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Come in under the shadow

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The death toll only grows. A billion souls gone on V-Day, but another billion follow—not all at once, but in a logarithmic curve of self-disgust and despair. Self-hangings, cliff-diving, intentional overdoses. In America, mostly self-inflicted gunshot wounds (through the mouth, mostly, or bleeding out from the groin; scarce anyone goes for the clean-quick-painless bullet through the brain pan). In cities all over the world where there’s an underground, a metro, or a subway, the train tracks gleam darkly, and the conductors go the same way or quit and walk away, sometimes suddenly, leaving a thousand souls in the dark, in the bowels of the Earth.

But Harry Hart—Harry Hart lives.

He can’t take credit for the poor skill and dumb luck that saved him from Valentine’s bullet. It irks that he can’t, but there’s no sense in wishing events had turned out differently than they did. Poor skill: Valentine wasn’t accustomed to getting his hands dirty. He didn’t know how to brace properly for the shot, and when the gun kicked, the angle changed, but even then Harry should have died. Should have, but didn’t, because of dumb luck: a bullet traveling at just the right speed and striking the frame of his glasses at just the right angle to ricochet. A graze and a scalp wound: more dumb luck, because a scalp wound bleeds, enough to mimic the pretty little head shot that Valentine thought he had made. And of course Valentine didn’t have to be so squeamish about blood: more dumb luck that he is and that because of it he didn’t check the body, Harry’s body.

The worst of it was lying there, under the Kentucky sun, bored, waiting for a moment empty enough for a dead man to rise and make his escape.

Eggsy comes to in stepwise fashion, one uncomfortable fact at a time. First: rough, bitter-tasting concrete under his face. His mouth is partway open, so yes, he can taste it. He tries to roll away from the bitterness, and that’s when he discovers his arms and legs, tied. His arms are behind him, bound at the wrists with…flexible, sticky, strong. Probably duct tape. Third: his ankles are done with something different, narrower. Eggsy rolls onto his side, propping himself precariously on one shoulder, and looks down the length of his body. Yup, that’s a zip tie his ankles are done with, the industrial kind, a quarter inch wide and almost as thick. It’s around his jeans, not next to his skin, and not pulled too tight, so that’s something to be thankful for. Whoever trussed Eggsy up like this knew what he (or she) was doing.

Four: almost everything is concrete. Four walls, the ceiling, the floor. The door is riveted steel, no handle on the inside. There must be a subtle slope to the floor; one corner has gathered moisture. There’s a dark wet trail from the door to the corner, and in the corner maybe a few millimetres of gleaming liquid. Even if it’s water—if—it’s not enough to live on, if they don’t bring Eggsy any water in here.

And who are they anyway? Eggsy’s in his jeans and a polo, not a Kingsman suit. Last thing he remembers is…taking Daisy to the park, maybe. (The memory is thin and hard to reach, like a reflection on a soap bubble floating away on a gentle breeze.) Eggsy pushed Daisy on a swing, bought her an ice lolly, held her sticky hand all the way home. Mum answered the door, smiling, holding her arms out for Daisy. Mouthing something. (No, not mouthing, Eggsy just can’t even hear the sounds of the memory over the ringing in his ears. The ringing gets louder and louder, and Eggsy pushes the side of his face and one ear into the cement to try to drown it out, but he only traps the noise inside his skull, and it bounces around inside growing,

and growing,




Merlin opens the door, and his eyebrows shoot up. The rest of his face: impassive and unbetraying. He knows they never recovered a body, of course; he’s been expecting this, on some level. Waiting for it, even. (Planning for it? Perhaps.) His eyebrows resettle. “You’re late,” he says.

“How so? We haven’t a planned engagement.”

“Nevertheless, you’re late.” Merlin steps back and holds the door open.

“The late Harry Hart, is that it? Did you toast me?”

They did, but–”

“Not invited to the table. Of course not, silly me. A pity though. The brandy is very nice.”

“I also suspected you’d be back.” Merlin takes one of the chairs in front of the fireplace, the one that Arthur sat in. The plastic sheeting is still there, from the dog test. At a nodding gesture from Merlin, Harry takes the chair that Eggsy sat in. I also suspected you’d be back. Merlin is always careful with his words, and he’s fond of epistemological transparency, carefully hanging a declaration of I know that you know that I know from the scaffolding of a sentence.

So, the important pieces:

  • “also”: In context, Merlin is offering a second reason (besides not being a knight at the table) why he didn’t toast Galahad’s death. But out of context, Merlin could be saying he’s not the only person who suspected there was more behind the lack of a recovered body than just worldwide chaos, an astronomically high death toll, and the ensuing lapse in the accuracy of records kept.

  • “suspected”: A telling choice. As opposed to “hoped” makes it clear that Merlin’s own feelings on the subject of Galahad’s return are neutral. As opposed to “thought” adds a negative connotation: criminals end up as suspects; suspicious behaviour is a potential target for surveillance; et cetera.

  • “be back”: Interesting emphasis on the end state when contrasted with ‘return’ or similar. Merlin understands that the attraction of (self-)resurrection, for Harry, is to resume the same role he had before: Kingsman agent, mentor to Eggsy. That’s what it means to be back. And speaking of…

“Where’s Eggsy?”

Eggsy wakes again, and it’s not pleasant. His bladder’s full, but he’s thirsty. He’s hungry too, but the parched dry desert of his mouth demands a higher level of attention than the hollow of his stomach. His head throbs, his shoulders ache, and his hands have gone entirely numb. Nothing in the concrete cell gives any indication of the current time or how long he was passed out.

Scratch that.

There’s a bit more water in the corner (if it is water). It might be to the depth of the first knuckle of his middle finger, enough for one mouthful at least, maybe two. And it’s assurance that time of some significance has passed, since the flow of water under the door is not detectable to the naked eye.

Eggsy closes his eyes again, just to rest for a moment, just to gather his strength.

What would Harry do?

It’s not actually the question Eggsy uses to guide his every action. He doesn’t want to be Harry, stiff with a silver spoon up his arse and far too much patience and politeness for the wankers of the planet. But in a situation like this—abducted and in all likelihood being softened up for an interrogation—Galahad is a useful role model.

Stay calm.

Yeah, that’s the obvious bit, and Eggsy’s already doing pretty good on that front, thank you very much.

Take stock of your assets.

Hmm, good point. Eggsy’s done the room (not much, except for the maybe-water), but he hasn’t turned the inspecting lens on himself. Perhaps it is time to take stock, thoroughly.

Senses all intact, unless the weird ringing before and the utter silence now mean he’s gone deaf, but there’s an easy way to test that.

“Fucking fuck,” Eggsy croaks, and he can hear it. Check.

He’s wearing a polo with a hoodie over it, pants and jeans. Wallet should be in the back right pocket, but he’s laying on his right side, and when he tips a little to the back he doesn’t feel it. Keys should be in the front left, so Eggsy rolls onto his stomach, and the hard press of key-like shapes into his hipbone is a welcome trade for the raw scrape of the cement on his face. The problem with the keys is that they’d be a significant help to free his hands from the tape, but the taping of his wrists is the main thing preventing him from getting at the keys. An impasse.

Fives minutes later finds Eggsy grunting and shuffling into a parody of a yoga pose, head and feet on the floor, hips making a V. He gives up after twenty minutes when his neck starts to cramp and the throbbing pounding blood in his skull feels like it’s going to burst, in a less brilliant display than the impressive fireworks of one of Valentine’s implants. When he’s laid flat again, the excess blood departs his skull, carrying him far, far away, back into the




(When the black recedes, Eggsy is in front of a mirror, Galahad behind him. Galahad becomes Harry when he quirks a smile and says, “Well, you’re still full of surprises.” Eggsy feels warm; he smiles into the mirror and stands straighter, hoping for the touch of a hand at the small of his back.)

“Where’s Eggsy?” is the wrong question to have asked, and Harry knows that Merlin knows (eyebrows again, in a deliberate tell) that Harry fucking slipped. How’s Eggsy? it should have been. How, not where. “How” allows for a greater variety of responses. “How” doesn’t reveal that Harry knows that Eggsy’s been taken in as a Kingsman despite his failure at the dog test.

(He would have passed with Merlin administering it, just like Roxy—that’s what they convinced themselves, on the heels of his triumphant return, serving them Valentine’s head on a platter. In reality, they were desperate and shaken to the core by Arthur’s duplicity. Desperation breeds nihilism: what is loyalty? What is obedience, in the end? “Nothing,” they answered, inviting Eggsy into the fold. “He saved the world today. Nothing else matters.”)

“Where” reveals far too much, both (1) Harry’s knowledge of Eggsy’s role in the service and (2) (a) an expectation that Eggsy should be here, at the estate, presently but that (b) he isn’t. Hence the need to ask about his whereabouts. “Where” runs counter to the understanding that Harry and Merlin have shared for over a decade, an understanding that includes Harry’s complete and total access to every asset of Kingsman’s, physical or digital (as long as he pretends not to have or know what he isn’t supposed to have or know), as well as Harry’s feed transmitting directly to his home terminal under uncrackable encryption (as long as he edits as necessary and transmits the result to Merlin ex post facto).

“As I said,” Merlin starts, his tone soft and even, for all the world like he doesn’t have Harry cornered, “you’re too late. The mission’s been assigned to Percival. But if you ask nicely, he might allow you to partner him. Depends how sore he still is about that business in Qatar last year, I’d imagine.”

“Do you think he’s left already?”

“Not hardly.” Merlin removes his glasses and rubs at them with the hem of his jumper while he speaks, a perfect picture of casual. “The evidence suggests Eggsy’s abductors are local. His past come to bite him, I expect.”

An olive branch, not entirely unexpected. Merlin’s overarching philosophy is that the ends justify the means. (At least so long as Harry doesn’t force Merlin to look at the means too closely, which means: at least so long as there’s plausible deniability.)

Harry Hart is good, to say the very least, at plausible deniability. It comes of being willing to play the long game—in Eggsy’s case, a very long game. The game requires the highest level of precision, but it also demands patience and, counter-intuitively, the ability to improvise, to turn on a dime.

Harry’s opening move was a double, elegant in its simplicity: the medal of valour, refused by Michelle Unwin but then given to little Eggsy instead. Prized by little Eggsy because it had fallen to him to take charge of it, precisely because he knew his mother wouldn’t. Neither the gifting of the medal nor the medal itself was standard practice; standard practice was a letter and a numbered Swiss account. Standard practice was two envelopes, outer and inner, the outer to protect the crimson wax sealing the inner from the horrors of the modern British postal system. But Harry wanted to handle things personally, and Merlin couldn’t see the immediate harm, so he looked the other way. (Merlin was only learning too, then.)

Simple moves followed: a windfall of funds to the local primary school, flyers papering the neighbourhood with gymnastics adverts. Eggsy excelled; he was happy, smiling, cheerful. He stopped wearing the medal and let Michelle’s boyfriend Michael ruffle his hair.

Everything flips at once when Michael is replaced by Dean. The medal returns, on a stronger chain around a stronger Eggsy’s neck. (Stronger, but not yet strong; he sniffles pathetically under the covers at night when Dean’s fury first starts to show itself through his fists.) Eggsy’s grades fall, and he drops gymnastics. His smile is replaced by a scowl, his cheer by a prickly defensiveness. And all because Michael’s company moved him to Dublin, because the transmission in Michelle’s rusting Fiat failed and a man named Dean Anthony Baker granted her a pay-day loan to replace it, then grinned broad when she missed the first payment and said, “Don’t worry, love, you can make it up to me.”

They, “they”, they, whoever the fuck they are, they are arguing outside the door. A loud argument, and long. The steel rings with it; Eggsy’s head rings with it. The syllables bounce around and echo before they settle into words. They are arguing about how long it takes for someone to die of thirst. (Eggsy already lapped up the puddle in the corner. It was water, if his sense of taste can still be trusted.)

The steel door swings open, and Eggsy jolts with surprise and blindness. He shuts his eyes and holds his breath, and when the pounding of his heart subsides—a stretch of at least a minute after the door is shut and the too-brightness is locked safely behind it—he rolls onto his side and looks to the door. Just inside it is a bucket, and Eggsy doesn’t have to get closer to know; he can smell it: cold, clear water.

When, on that fateful day at The Black Prince, Eggsy had puffed up and protested (You can’t talk to me like that!), something—entirely unexpectedly—had clenched tight, low in Harry’s belly. And it still pulls there, like a warning or a little bud of cancer. (Harry wondered once, in an idle moment, whether it might be the thing that other people call guilt, but it seems unlikely. It’s there all the time, true, but it’s so small, so easy to ignore.)

Eggsy drinks. He drinks slowly, so as not to make himself sick, and carefully, so as not to spill the bucket. When he’s drunk what he can by sticking his face straight in and lapping like a fucking dog, he grips the bucket with his teeth and tips it by small increments until he makes a thin stream flow in between his teeth, into his mouth and down his throat.

When the balance of discomfort from thirst versus the pain in his teeth and jaw tips the other way, Eggsy lowers the bucket and crawls far away. He sleeps.

He dreams. He dreams memories of Harry Hart. Harry, leaning back in his red-walled office, explaining about headlines and the approved reasons for a gentleman’s name to appear in the newspaper. Harry with just-woken-up-from-a-coma too-long hair(, scolding Eggsy for not knocking, then praising him for his weapons scores). Harry with his pint of Guinness, batting his eyelashes at Dean’s muppets in The Black Prince before handing them their arses and the barkeep’s his too. A rush of arousal in the memory and in the now, in the dreaming; it’s hot and strong enough to rattle Eggsy’s teeth, like a coffee after a sleepless night (no matter how bitter, no matter how black).

Eggsy wakes. He makes his own puddle in the corner, drinks more water, and tries to lay himself back down to sleep, but the wet of his pants and the rough of the cement are now too much. No matter what led him here—if it was Kingsman, or something else (the former seems more likely, but he still doesn’t know who they are, only that they speak English like he speaks English). No matter. No matter what or who or why, Eggsy can be proud that he’s come to the here and now with eyes wide open. He’s not an idiot. That day in The Black Prince when Harry Hart told Eggsy his father would have thought him a disappointment, he also said something else to Eggsy, in between his words. I made you into this, he said, detailing Eggsy’s primary school performance and gymnastics training. Because the man that watched all that happen and had the resources Harry Hart has, is the man that, at the very least, chose to let it happen. He could have intervened. Maybe he should have, but Harry Hart didn’t. He watched and waited, and he sat by the phone listening for three simple words.

Percival does not require nearly as much sweet-talking as Merlin had thought, but then, Merlin doesn’t harbour certain knowledge (physical knowledge) of some of Percival’s less civilised appetites. Michelle swerves to the side of hysterical, not helpful, but Percival has no stake in the emotional proceedings and has a good pair of eyes in his head besides. He finds the ransom note stuck in the mail slot (addressed: “man in the nice sout”), and if you want to say (like Merlin has) that it’s Eggsy’s past come back to bite him, then clearly it’s Harry’s too. Some small-time drug lord Eggsy hustled for in years gone by, Merlin reports. Merlin’s database spits out a list of known addresses, and together Harry and Percival go through them.

It’s tedious work, and after the fourth time Harry steps in a puddle that might be urine, he wants to strip, burn his clothes and shoes, and scrub himself pink under a steaming hot shower spray. But the little warning ball deep in his belly weighs heavy today, and when Harry closes his eyes and breathes through his mouth to avoid the sight and stink of the unwashed masses, he sees Eggsy, meeting his own gaze in the mirror, disbelief and hope warring on his face when Harry tells him what he sees: a young man with potential. (Potential to be good, or better than Harry is, at any rate.)

When the door opens again, it opens slowly, and the blindness that ensues is a slow blindness. Eggsy tries to lift his head, but it’s heavy, and Eggsy is weak and tired, and it doesn’t much matter because he feels the hand of a ghost sweep across his forehead, then rest there, testing his temperature.

“I thought you died,” Eggsy slurs.

“Never,” Harry’s ghost replies.

Eggsy is a limp weak pile on the concrete floor, smelling strongly and unmistakably of urine. Harry should be repelled, but he’s on his knees (ruining his trousers) in a second, testing Eggsy’s forehead for fever (none), then cutting him free from his bonds and pulling him close. Eggsy moans into the skin under Harry’s ear, and Harry shivers and cups the back of his skull. The ball in Harry’s gut is a wrecking ball, huge and heavy and out of control. It’ll kill him if he lets Eggsy go.

So he doesn’t.

“Sleeping beauty wakes.” Harry’s smile could cut diamond, sharp like a shark’s and equally full of teeth.

“Hmm,” Eggsy hums, returning into his head, finding the shape of his own lips and eyes. “You think I’m pretty?”

Harry has a hand wrapped around one of Eggsy’s (the one free of an intravenous line). He shifts it now, threading his fingers through Eggsy’s. Eggsy watches, unblinking, then smiles slowly.

“Kiss me?”

Harry pulls Eggsy’s hand high above his head and pins it there. He looms, but Eggsy only stretches like a cat below him. He leans in, and Eggsy strains to meet him halfway. Eggsy’s mouth is open for tasting when Harry gets there, and Harry can’t get enough. He pushes down and deep, and Eggsy pushes up and takes everything he has to give.