He goes back to typing up a report, waiting for the kiss on the nape of the neck that usually comes about four and a half minutes after Harry lands back at HQ.
This time it's different. He can sense Harry lurking in the doorway instead of coming over to bother him, which tends to mean there's something suspicious going on.
"What?" he asks wearily, not turning around. "Did you wreck another helicopter? Blow up the wrong building?"
"Now, don't be cross with me," Harry starts - then he's interrupted by the tiniest most pitiful attempt at a bark that Merlin's ever heard. He spins his chair immediately, twirls round to face Harry, finds him standing there with a besotted look on his face and a puppy in his arms of such a pathetically minute size that it looks more like a doll's toy than an actual living dog. "I apprehended the mark behind his hotel and found this poor thing shivering in a heap of bin bags trying to get at the food scraps inside, but he was too small and weak to tear through the plastic. He's so little he can barely even walk, look at him."
"Look at him!" Harry insists again. He comes over and carefully places the puppy on Merlin's desk, where it immediately curls up into a little knot beside the warmth of Merlin's tea mug and falls asleep. "I'm in love. I've never felt this way before."
"Nonsense. He's a tough little soldier. I looked around for his mother for two hours but couldn't find her, so I'm going to be his mother and it'll be easier on all of us if you cooperate."
Sigh. "Do I even need to ask what you've named it?"
"Mr Pickle the third."
"Are you aware you're sick in the head?"
He gets the overdue kiss at last, Harry's mouth pressing tenderly to his forehead. "Are you aware I adore you?"
"I wonder sometimes. Tell me again."
Harry's mouth tracks a meandering line of kisses down Merlin's face, his nose and cheek and mouth. Merlin can feel the smile there, Harry's voice murmuring you know I love you, and can't deny him anything.
One Month Later
"I'm not taking your shit today, Eggsy," is what she says instead of hello, holding one elaborately manicured finger up in the air like it might have all the power of a cattle prod or magic wand if he's only dumb enough to test it. He grins at her, he can't help it, feeling vaguely sheepish as he slings himself at the rickety plastic chair beside hers.
"Lucky I weren't planning on giving you none then, innit?"
"Hm." She doesn't sound entirely convinced, but something about her eyes softens slightly, smile lines creasing the corners even though it doesn't show on her mouth. "I see you haven't found a job yet. You wanna tell me what's going on there?"
"Yeah, the thing is I had a job and it paid pretty fucking well--"
"Fencing stolen tellies for your stepdad isn't a job."
"--and now," he continues loudly, interrupting her, "I'm meant to be happy flipping burgers on minimum wage?"
"Happy is a bonus. I just want you on the right side of the law for once in your life, if that's not too much to ask."
Eggsy fishes the cool can of Red Bull out of his jacket pocket, pops it open, and tops off drinking half in one go with a big gurgling burp just because he knows it'll annoy her. Kelly looks despairingly at the wall clock as if she's dying to mention how it's only quarter past nine in the morning and far too early to be rotting his guts with that stuff, then neatly steps over it like the professional she is and slides her iPad across the table so he can see what she's tapping at on the screen.
"You wanna at least try for some of these? I found a few you might be into."
"No, no, no," Eggsy says, x-ing off the first few tabs. "Bartender, no fucking way, not in that shithole, I'll get my head kicked in for snitching on Dean. No, no. Nando's, are you having a laugh, my mates go there, no. No. Oh shit, that's all of them. Spose I ain't applying for no jobs today, then." He slides the iPad back and takes another drink from his can, staring defiantly at Kelly and waiting for her to blink or look away first, which of course she doesn't because she's been doing this for years and she's tough as fucking nails. He knows she's dealt with much worse than some arsehole mouthing off pretending he's hard. Wishes he could figure out her trick of steady, steely confidence. He can only seem to manage sullen mutiny, which he's pretty sure doesn't look quite as cool.
"Eggsy," Kelly says. She's still not fucking blinking! Maybe she's actually a robot.
"Look," he says, or snaps, really, because he's annoyed that she's won again like she always does. "It's alright for you with your fifty-K job and your fucking degrees and Mercedes and shit coming in here trying to tell me how to make my life better, you ain't got the first clue what it's like where I'm from."
"Pretty sure I've got some clue," Kelly says, deadpan, "since you bitch about it every time I offer a suggestion for improving your life. Seriously, I wanna know, when exactly does it all go from actual legitimate setbacks to just making excuses for being a lazy little arsehole?"
"You can't talk to me like that!"
"A bit over thirty K," she says, which doesn't make any sense until he realises she's talking about her wage. "Nowhere near enough to put up with your whining, or to live in a flat bigger than a shoebox, but probably more than double what you'd get in Burger King. I know this is shit for you, don't you ever fucking think I'm not sympathetic. But Eggsy, you've got to start somewhere." She spreads her magenta-painted fingertips out wide, as if she's implying that somewhere is this poxy little interview room. "You did the right thing shoving Baker and his twerps out of your life. Now you've got to man up and figure out your next step, stop waiting around for someone to hand you your life all neatly gift-wrapped, or you're just gonna go from one wrong crowd to another and I won't be able to help you if you get all caught up in that shit again."
It's the same old lecture, every single time he sees her. Maybe it'd irritate him less if she weren't totally right.
He groans softly, defeated, stretching out on the chair so his arse is perched right on the very tip of the seat and his jacket is bunched up awkwardly all around his neck and shoulders.
"Well, this feels like progress, finally," Kelly tells him, sounding pleased, as she picks up her handbag to rifle through the mess inside. "Have a lollipop."
"I'm not five," he snaps, but takes the Chupa Chup anyway because it's strawberry.
His mum sounds tired. She tries to hide it in person but always seems to forget how obvious it is on the phone. Eggsy slumps on the park bench, spreading his knees wide when it looks like a couple are thinking about sitting next to him until they change their minds and fuck off, and feels the cool glass of his phone screen start to turn warm and sweaty against his ear.
"Shit," he answers eventually, because that pretty much sums up the entirety of his life right now.
"Apparently I gotta stop being a lazy arsehole and go and work on the tills in a petrol station for eight quid an hour cos that's about as good as you're getting when you got priors."
"Well, we could use a bit of extra money, babe."
"Yeah, I know. Kelly said what if I go to college but how's A-Levels gonna buy us nappies and fix the boiler?" There's the tangy scent of approaching rain in the air now, and alarming black clouds gathering overhead. In a way it's good because the pressure's giving him a fucker of a headache and a good storm might sort of wash the world clean for a day at least, but knowing he's going to be stuck walking in squishy trainers through puddles all the way home because he can't really spare the cash for the bus is pretty fucking miserable. The confession erupts from him like the Red Bull burp earlier, ugly and burning: "Sometimes I wish I never fucking opened my mouth, you know? Like yeah we got battered and that but we never had to worry about paying the bills."
"Eggsy, babe, don't." It took her a while to stop crying about all of this: not because she was upset Dean was gone, she insisted, but because the whole thing was just so exhausting and embarrassing. All the whispers and judgey comments in the pub and the Tesco queue. The wracking sense of shame she said she felt about not standing up to him before. She sounds fierce now, a million times more on top of it all than Eggsy feels, which is a weird reversal of roles after the last decade of trying to figure out how to live in the scraps of space that Dean allowed them. "We'll be alright."
"Yeah," he says, though even in his own head it sounds like a hopeless lie. The rain starts then, fat warm drops of it landing like wet little slaps against his face, and Eggsy swears viciously into his phone, hooking his hood up and taking off at a run towards the park gate. Fuck poverty, he's getting the bus. "Be home in half an hour, yeah? Love you."
He's never quite sure after whether the fall was his fault, but he's pretty sure it's not, even though he's not really looking where he's going. He's trying to swipe the raindrops off his phone screen so he can end the call when a scruffy little puppy tears onto the path in front of him, trailing its lead behind its wagging little arse, and somewhere between trying to swerve around it and jump across it Eggsy ends up tripping over the poor thing and faceplanting right on the path. He and the dog both yelp in surprised pain at the same ridiculous pitch, then Eggsy feels the sickening burning sting of skin tearing on his palms and knees and cheekbone when his momentum slides him roughly over the gravel and grates both jeans and flesh down like cheese.
"Oh fuck," he moans after a stunned moment, then remembers the dog and sits up so quickly it makes his aching head start to spin. "Hey, you little wanker, what you doing running out in traffic like that, you alright?" He scoops the shivering little schnauzer into his arms and starts checking him over: the dog doesn't cry out at the fingers gently pressing his body and his kicking little legs, but plants his front paws right on Eggsy's shredded knees, sending another horrible jolt of pain rocketing through him, and leans in to lick his nose.
Everything's worth it. Hearts in his eyes. The little dog looks like he's grinning, like this is the best game of his life. Eggsy can't even mourn his ruined jeans, really, not when he's being dog-kissed and beamed at.
"Alright," he says, laughing even through the pain when he tries to stand up, "where'd you come from? You done a runner? How'd you break free, you don't weigh no more than a fucking hamster..."
He scans the crowds, trying to spot someone who looks bereft of a small dog. Plenty of people are scurrying along the paths and across the grass trying to get to shelter from the rain, but there's only one person full on sprinting towards them like his life depends on it.
"That your daddy?" Eggsy croons to the dog. "Wanna go back to him and get out the rain, yeah?" He doesn't quite trust the little monster not to race off again if he puts him down, so he starts walking - hobbling, really - across the lawn to meet the guy. As he gets closer, Eggsy kind of wants to laugh, only because he doesn't look anything at all like the kind of bloke who'd have a teacup schnauzer puppy: he's tall, bald, wearing half-rimmed glasses and a murderous expression, Barbour jacket flapping loose over a neat jumper and shirt and tie. Eggsy holds the puppy out when the guy gets close and says, "This yours, mate?"
"This is nothing whatsoever to do with me." He's barely even out of breath after his run but he sounds relieved at least, plucking the dog out of Eggsy's hands and dumping him onto the grass between their feet, wrapping the looped handle of the leather lead twice around his hand so the little fucker can't escape again. "This is my partner's mid-life crisis which I'm forced to deal with while he's on business abroad." He leans over to point his finger menacingly right in the puppy's face and says sternly, in a tone that somehow reminds Eggsy of Kelly, "We've talked about this, Pickle. You're going in the green bin if this happens again, do you understand me?"
The puppy nibbles the threatening finger, turns a few joyful circles, then rolls onto his back in the muddy grass to beg for a belly pat.
"Thank you for catching him," the owner says, offering a handshake, but Eggsy shakes his head and holds his bleeding hands up, and the guy's eyebrows raise as he apparently notices the injuries for the first time. "Jesus, is this his fault?"
"It's alright, guv, he didn't do it on purpose or nothing. Did you?" he adds in a sing-song voice to the puppy, bending down to tickle him until he woofs happily and squirms in the grass like he's trying to burrow right into the ground. "His name's Pickle, you serious?"
"Mr Pickle," the guy says, sounding pained, then grits his teeth and adds, "the third," as though the words taste vile in his mouth to speak. "I apologise for this disaster. He's spoiled rotten and incapable of learning manners."
"He's like five minutes old, it's alright. No harm done." Except to his knees, and hands, and jeans, and throbbing cheek... "I gotta go. Be nice to him, yeah? He's just a baby." He can see his bus stuck in traffic a while away from the stop, he'll easily make it, but when he straightens up reluctantly from petting Mr Pickle his head starts to swim alarmingly again and he blinks his eyes hard, suddenly afraid he's about to sway and collapse on the ground. It's a horribly familiar feeling, one he got far too used to given Dean's habit of punching him in the face for any real or imagined display of disrespect, and only Mr Pickle's owner's hand gripping his elbow keeps Eggsy from folding.
"Steady," the guy says. He's got a nice voice, posh-Scottish, soothing and somehow capable, like the only thing in the world he doesn't know how to do is control a tiny naughty puppy. "Nasty bump on the head there, it could be concussion."
"Nah, I know what that feels like, it ain't that. Just a bit dizzy. Worth it to meet this little prick. Ain't it worth it, Mr Pickle?" That particular cadence people use to talk to babies and very small kittens and puppies comes so easily to him now, living with an unexpected baby sister, and Mr Pickle seems as delighted by it as Daisy always does: he dashes forward and leaps a couple of inches in the air, landing his muddy paws against Eggsy's shins and barking ecstatically like he's agreeing. Eggsy can't help laughing, the dog's irrepressible joy is infectious. "I gotta go, babes. You be good for your daddy, yeah?"
"Please don't call me that," the owner mutters, looking vaguely ill. "Are you sure you're alright?"
"Yeah." Eggsy tries to blot the worst of the blood from his grazed hands onto his wrecked jeans, feeling a wry sort of smile twist onto his mouth. "Believe me, guv, I've had a lot worse. Take care, yeah? Bye bye, Mr Pickle."
He turns at the gate for a last glance at the puppy to find the defeated owner picking its wriggling little body up out of the mud and striding away with him zipped into the front of his jacket, wearing his shattered dignity with as much casual grace as a perfectly tailored suit.
Harry on Skype is as fully ridiculous as Harry in person. He's right up close to the camera making kissy noises and Mr Pickle is losing his tiny peanut mind, dancing round in delirious circles on the desk and bringing up all kinds of menus because he keeps pressing the keys with his little feet trying to climb inside the screen until Merlin covers the keyboard with a book.
"How is my handsome darling? I miss you terribly, do you miss me too? Are you being good for daddy?"
"He is not," Merlin says shortly. "He's in disgrace."
"Oh, do one of those dog shaming photos with a sign around his neck."
"Bad boy, Mr Pickle." Doesn't really work when he's using the exact same stupid delighted tone of voice as he does with praise. "Let me guess. Did you climb in daddy's bath for a lovely swim and shit on his tummy again? Did you eat the roses and spoil your dinner?"
"He's a public menace."
"Well, that sounds terribly exciting, do tell."
"He got under someone's feet in the park, tripped him up, blood everywhere - the young man's blood," Merlin adds quickly when Harry looks alarmed and like he might give up on his mission and fly home immediately. "Sent him sprawling on the path, completely shredded his hands and knees, then this furry little idiot here gave him one single kiss in apology and won him over. Hearts in his eyes just like yours. Unbelievable how quickly this beast worms his way under idiots' skin."
A million miles away in Argentina, Harry laughs. Merlin watches him on the screen: all the familiar creases and dimples of his face, the glimpse of his handsome hands as he's tugging his tie knot loose and unfastening his top few buttons. He's in his hotel room, leaning back against the headboard of his bed. He must have his tablet resting on his drawn up knees, the way he always does at home when he can't sleep and sits up half the night watching Drag Race on Netflix with headphones in while Merlin dozes beside him and Mr Pickle wriggles in between their bodies like a tiny novelty hot water bottle. In that moment Merlin misses him fiercely: the warmth and familiar scent of him, the sound of his voice singing bad old pop songs in the shower, all the absurdities he masks with his Galahad title when he's not at home, or Skyping home.
"Am I allowed to ask you to take your clothes off while the baby's in the room?" Merlin asks, fake-nonchalant.
Harry's smile is brilliant; fleetingly surprised, because they're old and comfortable and don't always do this kind of thing any more, then a softer, glorious mix of fondness and delight. "Well, that depends. Only my clothes, or yours as well? I wouldn't advise you whip your cock out and start waving it around the room while he's there - he might mistake it for a pull toy, and the only way that's going to end is in disaster."
"Good point. I'm going to put him to bed. No touching until I'm back."
"Of course not. Night night, darling boy," Harry croons at the puppy from the other end of the world, and Mr Pickle almost falls off the desk in his excitement before Merlin scoops him up to take him downstairs.
The job Eggsy finally, grudgingly finds is evenings in a Papa John's, which is alright because he gets free pizza and it means he can watch the baby in the daytime for the couple of shifts a week his mum gets in Tesco Express. Between them they get by, even manage to save up enough to start redecorating the flat for the first time in fifteen years. Kelly seems happier about it all than anyone, dropping a handful of lollipop rewards on the kitchen counter and even giving Eggsy a quick squeezing hug when she leaves after her last visit, which he pretends he doesn't find as gratifying as he really does.
"Hey, Mum?" Eggsy says, slurring a bit around the two lollies he's shoved in his mouth at the same time.
She looks up from the kitchen table where she's cutting out cheap holiday coupons from the newspaper, eyebrows raising slightly when she sees the framed photo he's brought out of his bedroom. It's his dad, so young and so proud in his Marines uniform, wearing the same crooked curve of a smile that Eggsy sees on his own face in his mates' party pictures on Instagram.
"'Bout time we put him back up in the living room, ain't it?"
She covers her mouth with her hand for a moment like she's about to cry, but it's a smile that breaks through instead as she nudges her chair out and gets up, taking the photo from Eggy when he offers it to her and tugging him in close with an arm around his waist to press a noisy smacking kiss to his cheek. He pretends to be annoyed about it, scrubbing the spot with his jacket sleeve, but really it's something like magic to see her this happy again. The memory of it is so old and faded it's like a polaroid from the sixties, all distorted and blurred.
"Put him next to Daisy," he says, following her through and nodding his head at the shelf where his sister's pink little newborn face stands in a silver frame. She's wearing a tiny blue hat Eggsy grabbed from a basket full of stuff knitted by volunteers in the hospital - blue, he'd said, cos she's gonna be a Millwall fan or she's going back inside, and his mum had slapped at him weakly even as she'd laughed, cried a bit, fell fitfully asleep with the baby on her chest and Eggsy's fingers carefully stroking her hair. Dean hadn't been there, of course. Business matters, he'd claimed, though Jamal called him a fucking liar (behind his back, obviously) and grimly showed Eggsy a phone photo of him watching the football in the pub with the lads at the time. "He shoulda been her dad, not that wanker."
"Well, maybe he'll get shanked in prison and she won't ever have to know he existed."
"Wish on all the shooting stars, hey."
Somewhere in one of the plastic boxes shoved in the attic is his parents' wedding album, which Eggsy carefully wrapped in old pillowcases and hid after one of the times Dean had a tantrum about someone mentioning Lee's name. It's years since he looked at it - even longer, probably, since his mum did - but he remembers the pictures so clearly: how young they were, only just turned nineteen; his dad's impeccable uniform standing out against all his mates' baggy suits which they'd clearly borrowed from their dads for the day; the polyester satin gleam of his mum's dress, already worn by both his aunties at their own weddings a few years earlier, with its gigantic poofy sleeves and faux-virginal white lace even though the massive skirt was hiding three months' worth of baby bump.
There was one picture he liked more than the rest, not even an official staged photo but a snapshot someone took on a disposable camera: slightly out of focus but clear enough to see his dad caught frozen on film halfway through whispering something in his mum's ear, and her delighted laughter that made her nose crinkle. He always somehow wondered what they were talking about while also not wanting to know, like it was a secret for them alone and breaking it even for him would be wrong. Watching his mum rearrange the photos on the shelf to make space for his dad, the way it always should have been, makes Eggsy want to climb up there right now and drag the other pictures down for her. He'll do it tomorrow, he decides, while she's out at work - haul everything down and spread it out in the living room, microwave a frozen lasagna or something so she doesn't have to cook, get a six-pack of Stella chilling in the fridge so they can just hang out and drink and talk. Figure out how to get on with their lives now his dad's allowed to be a part of them again.
He's still distracted by his thoughts when he starts work, but even so he's pretty fucking sure it's not his fault again when Mr Pickle runs out in front of him. Eggsy sees the puppy dart out into the road and slams down on the brakes with a reflex speed he didn't know he was capable of, hoping to god that the horrible banging noise was just his head smashing off the steering wheel and not a tiny schnauzer getting flattened by the front of the car.
"Fucking come on," he mutters. His nose feels on fire, blood gushing hard from both nostrils as well as a tender place on his forehead that he knows is going to swell up like a cartoon by the morning, and he fumbles through the glove box for a handful of plasticky paper napkins to mop himself up as he climbs out of the car. "Mr Pickle, I fucking swear to god! You best not be dead cos I can't take it"--then the puppy comes racing round from the front of the car, entirely unharmed, to yell shrill little barks of greeting and try to climb Eggsy's trouser legs for a cuddle. He's not trailing a lead this time, he's not even wearing a collar. Eggsy scoops him up, settling the tiny dog in the crook of his arm where he promptly falls asleep like it's the most comfortable bed in the world, then just stands there, stumped, looking up and down the street for his owner, who unhelpfully fails to appear.
"Alright, where's daddy?" Eggsy sing-songs at him. "You gonna help me find him, yeah?" -- but Mr Pickle just does a grumbly snore and burrows his beardy little face deeper into Eggsy's armpit. Fucking useless. At least his nosebleed is slowing. Eggsy takes a few minutes to wipe the worst of the gore away, then rolls a napkin, stuffs each end up his nose like a couple of tampons, and marches off to look for the worst dog owner in the fucking world.
"Mate, you seen anyone looking for a dog?" he asks a guy smoking in the street, but the guy shrugs his shoulders and says something in a language Eggsy doesn't know so that's not much help.
The almost-accident happened right outside Stanhope Gardens. Eggsy's lingering uncertainly by the empty bike stands near the fence wondering whether maybe the little fucker escaped from being walked in there somehow, when he hears panicked yelling from down the street and the horrifying screech of another averted accident - a car swerving alarmingly close around a man pelting across the road. He doesn't even seem to notice the close call, he's too busy scanning the pavements and looking behind plant pots and things, by turns furiously shouting, "Mr Pickle, come here at once!" and placating, "Darling, daddy's not cross, if you come home you can have a delicious glass of Baileys before we go to bed, mmmm..."
"Right," Eggsy says to the sleeping puppy. "So that one's your daddy, hey?"
"Poor darling," the man's saying, anxiously peering over some railings as if he expects to see his dog lying dead on someone's basement level. "Let's get out of the cold and have a lovely warm bath, shall we? Where on earth are you hiding?"
"Oi, mate!" Eggsy yells from the corner of the gardens, because if he doesn't the guy's about to go racing over the road again and get himself mashed by the oncoming bus he's apparently too frantic to see. "This your dog?"
"Mr Pickle!" the man cries, enraptured like he's just seen Jesus, and runs to meet them. He's so tall, ridiculous legs like five miles long in his gorgeous three-piece suit, that he seems to reach them in a single step: he grabs the offered puppy, cuddling him close and nuzzling his face so enthusiastically into Mr Pickle's belly that it shoves his glasses all crooked, and gasps out a fumbled string of thanks that's so intensely earnest that it's actually a bit embarrassing.
"Yeah, alright," Eggsy mutters. Embarrassment manifests as irritation somehow - the only person who's made him bleed as much as this little fucking dog in his whole life is Dean - and he snaps, "Put your dog on a lead and fucking don't feed him Baileys, are you mental?"
"He's very fond of Baileys," the man says, sounding affronted, though he starts to look slightly like he might have caught on to the extent of the trouble caused when Eggsy yanks his bloodsoaked napkin-tampon-horseshoe-thing out of his nose and stuffs a clean one in before the first can start leaking all over his lip. "Good god, are you alright?"
"Yeah, I'm fine, bruv, just probably fucked the brakes trying not to run him over, mighta broke my nose, definitely gonna have a lump on my head like a fucking plum tomorrow, but, you know, go and feed your pup booze he ain't supposed to have so he dies age five. Glad I saved his life so you can fuck it up."
The thing about a good parting line is you need to leave as soon as you've spat it out for maximum effect, but Eggsy stomps off to where he left the car, and it's not there.
"Oh no. No no no fuck someone's fucking nicked my car!"
Karma, says a dismayed little voice inside his head. He doesn't usually feel that much regret about his old days of jacking cars and stealing people's shit; maybe it's been dislodged like a loosened tooth by the bump on the head. Whatever it is it makes him even more fucking livid, a seething explosion of it roiling through him - and then just as suddenly burning out, fading away, leaving him feeling nothing but exhaustion and an empty, aching sort of misery. Like he can afford a new car, especially now he's probably going to get sacked for not making his deliveries. Right back to square one, then, which is the most fucking depressing square of all because it makes wearing a McDonalds drive-through headset look like an actual long-term career option.
"Would you like to borrow my phone?" the man behind him asks quietly. He sounds subdued, perhaps still chastened from Eggsy yelling at him, but there's warmth rather than fawning apology in his voice and something about that makes Eggsy like him a bit more than he might have done otherwise.
He leans against the fence, carefully testing the state of his bleeding nose, and says, "I ain't got nobody to call, the police won't give a shit."
"Of course they will, it's their job to give a shit." He says it gently mocking, a touch of Eggsy's accent creeping into his own posh voice as he repeats the swear, but not in a cruel piss-take sort of way. When Eggsy glances up at him, he smiles softly and takes a few steps backward as though he's giving Eggsy space to consider it, then a few more as though he's waiting for him to follow. "My house is just beyond that Caffè Nero, just around the corner. Please, allow me to help. This is my fault, after all."
"Well, yeah it is." He's aiming for cross but just sounds fucking done. Enough now. "You got any ice at your place?" he asks hopefully, and the guy gives him a little smile and a hand gesture as if to say come along.
"Some superb Scotch as well, if that's your poison."
"I meant ice for my head."
"Naturally, but there's no reason one can't indulge and heal at the same time." Fair enough.
He's paying slightly more attention to the road this time, letting a few cars and another bus zip past before he crosses, still cradling Mr Pickle to his chest. He guides Eggsy around the corner, past the dark windows of the closed coffee shop, then left again into a quiet little mews row, all pristine white houses and fucking palm trees in pots like this isn't the middle of London. The door at the very end is still wide open, presumably flung there and forgotten about when he ran out after his escapee dog, and he politely says, "After you, please," then closes it behind them.
Eggsy's not the slightest bit surprised to see several large professional studio photos of Mr Pickle framed on the walls, and even a fairly good oil painting done in the style of all that Renaissance shit in the Tate. His owners are clearly rich as fuck and besotted with him - at least this guy is, maybe not so much the bald bloke in the park. It's actually pretty sweet. Probably much worse things you could find hanging on the walls in a stranger's house at half ten at night, at least.
"Please, make yourself at home," the guy says, ushering Eggsy into a living room that looks like it's been decorated by a committee of grannies: brocade and fussy little figurines everywhere, one of those bars shaped like an antique globe, a cabinet to hide the vulgarity of the modern telly with the doors wide open on some kind of panel show. To the left of it is the most ridiculous dog bed Eggsy's ever seen in his entire life - an intricately carved ebony four-poster with a leopard-print cushion and canopy trimmed with black fur pompoms - and the guy places Mr Pickle onto the middle of it and covers him with a matching leopard-print blanket so all that's left showing is his twitching little grey beard. The guy seems completely unaware that he's actually mental, nonchalantly standing up when he's done and heading into the kitchen to bang a tray of ice cubes into a tea towel and twist it up for Eggsy to hold against his throbbing forehead.
"Harry?" a voice calls from somewhere in the house, and the guy - Harry - hisses for him to shush.
"The baby's asleep," he calls back in a ridiculous stage whisper.
Footsteps, the creak of floorboards in the stairs, then the guy from the park appears in the doorway swiping at something on a tablet. "You found him, then?"
"Almost got himself killed, poor little bean."
"Well, then maybe you shouldn't" -- then he stops when he finally looks up from his screen, blinking in surprise at seeing Eggsy standing there with half his face hidden behind a towel. "Oh. Hello again."
"Again?" Harry says, eyebrows raised, looking from one to the other, then something dawns on his face and he adds, "This is the young man from the park?"
"Your dog's a fucking menace, guv," Eggsy tells park guy, "proper got it in for me and I dunno why," but he takes the offered handshake this time, mostly-healed grazes barely even hurting at the touch. "I'm Eggsy."
"Merlin. What the bloody hell happened? Sit down, will you. Harry - kettle."
It whistles to boiling point in the background while Eggsy tries to explain and just gets mildly scolded for not wearing his seatbelt, which seems a bit forward considering he didn't even know the guy's name until two minutes ago (and even now it sounds like a fake or some kind of RPG character name - who's actually fucking called Merlin?). Tea helps, although he refuses the whisky that Harry pours generously into his own cup, as does the ice on his bumped head, the wet cloth Merlin fetches for him to coax the crusted blood from around his nose, and the two bitter paracetamol tablets to take the edge off the aching. It's even sort of nice, although weird, to be sitting here with two guys he doesn't even know and a snoring puppy in a porn star bed, letting the complaints he's been bottling up for so long just flood right out of him.
"--and this is a posh area," he concludes in a voice that's very close to an aggrieved whine. "Cars don't get fucking stolen in places like this!"
"They do if you leave the door open and the engine running," Merlin tells him. He's not even trying to sound apologetic about it, it's just a casual fact to him, and Eggsy feels himself starting to bristle again.
"Well scuse me for wanting to find out sooner rather than later if your dog was pancaked round my fucking wheels."
"Harry's dog," Merlin corrects. Across the table, Harry is sipping his laced tea and gazing across the room at the little blanketed lump of Mr Pickle's sleeping body, smiling softly. Sickening, really.
"He always like this?" Eggsy asks.
It's the first time Merlin cracks a smile of his own, for one infinitesimal moment looking just as gormlessly dreamy about Harry as Harry does about the puppy before he gets himself under control, rearranging his face back into its default setting of 'indecipherably blank'. "Unfortunately, yes. I think Harry's got something of a hero complex. Likes being adored just a little bit more than is seemly."
"And the best way to scratch the itch is, what, find the smallest fucking neediest puppy in the whole world and give it everything it wants?"
"Apparently so." His eyes go soft again, a smile caught somewhere deep, before he realises Eggsy's staring at him and looks down at his hands wrapped around his mug, then at Eggsy. "Listen, I believe I might be able to help you retrieve your car. Harry and I have several friends working with the Met and the City police, I'll do all I can to pull some strings and make it someone's priority."
Merlin watches him carefully for a moment. Eggsy's got the weirdest feeling he's being studied like something smeared between two slides and slipped under a microscope; it makes the back of his neck prickle, though it's not exactly uncomfortable. "You sound surprised."
"Well, yeah. Gotta be honest, I ain't that used to people doing me a solid, you know?"
"You saved my child's life," Harry says, a fraction too loudly. He's clearly a bit drunk, probably started before Mr Pickle's dash out the door, and somehow far more handsome with it when Eggsy himself just gets sweaty and gobby - a single strand of neatly combed hair falling over his forehead, and a faint pink flush in his cheeks.
"Harry, it's a dog," Merlin says flatly.
"Darling, he'll hear you, I've asked you repeatedly not to disillusion him." Merlin holds his hands up in exhausted surrender until Harry nods, mollified, and turns his booze-bright eyes back to Eggsy. "If we can't find your car I'll bloody buy you a car."
Bit weird, though Eggsy's got no doubt he could afford it and not even feel the pinch of the lost money, which is a bit galling. Still, he seems earnest about it, so Eggsy manages a kind of vaguely polite, non-committal sort of nod. "Right," he says awkwardly. "Can I use your loo?"
He's intending to wash his bloody face properly, go back out there and say goodbye to the weird old eccentrics and their dog-child then try and figure out where he can get a late bus from to save him a grim walk home, but the first thing he sees when he opens the bathroom door is a fucking dead dog and it rockets his heart up into his throat; the only reason he doesn't yell out loud from the shock is because he's clapped his hand over his mouth. It's some kind of scruffy Cairn terrier or something, mounted on oak with a little brass plaque reading 'Mr Pickle' like it's fucking normal to give your new dog the same name as your dead one whose corpse you've decided to keep. Like that's not bad enough, all over the rest of the walls is a grid of framed moths and butterflies, some dragonflies, a bunch of brightly-coloured beetles, oh jesus fuck another dead dog a sleek little Maltese with a tartan bow in its hair and a plaque saying Mr Pickle II - Harry's clearly a fucking psycho, Merlin ain't no better, get out, his brain tells him, out out get out be quiet and get out there's probably some kinda roofies in your tea get OUT--
He flings himself out the bathroom window, as quick and silent as he ever was back in his burglary days, nips over a couple of walls, and bolts in the general direction of home before they can possibly notice he's gone.
Harry's there in the bedroom when Merlin finishes in the shower. It's a routine they settled years ago, decades, even: the easy, familiar little dodge around one another in the ensuite doorway, Harry's fingertips drifting gently along the top edge of the towel wrapped around Merlin's waist on his way to the still-running water. It's a habit of a touch, although no less sweet for that. Something quiet and private, an I see you sort of reminder that seems to matter so much more now than all the unnecessary explosions of passion they relied on so much in their youth.
By the time Harry's done, Merlin's in bed reading Percival's last intel mission transcript, but he allows himself a peek over the top of his tablet like always, and, like always, Harry catches him at it and gives him a fond little grin as he's drying off.
"See something you like?"
"Turn about eighty degrees to your left - now I do."
Harry's very proud of his arse, with good reason, and seems to like any excuse he can get to stand around naked and show it off, a vanity that Merlin still indulges far more than he probably should. The urge to actually do something about it isn't there as often as it used to be - familiarity, the aches of a body half a century old, exhaustion from overwork, so many things over the last few years have shunted sex way down his list of priorities - but it's a sight he'll never, ever tire of: Harry, flushed from the hot water, gleaming damp and gold in the lamp light with his hair scuffed dry with a towel and gathered in messy, clinging little ruffled curls to his forehead and nape. The pleased, almost surprised smile he drops back over his shoulder, as though somehow it's always a revelation to him that Merlin's still in his bed, still watching and wanting, after so many years.
"Absolutely terrible," Harry murmurs, though his tone implies the opposite. He paws through the dresser drawer for clean pyjamas, choosing the deep royal blue silk set and beginning to dress himself slowly in a reverse-striptease that makes Merlin's mouth feel dry: he imagines the whispering slide of the fabric on Harry's bare skin, too quiet to hear but just clinging enough that he must be able to feel the feather-weight of the shirt stroking his shoulders and broad chest, the waistband knotted against the softness of his belly. "I'm just a trophy wife for you, I always knew it."
There's a gorgeous foolish toothiness to his smile when he really means it, a million worlds away from the tight-lipped sarcasm he inflicts on all the people undeserving of his pleasure. Harry tucks himself under the covers, wriggling silk-slippery backwards against Merlin's side until he concedes defeat and turns off his tablet and the lamp, tracing his fingers over Harry's hip and coming to rest there: not quite a hug, nothing that deliberate, but an extension of the warm point of contact that begins with Harry's shoulder blades against Merlin's chest and moves down through the curves of their bodies and legs to the tangle of feet at the bottom.
The stirrings of desire are lazy and unassuming; he won't be bothered if Harry's too tired or doesn't feel like it, but there's still something sweet and thrilling about the mere fact of arousal in itself. It's comfortable, just a thing that doesn't need to be acted upon simply because it's there, but is allowed to linger and be enjoyed for what it is and then vanish in its own time if that's how it goes. But tonight Harry squirms backward to meet him, and Merlin can hear his breath coming more quickly. Can feel it in the motion of Harry's back against his chest - in, hold, out - and the way Harry finds the hand resting on his thigh and begins very gently to stroke long, wandering lines down the backs of Merlin's fingers.
"But with condoms, if you don't mind," Harry murmurs, as though the preceding silence and the comfortable, languorous press of their bodies had been the first half of a conversation. "I'm far too tired to bother washing again, and I'm not changing a wet sheet."
Merlin feels Harry pulling slightly away from him, hears the squeak-clatter of the drawer, then the foil edge of a condom wrapper takes the place of Harry's stroking fingertips, brushing a thrill of goosebumps against the back of Merlin's hand. He takes it, then the bottle of lubricant that follows, and listens to the steady pace of Harry's breathing as he's working his cock out of his pyjama trousers and stroking himself hard.
"Well, that's romantic," Merlin whispers, soft and sardonic against the curve of Harry's ear because he thinks it'll make him smile, and it does.
"Shush," Harry demands, voice wobbling and bright with suppressed laughter as he's fumbling to slip his pyjamas down to his knees. "Get on with it so we can go to sleep, would you?"
Harry never needed very much fussing with; a little bit of cursory fingering and he's already impatient, demanding now, do it, now until Merlin pushes fully inside him, slick and hard and hot, and Harry sighs happily, the sound of someone sinking into a bubble bath with a glass of wine at the end of a long, exhausting day.
"That's nice," he says, sounding sleepy and a little bit wistful somehow. Merlin curves an arm around him, splayed fingers pushing his shirt up into a concertina of creases to find the thudding beat of his heart, and Harry whines, "Yes," in a broken little whisper, beginning to tilt them into a steady, languid rhythm. "Darling."
"Darling? Are you talking to me or the dog?"
"Oh, don't, now I'm thinking of him. Poor little mite, all alone down there in the dark..."
Merlin finds Harry's nipple and gives it a warning tweak until he swallows back a moan and whatever else he meant to say after. "He's fine. He's sleeping in a better bed than ours."
"I know." For a little while there's no sound but their panting breaths entwining in the hot air and the quiet creak of bedsprings, then Harry says, "I still can't believe that boy ran away." He sounds deeply hurt, which probably shouldn't be as ridiculously funny as it somehow is. Merlin's glad for their position and disguises his helpless grin by nuzzling into Harry's damp hair, kissing the back of his neck until he's sighing again and settling, indolent and warm, back into Merlin's arms and the shift of his hips.
"Well, what on earth would you have done with him if he'd stayed?"
"What kind of a question is that to ask me when you're halfway up my digestive system?"
"Harry, Jesus." He can feel Harry's shoulders shaking against his chest again with stifled laughter. To shut him up, Merlin carefully pulls out and turns onto his back, hauling insistently at the uncooperative weight of Harry's body - lean muscle, as polished and honed as the blades of his favourite throwing knives, and a spreading band of unshiftable softness around his middle that he spends far too long glaring at critically in the mirror - until he kicks his pyjama trousers away and straddles Merlin's hips, guiding him back inside.
Something about it feels different to what's become usual; it's not a thing they do too often any more, not like this. This makes Merlin think of 1983 and 1985 and 1991: Harry's terrible candy-floss hair, so much hairspray emptied into it that it barely moved at all even when Harry was flailing and bucking like a rodeo rider astride him; days spent on missions together, or between missions, insinuating themselves so fiercely into each other's lives that even an hour apart felt like an infected toothache; a love that bordered on obsessive, even something close to frightening for the first few stunned years until the untenable infatuation began to mellow into something much easier to live with.
Harry darts down to kiss him and Merlin slides his fingers into Harry's hair so he can't move away, not that he seems to have any intention of ever going anywhere again. It's quick after that; they're practiced now, as familiar with one another's skin as Harry is with pistols and Merlin is with rolling lines of code. Merlin makes a single quiet sound when he comes, a held-breath explosion that bursts damp and warm against Harry's shoulder. Harry's noisier, of course, spilling an extravagantly pleased little string of moans that fall like burning brands against Merlin's cheek and mouth and clumsily against his forehead before he finally goes still.
"Get off me," Merlin tells him after a moment. He nudges Harry to make him sit up then tips him sideways, stripping both of their condoms off and balling them up in a tissue to throw at the bin across the room. "You're heavy and I'm tired," he adds when Harry grumbles something spoiled under his breath, but he's still more than happy to let Harry settle again under the drape of his arm once he's done dabbing himself dry with another tissue and retrieved his trousers.
"It's so late," Harry complains in an aggrieved little whine against Merlin's neck. "Say no to me next time."
"Don't be absurd, you know you're irresistible." He can feel Harry smile, a last little kiss bumped against his collarbone where the lapel of his pyjamas rests, and then nothing but the steady rise and fall of their breathing.
Harry's fast asleep by the time the idiot puppy comes to howl for attention outside the bedroom door ten minutes later, so like bloody always it's Merlin who has to haul himself out of bed and let the damn thing in to sleep between them or there'll be no rest for anyone.
There's a perfect little sightline through the privet leaves of someone else's hedge. Eggsy's hidden from their house by the shed, wedged in the muddy little space between the wood slats and the red brick of the garden wall, but he can see directly into Harry and Merlin's back windows from here so a bit of discomfort is worth it. He can't exactly march up to the front door and ring the bell - or he could, but he doesn't fucking want to.
Harry's laughing at something Merlin's saying, his face creasing all over with laughter lines and dimples. He's eating jam on toast, far more messily than Eggsy would have expected if he'd ever actually thought about it before, sucking spilled red smears of it from his elegant fingers and dusting crumbs off the front of his shirt and tie. For a moment then he vanishes, but reappears seconds later having scooped Mr Pickle up in his arms to bring the puppy to his face and accept the extravagant licking on offer. Merlin must be saying something about how revolting it is - his back's to the window so it's hard to tell - because Harry gives him a comically stubborn sort of look then, even as the tiny dog tries to climb inside his nostrils, as if to tell him shut up, it's my face, he can lick it as much as he likes.
Gross. Why won't they leave? It's already five to nine; they're going to be late unless wherever they work is literally across the road, which wouldn't be very helpful to Eggsy's plans of breaking in.
His face is still sore as fuck. Nothing seems to be broken, but the black eyes from smashing his nose into the steering wheel have blossomed overnight, smearing out to either side in ugly mottled smudges that made his mum chew anxiously on her lip when she came into the kitchen for breakfast. You gotta stop fighting, babe, she told him quietly, you don't need to get in trouble no more, alright? and he didn't have the energy to explain about the crash and the stolen car and his missing phone and lost job. Or about how he'd left the Adidas jacket she'd saved up to get him for Christmas in some mad fucks' house full of dead animals in his haste to escape, but at least he had a solution to that one.
Finally - through the window Eggsy sees Merlin give Mr Pickle a perfunctory pat on the head, looking more as though he's been ordered to than because he wants to, then Harry stoops to put the puppy back on the floor and they leave.
He gives it another five minutes just to be sure one of them isn't going to come flying back in for a forgotten wallet or something, then checks the coast is clear and nips over the wall as quick as a bullet into their tiny back yard. It's impeccably tidy - a brick barbecue in one corner covered by a metal lid, rows of potted plants on the slate patio paving, a little wrought iron table and four chairs - and Eggsy makes sure he doesn't bump into anything when he lands that might clank or smash and alert the neighbours. His old set of bump keys and little rubber mallet got confiscated by the police back when he wrangled a deal with them to get rid of Dean and let him off prison, but they're not exactly hard to get hold of in certain circles and Ryan owed him a favour anyway.
The first he tries doesn't fit the back lock, but the second slides right in like it was made for this door. He wriggles it back out a notch, finds the right tension, and smacks the key hard until the spring-loaded pins line up and let him turn it. Only takes two goes. Like riding a bike.
There's the same uncertainty every time - that the inside of the door will be bolted or have some other obstruction that means he'll either have to jimmy or break a window instead, or give it up and walk away - but this door opens without even a creak.
"Did Mr Pickle trip it?"
"Surely not, he's too small to reach any of the sensors - oh." He tilts the tablet to show Harry the video of the back hall - of the back doorway, Eggsy framed within it like a picture as he drops one final glance over his shoulder to make sure he's not been spotted. "Apparently someone forgot to bolt the back door again."
"I did lock it at least," Harry says defensively. "How the bloody hell did he get in?"
"The stun gas is about to kick in, we can question him later."
But Harry reaches over to tap the 'abort system' button on the screen. "Back to the house at once, please," he calls to the driver, then to Merlin says, "Absolutely not - if Mr Pickle gets a whiff of that he'll wake up grouchy and won't go to sleep at bedtime."
He looks anxious as the car's spinning a dramatically balletic U-turn around the morning traffic, presumably thinking up all sorts of nasty horrors that might be inflicted upon a small defenceless dog by a home intruder. On the screen, though, Merlin watches Eggsy close the back door behind himself and then start laughing helplessly, overwhelmed by the joyful puppy attack that launches itself against his ankles until he gets down on ground level to administer the Pickle-approved amount of cuddling.
"They're not corpses," Harry says irritably. He's righteously aggravated by a lifetime of having to defend his weird habits, which makes him gorgeously easy to wind up - a weakness Merlin takes advantage of far more often than he probably should, just because Harry looks extremely handsome when he's sulking. "Lepidopterology and taxidermy are beautiful art forms much maligned by ridiculous knee-jerkers such as yourself and this young gentleman thief. It's--"
"I don't think he's a thief," Merlin interrupts. On the screen, he watches Eggsy grab his jacket and slip it on over his t-shirt, zipping it up almost to his chin. "I think he just wanted his jacket back."
Harry leans over to look again, bemused. "Then why on earth couldn't he just knock on the front door?"
"Room full of corpses."
"Merlin, please shut up."
He chooses a miniature foam football the size of a golf ball and bowls it gently across the rug and floorboards, and Mr Pickle goes racing after it, his tiny feet moving so quickly beneath him that they just look like a jumbled blur of motion.
"Wish I could take you with me," Eggsy says wistfully as he's tucking his chair neatly back under the kitchen table. "Daisy don't like dogs but I bet she'd like you. You're just like a teddy bear, ain't you?"
He throws another toy, a little rubber pig that grunts wheezily when Mr Pickle body-slams it like a wrestler because it's too big for him to pick up properly in his mouth. He finds the tail instead, gripping it between his tiny teeth and dragging it back across the floor to Eggsy's feet where he sits proudly beside it waiting for praise.
"No, babe, I gotta go." One last tickle under the little beardy chin accidentally turns into five full minutes of cuddling when Eggsy weakens enough to pick him up and Mr Pickle promptly falls asleep in his arms like a newborn baby. Maybe that's for the best. He stoops to gently place the dog in his ridiculous leopard-print bed without rousing him, and creeps on silent trainer tiptoes to the front door. It was always his preferred method of exit from places he broke into because you're far less likely to look like you've been up to something shifty if you're leaving like a normal person and not clambering over walls and stuff with a guilty face on.
Bit of a problem this time, though, when he opens the door and finds Merlin and Harry standing there.
"Good morning," Harry says, as polite as a crawling cold caller except for the devastatingly sharp note of sarcasm in his voice. "How nice to see you again so soon."
Eggsy runs. Flings himself back through the house, out the back door, hauls himself up onto the wall and starts walking as quickly as he safely can along the narrow brick edges that criss-cross the back yards, trying to figure out what direction he should be going in. Not ideal, but better than being locked in the house while the police get called, and at least there's no way those old fogeys could follow him up here.
What the fuck, his brain says in flat dismay when he glances behind himself and sees Harry so close they could probably reach out and touch one another's hands. He's not even looking at his feet, he's strolling casually along the top of the four-inch wide wall like he's out with his dog in the park or something.
"What the fuck?" Eggsy says out loud, because it's as good a thing to yell at him as anything. "Mate, I don't want no trouble or nothing, alright? I just wanted my jacket. I didn't nick your stuff."
"Eggsy, I don't appreciate people breaking into my house."
"Well I never broke anything, did I? It weren't exactly legit, yeah, but still, I just unlocked the door."
"Was it a pick or a bump key?"
That makes him stumble in surprise, and as swift as the wind Harry closes the distance between them and clamps his fingers around Eggsy's elbow just long enough to steady him, then steps back, raising his hands as if to indicate he doesn't want any trouble either.
"Bump key," Eggsy says, too startled for anything but the truth. "Borrowed it off a mate. Rozzers banned my picks when I got arrested last, probably all bent up useless in a box somewhere now."
"What would you have done if I'd remembered to bolt the inside?"
"I dunno." He's tired suddenly; he feels dejected. In the old days he would have fought capture like a spitting wild cat. Now he just wants to sit down and pull his hood over his head and raise his hands and wait for the blue flashing lights. "I ain't running, just tell me where you called the police to and let's get off the wall before you break a hip or something."
"How fucking dare you?" The swear, inflected like a line of poetry in that refined accent, shocks a laugh out of Eggsy even though nothing's even close to funny. "I would bet my house, even my dog, that I could obliterate you in any race or fight you choose."
Eggsy wonders later whether they might have actually ended up in some kind of battle, his freedom versus Harry's pride, if a neighbour hadn't come out of her back door just then to stand with her hands on her hips, glaring up at them.
"Good morning, Mrs Rosen," Harry says politely, as though it's not fucking weird for him to be standing on her garden wall. "I'm terribly sorry to impose so rudely, it's just that we were certain we saw a High Brown Fritillary come fluttering past here. I'm sure you can imagine my excitement, I'm afraid it quite took me over. My friend assures me it was a plain old Hedge Brown, however, so if you'll forgive our trespassing"-- he shoos Eggsy ahead of him, gesturing for him to turn the corner and head down the wall leading towards Mrs Rosen's side gate-- "we'll be out of your hair. My regards to the family."
He hops off the wall into the alleyway beside Eggsy with unexpected grace, barely even dislodging the flawless cut of his beautiful tailored suit. Eggsy should have run, really, taken the chance to get a bit of a head start, but unless he's read all this very wrong Harry doesn't actually seem to have it in for him at all despite the whole house break situation, and that's weirdly compelling. Makes Eggsy want to stay, stare at him, study him the way he imagines Harry studying his stupid dead butterflies and beetles and dogs while he's shitting instead of playing Candy Crush like a normal human being.
"Absolute fucking harridan," Harry comments as he's passing by to head for the street, his mild expression from moments ago now curled into something like a sneer. "She kicked Mr Pickle the second once for pissing against her front fence, so I pissed in her letterbox twice a week for almost two years until Merlin made me stop."
"What the fuck."
"Come along," Harry calls. "Would you like a cup of coffee?"
Heart is bursting, Harry taps into a text message on his phone that he doesn't need to send because he knows Merlin is watching. He adds several heart eyes emojis, thinks for a moment, then adds a banana and a sideways smirky face.
"I'll put you on a lead as well as the bloody dog," Merlin warns him, and hears the faint huff of Harry's stifled laughter among the chink of coffee cups and other people's conversations.
They're not missing anything at work that can't wait; Harry doesn't leave for his next mission until this evening and Merlin can keep an eye on his department just as well from his home system. He gives the day up as a loss, spending the next few minutes writing an email to let the team know he's working away from the office today and then opening a new tab to hack into the street cameras from the night before to try and track down the stolen car. It was an opportunist, just as he'd thought - someone saw the engine running and hopped in, sped the car across town, stole all the pizzas from the back seat, and vanished around the corner into an apartment block leaving the car parked haphazardly against double yellows, where it's still sitting but now with a ticket stuck to the windshield.
"I located your car," he tells Eggsy when he comes through the door a few minutes later carrying coffees, Harry just behind him sucking happily on the straw of some hideous pink and white raspberries and cream concoction. Eggsy looks baffled, like he can't quite figure out what's happened to his life today, and mutely holds out a cardboard cup of espresso for Merlin to take. "If you write down your address I'll arrange to have it taken to your home."
"Uh, yeah," Eggsy finally says, glancing warily between Merlin and Harry like he thinks this might all be some sort of elaborate trap. "Well. Thanks, I--"
Then Mr Pickle comes barrelling into the room from wherever in the house he's been lurking and Eggsy has just enough time to set his own drink down on the table before the puppy's pawing at his shins, barking joyfully and dancing in circles all around him. Eggsy's face changes immediately - from a pained, stubborn sort of guardedness to the same sort of rapture Harry displays every time he comes home and starts rolling on the hallway floor with the puppy, making kissy noises into his scruffy little beard before he's even taken off his shoes and jacket. He drops to his knees beside the dining room table and the dog throws himself into Eggsy's arms, little tart, squirming around to bare his furry belly for tickles and kisses.
"For fuck's sake, you're as bad as Harry."
"I love this dog." Mr Pickle's flailing paws knock Eggsy's cap off his head and he laughs, though it's more like a helpless giggle than anything. "I do. You're a fucking little tool but I love you, ain't you the best little pup in the whole world, yes you are."
Harry's hand comes to rest on Merlin's shoulder, thumb gliding a gentle warm line over the back of his neck and coming to rest there. Then it starts tapping: Long, short. Short, long. Long, short. Long, short. Long, short, long, long.
Merlin tilts his head back and looks at him upside-down, expressionless, mouthing no.
Yes, Harry mouths back. He reaches both hands over Merlin's shoulder to open the notes app on his tablet and types, rapid and silent, No more carrying small sacks of shit around in your coat pockets. No dog hair moulting all over your lovely jumpers. We can pay somebody to cuddle him instead.
Merlin knocks Harry's hand away and types back, Don't pretend you'd ever want to hire him if he didn't look like an Icon Male twink.
Harry doesn't even have the grace to look ashamed of himself, he just sucks hard on his straw until the whipped cream at the bottom of the cup makes a revolting gurgling noise. The subscription is in your name, not mine, he types, and there's not really any comeback for that.
Somewhere in the last few minutes Mr Pickle climbed onto Eggsy's shoulder, and now Eggsy's carefully balancing up on his knees wearing the idiot puppy like a fur stole, oblivious to the silent conversation going on right next to his head. "You teach him to do this?"
"Teaching is a rather a stretch," Harry says as if anything about this conversation or his entire lifetime's worth of behaviour is fucking normal, "but I don't discourage it."
"Yeah, why would you, he's fucking adorable." Mr Pickle cranes his neck to give Eggsy an elated little lick to the cheek, and Eggsy looks like he's just seen Jesus, all wide shining eyes and euphoric dimpled smile. "I love him. Wish I could have a dog but they ain't allowed in the flats. Anyway, there ain't no dogs worth it after you meet this one. He's, like, the fucking love of my life and I only met him these three times." His smile fades a bit then, tone turning subdued. "Spose I best say goodbye, hey. Get back down the job centre."
Puppy eyes from an actual puppy rarely work on Merlin, but when Harry makes the same expression he completely loses his spine and every morsel of willpower. Defeated under the attack of huge brown pleading eyes, Merlin nods his agreement and accepts the delighted kiss Harry presses to the top of his head with as much dignity as he can manage when both Eggsy and Mr Pickle are staring at them like they're exhibits in a zoo.
"He seems to like you," Harry says, reaching out to tickle the puppy's chin.
"I dunno, pups are like toddlers, hey. You crawl round on the floor with them and they basically think you're god, it ain't that hard. My little sister's got fucking no loyalty, her favourite's whoever played knock the blocks over with her last. Can you take him?" Eggsy knee-walks a few steps closer to Harry so he can peel the puppy away from his neck, then stands and makes a vague attempt to brush the hairs off his clothes. "I better go. Sorry about, you know, breaking in."
"You could have knocked."
"Yeah, well, the dead dogs and bugs freaked me out a bit." Even though Mr Pickle is cradled in Harry's arms now, Eggsy seems not to be able to resist the urge to get right up close and kiss him again, scratching the sensitive places around his ears and cheeks that make him go all dreamy. "It's weird."
Harry looks exasperated. "It's not weird."
"It's fucking weird. But..." He trails off and glances over at Merlin, up at Harry, down at where his fingertips are still scrubbing into the spoiled puppy's fur. "I mean, you know, you seem nice. I ain't freaked out no more or nothing. Thanks for finding my car, thanks for the coffee. I'm gonna take it with me, alright?" He tears himself away from the dog, walking backwards towards the hallway with a mournful look on his face like he's walking to his death. "Maybe see you around."
"You might stay," Harry says casually, like he doesn't particularly care either way when Merlin knows he really does. Eggsy frowns slightly but stops moving, tilts his head a bit to the side the way Mr Pickle does when he hears a noise, and waits expectantly for an explanation which comes in the form of Harry holding the dog out like that bloody mandrill presenting the cub in The Lion King until Eggsy can't resist a moment longer and takes him, cuddling him close and laughing helplessly at the onslaught of whiskery kisses.
"What are you on about?"
"I work abroad a lot, I can't take him with me. Merlin takes him to the office sometimes so he doesn't have to sit at home alone all day, but it's not ideal for anyone. Clearly the two of you have some kind of rapport. You need a job. We could use a nanny. Doesn't this make more sense than dragging yourself to the job centre for something you're going to despise?"
Merlin almost prides himself on being a cold-hearted bastard, but even he feels like he's melting around the edges a bit at the devastated, longing look that creeps onto Eggsy's face at the offer.
"I can't give you no references or nothing," he says miserably. "I just got off probation. You do a background check you're gonna find hardly anything legit, I got priors going back to like age twelve."
"Were any of them for animal cruelty?" Merlin asks, and Eggsy looks horrified.
"Then I don't see why they're relevant. I'd employ Jack the Ripper if it meant I didn't have to drag this little bugger around London every day."
Merlin feels Harry's fingers tracing gently over the back of his collar again, and hears him ask, "Interested?"
"Alright." Eggsy's hiding the lower half of his face in Mr Pickle's squirming belly, but his grin is blatant in his shining eyes anyway. "You think I got anything to lose?"
Eggsy doesn't tell his mum where he's going because he's still half convinced this is all a sick joke or some giant embarrassing misunderstanding. Seems like it'll be easier to save face when something goes wrong if nobody knows in the first place that he's been fucking naive enough to think people like him get chances handed to them on fine china plates like this. Instead he leaves the girls making salt dough sculptures in the kitchen of the newly-decorated flat, grabs his wallet - empty of money, but with a shiny new company transport card Merlin presented him with before he left the other day - and jogs off to get on the Tube.
It's all a bit daunting on the other end, not that he'd ever say so to anyone. The buildings are huge, shop fronts with massive pristine windows - the kind he always gets the weird urge to put a brick through just to hear the tinkling rush of that much shattering glass raining down all over the polished floorboards inside - and streets full of posh people in posh designer clothes, all immaculate and swanning round the place like they never even fart. Savile Row itself is slightly quieter, though that just means he gets more curious side eye as he's slouching down the street trying to find the shop name matching the logo on his card. He squashes down the instinct to flash the middle finger or make some kind of confrontational face, mouth set and chin tilted up like he's saying yeah, and? - that's not who he is any more, he's decided, or at least not while he's on the clock. Got to be all charming and shit. Got to make sure his new bosses understand they didn't fuck up by offering him this absurd gig earning three times the living wage for playing with a puppy all day.
He finds it halfway down - Kingsman, all smart gilt lettering and gorgeous pinstripe suits in the window - and lets himself through the front door into basically the 1800s, complete with antlers on the walls and tweed fucking everywhere, but he doesn't get much of a chance to look around. As soon as he's inside, Mr Pickle spots him and comes racing across the room from wherever he was to throw himself happily against Eggsy's shins because that's as high as he can reach.
Eggsy stoops to pick him up, curling the puppy protectively into the crook of his arm and letting him lick his fingers in greeting. "So here we are again, hey? Glad you ain't bored of me yet cos looks like we're gonna be stuck with each other til one of your daddies retires."
"Good morning, sir," the grey-haired guy behind the counter says, sounding amused at the scene going on in front of him. "Are you here for a fitting, perhaps, or is it just a puppy today?"
Sir. Like posh old blokes in cardigans call chavs in Adidas sir. He can't be annoyed, though - it's not a dig, the guy's not being a sarcastic snot. He's smiling, flawlessly polite, like all of this is totally normal, and Eggsy can't help liking him the same way he so quickly came to like Harry and Merlin when whatever fucking imbecile in charge of fate threw them all together.
"Just the pup. Pretty sure none of these threads are gonna suit me, you know?"
"Very good, sir."
"I ain't, you know, nicking him or nothing, it's arranged. Is Harry here?"
"My apologies, sir, but I'm afraid Mr Hart is in a meeting. You're welcome to take a seat if you'd like to wait, but I expect he won't be finished until lunchtime. He did tell me to expect you."
"Alright, well. Tell him I said hey."
"Of course, sir."
"And we best get off, ain't we?" Eggsy croons to Mr Pickle, whose little face is gazing up at him like an awestruck child meeting a supermarket Santa for the first time. "How we gonna fill up a whole day? We can go and have a run round the park, chase some squirrels, kick a ball about. How's that? Good plan?"
Mr Pickle barks as though he's agreeing and Eggsy feels an alarming lurch in his heart, like it's melting and dripping in strings like mozzarella through his ribs.
"His lead, sir," the guy behind the counter says, holding it out. "And his, ah, waste disposal bags. And his duffle coat in case it gets chilly. And his tennis ball. And some meaty treats. And his blankie."
"His blankie?" Eggsy repeats, looking at the silk square. "There's flamingos on it."
"That's an Hermes scarf," the guy says, sounding faintly scandalised, though Eggsy's go no fucking clue why because he doesn't know what that means.
"Alright," he says vaguely, taking the scarf and shoving it in his jacket pocket with the poo bags before clipping the lead to Mr Pickle's collar and setting him down on the floorboards, where immediately he starts tugging, trying to drag Eggsy to the door despite only weighing as much as a fallen leaf. "Thanks, guv. Bring him back later."
"May I see the feed again?"
He's already watched the live video for at least one and a half of the three hours that have passed since Eggsy picked up the dog this morning, as though he's changed his mind about all of this and suddenly doesn't trust Eggsy not to throw his precious charge onto the train tracks or something. Merlin closes his report anyway, bringing up the video being recorded and sent to his computer from the tiny camera concealed in the fancy embossed pattern on Mr Pickle's collar tag.
From the angle, Mr Pickle must be sitting on Eggsy's stomach, and Eggsy lying on the grass in one of the parks. "Wait," Eggsy's saying, dragging the word out to five times its usual length. "Waaiit... go!" On go there's a jumble of movement, the neon flash of the tennis ball being thrown and the exuberant lurch of grass and limbs as Mr Pickle leaps off Eggsy and goes racing after it, bringing it back to him in a joint struggle of trying to fit it in his mouth and dribbling it clumsily like a bad footballer. Eggsy reacts, though, like Mr Pickle's just done some gold-winning Olympic gymnastics routine, scooping him back onto his chest and vigorously rubbing his fur, pulling him in to press smoochy kisses all over his face that look quite alarming on the camera. "Good boy," he keeps saying, "ain't you a good boy? Go again. I'm gonna throw it. Wait - waaiit - now!" and it starts all over again.
"I think he's in good hands," Merlin says dryly. "You could probably leave me alone and go and get some work done and he wouldn't, in fact, die while you're out of the room."
"I could," Harry agrees. Merlin hears a soft scraping noise and spins his chair to find Harry dragging the Chesterfield closer across the carpet, parking it right beside Merlin's and reaching his hand out to trail gentle fingertips over Merlin's back, up the knit and purl of his cashmere jumper to start stroking his bare neck until he's rushed with goosebumps that he can't stave off. "But you know I'm not going to."
Merlin sighs - he tries to make it sound all long-suffering and martyrish but really it's indulgent defeat, as it always is - and leans back into Harry's touch. "Of course I know."
Two months later
He's busy in Rome today. How can I help?
Wtf he doing in Rome ain't they got tailor shops there
Of course, but we're very good at what we do.
Um ok. Anyway me and Mr P hanging out in the park
And my mum just rang she's got called in to cover a shift
You ok if I take him round mine to look after my sis
Promise she ain't no trouble she's a sweetheart
She won't swing him round by his tail or nothing
Harry would sense that from anywhere in the world and teleport back to avenge him.
Lmao he would as well, freak
(Sorry I didn't mean that pls don't sack me)
Send you photo updates prove he's having fun
Haaa you're as bad as him
Bring him home later yeah
Eggsy starts to tuck his phone back in his pocket, but then Mr Pickle walks face-first into a dandelion and sneezes with such ferocity that he goes tumbling over himself backwards like a tiny furry gymnast rocketing through a floor routine. It's too late to snap the moment, but Eggsy takes nearly thirty photos of the aftermath instead, Mr Pickle looking astonished with dandelion fluff clinging to his beard, and tags Harry in all of them on Instagram to improve his day.
"Sorry, I just got twenty-seven notifications from Instagram -- er, never mind. Target in sight."
Merlin rubs his eyes and signs for someone to bring him a new cup of tea.
"Good boy," Eggsy murmurs as they're getting off the train and heading for the barriers, swiping through on his Kingsman travel card like he's an actual employee and not just benefiting from stolen perks because his bosses are soft. "You gonna be this good for Daisy, yeah? She ain't that happy round dogs, loads of wankers round here train theirs up to fight and it scares her, she never met too many good boys before. And you're the best," he croons, heading out onto the street to walk to to the flats with Mr Pickle wriggling in his arms, deliriously happy at all the praise. "Ain't you the very best in the whole wide world?"
"Eyy cuz, you got a rat attached to you," Ryan says, appearing out of nowhere like a fucking apparition and making Eggsy jump.
"Tunnels are swarming," Jamal agrees with him on Eggsy's other side.
"Swear I seen one the other day bigger than a cat."
"Bit big to pick up and keep as a pet, hey."
"Yeah, not like this one."
"It's practically a mouse. Still vermin."
"Least it ain't a fox," Ryan says, smirking a bit, and Jamal reaches behind Eggsy to jab him with his fingertips.
"Fuck off, you'd hate them and all if you woke up drunk in the park and one was trying to nick your kebab."
"One more word," Eggsy says, and leaves the threat lingering menacingly in the air, though apparently not menacingly enough because they're still laughing. "Be nice to him, I'm getting paid a fucking fortune to keep him happy."
"Pints on Mary Poppins tonight, then," Jamal demands, "cos we're still broke." He reaches over to stroke Mr Pickle's head, and the puppy - traitor, absolute tart - happily licks his fingertip in greeting. "Ain't you scared you'll step on him and get him stuck in your kicks like a squashed worm?"
"He's gonna get bigger, not much though. Gonna stay tiny and precious his whole life, ain't you? Yes you are." Mr Pickle goes gooey at the baby talk like always, draped in Eggsy's arms grinning up at him like he invented the world. "Ain't you my best boy?"
"You need help, cuz," Ryan tells him, but then he gets a finger-lick as well and that's it, that's all three of them hooked forever, stumbling down the street because they're not looking where they're going, they're too busy making besotted faces at the world's most spoiled dog.
"Scraped knuckles, probably some bruises. Nothing too serious, and your flash drive is safe."
"Clean-up eta four minutes. Are you going to hang around for small talk?"
"God, no, I'm going to get a gelato cone and then straight on the plane for home." The video view from Harry's glasses lurches as he pushes off from the wall he's been resting against and heads for the door. "I bought you a hunky Roman figurine from the market."
"You shouldn't have."
"He didn't cost much. A Euro for every rippling abdominal muscle."
"Stop buying me presents and never say the word hunky to me again."
Harry doesn't reply to that, but there's simmering laughter in his voice. "How's the baby?"
"Centre of attention and showing off."
"Well, I have absolutely no idea where he picked up that awful habit," Harry says innocently, and blows Merlin a kiss in a broken hallway mirror on his way out of the door.
"Shh," Eggsy warns the others, especially Harry who just burst out of his car like he's planning to take the last few steps at a sprint and squeeze the puppy half to death. "He's knackered, he needs his bed."
"I know how he feels," Harry murmurs with a tired, lovely smile. He gestures for Eggsy to go ahead of him, and they follow Merlin into the house, Eggsy to kneel down and tuck Mr Pickle into his absurd bed, and Harry straight to the drinks cabinet to pour an oversized nightcap. "Are you staying for a little something?"
"There's a bus in a minute, should probably head off."
"Nonsense, you'll stay as long as you like and then my driver will take you home."
There's a part of him that always wants to make excuses, certain that they put up with him to be polite and it's one of those invitations that are as empty as saying how do you do, but he never actually does. Every time he looks at whichever one of them is offering him a drink or something to eat or a quick round on the PlayStation and starts to blabber some reason to leave, there's something so honest and welcoming in their eyes that he doesn't want to any more. They're weird bosses to have, even weirder friends, but somehow all of this is fitting together far more neatly than he ever expected - so he meets Harry's tired grin with one of his own, flings himself at the opposite end of the sofa to Merlin, and says, "Yeah, alright, whatever you're having. Merlin?"
"The Craigellachie," Merlin mumbles beside him, muffled by the hands he's rubbing over his face beneath his askew glasses.
"And the Deveron for me and Eggsy," Harry says, bringing them over on a ridiculously ornate silver tea tray.
"What's even the point of having like fifteen different kinds of whisky stashed in your little cabinet?" Eggsy asks as he's taking his, mostly because the way Merlin groans at that question is always hilarious. He's about to dig in a bit more, fake-innocently start opining that scotch is scotch is scotch and they all taste the same so why not save your money and get Bell's, when he notices the state of Harry's usually immaculate hand - it's clean, nails as perfectly manicured as ever, but there's a mess of bruising and grazes over his knuckles and he's not wearing his usual signet ring.
Harry notices, of course. He notices everything. "A run-in with a pickpocket, I'm afraid," he says ruefully, arranging himself in the armchair and sipping his whisky, tilting his hand to inspect the damage in the lamp light.
Just when the swelling on his face from last week's encounter with an attempted mugger on Oxford Street has finally calmed down. "Another one? Unlucky. You wanna start dressing like a slob, nobody's gonna try and nick your Rolex if you got old jeans on and ketchup stains on your t-shirt."
"This is a Bremont," Harry says. Eggsy estimates that only 20% of the outrage in his tone is a joke, which is a lovely amount to work with.
"Well, you know what I reckon," he says casually, "a watch is a watch is a watch, innit, they're all the same, might as well save your bread and go down Argos."
Merlin laughs at that, exhausted and quiet but there, real and ridiculously gratifying to hear even though most of it's probably just because he's glad he's not the one being poked at this time. Harry's face softens at the sound and he smiles helplessly behind the rim of his glass, watching Merlin over the top. "You'll fall asleep there and complain all day tomorrow about the crick in your neck. Go to bed."
"Five minutes." He gropes for his glass, eyes closed, and swallows the last centimetre of whisky. Half a minute later he's asleep.
"Ridiculous," Harry says softly, in a way that makes it very clear what he really means is precious. Silently he moves down off his armchair and knee-walks to Mr Pickle's bed, scooping up the sleeping puppy and carefully arranging him on Merlin's rising-falling stomach, then grabbing his phone to start taking a thousand photos from every possible angle.
"Just take the spare key," Merlin murmurs, sleepily starting to stroke his fingertips up and down Mr Pickle's back without seeming to realise he's doing it, to Harry's absolute delight. "Come and go with him as you please."
Merlin stirs finally, opening his eyes a tiny crack and squinting into the dimly lit room. "Why, are you planning to steal all the china?"
"Shut up," Eggsy says, laughing, at the same time as Harry says, "Oh, that reminds me," and goes pawing through his briefcase.
"Avert your eyes," Merlin advises Eggsy. "I have reason to believe this is going to be painful."
"There," Harry says proudly, taking a porcelain centurion figurine out of a crumpled plastic bag and setting it on the mantelpiece between a gaudy Crown Derby greyhound and a resin replica of Michelangelo's David with a Chiquita banana sticker over his knob. "I think I'll name him Channing."
"You want me to accidentally break it?" Eggsy murmurs to Merlin while Harry's too busy admiring his row of hideous treasures to pay attention, and Merlin gives him a grateful look and a vehement nod.
Four months later
"No more cack!" he says, wagging his finger in Mr Pickle's face until, overwhelmed with delight at all the attention, the dog falls over in the grass and starts chewing a patch of daisies.
He's wearing a tiny red Adidas jacket today, which Eggsy saw in a shop window a while ago and couldn't resist blowing a good chunk of his first wages on, but turns out it was a pretty good investment because apparently this is what people round here do to pull. Puppy wingman or something. You doll up your dog and parade it around the park, other people start conversations about it, and before you know it you've got the numbers of two girls your own age, one hot mum, and a jogger in a vest so wet and sweaty it clings to his impossible abs as he runs away backwards with a grin on his mouth and a promise in his eyes. Fucking score. Not bad for a day's so-called work. As if this suddenly blessed life counts as work at all.
His mum thinks it's weird in some other, mildly insulting kind of way, narrowing her eyes slightly any time Eggsy stops crooning at the dog when he brings him home and starts talking about Harry and Merlin instead, as though she's not entirely sure they didn't get a dog for the sole purpose of luring young men into their fuck dungeon. He defends them staunchly: frequently shows her videos of Merlin asleep on the sofa with his protective hand curved over the snoring puppy's body despite how much he complains when he's awake, or of Harry stripping his jacket off in the park so he can play a spirited game of football with his dog-child even though the ball is bigger than Mr Pickle's entire body.
"Nothing funny," Eggsy insisted once. "You wouldn't say that if you knew them, they're obsessed with each other. Kinda sweet, really"--five minutes later still blathering on--"dead smart, like you can ask anything and one of them knows fucking everything, Harry quotes poetry in half his conversations like that's normal, who even fucking does that? And he's like proper funny and fucking brutal, his trash talk's amazing, I don't ever wanna get on his bad side. And Merlin talks like six languages, I heard him on the phone in the other room before and he's just like bam here's some Portuguese, bam bit of Russian, why not"--ten minutes later--"gonna stay doing this forever but they said they's gonna write me references if I ever want another job or go to uni or anything, and one time Harry said if I want and anyone else has to leave maybe one day I can have a go at being a tailor apprentice and Merlin gave him this hilarious look like he's going what the fuck Harry but I don't think that means he thinks I can't do it, you know? He just don't wanna get landed with the dog again I bet. They're just so... so..." and then he shut up because his mum was giving him the same amused/pitying look she gave him when he asked a girl out to the school disco for the first time, and that giddy stupid feeling was something he wasn't quite ready to fully acknowledge yet.
He rolls over on his back in the grass, scooping Mr Pickle up to sit on his stomach and using his folded hoodie as a pillow. It's still bright, but heading vaguely in the direction of sundown so all the shadows are starting to look longer and there's a weirdly satisfying warm tinge to the light, gilding everything in the park.
"We gotta go home soon," he says, scratching under Mr Pickle's whiskered chin. "Go and see daddy and daddy. See if daddy Harry's bought you a pressie back off his trip. We gotta tell him you need that jacket we saw, hey? You know he'll buy it you if he knows you want it. Spoil you fucking rotten and you deserve all of it, don't you?"
Mr Pickle yawns widely and stretches all his little limbs out before turning round a few times and settling down to sleep right over Eggsy's heart.
"Fucking charming, just pass out while I'm talking to you. Where's them manners your daddies like so much?"
"You know," a voice says somewhere above him, sounding amused, "if you keep that up long enough he might just answer back."
Eggsy squints up, registering how familiar the silhouette looks just moments before he realises it's Kelly. "The fuck you doing here?" he exclaims, and she grins and takes a spot on the grass beside him.
She's got a Doberman on a black and diamante lead, all gorgeous gleaming coat and inquisitive eyes, who sits when Kelly does then rests her chin on her knee when she makes some kind of permissive hand gesture. "Same as you, looks like."
"Yeah, how am I not surprised you got a fucking Doberman."
"Horrifying reputation but a heart of gold? That's the goal. Got to say I never saw you as the mini schnauzer type."
"Yeah, well, he ain't mine. And no I never nicked him," Eggsy adds, "before you start. I got a job. He's my job. I'm his nanny."
She smiles again at that, she looks genuinely delighted, and somewhere Eggsy gets the alarming urge to cry a little bit. She was the first person in so long who seemed to give a shit about him doing whatever he could to turn his life around; it feels fitting that they've bumped into each other here and now, walking dogs in the park as the day shifts to evening and nothing in the world feels too much to take any more. "Beats scooping nuggets into a box, I bet."
"Fucking tell me about it. I dunno how I got this lucky. Can I stroke her or am I gonna lose my hand?"
"Go for it, she's as soft as anything. Her name's Xena."
He glides his hand over the satin smoothness of her head, down to the muscle in her shoulders. She's not even fully grown yet, but all dogs look like behemoths next to his tiny little charge. "This is Mr Pickle. I didn't even ask why, I don't wanna know. Suits him though, somehow."
Kelly's rubbing her fingers over Mr Pickle's scruffy fur where he's sitting all curled up on Eggsy's chest, but she's looking at Eggsy. It's such a long time since anyone's looked at him this way, with something like pride, and it almost gives him goosebumps.
"I know it ain't uni or whatever," Eggsy starts, but Kelly interrupts him.
"Who fucking cares? You're staying out of trouble and you're happy, you don't look like you've got two black eyes from not sleeping enough for the first time since I met you. That's all I ever wanted for you."
He's never thought about it in words until now, but yeah, happy starts to cover it.
When Merlin gets home, Eggsy's putting the Ocado delivery away and snorting derisively at half the fancy crap Harry always insists on adding to the shopping list.
"Three quid a fucking mango?" he says, holding it up like Hamlet and Yorick and pulling a grimace. "You can get them in Aldi for like fifty p."
"Can I at least get in the house before you start griping?"
Eggsy grins at that, puts the mango away and goes to flick the kettle on before he returns to the shopping bags.
"Where's - oh." Mr Pickle trots in from the other room to give Merlin's ankles a welcome sniff, then chases a rubber ball back out the way he came. "Good day?" Merlin asks, manoeuvring around the open kitchen cabinets and pulling the next bag open to help.
"Yeah, we had a nice run round the park all afternoon, made friends with this slutty little Italian greyhound who kept eyeing him up. Bumped into my parole officer. Went round the pup salon for that shampoo Harry likes, made an appointment to get him groomed next week and all cos he's looking a bit wild. Did a bit of window shopping on the way home. He wants a little doggy bomber jacket but you're gonna have to give me the money."
"Absolutely not, you cheeky fuck, he's not a Barbie doll."
"Spoilsport." The kettle bubbles to a boil and Eggsy roots through the last couple of carrier bags to find the delicate white tea Harry favours which Eggsy always blithely ruins by using too-hot water and loading it up with sugar and milk as though he can't conceive of anybody wanting to drink anything but builders'. "How was work? Is Harry back tonight?"
"Exhausting. He'll be back in an hour or so."
"Alright, well, I'll have my cuppa and get out your way, then. You got plans?"
"Nothing in particular." He takes the tea Eggsy pushes down the counter to him, revolted by the contents but glad at least for the soothing warmth and scent rising up to cloud around his face. "Maybe an extra half a bottle of wine with the takeaway."
"Living it large, hey. This what banging Friday nights look like when you're fifty-odd?"
"Well, it's our anniversary, so should probably make some attempt to push the boat out a bit."
"What the fuck! That's your idea of celebrating, fucking foo yung and overpriced plonk? Merlin!"
At first Merlin tries to give Eggsy his patented Who The Fuck Do You Think You Are glare, but there's something ridiculously endearing about his outrage, particularly - so he suspects - because it's coming from a place of absolute adoration of Harry. That, at least, they've got in common if nothing else.
"Well, we can't go out, he's going to be shattered. It's really not an issue, Eggsy, we never bother much."
"Bollocks! He'll love a bit of attention, you know what he's like. Cook him dinner. Get candles and shit, put D'Angelo or something on your Spotify." Suddenly enthused to the point of near mania, Eggsy reopens the fridge and all the cupboards they've just finished putting the shopping into and starts pawing through what they've got to work with. "Can you even cook? My limit's like spag bol and micro chips but I'll try and help, how hard can it be? Get them cookbooks down, let's have a look."
This afternoon Merlin and two agents stopped a maniac from pumping deadly gas throughout the entire Tube network so he could pull a massive diamond robbery while everyone was distracted, and he was really looking forward to a week's worth of recorded University Challenge, a hot bath, and an early night.
"I can cook," he finds himself saying entirely against his will, because there's only so much a weak stupid mortal man can take and Eggsy's eyes are so huge and green and lovely as he's flicking through the pages looking for something suitable.
"What's Harry's favourite?"
Merlin opens another book, scanning the contents for inspiration. It's such a long time since either of them cooked something complex enough to need a recipe, they never seem to have the time any more. It's easier to take advantage of the Kingsman chefs, or go out to a restaurant or phone up a takeaway they've used so often that they don't even need to state what they want any more before the person is reading their order to them. When Harry's away Merlin lives off ham sandwiches and beans on toast like a lazy student. Once you pass your thirtieth year with someone you just can't be arsed with the faff of steaming mussels or plaiting a beef wellington - but there's something contagious about Eggsy's enthusiasm, and besides it's nice to have an excuse for him to stay longer than he needs that doesn't make Merlin feel like a pathetic old creep.
"Duck confit or beef bourguignon, but we don't have time for those."
"Beef bergenblerg," Eggsy mangles, looking baffled. "The fuck's that when it's at home?"
"Beef stew with red wine."
"Oh. Alright, well, what's he like that's quick?"
"Bacon sandwiches," Merlin suggests, and fights both a smile and the topsy-turvy lurch of his idiot stomach when Eggsy nudges him with his elbow and gives him a disapproving look.
"Fucksake, Merlin, you wanna get a blowjob out of this or not?"
Absolutely best not to answer that one. He lays his book flat on the page it happens to be open on, deciding that's good enough and they need to move on immediately so he can distract his traitor brain from horribly inappropriate thoughts of sliding his fingers through Eggsy's hair. "There, mushroom risotto, that'll do."
"Alright. Read me the list, then, I'll find all the stuff."
Eggsy wasn't exaggerating his lack of cooking skills - he calls the shallots Merlin asks for onion runts - but he seems enthusiastic about learning, watching Merlin's hands intently as he piles mushrooms into the buttered pan and demonstrates how to use a garlic mincer. "What's the first thing you ever cooked him?"
"I bought him a cone of chips the first night we went out."
"That ain't cooking."
"Bowl of porridge the morning after," Merlin finally offers. He remembers that morning with a clarity so sharp he feels like he must be embellishing at least some of it with his imagination: Harry lounging in the wrecked blue sheets of Merlin's bed, naked and pristine except for the livid purple bruise in the shape of teeth marks on his shoulder, where Merlin had bitten him when he came in an effort not to make enough noise to scandalise his neighbours. Harry had been bold with alcohol the night before, dancing in the heaving crowd in Camden Palace with exactly the same glorious freedom he displayed when he was fighting a gang of hired muscle to the death. He was different in the morning, uncharacteristically bashful and lost for words as he watched Merlin pick up their discarded clothes - then when Merlin went into the kitchen to make breakfast, Harry gathered his courage from somewhere, followed him in, and kissed the back of his neck so softly that it sent a shudder of goosebumps right down all of his limbs and made his fingers tingle. Good morning, he'd whispered, then Merlin turned round to sling his arms around Harry's naked waist and kissed him breathless for so long that the porridge burned and stuck to the bottom of the pan.
"Sticking it in on the first date?" Eggsy teases. "Naughty."
"Shut it." Merlin pinches the garlic mincer at him threateningly until Eggsy ducks his head to try and hide his grin and goes back to measuring out the rice.
"It's nice," he says after a minute. He sounds faltering suddenly, a bit awkward, like he's trying very carefully to choose his words even as they're tumbling out of his mouth. He takes the glass of wine Merlin pours for him from the bottle he's chosen for the risotto and downs it like a sambuca shot, rotten child. "Like, you and Harry, I mean. Like I don't wanna get all weird or nothing. Just it's nice being round people who don't totally fucking hate each other's guts, you know?"
"You mean a healthy adult relationship?"
Eggsy pulls a twisted face at that, but relents and shrugs his shoulders awkwardly. "Suppose. You got napkins and stuff? You cook, I'll do the table."
If he's doing it to get away from the awkwardness he feels at letting some kind of crack show, it's not entirely a success - it doesn't take him long to set two places at the table, poaching flowers from the hallway and two of Harry's pillar candles from the bathroom to go in the middle, then he wanders back into the kitchen and lolls against the counter with his hands in his pockets, looking down at the simmering rice instead of at Merlin's face.
"Looks pretty good. He's gonna love it."
There's something unexpectedly satisfying about all of this, being cajoled into doing something he didn't particularly want to and actually finding it fun. It's the same way he feels about intricate gadget plans or repairs, the strangely soothing effect of following methodical steps to get a desired result, but not only that - it's the company as well, spending time with Eggsy talking about more than the dog. The appalling, embarrassing attraction is one thing - and probably inevitable because, really, who could look at this face and not - but the gradual realisation that he thinks of Eggsy as a friend now is another level he never thought to account for.
"I hope so. Thank you for bullying me into it."
"No problem." He grins broadly, hoists himself up to sit on the counter top, and pours another glass of wine for them both. "Don't get much chance to be romantic, gotta live through you pair instead."
Before Merlin can drink, a text pings through to his phone, and Eggsy nudges it closer to him on the counter so he can read the pop up notification.
Home v shortly. Advance warning: it looks a lot worse than it actually is.
Merlin can't imagine what kind of expression is on his face now, because Eggsy says, "What?" immediately, sounding alarmed. He's been around them both long enough by now to recognise Harry's individual text tone, and he looks anxiously at the phone Merlin's still clutching in his hand.
"I don't know. He's being vague."
Another text: 95% of the blood isn't mine. Please don't worry.
"Eggsy, perhaps it's time you went home."
Apparently not, according to the stubbornness of Eggsy's clenched jaw. "Is he alright?"
"He says he is. Please, let me--"
Too late. Merlin hears the unmistakable quiet rumble of the Kingsman cab outside, and there's no other exit unless he wants to send Eggsy scrambling over the garden walls again like the day he broke into the house.
"Keep a hold on the dog," he instructs instead. If Harry's injured he doesn't need to make himself worse by insisting on throwing himself into his usual puppy-greeting routine, and Mr Pickle doesn't need to get himself covered in someone else's blood then frantically wipe his body all over the walls the way he does when he's wet after a bath. Eggsy hops down from the counter at once and runs upstairs to find him, and Merlin goes to intercept Harry at the front door before he can even put his key in the lock.
"Eggsy's still here, nothing classified," he warns in a murmur. "What the bloody hell happened?"
Bloody hell is about right - Harry is drenched like a victim in a slasher film, blood splashed up his face and stiffening his hair into gory rat tails and soaking his shirt. When Merlin helps him remove his jacket, the white sleeves look neon-stark against the darkening crimson V between his lapels.
"Imbecile ripped an artery in his leg trying to escape through a broken window and bled out all over me while I was trying to find the flash drive in his pocket. I scarpered before his backup showed, but home was closer than the shop."
"Harry?" Eggsy calls uncertainly from the top of the stairs, and Harry quickly edges out of sight towards the bathroom door.
"Eggsy. You're here late."
"Yeah, I was just... are you alright?"
"Quite alright, thank you. I'm going to take a shower, I shan't be long." He disappears through the door before Eggsy can make it all the way downstairs with Mr Pickle in his arms, closing it firmly and clicking the lock.
Of course that leaves Merlin standing there in the hallway clutching a bloodstained jacket.
For a long moment he and Eggsy stare at each other in silence.
"Stab himself with a pin, did he?" Eggsy asks, sarcastically over-sympathetic as he nods towards the jacket. "Nip his fingers with his fabric scissors? Run himself over with the sewing machine?"
"I never met a tailor before but I know he ain't one and neither are you."
"What do you think you know?" Merlin asks carefully, and Eggsy snaps, exasperated, "I don't know fuck all except you got secrets and this ain't the first time he's come home bleeding. I'm here a lot, I see things, I ain't blind. I seen blood on towels and stuff. Rips in his shirts. I seen his knuckles all bruised. You don't have to tell me nothing but you don't have to fucking lie to me, it's a bullshit half-arsed story and I ain't buying it no more, I can't believe I fucking bought it up til now."
"He's not a tailor," Merlin says calmly, and goes to find a bin bag for Harry's unsalvageable suit.
When Harry emerges from the bathroom ten minutes later wearing pyjamas and his dressing gown he looks no different to the way he looks getting ready for bed every night, except there's the trace of a black eye beginning to form and, like Eggsy mentioned, bruises and grazes on his knuckles. Silently he looks between the other two, then Eggsy releases Mr Pickle onto the floor and the puppy races to Harry to be scooped up and exuberantly kissed.
"Hello, darling," Harry murmurs into his fur. "Have you been good for Eggsy?"
"He's always good," Eggsy says. There's a sharpness in his voice like he's trying to pick a fight, but it's half-hearted and before he speaks again he seems to fold in on himself, crouching down to sit on the bottom step with his elbow on his knee and his chin cupped in his palm, eyes travelling all over Harry from the damp curls of his hair down to the bare feet peeking out from his silk pyjamas. "So are you like an assassin or James Bond or a gangster or what?"
Harry doesn't even glance at Merlin, he's too well-trained for that. He must know there's been some kind of addressing of the issue while he was in the shower. "Which would anger you the least?"
"I ain't angry, I just - I don't like seeing people get hurt, that's all. Don't like seeing you get hurt and don't like thinking you're hurting people like..." He trails off into silence, and the hand propping his face slides up to press against his forehead as though he's getting a headache. When he speaks again he's almost toneless, staring at the parquet floor. "I got let off all kinds of criminal shit cos I grassed my stepdad up and all his mates. He liked to think he was this big hard man gangster, really he weren't nothing but a fucking evil bully who smacked my mum around and got his dickheads to stab people up for not doing what he wanted. I know you ain't nothing like him. So whatever you do, I don't care. But I know you ain't what you say, I know there's more."
"And now you know I know. So what happens next, you box me in concrete and chuck me off the bridge?"
After an agonising pause, Harry quietly asks, "Would you like to stay for takeaway?"
That makes Eggsy laugh and scrub both hands over his face, groaning into his palms. "Fuck, I forgot. Happy anniversary. Me and Merlin made you risotto. I put candles on the table, I was gonna go before you got back. Thought it might be nice."
"Oh." Harry sounds startled, finally glancing at Merlin. "I didn't get you anything. We don't, usually."
"See?" Merlin says, and Eggsy gives him a black look, then turns it on Harry.
"You're both fucking unromantic wastes of space, I swear to god."
"That's not entirely true," Harry says, sounding vaguely hurt. "I took him to Paris once."
"You went to execute a dodgy arms dealer and needed backup," Merlin points out.
"Well, yes, but it was still Paris."
"Oh my god," Eggsy mutters in disgust.
Another silence, Harry and Merlin warily watching Eggsy and Eggsy watching them right back. It drags on far beyond the point of comfort to the point where Merlin wants to laugh inappropriately and then beyond that too until somehow it starts to feel almost easy, like they're finally getting somewhere they wouldn't have been able to reach with words. Eggsy looks like he's relaxing at last, shoulders slumping into his usual lazy youthful bad posture instead of uncomfortable ramrod panic.
"So if he's Bond," he says eventually to Merlin, "does that make you Q or Moneypenny?"
"One more word and I'll paint you gold and watch you die," Merlin warns him, then turns and heads for the kitchen to distract himself from that image. "Are we eating this slop or not?"
Eggsy sleeps in the guest room, which is fine, and takes Mr Pickle for an extremely early morning walk when he starts yelling for attention before it's even six a.m., which is wonderful and makes Harry, half-asleep, mumble something against Merlin's neck about asking him to move in permanently.
The problem comes when they finally haul themselves out of bed and start to get washed and dressed a couple of hours later.
The front door opens and closes. There's the indistinct sound of Eggsy's voice, laughter, Mr Pickle's joyful barks, then footsteps coming up the stairs and Eggsy's voice getting clearer, filtering in through the door Merlin left an inch ajar when he came back from showering in the main bathroom.
"You mucky mess, look at you!"
Harry looks up, shirt open and no trousers and one sock halfway on. They hear the rush of tap water splashing into the bath and the shrill squeak of Eggsy or Mr Pickle or both of them squeezing some of the bath toys that live in the box under the towel rail.
"You're a little fucking disgrace, ain't you? Yes you are, look at these feet, dirty boy."
Merlin chews quite forcefully on the tip of his thumb to stop himself from laughing at how stricken Harry looks. Shut up, Harry mouths, scowling, when Merlin points at him.
Next door Eggsy keeps up his sing-song rattle of nonsense words and praise and fake reproach over the splash of Mr Pickle frolicking in the water: "Alright, baby love, come here, lemme have your tail. Gonna get you all cleaned up for daddy."
"Good god," Harry murmurs. He's blushing fiercely, though he's suppressing laughter as desperately as Merlin is, resigned by now to what an uncontrollable disaster he is regarding Eggsy. He gets up when Merlin beckons him, walking right into his embrace and kissing him hotly, hands roaming everywhere beneath Merlin's unbuttoned shirt and wriggling, gasping, under the grope and slide of Merlin's hands on his arse. "I can't bear it, I'm going to be dead of a heart attack within the year if he stays."
"Shush," Merlin tells him, trying not to laugh. He reverses their positions, backing Harry up against the bedroom wall right beside the crack in the door just as Eggsy croons that's it, good boy, ain't you my good boy? "Be a good boy."
"You're a revolting dreadful old man," Harry whispers severely, but he still drags one of Merlin's hands around from his arse to press against the heaviness of his hardening cock. "You should be in prison."
"Where's your toys? Find them. Where's your squeaky balls?"
Harry starts giggling helplessly, pressing his mouth against Merlin's trying to keep quiet.
"No, don't - look, I'm dripping wet now."
"Oh Jesus and Mary, help me," Harry murmurs, shaking with horrified silent laughter. Merlin kisses a line down his neck, rubbing his palm steadily against the front of Harry's underwear to coax him harder, as though he needs any more help than his idiotic mid-life crisis.
"Look what you done, you got me all wet! Bad boy. Who's the worst dirty boy in the whole wide world?"
As if on cue, Eggsy yelps with laughter at another noisy splash and trails off into delighted giggles he'd probably be embarrassed about if he knew the others were listening. "Good boy," he praises, "that's it, gimme them balls. I can't play with you if you won't let me have them--"
Harry's melting against the bedroom wall, cursing in an undertone with his wet drooling mouth helplessly pressed to Merlin's shoulder trying not to be overheard.
"--fucking got me soaking wet, look what you done to me--"
He's thrusting hard into Merlin's hand, not even trying to keep his cool any more but clinging on to Merlin's wrist with a grip so hard it's hurting, it's leaving white marks in his skin. Easy, Merlin warns him, and Harry nods desperately like he's paying attention but his grip doesn't let up at all as Merlin continues to stroke and stroke and stroke him.
"--yeah that's it, good boy, good boy, come on now, let me have it--"
"--such a good boy for me, ain't you--"
"Fffuck," Harry whimpers, hips stuttering and cock pulsing in Merlin's fist, splashing his tummy and his open shirt and dripping slowly down his fingers. His head bumps back against the wall, baring the long, sweating line of his flushing throat, and Merlin kisses him there in a way they haven't done in years. They've become so comfortable lately, all of the love but less of the thrill. That it took their mutual stupid crush on their young handsome dog nanny to bring all of the fervour back is like some great horrible cosmic joke.
"Clever boy," Eggsy starts crooning to the dog next door as Harry's collapsing to his knees and dragging Merlin's underwear down, sucking wet messy kisses to the head of his cock.
"He knows," Harry says, "he's bloody doing it on purpose," then Merlin fists his hand in the back of Harry's hair and pulls him so close he probably can't breathe, let alone talk. Harry takes him in greedily, sucking and swallowing around him until Merlin has to brace his other hand on the wall to keep his wobbly legs from dumping him on the carpet. He comes just as quickly as Harry did, breathless little choking moans caught in his throat and muffled against his forearm while Harry sucks the fucking life out of him and Eggsy, a single wall away, tells the puppy what a clever perfect boy he is.
Harry presses a messy kiss to Merlin's thigh, both of them struggling to catch their breath. "Let's agree never to speak of this again."
Merlin helps Harry to his feet, and after another wash they both go back to dressing as though the last few minutes never happened - not that Eggsy makes it easy, of course. He keeps up his cheerful patter of praise and baby-talk right through the gurgle of the bathwater disappearing, and only stops when he comes into the hallway just as Merlin steps out of the bedroom. He jumps, startled, then laughs at himself and nuzzles his nose into Mr Pickle's wet fur, shushing him.
"Shit, sorry! Thought you two was at work. Been raining out, genius here went and rolled in the mud."
Mr Pickle is wearing a tiny yellow towel that has a hood stitched in the corner which Harry bought in the baby section of Harrods for some appalling sum of money that gave Merlin the beginnings of a headache.
And Eggsy's got no shirt on. Bathwater rolls in countless trickles down his pale skin, darkening the sparse hair on his chest into a line that matches the one trailing down from his navel to the top of his jeans.
"I think your clothes fell off," Harry says politely, appearing in the doorway behind Merlin just as cool as anything, as if he hasn't just come like a fountain to the sound of Eggsy's voice. "Would you like to borrow a shirt, or are you going straight to the Magic Mike audition from here?"
"Fuck off!" But he's smiling the way Harry does when he really means it, all creased eyes and irrepressible dimples. "T-shirt would be good. I'm gonna"--Eggsy makes a vague gesture towards the spare room with the hand not clutching Mr Pickle to his dripping wet naked pecs--"get the hairdryer on him then I'll be out your way if you got a weekend off doing, you know, whatever the fuck it is MI6 do when they ain't fighting Dr Evil."
Merlin knows that must be making Harry twitch; his venomous disdain for MI6 sometimes keeps him up at night like indigestion. Remarkably he lets it slide, though that's probably more to do with Eggsy's bare chest distracting him than any magically discovered store of tolerance, and says, "We were thinking of going to the seaside, actually."
First Merlin's heard of it.
Eggsy cocks his head exactly like Mr Pickle does when he hears the fridge door opening. "Yeah?"
"You're welcome to join us if you'd like to."
"In the rain?"
"I'm sure Merlin won't mind lending you one of his five dozen pac-a-macs if you ask nicely."
"Well, alright then. On the train or you wanna cram us all in my car?"
He looks giddy with delight, and Merlin wonders suddenly how long it's been since he had a chance to do something as simple and lovely as go to the seaside for the day just because he wanted to. Years, probably. Ages.
"We'll take one of ours," he says, as idiotically besotted and impulsive as Harry and ready to do anything, absolutely anything in the world, to keep Eggsy grinning like this, like it's already the best day of his life. "I'll call someone from the garage to bring it round. What would you prefer: the Phantom, the Lexus, or one of the Porsches?"
"No way, fucking don't put that pressure on me! You choose. Lemme sort him, I'll be right out."
Eggsy vanishes into the spare room with Mr Pickle, both of them whooping and chattering with glee until the rush of the hair dryer drowns them out, then Merlin feels Harry's hands creep around his waist to meet at the front of him, Harry's mouth brushing soft little kisses against the back of his head, Harry's chin hooking neatly over his shoulder to rest there while Merlin strokes his linked hands and leans back into his warmth.
"And you dare to tease me about spoiling my puppy," Harry murmurs against the back of Merlin's ear, and thoroughly ruins the moment.
END OF PART ONE!