Turns out the monster has a sweet tooth, Merlin thinks with mounting exasperation. He fills out the last batch of forms while the monster finishes off his emergency storage of snacks, previously neatly secreted behind a shredder crowned with a dead plant.
"Of course, you'll have to start buying more milk chocolate. Your tastes leave a lot to be desired," says the monster, unwrapping the last of Merlin's 96% cacao Godiva chocolates, his one earthly indulgence. The monster licks his fingers in a manner that was probably meant to be suggestive, yet comes off as exceedingly silly. There's a smear of chocolate on his bottom lip, and Merlin's almost tempted to wipe it off just to see his reaction. He, too, can play this game like a pro.
Looking Merlin straight into the eyes, the monster makes a show of licking his lips. Harry, Merlin corrects himself. The monster's name is Harry, and he'd better get used to it. Who'd have thought that he had not a care in the world just yesterday, he thinks with astonishment. Of course, the blame's squarely on Kathleen.
The ban on personal calls from the compound had as much to do with keeping the phone bills under control as it did with security concerns, he thought vindictively as he hiked down to the village the evening before to have his Saturday pint and call Kathleen from the phone booth next to the pub.
The phone kept ringing for so long that he almost decided that she must be out with the girls, Shannon maybe. She finally answered right as he was about to hang up. Her voice was brimming with barely quenched laughter, and he broke into a grin at the sound. God, he missed her.
He knew something was wrong the moment she recognized his voice, and fell silent. "Love," she said tentatively, "there's something I've been meaning to tell you-"
The flurry of thoughts raced through his mind: is her landlord finally making good of his promises to get her evicted? Or is it about that time back in June when his condom broke? Is that it? Because if it is, he thought with a mixture of horror and pride, he's not ready to become a father, but he'll get this sorted, he would have to ask Kathleen to leave Glasgow, find her a nice place down here at the village, tie the knot, and, if he's up for promotion by Christmas- Wrapped up in his private panic, he almost missed it when she said, "We should break up."
"Oh," he said stupidly.
With disarming confidence that he always found endearing, she said, "It's not like we are really dating anymore anyways. You knew it wouldn't work out."
Thing is, he realized clenching his fists, he really, really did not, and now he felt all the more of a fool for it. With a passion of a man who was denied it one time too many, he longed for stability, and went with the flow with dignity, like it was the highest virtue. Kathleen, voluble and holding a firm, deeply felt opinion on most everything in the universe and then some, was a constancy in his life, soothing both in her very physical presence and in her willingness to guide him through all the drastic changes that he did not want, but had to undergo. Kathleen was a good thing, a real thing, so why would he contemplate the possibility of change?
"It's just, I cannot subsist on a weekly phone call and a weeks' vacation in Brighton off-season, once in a blue moon, when you feel like it. I'm sorry love, I really cannot," she said, sensing his doubts, and then he heard a toilet flush in the background, and the distant rattling of windowpanes as a tram passed outside her house. Pressing his forehead to the cool glass of the phone booth, he closed his eyes and pictured her tiny flat: mismatched chipped china and rickety flea market furniture, a whiff of paint from one of her endless redecorating projects, a place that he, faute de mieux, called their home.
"Right," he said, for there was precious little else to be said.
"I can mail you your things, if you tell me your address-"
"Ditch them," he said softly, and hung up with more impact than the beat-up receiver deserved. Belatedly, he realized that Kathleen must still have all his childhood mementoes, the well-worn books that he loved, rusty toy soldiers; but he did not have it in him to call her back.
When Arthur suddenly summoned him the next day and offered a much higher security clearance ("the level of clearance reserved for the royal family, yours truly and a limited number of directly affected persons, most of them dead," the man enunciated, looking at Merlin down his nose), it was a no-brainer. As Arthur smugly specified that that level of clearance came with much higher risks, Merlin put Kathleen's name down as his next of kin for one last time, thinking petulantly that, should he not make it, the compensation would allow her to quit her shitty reception job and get a nicer place with whoever the lucky bloke was. Problem was, he thought of the danger more in terms of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, when he should have been thinking The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
It's usually curiosity that leads men to this kind of predicament, Merlin reflects distantly, observing Harry out of the corner of his eye. Curiosity, or a quest for knowledge, or ambitions too sharp for the confines of just one mortal life. Going down to the tune of petulance, self-pity and a broken heart feels almost anticlimactic. But then, aren't there supposed to be perks? Even Faust got a girl out of the deal, Merlin reasons. He is less inclined to feel sorry for himself now, since self-pity is what got him into the mess in the first place, but still, what a right mess this is. Nothing quite beats being assigned babysitting duty minding the eldritch horror too ancient to have a name in any language, living or dead.
To be completely honest, at first Merlin was not even sure if this was not some convoluted test gone too far. Shoot your dog. Pretend you trust your boss enough to believe the deeply unsettling bullshit about reality always ready to split along the seams, about the patient darkness in which unreason lurks, about the old and hungry emaciated things gnawing on their own bones half a breath away from the thin sands of our world, and about the old betrayal. Merlin was efficient enough at reading people to know that Arthur himself believed this beyond the shadow of a doubt, but even the most reasonable men have a cracking point, and there were all those rumours about Arthur's captivity in Cambodia back in the early days of Khmer Rouge, which might well explain and excuse the harmless fancy of a more esoteric sort.
"This is the incantation," said Arthur, sliding a piece of paper to Merlin across the table. He expected something more majestic, but it is cheap lined paper, covered in shaky lettering. "It would be for the best if you memorized it at your earliest convenience."
Merlin squinted at the letters; the text was written in Latin script, but it was not English, nor any other language that he could easily identify.
"It is still spoken by some beings, deep in the forgotten and lost places. Ghouls, we would probably call them. Those that feed on the dead, or on their dreams, anyway," said Arthur with more tenderness than such a pronouncement would usually merit. "The incantation will bind it to you, and it knows how to complete the ritual. Such grounding in this reality grants it, and you, by extension, greater power. Of course, once it dies, you die with it, and vice versa, but each incarnation has the life expectancy of an average human, and it is roughly your age, so it should not greatly impact your prospects."
The practicalities of soul bonding with a slightly unhinged elder god were not what Merlin had in mind for the evening; neither is this the kind of stability that he so treasured, but he is professional enough not to laugh out loud.
When he is introduced to the thing, it is deeply anticlimactic. It is perfectly human-shaped, a minor blessing; in fact, it is a young man in a black jacket and striped semi-formal trousers, no different at all from the traditional Kingsman stock. Merlin knows the type: crisp, polished, smart enough not to be a nuisance at parties, but not smart enough to cause trouble. As Arthur enquires after his father's horses and his mother's health, Merlin, who did not believe in god or gods, is nonetheless slightly disappointed. As Arthur pats the young man on the shoulder and leaves them to it, Merlin is running through the current roster of agents, trying to figure out which one might eventually replace the evidently mad boss.
"I don't think we have much of a choice, so we might as well get along," says the young man in a clipped tone that screams years of public school, and stretches his hand out for a handshape. "You can call me Harry."
"Merlin," he curtly nods, "Nice to meet you."
Clutching a bundle of paperwork on both the current assignment and the long overdue follow-ups for several earlier missions to his chest, Merlin leads the monster to his office, where Merlin's stash of sweets keeps him occupied for a while, after which he just stares at Merlin unblinkingly.
Merlin does not know how to start a conversation without addressing Arthur's evident madness, and Harry certainly isn't offering him any ways out either. As Merlin is about to ask if the man was assigned a room at the compound or if he had separate lodgings arranged for him down at the village, something catches his eye.
Oh shit, he thinks with crystal clarity, Arthur was telling him the truth all along. Blurred by the flickering light of his lamp, but still undeniably there, barely out of reach, swaying and dancing, is the monster's shadow, filling more space than a shadow of a slim young man has any right to. Merlin casts about for a secondary source of light that could have caused this effect, but there's nothing. Mesmerized, he leans forward and reaches out his arm.
As he plunges into the deeper shimmering shade, there's a change in the texture of air, a certain biting brittle quality to it, and then he's gasping for breath as it hits him all at once: the sharp, almost painful awareness of the distance towards the dozing things believed to be stars, of the uneasy slumber of cold darkness stretched between them, and then, finally, the faded realization that his voice would never reach them. How do you deal, you poor devil, he wants to shout, sliding his palms over the patches of shadows, over the pulsing wisps and strands that so obviously did not belong, torn out as they were, ragged and bleeding, out of a richer tapestry of a different space and time. Merlin runs his fingers over them reverently, in mixed marvel and pity, probing and soothing.
A moan catches in the monster's throat as its back arches, and there's a blush creeping down his neck. "If you do go on," he says huskily, "I'd better get undressed. Wouldn't want to ruin the nice trousers, you know."
Merlin snatches his hand back with a start, flinching, even through his embarrassment, as reality flattens to his shoebox of an office at the loss of contact with the shadow. It's his turn to blush violently. "I'm so sorry, I did not realize-"
"Yes, you just kept touching another person's appendages without asking for permission. Actually, it was rather exciting, so I do encourage you to go on," says the monster, loosening his tie. "I just wanted to make sure that we were on the same page."
Great, thinks Merlin. Monsters under the bed are real. He even unwittingly gave one a handjob.
And if they are indeed real, he thinks with silent blind rage, if this is happening, and if the nice young man in front of him is indeed an elder god he is to bond with, how dare Arthur hand him things like that with insufficient explanations, catching him at the lowest point in his short life? "I will have to kill Arthur," he murmurs, clenching his fists. "You'd better not stand in my way either."
"You should really take that chip off your shoulder, you know," the monster says with a sigh. "If you think you have it tough, think twice. Imagine growing up: you hate your aunties and love your pony and blast Queen loud enough to make your butler suspend his professionalism for one deeply-felt scowl, you know, the usual-"
Merlin shakes his head. "No ponies nor butlers in my fond childhood memories, sorry." The monster, however, chooses to ignore him.
"And then you turn twenty and - bam! They inform you that Grandpa Harry, the one from back during Richard the Lionheart's reign, had sticky fingers. Picked up something he shouldn't have out in the desert during the Crusades, brought back what turned out to be a sleeping deity to be incarnated into someone in the family once a generation. The moral of the story is, call British Museum before stealing precious artefacts. More relevantly, they told me, you are the one who lucked out, so scratch all your preexisting plans and go train to be a not-completely-evil overlord while soul-bonding with a surly Scot. Gee, thank you, Grandpa. Maybe I wanted to become a virtuoso pianist before all this hit. Maybe I was really good at it."
"Well, did you?" asks Merlin, making an effort to relax his set shoulders.
"No," the monster huffs, "but the point still holds. This whole free will concept that our Western civilization's so big on? Gone out of the window before I was born."
"You poor privileged thing," drawls Merlin, trying not to think of the breath-taking loneliness among the stars. "So, now that you've mentioned it, bonding. Do we do it now?"
"My, but we barely know each other," Harry grins. "Although, in the Biblical sense of the word, now that you've-"
Merlin bats at him with a rolled-up newspaper. Making a show of covering his head, the monster laughs, "I'd rather you took me out for drinks first."
That he can do, Merlin thinks, making a mental note to buy more chocolates.