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Reasons to Shoot a Dog

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It wasn’t the first time Harry unexpected survived. Nor was it the first time he woke in a strange, unfamiliar hospital with the local version of Joe Bloggs written on his chart.

He had been surprised and somewhat disappointed the first time it happened but by now, it was sadly commonplace. A Kingsman didn’t exist on paper. There was no system that could identify them, other than their own. The type of situation that would injure a Kingsman tended to leave a high number of dead bodies behind, and no one looked too hard at one more unidentified body amongst terrorists and criminals.

There was a reason a deceased agent was celebrated in a toast, not at a wake. Recovery of one unknown body was usually too difficult to do discreetly. (And an open casket was usually impossible.)

So once Harry dragged himself back to consciousness, noticed the hospital gown combined with a distinct lack of glasses and watch, he didn’t need to look at his chart to guess what had happened. He’d been found amongst a pile of wounded and brought to the local hospital without ID.

He would have much preferred to have woken up in the Kingsman medical unit, a far more familiar room, one that would have allowed him immediate access to a razor. He rubbed a hand across a rough cheek. The amount of beard growth suggested he’d spent at least two weeks unconscious.

He needed to ask for the date. He needed to call for a nurse, work out if he spoke the local language and... Where was he? The better question was what had he been doing and why he couldn’t remember...

He remembered a pub fight with a handful of louts...but they shouldn’t have been able to leave so much as a bruise on him. He remembered the professor’s head exploding but after that, it blurred.

For a moment, he considered psychotropic drugs, but his temperature seemed steady and when he looked at his hands, his vision was normal, no hallucinations.

His chart should be at the end of his bed. He started to sit up, but the sudden excruciating pain in his head and the fast-following nausea made him lie down again. Concussion at the very least. Head wound at the worst.

Reaching up gingerly, he felt the bandages along the top of his head, confirming the suspected injury.

Bed rest then. Bed rest and follow whatever medical advice they gave him, until he was well enough to get on a plane and go home.

Harry loved being a Kingsman. He didn’t always appreciate the realities of their rather independent and efficient approach.

***

Harry dreamed of violence. Blood spattered behind closed eyelids, triggers were pulled, bodies were shoved and thrown to the ground.

After a quarter of a century as a Kingsman agent, they weren’t unusual dreams. They certainly weren’t helpful.

***

He was in Kentucky, apparently the sole survivor of a terrible attack on a local church. No one knew what had caused it or who was responsible but the doctor confirmed Harry had sustained a glancing gun shot wound to the head during the attack. It had grazed the skull causing fractures, a concussion and a profuse amount of bleeding, but no physical brain injury.

Despite his best efforts, the memories refused to return. He couldn’t remember a church but he could remember an old alias, one of a dozen that should still be active from previous missions. He gave the name to a nurse. If he was in the UK, Merlin would notice the alias on medical records but Merlin had complained many times about the lack of a centralised USA medical system to data-mine.

“I don’t mean to frighten you,” the doctor said and Harry kept his eyes wide and gullible, “but the injuries we saw, the way people were killed... It was brutal. It looks like you tried to escape the church and passed out from blood loss. Can you remember what happened? I know it must have been terrifying but no one’s been able to work out how so many people died so quickly.”

A large amount of destruction, high number of fatalities and the authorities unable to determine the events that led to the situation. It sounded like a successful mission. Or mostly successful, given Harry’s current state.

Hoping that his ‘somewhere just outside of New York’ accent was still accurate enough to pass, Harry confessed that he couldn’t remember the church at all. “I think I was traveling,” Harry said, keeping his voice uncertain and a little weak. “I like taking photos, church architecture and stained glass windows. It’s a hobby. It must have been why I was there.”

The doctor nodded, looking torn between disappointment and relief. “A typical side effect of your injury is a loss of memory. It might be permanent but some patients regain nearly everything over time.”

Harry swallowed down his own impatience, and smiled weakly as he maintained the charade. “So bed rest for now?”

***

The grazed skin healed without infection, so the bandages were removed. Harry was downgraded to a stable condition, and accordingly moved to a shared room.

The light sensitivity and background nausea proved the concussion was still in force, but it seemed like the perfect time to ask for his belongings. The glasses were broken, the signal dead, but it would take more than a local massacre to damage the emergency beacon in his cufflinks.

***

The most frustrating part of a concussion had always been the forced inactivity. Lying in the quiet dark, waiting for time to pass and forbidden from reading, watching or listening to anything.

It left one with a great deal of time and no way to make it pass quickly.

He had nothing better to do than think about his memories and see if anything new slotted into those blank spaces.

He remembered waking up after the professor. He remembered Eggsy visiting him. He remembered...

Eggsy’s dog. A strangely impractical pug that had reminded him of Mr Pickles. He remembered looking at its squashed little face and wondering if Eggsy had chosen it for the same reason Harry chose a yappy and irritating terrier -- if Eggsy had also suspected that anything given in the interview process was likely to be used against them, that choosing a dog that appealed to him would make the situation harder than necessary.

Back then, Harry had been young and foolish enough to think he could outsmart Kingsman. He’d thought it was as simple as deciding not to care and pulling the trigger easily.

Of course, he shot Mr Pickles. He’d been expecting it from the start. He’d purposely chosen an animal he didn’t want and given it a truly ridiculous name to make that shot easier.

Mr Pickles had jumped at the noise, barking loudly and running in tiny excited circles around Harry’s feet. He’d yapped his little terrier heart out as Harry handed back the gun and tried to look like the calm, controlled agent he wanted to be. There was no second gunshot, so he’d become Galahad that afternoon.

He went home, and apologised to a dog he hadn’t wanted to care about. He made guilt-fuelled promises to a snappy little terrier that had no idea how small he really was or how easily Harry had pulled that trigger.

(It wasn’t until years later that he understood the point of that test.)

***

Harry opened his eyes to movement in his room, and recognised the fine bulletproof pinstripe and tortoiseshell glasses before he recognised the face behind them. Eggsy was standing there, hair neat and smooth, face older and somehow younger behind the thick glasses.

“Afternoon, sleeping beauty,” Eggsy said, grinning widely.

“It’s unkind to mock the wounded,” Harry said softly, keeping his voice pitched low enough so they wouldn’t be overheard. He had no intention of justifying a sudden change in accents. “I’m very glad to see you.”

“You’ll be even happier when we get the paperwork signed and get you home.”

Harry nodded. The idea of being back amongst fellow agents was very appealing. “We? Who came with you?”

“Lancelot,” Eggsy said and for a moment Harry thought of James, his fondness for good whiskey and tendency to cheat at Scrabble, and then the portrait now hanging behind the round table. No, not James.

And not Eggsy; he wouldn’t talk about himself in the third person. But if Eggsy hadn’t become an agent, how had he managed to acquire a pair of glasses?

“I fear I may have missed something,” Harry said. “I’m not at my best right now.”

“We saw you get shot in the head,” Eggsy said, voice low and rougher than the situation merited, “Figures you’d need subtitles for a bit.”

“So, Lancelot?”

“Roxy.” Eggsy looked over his shoulder, towards the nurses’ station. “She’s Lancelot. I got Tristan, but it’s way better than getting stuck as Bors.”

“What happened to Tristan?”

“That’s a bigger question that should wait until we’ve got some privacy. There was little... dissent in the ranks.”

Judging by Eggsy’s stricken expression, it was an understatement. Harry took a breath and asked, “And Merlin? Was he involved in this civil unrest?”

“You should’ve seen him,” Eggsy said in solemn awe, and Harry feared the worst. Something must have shown, because Eggsy’s eyes went wide behind the glasses. “No, Harry, he’s fine. He was fucking amazing, but he’s good. He’s Martha.”

For a moment, Harry longed for the stultifying dullness of lying silently in the dark. “Did you say Martha?”

“Doing double-duties as Merlin and Arthur until the new guy’s appointed. Apparently we’re lacking ‘a consensus on succession’. So in the meantime,” Eggsy said, shrugging in a way not appropriate to such a neatly tailored suit, “Merlin, Arthur, Martha. Get it?”

***

It was extremely refreshing to wear a clean suit again. There was a calm certainty to settling the tie around his collar and tugging the jacket sleeves into place. There wasn’t much he could do about his hair, cut from practicality but not for style, but with a working pair of glasses he felt like himself again.

He was assessing his appearance in the bathroom mirror when Merlin’s voice came though.

“Nice to have you back,” Merlin said, warm and amused.

“Nice to be back,” Harry replied. “Are you flying us home?”

“Percival will be. While you’ve been sleeping, the rest of us have been living in very interesting times.”

“So I’ve heard. Eggsy mentioned your codename changed.”

Merlin grumbled in disapproval. It was a wonderfully familiar sound. “No, it hasn’t, despite what your charming protégé keeps claiming.”

“He was my candidate. He’s hardly my protégé.”

“You should review your old mission reports. The first five years of Galahad? He is absolutely your protégé.”

“Oh, dear.” In the mirror, Harry’s reflection was smiling. Admittedly, most of those years Merlin only knew from mission reports and late night stories shared over a few too many martinis. But those death-defying last minute plans, the easy conquests that came from saving lives, the invincibility of being a young agent with the world at his feet. Harry remembered it well enough to imagine how little patience Merlin would have for the whole shebang.

Merlin snorted. “Got to go. You can come share in the misery when you get back.”

***

It wasn’t Harry’s first concussion. He wasn’t surprised in the least that he spent the entire flight sleeping.

He was a little surprised to wake up and find Eggsy sitting across from him, clipboard on his lap, glasses perched on his nose as he read.

“Go back to sleep, Harry,” Eggsy said softly, not looking up. “We’ll wake you when we get there.”

Harry could have argued the point. He could have asked for more information or dug his nails into his palms until he roused himself. Instead, he let his eyes close and listened to the aircraft rumble homeward. Eggsy read, occasionally sighing over the clipboard, and Harry drifted back to sleep.

***

As soon as he was off the plane, Harry was herded back to medical. At least this time he was allowed slippers and silk pyjamas.

On the way, he passed the conference room, where Kay and Lamorak were in quiet discussion. Geraint and Gawain were in the East sitting room, a game of chess untouched between them.

Given Roxy and Eggsy beside him, and Percival still in the plane, that was eight Kingsman agents at home base. It was unheard of. Even during the IRA bombing attempts of the mid-90s, when all agents had been kept on alert for emergencies, there had never been more than five agents in England at a time.

“Eggsy, which alert level are we at?” he asked as he tried his dressing gown and leaned on the edge of the bed.

Eggsy raised an eyebrow. “What d’ya mean?”

“To have so many agents home? It’s hardly a common occurrence.”

“Merlin said he should tell you.” Eggsy glanced guiltily at the door, as if Merlin was likely to walk around the corner any minute now. “But Bedivere’s still on a mission, so he’ll be busy for a bit.”

“Standard procedure for a high level alert is to ensure wounded agents are secured and guarded. I should have a weapon close by if there’s a security threat.”

“You’ve got a concussion.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve aimed a gun with double-vision.”

“Sadly true.” Harry turned to the source of the voice, to see Merlin striding into the room. He had a clipboard with physical pages in it -- Harry had to assume it was his own medical file -- and a look of gleeful mischief. He also looked tired, shadows under his eyes and a splash of coffee on his sweater. “Galahad here has the standing record for number of concussions sustained on assignment.”

“Really?” Eggsy said, encouraging Merlin, which was never a good idea.

“He also holds the record for the agent most frequently late to a meeting,” Merlin added.

Harry did not give him the satisfaction of showing his annoyance. Not until Eggsy stared at him and said, “I thought you said a gentleman was punctual, to show respect for his time and others’?”

“A gentleman is an ideal to aspire to. Being aware of one’s faults is necessary to self-improvement.” Harry remembered saying the same thing to James; James’ had said that he’d be late for his own funeral. In Harry’s opinion, that was one occasion where punctuality wouldn’t be appreciated.

Eggsy grinned. “The first step of fixing a problem is admitting it, right?”

“In the tritest terms possible, yes.”

“In other words,” Merlin interrupted, far too amused by the situation, “much as Harry might try, he’ll still be late to meetings. Usually not three weeks late, but there were extenuating circumstances this time.”

“There usually are,” Harry added in his own defence. The kind of complications that resulted in his tardiness were rarely something as simple as having overslept. “Now, perhaps you would be so kind as to tell me what happened here?”

“Get comfortable,” Merlin said, “It’s a long story.”

***

As far as megalomaniac power plays went, turning SIM cards around the world into weapons of mass destruction had a lot of potential. It was certainly one of the better schemes Harry had heard. Merlin had a lot to say about the technology involved, the international signals they had to send to nullify the future potential and how Kingsman had used Valentine’s cranial chips to their own advantage.

Merlin talked about the threat, the mission parameters and actions taken like any other mission debrief. He pulled up diagrams on the screen and discussed the international after-effects with the cool professionalism he always used. It was Eggsy who gave the game away. He stood to the left of Merlin, half a step behind as if he needed the cover. Harry could feel Eggsy’s eyes on him, but every time he looked up, Eggsy’s gaze skittered away.

Harry had no doubt Merlin was telling the truth. He also knew Merlin wasn’t telling him all of it.

“Are you withholding information because it’s classified or because I’m injured?” Harry asked politely when Merlin stopped for questions.

Merlin swiped across information on his clipboard. Clearly it was the latter.

“How much of it do I need to know?”

“You’ll want to know it all,” Merlin said, sounding apologetic. “But what you need to know is that we lost agents. Four, plus Arthur.”

Harry closed his eyes, too easily knowing who they lost: Bors and Gareth, Tristan and Gaheris. No wonder so many agents had come back to home base. According to the records, Kingsman hadn’t lost so many men since WWII.

“We’ll need to recruit and train,” Harry said calmly. Refilling the ranks would be important, but with so many agents down -- and two of them so terribly new -- each agent might need to offer two candidates for each role. Even then, five recruitment sessions would take time and the remaining agents would be stretched thin trying to manage threats. “And we’ll need a new Arthur.”

“That’s easier said than done,” Eggsy said, stepping forward finally. “We’re stalemated.”

Harry fought the yawn that threatened to escape. “Kingsman regulations insist on a two thirds majority vote for a new Arthur. Where is the vote split?”

Merlin kept his face absolutely blank. “Geraint and Bedivere.”

“And Merlin,” Eggsy added with a grin.

“You can’t vote for someone who doesn’t want the job,” Merlin grumbled.

“You can vote for any full Kingsman agent, provided they are not within probationary status.” Automatically disqualifying Roxy and Eggsy, Harry realised. As the three of them had singlehandedly stopped Valentine, it made a certain sense that the newest agents were standing by Merlin. Even if Merlin wished they wouldn’t.

“Roxy and I read the bylaws.” Eggsy grinned, far too pleased with himself. “Nothing says Martha here has to want the job, just that the voting agent has to believe him to be the most trustworthy agent for the position.”

“Traditionally a field agent,” Merlin said.

“Kingsman traditions can--” Eggsy stopped, looking guiltily at Harry. Clearly, the rest of that sentence hadn’t been complimentary. “I’m not voting for some geezer in a suit that I don’t even know.”

“Roxy knows Percival,” Harry replied, ignoring the strained tone in Eggsy’s voice. “She was his candidate.”

Eggsy shrugged but he sounded calmer. “Yeah, well, I don’t know him.”

“Apparently saving the world together once means those two vote as a block. We meet again next week. Try to talk some sense into them, Harry.”

Eggsy waited until Merlin left the room. It was a futile gesture because any agent wearing glasses was risking Merlin’s tendency to eavesdrop. “Don’t suppose you want the job?”

“God, no,” slipped out, too horrified to be anything but embarrassingly honest.

Eggsy’s replying laugh sounded relieved. “Worth checking.”

***

Merlin’s orders to avoid over-stimulation of the brain translated to Harry being locked out of the Kingsman system. Ostensibly it was for Harry’s own good, to help him resist the temptation to review mission reports or recorded footage, but Harry suspected it was also convenient for Merlin. Merlin and his ongoing avoidance of Medical; Merlin, who had so far sidestepped any further details of Valentine’s plans with the deft subtlety of any Kingsman agent.

At least he had visitors to keep him company. All of the other agents stopped by, discussing old missions and shared history, confirming that Harry’s memory loss only affected the few days before his injury. Even Percival sat with him, quiet and serious as ever, and wished him a speedy recovery.

Harry remembered Percival’s candidacy. Harry’s candidate that year had been an army reservist who ticked the right boxes: Cambridge graduate, good family, no scandalous past. He hadn’t lasted the second week and Harry hadn’t honestly cared. Lee’s death was still too fresh to invest in a candidate’s success. Harry was satisfied as long as they went home safe and sound.

But Percival had been James’ first choice, a quiet, bookish boy who tended to step back from his fellow candidates. Yet in a crisis, Percival stopped, looked and thought about the situation before acting. As the group whittled down, the group dynamics shifted, the others looking to Percival for direction.

James had been so proud when Percival made it to the final two.

“It still leaves the dog test,” James said, scratching behind Sasha’s ears. Sasha was a black Great Dane, a lanky and goofy dog that never realised how big she was. There were times when she tried to curl up in Mr Pickles’ bed, despite the sheer impossibility of it. “I hate the dog test.”

“That’s because you failed the dog test,” Harry replied. James had simply been lucky that Lee couldn’t do it either.

“I don’t see the point of it. If you ask me, it encourages psychopaths.”

Harry hid his smile behind the rim of his cup. He took a sip of tea, noticing the tension to James’ shoulders and the tight knuckles against his cup. James rarely showed nerves but he was genuinely concerned. “You’ve never considered the point of it?”

“The point is to put duty to Kingsman above all else,” James said, sounding resigned.

“I don’t think so.” Harry leaned under the table, guiltily feeding Mr Pickles the corner of a biscuit. For a small dog, Mr Pickles was rather… rotund. It was hard to deny him when he sat so patiently and was so excited for any scrap of food.

“No?”

“It’s proving how far you’ll go to do what’s right, what you believe in. It forces a candidate to acknowledge that once an action is taken, regardless of the reasons, one must live with the knowledge that one is capable and willing to do those things if the need arises.”

The look James gave him was slow and considered. “That’s part of being a Kingsman. You don’t need to shoot a dog to realise that.”

“Some of us do,” Harry said and let the matter drop.

***

If Harry hoped Merlin would explain what had happened on his last mission, he was sorely disappointed. Merlin would stop by but he was consistently busy, forever holding his clipboard and having to excuse himself to return to his computer.

A gentleman did not sulk about such things, but Harry found it an effort to not be annoyed by it.

When Eggsy returned from a mission with suit intact and a dark bruise blossoming across his cheekbone, Harry asked if there was any way that he could help.

“Nah. Until Merlin clears everything,” Eggsy said, waving a hand around his own head in a circular motion as if he was waving off a wasp, “you’re strictly off-duty. No surveillance, no mission reports, no shortcutting the boring duties by getting someone else to do my homework for me. Merlin was really specific about that last one.”

“Merlin has always been cautious when concussions are involved,” Harry said, because it wasn’t reasonable to complain about being bored when Merlin’s concerns were simply practical measures. No matter how frustrating it was to be so utterly useless. “He seems unusually busy.”

“The Tech Department,” Eggsy said with a shrug, which explained nothing.

“What about it?”

“Got hit pretty hard. They were studying the SIM cards so when it went off? Lots of people with sharp objects who weren’t trained to kill. No fatalities but piles of injuries. I think Amelia was the only one to come through unscathed, and that’s only because she was stuck in the lift for the whole thing. Someone severed the power and it took eight hours to get her out.”

Harry thought of the Stockholm office. “Were Logistics and Transport similarly affected?”

“Not as bad. They’ve only got a third of their people out on medical leave, and luckily Kingsman’s not going to run out of working cars and planes any time soon.” From Eggsy’s grin, he must have enjoyed seeing the main hangar, cars ranging from Minis to Jeeps to that one Rolls Royce Phantom convertible that Harry rarely had an excuse to drive. As a younger agent, the cars -- and the suits -- had been Harry’s favourite part of Kingsman. Weaponry and gadgets were fun, but nothing compared to the sheer possibility of lines of gleaming cars, polished and ready to drive.

It was… disappointing to think that he’d missed seeing Eggsy’s reaction. He had been hoping to have that privilege himself, to be the one to see Eggsy’s face light up, to find out which car he’d beg to drive first.

But no matter. It was a minor thing to have missed and not worth dwelling upon it. “What of other agents?”

“Didn’t Merlin tell you about that?” Eggsy asked carefully.

“He told me which agents we lost, but not the specific circumstances. I would ask him directly, were he less busy.”

“Ask an unnecessary question right now and you get tutted at,” Eggsy said, grimacing a little. The bruised skin across his cheek pulled tight, and he grimaced more. “Then he threatens to ground you from missions for a week.”

“He’s never had much patience for fools.”

“Oi, I’m not that bad.”

“General attitude, Eggsy, not personal insult.”

Eggsy nodded and let it go. “Well, if you don’t read the reports or view the footage...”

“Minimal visual stimulation to reduce strain of mental processing,” Harry recited, barely resisting the urge to roll his eyes. “I have been concussed before.”

Eggsy levelled a serious gaze on him, clearly worried about Harry’s reaction. Harry smiled encouragingly and waited him out. Privately, Harry expected fifteen seconds of maintaining eye contact would be enough for Eggsy to fold and give him the information but Eggsy lasted over a minute before he looked away.

“Okay,” Eggsy said eventually, clenching his hands into fists and then letting them go. “Bors was in the middle of a mission infiltrating Ukrainian arms dealers. When Valentine’s signal went out, there were a lot of guys with a lot of weapons at hand. He did take down the whole lot of them and blow up the base of operations, but he bled out from a gunshot wound in his neck.”

Harry closed his eyes and took a deep breath, the ghost of very fine Napoleonic brandy on his tongue. “Go on.”

“Gaheris and Gareth were at a safe house after an antiterrorism mission. They were isolated and only had the weapons they were wearing.”

“Which is quite an armoury,” Harry said evenly, “especially given the way Gaheris liked to carry everything in his pockets.”

“It was brutal. They were too evenly matched.”

It wasn’t entirely true. Gareth was better at hand-to-hand combat, as Harry well knew, but Gaheris would have had more weaponry. “Why did they have Valentine’s phones with them?”

“They’d confiscated the communication devices from the mission. They were bringing them back to Merlin to see if there were any other European cells.”

“And Arthur? Tristan?”

“Merlin can tell you about Arthur,” Eggsy insisted and then he sighed. “Tristan wasn’t working.”

Given the training and capabilities of a Kingsman, it seemed unlikely that an agent wouldn’t survive against untrained civilians. “How did he die?”

“He was at his in-laws, right? They found bodies. His wife, all her family. And Tristan was... Shot in the head.” Eggsy eased two fingers to his temple, mimicked a gun being cocked. “Like, point blank.”

“Time of death?” Harry asked, suspecting he already knew the answer. Tristan had always been sentimentally devoted to his wife, Isabel. Being responsible for her death would have broken him beyond repair.

“Merlin couldn’t say for certain,” Eggsy said, loyal and kind even to a colleague he’d never met. “But it wasn’t his fault, Harry. He wasn’t in control.”

“It would have weighed heavily on him. To be a gentleman, to be a Kingsman, to have spent your life protecting others only to use those skills against loved ones? It’s a horrifying concept.”

“But it wasn’t his fault,” Eggsy repeated earnestly, starting to look upset by the topic. “That’s got to count for something.”

“Not enough, I suspect,” Harry murmured and changed the subject.

***

“Merlin,” Eggsy announced, from the other side of the wooden table. It really was a wonderful example of French polishing, shined to a degree that Harry could see Merlin’s gimlet stare reflected across the table.

The stare got worse when Roxy nodded, and said, “Merlin.”

“And you, Galahad?” Merlin asked, with a barely restrained threat. The other Kingsman agents believed in seniority and tradition; where they wouldn’t follow the lead of two raw recruits, they might be swayed by a seasoned agent like Galahad.

Harry was slightly tempted to vote for Merlin out of spite – petty as it might be, he was holding a small grudge for being stuck in medical and barred from doing anything of use. However, selecting the next Arthur was a serious affair. Abusing it for the sake of pettiness was beneath both a gentleman and an agent.

He did take a small satisfaction from pausing before he spoke, and watching Merlin’s eyes narrow.

“Percival,” he said finally. The others kept watching him closely, even Percival looked surprised. They’d worked together occasionally but they weren’t friends. (Personal biases shouldn’t affect choosing the next Arthur, but they always did to some degree.)

“Care to explain the reason for your choice?” Merlin asked, instead of following protocol and calling on the next Kingsman. Merlin had always been extremely good at recognising opportunity as it arose.

“Percival is an excellent tactician, able to maintain focus on multiple objectives and tends to grasp mission parameters very quickly. Those skills would be invaluable to the role of Arthur.”

Harry looked around the room. As expected, very little showed on anyone’s face.

Gawain lifted his chin. “Geraint,” he said, which was hardly surprising. The two of them worked together almost exclusively. It was something of an open secret that their relationship was more than professional.

For a moment, Harry thought of himself and James, and felt the hypocrisy of his thoughts. On the other hand, James would never have allowed any personal fondness to get the better of a logical decision.

Kay and Bedivere both nominated Bedivere, but Lamorak and Geraint voted for Percival.

Merlin nominated Percival, then said, “And again, gentlemen, we have not reached the required consensus. Another week, then we’ll vote again. Assuming the extra workload hasn’t led me to an early grave,” he added under his breath.

Harry stayed in his seat, waiting for the others to leave. He had mostly recovered but his sense of balance was still unreliable. In a room full of agents, it would be noticed.

Eggsy sat silently at the table until the room emptied. Just the two of them in the ornately imposing room, long dead men staring at them from their golden frames. Harry was glad he was facing the mantelpiece and James’ portrait was hanging behind him.

“You could have told us that was the plan,” Eggsy said, earnestly annoyed. “We would have gone along with it.”

They were alone in the room. Harry could allow himself a heartfelt sigh if he needed it. “This way will work better.”

“If you told us, you could have got the votes. Roxy could have got word to Percival and this’d be done.”

“It would have appeared as a prepared ambush. As a rule, agents don’t respond well to ambushes.”

“We respond fine. It’s the other guys who end up a dead.”

“The point of a consensus is that it is a common agreement. All agents need to have faith that the best candidate was chosen. Everyone needs to trust the man ordering us to risk lives,” Harry said, and the expression that crossed Eggsy’s face was complicated: sad and angry, something worried that made him look too old for his years. “Everyone will have time to think it through. Waiting a week is much better than years of doubts.”

Eggsy shook his head, and that odd expression left as if it was never there. “Is this one of those ‘patience is a virtue’ things? Because waiting around doesn’t mean good things will happen. Trust me.”

“Sometimes it is worth taking your time to do things correctly.”

“Like defusing a bomb. Better to do it right than do it fast?”

Harry was surprised into a smile. “I was going to compare it to a soufflé but your allegory works well.”

“What the fuck would I know about cooking a soufflé, Harry?”

***

Eggsy was his most reliable visitor, which was hardly surprising. He was a young man who’d walked away from the marines to protect his mother, who chose quarters based on his family’s needs. He was considerate and knew how to show how much he cared. There was so much about him that was the essence of a gentleman, regardless of his occasionally rough manners.

At first, Harry thought it was Eggsy filling in time before missions or after training sessions, but active agents weren’t scheduled day after day. Before Valentine’s foiled schemes, it had been unusual to have more than three agents visiting home base at a time. (Now that had changed. Now there seemed to be a handful all but living at home base, moved into the temporary quarters on the top floor or staying in the unused rooms below the shop. It was unnerving to have so many agents hovering around.)

Yet Eggsy came every day. He would sit with straight back and shoulders, discussing the last weapon he’d learnt to shoot with a charming level of enthusiasm. He groaned about deportment classes and the horror of etiquette drills. Sometimes, he’d slouch low in his chair and talk about Daisy’s new childcare centre or his Mum volunteering at a local women’s shelter. “It’s sort of ironic, isn’t it, Mum helping other women to get out? But she says it helps keep her head straight about Dean, and I’m all for that.”

“I think it’s noble,” Harry said. “To use one’s own experiences to offer assistance to others.”

“Well, yeah, I’m proud of her.” Eggsy’s smile was bright and honest. “It’s just weird, I guess. Different. Been a long time since she seemed... Happy, I suppose.”

“I have no doubt you were instrumental in that.”

“You were,” Eggsy replied, which made no sense. Harry hadn’t done anything for Lee’s widow, despite his best intentions. He’d never made the time; he’d never followed up or tried to improve her life. He’d never taken on the level of personal responsibility that Eggsy assumed without blinking. “The job and the example, and the chance to be more than I’d been.”

Harry shook his head. “I only saw your potential. You were the one to make the most of the opportunity. It was your hard work that achieved the change.”

“A little bit of Column A, a little bit of Column B,” Eggsy recited, as if he was quoting something. “Saving the world was a joint effort. Getting Dean to back off... I never would have tried that if you hadn’t shown me that one person can change someone’s life.”

Eggsy sounded so grateful that it was a touch overwhelming to hear. “Thank you,” Harry said, as graciously as he could.

“Plus I totally stole that manners maketh man line from you,” Eggsy added. “It worked aces.”

Harry groaned, raising a hand to cover his eyes. “That was a very trying day, and a small amount of dramatics is excusable after upsetting news. It wasn’t intended as an acceptable template for brawling.”

“It was Dean. He deserved it.” Eggsy glanced away, then he shrugged. “And watching you do that the first time was sick. Coolest thing I’d ever seen.”

“One does one’s best,” Harry said calmly, because it was ridiculous to be embarrassed by a compliment. Even one as heartfelt and unguarded as that. Utterly ridiculous.

***

It took weeks for Merlin to sit him down and tell him about Arthur. Harry understood the urge to delay the tale of betrayal, but he was still impatient to know. It made sense, especially given some of Eggsy’s reactions, and Harry only wished he’d known sooner.

“Arthur altered his glasses feed to disconnect the recordings,” Merlin said. “There was some doubt from the others if Eggsy’s account could be trusted.”

“From Lamorak,” Harry said, knowing too well that Arthur hadn’t been the only snob amongst them. The only one apparently willing to assist genocide, but not the only one to doubt a Kingsman who hadn’t gone to the right schools and didn’t come from a good family. Although there were fewer of those people alive now. “And Bedivere?”

“Geraint had his concerns too,” Merlin confirmed, holding his teacup in a very careful way that made Harry wonder if he longed for a tumbler of whiskey instead.

Harry wished he felt angry or shocked. He wished the betrayal cut sharp and deep, but he was weary. There was a dull acceptance, cynical enough to wonder if he should have suspected Arthur earlier.

For all that Kingsman had started with the best of intentions, they had amassed almost a century of deaths dealt in secret. How much difference was there between ordering the direct death of dozens and stepping aside as millions killed each other?

“We were lucky that Eggsy noticed,” Merlin said. He didn’t need to convince Harry. “Without him, we wouldn’t have had enough time to take Valentine down. And if he hadn’t followed his instincts, he would have been dead and none of us would have known.”

“Probably not.” Harry looked around the room, remembering the number of missions Arthur had organised, his flair for understated plans that were overlooked by authorities. He’d been fond of saying that a gentleman does not make a spectacle of himself. With Harry gone, Kingsman wouldn’t have looked back at Eggsy; Eggsy’s disappearance would have been completely unnoticed. It was an unacceptable thought. “I take it you’ve increased the security in this room?”

Merlin gave a brisk nod. “The mirror records everything now. There’s a few other failsafes too. It’s not happening again.”

***

Harry was trapped in the limbo of requalification: he was healthy enough to be out of medical, much to his and Merlin’s joint relief, but not yet well enough to be an active agent. In theory, he understood the reasons behind the process and he approved of ensuring every active agent had all necessary skills. In reality, it was irritating to jump through hoops proving what he already knew he could do. It was even more frustrating to occasionally find himself struggling with skills that should come easily.

It had been mortifying to overbalance during his hand-to-hand trial and find himself flat on the mat.

Thankfully, his coordination and eyesight seemed unaffected, so the weapons trials had been easy in comparison.

“Oi,” Eggsy said, catching Harry’s attention before he could empty the next chamber of rounds.

“Hello, Eggsy,” Harry said pointedly. “I hope you realise there are much friendlier ways to start a conversation.”

Eggsy wrinkled up his nose, pulling a face vaguely reminiscent of JB. “It got your attention. You got a minute?”

Harry literally had nothing else to do, other than occupy his time perfecting marksmanship scores. It was flattering that Eggsy bothered to ask. “For you, Eggsy, always.”

Eggsy’s smile was perfectly suited to him: sweet, earnest and still cheeky. “I was thinking, right? Kingsman ain’t government.”

Harry frowned at Eggsy’s phrasing. “We’re not government sanctioned,” he confirmed calmly.

“So when I was nicked, how did you get me out?”

“I arranged for the charges to be dropped.”

“How?” Eggsy asked. “We’re not some secret branch of government, or protected by Royal decree or anything, so how did you get that detective to let me go? He was happy for me to rot for the next eighteen months, so what made him back off?”

“His superior, I’d suspect.”

“Harry,” Eggsy said, his whine becoming annoyed. “I mean it. Officially, you’re a tailor. So how did you pull it off?”

“I asked a friend for a favour,” Harry said, and Eggsy stared at him as if he’d seen Mr Pickles for the first time. It was disconcerting to have Eggsy look so disappointed in him. “Officially, Kingsman has no legal right to interfere in the justice system.”

“So you knew the right guy, and just like that, you made it disappear?”

“It didn’t disappear,” Harry said, but Eggsy still seemed disappointed. “There’s still an arrest record. The theft charge was dropped, since the owner refused to press charges and your file states you were released with a warning against reckless driving.”

“I was waving to the coppers as we went. Even if Rottweiler would never go voluntarily into a police station,” Eggsy paused as Harry raised a hand to interrupt. “What?”

“Rottweiler?”

“The car’s owner,” Eggsy explained. “Almost as smart as the dog breed. You still shouldn’t have been able to make it go away.”

“I knew a Lord who knew the police commissioner.”

“Cause you went to the right school?” Eggsy asked sharply, and then looked sorry for it. “I’m not trying to be a prick, Harry, just... It’s not fair that the old boys’ network works like that.”

“It doesn’t,” Harry said.

“What?”

“I rescued his daughter. A few years ago, she was kidnapped in South America and ransomed. Kingsman got her out.” Harry took a breath, noticing the way Eggsy shifted closer. He leaned against the railing, one hand beside him on the cold metal, looking up at Harry as if… as if he had the power to make the world a fairer place. It was gratifying and humbling all at once: an ideal Harry tried to live by, even if he couldn’t possibly meet it. “When I told him there was a young man with great potential who was about to spend months in captivity, due to circumstances not entirely his fault, he offered to help.”

“Sorry I jumped to conclusions,” Eggsy said, resting a hand over Harry’s on the railing. He left it there for a moment too long, then looked down and jerked his hand away.

When Eggsy looked up, he looked a little sheepish. Embarrassed. As if...

Oh, Harry thought as Eggsy’s regular visits and careful attention were suddenly brought into focus. It had been staring him in the face and he hadn’t noticed. He’d thought of Eggsy as earnest, as honest, as a caring young man. That was true, but he should have also noticed the infatuation. “Think nothing of it,” he said, before the moment could get too awkward.

Eggsy nodded and glanced at his watch in the least subtle subject change. “Thanks but I’ve got to get going. I’ll let you get back to...” he trailed off as he looked up at Harry’s scores.

“I have to requalify,” Harry said primly.

Eggsy gave him a disbelieving stare. “Seriously? Because that’s what Roxy gets on a good day. I’ve never had scores like that.”

“I’m only a few shots from breaking the Kingsman record.” Harry struggled to keep the smugness to a minimum. “Since Merlin’s insisting on these trials, I decided to set myself a challenge.”

“You almost make me feel sorry for Martha,” Eggsy said, and clearly didn’t mean it.

***

The mission simulations were always the easiest tests. Harry had never had trouble walking into danger, remembering his manners while recognising threats. It was comforting to have Merlin’s voice in his ear again.

“You still have to qualify for hand-to-hand,” he was saying, and Harry reconsidered how comforting these conversations were. “No active missions for agents who trip over their own feet.”

“I am aware,” Harry murmured, smile firmly in place.

“Really? Because I wouldn’t be giving you top marks for awareness right now.”

Harry kept his gaze casual and looked around the coffee shop. The ‘mission’ was simple on paper - identify the target, copy the information on their laptop, allow Merlin to hack the GPS on their phone. The target was still sitting in the back corner, typing away -- a thesis on Arthurian literature, showing Merlin’s typical sense of humour -- but there were no other threats. “Your point?”

“Eggsy,” Merlin said, tone laden with meaning. If anyone would know a Kingsman’s personal secrets, it was Merlin. “The boy isn’t subtle.”

“He’s also not a boy.”

Merlin snorted. “Like that, is it?”

“Not entirely,” Harry demurred. “A relationship between colleagues rarely ends well.”

“In a country with a fifty per cent divorce rate, you can’t blame every break up on Kingsman,” Merlin replied.

“It doesn’t help.” He was thinking of James, which hadn’t ended terribly badly, all things considered. One broken teapot, one drenched suit and they’d managed to be civil after a few months of avoiding being in the same country. But that had been the best possible end. “And it can complicate matters.”

“Or it might give you something in common,” Merlin said, and then added after a moment, “Possibly the only thing.”

“The only thing?” Harry murmured, keeping his voice low as he approached the target. “Didn’t you claim he was my protégé?”

“Most relationships are built on more than a shared love for theatrical violence and small, pointless dogs.”

***

As much as Harry hated to acknowledge it, Merlin had a valid point regarding Eggsy. On the surface, they had very little in common. When Harry was invited around for a Sunday roast, he wore a light grey suit and well shined Oxfords while Eggsy answered the door in branded trackpants and a black and white cap. Eggsy’s new house was all clean, sterile walls and neutral greys. There were gleaming chrome accents on the couch and a glass dining table that struck Harry as impractical for a household with a child but a good source of makeshift weaponry in a fight.

“What do you think?” Eggsy asked, giving Harry a cocky grin as he waved at the place.

“It’s very modern,” Harry said enthusiastically and Eggsy’s smile got sharper as if he could hear the things Harry would never say about someone else’s home. “There’s a wonderful sense of space to it.”

“Step up from what we had.” Eggsy leaned forward and lowered his voice. “It ain’t cosy like your place,” he said softly, almost flirtatious, “but Mum loves it.”

Harry looked around. There were toys piled into a corner, bright yellow and red plastic blocks, the garish pink of a doll’s dress and a purple plastic hairbrush, presumably also belonging to a doll. JB was curled up on a blanket beside the couch, snuffling in his sleep. There were beauty magazines on the coffee table and letters sitting underneath it. Beside the flatscreen TV, a digital photo frame flicked from a school picture of Eggsy grinning at the camera to a shot of Daisy, kicking her feet up on a swing. There were signs of family everywhere, once Harry looked for them.

“It’s perfectly lovely, Eggsy. A very inviting home.” And if Eggsy rested a hand on Harry’s elbow, if Harry swayed a little closer, well… It really wasn’t anyone else’s business.

***

“You’re dithering,” Merlin said, sorting through the background checks on the new recruits.

“I rarely dither,” Harry replied, closing his eyes for a moment against the monotony of school reports and personal recommendation letters.

“About Eggsy. You’re dithering,” Merlin repeated unnecessarily.

“I fail to see how this is any concern of yours.” Harry read through another file, squinting at the messy handwriting that yet again proclaimed the student ‘conscientious’ and ‘a pleasure to teach’. Occasionally, there was a mention of a ‘bright future’ or ‘we expect great things’.

It would be nice to have an honest report occasionally, something that acknowledged the candidate as ‘clever but stubborn’, or ‘top of the class, which is hardly surprising given family expectations and the number of tutors they’ve paid for’. But, no, they were all systematically approved students, all blandly successful and glowingly endorsed.

“It isn’t,” Merlin acknowledged, shrugging.

“Then why ask?”

“Because I’ve never known you to have trouble making up your mind.”

Harry wanted to claim he was being discreet, not indecisive, but the truth was somewhere between the two.

On paper, Eggsy seemed a very unsuitable choice for Harry’s life. Young, brash, crass, and already supporting a family who relied on him. There were arrests and assaults in his criminal record, and if you only read the surface, he was simply a young delinquent growing into a thug.

Thankfully, the surface was deceptive. Beneath the cheek and the tendency to mouth off, Eggsy was kind and receptive to the wonders of life. Seeing Kingsman through his eyes was enchanting, everything so amazingly new and full of promise. He was much smarter than he seemed, and braver than a lot of good men that Harry had known. In an organisation that prided itself on the quality of its agents, Eggsy already stood tall amongst his peers and was a force to be reckoned with.

But no matter how nicely Eggsy wore a suit, how winningly he smiled, or how confidently he ran along the top of a railing, light on his feet and perfectly balanced, Harry wanted more than a quick fumble between the sheets. He didn’t have the patience to be someone’s passing fancy, and he doubted he’d have the wisdom to accept defeat gracefully when that fancy passed.

“If you’re interested, do something about it,” Merlin said, sorting through his own pages. “If you’re not, the sooner it’s sorted, the cleaner it’ll heal.”

“Are you finished with the wound metaphors?” Harry asked, rather than comment on his inability to be entirely sure what he wanted to do about Eggsy.

“If you leave it, it’ll fester.”

“Are you finished now?”

“Yes,” Merlin said after a moment’s consideration. “Now I’m finished.”

***

The vote for Percival would have been unanimous, if Bedivere hadn’t voted for himself. It was for the best. Kingsman supported free will in these things, and an Arthur chosen without any dissent would be a strange precedent to set.

Merlin had uttered “Long live Arthur,” with the fervent relief of someone not going to be promoted against their will.

“You look very pleased with yourself,” Eggsy said afterwards, walking with Harry to the East sitting room. “Considering a career in politics? You could make a killing with that lobbying.”

“I did no such thing,” Harry replied, trying not to sigh as he settled back into armchair and reviewed schematics again. As glad as he’d been to sleep in his own house, the necessity of preparing for the next lot of candidates had kept him busy. Occasionally, he wondered why he wasn’t camping at home base like Lamorak and Bors were. “I simply offered my opinion and made myself available if anyone wanted to discuss it with me.”

“Yeah,” Eggsy said, eyes full of mischief. “And I wasn’t stealing that car, I was just moving it to a better parking space.”

Harry gave that comment the utter lack of response that it deserved. Eggsy grinned at him anyway.

***

The new candidates weren’t especially inspiring. Given the last batch had contained Roxy and Eggsy, it probably wasn’t a fair standard to hold them to but Harry honestly had to contain a sigh as he watched them all tread water and use the S-bends as an oxygen supply. Of course they forgot to work as a team, and Stephen, a technician from Transport and Logistics, had to float there for ten minutes, keeping his breathing apparatus hidden. He did a good job of playing dead when the water drained away.

It lacked the desperation of Eggsy’s rush for the door, his sheer determination to pound on the mirror until it cracked. Harry had watched the footage from the last lot of candidates to reacquaint himself with the challenges, and the highlight was certainly watching Eggsy punching at the glass, half-bare and so single-minded.

Harry had possibly watched that footage more often than he should have.

***

It was strange to oversee a group of candidates. It had been years – over a decade – since Harry had drawn the metaphorical short straw and been forced to watch a group of over-indulged children attempt to outscore each other. The task had always been allocated as light duties, officially a respite from the active danger of missions and, unofficially, a polite punishment for agents who were injured due to bad decisions. Harry had always found it a wonderful incentive to avoid being injured enough to be removed from active duty.

Without an injured agent to redress, it defaulted to Merlin’s responsibility, since Merlin’s duties generally kept him at home base. Unfortunately, Merlin was busy getting Percival up to speed on Arthur’s responsibilities, and Harry was still under orders to allow his body time to fully recover. Rotten luck all round, really.

The only upside to the job was having an excuse to buy a dozen puppies. He might have been looking forward to visiting the litters and picking out a selection of pups, but he wasn’t about to admit it.

Not even when Eggsy accosted him in the tailor’s shopfront. “Merlin said there’d be puppies,” Eggsy said, eyes far too big and excited.

“That expression makes you look a lot like JB,” Harry replied.

Eggsy’s face screwed up into a grimace. “How can you be in a mood today? Teeny, tiny puppies and you get to buy them. And this is technically your job.”

“Frankly, I’d rather be blowing something up,” Harry said, but Eggsy recognised it for the lie it was. Where Merlin would have been smug, Eggsy’s smile softened into something fond and warm. “Why are you so excited?”

“Daisy wants a dog of her own and Mum agreed, so I thought if you’re visiting the breeders anyway, I could tag along and be the best big brother ever.”

“I’m sure you already fill that role admirably.” It slipped out before Harry really considered his words. There was no point regretting saying it. It was true, even if Harry hadn’t meant to say it. “Go and check if anything urgent came up overnight. I’ll wait here and if you’re free, we’ll go together.”

Harry offered because it would make a day of glorified errand-running more interesting to have Eggsy there. Not because he expected to enjoy watching Eggsy squat down, running a hand through puppy fur and talking soft nonsense to the animals. He told the Chihuahua, a tiny rat-like thing the size of Harry’s hand, about the glory of tacos as breakfast after a big night out. He asked the Saint Bernard pup if there was a history of drinking in the family, because if so, delivering rum to skiing victims probably wasn’t a good career choice. He talked to the Papillion, all ears and hair, about Batman movies, of all things.

They went from breeder to breeder, selecting dogs. It was a good thing Harry had been trained to withstand torture; there was no way anyone could make him admit that he choose the pups that responded most to Eggsy. They visited Irish wolfhounds – where Eggsy did the world’s worst Irish accent and Harry fought his urge to wince until Eggsy winked at him, and he realised Eggsy was doing it on purpose – and Great Danes, and even Pit Bull Terriers.

“You do look a little bit like a Pug,” Eggsy sing-songed to one puppy, scratching it behind the ears.

“In the way that a Doberman looks like a Rottweiler, yes,” Harry said and Eggsy rolled his eyes.

“They’re the same colours, ain’t they?”

It was the Maltese puppies that won Eggsy over. Fluffy white dogs with dark eyes and dark noses that crowded around Eggsy’s hands with frantically wagging tails. Eggsy lifted one up to his chest and it snuggled in close, tail still wagging. “Daisy’s teddy bear has the exact same face,” Eggsy said, clearly reluctant to put the pup back down. “She’ll go mental when she sees it.”

Somehow, Harry found himself talking the owner into releasing the pup a few days early and they ended up taking a cab back to Eggsy’s place, one little white ball of fur curled in Eggsy’s protective grasp.

***

Merlin finally agreed to restore his access to Kingsman’s systems. Merlin had always been a worrier, prone to insisting caution and time to recovering agents. It wasn’t a sign of mistrust or doubt in Harry’s abilities, but Harry had to remind himself of that fact. Merlin was acting in Kingsman’s best interests.

But he did seem… off. Regretful, maybe. Concerned. As if he still had some unspoken fears. Harry remembered that expression from years ago, when the split with James had still been fresh and Harry had walked in on footage from James’ latest honeypot mission. That same mix of wry concern and well-meaning regret, tempered against his knowledge of Harry and the correct assumption that Harry didn’t want to talk about it.

For a moment, Harry wondered if Eggsy was on a honeypot mission of his own. Not that it was any of Harry’s business.

“System privileges restored,” Merlin said with a sharp nod. “Complete access to current and past missions if needed.”

“Thank you,” Harry said and very carefully didn’t ask what might be wrong. It clearly wasn’t a conversation Merlin wanted to have.

***

In the comfort of his own study, Harry reviewed the current missions. It was good to be aware of what Kingsman as a whole was working towards and to anticipate where extra resources may be needed. He was relieved to note that Eggsy was currently capsizing pirates in the South China seas, weapons out in only the most literal sense.

It was only after he felt sufficiently up to date that he reviewed past missions. Missions that he’d missed while being unconscious in America or out of the loop at home base. There was nothing world-ending, nothing Eggsy and the other agents couldn’t take in-stride.

No reason to put it off any longer, Harry thought, pulling up the footage from his own last mission.

***

In his defence, Harry did knock as quietly as he could but Eggsy still opened the door with a thunderous expression. It cleared in a blink, a frown forming between his eyebrows. “It’s freezing out here. Get inside.”

“Thank you,” Harry said, stepping across the threshold. “I’m sorry for calling so late. I hope I didn’t disturb anyone.”

Eggsy looked over his shoulder at the staircase. “Those two? They’d sleep through World War III.” Eggsy paused for a moment, looking Harry up and down. “Are you okay?”

“Mostly.” Harry closed his eyes for a moment, and saw his own hands on the monitor, stripping a handgun into separate pieces and using those pieces to stab a man. An effective use of potential weapons, certainly. “Merlin restored my access today.”

“Oh, Harry.” It was a soft sigh of a sound, barely breathed past Eggsy’s parted lips. For a moment, Harry wanted nothing more than to kiss him, to wrap his arms around Eggsy’s shoulders and hold him close, lose his thoughts in skin and mouths and hands.

He pushed the urge away as quickly as it came. Using Eggsy to distract himself was a selfish idea at best, and taking terrible advantage at worst.

“It was rather disturbing to watch, especially when so many of them were unarmed.”

“Unarmed, but psychos. Everyone in that church was on a killing spree. It weren’t just you.” Eggsy leaned closer, rested warm fingers against the skin of Harry’s wrist. “And if you hadn’t fought back…”

For a moment, Harry saw the rush of bodies again, movement everywhere, hands grabbing at weapons, gunshots and the thump of bones against wood. The wild changes in angles as he’d turned his head and the glasses had recorded the violence surrounding him. “They would have killed me. Or tried to, at least. Given how the technology worked, I couldn’t see it ending without bloodshed. I’m more than capable of it,” Harry said and Eggsy nodded as if he’d never doubted that part of it.

“As someone who saw the whole thing,” Eggsy said, eyes shockingly green in the harsh corridor light, “it wasn’t your fault. You can’t beat yourself up for it.”

“It was… unfortunate,” Harry said and it was such a paltry word, so insufficient in these circumstances, “but it wasn’t within my control. I can’t be held responsible for something that wasn’t a conscious choice.”

Eggsy was right. Harry knew it, even if it still didn’t feel entirely true. He couldn’t frame it as anything but monstrous, so he’d come here. To Eggsy’s clear thinking and warm smile. To Eggsy’s home, where Eggsy’s mother used too much air freshener and his sister left sequinned doll’s clothes scattered across the floor. To Eggsy’s family, where Harry didn’t belong. “It’s late and I’m intruding. I should go.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Eggsy said, and held out a hand for Harry’s coat. Harry hesitated but Eggsy kept his hand out, so beautifully stubborn. Harry really had no choice but to flick his buttons open and surrender the black coat. For all of Eggsy’s lack of formality, he took it carefully and hung it with the care it deserved. “You’re here now. I’ll put on the kettle, yeah?”

“It’s too late for coffee,” Harry said, although he doubted he’d sleep much tonight regardless.

“Tea, then,” Eggsy said, leading them through to the kitchen. The kitchen matched the rest of the house: gleaming stainless steel benchtops and appliances, stark white cupboards with hidden handles. It reminded Harry too much of a morgue, but he’d spent enough time around dead bodies that the similarity wasn’t especially unnerving.

It was surprising to see Eggsy stretch back into the pantry and pull out a very familiar Georgian tea caddy. “I believe that’s mine,” Harry said, knowing he’d purchased it in a tiny antiques shop just out of Devon. He’d loved the octagonal oval shape of it, the rich colour of the old mahogany, the detailed lid showing a conch shell in inlaid wood. He’d even been a little fond of the tiny mother-of-pearl handle inside.

It looked out of place against the sleek surfaces of Eggsy’s kitchen. The worn wood veneering that had been lovingly polished over years look old and tatty on the metal benchtop. It looked terribly old-fashioned in this modern house.

“Yeah, it is,” Eggsy said, giving an embarrassed shrug. “I kept meaning to give it back. Or sneak it back in before you noticed it was gone.”

He hadn’t noticed it was gone. Sitting down for a quiet cup of tea, letting it steep and enjoying the aroma as well as the taste… He hadn’t done it since he returned home. “Why do you have it?”

“We thought you were dead, right?” It wasn’t really a question but Eggsy paused, so Harry nodded. “I was here, I was watching it on your laptop and… I kind of figured I’d never see your place again, and you weren’t coming back, and… I took it. I took it home and then got called into Kingsman.”

“That hardly answers the question of why,” Harry said, befuddled as he so rarely was. He’d paid a few hundred pounds for it; it was hardly worth a fortune. “There were far more valuable things in the house.”

“Exactly.” Eggsy put the kettle on, and pulled out a thick china teapot, old and chipped on the edge but perfectly serviceable. “Figured someone would have to clear out your place and no one would notice if you didn’t have tea.”

“Merlin might have. But a tea caddy? Really?”

“It reminded me of you. Pricey and posh and old-fashioned. Quality.” Eggsy lifted the lid, and raised the inner lid with two careful fingers on the pearlescent handle. “I wanted some kind of proof that I’d known you, even if it was only for a little while.”

Thankfully, the kettle whistled and Harry was saved from having to say anything for a moment. “Keep it.”

“I wasn’t trying to steal it from you. It’s yours. It belongs with you.”

It certainly didn’t belong in Eggsy’s home. It stood out, sturdily old-fashioned and quietly exquisite, but Eggsy had wanted it enough to take it. “Keep it. As proof.”

Eggsy's smile could have lit up London. “Well, if it’s a gift,” he said, and went about the business of making tea.

***

The next morning, Harry woke up sprawled on Eggsy’s couch to find a small girl, holding a smaller bundle of white fur, staring at him. She had dirty blonde hair, a few shades lighter than Eggsy’s and gave him an uncertain wave.

“Daisy, love,” Eggsy’s mother called out from the kitchen. “Put Princess down and come have your breakfast.”

The girl dutifully placed the puppy on the floor and walked over to the kitchen. The puppy wandered in a circle, and then sat beside the couch, whining to be picked up. Harry reached down a hand, but Eggsy’s muffled voice came from the other end of couch. “Not allowed on the furniture. House rule.”

Harry leaned forward and scratched the puppy behind its floppy ears instead. “Princess, Eggsy?”

“She’s Daisy’s dog. Daisy gets to name her.” Eggsy let out a jaw-cracking yawn, and stretched his arms above his head. They must have fallen asleep mid-conversation, still talking about Spanish beaches or Arsenal Football Club or whatever they’d been talking about last. It could have been the Tech Department’s struggle with the new tie pins, able to be heated to several hundred degrees, and the difficulty in designing a heat resistant grip for them. Or the differences between Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. “Nothing wrong with an aspirational dog name.”

“Aspirational?”

“I named JB after the coolest spy around, because I wanted to be a spy. Right now, Daisy’s dream careers are princess and postie. And one of those pays a lot better than the other.”

“As a hereditary title, being royalty doesn’t necessitate any income,” Harry said, bringing up a hand to cover a yawn of his own. “Working for the post might be the more reliable profession.”

***

“How are the new candidates treating you?” Eggsy asked when he returned from the next mission. There was dirt smeared across his collar and cuffs, but his face and hands had been washed clean.

“At least they’re toilet trained,” Harry replied, secretly wishing that so many of them hadn’t passed the parachute test. He couldn’t believe they’d simply locked arms into a ring and pulled their parachutes on the count of three. If one of them had been missing a parachute, there would have been dislocated shoulders or broken arms from that arrangement. Unfortunately, he couldn’t send any of them home when they’d all hit the target.

“For such a good teacher, it’s insane that you hate teaching so much.”

“I don’t hate it,” Harry said calmly. “It’s a necessary part of Kingsman and filling the vacant positions is important.”

“But if someone gave you a gun and pointed you towards a nest of terrorists…”

“I’d gladly shoot every single one,” Harry said fervently. He was glad they were alone in the sitting room and he could talk candidly. “It’s necessary, but teaching is not a personal strength of mine.”

“You taught me,” Eggsy said, cocking one hip against the table and beaming down at Harry. His eyes were bright and his smile still held the sharpness of a fading adrenalin high. “Look how well that turned out.”

“That was you.”

“Meaning?” Eggsy asked, tilting his body towards Harry. There was a smear of mud along the back of Eggsy’s thigh, leading up to the seat of his trousers. Probably caused by a narrow escape through a muddy tunnel, Harry thought, forcing his gaze up. “Seriously, Harry, what makes me so different from these recruits?”

“Everything.” Harry sighed. “I enjoyed teaching you. You wanted to learn.”

Eggsy shrugged. “So do they.”

“Maybe I just like you more,” Harry said lightly, as if was joking when he said it.

“Well, yeah,” Eggsy said, “but give them a chance. You might like ‘em too.”

Harry bit his tongue before he spoke without thinking, saying something far too revealing and undeniably true. “I’ll try,” he promised instead.

***

“Did you know every agent has a different theory about the dog test?” Eggsy shifted in his seat, yanking out cufflinks with a painful lack of care. “Like, none of you lot agree on it. What point’s a test that nobody understands?”

“It’s a tradition as old as Kingsman itself,” Harry said tiredly. It had been a long evening with a lot of oncoming trains and screaming, begging children. He’d wanted the candidates culled, but he hadn’t expected two thirds of them to fail that test. They’d seemed so devoted… until the train came thundering down the line. It was disappointing, to say the least.

There were still three candidates left, but it meant that even if they managed to pass all remaining tests, there would still be vacancies. Harry might have to train a whole new batch of candidates. The dismay of that thought went far beyond mere disappointment.

“Merlin said it was a weapons test,” Eggsy said, pulling his tie loose and removing it completely. “He said a proper Kingsman should know the weight of a weapon armed with blanks.”

Harry nodded. “He was always very aware of technology, especially the deadlier varieties. If anyone could recognise bullets from the balance of a handgun, it would be Merlin.”

“Kay said it was loyalty, to show your belief in Kingsman. Lamorak said it was a show of good faith. So an agent follows orders in the field without questioning, even if they sound horrible, knowing that Kingsman will find a way to protect lives.”

“Doing a bad thing for a good reason and hoping the end result is worth it?” Harry mused aloud, not letting himself add the thought that came after it: that it sounded like Lamorak’s style. Ethical reasoning had never been his strongest virtue.

“Bedivere said it was a test of obedience,” Eggsy said, flinging an arm wide, cuffs pushed up to his elbow and dried blood spattered on the inside of his wrist. Harry found himself suddenly paying close attention, noting Eggsy’s slouch and the awkward way he was keeping his left side still. “Geraint said it’s proof of self-sacrifice required for a Kingsman, forcing us to put the needs of others above our own desires.”

“Eggsy,” Harry said gently, wishing he could settle the upset tone in Eggsy’s voice. The East sitting room was warm and bright, islands of lamplight burnishing the leather armchairs. It was a room for quiet conversation or a good book, and Eggsy’s pinched features were out of place here.

Harry found himself wondering if he could take Eggsy home, sit him down at Harry’s table with a strong drink and let him talk himself hoarse. It was what Harry would do: talk over the failed mission until he found something to do differently, obsess over the details until he recognised something he could have changed.

“Everyone rationalises it as a good thing. Like Kingsman told you to do it, so it must be good and noble. How can it be good or noble to turn on something that loves you and needs your protection?” It seemed like a rhetorical question, but there was something begging in Eggsy’s expression, something so young and disillusioned and desperate in his eyes. “No-one can explain that.”

“Because it isn’t. It’s necessary and you need to find a way to live with it afterwards, but it isn’t good.”

Eggsy took a deep breath and the fight melted out of him with his exhale. “So we do what we do, and hope we find a way to sleep at night?”

“Even if we don’t save them,” Harry said, because he knew Eggsy like he knew the smell of Earl Grey in the afternoon. Violence had never bothered him but being unable to protect someone relying on him? That would eat him alive. “We don’t always win.”

Eggsy folded his forearms across his lap and dropped his head. “Losing shouldn’t suck this much,” he muttered, hiding from the world.

Harry let himself rest a hand on stretch of pale, exposed skin at the back of Eggsy’s neck. “That is why we try to avoid it whenever possible.”

“You ever regret becoming a Kingsman, Harry?” Eggsy asked quietly, head tilted to watch Harry from the corner of one eye.

“I’ve saved more lives than I’ve taken,” Harry said, giving Eggsy’s neck a reassuring squeeze. “I’ve regretted some of the losses, but I’ve never regretted joining Kingsman. Do you?”

Eggsy buried his head in his hands. The clock over the mantelpiece ticked loudly. “I couldn’t. I couldn’t be me and… I like who Kingsman made me, Harry. I can’t regret that.”

Kingsman polished who Eggsy had been, taught him manners and how to show respect. It hadn’t made him someone new; it had made it easier to see who Eggsy truly was. “You are a credit to Kingsman, not the other way around.”

“Harry,” Eggsy said, raising his head; Harry found himself a little enamoured of the way that Eggsy said his name, dropping the h and somehow making it soft and warm. “Be serious.”

Perhaps that tone of voice was contagious. Harry’s words came out too gentle, too intense, to be justified as friendship. “Have I ever been anything else with you?”

There was no point denying it. Might as well make it perfectly obvious, Harry thought and raised a hand to cup Eggsy’s cheek. It was smoothly shaved, warm against his palm and Harry couldn’t resist rubbing a thumb against the corner of Eggsy’s lush mouth. Eggsy’s breath caught and Harry removed his hand before he was tempted to do more.

Eggsy shook his head slowly. He glanced at the door. “Fuck, Harry, if you weren’t so damn proper…” His words hung in the air with promise, a shimmering temptation of things that might be worth the public embarrassment that would surely follow.

However, they would be seen and Harry had no intention of sharing Eggsy with any type of audience. “Do you really want me to be someone else?”

“No,” Eggsy replied easily, “I want you just as you are, thanks.”

“The sentiment is very much mutual. However, there is a time and a place,” Harry said, his voice a little rougher than it should have been, “and this is inappropriate on both counts.”

“Your place,” Eggsy insisted, giving the open door one last glare. “Now.”

***

Despite Harry’s doubts, Eggsy was a thorough gentleman in the Kingsman taxi. No cheeky comments or sly puns, no wandering hands that Harry might not have had the self-control to resist. Eggsy sat quietly and calmly, his jacket hiding his open cuffs, his top shirt button undone. He kept his hands folded in his lap and watched the passing lights on London’s dark streets. He occasionally looked back at Harry with a content smile, so secretly pleased with himself. He was a vision that Harry wanted to memorise.

Eggsy even waited patiently for Harry to work the lock, then held the door for Harry with a silly little flourish.

“I can’t tell if you’re being considerate or mocking me,” Harry said, shrugging out of his coat and hanging it up. He held a hand out for Eggsy’s.

Eggsy grinned and handed his over. “It can’t be both?”

Harry found himself shaking his head and tutting as he hung the coat and closed the door.

“They’re not mutually exclusive, Harry.”

“If you say so.” Harry turned, and there was Eggsy: bright and happy, as if there was nowhere else he’d rather be. As if Harry was the answer to every Christmas wish, every birthday present combined. Harry was used to life or death situations, adrenalin pumping through his veins and heart thundering in his chest. He wasn’t used to being the cause of such hopeful joy.

In that moment, he knew if he reached out to touch, he’d never let Eggsy go.

He took a breath a forced himself to be practical. Eggsy had just returned from a taxing mission. Food and a change of clothes would be best. There was no need to rush him into bed. “Would you like a shower? I can find you something more comfortable to change into.”

Eggsy grinned and raised an eyebrow. “Got something against sleeping starkers?”

“Try being rudely woken at 3am to fight a would-be assassin,” Harry replied and Eggsy’s grin got wider. “After the first few times, it’s simply more practical to sleep in pyjamas.”

“I’ll take my chances,” Eggsy said, looping his arms around Harry’s shoulders and leaning in. Harry could no more resist him than the sea could resist the tide. He didn’t even try.

***

Eggsy slept like a starfish, all sprawled limbs and claimed mattress space. He slept like someone too used to sleeping alone to consider equitable sharing.

He also snored. And woke Harry up in the middle of the night by rolling over and flinging a hand across Harry’s face. Harry woke instantly, freezing in place to get a sense of where the next attack would come from, and through it all, Eggsy kept snoring. Harry eased the offending arm away from his face, and Eggsy snuffled and rolled over in his sleep, throwing one long, bare leg across the bedspread.

At least it was still early enough that Harry could go back to sleep.

***

They went in together the next morning. Sitting opposite each other, they spent the journey to home base with ankles touching and the smiles of lovesick teenagers. Eggsy even said goodbye and winked.

“Took you long enough,” Merlin said, as if Harry had the slightest interest in his opinion. He completely ignored Merlin’s congratulatory slap on the back. “Then again, you’ve never been known for promptness.”

“Whereas your discretion has been vastly overrated,” Harry replied, falling in step beside him. They’d decided to send the remaining recruits for a run and then separate them afterwards.

“It crushed him when we thought you were dead, you know. That boy would follow you to the ends of the earth.”

“I’ve never doubted that.” Whatever doubts Harry may have had, there was no need to acknowledge them now. Certainly not to Merlin. Not when he’d woken up this morning with his head burrowed against Eggsy’s shoulder and Eggsy calling him sleepyhead, murmuring into Harry’s hair that he couldn’t hide from the sunshine forever.

“I’m just saying, you could do worse than him,” Merlin says, glancing down at his clipboard. “And speaking of puppy-like adoration--”

“Which we weren’t,” Harry interrupts. “And I already know.”

Merlin harrumphed. “Dog test day.”

***

Of all the candidates, Harry wouldn’t have guessed that Julian would be the one to fail. He was brash and arrogant, but his hand-to-hand combat skills were impressive and his ability to memorise information quickly would be very useful in the field. Julian was also loud and usually bordered on gauche, but he’d never hesitated to obey an order.

He’d taken the gun, cradled it in two hands and barely even looked at the shaggy Irish Wolfhound that shadowed his every step. “Can you repeat that, sir?”

“Shoot the dog,” Harry said evenly. He could see by the tiny shake of Julian’s head that the boy wasn’t going to do it.

He didn’t even point the gun.

“You can take this job and Kingsman and the whole bloody lot of you,” Julian said, dropping the gun on the coffee table with a clatter, “and shove it where it fits.” Then he stormed out, with that overgrown dog at his heels.

Harry checked the weapon, ensuring the safety was definitely engaged, and slid it back into his holster. He would have to go after Julian but he deserved a drink first. Even if it was mostly an excuse to wait for the other gunshots to ring out.

The first happened during Harry’s second sip. There must have been a small amount of doubt, a slight pause, but still a good response time. Harry kept drinking slowly, measured mouthfuls in the quiet. He’d all but given up on the last candidate when he heard the shot: an agent deliberating, coming to the conclusion that a Kingsman order should be followed.

So, that was two positions filled. Time to see if he could salvage the third.

He followed the most likely exit route and found Julian sitting beside someone on the front steps, one arm around his dog’s shoulders. Harry stepped forward quietly, staying in the shadows to eavesdrop. The man beside Julian turned and Harry recognised Eggsy’s profile.

“The thing you’ve got to remember,” Eggsy was saying, pulling a face, “is it takes all sorts, right?”

Julian said something, too low for Harry to hear. He seemed upset, shoulders hunched high and back tense.

“Yeah, but it ain’t about proving a good agent. If it was about shooting the dog to stay alive, maybe, but this is just an overgrown psych test.”

Julian mumbled something back. It sounded like, “Easy for you to say.”

“I couldn’t do it,” Eggsy said, and it didn’t sound like a confession. He wasn’t ashamed of it or embarrassed. It was simply part of who Eggsy was, and he’d never apologise for that. “I couldn’t shoot JB and disappointing my sponsor made me feel like shit. But the thing is, at the end of the day? Sometimes Kingsman needs agents who will shoot as told and not waste time talking it through. Sometimes, Kingsman needs people like us. We’ll do anything to protect those relying on us, even if it means fucking up our chance at the coolest job in the world.”

Julian was so transparent it was almost comical. Harry could almost see his thoughts as Julian gave Eggsy another look, as he suddenly saw past the perfectly presented suit and the unaffected accent to the genuinely decent man beneath them. Being a good agent was child’s play compared to being a good person.

Julian took a deep breath and set his shoulders straight. “Is it completely FUBARed?”

“Did you get told to leave?” Eggsy asked, and Julian shook his head. “Did you threaten to shoot the agent instead? Or steal one of their cars?”

“No.”

“Then you’re doing better than I did. Go back in. See what happens. The worst is that they tell you to pack your stuff, but it’s worth trying, right?”

“Quite right,” Harry said, stepping forward. “Julian, report to Merlin. Full debrief on the situation.”

Julian snapped to attention like a marionette coming alive. He stopped himself from saluting but it was a near thing. “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” Julian had spent a few too many years in the marines, if you asked Harry.

He would have let the matter rest there but Eggsy raised an eyebrow in challenge. Harry had never found a challenge he couldn’t meet. “Tristan’s right, you know. Not every agent passes the test, but every successful agent stays and tries to be part of Kingsman. Being an agent is more than pulling a trigger.”

Julian nodded slowly. This time, when he said, “Yes, sir,” it sounded like he’d actually listened.

“Mind you,” Harry added once Julian was out of sight, “not every candidate steals a car and tries to pick a fight with local bullies.”

Eggsy huffed out a laugh. “That was it, wasn’t it? Why you were so mad? It wasn’t about shooting the dog, it was the grand theft auto.”

“You do realise that I am the only agent to sponsor a candidate who tried to steal explosives, a car and a tea caddy? It’s all rather mortifying.”

“Hey, I successfully stole that tea caddy, thanks very much. Look on the bright side: you have a candidate who defies expectations.”

Harry let himself really look at Eggsy, from his highly shined black Oxfords, up the lean lines of his suit, to that too attractive smirk on his face. Smug should not be such an appealing expression. “Truer words, Eggsy.”

“Truer words what?”

“Were never spoken.” Harry sighed in despair. “Sometimes, it’s as if you’ve never seen Shakespeare.”

Eggsy shrugged. “Saw him on Doctor Who.”