picturing me in fishnet stockings, heels, and a poodle skirt."

Gwaine threw his head back and laughed, drowning out the faint music in the bistro. When he sobered up, Perceval was chuckling quietly to himself, and when their eyes met --

"No. Absolutely not," Perceval said. "I don't have the legs for it."

"Oh, believe me, baby, you more than have the legs, particularly when they're wrapped around my waist." An event that happened far too rarely, and more was the pity, though Gwaine couldn't complain about being on the receiving end. There were few things that he liked better than having a nice, big cock pistoning into his arse, fucking him until he saw stars.

"Not even if you paid me," Perceval said.

"Peanut butter," Gwaine said, raising his eyebrows wriggling. "I know a place in London that has the good stuff, smooth and creamy. Fourteen pounds a pop for a kilo, but so worth it."

Perceval's cheeks reddened. "If you get Arthur in fishnet stockings --"

"Pft, no," Gwaine said, making a face. He crossed his arms. "As if I want to follow after them. Why can't we be the ones to start a fashion statement? Show them how kinky we can get, see if they can out-kink us?"

"Oh my God, Gwaine. This isn't a kink competition. Besides, I'm fairly sure that they are always going to win --"

"Not as long as I'm on this team," Gwaine said, catching the eye of a pretty blonde and brunette who were sitting nearby, doing their best not to pay attention to the conversation. He winked at them; they both smiled back.

Perceval rubbed his face with one hand, his thumb running a circle over that spot over his right eye that throbbed when he had a headache. When he finally dropped his hand, it was with an exasperated sigh, a fond shake of his head, and just the tiniest bit of surrender. "I'm not shopping for stockings."

Gwaine smiled so bright it hurt his face. "I knew you would see it my way. There's a shop tucked in behind the Thames, a few blocks over, you'd never know it was there if you weren't looking for it. Caters especially to men, and I know they have… outfits in your size."

Perceval stared at him. "Do I want to know how you know about this place?"

Gwaine considered his answer for a few seconds before he answered with a violent shake of his head. "No. No. You absolutely don't. It didn't involve Morgana or Halloween or losing a bet, and I most certainly did not allow her to put makeup on me, and I would never pose for photographs, definitely not, because that's giving Morgana blackmail material that I would be hearing about until my dying day."

Perceval's eyebrow shot up. A small quirk of his lips betrayed his amusement, and there was a crinkle around his eyes as he struggled not to laugh. "Gwen took the pictures, didn't she?"

Gwaine's shoulders slumped. "Unfortunately."

"Still looking for them?"

"I've looked everywhere," Gwaine said, throwing out his arm. He nearly knocked the tray out of their waiter's hands; the waiter gave him a look that threatened death and carnage. Their beers were placed in front of them, and Gwaine smiled genially at the waiter. The waiter did not smile back. Gwaine leaned across the table. "You have to help me. Ever since I spilled the beans about the baby, she's been threatening to post those pictures on Tumblr."

"I don't know," Perceval said, his brows furrowed in a frown. He paused to sip his beer. "I kind of want to see them. Maybe you'll be the one to dress up in stockings. I think you'd look pretty."

"No, no, we agreed, you're the one who --" Gwaine's eyes narrowed. He pointed an accusing finger at Perceval. "You've seen them."

"What do you take me for?" Perceval asked, looking both scandalized and offended. "Of course I've seen them. Back in uni, after that prank you pulled on Gwen? When you glued all her furniture to the ceiling?"

"That was rather well done if I say so myself," Gwaine said, mentally patting himself on the back. He wondered how pissed Lance would be if he did the same thing to the furniture in their flat.

"Considering that you did all that on your own, I suppose, yes, that was well done," Perceval granted, making a magnanimous gesture in the air. "But didn't you ever wonder why you couldn't get a date for three months afterward?"

Gwaine spluttered into his beer. "That witch. That was her?"

"To be fair, once I saw your legs, I knew I was done for," Perceval admitted. "Wank material if I've ever seen any. Pity that I left my copies at my parent's flat, or I'd want to do a side-by-side comparison -- then and now --"

"You arse," Gwaine said. He knew he should be scandalized, but he couldn't help but laugh and laugh until he was doubled over, wheezing for breath. Perceval had saved his beer before he spilled it all over the table, and the two pretty girls were giving him concerned looks and awkward, curious smiles. A few nearby patrons ignored him; they must be locals who had mastered the art of ignoring the crazy antics of tourists.

It took some time before he sobered up, straightening up in his seat, brushing his hair out of his eyes. He heaved a sigh and watched Perceval for a long time before crossing his arms on the table and nodding.

"Thanks for that."

He hadn't laughed -- he hadn't been distracted -- in a while. It hadn't felt like he'd ever be able to do that again. He was grateful that Perceval had played along, that he'd given Gwaine something else to think about, giving him a chance to… well, if not calm down, at least relax substantially. He'd been on a hair-trigger for a while, now.

"What are boyfriends for?" Perceval asked, his voice a low murmur that sent a shiver down Gwaine's spine. And that was it -- that right then. Gwaine knew that he was done for.

Perceval didn't like being distracted from the task at hand. He was completely focused on a mission, and he became cross when something else came along, requiring his attention. That he would do this for Gwaine, that he wouldn’t admonish him to pay attention, to remind him that we have a job to do, when it was probably tying him up in knots that they weren’t going over the situation as it was right now.

Gwaine was quiet when the waiter returned to their table, dropping the steaming escargot in front of him, and the frog legs for Perceval. Perceval stared at them for a long time until Gwaine bit his lower lip and suggested, "Want to trade?"

"Fuck, yes, please," Perceval said.

They exchanged plates.

"Are you sure? They do taste like chicken --"

"I don't care if they taste like venison. Frogs, Gwaine. Frogs. I love frogs. Why would I want to eat them?"

"Because you love frogs?" Gwaine asked.

Perceval rolled his eyes. "It matters so much to me that you pay attention to what I say."

"What! Never! Who do you take me for, your boyfriend?"

They finished their meals quickly, the conversation never ebbing, as if they were trying to make up for lost time.

Their missions usually required a measure of hurry up and wait. Gwaine and Perceval either had too much time on their hands or not enough. Right now, in this little restaurant, they finally had time just for the two of them, and it was almost as if their situation had been restored to their natural order.

Except it hadn't. And with that realization, the table fell silent.

They stared at each other for a few minutes before Gwaine blurted out, "I'm worried about Arthur."

"Not Merlin?"

"Of course, Merlin," Gwaine groused, glancing around to see who was near enough to overhear. The two women at the closest table had finished their meals and had left. A few other patrons lingered over bottles of wine, while the noisy backpackers were knocking over chairs while shouldering their loads in preparation of another hike. There wasn't anyone close enough to overhear, but Gwaine kept his voice down all the same. "It's doing his head in, isn't it?"

"It's doing all our heads in," Perceval said, but he put his plate aside and leaned forward. "But that's not what you mean."

"'Course it isn't. You were there, weren't you? Barges out of his room, practically have to tackle him to keep him from running off by himself. So sure that Merlin's alive --" Gwaine paused, swallowing around the lump in his throat, and forced himself to continue. "-- so sure that he'll find him here. It's not like the Princess to put all his bets on one horse."

Perceval stared down at the table for a long time, his brows twitching, his mouth pressing together. "It's not like him."

"And it's not just me thinking it, either. Leon and me, we were talking --" Gwaine winced, running a hand on the back of his head. "Or at least, we were talking, before Morgana came out of nowhere and hit me on the head with her purse, and for fuck's sake, what does she have in there, a bloody Sig Sauer? I'd think she'd go with a Magnum at the very least."

Perceval held up his hands. "Don't ask me what women carry in their purses. I have no idea. Remember Kay's Kathy? Could pull a million things out of that little itty bitty purse of hers --"

"I'm not sure what scares me more. Morgana with a gun in her purse. Or Morgana with Kathy's bag of holding purse and a shotgun," Gwaine said.

"Either way," Perceval said, raising a brow. He rolled a hand in the air in encouragement.

"Right. But we were talking, and Leon, he's noticed too, and he's worried. He thinks we should be following up on the traffic footage -- Lamorak found a few possible locations in the area where they could've taken Merlin. And Lucan -- don't get me started on Lucan. Like pulling teeth to get anything out of him, sometimes. Even him, he's not sure Merlin is here, pretty convinced that this is an ambush, because it's too pat --"

"And that's when Morgana hit you with her purse."

Gwaine pointed at the back of his head. "I have a lump. Go on, feel it."

"I'll take you at your word," Perceval said, leaning back and pausing as the waiter collected their dirty plates. He ordered coffee -- they shouldn't have been drinking beer while on the clock, Gwaine knew, but beer helped them blend in. Also, alcohol helped ease jittery nerves, or at least it did in Gwaine's case. "You shouldn't be questioning him."

"I'm not. But you think it's weird, yeah? And Leon. And -- in any case, this is bollocks, us sitting on our thumbs, watching a flat. Sure, it's a flat full of Aredian's boys, but that's not the point, it could just be where they're sitting around watching telly and elbowing each other and arguing over who gets the remote --"

"Except our pendants trigger if we get too close," Perceval said. The pendants protected them from magical attacks, but also had the side effect of getting warm when they approached a ward or an enchanted object; they'd learned that as a matter of course and considered their necklaces to be early warning systems.

"Which is why it's probably a trompe d'oeuil, a Trojan horse, a pop can crawling across the ocean floor, an empty tortoise shell --"

"An empty tortoise shell?"

"The metaphor got away from me. The point being, if we can't get close enough to check, how are we going to know for sure Merlin's there? And if we're all here watching the flat, they're probably somewhere else, moving Merlin… Fuck, what are you doing, Perce, you're supposed to stop me when I start thinking because now all I can think about is that they're on a tarmac somewhere, loading him up on the back of a plane, with a burlap sack over his head, and we'll never see him again because that prat Princess of ours isn't letting us budge --"

"Gwaine."

"-- because he's too stubborn. He hasn't got any slept lately, have you noticed? He's hallucinating, I'm almost sure of it. He's convinced himself that Merlin's here, and you know what I think? I think it's going to devastate him when he finds out that he's wrong. There won't be anything that we can do to help him then -- the fuck, who's going to help us when we realize? I had a thought, in any case, if we can't get close enough, well, I think I know something that can --"

"Gwaine."

"Just a minute, I'm not finished talking. I know we can't get direct line-of-sight on all the rooms in the house, it's hard to make out who's who with the IR, and they've got some piece of shite in there jamming us so we can't listen in, and I realized, we've got it, you know. Exactly what we need to get close enough without triggering the ward, to get eyes-in." Gwaine paused for a second and grinned. "So I went ahead and called Pellinor, he's bringing Merlin's mechadragon --"

"Gwaine."

Gwaine followed Perceval's glance down the street. It was growing dark, and the streetlamps and storefronts were casting the road in a pale, yellowing glow, but there was no mistaking the man who was directly across from the bistro's entrance, hands in his coat pockets, hat pulled down low over his head.

"Is that --"

The man, realizing he'd been spotted, glanced up and down the street before crossing over, shook out his coat before he entered the bistro. He pushed back his hat and unzipped his coat, rubbing his bare hands on his chest. He made a show of looking around approaching the table, a guided missile heading directly toward them --

Perceval leaned back, but Gwaine had him beat. Gwaine's gun was heavy in his lap, the safety off, already pointed at the man.

The man was in his mid-fifties, his light brown hair liberally peppered with white, his brows heavy in the middle and drawing attention to dark brown eyes wrapped in the crinkle of laugh lines. His skin was lightly tanned, as if he'd recently come from sunnier and warmer climes, his cheek was smooth-shaven, his jaw square and a little sharp at the chin. He had a pleasant face, open and welcoming, but his body language was off, as if he was holding himself in reserve.

He was dressed to blend in -- his coat was beaten up, his hat had seen better days, but they were both of excellent quality. He wore tailored trousers and dress shoes and a white shirt and a loosened tie under the coat, and anyone looking at him would easily mistake him as someone who just left the office.

He took a chair from the nearest table, dragged it over, and plonked it right beside Gwaine and Perceval's table, sitting down without invitation. "Hard to get a table in this place. Do you two gentlemen mind?"

The code phrase was spoken in English -- a London accent, maybe lower east, a bit posh, if Gwaine wasn't mistaken, and he often was when it came to accents. Gwaine and Perceval exchanged a quick glance before Perceval responded, "It's a popular restaurant. Everyone comes in for the King Marlin."

Gwaine really wanted to know who had come up with the code phrase. It was a little obvious, even to him.

The man beamed at them as if they'd just made his day -- and maybe they had, Gwaine wasn't sure yet. Gwaine ran a finger over the curve of the trigger and he glanced at Perceval, quirking a brow.

The waiter came over and took the man's order -- "Un café, s'il te plaît. Un dessert? Oui, oui, la crème brûlée, c'est parfait." -- and left them alone.

"My name's Michael Fischer. Balinor's my LT."

Gwaine relaxed his trigger finger and shook Michael's hand. The man might be older, but the grip was firm and strong, and Gwaine didn't doubt that all these years in hiding had turned already hard army men even harder, despite their age. Michael shook hands with Perceval; they introduced themselves and fell silent as the waiter returned, first with coffees, and again a moment later with their desserts.

He must have been holding back on the desserts that they'd ordered earlier, the bastard.

"Enjoying the city? Seen any sights?" Michael asked pleasantly.

"Hard to miss them," Perceval answered neutrally.

The waiter finally left them alone.

"One thing about the waiters around here," Michael said, smiling a truly pleasant smile, "They can be useful sources of information."

"If you say so," Gwaine said. He still hadn't put away his gun, but he could tell that Perceval had holstered his.

"That one there, Nathaniel?" Michael gestured without really gesturing, and Gwaine tracked the movement toward their waiter, his body was angled toward them in such a way that it was obvious he was keeping an eye on them. "Good man. The nephew of a lovely woman who owns a bakery a few blocks over. Observant, wants to join the service once he's completed his studies, barely makes enough to cover his rent at the flat he shares with two other blokes -- who are both slobs, by the way, one of them an artist, the other a mechanic. Don't ask where, I don't recommend him; he'll swap out the brand new parts in your car with a piece that's about to fail -- that's if it even belongs in your car, yeah?"

Gwaine exchanged glances with Perceval. The man was posturing a bit, and Gwaine didn't like it when people postured without reason. The man might have been around the block a few times, might even know how to make connections in a short period of time, but no one in Excalibur was a slouch, and being shown up like this? It was just not on.

"So what did your boytoy tell you about the house up the street?"

Michael's mouth curled a little, and he made a small, disapproving sound, but he didn't look to be taking Gwaine's tone personally. He helped himself to his dessert before he answered.

Gwaine resettled the weight of his gun on his lap.

"First, you'll want to eat in a hurry and scatter, or they'll find you out," Michael said. "At least two of them -- never the same two -- come here for a late dinner. Always for the steak, even if the steak is..."

He made a wriggling so-so gesture with his hand.

"Damn it," Perceval muttered. He shoved his book in his bag and sorted his things to be ready to leave at an instant's notice. Gwaine would only have to grab his coat and he'd be ready to go.

"What else?" Gwaine asked.

"The house's heavily reinforced with wards," Michael said, licking his spoon. The crème brûlée had come in a small dish that was more of a tease than a satisfying dessert; four mouthfuls and it was gone. Michael scraped the bow and looked forlornly at the other dessert plates, which hadn't been touched yet.

"We knew that already," Perceval said.

"Ah, but could you cross it without triggering them?" Michael said, raising both brows. For an instant, he looked like a child, eager and excited. "It's been a long time since I've had the opportunity to reweave a ward. They shouldn't notice, but I widened the gap between the house and the lean-to in the back, where the brickwork fencing is falling to disrepair. It's horribly overgrown, plenty of cover if you should want to slip through --"

"I know the spot," Gwaine said. He'd worked his way around the building more than once, testing and mapping the limits of the ward, coming as close as he dared before it went off. He hadn't been the only one; Galahad had done the circuit twice, and so had Lucan, and both Galahad and Gwaine were a little put out that Lucan was the only one to map the wards' limits at the very front of the house, where there was always at least one guard. How he hadn't been noticed, Gwaine would never know.

Although, it would lend credence to his suspicion that Lucan might be a ninja. Or magic. He did disappear at the most inconvenient times --

"Tread carefully, then," Michael said, wiping his hands with a cloth napkin before reaching for the sugar, scooping four tiny teaspoons into an equally tiny cup. "Take a big step where there's a notch in the ground. Unraveling the ward on the ground would have set it off, but as long as you don't drag your feet…"

He made a little you’ll be fine wave of his hand.

Gwaine glanced at Perceval. He put his gun away, finally, and started to stand up. There was nothing that he wanted more than to do a full circuit of the house, up close and personal. If Merlin was in that house, he'd find him.

"I'll save you the trouble," Michael said, as if he'd just read Gwaine's mind.

Gwaine shuddered, suddenly disturbed at the thought -- there was little that could bother him, but the idea that someone had been rummaging through his head? If that was true, Gwaine hoped that Michael got a good look at exactly what Gwaine planned to do to Perceval once Gwaine had gotten him in stockings.

Michael held up a finger and rummaged through his coat with his free hand, checking his pockets. "I have it in here somewhere."

Gwaine wasn't fooled by the forgetful old man act. That was a gun he'd spotted under Michael's coat, in the crook of his armpit. There was also a selection of knives on his hip -- small knives, the blades no more than four inches in length, without hilt and with knuckle rings to keep it from slipping.

Those knives were meant for wetwork and nothing else. They were meant to kill. Sturdy enough to withstand impact, sharp enough to cut through steel, and designed for repeated stabbing motion.

Gwaine could picture it in his head. An upward dig into the kidneys from behind, again and again. Three, four, five stabs in a close grouping in the stomach area, carving up all the internal organs. Precision strikes to the face and throat.

This time, when Gwaine shivered, it was with the understanding that Michael had been doing this work for most of his life, and that time, training and necessity had robbed him of any hesitation before taking a man's life. The clumsy fumbling through his clothing? It was all an act. Gwaine could see the grace in Michael's gestures, the economy of movement, the intent.

Michael held up his mobile in triumph. "They make these smaller all the time. Pretty soon, I'll never be able to find the damn thing. Just the other day it was wedged between the pillows of the couch. I dug out nearly five Euros in change before I found it."

He reached into his front shirt pocket, plucked out a pair of reading glasses, and put them on, leaning back even as he held the mobile at arm's length, tilting his head up to look through the bifocals.

Gwaine couldn't help it. He snorted. Here was a man who'd given up his life for a mission with absolutely no payoff, who was a trained killer, who was a sorcerer, who was a step above and beyond mere men.

Almost.

Michael lost serious deadly assassin street cred when he wore his glasses.

"Ah, yes, here it is." Michael offered them his phone. "Confirmation."

The image was a close up of one of the windows at the house, horizontal blinds askew in the shape of a man's body. There were fingers pulling the blinds down just enough to catch a glimpse of dark hair.

Gwaine glanced at Michael dubiously. He made a page-turning motion with his finger. "There's a few pictures."

From the time stamp, the second photo was a good twenty minutes later. There were heavy curtains in the window, parted just enough for a glimpse inside; despite the glare from the low sun cutting through the buildings, Gwaine could make out someone slumped in a chair, shoulders bowed. Whoever it was, he was leaning forward, an arm on the table, his hand through his hair, a laptop in front of him. It was too dark to make out who it was, though.

The next picture was from a different angle; the curtains had shifted. Gwaine wondered if Michael had parted them, somehow --

The next. And the next. And the one after that? More of the same, but it seemed to Gwaine as if the person in the photo was slowly turning around, trying not to be obvious about it.

The faster Gwaine swept through the shots, the more it looked like a live-action flick, until, finally --

Merlin had turned around, and was looking straight at the camera.

"Thank fuck," Gwaine breathed out. He sagged in relief; Perceval had done the same in perfect echo and mirror image.

And in the photo after that, he had turned around again, stretching out his arms in the weakest cover-up in the universe of cover-ups.

In the very last photo, Merlin's arm was twisted behind his back, his hand curled in a familiar gesture.

I'm okay.

 

 

ooOOoo

 

Saturday, 2100 hours

 

Merlin's heart was in his throat, and it was pounding a ragged rhythm. He felt like one of those poor saps on the movie, Alien, right before baby burst through their ribcages.

He didn't know who had been the bloody idiot to stand outside of the house, snapping pictures as if they were a tourist, and he didn't care -- there would be time for tongue-lashings and dressing-downs later, when it was all over with. Still, he struggled to shake off the lingering euphoria and adrenaline, because his team, his Arthur -- they weren't far. They'd found him.

Thank fuck.

He refused to believe that it was anyone else but Arthur.

Merlin wasn't sure how much of it had to do with Mordred's machinations -- Merlin would never sell his team short; some of them could track an ant over concrete -- but it had been Mordred who had caught Merlin's attention and raised his eyebrow meaningfully before glancing to the window behind him. Merlin had waited until the guards weren't paying attention, feigned issues with a loose connection, and took a look outside. He saw the sleeves of a jacket, someone's hand, a cell phone in hand, held as close to the window as possible to eliminate the reflection from the glass --

Merlin had held his breath until his head pounded from the lack of oxygen and he felt light-headed, but everything remained calm. There were no guards raising the alarm. None of the mercenaries whispered anything to each other and colluded to leave quietly. No one rushed out to take care of the threat, and definitely no one dragged anyone inside the house.

He nearly had a heart attack ten minutes later when Aredian swanned into the room. "Well?"

Merlin didn't bother looking up. He tapped out a line of code, erasing it a minute later when he realized he'd already punched out the subroutine, and forced himself to concentrate. When Aredian loomed over him and wrenched the laptop around to stare at the multiple windows of code as if he knew what Merlin was doing, Merlin threw up his hands in annoyance and sank back into the chair.

"It hasn't been twenty-four hours yet. Fuck, it's barely been seven. Piss off."

Aredian gave him a sharp, dark glare. Behind him, Mordred glanced down and away, fighting to contain a smirk.

"What is this?" Aredian said, pointing at the screen. From the angle, Merlin couldn't see what he was alarmed about, and anyway, it was fine, because he'd fast-keyed through a lock screen to hide what he'd really been working on.

"I don't know," Merlin said, rolling his eyes. "Code?"

"What do you need it for? You were supposed to unlock --"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Merlin muttered. He waved Aredian away and reached for the laptop, ignoring how his heart was threatening to come to an abrupt stop right now. His stomach twisted into knots, and he reminded himself to keep it together just a little while longer. This was his cover. A petulant, mouthy, overly-arrogant geek with no self-preservation instincts. "You're cutting into my time."

A heavy hand landed on his shoulder. Merlin flinched away from it, but he was trapped by his chair and the table and had nowhere to go. The fingers dug in tightly and he tried to pull himself free.

"I've been observing him, Jonathan," Mordred said mildly. "Monitoring what he's working on. I can assure you that his only objective at present is repairing the damage that was done to his programming."

"It takes time," Merlin said plaintively, and he flinched automatically at Aredian's glance. His submissive behaviour apparently satisfied a predatory part of Aredian's personality, because his fingers squeezed, then loosened, and his hand slipped off entirely. Merlin waited for a moment before practically launching himself at his laptop, pulling it close. He typed in the next line of code -- something that didn't fit in with the rest of what was in the box, and shot side-long glance at Aredian.

"Are you hungry, Merlin?" Mordred asked, his tone preternaturally pleasant given the tension that had ratcheted up in the room. Merlin's stomach grumbled loudly in response -- the guard just outside the room heard and smirked. When Merlin didn't answer right away -- he made himself smaller in his chair, his elbows tucking in against his ribs, his fingers darting from one window to the next as he copied and pasted code and tested events before running them in the main window -- Mordred prompted, "Merlin?"

Merlin glanced at him and back at his code. He glanced at Mordred again, to be sure he'd seen the meaningful look Merlin was giving him, that he would notice, the insistent tap of his fingers. He stopped typing.

"I could eat," Merlin allowed. When Aredian shifted beside him, Merlin said hurriedly, "I'll eat and work. I can work with something in my mouth --"

"I am sure you can," Aredian said, smooth and smarmy. Merlin shuddered and he shifted his chair a few inches to the left, away from Aredian. Aredian smirked.

Mordred typed something in his computer before lowering the monitor, but not closing the laptop. His chair scraped on the floor as he stood up.

"One of the men will get him something," Aredian said. "Continue to monitor him."

"I assumed as much," Mordred said, his tone mild. "It is, however, time for the next dose of his tincture."

"He doesn't need it," Aredian said. "We don't want him too healed, do we?"

Mordred half-turned and studied Aredian for a long time, his expression placid. The way he narrowed his eyes couldn't be anything but judgmental, and Aredian shifted his pose, drawing himself up straight. "Merlin's worth does not end when he delivers the database, Jonathan. There will be no playing with the remains this time."

"Are you trying me, Mordred?" Aredian asked. His chin was tucked close to his chest and the smile he gave far too plastic to be genuine.

Mordred exhaled slowly. "Would you like some tea, Jonathan?"

The air in the room was so thick with tension that it hurt Merlin's chest to breathe. He didn't dare type lest the muted clicking sound trigger a global extinction event, or turn him into some sort of target. Whatever Mordred had gone through in his life, swimming among the sharks, Mordred was still young, and he gave the impression that he wasn't quite as hard as he wanted to be. The mercenaries offered him some degree of respect -- indeed, Aredian's reaction when Mordred came sweeping in to save Merlin from yet another trouncing had been telling -- but that degree of respect had dulled to grudging acknowledgment. It was as if in his absence, they had forgotten that he was still a man barely out of his teens, but now that they had spent some time with him again, growing accustomed to him, Mordred was little else but a thorn in their side.

If Merlin could see that, then surely Mordred could, too. He wondered what plans Aredian had made to get rid of Mordred.

"Tea," Aredian said, and he held out a hand, inviting Mordred to lead the way.

Merlin watched them go. Neither of them looked back. It was as if he were dismissed, though he was certain that if he hadn't made some progress by the time they'd returned, there would be hell to pay.

He switched screens and glanced through the processes that he was running in the background. The first one was a virus -- his version of one, anyway. It was the military-grade equivalent of an electronic nuclear bomb, buried deep in several apparently-harmless, neutralized worms. It was nearly ready to be launched, but he would need to get past the security lockout on the hard drive.

He fast-tabbed through the open windows. Almost immediately, he saw that Mordred had left the docket open. Merlin wasn't entirely certain what Mordred had done, but there was a hole in the jamming system that let him access the house wireless. Right now, that hole was larger than it had been earlier, which meant he could push more resources toward hacking Aredian's network.

"He keeps it with him all the time," Mordred said, his eyes fixed in the distance as he detailed the plan. "It's a security blanket for him. Constant access to his personal files through a proxy server bounced over nearly a hundred IPs worldwide. No one even knows it exists, the signal is so scattered. But once you're on his network, you can get into his files and pull out the database."

Merlin took a deep breath, his fingers squeezing around the steering wheel. "You're mad."

"I realize that," Mordred said. "But you can do it."

"How big is this database?"

"Hundreds of Terabytes, though I imagine that is only an estimate, and that most of it contains all of his business ventures. We only need one part of his database."

"One rather specific part." Merlin slowed down for the red light and risked a glance at Mordred.

Mordred had recited the passwords from memory, though he'd admitted that he had no idea if they were current, only that he had seen Aredian use them in the last two months. He wasn't even certain what the passwords were for, which only made this entire enterprise all the more… entertaining.

Merlin was going to somehow break into Aredian's network, locate where he kept a very specific set of files, and download a copy. He was going to hack the hard drive, pull out another specific set of files, and copy them to his computer. He would need to bomb the hard drive with a quick-wipe, upload a worm to Aredian's network.

Simultaneously.

"Fantastic," Merlin said. "We're going to die."

Mordred's smile was faint. The light turned green and Merlin slowed down, because they were nearly there. "Not if you signal Excalibur in time to extract us."

"Oh. Right. I forgot about that part." Merlin grit his teeth. He had no idea how he was going to get a message out to Arthur -- if Arthur and the team was even in range to receive the message, if they were close enough to act. And even then, there was no way to coordinate the rescue. "We're going to die," he repeated.

Merlin rubbed his face in frustration. A guard walked past, pausing to poke his head in and give Merlin a curious look before wandering off.

This would be so much easier if Aredian's bloody database wasn't encrypted. He'd managed to grab a file from the network during one of those times when Mordred hadn't throttled the bandwidth to a trickle in order to avoid detection. It was enough to figure out what decrypt key he would need to use to get through the firewalls, never mind the files themselves.

Merlin reached into his backpack, rummaging around until he found --

A guard paused in the doorway and watched him. Merlin pulled a candy peppermint from the bottom of his bag, tore off the wrapping, and popped it into his mouth. The guard moved on.

Merlin quickly unwound the cable that he'd pulled out along with the candy. He hooked it up to his laptop and plugged the other end into his Gameboy Crack Box.

He set up the system to loop the file through the Crack Box. It didn't take long before the file was decrypted -- it was an easy key, something that Aredian would remember easily, Merlin supposed. Either way --

Merlin worked quickly, tacking on the decrypt code to the search program. It would run a quick sweep through the files, tagging anything that had the keywords that Mordred had given him. Everything with even remotely close to a fifty percent match was going to get copied over -- documents, spreadsheets, photographs, databases, everything -- without getting fully decrypted.

Still, transferring encrypted files -- even partially decrypted -- took a lot longer than normal. They didn't have time for that. Merlin didn't think they had the twenty-four hours that Aredian had generously granted him.

It would be an impossible task to perform if Merlin didn't have his laptop. As it was, he wasn't entirely certain how it was that he had his laptop in the first place. There were signs that it had been tampered with -- the casing had been scratched in several locations and there were wear signs on the screws. Without opening it up himself, Merlin had no idea of the physical state of the computer, but a quick look at the hardware setup had shown that there wasn't anything different. He'd run a shareware program to detect new devices, to locate unknown devices, to pick out open ports and query to see if they needed to be manually closed, but as far as Merlin could tell, his laptop was still his laptop and he wouldn't have to bin it and build a new one.

He would, though. Later. Just to be on the safe side.

The software, on the other hand, was a different matter. He'd wasted an hour setting up blocks and blinders for the spyware that someone had installed -- it was designated to capture and transmit every keystroke, right down to his passwords, access codes, and mouse-clicks.

The software was annoying, but easily bypassed. He cloistered it to monitor only the programming that he did for the hard drive, but blocked it from transmitting until his say-so -- and his say-so was going to coincide with the activation of the virus across Aredian's network. As it was, Mordred's jammer was giving him the cover he needed to ensure that no one was monitoring what he was doing right now in real-time.

Merlin glanced up as several men walked across the hallway, but he didn't stop working. Something wasn't right, but he couldn't devote too much time to wondering why Aredian's mental state was wavering from one extreme to another -- at one point, he didn't want to make eye contact with Mordred; at another, he challenged him at every turn. He needed to get this done and he needed to get it done now, because --

Merlin glanced up, switching screens automatically as a guard entered the room, messily dropping a Styrofoam food container and a bottle of iced tea on a corner of the table.

"What's for dinner?"

The man smiled big and answered in Afrikaans; Merlin picked out the words cow shite, bull bollocks, and spunk.

Merlin raised both brows and said, "Charming."

The man left, his laughter deep in his belly; Merlin heard him recount the story to someone down the hall. He eyed the container warily before flicking it open; there was a ham sandwich with mustard and Gruyere cheese, a side of cold chips, and as far as he could tell, no sign of shite, balls, or come.

He ate half of a sandwich in a hurry, and went back to work.

Merlin wasn't sure how long he was at it by the time that Mordred had returned, but he'd polished off his meal, drained the bottle of iced tea, and achieved significant progress in the short period of time now that the network socket had been open wider than a tiny trickle. Mordred put down two cups of tea on the table before fishing through his trouser pockets. He placed a small glass vial next to Merlin's laptop and sat down in his seat.

Mordred raised his screen, tapped a few keys, sighed in exaggeration, and leaned over to enter a string of commands.

Abruptly, the open socket was throttled back, and Merlin's progress was reduced to a frustrating crawl.

Merlin threw up his hands and leaned back in his chair. He rubbed his face, he sighed heavily, and shook out his hands; his fingers were twitching.

"Take the tincture," Mordred said, not bothering to look up.

"I feel fine."

"Drink it," Mordred said, and there was an edge to his tone, no longer placid or complacent or pleasant. Merlin frowned.

Mordred wasn't exactly a posh bloke, but he wore nice things. His nice button-down was wrinkled at the chest, a button missing, a splotch of dirt on his shoulder. There was a red mark across his cheek, a scrape just under his left eye. His hair was in a disarray that had been hastily smoothed down, and there was a spooked feel to him, as if he'd been profoundly disturbed.

Considering the things that Mordred must have seen since he vanished into the underworld, associating with the NWO under the pretence of being one of them and running with mercenaries for whom a piffling thing like morality was an annoyance and a detriment, Merlin wondered just what had happened to put Mordred on edge. Merlin sat up slowly, wrapping a hand around the vial; he concentrated but couldn't sense anything unusual about it beyond magically-enhanced healing properties. He wouldn't be able to find out more without casting a spell, and he wouldn't do that now --

Slowly, watching Mordred out of the corner of his eye, Merlin unstoppered the vial and drank the contents. It was more concentrated than the stuff they'd given him at the other safe house, and Merlin grunted involuntarily when he felt one of his aching ribs suddenly pop into place.

Mordred didn't look at him. His attention was firmly fixed to the laptop in front of him. He reached out once for his tea, took a sip, and sat back down.

"You all right?" Merlin asked in Welsh, his voice barely above a whisper.

Mordred gave him a curt nod.

"You sure?"

Another curt nod.

"Did he --"

The shake of Mordred's head was faint and minuscule, and Merlin didn't know why he felt relief at knowing that Aredian hadn't hurt Mordred, though he wasn't sure if he believed that, not with the red mark blooming across his cheek.

"Your face --"

Mordred sat up straighter, if that were at all possible; he held himself stiffly, as if slumping down and relaxing would cause him physical pain. He looked toward the doorway, and, satisfied that the guards weren't about to run in, whispered a few guttural words under his breath, his eyes glowing for a brief moment before he turned to Merlin.

"Goddamn it, Merlin. Focus. Get the files --"

"What the fuck happened?" Merlin hissed. He leaned over his laptop, put his fingers on the keyboard, but he couldn't make himself work. "What did he -- he didn't --"

"Whatever you're thinking, no," Mordred said, giving Merlin a sidelong glare. He turned his body away for an instant, but not before Merlin saw the tightness around his mouth.

"What am I thinking, then?"

Mordred didn't answer right away. He sipped his tea, cool as a cucumber, his hand steady. His eyes darted to the hallway. Men walked past, and Merlin suddenly realized that he couldn't hear anything from outside the room -- no footsteps, no voices. "Jonathan is… an unpleasant man. He believes he has had his way…"

With me, Merlin didn't hear, but it resounded in his head as clear as day.

"… and I let him believe it."

Merlin remembered how Aredian looked at him, sometimes. How he touched him. Some of the things he said, the thinly-veiled innuendo. He made a sound of disgust. "Jesus."

"I don't know how long the tea will last," Mordred said, shifting in his seat. Merlin looked at his own untouched teacup and shot Mordred a questioning glance. "Not ours. The tea I gave Jonathan. It… allows me to plant suggestions, to the point where he acts on them, believing that they are his idea. But over the years…"

"He built up a resistance?" Merlin guessed. Mordred nodded.

Cennydd came by the room, paused in the middle of the doorway until they both looked in his direction. Cennydd was his usual pleasant self, an amused smirk on his lips, but the concern in his eyes and the way he pointedly raised his eyebrows spoke volumes.

"Shut up and do your work," Mordred snapped. His eyes flashed, and Merlin heard the chatter outside the room. Cennydd, satisfied, nodded to himself, laughed at someone's joke, and moved on.

Merlin stared at Mordred for a long time before rolling his shoulders, sitting up straight, and getting to work.

Most of his processes were working in the background. He checked every ten minutes to check on the progress of his searches before adjusting a few settings. The file scans would continue unhindered on Aredian's network, and when there were hits, packets of information would be compressed and uploaded to his computer. The scanning speed was fast, and the progress bars for both the main and the several separate sub-servers were approaching seventy percent completion, but every time data matching his criteria was found, the progress bar for the upload decreased as it recalculated for the growing list of files being sent.

Every time Merlin glanced at that second set of progress bars, he died a little inside. The time kept tacking on. At this rate, with the throttled and partially jammed wireless bandwidth, it would take three fucking days to get all the information that Mordred wanted.

Merlin rubbed his eyes. He rubbed at his face. And while he was at it, he whispered in Welsh, "You have to give me more. It's not coming through fast enough."

He'd done what he could to maximize the connection, but at this rate he didn't even think that magic would help him out here.

Mordred flicked a glance in his direction. He didn't answer, and he didn't do anything, either. Merlin grit his teeth in frustration and went back to acting busy. There wasn't much else he could do beyond tweaking the code to hammer through the security of the hard drive. He'd repaired some of the damage, but he couldn't go too fast or he would be finished with that before everything else. In any case, he only needed to do enough to make certain that the hard drive crashed good and hard, wiping everything from it, once he had the files that Mordred had specified from both Aredian's network and the Pendragon database.

His tea was cold when he reached for it. Cold and bitter, smelling faintly of lemon and Earl Grey. It turned his stomach; he pushed it aside, out of the way.

Mordred's eyes shone.

The cup slid all the way across the table and fell into Mordred's lap.

"You idiot," Mordred shouted, shooting to his feet. He stared at Merlin for a long time; the black tea seeped into Mordred's shirt and trousers, leaving a stain. Several guards congregated at the doorway, peering in with abject curiosity.

"I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I didn't mean to, I'm just distracted, I thought I'd only pushed it out of my way a little bit --" Merlin said, eyes wide, scrambling for an appropriate response. Half of what came out of his mouth was sheer, complete panic, the rest of it was desperation.

Mordred exhaled a heavy breath of air and very crisply said, "You are clumsy, gawky, and not particularly nice to look at. I truly do not see the attraction. Why in God's name was Pendragon ever interested in you?"

Someone spoke up from the doorway, his words too fast for Merlin to make out, but there was no mistaking the lewd tone of his voice or the way he made a crude cocksucking gesture with his hand, his tongue jutting against his cheek. Several men laughed.

Merlin flushed hotly.

"Fuck you, too," Merlin muttered, sinking into himself, his shoulders rising up to his ears.

"Only if you're good," Cennydd said.

Merlin glanced up to see him behind another man, his arms crossed over his chest, his mouth spread in a big smile. He sank down even more.

"Oh, enough," Mordred snapped. He waved his arm at everyone before pointing at Cennydd. "Out, all of you. Not you. Keep an eye on him, I need to change."

"Yes, sir," Cennydd said, his tone faintly mocking.

The crowd dispersed, getting out of the way; Cennydd walked into the room as Mordred walked out, and there was an exchange between them, something passing from one hand to another. Merlin couldn't make out what it was, but as far as he could tell, no one had noticed it, either.

Cennydd took Mordred's seat and sat down. He stared at the screen, squinting a little, as if the contents made sense to him. He didn't touch anything, leaning back, making himself comfortable.

"How long do you need?" Cennydd asked in Welsh. "If you weren't being jammed?"

Merlin glanced at Cennydd sidelong. "Full blown, no restriction?"

Cennydd nodded.

"Anywhere from thirty --" He paused, fast-tabbing to the other operating system on his laptop, eyeing the progress bars. The slowest was at ninety-six percent completion, and even if it found a large file that met the criteria, it wouldn't add too much to the upload time. He made some rough calculations in his head. "Forty-five minutes at the most."

"Hm," Cennydd said, his eyes going distant for a moment. His body tensed; he straightened slightly, looking like a man waiting for something. His voice dropped to a rough whisper when he asked, "Your signal. Is it ready to send out?"

Merlin startled. He shook his head tightly. "Not yet."

Cennydd gave him a pitying look that almost translated as And here I thought it would be the first thing you would've worked on. "Well?"

"It's not that easy," Merlin said through gritted teeth. He bowed his head over the laptop and stared at the information package that he'd put together. It was a compressed file, barely five kilobytes; even with the compressed bandwidth and the jamming set around the immediate area, Merlin was sure that he could broadcast the message through a proxy. There were at least three unsecured wireless networks from the neighbours that he could use.

The problem was not knowing where to send the message to.

Their mission at the testing grounds had gone tits up. That meant that Arthur would have done whatever he could to keep his team safe and he would have cut their losses -- abandoned the radios, disposed of the cell phones, shut their email accounts, everything. At right this moment, Merlin didn't know what new resources they had, never mind how to find them. If he had unlimited access and some time, he could find them, but as it was -- practically no access and no time at all.

He sent multiple pingback tests through a neighbour's network to see if he could find anything in range. He ran through his communications protocol to see if he could pick out transmissions that didn't belong to the mercenaries. He even considered the tracking locators, but if the team already knew where he was, they wouldn't be bothering to monitor them.

Merlin started to program something anyway, tweaking it to emit at a the locator frequency, pulsing a message in Morse code.

Then, finally, among all the ping timeouts that flashed on the screen, one pingback returned positive.

Merlin stared at it disbelievingly. The odds that the team would be bringing that close enough for it to be in range of directly-transmitted signals --

He closed the browser window, glanced up at the doorway, and ducked his head down to open the command window and load a piece of software that he'd been working on since the bloody mission had begun. He typed in a command -- small and subtle -- one that wouldn't trigger anyone watching to notice, because he didn't want to alarm the team.

He received an almost immediate reply.

I AM AWAKE
HELLO MERLIN

Merlin stamped out his own grin before it could spread across his face. He forced a frown on his face, pursing his lips in thought, and fast-switched out of this platform and onto the other, jabbing at the hard drive until an encryption window opened up, asking for the first password.

He'd salvaged that much functionality out of it, at the very least.

The guard walked around the table, pausing behind Merlin to look over his shoulder. Merlin partially overlaid a second program window on top of the password prompt and executed a mock decrypt program.

"You're nearly there, hey?" the man asked.

"Not even close," Merlin said. He didn't look up, but he waved a hand in the air, making a go that way gesture. "Don't bother me."

"Now then, there's no --"

"Shut it," Merlin said, lowering his hand to pinch the bridge of his nose.

There was an awkward pause, a shuffle as the man shifted his weight from one foot to the other, a rustle of fabric as he pushed his jacket aside for easier access to his gun.

"You don't want Mr. Aredian to hear that you've been slowing down, do you?" Cennydd asked calmly. He was slumped in his seat; there was a gun on the table right in front of him that hadn't been there a few minutes ago, a few seconds ago, and he didn't seem to notice. He was studying his fingernails.

His eyes gleamed like burnished bronze, but he wasn't looking at anything in particular.

"Fukkit," the mercenary said, moving around the table. He spoke in rapid-fire Afrikaans and Merlin managed to pick out the words, kill him and just you wait and hope I get the first --

Cennydd grunted in agreement.

A heavy silence filled the room. It was as if the jamming device had become the atmosphere and it was thick enough to suffocate. The tension thickened until it was like Bohrs' gravy -- not enough water and thick enough to mortar bricks -- before Merlin risked a glance in Cennydd's direction.

A muscle popped in Cennydd's jaw. He raised an inquiring brow.

Merlin switched tabs again and entered another command.

The response came quickly.

MOTION SENSORS ACTIVATED
DETECT: SIX HUMAN
AUDITORY FEED ACTIVATED
RECOGNIZE: GWAINE
RECOGNIZE: PERCEVAL
RECOGNIZE: LUCAN
RECOGNIZE: LANCE
RECOGNIZE: ARTHUR
RECOGNIZE: PELLINOR
DETECT: SEVEN HUMAN
RECOGNIZE: GWEN

Merlin's heart pounded. He switched out.

Arthur.

"I can do it," Merlin whispered in Welsh. "Just tell me when. Just open the bandwidth as wide as you can."

"Forty-five minutes," Cennydd said. "Get it all done by then. Have them come in then."

Merlin bowed his head in a faint nod.

"Wait," Cennydd said. He turned his head away slightly; his brows furrowed in thought. A faint gleam of magic ringed his eyes.

Merlin waited. His fingers tapped on the keyboard without pushing down any of the keys. That thousand-yard-stare lasted for several long seconds before Cennydd sat up straight in his seat and reached for Mordred's laptop. Cennydd checked his watch. He shifted in his seat. Merlin clearly heard him mutter, "How does this work again," before he started to type a few commands.

He glanced at the doorway. He looked at his watch. His eyes ringed with fire, like burning embers.

Out of nowhere, Cennydd slapped a key. He checked the screen and gave Merlin an intense look.

"Start now."

 

 

ooOOoo

 

Sunday, 0100 hours

 

Lance was staying out of it.

He'd known for a while that it wouldn't take much before Arthur snapped, and that whatever it was, it was going to be the slightest, most absurd thing.

And it was.

"What made you think it was a good idea to bring it here? What if we need to move quickly? We can't bring any of our long-term supplies here, for fuck's sake. It's too important. We can't risk losing it --"

"You've heard the term, use it or lose it? Well, this is one of those situations. What do you think is more important, the mechadragon or bloody Merlin?"

Pellinor -- bless him, he really did mean well -- had stuttered mortified apologies the very instant Arthur spotted the case that he'd brought to the third-floor flat overlooking the street. He'd at least had the foresight to disguise the case so that it didn't stick out like a sore thumb, but Arthur was right. There had been no need to bring the mechadragon to a temporary command station.

"Did you just ask me that?" Arthur's voice was low and strained, and Lance reached over to touch Gwen's arm, pulling her closer to him. And far away from the shrapnel range; Arthur was going to blow, and he didn't want either his wife or his unborn child in the way. "Did you seriously ask me if I value a hunk of metal more than Merlin?"

Perceval winced and, aware that he was a large target, cast the surroundings a pained look. Gwaine was on his right side; the window was on his left. His escape route was blocked by an ugly 1960s retro-style lounge chair, and he wasn't stupid enough to try to escape by going between Gwaine and Arthur.

Breaking eye contact between two angry dogs might be the only way to defuse the situation.

Lance half-wished that Owain was here. Not because Owain would know what to do to calm things down, but because if it came down to it, he could make a bomb joke that might -- might -- decrease the tension.

"Certainly looks that way, doesn't it," Gwaine snapped. "What's wrong with you? We can't get close enough to the house for proper recon, we can't get eyes inside. Everything we've ever learned about wards is that as far up as they go, they don't always close off the top, do they? We've got a perfectly useable UAV in working condition that can get through --"

"We are not risking compromising the situation by using the mechadragon to get closer to the house," Arthur grit out.

Lance was with him on this one hundred percent. If it were Gwen -- and it had been Gwen in exactly this situation not that long ago -- he would not trade advance intel for her well-being. He would rather go in blind.

The building had rooftop access through a fire escape on the other side of the building, and from there, a direct line of sight to the house where Aredian and his mercenaries were holed up, but there was also the living room cathedral-style window that would do in a pinch. It wasn't the best location by any means, and if they'd had more time or were confident that Aredian might not pack up and move, Lance would have kept his eye out for something more appropriate.

The three-bed flat was a three-bedroom open concept with every amenity cramped in a small space. One bed was an overhead loft over the kitchen; the other two beds were bunks stacked one on top of the other in the corner of the living room closest to the doorway and furthest from the radiator. The kitchen, though modernized, barely had enough room for a toaster, never mind a chopping surface, and the sink wasn't deep enough to wash dishes in.

It cost more for this tiny room than it did for Lance's flat back in uni, and that flat had at least more space in the kitchen and a bathroom bigger than a breadbox. It didn't have any mice, either.

Lance had kindly not mentioned the mice to Gwen for a reason.

"Are you absolutely nutters? If it were anyone else, you'd be jumping at the chance for confirmation that they were in there --"

"No one's qualified to run it," Arthur said, shutting Gwaine down. "No one. You want to trigger the ward by remote-operating the mechadragon in the pitch black in unfamiliar territory, be my guest, but you are not doing it when it's Merlin's life at stake."

"Gwen can run it!"

"Gwen is staying out of it," Gwen said, shrinking back against Lance. Lance put a hand on her shoulder, absentmindedly rubbing a knot he found there with his thumb. "But maybe you lot want to keep your voices down? We've got neighbours."

"I could give a shite about the neighbours," Gwaine said.

"Just like you could give a shite about Merlin, apparently," Arthur said, and Lance winced. That was such a low blow. He saw how Gwaine tensed, his hands balling up into fists, and gently moved Gwen aside in case he needed to get in between the two. Perceval was closer, and he could probably pick up both men and give them a sobering shake if he needed to, but Arthur had already dressed him down for encouraging Gwaine's antics, and it might not go well if Perceval intervened.

Lucan caught Lance's eye and inched closer, clearly thinking the same thing.

"My best mate in the bloody world is in there --"

"My husband is in there --"

"-- and you think I don't want to see with my own eyes that he's all right?"

"-- and you're mad if you think I'm not climbing the bloody walls. I'm near enough to going in there myself --"

Gwen gasped softly. Lucan's eyebrow shot up. Lance blinked.

"Wait. Did you say husband?" Pellinor asked.

The room went silent. It was the sort of silence that came with all the air in the room being sucked into a vacuum.

Lance glanced at Gwen. He knew that Arthur and Merlin were getting serious, but not that it had gotten that far. Besides, Lance was fairly certain that Arthur knew what would happen if he was married before Morgana, and that wasn't to mention the uproar when the rest of them started wondering where they had been during this momentous occasion. Morgana wouldn't just have his hide; she would have it tanned and turned into a footrest in her living room.

Never mind the team. Where were they when they got married?

Arthur looked alarmed for a moment before his expression faded behind a stony wall. He didn't say anything, and Lance wasn't sure if that was good or bad.

"Are you telling us that you proposed, and you didn't say anything?" Lance asked carefully, glancing at Gwen. Her smile was wide, and her fingernails were digging into his arm in excitement. He tried to shake her loose.

Arthur's nostrils flared, his attention was focused on a single point in the room, and he pursed his lips as if mulling things over, evaluating his options and responses one by one, and following them through to their potential consequence.

The clock ticked.

"I didn't propose," Arthur said finally, breaking the silence. He waved a dismissive gesture in the air, as if it was as good as done, anyway, and added, "Yet."

No one said anything. Gwen visibly deflated, but that had the side effect of easing her vice-hold on Lance's arm, for which he was profoundly grateful. Pellinor looked as if he wished he hadn't asked, because the atmosphere in the room was suddenly awkward. Lucan's eyes went heavenward, and he muttered something under his breath; knowing him, it was probably along the lines of they are all very, very stupid. Gwaine's temper had vanished as quickly as it had appeared, and he was having a conversation with Perceval that involved a lot of pointed fingers, raised brows, and head-tilts.

Finally, Gwaine said, "Bollocks."

"Let's work on the plan," Arthur said neutrally, not meeting Gwaine's eyes He took a step back, a sure retreat if Lance had ever seen one, and gestured at the blueprints to the building. "Everyone else is in place?"

"Just waiting for the signal," Pellinor said, his voice small and quiet. "Are we even sure that it'll be tonight?"

"No --"

"Bollocks," Gwaine said again, his hands on his hips.

Arthur ignored him. "It's hard to tell. I suspect that Mordred arranged for us to track them down quickly because he expects the situation to escalate --"

"Bollocks," Gwaine said a third time, this time louder. He closed the distance to Arthur and poked him in the chest. "You're married."

"Gwaine --"

"You. Married. Merlin." Gwaine tilted his head meaningfully. "That night we lost contact with you? Didn't come back until the next morning, acting as if nothing was wrong? Lost track of time, my arse. That was bloody honeymoon sex you had when you got back."

Lance winced. Gwen's fingernails were starting to draw blood. He patted her hand urgently, but she didn't pay him any mind.

"Gwaine," Arthur said, his tone weak, looking for all the world as if he was about to break apart if Gwaine didn't stop pushing. Arthur's eyes were glistening. He swallowed hard, and he wavered, rocking on his heels, trying to keep his balance. He turned pale, his breathing came in tiny hitches, and --

Christ. Lance stood up. Arthur was hyperventilating. The last thing that they needed was for Arthur to fall apart right before they were going to rescue Merlin. Lance pulled his arm free from Gwen and pushed Gwaine aside, shutting him up with a look and glancing at Perceval to deal with him.

Perceval put a big hand on the back of Gwaine's neck and pulled him back with a slight shake and a quiet murmur. Lance put his hands on Arthur's shoulders and guided him to the low IKEA couch. Arthur sat down; Lance sat next to him and pushed Arthur head down between his knees. "Breathe."

Everyone shifted uncomfortably. It was bad enough to watch Arthur fray at the edges over the course of the last couple of weeks, but it had been just that -- fraying. None of them wanted to believe that Arthur would come completely apart, because every time they looked at him, Arthur seemed to find some way to shore himself up, to quell the rising panic and fear and to carry on.

This?

This was the worst any of them had seen Arthur, nearly completely undone, helpless in a fragile, febrile sort of way. They were neither able to stop the downward spiral before it hit the bottom nor knowing how to pull him from the pit -- if Arthur even wanted to come out.

Gwaine watched them with an unimpressed look on his face until Gwen smacked him on the arm and said, "Look what you did."

"Did more than that," Perceval said, his voice rumbling deep the way it did when Gwaine had gone too far. He didn't let go of the back of Gwaine's neck, and with his free hand, felt him up.

"Is this really the time?" Lucan asked, raising a brow.

"Yes, darling, is this really necessary? We've got guests." Gwaine swatted at Perceval's questing hand, inexplicably stilling. Lance supposed that Perceval had tightened his grip painfully, which was something that Lance completely supported. Perceval continued on unhindered and withdrew Gwaine's phone.

Gwaine squeaked and winced. "I forgot about that."

"Did you." Perceval said. "You weren't holding on to this in case you couldn't dig yourself out of the hole you knew you'd be in once Arthur found out you asked for the UAV?"

"No, not at all, I was going to give it to him first thing, but you saw him, he came at me right away, there was no dodging him --"

Perceval shook his head, indicating he wasn't listening anymore, and Gwaine trailed off to silence. There was no coming back from it when Perceval was angry; there would be major making it up to him in the next few weeks, if not months. Gwaine must have crossed a line that Perceval wouldn't forgive, and --

Perceval bypassed the lock screen and scrolled through the phone until he found what he was looking for. He tossed the mobile at Lance.

Lance caught it one-handed. He glanced at the screen and froze.

Apparently, Gwaine hadn't merely crossed a line. He'd waltzed all over it before taking off at a run.

"You wanker," Lance said, his voice raising. "This should've been the first thing out of your mouth."

Gwen shot him a surprised look; Lance very rarely lost his temper.

"Not like I had a chance!" Gwaine protested. "I tried to bring them up. I did. The hands at the throat were a little fucking distracting --"

"I don't care," Lance said. He shoved the phone into Arthur's hands; the screen went black a second later. Arthur did nothing to activate the screen; he was too busy controlling breathing. Lance reached over and woke the screen; the lock had reactivated. Arthur punched in Gwaine's password before Lance even had a chance. "You're just lucky Morgana isn't here, or she'd have your balls for this."

Arthur's breath hitched as he registered the image on the camera. His hands shook while he flipped through them over and over again.

"One of Balinor's blokes," Perceval said, letting go of Gwaine. "Michael. He met us at the bistro, said he managed to get close enough to the house to take pictures. Lucky that his group has sorcerers with them, this one said he left an opening behind the house, close to the brick wall. The guards shouldn't notice, gives us an early in for surprise if we need it."

He paused for effect.

"He found Merlin. Merlin spotted him, though, signalled that he was all right."

It seemed as if they'd all been holding their breath since the beginning of this entire fucked-up mission, and now, only now, were they able to let it out and relax, at least momentarily. It wasn't over yet, but the knowledge that Merlin was in there --

Arthur's hands were steady, and his breathing evened out. Arthur had stopped on the image of Merlin when he'd twisted around, his expression surprised. It was a blurry photo, difficult to pick out the details, but it was Merlin, his hair a shaggy mess, his clothes different, but the relief in his expression shone through, unmistakeable.

 

Lance left Arthur alone. No one moved. Lucan spoke quietly to Pellinor, who nodded; Pellinor had his phone in his hand, no doubt texting the others to let them know the news. It was a good tactic. Knowing that Merlin was all right, that he was in the house under surveillance, that they were close -- it would give the team some cheer, boost their morale, solidify their resolve.

The stillness in the room was broken when Gwen uncrossed her arms and punched Gwaine several times, doing what they all wanted to do but didn't dare, because they didn't think they'd be able to stop until he was a bloody pulp. Hell, Lance didn't think he'd be able to stop. If he were in Arthur's shoes, if it were Gwen in those pictures, if Gwaine had known and held back this information…

No, Lance would shoot him without hesitation, without asking questions, and damn the consequences.

Lance glared at Perceval to let him know that he wasn't in the clear, either; he was Gwaine's accomplice. Sure, Lance could see what they meant to do -- they wanted to see Arthur's expression when they gave him the good news. But they shouldn't have waited. Not one minute, not one second. They should have forwarded the photographs --

"Where's Michael now?" Arthur asked, breaking the silence with a low, steady voice.

"Went back to his post. Different one, changing venue. He doesn't want to stand out; this time of night he might," Perceval said.

"He's a sorcerer, though. He probably doesn't need to change, could walk up to the door in an invisibility cloak, like Harry Potter --"

Lance started to tell him off when Lucan broke the silence with a stifled, angry, "Shut it."

Gwaine shut it.

Arthur stood up slowly, putting Gwaine's phone in his pocket. He glanced down and to the side, and Lance stood up, standing beside him. "Are the others on their way?"

"They are," Pellinor said. "I've just… I've just texted them."

"We're not waiting," Arthur said. "I'm done with waiting. They're having Merlin work on something right now. Probably the hard drive. You heard Will, Merlin held out. He probably can't hold out any longer. They won't keep him around once he's done. He'll be worthless to them then."

Lance winced at the monotone in Arthur's voice.

"Let's go over the plans again." Arthur went to stand in front of the small kitchen table that they'd dragged out into the middle of the room, moving the coffee table off against the wall. The table was covered in the building blueprints, but also in hand-drawn maps, tourist brochures, and a street map that Lucan had gotten from somewhere. "Perceval, where's the ingress that Michael provided?"

Perceval studied the map before tapping a finger. "Right about here."

"Lucan, what are the fastest routes with the most cover?"

Lucan moved closer to the table and picked up a pencil. He started drawing routes on one of the copies, his voice low as he described each location. Arthur listened and didn't say a word, taking it all in, absorbing the information like a sponge.

"Gwaine, lines of sight. Take Geraint and Galahad with you," Arthur said, not bothering to look up. "Settle and wait for my signal."

"Yeah, absolutely," Gwaine said, sounding pleased that Arthur was speaking to him. He paused. "Look, Arthur, about the photos --"

Arthur held up a hand. "I don't want to hear it. Get to your position."

Gwaine blinked, jerking back slightly as if he'd been slapped.

At any other time, Lance would feel a twinge of sympathy for Gwaine. They'd all fucked up at one point or another. They'd all misjudged how Arthur might take a joke or even a gesture of good faith. They all forgot that, despite the level of camaraderie throughout the team, however long they had known each other, no one really knew Arthur that well. The only one who had ever gotten under his skin was Merlin.

Not even Gwaine had been able to get past the fortress wall that Arthur had built around himself. No one had ever seen Arthur stripped bare like this, his emotions leaking from him like a sieve, his determination wavering, his certainty broken.

Not until Merlin.

Not until they'd lost him.

And Arthur, who stood between the enemy and the people he loved, who took the abuse from command whenever one of his team made their own interpretation of their orders, who suffered the weight of leadership beyond what anyone had a right to ask of him, had lost his soul.

Lance's gaze went from Gwaine to Gwen to Arthur. In his opinion, Gwaine was getting off lightly. From the way Gwaine's body bowed over itself, his shoulders slumping his chin tucking down onto his chest, his hair covering his eyes, Gwaine knew it, too.

Gwaine nodded jerkily and took a step back. He searched all of their faces -- maybe looking for an ally, maybe trying to decide where he stood with everyone -- but Lance didn't make eye contact. Lance was watching Gwen, who did make eye contact, her arms crossed over her chest, a judging eyebrow raised as she stared him down.

Gwaine withered.

Lance didn't blame him. Gwen could probably stare down an oncoming tank and the tank would shiver, shudder, and fall apart while it frantically made its getaway.

Gwaine cleared his throat, wincing. There was a flash of uncertainty in his expression, a twitch and tug at the corner of his mouth that might be one of his throwaway devil-may-care grins or a grimace of regret. "I'm sorry, Arthur."

It was the most heartfelt apology that Lance had ever heard Gwaine make. Arthur leaned over the table, his hands on either side of the blueprint, his shoulders stiff and straight, and he bowed his head.

And, finally, Arthur nodded.

Gwaine slipped through the room soundlessly, dipping behind the IKEA couch with the too-thin, too-hard pillow seats to pick up the oversized duffel bag containing his equipment. He shouldered it with ease and left the flat without a word, the door snicking shut behind him.

No one said anything. No one moved.

Arthur slowly stood up, exhaling shakily, and there was just the faintest tremble in his hands, a red flush to his cheeks. "All right. Four teams, two on each entrance. Two teams to flank and cover the exits. Nobody gets out --"

There was a faint creak. A skitter. A thump.

Lance tracked the source of the sound.

A scratch, a scrape, a scuff of fabric.

"That better not be a mouse," Gwen said, her voice quiet and controlled, but she wasn't fooling anyone. She wasn't afraid of mice, not as such; she didn't like being surprised by them. It was something that Lance had learned the hard way when he'd taken her to a so-called romantic retreat, renting a lakeside cabin for a weekend alone. The cabin had been lovely -- clean and brightly lit -- and they had been having a nice time right up until a mouse dropped from one of the rafters overhead and landed on Gwen's shoulder.

Lance wanted to avoid losing more of his hearing. His beautiful wife had a terrible shriek.

Lance started to reassure her, to lie. He'd noticed the trace of mice in the flat, at least one, but if Gwen hadn't noticed, he wasn't going to tell her, and, well… There were no rafters for them to drop down from.

Except everything that he was going to say died on his lips when the case containing the mechadragon shifted from the chair where Pellinor had left it.

"Not a mouse," Lucan said.

There was another scratch. Another scrape. A scuffle and a grind and a grumble. Something of a muffled, miniature roar. A knock, another knock, and a thump that sent the case toppling tits over arse onto the ground.

It landed with an awkward spin. When it stopped moving, it was silent.

Then, suddenly, abruptly, violently, the case started to bounce. It cleared the floor by a good two inches at one point. The case hopped around the floor a few more times before coming to a stop. There was a creak, a metallic groan not unlike the sound of a crank, and the lid suddenly dented.

From the inside.

"Um," Pellinor asked, turning his head without taking his eyes from the box, "It was shut off, right?"

"As far as I know," Perceval said.

"There's a difference between sleep mode and shut off, you wankers," Lucan said, but there was no heat to his voice, only concern and curiosity. Arthur, of them all, hadn't made a sound, but he was staring at the box as if it were the Ark of the Covenant, about to flip open and decimate them.

"Should we --" Lance slowly stood up, moving to stand in front of Gwen. Gwen made it difficult; she wanted to see.

"Get out of my way, you oaf," Gwen said, sticking her head out from under his arm.

"Gwen --"

The lid popped with a loud crack. One corner lifted off completely, bent at a convex angle, the roller-combination lock on that side had been kicked out, but the heavy metal lock held.

A whirring sound came from inside. Lance thought he saw a bright blue light flash. There was silence, then --

The mechadragon, its wings folded up tight against a body that looked as if it had been pared down by starvation, slithered out of the small opening. Once it was free, the mechadragon jangled and shackled back into its normal dimensions, ending with a very dog-like shake. The metallic scales rippled along its skin, and its long wings unfurled.

As if suddenly aware that it had an audience, the mechadragon sat back on its haunches, its head down as if contrite, its front paws folded in front of its chest. The long, stabilizing tail curled up around its legs in a pose that could only be described as, Damn it. Busted.

Lance couldn't help it. He chuckled.

"I think Merlin needs to program a bit more stealth into it," Pellinor said with a grin that faded almost as soon as it appeared. He glanced at Arthur, who looked as if he was struggling to keep both a smile from his lips and relieved hope from filling him up. Arthur shook his head and approached the mechadragon, crouching down in front of the construct.

The mechadragon chirped. It lifted its head and crooned -- it was a rough, mechanical croon, of faintly grinding motors, and made a two-pawed grab at Arthur, hopping forward on its hind legs until it was close enough to latch onto Arthur's trousers.

"Get Merlin. Get Merlin," the mechadragon said, its synthesized voice a low warble, nearly a child's keen.

A flash of pain crossed Arthur's expression. He closed his eyes and pressed his lips together, reaching to grab the mechadragon and --

Lance thought that Arthur would cave in to a fit of anger. Lance braced for whatever it was that Arthur was about to do. Even Gwen sensed the tension, because her hand tightened in the crook of Lance's arm.

"Get Merlin. Get Merlin. 43:12:56," the mechadragon said.

Arthur froze. The mechadragon, taking advantage of Arthur's arm, started to climb; its claws dug into Arthur's shirt, making little tears, drawing blood from shallow scratches, and it climbed up until it was on Arthur's shoulder. Lance had carried it once or twice; the mechadragon could weigh up to five stone depending on the equipment that Merlin had on it; before they came to France, Merlin had stripped it down of all the extras until it was only three stone, no heavier than a light rucksack. Despite its weight, it wound itself up Arthur's body, its tail hanging down the opposite shoulder, as smoothly and as easily as if it were a kitten.

"Get Merlin. 43:11:10," the mechadragon said.

"It's a countdown," Lucan said.

"No shite." Perceval went to the window, peering out. "Are we even in transmission range? How is Merlin doing this?"

"Mordred," Arthur said without hesitation, piecing the puzzle together faster than any of them could, even if they were collectively pooling their brainpower. "Mordred's doing this. He jammed your communications on that mission --"

Arthur glanced at Gwen and skipped over the details. Her security clearance was high, but it wasn't that high, and Lance quietly thanked Arthur for not even hinting at the sort of work that the army had them do. Gwen had enough worries and nightmares as it was.

"-- and he's jamming communications in that building right now. Not hard to believe that he's done something to let Merlin through, is it?"

"What if it's a trap?" Pellinor asked.

"Then Merlin wouldn't have used the mechadragon, would he?" Arthur asked. He stood up straight, shrugging a shoulder to test how firmly affixed the dragon was. Conflicting emotions flitted across his expression. He looked as if he wanted to get the bloody dragon off his back, but at the same time not wanting to separate from his only direct connection to Merlin.

"Receiving upload 38% complete. 42% complete. 56% complete," the mechadragon chirruped. It rubbed its front paws together before twisting its head and tapping a claw into a firewire slot. "84% complete. 90% complete. Upload complete. File ready for download."

Arthur looked around. Lance found a laptop. Gwen reached into the bag of cables and came back with the exact type that they needed.

The mechadragon hopped down from Arthur's shoulder and landed on the battle plans; it curled up into a small ball and made a groaning, huffing sound when Gwen connected the cable to a tiny slot in its head.

"Message from Merlin to Arthur," the mechadragon said, its synthesized voice a low, purring hum. "Come and get me, Captain Prat. Forty-five minutes from now. I'll have company -- you probably already know one bloke. There might be another. I'm not sure. Love you. See you soon."

Arthur's entire body sagged. Lance and Perceval moved at the same time, intending to catch him, but Arthur braced his weight over the table and forced himself to straighten. He reached out to touch the mechadragon as if it might connect him directly to Merlin, dropping his hand an instant later. "It's not a trap."

"39:56:01," the mechadragon supplied helpfully.

Arthur nodded and gestured at Gwen. "What's he got?"

Gwen had completed the download while Lance was more worried about keeping Arthur from collapse. He went to stand behind her and looked over her shoulder.

"Apparently everything," Gwen said, moving aside so that Arthur could get a better look. He tilted the screen back, and the glare made it difficult to see some of the contents, but Lance could tell that Gwen was right.

They were rough schematics of the house -- first and second levels. There were markers indicating the limits of the protective ward around the building, but also some detail on the specific wards on the entrances and shorthand notes on how to bypass them. The number of guards, the type of weaponry, which ones had magic, which ones were question marks, and those who definitely did not have magic. They came with descriptions -- concise and to-the-point one-line descriptors that would make them easy to flag: purple scarf, scar across his mouth, baggy green camo pants, bald and tattoo on the side of his head.

There was a confirmation list of known mercenary associates of Aredian; Aredian himself was on the list as one of the people in attendance.

Arthur stood up straight. Thirty minutes or less -- taking off nine minutes in order to get in position -- wasn't much time to come up with a plan, but if anything, this was going to be a straight assault, in-and-out, with small, muted detonations to destabilize the wards on the doorways. They already had a way through the outer wards without triggering alarms.

Arthur glanced at Perceval, then at Lance. "You're seeing what I'm seeing?"

"Cut off the power, flashbangs on the way in, night-vision and silenced weapons," Gwen said. "Get them before they get you. I would suggest some high-powered Tasers, if you have any?"

Everyone turned to look at her. Lance lowered his head and pressed his forehead on Gwen's shoulder, biting his lower lip to muffle his laugh. He had been worried -- so worried -- that she would be scarred by the kidnapping and whatever treatment that she'd received at Morgause's hands, but no one except Lance knew how Gwen was coping.

She came up with the most frightening revenge plans.

"What? Why are you looking at me like that?" Gwen asked. "Can't I be a bit bloodthirsty, too?"

"Certainly have the right," Perceval said carefully, and Lance hid a smirk when Perceval sidled a step away from Gwen.

"Damn right I do," Gwen said.

There was a quirk of a smile on Arthur's lips, a twitch of relief that Lance felt, too. Gwen would be fine. If anything, she would be in better shape than Lance.

They spent a few more minutes going over the in case of plans that the group had been working on the entire day, fine-tuning the details based on the new information from Merlin. The mechadragon occasionally chirruped and scratched at its head where the firewire cable was dangling down, but otherwise, it didn't make another sound unless someone asked, "What's the countdown?"

"22:04:32," it said.

Arthur stared at it for a long time before glancing around the room. "You know what to do. Pass it on. Make sure everyone's where they need to be, get on E channel, check your sight lines, and for the love of God, try not to be obvious."

"Don't have to worry about us, Captain," Lucan said, his grin quick and fleeting. "If I were you, I'd pass it on to Balinor's boys."

"Biggest worry is making sure none of them go in and fuck things up," Pellinor muttered, and Perceval nodded agreement.

Lance had picked up from earlier conversations that Balinor's men were accustomed to working alone and taking whatever few advantages they could whenever they could. Excalibur was no different; the team operated in much the same way.

It didn't mean that their similar styles would mesh well together, and they couldn't afford one team getting in the other's way.

Given that their plan was to go in and neutralize both the sorcerous and mundane mercenaries, Excalibur did not need another group getting in the way. Lance suspected that Balinor's men would be over-relying on magic, anyway.

"I'll call him," Arthur said quietly. He reached out and touched the mechadragon for the first time; the mechadragon stretched and captured a finger between delicately clawed hands. "Any more messages from Merlin?"

The mechadragon bowed its head, as if apologetic. "No messages."

Arthur bit his lower lip and closed his eyes.

Checking to make sure the others were otherwise occupied, Lance nudged Arthur's arm. "You all right?"

Arthur took a deep breath and stared down at the mechadragon,. It was tangling itself into the firewire cord, treating it much the same way that a kitten would a ball of yarn. Gwen untangled it. Again.

"I'm all right," Arthur said finally. He met Lance's eyes, and Lance couldn't read the emotion in them, couldn't tell what Arthur was feeling or thinking. Arthur had pulled himself together and locked it all up behind a suit of armour. Lance's brow furrowed in concern, but Arthur waved a hand at the mechadragon. "Gwaine's going to be insufferable, now."

"He will be, yeah," Lance said.

"Can Gwen keep an eye on the comms? Radio in if the mechadragon has any new messages?"

Lance nodded. "I'll ask her. We're clearing out as soon as we've got him, yeah?"

"As soon as. We'll move her up to the roof. Gwaine will get her out." Arthur held up his phone. "Take care of it? I need to call my father-in-law."

"All right --" Lance paused and turned around, but Arthur had already gone into the kitchen, his phone at his ear. He looked at Gwen, wondering if she'd heard, if he'd misheard. But she was staring back at him with wide eyes.

Father-in-law.

Holy shite.

"Not now," he warned Gwen when she opened her mouth to ask, and he went to sort through his gear.

Gwaine had been right. Arthur was married to Merlin.

 

 

ooOOoo

 

Sunday, 0120 hours

 

"I need a favour," Arthur said as soon as Balinor answered the phone.

After the completely unhelpful and yet still somewhat illuminating non-conversation with Kilgarrah, Arthur had given Balinor a ride to the area. Balinor got out several blocks away and walked the remainder, intent on meeting up with his men to get an update.

It came as no surprise when Balinor answered with, "I don't have enough men, but we'll do what we can. Michael is preparing defensive spells now --"

Of course, he would have seen the photos of Merlin. Of course, he would expect to be included on this mission.

"-- and Phillip will assist. I can --"

"Balinor. You're not part of the plan." There was a long, strained silence. Arthur let it go on for a precious minute -- a minute he didn't have. He knew he was asking for a lot. He was telling Merlin's father that he couldn't participate in the rescue. If someone told him that he couldn't be part of the team that was about to extricate Merlin… No, Arthur understood what he was asking of Balinor, and he also knew that Balinor was probably losing his shit right now.

Pellinor came to the kitchen and handed over Arthur's assault gear; Arthur gave him a nod of thanks.

"You're not serious," Balinor said finally.

"Have Michael covering the rear. Phillip can handle the front of the house. Anyone who comes out, they're to be taken care of with extreme prejudice," Arthur said. He checked his watch and started shrugging out of his outer jacket one-handed, keeping the mobile against his ear. "One of my men will be waiting for you behind the building we're in. His name is Bohrs. He'll take you back to the safe house. Your job --"

"My son is in that building --"

"Your job is to fortify the safe house in case they come after us --"

"That's a greenie's job," Balinor snapped. "Michael, Phillip and I -- the three of us alone have more experience than your entire team, combined --"

"And you'll be a liability, not an asset," Arthur said, struggling to stay calm. He glanced into the living room; Gwen was packing up the last of the equipment that she would need up on the roof. Pellinor and Lucan were already in their gear; as soon as the vehicles had arrived, it would be packed up for a quick departure before everyone scattered to their positions. "We don't need you getting in the way."

"We won't get in the way. Just tell us the plan. We have time, don't we?"

"No, we absolutely do not have the time to go over the plan. Merlin's communicated with us --"

Love you. See you soon.

"-- and we have a countdown. Your men need to get in position in the next fourteen minutes, and not a moment before, do you understand? We can't afford for the mercenaries to get suspicious in any way. Their job is to prevent the mercenaries from escaping-- especially Aredian. Michael and Phillip are not to get directly involved. The longer your team remains anonymous, the better --"

"Your team is facing off against bloody sorcerers," Balinor said, and he had the forethought to keep his volume down to an angry hiss, which indicated that he was probably surrounded by civilians right now, and was struggling to keep from being overheard. "You've heard of evening the odds? Well, boy, you're handicapping yourself if you cut us out of this --"

"Balinor," Arthur said patiently, though he wasn't feeling particularly patient. His hand was sweaty, and he had to adjust his grip on his mobile, even switch hands, before he dropped his phone. His heart rate was elevated, his stomach was clenched with anticipation.

See you soon.

"We're sorcerers. You're going to need us if you want a chance in hell of getting my son out --"

Arthur took a slow breath and calmly said, "My men are trained to neutralize sorcery. One of my men, who happens to be a sorcerer, is already inside. There is nothing that you can do that will not amount to getting in our way and cocking it all up. Believe me that when I say we're getting Merlin out, we're getting him out if I have to go in alone. Send Michael to the rear of the building. Phillip to the front. And you, if you're not in the car with Bohrs when I call the go, if I see you out there, I swear to God, I'm going to shoot you myself. I don't care if you're the father he hasn't seen since he was knee-high because you've been trying to keep him safe. I will not, I repeat, I will not let you jeopardize getting him back. Do you hear me? I will aim the gun. I will pull the fucking trigger."

There was a long silence and no response.

"Do you hear me, Lieutenant?" Arthur snapped.

"I hear you, Captain," Balinor said, his tone flat, barely able to mask the sneer in his voice.

"You have your orders," Arthur said.

Balinor hung up.

Arthur shook his head and put his mobile away. He tightened the buckles to his vest and reached for his belt when he noticed Lucan was in the doorway

"Something wrong?"

Lucan shook his head and handed over a pair of handguns. "I used to think that the scariest fucker on the team was Kay."

Arthur checked and cleared the guns before holstering them.

"Then I realized that Kay's more like an attack dog. Sweet as a puppy, shows you his belly for a rub, wags his tail when you tell him he's being ridiculous. Left me at loose ends until I decided that Gwaine's probably miles worse." Lucan put a few magazines on the counter for the guns before passing Arthur one of the semiautomatics.

Arthur fixed the straps around his shoulders, leaving the semiautomatic to swing at his side where it would be hidden by a long coat.

"That stopped the first time I saw him drunk. Really drunk off his rocker pissed. After you've held a bloke's hair while they puke their guts in the loo, you can't ever see them as a badass motherfucker ever again."

Arthur snorted. He found his safety glasses -- the specialty lenses would keep everything as clear as the bright of day even in low-light; they couldn't risk using the night-vision goggles when there was a chance of being blinded by the headlights of a passing car or the glow of a streetlight through the window.

"I thought it might be Merlin. One look at the things that he can do. Hearing stories about what he's done when I wasn't there to see it myself. Except he doesn't have a mean bone in his body, does he? Not a single one."

Lucan passed over a few more pieces of equipment -- a knife went into Arthur's ankle holster, the earwig for the radio in his ear, the multitool in one of his vest pockets.

"Took me this long to figure it out, though. Never said I was bright. I was just overlooking the obvious. I should've known it would be you."

Arthur adjusted the weight he was carrying until it settled comfortably on his body. He glanced at Lucan. "Disappointed in you, mate."

"I'm not," Lucan said with a grin. "I just feel sorry for the bastards who get in your way. I have a feeling we should all stand back and let you have a go all on your own."

Arthur walked past Lucan and found his coat draped over the chair. It was bulky enough and long enough that it would serve to cover up his weapon; if he happened to walk awkwardly and obviously, so be it. If he were unlucky enough to be stopped on the street by gendarmes who shouldn't be there in the first place, he wouldn't be letting them slow him down.

Perceval was eyeing him out of the corner of his eye. Pellinor was packing up one of the bulkier cases; they were nearly completely cleared out of a flat that they had barely occupied for two days. Lance knocked a rapid code rhythm on the door before coming inside, his eyes meeting Arthur's with concern before sliding off.

Arthur turned to glance at Lucan. Lucan's expression was bland, distant, detached; of all the members on the team, Lucan was the one who could compartmentalize to such an extreme right before a mission that his ability to be compassionate, never mind encouraging, was almost nil. "Did you just give me a pep talk?"

"If it worked, then yes," Lucan said. Across the room, Perceval choked.

"Don't believe him for a minute," Perceval said. "He knows I'm the scariest fucker on the team."

"No, that's definitely Morgana," Pellinor said, hefting the case up.

Everyone in the room went silent. Then, simultaneously, everyone nodded their heads. Even Arthur.

"Definitely Morgana," Perceval said.

"Easily. Wins by a landslide," Lucan said.

Arthur looked at his men, feeling a knot uncoil in his belly. He'd known -- he had always known -- that his team was there for him. But he hadn't let himself acknowledge it, hadn't let them close when he damn well should have. He was grateful for them, more than he could express.

He put a hand on Lucan's shoulder and squeezed. He looked at Lance, at Perceval, at Pellinor. He nodded.

"Let's get him home."

Love you. See you soon.

They left the flat the way they found it, without so much as a plate or a glass out of place. They'd done their best to minimize fingerprints, but in the short period of time that they had, it was impossible to do a thorough job. It was doubtful that anyone would track them to this particular flat quickly, and even if they did, several days -- or, if they were lucky, weeks -- would have passed in which the proprietor would have called a cleaning crew to prepare the rental for the next guests. Still, Arthur couldn't help a glance over his shoulder as the door shut behind them, the light shining from under the door.

They'd forgotten to turn off the lights.

It was just as well; it would give the impression that they were returning, or that they were home.

They headed down the narrow stairs in single file and did their best to move quietly, but four men bearing weighed loads on creaky wooden steps that had been painted a hundred times and worn down to slippery smoothness was more than the building could tolerate. Arthur counted himself lucky that none of the neighbours stuck their heads out of their doorways to find out what was going on.

The fresh air -- if one ignored the automobile exhaust from passing cars -- was welcome; it eased the gnarl of nerves in Arthur's belly. He felt better now than he had in the flat, where he'd been a ball of nerves, his mind racing over the plans again and again until he could see an overlay of arrows and crosses and X's in front of him, flashing every few seconds in reminder of the timeline, the movements, the outcome.

One of their cars was parked down the street. There was no sign of the others. Arthur expected that they were in position, but it was too early to check.

"Have the package, going to the location," Bohrs' voice said over the comms. Arthur acknowledged quietly; with Balinor out of the way, it was one less thing for him to worry about.

"8:20:38," the mechadragon said over the comms.

Arthur resisted the urge to turn and look up at the rooftop of the flat. Gwen must have patched the mechadragon through, somehow. Arthur half-expected Gwaine to crow at him, to say that Arthur had overreacted over nothing, but everything was silent on that front. He was going to have to make it up to Gwaine, sometime when he wasn't still so angry that Gwaine had meant to keep those pictures from him as long as he could in some sort of twisted, well-meaning gesture to make Arthur cheer up and chin up over the situation.

Arthur walked shoulder-to-shoulder with Perceval; Lucan and Pellinor had disappeared right after they'd left the building, both of them scattering in opposite directions. Lucan would be one of the incursion teams; Pellinor, who functioned better when he had large amounts of room to work with, would be taking care of containment. Lance was ahead of Perceval and Arthur, walking along at a meandering pace, his head turning from side to side in what could pass for touristic admiration of the Paris architecture and nightlife -- or lack thereof, in this neighbourhood -- except his eyes were narrowed with calculation and his hands were in his pockets, keeping his weapons close to his body.

After a block and a half, Lance turned right and headed up the side street; he was on another incursion team, entering from the rear. Arthur wanted him protected, and he would be as long as he stayed with the third team in and didn't split off to take care of anyone who was injured.

None of them were going in with blinders on. Aredian's men had a reputation. They were merciless, cutthroat, for the kill. They would shoot first -- aiming for vulnerable spots -- and ask questions later, and the questions would most likely be asked at the other end of a torture device. Excalibur couldn't afford to be overwhelmed by the enemy, to be forced to put down their weapons, to be made prisoners.

They could hold out as long as they could, but in the end, they wouldn't fare well, Arthur knew.

Still, as quickly as the thought came to mind, Arthur dismissed it. This was a surprise attack. The mercenaries might be prepared for such a situation, but the shock and awe of seeing masked and armed men bursting in would still throw them off. They would scatter for shelter and quickly regroup as their training kicked in and they started working together.

The sooner that Excalibur picked off the leaders and the sorcerers among the mercenaries, the better. It would make it difficult for them to regroup and formulate a counterattack.

Arthur spotted Phillip across the street from the house. Phillip was in his mid-fifties, short and squat, broad-shouldered like a blue-collar worker and with the hands to match. He wasn't wearing the tweed driving cap that he'd worn when they'd met briefly. He wasn't wearing the bomber jacket, either. Instead, his hair was in a messy comb over that hid the beginnings of male pattern baldness; he had a bit of a cowlick to go with it, which made him look ridiculous, as if he'd just had a fight and had stormed out of his flat without making himself presentable. His bright purple raincoat had too-short sleeves and zipper that didn't quite go up all the way over his round chest attracted the sort of rubbernecked look at that train wreck attention -- noticed, without really being noticed.

Phillip was sitting on the stoop in front of a building of flats, one foot on the pavement, the other on the steps, sitting forward in the pose of a man who was frustrated and aggravated. He pulled a drag from his cigarette, the tip brightening red in the gloom, and ran his hand through his hair. He exhaled slowly, the smoke dissipating in the cold air.

There were enough people on the pavement -- chatting in groups, loitering, having a smoke -- that Phillip didn't look out of place.

"5:01:22," the mechadragon said.

Arthur and Perceval slowed down. On the other side of the house, he could make out Lamorak's approach; Lamorak would be joining them in the front. There was no sign of Bedivere, but Arthur was certain that he was somewhere nearby, ready to step in and take his position.

Arthur slowed down in front of a café; despite the hour, there were quite a few people lingering over after-dinner drinks. They seated themselves at one of the outdoor tables on the very fringes, moving quietly and subtly to make sure that the waiter didn't notice them. Arthur pressed his mobile to his ear but didn't call out a number; instead, he touched his earwig and said, "Check in."

Leon was first as always; the rest of the team responded and confirmed their location. Gwaine didn't respond right away, and when he did, it was with a curt, firm, "Here," which either meant that he was in the zone, or he was sulking.

Gwaine was professional enough that he was probably not sulking.

There was a hesitation over the wire -- Arthur could imagine Geraint and Galahad exchanging glances, as if sensing that something was off -- before the rest of the team called in.

Perceval was the last, and he couched it as if he were having a conversation with Arthur. The waiter choose that moment to appear; Perceval asked for the menu but didn't order any drinks, and the waiter headed into the café.

"3:40:04," the mechadragon said. "New message for Arthur from Merlin: You're probably getting everyone to check in by now. So this is me, checking in."

Arthur blinked the sting out of his eyes. He put his mobile away and looked up to see Perceval watching him. "Ready?"

Perceval answered by getting up; Arthur was right behind him as they went up the street, meandering slowly, both of them consciously counting their steps and their paces and mentally keeping count.

Gwen's voice came on the line a few seconds later. "Something's happening. The jamming is gone. Literally, completely gone. I'm picking up some chatter from inside."

Arthur nodded to himself; that was good news. He'd been worried that they would lose radio communications once they were inside the house, but it seemed as if Merlin might have done something to fix that.

Arthur bowed his head and glanced at Perceval so that it wouldn't be obvious that he was talking to someone over the radio. "Anything out of the ordinary? Are they acting as if they know we're coming?"

"No, but…" Gwen trailed off. "No. Sounds like patrols checking in, people at different locations."

It sounded to Arthur as if they couldn't have more perfect timing. If the mercenaries were already enacting their check-in protocols, it meant they were following a schedule to make sure every corner of the house was clear. But if they were checking in now, that meant they wouldn't be expected to do so within the next few minutes and they would retain the element of surprise.

Perceval and Arthur walked past one of the mercenaries on patrol. Neither of them made eye contact, but the mercenary must have been particularly alert, because he clued in on Arthur being a bit bulkier than his frame suggested, that both of them were wearing large coats and walking a little stilted. In the periphery of his vision, Arthur saw the mercenary twist his body toward them, reaching into his jacket. His mouth dropped open to shout --

Perceval reacted, clamping a hand on the man's mouth , grabbing the man's wrist with the other, stopping him from reaching his weapon. They disappeared into a side street, there one instant, gone the next as they were buried under the shadows of the building.

Arthur continued. Perceval caught up with him less than twenty seconds later, his longer strides making short work of the distance separating them.

"00:34:10," the mechadragon said, and Arthur subtly reached under his coat and flicked the safety of his handguns. The safety was already off on the semiautomatic.

They were nearly there. Arthur spared a glance for Phillip, who was standing up, one hand in his trouser pockets, taking one last drag of his second? third? cigarette before pinching the smouldering end and flicking it out of the way. Arthur thought he saw a flash of orange-red in Phillip's eyes.

"10… 9… 8…" the mechadragon counted down. Arthur hurried up the front of the steps, Perceval after him, Lamorak and Bedivere filing in behind them out of seemingly nowhere. Bedivere reached past Arthur, putting a small explosive device on the doorframe to disrupt the ward, but close enough to the latch that it should blow it out, if no one opened the door.

He rang the bell.

"5… 4… 3…"

The doorknob rattled; the door creaked.

"2… 1."

Arthur and Perceval raised their arms to cover their face just as Bedivere triggered the explosive device.

Arthur pushed his way in -- the ward on the door gave faint resistance -- and ran straight at the mercenary on the other side of the door. The mercenary took several confused steps backward, scrambling for his gun, his mouth open as if to shout out a warning, and --

One of Lamorak's throwing knives sunk into the man's throat. Whatever sound had been about to make its way out of his mouth was turned into a gurgle.

Bedivere closed the door behind them.

The lights went out.

Arthur's team put on their masks -- or what amounted to a mask, since the equipment that half of the team had worn for Gwen's rescue was still packed. They made do with the red handkerchiefs swathing the lower halves of their mouths and the high-tech low-light glasses to protect their identity.

Not that Arthur expected that they would need to do much of it. If they could help it, they wouldn't be leaving anyone alive to call for reinforcements, never mind pick them out of a line-up.

They advanced, Perceval heading right. Lamorak moved left. Bedivere headed up the stairs. Arthur went into a straight line.

He heard the muffled pop of a silenced gunshot. And another. The team was either encountering mercenaries as they moved through the building, or the mercenaries were coming out of the woodwork.

Movement right ahead attracted the line of sight of Arthur's gun; he pulled the trigger without a second thought and hurried forward lest someone follow the first, but more prepared. He swung around the corner, cased the area with a glance and absorbed what he saw -- the backlight of a laptop on a coffee table, playing a bootleg version of Skyfall, two men getting up from the sofa, another man already heading toward him from a distant chair, a gun in hand.

Three shots. One, two, three. The bodies fell one after the other, guns clattering to the floor. One of the mercenaries tumbled onto the coffee table, knocking the laptop to the floor.

The movie continued to play.

Arthur would later lament on the state of mercenaries these days, that the lights going off didn't put them to immediate full alert, but for now, he was pressing the advantage. The room cleared, Arthur moved onto the next, catching the flash of red across someone's face down the corridor.

Leon.

They acknowledged each other over the distant shouts of someone barking orders, a sudden thunderous thrump down one of the multiple staircases. It didn't take long -- though it had taken long -- before the shouting spread throughout the house and there was the near-simultaneous scramble of people trying to catch up. Gunfire was exchanged in short bursts, hinting that the majority of the weapons carried on their persons were handguns, but it wasn't long before they switched to heavier weaponry.

Arthur kept a tally of the body count, the number of men disabled and down. They hadn't seen any serious magical resistance yet --

Leon was suddenly thrown out of a passageway and into the corridor just ahead of Arthur; he crashed hard against the far wall. Rapid gunfire followed him out, hitting the tiled floor, the wall. A small dust cloud from the ceramic and from the plaster hid Leon for a precious moment when he rolled out of the way and scrambled back until his shoulder was against the wall on the other side of the opening.

Leon panted. He signalled with his hand. Two heavily armed, more inside the room. His voice was a crackle over the comms, and he said, "We never did come up with a sign for sorcerers, did we?"

"How many?"

Leon gestured at the body-sized indentation in the far wall of the corridor and spread his arms in a shrug. "I'm not sure. At least one."

"At least one," Arthur repeated, rolling his eyes. He would find it funny if they weren't right in the middle of it.

He focused on the chatter over the comms for a few seconds. Lamorak had gone to the second level from the front staircase; Perceval, after clearing the right-hand room, had followed him there. They were holding the corridor and several mercenaries were down, and there were at least two more surrender. Neither of those mercenaries had magic, or they would have had done something by now.

Owain and Lance had gone up the second set of stairs to the second floor and were blocking that egress to the main floor. That left only one safe escape route for the mercenaries, and that was the fire escape on the outside of the building, which was in full view of both Michael and Phillip.

Merlin had said he was on the first floor. Right hand side of the building coming in from the main street. Close to the middle of the house.

"Going up," Pellinor said over the comms. Lucan came up behind Leon an instant later. He spread a hand in a what now gesture.

They'd checked everywhere else. Merlin had to be just past the guards.

There was an explosion overhead -- one of Owain's special ammunitions, most likely, designed to flash and blind, giving the team a chance against the mercenaries. The sorcerers' concentrations would be broken by the glare, while the shooters wouldn't see what to aim.

The team had to move fast.

Arthur gestured at Lucan. Lucan fished something out of his pocket and threw it across the doorway, which elicited a burst of gunfire but missed completely; Arthur caught it one-handed.

"Five," Arthur murmured into the comms. Then, louder, he shouted, "Pump!"

He hoped to God none of the mercenaries shooting at them spoke Welsh.

He held up four fingers and thumbed out the pin to the flashbang.

Three, he counted mentally and pointed at Lucan, knowing that his men were counting, too. Lucan covered his eyes with his arm.

He bowled the flashbang into the room -- two -- and heard it hit the far wall with a soft thud. One.

Arthur squeezed his eyes shut. The explosion made a sound-barrier breaking ka-crrrtraaack, making his eyes ring. He could see the flash through closed eyelids, and he counted down as the glow faded. His safety glasses hadn't adjusted fast enough for the abrupt change in lighting, but it didn't matter because Lucan was already on his feet and in the opening of the doorway, his shoulders square, his feet planted, pulling the trigger.

Arthur counted the shots. The shells fell to the ground in a slow-motion flash as his glasses adjusted.

The radio chatter was too loud. Perceval confirmed the explosive charge on top of the front staircase and Lamorak was coming downstairs. The front door opened suddenly and Arthur could both see and hear the grapple down the corridor as a mercenary returned from his patrol a little too soon, either alerted by the lack of lights in the building or called in by his compatriots. Pellinor came down the staircase; Arthur spotted him past Leon as he checked the situation and signalled for Lance to head out the back. Owain was a little slower, checking the detonation device he'd left behind on the second floor; Pellinor shouted at him to move his arse before his order was interrupted by an influx of mercenaries coming in from the side door on the right side of the building, behind the kitchen.

A ball of flame went through the wall and into the kitchen, briefly lighting up the corridor.

It was going bad fast. They'd lost their element of surprise. The mercenaries had figured out that they were outnumbered but not outgunned; as long as they had their magic, they had a chance of regaining the upper hand.

"Clear," Lucan said, but he didn't go in.

Leon surged in at a crouch before getting to his feet, stepping over a body; Arthur followed right after, his weapon aimed right where Leon's was covering the left.

The room they were in was small. There was a door to the left. A double-door to the right. Leon went for the door to the left while Arthur covered him; Leon returned an instant later, stepping over a body, and they both approached the wide double doors.

They wouldn't open.

The doors had no locks on them, no visible or viable signs of barricade. Arthur shouldered the doors; they creaked and sank under his weight, but only a fraction of an inch before meeting an immovable force.

Terrible, cold panic shot through Arthur. Merlin was in there; he had to be. There was nowhere else.

What if they were at the wrong house?

What if Merlin was in a different building, on the other side of the city, staring at his countdown clock and waiting for Arthur to arrive, and wondering why Arthur wasn't coming?

What if Merlin thought Arthur was dead? That he'd been captured? That Arthur had abandoned him?

What if Merlin was dead?

Arthur didn't realize that the strangled cry he heard belonged to him. He didn't react when Lucan moved in and stuck a small explosive charge on one of the doors. He didn't turn away until Leon dragged him aside when Lucan pressed the button to detonate the charge.

When the smoke cleared enough to see, the doors were charred and singed, a little concave, but otherwise unmarred and still…

Closed.

Shut.

"Fuck," Lucan hissed. He shouldered the doors in frustration, getting no further into the room than Arthur had, than the bloody explosive had.

The clock was ticking. Mercenaries were flooding into the house; Excalibur would be overwhelmed soon. The background chatter ebbed and rose in tones of anxiety and frustration, in cheers of success and shouts of dismay.

"Man down," Perceval shouted over the comms.

"I'm fine, keep going," Bedivere insisted.

"Goddamn motherFUCK," Gwaine roared. "Three more cars pulled up. We can't pick them off. Repeat: we can't pick them off. They're shielded --"

Arthur felt immense pressure on his shoulders, pushing him to the ground.

"Where's that bloody bloke? Phil? Who's got eyes on him -- I'm going to fucking shoot him, useless bit of space he is," Gwaine was shouting.

"Hold. Hold the fucking line," Pellinor was yelling. "Don't let them pass us --"

Retreat. He had to call the retreat. Arthur knew that his team would keep fighting until the last breath, that they wouldn't leave a man behind. They wouldn't leave the site until Merlin was with them. Arthur didn't want to leave Merlin behind any more than his team did -- if anything, Arthur would order his men out and stay here himself, banging his fists bloody on the wall, until something caved.

It wouldn't be the door.

Arthur couldn't risk his men. He couldn't.

He put a hand on the door.

He took a painful step back. I'm sorry, Merlin.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Leon snapped. His glasses gleamed in the dark, and there was no telling his expression, not with the red scarf around his face and mouth. "He's right there --"

"Retreat," Arthur said, that single word gutting him. He felt the pain from one side of his abdomen to the next. He'd fucked up again. He'd… He was leaving Merlin behind.

There were no words to express how much he wanted to get on his knees and stay there, just so that he wasn't separated from Merlin.

Not again.

"Arthur," Leon pleaded over the comms, his voice crackling.

The background noise had ebbed until everything was silent, but the battle hadn't been won, the fight wasn't over. The gunfire continued without respite and there were faint groans of pain, but Arthur knew that the silence wasn't because the team had given up. It was because they couldn't believe that Arthur had given up.

He hadn't, he told himself. He hadn't given up before and he wasn't giving up now. The logical part of him insisted that there was no way in through this door. The desperate part didn't want to get any further away from Merlin than he was right now, because he had no idea when he would ever get this close again.

"Retreat," Arthur said again, firm. "Now. Fall back to the meet-up point. G-2, G-3, get the vehicles there. G-1, continue overwatch."

Arthur turned around, ignoring how it felt as if his heart was tearing in two with every step he took away from the doors. He grabbed Lucan's arm when Lucan didn't seem to want to move, and shoved him hard toward the rear of the house. The others had already pulled back; Perceval and Lamorak were pulling up the rear, firing in short rapid bursts to keep the mercenaries from getting closer.

Lucan snapped out of it, sliding an arm under Lamorak's shoulders to take some of his weight, and in a blink the hallway was turned daylight-bright by a combination of three semiautomatic guns lighting up a large, orange shield that stretched from wall to wall and ceiling to floor.

The shield was moving. The mercenaries advanced. One man in the lead had his head bowed in concentration and one arm out in front of him, his fingers curled into claws.

"Let's go," Arthur gestured.

Leon had barely made it to the rear exit through the kitchen, leaving the same way he'd come in, when someone stumbled down the stairs, slipping over the last two, and scrambled to keep from falling to his knees. Arthur's trained his gun on him, and the man --

The man had short curly hair, cherubic lips, soulful eyes. Right now those eyes were gleaming a subdued orange-red, his mouth was parted in gasping breaths, and his hair was slicked down with sweat along his brow. There was terror in his expression.

Trousers and shirt. No weapons.

"I can't hold them any longer," Mordred said. That was when Arthur noticed that his hands were trembling.

Arthur didn't care who they were, not at the moment. He was tempted to shoot Mordred and leave him here, but Merlin's message had been clear. Instead, he gestured with his gun for Mordred to go ahead of him, and when Mordred didn't move, his brows pinching uncomprehendingly, Arthur knocked him out with the butt of his gun.

"Leon. Take him," Arthur said.

Arthur dragged Mordred out without a word.

Owain was right outside the door to the patio, and that was a relief for Arthur, because it meant that he could maximize his resources. They didn't have the time. Not with the mercenaries coming on their heels, not with the gendarmerie who would no doubt show up in the next few minutes, sirens wailing, lights flashing.

"You have more of those?" Arthur asked, pointing at the explosive just out of sight on the outer wall of the house. It was strong enough that it would collapse the wall -- and possibly a portion of the building, too -- and stop the mercenaries from following them.

"'Course," Owain said.

Arthur gestured. Owain came back inside. Perceval shot them a curious glance as Arthur and Owain took over, slowing the mercenaries down, giving Lamorak and Lucan time to get out and to get clear. It wasn't until he heard the signal that Arthur backed Owain toward the side door; they exited quickly, and Owain triggered the explosive to block the exit.

The building rocked in the blast.

"This way," Arthur said when Owain started toward the backstreet. Arthur led the way to the front of the house, counting the windows, trying to find the one from the photograph that had captured Merlin. He glanced back and forth a few times before making a decision and tapping in Morse code on the glass. He didn't get a response, but he saw movement, someone moving away from the glass. "This one. Blow this one."

One of the things that Arthur liked about Owain is that he never asked questions, never in the middle of an op, never afterward; he always assumed that Arthur had a reason for doing the things he did, and, well, if they didn't work out, Owain shrugged his shoulders in an affable We tried, whatever it was that we were doing manner.

Most of the others were like that, too. Or they would wait until later to ask. But here and now, what Arthur needed most was both Owain's demolition skills and his ability to knuckle down and do the job without hesitation.

"I hope you lot are out of there, I'm seeing flashing lights coming your way. ETA four minutes, maybe less," Gwaine said.

Arthur touched his ear and swivelled around, watching the street. No one was on the pavement -- not on this side, not on the other. Everyone had cleared out. The mercenaries had gone inside the building through the front door, but none of them had come in through the rear rightward side or the garden. That either meant that Michael and Phillip had done their job to distract the mercenaries or to stop them outright, or that one of the overwatch positions had taken them out before they got that far.

"Any of them at the front?" Arthur asked.

"No, no -- hold on -- no, not anymore," Gwaine said. Arthur heard a body thump; a shadow shifted and he saw someone's arm flop past the edge of the front of the house. "Why do you care about the front of the -- Arthur, where the fuck are you?"

"Ready," Owain announced. He grabbed Arthur's shoulder and hauled him away from the window, toward the rear of the alley. Arthur spotted the skewed side door shift and open. He raised his gun, training it for a body shot, pausing for a fraction of an instant to confirm that it wasn't one of his men before shooting the mercenary twice, once in the chest, again in the head. The mercenary fell backward.

Owain flattened Arthur against the side of the house and kept him there with his arm, thumbing the detonator.

Even at this distance, Arthur could hear the warning beep. There was never normally a beep. Owain must have rigged it to give Merlin some warning --

Please, Merlin. Please. Please be all right. Please be away from the window. Please shield yourself.

-- but it wasn't much warning at all. The explosion came nipping on its heels. The building heaved before belching a loud, resonating blast in a single, clear note marred only by the crash and tinkle of glass seconds before the intense, localized force vaporized it. Debris and falling brick and plaster dust blew out into the alley in a monstrous hiccough, raining the area with shrapnel.

Arthur couldn't see through the dust.

He surged forward, but Owain held him back. Part of the wall on the left side of the window suddenly broke loose and slid down like a miniature landslide, coming to a crashing stop on the other side of the building. The air was so thick now that Arthur couldn't even make out the streetlights.

Arthur glanced at Owain. Owain gave him an apologetic didn't have time to cut the plastique shrug, and Arthur was going to kill him if Merlin was hurt.

He moved forward, his gun up; Owain was a step or two besides him. They both advanced, watchful for movement, neither of them wanting to risk waltzing up right into a mercenary's gun.

Except for the faint, gravelly sound of still-crumbling plaster and the distant sirens, it was quiet.

Too quiet.

The drifting dust and drifting smoke was backlit by the headlights of a passing car and the blue flash of police lights, giving the area an ethereal, misty glow that was broken an instant later by the shouts of a police officer cordoning off the area, getting rid of civilians.

Arthur heard a gunshot.

It was thunderously loud, audible even over the police sirens, the tumult in the background. It rang through the alley.

It rang like a bell.

A death knell.

Arthur froze.

Merlin.

"Oh, God, no," Arthur whispered under his breath. He took three hurried steps forward, feeling Owain's hand on his shoulder stopping him, slowing him down. Arthur saw why almost right away.

Someone was coming through the dust cloud, moving quickly. Their head was down, their shoulders hunched, their body shape wrong, so wrong. It wasn't Merlin. It was too broad. It was too wide. It was --

Arthur raised his gun and took aim. He could feel Owain doing the same next to him. Arthur didn't give the order to hold. He didn't need to. Neither one of them would fire until they were absolutely certain that it wasn't Merlin -- even if it meant risking being shot at first.

There was a faint cough, a scuff of shoes on a brickwork road.

The dust cloud glittered with the backlight from the street. It seemed to part, but that was just the motion of someone advancing toward them.

Merlin.

His clothes were not his own, but that came as no surprise considering that his own had been left, balled-up and bloodied, at the last house where he'd been held. The shirt was too big at the shoulders and not long enough. The trousers shapeless and slung low on his hips. He didn't have a jacket, and his elbows were close to his body as if cold. His backpack hung from a shoulder, and there was a gun in his hand.

He stuttered to a stop when he saw Arthur and Owain. There was an aborted movement, as if he were about to raise his gun, but his arm fell to his side, the gun hanging from his fingers.

"Arthur! Oh, thank fuck," Merlin breathed.

"Oh, God. Merlin," Arthur whispered.

Arthur didn't know which of them moved first, and it didn't matter. Merlin threw his arms around Arthur's neck, Arthur wound his free arm around Merlin's waist.

He was so thin. Arthur could feel Merlin's ribs through his glove, the jut of Merlin's hip through the heavy equipment belt.

But it was Merlin. Safe and alive and once again in his arms.

Arthur didn't know how long they stood there, unmoving, barely breathing, sharing body heat that Merlin needed far more than Arthur. The heavy scruff of Merlin's cheek scratched against Arthur's ear.

Arthur tightened his hold to keep Merlin from pulling away, but Merlin only leaned back, his fingers touching Arthur's cheek through the scarf, tugging it down.

The kiss was pure bliss.

Merlin's lips were dry and chapped. An edge was sharp where he had a fresh cut. The pressure of the kiss was both too light and too hard, crushing their mouths together, forcing Arthur to swallow the gasp of absolute pleasure.

Merlin's fingers dug into the back of Arthur's head, tangling with his hair.

And Arthur -- Arthur forgot about the rest of the world until a slow, frantic voice cut through the haze of joy, the words stretched out, elongated, distorted. He broke the kiss and saw the flash of police sirens, absurdly bright and static. The dust cloud fragmented into individual particles, no longer a diffused, misty mess. Two gendarmes in full assault gear coming their way, pausing in the entrance of the alleyway as if they'd been... as if motion had been --

Paused

Merlin's cheeks were sunken. There were shadows under his eyes. Exhaustion pulled at him, but there was a flare of happiness in his expression. Of apology.

He was biting his lower lip. He clumsily pulled at the red scarf until it covered Arthur's face again.

The glow faded from his eyes, and time snapped back to normal speed with a cacophony of noise -- sirens, shouts, horn honks.

"We gotta go," Owain said, pulling at Arthur's arm.

Arthur couldn't see the gendarmes -- the dusty fog had thickened again -- but he didn't doubt that they continued to advance.

There was a crash from inside the house. An explosive blast and another crash as the far wall beyond the hole that Owain had created suddenly blew outward on the other side.

There was gunfire, but it wasn't directed at them; something or someone was coming out of the hole.

"We really gotta go," Merlin said, pushing at Arthur.

Arthur grabbed his hand. Entwined their fingers together.

They ran.

Chapter Text


Sunday, 0130 hours

 

There was no reason for Balinor to follow Captain Arthur Pendragon's orders. No reason at all. Even less of a reason now that Balinor had learned just how badly Kilgarrah had betrayed him and his team over the years. This very betrayal was how and why Merlin had ended up in the enemy's hands.

Balinor was the one who had made the decision to sacrifice everything for his son. No one had suggested it to him. No one had pushed him to this. Hunith had tried to talk him out of it, had insisted that they all disappear together, but Balinor knew that a family on the run would be too easily tracked, too quickly put under suspicion. It was safer if he took on the burden, if he led the hunters on the chase. It meant a lifetime under scrutiny for Hunith if anyone suspected that he would return to England, to his wife and son, but that was safer than the alternative.

After all these years, Balinor was humbled by the sacrifice that his men had made, leaving their families behind just as he had done. He had believed that they followed him because they understood the danger, but nothing, nothing could rival the anger he felt when he realized the true reason: that his men were hoping for the fulfilment of a prophecy.

Gods.

There was no love lost between Uther Pendragon and Balinor Emrys, that was for sure, and there was absolutely nothing owed to Uther's son. And yet, behind Arthur's steely determination, Balinor could only see a man driven to find Merlin at all costs -- not because he knew or understood Merlin's strength and power, but because Merlin was Arthur's strength and power.

Two sides of the same coin. Like Kilgarrah said.

Balinor was not a Druid. He was not initiated into their mysteries. He only knew some of the stories because his men would share them, sometimes, and because Gaius never believed that secrets should be kept, only taught and passed on.

He could not -- he would not -- allow Kilgarrah to place the burden of myth and ancient history upon Arthur Pendragon. Not now. Not when his son's life was at risk.

That was why -- that was the only reason why -- Balinor approached the vehicle waiting for him. Arthur was right. His men were younger, highly trained, versed in techniques to suppress, even overcome sorcery. Balinor's team was not at its full strength -- his men were scattered throughout Europe, ready to come at a moment's notice, but even a moment's notice required pre-planning and a delay to allow them to arrive on location, even a-dragonback. Balinor and his men would only be in the way, and as cruel as it was for Arthur to use that truth to convince him, it was a reality that Balinor did not readily accept.

As bitter as he was to be ordered to leave, Balinor left Arthur to save his son.

A man got out of the car. He gave Balinor a curt nod.

Bohrs was a tall man, broad-shouldered, heavily muscled; his shirt was tight around the torso but loose around the waist, and there was no way to ignore the tree trunks that he had for legs. If Balinor had been twenty years younger, he would have knocked Bohrs out and gone back to jump in on the retrieval, whether Arthur liked it or not.

Balinor was in his early fifties, had spent more than half of his life on the run and on secret missions to undermine and compromise the enemy, and before that he had been a decorated soldier. Before that, he'd been a street tough who ran guns for a living and it had been a living he'd survived even as he'd watched the other boys in his gang die one by one.

Balinor had learned the importance of choosing his moments. Of picking his battles. This was not one of those battles.

Still, with or without magic, Balinor was convinced that he could still take on Bohrs, even if escape wouldn't be simple.

"You're driving, sir."

Balinor exhaled heavily. Easy to overcome, perhaps, but not simple. Arthur's men were not fools.

He settled behind the driver's seat. Bohrs climbed into the passenger side and gestured. "Get going."

"Where am I going?"

"Right now? We're shaking this girl's arse all over town, waiting to see if there are any admirers we'd rather she didn't have," Bohrs said. He raised a brow in a very isn't that the obvious thing to do expression that drew a huff of annoyance from Balinor.

They weren't on the road for more than a few minutes before Bohrs tapped his earpiece and confirmed, "Have the package. We're on our way."

Balinor glanced at Bohrs, unsure whether he should be offended that he was being referred to as a "package". He glanced at the clock on the radio. The glowing blue numbers made a hollow appear in the pit of his belly; he flicked his wrist to look at the synchronized time for confirmation.

The operation was underway.

Balinor gripped the wheel tightly.

"Just keep driving," Bohrs said quietly.

"I won't interfere," Balinor said.

"Good," Bohrs said. His voice was cold and flat. "Keep driving anyway."

A few minutes passed before Balinor said, "You don't like me."

"I don't know you, mate," Bohrs said, his voice flat. "And neither does Merlin."

Balinor's knuckles cracked as he clenched the steering wheel. He grit his teeth at the reminder and stared straight ahead, forgetting to check the side and rear-view mirrors to see if they were being followed.

"If it were up to me, I'd be driving you to the airport and telling you to get the fuck out," Bohrs said. "But it's not up to me, and Arthur thinks you and your lot are useful. Take the next turn."

Balinor didn't answer. He took the next turn.

"Then there's that other thing," Bohrs said. Balinor shook his head, I don't want to hear it nearly out of his mouth, but Bohrs kept talking. "You left him. You left him and his Mum. And I get why you did it. I do. But you left them. Hunith's brilliant. And Merlin... Merlin's amazing, and you missed out by not being there. And they're... They're just going to forgive you, you know? They're going to forgive you for leaving them on their own."

"I didn't --" It was more complicated than that, Balinor wanted to say. Far more complicated. This man -- this kid -- couldn't possibly understand what a hard choice it had been for Balinor back then, how it was still a hard choice now.

"Just like that, without question. Snap of a finger. It'll be like you never left. And they're not ever going to let you know how much that they've been hurting. That they are hurting." Bohrs cut himself out and made a gesture. "Straight and a left at the light."

"I --"

"Keep your gob shut. This is my say," Bohrs said. He ducked his head and checked the mirrors. "I get it. You're the one who said, go that way, I'll draw them to me, because you wanted to keep them safe. And Hunith was on board with the plan. Merlin? I suppose as soon as he hears the story, he'll just smile and nod the way he smiles and nods when he's hiding how much he's hurting and is pretending that everything is all right --"

He trailed off. Balinor gave Bohrs a sidelong look and wondered if Bohrs had ever been on the receiving end of Merlin's pained smile. Balinor certainly had. Hunith's smiles and distant looks cut him deep, even in memory, and Merlin had inherited her smile.

"But it's not all right, yeah? It's not. And don't pretend that it is," Bohrs said. "Don't you ever. You treat them like they're the most precious that you'll ever have in your life and you'll mean it --"

"They already are, or I wouldn't have --"

"And if you leave them now -- next left, then your first right, drive down the alley -- I will personally hunt you down and shoot you, because you're a goddamn bastard if you leave them a second time."

Balinor slowed down, waiting for the traffic to clear before making the turn. He took that moment to study Bohrs' profile, highlighted by the headlights of the cars passing by. Who left you? he wanted to ask, because there was so much hurt and pain in Bohrs' voice that the bitter edge? It was personal.

Instead, he turned left. He took the sharp right turn down an alley.

"Park here, and get out," Bohrs said. He pressed a hand to his ear and listened, his jaw tight at whatever he was hearing over the comms. Balinor wished that he could hear the action, but from the grim expression on Bohrs face, it was just as well that he wasn't able to listen in. He checked his cell phone; there was a text message from Michael, but it was from fifteen minutes ago and didn't have any current information.

They walked through the alley, emerged on the other side, and walked the pavement in a circuitous route before approaching a house from the rear. Bohrs knocked on the door several times before walking inside, gesturing for Balinor to follow.

Balinor hesitated.

Hunith.

It was seven years to the day after he first left England to disappear that he had seen Hunith again for the first time. It took eleven coded messages, all of which had been passed through the hands of trusted friends, to make the arrangements. Hunith hadn't taken no for an answer. And he'd missed her so much.

Hunith had taken leave the same time of year as she always had, had arranged the same tour trip with her friends, had sent Merlin to stay with Gaius in London, and had spent two fleeting nights with Balinor in a villa in Spain when the tour bus had inexplicably broken down.

They repeated it again the year after, and every year after that -- some years they had a week, others, barely a day, and, too frequently for Balinor's tastes, they hadn't been able to meet at all.

Some contrived mission of Kilgarrah's. The Directory on the horizon. Or MI-6, no matter how clever Olaf was. And, often, Balinor's team were being hunted by other soldiers from other countries, soldiers who were far more aggressive in tracking them down than the Directory.

Once, at least once, it had been Uther's men.

And now that Balinor had a chance to see Hunith again without careful pre-planning to ensure her safety, and with the heavy guilt of responsibility, Balinor found all of his courage leaving him.

"Get in," Bohrs growled.

Balinor forced himself to move. When the door shut behind him, it was like the clang and clunk of prison bars locking shut.

There were voices in another part of the house. Footsteps of someone approaching. Another member of Arthur's team paused in the corridor, a gun in his hand. He traded nods with Bohrs and looked at Balinor, his expression blank, unreadable.

"Balinor," Bohrs introduced, waving a hand between them. "Gareth. He has instructions to shoot you if he feels like it."

"Is that supposed to scare me?"

"Mate," Bohrs said, his tone dripping acid, "Take it for the precautionary note that it's meant to be."

There was a pregnant pause, swollen and ready to burst, before Balinor nodded his understanding. And what he understood was this: Arthur's men were fiercely protective of their own.

"Everyone's in the main," Gareth said, tilting his head. Bohrs led the way, but Balinor wasn't quick to fall on his heels; instead, he took a deep, steeling breath under Gareth's judging stare, and walked in.

The house was unremarkable. The walls were a matte off-white, the rare picture frame containing photographs of Paris tourist traps. The furniture was standard and sturdy and must have come with the house. The wood floors were polished but worn; hundreds of people over the years had walked these corridors.

It was an anonymous building with no personal touches and no sign of equipment anywhere. Balinor suspected that the team was in transition, ready to move at a moment's notice.

The main room was wide open and comfortable. There was a walk-in kitchen off to the side. A large sofa and a flip-back armchair and a coffee table that looked as if it had seen better days. There was a kitchen table pushed nearly to the wall, and in the middle was a radio.

A woman with long black hair was seated behind the table, her back to the wall, a hand pressed against her ear. Beautiful, with bright, pale eyes that were vivid and vibrant despite her apparent exhaustion, her skin a like ivory, her features fragile and sharp, almost too pointed, giving her a harsh look. Her brows were furrowed in concentration, her gaze downcast, and her free hand tapped the radio, her fingernails clinking.

She looked up at him; there was a flash of faint recognition in her eyes. She leaned back and quirked a brow, glancing toward the kitchen.

Hunith stepped out as if she had been summoned by the woman. Hunith had a cup of tea in her hands. She wore plain trousers and a button-down shirt, the sleeves rolled up to her wrists, her silver watch -- the watch that Balinor had given her on their first anniversary-- flashing in the light. Her hair was pulled back from her face because she never wore it down except when she was with Balinor, but it seemed there was more white in it now than there had been when he had seen her only months ago.

She was tired and drawn. The worry lines were more pronounced, the laugh lines that he'd loved so much nearly gone, overwhelmed by strain. There were dark circles under her eyes but no sign of her emotional state; there was a forced calm over her features that hid her emotions and quieted the faint tremors in her hands.

He'd fallen in love with her strength all those years ago. He fell in love with her again even as his heart broke to know that his actions and inactions had put their son in danger and had left her to carry a secret too heavy for one person to bear alone.

She started toward the table. She saw how the other woman was watching at her, how the woman's eyebrows rose and tilted toward the corridor. Hunith half-turned and looked at Balinor.

The cup shattered on the floor, tea spilling everywhere, and Hunith crossed the room in a flurry of motion and threw herself into his arms.

Warm, solid, frail. She trembled. She inhaled a shaky breath and her hands tightened around his neck. Balinor lowered his head, resting it against hers, feeling his frantic heartbeat slow with relief to see his wife again.

"I'm sorry," he whispered. He should have come to see her the instant he'd learned that Merlin had been taken. He should have been here for her from the beginning, to help coordinate the search for their son. He should never have left her alone, not in the beginning, not in the end. "I'm sorry."

Hunith turned her head into his chest to muffle a sob.

It was just the one. The heave of her shoulders, the stutter of her lungs, the strangled sound. Her body tensed to brace against more, building a bracers to support what little strength she had left. He held her until she calmed; he held her until her arms relaxed from around his shoulders; he held her until she pulled away.

She took a step back, clearing her throat, composing herself.

How many times had he seen her do this? How many times had she pulled herself together before he could see the cracks in her armour? He wished he had the words to tell her how much strength that she gave him just by being there, that she didn't need to hide her fear and her worry from him.

"I'm sorry," he said again.

That was when she slapped him. It was hard enough to make his ears ring, for the stars to come out, for his face to have a moment of pleasant numbness before the stinging burn and for his jaw to crack.

"I deserved that."

"Too right," the woman at the table said.

"I should be thankful that was an open palm, and not a punch," Balinor said.

"It will be, if you ever do that to me again," Hunith said, her voice alternating between shaky and steady. "Why didn't you…"

Hunith trailed off in mid-question, just like every other time that she needed to ask, but didn't. They hadn't argued since before Balinor had left, neither of them willing to waste a precious second on petty things. But all those questions, all those unspoken words, all those conversations that they had never had over the years when they could have had them, when they should have had them -- those conversations stood between them now, a gaping chasm that seemed impossible to cross.

Hunith never finished her questions. She would always shake her head and sigh and smile a tight little smile that would soften as she spoke of other, better things.

Balinor had always been able to hear what she never said out loud before, and it was no different now. She was asking, Why didn't you come see me when you heard?

"I didn't come because I was afraid," Balinor said, his words a soft whisper. "I was afraid that you'd blame me for… For everything."

"You did what you had to," Hunith said, in that same insufferable tone that hinted she was trying to convince herself as much as to console him. "You're doing what you can."

Balinor suddenly wished that she would hit him again. Hunith's anger was preferable to this -- this docility, this resignation.

"I'm not leaving again," he said, the words out in the open before he was conscious of speaking. This was a nagging truth that had haunted him ever since he'd learned that the enemy had Merlin. There was no need to run anymore. There wasn't any reason to hide. The Directory, MI-6, all the others -- they might not know that Merlin was the artefact that they were looking for, but it was clear to Balinor that he was not alone in protecting Merlin, in keeping him from harm.

Balinor didn't have to carry that burden alone. As much as he didn't want to trust a Pendragon, he couldn't deny what he had seen with his own eyes. Arthur would go to Hell and back for Merlin, and Arthur wouldn't return without him.

Nor would his team. And his team would follow Arthur there.

The weight of the world did not settle easily on Balinor's shoulders. It never had. But it was lighter these days, knowing that he wasn't alone, now that he was out from under the rock he'd been hiding under, now that he understood that he couldn't trust even his oldest friend.

Hunith tilted her head, her fingers touching his cheek where it was hot with the heat of her palm, and studied him with that ever-appraising look, searching for the truth in what he said.

"I'm staying," he said.

These last few days -- the last few years -- they had been hard, and every year harder still, hearing about his son only rarely, hearing his accomplishments, his triumphs, his successes, his… Balinor swore that he had aged a hundred years on the day he learned that Merlin's convoy had been attacked, that Merlin had been seriously injured, that Merlin had nearly died, only to be rewarded for saving as many men as he had with charges of misconduct and treason. Staying away all this time had been the hardest thing Balinor had ever done, and this close, so close and still so far, he found it too hard to stay away.

Hunith's eyes widened. A small smile pulled on her lips only to fade.

"I am," Balinor promised. "I can't do this anymore."

"I never could," Hunith said, the words quick, like a cobra's strike, the venom burning through his veins. He wanted to ask her forgiveness, for leaving her alone all this time, for leaving her alone now, but he knew that Bohrs was right. Hunith would give it, and readily; without meanness and with mercy. He didn't deserve that. Not after everything he'd put her through.

Balinor opened his mouth to speak, only to find that he didn't have the words anymore.

Hunith shook her head -- it was small and miniature, an aborted sigh -- and said, "We'll make it work."

She smiled.

It wasn't the smile that Balinor had hoped for. It was nothing like the wide pull of her lips in pure joy. It didn't reach her eyes and it didn't make them sparkle. It didn't reveal the heart she had always worn on her sleeve, open, earnest, freely giving.

It was a smile full of secrets, and those secrets were crumbling. It was a smile of suppressed hope, not daring wish for more. It was a smile of broken dreams, not quite daring to dream again.

Balinor closed his eyes. He'd done this. He'd done this to her.

"I'm sorry," he said again, and he knew he could never say it enough. He took her hand and kissed her fingers, one by one.

"I know," Hunith said.

Bohrs brushed past them and scrambled to the radio. He twisted a few knobs. The woman squeaked in protest and smacked Bohrs' hand until he drew away. "You -- what did you do --"

Bohrs and Gareth exchanged glances. Their expressions were pale, stricken; their shoulders slumped in defeat.

"I didn't catch -- what did he say? What did Arthur say?" the woman touched her earwig. She reached out to reset the dials.

"He didn't say anything, Morgana," Bohrs said. He pointedly didn't look at her, and missed the hostility in her glare.

"Did he say -- did he say to pull out? To… to retreat?" Morgana asked, her tone incredulous. She stared hard at Bohrs, but when he turned away to save himself, she turned the full force of her gaze on Gareth, who withered. "Did you --"

"Yeah," Gareth said, leaning back against the wall, slumping.

"Did he have --"

Bohrs shook his head. He stared at the floor. "He would've said."

Hunith's fingers tightened around Balinor's hands until he could feel his bones grind together, but he didn't feel any pain. Everything was washed out behind a veil of panic and dismay. He should have stayed on-site. He should have been there, no matter what Arthur had said.

"Turn it back on, goddamn it, Bohrs. Turn it back --"

"Not if you're going to yell at him," Bohrs snapped. "And you say that you weren't going to, I'm calling bollocks now. The last thing he needs is to hear you harping in his ear. Let him think. Let him figure it out --"

Balinor looked down into Hunith's eyes and saw the fear in them. He released a breath in a strangled gasp of fear. "I shouldn't have left. I told him he would need me --"

"Don't you start," Bohrs said, pointing a menacing finger at Balinor. "Don't you fucking dare second-guess Arthur. He'll get the team out. He'll get everyone out."

The silence stretched.

And stretched.

Morgana flicked and twisted several dials on the radio. The more time trickled by, the more her breath came in soft, panicked hitches. "Bohrs. Please. Leon's out there --"

Bohrs wavered.

"Fuck, I'm a wanker," Bohrs said, but it was Gareth who reached the radio first, resetting the device with a trembling hands.

Balinor could tell the very instant that they were back in communication with the team from the way the three of them jerked at the onrush of sound. He exchanged glances with Hunith and walked to the table; he hadn't realized that he'd entwined their hands together until she forced him to slow down.

"Get me on the line," Balinor barked.

Gareth wordlessly handed him a fourth earwig that had been on the edge of the table all along; maybe it had been meant for Hunith, because she wasn't wearing one.

Balinor glanced at her, but she shook her head. He put the earwig in.

At first, there was nothing but a tumult of noise, a scramble of movement, gunfire. People shouting, two men barking orders. A low, distant rumble, a pop of noise like air imploding before expanding outward.

"Go. Let's go."

"Overwatch three and two at pickup. It's clear for now, but move it. The gendarmerie are blocking off the streets --"

"Any sign of Knight-One?"

"He's with O --"

"And where the fuck are --"

There was an earth-shattering explosion in the background.

"Shite! Shite! We've got to go back --"

"Keep moving, goddamn it. Pull back, meet at the rendez-vous --"

Balinor glanced at Bohrs. His expression was unreadable, but Gareth was the one with the poker tell. He covered his mouth with his hand, turned away, and promptly started packing what little equipment that there was left.

"Where the fuck are you, Arthur? There's a big fucking dust cloud --" The transmission was interrupted and it skipped in and out without anything meaningful coming through until --

"Overwatch one. Get the bird in the air. Pack up and get to the meeting point. Follow through with the original plan," Arthur said.

Morgana breathed a sigh of relief.

"What about you? What about --"

"We'll find another way."

There was a pause. Overwatch one asked, "And the bird? Where do we send it?"

"It's fine. Let it loose," Arthur said. "You have your orders. Go."

"Going," Overwatch one said, but there was an angry mutter over the comms. Balinor half-turned and watched as Gareth finished packing one box and left another -- intended for the radio, no doubt -- wide open. Gareth disappeared into the house; there must be another car somewhere.

"That goes for us too," Bohrs said, gesturing at Morgana. "Shut it down."

"Not yet," Morgana said, putting a hand protectively on the radio.

"What about you?" someone Balinor didn't recognize asked.

"Finding another way," Arthur said.

"And -- um. What about M -- what about the package?" someone else asked.

"You can ask him yourself when we get there," Arthur said, and Balinor felt the air go out of his lungs, the strength from his legs -- the relief was so strong, it was suffocating and crushing at the same time.

"Oh, thank fuck," Morgana said.

Hunith squeezed Balinor's arm so hard that he could feel her fingernails cutting to the bone. "'Lin?"

Balinor nodded. He pulled her close to him and pressed his lips to her forehead. She gasped softly when he whispered, "They're bringing him home."

Hunith shuddered and sobbed, and Balinor held her tight. He could feel the relief pouring off of her in waves, mirroring his own.

It didn't last. Because nothing could be so easy.

He heard Arthur shouting "Run!"

There were gunshots over the comms.

And then, nothing.

Static.