Harry stops in his tracks when the young man at free standing table calls out, "Could I interest you in some really nice books today?"
He hadn't planned on buying any books today. His best friend, Merlin, would tell him that he already has too many of them, but there's something about the young man's sad face that draws him to the table at the open-air antique market he's passing through on his way home from an afternoon filled with mundane errands.
The young man – more than a boy but seemingly not quite an adult – is looking around at the tables to his right and to his left and is disgusted by how brisk the business is there and how no one seems to even want to take a look at the piles of old books on his. He lights up with a smile as Harry approaches. "Good morning, sir. Would you be interested in a complete set of Butterflies of the World? This isn't some Time-Life collection, but a set that any gentleman would be proud to display in his library." There's more than a hint of South London in his diction.
Harry stops and stares at the young man, feeling like he's the victim of some elaborate hoax. He looks at the oversized volumes on the table – they are old and the covers are worn, and the some of the books are showing signs of broken spines. Mouth dry, Harry takes a closer look and sees that the bookseller's offerings don't quite match his sales pitch.
"You mean, "Macrolepidoptera of the World", or more accurately, Die Großschmetterlinge der Erde."
"Yeah, butterflies – macrolepidoptera – same thing."
"Not really. Butterflies are a subspecies of lepidoptera, which also includes moths. Macrolepidoptera are the larger insects of the species. But in the case of Adalbert Seitz' work, which you are offering for sale, the name is misleading, as Seitz had planned to cover all species of lepidoptera – butterflies and moths – not just the bigger ones, in his books."
The young man shakes his head. "Figures that the one customer I get is a freakin' lepidopterist who reads German and probably already has the books." The smile accompanies that statement does its intended job and cuts the sourness of the young man's words.
"Yes, I am a lepidopterist, but I don't have a set."
"Why not? This is the seminal work in the field."
Harry sighs. "My ex-wife got them in the divorce."
"Oi! That sucks."
Harry feels compelled to add, "And then she sold them for a pittance to an academic rival. She'd been bitter and wanted to hurt me as much as I'd hurt her."
"You slept around? Unfaithful?" The young man wrinkles his nose and glare at Harry.
Harry grimaces. "No, I hadn't been with anyone else. But I'd been dishonest with her and I think – in retrospect – that that had been worse." He shakes his head. "And I am sorry for giving you my sad life story."
"No problem, mate. So does that mean you might be interested in buying these?"
Harry flips through Volume IV, pleased to see that all of the plates are intact. For years, he's been hunting for a replacement set of the 1927 edition he'd had to give to Victoria, but the only ones he'd been able to find had been stripped of the colorful plates. "I could be convinced to buy the whole set if the price is right. These are very well used, and will need some rebinding." He rubs gently on the binding and feels how the glue is cracked and disintegrating.
The seller just nods.
Harry has to ask, "Where did you get these?"
"My neighbor died. He had no family and the landlord was going to pitch 'em when they cleaned out the flat. I asked if I could take the books and some other stuff – "
Now Harry's curiosity is piqued, "Other stuff? Was your neighbor a lepidopterist, too?"
"I think so. He had a whole bunch of specimen boxes filled with dead butterflies and moths. I took the lot of them, thought the pretty ones would look nice hanging in my baby sis' bedroom, but my mum was kind of creeped out so I keep 'em under my bed. Don't think they're worth anything. Also took a bunch more books, lots of old scientific magazines, the guy's own journals and stuff. Been using the books to teach myself German."
Harry is very impressed by that. "Admirable. You are interested in butterflies."
"Dunno, maybe?" The young man shrugs.
"It's a very exciting field to be in these days. Butterflies are like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, harbingers of what's happening to our environment." Harry opens another volume and pages through it and finds that it's complete, as well.
"You really are a lepidopterist? Like more than just a hobby?"
"Yes, I am. I work at the Natural History Museum and consult with the London Zoo."
The young man whistles, clearly impressed. "Takes a lot of schooling, you have a Ph.D., I bet."
Harry nods, "I do."
"I guess that it's not a job that pays the big bucks."
"In my position, I do well enough. But like most scientific fields, the monetary rewards don't match the value of the results. It's one of those careers that is best suited for the independently wealthy or the foolishly romantic."
"And which are you?"
Harry looks up from his perusal. "What do you think?"
"Well, you look and sound like a posh git, so I might say you were born with a silver spoon up your – " The young man cuts himself off, realizing, perhaps that he's insulting a potential customer. "With a silver spoon in your mouth. But you also regret lying to your wife, so maybe a romantic?"
Harry nods, delighted at the young man's deductive reasoning. "You are correct. I have some money and I am rather the romantic sort. Not really the hearts-and-flowers type of romance, but I am not the most practical of people."
"So, if you've got the dosh, then why did you let your wife take your books?"
"Because she needed that small vengeance to help her heal. It hurt me, but not as much as I'd hurt her. And it did help. In the years since, we've become rather remarkably close friends. We'll get together for dinner a few times a month. I'd introduced to the man who became her adoring second husband, went to their wedding, and even gave a toast."
"Don't think my mum could have been so civilized. My stepda had been a right bastard to her, tried to kill her when she got up the duff."
Harry doesn't quite know what to say about that. "I hope he's in prison for his misdeeds."
"He had been, but he's dead now. Got shanked about two weeks after he went in. He'd gotten put in the same prison as some big-time drug dealer that he'd stiffed. I'd have sent the guy flowers, but the screws probably wouldn't deliver 'em and it's not like I got the dosh to waste."
"Speaking of money, how much do you want for the set."
Harry can see the young man calculating what he can get out of him for it. Harry, for his part, has been prepared to pay substantially for this particular set. He has a standing request with the numerous antiquarian book dealers on Charing Cross Road, including the one owned by two of his oldest friends. Harry had set a maximum price of five thousand pounds for a complete set of the 1927 edition in collectible condition, with a caveat to always contact him if one becomes available at a greater price.
"Two thousand quid, not a penny less. But for that price, I'll deliver to you tonight."
Harry can see the young man holding his breath, waiting for the price to be dismissed out of hand. "How about twenty-five hundred quid, cash tonight."
"What? That's five hundred more than what I was asking. You mental?"
"No, I am a fair man who happens to know the value of what you're selling. I should be offering you even more, but while I'm fair, I'm not stupid."
"All right, all right." The young man nods and he looks a little stunned.
"By the way, I'm Harry Hart." Harry reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out his wallet. He takes out a business card and asks for a pen.
"My name's Eggsy – Eggsy Unwin. Well, my real name's Gary but not even my mum calls me that. And here you go." The young man gives him an old ball point with a chewed up end.
Harry writes his address on the back of the business card. "And here is where the books need to go."
"Eleven Stanhope Mews South. Where's that?"
"Kensington, just off of Gloucester Road. You can make it tonight?"
"Actually, if you want, I can drive you home with the books right now. It's all I've got for sale."
Harry finds Eggsy's offer tempting, but he's not sure he has enough cash in the house, so he'll need stop at an ATM before going home. He's not going to mess up this acquisition, nor does he want to tempt this lovely young man into a bit of larceny. "I'm afraid that I have a few more errands to run before going home. But if you can be at that address at seven, we can finish the transaction."
Eggsy frowns. "I've borrowed a mate's car – he's got to get it back so he can go to work tonight. I've got to work tonight, too."
Harry asks, out of idle curiosity, "Where do you work?"
"I've got a shift at the Maccy D's on Hampstead Heath that starts at ten, but I need to get home and take care of my sister from six to nine, when my mum gets home from her shift at St. Thomas'. Today's my only free day – I do shifts stocking shelves at Tesco everyday but Sunday, and I'm on the after-hours maintenance crew at the Westfield Mall the nights when I'm not working for the Big Clown. Which is probably more than you ever wanted to know about me."
Harry is appalled. "When do you sleep?"
Eggsy shrugs, as if it's normal to work three jobs. "When I can – I watch my sister when my mum's working, and I'll get in some sleep when she's down for a nap."
"What about school? When do you have the time to study?" Harry thinks that Eggsy looks young enough to still be at university. Maybe he's studying science; he does seem to have a little knowledge of entomology.
Eggsy looks at him like he's just grown a second head. "You've got to be kidding. My formal education's been over for about six years – since I got out of high school. This is my life. I make an honest living and so does my mum. My baby sister will be the one who goes to uni and gets a big, fancy degree. I'm going to take your money and put it in a savings account for her to help pay her school fees when she's old enough. She ain't gonna have to be a check out girl at some ASDA or Tesco. She's gonna be a scientist or a lawyer or a doctor or whatever she wants."
Something in Harry's heart melts at that extraordinary speech. He can hear the pride Eggsy has in his sister and how he's wrapped up his own hopes and dreams in that girl, but he'd also heard the longing in Eggsy's voice when he'd asked what it took to be a lepidopterist. Harry checks his watch. "Can you be at my house by four? It's two o'clock now, and I'll be home by then."
Eggsy nods. "Yeah, sure. Four o'clock's fine. Just gotta get the car back to my mate by six."
"I'll see you then."
As Harry heads towards home, he hopes he's not making a mistake – either by letting the young man deliver the books in a few hours instead of taking him up on the offer to drive back to Kensington, or by actually giving him his address instead of making arrangements to pick them up. Merlin would likely tell him he's an idiot.
Thinking about his closest friend gives Harry an idea and he pulls out his cellphone to make a call.
"Are you free this afternoon, can you be at my place by four?"
"Aye. What's going on?"
"I bought something and need you on hand when I take delivery."
Merlin sighs and asks, "What did ye do, Harry?"
"Nothing terrible; I'm just being overly cautious." Harry then says, with his most put-upon voice, "And if you can't make it, I'm sure everything will be fine."
Which Merlin immediately falls for. "Last time ye said that, ye found yerself at the altar and made a mistake of epic proportions. I'll be there at three-thirty and ye can tell me what's going on then."
"I'll owe you one."
"Macallan 25, that's my going rate for spur-of-the-moment favors."
"At about seven hundred quid a bottle, I'll want a little more than your stern presence. Do a background check on one Gary Unwin, please and thank you very much. He goes by the nickname 'Eggsy', he's about twenty-four or so, sounds like he's from South London. Although I don't have a name, he told me that his stepfather had been convicted of GBH for trying to kill the young man's mother, and had been killed in prison." He also tells Merlin about the three jobs Eggsy works.
"Why do you need this research?"
Harry gets a little piqued with the questioning and tells Merlin, "Be at my house by three-thirty and I'll explain everything to you then."
"Ye're an arse, Harry. Don't know why I put up with ye."
"Because you're an even bigger arse, and I'm your friend, too."
Merlin laughs, "Fair enough."
But he can't; the money's for Daisy's future. Twenty-five hundred pounds now could be a lot of money in the years when his sister needs it. He does the calculations in his head, and a rough estimate brings it to – and he sighs – about four thousand pounds, at two percent compounded. Which is definitely not a lot. He'd need to add money to it regularly, but even with three jobs and no prospect for advancement in any of them, he and his mum are barely scraping by.
Eggsy gets a big cup of tea from the Caffe Nero on the corner and goes back to Jamal's car. He's got another hour before he has to be in Kensington to drop off the books and get the dosh from Harry Hart.
Now there's something worth thinking about. A posh fucker, but nice. He hadn't talked down to Eggsy because of his accent or because he dresses like the chavs who like to make trouble for anyone who don't look like them or act like them. Harry had seemed genuinely appalled that Eggsy's working three jobs and isn't going to uni, and had been impressed that the money for the books would be saved for Daisy's future.
It doesn't hurt that Mister Hart, Doctor of Philosophy and Director of Acquisitions for the Lepidopteral Catalog at the London Natural History Museum – according to Harry's business card – is fit as fuck and utterly gorgeous. And while Eggsy's never actually pulled an older guy like Harry, Harry's just the kind of man he'd want if he could have him.
The truth is, Eggsy's not really in or out of the closet. His close mates know that he's gay, but he'll pull the birds when he's out with people who aren't that close with him. Which means that Eggsy's got a rep as something of a gentleman around the ladies, because he doesn't pressure 'em for sex all of the time. Eggsy wonders that if the girls ever got together and talked about him they'd realize that he never asks any of 'em to put out and they'd figure it out.
Harry Hart's another story. Eggsy likes smart and Harry's smart as well as gorgeous and Eggsy things he'd just nut in his short if Harry just talked to him, or maybe read from the books to him. In German. He bets Harry speaks German fluently because so much of the early research in the butterfly field is in German.
Eggsy sips his tea and sighs and dreams. Maybe if his da hadn't gotten himself killed in Iraq, his life would have been different. He might have had a stable childhood and seen some of his dreams come true. Competed in the Olympics and gone to Uni. Studied zoology. Or something else completely different. Eggsy remembers loving school and learning. He'd done well in maths and languages and science and history and literature. He has seven A*'s out of the nine GSCEs he'd sat for, and his counsellors had thought he'd do well at Oxford or Cambridge, but he didn't have the dosh and at the time, he'd cringed at the thought of going to some posh school at getting mocked for his estuary accent.
So he'd stayed home, done odd jobs, fought with his stepda, mostly about not running the bastard's drugs or peddling his ass to pay the rent – until it had gotten unbearable and went into the Marines. His COs had been impressed with him and he might have had a nice career in the military, but Dean had fucked that up, too. His mum had called and begged him to come home; she needed a buffer between her and her increasingly violent husband who hadn't wanted another mouth to feed.
Eggsy had resented Michelle for a little while – making him Dean's punching bag, but when Dean had outright tried to kill Michelle, right in front of Eggsy, that had been it. Eggsy had called the rozzers and had Dean arrested. He'd never grassed on anyone, but Dean had been a special case and earn himself a long prison sentence for attempted murder, GBH, and terroristic threats. Only Dean's muppets had wept when the letter came, announcing that Dean had been killed in prison.
By then, Daisy had arrived and any thought Eggsy had had about returning to the military or going to school had been replaced with the need to care for and protect his baby sister.
There are times that Eggsy wishes for a different life, but never at the expense of his sister or his mum. But there isn't anything he can do to make things different, so he does what he can to keep his head above water and invests in Daisy's future, because she's the only thing that matters.
It's getting on close to four and if he's going to deliver the books, get paid, and put the money in the bank before returning the car to Jamal, he needs to get going. Eggsy finds Stanhope Mews South without too much of a problem – he'd had enough money to put data on his mobile for the month so he could follow the navigation instructions easily enough – and when he turns onto the block, he has to let out a whistle. It's not ostentatiously posh – not like Mayfair or anything. It's the kind of low-key posh that means old money, the kind of inherited wealth that's in those movies and series his mum loves – the kind filled with titled blokes and names that are in the Doomsday Book, and it makes Eggsy wonder just who Harry Hart really is.
He counts the numbers on the houses and of course, Harry's house is the one right at the end of the block. Jamal's beat-up Toyota is totally out of place here, but that's all right, it'll just be parked long enough for Eggsy to cart up the books and come away with the cash.
Before Eggsy can ring the bell, the door's flung open and it's Harry, smiling and holding a ridiculously small dog. "Hello, again."
"Hey there, Harry. I guess you finished your errands." Eggsy feels like a moron for stating the obvious.
"Yes, I did."
"And who is this?" Eggsy can't resist a dog in any shape or form, as long as they aren't train to be vicious (one of the bastards who lived near him had a pair of German Shepherds who wouldn't bark, but would rip your throat out if you got too close).
Harry smiles and makes an excessively formal introduction, "This is Mr. Pickle." The little black dog starts to squirm and get to Eggsy, but Harry holds him firm.
Eggsy makes his greetings carefully; little dogs can be even more territorial than big ones. But this beast only seems interested in licking Eggsy, and Eggsy can't help giggling because it's sweet and perfect. And it tickles, too.
"Well, you seem to be Pickle-approved, would you like to come in?"
Eggsy looks back at the car. "It won't get towed? Don't want you to lose your books or the car. Jamal is my best mate, but he'll kill me if he can't get to work tonight."
"Don't worry; you're not parked illegally."
"Won't your neighbor's get pissed off that an old beater's parked on the street?" Eggsy can't afford not to worry.
Harry looks over his shoulder, and Eggsy's surprise to see that someone else is in the house. He had the impression – wrongly it seems – that Harry lived alone. The man who comes and joins them is utterly different from Harry, but just as attractive.
Eggsy stifles a sigh and thinks, Well, it's not like you ever had a chance.
"Ye must be Eggsy. Harry's told me about ye. Ye got butterfly books for him?" Of course the bloke's not only gorgeous, but Scottish, too.
"Yeah, in the car boot. Let me go get them." Eggsy turns and practically runs back to the car. To his dismay, the Scottish dude's right behind him.
"I'm Merlin, by the way."
Eggsy glances over his shoulder. "For the bird or the wizard?"
Merlin grins. "I don't think anyone's ever asked me that. It's a nickname I'd earned a long time ago. Harry's 'Galahad', just so ye know, and we've got a Percival and a Lancelot, too."
Eggsy can't imagine why Merlin's telling him any of this. He just opens the boot and heaves out one of the crates with the books. "I'll be glad not to be hauling these around anymore." Even as Eggsy says those words, he feels a bit of regret. He'd enjoyed looking through them and matching the specimens he'd rescued from the late Mr. Krasner's flat with the ones in the books. But the sale is the seed money he needs for Daisy's education – no local college is going to be good enough for his sister. Oxford or Cambridge or LSE or Manchester – that's where she's going to go if Eggsy has anything to say about it.
He hefts the crate up to Harry's door and goes back for another – there are four boxes left in the boot, well three now that Merlin's taken one.
Another two trips and the car's empty and the only thing left is for Harry to pay him.
And Harry wants to do just that, "Please, do come into the house – I'd rather not hand you so much cash on the doorstep."
Eggsy figures that this won't take long so he goes inside. This is definitely a house belonging to posh blokes like Harry and Merlin, and clearly they like butterflies – there are specimen boxes all over the place.
"Here you go." Harry holds out an envelope. "Be sure to count it."
As if Eggsy wouldn't double-check that all of the promised money is there. He pulls a stack of bills out that's almost as thick as his little finger. They are all hundred-quid notes and except for the cash that Dean would collect from his muppets, Eggsy's never see so much money in one place. He's never held so much money. There are three paper-clipped bundles and he painstakingly counts out the first thousand, and then the second. It's only when he gets to the third that he looks up at Harry.
"There's too much here." He makes to give the excess back. "You miscounted, it's supposed to be twenty-five hundred, not three thousand."
Harry, though, isn't taking the money back. "I rethought my offer and called one of my rare book dealers. Asked what the price would be for a complete set from 1927 that needs rebinding, but with all of the plates intact. He told me he'd pay at least three thousand for it. Which means he'd sell it for four thousand pounds. I cannot, in good conscience, steal this set from you."
"Bruv – that's not how the world works. You gotta celebrate a bargain, not – " Eggsy's still holding out the extra money.
Harry pushes Eggsy's hand back, cutting him off. "If you hadn't impressed me with your commitment to your family, I might have done just that. Paid you the two thousand you'd originally asked for and had a drink with friends to celebrate the bargain. But I have a conscience – sometimes."
"What kind of freak are you?" Eggsy tries to keep a joking tone, but it's hard. The money means so much but he's not a charity case either.
Harry shrugs, looks over his shoulder at Merlin, then smiles at Eggsy. "I'm the kind of freak who occasionally tries to be better than his former self."
"Now you're misquoting Hemingway at me?"
Harry looks shocked – and pleased. "Well, aren't you full of surprises. You like Hemingway?"
Eggsy shrugs. "He's all right. Not my favorite, but not the worst in the world." There had been a lit teacher at his comprehensive who'd loved the works of the Lost Generation writers and Eggsy had kind of loved the guy – in the way that young and impressionable students do – and eight years later, he can finally think about the teacher without wanting to die of embarrassment. So he'd read most of Hemingway's books and stories, hated a lot of them, but still found some weird value in his words.
Merlin says, "Take the money, lad. Harry's being generous and that doesn't happen so often."
It seems that Eggsy doesn't have much choice. He lifts up his shirt and tucks the envelope between his belt and his skin; it should be safe there until he can get to an ATM. "You want a receipt or something?"
"You've just read my mind." Harry produces two piece of paper, something he'd must have typed up and printed out while waiting for him, describing the sale. "One copy for your and the other for me."
Eggsy signs them. "Guess this is it, then." He still can't help the grey feelings of regret at letting the books go - even to someone who'd appreciate them far more that he would. "Thanks, though. For everything."
"Thank you, Eggsy. This has been a most delightful transaction." Harry pauses and Eggsy thinks he wants to say something else. Instead, he just holds out his hand.
Eggsy takes it, giving it a firm shake. "Take care, enjoy the books."
"I will. And Eggsy?"
"Take care of yourself. Maybe not all of that money should go for your sister's education. It wouldn't be wrong to treat yourself to something nice."
"Maybe." But Eggsy doesn't plan to spend a penny on himself, there's nothing he wants more than Daisy to have a better future, and that's going to take a lot more than three thousand quid.
Merlin opens the door for him and Eggsy doesn't hesitate to leave. He hears Merlin say something, but he's all wrapped up in his own thoughts. It's not until he's opening the car door does he realize Merlin's standing next to him.
"Could ye give me a lift home?"
"Aye – I live in Bloomsbury, unless that's too far out of yer way."
"You don't live here? You don't live with Harry?"
"Other than a six-week stay in his guest room sometime in the Nineties, I haven't - at least, not since our last year at Oxford. And that was a very long time ago."
Eggsy frowns, confused. "Don't that make things kind of awkward?"
"Why? Harry's my closest friend, but – " Merlin laughs. "Wait, ye thought Harry and I? That we're together?"
"Um, yeah?" Then Eggsy remembers Harry saying he has an ex-wife and wants to die of embarrassment at the assumption.
But apparently, his assumption isn't off the mark. Merlin says, "Well, I guess on paper, we'd be a good match, but after six years at Winchester and four at Oxford, I can categorically say that we are absolutely incompatible. For one thing, he drives me nuts. And for another thing, I make him crazy."
There's a whole lot of fondness in Merlin's tone and Eggsy feels himself flushing with embarrassment. "Sorry, just thought – "
"It's all right, lad. Our friends have often puzzled why we're not together – like that – but I'd rather have Harry as a friend than not have him in my life at all.
"That's nice – to have a good friend like that for so long."
"Aye, it is." Merlin looks back at the door for Eleven Stanhope Mews and says, "Ye know, I believe that there's something I need to discuss with Harry. Thank ye for the offer of a lift home, but I'll call for a cab when I'm done with him."
Before Eggsy can tell the man that he hadn't offered him a ride and Bloomsbury is way out of his way, Merlin is back inside the house and Eggsy's standing there, feeling like an idiot.
He sighs, gets into the car and carefully backs down the street and onto Gloucester Road. His luck holds as someone pulls out of a legal spot in front of the HSBC and Eggsy snags it. He strolls, as casually as possible, into the branch lobby and deposits the dosh from Harry "Too Rich For His Own Good" Hart into a savings account he'd set up with fifty quid the day after Dean had gotten hauled off to one of Her Majesty's prisons. Eggsy had found the cash in one of Dean's trouser pockets when he'd been cleaning all signs of the bastard out of the flat. It's an account in his name, but he'd set it up so that he has to go into the branch with a real check to make a withdrawal.
Thirty minutes later, he's handing the keys to Jamal and collecting Daisy from the sitter and he tells himself that he has no regrets about anything. For some reason, he's finding it hard to believe today.
Harry downs the scotch and says very clearly, very distinctly, in the manner of the very nearly intoxicated, "I don't think I'll need it."
"He's yers for the taking, Galahad."
Harry winces at the old nickname. "Don't call me that."
Merlin is relentless, "Do ye want me to get his number for ye? I know where he lives; it won't be hard to look up any number attached to that address."
"Using your powers for good now?"
"Well, ye asked me to do a background check on him."
Harry had done that, hadn't he?
Merlin keeps pushing at him. "It would na take much to get a mobile number, even a pre-paid one. It's what I do."
That is exactly what Merlin does; he calls himself an "information specialist", but he's a mostly white hat hacker, at least when certain alpha-numeric government agencies come calling.
"The lad had been rather jealous at the thought that the two of us are a couple, he thought I lived here with ye. Didn't say anything, but I could see how jealous he was - it was in his eyes."
Harry reaches for the Scotch and pours another measure. "Ugh. That's just – " He shudders theatrically at the idea of him and Merlin as a couple.
"Oh, come on. We did try it on for a while."
"Then I had spent the next half-decade trying to convince myself I was straight."
Merlin doesn't have snarky reply to that. Instead, he repeats the offer. "Let me find his mobile number for ye."
"And that's not creepy or stalkerish? Just how would I explain to Eggsy how I'd gotten his number? Gaslight him into believing that he'd given it to me?"
"Ye have a fair point there."
"You might be mistaken about the jealousy. What's the likelihood of him being gay?" Harry sniffs and finishes the Scotch. "Besides, I'm twice his age."
"I don't think that matters to the lad, who definitely is gay. He has the hots for ye, and I could see ye panting over that very fine ass of his. There's no reason in the world why ye can't hook up."
"Because I'm too old for hookups, Merlin. Too old and too set in my ways."
"No, Harry, ye're not. Ye only think that ye are. Yer more than just a middle-aged man interested in butterflies, Harry. Ye've got hobbies and interests and ye know how to have fun."
Harry doesn't say anything, if he does, Merlin's going to bring up his occasional forays onto the dance floors in certain Camden nightclubs. "I'm still not going to take you up on your offer."
"If ye ever change yer mind …" Merlin doesn't need to complete that sentence.
Over the next few month, despite Merlin's occasional badgering, Harry doesn't change his mind. And Merlin's not the only one who thinks he'd been an idiot not to get Eggsy's phone number. Over lunch with his ex, Victoria, he mentions that he'd managed to acquire a replacement set of Die Großschmetterlinge der Erde.
"Really? Don't tell me that you'd managed to pry your original set out of Chester's greedy hands."
"No, of course not. He despises me and he's still too afraid you'll rip his ancient and wrinkly balls off if he does."
"That wasn't very well done of me, was it? To take your books and then threaten Chester when I sold them to him."
Harry just sighs, this is well-gone over territory. "You were hurt. I hurt you badly."
"Yes, but it hadn't been heartbreak but lost pride. When you had proposed to me, I'd seen it a way out of a lonely life. I deluded myself into thinking it had been a grand passion for my sagging tits and flat ass. You didn't want those, you just wanted respectability."
"Darling, you were absolutely glorious at forty-five, not a bit of sag on you. You even managed to do the impossible for a few months."
Victoria chuckles, the sound as sultry now at sixty-seven as it had been when they'd first meet all those years ago. "Yes, getting you to somewhat enthusiastically fuck pussy had been quite the feat."
Harry flushes at her crudity.
"So, tell me – if Chester didn't sell your set back to you, where did you find it?"
Harry relays the tale of walking through a pop-up market not too far from Notting Hill and finding the books.
Victoria must hear something in his voice, because she starts asking questions about the seller. "So tell me about this young man."
"What's there to tell? He found the books and I offered him a fair price. I had called James and he said he or Alastair would pay three thousand for them, so that's way I gave the boy."
"Why do that? Why not just give him a few hundred pounds and let him think he'd gotten a windfall. It's not like the boy had spent anything for them."
"He told me he needs the money for his sister – saving it for her education."
"And you believed him?"
"His story checked out – Merlin ran a background check."
"All for a simple transaction?"
"Well, I had him deliver the books to the house. He would be coming inside and it seemed foolish not to take precautions. I even had Merlin there as backup." Since Victoria has often accused him of being too unaware of his own personal safety, Harry thinks she'll be impressed by this.
Unfortunately, while she does applaud him for being security conscious, she also sees it as an opportunity to make mischief. "I'm now going to have to call Merlin and find out what he thinks of your pretty little book dealer."
"I didn't say that he's pretty."
"Oh, Harry, I know you and I know how you get when you find a rare species of butterfly."
"The point is moot, Victoria. I didn't get his number and while I might know where he lives, I'm certainly not going to go track him down."
Harry shakes his head. "Because it would be wrong, all right?" He's not going to enumerate all of the reasons and let Victoria knock them down like so many bowling pins, just as Merlin had.
"You're too young to be acting like such an old man."
"I'm acting like a responsible adult who doesn't want to get hauled before a judge for invasion of privacy and stalking."
"You're a peer of the realm, darling. No one in their right mind would do that."
"What century are you living in, darling? The world just exists for such scandal. Can't you just see the tabloid headlines? Baron wears his Hart on his sleeve or something just as equally foolish."
"I suppose you're right, and it's not like you really know anything about the young man."
Harry knows far too much – Merlin had done a fairly deep dive on Eggsy – but he's not going to tell Victoria that. "Let's please change the subject. Tell me how Ivan's doing." Ivan Simanov is Victoria's second husband, a Russian oligarch who is almost stupidly in love with his wife. Even though he'd introduced Ivan to Victoria at a fundraising event for the Museum, Harry often feels as if he'll get diabetes if he spends too much time in their company.
"I see what you're doing, Harry. But I will allow myself to be distracted, if just because I want to make you just the tiniest bit jealous."
"Darling, you know that ship has not only sailed, but it's now resting on the floor of the Atlantic, right next to the Titanic."
"Silly man, not of Ivan, but of what we have and what you don't."