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the burnt out ends of smoky days

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The first thing Roxy does in the aftermath of V-day - post the freeing of royals from a gigantic mountainside hideout with severed heads lying about everywhere and flying home - is sit down for a cup of tea in the Merlin department’s exec breakroom. Eggsy is asleep on the sofa in the corner, face buried under his arm with only a soft snore and the scent of drying sweat slowly diffusing throughout the room.

If Arthur’s head hadn’t popped off along with Gawain’s, and Harry Hart wasn’t dead, they might all be gathered around the round table above the shop congratulating each other on a job well done. As it is, she blinks owlishly in the glare of fluorescent lights and tries to determine how Merlin is still functional after flying a jet across half the globe, because the adrenaline rush from near death must have surely dissipated by now. He stands at his technological podium in the heart of his department and makes an attempt at restoring the order of the world while Eggsy has a kip on the couch.

Roxy decides to make tea.

“Merlin,” she says quietly in the caffeine fueled chaos of his department no doubt holding entire economies together at this point in time. He looks away from his screens with an arched eyebrow and bloodshot eyes, fingers still slowly moving over the keyboard. “I made you tea.”

He looks at her for a long moment like the words aren’t quite filtering through. “Why would you?”

“Because it’s four am and you haven’t eaten anything for god knows how long?” She sets the mug on his desk and says, “You deserve a break every now and then. Besides, Eggsy’s asleep, which means he can’t blow anything up. I’d say you’re safe at least in that department.”

Instead of offering a smile at her terrible attempt at a joke, Merlin shifts his gaze onto the tea mug and says, “Liquids aren’t allowed outside of the break room.”

“Right. Well, I’m sure you can just drink away the evidence this once.”

He watches her with distrust, as though she might’ve laced his tea with a sleeping pill or four. That task used to be Harry’s, and Merlin seems to decide she wouldn’t be that cruel, so he picks the mug up and has a sit down in a nearby chair.

“This is terrible,” Merlin grumbles after the first sip. “What’s in this?”

“A blasphemous amount of sugar and milk. Should keep you going for another few hours,” Roxy says with a conspiratorial grin that falls flat in the face of a yawn. He makes a face at the tea and she mutters, “Just drink it and save your tea elitism for another time.”

“You could just as well have given me coffee.”

“What’s wrong with coffee?”

“Apart from the fact that it’s more bitter than great aunt Shirley in her old days? The smell is terrible. You have no idea what it’s like to run an entire department that has coffee breath.”

Roxy smiles tiredly, not quite awake enough to be truly amused, and finishes her own over-sweetened tea. “Mmh, fascinating.”

Merlin is about to launch into a tirade about the crimes of coffee drinking, when Roxy lifts her hand to silence him before he even starts. “I’m sorry, but I’m dead on my feet. Try to get in a nap one of these days.”

She wishes him a good night and offers to take his cup back to the break room where Eggsy’s still dozing. Roxy gets down from his elevated command centre, when Merlin calls after her with a broken off ‘Lancelot’.

“Yes?”

“Thank you,” he says, “For the tea, that is.”

 


 

There’s something cathartic about watching the PM speak about V-day as an unspeakable tragedy. London HQ knights, namely Roxy, Eggsy, and Merlin, watch the report in Merlin’s quarters, streaming from his left hand side monitor.

“What utter shite,” Eggsy mutters gravely into his coffee. He’s barely conscious, even after a night of restless sleep not thirty feet away on the dented sofa.

“The news are never to be trusted,” Merlin says with his eyes fixed on something else entirely. “Lesson number…”

“Fourteen,” Roxy offers. She thinks back to her first day as a knight, Merlin handing her her own gun along with lesson number one: always keep the butt pointed towards the groin.

Eggsy, on the other hand, keeps his own holstered under his arm like Harry Hart did and apparently even new dogs are in the habit of acquiring old tricks. As he’s standing there sans a suit jacket, holster straps drawing lines across his back, she’s reminded of one of those old school spies from the sixties in an office with a desk full of paper clippings and a single lamp to illuminate them all. Not that Galahad’s office is anything short of that.

Merlin, in turn, is meticulous about any scrap lying around in his department. The warning signs on the walls look like they’re made for nuclear reactors instead of techies, but Roxy supposes they’re effective, because she’s never seen a paper file passed through his quarters. He doesn’t even clutter his desk with empty tea mugs that would reveal his caffeine addiction to any given passerby.

Eggsy shrugs and runs a hand through his by now disgustingly greasy hair. To Merlin he says, “Reckon ya could let me go for a bit? I should say hi to me mum, before she has a meltdown over where I’m at.”

“Don’t ask me. I’ve got better things to do than babysit the two of you. What are you doing here anyway?”

Roxy glances at Eggsy and wonders whether they look like two lost children in an empire of spies. “Well, Arthur lost his head,” she says carefully, “We figured you were in charge, temporarily.”

“I am always in charge no matter the front man,” Merlin cuts in with an eyebrow raised, challenging either of them to protest. “Arthur is merely the political section chief. If you want it wrapped in a pretty metaphor: HQ Merlin division is the brains, the knights are the heart and limbs, and Arthur is something akin to a kidney. Not that your efforts to diminish all evil and restore balance to the supposed highest order weren’t admirable.” The last part is directed at Eggsy, who clenches his jaw at the mere memory of Arthur’s self righteous face in the wake of Harry Hart’s death.

Roxy touches his wrist to keep him from lashing out at Merlin. To Merlin she says, “Direct us then. Command action, if you will.”

Merlin looks up at her like he’s confused, though it only lasts for a moment before he says, “Eggsy, go home. Roxy, get me Gertson and tell him I’ll break his fingers, if he keeps extending his breaks.”

 


 

 

She buys enough cucumber sandwiches to fill the break room fridge, handing out the leftovers in the department and who ever deigned to say she wasn’t useful in the midst of an international crisis, even if it is in the most mundane ways. Roxy plops another squashed lunch onto a paper plate and picks the minion who looks closest to collapse to shove it at.

“But Merlin-” the woman says with worry in her voice despite the fact that she’s not had a loo break in a solid five hours. Roxy swears she’s seen the girl here since the first night after V-day and if the state of her hair is anything to go by, she’s not wrong.

“If he’s got a complaint to file, it’ll be through me,” she says reassuringly and hands over and extra water bottle regardless of what Merlin says about liquids. The woman eyes her with suspicion - and they really ought to do some trust building exercises down here, Roxy thinks - before she takes her chance and scurries off towards the halls with the loos.

Eggsy comes through the same door, dressed to the nines with a machine gun in his right hand, and the fact that no one even glances at him twice should says something about Kingsman. She doesn’t care to examine what that may be too closely.

“Oh, Rox,” he says absentmindedly and doesn’t bother to look up from his weapon, “Do you know where Merlin’s put his ammo? Can’t find it anywhere. Even checked the storage for dressing room three.”

“Not a clue. Why don’t you ask him. It isn’t as though I’ve gotten him to go home.”

“It isn’t as though you’ve left Kingsman since the big day either,” Eggsy retorts and they make their way towards Merlin’s private little section, where the sound of typing doesn’t all bleed into a gigantic humming that silences even the cataclysmic air conditioning units lined along the ceiling of the bullpen.

“That’s completely besides the point. What I’d really like to know is why you're strolling about with a murder weapon dangling at your side.”

“Bein’ shipped out to Prague for some good ol’ damage control.”

He grins and she sighs with a shake of her head. “Please never use that expression; you’re simply not old enough.”

“Old enough for what, Lancelot?” Merlin cuts in from his seat at a gigantic monitor with four continuous feeds running side by side and his eyes are darting around like he’s memorising every little detail available. Not that Roxy would be surprised in the slightest; he does rather seem like the eidetic memory sort of person.

“Don’t mind her,” Eggsy says and waves his weapon like a child waving a toy that doesn’t come with batteries, “Where are the custom bullets?”

“The supplier ran into a little problem with the production company. There should be some L86A1s in storage B.”

“I thought those went out of production,” Roxy says and Merlin gives her one of those curious looks like she’s just said something substantial and utterly unexpected.

“Yes, well, that’s the official story. The RSAF has been Kingsman property since 1989 and although we primarily produce custom weaponry nowadays, the classics are always best during a political upheaval.” Merlin turns his attention to Eggsy, dismissing him with the words ‘your jet is waiting in hangar H12’.

Eggsy nods and presses the machine gun into Roxy’s arms. She shoots him a questioning look, but gets nothing more than a careless shrug before he’s off and she’s cradling the bloody gun like it’s a toddler.

Merlin too turns his back on her, focus on Kay’s feed even as he addresses Roxy. “If standing there is supposed to guilt me into eating, you can save yourself the effort.”

Guilt you into eating?” Roxy repeats incredulously. She shifts the gun into a safer and less personal position, the metal of it tapping against the buttons of a shirt she’d bought for a summer job in an office and who would’ve thought her career would lead to the heart of a secret service. “I asked you a question.”

“No, you asked yourself a question,” Merlin insists and swivels around in his chair to face her with his brows pinching together in a variant of irritation and he steeples his hands together over his knees. “What exactly is it you want from me anyway? Isn’t bullying my employees enough?”

“I don’t bully them. I keep them alive despite your very best efforts of the opposite.” Roxy fancies he looks like a strange fusion of a concerned therapist and a pissed off kid and she wonders which one she should treat him as. Perhaps more of a narcissistic megalomaniac, after all. “In case you missed the memo, normal human beings do need to eat, drink, and sleep in a while. Preferably, for the sake of humanity, a shower every now and then might be in order as well.”

She wrinkles her nose pointedly and Merlin proceeds to glare at her twice as hard. It only serves to annoy her more and she automatically tightens her grip on the semi-automatic, a finger brushing past the trigger as she says, “If it weren’t for me this place would probably reek of rancid piss by now.”

Merlin huffs, “My department isn’t composed of five-year-olds that need mother henning.”

“No, but they are led by one.”

For a split second he looks utterly stunned, like his mind just short circuited, and Roxy holds her breath reflexively in wait for the backlash.

“Touché,” he grumbles lamely instead, turning away from her yet again and Roxy wants to scream because he is unreadable as it is and she’s not in the mood for the silent treatment at present.

Merlin blows up Kay’s feed, zooms in on his location on a satellite map, and says, “Please return the weapon to dressing room three, Lancelot.” He taps into Kay’s auditory line, cutting Roxy’s attempt at a retort short.

She sighs, frustration mounting, and maybe Eggsy does have a point. Just because the world is on the verge of collapse and Merlin insists on driving himself down the same road, doesn’t mean she has to stay to witness it.

 


 

 

Merlin, the prat, is still sulking at his desk four days later, paper plates and dirty mugs starting to accumulate under his desk despite his oh so strict regulations, because he can’t even be bothered to take emergency naps on the break room couch now. No longer refusing the handouts she’s made sure to have drift his way periodically then. Roxy wonders whether it’s a sign of improvement or defeat as she prepares an over sweetened mug of tea for him.

“Good morning,” she says cheerfully in the hope his grudge might vanish if she pretends it doesn’t exist in the first place. “I made you tea.”

Merlin lifts his eyes from the screen, even redder than the previous night and even his glare suffers from how tired he is. No luck today. “I don’t drink such horrendous shit,” he drawls, intoning each word to reach its full potential in the way he wants it to, but Roxy is tired of fucking around. The world isn’t getting any better and they are simply getting worse.

“That’s nice, if only you had a choice in the matter,” she retorts with a feigned smile and holds the cup threateningly over his keyboard. Merlin’s glare sharpens even further, daring her to spill even a single drop, though he gives in anyway and cradles the mug in his hands far away from his precious tech devices.

He doesn’t drink, however. Merlin stares into the liquid, still too suspicious for his own good, and Roxy thinks she’ll have to assign drugging duty to the new Gawain, once they get around to that. For now she’s merely hoping to have the ever expanding list of dead officials read out on the evening news to end at last. A segment about a family saved from a fire by their dog would be a lovely semblance of peace for a change.

“How is Europe coming together?” she asks eventually, lost in the silence for so long even Merlin’s forgotten his distrust for the disgusting tea.

“Two more emergency presidents to be appointed and three prime ministers to deal with. Hopefully, Eggsy manages to cover two of the five and prevent the outbreak of a civil war at least temporarily, because I’ve not an ounce of patience left for disobedience.”

Her mouth curls with something dark - distinctly not amusement, rather something akin to beguilement. “Of course you don’t,” she concedes and he must, even for being utterly tone deaf in regards to to social contracts, pick up on the dripping sarcasm.

Merlin tilts his head up in defiance, not truly insulted but certainly playing the part well enough. Roxy rolls her eyes and takes the empty tea cup from him. She thinks this particular brand of antagonism may simply be the configuration of their coexistence.

“Roxy,” he says out of the blue and she stops with one foot in the bullpen and the other on his elevated workstation workstation. Her brow arches as she hums curiously, and his hesitance in calling for her doesn’t extend to his words when he asks: “What are you planning on doing today, besides incapacitating my staff?”

“I was going to get on with the Gawain trials and find another poor soul for you to boss around.”

“But Arthur-”

“I’ll find someone to play the part for the duration of trials,” she says as though anyone can sit down in a gigantic leather armchair and pretend to hold all the strings of international security in their firm grasp. Then again, she thinks, how hard can it be to create such an illusion when Arthur’s power is an illusion in itself and Merlin is the one with all the world’s intelligence at his fingertips. “Sign up a candidate by Monday nine pm UST, if you will. Oh, and remind Bedivere to be more punctual this time around while you’re at it. I don’t take flippant tardiness well.”

“No, of course not,” he agrees, mimicking her mocking tone from a mere minute ago and oh how the tables have turned. She rolls her eyes, one dysfunctional idiot pitted against another in never ending banter, but at least even the most mundane aspects of her job aren’t dull.

 


 

He takes a sadistic sort of pleasure in the screams of horror ringing through the control room, when he tells the half a dozen remaining recruits that someone is, in fact, currently at four thousand meters altitude without a parachute. So much so, he’d offered to do this portion for her, though from Roxy’s point of view it was more covert begging than a kindness and she’s certain he actually would only give them five parachutes, if it weren’t strictly against the rules.

“Who do you reckon is going to bail out first?” she asks evenly, counting her breaths to slow her racing heart, because the memory of that particular test still follows her into her worst dreams.

“That is what tends to be the surprise in this bit,” Merlin says.

The glint in his eyes is not nearly as terrifying as it ought to be Roxy realises as she’s sipping her tea and maybe she really is spending too much time in his department if this is acclimation. “Jolly,” she grumbles and the first, bright yellow parachute blooms in the sky.

“Hmm, Jefferson’s gotten lucky today.”

“Jefferson? As in Jefferson from weapons testing?” Roxy inquires, brow furrowing.

The second recruit finds his salvation in a panicked fumble, blowing up on Merlin's radar as a flashing red dot. Merlin shrugs at her question, reaching for a cup of tea as black as an abyss and Roxy can only imagine how bitter it must be. “Office politics and nothing more. You know how much Kingsman condemns gambling addictions outside the job.”

“I can’t believe you’ve got a betting pool running right under your nose,” Roxy says and she’s forgotten all about the recruits.

“It’s paid substantial amounts of my rent,” Merlin says and on his laptop an alarm goes off. “Shit. I’ve got to go, keep Geraint from getting himself killed and all that. Make sure none of the recruits end up splattered on the lawn; the paperwork for that is hell.”

He’s up and out the door in a flash, laptop balanced on one arm with his tea held in the other hand. Roxy dashes after him, yelling down the corridor to no avail. On the feed one of the remaining recruits is about to burst out in tears and a warning sign has begun flashing.

“Oh shit.” Roxy utters a half-hearted prayer and hopes they’re smart enough to try even the supposedly missing parachute before impact with the ground.

 


 

For the first time in weeks tech sees a decline in the number of night shift employees, entire sections of overworked and bleary eyed people flooding out of the bullpen like they are about to see the sun - or rather their beds - properly for the first time after a sociopolitical apocalypse. Roxy watches them: slinging bags over their shoulders and wrapping scarves around themselves as they wonder where the closest Tesco is, checking their watches in an attempt to map out a commute home.

Merlin remains.

She considers making tea - and she really ought to stop feeding into his caffeine addiction - when Eggsy comes hobbling through the door on crutches. He’s got a broken leg in a freshly made cast poking out from a cut off trouser leg, a black eye, and a bright grin that’s totally at odds with his physical state. “I knew I’d find ya here,” he says and his voice is hoarse as though he’s recently woken from an anaesthetic.

“Eggsy,” she says with pure delight. “I didn’t know you were coming back already. How was Prague?”

“Well, let’s just say ya should never mess with the Communist Party. Miroslav Štěpán was a fucking nightmare.” Eggsy’s smile falters for a brief moment and he looks incredibly tired. Roxy wonders if she’s in as bad a state as him on that front, having barely slept in an attempt to keep HQ up and running with the world struck to pieces at their feet and Merlin squeezing every last ounce of workforce out of his staff.

They both return from their thoughts and Eggsy adjusts his grip on his crutches. “How’s the new Gawain?”

“A Kingsman through and through. She’s having late dinner right now, but she should be back in a bit. I think you’ll like her.”

“Mmh, well at the moment I’m drugged enough to like Merlin.”

Roxy snickers and hisses: “Don’t let him hear that! He’s sitting right there.” She glances pointedly at Merlin’s back at the front of the room, hunched over his laptop directing Lamorak.

“He’s not omnipotent,” Eggsy says and Roxy wants to contest that, but decides not to. The exact reach of Merlin’s power remains a crux even to her.

He turns back to look at them, holding up three fingers, and Eggsy’s face twists as though Merlin’s just made the point Roxy never had a chance to voice. She considers letting it be, but does the kind thing instead by helpfully supplying, “Three minutes till the news are on.”

“And here I thought you two had developed a secret language.”

“Hand signs, though? Not really your most educated guess, is it,” Roxy says and makes no attempt at denying Merlin would do something as ridiculous as encode his speech. In a way, she thinks, there is already a gap between the wavelengths of what he says and what he means, and deciphering the latter does seem to be a selectively acquired skill.

Eggsy shrugs and gets a better hold of his crutches, making his way towards the front with Roxy slowing her pace to his. They make it up the steps to - arguably -  the very heart of Kingsman as Merlin finishes with Lamorak.

He blows up the BBC iPlayer, synching to the live programme as the news anchor comes on. The man shuffles his papers into order and stares straight into the camera, less solemn than the last time he was on, if Roxy remembers correctly. “Week long interruptions of vital pharmaceuticals have seemingly come to an end, Czech crisis resolved, and 2026 FIFA world cup to be hosted in Morocco for the first time. This is the BBC news at ten and I am Huw Edwards.”

“Was that-”

“Frivolous news?” Roxy nods in excitement and even Merlin deigns to smile.

“Congratulations, agents,” he says, “We’re back on our way to useless media coverage.” He grins and Roxy laughs, genuinely happy for the first time that week.

“Has someone saved a tabloid from today?” Eggsy asks, smile so wide his swollen eye falls shut.

“There’s always one left in the shop,” Roxy says and offers to fetch it for him on her way home. Merlin shushes them with his full attention on the news and they all sit back to watch them with a sense of pride manifesting itself in the silence between them.

By the time the football report ends, the newly appointed Gawain returns with two cups of tea. “What did I miss?” she asks, placing Merlin’s cup wordlessly on his desk as she offers the other to Roxy with a conspiratorial smile.

“They’re holding the 2026 world cup in Morocco,” Merlin says and reaches for the tea Gawain’s prepared exactly as he likes it.

Roxy rolls her eyes and says, “What he means is everything’s alright for a change.” She introduces Gawain and Eggsy, or rather Galahad, to one another whilst keeping an eye on Merlin. Once they hit it off, she slips away from the conversation and comes to stand by Merlin’s side, who has pulled up Lamorak’s muted feed again.

“You know,” she says and Merlin’s fingers still on the keyboard, although he keeps his eyes on the screen, “I’d be offended you take tea from Gawain without protest-”

The missing reasoning doesn’t escape him and Merlin tilts his head to look at her. “But?”

Roxy glances at his empty cup and smiles.