It starts simple enough, with a cup of tea.
It’s in the first week following V-Day, but Eggsy couldn’t say what day exactly, the chaos erupting relentlessly making it impossible to accurately keep track of time.
He thinks it’s sometime in the afternoon, mostly because he’s craving a strong cuppa and it’s usually the moment of the day he takes one. It would help if he could get out of the manor once in awhile, but not only he isn’t officially a Knight yet, but there are so many understaffed divisions right now that Merlin had preferred to keep all the agents slowly making their way home at HQ until they can have a clear idea of how much personnel they have.
There are of course some urgent fires to put off in the UK and Eggsy has no doubt he could deal with those as effectively as any of the other Knights, but he does more good helping out the handful of handlers still alive with his hacking skills than he would do on the field.
But right now, there is one of those lull where nothing happens before shit hits the fan and Eggsy is intent on making himself some strong tea before he’s called back to the handlers. It’s not like he could miss it anyway, each member of Kingsman personnel not currently on a mission being connected through whatever is their devices of preference to the main network, be they Knights, support or the old tailor on Savile Row.
A few had tried to protest Merlin’s order, but until there is a vote to sit a new Arthur on the throne, what he says is law. The dissenters had shut up pretty quickly when Eggsy hadn’t hesitate to dart unconscious the more vocal of their lot after Merlin had asked him to.
He chuckles lightly at the memory, one of the few bright point of the past days.
However thinking about Merlin makes him realise he hasn’t seen the man out of the basement where the hub of the operations is located since they left the plane. A minion is regularly sent to bring back food to the overworked handlers and the ones who stepped in to help them, but he doesn’t remember anyone bringing tea.
Not that they can’t go make some for themselves like he’s doing at the moment, but he’s pretty sure in Merlin’s case, he’ll have to pry his dead body from his desk with a crowbar when things finally get less chaotic.
So that’s why, even though he hasn’t the faintest clue as to how the handler usually takes his tea, he stops by his desk to give one of the biggest mug he could find.
Once he realises what he’s being offered, Merlin looks at him as if he is god incarnate descending from heaven with the gift of ambrosia.
If he doesn’t like the way Eggsy has prepared it, he doesn’t say, and he seems much more aware of his surrounding after a few sips.
“How long has it been since you last slept?” He’s staring at Eggsy again, but less like he’s some kind of divine apparition and more like he is a recalcitrant child.
Eggsy shrugs because he really doesn’t know. He’s not even sure what day of the week it is.
Oh sure, he’s napped here and there at his desk like almost everyone’s done, but a good lying down on an actual flat surface? That was before the shit with Valentine went down, before that last fucked-up test. He makes himself violence not to remember where he was, because right now is so not the time to start thinking of his dead mentor.
“All right, you know where my private office is, there’s a couch there, I want you to go sleep on it for a few hours. You’ll do no one any good if you can’t keep your eyes open.”
He wants to protest because unlike several of them, he’s not ready to drop in a sleep-deprived coma any time soon, but he thinks he gets Merlin’s point. He’s got no real experience with that kind of situation, even if he’s used to the stress from a shitty life with Dean. And since he’s not exactly essential to the smooth going of the operations, he better get some rest as long as he can when they are slightly less on high alert.
He sleeps for a couple of hours and when he wakes up, he doesn’t want to get up again.
Not because the couch is comfortable, because it’s truly not, but because somehow, without rousing him from his slumber, Merlin has came in and wrapped him into one of his soft cardigan and Eggsy doesn’t remember the last time he felt so warm and safe.
But they have a world to put to rights again, so he leaves the private office without even a lingering look.
He keeps the cardigan though.
After that, it becomes a series of small things, little gestures that make the day better for the other. In their line of work, it never lasts long, but like for gifts, it’s the thought that counts.
Eggsy is used of taking care of those around him, but a bit less so to be the one being cared for. It’s nice to have things reciprocated and he basks in the attention he gets from Merlin.
Merlin must feel something similar, because while he’s stopped looking at him like he’s the second coming, his eyes crinkle with fondness and happiness every time he catches sight of him.
Eggsy much prefers that looks on Merlin. He seems softer that way, more approachable, like a human being with strengths and weaknesses and not just the embodiment of a omniscient voice, the impression he had had of Merlin most of his training.
Tentatively, he even starts considering him a friend, even if, besides the little kindnesses they bestow on each others, they don’t have time for much more. The global situation might be more or less stable now, but there is still a lot of work to do. Socialization tends to go out the window in those times.
Maybe that’s why he doesn’t quite realise that his feelings run deeper than mere friendship until a couple of months later, when Harry walks into HQ as if he hasn’t been believed dead until now.
He’s happy of course that Harry’s alive, if only because it means they’ll get to have a talk about all that was said before he left for Kentucky. However, as he looks at Merlin’s expression as he hugs Harry close to him, that fond look in his eyes and a smile so wide the likes he’s never seem on his lips before, he can’t help but feel a tiny bit jealous.
Sure, the effect is a bit ruined by how Merlin threatens to kill Harry himself if he ever does it again, but no one would be dumb enough to believe he actually means it. Not with how they both relax into the embrace and for a moment it seems as if they forget entirely about the rest of the world.
“Oh,” a whisper would be louder than his soft gasp of realisation, but it’s enough to remind Harry and Merlin that things exist outside of their little bubble and make them break their hug.
They don’t act self-conscious at all that Eggsy was there to witness their little moment of intimacy, they don’t linger closer than what is appropriate for two coworkers, but Eggsy is not stupid. He might not have seen it a lot where he came from, but he knows true love when it’s directly in front of him. He feels like an idiot for not having realised it sooner.
Merlin frowns at him for a minute, as if sensing something is not quite right, but it’s easy to paste on a smile on his face. The thing that was slowly building between them might never come to be now, but Eggsy’s not petty. He can be happy for the people he loves, even if they find their happiness without him.
At first, Eggsy doesn’t stop bringing Merlin tea and snacks every time he’s at HQ, doesn’t stop trying to distract him whenever he feels the handler needs a little break, doesn’t stop with all the little attentions he was doing before Harry’s return from the dead.
It’s not because he’s found out he is in love with Merlin that he’s stop being his friend after all and that’s what friends do, right? Small things to make the other’s life better, make them smile and forget that sometimes the world is horrible, remind them why they fight the good fight.
But when the urge to kiss Merlin gets only stronger and stronger, when he can’t imagine anymore what his days without seeing or hearing him would be like, he knows he can’t continue this way.
Even if he had a chance with him, he’s not a homewrecker. That’s a sin he won’t add to his list.
It’s harder than he would have thought, keeping his distance with Merlin, to stop hanging out with him everytime he isn’t on a mission.
He’s never spent so much time in his own office and he starts feeling out of place again among the posh furniture, without the whir of Merlin’s computers, the constant back-and-forth of the other handlers, analysts and technicians needing a signature or simply to brainstorm with their head of department.
Somehow, the chair in his office doesn’t seem as comfortable as the one he usually sat in around the hub, his desk doesn’t seem quite as conducive to work as the little corner of Merlin’s worktable he had claimed as his own.
He starts wondering if you can feel homesick of a period of time in your life, or if there is a specific word for it. Not a month ago, he would have asked Merlin. Now, even the briefings with him are awkward, even though he welcomes the missions with relief.
It’s easier to forget what might have been when he has to stay focused on his objective.
His desire to flee upon seeing Merlin waiting for him on the tarmac must have shown, because the handler’s lips become a thin line of discontent, and he looks as if he has just been forced to eat a dozen of lemons.
It’s not because he’s not happy to see him, Eggsy is always happy in his presence, but it’s still tinged with bittersweetness, still feels like his heart is being squeezed slowly but inexorably. Right after a mission, when he’s still riding the adrenaline high, the last thing he needs if he wants to keep his sanity intact is to see the man he loves and not being able to reach out for him just to hold him close.
Harry isn’t even around today, even though he’s made it a point to be there whenever an agent returns home since he’s become Arthur. Eggsy would think he’s got an emergency to deal with, but somehow, looking at Merlin’s expression he very much doubts it.
“Eggsy, we need to talk.”
The words confirm what he suspected already, that he hasn’t been as subtle as he had thought he had been and Merlin is there to let him down. He wishes he could tell him there is no need to tell him whatever speech he must have prepared, that the kindness he thinks he’s doing him isn’t one.
Eggsy’s not stupid after all. Even if Harry hadn’t come back, there’s no way he could have competed with his ghost. Maybe for a time they could have had something good, but Merlin would have come back to his senses in the end and wondered what he was doing with the knockoff of a gentleman Eggsy knows himself to be.
But maybe Merlin’s right. Maybe he does need the closure so that he can move on with his life.
Maybe one day it’ll stop hurting, maybe one day he’ll accept that he’ll never be good enough.
“Sure,” he doesn’t attempt to smile, because he fears it’ll come off more as a grimace. He can’t let Merlin see how much this affects him, if only because he doesn’t want the man to feel guilty. It’s not his fault if Eggsy dreams too big for himself.
Merlin leads him to a quiet corridor, in an angle that he knows will hide them from the cameras and he’s grateful that there won’t be any record of what will follow. It’s bad enough that it has to happen.
“Eggsy, I…” Merlin has a few false starts before sighing and pinching the bridge of his nose, looking so distraught that Eggsy is that close to give him a hug. But the moment doesn’t last long before Merlin straightens up again, his expression closing off and Eggsy feels sick at seeing him like this, like he’s only this cold statue, like he isn’t human at all. “I just- I wanted to tell you that you don’t have to worry about anything untoward happening and that I am sorry for putting you in such an uncomfortable position. I am sorry if my feelings have made you feel uncomfortable and I assure you it was the least of my intention. I’ll be advising Arthur that we aren’t to be teamed together except in the utmost emergencies right after the debrief for your mission.”
He knows he should say something, anything, but he can only stare at the other man, completely dumbfounded about what is happening. Surely he’s mistaken, because that sounds strangely like the man is confessing to him but that’s simply impossible.
“Aren’t you with Harry?” The words come out of his mouth with any conscious decision on his part and he why can’t the ground upon up and swallow him whole?
“I- what?” Confusion has now replaced Merlin’s blank expression. “What does Harry have to do with this?”
“Aren’t you two together?” Now that he’s found his voice again, Eggsy can’t seem to stop talking.
“Heavens no,” Merlin’s horror is plain to see in his eyes as if Eggsy had just asked him if he used to date the previous Arthur. “He’s an old friend but nothing more… But even so, he won’t take my side on this if this is what you fear. Harry has no tolerance for that kind of predation, even if it wasn’t intentional on my part. He’ll understand why you wouldn’t want to-”
“Predation?” It’s Eggsy’s turn to be confused because his brain had been stuck on a loop of ‘Harry and Merlin aren’t a couple’s, trying to quell the hope in his heart without much success, but the word reels him back to the present.
“It might be a strong word but,” Merlin winces with something that looks like shame, “I was, and still am, in a position of authority over you. I would never force you into something you don’t want, but I can understand why you didn’t say anything of your uneasiness and started keeping your distance instead. But I assure you, after this, I’ll only have contacts with you in a professional capacity and-”
“What? No!” Merlin’s face fell at his outburst and Eggsy would hit himself when he realises Merlin thinks he’s protesting the fact he has to keep working with him. “What I mean is that I don’t want to see you only in professional capacity or whatever. I wasn’t uncomfortable because of your feelings, I swear, I-”
“Eggsy, you don’t have to lie. You’ve been hiding in your office for the past month, I might not be a field agent but I am still a spy, I can understand the situation without being told. I shouldn’t have let it go on for that long I admit, but I had hoped you would see that you had nothing to fear when I wasn’t pursuing you.”
“I’m not lying, I wasn’t hiding from you! Well yes, but not because of, of your feelings,” he’s still not sure if he quite believes it’s true and he half dreads that he is mistaken about what Merlin means, but he can’t stand the self-loathing in Merlin’s eyes. “I was hiding because I thought you were with Harry and I didn’t want to come between you. I was hiding because I couldn’t let you see how heartbroken I was… I didn’t even know you had…that you had…” He’s said the words once, but now he can’t seem to say them again. Luckily, Merlin has no such predicament.
“Feelings for you?” They are both staring at each other now, uncertain and yet slightly hopeful. The moment seems fragile, like a false move will shatter it forever, and so he’s very grateful for Merlin’s courage to continue talking. “How could I not? Do you have any idea how you brighten my days simply by stepping into a room? That I’ve started looking after me better, simply because I know you would disapprove if you came back and see what state I am in? How I wish I could make the world perfect for you just so that you wouldn’t have any reason to stop smiling?”
Eggsy shakes his head slowly, because no, no he really had no idea. Hesitantly, he reaches a hand towards Merlin’s cheek, shivering when the other man leans into the contact, when strong arms wrap around his waist, when the distance between them melts into nothing.
“Is that okay? Is this what you want?” Merlin lips brushes against his ear as light as butterflies’ wings and Eggsy nods, looping his arms around his shoulders so that he can better hide his face in the crook of Merlin neck.
Merlin’s hold tighten around him and finally, after having lost it for months, Eggsy feels warm and safe again.
He feels like he’s home.