Author's Note: A huge thank you to Lazarov for agreeing to beta this chapter. You were, and are, a huge help and can't wait to work with you on future chapters.
Good Morning, Fire Eater
Centre for Linguistics and Philology
University of Oxford – Oxford, England
Merlin stood across the street from the University of Oxford's Linguistics department with his hands in the pockets of his immaculately tailored suit, and took a deep, cleansing breath to still himself for what he was about to do. He didn't usually take a moment of silence to collect himself before an assignment, and wasn't an anxious man by any stretch of the imagination as being a Kingsman was incompatible with the trait, but the personal nature of this particular mission shook him to his core and he was sad to be the one to do it.
He took another breath and tilted his head back, letting the cool air fill his lungs as he closed his eyes. So much had changed since the Valentine incident had rocked the world. Arthur was dead, revealed as a traitor in league with Valentine, the majority of the world's elite had had their heads blown off in a spectacular backfire of Valentine's technology, the Kingsman were in disarray, shattered by Arthur's betrayal, and Harry… his dear friend Harry, was gone. His chest tightened at the thought of it.
He forced the tightness away and opened his eyes, stepping off the sidewalk to cross the street while pushing his spectacles up the bridge of his nose in the practiced, analytical way that Eggsy liked to rib him about.
The late morning was overcast and a bit chilly for July, but he kept his overcoat slung over the crook of one arm as he opened the door to the Linguistics building with a wide arc. It was summer break so the building was mostly deserted; ominously quiet with stark fluorescent lights flickering above. The door was one of those soft-close contraptions but the sound of the latch catching echoed down the corridor as if it had been slammed.
He stood still for a moment and took in his surroundings, categorizing and filing away details a normal civilian would shrug off. His eyes flickered to his left as a head poked out from one of the open offices farther down the hall.
The middle-aged woman blinked at him behind bottlecap glasses and opened her over-plump lips to speak. "May I help you, sir?"
Merlin smiled in a deceptively warm manner and made his way toward her. "Yes, My name is Alistair MacDougal. I'm here to see Anastasia Clare. I'm a friend of the family."
"Oh, you're here to see her," she said. Her tone was such that for a split second Merlin's eyes narrowed with contempt. The woman didn't notice and continued: "That one doesn't get many visitors except academics and journalists. Are you here to interview her?" she asked, letting her magnified eyes glide up and down the length of him. "You don't look like a journalist."
Merlin smiled, but peered down at her with menace. "No. Like I said, I'm a friend of the family," he purred.
The woman sucked in a breath and darted her eyes away. "I only ask because she's very particular about who she'll let into her lab. I'll have to ring her and tell her you're here."
"That's fine," Merlin said, relaxing his glare.
She scuttled over to the telephone and dialed an extension, looking over her shoulder suspiciously as if he might attack her, which amused him. As nosey as she was being, he just might.
"…Yes, he says he's a friend of the family. Alistair…"
"MacDougal," he assisted her.
"Alistair MacDougal. Yes, of course. I'll send him down."
The woman hung up the phone and turned to him, wringing her hands in a nervous sort of way. "Ms. Clare says she'll see you," she said in amazement. "Basement floor, the door at the end of the hall straight ahead from the elevator. That's her lab."
"Thank you very much for your assistance," Merlin said as he gave a shallow but courteous bow. He pivoted briskly and stalked out of the room toward the elevators.
The elevator doors swished open on the basement level of the building, giving Merlin a clear view of the long hallway that led to the linguistics lab. He stepped out and took an appraising glance from left to right. Corridors branched off from the main hallway in either direction, and the walls were stark and white with more florescent lights coldly illuminating the sterile surroundings.
He couldn't see any doors besides the lab straight ahead and felt uneasy not knowing how many more rooms there were on the basement level. It seemed oddly constructed for the basement of an academic building at Oxford, and he doubted, even with Anastasia Clare's gift of persuasion, that she could convince the university board to give her an entire basement floor. But it had been years since he'd seen her, so anything was possible.
He walked forward, his shoes clicking loudly against the polished concrete as his eyes darted around, uncomfortable with the absence of details to observe. Standing at the lab door, scanning his eyes over the glossy gray paint and brushed metal handle, he noticed orbed, black surveillance cameras flanking the entrance at both corners, and the heavily reinforced door with a keypad lock and asecondary biometric lock requiring a thumbprint. He raised his eyebrows in interest. What did a linguistics lab need with surveillance cameras and a biometric lock?
The door clicked and eased open, unlocked from the inside. Shooting a knowing glance at the right side camera, he entered.
The lab lighting was considerably subdued compared to the intense fluorescents in the hallway, and it took a moment for Merlin's eyes to adjust. He scanned the room, noting that it was large with tall, metal bookcases to the right and to the left, one side filled with meticulously organized binders containing research, and the other brimming with all manner of books concerning the study of ancient and modern languages. Glass display cases lined the walls at intervals, with soft recess lighting shining down on antique-looking medieval manuscripts.
"Have you catalogued every corner and crevice?" A female voice said, ringing out across the lab from overhead speakers.
Merlin made his way towards the back of the room and found an office nestled into one corner. The door was wide open so he stepped inside, laying his eyes on Anastasia Clare for the first time in 10 years.
She was bent over the keyboard of her computer, clicking away as her eyes raced across the screen. The microphone she'd used to ask her question sat to her left, with hot tea in a big, black mug next to it. Otherwise, the desk was clean. Her eyes darted in his direction, just once, before quickly returning to the computer screen, her fingers never slowing.
"Are you going to sit down?"
"A gentleman doesn't sit without being invited to do so," Merlin answered solemnly.
She stopped her typing at that, letting her large, hazel eyes rest on him as if she were trying to access what he was thinking. Her gaze instantly turned suspicious. "This is about Harry, isn't it?"
Merlin didn't speak. He didn't know how to answer the question. Everything that came to mind seemed so inadequate in expressing the gravity of what had happened.
"Sit down, Merlin," she said, as her eyes shifted away and she sat back in her oversized executive chair. She wrapped her bulky cardigan around her as if she'd gotten a chill.
Merlin sank down in the chair opposite her desk, laying his overcoat across his lap and pulling a small black box out of his breast pocket. There was a glimpse of something tragic and raging in her eyes, but it was quickly deadened. She knew what the box meant.
"When?" she asked. Her words were clipped.
"A year ago. He was on assignment in the U.S."
"Bullet to the head."
"Did this have to do with the Valentine issue?"
"Yes. It had everything to do with it."
"Did he go out fighting?"
"That would be an understatement."
She looked away again, focusing on the mug of tea on her desk. Then she looked back at him, her gaze accusatory. "I find it hard to believe that Harry could be bested in combat…even at his advanced age."
Merlin shrugged. "It was combat, but not the physical kind. To put it bluntly, he was outwitted. Not surprising considering we'd never encountered someone like Valentine before. Looking back… we made a lot of mistakes. We underestimated him."
"The old guard against the new world threat? That was bound to catch up to you."
"We tried to remedy that situation," he said softly, shifting his gaze away from her.
"No, Arthur tried to 'remedy' the situation and failed miserably, as per usual," she sneered. "He's an insufferable man. It should have been him, not Harry."
"Or Perceval. He was also killed in action thanks to Valentine," Merlin said matter-of-factly. Not that Perceval's death was anything matter-of-fact.
"And Arthur strikes again," she said with a humorless laugh.
"Well, if it makes you feel any better, Arthur is dead. Taken out by Harry's choice to replace Perceval. Turns out he was in it with Valentine. You remember Unwin, don't you? Harry recruited his son. Very bright boy. I expect good things from him at Kingsman," Merlin said, squaring his shoulders with pride.
Anastasia nodded agreeably. "I guess you've taken a liking to that boy. His father was good people and was always nice to me. He'd sneak and give me candy when he thought no one was looking. I think Harry knew, though."
"He probably did. And yes, Eggsy is very much like his father," Merlin said.
Ana became quiet and looked down at her hands, the corners of her mouth turning up into a delicate smile. Merlin guessed that she was thinking of the happy memories she had of Kingsman, and knew that they were so few and so far between, that he thought he shouldn't disturb her.
She pulled herself from the reverie and let out a heavy exhale. "Should you really be telling me all this? I'm no longer involved with Kingsman, remember?" She asked condescendingly, letting her eyes wander up to his in a knowing, uppity way.
Merlin shrugged, ignoring her look and her tone. "I know that Harry would stop by and give you updates."
"He was trying to get me to come back. He said things would be different the second time around."
"Arthur's dead, so in essence it would be," Merlin said, leaning forward in his chair.
Anastasia sighed and shrank down in her executive chair. "I've managed to craft a rather convincing version of a soul, Merlin. I've gotten very good at pretending I'm human. Why would you want to take that away from me?"
"You are human, Ana," he said. "You've always been."
She laughed; it was another humorless cackle that echoed off the walls of her windowless office.
Merlin shook his head and a muscle clenched in his jaw. He sat the black box near the top edge of her desk and pushed it toward her. "Please at least consider it. It's something Harry would have wanted and I need people I can trust around me. I'm going to have to make changes, changes the other Kingsmen may not like."
"I feel for you, Merlin, I really do, but you are wrong." she said as her eyes focused on him. They were still a bewitching hazel, but any light that had been in them was gone, replaced with a cool, dead stare. She'd taken off her practiced mask to reveal her true self, the cold-blooded, calculating assassin the Kingsman had made her. "There is no life in me. I am a machine, just the way Arthur intended."
Merlin looked her straight in the eye, his intensity boiling over. "I will not waver on this. We need you Excali—"
"Do not call me that!" she snarled, seeming to hiss and growl at the same time. Her eyes were blazing and murderous, causing Merlin to sit back in his chair in a slow glide that he hoped wouldn't provoke her further.
She caught herself, tempering down the rage as she took a deep, deliberate breath and closed her eyes. When she opened them again the glossy dead stare was back. She reached across the desk to snag the box and slide it towards her, but she didn't open it. Instead, she sat back in her important-looking office chair and fiddled with it, her long fingers too graceful and practiced for a mere linguistics scholar.
"I'll give you time to think about it," Merlin said as he stood. "Regardless of your complicated feelings for Harry, I believe that you loved him in your own way. Helping me - not Kingsman, but me - and taking the Unwin boy under your wing may give you some much needed closure."
"You have no idea what Harry and I talked about when he was here. We could have hashed everything out and you wouldn't even know it." She spoke in a calm, almost monotone voice as she stared past him.
Merlin snorted as if that was the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard. A corner of her mouth twitched as she fought to suppress a snarl, but he ignored it, turning to leave. He gave her one last look over his shoulder, attempting to catch her eye, but she continued to stare past him. He shrugged, closing the door behind him.
He stood outside her door and checked the time on his Rolex. The mission had gone much smoother than he'd anticipated, which meant he had plenty of time to get back to London and meet with Roxy and Eggsy for their status reports.
Looking over his shoulder again, he marveled at how, even after all these years, he was still able to play Ana like a fiddle. And although it felt incredibly wrong to use Harry against her in the way that he did, he knew that he'd planted a seed in her mind that would grow, eating at her over-analytical, dogged nature until she couldn't stand it anymore. It was only a matter of time before she was back in the fold.
He hoped it wouldn't be too long, though. Mutiny was brewing, and she was the perfect hammer to bring down on anyone who dared to disrupt his new Kingsman order.