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giving up the ghost

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Fieldwork has mostly cured Merlin of the tendency to cast accusations, yet had he been in the business of apportioning blame, he would have had to admit, as he stared down the barrel of his own gun, that it was all Hart’s fault.

Because, see, Merlin’s magic is of the most unprepossessing kind. He can make milk stay fresh even when it’s left on the tabletop for days. The most skittish animals approach him with instinctive trust, as if they recognized in him the same sluggish incurious docility. He finds coins easily, but pennies and twopences only, the ones with bronze. That’s just about it. In a word, it’s a solid olden-day magic, good for a farmer on a market day or for a milk girl, mostly wiped out because nobody has any use for it anymore. Even the most impressive skill on his repertoire is barely distinguishable from the slight of hand: he can make small objects disappear, tickets, or marbles, or socks. Search all you want, and you won’t find them: they do melt into thin air, even if Merlin neither knows where they go, nor has much control over it. He’s resigned to it, if not particularly amused.

Doesn’t mean that he remains totally blasé when his umbrella melts in his grasp as he’s mere steps away from the car, his palm curling in on itself with a wet snap at the sudden disappearance. The icy crash of rain instantly knocks the wind out of him. He casts a furtive glance at the car: there’s no telling, not with the tinted windows, yet he hopes that Hart missed the spectacle. He lowers his hand and straightens, maintaining as best he can the pretense of a dignified walk, and, cursing under his breath, covers the rest of the distance to the car in four measured steps.

Hart is already in the driver’s seat, regal and unperturbed by the soaked dripping form slouching in the back. Even though the years of acquaintance tell Merlin that he should expect no such mercy, he hopes for a split second that Hart would let it slide, just this once. Of course, Hart does no such thing. With a show of exaggerated courtesy, he offers Merlin a handkerchief from his breast pocket. Merlin rolls his eyes, but still wipes his glasses with the monogrammed flimsy thing.

As Merlin lowers his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose, he heaves a long-suffering sigh. Preemptively, he says, “You definitely don’t have a glorious career as a stand-up comedian ahead of you. Cut it.”

When he catches Hart’s eyes in the rearview mirror, there’s a flicker of uncertainty in them, somehow more worrying than his usual dogged determination to push until the universe gives in and gives up. “Oh, but I only wanted to congratulate you on graduating from dissolving stationery to destroying gadgets.”

Merlin straightens in his seat. “Yet you still hold the record in the amount of destroyed gadgets.”

“You might even get to making yourself useful again, if you find a use for this, that is,” Hart drawls on.

“And I mean the all-time record,” Merlin presses. “I checked.”

“Of course you did. What else would you do with the copious amounts free time, now that they no longer let you out into the field?”

Merlin’s palms curl into fists against his will. That’s low, even for Hart, who has little patience or kindness for those below his level, that is, for most practitioners, even if he usually abstains from remarking on it out of vestigial politeness. Merlin does not expect outright cruelty though. Meanwhile, Hart turns towards him, and, with a flick of his fingers, the surging, roiling mass of magic washes over Merlin, drying the splatters of rain, rubbing almost indecently over his skin. The breath catches in his throat.

“You are welcome,” Hart says, smug as ever.

Merlin grabs at his holster to confirm what he already knows from a shift in weight, and, of course, his pistol is gone. “Great,” he snarls. “As if your presence alone wasn’t bad enough. I hope we packed extra weaponry.”

“What do you mean ‘my presence alone’?” Hart asks softly, his eyes narrowed, zeroing in on the entirely wrong part of the sentence, and Merlin belatedly realizes that he has let slip too much.

“It’s something about your magic,” Merlin tries to backtrack with as much confidence as he can muster. “It’s not as bad when you are not around.”

“Since when?”

Merlin doesn’t remember much, or at least not much that has to do with magic, since before the accident, not that he would give Hart the satisfaction of telling him that. He settles for a half-truth instead. “It comes and goes.”

“Since when?” Hart presses, turning towards him. “It’s not just the magic, is it.”

“Oh, since just about forever.” Which might as well be true, for all he remembers. “It needn’t change a thing.”

“It won’t,” Hart says decisively. “All the other knights are out on missions at the moment, so we’ll have to take this one, I’m afraid. After that, I’ll stop boring you with my company.”

“What is the case, anyway?” Merlin asks, tight-lipped. Not for the first time, he wonders what is it that Hart sees when he looks at him these days. A tale of perseverance, he’d like to believe, yet he suspects that it’s a reminder of their vulnerability. They used to work great together once; yet, Merlin suspects, these days he’s nothing more than incontrovertible proof that they were all half a step from becoming useless spoils.

“Nothing major,” Hart says, confirming his guess. “Even you should be able to cope.”

Merlin breathes through his nose slowly, half-seriously entertaining the idea of storming out of the car. But what ends would it serve, other that further prove his incompetence? “You make it sound like I did all that just to spite you. Well, I didn’t choose any of it, not being pushed off the roof, not the hospital, not having to relearn magic.”

“None of that would have happened if you didn’t overexert yourself earlier. If you just called me.”

“Well, I couldn’t hang off your arm indefinitely, could I?”

“I don’t see what choice you have now.”

Merlin throws his head back on the headrest, yet he can sense Hart’s presence even with his eyes closed, coiled power and resentment nagging and nibbling at the edges of his consciousness. Little wonder, that: he could sense it when he could sense nothing else, driven by adrenaline and the wild joy of the chase on their earlier missions, or crawling through dank rifts in chewed, torn earth, or bleeding out on dirty asphalt.

Hart puts his foot down on the accelerator and reverses out of the Kingsman parking lot before Merlin can think better of the whole thing.

“So, the case,” Merlin says without opening his eyes.

“Right,” Hart says, “the case. You might call it family business. Byrne, of our Met liaison branch, said that his mother called, and he could hear his father’s voice in the background.”

“Wait, but Byrne Senior was killed in a car accident, a while back.”

“Exactly, in 1973,” Hart nods. “How do you know?”

Merlin glowers at him with perfected scorn. “The novel concept of talking to people, you should try it.”

“Sounds like a waste of time if I have the case files for all the relevant trivia. Be that as it may, he presses his mother, she admits that Byrne Sr. is back, none the worse for wear, and we would otherwise write this off as dementia, but this is where this gets interesting. There were similar reports from other residents of the town. Remember Maggie Scranton?”

“The young woman who went missing- when was it?”

“Right, that was before you joined Kingsman. At first, Arthur – not our Chester yet –suspected that it might be our kind of case and pulled Bedivere in, but he didn’t find anything. Well, they say she came back home, after all those years.”

Merlin finally perks up, disbelief battling hunter’s instincts. “And the press did not come swarming in?”

Hart shrugs. “Bigger fish to fry than a cold case: sometimes quite literally, what with the flooding. The railway line to Market-next-the-Sea was damaged, and most roads are underwater.”

It’s been raining for days, the shrubbery along the sides of the road undulating in slick sheets of rain like seaweed. Merlin half-expects a fish to float past their windshield along the riverbed that used to be M11. Gazing distractedly at the soggy fields, Merlin says, “Could be the fairy folk. They wouldn’t have qualms about preying on dreams and loss.”

“It’s ‘the fae,’” Hart murmurs. “They find ‘the fairy folk’ offensive, and your prejudice against the fae is unbecoming.”

Merlin, who grew up in the north when the boundaries were still being settled, with street fights and blood sacrifices not meriting a mention in local newspapers unless it was a really slow day, scowls and crosses his arms over his chest.

“They wouldn’t venture this far south after the Morpeth Pact,” Hart says, and Merlin envies him his certainty.

“Wouldn’t be the first land grab.”

“It’s not a land grab.” Merlin counts it as a victory when Hart shifts under his glare and amends, “I don’t think it’s a land grab.”

Conciliatory, Merlin offers, “Is the flooding bad enough that we shouldn’t exclude kelpies?”

“The ecology’s not good enough to support a stable colony,” Hart says distractedly.

The dusk settles, the trip that should have taken two hours under normal weather stretching into an eternity. When Hart takes the turn off M11 onto a smaller road towards the town, the gathering dark is dense like mud.

“And we can rule out the ghouls, because recreational cannibalism would have cropped up on the news.”

“Yes, and with the new visa requirements we can exclude- the hell!”

Merlin is thrown forward harshly against the front seat as Hart brakes hard. The sheets of their new case slip out of the folder and scatter with an angry rustle. When he sits back up straight, there’s a large dark shape hovering in the air over the road not full twenty yards from their car.

These days, it is hardly ever properly light, the sun a milky blotch in the sky, and the dusk, tangible and dense like a soggy biscuit, presages a cold, dead, and restless time that comes after.

“What the hell,” Hart repeats, his knuckles white on the steering wheel.

Before he can think better of it, Merlin throws the door open and plunges into the rain. He winces as his feet sink into an ankle-deep puddle, but dashes forward, his gaze trained on the form floating about a yard above ground.

He stops not three feet away from it, and reaches out. It is definitely corporeal, drops of rain spattering as they hit its grey skin, yet that doesn’t make it any less wrong. Its flippers patting gently at the rain, it soars, sniffing at the brushes along the road. Merlin remembers seeing skeletons in museums, large bones stuck in the gullet of the earth, foreign and old, taunting the it with reminders of times when it was still sea. He doesn’t remember a word for it, so he settles on calling it a sea cow.

The doors of the car slam behind him, and Hart yells, “What the hell do you think you are doing?”

“Getting it off the road,” he mouths without turning back. He rifles through his pockets, only to find a roll of sweets. He crushes a disk on his palm and offers it to the cow.

It nuzzles at his palm curiously. He steels himself for the touch, expecting a searing spark of fairy magic, but there’s none. The sensations are slightly off, smudged like a page printed in cheep ink, yet there’s no magic to it, not as such. Merlin steps forward, goading the thing to the side of the road, feeling the fabric of time rustle and ripple as they pass.

Icy water laps at his ankles. Merlin makes sure that the moon glade of their car’s headlights stays in view, tethering him to the place and time. Hart was right, he concedes with growing bewilderment, this is no fairy folk cantrip, even if he doesn’t know what else this could be. The thing is almost off the road when Merlin’s foot slips.

He waves desperately, clutching for purchase, and finds none. The sea cow, startled by his sudden movement, swirls off to the side with a brisk wave of its gargantuan tail, knocking him off-balance. As the dark water surges up to meet him, Merlin expects the hard crash of asphalt against his knees, yet none comes as he plunges deeper and deeper. He jerks his chin up and gasps for air, gulping down a lungful of water that hurts like a burn. Silence rings out in his ears.

Instantly, he loses orientation, and that’s the worst of it. It’s all dark, up and down as far as the eye can see, and, as he twists through the emptiness that shouldn’t be there to begin with, he doesn’t know which way to turn, and, progressively, doesn’t know why he should even bother to. The void envelops him, beckoning and snug.

This feels like home, he thinks with a distant wonder born of a distaste for such notions; and not the tinselly stuffy nook either, but the excess of existence, all the fears of childhood and a yearning for the unknown expanses of a brand-new, crispy world. The void coaxes him forward and goads him to brave the displeasure and pain of his body; he reaches for a space where he doesn’t need to contend with, nor strive to become anything but himself.

From a distance that cannot be measured in terms merely of space, a blurred, unrecognizable voice reaches him, calling not to Merlin as such, but to an emptiness in him that buoys him up, hurting like a wound left by a missing tooth. He twists and kicks, trying to get away, resentful of his clumsiness and weakness, but the voice insists, promising not the challenge of the forsaken roads that await him in the depths, but the contentment of the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle clicking into place. Hovering in cold darkness, he hesitates. Part of him longs for the distant and desolate places; yet another would trade them in a trice for the acknowledgment and companionship. And a moment’s indecision is enough to be yanked back. Asphalt surges up to meet him, and does, scraping his palms raw.

He tries to sit up in the shallow puddle on the road where he’s stretched out, but Hart holds him in place. “I wanted to stay,” he sputters through a bout of coughing, and then tries, unsuccessfully, to wrench out of Hart’s grip.

“What did you see?” Hart rasps, his lip curled in rage. Another cough bunches up Merlin’s muscles, and he doubles over. For a while, Hart’s fingers on his shoulders are the only thing tethering him to his body. “What happened?”

When he finally straightens back up again, Hart shakes him lightly, and Merlin realizes it’s not rage he saw on Hart’s face. It’s apprehension, bordering on fear.

“You collapsed,” Hart says, trying to pull him up, his touch searing hot after the cold waves. “That’s all I saw. What happened?”

Haltingly, Merlin clambers to his feet. “These are the Fens,” he says, “all of this was the seabed, and I think it might be coming back.”

It takes some rifling in the boot of the car, but finally, he finds a roll of thread. “I’m not letting you anywhere near it, whatever it is,” Hart says, ever stubborn. Merlin’s fingers shake when he ties his keys to the end of the thread.

He swirls the keys a bit, and then throws them far into the puddle. This is stupid, he thinks, half-expecting the keys to hit asphalt with a splash and a wet thud, yet the roll twists in his fingers as the keys keep sinking deeper and deeper, into the trench that shouldn’t be there.

“But nothing happened when I stepped there,” Hart mouths, unable to tear his gaze off the roll, jerking in Merlin’s palm like a living thing. He covers Merlin’s hand with his fingers briefly, and takes the roll. The tug of the weight of keys remains constant, until the thread slips and disappears into the depths.

“Splendid,” Merlin huffs. “Now I’ll have to break into my own house.”

Hart frowns. “Screw your house, that roll had fifty yards of thread, and the keys didn’t hit the bottom. Yet I stood there not a minute ago.”

Merlin doesn’t have time to stop him before Hart rushes forward, splashing muddy water. He expects him to go under at any moment, yet Hart doesn’t.

“How very curious,” Hart intones, stomping lightly, well past the point where Merlin slipped and fell.

Cautiously, Merlin tries to follow him, careful to probe the ground before transferring his weight with each step. This time, he notices the slide and stops teetering at the edge, toeing the sharp decline with his shoe. “Careful,” his voice turning to a hoarse whisper against his will, “it’s here.”

Hart marches over confidently, not caring for Merlin’s warnings, and stops two steps ahead of him, right over what Merlin’s senses tell him should be a silent abyss.

“We should leave,” Hart says, eyeing the water with withering scorn. “Scientifically curious as this might be, as a senior agent, I’m calling the operation off.”

“Like hell you are.” Merlin takes a deep breath and steps forward. This time, he knows what to expect: the lurch downwards, and the feelings of loss as Hart pulls him back up towards the surface.

“It tried to take you once,” Hart insists. “I’m not letting it try again.”

“I’m as good an agent as you are. Let’s get to this village,” Merlin gasps. “We can always drive back to London tomorrow.”

“You don’t have to prove anything,” Hart says, tilting his head to the side. “You never had.”

“What does that have to do with anything? There are people there, people who are not practitioners. We should, at the very least, make sure that they are not in any immediate danger.”

“I don’t see why I should care. Saving Kingsman agents is an absolute priority, and I’m worried about the fact that this, whatever it is, didn’t want to let you through. Rushing in headfirst has little to recommend itself, unless you want to make your obituary a colourful read.”

“I wonder what’s the difference,” Merlin muses. He’s almost tempted to ask Hart to let him go. “We are both practitioners. Why would it let you through, but not me?”

“Until we find that out, your happy-go-lucky tactic is most imprudent,” Hart says in a mockingly calm tone.

“How is this different from what we usually do?”

“Oh for Chrissakes,” Hart hisses, “I saw you get hurt once, and I don’t much care for a refresher course, alright?”

And just like that, Merlin is acutely aware of the touch of Hart’s body, holding him over the murky deep. Hart leans forward and presses his lips to Merlin’s.

Merlin could have said that he never thought of this, and more, but that would have made him a liar. Hart was infuriating and overwhelming, and Merlin couldn’t stand being around him; not that he could stand being away from him either. Hart’s lips don’t taste like much but the rain, and are as cold; but right as Merlin leans into the touch, nudging at Hart’s lips with his tongue to taste Hart, the man himself, he withdraws.

“Your habit of getting hurt is infuriating. Fine, we’ll take a look at Market-next-the-Sea, but we’ll turn back immediately, and come back with reinforcements.”

“You are changing the topic.”

“Yes,” Hart says, but when Merlin kisses him, he can feel his lips stretch into a smile.

“We’ll need to carry the supplies,” Merlin says, licking his lips. “I wouldn’t risk driving through this.”

After they pick the most immediately useful supplies up from the boot of the car, the walk across the puddle is an awkward affair. Hart steps forward, dragging Merlin in his wake, his arm hooked under his elbow. When he’s touching Hart, Merlin can almost feel the asphalt under his feet.

“I missed working with you. We were good,” Hart says with clinical wonder, “before. We were the very best Kingsman had.”

“Yes, before you decided to keep your distance,” Merlin says, careful not to slide back into the trench.

“Which was a smart decision. That there was the very opposite of professional,” Hart says firmly without looking at Merlin. “There are very valid reasons why we shouldn’t.”

“It’s not altogether unheard of,” Merlin says cautiously.

“Doesn’t mean we should.”

“Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, either. I’m willing, if you are.”

“But then, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Our difference in standing, the fact that I saved you, more than once- of course, you’d be willing, but I shouldn’t take advantage.”

“You are conceited,” Merlin says with utter conviction. “Nobody would put up with you, if not for your manly charm.”

Uncharacteristically, Hart stays silent, and just tilts his head back. The skies are shining a ghostly greenish shade, which is just as well, Merlin thinks, as they march, soaked and sullen, towards the village. As they turn a corner, they find themselves facing an abbey, a lurking dark shape about halfway between a fortress and a church, undecided whether it was tasked with protecting the bodies or the souls of the parishioners. After that, it’s an easy walk towards Byrne’s house.

Merlin can feel the presence on the other side of the door long before Mrs. Byrne deigns to answer.

“We work with your son,” he says after knocking again, “we got stranded here, and he said we could-“

The door opens just a crack to reveal a short woman, sinewy and angular like a dried fish. “You are here for him, aren’t you.”

“Well, when things come back from the dead, it’s usually frowned upon,” Hart says before Merlin manages to step on his foot.

“He’s not doing anyone any harm,” Mrs. Byrne says, lowering her voice.

“We are not saying he is,” Merlin gets in quickly before Hart blows all their chances to get in. “But with such irregularities as this-“

“He’s never been as kind. There’s not a selfish bone in his body, now.”

“Yes, well, technically, he doesn’t have a body, does he,” Hart snaps.

“We are not here to take him away,” Merlin says, hoping that he can keep that promise.

“Pray tell, is that a regular occurrence around here?” Hart’s voice rings out with irritation, and, as Merlin turns towards him, a whiff of a song reaches them with a gust of wind.

Ring-a-ring-a-roses,

A pocket full of posies.

As he squints into the luminescent dusk, he can barely make out a small boat sailing through the air, long wreaths of flowers trailing after it through wet grass.

“You’d better come in, before they do,” Mrs. Byrne grumbles, the invitation somewhat undermined by the fact that she’s brandishing a double-barrel.

“Who are ‘they’?” Hart asks, disapproval steely in his voice, before he follows Merlin in.

“The Wild Hunt,” she says, bolting the door with practiced efficiency. “They are making rounds for those athwart with time.”

“Nonsense,” Hart says, “the Wild Hunt doesn’t exist.”

“It just doesn’t happen often enough to have been reliably recorded. They tend to wait and collect more at once.”

“Why don’t we discuss it over a cup of tea,” Merlin suggests. “It’s nippy outside.”

To his surprise, Hart rifles in his bag and picks up a spare roll of thread. He tangles some and lays it out by the door in a basic maze shape.

“Here,” he scowls. “Whatever might try to get in, it’ll have to get through this first. Even if they come knocking, we’ll have some time.”

Reluctantly, Mrs. Byrne shows them into the kitchen.

“We would like to meet your late husband too,” Hart says, sniffing the air like a hunting dog.

“He’s asleep,” she says with visible relief. “He was always a morning person.”

As she makes herself busy putting on the kettle and preparing tea, Merlin closes his eyes and runs a basic scan of the house for magic. There’s Hart’s restless shape, familiar like a limb to the point where he no longer even recognizes it as something completely separate from himself; and the shifting hungry beings prowling outside, but still distant. There’s nothing upstairs, or at least nothing that he can discern, and then, there’s the bright flare right next to him.

“I could have sworn I put sugar here earlier,” Mrs. Byrne grumbles, rifling through the cupboard. “I keep losing-”

“Tom never said you were a practitioner yourself,” Merlin says softly.

For a moment, she freezes, and when she raises her eyes at him, there’s the horror of a cornered animal in them. He has to fight down a pang of guilt. “Times were different,” she finally says. “It wasn’t appropriate, not for a woman.”

“Besides, explaining to your son that you resorted to necromancy to raise an improved version of his father back from the dead can be tricky, or so I’ve heard.” There’s kindness in Hart’s voice, jarring uncomfortably against taunting words.

“It wasn’t like that,” she says firmly.

“We are not here to judge. You said you thought there was something picking up the likes of him?” Hart says, peering through the window into the phosphorescent dark beyond.

“It’s not a matter of me thinking,” she says, crossing her arms over her chest. “They gather here, those lost in time, and then disappear. Now it’s only him left, and the oddments like those gals from the plague pits, who don’t have anyone to send them off proper.”

“And where is it that they go?” Hart purses his lips, glaring at the window.

Mrs. Byrne shrugs. “There’s no knowing that until we go down that road. He wants to go, my husband does. Says he’d rather not be stuck here all alone after I die.”

“And you are not letting him go.”

She doesn’t deign them with an answer and turns back to preparing tea. She’s searching for spoons when the sound of breaking glass rings out upstairs.

Hart beats her to the top of the stairs, but it’s a startlingly close race. Merlin comes in third, barely reaching the landing when Mrs. Byrne already swings open the doors to a bedroom.

The gust of dank wind pierces him to the bone; he winces and almost retches at the cloying smell of decay and overly sweet spice. Hart freezes at the doorstep, blocking him the view, and Merlin has to peer over his shoulder.

In front of a broken window, next to a slept-in, but now empty bed, stands a man with a large bag slung over his shoulder, making notes in a leather-bound notebook. “Right, one down,” he says in a voice like the rumble of a distant sea as Mrs. Byrne dashes towards him. Merlin tries to grab her shoulder, but she eels through his grip. “One to go.”

“They’ve been around for centuries, those plague pit girls,” she spits, “and you begrudge me a couple years? Where’s the fairness in that?”

“He went with us willingly, and there will be no pain in his sleep,” the man says, startled at the interruption. “Your turn, Andrew.”

Merlin recoils at the sound of the name that he no longer thinks of as his, dusty from long disuse, as much as from the request. A shiver runs down his spine. Before he has time to react, Hart steps forward, barring his way. “Nobody’s going anywhere.”

“He almost did, on the road here, and he would have if you didn’t stop him. Besides, he already paid the fare,” the sea voice rustles, like stones turning by the currents in the deep. Rifling in his bag, the man starts setting out a row of small objects on the bedside table. Squinting, Merlin recognizes, with a sinking feeling, all the tickets, and pens, and handkerchiefs that he no longer even remembers losing. To top it all off, he sets down Merlin’s gun that dissolved into thin air in the car. “His passage is paid for, and he is awaited on the other side. There will be no pain in his sleep.”

“Right, because he’s not going. I wouldn’t make it any more unpleasant if I were you,” Hart says, flexing his fingers.

The man scrutinizes Hart, his eyes twinkling with amused curiosity. “But he’s not even the person he started out as anymore. You made someone who likes you more, is better at what you need. Any resemblance to-”

Merlin shivers in his soaked suit, savouring the physical sensations: the drag of wet fabric, the chill, his pinching shoes; they could hardly serve as conclusive evidence that what he’s hearing isn’t true and he is still a person of flesh and blood, yet he clings to what he has. “This is madness,” he says, to drown out the ringing in his ears.

“There’s a certain point past which you don’t remember much,” the man says, turning towards him.

“Lacunar amnesia is not uncommon with certain injuries,” the words from his medical file come easily, yet ring hollow.

“Yes, but your injuries were consistent with being dead.”

Merlin spins on Hart, unused to relying upon him for sanity. “Tell me it isn’t true.”

He still expects Hart to laugh at his credulity, but Hart just looks away.

Merlin grabs him by the shoulders and shakes him so hard that his teeth clatter. “Tell me it isn’t.”

Hart tenses; Merlin has seen him furious before, but never like this, like he was about to fly to pieces. “You were bleeding out,” he finally grits out. “It was stupid. I just patched you up a bit.”

And it’s probably the best proof of the man’s words that, even through this, Merlin cannot really be angry at Hart, the way he cannot be angry at himself. “How dare you,” he says, without much conviction.

“I didn’t think, alright?” Hart snarls at him, leaning into his space.

“Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me in the least.”

That makes Hart chuckle, a watery thin sound. He reaches out, as if to cup Merlin’s face, but stops himself with a visible effort. “You see why I had to keep my distance? Without me in the picture, you could live a life.”

“All of this is very touching,” the man said with a yawn, “yet we don’t have much time. We have to go now.”

And at that moment, it all crashes on Merlin. Everything he did that day, or in the days leading up to it, was the last. The last time he had tea in his office, the last time he walked out of his house, the last time he went over mission files, every tiny inconsequential detail gained importance in its finality, and he didn’t even know to treasure it for what it was. “I didn’t know,” he repeats dumbly. “I’m not coming.”

“You might be working under the misapprehension that you have a choice. You don’t.” The man’s fingers ghost over the accumulated debris of Merlin’s life, and then close over the handle of his gun.

This is all Hart’s fault, he thinks frantically as he stares down the barrel of his gun, and cannot help but chuckle at how petulant that sounds, even to himself. Then, the man swings around and points the gun at Hart. “Your time has passed, yet his hasn’t. Would you mill about here and risk his life for- what?”

Slowly, Merlin closes his eyes. He begrudges Hart the dawn that he himself will not see, and his infuriatingly cavalier approach to Kingsman gadgets that won’t be his problem anymore, and all the could-have-beens, and he doesn’t want to go, yet his upbringing tells him he shouldn’t make a scene by voicing that. He nods to himself at that thought, not happy yet content. This is his and his alone, and not something Hart could have shaped through whatever frantic act of magic he performed. This, and the curiosity that made him welcome the plunge into the ancient sea that seeped in through the frayed edges of reality.

“I’ll get you out,” Hart says, quickly.

“You did, twice. You just might,” he says, and steps forward.