Trotting up the main drive to the Kingsman mansion, Eggsy was surprised to look up and see Merlin at the top of the stairs.
It was one of their unscheduled afternoons. That made the sight of Merlin an especial surprise, because most of the candidates' unscheduled time - or so Merlin implied - was because their primary tutor had Kingsman business to take care of.
Eggsy's plan had been to tire J.B. out with a run around the grounds, get a quick snack in the kitchens, read just enough to catch up with the world politics class, and maybe watch a movie. Maybe he would see if anyone else wanted to spar. Or watch something with him. Eggsy was - almost - getting to a point with Rufus, Digby, and Hugo where he'd trust them as far as he could throw them.
(And he was improving his throwing distance all the time.)
He climbed the stairs slowly, coddling J.B. up them. Merlin had seen him bloody, bright red in embarrassment, covered in mud, and sleep-deprived for 60+ hours (an occasion that would have been memorable, if his short term memory had been entirely functional at that point), but Eggsy still didn't like to appear before him out of breath, if he could help it.
"Stay," he told J.B. reflexively, coming to a halt in front of Merlin.
"Eggsy." Merlin's tone was always just on the side of warm; it made his corrections cold without being cold, because he'd merely taken that warmth away. "I have an exercise for you."
"All right, Merlin," Eggsy said. "Just me?"
"You will have a partner," Merlin said. "This is a paired activity, and all of the remaining candidates will undertake it, at separate times. I will ask you not to mention it to anyone excepting your partner - I'll get to that," he added, heading off Eggsy's question. Eggsy nodded.
Merlin's gaze was very direct. "Seduction training has been part of your regular schedule for nearly a month now. This afternoon, you will undertake a task related to that training that falls somewhere between a test and a training exercise. In cooperation with a fellow candidate, your task is to stage a sexual scene designed to convince a viewer that you are enjoying yourself, and potentially to arouse them. The stage will be provided; the nature of the sexual intimacy is to be negotiated between you and your partner."
Putting on a show. Fuck. "And, so, who's my partner?"
"Roxy," Merlin answered.
Well, that was... probably better than the alternative. He didn't relish the thought of breathing heavily into Charlie's ear. He followed the thought logically. "Are you saying Hugo and Rufus and..."
Merlin raised his eyebrows. "As I hope you will not discuss your task with other candidates, I do not encourage you to pry into theirs," he said. "However, a non-exclusive sexual preference is a preferred trait in Kingsman field candidates."
Yeah, he'd kind of got that impression in seduction class. He just hadn't expected theory to turn to practical quite so soon.
"I stress that the nature of the task is cooperative," Merlin said. "Perform -" with faint stress on that word that could have been humour -"to your comfort level. Necking won't get you high marks, but an enthusiastic kiss rates higher than an unenthusiastic fuck. Do you understand?"
"Yeah," Eggsy said. "Yeah, I got it."
"Your safeword is gentilesse."
Eggsy could feel himself blushing. He knew what a safeword was. Theoretically. That kind of play hadn't really been part of his sex life to date. It was beginning to dawn on him how far out of his comfort zone he already was.
To push back, he said. "Okay, then, and what if I used my safeword right now?"
"Good question," Merlin said. "In short, you would fail a module of seduction training, which would put you at the bottom of the class; I would need to assign you make-up work; you would run a very high risk of being eliminated in the next round of field tests if your performance is short of perfect; and I would need to assign Roxy another partner."
That didn't sound so bad. Even the last part - Roxy could take care of herself. But it still tugged at him.
"Roxy's already agreed?"
He didn't know whether to feel flattered or to shit his pants.
"Okay then," he said.
"You'll find Roxy in the breakout room," Merlin told him. "I expect you to present yourself at Room 2701 at three PM."
Eggsy checked his watch. Just after two.
"I guess you'll see us there."
When he found her, Roxy was sitting in front of the TV; she switched it off as he approached, in the middle of someone's sentence.
"Hey," Eggsy said.
"Hi," Roxy said.
"So, we're putting on a show," Eggsy said. "Got to warn you, acrobatics are my thing but I was always a bit shit at drama class. Maybe daytime telly isn't a bad idea."
She gave him a hairline crack of a smile.
"Are you, you know, au fait with this?"
It was the wrong move. "Of course I am," Roxy said primly.
He thought about saying that's more than me, then, since this was about trust and all, but they didn't really have time for that.
"Okay," he said. "You've had longer to think about this than I have. What's on the cards for you, and what's off?"
Roxy gave a short nod. "No penetration," she said flatly. "Finger or cock. Condoms or otherwise."
"Got it," Eggsy said.
"No calling me a bitch or a whore or anything like that."
"Easy on the pinching, biting, clawing," she continued.
"Ditto for me," Eggsy put in quickly. "Okay, a little bit of nail's okay, but also, no tickling." She raised her eyebrows at him. He raised his hands in a shrug. "I mean it. No tickling."
"I promise,' Roxy said solemnly. "Do not come on me," she added, "and I am definitely not going to blow you."
"Sure," Eggsy said, snarking back. "You'd think a guy couldn't take care of himself."
Not that he'd turn down a blow job in different circumstances, not at all. But they'd have to be very different circumstances. For one thing, this was Roxy. She was objectively beautiful and brilliant and ballsy, and she was his team mate. Emphasis on mate. He'd rather have her at his back, not motivated to stab it. And lover didn't enter into the equation unless you did the kind of maths that turned people's brains inside out.
Roxy snorted. "What else are you ruling out?"
"Just forget about my arsehole," Eggsy said. "Too complicated to get into what I like and what I don't like, and if you don't want to break the mood..."
"Got it," Roxy said.
"Don't lick my feet," Eggsy said. He was serious about that one. He'd learned the hard way that foot fetishism really didn't work for him.
Roxy raised her eyebrows. "Can't kiss your arse, can't lick your feet... Really narrowing my options here, Eggsy."
"Hope you're not a slobbery kisser," Eggsy added.
"Want to try?"
He nodded agreement. She stood up and walked over to him, pulled his head down. He kissed her cautiously, just a quick press of lips held for long enough to be deliberate. He pulled away again carefully.
"It's a start," Roxy said lightly. She looked tense again. Eggsy felt the same way.
"Hey," he said. "We can do this, yeah? Maybe even have some fun?"
"Do you think this is fun?" Roxy asked him, with no small amount of contempt.
Yes and no were both completely off the table.
"Not what I meant, Roxy," he said. "I meant - we're in this together, right?" He held her gaze until she nodded.
"Okay then." Deep breath. "Okay." He glanced at his watch. "We've got forty minutes," he said. "Can't speak for you, but I think I'm going to have a shower. Meet back to plan some more in fifteen?"
"Good plan," Roxy said, sounding like she meant it.
In the shower, he sluiced off the faintest beginnings of nervous sweat. He tried to psych himself up for the upcoming sex scene. Marks for enthusiasm. He wasn't sure fake-it-till-you-make it quite worked here. It wasn't just for Roxy's benefit that he was, so to speak, performing.
So, the question was, what turned Merlin on?
It was probably a mark in the man's favour that despite how openly and directly he talked about sex as a tool, his own preferences remained opaque, as he modelled a clear divide between private desire and professional requirements. It was only dawning on Eggsy now that Merlin had told three pairs of candidates to try to arouse "a viewer" - meaning, presumably, him - and though that ought to sound dirty, somehow it didn't. A leer had been entirely missing.
In seduction classes, Merlin had talked about how being openly admired could increase a person's attractiveness. Circumstances in which the best seduction technique was to create a story - of being satisfied, or needing satisfaction - that the viewer could insert themselves into. Playing hard to get worked too, but it wasn't the only strategy.
Was that how they should design their scene? As if to say to Merlin, you could have this. Meaning Roxy, or Eggsy, or both of them?
Thinking about Merlin as part of the scene - Eggsy had thought that would be the hard part, but now that he really thought about it, it wasn't. Inviting him in - however implicitly - was something he thought he could convey, and mean.
Roxy had had some ideas in the shower too. They sketched out a brief scene. "Dialogue?" she asked.
Eggsy shook his head. "We start silent, and improvise," he said. "I can do improv; if I try to remember lines I'm going to sound stupid."
"Fine," Roxy said.
"We need names," Eggsy said. "I'm not recording a sex tape with our real ones."
"Lily." It was the first thing that came to mind.
"Fine. You're Cameron."
"If you say so."
"Don't forget to smile for the cameras."
"Oh, fuck off, Lil. That was terrible."
She grinned, and was serious again. "And a safeword," she said. "Not the official one, but one just between us, so one of us knows to back off for a bit without stopping everything."
"Yeah, fair," Eggsy said. "How about big toe."
Roxy grimaced. "I guess it'll do."
The scene they'd devised required very little costuming: just their martial arts clothing. Roxy added hair ribbons into a French braid.
They walked to the room together without further comment.
It was a basement room with a solid metal door. They knocked.
Merlin's voice came over an intercom. "You may go in. Take a couple of minutes to look over the set, then say "Start" when you wish to begin the scene."
"Got it, Merlin," Eggsy said, unusually conscious of the sound of the name.
The set was not as elaborate as Eggsy had expected. A fancy bedroom, a four-poster bed. A good amount of floor space. Well over to the side of the room was a padded bench and an array of toys. Eggsy caught Roxy's eye, jerked his head over at the bench, and shook his head. Their scene didn't need to include any of that.
They moved back to the door. Roxy nodded to Eggsy. "Start," he said to Merlin.
He moved further into the room first, leaned against one pillar of the four-poster in a pose that showed off his arms. Roxy came further into the room, stepping deliberately loudly. She was wearing heels, and made a show of taking them off and tossing them away. Eggsy fought the urge to giggle. A grin didn't hurt.
"Ready?" he said, loudly, challenging her.
She tossed her head. "Ready."
They began with sparring.
This was something they knew, something fun. There was enough space for somersaults and flying kicks. They tossed each other about, exaggerating throws and falls to create movie poses whereby Eggsy's face hovered above Roxy's, and vice versa.
("What if either of us accidentally lands a blow?" Eggsy had asked. Roxy had shrugged.
"Plan B: kiss it better.")
After one throw, Roxy grabbed Eggsy and rolled across the carpet. He let out a spontaneous "Ha," breaking the silence that had existed after "Ready", broken only by their pants of breath. Don't freeze, don't freeze, he thought. "You're fun, Lily," he said, knowing it came out in a dumb tone, more cardboard villain than knowing seducer. Don't freeze. Roxy will work with it.
Her look was slightly incredulous, but she purred back, "You've just begun to find that out."
They weren't going to win any acting prizes, but Eggsy didn't mind as much as he had at the start.
Disengaging from a wrist grab, she tapped him on the arm twice, quickly. That was the signal to slow everything down, narrow the space they were working in, and move toward the bed. Her next throw almost guided him down to the ground. His next flip bared his neck to her, and she reached out to graze it with her fingertips.
They made it to the bed. Roxy said a line Eggsy didn't catch, something about the real competition beginning - the tone was all right, and the recorders had probably picked it up. That was the next part - spotting all the cameras and mikes attached to the bed. If there wasn't a quiz later, Eggsy would eat J.B.'s leash.
More banter got them through getting their clothes off. Eggsy spouted off one-liners as best he could. He was pretty sure the conversation, put together, sounded ridiculous. Merlin was probably laughing his arse off. He hoped he was. He and Roxy shut each other up with kisses when they couldn't think what to say next, or pressed each other's mouth to skin.
This was a bit of all right; both of them were relaxed enough by now to run a serious risk of getting distracted, but the banter kept them going. Too much silence, and one or the other jump-started the scene again.
The next part was apparently a wrestling match to determine would would get to be on top. As they'd agreed beforehand, Roxy won it, and won the right to arrange Eggsy in a kneeling position, his wrists tied above him and bearing rather a lot of his weight.
She rolled a condom onto him - deftly, for which Eggsy was grateful, having been the recipient of plenty of awkward attempts in his life - but managing to continue the gesture from the tying of his wrists, implying that this was just another arrangement for her benefit.
She slapped his butt cheek in what Eggsy assumed was an appreciative manner - he rolled his eyes (but at least she'd aimed for sound, not force).
"Now you'll work for me," she said, and scooted underneath him in a kind of update of doggy-style. She pushed back against him, his cock sliding between her thighs.
("Can we make it look like I'm fucking you?"
"Yeah, but if you make it look to me like that's going to happen, I will end you."
"No, Roxy, I got it. I am completely serious about that."
"Pax. What are your ideas?")
Despite the toll on his wrists and back - this was not sustainable - it was also seriously hot. Roxy's back felt great pressed up against his chest, her hair just beyond his nose, flowing over her shoulders since she'd used the ribbons in her French braid to tie him up. The pressure of her thighs was good - he wouldn't have said he could get off that way, before, but now he wasn't so sure. And she was displaying plenty of flexibility, herself. She was supporting herself with one hand, and fucking herself with the other. He wished he could see her face.
But first and foremost, they were spies, and so, as much as Eggsy was enjoying Roxy's proximity, the sounds she was making, and the various sources of friction, he was also working his own wrists free.
"Cameron," she gasped, as if it wasn't obvious she'd just come from she way she shivered.
"More, of course," he said, kissing her back.
She took a moment, just breathing, while he kissed her, and then switched hands and began to work herself over once more.
His hands were free. Gripping the bedpost with one hand, to keep him upright, he lowered the other. His muscles were trembling. He brushed her cheek on the way down. She leaned into the touch for a moment, before realising what danger that signalled.
The resulting wrestle was not scripted at all, and in five seconds flat, both of them had fallen off the bed.
"Cameron," Roxy said, in a tone of utter disgust.
Eggsy couldn't help it. He burst out laughing. Neither could she help joining in. They sprawled across each other, shaking with giggles, would-be porn stars no longer, just candidates. Idiots. Mates.
"You wanker," Roxy said.
"I never," Eggsy said innocently. He wouldn't mind. He was still pretty hard. But he pulled the condom off. A private shower was definitely among his immediate future plans.
"C'mon, you," Roxy said, getting up and pulling him to his feet. "Let's get dressed and go find out how we did."
Now? Might as well, when they were still laughing and easy.
They padded to the control room together, Eggsy barefoot, Roxy dangling the straps of her heels in one hand.
The control room was empty, all screens black.
The only signs that Merlin had recently been there were a warm chair, and an empty glass of water still warm from his grip.
"Looks like Merlin's in his bunk," Eggsy quipped.
He looked at Roxy. "I might go find him there," he said. Her eyebrows shot up; she grinned.
"What the hell," Roxy said, and followed him.