If there was one thing that Callum Craig knew for certain, it was that Harry Hart was a right bastard, and he hated him.
He frowned at the neatly addressed envelope on top of all the other mail the postman had pushed through his letterbox this morning. Thin enough to conceal at best a single sheet of paper, the envelope’s return address was from the man in question. That he’d answered with a letter meant that Callum’s request was being denied yet again, and the coward didn’t even have the manners to ring him up and have a conversation with him about it.
He sighed, passing a palm over his shaven scalp, removing his cap in the process and setting it on the hat stand. Nothing for it.
Callum pocketed his keys, deciding to wait until he’d at least had his first cup of tea for the morning before he was disappointed again. He gathered up the mail, setting it on the shop’s glass counter, and checked his watch.
Not yet nine in the morning, the Kingsman flower shop had another hour or so before he opened. Mondays were slow in general, save for holidays, so he allowed his two coworkers a couple extra hours of sleep today, preferring to open the shop himself.
He busied himself with the kettle, knowing that at least Eggsy would be in to help in about half an hour. The young man was often early, showing up just as he got the tea going, and so Callum moved about the shop, moving flower displays into the window so that they would catch the eye while he waited.
The shop itself was located on a bustling London side street, close enough that foot traffic often wandered his way, but out of the way enough that they weren’t mobbed. While not the most popular shop in London, he could say for certain that he boasted the largest list of private and repeat clientele in the city. It had taken some doing, and quite a bit of luck, but he’d managed to amass a steady stream of repeat business that kept the lights on, his belly full, and allowed him to pay his two assistant’s salaries with room to grow.
Pun certainly intended, in this case. He’d earned the reputation for being able to revive even the sickliest of flowers back to bright and chipper health, and he often made house calls to his larger client’s properties to give evaluations of their gardens. While landscaping was a side business, he knew, instinctively, how to make a garden more hospitable for the plant life within.
He could have gone to MIT, his mother always said, but instead he’d chosen his passion.
Now, he poured the kettle over the pot with the built in warmer that he’d rigged, letting the tea steep as he dug in the cupboard for biscuits. Like clockwork, the bells above the front door chimed, signaling Eggsy’s arrival.
Eggsy had gone from an impulse hire to someone Callum had come to rely on quite a bit. The young man was desperate for paying work, and Callum had been desperate for a third pair of hands around the shop. Though he didn’t often say anything, he knew Eggsy’s home life was hard, and so getting the boy into a steady line of work meant that Eggsy could help his mum out—something that was important to him. Merlin approved; he also approved of how gregarious and charming Eggsy was with the customers.
While Merlin could be charming when needed, Eggsy was a natural, soothing even the most ruffled feathers. With large eyes and a guileless expression, he had almost all the older women who shopped at Kingsman wrapped around his fingers—and some of the older men, too. It added a piece that the shop was missing, especially where Martin was concerned. (While a deft hand with succulents, he was not a people person, and that was putting things mildly.) Callum often considered Eggsy the face of the shop while he tended the flowers and built the arrangements.
“’Mornin’, Merlin,” Eggsy said.
A nickname he couldn’t quite get rid of after a small piece in the home and garden section of the paper, Callum still allowed it—within reason. Customers usually called him Mister Craig, but he could never quite break the grinning young man of the habit, and so he just let it lie. In truth, he’d come to think of himself as Merlin, the nickname more familiar to him than his own name, save when his mother used it.
“What’ve we got on the docket today?”
“We’ve the arrangement for Mrs. Mullins in hospice,” Merlin replied, doctoring his tea as he passed another steaming mug to the young man. “I think you should be the one to deliver it, she likes you.”
“You mean she flirts with you,” Eggsy said, lifting his brows innocently and dodging the swat Merlin sent his way. “But all right, all right. I got it.”
“Good.” Merlin sipped from his mug and moved to the pile of mail on the counter. “We’ve got a consultation with a wedding planner at three, and a delivery expected by noon. It’s mostly for Martin, however—the succulents he asked after are here.”
“Mm,” Eggsy said, dumping several packets of sugar into his tea before stirring. “So the usual trimming and such before then?”
“Yes,” Merlin replied, sorting through the mail. He set the offending envelope to the side, picking through mailers and bills, stacking what he was keeping in another pile to peruse while he ate his breakfast.
“How did Saturday night go?” Eggsy asked.
“Hm?” Merlin looked up, confusion knitting his brow.
“The thing, the party you were invited to—remember?” Eggsy leaned on the opposite side of the counter, sipping his tea as he looked Merlin in the face, waggling his brows.
“Oh,” Merlin said, his nose wrinkling. “I ducked out after an hour.”
“You didn’t,” Eggsy said.
“It’s just not my style,” Merlin protested. “I appreciate the effort, Eggsy, really—”
“Did you at least text the guy back?” Eggsy asked. “I talked you up to Bill for a month.”
“Er,” Merlin said. He’d clear forgotten, and it showed in the exasperation on Eggsy’s face.
“Oh my god, Merlin, bruv, you can’t keep blowing people off like this,” Eggsy said. “Are you even taking this seriously?”
Merlin blew out a breath. “Not…really? Eggsy, I never do well when being set up, though I appreciate you digging through your personal who’s who of the gay community of London I just—”
“You’re just afraid that you’ll never click with someone,” Eggsy finished for him. Merlin glanced over the rim of his mug at the young man opposite him, surprised that Eggsy could cut through all the things that Merlin couldn’t articulate. “It doesn’t hurt my feelings, mate. I just need you to be serious about this otherwise I’ll feel like I’m just putting you out instead of trying to find you someone nice to take you out.”
Merlin let out a gruff chuckle. “Really, Eggsy. I told you not to go to a lot of bother for me, and I meant it. I’m too old to be dating.”
He hadn’t done much of it in his youth, either, his mind whispered, but Merlin ignored it. He clapped Eggsy on the shoulder, instead. He was nearing his forty-second birthday, he didn’t need to be focusing on anything but the growth of Kingsman.
“Not too old,” Eggsy said, tipping him a wink. “You’ll just be surrounded by guys who have a daddy kink.”
“Oh, god, please no,” Merlin mumbled.
Thankfully, the conversation was interrupted by a knock at the glass door at the front of the shop. Putting down his mug, he moved to see who it was. Roxanne gave him a cheeky little wave, holding a covered plate. He unlocked the door and let her in.
“Morning, you two,” she said. She was already in her chef’s coat, though she rarely wore the toque outside of formal functions. “I need guinea pigs.”
“I’m more of an old badger,” Merlin murmured, stepping aside to let her by him. “What have you got there?”
“I’m trying to tweak my recipe for wedding cake,” Roxanne replied. She gave Eggsy a one-armed squeeze, depositing the plate on a clear spot on the counter. “I need someone who hasn’t been nibbling on it all morning to test it.”
Roxanne, though she insisted on being called Roxy, ran a bakery just down the street. She and Merlin had struck up something of a partnership. They sent each other business and gave their shared customers a discount when they brought in a business card. It had doubled the custom for both of them, and often wedding parties would take advantage of the discount. Merlin and Roxy discovered they worked together well, and the arrangement was quite profitable.
Roxy bringing by free cake wasn’t doing much for his waistline, going soft in his middle age, but Merlin wasn’t going to turn it down. He accepted the small slice she offered him, taking a bite.
“My god,” he mumbled, closing his eyes. It was everything he’d come to associate with good cake, not the usual pasteboard you got at weddings. It was moist, soft enough to almost be crumbly, but flavored through with a vanilla and almond that was so light it might as well be air. Sweet, but not cloying, it was perfect, especially chased with a sip of his warm tea.
“You got him to stop nagging,” Eggsy said in mock awe. Merlin cracked an eyelid, only to find them both grinning at him. “So?”
“It’s very good,” Merlin said. “You’ve outdone yourself, Roxy.”
She flushed. “You think so?”
“Yes. You don’t even need to frost this. It’s perfect as is.” Merlin popped the rest of it in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. He narrowed his eyes at her in suspicion. “Are you just fattening me up?”
“Dad bod,” Eggsy said. Merlin wanted to groan, but Roxy just laughed.
“No, but you tend to have a better sense of taste than most,” she said. “I mean, you don’t wear bright gold track suits.”
“Oi,” Eggsy said, nudging her. “So I don’t get any cake?”
“I didn’t say that,” she said, uncovering the plate for him. “There’s a piece for Mister Gainsborough, too.”
“You’ll win him over yet,” Merlin said, smiling.
“I’ve got to run, but that told me pretty much everything I needed to know. Thanks, Merlin!”
Merlin scowled. “She gets that from you.”
“Probably,” Eggsy said with a grin, shoving a bite of cake in his mouth as he went to let Roxy out of the shop.
It was close to closing time before Merlin chanced to look at the mail he’d shoved to the side of the counter for later. He disposed of all the mailers, tucking the bills away to be addressed in the morning, and finally turned his attention to that hateful envelope with its elegant, handwritten address.
Using his thumb instead of a letter opener, as the rich paper almost demanded, he popped open the envelope by splitting the seam. Tugging out the letter, he frowned, scanning the contents.
Dear Mister Craig,
Once again, I do hope my letter finds you well. I apologize for my lateness in replying, as I have had many draws on my attention as of the last week.
In regards to your inquiry, I am afraid I will have to decline your request to visit once again. As I stated before, I am not open to visitors, and you lack the specific doctorates that would incline me to open my home and my gardens to your perusal.
Thank you for taking the time to enquire.
Merlin sighed, crumpling the letter a bit and tossing it on the counter in his frustration. That pompous toff bastard. Just because Merlin lacked a doctorate in botanical studies didn’t mean he didn’t have a vested interest in the field. He rubbed his jaw, shaking his head.
“I’m off, then,” Eggsy called, shrugging into his jacket before he turned and noticed Merlin’s expression. “What’s gone on?”
“It’s nothing, Eggsy,” Merlin said, though he knew Eggsy never really would leave these things to lie. He’d appointed himself Merlin’s caretaker after discovering that Merlin was gay, closeted, and running the shop and doing nothing with his life socially. Which led to the young man attempting to set him up with a date, nosing about in his personal affairs, and generally being a busybody.
Not that Merlin minded—it was a welcome change from going home at night with nothing but his dogs and whatever was on television while he ate dinner.
“Ain’t nothin’ if you’re looking like that,” Eggsy persisted. “What’s got you looking like someone kicked your dog?”
Merlin held up the letter. Eggsy’s eyes narrowed; he recognized the handwriting.
“You wrote him again?” He reached out and took the letter, scanning it quickly.
“I’d heard through some of my sources that he got an almost perfect jade vine in. Along with the chocolate cosmos, his garden and greenhouse are some of the most diverse in England. I just…want to see.” Merlin rubbed a hand over his face, feeling the tension leak into his scalp and a headache forming. “He buys them as a side hobby—a side hobby, can you imagine—for his butterflies. He’s a lepi…lepidopterist.”
“Merlin, bruv.” Eggsy met Merlin’s eyes, shaking his head. “Men like that are arseholes. There’s no way about it. It’s the money. Lookit how he writes back. ‘You don’t have the doctorates’. My arse. You’ve forgotten more about plants than a lot of those bastards.”
“I know. I just thought…I wrote him a two-page letter, detailing my experience and politely asking to have a look.”
“Christ,” Eggsy mumbled. He bit his lower lip, looking at the letter. “You know…it’s harder for people to say no when you’re on their doorstep. He’s never seen you, never spoken to you. So maybe, if he hears how I hear you talk about plants every day—he’d say yes.”
“You think?” Merlin asked.
“Worth a go. You still got that old jalopy?”
“If you mean my five-year old Citroen, then yes.” Merlin’s brow jumped as he drawled it back at him. “Eggsy, you can’t mean to go now, it’s five in the afternoon.”
“You got somewhere better to be?” Eggsy challenged.
Merlin reached into his pocket, jingling his keys.
“…no,” he said at last. “But we’ll go and ask, and if he says no or isn’t home, that’s the end of it.”
It was easier said than done, sadly.
As they entered the prestigious suburb of St. George’s Hill, just outside of London, Merlin started to feel more than a little uncomfortable. While the packed streets of London had been home since he was thirteen, these houses had begun to spread out farther and farther, until they could conceivably have grounds rather than gardens. Rightfully, the sprawling architectures were more manors than houses, in Merlin’s opinion, and his little sedan seemed woefully out of place.
Each of the properties had fences marking their boundaries, and more than one had a gate guard to watch the entrance. Merlin swallowed as his GPS had them toddling up to what appeared to be a fairly modern house at the edge of the suburb. It bordered wild forest on one end, and it was the last house on the row; all in all, it seemed a coveted place. There wasn’t another house for almost three kilometers, and the gate was merely a formality, it seemed, standing open.
As Merlin pulled in, however, a man stepped out of the little watch box next to the gate and held up a hand.
“Please step out of the car, sirs,” he called, and Merlin put the Citroen in park. He got out, towering above the poor security guard, who didn’t seem to think this was a great start to their acquaintance. “Can I ask your business here?”
“Yes, sir, we’re here to see Harry Hart?” Merlin said.
A frown crinkled the brow of the guard, a young man about Eggsy’s age. He swallowed, glancing between Merlin in his wool trousers, button down and sweater vest versus Eggsy and his tracksuit. They made an unlikely pair, and Merlin swallowed, his eyes darting to Eggsy.
Eggsy, cool as a cucumber, shrugged with a grin at the guard.
“Do you…have an appointment?” he asked.
Eggsy slowly eased around the car toward the guard. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, thumbing the lock screen open.
“Of sorts,” Eggsy said. “C’mere, I’ve got my mobile, I got an invitation to come and see this—"
As the guard bent to look at the screen Eggsy was showing him, Eggsy hauled off and clocked him one. He must have known where to hit him, or the guard had a glass jaw, because one hit was all it took. The guard folded like a wet blanket as Eggsy caught him, and Merlin took a step back, horrified.
“Eggsy!” Merlin said, rushing to help as Eggsy eased the guard onto his back. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Look, the only way you’re gonna stop wasting your time with this Hart bloke is if he tells you no when you look in his eyes, I know you.” Eggsy propped the guard’s head up under a jacket he retrieved from the guard posting. “Now’s your chance. You can go and knock on the door, I’ll stay here, and if he wakes up, I’ll take the rap for it.”
Merlin massaged his temples, letting out an agitated breath as he tried to think through the panic threatening to rise in his chest. “You realize assault could get you put away for up to eighteen months.”
“First offense,” Eggsy said with a cheeky little grin. “Now you’d better get driving. I’ll tell him you went for help.”
Merlin looked at the open gate, then the slack form of the guard.
“You’re not going to get another chance,” Eggsy said. “Go on.”
Merlin hated himself for it, but he got in the car and drove up to the house. This chance was too big to pass up.
The frantic pounding at his door stirred Mister Pickle from his spot on the pillow by the fireplace. Harry looked up from the monarch wing he was setting, cursing a little under his breath as he set it wonky. The little cairn terrier was already trotting toward the door, and Harry wiped his hands on a clean cloth and stood, moving to answer.
He’d left instructions not to be disturbed, unless—
The specimen from the Philippines. Maybe it had come early?
Harry hastened to the door, pushing his spectacles up his nose. As he threw the bolt and opened the wooden front door, he glanced outward and locked gazes with the prettiest pair of hazel eyes he’d ever seen. The man was tall, Harry’s height, with a strong, angular jaw and those eyes set under heavy brows made him masculine and almost imposing.
He was dressed well enough; wool trousers hugged long legs and a trim waist (and Harry could imagine he had a fine enough arse), a button-down shirt and a sweater vest under a field coat made him seem bulkier than he probably was. His head was shorn to the scalp, Harry could see it under the flat cap he wore as the man turned his head, looking over his shoulder.
The man currently invading his doorstep was instantly appealing to the baser part of Harry’s nature, and he immediately stamped on that. He was forty-five, not twenty. There was no need for instant lust to rear its head, even as appealing as the man was, in a roughshod way.
Harry swallowed. “You aren’t my normal delivery man.”
“Uh, no, sir, I’m not.” A soft Scottish brogue washed over Harry, and it sent chills right down his spine. It was a punch to the gut combined with the shy, almost nervous smile the man gave. Closer to a hitch at the corners of his mouth, there was something secretive about it, making Harry’s fingers twitch at his side. He wanted to reach up and paint his fingers across that jaw. “I came to ask you to—”
“I’m sorry, who are you?” Harry asked, interrupting. He shook the fog from himself and regained his sense of purpose.
“Er, Callum Craig, sir.”
Craig. Callum Craig. The name rung a bell, but it was beyond Harry why it should do so. He wasn’t one of the other colleagues in his field that he spoke with on the regular, even by mail or email.
“You wrote me a letter, sir. Um, several letters. I own that shop in London, I wanted to see your gardens.”
Ah. That Callum Craig. A little voice inside Harry’s head murmured that if he’d known the man would be so appealing, he’d have asked him out to St. George’s sooner.
“I should have thought that my letters were perfectly clear,” he said, in complete defiance of his own libido. Callum’s ears went red, the color spreading to his high cheekbones, and Harry had to rein in his composure. “Or were they not?”
“No, sir, they were clear,” Callum said. “I just…thought I could appeal to your better reasoning in person. You see, I’m—”
He was interrupted by Mister Pickle sniffing at his shoes.
“Oh! Hello there, chappie.” A genuine, pleased smile broke out on the man’s face, making Harry’s heart do a stutter step in his chest. Callum knelt and rubbed Mister Pickle’s ears, the little traitor content to press into the long, elegant fingers that stroked his wiry coat, his tail wagging.
“You still haven’t explained what you’re doing here,” Harry said, dragging his attention back to the matter at hand. “And how did you get past my gate guard?”
“Ah. Well, you see, your gate guard is currently in need of someone to look after him. Nasty bump on the head, looks like,” Callum said, hazel eyes darting up to meet Harry’s, as though he weren’t just pestering him for no good reason.
Harry frowned. “And how did that happen?”
Callum inhaled, sucking his teeth. “Can’t rightly say, but he does need someone to get him an icepack. I left my assistant to stay with him and try and rouse him.”
Harry’s frown deepened, and he pinched the bridge of his nose. “You assaulted my guard all for a look at my garden.”
“No sir, I didn’t assault anyone.” Callum rose, dusting his hands. “I was on my way here to see you, and things seemed to work out that I got to speak with you in person.”
“Mm,” Harry said. “How about this. I’m feeling rather generous. If you leave the premises, you and your assistant, right now, I won’t press charges. However, if I get another letter from you, or you show up on my doorstep unannounced again, I will file a formal suit and I can assure you, I’ll win.”
Callum paled, swallowing hard. “I just—”
“No, Mister Craig, means no. My offer remains, take it or leave it—and leaving it means I use my mobile to get police out here right now.”
“Fine!” Callum blurted, backing up a step, hands raised in a placating gesture. “I’ll go, but you need someone to stay with the young man at the gate.”
Harry nodded. “Noted.”
Callum turned to jog down the steps. Harry noted, with some dismay, that he was right about his arse. His eyes snapped up as Callum turned, however, betraying nothing of the errant thought that crossed his mind.
“You might want to get the wild onion around here pulled,” he said, gesturing at the growth that bordered both the steps and the areas outward. Harry had let it grow a little wild, the manicured lawns not as good for the local insect life as leafy undergrowth.
“And why is that?” Harry asked.
“Because your little dog is looking a might peaked, and if he’s sluggish, he might be having a nibble. Onion is bad for dogs.” Callum shrugged, rolling his shoulders. “Just a piece of advice, but then again, I don’t have a doctorate, so take it for what it’s worth.”
His own cutting remark tossed back into his face, Harry could only watch as the man climbed back into his sedan—and for the life of him, Harry couldn’t work out how the man folded those long legs into such a small car—and drove back to the gate.
Harry looked down at Mister Pickle, the terrier whining softly.
“Well, we’d better see if Mister Bridgerton is all right,” he said to his companion. “Nice night for a walk, right?”
He gathered up Mister Pickle, hugging the dog to his chest instead of letting him gambol about like he normally would.
Merlin would call that a wash.
They’d gotten back to London at half-past ten, Eggsy calling his goodbye after sitting and listening to Merlin lecture him the whole ride home. They’d gotten off lucky; and perhaps that was for the best, as he didn’t think he wanted to go back to that estate any time soon.
It wasn’t just the complete and utter wreck he’d made of their meeting; Harry Hart was far too attractive for his own good. Merlin almost missed thinking of him as some faceless posh wanker, ensconced in a library somewhere drinking good alcohol and sneering down his nose.
Now he knew that Harry Hart was long and lean, with broad shoulders and legs that went on forever. Harry had eyes the color of bitter chocolate and a mischievous cast to his mouth…when it wasn’t pressed into a thin, irritated line. Hair that curled down over his forehead, begging to be smoothed back off his brow, twined around a finger, hands buried in it—
That was not something he needed to think about, he told himself as he unlocked his little flat in Whitechapel and closed it with his heel. The click of nails along the hardwood announced Apollo and Artemis, the two Dobermans he’d rescued a year or so back coming to greet him. Bernie, the sleepy old mutt, would be along when he heard the dog food being opened, but for now it was just the twins, as Merlin liked to think of them.
“Hello, you two,” he said, allowing them to smell the little terrier on his hands and clothes before stroking their sleek heads. “Sorry I’m late.”
At least he had someone to come home to, he thought, hanging up his coat. There was always an upside.
As always, dedicated to the Merlin to my Harry, Bearfeathers (who's tolerated me spitballing so many ideas at them I don't know how we get anything written.) This is something I've been kicking around since about midway through Bon Dia, when I saw shot-through-the-hart's original idea in the tags.
My brain being my brain, it immediately went 'okay, but what if...' and now I have more AUs. Yey.
Chapter 2: Cultivation
Roots grow in the unlikeliest of places. The smallest plants can be the downfall of rocks that have stood for centuries. Change is coming.
“Mum?” Callum called as he shut the door of the little flat his mother kept near Chapman Street. He could smell the roasting chicken, which meant he was hardly late for Sunday dinner. “I’m home.”
The dogs sat, wriggling anxiously as Merlin unclipped their leads. He could see the blurred stubs of Apollo and Artemis’s tails, though Bernie, being an older chap, was much more reserved about it. All three dogs were dressed in their fall sweaters, Bernie’s more of an afterthought for his sheepdog coat and Apollo and Artemis in matching plaid. They waited until everyone was free and Merlin had hung up their leashes before he put his hands on his hips, regarding the eager dogs.
“All right then,” he said. “Go and find grandmum and show her, I know you want to.”
The Dobermans were off and running, the click of their nails on the hardwood drowned out by Apollo’s whining as he went looking for his second favorite person besides Merlin. Merlin chuckled as Bernie ambled after, giving a put-upon sigh as only an old man dog could manage. While up in years, the sheepdog wasn’t near as old as he liked to make people think.
Merlin followed after, discovering his mother in the kitchen giving biscuits to the two Dobermans while she talked sweetly to them. That immediately perked Bernie up, and he took his place as the oldest, nudging the younger dogs aside so he could accept his treat from his grandmum with the most delicate nibble. Merlin hid his chuckle in his fist as his mum met his eye with a smile.
“There you are,” Lucy said, rising from where she was seated and peeling apples.
Lucy Sheffield was a handsome woman, her age only a number and the iron in her dark hair only making her seem regal, like she could have been a queen in another life. She certainly ruled the house—even though her son topped her height by a good foot. The dogs were happily leaning on her but they parted when Merlin moved to greet her.
She wiped her hands on a dish towel and stood on tiptoe to accept the kiss he brushed against her cheek. Lucy might not have been Merlin’s biological mother; he’d fist fight you if you said she wasn’t his mum. She’d raised him since he was very small, and coming to this little flat definitely felt like coming home.
She accepted the little bouquet of posies he pressed on her and dug about in the cabinet for something to put them in while he got the dogs settled in their beds in the sitting room. He returned shortly to find her pulling the chicken from the oven.
“Hello, mum,” he said, washing his hands in the kitchen sink. “You almost done, or would you like some help?”
“You can set the table,” she said, swatting at him with the towel. “I remember the last time you tried to help.”
“I’m sorry I dropped the roast,” he sighed for what felt like the sixth time. “To be fair, Bernie loved it.”
“Bernie got the ham bone last I checked,” his mum reminded him. “Go on now, I’ve almost done the pie.”
Merlin chuckled and set the table for two. He and his mum had been doing this since he’d left for university. He’d earned his way into Oxford, the maths department wanted him with a fervor that had bordered on the hysterical when they realized he would be devoting his life to botany instead. He’d told his mother all about it then, too, sitting about this scarred little table and laughing at his professors trying to cajole him into yet another theoretical mathematics class.
Like his mum, however, Merlin devoted his life to his passion. While his was green growing things, hers had been nursing—and even now she was working in the hospital, training new nurses to join the fray and meet the ever-increasing demand. Merlin would declare that it suited her; Lucy Sheffield had a heart as large as London, and her care showed in the way she trained men and women to be not just caretakers, but empathetic human beings at the patient’s bedside.
Merlin was proof enough of that. Instead of abandoning him to the Glasgow orphanage as his biological mother had asked her to do, Lucy had taken it upon herself to raise him as her own from an infant. She’d given him his mother’s last name, tightened her belt, and finished her medical training. There were many nights Merlin remembered being kissed on the forehead as Lucy left for her night shift at the emergency room, and many dark circles under her eyes as she helped him with whatever school project he needed, but she was always, always there.
It was a hard point of contention between them when he wanted to change his last name to match hers. She didn’t feel it was right, losing the last vestiges of his mother, but Merlin never felt the nebulous connection to the woman who birthed him. It was easier to feel the love and warmth that radiated off the woman carrying in the carved chicken and setting it on the table between them. Merlin moved into the kitchen to collect the potatoes, the gravy, and the steamed vegetables for their meal, moving with his mum like a well-oiled machine.
Once they were seated and grace was said, it was time for their weekly catch-up.
“So, tell me about Martin. Has he finally settled in?” she asked.
“…as well as can be expected,” Merlin said, swallowing his bite of chicken. It was buttery and tender, almost melting in his mouth, and he still had no idea how she managed it. He could never quite learn to cook like his mum, though he had enough skill to make the basics. “He’s not great with the customers, but that’s why I’d hired Eggsy in the first place. I watched him basically nurse a tray of succulents back to life, though—I swear, he’s magic.”
“How’s Eggsy’s schooling coming along?” she asked, adding a little gravy to her potatoes. “I know he said he wanted to study art.”
“He’s got a knack for it,” Merlin said. “His arrangements usually exceed customer’s expectation, and I’ve never seen a lad like that take a customer and wrap them around his little finger.”
His chuckle died down as he realized he’d almost gotten Eggsy arrested and ruined his life. Not the first time since their ill-fated trip to St. George’s Hill, but this one hit the hardest, with his mum sitting across from him. He frowned, pushing his carrots across his plate with the tines of his fork absently.
“I can hear you thinking,” she said.
He looked up at her, brows knit. “I almost got him in trouble.”
“How?” she asked.
When he’d told the whole story, he leaned back, pressing his hand to his forehead. “I was selfish, mum. I just…wanted to see all of those specimens so badly—”
“You put your passion before your head and it almost got you in trouble,” she said. He looked at her, nodding and feeling miserable. “But are either of you hurt, or in jail?”
“No,” he said.
“And have you made your apologies to Mister Hart?” she asked.
“About as well as I could have, given the circumstances.” Merlin sighed. He felt like a child again, getting called into a parent teacher conference and watching his mum’s face curled in on itself with disappointment. However, that disappointment wasn’t present now. She reached out and laid a hand on his, her thumb stroking his knuckles.
“You did the right thing. And perhaps Eggsy went about it in the wrong way, but he does care a great deal about you,” she said. “And it was a learning experience, even if you do feel bad now, you’ll have learned something for the future. What do we always say?”
“Keep learning, keep moving forward.” Merlin smiled, knowing that his mum was right. “I let my decision get clouded and Eggsy made a bad choice, but it worked out. I promised I wouldn’t write him again, and we’ve got it sorted. No more harm done, and I offered to pay the poor man’s medical bills if he goes to hospital.”
“Then you did what you needed to, so stop dwelling on it.” The timer beeped, and when Lucy rose to get the pie, she pressed a kiss to the top of Merlin’s head.
He felt marginally better. Maybe things were looking up after all.
Merlin strode in to find the shop in utter chaos.
Three young men were having a strenuous argument with Eggsy at the counter. Martin hadn’t arrived to work yet, having to sort some things at his flat, but Merlin had felt good enough to leave Eggsy in charge while he popped down to the shops for their lunch. He’d been hoping on a slow Tuesday, barring absolute catastrophe.
In hindsight, he knew he was right, as soon as he got a look at the boys. He’d seen their like before; their clothes screamed money, though they didn’t much look like they knew how to dress themselves. Hoodlums, but not the ones that people clutched their pearls about. These were the worst sort. They hid behind their parents’ money and privilege and got scot-free with a lot of their trouble.
“You’ve got to pay for it, bruv, them’s the rules,” Eggsy was saying. “Look, if you’re not gonna, we’re gonna have a problem and I’m gonna have to get the police involved.”
Merlin set their hot lunch down behind the counter and hung up his hat and coat, turning to survey the situation better. There was a broken vase on the counter, the sorry remains of the last of his autumn roses lying there as well.
“What’s gone on, then?” he asked. Eggsy shot him a grateful look.
“These three was playing grab-arse and knocked it over,” Eggsy said. “I’ve asked them to pay for it.”
“You can’t prove it was us,” said the tall, hawkish young man who appeared to be their leader. His eyes were a bit too sharp to label him the usual dullard—there was cunning, if not outright intelligence to the barely concealed dislike on his face. “You had scads of customers in the shop.”
Merlin assessed this boy a little more closely. He knew the type; the sharp, almost weaselly face was offset by high cheekbones and curly brown hair. He was the leader; charismatic enough to draw followers, but mean enough that they’d never be actual friends with him, and he likely preferred it that way. His gaze was bored, lips thinned at this gutter trash who’d dared to countermand what he’d said. His entire outfit likely could pay for at least half of his inventory, but he was going to penny and pound him to death if he insisted that he pay for the broken vase.
“Yes, but you was the only ones who caught my eye as I was serving Mister Pendergrast his weekly order,” Eggsy countered evenly. “You knocked it over.”
“Bullshit. I want to speak to the manager,” he said, turning his attention fully to Merlin, who’d drawn himself up to his full height. He almost seemed to reconsider it, given Merlin’s expression, but he pressed on, his ego not allowing him to be wrong. “You, then.”
“I’m the owner, if that’s what you mean,” Merlin said, his voice steady. “Shall I ring you up as cash or credit, sir?”
“You’re not even going to take my side of the story?” he asked, brows drawing down in anger and confusion.
“Not really, no, because the argument you were having when I walked in told me a lot of what I needed to know. Either you pay for the vase and the roses, or you leave.” Merlin leaned on the counter with an amiable smile. “So, cash or credit, sir?”
“C’mon, Charlie, it ain’t worth it, man.” The lad on his right had decided he didn’t like the look of Merlin, taking a step back when the owner’s hazel eyes landed on him.
The young man’s face went a mottled shade of red, but he elbowed his compatriots and they were gone with much grumbling. Merlin sucked his teeth at the waste of one of his better glass vases, but he knew there was nothing for it. He’d have to mention to Martin that those three were banned. Nothing like the scary quiet of Martin looming behind them to make them think twice about re-entering unless they wanted to pay for what they’d broken.
“All right, Eggsy?” he asked.
Eggsy gave a tight nod. “I’m sorry, Merlin. I wasn’t paying enough attention.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” Merlin said, clapping him on the shoulder. “You did the best you could. We were short-handed on a rush, and that was my fault, thinking I could escape to the shops before Martin got here.”
Eggsy let a small smile creep onto his face. “You’re not angry?”
“At them, maybe,” Merlin said, frowning at the broken glass. “But not at you, lad. Will you make sure this gets cleaned up and I’ll see about ordering some more roses. Then we’ll eat.”
“All right,” Eggsy said.
Merlin smiled at his retreating back. Eggsy was a good kid.
“Are you Mister Craig?” Merlin looked up from his ledger and blinked. A taller man, wearing a three-piece suit and holding his hat beneath his arm was standing at the counter and waiting patiently. Plain in looks and manners, he gave a small smile as Merlin noticed him at last. He hadn’t even heard him come in; he’d been absorbed in his figures as he balanced the budget.
“I am,” Callum said, moving toward the counter. “How may I help you?”
The man extended his business card. “My name is Glenn Davies from the Royal Acquisitions Office. I’ve been sent to enquire as to whether your services are available.”
“Royal Acquisitions?” Merlin said, taking the card. “May I ask what services?”
“As you know, his Highness Prince Harry and his fiancée Meghan Markle announced their plans to wed,” he said. “While the ceremony will be held at Buckingham Palace, the reception is smaller and will be more private. Ms. Markle has asked if you might be requisitioned to provide centerpieces for the tables.”
Merlin’s world stopped for half a second. He thought he forgot to breathe there for a second, grey spots dancing in his vision.
“Mister Craig?” Glenn’s voice was alarmed, and Merlin looked up, inhaling.
“Of course, of course. Where did Miss Markle even hear of my shop, though?” he wondered.
“One of his highness’s cousins mentioned you in passing,” Glenn said, gently, as though afraid Merlin might actually pass out on the floor. “She liked the look of the arrangements you provided for that party last spring in the Dorchester.”
Merlin remembered those. Thank god for Eggsy Unwin. He inhaled again, nodding.
“I remember, aye. How many centerpieces do you need?”
“In total? She’s requested eighty, all unique. Would there be enough time to manage those?” Glenn asked.
Merlin did some mental math. If he stayed late a few nights of the week for two weeks prior and came in early the day of, he could manage it. Eggsy would likely offer to work overtime to help as well. He nodded.
“Excellent,” Glenn said. “I’ll settle the particulars with you next week. Have you any questions for me now?”
“Have you spoken with the bakery on the corner?” he asked. The sudden thought of the influx of business made him remember Roxy. “She does marvelous cakes and hand-sized pastries, and if you bring her my card, we’ll both offer our services at a discount. I understand if you’ve already chosen a bakery, but I’m willing to bet you’ll change your mind.”
“Are you, now?” Glenn said, rubbing his chin. “Perhaps I should. Will she provide me with samples I can take back for approval?”
“If she doesn’t, I’d be surprised,” Merlin said. “I promise you won’t be disappointed.”
Merlin wondered if Roxy would be chosen out of the blue like he’d been. He could only hope. It would be an opportunity for the both of them.
Roxy barreling into him with a hug as he locked up answered his question. She was squeezing him so hard he couldn’t breathe, but neither of them mentioned his damp jumper when she pulled away. She just promised him breakfast tomorrow and ran back to lock up her own shop.
Merlin smiled all the way home.
That Friday, Merlin almost didn’t notice the little envelope addressed to him, tucked in amongst all his bills and fliers. He frowned, picking it up and turning it over.
It was addressed to him, of course, but the return address was Harry Hart. Had the guard actually gone to the hospital? He frowned, slitting the envelope open, expecting a bill for medical services rendered.
Instead, he found a letter, written in Harry’s neat and elegant script.
I do hope my letter finds you well at the time of its receipt. I am writing to inform you that I would like to invite you for a formal inspection of my gardens and grounds at your earliest convenience. Please feel free to phone me at the enclosed mobile number anytime in the next few weeks to confirm with me.
It is my sincere hope to hear from you soon.
Merlin’s brow furrowed as he read over the letter again, his eyes tracing over the mobile number jotted at the bottom. Was this some sort of joke? He couldn’t be serious, and Merlin sat down, staring at the little letter.
“What’s that, a missive from Buckingham Palace?” Eggsy joked as he passed by, his cleaning done for the night. Merlin had already told them about the job, and both Martin and Eggsy had agreed to the overtime. “Oi—Merlin. What’s up?”
“Harry Hart sent me a letter.”
“Did you write him again?” Eggsy asked, suspicion in his voice.
“No, not this time, I thought it was a bill for the security guard,” Merlin said. He tossed the letter on the counter for Eggsy to read.
“Wait. He’s inviting you, this time?” Eggsy’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What’s the catch?”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” Merlin said.
He didn’t want to think about eyes the color of bitter, dark chocolate. Or hair that curled against his forehead and begged to be twined around a finger. Or a laughing, sly mouth that Merlin would fall to his knees for, given the right circumstances.
Thinking about those things wouldn’t help him make a rational decision, based on the fact that he wanted to feel that strange pull between them once more. It was nearly magnetic, the attraction he felt, but there was no indication Harry felt it, too. In fact, admitting it might be the most dangerous thing of all.
Why now, after all but threatening a lawsuit?
No…there had to be an ulterior motive.
But the flora in Harry’s greenhouses could keep him in business for decades if he got a cutting or two, Merlin reasoned.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad?
“Are you going to call him?” Eggsy asked. Merlin’s hand twitched for his mobile in his pocket.
“I don’t know.” Merlin glanced up to find Eggsy watching him with a frown. “I really don’t.”
Merlin lasted twenty minutes after Eggsy had gone home for the evening. He pulled out his mobile and punched in the number Harry had provided. The allure of the rare plants in Harry’s garden was too much, and he waited for the phone to pick up with his heart pounding in his chest.
“Hello, Mister Hart? I hope I haven’t caught you too late.”
Slowly but surely. I had a bit of a snafu with my computer, so it's been harder to get these written, but I'm chugging away at the plot. Hopefully will have this finished by February, but it's a little open ended at this very moment. Working on that, too.
Chapter 3: Concurrent
Like a tweed whirlwind, hurricane Spencer descends on Kingsman.
“In the back, wash your hands.” Roxy stuck her tongue out as she carefully frosted another sample for the tasting. She glanced up, spotting her uncle James entering the cramped kitchen, still dressed in his rumpled clothing from his flight. “…definitely wash your hands.”
“Ah, there’s my favorite niece,” he said, obediently stopping at the sink to scrub his hands. He knew better than to disobey that rule.
“I’m your only niece,” she reminded him, swatting his hand away from the samples she was doing up and pointing at the plate of brownies behind her. He took one and chomped down, leaning back against the wall as she worked. “I take it you just got in?”
“Mm,” he said, blinking down at the brownie in surprise. “What’s in these?”
“Dark chocolate and chiles. I adapted a hot chocolate recipe.” She watched him tilt his head as he decided whether he liked it or not, then smiled to herself as he took another bite. James always had the more adventurous palate of the Spencer clan, and she’d baked the brownies specifically for his arrival home.
“Tastes like Tenochtitlan,” he said, grinning at her. He was scruffy, a couple of days’ worth of beard coming in, his travel clothes pleasantly rumpled and giving him a man-about-his-travels look. She’d missed him, though his travels always brought him back home, sooner or later. Her uncle was a travel journalist, documenting new and exciting places for people to read about but never make the trip themselves, in his words. His most recent documentary about India was still airing, if she remembered right.
It was strange, seeing him more on television than at home. But he was home now, and that called for a celebration. His need for sustenance sated, he peered over her shoulder at the elegant little cakes she was frosting. “What’s this?”
She looked down at the cakes, small and bite-sized samples of various confections she could make for the party, the frosting bag full of vanilla buttercream as she piped it lightly over a small chocolate cake sample.
“Didn’t mama tell you?” she asked, a small smile spreading across her face. “I’m catering the sweets for the Royal reception at the wedding.”
“No,” he said, his eyes rounding. She nodded, her smile getting bigger as he set the brownie aside and burst into motion. He looped his arms around her waist from behind and lifted her off the ground, sending her squawking as he turned her in a jubilant circle. “Roxy, my brilliant girl! I knew you’d make it!”
She laughed as he set her back on her feet, his enthusiasm catching. She turned, hugging him as tightly as he was hugging her. She put her forehead against his chest after a moment and pulled back. It had been a long two years, struggling to make ends meet the first year and then struggling to turn a profit the second.
Teaming up with Merlin had been the best idea she’d ever had. Flowers and cake went together, especially for receptions, and it was only natural to form a partnership of sorts.
“It was worth it. Fighting with dad, mum staying up to help me taste test. All of it. I made it.” He squeezed her again, and she held the bag of frosting away from him so she wouldn’t paint his back with it. “I had a lot of help, though.”
“I know you did. Should I do a special London episode and feature you?”
She laughed, knowing that if she’d asked him to, he’d have found some way to make it work. James with his easy laugh and flirty good humor was popular on the channel, especially with middle-aged housewives looking for an escape. He was touted as a modern Indiana Jones without the archaeology, and he had the charisma to carry the show, even whilst eating some truly strange things like centipedes and beetles.
If she’d asked, he’d have filmed a small segment, but it was important to Roxy that she make it on her own—and now she had, with a little help from her friends.
“I never would have gotten the chance if it weren’t for Eggsy and Merlin,” she said instead. “They talked me up and sent the Royal Acquisitions man over here.”
“Well, I should thank them, too,” he said. “Who are they?”
Roxy moved to put the kettle on, pulling down two of her plain white mugs that she used to show customers how well her cakes went with teas. “Sit down, a lot’s happened while you were gone.”
Martin looked up as the bell over the shop door rang. While not great with customers, he’d agreed to man the shop while Merlin was running errands and Eggsy was out for the day. He put down the succulent he was tending and rose, dusting the dirt off his hands.
Martin Gainsborough was tall, with his hair just getting the barest of grey sprinkling at his temples, giving him a distinguished air that he didn’t bother to cultivate or capitalize on. A long, almost aquiline nose—save for an old break giving it a crook—and a masculine jaw made him handsome, in a bookish sort of way. He wore the traditional shop apron, a pair of old trousers and shoes, and a plain white shirt beneath a soft and much-washed cardigan. Dark eyes behind heavy rimmed spectacles were intelligent, if distant—a man who looked like he’d rather be doing anything else just now. The local singles’ club deemed him available, highly desirable, yet unapproachable.
(If Martin knew about them, he never made an indication, preferring to avoid that sort of social interaction by dumping any and all of the women who made passes at him into Eggsy’s waiting and charming palm.)
The man browsing didn’t seem like the type to be looking for a date, however, and Martin moved closer, pushing his spectacles back up his nose from where they’d slipped.
“May I help you find something, sir?” he asked, in as nice a tone as he could manage. While polite, it still sounded distant; Martin could never inject the warmth in his voice that Eggsy could achieve. Still, his quiet question got the man’s attention, and Martin got his measure of him.
Scruffy, almost ill-kept, the man sported several days’ worth of stubble, but rather than making him look filthy, it added an almost affable sort of charm when combined with the man’s handsome face and laughing blue eyes. Those eyes bore the years of good humor, crinkling into crows’ feet as he smiled at Martin. His brown hair was lightened by the sun, though Martin could pick out strands of grey threading through the lightness every now and then. Longer than probably practical, he seemed in need of a trim. He was brown as a nut with his tan; either he was a traveler or he’d just spent the summer soaking up the sun on holiday, Martin couldn’t be sure which. He was dressed in a rumpled khaki colored button down, scuffed brown boots, and dark olive trousers that still seemed like they bore the dust on them from some far-off travel. The more he looked at him, the more Martin was certain he was familiar with the man, but he couldn’t place how.
“Actually, I think I’ve found what I was looking for,” he said, giving Martin a once-over. Martin suddenly felt like he was on offer; color crept up his neck as the man’s smile morphed into something much more flirtatious. “Are you Merlin?”
“Merlin?” Martin asked, momentarily baffled; then he remembered. “Oh, you mean Mister Craig, the owner. I’m afraid not, sir. Mister Craig is currently out and he shan’t be back until two p.m.”
“Pity,” the man purred. “Still think I’ve found what I was looking for, though. What’s your name?”
Suspicion clouded Martin’s thoughts, and he frowned. “Martin.”
“Martin,” the man repeated, as though tasting the word and finding that he liked it. He turned away from the lilies in their pots and tucked his hands in his pockets. “Well, Martin. Do you work here often?”
Martin could feel the beginning of a migraine coming. Suddenly, he wished Eggsy were here, and that almost never happened. Instead, consternation wrinkling his brow, he took a step back.
“I’m sorry, sir, may I help you find something?” he asked again, his tone going waspish.
“Well, I was sort of hoping to take you to dinner later,” he said. “My name is James.”
“Pardon, sir,” Martin said. “But if it’s not related to botany, I’m hardly interested.”
“A shame,” James replied. “Married?”
“No,” Martin blurted, before he realized his mistake. James just smiled wider.
“Then convince me to buy something, Martin.” James gestured at the greenery that flooded the shop. “I need to bring something home to mummy as it is, she’ll be distraught I’ve been gone so long as it is.”
“Something living, or something cut, sir?” Martin said, his voice bitten through with sarcasm.
“Living, perhaps,” James said, though his tone hadn’t changed. “Mummy is very put out that I travel for work.”
Stiff-backed and not a little awkwardly, Martin led the way to the potted aubrieta, showing James the tiny, purple flowers that filled the pot like miniature drops of watercolor. They were contained in hand-painted pots, his handiwork. Little landscapes crawled all over the ceramic, flower fields sprawling under James’s hands.
“What lovely little things,” James said, lifting the pots one by one and running his fingers gently over the ceramic. “I’ll take two.”
“They need full sun and sandy, well-irrigated soil,” Martin said. “I’ll ring you up.”
James trailed behind him back to the register, and Martin could feel the eyes on the back of his neck the whole way.
“Roxy,” James gasped, bursting in through the bakery’s back door. “I need the rest of those brownies.”
Roxy eyed the pots of flowers in James’s hands. “Who was working?”
“Martin,” James said, his voice full of awe.
There was a moment of silence as his niece assessed his flushed face. And yes, it might seem silly, and yes, James might have run all the way back to the bakery, but this was a mission, after all.
“Oh no,” Roxy mumbled. “Poor Mister Gainsborough.”
“You know him?” James asked, the desperation in his voice just making Roxy roll her eyes as she went out to the front counter. She returned shortly with a cellophane wrapped bundle of brownies, tied up with a bow and with a tag already attached. “Roxanne, you marvel.”
“I’ve been slowly trying to get all of them to warm up to me,” she said. “I have a deal with Merlin, but the others help him out so much, it’s good to help them remember when they’re ringing people out to remind them. He’s quiet, not much for talking.”
“So I noticed. Handsome devil, though.” James grinned at her.
“You’re setting yourself up for failure,” she warned him. He reached for the bundle, but she held it just out of his reach, holding out her other palm. “Card, please.”
“You’re charging me?” James asked, his voice scandalized.
“Because I know the brownies won’t be eaten,” she said. “I’ll even wager you a tenner that you completely overwhelmed the poor man.”
“Nonsense,” he said, putting the pots down on the counter and fishing out his battered bank card. He passed it to his niece, the scandal of family being charged forgotten. “I just need a little more of the Spencer charm, and I’ll have a dinner date.”
She tapped the card on the counter then moved to ring him up. Her smile hadn’t wavered, though it was more exasperated than fond. “Yes, good luck with that. Just for that, I’m charging you double.”
Martin ventured into the bakery after Merlin had returned to the shop, carrying a bouquet of gardenias. The nice baker, Roxanne, he remembered, beamed at him from behind the counter.
“Mister Gainsborough!” she said, surprised to see him. To be fair, he hadn’t often come this way, even when he had a standing invitation to come by for more of the strudel he liked. Martin didn’t find it hard to talk to Roxanne, but it just wasn’t in his nature to be as social as people might expect.
Roxanne didn’t ever seem to mind, however, letting him have his space and leaving him treats with Merlin instead of forcing him into a conversation he might not want.
Martin found he appreciated it. He offered her a cautious smile, lifting the gardenias.
“I brought you something,” he said. “A thank you, for the brownies.”
“Oh, they’re lovely,” she breathed, coming around the counter to take them from him and arrange them by the register. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“Well, I felt bad,” he said. “The brownies are delicious, but if I have someone…uh…”
“Mm,” she said, her expression morphing to something a little more knowing. “Uncle James can be…a little overwhelming.”
“You’re related to him?” Martin asked, vaguely unsettled by that. James had been…well, overwhelming was a kind word, and if he was her uncle, Martin should stick to the kinder words rather than extrapolating his vocabulary on the matter.
“Yes,” she said with a weary smile. “I’m so sorry.”
“Well, I just wanted to say thank you,” he said, spots of color flaring high in his cheeks. “Because I couldn’t—”
She nodded, smiling. “I get it. You don’t want to encourage him, right?”
“I…” He hesitated. “Is he always that way?”
“What way?” she asked.
“Well, he didn’t seem to be able to form a full sentence the second time around,” Martin said cautiously. “Is he quite all right?”
Roxanne put her fingers to her lips, as though she were trying to stop laughing. “Oh, he’s like that a lot, I’m sorry if he caused any fuss.”
“Erm, not exactly,” Martin hedged. “He waited until I was done serving the customers, at least.”
“That’s better than usual,” she murmured. “Well, if you like, I can have a word with him.”
“Oh, uh, no, thank you, Ms. Morton,” he said.
“One of these days I’ll get you to call me Roxy,” she teased, and he went a little pink in the face. “But I’ll let you handle it.”
“Ah, thank you, again, for the brownies,” he mumbled. “I should get going.”
“Oh, before you do, hold on—” she scurried back into the back, bringing out a little plate of apple strudel. She pushed it into his hands. “For your trouble.”
“Oh—” He pinked further, rubbing the back of his neck. “I couldn’t possibly—”
“It’s on the house,” she said, patting his forearm. “Uncle James is a bit much if you’ve never been exposed to the Spencer side of the family. It’s not a bribe. Well, not an all the way bribe. It’s just a thank you for not tossing him out of the shop on his arse.”
He chuckled, taking the plate. “Ah, then thank you, Roxanne.”
She beamed at him using her full first name. “One of these days.”
Merlin didn’t recognize the guard at the gate of Harry’s house in St. George’s, which was a relief. It would have been quite awkward; the new man waved him through to the house after a cursory glance at his ID, however. Merlin’s little Citroen still looked incongruously out of place amongst all the well-to-do houses, but at least he had an invitation this time.
And to lunch, no less.
He had no idea how he’d managed that, but at least he was going to get to see the gardens. He’d dressed for the occasion, with his heavy field coat and warm wool cap, along with some heavy-duty gloves and some pots and soil bags tossed in the back just in case Mister Hart decided that taking a cutting was something he’d allow.
Merlin climbed out of his car, already regretting leaving the pups at home; this much countryside meant that Athena would have a field day doing sprints all over the property.
Maybe next time.
He shook himself. Why was he assuming that he’d need a next time? He knew better than to assume, and to assume that Harry would invite him back—that Mister Hart would invite him back—would get him nothing but disappointment.
He climbed the brick steps of the property, noting that Mister Hart had indeed taken his advice and pulled the wild onion. Maybe he was capable of being reasoned with, after all. Merlin rang the bell, unconsciously standing at parade rest until the door opened.
The man of the house was just as Merlin remembered from their brief conversation—and he had no idea that the term ‘devastatingly handsome’ could apply in real life, but here he was, standing before Harry Hart dressed in a soft jumper with his hair curling onto his forehead, his bitter chocolate eyes lighting in recognition. Long legs were clad in trousers that accented his slender waist, and Merlin dropped his eyes to find the pup from before eagerly sniffing at his shoes.
Merlin pushed up his spectacles and gave what he hoped was a friendly smile. “Thank you for your invitation, Mister Hart.”
“Harry, please,” he said, holding out a hand, which Merlin took and shook. The brush of their hands was electric, sending a jolt straight to his chest as Harry smiled at him. “I thought we’d have lunch first, and then see about the greenhouses.”
“Ah, of course,” Merlin said, looking down at his heavy work boots. Used in the greenhouses behind the shop, they were muddy and caked in dried dirt. He swallowed, looking at the no doubt expensive runner of carpet beneath Harry’s loafers.
Harry smiled again. It shouldn’t endear him to the man, this man had denied him this chance over and over for the past year and a half—but it did, and Merlin awkwardly braced himself on the door jamb and removed them, fighting the color rising in his face. He set them neatly beside the door and stepped in with nothing but his socks.
“Right this way,” Harry said, gesturing him to follow. Merlin allowed his gaze to roam down Harry’s back as he did, taking in broad shoulders, the trim waist—and immediately jerking his eyes back up as he realized what he was doing. The pup was right behind, and Merlin heard the click of neatly trimmed claws as he followed them right into the dining room. “I hope you don’t mind just a simple roast. It was a spur of the moment sort of thing.”
Merlin blinked at him. “I wasn’t expecting anything, really. You made it quite clear you didn’t want me out and about your land.”
Harry beamed at him. “That’s before you figured out what was wrong with Mister Pickle.”
Harry bent at the waist and scooped up the little cairn terrier, who washed his master’s face with his tongue briefly before turning large black eyes back onto Merlin. “Mister Pickle, meet Mister Craig.”
“Er…Callum is fine,” Merlin said, unsure whether to address the dog or Harry at this point. “You named your dog Mister Pickle?”
“What’s wrong with it?” Harry asked, bemused.
“Well, nothing. Just not what I expected.” Harry himself wasn’t what he expected, honestly. Still, better safe than sorry. “A pleasure to meet you, Mister Pickle.”
The pup sniffed his fingers and licked them once more, and Merlin rubbed him behind his ears.
“You were right,” Harry said, bringing Merlin’s attention back to himself. “He had been nibbling the wild onion. I had the gardeners go out and remove all they could. Thank you.”
Merlin nodded. “I wasn’t about to let the little chap be harmed if I could save you that heartache. I’m glad you listened.”
“And I’m listening now,” Harry said. The smell from the kitchen chose that moment to register in Merlin’s brain, and his stomach growled, making Harry chuckle. “Drink? Or shall we get right to business?”
That conjured up all sorts of visuals that Merlin stamped right out, knowing that it wasn’t likely to happen now or in any future. Instead, he shoved his hands in his trouser pockets, aware of how shoddily dressed he was to be eating in such a nice house. He should have brought a change of clothes, or something…
He realized that he hadn’t actually answered Harry, who was patiently waiting for him to decide.
“A drink would be nice,” Merlin hedged, not sure what he’d gotten himself into as he trailed Harry and the dog into the kitchen.
“He came by the shop?” James asked, grinning into his hand as he talked to his niece by mobile. “What did he say?”
“He thinks you’re a madman.” Roxy stepped away as the whir of her mixer started. “You scared the daylights out of the poor man.”
James gave a thunderous frown. “Well, damn.”
“I told you.” Roxy’s voice was triumphant. “So, leave him be.”
“No, no,” James said, waving a hand. “I’ll just have to think of another approach. There has to be something that appeals to him.”
“Love you, Roxy, I’ve got to dash,” he said. “Tell your mum I’ll be by tomorrow.”
He ended the call on her sigh, and hailed a cab, his brain spinning for new ideas to get the handsome florist to think he was more approachable. James Spencer didn’t have the word ‘never’ in his vocabulary, after all.
He’d figure it out.
Okay, so the greenhouse scene is for later -- simply because James Spencer took over the chapter, the fucking tweed unicorn that he is. But we're moving right along!
Chapter 4: Whisky
Harry finally gets to meet the real Merlin.
The more that Harry Hart attempted to figure out Callum Craig, the more questions cropped up. Lunch had been an improvisation, really, in order to get the man to come back—their last meeting had been less than cordial and Harry would like to change that.
He’d given his gate man the day off, and his replacement was another young man that Harry had instructed to let the little Citroen through without a fuss. That Callum showed up ready to work was admirable, though his consternation about bringing his muddy boots into the house had been…
Harry hated to admit it, but the man had a way about him. He didn’t quite flush, but he did frown, his brows knit as he reasoned with himself as to which was the bigger faux pas—muddy boots or his stockinged feet.
It was incredibly hard not to tease him about it, if only to see if he could push the light spots of color deeper. Harry had a feeling that a flustered Callum was a sight to see, and there was a wicked sliver of his personality that screamed for him to tease him. He held himself back, however. The last thing he wanted to do was scare the poor man. And Harry couldn’t deny that there was a draw between them; Harry wasn’t sure he was the only one that felt it as the Scotsman followed him deeper into his home.
Artfully decorated by a woman Harry could barely remember, his home was comfortable in the way that familiar things were comfortable. The only things Harry could truly call keepsakes were his framed specimens that lined the walls of his study. The rest was carefully curated paintings of landscapes, or old portraits that fit the house’s aesthetic, and furniture done in dark, expensive woods—something to showcase his home rather than anything to do with himself.
No photographs of his estranged family lined the walls; his brothers had co-opted almost every family portrait for their own homes. Harry didn’t mind. They had wives and children, with numerous friends to impress. Harry made his own home and decorated it the way he pleased – and he was content with that.
This was not his family home; Harry was the youngest of three brothers, and had made his fortune with careful investing in his early twenties; early retirement had meant that he could pursue his true passion of lepidoptery in peace.
Well, at least until his greenhouses had made the news and the man behind him had started writing, eager to see the plants Harry was housing.
If he were to stop and think about it, the last time he’d invited anyone over, it had been Maddy, and they hadn’t been here long; they’d been going to a party and he’d needed an escort so as to appear the always-eligible bachelor. That had been years ago; since his mother had passed, there had been no need for Harry to keep up his front, and he’d retired from the public eye to a life of quiet solitude.
Not that he was lonely; Mister Pickle had been quite the companion. It was just harder than normal for him to meet people. Not only was he past the age where he could be mingling at forty-five, being out and forty-five was a double curse. He wasn’t about to test his luck with any of the new apps—smart phones never appealed to him and he’d rather just…do things the old-fashioned way.
Apparently, the old-fashioned way was stumbling across a handsome florist who just so happened to want to see his collection of rare plants. Harry told himself to settle down, instead turning to the man behind him as he entered the dining room.
Was it his imagination, or had Callum’s eyes darted up toward his face?
“I hope you don’t mind a simple roast,” Harry said, letting a smile curl his lips just slightly, watching the crawl of color up the other man’s neck. He tried very hard not to preen; it wasn’t working as well as he’d like when he realized that Callum’s full focus was on him. “I must admit, it was a sort of last-minute suggestion.”
Callum blinked at him. “I wasn’t expecting anything, really. You made it quite clear you didn’t want me out and about your land.”
Harry beamed at him. “That’s before you figured out what was wrong with Mister Pickle.”
Harry bent at the waist and scooped up the little cairn terrier, who washed his master’s face with his tongue briefly before turning large black eyes back onto Callum. “Mister Pickle, meet Mister Craig.”
“Er…Callum is fine,” he said, his voice unsure. “You named your dog Mister Pickle?”
“What’s wrong with it?” Harry asked, bemused. Mister Pickle wriggled in his large hands, eager to get to the new person. The little terrier had always been the gregarious sort, though he had a feeling that Callum was special in this case, as the pup had been eager to meet him the first time, too.
“Well, nothing. Just not what I expected. A pleasure to meet you, Mister Pickle.” As he reached out to pet the dog, his elegant hands brushed over Harry’s fingers and Harry felt a mild electric jolt somewhere in the center of his chest. It was pleasant, the warm feeling there, and Harry wasn’t about to tell him to stop.
The pup sniffed Callum’s fingers and licked them once more before the Scotsman rubbed him behind his ears. Harry had a wild notion that he would like to be a dog right at that moment, but he reined that thought in.
“You were right,” Harry said, bringing Callum’s attention back to himself. “He had been nibbling the wild onion. I had the gardeners go out and remove all they could. Thank you.”
Callum nodded. “I wasn’t about to let the little chap be harmed if I could save you that heartache. I’m glad you listened.”
“And I’m listening now,” Harry said. Callum’s stomach rumbled, almost as though the roast was making itself known from where it was resting in the kitchen. It made Harry’s smile widen just a little. Truly, the man was endearing. “Drink? Or shall we get right to business?”
Callum seemed torn, shoving his hands into his trouser pockets, as though aware of his shabby dress. If he were honest, Harry didn’t really mind. The jumper he wore looked soft to the touch, and it made him seem more approachable. It softened the lines of his torso, though Harry could only imagine the chest and shoulders beneath. He’d been similarly bundled up when he’d visited before.
Harry filed that thought away for later; no sense in embarrassing himself. Especially if the man was taken or not interested. Better to have his own thoughts than the disappointment reality could afford him, at least for now. There was no sense getting his hopes up when he hadn’t even tested those waters.
“A drink would be nice,” Callum said, trailing Harry into the kitchen. Harry set Mister Pickle on the floor, pouring him a cupful of kibble before he added a little of the juice from the roast. With the dog otherwise occupied, Harry washed up and dried his hands on the kitchen towel he’d been using. He moved to the sideboard just beyond the door and poured them both a couple of fingers of whisky, holding out the glass to Callum.
Their fingers brushed again and Harry felt that same curious warmth seep into his chest. There was more here, he could feel it—
And he tried to tell himself it wasn’t because companionship was hard to come by when one was a hermit.
“This is…” Callum wafted the contents beneath his nose, closing his eyes in appreciation. Harry took a moment to watch him, the way hazel eyes drifted shut, dropping long lashes over well-defined cheekbones. He realized he was staring, but really, he felt he’d earned this, just for a moment.
Callum inhaled, his lips parting as he brought the rim of the glass to his mouth to take a tiny sip. Harry watched him roll the liquid across his tongue, swallowing only after he’d let it coat his mouth. He let out the tiniest of sighs and turned his half-lidded gaze to Harry, who hurriedly brought his own glass to his lips, the liquor in his quite forgotten.
“A Macallan, number six, I believe,” Harry said, after swallowing his mouthful. “Does it live up to your expectations?”
His voice had gone husky, their eyes locked, and Callum cleared his throat.
“Aye,” he said. “It tastes like my salary for a whole year, and then some.”
Harry flushed. Maybe he’d overestimated the man in his zeal to impress. Though that could hardly be Callum’s fault, now could it? Lord, he was bad at this now. His mother would be so upset.
He cleared his own throat, breaking his gaze away. The other man seemed to relax, and Harry gestured to the table in the kitchen proper.
“Unless you’d like to eat in the dining room, I figure the kitchen is closer—”
“Wherever is fine, really,” Callum said, setting the glass on the counter. “Really, you don’t have to pull out any sort of airs for me. I’m just here to visit.”
To visit. That was a nice thought, if Harry were honest. “…of course. Let me slice this up and I’ll make us up some plates.”
“Can I help?” Callum was already moving for the sink to wash up, and Harry blinked, surprised at the offer. “I promise, I won’t be touching the roast. Last time I tried that, I dropped my mum’s.”
Harry chuckled, the anxiousness brought on by the whisky’s reception washing away. “There are plates in the cabinet to your upper left. Grab me two?”
“I can do that.” Callum shot him a shy smile, and Harry set his glass down to slice the roast that he’d left resting on the cutting board.
Harry seemed to relax with lunch, which made Merlin relax further himself. Their talk devolved from polite conversation to a companionable silence while they ate, the memory of his whisky comment all but forgotten.
He’d offended the man, he knew. He had no real experience with proper whisky, and reminding Harry of that had been in poor taste. His mum would have had him scrubbing the gutters for weeks for that one, but there didn’t seem to be a right foot with Mister Hart. Merlin pushed the last bite of his roast about on his plate, gathering up a bit of the gravy and some potatoes as well to pop in his mouth.
“Would you like to see the garden now?” Harry asked, rolling the last of his whisky around in his glass. He’d been sipping on it for a while, once his meal was done, seeming to savor it like a dessert. (Merlin could understand that, with the almost chocolatey flavor of the smooth beverage.)
“I would—once the washing up is done.” Harry blinked, staring down at their plates almost like he was bewildered.
“I’ll just toss them in the dishwasher,” Harry said, mildly. “There’s no need to go through all that—”
“It’s no trouble, especially when I didn’t cook,” Merlin said as he collected them. “Consider it a fair trade for lunch?”
“I suppose,” Harry said, turning to watch him as he scraped their plates and turned on the hot water to rinse them. “But then we’ll go and see the greenhouses.”
“Aye,” Merlin said, washing the plates and then turning to Harry. “Where’s your storage?”
“Oh,” Harry said, rising. He moved beside Merlin, reaching up and pulling down some Tupperware sets. “Here you are.”
There was an almost comforting familiarity about the way they moved about each other in the kitchen, with Harry helping him pack away the rest of the food and rinse the cookware to put it in the dishwasher. Merlin tried not to read into things like that – especially when the man beside him had just been insulted not half an hour prior.
They brushed past each other more than once, close enough for Merlin to feel the passing, and each time the swoop in his stomach got a little worse. He got through it by filling the dishwasher neatly and setting it to run before drying his hands on a dish towel and hanging it neatly where Harry showed him.
“Satisfied?” Harry asked with an almost wry smile.
“Yes, I think so,” Merlin said, hands on his hips as he did a last cursory glance about the kitchen. His gaze returned to Harry, who was still smiling, hands in his trouser pockets. “What?”
“You’re the first lunch guest I’ve ever had who insisted on doing his own washing up,” Harry said.
“You need politer guests,” Merlin countered.
“Maybe so,” Harry said. “Go get your boots on and I’ll show you the greenhouses.”
Harry had expected Callum to bring himself, not any equipment. However, when the man reappeared, muddy boots back in place, he also carried a large satchel made of canvas and a small camera. Harry stopped, bemused, and Callum flushed.
“I just needed some things,” he said, as though that would explain it. Harry nodded and escorted the Scot toward the larger of the two greenhouses. He pulled a key from his pocket, unlocking the door and opening it, letting Callum precede him inside.
The greenhouses were his own design. Solar powered, not only did they retain quite a bit of heat in the winter, they were also self-sufficient. A small irrigation channel ran down the length of the planters, each of the rare specimens planted in its own space. Large enough to be considered the size of a small home, the greenhouses were packed with flowers and plants from all over, so long as it had blooms that would attract butterflies. It had become a hobby in and of itself, collecting the rarer species.
He’d had his gardeners set up each space for each particular plant’s needs, whether it be a different watering schedule or even small UV lamps for plants that needed more sun. Small windows were left open in the summer so that the butterflies could get inside and back out again, and Harry spent many days in here just documenting his little winged visitors from the various benches scattered about the space.
No one understood. Maybe that was the beauty of being independently wealthy. He could do this for his living and document all the natural wonders that appeared in his backyard. He could keep these plants and have a legacy to leave to science one day. If not his own field, perhaps a botanist.
Harry stepped into the greenhouse, his shoes crunching on the crushed stone substrate he used to line the walkways. The smell of damp greenery hit his nose, along with the other subtle scents from the myriads of flowers he kept. He came level to where Callum was standing, and turned to ask if it met his expectations.
No sound came out of his mouth. The look on the Scotsman’s face was pure and utter wonder, like a child given the best treat of their life on Christmas Day. His hazel eyes were shining, the smile he wore something out of a fairy tale. The greenery in the room caught his eyes, making them reflect the same green and gold, like new shoots pushing through the earth in springtime.
Harry was lost. It was so out of character for the shy, quiet man he’d chased off his porch, the polite if awkward man in his letters. Callum was in his element, and Harry felt the thud as his heart caught up, hammering against his ribs.
“This is fantastic,” Callum breathed. “Did you set this up?”
“I did most of the design work,” Harry said, finding his voice. “The company who built it for me were very understanding.”
“May I?” he asked, and Harry could only nod.
Callum turned into a flurry of a man, snapping photos of each placement, murmuring to himself as he documented the housing first before turning his attention to each individual plant. He whipped out a little notebook, jotting things in pencil as he squatted next to the beds that housed the Mariposa Lilies.
“These are endangered,” he said, running a hand gently over the planter box’s soil. “How did you get your hands on them?”
“I have a friend in conservation in Washington State,” Harry replied, watching him work. “He sent me a couple of bulbs to see if I could cultivate them here. Why?”
“I’ve never seen them in person, is all,” Callum said, grinning up at him. “They’re gorgeous. The cows out there love them, apparently, which means they get eaten up when growing wild. You can eat the bulbs, too, in the springtime. It’s a shame, too, because you only find them growing cliffside now, according to the blogs I’ve looked at.”
Harry could only stare as Callum chattered on. His knowledge was extensive and seemed to be contained to his mind itself, as he only seemed to jot notes when he needed to check something later. Harry felt almost superfluous in his own space, taking a seat on a nearby bench as Callum started measuring the soil and taking samples for his own greenhouse.
After a moment, he looked up, as though realizing that Harry had drifted a small way apart.
“I’m sorry,” he said, sitting back on his heels. “Sometimes I get too excited about these things…”
“No, no,” Harry said, waving a hand. “I just feel like a third wheel to science, that’s all.”
Callum laughed, something that rumbled up from his chest and made Harry’s face warm. “You wouldn’t be the first, sadly. But…what you’ve cultivated here is amazing, just from looking at the first couple of boxes.”
“…thank you,” Harry said, accepting the compliment.
“I hate to ask this, but I was wondering—might I bring something by sometime next week? It might make the care of the whole place that much more efficient, if you’re willing to test it for me.”
“What is it?” Harry asked.
“It’s harder to explain than I’d like, but essentially, it’s an automatic feeder. That way if you have a finicky plant, you can simply inject the soil with the correct mixture and nip so many problems in the bud – if you’ll pardon the expression. I’ve been field testing them in my own greenhouses, but I’m wondering if you’ll let me test them here, too.”
“And if you kill my plants?” Harry said, arching a brow.
“I’d slap myself in cuffs and await the lawsuit,” Callum said, so seriously that Harry had to chuckle. “If it makes you feel better, I can do a test run on those lovely roses that are looking a mite droopy outside the greenhouse.”
“You drive a hard bargain, Mister Craig,” Harry said, not realizing his voice had slipped into what his mother would have called his satisfied ‘cat that got the canary’ purr. “What do I get in return?”
“I could always cook lunch next time,” Callum offered, giving him a lopsided grin. “Though I doubt you’d like the plain bachelor fare I can make. You seem to be a man of richer tastes than I. How about this. If you like them, and they do well for your roses, you can have the whole greenhouse rigged with them for the cost of materials. I’ll even set them up for you to monitor them with your smartphone.”
Harry flushed. “I can’t use a smartphone. I never had a reason to learn.”
Callum’s eyes widened and he looked away, the color darkening on his ears and neck. His eyes darted back, however, when Callum crunched over, sitting on the bench next to him. They were close together, the small bench built mostly for Harry’s comfort rather than entertaining guests. Harry could feel the heat from Callum’s thigh as the other clasped his hands between his knees.
“I can teach you how,” he said.
“I know this is sudden,” Callum said, and Harry met his gaze, finding a man who was sincere, not teasing. “If I ever overstep, please tell me. I just…I feel responsible for them, you know? They’re living things as well, and they deserve the best care from someone who understands them. Not that you don’t—your passion is your butterflies, from the books I’ve read.”
“You read my books?” Harry asked. Minor texts, in the academic world. A couple of papers. That Callum would even know to seek them out spoke volumes on the research the man was willing to do.
“Of course,” Callum said. “I wanted to know, at first, why you’d say no. I know that my persistence must have been annoying at best. So…don’t feel you have to say yes.”
“And that’s exactly why I think I should,” Harry said. “When next week?”
“We can hash out the details later,” Callum said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card. “That’s my personal mobile, in case you change your mind. That way you don’t have to go through the shop to tell me.”
Harry took the card and pocketed it, nodding. “Then…when you’re done here, we’ll figure out when you want to come back.”
Callum beamed at him. “Thank you, Mister Hart. I promise you won’t regret it.”
“Call me Harry, and I might not.” Harry watched Callum rise and go back to the flowers, a flutter of emotion starting at his chest and spreading to his stomach. He had no idea what he was getting himself into.
He just knew passion when he saw it.
Oh my god these two are utterly hopeless. (For maximum hilarity, imagine Harry's just like this when he sees Callum go 'oh my god' at the greenhouse.)
That said, this was satisfying to write.
More soon, Constant Readers. Comments and kudos are appreciated!
Chapter 5: Escalation
Eggsy gets dragged into things, quite unwittingly (not to mention unwillingly).
James attempts to get used to the civilized world again, such as it is.
James sipped his coffee with a squint at the rising sun as though it had personally wronged him. His niece was almost as tired as he was, judging from how she had a pair of sunglasses jammed onto her face as she stood beside him, waiting on their taxi.
He was bleary—and who wouldn’t be, at half-past eight in the morning? He’d promised Roxy that he’d come shopping with her today, however, and so here they were, standing outside her flat so they could get to the shops when they opened while still leaving her time to get the bakery open by noon. She still needed to set appointments for her hair and nails the day before the reception, and James knew several boutiques that would do it on such short notice, but she needed to make the appointment in person.
He didn’t mind accompanying her. Her father, Johnathan, had basically washed his hands of Roxy and her success—leaving James to swoop in and be the father figure she deserved. James glared a little more moodily at the sun with the thought. Johnathan Morton had never really approved of James and his…lifestyle—and even now he could hear the bastard sneering it.
James didn’t much care for the man himself—love for his twin sister kept the simmering pot tightly lidded. Roxy being added to the mix meant that James often arranged to meet them outside the home. He adored his sister and his niece. His brother-in-law could go play in traffic, really.
What an uncharitable thought, he chided himself as he took another sip of his potent brew. To be fair, Johnathan Morton was a stodgy old sourpuss about most anything that even seemed interesting or fun. His idea of a proper lifestyle for Roxy had been her marrying well and being a housewife.
James could have told him that was shot the second he heard the thought. Spencer women never did exactly as told; half of them would laugh in your face. The other half would simply quietly do whatever they liked anyway. He had no idea how Johnathan met their mother and assumed that Amanda would be pliant for anything.
When Roxy had announced her plans to go to culinary school and become a pastry chef, her father had immediately withdrawn all monetary support. James had gallantly stepped in, as had her grandmother, and Roxy’s first steps into the business were cushioned, in case she were to fall.
She hadn’t fallen, however. Roxy took more from the Spencer side than she realized, hitting the ground running. Not only was her shop in a good location, she’d formed a partnership with a florist who did brisk business within the first few weeks. Her first year of business, and she was already far beyond what anyone had even forecast, much less the bank. She’d admitted she’d used the down payment from the royal reception to pay off the rest of the year’s rent on her shop, and she still had a little left over.
She hadn’t touched the seed money he’d gifted her, showing him the bank balance. That was in case of emergencies only, and he was going to get it back with interest once she started turning more of a profit. She was well on her way to doing that, and she’d gotten new business cards printed up specifically for the reception in a few weeks.
He was so proud of her. His squint eased into a smile as he glanced at her, the corners of his lips turning up as he focused on happier things.
Roxy had her own cup of coffee, made from beans he’d harvested and roasted himself on one of his more recent trips to Colombia, and they both sipped it slowly, letting the fragrance and the caffeine work their way through both their systems. She leaned into his shoulder, a grin touching her lips as she finally woke up a bit. He returned it, lifting his brows at her.
They looked like a couple of fools, grinning at each other in the middle of the morning, but…well, what Spencer was afraid of looking a little foolish?
Someone rammed his shoulder hard, setting him off balance and almost knocking him off the sidewalk. He steadied his coffee, leveling a glare at the man in the long black overcoat who looked as though he’d been the one wronged. Dark brows drew down in a scowl, equally inky eyes making James freeze briefly in his tracks. Grey at the temples, he seemed older but carried himself like a man no more than forty. Dressed impeccably, the man radiated high income – and James recognized the suit, it was one of Huntsman’s on Savile Row, he owned two himself.
The man was handsome in the way gothic heroes were handsome—and also dangerous in nearly the same way. He radiated menace like it was dripping from his very being. James only got a glimpse of the sharp, angular jaw and the downturn scowl of his mouth before anger made him scowl right back.
“Hey!” he said, but the man was already reaching into his breast pocket. He withdrew his billfold, stuffed a one-pound note in James’s coffee cup, and stalked away. “Hey!”
It was too late. The man was gone, rounding the corner. Roxy grabbed his arm as he made to charge after the man, shaking her head as the taxi pulled up.
“Leave it, Uncle James. He saw the beard and thought you were homeless,” she said, gesturing to her own face. She mimed stroking a beard and James scowled in offense. He’d just gotten back, there was barely time for a trim while he caught up with so many people—didn’t anyone understand that?
“A man doesn’t shave for a couple of months and that means he’s destitute?” James said, fishing the bill out of his coffee and looking sadly down into his cup before dropping it in the trash bin on the corner. That coffee was some of the best he’d ever made. “What’s the world coming to?”
“You still need a shave,” she pointed out as he climbed into the cab beside her.
Harry found himself waiting for the clock to strike two. It wasn’t often in his retired life that he found reasons to anticipate the clock’s hands ticking down to an appointed hour; now, as he waited for the sound of the Citroen on his crushed gravel drive, he realized he was hovering in the drawing room.
His mother, god rest her soul, would be mortified.
He forced himself into the kitchen, where he had a chicken roasting in anticipation of lunch again with Callum. He’d been driven to distraction by the man for the entire week; Harry had found it hard to focus on anything else. His butterflies languished in his workroom, but somehow, he didn’t mind, focusing more on the plants that fed them instead.
Seeing the world he’d built himself through Callum’s eyes was not only an adventure, it was a fresh perspective on the grounds. He’d had the grass trimmed back and the wild onion removed for Mister Pickle’s safety, and now he had the gardeners planning out more of the rosebushes that seemed to have attracted Callum’s attention as well.
If he could solve the issue with the sickly ones, it would be worth it to put more in. His mother had long loved the fragrant blooms, but it had become a hassle as of late to keep the poor things healthy. Now, with fresh eyes on the problem, he might be able to expand his garden and bring a little more color to the greenery.
Wildflowers grew in the field that bordered his garden, and Harry had been fighting with the city for so long about keeping the lot wild that he’d just purchased it almost two years ago. He’d set several paths through it, kept them trimmed and put in a couple of water fixtures, and now they were hard pressed to complain about his sanctuary.
Maybe Callum would like to see those, this time. Not as impressive as his rare specimens, perhaps, but…
Look at you, he told himself acerbically, moving to the kitchen to check on the vegetables steaming. Mooning over the first man to show you attention in—how long has it been now?
Harry almost found it sad that he couldn’t remember. But it was also hard to deny that he felt a tug, like he was drawn to Callum in a way that belied the physical attraction. The way that Callum approached a problem, the way that he offered to help with no question as to whether or not that Harry could maintain and monitor the roses via his phone despite not having done it before—he either had faith in his own tech or he had faith in Harry.
He knew which one was probably right and which one he preferred it to be.
Mister Pickle perking up and trotting to the door made him trail along after the little terrier, peering through the window to see Callum circling his little car. Smiling, Harry opened the door—
To find that Callum was not alone. The young man from before, dressed in jeans and other rough workwear stood beside the car, holding the leashes of three large dogs. Two well-muscled and sleek Dobermans flanked a sheep dog who stood placidly beside the young man’s hip. Harry immediately scooped up Mister Pickle, who wriggled his little body in a vain attempt to escape and get to the intruders.
“Oh, Mister Hart,” Callum said, looking up. “Forgive the intrusion. I needed Eggsy’s help unloading the equipment and since he’s my dog sitter—”
“It’s fine,” Harry said, the words coming in a rush. He took his measure of the young man. Eggsy had an honest, open face that was better suited to a smile than the scowl he was currently wearing, as though he didn’t quite trust Harry.
Harry realized that Callum likely had told his employee the situation, and likely his letters might have been the subject of much discussion, from the way he was being stared at.
“Were you staying for lunch?” he asked, his politeness forced through gritted teeth as the Dobermans took notice of Mister Pickle, their gazes locking on the little terrier. They both sat, as though it were against some sort of unspoken rule that they should allow the little dog to approach first.
“I was thinking Eggsy could help me get things unloaded and then take my car and the dogs to the park,” Callum said.
“Nonsense,” Harry said. “I’ve made enough. Are your dogs friendly?”
“Friendly enough, though Bernie would much rather have a nap in the sun than play at the park.” Callum clicked his tongue and all three dogs stood. “Show him, Eggsy.”
Eggsy dropped all three leashes.
Harry’s heart leapt into his throat, but instead of bull rushing him to get to Mister Pickle, the dogs moved to sit around Callum’s feet in a semicircle.
“You know what it means to be a guest,” Callum said to each of them as they sat with their ears perked and listening to their master. It was the same calm, controlled voice that he might use when talking to a small child. Harry was enchanted. “You’re to be on your best behavior today. Manners maketh man. Now. Go and say hello.”
All three dogs rose, moving to sit in that same semicircle around Harry, the Dobermans flanking the sheepdog.
“Meet Artemis, Apollo, and Bernie,” Callum said. “I’ll leave you to guess who is who.”
Harry tentatively reached out, letting the dogs sniff his closed fist in turn. The male Doberman fair to quivered with excitement, but he held his place like his female counterpart. Bernie, whom Harry assumed was the sheepdog, panted softly but accepted the ear rub.
Harry set Mister Pickle down, and the little terrier got on with the process of introductions. The larger dogs were gentle, and in Bernie’s case patient, as Harry’s dog sniffed them all over. They returned the gesture, and then the male Doberman gave a little bow, trotting off a little way in a clear invitation to play. Callum called them over, removed their leashes, and the two younger dogs were off, Mister Pickle in tow as they went exploring.
The sheepdog settled himself right on the porch in a fine patch of afternoon sun with the sigh reminiscent of an old man.
“That’s a good old fellow,” Callum said, his brogue elongating the word ‘old’ until it sounded like ‘auld’. Harry stifled his pattering heart, more from Callum’s nearness than the stress of the dogs meeting. He realized that sometime in between Mister Pickle and the Dobermans running off and turning his attention to the sunning sheepdog, Callum had stepped closer. “Bernie would much rather nap than run.”
“So I got it right,” Harry said, glancing at the snoozing mound of fur.
“You did,” Callum said. There was a beat of uncomfortable silence, and the Scot put a hand on his forearm.
“I’m sorry if we’ve inconvenienced you,” he murmured. “I really can have Eggsy take them to the park instead. I know you value your privacy.”
“No,” Harry said, feeling almost magnanimous by granting the intrusion, simply because it was Callum asking. “You needed his help, which means he can do something I’m assuming I’m not capable of doing.”
“Well, he’s a strong back to help me lift,” Callum said, though there was a hint of humor in his gaze as he gave Harry a mock once-over. Harry fought to remain as he was instead of standing straighter under Callum’s scrutiny. “Though I have no doubt you could manage. But, more importantly, he knows the ratios of plant food to water that I need for my injectors.”
“Well, then I’ll let you get to it,” Harry said. “I’m still working out how to set up this new mobile.”
“Oh, I can walk you through that as well,” Callum tossed over his shoulder as he and Eggsy grabbed their tools and headed for the back garden. “As soon as we’re done.”
A minor success. Harry beamed at their retreating backs and then turned to watch the three dogs at play. He glanced at Bernie, who’d rolled to his side.
“I think that went well.”
Bernie’s snore was Harry’s only answer.
Eggsy had just enough tact to wait until he and Merlin were out of earshot before he bullied the older man into the shadows of the eave of the house. Merlin had felt the incredulous stare throughout his conversation with Harry; it was only natural that Eggsy corner him.
“Since when are you mates with the bloke who told you that you’d never be good enough to wipe his arse, much less touch his garden?” Eggsy hissed.
Merlin shrugged. “Since I told him the wild onion was what was making his little dog sick. He was grateful and invited me back last week. We had lunch and we talked a bit. He’s willing to let me test the new prototypes on his roses.”
Eggsy’s frown was thunderous, pulling his face into hard lines as he shook his head. “Merlin, mate, you gotta be a lot less trusting of people. What if he’s got some sort of ulterior motive?”
Merlin scoffed, shifting the weight of his equipment bag on his shoulder. “Eggsy, the man drinks whisky that is more expensive than both of our flats put together but I don’t rightly think he’s got horrible motives in mind. He seems lonely, to be honest.”
“That’s what Grindr is for,” Eggsy snapped, waving a hand at the side of the house where Harry was presumably still standing. “It’s not up to you to provide companionship—no matter how hard up for a date you are. Did you really just offer to set up his mobile for him?”
“Eggsy,” Merlin said in a harsh whisper, dragging his assistant farther from listening ears. Partially because it was rude, but also partially because Eggsy was right. He liked what he’d seen of Harry, now that he’d gotten a chance to know him outside of a snidely-penned rejection letter.
But the gardens…they were more beautiful than anything he’d had access to, the botanical gardens in London notwithstanding. And they wouldn’t let him take soil samples. It wasn’t attraction—not the main bit. It was the fact that he was working closely with species he never thought he’d get to see in person.
“Admit it,” Eggsy said, shifting the weight of his bag from one shoulder to the other as they walked. “You were flirting, just now.”
Merlin paled, then felt the burn against his cheeks as high spots of color rushed in. “I wasn’t.”
“You touched his arm, like you was tellin’ him a secret,” Eggsy said, and the accusation made Merlin flinch. “I knew it. Merlin, are you fucking takin’ the piss right now? I work for six months to set you up with a nice bloke and you fall for the one what tells you no just because he’s got floppy hair.”
“Will you shut it?” Merlin hissed, grabbing Eggsy’s elbow and dragging him toward the rosebushes. “It’s not like that, so please stop inferring. I just want to be able to say I did a good job here, because if these feeders work as planned, who knows how many people he’ll tell about how good they are?”
“So, you’re hoping for exposure. Just remember, people die from exposure.” Eggsy set down the equipment with an audible thump. “Just don’t come moaning to me when you get your expectations up and he pops ‘em like a bubble because he’s straight as an arrow and wants nothing to do with you. He’s likely putting up with it for the free work you’ve offered to do. What’s he paying you?”
Merlin frowned, setting his own bag down more gently. “It’s not about that.”
“Yeah, okay,” Eggsy muttered as he grabbed the first of the feeders to prep it. “Not about flirting, we ain’t gettin’ paid, we’re doing all this at cost. Are you just secretly a masochist?”
The cinderblock sailed through Kingsman's plate glass window at a quarter to four in the morning. It smashed it completely, the large window with hand-painted lettering shattering into tiny slivers, sparkling with the light of the street lamps. They tinkled to the ground and there was a moment, tense, like someone was holding their breath at the sound of breaking glass. The other shops were closed, their windows dark. No lights came on in the apartments across the street.
A figure swathed in black, their hooded sweatshirt pulled up and over their face, leaped the window frame and pushed over several displays, taking a crowbar to the glass case of succulents in the back. Spray paint came out, slurs of all kinds scrawled in clumsy script across the once-neat walls. They didn’t bother the register, instead just doing as much damage as they could before escaping, avoiding the shards of glass and pelting down the street and into the dark. In their wake they left empty aerosol cans and trampled flowers, but their gloves insured there would be no fingerprints.
Twenty full minutes of carnage, and no one saw a thing. Nor would they, until Roxy came along at half past four to open the bakery. She swore softly and pulled out her mobile, her lip between her teeth as she dialed the police.
It's rather strange, thinking on it, about writing an Eggsy that isn't fully on board with trusting Harry. To be fair, however, the circumstances in this AU are fitting enough that he's still quite in character for our favorite egg. Now that I know where the plot is going completely, I feel more comfortable ramping up the action.
(Spot the cheeky easter egg, win a prize. The prize is the most metal prize. It is nothing but the knowledge that you've been paying attention.)
As always, Constant Readers, comments and kudos are appreciated.
“Well, what do we do now?” Eggsy asked, toeing at some of the broken glass that lay on the floor of the shop.
They’d all been roused out of bed by frantic calls from Roxy, who’d discovered the shop like this. It was half-past six in the morning, and the police had made their final sweep of the place about ten minutes ago, leaving Merlin and Eggsy standing in the middle of a destroyed flower shop. Their carefully tended displays lay in pieces on the floor, slurs were spray-painted across the walls and floors, and the smell of spilled earth permeated the shop until one got close to the shattered window, where the city’s smells pervaded.
“We install those cameras I told you to get six weeks ago,” Martin admonished, returning with a bag of baked goods and a carrier full of coffee for all three of them. He stepped carefully around the glass and set the bag and the coffee on the small table, all that was left intact after the glass counters and displays had been smashed. “Have you talked to the insurance company?”
Merlin nodded with a heavy sigh. “They’re coming ‘round at nine for claim photos, so we can’t even sweep the glass up until they get here.”
Martin shook his head, his expression grave. “They get the upstairs?”
“No,” Merlin said. “Thank god. The hot room and the greenhouse are safe. So are the flowers we’re using for the reception. I suppose it’s good I had the foresight to bring them upstairs when we’re not working with them.”
Upstairs led to not only the employee kitchen and breakroom, but to a lavatory and what Merlin referred to as the hot room. It was where he kept the more delicate live plants he sold, controlling their temperature and light intake via UV lamps and hot boxes. The roof held a small greenhouse, where he cultivated many of Kingsman’s live plants that he sold. It was cheaper to raise them himself than to buy them from his suppliers, and he’d saved quite a bit with it.
It might have been more of a disaster if whoever had done this had kicked in the Staff Only door. Thankfully, they either hadn’t had time or they hadn’t realized that like most of the shops on this row, they were converted from old townhouses into retail space.
Merlin accepted the cup of coffee Martin held out to him. “They’ll likely waive my deductible, if the damage is great enough.”
“I’m still going out and getting cameras once we’ve secured the windows,” Martin said. He took a sip of his coffee, staring at the mess all around them. “These…”
He gestured at the red-slashes of paint that marred the walls, spelling out words and phrases that Merlin had heard slung about his head his entire life.
“They’re entirely too close to home,” Martin finished. He glanced at Merlin, his face somber. “This might end up classified as a hate crime.”
“Lord, I hope not,” Merlin said, rubbing his face. “I don’t need that kind of sympathetic press. It actually tends to be bad for business, better for looky-loos to come get a glimpse of the gay florist and whisper amongst themselves about how I deserved it.”
Eggsy scowled. “You didn’t deserve it.”
Merlin nodded. “I know.”
“Just so we’re clear,” Eggsy said, taking a big bite of his muffin.
Merlin couldn’t help but smile at that. Eggsy was a good man.
“It shouldn’t take long for the glass men to get here,” Martin said. “I know some people who will be happy to help.”
Merlin nodded, letting out a shaky breath. “This wasn’t how I planned to start today.”
The other two could only hum in agreement as they looked about the ruins of their workplace.
“What a mess,” James murmured, stepping inside the shop. He’d heard from Roxy about how the shop had been vandalized, and had taken it upon himself to bring the three men lunch. They had enough to worry about with cleanup.
To be fair, James had been meaning to get back here anyway. That tall, dark and handsome man who seemed more interested in the little pricklies he tended than anything else was a challenge. And James Spencer was not a man who backed down from a challenge. The bag full of takeaway was just another weapon in his arsenal, really.
His other weapon was cleaning himself up. His longish hair had been cut back, trimmed to a more attractive length and combed to the side. He’d shaved at last, carving away the stubble to reveal his jaw and dressed in something other than the rumpled trousers and button-up that made up half his wardrobe these days. Sure, he had an interview with a news channel in a couple of hours, but that was hardly an excuse to waste such an opportunity.
The smell of cleaning products and paint thinner assaulted him as he stepped through the open door, and he coughed a little. The man working at scrubbing the walls, his head shaven and his hazel eyes sharp behind fashionable wire spectacles turned from where he was working.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his soft brogue a delight. James was going to have to come back more often if everyone here was this attractive. “The shop is closed for repairs today. We’re hoping to be open by Friday.”
“Oh, you needn’t worry about all that,” James said, waving a hand. “I’m Roxy’s uncle. James Spencer.”
“Oh, she hadn’t mentioned you,” he said. James’s face must had radiated his surprise, because the man chuckled. “To be fair, she’s far too busy trying to win over my succulent breeder.”
“The dark-haired one?” James asked with an involuntary smile. “She keeps telling me she’ll get him with the brownies one of these days.”
The man wiped his hands on a clean rag and extended his hand. He had nice hands, James thought, shaking with him briefly. He still couldn’t get rid of the nagging feeling that he was missing something…
“Wait,” he said, squinting and tilting his head. “I know you from somewhere.”
“I’m afraid not, sir,” the man replied. “Callum Craig.”
“Hmm, that’s not it,” James said, frowning. Suddenly it struck him, and he laughed. “I didn’t recognize you without your shirt on. I matched with you on the app.”
Callum’s mouth worked for a moment as he gaped at James. He went pale, and then a flush crawled up his neck and reached his ears. “I’m going to murder that boy.”
“To be fair, I’d just gotten back into town, but had I known you were so handsome I’d have swiped right,” James said, laughing quietly. Callum just went redder. “But don’t worry. I won’t tell if you won’t.”
Callum breathed out finally, cutting his eyes around the store before he nodded. “Thank you. But you said you were Roxy’s uncle. What can I do for you?”
“Well, I’d been racking my brain trying to figure out a good way to repay you for helping my niece’s business, and then I heard about the nastiness that happened last night, so I thought I might bring you lunch.” He lifted the large bag full of takeaway. “Should be enough left for supper as well, if you’re not famished after cleaning all day.”
Callum’s face was transformed in that instant, a smile taking his face and softening the planes and angles. He dimpled, and James was really regretting swiping left now. Still, what was done was done. Though…perhaps later.
He glanced behind Callum, spotting the current challenge. Martin seemed to spot him at the same time, because his spine stiffened and he turned on his heel to walk right back into the door marked Staff Only. He bumped into the other young man that James knew worked there, and there was a bit of a squabble as they tried to negotiate walking space. Callum turned at the noise.
“Oh, there you two are. We’ve got a visitor, and it’s as good a time as any for a lunch break,” he called.
Martin looked like a man on Death Row rather than someone called for free food. James had to laugh a little bit, even as they all gathered around the sheet of wood balanced on sawhorses that was serving as the counter just now.
“Martin,” James said, his smile charming as always. If there was one thing a Spencer knew how to do, it was charm. Martin didn’t meet his eyes, just gave him a nod. Callum looked between the two of them, huffing an amused noise.
“Mister Spencer has brought us lunch,” he said, pointedly looking at Martin.
“James, please,” James said, laughing. “Mister Spencer is my father and it sounds weird when someone calls me that.”
Martin’s gaze snapped up onto James’s face, but the suspicious look softened slightly as he glanced at Callum.
“Thank you,” he murmured. Point one in his favor, James thought.
“Will you be joining us?” Callum asked.
James looked at his watch and shook his head. “Afraid not today, but perhaps another time. I just wanted to express my thanks that you’re helping Roxy get her bakery off the ground. You three have been nothing but a huge boost to her shop—and her spirits. So thank you.”
“Roxy’s a good’un,” said the other young man as he offered his hand. “Oh, right. I’m Eggsy.”
“She mentioned you. Says you’ve been helping her by running deliveries?” James asked. They shook, and James took his measure.
“That’s me,” he said, beaming. He was a mischievous sort of young man, very much the picture of a modern trickster spirit with his clever fingers and wicked grin. James approved. “I run deliveries for the shop here as well, might as well help out Rox by doing dual orders in the mornings.”
“It’s an arrangement that’s worked out well so far,” Callum agreed. “We’ve been asked to cater for the Royal Wedding’s reception.”
“I’d heard from Roxy. I’ve offered to help set up,” James said, beaming. Martin looked away, his hands resting on the rough wood of the makeshift counter. “Least I could do after being gone for so long.”
“Wait, I know you,” Eggsy blurted. “You’re the one with the travel show, where you eat weird things, right? I didn’t recognize you without the scruff.”
James pealed a laugh, rubbing his shaven jaw. “I don’t know that crickets and field mice count as weird, but yes, I have a couple of travel shows airing right now and I film documentaries.”
“My mum loves you,” Eggsy said. “Thinks you’re a cultured gentleman.”
James laughed again. “Watching me rough it in the Amazon makes me cultured?”
“She thinks so,” Eggsy said with a shrug and a grin. “She’s never going to leave me alone until I get an autograph.”
James glanced at his watch again. “I’m afraid I don’t have time today, but I’ll pop in sometime soon with something for her, sound good?”
Eggsy looked pleased. “Sounds great, thanks.”
“Good man.” James gave them all a nod as he turned to go. “Hope the cleanup goes well, fellows. I’ll miss my new favorite flower shop if it doesn’t reopen soon.”
He headed out the door to hail a taxi, but not before he tossed a wink Martin’s way. He was satisfied with the flush of color that raced across the bridge of the other man’s nose.
Two points in his favor.
Harry had no idea what had happened to the little shop, but from the street view his helpful little phone had given him, this wasn’t normal. There was a large plywood square nailed over what should have been a fetching plate glass window, and the door stood open where it should have remained shut.
Harry ducked his head and entered the shop to find Eggsy and Callum setting up a new wooden counter. They were seating it into place, both of them sweating and cursing as they maneuvered the heavy oaken piece into place. It was a solid piece of wood, and both of them had stripped their shirts, working in tank tops. Harry realized the aircon was off, and seeing the power tools scattered about, he understood why. No sense in starting a fire.
The counter ran the length of the back wall, the oak stained a lovely honey color. Harry approved, though his gaze was drawn more to the bunch and pull of Callum’s biceps, shoulders and chest. He was built solid, likely from hauling loads like this around. He’d mentioned having to cart bags of soil up and down stairs, no wonder he was fit.
There was a litany of mental images that bolted through his mind, each one more wicked than the last, and Harry realized he was far too warm even without the aircon being off. He swallowed, his eyes traveling down the length of Callum’s spine, and he realized that being manhandled like that was something he never considered—but was currently very in favor of having happen to him.
He blinked and scolded himself for hovering on the doorstep and lusting after the owner, and he reined in his overactive imagination. He cleared his throat, and both men turned their heads in acknowledgement, though neither stopped what they were doing until the counter was seated where it needed to be.
Eggsy gave Harry a look that said he was intruding, but knelt behind the counter and began to fasten the fittings to keep the monstrous thing in place. Callum wiped his face on a rag and tucked it into his back pocket before turning to where Harry was standing.
“Mister Hart,” Callum said, smiling. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, I was hoping to get a bouquet for my mother’s grave next week, but it seems as though you’ve got a lot of work on your hands.” Harry matched Callum’s smile and watched him flush. It was far too easy to make this man squirm sometimes. Perhaps a good thing, in the long run. “I was also looking at the possibility of putting in some hawthorn along the edges of the property.”
“Hawthorn?” Callum said, blinking. “Let me see if I can find any through my distributors.”
“Thank you, but I don’t want to put you out.” Harry looked around. “Renovations?”
“Cleanup,” Callum said with a scowl. “Someone vandalized the shop last night.”
“That’s terrible,” Harry said, frowning.
“Thankfully, the insurance covered it, but that’s all the more reason to place the order for you, if I can. Let me go get my laptop and I can see about getting you sorted.” Callum disappeared behind the door marked Staff Only.
The whirr of the electric screwdriver stopped for a moment, and Eggsy poked his head up over the counter. “You’re not clever, you know.”
Harry turned, taking in the suspicious look that the young man gave him. He put on his best innocent face. “I’m sorry?”
Eggsy gave an exasperated huff, rising from where he was to check the counter’s seating. He gave the whole thing a wiggle, and when it didn’t move, he turned back to Harry.
“You’re taking the piss, right? Edward Burne-Jones? The Beguiling of Merlin?”
Harry gaped at him, caught out immediately. He shot Eggsy an incredulous look as Eggsy’s suspicious look turned into a slow, satisfied grin.
“How did you—”
“You think just cause I talk like this I’m not a reader? I know you was listenin’ when I was out there with Merlin last, you know his nickname.” Eggsy lofted his brows at him. “I took two years of art history as an elective, bruv. My focus was Arthurian legends. And let me tell you somethin’—you are not Nimue. Hawthorn, really?”
Harry managed to shut his mouth, but being thoroughly caught didn’t sit too well with him. Eggsy fisted his hands on his hips and gave Harry a solid glare.
“Look, I dunno what you’re on about, but Merlin’s had way too much shite lobbed at him recently for you to step in and go fucking with his love life, too.” Eggsy nodded at the shop around him. “This is his whole life, and that’s where his focus needs to be right now. So whatever your game is, I’d advise you not to play it, because Merlin getting hurt means I gotta come and find you in that fancy house.”
“Are you threatening me?” Harry asked.
“Not at all, Mister Hart,” Eggsy said, his smile sweet and deadly. “Just offering a piece of friendly advice. Merlin’s the closest thing I’ve got to a dad these days, and I’d like to keep him around for a while. I like this shop, and my job. Losing the shop would break him, and breaking his heart wouldn’t do the shop any favors. He likes you, but I don’t, not after those letters you wrote.”
Harry flushed. “I—”
“Don’t make excuses,” Eggsy said. “Just know that there are more than Merlin’s eyes on you, bruv, and you should be very careful about how you plan to go about this if your games are what you’re hintin’ at.”
The creak of steps sounded and Eggsy tapped the side of his nose, then pointed at Harry. It was between them, his expression said, and Harry slid his gaze away as the door opened. Merlin carted in his laptop and set it on the newly installed counter, giving it a wiggle. When it didn’t move, he beamed at Eggsy.
“Good work, lad. Go on and take a break. I’ll get this order finished up and we can work on the new shelving.”
Eggsy shot Harry one last, long look before he disappeared behind the staff door.
Martin sat on his bed after supper, his laptop open. While normally his curiosity would have been ignored, the fact that Eggsy recognized James where Martin hadn’t didn’t sit well with him. He opened a fresh tab, frowning at the screen as he keyed in his search term.
Sure enough, James Spencer was the host of several shows on the Travel Channel, as well as the host of several documentaries on the wilder places in the world. His faithful bulldog, Clancy, was often by his side, because James had a twenty-minute segment on each episode that showcased travel options for dogs and dog lovers.
It was…endearing, Martin admitted, reading through a few articles. James was also a talented photographer, many of his shots ending up in National Geographic and other publications. His work was excellent, with an eye for subject matter and for candid shots. Martin clicked through elsewhere, reading more. James was popular, having amassed more than his share of followers on Twitter and Instagram. Martin scrolled through the feeds for a little while, trying to see through James’s eyes.
He loved his job, that much was obvious. There were several candid shots from the show’s behind the scenes blog that showcased much of the James he recalled from their brief meetings.
He was just learning more, he argued with himself, but as he scrolled deeper, he stopped. The most popular photo on James’s personal Instagram, with thousands of likes, made Martin freeze. The location said he was in St. Tropez, filming a segment on Tahiti Beach. James was sprawled in the sand, beneath an umbrella, wearing a pair of sunglasses and not a single stitch further.
Tahiti Beach had rules against clothing, Martin vaguely remembered, the knowledge flitting through his brain and then disappearing as he tried to focus on what he was looking at.
James’s smile was easy and unbothered, a slash of white in his tanned face as he relaxed with his hands behind his head. Martin’s eyes traveled down the bare slopes of his chest, sun-kissed and brown, his whole physique that of a man who lived well and took care of himself. There was a shaggy offering of chest hair that drew Martin’s eye, continuing in a trail down James’s flat stomach toward—
Martin slammed the laptop closed and threw it onto the end of the bed, putting his head in his hands with a broken noise. He was never going to be able to look James in the eye again.
Curiosity had killed the cat.
Oh, but Martin. Don't you know how the rest of that adage goes?
Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back. :3c
I had waaaaaay too much fun writing this chapter, I think. Sorry I've been so busy with fills. I still have more of those to do, and if you're not aware, you can check out all my short fills at Fabric Scraps and Unraveled Threads. Thank you for your patience, Constant Readers. I hope you're enjoying!
Chapter 7: Stranger Danger
Everything happens for a reason.
Roxy emerged from the back kitchen of the bakery as she heard the door chime. It was still early, though the breakfast rush had died down. She beamed at the young man over the counter.
He was a lot like the men she knew growing up; he had that same sort of bored, disinterested air about him that a lot of the boys she’d gone to school with had. She could see it in the cut of his clothing, too. He wore fashionable jeans that were likely name brand and cost almost the rent of her shop (possibly more), a button down, and a blazer, coupled with boots that seemed to be the latest fashion. His hair had that indolent softness to it, indicating that he paid more attention to it than he let on.
While he was handsome, she thought nothing of it; there were plenty of handsome men in London. (Look at Eggsy, for example. Cute as a button and a good friend to boot.) Still, the young man’s eyes were flat, even as he smiled at her.
Something icky crawled down her back at the realization, a creeping dread. She was alone in the shop today, as she was every day—she hadn’t had the budget to hire anyone else, save for giving Eggsy a little bit of pocket money and advising him to keep anything extra he made off the deliveries he did for her. She could get to her keys, hanging inside the door to the back kitchen, but she would need to move fast to get her little pocket can of pepper spray working. The knowledge was not settling, even as she wiped her hands on the towel at her belt and approached the counter.
“What can I get for you?” she asked, resolving to be nice until proven otherwise.
“You just open?” he asked. His voice was pleasant, but the non-answer to her question made her nerves jangle. She hadn’t had any trouble, but with the things going on with Merlin’s shop, it was enough to make her wary.
“Mm, we’ve been open about six months now,” she said, hands on her hips as she let pride leak into her voice. “We do a lot of catering work, but we’re open Monday through Saturday. You’re welcome to take a business card.”
She gestured at the holder, where her business cards were done up in pretty gold leaf, bearing the shop’s name and her own, along with the shop’s number. The card also featured a cut-out of a slice of cake, making them visually interesting.
He fished one of the cards out of the holder. “Is that your number?”
“It’s…the shop’s number,” she said, wary. “We respond to voice mails within twenty-four hours, though we do have a turn around time of forty-eight hours for catering requests.”
He hummed, almost like he was bored again, and pocketed the card. He leaned his hip on her glass display counter, giving the sweets displayed inside a cursory glance. The action annoyed her, though she didn’t say a word – she’d just cleaned that glass, after all.
“What do you recommend?” he asked.
“Well, it depends on what you like,” she said. She pointed to the truffles she’d just put out. “These are fresh, I made them this morning, and they’re a champagne chocolate mixture that’s really nice.”
He was watching her, and she swallowed, pointing to another offering. “We do the brownies daily as well, and they’re a special recipe for my uncle. He travels a lot and took a liking to the Mayan recipe for chocolate, so I adapted something for him. The brownies are dark chocolate, spiced with chilies but sweetened, not like the normal recipe…”
She trailed off, almost flinching under his stare. It felt almost like he was trying to crowd her with his presence. She was smaller than he was, no doubt, but there was a menace there that was just beneath the surface, like sharp coral just below the waterline.
“Seems weird,” he said.
“W-well, it’s actually quite popular, though it’s definitely an acquired taste,” she said, frowning.
“Still seems weird,” he said, his tone dismissive.
The overhead bell of the shop’s door jingling made her jump, her nerves ramped up to the breaking point. She looked over the young man’s shoulder to spot Mister Gainsborough entering. His brown eyes caught her gaze, and his brows drew down as he glanced at the man in front of her.
She had no idea if Martin saw the discomfort in her stance or her gaze, but she definitely was glad that he was there. One more person meant witnesses, and he would likely stand up for her.
The man at the counter didn’t seem to like his presence, either. He shot Martin a glance as the florist stepped into the shop, his umbrella in hand and his dark hair ruffling in the wind. He turned back to Roxy, however, giving her another smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Tell you what, I’ll buy anything in the shop, so long as it comes with your number,” he said.
“No,” Roxy said, finding her voice.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Well, I don’t even know your name, first of all—”
“It’s Charlie,” Martin said, his voice cutting through her stammering. Charlie, the young man, turned a glare onto Martin, who let the gaze seemingly pass over him. “She’s clearly not interested, and you’re clearly not going to buy a thing, since you entered the shop twenty minutes ago when I arrived down the street. Either make your purchase, or let those of us who want our breakfast get our business done.”
Charlie’s gaze passed over him and back to her, his frown revealing a lot more about him than his flat, lifeless smiles. “I see how it is. Got a bit of a daddy kink, then?”
Roxy blinked at him, not understanding for a split second. When she did, she opened her mouth in a furious rush, but Martin was far quicker.
“She’s being polite to you because it’s her shop and it’s her job to sell things to you, not because she’s interested in you,” he said. He moved then, physically placing himself between Roxy and Charlie, who’d circled him in case of attack. “Take the hint and leave, boy.”
“Mm, maybe it’s not a daddy kink—maybe it’s the other way ‘round.” Charlie shoved his hands in his pockets. “Dirty old men coming in for something—”
He didn’t get a chance to finish the sentence. Martin’s hand snapped out in a blur, winding into Charlie’s shirt and yanking him close. Charlie squawked, flinching, but Martin merely dragged him close. As tall as Charlie was, Martin seemed taller, towering over the younger man by sheer force of presence alone.
“Get. Out.” Martin released him, giving Charlie a little shove towards the door. Charlie stumbled, but he landed hard against the door and was halfway out before he cast a glare back in Martin’s direction. Martin had already paid him no further mind, and Roxy waited until she saw him slouch out of view before she breathed out.
Martin had his head canted to the side, his gaze averted as though to offer her what little privacy he could. She smiled. He was a good man, and she was glad he’d stepped in at that moment. She caught his gaze and he gave her a shy little nod of his head.
“Are you all right?” he asked, his tone much gentler now.
“Fine, now, thank you,” she said. She nodded at him. “I’m glad you came in when you did.”
“…some men don’t know when to take no for an answer,” he said, casting a disapproving look in the direction that Charlie had disappeared. “If I thought he’d put up any fuss whatsoever, I’d have dragged him outside, but that didn’t seem necessary.”
“No,” she agreed. “But thank you all the same. He shouldn’t have said that about you.”
“He shouldn’t have taken your need to make a living as sexual interest either,” Martin said bluntly. “But here we are. You have the shop on speed dial?”
She nodded, swallowing. “Yes, I do, in case I have an order coming your way.”
“Good,” Martin said, nodding. “Then if he comes back, dial us out, put us on speaker, and one of us will come and check on you.”
“You don’t have to—”
“We know,” Martin said. His lips kicked up, a small, genuine smile lighting his features. The difference was stark, and she could see why her Uncle James was suddenly besotted. Martin Gainsborough was a handsome man, but his smile was something rare, and it added something missing from his usual stern demeanor. “But we like you, and we’d rather you not get hurt, Roxanne.”
“I—” She flustered, under the weight of that. While it was clear that Eggsy and Merlin liked her, Martin had always been more aloof. She’d tried winning him over with sweets, engaging him in quiet conversation. The little cactus on the register that she kept watered and cared for was something she purchased from him, and when he’d seen it the first time, he’d seemed pleased.
But he liked her. That was all she’d been working for—and she’d already had it.
“You wanted breakfast, right?” she blurted instead. “Let me get you something.”
“Well, I was checking on you because we know about Charlie. He caused a lot of trouble about a month ago,” Martin said, fidgeting. “I didn’t really need breakfast.”
“Oh.” Roxy said. She glanced at the goods she had out, still fresh from the oven. She grabbed several muffins of all flavors, a couple of donuts, and two of the apple cinnamon strudel she knew Martin liked. She bagged them all up and set them on the counter in front of him. “Well, take snacks on me, anyway.”
“Mister Gainsborough, if you don’t take my pastries as a thank you, I’m going to cry and I’m fairly certain that neither of us wants that to happen,” she said, her smile wavering.
Martin grabbed the bag, his face pale.
“Thank you,” she said. She sniffled and grabbed a tissue from the box by the till. “I appreciate what you did.”
“Well, like I said, you can call any time, and we’ll come ‘round to check on you,” Martin said, though he shuffled nervously. “I should be getting back.”
“Of course,” she said, beaming at him. “Please enjoy the sweets.”
“We will,” Martin said, nodding. He juggled the bag and his umbrella, and got the door open after a minute. She watched him walk down toward the Kingsman florists, and she smiled as he disappeared into the shop after casting a glance back her way.
Martin Gainsborough was a good man. She’d been right.
Harry sighed as he took in the sight of the closed and shuttered Kingsman shop window, adjusting the duffel on his shoulder. It seemed that the owner had closed up early, and that was a bit of an issue, as Harry hadn’t meant to dawdle on his other errands.
Maybe if he hadn’t been unsure of his reception, perhaps. He’d been talking himself in circles about this for nearly two hours now, knowing that the bag could have waited for Merlin’s return, surely.
In reality, it was an excuse to see the florist again. Harry had come to really enjoy Merlin’s company. They tended to talk more than anything else, Harry finding some excuse to work out in the garden while Merlin was digging.
Really, it was now or never, as his godfather would tell him. It was the thought of Thomas shaking his head at Harry’s hesitation that spurred him out to the shop this evening. It was half past five, and the shop normally didn’t close until six, but it was locked up tight, the windows dark. Harry sighed to himself, jiggling his keys in his pocket.
Clouds had darkened the sky, and the rain from this afternoon threatened to open up again, but Harry didn’t mind that so much as he did the empty shop.
He’d really been hoping that Merlin would be here. He wet his lips, knowing that he could have always called ahead, but he’d wanted to seem spontaneous. He’d wanted to do this in person, rather than over mobile. This would be personal, and he deserved to be face to face with the man before he asked him to dinner.
But with the shop closed down, his opportunity had flittered away while he dawdled, and he didn’t know when he’d get the courage back again. He sighed to himself, turning to head back to his vehicle.
He never saw the crowbar.
A sharp pain slashed across his back, the dull thud taking the wind from him. Another crack took his left knee, sending him stumbling to the sidewalk, still damp and smelling of rain. He gasped in pain, and a booted foot connected with his ribs, making him inhale sharply as he tried to get air into his abused lungs. He could feel something crack, and pain bloomed hot and sickly sweet in his side. He could taste blood.
Another kick on the other side connected, and he curled into the fetal position as someone stood above him—
The shout came from somewhere up the street, but Harry was too dazed to recognize his savior by voice alone. The blows raining into his ribs paused, and he looked up just in time to see the little baker from the shop up the street swing a scooter helmet at one of his assailants. She connected, and the grunt of pain was accompanied by the thug in the hooded sweatshirt stumbling away.
Feet pounded away down the sidewalk, and Harry tried sucking in a breath, only for pain to bloom and make his vision spotty.
“Who was it?” came a voice. Blearily, Harry recognized Eggsy kneeling beside him. “Fuck. It’s Mister Hart. Call 999, would you, Rox?”
“On it,” the woman replied smartly, already dialing her mobile.
“Can you hear me?” Eggsy asked. Harry gave a slow nod, wheezing for breath. “Just stay still, Harry. We’re gonna get you some help.”
Harry groped for the duffel strap, trying to get the words out, and Eggsy’s eyes widened as he realized the bag was monogrammed with the Kingsman logo.
“…fuck. Were you here for us?”
Harry nodded again, but the motion made him dizzy and he felt darkness crawling up from the back of his pounding skull. Vaguely, he could hear the sound of Eggsy calling for him to stay awake, but it was no use.
Merlin stood frozen outside of Harry’s hospital room. He’d been beaten badly for standing outside of his shop. That was the worst part about it. Not half an hour before, Eggsy had called to ask permission to go and help Roxy with some next day deliveries, and Merlin had agreed that he could close up for the night.
If Eggsy hadn’t been there—
The thought rolled through his head again like insistent thunder. If he’d been there at the shop, Harry wouldn’t have been hurt. He’d been trying to return his bag, there had been no need for this…
Merlin didn’t know if this and the vandalism were connected, but the whole ordeal left a sour feeling in his guts, making them churn. It felt malicious. It didn’t mean that it was, but it felt that way. He bit his lip, wondering what he would say to Harry.
His mum was off around the corner at the nurse’s station, catching up with a couple of her students and getting Harry’s status. He passed a hand over his face as he leaned against the wall. This was his fault. If he’d had cameras before the vandalism—
Eggsy got his attention by waving a paper cup of hot tea beneath his nose. He accepted the drink and held it in his hands, letting the heat of the tea ground him before he took a sip.
“It ain’t your fault, Merlin,” Eggsy said, shooting Merlin a look. “Martin’s pulling the footage right now, and we’ll have something to give to the police in a little while. Mister Hart is going to be fine.”
“He was beaten,” Merlin said, trying to keep the snap from his voice. “Because he was trying to return my duffel.”
“We don’t know that,” Eggsy said. “Could have just been a mugging. He’s a posh looking bloke.”
“We had the vandalism three weeks ago,” Merlin said. “Maybe they were waiting on us to be alone. Were you with Roxanne when you closed up?”
“Yeah,” Eggsy said. “She and her uncle were with me for a bit, until he had to get to some function or other. I closed up and we walked back to her shop together.”
Merlin nodded slowly. “I think it might be best for two of us to be there whilst we close, until we either find out who did this or it stops.”
Eggsy’s face was thoughtful. “You think things are connected. Is it enough to go to the police?”
“No,” Merlin said, shaking his head. “Just a theory. That’s what makes it frustrating.”
Their conversation stilled as Lucy strolled up, the flowers Merlin had put together in her hands. Merlin finished his tea and crumpled the paper cup into the trash can by the door.
“The nurses say he’s awake and stable now,” she said. She pushed the vase into Merlin’s hands and patted his fingers. “Jenny needs some pointers, so I’m going to let you visit with your friend. I’ll be out here if you need me.”
“Thanks, mum,” Merlin said softly.
She patted his cheek, and he bent to accept the kiss to his forehead before she went off. She was giving him a little privacy, which he appreciated—even if she didn’t know that he was gay, it was still the thought that counted. He’d been in the closet for so long that it seemed…almost pointless for him to tell her now. How would he even explain Harry Hart to her anyway, other than he was a client?
Merlin didn’t even know how to explain Harry Hart to himself. He was attractive, with his damnably soft and curly hair, his quick smiles and deft hands. He was always laughing, as though the whole world was a private joke and only he knew the punchline. Never did Merlin feel like he was being laughed at, though. He felt like he was in on the joke, shared between the two of them.
He couldn’t explain the warmth in his chest or the butterflies that seemed to have taken residence in his stomach when Harry smiled at him. He just knew that Harry was more than he seemed, and for as long as he could, Merlin wanted to be a part of that.
Eggsy nodded at him, and he turned the door handle, admitting himself into the smallish room. Harry was propped up in bed, his head leaned back against the pillows, though he perked up when he realized he had a visitor.
“Callum,” he said, though his voice sounded wheezy. Not surprising, considering he had several bruised ribs, his knee had been badly twisted, and he’d cracked his chin on the pavement. Dark circles under his eyes made him seem tired, but he smiled at Merlin. Merlin cleared his throat and set down the vase full of alstromeria on the side table, wiping his palms on his thighs before he gestured at the chair.
“May I?” he asked.
“Please,” Harry said, wincing as he shifted, as though attempting to sit up further.
“No, no, don’t trouble yourself,” Merlin said. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I’m back at Eton,” Harry grumbled. His hair fell in indolent curls against his forehead, but still, he mustered another smile as Merlin settled himself in the chair close to his bedside. “But the doctors say I’ll mend, though it’s a wonder I didn’t break anything. I’m plenty battered, however.”
“I’m so sorry,” Merlin said softly. “I don’t know if this was related to the vandalism, or if—”
“Callum,” Harry said, drawing Merlin up short. “Don’t feel as though this was somehow your fault. It wasn’t. I was rather hoping to return your duffel, as I thought it was important, but it was something I decided to do on my own. I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“I know that, and still…” Merlin looked down at his clasped hands, resting his forearms on his knees as he spoke. He was a few inches from Harry’s hospital bed and Harry breached the distance, reaching out with a small grunt of effort and taking Merlin’s hand in his own. Merlin let him draw it back to the bed, where Harry squeezed it, then released it.
There was so much he could have said. Fear of rejection kept him silent, kept his eyes locked on Harry’s hand as he withdrew his own.
“It isn’t your fault,” Harry said again. His voice was gentle, as though to remind Merlin that it really wasn’t, and Harry wasn’t going to take any other response as a proper answer.
“I take it that means that you’re not going to let me pay for your medical bills,” Merlin said.
“Not bloody likely,” Harry said, a wry twist of his mouth turning into a smile.
Silence hung between them, thick and awkward, both of them searching for something to say.
The door latch rattling and then opening startled Merlin, who turned just in time to catch sight of a man with eyes the color of faded denim poke his head into the room. His greying hair was slicked back into a high widow’s peak, his mouth was generous and turned down at the corners in a frown. In fact, his whole expression was thunderous, though the relief was palpable when he spotted Harry in the bed.
“There you are, my boy,” he said. Merlin turned to look at Harry, who was smiling in return. Callum shifted his gaze back to the man, who’d stepped inside. He was dressed well, in a fine grey suit and he used a walking stick more for presentation than as an aid, it seemed.
“Didn’t think they’d keep you out of here for long, old man,” Harry said.
“Not likely,” the man huffed, ushering himself into the room. He only seemed to notice Merlin then, and stopped short. “Oh, I beg your pardon.”
“Not at all,” Merlin said, standing. “I should be—”
“This is the man I’ve been telling you about, Thomas,” Harry said. “Callum, this is my godfather, Thomas Brampton. Thomas, this is Callum Craig, the owner of the florist’s that did the new arrangement for mother’s headstone.”
“Lovely work,” Thomas said, something coming into his gaze that Merlin couldn’t name. It was calculating, but not in a way that felt threatening. More like Thomas was taking his measure. Merlin wondered if he would be found wanting, but Thomas merely smiled.
“I should be going,” Merlin said, moving to rise. Harry’s expression became shuttered, but he didn’t protest, thankfully.
“No, no,” Thomas said, waving a hand. “I’m going to go have a word with those nurses, because none of them could tell me where my godson was laid up and I had a devil of a time finding—”
“Callum?” Lucy poked her head into the room and Merlin was starting to feel a little suffocated. “Eggsy and I are going to go down to the cafeteria to get a bite to eat. Do you want us to pick you out something?”
Callum turned to Harry. “I should—”
“My god, Lucy, is that you?” Thomas was staring at her, wide-eyed. He looked, for all that Merlin could describe him, like a child on Christmas morning.
His mum turned to the man, tilting her head. “I’m sorry, have we met?”
“A long time ago, I’m afraid,” Thomas said. “I had a nasty accident with a motorbike, and you were the attending nurse when I was laid up at hospital. Broke my leg and both my arms showing off like a posh fool. Your words, not mine.”
Lucy’s knit brows rose with recognition. “Mister Brampton?”
“Thomas, please,” he said, smiling so wide Merlin swore his face would crack. “I had no idea you were here.”
“Just as a visitor, I’m afraid,” Lucy said with a smile. She gestured to Merlin. “My son was visiting yours, it seems.”
“Ah, godson,” Thomas said, straightening his cuffs and clearing his throat. “I didn’t realize this young man was related.”
Merlin bit the inside of his cheek, hard. Thomas was flirting. Very hard, in fact. He chanced a glance at Harry, who’d gone quiet, watching his godfather like a cat watches a mouse. He returned his attention to his mother, who was smiling broadly.
Oh, this was not good. Merlin felt a sliver of unease seep into his chest.
“Well, this is a happy chance meeting. The cafeteria is hardly a place I’d like to catch up, but could I interest you in a cup of tea?” Thomas asked.
“Well…” Lucy bit her lip, then smiled at Callum. “I’m sure you’d like to visit with your friend a little longer. Do you want me to get you anything?”
“I…” Merlin shook his head. “No, mum, I’ll be fine. You go and enjoy yourself.”
“Excellent,” Thomas said, as though he’d decided the whole thing himself. He held out his arm for Lucy, who took it, barely hiding her smile. “Harry, my boy, I’ll be back once you’re done visiting and you can give me the whole report.”
“Sir,” Harry said, lips twitching as he watched Thomas usher Lucy away. The door shut behind them and Harry let out a chuckle, only to immediately wince. “Oh, that smarts.”
Merlin sank back down into the chair. “Is he always like that?”
“No,” Harry replied with more than a little amusement. “That’s the first time I’ve seen him like that.”
That didn’t soothe Merlin’s worry in the slightest.
Merlin said his goodbyes a little while after the nurses swung by with a tray of food for him, and Harry found he was already missing the soft burr of his brogue. He poked idly at the little cup of gelatin that had come with his supper, and frowned. He’d lost his nerve in the wake of his ordeal, feeling like asking now would appear to Merlin that he was searching for pity rather than seeking the pleasure of his company.
One of these days, fortune would favor the bold.
Instead, they’d spent the visit talking about the flowers and Merlin’s progress on the centerpieces for the royal reception less than a month away. It was easier to get Merlin animated over the things he loved, and he enjoyed flowers of all varieties. There was no better measure of a man than how he talked about his passions.
Harry poked at his gelatin, his expression mournful. He should have asked him to dinner.
The latch of his door clicked, and Thomas strolled in, looking pleased with himself. He was almost strutting, and it was far different from the good-humored but usually serious Thomas he was used to seeing. Harry couldn’t hide his smirk fast enough, and the look of censure that crossed Thomas’s face was less threatening when his ears were pink. Harry set his spoon down on his plastic tray with a little click and leaned back.
“I didn’t know you owned a motorbike,” he said, lifting his brows at Thomas innocently.
“There’s a great lot you don’t know about me, boy,” Thomas said. He took a seat in the chair by the bed. “But I know a bit about you, and the man sitting here before me was certainly not your type. Too well-put together. Usually you like them flightier.”
Harry shrugged, then thought better of it when pain raced up his ribs. “Oof. Well, you’re right about him not being my usual type.”
“And yet…” Thomas fixed him with a look. “You haven’t mooned over someone like this. Not since you were at Oxford.”
Harry took a deep breath, feeling the ache it brought him. “I’m not mooning.”
“You got mugged bringing him a bag you could have set aside to give back to him the next time he came to look at the roses,” Thomas countered evenly.
“To be fair, he’s usually open that late,” Harry said, looking away.
He’d been open about his preferences with Thomas alone. His parents had never understood, and Thomas had been a listening ear when the pressure of life and being the third son got to be too much to bear. He made sure Harry never embarrassed the Hart name, and he had been there for Harry since he was very small.
He trusted Thomas, and the warm hand on his own made him look up.
“Harry,” Thomas said. His voice was gentle, as was his expression, and Harry’s embarrassment softened. “You haven’t been interested in dating since your mother passed away. I’m not chastising you for it – I’m pleased to see you trying to step into that area of life again.”
Harry nodded slowly. “It’s been almost six years. I thought…perhaps it was time.”
To be fair, it hadn’t really been a matter of thought, so much as serendipity dropping Merlin onto his doorstep, but Harry wasn’t about to argue.
“I think you’re right,” Thomas said. “A Scot, and a working-class Scot, at that. Your father would be livid.”
Harry snorted. “He would have hardly approved of any of my lifestyle. He thought I was broken for not being married at twenty-one like he was.”
“He cared, in his way. But you’re right.” Thomas gave a shrug. “Besides, life’s far too short for you to spend it alone. It never quite agreed with me, either.”
Which brought them back to the matter at hand. Harry leaned back and grinned at Thomas. “So tell me about this motor bike.”
Thomas pinked, looking away. “I was twenty-five and full of myself. Lucy didn’t take any of my guff and gave me the talking to of a lifetime. She was a beautiful woman.”
“Still is,” Harry said, and Thomas cast him a sharp look until he realized Harry was being sincere, then he nodded.
“She is,” he said. “She’d transferred when I came back to get my casts removed, and I could never find her again. She was the one that got away.”
He gave a wistful sigh, and Harry laughed, up until his sides reminded him why that was a bad idea.
Thomas glared at him. "Shut your mouth and eat your gelatin."
"Well, which is it? I can only do one, Thomas." Harry gave him the most innocent look he could manage, which was a stretch even when he was feeling in top shape.
"...in a moment you'll be glad you're already in hospital, Henry Edgar Hart."
"You know, I think I'd like to revise my answer from when that nurse asked me if I feel safe at home."
“Look, I have an invitation to Sunday dinner next week, do you want to go moon over your florist or not?”
Harry picked up his spoon.
I'm sorry these chapters aren't coming out as fast as I would like, Constant Readers. I ended up needing a break last week and I think it did me some good. I'm going to keep at the story until it's finished, however. Thank you for your patience.
Chapter 8: Solitude
Guess who's coming to dinner?
Three days after Harry’s ordeal outside the shop, Merlin decided to visit. One might say it was guilt, though if pressed, Merlin would deny it. The large bag of packed meals said otherwise; he’d been up cooking and prepping so that Harry wouldn’t have to stand for long periods in the kitchen to make himself something to eat.
The guard let him through the gate, used to his staggered visit schedule by now. He pulled into the circular drive and parked his little Citroen, gathering up the insulated bag and heading up the brick steps to the front door.
It didn’t seem that anyone was home, however. Ringing the bell didn’t produce the click of Mister Pickle’s nails on the hard wood floor, nor did it summon Harry to the door. Merlin dithered on the steps for a moment. The guard had let him in, surely he would have said something if the master of the house wasn’t at home. He’d made house calls when Harry was away on errands before, but being hurt would put a damper on those.
Merlin strode down the steps, resolving to check the workshop and the greenhouse. The greenhouse was empty, but walking across the back garden produced Mister Pickle, whom Merlin greeted with his customary petting before he rose.
“Where’s your master, then?” he asked softly. “Where’s Harry?”
The little terrier trotted toward the workshop tucked at the farthest end of the garden. It was where Harry kept many of his caterpillars. Was Harry checking on late bloomers? Merlin had to wonder.
On top of studying them, Merlin had discovered through conversation that Harry enjoyed raising the insects as well. The sheer number of colored wings that circled him as he worked outside made sense with that little tidbit of knowledge, though Merlin had never seen the workshop before.
The door wasn’t open, though Mister Pickle wriggled in through a dog door set at the bottom. Merlin tried the knob and found it unlocked. He stepped inside, finding the room warm and pleasant and about the size of a largish bedroom. The floor was concrete, with a drain set in the middle, and it was clean and bright. The walls were wooden, though they lacked much in the way of decoration, save for the natural whorl of the wood. Shelving to the side housed caterpillar habitats; this late in the year, however, they were empty.
Harry was seated on a tall stool with his back to Merlin, bent over a work table. The light shining on it was bright enough to halo Harry’s hair in a warm glow, catching some of the auburn in his hair and turning it ruddy. Other than the lamp, however, the room was dimly lit. Merlin might as well have not been there, for all that Harry was paying attention.
He was talking to his workbench.
“There you are, lovely,” Harry said softly. He was working on something, though Merlin couldn’t see what from this angle. “Now, hold still, little miss, and we’ll have you fixed post-haste.”
Merlin stepped closer, debating on whether or not to announce his presence, or to just keep watching. It was so rare to see an unfettered, personal side of Harry. There always seemed to be an edge to him, as though he were ready to throw up a wall at a moment’s notice where Merlin was concerned. Merlin could feel his heart speed as his angle changed and he could see just a little of Harry’s face, softened into gentle lines and focused in concentration.
The softness there transformed his face, making him seem years younger than the man in his mid-forties, making Merlin realize that if he’d met Harry Hart earlier in his life he’d have gone to ridiculous lengths to sleep with him, even if that meant a one-night stand. He swallowed hard, shoving the thought away. He didn’t want a one-night stand with Harry. He was here to bring him something to eat, so that he didn’t have to hurt himself by standing up for too long.
The other portion of that was tamped right back where it belonged, in the back of his mind.
Merlin cleared his throat. “Harry.”
Harry gave an awkward, wheezy inhale, sitting back with a curse as his ribs pulled. “Fuck—”
“Oh my god,” Merlin set the bag down and moved to Harry’s side. “I’m sorry, I—”
“No, no, it’s quite all right,” Harry said, though blurting it through gritted teeth didn’t really convince Merlin. “You startled me, is all.”
“Are you sure?” Merlin said, laying a hand on Harry’s back. Harry took the bracing hand for what it was and leaned against him for a moment, catching his breath, his eyes closed in pain. His breathing was labored, but not so much so that Merlin was concerned. Harry’s ribs were sore, but not broken, thanks to Eggsy and Roxy. Labored breathing was something that would come while he healed.
“I…believe so, yes,” Harry said, sitting up. Merlin stepped back a little, warm in the face from the proximity. “You must think me foolish, working with my ribs in such a state.”
“No,” Merlin said, though he might have admonished Harry to take it easier if he felt he could do so without revealing his motivations for it. Instead, he turned his gaze to the work table, taking in a monarch butterfly spread out on a clean towel, its wings pinned open by a length of wire. “What are you doing?”
“Ah,” Harry’s gaze became shuttered, and he moved to block Merlin’s gaze as well as he was able with his body. “Repairs.”
Merlin looked closer, seeing that the butterfly’s right wing was tattered. There were other wings spread across the towel, as though Harry had been sizing a replacement. “Repairs?”
“She was injured on her first flight last week,” Harry said. “I’d meant to do this before but…I was in the hospital.”
Guilt washed over Merlin again. “I’m sorry.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Harry reminded Merlin. “I’m just getting to repairs a little later than I would like.”
“Should I go?” Merlin asked. The question seemed to mystify Harry, who seemed like he was torn on such a decision. “I just…brought along some dinners for you to reheat so you’re not standing so much, and—”
“Please, stay,” Harry said, softly. Merlin stuttered to a halt, his heart speeding. “I appreciate the gesture.”
“Do you need some help?” Merlin asked.
“No, but the company is nice,” Harry replied.
Merlin couldn’t deny Harry that. It had seemed in the weeks since he’d been sprucing up the garden, he and Harry had become something like friends. That was worth keeping, he felt. He looked forward to driving out to St. George’s Hill as much as he did taking his dogs to the park, or going to his mum’s for Sunday dinner. Visiting Harry had become a welcome addition to his routine, and it had been less than two months in the practice.
“Though I should warn you, this won’t hurt her, but it will look rather ghastly on my part.” Harry picked up a small craft knife, something Merlin thought of as used in model making but wickedly sharp. “If I’m to save the wing, I need to cut out the wounded bits.”
“If it doesn’t hurt,” Merlin said, watching Harry’s gaze focus on the butterfly again.
“It’s like cutting hair or fingernails for you or I,” Harry replied. “Butterflies are hardy creatures, but sometimes they need a little help.”
Merlin watched as Harry carefully cut away parts of the wing, leaving a clean line for him to follow. Harry selected a spare wing that matched roughly, cut it to match, and then reached for a pot of contact cement. Merlin found himself holding his breath as Harry placed glue on the wing, then on the spare. His patient wiggled a bit, but was otherwise docile as Harry worked.
After a few minutes, Harry sealed the wings together, aligning their edges with a pair of tweezers. Once the wing was aligned and put into place, Harry sprinkled a little talc onto the wing, spreading it over where he’d placed the glue.
“So that her wings won’t stick together,” he said softly to Merlin. He returned his attention to the butterfly, lifting the bent wire off of her. Almost immediately, she lifted her wings, rustling them as though testing the addition. Harry put his fingers down in front of her and she climbed up onto his hand, walking along his knuckles while Harry tilted his hand to guide her to the back of his hand.
“There, now,” Harry said with a smile. “Don’t you feel better?”
As though to answer, the butterfly flapped her wings slowly, revealing her brilliantly colored orange wings. Merlin let out his breath, watching the little creature settle on Harry’s hand.
“I’m going to release her into the greenhouse so she can settle,” Harry said. “Would you care to watch her maiden flight?”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” Merlin said.
Lucy Sheffield was a lovely woman, Harry decided on Sunday. She’d taken both himself and Thomas into her home and made them feel like a part of her family within minutes. She’d cooed over Mister Pickle in his arms, taking the little dog from him at the door and ushering them all into the kitchen.
The smell of roasting meat and potatoes was heavenly, and she set the little terrier down to give him a biscuit as soon as she could. Harry had to chuckle; the terrier was eating up the attention, much like his owner did – though you’d never hear Harry admit it about himself. Thomas set down the bottle of wine he’d brought over, helping Harry out of his coat.
“I can see why you’re besotted,” Harry said, keeping his voice low and only grunting a little when Thomas thumped him.
“Watch your mouth, boy.” Thomas was smiling, though.
Harry couldn’t begrudge Thomas this; much like Harry himself, Thomas rarely allowed himself this kind of emotional connection. A bad marriage early on that ended in annulment had soured his godfather on many things, so to see him act like a schoolboy was like a weight Harry didn’t even realize he had lift from his heart.
Seeing Thomas happy made Harry happy. It was more than enough reason to get to know Lucy. She was indeed a lovely woman, offering them both a drink as she stroked Mister Pickle, who’d made himself at home on her lap.
Conversation drifted this way and that, with Harry feeling less like a third wheel and more like a favored son. Perhaps it was because Lucy knew that he was friends with Callum, but she made sure he felt included. Callum was nowhere to be seen, but Lucy looked at the clock and rose to pull the roast out of the oven right as the sound of the front door opening reached Harry’s ears.
“Mum?” Callum called.
“In the kitchen,” she said. The clicking of claws could be heard, and Apollo appeared first, giving a yelp as he spotted Thomas and putting himself between Lucy and the stranger. Artemis appeared next, and she sat between her littermate and Thomas as well. Bernie wouldn’t be far behind, but Harry’s gaze was drawn to Callum himself.
Dressed casually, Harry still felt his mouth go dry as he watched Callum come to a stop in the doorway. Callum had an aura of unease about him, but he leaned against the doorjamb still dressed in jeans, a fitted t-shirt, and a leather jacket. Aviators were hooked into the neck of his tee, and he crossed his arms, making the leather creak.
No man had any business looking as good as Callum did right at that moment and Harry both cursed and blessed Thomas for asking him to tag along. Hazel eyes met his and then Callum glanced at his mother.
“Mum, what’s all this?”
“I invited Thomas to dinner,” Lucy replied, smiling. “And since your friend is still in recovery, I thought it might be nice if he had a good meal.”
Callum took a breath, but seemed to relax. He whistled, and the dogs all lined up for him, sitting. One by one, he introduced them to Thomas, who seemed bemused by how well trained the dogs were. Harry greeted the pups as well, Apollo setting his head on Harry’s knee long enough for ear rubs before Lucy captured his attention with a dog treat.
Callum’s addition to their little group didn’t feel forced, and Harry just smiled as he watched Callum kiss his mother on the cheek and go to hang up his jacket. Harry had a wild half-formed thought about himself and the florist roaring away riding pillion on a motorbike of some sort, but the daydream was gone as soon as it arrived by everyone trooping into the dining room for dinner.
Lucy’s cooking was amazing. The roast fair to melted in his mouth and the potatoes were seasoned just right. Harry had to wonder if his own cooking held up, then shook the errant thought off. He and Callum sat across from each other, their long legs bumping occasionally at the knee as one of them shifted.
It was…cozy. That was the word, Harry realized. This was a home and a family and he’d been granted leave to be a part of it for the first time in a long time. It made him ache, and not the kind that was sunk into his ribs and that colored them black and blue and brown and yellow. No, this was weariness, as though he’d craved it for so long that he’d forgotten it existed until he nudged it and it reminded him.
Lucy had been right, just not in the way she thought. He had needed this, and it was a different kind of soothing. By the end of dinner, even the slightly awkward Callum had begun to smile and laugh as Thomas and Lucy guided the conversation. There was no pressure to participate; they just had to be.
It was nice.
Callum rose to begin clearing the table. Thomas reached out and patted his forearm.
“Let me get it. I feel like it’s the least I can do after such a fine meal.” Lucy’s brows shot up, and Callum wavered, glancing at her. “What, an old man can’t do the washing up?”
Thomas was smiling, his faded denim eyes dancing. Lucy finally laughed, rising as well.
“All right, let me dry, then.” They cleared the table and left Harry feeling rather rude for not offering to help, though his ribs would have protested.
“This is the first time since I was a kid that she didn’t want me to do the washing up,” Callum said, sinking back into his seat. “I can’t help but feel I’ve been replaced.”
Harry gave a chuckle. “It’s not a bad thing.”
“I know…she’s just my mum,” Callum said. He reached for his wine glass, toying with the stem. He hadn’t finished his second glass, but he did so now, sipping slowly. “I’m sorry if I was rude, earlier.”
“No, I understand,” Harry said softly. “We sort of…invaded, didn’t we?”
“Mum’s got a big heart,” Callum replied. “She’s excited to see me branching out and making friends, in her words.”
They had more in common than Harry thought. He felt his heart twist, although not unpleasantly. It was chance that had led them together. It wasn’t a bad thing.
“Are we friends?” Harry asked. Callum blinked, looking over at him. His gaze had been fixed on the kitchen door, but now Harry played with his own wineglass, draining the last of its contents. “I just…never know how to tell, sometimes. I can come across as a bit of an ass.”
“Your letters did,” Callum admitted. “But I find that the man is more than the content of his letters. Does that make sense?”
Harry nodded slowly. “Friends, then?”
Callum smiled, lifting his glass in a salute as he drained it as well. “Friends.”
Laughter echoed from the kitchen, catching their attention. Callum’s expression softened, closing his eyes briefly at the sound of his mother laughing.
“She’s a lovely woman,” Harry commented.
“She is,” Callum said. “It’s nice to see her so happy. We sacrificed a lot, when I was a kid.”
Harry’s smile turned into a smirk. “Shall we crash their party?”
Callum chuckled and shook his head. “No. Let them have their fun. We’ll just finish the wine and tell them they were too slow.”
Harry moved to rise, his knees bumping with Callum’s. “That’s a plan that I can get behind.”
“Your godson is a fine young man,” Lucy said, standing shoulder to shoulder with Thomas as they did the dishes. It was almost odd, standing here with Thomas, his fine suit jacket hung over the back of a kitchen chair, his sleeves rolled to the elbow as he put on an apron and washed dishes like he was born to it—
Though not as strange as it probably should have been. There was a sense of déjà vu, as though she could have been doing this for decades and it wouldn’t feel out of place.
“He is,” Thomas agreed, smiling at her. “As is your son. You did a fine job of raising him.”
“Flatterer,” she said, nudging him.
“I prefer truth-teller,” Thomas replied. Lucy felt heat rise in her cheeks. Thomas hadn’t lost a step, not since that long-ago accident. She’d missed him in the end, but life had a funny way of bringing people back around right when you needed them, in her experience.
“Would you, now?”
“I would,” he said. He handed her a plate and their damp fingers brushed. “I’m not fibbing when I said I looked at every hospital for weeks. No one seemed to know where you’d transferred.”
“I went to the Glasgow Victoria Infirmary for a while,” she admitted. “I adopted Callum while I was there and we returned to London when he was twelve.”
“No father?” Thomas asked, then cleared his throat. “That was rude, Lucy. My apologies.”
“No, it’s…it was complicated,” she admitted. She dried the dish and set it in the rack. “He was a lovely baby, his mother died in childbirth and his father—”
She exhaled, the old anger resurfacing.
“He didn’t want anything to do with Callum.” She took a glass, working on drying it. “He’s only ever had me.”
“It shows,” Thomas said. “He adores you.”
“We’ve only ever had each other,” she said. “I love him like he was my own.”
“He very much is,” Thomas said. He’d put down the sponge and dried his hands, waiting for her to put the glass in the rack before taking her hand. “You might think me a foolish old man, but he’s every bit your son as you are his mother. You love him, and that’s what matters.”
Lucy smiled, ducking her head. “It’s kind of you to say so.”
Thomas gently tucked his fingers beneath her chin, coaxing her to look up. He’d always had lovely eyes, she remembered, and the smile lines around them only served to make him far more handsome than he had any right to be. Her breath came a little short, but he just reached up and tucked a strand of her dark hair behind her ear before he leaned in and slanted his lips over hers.
It was like coming home on a snowy day to find the house filled with the smell of cooking dinner and a fire roaring in the grate. Warmth suffused her chest, making her fingers tingle as she rested them on his chest, opening for him. Thomas pulled back with a little teasing nibble to her lower lip.
“Forgive me,” he said softly, his voice rough. “I’ve just been meaning to do that for several decades now, and I wasn’t about to miss a second chance.”
Lucy’s laugh pealed through the kitchen as she stood on tiptoe to kiss him again.
Things that are super soft: this AU.
Things that will get more painful as we go on: this AU.
Things I apologize for: not a damn thing.
I hope you're enjoying, Constant Readers. I'm still working on things, but am trying to keep to a semi-regular update schedule.
The month leading up to the royal reception was fraught with work. Merlin found himself dreaming of the arrangements when he went home at night. He was sure Eggsy and Martin felt the same. Word had gotten out that they were supplying the flowers and their business picked up, which meant that the planning for the unique arrangements was left for the quiet hours of the evening.
Merlin had an almost clinical precision when it came to planning. He’d bought up an old craft store’s supply of silk flowers long ago when they’d closed down, and he never regretted it – the flowers would serve as a template for the arrangements he would make with fresh flowers closer to the date of the wedding. It allowed them to work out the arrangements ahead of time and to photograph them to make sure that no one was the same. They were medium sized, meant to sit in the middle of the round tables of the reception hall, and since they’d been asked for a total of eighty individual and unique arrangements, the photos were essential to making sure that they didn’t repeat an arrangement.
Once they were done with the planning stage, they began ordering for delivery. Large events such as this often drained the local supply, but Merlin had several places he worked closely with who had already heard the word and would pull out their best blooms for him. Since cut flowers lasted no more than three to five days, having them delivered two days before was the maximum that Merlin could allow before they would begin to wilt or look droopy. Most would be delivered the day before and he would keep them refrigerated on site until the wedding was taking place. By the time the guests arrived, they would never know the flurry of activity that had taken place to get those flowers from his shop to their tables.
And that, he often said, was the point.
The work was steady, but it was tiring. He and Eggsy put in late hours, and the strain on Martin as he was pulled from caring for his succulents to help ring out customers was visible on his tightly controlled expression. They all pitched in, however, and it was busy but not overwhelming.
Now, about a week before the reception, Merlin was taking what felt like a much-needed break, having a cup of tea and sitting down for the first time all morning. It was good, slowing down right before lunch, and he found himself doodling more arrangements on a scrap sheet of paper as he sipped on his tea. The bell over the door jangling made him rise halfway, only fully standing when he realized that it was Harry entering the shop, Mister Pickle under his arm.
“Harry,” Merlin said with a smile he hoped didn’t look half as tired as he felt. “Come to pick up that wreath?”
“Mm,” Harry said, nodding. He was more focused on Merlin’s face, which made him wonder if the lack of sleep was starting to show. “I also came to check on you. You haven’t been out and puttering around on the grounds for a while.”
“Oh,” Merlin said, rocking back on his heels. “I’m so sorry, it slipped my mind. We’ve a rather large order we’re working to fulfill, and we’re trying to make it go as smoothly as possible next week.”
“I see,” Harry said softly, as though working through something internally. He offered Merlin a smile, however, which made his stomach flutter pleasantly. Merlin told himself it was just the lack of sleep and overabundance of caffeine, not Harry himself, however. “I had thought I’d done something to put you off.”
“Oh, no. No, not at all,” Merlin said, shaking his head. “In truth, I’ve been getting updates about you from Mum, since she seems to be having dinner with your godfather a lot.”
Harry’s lips quirked. “You don’t seem happy about that.”
“Oh, I am, it’s just…she’s my mum, you know?” Merlin offered him a helpless shrug, laughing a little as he leaned his hip on the counter. “She’s the only mum I’ve got and I’ve yet to give Thomas a talk.”
Harry actually laughed at that, the sound sliding down Merlin’s spine and warming his chest. He laughed as well, dropping his eyes to the counter for a moment, where his arrangement sketches were scattered about. Harry stepped close, so that only the counter separated them.
“These are lovely,” Harry murmured, long fingers hovering over the sketches. “Did you make them?”
“Yes,” Merlin said. “They’re the first step in planning an arrangement that we’ve never done before.”
“Very thorough,” Harry said. “Though I don’t see why I doubted that, when I’ve seen your other work.”
Merlin flushed a little, his lips quirking at the praise. “Each one has to be unique. The client is paying quite a bit, so we’ve got to make sure we get it right.”
“Ah, I’d heard the rumors,” Harry said. “That makes sense that you would be so busy then.”
Merlin nodded. Harry didn’t name his client, but the royal wedding was the only event this next week that would even come close to needing this many cut flowers. It was a reasonable jump of logic.
“Aye,” Merlin said. “I hadn’t meant to neglect your lovely garden, but it was too big an opportunity to pass up.”
“I can see why,” Harry said. “Think nothing of it, then. So long as we’re still friends?”
“We are,” Merlin said with a smile. His heart was thudding hard against his chest as he said it.
“Then as your friend, I must insist you close up for a bit and come and eat lunch with me,” Harry said. “You look exhausted.”
“Eggsy and Martin are—”
“Close up for an hour, come and have lunch with me,” Harry said. It was quiet, but firm, and Merlin wavered. “All three of you could use the break if it means that you all get some rest.”
“I…all right,” Merlin said, looking down at the last of his tea. “I suppose an actual break wouldn’t hurt.”
“Never does, in my opinion,” Harry said with a smile.
Merlin returned it, the warm feeling in his chest only spreading outward. If he got attached, it was only natural, he thought. Harry Hart was a compelling man.
Eggsy had worked hard before, but the tizzy that was two days before the reception left even him exhausted. He had spent the last day putting together arrangements with Merlin, and while working steadily, they still had several more to go. Still, being able to deliver almost three quarters of their finished product to the reception hall a day before it was due was a good feeling. The remainder would be delivered early tomorrow when they finished them. He finished unloading the back of the van, carrying in the rest of the fresh flowers and putting them in the coolers, ensuring that they didn’t get crushed or wilted before the big day.
As he closed the doors, he noticed a woman standing and taking in the architecture. Like a lot of London, there was a rich and storied history to this district—so long as you were out of the way of the Council Houses, he thought a tad bitterly. But the thought was there and gone as he took her in.
She was lovely, with a heart-shaped face and blonde hair that fell in waves about her shoulders. She had a carefree look about her, but he leaned against the van for a moment. She was dressed in that casual way that girls did when they were out doing things but didn’t want to look like they were trying, and honestly, she pulled it off. Jeans and a sweater, with flats and a bag, she looked at home except…
She had a camera. Likely a tourist, she snapped photos of whatever she seemed interested in. He blinked in surprise when that included him, still in his trousers, button-up, and the green Kingsman apron he considered his ‘uniform’ for deliveries. He pushed off the side of the van to go and say hello.
She brought the camera away from her face and gave him an impish smile. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“I’m not complaining,” he said, her accent making him smile wider. “Though I’m hardly GQ material.”
“I don’t know,” she said, waggling the camera. “I take pictures of things I like.”
He laughed, then. “Oh, yeah? And what are you going to do with them?”
“Make a scrapbook,” she said. “Something boring and normal.”
The way she said the words, well, it sounded a lot to him like she hardly got that sort of thing. He wondered, exactly, what her life was like that she craved things that were described that way.
“I like boring and normal,” he said. She smiled, tucking the camera away into her purse. “You’re anything but, though. You visiting?”
“Yes,” she said, nodding. “To be quite honest, I’m playing hookey. I’m supposed to be with my group, but that’s hardly any fun.”
He shoved his hands in his trouser pockets, glancing over his shoulder at the van. “Well, would you like the casual London experience, then?”
“Is that a line?” She was smiling, though.
“Of course not,” he said, grinning at her. “I just wondered if you’d like to go for dinner and a pint. You’re welcome to say no.”
“Well, I’m not saying no. I thought you were working?” she asked.
“I just finished. Though I should drop off the van, first. You want to go?”
“Absolutely,” she said. He offered her his arm, and with a laugh, she took it. “I don’t even know your name.”
“It’s Gary,” he said. “But everyone calls me Eggsy.”
“Eggsy,” she said. Eggsy thought the way she said it, pert little nose scrunched as she sounded it out, it was perfect. “I like it. My name is Tilde.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Tilde.” He patted her fingers. “Welcome to London.”
Martin finished off the last of the arrangements, tucking them into the storage cooler for delivery tomorrow. He sighed, tired and drawn thin by all the human interaction over the last few weeks. Merlin looked almost as tired as he did, though they both did their best to avoid mentioning it. They were in the home stretch and it was likely to be good and quiet for a few days after.
He undid the apron he wore, hanging his beside Eggsy’s on the hook behind the counter. Eggsy had finished up an hour ago, running in and dropping off the keys and his apron with a rushed goodbye – not surprising, given the fetching young woman Martin spotted waiting for him outside. That was good. Eggsy poured so much energy into the shop, it was about time he had some relaxation. Lord knew they’d all earned it. Merlin had talked about closing the shop the day after the reception to give them all time to recover, and Martin thought it was a fine idea.
For now, though, he was going to pop by Roxanne’s bakery and see if she needed any additional help. He called up the stairs to Merlin, letting him know where he’d be and to call his mobile when he was ready to close up shop. Being within sightline of the shop didn’t violate their ‘two people present for closing’ rule after Mister Hart’s unfortunate mugging. While Martin hadn’t been able to find out who was responsible, he had managed to pull footage of Roxanne clouting the bastard with her motorbike helmet, and the sight always seemed to put him in a good mood.
He might have a copy of the clip saved to his mobile, though he’d never admit it.
He pulled on his coat, striding up the street to where the little bakery sat on the corner. Roxanne’s had become a welcome place, though he might be relying on them too much for breakfast, if the extra half-stone he’d gained over the past month was any indication. He could see the lights within, and the door was open, along with the sign still flipped to open. The little bell jingled, and he stepped inside to the smell of baked goods and warmth.
“Just a minute!” Roxanne called from the back. He hung his coat on the rack and put his hands in his pockets. She’d put away most of the baked things, with just her big sellers on display until she finally closed up. Roxanne emerged from the back, a smear of flour across her cheek. “Oh!”
“I was wondering if you needed help today,” he said softly. The words were stiff and tumbled from his lips awkwardly, but he meant them. “I’m not the best cook, but I can follow instructions and lift heavy things.”
She blinked at him, blue eyes softening as she saw the gesture for what it was. She smiled. “Of course, you’re welcome to help. I’ve got an extra apron around here somewhere—”
Martin froze as James poked his head out of the kitchen as well, lighting up in a smile.
“Oh, more help? Grand, this dough mixer is heavy.” James’s smile faltered as Martin cut his gaze away, seeing himself reflected pale and almost sickly looking in the glass pastry counter.
You’ve seen him naked, his mind whispered at him. Martin flicked his gaze back to James, whose shirt was open at the throat, the sleeves rolled to his elbows in an effortlessly casual way. You’ve seen him naked without his knowledge or consent.
“I should go—” Martin blurted the words, taking a stumbling step backwards to where he’d hung his coat up.
“Nonsense,” James said. He cleared his throat, and shrugged at Roxanne when she sent a questioning look his way. He couldn’t have known that Martin would go and poke his nose where he shouldn’t have. Social media stalking had never been his forte and now he was paying for it.
“Please stay,” Roxanne said. “I promise we’ll be on our best behavior.”
She shot another look at James, who nodded. Martin hesitated.
“Please,” James echoed. “I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable, before. I just—this isn’t for me, I’m here to help my Roxy be the brilliant girl I know she is, that’s all. And we could use the extra hands for a little while, if you’re up for it.”
“All right,” Martin said, feeling a flush crawl up the back of his neck at James’s wheedling tone. Really, the way James was working himself to help Roxanne prepare for the big day was an admirable trait. He’d met her mother, Amanda, a few times as well, coming out of the back of the shop in the past month or so. They both seemed so devoted to her that Martin couldn’t help but admire it.
It was an excellent goal to have—and aligned much the same with his goal, too. Working as a team would help them all succeed, since Kingsman and Roxanne’s worked best as a package deal, and had cultivated a reputation as such. He met James’s eyes and nodded, as though to get himself back into gear.
It was a mistake.
James smiled and Martin’s mouth went dry. His palms started to sweat, and his whole world felt tipped off of its axis. He’d never had this reaction to anyone, and yet…
Here it was. He inhaled, and forced himself to nod.
“Show me what to do.”
Roxanne beamed at him, which made his chest flutter pleasantly. It was worth it, he thought. She deserved to succeed in equal measure with Kingsman. She’d built up her bakery from the ground up, and she was excellent at her job. There was no Kingsman without Roxanne’s.
If that meant a little time in a cramped kitchen with James Spencer, it would all be worth it.
Martin helped Merlin lock up and then returned to the bakery with him in tow. James was there as well, a smear of flour across his cheek and on the tip of his nose. Roxy was also covered in flour smudges, baking as fast as she could, rolling trays of small, hand held pastries and truffles stacked onto carts in her walk-in refrigerator. She was happy, though, Merlin could see as much. It might have been Martin’s presence and his insistence on helping her.
He’d told her she’d win him over. It wasn’t that Martin was prickly (though that contributed to a little of his avoidance of social situations), it was that Martin had a deliberate reason for everything he did. Merlin had met him just after college, and the quiet, serious man was as good a friend as any he’d ever had. Almost a younger brother, Martin had pitched in a sizeable contribution to Kingsman’s initial start-up, and his success was marked by Martin’s presence in his life.
He was grateful to him, and he was glad to see Martin branching out a bit. The quiet florist often kept to himself to the point that Merlin worried for him, but here…Roxy had managed to coax a smile out of him. A definite good sign.
Since he couldn’t bake a lick, he set about making tea for everyone instead. The shop was warm and comfortable, and Merlin wasn’t ready to go home yet. The nervous energy that came with having a large presentation was coursing through him, and he could say the same of Martin, looking over at his colleague.
“Where’s Eggsy?” he asked, once he’d gotten the tea brewing.
“He left as soon as his deliveries were done,” Martin replied. “He seemed to have made a lady friend.”
“Oh?” James asked. He leaned his hip on the counter, sorting cakes into individual trays with gloved hands. “I thought—”
“Uncle James,” Roxy said, her voice sharpish. “I told you that’s not how it is. Eggsy is my best friend.”
“He is,” Martin agreed, nodding.
“Hm.” James shrugged, letting the matter go. “At least he’s unwinding.”
“As we should be doing,” Merlin said. “Since you’ve all been working so hard, I’d like to take you all to dinner once this is done.”
“That sounds amazing,” Roxy said. She beamed at him, and Merlin smiled back, a warm well of affection for both her and Martin—and in conjunction, James, for drawing Martin out of his shell a bit—starting in his chest.
“Then it’s settled,” Merlin said. “We’ll celebrate once this whole thing is over.”
Roxy clinked her tea mug against his and saluted him with it. It had been worth it, opening early, sharing exposure, working with her. They were going to make it. Once the reception was done, things would settle down a bit and he could focus on making Kingsman bigger and better.
It would all have been worth it. They just needed to get through tomorrow.
Hard work is its own reward, but I think I agree with Merlin that they need a break. Soon. :)
Chapter 10: Sparks
Celebrations go out with a bang.
The reception was lovely, what Merlin saw of it. He bustled his arrangements to the table in twos and threes, with Eggsy and Martin helping, winding their way around other staff and workers as they rushed to get things in place. James and Roxy were equally busy, setting up the table with the sweets and cakes.
Once he and his team were done they turned to help Roxanne’s get their table looking good. He’d done up two special arrangements for them, which doubled as business card holders for each. (While normally frowned upon, they’d been granted this as the princess consort had asked for them specifically. Merlin was glad of the fact; there was no telling how much business this would bring in.)
As soon as people started arriving, they were ushered off scene, their business cards set on the table for those interested in who did the catering. All of them looked at each other, and almost as one, decided that now was a good time to go for a bite to eat instead of waiting for the revelers to get their fill and clear out. They checked with the manager, and since the dishes and other sundries belonged to the reception hall, it was as good a time as any to get going.
They would meet with the site manager later on to collect comment cards as well as get feedback, and the manager himself was an old hand at this sort of thing. He had the rest of the reception well under control, and they would just be underfoot attempting to help.
After a brief stop to check on Merlin's dogs, sleeping in their kennels upstairs at the shop, Merlin decided that dinner was in order. All of them were exhausted, wound thin by the preparation, and so having someone else cook them a hot meal was more than appreciated.
They returned to the reception hall to find Roxy and James packing up the truck in the back. Eggsy slung a companionable arm around Roxy and grinned when she knuckled his ribs, dancing out of reach. Merlin was pleased with how well they'd both handled this. Eggsy had shown grace under fire, putting together some of his best work in the space of less than four days. Roxanne always delivered the perfect mix of elegant and playful with her baked goods.
Martin looked worn thin, but surprisingly agreed to dinner when Merlin suggested it. Perhaps he was too tired to think of the social repercussions. Either way, the way Roxy lit up at the announcement that Martin was staying might have had something to do with it. (Merlin did note the way James lit up the same way – perhaps it was genetic, but either way, Roxy and her uncle were both taken by his florist. Martin was in for a lot more trouble from the both of them, to be sure.)
Still, they were like family, and Merlin would hardly trade them.
As they were packing up the van, they all turned at the sound of a woman calling Eggsy’s name. A lovely blonde woman in a striking dress flagged him down, and Merlin leaned against the side of the delivery van as Eggsy grinned fit to split and sauntered over. Roxy and James plopped down on the tailgate of the van to watch, and even Martin stopped what he was doing to glance over.
“Was that his lady friend?” Merlin asked a bemused Martin.
“It was,” he said. “Though how they met is a mystery. Is she a guest?”
“Who knows,” Merlin said, shrugging. “So long as it doesn’t come back down on our heads.”
Eggsy grabbed the lovely lass by the hand and tugged her over, smiling. “Merlin, this is Tilde. Can she come with us?”
Merlin chuckled; the grip they had on each other’s hands said that they’d go find their own party if he didn’t. “Are you sure you won’t be missed at the party?”
Tilde blushed to the roots of her hair and shot a guilty look at the building behind her. “I—”
“Relax, I won’t tell,” Merlin said with another huff of laughter. “But I do think you should be letting them know where you are.”
“Next time,” she said, squaring her shoulders. She lifted her chin at him, and the look she shot Eggsy meant she was clearly taken with his boy. That last part was important, he had a feeling.
“Fair enough,” he said, inclining his head. “We were going out to dinner. Nothing fancy, but you’re welcome to join us all the same.”
“Thank you, Merlin,” she said, breaking out into a smile. Okay, Merlin thought to himself. He could see why Eggsy was taken with her, too.
“Well then, shall we?” James piped up from the back. “I’m famished, and I’m sure everyone else is. Let’s get the van back to the bakery.”
Roxy nodded and hopped down, offering a hand to Tilde to help her up into the seats in the back. Tilde grinned and took it, murmuring her thanks. Roxy flushed and turned away from James’s raised brows too quickly for it to be anything but deliberate. Eggsy hopped up behind Tilde, and Martin climbed into Merlin’s little Citroen. They’d have to take cabs to get where they were going, but wherever they went was sure to be a party.
They were a motley crew, trooping in to their local Indian restaurant, but on a Tuesday night, they were a welcome addition to the atmosphere. They all crowded around the largest table, chattering at each other about the day’s events, Merlin finally allowing himself to rest now that their job was done. The air was flavored with spices and heavy with the rich aroma of ghee and braising meat, and he found himself starving.
He put in an order for his favorite, lamb korma, and watched idly as Eggsy went through the menu with Tilde, who looked a little overwhelmed. He had his suspicions that she was someone rather important, but that was her secret to keep. He just found himself hoping that Eggsy didn’t get too attached before it was time for Tilde to leave again. Her accent said ‘foreign dignitary’ so loud he was surprised no one else heard it; perhaps they were just happy for Eggsy.
James nudged his elbow gently, and he looked over. While Martin and Roxy were engaged in quiet conversation, James’s gaze was fixed on Eggsy.
“I could have sworn that your boy and Roxy were—” he began awkwardly.
Merlin smiled, shaking his head. “No more than you and Martin are.”
James snorted. “Not for lack of trying.”
Merlin blinked. He’d meant it in jest, but he glanced over and found Martin’s gaze sliding away just as James looked back over. His ears were that shade of pink they got when he was forced to interact with someone who flustered him, but he seemed to be more at ease here than he ever did in the shop.
Interesting. He filed that little tidbit away for later, instead returning his gaze back to James.
“Even if they were, it’s hardly our business, is it?” he prodded.
“Well, I mean—” James looked at the table, running his thumb over his other hand, tracing the roughened knuckles. “I just want her to be happy, you know?”
“She’s a headstrong, confident woman. She’s running her own business and her own life. I think that would make her happy, don’t you?” Merlin asked.
“It’s just…she’s my niece, and I worry,” James said. “I always had this feeling that I’d never have children of my own. Roxy being born, well…”
Merlin smiled. “I understand. You should take the advice my mother gave me. I don’t have children of my own, but it’s worked out for me in the long run. Let people make their choices. Offer them advice, let them guide themselves, but they won’t do anything except what they feel is right. You’ve got to let her have that.”
James nodded, sitting back as their steaming plates of food arrived. “You’ve a fair point there.”
“Of course I do,” Merlin said, grinning. “How do you think I’ve kept Martin engaged at my shop for so long?”
“It’s because the whole place would fall apart without me,” Martin replied, apparently having caught on to their conversation. He exchanged seats with Roxy on her request, so that the three younger adults could bend their heads into some serious sort of conversation. Merlin merely grumbled because with James between himself and Martin, he wasn’t in a place where he could swat at his friend.
…and he wasn’t entirely wrong.
James looked more pleased at the seating arrangements changing, though Martin only seemed to realize when James offered him a bite of his dal makhani by bringing the spoon up and offering to feed him.
Merlin watched the tips of Martin’s ears go quite red as he shook his head, and Merlin laughed. Oh, he wasn’t getting out of that one. Merlin had ammunition for weeks now.
Full of spices and good company, the six of them tumbled out onto the sidewalk some two hours later, laughing. The air was cool and nice after the warmth of the restaurant, and they opted to walk back to the shop.
Eggsy had asked Merlin if he could borrow his car to take Tilde back to her hotel, and Merlin had passed him the keys without a word. Roxy and Tilde were ahead of them, laughing about something, and Merlin put a hand on Eggsy’s arm.
“You know you’re going to have to say goodbye, soon,” Merlin warned him.
“I know,” Eggsy said, giving an almost melancholy sigh. “She’s way too nice to be seen with someone like me.”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” Merlin said, grabbing him in a headlock and scuffing his hair. “I mean that she’s from a whole other world, and that world doesn’t let go of their own for people like us.”
“I know,” Eggsy said. “But…she’s nice, and I like her. So whatever time we have is special, right?”
Merlin hummed, releasing his charge. “You’re right, there. Just remember what I told you.”
“Mm,” Eggsy said.
They walked in companionable pairs for a moment, though Eggsy soon scooted up to walk in a triad with the two women again. Merlin was joined by James and Martin, the two strolling with their hands in their pockets, James’s jacket over his arm.
The streets had other walkers, but as they approached the street where the shop was housed, the other people dwindled. The trickle of pedestrians dried up and left their street quiet and almost peaceful. The smell of a woodfire permeated the air, leaving Merlin feeling good and at ease with life around him. They’d made it through the hustle of the reception, and they’d earned this bit of rest.
“I should be getting home,” Martin said as they rounded the corner. He glanced at his watch, though it couldn’t have been more than half-past ten, in Merlin’s estimation. “We have quite a bit of clearing up to do and more to order tomorrow.”
“Aye,” Merlin said. “Though it can—”
There was the sound of shattering glass and the smell of the woodfire got stronger. Merlin broke into a run when he realized that there were flames licking from the windows of his shop.
“Merlin!” Eggsy shouted.
“Get a firetruck coming,” Merlin ordered. He peered into the crackling flames. He could hear Apollo howling over the sound of the fire. “I’ll be right back.”
“Merlin, whatever you have—” James startled as Merlin flung his coat at him.
“My dogs are in there!” He shouldered past the smouldering door, dodging a flaming timber that fell just as he crossed the threshold. He could hear Martin shouting after him, but it was lost in the rush of flames as he pushed open the kitchen door.
Smoke and embers stung his eyes and cheeks and he ducked low to avoid the worst of it. The shop was blackening before his eyes, nearly a decade worth of work turning to ash, but his thoughts were on his dogs. He could hear Bernie’s low whine as he neared the kitchen. Sweat clung to his armpits and slicked his back, the heat from the flames all around making him hiss as he grabbed the door to the stairs. The knob was hot, but he managed to jerk it open.
The stairs were hot and smoky, and he crawled up them, glad that the dogs were close to the door. He could hear Apollo’s anxious pacing as he got nearer to the top of the stairs.
“It’s all right,” he said, coughing as he knelt beside the kennels. Bernie’s came open with a click, and he pointed down the stairs. “Outside. Find Eggsy.”
Bernie obeyed, clumping down the stairs faster than Merlin had ever seen him go before. Artemis was next, and she scooted down after Bernie. Apollo had been frantically rocking his kennel back and forth, howling since the flames must have started, and the latch to his cage was stuck.
Merlin coughed, trying to see in the haze and he felt himself getting dizzy. Apollo wasn’t helping, pawing at his hands as he fumbled with the latch. He finally got it open, and Apollo bolted, edging around Merlin and down the stairs, out the door. Merlin, not thinking, stumbled to his feet and inhaled a lungful of smoke.
The dizziness came back with a vengeance, and he slumped to the floor, a foot from the stairs. He could hear sirens in the distance.
Well, he thought dazedly, at least the dogs are safe.
James and Martin had ridden with Merlin to the hospital, leaving Eggsy to handle getting the dogs safely back to Merlin’s flat and handling questions being asked by the firefighters. The dogs were singed, but okay, after a brief examination. Bernie settled into the back seat of Merlin’s Citroen with a huff and laid his head on Roxy’s lap. Artemis and Apollo settled in the back, curled up in the other seat almost on top of one another. Apollo kept licking his sister's ears, whining softly.
The mood was far more subdued on the way there, and Eggsy kept glancing at Roxy in the rearview. Tilde was silent, her fingers clutching her little bag. He reached over, covering his hand with her own.
“It’ll be okay, Tilde,” Eggsy said. “You’ll see. We need to get the dogs settled, and then we’ll call Merlin’s mum, and we’ll meet her at the hospital.”
She nodded, swallowing. “Your uncle was very brave.”
“Very stupid,” Roxy said, correcting her from the back seat. “He did lava walks in Hawaii and I told him it wasn’t the same but—”
“He was brilliant, Rox. We wouldn’t have got to Merlin before those timbers fell if he hadn’t charged in.” Eggsy turned onto Merlin’s street and pulled up at his door. He got the dogs inside with fresh water, using a damp towel to get some of the smoke smell out of their fur. He’d have to turn them out into the back garden for a while, until he could bath them properly, but it was a good start.
He grabbed Merlin’s address book from his desk and thumbed through it until he found Lucy’s number.
“He still keeps an address book?” Roxy asked. She and Tilde had been packing Merlin some comfort items for the hospital, under Eggsy’s discretion, but she squinted at the little leatherbound book. “He seemed like a tech fiend.”
“He always says there’s nothing wrong with paper copies,” Eggsy replied, dialing out on his mobile.
“Hello?” Lucy said.
“Ms. Sheffield,” he said. “I’m Merlin’s shop boy—”
“Eggsy, yes, dear, what can I do for you?” she asked. Eggsy blinked, then continued on. Merlin had spoken about him before?
“I, um, we need you down at the Royal London Hospital,” he said. “There’s been a fire and—”
“Callum, is he hurt?” she asked. Her voice didn’t rise in panic, but there was the crisp, clear bite of authority in her voice that made him stand straighter. “What’s happened to my son?”
“We don’t know,” Eggsy said. “We just got the dogs home and we’re packing him a bag, but he’s been transported to the hospital.”
“I’ll be right there,” she said. “Thank you for telling me, dear.”
Harry stalked through the halls like a great cat, long legs taking him toward the ICU. He spotted Martin sitting with a sandy-haired man outside, and he knew the other florist by sight if not by acquaintance. He slowed, unsure now. What would he tell the nurses? He was a friend? They’d hardly let him see Callum on those terms.
The wild thought of claiming to be a significant other crossed his mind, but with the serious florist there it would be shot down in an instant. As he hesitated, his steps slowing, Martin seemed to spot him and rose.
“Is Lucy with you?” he asked, a tense edge to his voice. Harry shook his head.
“I got a text message from Thomas, who’s with her. They’re on their way.” He glanced at the closed door. “How is he?”
“Smoke inhalation,” the sandy haired man said cheerfully. “They’re keeping him under observation, but he’ll be right as rain, they think. They have him on oxygen, and he got a nasty burn on his forearm, but he’ll be all right.”
Harry noticed the bandage on the other man’s wrist, traveling up his forearm. “Were you hurt as well?”
“Ah, pulling him out, but it’s minor. He charged in there to save his dogs, not thinking about who would save him,” the man said. He rose, offering his undamaged left hand to Harry. “James Spencer.”
“Harry Hart,” he said, shaking James’s hand. “It seems, Mister Spencer, you’re the hero of the hour.”
Harry didn’t know what to think of that, honestly. On the one hand, he had this man to thank for keeping Callum safe. On the other—
A small voice in his head whispered that it should have been him. He clouted the inner voice down, offering James a smile, instead.
“Hardly a hero,” James said, waving off the praise. “He’s done a good turn by my niece and I felt it would fall quite flat if I left him there. Reminded me of the time I fell asleep in my flat while breakfast was still on the stove. Scorched pan on the hob and suddenly I’m the proud owner of a blackened kitchen and a very angry landlord.”
He chuckled, though neither Harry nor Martin seemed to find the humor in it. He cleared his throat.
“What I mean to say, of course, is that Merlin is definitely worth the risk,” James said. He smiled at them brightly.
Harry stomped down on the jealousy that rose in his chest, green and angry. Innocent words and a gesture that quite likely saved Callum’s life. That did not make interest and Harry had no claim if it did. Still, it took him a moment to inhale and nod.
“Have they let you in to see him?” Harry asked, changing tacks and turning to Martin.
“Not as yet. We’ll need to see him woken and have Lucy here if we want that sort of permission.” Martin rubbed at his jaw. “I sent Eggsy to pack him a bag and take the dogs home.”
“We’d left the dogs in the kennels in the employee kitchen,” Martin said. “We’d all gone out to dinner and when we got back, the shop was on fire. Callum charged in without waiting because he could hear Apollo howling.”
Harry clenched his fist. Fear sizzled through him, though it was replaced with relief that Callum was all right. “And no one else was hurt?”
“No,” James replied. “But the firefighters had a devil of a time putting it out, I heard.”
Harry nodded, his face grim. “Nothing to do but wait, then.”
“Yes,” Martin said with a nod. “I’m going to go get some tea for when Lucy arrives. Do either of you want some?”
“Please,” James said, nodding at Martin. Harry nodded as well, and the dark-haired man headed for the elevator as Harry took his place on the waiting room sofa. James’s attention turned to Harry. “Friend of the family?”
“…you could say that,” Harry said. He laced his long fingers together, staring at the tips of his shoes. He should have been there. He should have been able to help. He should have done something.
He didn’t like this feeling of helplessness. Not at all.
I warned you. :)
(Apologies for not updating sooner, Constant Readers. I'm having a devil of a time managing work/life balance right now. I hope to have this finished by the end of March.)
Chapter 11: Cinders
Love is when the other person's happiness is more important than your own. -- H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
Merlin woke to an empty room. Well, mostly empty. He shifted his head to the side, cognizant of the chilled oxygen coming through his mask and helping him breathe a bit easier. He spotted James about the same time the other man noticed he was awake, and the smile that spread across his face could be described as nothing less than ‘sunny’. Merlin managed a weak lift of his lips before he inhaled and started coughing.
“Easy, easy,” James said, helping Merlin to sit up and thumping him gently on the back. “The nurses said you should cough but do it as deep as you can, to get all that nasty stuff out of your lungs.”
He poured Merlin a cup of water from the pitcher near the bed, adding a straw and waiting until the coughing spell had passed. Merlin spat into a tissue and tossed it before he accepted the water, breathing heavily. His throat itched; likely, it was due to the fire.
“The dogs,” he said hoarsely. James encouraged him to drink, and Merlin did, little sips that seemed to ease a little of the itching. The water tasted both flat and listless but at the same time was the nicest thing he’d had to drink in a long time. Funny how that happened, he thought to himself.
“Are fine,” James said. “Eggy and Roxy and that lovely Tilde woman are seeing to them, they’ve been to the emergency vet for a checkup and they’re cleared to be at home, last I heard.”
“Good.” Merlin sighed, sitting back after taking another sip of water. “What happened?”
“You very nearly did yourself in,” James said, sitting back and crossing his legs at the knee once again. “I saw you pelt into the building, the dogs come running out, but then you didn’t come out. So I went in for you.”
“…you did?” Merlin asked. James was already fairly high in his estimation, but the notch rose a lot higher. “I didn’t—“
“Of course I did. I couldn’t very well let that be your last hurrah, you old goat.” James grinned. “You’ve got far more to do, I’m sure. The fire trucks pulled up just as I got you out of there, and Martin and I rushed you to the hospital. They’ll have questions for you later, I’d expect.”
“Mm,” Merlin said with an unhappy frown, leaning back against his bed again. It hurt to talk. Hell, it hurt to think right now, too. His head was pounding, the dull throb of it not made any better by the lighting. Still, he was alive.
James seemed to sense his brooding, because he leaned over and whispered in a conspiratorial tone. “Your mother has already been in to look in on you. Lovely woman. She said we could wait for you to wake, because anyone who would be with you in your time of need might as well be family.”
Merlin gave a rusty chuckle. “That’s mum for you. Where is she?”
“Talking to the nurses, I believe. She’s trying to get as much information about the accident as she can from them, for the gent who was with her. Thomas?”
Merlin nodded. “Why?”
“He says he has connections,” James said, shrugging. “He wants to see what he can tell her about the investigation and perhaps speed it up.”
“Mm,” Merlin said again. He closed his eyes, his brows drawing down. “Where are Eggsy and the others?”
James ticked off on his fingers. “Eggy and Roxy are getting you a care package together of your own clothes – they thought you might like it. Martin is outside getting some more tea – he and Harry have been brooding over your bedside since we’ve been allowed in. Pair of dour sourpusses, the both of them. I told them you’d wake eventually.”
“Harry is here?” Merlin asked, aching eyes opening to look at James.
“Mhm,” James said. “He arrived shortly after Eggsy called your mum.”
“Thomas,” Merlin said, letting his head loll back onto the pillow. Of course he’d share the news. He and Harry were close, obviously he’d passed along the news. But still.
What an abysmal time to have Harry arrive. Merlin sipped at his water more, sighing softly as the liquid eased the burn in his throat.
“Thank you,” he mumbled at James. “Not just for the drink. For…everything.”
“Of course,” James said. “I’d like to think we’re even now for all the help you’ve given my Roxy.”
Merlin gave a rusty laugh that turned into another cough. When he could breathe again, he swallowed some more water and leaned into James’s hand as he patted his back.
“Maybe you should have swiped right instead,” he said, musingly.
It took a moment, then recognition lit James’s features and he pealed a hearty laugh. Merlin gave him a weary grin from where he lay back against the pillows again.
“Maybe I should have,” James said, clearly enjoying the joke. “Missed chances and all that.”
“Mhm,” Merlin said.
Harry stood just outside the door, his paper cup of tea hot and scalding against his nerveless fingers, even through the protective sleeve. Of course. How could he expect someone like Callum to remain single for long? Someone would have had to have seen his best qualities before now – someone other than Harry. He’d arrived just in time to hear them talking about it, and now he didn’t feel like he should even step into the room and interrupt.
There was a shuffle before him, and he remembered that Martin had been just behind him. Now the dark haired man was in front of him, though he seemed to have stopped to listen to the conversation as well, his hand frozen on the latch to the semi-open hospital door. He gathered himself together and pushed himself in, however.
“Martin,” James called, grinning at him. Martin didn’t even reply to the sandy-haired man. He sat on the edge of Callum’s bed and gave him his own severe sort of once-over.
“Hello, Martin,” Callum said. He looked tired, but the soot had been cleaned off his face and hands, and he’d been bandaged up by the time Harry and the others had been allowed in. Harry hovered near the door, just breathing in relief that Callum was awake and on the road to recovery.
Martin took Callum’s hand, giving it three quick presses of his fingers before setting his hand back on the coverlet. “I’m glad you’re awake.”
“I’m glad I am, too,” he replied. “The shop?”
“A loss,” Martin said. He rolled his shoulders with a heavy sigh. “The insurance agent will be out this morning. I’ve already made the appointment, though he’ll likely want to talk to you, because of half ownership. We won’t know how much they will cover until he’s had a talk with the fire marshal as well as inspected the site for himself.”
“Mm,” Callum said, giving another heavy sigh. His gaze wandered to the door and he caught sight of Harry. Harry made to shift backwards and out of the doorway, but Callum smiled at him. It was tired, and drawn thin, but it was the nicest thing Harry had seen tonight, and he found himself slowly walking into the room. He stopped at the foot of the bed, relief at seeing Callum okay washing everything out.
Nothing else mattered. Callum was alive. The shop could be rebuilt. Callum could not.
“Hello,” Harry said, fishing for something to say.
“Harry, you didn’t have to come all the way out here,” Callum said. His voice was raspy, like he was getting over a particularly bad cold. The soot he’d inhaled, perhaps. Harry shook his head with a smile, only to find James rising and tapping Martin on the shoulder.
“We should go and find Thomas and Lucy,” James murmured. “Eggsy and Roxy and Tilde will be by soon as well.”
“I—” Martin looked between Harry and Callum, suspicion making his brows draw down into a severe line. He rose, however, and nodded to Callum. “We’ll be back, soon.”
Callum nodded, his eyes drifting closed as Harry took James’s place in the chair beside Callum’s bed. He didn’t dare take the other man’s hand, as Martin had done; surely that wasn’t his place and wouldn’t likely be welcome. Those words might as well have been an expression of interest on Callum’s part, and it was rather pointless to let his own feelings get in the way of Callum’s choices.
“I’m sorry for your shop,” Harry said instead, searching for a safer topic than the emotions currently swirling around him like a dangerous riptide.
“I am too,” Callum said, without opening his eyes. “We’d just started making a profit.”
He sighed softly, then turned his head to look at Harry. He seemed so vulnerable here. His spectacles were off, leaving Harry ample time to gaze into hazel eyes that were currently the vibrant green of fresh mown grass. Harry offered Callum a smile, something that seemed to lift his spirits, for he smiled back. Harry felt his heart thud painfully in his chest.
For all his progress, he was still besotted with the man in the hospital bed before him. He’d told himself that friendship could have been more than enough, and he had it. Now, faced with the idea that Callum was, indeed, interested in men—and learning that fact far too late—Harry wanted nothing more than to go home to his dog and his butterflies.
Harry had never considered himself a romantic, but his life suddenly veering off to orbit around Callum’s had been both exhilarating and unfamiliar, like chasing an unknown species through the field until it was finally catalogued. Now, however, he’d reached the end of that thread. It wasn’t his place to step between them, nor was it his place to deny Callum a spot of bright happiness in the dimness that was his shop burnt to a cinder.
He inhaled, considering his options.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Harry offered.
Callum’s smile faded. “Oh, I couldn’t ask—”
“I’m not telling you to ask. I’m offering,” Harry said. “I want to.”
Callum slowly started to shake his head. “Please, don’t trouble yourself. I’ll figure things out, I always do.”
Harry could feel his irritation at Callum’s pride forcing him to decline making his temper prickle. Instead of pursuing it now, he resolved to corner Martin later and ask him for an honest run-down. He wasn’t worried about the expense. Even being the third son had left him with more money than he honestly knew what to do with – and with Thomas helping him make wise investments since he was a teenager, he had no worries materially.
The very least he could do would be to help Callum rebuild.
Instead, he nodded, turning his gaze to the floor. “As you wish.”
“Harry.” Harry lifted his eyes, finding Callum watching him. Speaking hurt him, Harry realized, but Callum smiled. “Thank you. I’m glad you came.”
Harry couldn’t help but smile back. They were friends. It was enough. It had to be.
“I’m glad I came, too.”
The hallway outside Callum’s room was crowded by the time that Lucy and Thomas arrived back. Thomas smiled at the milling group, chattering amongst themselves. Callum had that same magnetic pull Lucy did; he drew people in and loved them, bringing them all together in a bond of mutual affection. He could see why Lucy was so proud of her boy.
She had been worried until she’d spoken with the nurses. The doctor’s diagnosis was good, which meant that the rigidness of her spine was relaxed by the time she shooed everyone out and home. They were keeping Callum overnight for observation, which meant that the others were determined to stay until he was released. Lucy cut that impromptu sleepover off at the knees, reminding Eggsy that he had a lot of work to do in the morning, and advising Martin and James to get everyone home safely.
As the group was herded off, they divided up based on their tasks. Martin and Eggsy would return to the shop and try and pick through what remained in the morning. Roxy and James would take Tilde home and then go check on Merlin’s dogs.
Thomas wasn’t surprised to see Harry leaving the hospital room last. He cast one last look over his shoulder, then drew himself up and strolled over to where Thomas was standing, patiently waiting for his lady love to have time with her son.
“You seem less than pleased,” Thomas remarked, glancing over at Harry and noting his troubled expression.
“It will pass,” Harry said, waving a hand. “I built something up in my head that didn’t turn out the way I would have liked. I was too slow, too cautious.”
“Mm,” Thomas said, nodding slowly. Harry had always been such; loving carefully came naturally to Harry Hart. He was the family disappointment – third son, not even the spare, he was considered the baby, and was coddled as such. When his grandmother encouraged his softer pursuits, such as lepidoptery, his distant father had given Harry up as a lost cause. Harry’s mother had babied him, and in desperation, the late Hart patriarch had turned Harry over to Thomas’s mentorship in the hopes that his old friend would whip Harry into shape.
Instead, Thomas had encouraged Harry’s interests, cultivating a love of history, literature, and other learning in his godson. Harry excelled in his studies, a favorite at Oxford and graduating with all the connections his gregarious personality could get him.
Still, scholarly pursuits were a lonely life. Harry had never seemed interested in the young women hoping to catch his eye; Thomas had suspected, though he’d never embarrass Harry by cornering him on the subject. Harry’s twenty-fifth birthday had also been the day he’d told Thomas the truth about himself. To his surprise, and perhaps to Harry’s as well, Thomas hadn’t been bothered. Instead, he’d just wanted Harry to be happy.
Somehow, that had been exactly the answer Harry had been looking for; Harry thrived under Thomas’s praise and guidance.
Now, in his forties, the young man that Thomas was proud to call his godson was careful to not reveal his preferences to anyone but a select group. The stigma surrounding homosexuality might have died down, but it was never truly gone – his brothers, for one, would take it as a slap in the face.
Thomas could only assume things had gone poorly with Harry’s florist. Callum was a good man, however, and he had no doubt that he had let Harry down gently. Thomas reached up and squeezed Harry’s shoulder. Better to have loved and lost, after all.
“There is always tomorrow,” he said. “And the day after. Are you still friends?”
“Yes,” Harry said after a long moment. “And that’s enough.”
“It is,” Thomas agreed. “You have so few friends.”
Thomas wished he could clear the regret from Harry’s voice. So much of his young godson’s life was full of regret, much as his own had been. While Thomas had gotten his second chance with the woman currently tending to Callum in the other room, Harry had no such luck.
Thomas could only hope that changed for Harry soon.
Harry nodded, his troubled expression clearing from his face as Lucy exited the hospital room. She beamed up at Harry, accepting the kiss he pressed to her cheek and squeezing his arm.
“Thank you for rushing down here,” she said softly. “He was glad to see you, I could tell.”
“I was worried,” Harry admitted. “How is he doing?”
“Sleeping again,” she said. “He’ll need a good rest before he can think about rebuilding. But he’ll make the best of things. It’s how we’ve always done.”
“I can see where he gets his stubborn nature,” Harry said with an almost impish smile. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Don’t trouble yourself,” Lucy said. She patted his forearm. “Just be his friend, and you’ll have done enough.”
“That’s what he said,” Harry said softly. “I just—”
“Harry,” Thomas said. “Sometimes we have to let our friends stand on their own, as much as we would wish to help.”
Harry quieted and nodded, his frown still saying that he didn’t like the idea. “I should have brought something. A peace lily or something.”
Thomas chuckled. “The only florist you know being in the room leaves a hole, doesn’t it.”
Harry gave a weak laugh, only to wince as his still-bruised ribs protested. He waved off Lucy’s concern, smiling.
“It’s all right, madam. I’m still a little tender, that’s all.”
She subsided, hands on her hips as she gave him a wry look. “One of these days, I’ll get you to call me Lucy.”
Harry smiled a little wider. “Someday.”
Merlin smiled a little as he listened to the low murmur of Harry, Thomas, and his mother chatting outside his door. He was drowsing, not entirely sleeping. All he could think as he drifted, warm and fuzzy from his medication, was that he was glad Harry had come.
He would need to plan ahead for tomorrow. For the day after as well. His shop, from the way Martin had said it, was unsalvageable. He had to think of how to keep going after this setback. The royal order’s check hadn’t been deposited yet; Merlin would need to scrape together what he could from his savings as well as the insurance just to rebuild.
The thoughts slid through his mind like mist, thin and wispy and far too intangible to catch for long. Harry’s low tenor murmur kept drawing his attention and Merlin groggily wished he’d come back in. Visiting hours had been far too short, and he had hardly seen Harry in the run up to the reception. Now, however, it seemed he had plenty of time.
Maybe that meant he could get back to Harry’s house and his garden and his company and—
Merlin inhaled, turning his head to try and get a glimpse of them through his door’s window. He could see one of Harry’s broad shoulders, standing in front of his door like an honor guard. It was a nice thought, one that carried him back in to sleep.
He could focus on rebuilding in the morning. For now, he needed to recover.
It was easier to do with Harry there. Merlin’s mind didn’t linger on it, bringing him into a restful sleep with the sound of his family talking in the hallway outside. He could worry about tomorrow when it came.
Martin turned his gaze to where James was waving, strolling down the street from Roxanne’s. He nodded to James, turning his attention back to the fire-blackened shop.
“I was checking the shop, making sure we’d locked up,” James explained, puffing a bit as he came to a stop. He glanced at the ruins of the florist’s, sighing softly. “A shame.”
“Mm,” Martin said. “We’ll have to work out a game plan tomorrow, Merlin and I.”
“It will leave you busy, won’t it?” James said. Martin glanced at him again, the sandy-haired man studying the ruins.
“I suppose it will,” Martin said. Was James fishing for a good time to ask Merlin to dinner? Something odd in the thought made it coil about his head, running over and over through his mind. Martin frowned, his brows knitting together.
“A shame.” James repeated it, then glanced at Martin. “I was hoping you’d like to go to dinner, some time.”
Martin felt disappointment wash through him. Merlin must have turned James down. That was the only reason he was being asked, surely.
“No, thank you,” Martin said. His tone had all the warmth of the breeze that filtered through the street, touched with the icy tinge of fall becoming winter. “I have far too much to do.”
“…oh.” James nodded, biting his lip. “Of course. I’m sorry to have put you on the spot like that. If you need anything, give either Roxanne or I a shout. We’ll do our utmost.”
“Of course,” Martin said, almost absently, dismissing James as soon as he’d declined. He had much more to do than worry about James Spencer or whom he dated. He’d gotten along just fine before – he could do it now. His thoughts taken over with the comforting rote of making lists of things needed, he began cataloguing what needed to be done, heedless of the glance James gave him over his shoulder as he shoved his hands in his pockets and walked away.
*chinhands* Every single one of these boys is a complete idiot. :)
Chapter 12: Tabula Rasa
Eggsy takes on what remains of the work available to Kingsman while Merlin recovers and Martin works with the insurance to start the rebuilding process.
The last vestiges of summer were an almost memory. The leaves were changing, making the drive out to St. George’s Hill a pleasant one—at least, visually. Eggsy slouched in the seat of Merlin’s little Citroen, frowning hard as the turn toward Hart’s house came up.
Merlin was still recovering from smoke inhalation, and the doctor—not to mention his mum—were adamant that he rest while the insurance processed his claim. It was taking a while for the investigation, but according to Martin, it was fairly normal. Eggsy had appointed himself runner, doing grocery runs and laundry and anything else Merlin needed.
Merlin had been put off by the attention, saying he could do what he needed to just fine, but the coughing fit had made Eggsy’s point for him. And while Eggsy didn’t mind running most errands, the long drive out to Harry Hart’s place had been the last one on his list.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like Harry; that was neither here nor there, as far as Eggsy was concerned. He was concerned about Merlin, and his well-being. So far, Harry had been a complete gentleman, cordial if distant to Eggsy himself, and friendlier toward Merlin. He seemed to have taken that threat Eggsy made to heart—and that was saying something. The last thing Merlin needed was someone to run him around without actually caring for him. He knew Merlin better than everyone save Merlin’s mum and Martin; he knew that Merlin would give himself without question to someone romantically, but if it wasn’t the right person, Merlin would suffer.
That was the last thing that Eggsy wanted. Merlin had given so much, to him and his mum and sister, he wanted to give back. The very least he could do would be to protect Merlin where he was most vulnerable.
Which is why Eggsy had taken it upon himself to do the winter renovations for Mister Hart’s garden himself. He’d found out that Harry was actually paying for it—a quick word to Martin showed that Harry’s cheques were being cashed like clockwork, and since Martin handled the finances, it was a matter of not blurting it out to Merlin, who would surely offer a discount or something else ridiculous. There was having a crush, and then there was having straight up poor business sense.
And so it was that Eggsy, laden with gardening materials in the back of Merlin’s car, pulled into the roundabout of Harry’s estate at a quarter past noon on a sunny Saturday. He was exiting the car when he caught the twitch of a curtain in his peripheral vision.
The master of the house was at home, it seemed. Well, it wouldn’t bother him; he had plenty to do that didn’t require him to talk to Harry. He already didn’t much care for the man. Harry’s letters had been a source of disappointment and not a bit of anger on Eggsy’s part, and he still hadn’t quite forgiven the man for talking to his mentor like he had.
He pulled out the wooden stakes and burlap, checking the forecast on his mobile. He wouldn’t need to windbreak just yet. Instead, he moved them to the gardening shed. He would place them over the less-hardy flowering shrubs that rested under the house’s eaves when the temperatures started to drop. It would keep them warm and safe from the snow that tended to come in during December and January. For now, he would just trim everything up and clean up the fall debris.
Eggsy’s headphones were in and he was merrily pulling weeds and dead vegetation as the sun rose a little higher. It was cool, but he shed his jacket halfway through the afternoon, the tediousness of the task making time fly in long spurts as he worked his way around the rosebushes. When he stopped to take a break, it was to sit by the car and eat his afternoon meal, his jug of water close to hand.
He hadn’t seen Harry at all. Perhaps if Merlin were here, he might have come out and said hello. Instead, Eggsy got the mental quiet of working with his hands and the beat of his music making the work fly by.
The project was a large one, and would take him the better part of two weeks to complete, depending on if Harry wanted him to prepare the bulbs for him or not. He was as meticulous as Merlin was about his work, and he knew what he was doing. It wasn’t his usual forte, but it was also the only work that was available at the moment with the shop burnt down.
He wasn’t about to let Merlin give him his pay without working for it; his mum would have been mortified and Eggsy felt it wouldn’t be right, either. He looked down at his work roughened hands, with dirt beneath the nails and scarred up knuckles, and he decided he liked this better.
The rustling of the leaves beside him made him glance over. A pair of bright black eyes peered at him from around the car’s tire, and he grinned. He’d seen the little terrier before, but he hadn’t had a chance to introduce himself to the animal.
“Hey,” he said softly. The terrier watched him, wary. He didn’t have Merlin’s way with dogs, but he knew a thing or two. He reached behind him, levering open the passenger side door of the vehicle. Merlin kept several little rubber hand balls, safe for dogs to chew, in the pocket of the door. Apollo and Artemis loved chasing them, though Bernie often times would just stare at you if you threw one.
He was betting that Mister Pickle was more along Apollo and Artemis’s persuasion. He hefted the little rubber ball, showing it to the dog. Mister Pickle’s ears perked forward, and he stepped forward despite his misgivings.
“This look like fun?” Eggsy said, keeping his voice soft and gentle. The terrier whined, sitting with the tremble of limbs that said exactly how excited he was to have Eggsy throw that ball. “All right then, fetch.”
He lobbed the rubber ball, sending it tumbling through the leaves. Mister Pickle was a blur, disappearing into the freshly raked leaf pile with an explosion of vegetation before tumbling out the other side, the ball in his jaws. He trotted back to Eggsy, tail wagging as fast as it would go as he sat. Eggsy couldn’t help but laugh, tugging the ball gently from the dog’s mouth.
“Again?” he asked, earning him an excited yap. He tossed the ball again, sending Mister Pickle tearing across the grass after it. The dog was surprisingly agile, ducking around bushes and darting to chase down the ball. Terriers were active little dogs, and Eggsy’s arm tired far sooner than Mister Pickle did, but the dog didn’t seem to mind. Instead, he let Eggsy pet him for a little while, rolling over for belly scratches.
Soon enough, however, his lunch hour was up. Eggsy put the ball away and rubbed behind Mister Pickle’s ears once more.
“Sorry, boy, I’ve got to get back to it,” he said, pulling on his heavier gardening gloves. Mister Pickle washed his nose, but he seemed content to sniff around Eggsy as he worked, adding an element of companionship that was missing from the day. It was nice, Eggsy decided.
It was almost six before Eggsy was satisfied with the day’s work, but it was going to be a longer day tomorrow. He leaned back on his heels, seeing the sun starting to sink into the west behind the trees. Definitely time to go. The lights in the house had come on some time before, sending golden squares of illumination across the yard as Eggsy finished packing up.
He stretched, working knots out of his back. He’d gotten a lot done. Basic clean up around the roses would be imperative to keep disease and pests out. Tomorrow, he’d mulch and check the feeders, then work around shoring up the rest of the plants, including the trees.
Mister Pickle had gone inside, the little dog flap on the back of the house at the kitchen door allowing him in and out without Harry’s supervision. Harry himself hadn’t shown his face. Eggsy wondered if that was just how he was, or if the fact that he was essentially Merlin’s helper meant that he was less than invisible to Harry.
It didn’t bother him, not really. It was part and parcel of running landscaping for these rich types. He inhaled, breathing in the clean air once more before he headed home. He’d need to drop off Merlin’s car, go home, shower…but maybe Tilde would like to go see a movie…
The thought buoyed him as he got into the car. He was thinking ahead, not really paying attention to the house behind him, and he missed the dark silhouette that peered out after him as he drove away.
Sunday was almost as uneventful. Eggsy had arrived long before the sun could rise high in the air; indeed, he was out and working long before Harry probably thought to awaken for breakfast. Starting at seven in the morning was late for this kind of work; the drive didn’t help. Still, there was plenty to be done with the time he had. He mulched the roses, turning the mulch into the earth and mixing it well so that the winter rain would deliver extra nutrients. It was hard work, but Eggsy was as stubborn as Merlin when it came to doing things correctly, and he was going to see it done.
He was only about halfway done with the mulch as the noon hour rolled around and he broke for lunch. His hands and knees were grimy, and he used the hose in the back garden to wash up before he ate. The dog flap rattled on the kitchen door, signaling Mister Pickle was outside again. Eggsy chuckled and fed the dog one of the puppy biscuits Merlin kept in the side pocket of his door while he ate his own lunch, only giving in and giving Mister Pickle a little of his cold chicken on his sandwich.
Just a little, and with a furtive glance at the house before he did so.
Again, Harry was nowhere to be seen, but maybe that was for the best. Eggsy found he quite liked the hands-off approach. Apparently Merlin had impressed him so much that he deferred to Merlin’s judgement on how plants should be handled.
Eggsy ate quickly and pulled out the ball again, sending Mister Pickle into an excited spin. He tossed it, and the little dog tore off after it. Eggsy laughed as the terrier made a point to run through the raked leaves before bringing the ball back. He was a feisty little thing, and they got into a tug of war with the ball before Eggsy got it back again. Eggsy tossed it again, then startled as a voice spoke up behind him.
“You’re gentle with him,” Harry said.
Eggsy swore and turned, finding Harry watching him, hands in his trouser pockets as Mister Pickle trotted back with the ball.
“You get off on doin’ that?” Eggsy said, feeling his heartrate spike and then settle. He glared at Harry, who merely shrugged.
“It wasn’t my intention to startle you,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
All the indignation Eggsy had mustered dissipated in surprise. He’d actually apologized. That was not what he’d expected, and he frowned. He’d expected harsh critique or sarcasm, but not the soft apology. He turned his attention back to what Harry had said.
“You’re surprised I’m gentle?” Eggsy said.
“Not…exactly.” The corners of Harry’s mouth twitched as though he were choosing his words. “It’s telling, sometimes, to see how someone treats an animal when they think no one is watching. When it’s to no one’s benefit, it’s no longer performative. You can see how they truly are. They have no one to impress, you see.”
Eggsy frowned and folded his arms. “You were spyin’ on me?”
“Not exactly, as I said. I check on Mister Pickle when he goes outside, to make sure he doesn’t stray too far. I saw you two playing, yesterday.” Harry offered Eggsy a smile that was tentative, almost shy. “He likes you.”
“Well, yeah, dogs can always tell.” Eggsy crammed his hands into his pockets, giving Harry a sidelong look. Where was the angry, almost imperious man who’d chased them out that first day? He seemed to be long gone, replaced by a man who was just that…a man.
“Can they?” Harry hummed softly. “I’ve seen him do that with only two other people. Callum is one of them.”
“Who was the other?” Eggsy asked, not being able to help himself. Curiosity had waged a war with caution, and curiosity had won out.
“Thomas. Though I had another terrier, long before Mister Pickle, who was the same way. There was a landscaper, different from the service I use now. He was a nice fellow, made the effort to come out and talk with me when he saw me sitting in the greenhouse,” Harry replied. He rubbed at his chin, thoughtfully. “I believe he was the first stranger to go out of his way to say a kind word to me. Mister Gherkin loved that young man. Might have something to do with the treats you both carry.”
“That can’t be true,” Eggsy said. “You write books for a living, you’re well known in all them butterfly circles.”
“Fame and friendliness aren’t exactly interchangeable,” Harry said. He shrugged, as though it hadn’t ever really bothered him. Maybe it hadn’t. But here Harry was, attempting conversation. Whatever that landscaper had done, it had clearly made an impression. “Callum reminded me of that man, I think.”
“What happened to him?” Eggsy asked.
“He’d stayed late to help me finish the greenhouse’s west wall. I needed a hand caulking up a glass pane that had come loose from its seals. It was a temporary fix until I could get a glazier out the next week. We got to talking, and he realized how late it was only after I’d invited him to stay for supper.” Harry frowned, his brow wrinkling. “It was selfish of me, craving his company, I think. He had a young wife and a toddler. A little boy, I believe. But something in him made him want to reach out to me, and perhaps that’s why he stayed. I found out the next morning that he’d been killed by a drunk driver on his way home. If he’d left on time, perhaps his son would still have his father.”
Eggsy frowned, several things slotting into place for him with the reveal of that information. “I’m…sorry.”
“My sadness at his passing isn’t anything compared to his wife and child’s,” Harry said. “I lost someone who I thought might have been my friend. She lost a husband, and his son lost his father. I offered his wife compensation, and perhaps I came across as cold and unfeeling offering it by way of telephone, but it was all I had of his information at the time. She screamed at me to never call again. When that happened, I found that it was preferable to stay secluded. I understand her reaction, though. I’d taken her husband from her, and there was no way to get him back. Thinking on it, I regret not calling again, on trying to talk some sense into her…but by the time I’d worked up the nerve to call again, the number had been changed.”
Eggsy said nothing for a long moment. He’d underestimated and looked down on Harry, not realizing that Harry craved that human connection, the same as everyone else. It made sense that he would consider Merlin ‘safe’. Merlin was, as a rule, kind to everyone unless given a reason not to be. He’d lifted Eggsy up out of desperation when his own father had died. He’d offered Eggsy a job, floated him until he knew the ropes. It had kept him off the streets and let him kick out Dean—protecting his mum and his sister.
There was an understanding, suddenly, of the reason the two men gravitated toward each other.
He glanced over, finding Harry watching him.
“What?” Eggsy asked.
“Did I bore you?” Harry asked, a hint of bite in his voice. Eggsy flushed, realizing how his thoughtful silence might be taken.
“No, no. I was just…thinking. I don’t remember much of my own dad,” Eggsy said. “But Merlin, he was always there for us. My mum begged him to take me on as his apprentice instead of letting me enlist in the army like I wanted.”
“Callum is a good man,” Harry said. “And I’m sorry I gave you…the wrong impression at first. I’m not good with these sorts of things.”
“It’s not me you gotta win over, it’s Merlin,” Eggsy countered. “But I ain’t been as polite as I coulda been, and that’s on me.”
“Friends, then?” Harry asked, a small smile tugging the corner of his mouth up.
“Maybe not yet,” Eggsy said, but he smiled back. “Depends on what you think of the garden when I’m done with it.”
“A fine deal.” Harry bent and scooped up Mister Pickle, rubbing the little dog behind his ears. “But any man who can befriend a dog in the space of moments surely wouldn’t set himself up to fail.”
“Of course not,” Eggsy said with a grin. “I was trained by the best.”
“That I can believe.” Harry glanced at his watch. “I should let you get back to it.”
“Yeah,” Eggsy said. “But…if you’re home, don’t feel like you gotta stay inside.”
Harry blinked, perhaps surprised at being caught out. “Very well. I’ll be outside in the workshop most days, just to make sure the last of the winter preparations are complete before the snow comes. But…I’ll keep it in mind.”
He retreated into the house, leaving Eggsy to work on getting the garden set for winter. Eggsy watched him go, realizing there was more to Harry Hart than the asshole front. It would remain to be seen if that would extend to Merlin…but Eggsy was feeling quite a bit less hostile.
It was a start.
A side break, but a necessary one, I think. There's a lot of story here to tell, so if I veer off on what looks like a tangent, it's not so much a tangent as it is a 'this is important for character development' jaunt. Besides, Harry and Eggsy needed to smooth over the rough start to their dynamic. I'll try and have another little bit up this week.
Thanks for reading!
Chapter 13: Aschenputtel
A wise man once said 'Wherever you go, there you are.' Merlin finds himself on Harry's doorstep once more. James finds solace in family.
“I worry about him,” Lucy said, her head on Thomas’s shoulder. They’d been watching something mindless on television, but it had taken a backseat to their conversation, the quiet volume mere background noise to Lucy as Thomas held her. It had become almost a nightly thing, visiting her here at her flat, tucking her against his side as they just…caught up.
Thomas didn’t think he’d ever catch up all the way. So many years he’d missed, looking for her in the wrong places. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong…everything. He didn’t look at it with a sense of regret, however. The fact that he and Lucy had met again at all was thanks to a serious bout of serendipity.
His attention was on her, though, and he chewed over her statement. They’d been talking about Callum, about his plans for the shop now that things had forced him into a corner.
“In what way?” he asked, not knowing if she was still worrying about the florists, or whether her thoughts were now on another track. It happened a lot when she thought of her son, Lucy’s instinct to protect him first and foremost.
Thomas had taken Callum aside during one of his and Lucy’s visits, offering to fund a rebuild, but Callum had rejected the idea. It wasn’t Thomas’s duty to help him rebuild, he’d stated. Thomas hadn’t done it out of a need to impress Lucy; Lucy was nestled quite comfortably against his side right now. No, he’d recognized that Callum was doing his best to rebuild, and that sometimes one just needed that sort of helping hand to get themselves back on their feet. His rejection of Thomas’s offer hadn’t been a surprise.
Instead, Thomas suspected that was the kind of man Callum Craig was, and it made sense to him that Harry would be affected. That fierce independence was so unlike Harry’s own soft acceptance of being alone. It was a need to stand on his own two feet not out of necessity, but out of desire, and it would bewitch his godson. The fact that Callum was gentle with Harry hadn’t gone beyond his notice, either. There was an unspoken softness between the two; he’d noticed it during their first Sunday dinner, and while Harry had begged off the next few, he was still able to see how Callum smiled as he spoke about Harry.
Even now, with his godson moping out at his house and Callum recovering, he had no doubt that those two would remain friends. Harry’s heart had been bruised like this before, and it wasn’t something he got over easily, but Thomas thought he might, with Callum’s patience and understanding.
Lucy hummed softly, twining her hand with Thomas’s and pressing a kiss to his knuckles; it brought him back to the moment. He felt his heart flutter pleasantly with the action, and returned the motion, his lips against her temple. This easy affection after so long dwelling in the idea that he just ‘wasn’t suitable’ for marriage and love, it was a healing balm on old scars that he didn’t realize were still aching.
She ran her thumb over his knuckles, thinking. The little line between her brows deepened, and she wriggled a little back into the couch and closer into his side. While he was seated normally, Lucy seemed content to tuck her feet beneath her and press against him—not that he was arguing. It allowed him to wrap an arm around her and listen to her thoughts.
It was nice.
“I worry about him,” she said, repeating her initial thought, then continuing. “I wonder if he’ll ever settle down. And I know that it’s his choice and that he’s making his own life, and I would never presume—”
“But you want him to find someone,” Thomas said softly. When she looked up at him, he smiled. “It’s natural for a mother to want her son to be happy.”
“It seems silly, in the wake of everything,” she said, frowning. “To be worried about whether or not he’ll find love when he’s working on rebuilding after the fire.”
“Or you’ve just focused in on what you feel is important,” Thomas said. “You have every confidence that he’ll rebuild the shop. It’s the other things that have you worried because you know he has that well in hand.”
She nodded, sighing out and laying her head back on his shoulder. She traced idle circles along the side of his thumb with her own, and it was a long moment before she spoke again.
“There wasn’t much talk of girls when he was in school,” she said. “I kept waiting for him to ask, but he seemed to be content with his studies, and then university seemed so close, and now…”
She squeezed his hand, looking up at him.
“He should know that it’s never too late for love to find him,” she said.
“I think he does,” Thomas said. “He’s had you to show him.”
She pinked, biting her lower lip, and he chuckled, setting his nose into her hair. He kissed her temple, and she relaxed a little, the tension seeping from her with his reassurance.
“With a woman as extraordinary as you as his mother, I’ve no doubt that his standards are incredibly high, but he’ll also know when to act. He’s an intelligent man. Have patience.”
“You’re right,” she murmured. “No sense worrying about something I can’t control.”
“See?” he said, rumbling it against the delicate shell of her ear. “I knew you were full of good common sense.”
“Unlike you,” she said, patting his knee as she sat up before she gathered her mug. “Another cup?”
“Please,” he said, eyes twinkling as he watched her go. He decided that there was a lot to be said for autumn romances.
Amanda Morton looked over from her magazine as James dropped onto the couch beside her and put his head in her lap, grabbing a throw pillow to press over his face. While they were fraternal twins, there was quite the resemblance between them; she had his same laughing blue eyes and the same creases when she smiled. They’d both inherited their mother’s formidable temper, although James seemed to have gobbled up all of the ridiculousness in the womb, leaving Amanda the more serious of the two. Her own sandy hair, gone grey at the temples much the same way James’s had, had washed out in her daughter Roxanne, leaving her a much nicer blonde than Amanda had ever been in her youth. Amanda bore the same face shape as her brother, living at home in England leaving her softer where James was scruff and angles.
In the way that most twins had, Amanda loved her brother fiercely, clinging to him in times of joy and sorrow, missing him when he was gone.
Now, however, she just rolled her eyes at him, letting him stew for a moment.
Her twin brother was the king of melodrama, but she humored him, just glad to have him back in the country for a little while. She tugged gently at the tufts of his hair that stuck out, earning her a grumble and a swat.
“What’s got you upset now?” she asked. “I thought you were settling back in just fine?”
James peered up at his twin from under the pillow. “Your daughter is making me fat off her brownies and I’ve fallen in love with a mysterious cactus man.”
Amanda considered this. “That’s about par for the course with you, though.”
“This is serious,” James muttered.
“Is it that lovely Merlin from the shops? He’s a sweet man,” Amanda said, hedging her bets.
“No, no,” James said, waving a hand. “It’s the other one, Martin.”
“Ah,” Amanda said sagely. She’d had a hunch. Martin had seemed like James’s type—not that James had a type, but there were certain personalities her brother gravitated towards that weighed higher with him than others. Martin was definitely one of those men. He was quiet, self-assured, and not interested.
To James, it was the equivalent of romantic catnip.
“You and Roxy both,” she said, licking her index finger and using it to turn the page in her magazine. “I swear, it’s as if Mister Gainsborough hung the moon with you two.”
“Not like that,” Amanda said, lips twitching at the sight of James’s face. “She’d won over the other two, and you know how she was when she was little, determined to be everyone’s friend, whether they wanted to be or not.”
James chuckled, not a little in relief—and Amanda wondered if he seriously thought he was in competition with his niece for a hot second there. She fell to stroking James’s hair and gradually James brought the pillow down from his face.
“Well,” James said after a moment. “What do you think about him?”
Amanda blinked. James was never so serious about his romantic attachments. The last time he’d considered letting Amanda meet someone he’d been sleeping with, it had been at their insistence, not James’s. While James loved freely and without reservation, it was hard to meet someone who shared the same thoughts that James did regarding relationships and emotional connection. Most of James’s flings were…just that. Flings. If James allowed himself to care too deeply, he ended up being hurt by the end of the relationship.
More than once Amanda had consoled her brother on matters of the heart.
James’s philosophy had been simple, however, from the start. It was better to love and lose than never take the chance. He’d thrown himself into being the carefree man-about-town who never had a steady relationship, and for a while, it seemed to work for him.
Amanda was almost jealous of her brother. While his twin, she’d always been more pragmatic about things, and had chosen the safer route. When Johnathan had proposed, she’d leapt on it as something to keep her heart safe. She’d learn to love him in time, she’d always thought to herself.
Now, almost twenty years and a grown child later, she wondered if perhaps James had the right of things there. Still, returning her attention to his question, she realized she hadn’t answered him. He looked up at her, biting his lip, hands folded over his middle as he watched her think.
“I think you might be antagonizing the man, if he’s truly not interested,” she began. James frowned. “But…you have asked him, yes?”
“I did but…” James reached up and rubbed at his forehead. “I did it while he was talking to the firefighters.”
Amanda snorted. James frowned harder. “Wait, you’re serious?”
“Yes, all right? It’s harder when you forget you’re in ‘polite society’ and eat a bug accidentally or forget the social cues.” James gave an exasperated flap of his hand.
“You’ve been eating bugs since primary school, don’t even chalk that up to polite society,” Amanda said.
"They're an excellent source of protein. Cultures around the world include them in their diet, but noooooooo we're too good to eat bugs in England!" James glared at her. “Are you going to help me or not?”
“All right, all right,” Amanda soothed. “Tell me this, does he strike you as the type of man who’d have a fling with a bloke?”
“That’s never stopped me before,” James said, putting the pillow back over his face so that his words were muffled. “He’s different, Manda.”
“He feels different,” James said. “Like it would matter to him.”
Amanda sucked in a breath. James had definitely latched on. “James—”
“I know,” he groaned softly. “I’m an idiot.”
“A sweet idiot,” Amanda said. She gently tugged down the pillow and met his eyes. “I think you should talk to him.”
“I’ve tried,” James said. “I can barely get the words out.”
Amanda cupped his face. “If you can eat scorpions and blowfish and all those things, you can do this. Think of it like a great adventure.”
James sighed. “Those other things don’t scare me.”
His hand snuck up and took hers, squeezing. She could see the worry in his eyes. The tired ‘please don’t let this be like the last time’, the unspoken prayer. She squeezed his hand back.
“My fearless brother, brought low by a cactus man,” she said, smiling. “Irony isn’t your strong suit.”
James huffed a laugh. “Shut up.”
“Talk to him,” she said softly. “Tell him. And if he’s not right, then, at least, you’ll know.”
James inhaled. “All right.”
Merlin pulled in to Harry’s circular drive, surprised to see that Eggsy was already there and working. Either he’d called an uber, or he’d gotten a ride, because Merlin had needed his car today. Merlin got out of the car, waving to Eggsy, who jogged over.
“You’re supposed to be resting,” Eggsy said. While it had been almost two weeks since the fire, Merlin felt the coddling had been going on long enough. He stood straighter, fixing Eggsy with a look.
“Well, I’ve been laid up in bed enough,” Merlin replied. He glanced at the house. “I thought I gave you the day off.”
“You did, but I promised Harry that I’d finish up soon.” Eggsy gestured at the winterized grounds. Merlin nodded in approval, knowing that the lad had been hard at work. “I’m almost done.”
“Then the help will get you finished that much sooner,” Merlin said.
“Nope,” Eggsy said. “Not until you get the all clear from Lucy.”
Merlin leveled an even stare at Eggsy. “Traitor. And since when is he anything but ‘Mister Hart’ or ‘that posh wanker’ to you?”
Eggsy glanced back at the house, but Merlin held his ground. “Look, I might have been wrong about him. He’s nice enough.”
“Mm,” Merlin said, his stare not wavering.
“It’s true. He’s come out and talked to me while I’ve been working. Smart. Trying to get to know me to make himself look better. I dunno.” Eggsy fidgeted. “It’s not like he’s falling all over himself to let me join his cricket club or nothin’.”
Merlin’s mouth twitched, and Eggsy almost shoved him. Instead, though, they both turned at the sound of the door opening. Mister Pickle broke and ran for Merlin, yapping excitedly, and Merlin scooped up the little chappie, laughing as his face was licked.
Harry stood on the stone steps, hands in his pockets as he watched, smiling quietly at Merlin.
“Hello, Mister Hart,” Merlin said, after greeting the dog.
“Callum,” Harry said. Merlin set Mister Pickle down, surprised when Eggsy grabbed a ball from his car and took the dog to play fetch a distance away.
“I see he’s taken to you,” Merlin said. “I’m glad.”
“Through no effort of my own,” Harry replied. “I think he does it out of a need to make sure you’re taken care of.”
Merlin flushed. “I’m sorry if he’s been rude or—”
“Nothing of the sort,” Harry said, shaking his head. “He’s diligent, hardworking, and smart. I can see why you’d want to hold on to such an employee.”
“Oh.” Merlin turned to look at Eggsy chasing after the little terrier. Harry joined him, descending from the porch.
“He loves you,” Harry said. He stood shoulder to shoulder with Merlin, and Merlin turned to look at Harry. He found Harry studying him in a way that made his blood sing. Harry’s eyes were soft as they roamed over his face, and the words he spoke…
“He’s been a help,” Merlin said, not sure what was happening right now. His palms started to sweat as Harry nodded, swallowing. “Helping him and his mum has been a good thing, for all of us.”
Harry hummed, turning his attention more fully to Merlin. “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” Merlin said. “The coughing stopped, and the doctor gave me an all-clear yesterday.”
“I’m glad,” Harry said. “You gave us all quite the scare.”
“If James hadn’t been there, there would have been more than a scare,” Merlin admitted.
Harry’s face smoothed into a neutral expression, as though he were shuttering a window. “He was the hero of the day, wasn’t he?”
“Only because I insisted on going in for the dogs,” Merlin said. “In hindsight, it was foolish.”
“It was brave,” Harry said. “But yes, foolish.”
Merlin smiled at him, and Harry returned it, almost shy. For a moment, Merlin swore that everything contracted down to where it was just himself and Harry, condensed into a pair of men who stood on the precipice of something, crisp fall air swirling leaves about their ankles.
“Please don’t scare me like that again,” Harry said quietly. “I don’t think my heart could take it.”
“I—” Merlin considered that, then nodded. “I swear, I’m not trying to end up in hospital.”
“I know,” Harry said. “All the more reason for you to take care.”
Merlin smiled, and Harry returned it. The moment was broken as Mister Pickle skidded to a stop, the rubber ball in his mouth.
“That’s one thing I can never seem to give him enough of,” Harry murmured. “Exercise.”
“No time like the present,” Merlin stooped and wriggled the ball from Mister Pickle’s jaws. He offered it to Harry, and after a moment Harry took it, their fingers brushing. Harry tossed the ball, and the dog was off and running, tearing through the garden after the ball.
Harry laughed quietly at the dog’s enthusiasm. He turned to Merlin, the fall breeze ruffling his hair and making his cheeks ruddy. Merlin knew he was lost then, watching Harry play with his dog.
This was it. As simple as it was, this was the moment where Merlin realized that it wasn’t simple need for companionship. Somewhere along the way, he’d fallen head over heels for Harry Hart. It was terrifying, like standing at the edge of a precipice with a bungee cord tied to your waist. He could feel his heart leap into his throat at the realization, and that the sensation of falling might not ever end.
Something in his expression must have said so, and Harry inclined his head at Merlin, smiling a secretive smile, as though he already knew what it meant.
“Next time, bring the dogs. They love it here, too.” He said it as though it were inevitable that Merlin was going to be back again. Perhaps Harry knew more about this than Merlin did.
Because Merlin couldn’t help but keep coming back.
There were supposed to have been more chapters done this week. I'm so sorry. I got suckered into working a fourteen hour shift on my Friday and still haven't quite recovered. I appreciate your patience, Constant Readers. More soon!
Chapter 14: There's Something About Harry
Merlin and Harry come to an accord. An old friend blows in Harry's door.
Merlin’s days for the next month or so were filled with paperwork along with visits out to St. George’s Hill. The insurance process was a slow one, which meant that he had an inordinate amount of time on his hands, and he spent it the best way he knew how: by making sure Harry’s estate would survive the winter in good order. He and Eggsy finished winterizing the grounds, the dogs loping past every so often, and then took their lunch break on the patio with Harry.
The winds began to blow colder, however, as September gave way to October. By the time the month was half-gone, Merlin had done everything he could think of to prepare Harry’s plants for the snow ahead. He realized he’d run out of reasons to come by, and he wondered if Eggsy had mentioned it to their host. As he watched the young man chase both Mister Pickle and the two Dobermans about the garden, he didn’t think that was the case.
Today’s lunch was a cold repast, with cheese, meat, crackers and bread laid out on a platter along with sliced fruit. It was nice to pick at while they’d talked, and once Eggsy had eaten his fill, Merlin could check to see whether Bernie would waddle back to the car for all the begging he did.
“I can hear you thinking,” Harry said, not looking up from his leather-bound journal where he was writing something esoteric about butterflies, Merlin was sure. He hadn’t actually looked, as that would be rude, but keeping Harry company while he compiled his notes didn’t mean there was chatter to be had. Companionable silence was still nice, even when it seemed they had nothing to talk about.
Truly, Merlin liked silence with Harry. Instead of being in his own head, there was a comfortable quiet, as though this was where he was meant to be, enjoying the coolness of the weather with good company. Harry usually brought his notes outside while they worked in the grounds; it was almost as though he liked the company while he wrote as well.
“Mm,” Merlin replied. He finished off his glass of lemonade, setting it aside. The remains of their lunch sat on the table, protected by the fall weather by virtue of a closed and screened in sitting area. Merlin and Harry were seated across from each other in wrought iron deck chairs cushioned with comfortable seats and back rests, and Merlin wasn’t much inclined to move after all his heavy lifting this morning and the meal.
Merlin realized that the silence had grown expectant, and he bit his lip, glancing at Harry. The other man hadn’t looked up from where he was writing, but the scratch of his pen was slower, as though Harry were focusing more on Merlin rather than the words flowing from his hand.
“I was thinking that Eggsy and I have finished with the grounds today,” Merlin replied. “There’s no more reason for you to host us out here, as kind as you’ve been to do so.”
“Are you?” Harry asked. He looked up, as though realizing at last the scope of the work that the two men had done over the course of the last month or so. He cleared his throat, taking a sip of his drink. “So you are.”
Merlin nodded. “Aye. The feeders are in place for the roses, the tarpaulins and canvas can wait until it gets a bit colder—we’ll want to wait for the signs of snow for that, otherwise we risk overheating the poor things.”
“Well, you’ve done a remarkable job,” Harry replied. “Though that was to be expected.”
“Of course,” Merlin said with a smile. “I wasn’t about to let you find fault with my work.”
“Never,” Harry said, returning the smile. “I think, however, that I’ll miss having the company. At first, I thought it to be disruptive, but…I’ve been far more productive this month than I have been in a long while. The change of pace has been, well, good for me.”
Merlin chuckled softly. “Well, you didn’t have to keep making us lunch, though it’s greatly appreciated.”
“It seemed wrong to have friends over and not break bread,” Harry said with a shrug.
Perhaps that made more sense to Merlin than he first realized, thinking about it. He had already claimed that he and Harry were friends. Harry’s life seemed wrapped up in his lepidoptery as well as keeping his greenhouses, so maybe…
Maybe Harry was as lonely as Merlin himself had found himself to be.
There was a hunger inside Merlin, something that longed for that human connection. The brief flings he’d entertained for Eggsy’s sake hadn’t held the pull for him that it seemed to do for other people. And while he of course had his friends, and he loved them all dearly, it wasn’t the same thing, not to the thoughts that swirled through his head in the deep watches of the night while he lay awake with the dogs tucked against him.
He hadn’t dated seriously in many years, and even then, it was harder to get back to it than he would like. There seemed to be an expectation of being physical, but no emotion. It felt foreign to Merlin, and he had decided that he didn’t much care for it. Instead, he withdrew a little more, finding himself more isolated from the world around him than before. Some nights he didn’t notice it, but others…well, he was sharply reminded that he was alone in his own head far more often than he would like.
Now, however, there seemed to be a thread of something between himself and Harry. A thread that was weaving itself, skein by skein, into something that could be more—
—but it wasn’t, he reminded himself sharply.
Harry was inking a sketch of a butterfly into its place in his journal, the silence dropping back to that same level of quiet companionship it had before.
“You know, I find that I enjoy your company, Callum,” Harry said. It was quiet, almost off-handed, but Merlin tuned in on the words as Harry lined out delicate wings with the careful stroke of his pen. “If you wish, you can keep visiting.”
“Oh.” Merlin blinked, turning his empty lemonade glass this way and that while he thought about it. “Well, I like you, too.”
Harry chuckled. “I take that as yes, you’ll be coming back even though I’m not paying you.”
“It was never about payment,” Merlin said. Harry’s pen stopped, and Merlin looked over to find Harry watching him. Merlin reached for a leftover cracker, splitting it neatly in half before he nibbled on the end of it. “At first, your garden was the draw. Then, working with the roses and the rest of the grounds became important, as it needed seeing to and I’ve got the technical knowhow to take care of it for you. But then…I like to think we became friends along the way, and that means something to me.”
Harry nodded, his pen resuming its work as he bent his head to his journal again. “Good. Because we are friends.”
“Good,” Merlin replied. “I was hoping so.”
Apollo was finally tired of the ball and came galloping over, squeezing through the propped open patio door and whining at Merlin for attention, so the conversation ended there. Merlin felt as though he’d stepped away from the precipice of something huge.
One of these days he might even be brave enough to take the leap.
“You had better hold nothing back from me, Henry Edgar Hart,” Madeline said, stripping off her coat and hanging it in the foyer. “Tell me all about him.”
Harry shut the door behind her, shaking his head. Like most of the times she arrived, Madeline Northcott blew in like a tempest and immediately disrupted his entire life. Still, she’d been his best friend since childhood. There had to be something said for that.
Far from the knobbly-kneed little terror she’d been when they were teenagers, Maddy had grown into a sleek, well put together woman. She was elegant in a way that was effortless, and Harry had to admire that about her. Hair the color of a raven’s wing was twisted behind her head in a knot held with combs, and it outlined her aristocratic face, sharp jaw, and sharper grey eyes. She was dressed for travel in a comfortable pantsuit, and Harry had to wonder if she’d blown in directly from the airport, having just gotten back from holiday in Santorini. Full lips were pressed together in an expectant expression as Maddy put her hands on her hips, turning to regard him.
“Good to see you too, Muffy,” he said, watching her gaze sharpen as he used her hated childhood nickname. Harry wasn’t one to be petty, but Maddy had used his full name. Payback had to happen somehow. Lifting his brows innocently at her, he gestured into the house. “Tea?”
“Lovely,” she said, deciding that gossip was far more important than arguing about the use of her nickname. “So, you’re texting now?”
Harry winced as they headed for the kitchen. Of course Maddy would pick up on that. He wasn’t exactly a luddite, but Harry often preferred letters, or, if communication was important and needed to arrive quickly—a fax. He glanced at Maddy, shrugging.
“I’ve been persuaded to join the technological revolution,” he hedged.
“Darling, as long as I’ve known you, I can’t believe you’d try to feed me that line of bullshit,” Maddy snorted. She set her phone, keys, and pocket book down on the counter with a clatter and then settled herself at the kitchen table with the regal grace of a queen. “Did you finally decide to join Grindr, then?”
“Maddy!” Harry said, his tone scandalized.
Maddy merely laughed, waving a hand at him. He went about setting up their tea, setting the kettle on the hob and getting it going while he assembled a tea tray.
“I know that’s not how you do things,” she said, shrugging. Still, the way her gaze followed him about the kitchen, Madeline wasn’t about to give up.
“It isn’t. He’s a florist.”
“That explains why your grounds look less like a cabin in the woods and more like an actual home stands here,” she said.
Harry rolled his eyes. “It wasn’t that bad.”
“I kept expecting to come across an old campsite rather than your lovely home,” Maddy countered.
“You only consider my home lovely because I let you decorate.”
“Well, if I hadn’t, there would be bugs all over the walls, not just in your office.” She shuddered. “Your tastes are morbid.”
Harry merely chuckled as he leaned his hip against the counter. “As I was saying.”
She waved a hand for him to continue, even as the kettle shrilled and he poured hot water in the tea pot for it to steep.
“He’s a florist, one of the better ones—he just did the arrangements for the royal reception.”
“I saw those on Instagram,” Maddy said thoughtfully. “He and his team have an eye for color and style.”
Harry nodded, bringing their tea and the little tray of biscuits over. As they poured, he frowned at his cup.
“I’m sensing that there’s a snag in this,” Maddy said.
Harry sighed, stirring a single spoonful of sugar into his tea after adding just enough milk to lighten the brew. He didn’t answer at once, gathering his thoughts as to where he’d like to start. Maddy, for all her impertinence, let him.
It was one of the things he loved about her. His best friend since childhood, Madeline suffered the same expectations from her parents as he did from his—namely that she marry well, produce heirs, and quietly keep her mouth shut. The discovery that they weren’t interested in those things (at least not each other, Madeline had a whole lot more interest in a lovely young lady from Lady Margaret’s rather than any in him, a revelation for which Harry was eternally grateful) had made them faster friends than before. They’d become each other’s excuse, until Harry’s mother and Maddy’s father had decided that they would either marry or drive each other mad long before nuptials happened.
Instead, they’d continued along as they had, remaining friends even as Harry embarked into field studies for lepidoptery, funded through his investments rather than his father’s pocket. Even abroad, they’d shared phone calls and letters, with Harry finding a kindred soul and a comfort in Madeline.
When Harry’s mother died, it had been both a sense of relief as well as regret. Even now, there was still a small part of him that whispered that she could have been happy with him rejecting who he was, holding it together for their families. Perhaps they might have been married in another life. In this one, however, the woman sitting across from him was the best friend he had in this world, save for his godfather.
Maybe he just wasn’t suited to it.
“I had no idea if he’d be interested or not,” Harry murmured. He stirred his tea absently, even though the sugar must have been dissolved by now. “He’s also terribly busy.”
He recounted everything that had gone on, from the vandalism to the fire. Maddy’s brows shot up as he described the escalation, ending with the shop in smoldering ruins and Callum without work save for his puttering around in Harry’s garden and greenhouse.
“Are you sure he’s not just terribly unlucky?” she asked.
“If he were, I wouldn’t have gotten my ribs cracked by a man in a mask,” Harry replied. Maddy’s gaze sharpened. “I’d been in the area, it’s a safe area to walk, even at night. The only reason I should be targeted was because I had some of Callum’s equipment in a duffle bearing the shop’s logo stenciled on it.”
She frowned, dunking a biscuit in her now lukewarm tea and having a bite. Chewing thoughtfully, she leaned back in her chair.
“So what’s stopping you now?” she asked.
“I can’t, Maddy,” Harry protested. “I’m already seen as an eccentric. He’s got more than enough to worry about, rebuilding his shop and putting his life to rights.”
“Eccentric is far more desirable than fuddy-duddy,” Maddy said. “Do you know if your advances are unwelcome?”
Harry sighed. It was the eternal issue with wanting to date someone of the same gender. Both of them had bemoaned it before, but the question was an accurate one. Better to know than to make a move and be outed or worse. Harry had learned it the hard way, a black eye the least of his worries. Thankfully he’d been abroad at the time, and the incident had been brushed off as a bar brawl rather than what it had actually been.
“While he was in hospital for the smoke inhalation, I had come to see him. The man that pulled him out, James, he said that perhaps he should have swiped right instead,” Harry said.
Maddy nodded, her lips a moue of concentration as she thought. “Then it seems to be that he needs a few things in his life. His shop rebuilt, his business put to rights, and then dinner.”
“In that order, is it?” Harry asked, his tone mild.
“In broad strokes, yes,” Madeline replied, gesturing at him with her biscuit. “You can help him with the former. The latter is all up to how charming you can actually be, which isn’t hard for you. I know from experience.”
“He wouldn’t take it,” Harry said. “I offered to help while he was in the hospital—”
“—on painkillers,” Maddy finished for him. “Now that he’s out and his mind is clear, try again. Maybe reason will win out.”
“He’s stubborn,” Harry replied. He rubbed a hand over his face, blowing out a breath. When he looked back up, Maddy was staring at him with a strange expression on her face. “What?”
“You’re in love with him,” she said.
Harry startled. “Whatever do you mean?”
“You were infatuated before,” she said. “When he came to ask you about your greenhouses. But over time, it turned into this. You’re in love with him.”
Harry blinked at her, perplexed. He ran through everything in his head, reexamining everything from a new perspective. Did it mean he was in love? The passion that Callum showed, the effort he put into his work and his people made him attractive in an already attractive physical package.
Was he in love, or was this feeling something that would go away once it was pursued?
“You would have let it be if you’d been rejected for offering your help the first time. You would have never brought it up again because it was the polite thing to do, and once it was over with, you could forget about it. Instead, you’re still worried. You want him to take your help, because you want him to be happy. Would it matter if he paid you back?”
“No,” Harry replied slowly. “Because I know that he would, first of all. But even if he didn’t, if I helped—”
Maddy pointed a triumphant finger at him. “See? This isn’t anything like Justin Collingsworth and you said that you’d die if he didn’t like you back.”
“That was sixth form,” Harry groaned. “I’m allowed to have my feelings mature.”
“You still chase butterflies,” Maddy said, as though that made Harry’s point moot. “Well, I’m home now, so we’re going to get this right.”
“What do you mean, ‘we’?” Harry asked, suddenly alarmed.
“Harry, you’ve been single since 1998,” Maddy said, her expression severe. “I don’t think you know what to do with yourself.”
“Shut up,” Harry grumbled, pouring himself another cup of tea.
“Do you want to go shopping or not?” she asked him.
“If I say no, I’m still going to have to go, aren’t I?” he asked, sighing.
“You are,” she said, nicking another biscuit off the plate and dunking it in her tea. “But it’ll catch Callum’s eye, and that’s what you want.”
Harry frowned, but as he stirred sugar and milk into his tea, he knew that it couldn’t do any more harm than he’d already done. Maddy was trying to help in the best way she knew how, and that meant more than the actual act. He offered her a small smile, and she returned it, reaching out to squeeze his hand.
“All right,” he said. “But…if I ask you to stop, I need you to understand that I’m calling this idea off.”
“Deal,” she said brightly. “We’ll start tomorrow.”
Madeline is someone I've been working on putting somewhere, but I could never figure out where, until I was stymied by how to proceed with this story. Her face claim is Sela Ward and I like her quite a bit.
I'm sorry that this is so late, Constant Readers. I haven't been as up to date with my writing as I would like because I've got so much to do. I've been stressed to heck and the need to write another chapter always loomed over me but it was the one thing I could put off for a little bit to get a break, and so I did. More soon, though, things seem to be leveling out in the real life arena.
Chapter 15: Crossing Wires
Harry clears up some confusion.
Martin picked through the charred wreckage of the shop. It was a total loss, the glass crunching underfoot sounding brittle in the chill fall air. He sighed, squatting down to unearth a succulent pot that had been half-buried. It was terra cotta, streaked with soot, but whole. He rubbed at it with his thumb, leaving a black trail as it passed.
His whole life’s work, gone. Not just his, but Merlin’s too.
They’d met at Oxford, becoming unlikely friends during their studies. The quiet, serious Martin was pre-law, and Merlin had been courted by the entire mathematics department, but his love had been botany. It was strange, to be sure. Martin had often questioned why Merlin hadn’t just taken their offer. The answer was always the same.
If there’s no passion in it, why would I do it? Seems like a waste, making money but hating yourself.
The simple answer had resonated in Martin, leading him to question his own path. All his life, it had been understood that he would follow his father’s footsteps, taking over his place at the firm of Gainsborough, Beechman, and Stowe. He would marry, sire an heir, and continue his father’s legacy.
Meeting Merlin had changed all that. Martin sometimes wondered if he was bothered by it, or if he owed Merlin his sincerest gratitude. It had been a strange decade and a half of learning by doing, navigating the world without his parents looming over his shoulders and making his decision for him. That, of course, meant that their resources were not his.
He remembered the beginning, just out of university and sharing a cramped flat with Merlin and his three dogs, working odd hours and putting everything they had into a jar that they deposited every month into a savings account until they had enough to open the doors of Kingsman.
It had taken two years of bare living, cutting costs wherever they could, and a lucky break of Merlin patenting a more efficient sprinkler system, but it had gotten them there. They’d made it. So much so, in fact, that they’d caught the royal eye.
Now that legacy crunched beneath his heel like the broken glass. The insurance company was dragging its feet, trying to claim it was gross negligence on their part, demanding that they pull their video camera footage. They were waiting on the ruling from the fire marshal, who would be able to tell them if this had been arson or a mistake.
All the while, Kingsman’s doors were closed, and they were not making money. Martin handled the accounts, and it was becoming obvious that they could not stay closed for long. Though the shop had burnt down, they were still on the hook for the rent. Though they pulled no electricity, they were still liable for utilities. While he was taking the stopgap measures he needed to, it might not be enough.
It was, to put it succinctly, a financial disaster.
Martin stood, sighing as he looked down at the pot in his hand. His carefully created life was unravelling. While he still lived simply, never having gotten out of the habit since he started, there was still Merlin and Eggsy to consider. Martin could likely find a job with an accounting firm quickly, but—
“Mister Gainsborough?” His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of someone calling his name. Turning, he caught sight of Mister Hart, standing out on the sidewalk with a woman beside him. He acknowledged them with a lift of his hand and picked his way through the wreckage and back out of the shop. He locked the door (for all the good that did him, as the windows had been shattered by the backdraft and were covered over with plywood) behind him, dusting himself off and wiping his hands on his handkerchief before extending one to Harry. They shook, and Martin nodded at the statuesque woman beside him.
“Mister Hart,” Martin said.
“Harry, please,” Harry replied. He turned to the woman beside him. “Madeline Northcott, a childhood friend of mine. Maddy, this is Martin Gainsborough, the other gentleman who cares for the shop.”
“A pleasure,” Madeline said, glancing behind Martin at the husk of Kingsman. Martin felt his hackles rise, but she wasn’t passing judgment. She merely shook her head. “A terrible thing to have happen, especially in the wake of such success.”
“Mm,” Martin said. He realized that Maddy might take that as him being rude, so he elaborated. “We’re working on rebuilding.”
She nodded. “Admirable.”
Harry cleared his throat. “I was hoping to catch either you or Callum, in fact.”
Martin tilted his head, brows knitting at Harry’s tone. He’d spoken with him once or twice, and while he didn’t approve of how Harry had conducted himself via the written word, from what Eggsy had been telling him, the man himself seemed to have a change of heart. Martin had to wonder about that.
“Well, there’s no sense in discussing business out here on the street,” Martin said. He glanced back at the shop, his tone dry. “You’ll excuse me if I don’t invite you in for tea.”
Harry barked a startled laugh, and Madeline pressed her fingers to her mouth. Martin shrugged and turned toward Roxanne’s. “I’m sure our partner won’t mind if we take a table for a few minutes.”
“Is this the bakery that was featured as well?” Madeline asked. Martin nodded, feeling a swell of pride that Roxanne’s was equally as visible as Kingsman. They’d done that.
He preceded them into the shop, holding the door for Madeline and Harry. Roxy popped her head out from the back, lighting up as she spotted Martin.
“Mister Gainsborough!” she said. Martin gave her a shy smile, and she smiled wider. “Bringing me customers?”
“In a sense,” Martin said. “Do you mind if we take a table?”
“No, no, feel free. The lunch rush is gone and I’m working on a custom order, otherwise I’d talk more. Can I get you anything?”
“Do you still have those lovely looking blackberry tarts I saw you serving at the reception?” Madeline asked.
“We do, I just made them fresh.” Roxy pointed to the tray of warm tarts on the cooling rack. “Would you like a pot of tea?”
“Oh, yes, please,” Madeline sighed, happily heading for a table in the corner.
Harry chuckled. “You’ve made a customer for life.”
“How are you feeling, Mister Hart?” Roxy asked, smiling at him.
“Better,” Harry admitted. “Just a twinge in the ribs now and again.”
“Good,” she said. She slid a plate with a piece of the tart and some banana bread on it toward him. “For you.”
“Oh, thank you,” he said, pleased that she’d guessed his favorite. “How did you—”
“Eggsy,” she said with a smile, and Harry chuckled softly. He glanced at Martin, who felt himself puffing a little like a proud father. Roxy fussed with the pot of tea, setting it to steep while she saw to Martin’s order.
A brownie made its way onto a little plate, and she carried it along with the pot of tea and their mugs to the table for them. Once she saw them settled, she made her way toward the back once again.
“How old is she?” Madeline asked, glancing after her.
“Twenty-two, I think,” Martin said. “She’s been clawing her way up, hand over hand. She did four years in culinary school and hit the ground running.”
Madeline’s eyes roved over the clean and well-decorated little shop. It seemed that she liked what she saw, and she picked up her fork to have a bite of her tart. Popping it into her mouth, she closed her eyes and chewed.
Harry seemed amused, stirring a single spoonful of sugar into his tea and adding enough milk to turn it pale. He sipped, then took a bite of his banana bread. Both of them glanced down at their plates, then back at the kitchen.
“The rumors are right,” Madeline said. “I’m definitely seeing why she was so popular at the reception.”
Harry nodded. “This is excellent.”
Martin felt his smile creep to his face without his permission. “She works hard, and she knows her business. You should try her hot chocolate.”
“With the chiles?” Madeline asked. He nodded and her speculative gaze turned back toward the back where Roxy was working. “I just might.”
“You said you wanted to speak with us,” Martin said, getting back to the matter at hand and directing his attention to Harry once more.
“I did,” Harry said. He set his banana bread down and blotted his lips with his napkin. “My funds aren’t being taken for the work your company has done on my property.”
Martin pulled up his receipts on his phone, flipping through what he had. “…that appears to be because we aren’t billing you.”
Harry blinked, folding his hands on the table in front of him. “I wrote Callum a cheque not two weeks ago.”
Martin’s eyes narrowed. “…I see. I have not received any of the cheques you’ve written.”
“What could have happened to them?” Harry wondered.
Martin had a feeling he knew exactly what had happened to them, but he didn’t voice it. That would be putting Merlin’s infatuation with the man front and center, and that wasn’t something he would do to his oldest friend.
“Do you have notes on the amounts of those cheques?” Martin asked instead. “If you like, I can take a new one for the total amount today.”
“Of course,” Harry said. He reached into his jacket’s breast pocket and withdrew his chequebook. “I should be making this out to Kingsman, correct?”
“Yes,” Martin said. He resolved to correct this now, and then bring it up to Merlin later. With all the work he and Eggsy had done, they could at least fund the clean up and put down a deposit on the reconstruction of the shop. They couldn’t afford to not take payment right now.
“Honestly, with the work your team has done, I’m surprised not many others seem to have contacted you for your services,” Madeline said. “I know that it’s easy to say that you have a family gardener, or you hire a service, but…I’ve seen what Harry’s lawn looked like before, and I must say it hasn’t looked that nice since Constance passed away.”
“Maddy.” Harry’s tone was quiet, but Madeline subsided and turned her attention out the window for a moment as she chewed another bite of tart. When she turned back to Martin, however, he could see she hadn’t let the subject go.
“I should like to have them come out and do the same for my estate,” she said. Martin blinked in surprise. “I don’t have near the rare flora that Harry does, but my roses are lovely in the spring and I would like to keep them that way.”
“I can certainly see if Mister Craig and Eggsy are willing,” he said. “If they are, I’ll draw up a contract and get you an estimate once we’ve surveyed the property.”
“Excellent,” she said. She slid her card across the table, and Martin returned with one of his own. “I’ll call you sometime in the next few days and arrange for you to come and survey. I’ve just gotten back from Santorini, and I’m still getting things righted.”
“Of course,” Martin said. He wasn’t about to say no to another source of income. The way repairs were going, they were going to need it.
Harry tore out the cheque, handing it to Martin, and Martin tucked it into his pocket.
“Would it be acceptable if I printed and mailed your invoice?” Martin asked. “I would offer to do it now but—”
He cast a meaningful glance down the street at the boarded-up shop.
“Of course,” Harry said. “Whenever you have the time.”
“Thank you, really,” Martin said. “Not only for bringing this to my attention, but for…well, Callum has been…”
“I know it’s been rough,” Harry said. “I’d been meaning to ask—has the insurance come through?”
Martin frowned, wondering exactly how much to tell, but his expression seemed to be all the answer Harry needed.
“I know this seems presumptuous of me, but if you like, I should like to invest in Kingsman. I have the liquid assets to fund a complete rebuild and restock.” Harry rested his clasped hands on the table again, a serious look on his face. “If the insurance comes through as you’d like, then you may repay me then. If not, you can repay me how you’d like.”
“I…” Martin frowned harder, turning his tea mug around on the table. “I’m afraid I can’t do more than promise to speak to Callum about that. It’s too much for me to give a definitive answer, as it pertains to the future of Kingsman.”
“Of course,” Harry said. He wet his lips and glanced down the street at the shop. “But do keep it in mind. I would hate for the shop to go out of business.”
Martin nodded slowly. “I’ll talk to Callum. I can’t guarantee anything, but you have my word to speak to him about it.”
“Thank you,” Harry said, smiling.
Martin had to wonder how much of this was for the shop, and how much was for Merlin’s sake.
Roxy had been out to check on them once or twice, but she’d been busy in the back while they’d talked. Now that she heard the scrape of chairs and the murmur of voices approaching the counter, she washed her hands and dried them before popping back up to the front to take their payment.
To her surprise, only the elegant lady appeared to still be in the shop.
“Where are Mister Hart and Mister Gainsborough?” she asked, peering out the door.
“I sent them on their way,” the lady said. She smiled at Roxy, fishing in her hand bag until she produced her card. “I told them I would pay for everything. I really wanted a chance to talk with you, you see.”
“With me?” Roxy asked. She took the payment, swiping the card and handing it back.
“Yes,” she said. “My name is Madeline, and I’d like to talk with you about catering a party of mine.”
“Oh!” Roxy nodded eagerly and ducked behind the counter to fish out her forms. “I’d be happy to, when did you plan on having your party?”
“Two weeks from now,” Madeline said. “I’m aiming for having a fall party, so I can say goodbye to summer—unless, of course, I decide to winter in Bora Bora again.”
She laughed, and Roxy found that she liked this woman. Madeline gave off the vibe of someone who knew what she wanted and went for it.
“Your tarts are delicious,” Madeline continued. “Is there any way I can get more of them for the party?”
“Absolutely,” Roxy said. “Did you like the blackberry?”
“Divine,” Maddy said, leaning on the part of the counter that was for writing and transactions. “If you can get me two of those and perhaps…three of the apple, maybe a loaf of the banana bread for Harry ‘I’m watching my girlish figure’ Hart, and…ooh, you do éclairs?”
“We do,” Roxy said, laughing at Madeline’s abrupt subject change. She pulled out an éclair and plated it for Madeline to sample. The older woman took a bite and chewed with a blissed-out expression.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Can I add a platter of those?”
“Absolutely,” Roxy said. “And since it’s two weeks out, I’ll actually start on most of it a few days before. Is there anything you want to add?”
“Not at this time, but if I think of anything by Friday, can I call you?” Madeline finished filling out her form and added her card. She took one of Roxy’s slipping it into her pocketbook.
“Sure,” Roxy said. “We have a policy of half the order up front as a deposit, is that okay?”
“I’ll just pay for everything now,” Madeline said, waving a hand. “If you’re good enough for royalty, who am I to argue?”
Roxy felt her chest swell with an unusual sort of pride. Good enough for royalty. That was a new, albeit amazing, feeling. She’d done it. She put her shop on the map and people were starting to come in based on that alone. To hear someone say it—
The jingle of the bell took her attention to the door. Amanda Morton stepped into the shop, dressed for a day out. A small shopping bag was in one hand, and she beamed at her daughter.
“Hello, darling,” she said.
“Hello, mum,” she chirped in return, taking the order form from Madeline and entering all the information into her calendar so she wouldn’t forget. She took Madeline’s payment again, and the two women made small talk while Roxanne boxed up another few éclairs for Madeline to take home.
“Your daughter?” Madeline asked.
Amanda nodded, beaming with pride. She’d always been supportive of Roxy pursuing this rather than following Johnathan into his business.
“She is,” Amanda said. “Did you find everything all right?”
“More than,” Madeline replied. “She’s a talented baker. Does she get it from you?”
“From me?” Amanda asked. “Oh, no, I’m afraid not, that came out of nowhere.”
“You do well in here when you’re helping,” Roxy pointed out. “I keep saying you could do it too.”
“I know,” Amanda said with a nervous little laugh. “But…this is your dream, not mine.”
“Roxy,” Amanda countered with a smile. She turned back to Madeline. “I’m so proud of her, you know?”
“I can see why,” Madeline said. “I’ve just ordered some treats for my party.”
“Oh, how wonderful!” Amanda looked pleased. “She’s always been at her best doing catering.”
“It’s a small gathering,” Madeline said, looking between the both of them. “But would you like to come? I know it seems a little sudden—I don’t know you, but I think you would like the company.”
“I—I shouldn’t,” Amanda said quietly. “But it’s so very kind of you to offer.”
Madeline nodded slowly, then gathered up her box and her receipt. “Well, keep it in mind, should you decide you want to. I’d love to have you come ‘round more.”
She tipped Roxy a cheery wave and was out of the shop like a gust of wind, heading down the sidewalk. Roxy spotted Harry and Martin talking outside Kingsman, a cab waiting for both Harry and Madeline.
“What a nice woman,” Amanda murmured.
“Mm,” Roxy said, nodding. She came around the counter and hugged her mother, before stepping back behind the counter to put some tea on. “So tell me, how was it?”
“Oh, you know your grandmother…” Amanda began as she sat down.
Roxy lost herself in idle chatter, missing the glance back at the shop that Madeline cast before she got into the cab.
Oh Martin. You love that girl, don't even lie LMAO
To quote Bearfeathers: I like to picture him sitting and eating breakfast one day when he actually realizes it. He's alone in his kitchen and just says, "What the fuck?" out loud because WHAT THE FUCK? WHEN DID THIS HAPPEN?
Madeline continues to be a favorite.
Not exactly what you thought, but I'm getting there. Thanks for reading, if you liked it please feel free to mash that comment button. Doesn't have to be anything more than a simple 'I love this, thanks for sharing', but they mean a lot. If it makes you anxious, don't feel like you have to do it, just know that I appreciate every comment I get. Kudos are nice as well, but you can only smash that like button once.
Chapter 16: Falling Short
I knew I was in love with you. Was I an idiot for thinking you were in love with me too?
-- Jesu Nadal
Merlin didn’t know what to say to the woman who opened Harry’s door. Bright and vivacious, she looked as though she belonged there, her tousled dark hair seeming to complement the décor. Petite and pretty, she stood in the doorway, head tilted at him as though she was taking his measure. Merlin was reminded of his filthy work boots in the boot of his little Citroen, and he cleared his throat, straightening subconsciously.
He would have been lying to himself if he didn’t admit feeling at least a little bit like the help addressing the lady of the house.
“You must be Callum,” she said, smiling at him. She dimpled beautifully, and he felt himself reddening. “Harry’s told me so much about you, it’s nice to meet you in person.”
Ah, there it is, he thought to himself. He might not get out much, but there is someone.
He forced his thoughts away from the sliver of disappointment widening rapidly in his mood, instead offering her what must have looked like a wooden smile. Nothing for it. Best to be happy for him and move on.
“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, madam,” he managed.
“Madam, nothing,” she said, waving a hand. “I’m Maddy, and it’s a pleasure. Come in, Harry’s putting on tea.”
Awkwardly, Merlin followed her into the foyer. He’d been by Harry’s enough to know where to hang his coat, but it almost felt natural to let her tell him where it was. He trailed behind her, feeling far more like a third wheel than anything else. Her feet were bare, clearly comfortable in Harry’s space. She wasn’t dressed like someone who’d come over for a visit. Her soft sweater and leggings looked as though it were an outfit to wear about the house. As though she lived here.
She suits him, he thought, steeling himself for the sight of Harry Hart domestically happy. He felt no real jealousy toward her; why should he? She’d been here far longer than he had, and anything he felt for Harry was something he would have to process and get over. It wasn’t her fault that Merlin had come to certain conclusions.
It was just something Merlin would have to adjust to and figure out on his own. It wouldn’t be the first time, nor would it likely be the last. He did tend to fall for unavailable men, and this was just another in that long list of reasons why Merlin found himself unwilling to date. He put on what he hoped was a brave face and followed Maddy into the kitchen.
Harry looked up from where he was prepping a tea tray. He brightened when he spotted Merlin, beaming at him. Merlin stuffed down his burgeoning disappointment and managed a smile in return. He had a feeling he looked a little preoccupied at best. At worst he probably looked as though he had a bad case of heartburn.
“Ah, Callum,” he said. “I see you’ve met Madeline.”
“It’s Maddy,” she said, shooting Harry a look, but Harry just smiled and shrugged, carrying the tray to the table.
“I have,” Merlin said, sitting so that Maddy and Harry could take seats next to each other, which just put Maddy between the two men. “But you didn’t just call me out for a social visit, did you?”
He would like to believe that Harry was hardly that callous, and Harry had texted him that it was important that he come over today. His words had been far brusquer than he’d wanted, and he swallowed back the bitterness on his tongue with a sip of the tea from the mug Harry set before him.
“I did,” Harry said. “It was more a request from Madeline than myself.”
Maddy nodded, beaming at Merlin. “I love what you’ve done with Harry’s estate. It actually looks like someone human lives here rather than a misplaced bridge troll.”
Harry rolled his eyes as he put enough milk in his tea to lighten the brew, but let her continue. There was obvious affection between them, and Merlin stared down at the mug in his hand.
“I’d like to hire Kingsman for my own grounds,” she said. “I’ve been away to Greece for the past few months for a photoshoot, but I should like to have the grounds up and ready for springtime.”
Merlin nodded, pulling his phone from his pocket. “I’d be happy to set you an appointment and get you a quote for the work. Are you available on Saturday?”
“I can be,” she said, smiling. “What sort of accommodations do you need for working? I know Harry’s been feeding you, but that’s just how he is, the dear.”
“Nothing you’re not prepared to do,” Merlin said, tapping the details into his phone. “We’ve packed lunches before, we can do it again.”
“Nonsense,” she said, flapping a hand. “I can cater something.”
Harry snorted. “Just don’t ask her to cook.”
They complemented each other well, then, with Harry’s knowledge of the kitchen. Merlin took another sip of his tea.
“I’ll figure something out,” Maddy declared. She nicked a biscuit off the plate and dunked it in her tea. “Now that that’s out of the way, how do you feel about parties, Callum?”
“Parties?” he asked. He had a feeling he’d missed something, but then again things were blurring into a static of him feeling wretched for himself. He forced himself to pay attention.
“Yes,” she said. “Since I’m back, I often have a party around this time, to celebrate the holidays. Would you like to come?”
“Please don’t feel obligated,” she said. She reached out and patted Merlin’s hand; he flinched. He caught himself before his tea could slosh over the rim of his mug, and he didn’t think either of them noticed. “Harry will be there, and he’s always found these sorts of things a chore—”
“Since when was my presence requested?” Harry blurted. There was a minor scuffle under the table (Merlin had the distinct impression that Maddy tried to stomp on Harry’s foot), but Harry cleared his throat. “Ah. Of course, if you’d like to come along as my…my plus one?”
Merlin made eye contact, and that was his undoing. Soft brown eyes were pleading, in a way that he could neither avoid nor deny. His chest clenched, and he found himself nodding even before Harry finished the sentence.
“All right,” he said, hating that all it took was Harry silently begging him before he was on board. “What time?”
He hated himself just a little less when Harry smiled at him. Only a little, however, as he reminded himself that Maddy already belonged there. She patted Harry’s elbow, as though to remind him, too.
“I told you it would work,” Maddy said, leaning back in the chair once Harry had walked Callum to the door after tea.
“You did rather bull-rush him into accepting your invitation,” Harry murmured. He was still giddy with the idea that he’d secured a sort-of date. If only it was that easy all the time, but then, Maddy had only just gotten back.
“But it worked,” Maddy said, grinning at him as she leaned her chin in her palm and regarded Harry over the ruins of the tea tray. “If only it was always that easy.”
Harry’s attention snagged on Maddy’s wistful tone as she mimicked his thoughts. “You’ve met someone?”
“Briefly,” she said, waving a hand. “That nice girl, Roxanne?”
“A little young,” Harry said. She promptly punched him in the shoulder. Harry just grinned at her as she flushed.
“Not her, specifically.” She took a sip from the dregs of her tea, reached the slurry of sugar at the bottom of her cup, and grimaced. Her nervous energy had her hopping up to get another pot started. “Her mother walked in as we were discussing party details.”
“Ah,” Harry said. “Let me guess, you invited her.”
“I did.” Maddy winced, rubbing her forehead. “She was married. The ring on her finger said she was, anyway.”
Harry winced in sympathy as well. “I’m sorry, Maddy.”
“You should have seen her light up when I complimented her daughter,” Maddy said. “She’s lovely. I hope Roxanne changes her mother’s mind about attending, because she’ll be catering.”
“You’re quite taken with her,” Harry said, lifting his brows.
“It’s terribly stupid of me,” she said, nodding as though that’s what he’d said.
Instead of thumping her, he rose and moved the empty plate and Callum’s empty mug to the sink. He bent and kissed her forehead like the annoying little sister she was.
“It’s not stupid,” he said. “We’re both uniquely qualified to remind each other of the pitfalls of dating in our situation.”
She sighed. “You know, if we were straight, this would never happen.”
“We do tend to get into scrapes that qualify us for bad romance novels,” Harry agreed. “I’ve never heard of a woman dueling a man over another man’s hand before. With swords, no less.”
“That was one time, and her boyfriend was a wanker,” Maddy grumbled, turning pink to the roots of her hair.
“My point exactly,” Harry chuckled, rinsing the dishes as Maddy steeped another pot of tea. “So…extend another invitation, and make sure.”
“Since when are you so gung-ho to have me leap before I look?”
“Since I have a plus-one and you don’t.” He grinned at her and poured himself another cup of tea. “That hasn’t happened in years.”
“You’re right, it hasn’t,” she said. He could see exactly when she changed tacks, her focus returning to him in speculation. “So, what are you wearing?”
“We were talking about you,” he blurted.
“And now we’re talking about you,” she said, smug.
Harry sighed and moved to sit. This would likely take a while and involve Maddy going through his wardrobe. He reminded himself that it would be worth it.
Martin sighed and rubbed his face as pressed the ‘end call’ button on his mobile. The calls to the insurance company had left him with a headache forming behind his eyes that no amount of unclenching his jaw would fix any time soon. They’d gone with the cheapest option and that seemed to have not done them any favors.
There was ‘no evidence’ for them to be able to pay out, as their agent had claimed. Martin was going to fight it all the way to court if he had to, but at this rate, it looked as though it were a losing battle. He’d been trying to find evidence of arson in the video feeds, but it was slow going, even with a general idea of when the fire started.
The problem was, they were running out of money. Even with cashing the check Harry had written for his lawns and garden, it wasn’t enough to rebuild, only to cover expenses for the next few months. The generous offer from Harry had yet to be put on the table, and Martin winced internally, knowing what Merlin was likely to say regarding the investment.
Merlin, like Martin, was loath to accept outside help, for any reason. He’d wanted to do this himself, and they had – the shop had flourished with their starting capital, Merlin’s ingenuity, and Martin’s business acumen. It wasn’t going to be enough to save it, however. Their doors had been shut for too long, and they hadn’t been able to capitalize on the fervor drummed up by the royal wedding. With it long behind them, Kingsman would have to claw itself back to recognition on its own merits, and they couldn’t do that with their insurance company refusing to pay for their rebuild.
Even in law school, Martin hated the idea of being backed into a corner. He would argue his point until he was blue in the face, his research meticulous and his facts iron-clad, and could stubborn his way through most debates. The problem with this debate was that he was running out of time to come up with evidence that it had been anything but the fault of the city or some unknown third party – and speaking with the fire marshal had dried that avenue up. There were murmurs that it was arson, and the insurance company would leap on that as it being a deliberate move by either Merlin or Martin to cash out.
At least, that was the last bit he’d gotten from his most recent phone call. Martin sighed and rubbed his face again. He was going to have to talk to Merlin.
He rose as though arming himself for battle, pulling on his coat and his shoes, and clipping Bella’s lead on her harness. Bella gave a full-body wiggle, pressing herself bodily against Martin’s knees, and he smiled, rubbing her behind her ears.
Bella had been a sort of gift from Merlin. The shelter that had given Merlin his current menagerie had also given Martin Bella. Merlin had a standing volunteer date and had dragged Martin along on more than one occasion.
Bella was a good girl, in the wake of her own recovery. A Belgian sheepdog, her long black fur covered the nastiest of her scars, though her notched ears would always be a reminder of her painful past.
She had been abused, to the point that the shelter workers had been required to wear gloves with her. She’d been brought in with several others as a bait dog, covered in bites and old, badly healing scars. Aggressive to the point of biting anyone that got within feet of her, the fact that she would have been put down was enough to flip a switch in Martin. It wasn’t her fault, and he’d raged at the idea until the poor volunteer had to get the shelter’s head to speak to him.
Looking at her now, one would never realize, but Martin still remembered sitting on the cool concrete of her cage, holding his hand out, and her biting down hard in fear and pain. The fire of the bite was old and numb, but the terror in her eyes was not. He’d sat there, stroking her head, until she’d let go and placed her head in his lap. His left hand still bore the scars even three years from then, but he didn’t mind. It was a reminder every time he reached for something with his dominant hand that his stubbornness was useful at times.
Now, she was a happy, healthy, well-socialized animal, and that was thanks in part to both Merlin and Martin’s intervention. She had been worth it, and they’d both thought so, though Merlin’s measures to save her would likely have been less drastic, as he had far more experience fostering difficult or anxious animals.
Unconsciously, Martin rested his hand on Bella’s head as they rode the elevator to the bottom floor of his building. She leaned into his legs, tail wagging.
“We’re going to go see Merlin,” he murmured to her in the empty car, and her wiggling got more pronounced. “Ah, I thought you might agree.”
Bella promptly tugged him from the elevator car and down the street toward Merlin’s block of flats. It was a long enough walk that it might be faster to drive on rainy days, but Martin was happy to walk. Bella needed the exercise and frankly, he did as well.
Roxanne’s brownies had made him pudgy, he thought with an internal sigh. Just one more thing to weigh on him, so to speak.
His mind swirled with the issues at hand, Bella’s enthusiastic sniffing of the hedges and other things along the sidewalks was hardly enough to distract him. Sooner rather than later, Merlin’s flat hove into view, and he let Bella steer them to the front door. His soft command made her sit, though her excitement rippled through her in a visible wave as her front paws tapped gently on Merlin’s front stoop.
While Martin’s flat was smaller, Merlin’s was a sort of town home, converted with the others that connected with it. It featured two bedrooms, the master on the top floor, larger because the top floor had once been a smaller apartment. Merlin had secured a fixed rent, and enjoyed that whilst property values in Whitechapel climbed higher each year.
Now even that was in danger. While they both had some savings to fall back on, the reality that they might have to close Kingsman for good was looming into view.
Martin rang Merlin’s bell, and the clatter of nails on the hardwood signaled that they’d attracted the attention of at least Apollo. Sure enough, the black nose pressed against the window through the blinds appeared, then disappeared as Merlin called for him. Merlin opened the door, seeming pleased to see Martin.
Merlin’s smile widened as he took in Bella, wiggling eagerly to be noticed but trained enough to remain sitting until Martin unclipped her lead. She shot toward Merlin’s shins, and he bent to ruffle her fur, letting her weave happy circles around his legs. He glanced up at Martin, however, and his face fell.
“This isn’t a social call, is it?” he asked.
Martin shook his head, and Merlin sighed, gesturing for them to come in. While Martin hung his coat, Bella and Apollo turned circles around each other until Merlin whistled, and they both darted for the back garden.
“What’s gone on?” Merlin asked, watching the dogs play chase for a moment while Martin set the accordion file he used for Kingsman finances on the table.
“Trouble,” Martin sighed. “Something that we’re going to have to make a decision on together, as business partners.”
Merlin nodded, frowning. “All right, I’ll put the kettle on.”
Merlin didn’t often indulge in alcohol, much less to excess, but right about now he was ready for enough of a nip that it would put him to bed early. His talk with Martin had lasted well into the evening, with a break for supper as they crunched the numbers.
It had been worse than even he had thought, and it was going to stick in his craw for a while that he’d failed both Martin and Eggsy by not being attentive enough. He’d been so busy being infatuated with Harry Hart that he’d completely glossed over the fact that his business was likely to fail in the next two months.
Guilt was a funny thing. He didn’t blame Martin for keeping the finances under wraps until he was sure; it had been a part of their business model. When Martin admitted that he’d cashed a cheque from Harry to cover the work done on the grounds, Merlin had blamed himself for telling himself that Harry’s money had been no good. It had been perfectly good. It was Merlin himself wanting to see more in Harry that had led him to avoid depositing the cheques he’d reluctantly collected.
He’d thoroughly cocked this up, and he would need to re-evaluate how he did business, even with Harry. Especially with Harry.
Bitterly, he rinsed his tea mug and set it in the rack to dry. Thomas had offered to help pay for the rebuild, and so, apparently, had Harry. He couldn’t accept that kind of help, not from either of them. Thomas because his mother was happy, and he wasn’t going to owe money to the man responsible for that happiness, because it might put that happiness in jeopardy.
Well, that was a whole other kettle of fish, wasn’t it? Merlin was so entangled with the lepidopterist that the thought of taking any kind of financial help seemed even more abhorrent, especially with Maddy in the mix. Martin had recounted the offer and said that Maddy had seemed supportive. From the way they acted, it was clear that Harry’s wealth was independent of Maddy’s, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t change. They might—
Merlin closed his eyes and sighed. Not the point.
The point was that he was far too infatuated to make a sound business decision where Harry was concerned, and that was enough to make him balk at the idea of accepting help. Nothing soured feelings like borrowing money, and while Merlin was sure he could begin repayment as soon as he reopened Kingsman’s doors, it was still a chance he hated taking.
The insurance wasn’t helping. Martin was still combing for proper evidence on their mystery arsonist but was having trouble sifting through the footage; he hadn’t come out and said it, but Merlin had gleaned that he’d come across video from the failing cameras that had showcased about when Merlin had passed out in the fire, and it was difficult for him to keep going.
In short, it was a mess.
On top of that, he’d been roped into a dinner party with Maddy and Harry in two weeks, and he hadn’t the foggiest idea of how he was going to get through that.
He sighed again, prompting a nudge from Artemis. He reached down with dish-damp hands and rubbed her behind the ears, the Doberman leaning against his legs.
“We’ll have to tighten our belts for a little while,” he said. “But don’t worry. I’ll figure something out.”
He always did. He just needed a clear head. Hopefully that clarity would come sooner rather than later. Kingsman was counting on him, and Merlin would be damned if he let everything he built slip away. He would just need a better plan of action.
Writing has slowed to a crawl thanks to work. Insomnia gave me a little oomph to finish this chapter, but I'm drained as all get out and I need to find some way to just take time and recharge. Thank you for your patience, Constant Readers. I'm sorry things have been so slow, but I'm hoping I'll be able to do more soon.
Chapter 17: Best and Worst
Even if I knew you'd be the one that got away I'd still go back and get you Even if I knew you'd be my best and worst mistake Girl, I'd still make it with you Over and over, again and again Even though we break up in the end --Cole Swindell, Break Up In the End
Merlin hesitated outside the door to his mum’s flat. The dogs could sense his reluctance and crowded around his knees, Apollo bringing his body to bear against his left hip as he whined. Merlin dropped his hand to the dog’s head and he quieted.
His mum was home, that he knew; he’d texted her prior to coming over. Still, it felt like an intrusion, more than usual. His mum’s door was always open to him, but it had been years since he’d talked with her about this part of his life.
Even then, it had always been vague. His orientation wasn’t something he brought up in many situations, and it suited him that way. It was hard enough fitting friendship into his schedule, much less dating. He’d only gone when Eggsy had prodded because it would have made the lad feel bad. Now he’d gone and fallen for someone completely out of his league, and it was the kind of ache that only his mother could soothe. Much like a scrape or a bruise when he was a child, it was comfort he was seeking.
She just didn’t know about this part of his life, that was all. He took a deep breath and let himself in with his key.
“Mum?” he called.
“In the sitting room,” she called back. Apollo and Artemis sat and let him get their leads off, then trotted off to find grandmum, leaving Bernie sitting beside Merlin’s feet as he got his coat off.
He sighed, letting Bernie off his lead and scratching behind his ears. “I’ll be fine, go see her.”
The sheepdog huffed, the sound suspiciously like that of someone who didn’t believe him, but perhaps Merlin was projecting his own thoughts. Bernie made his way into the sitting room as Merlin dropped the pastries he’d brought over in the kitchen. It wasn’t tea time yet, but it would be soon, and perhaps baked goods would soften the blow.
When he finally emerged, the dogs were happily curled up by his mum’s feet, crunching the treats she’d doled out. She smiled up at him, tucked under an afghan with a book on her lap.
“A visit on a Wednesday,” she said, patting the couch beside her. “Something must have happened.”
“Of a sort,” he hedged. He licked his lips, moving to sit where she’d patted. “I, well, I wanted to talk to you.”
“Of course,” she said. She bookmarked her place, setting the book aside as she sat up straighter.
He sank down onto the couch, hip to hip with his mother, and he felt the words dry up in his mouth. He rubbed at his face, his heart starting to trip in his chest, making its way up into his throat.
“Mum,” he said. He couldn’t meet her eyes, staring at the worn knuckles of his hands. Good, strong hands, someone who worked with them on a daily basis. Dependable. His breath hitched. “You should know, I couldn’t have asked for a better mum.”
“Oh, darling, Mother’s Day was almost two months ago,” she said, reaching out and rubbing gently at the middle of his back.
“No, I’m…I’m being serious.” He rubbed his face again, eyes darting around the room before resting on his hands again. “You didn’t have to adopt me, you and my bio mum were—”
“I could never have faced her,” Lucy cut in, shaking her head. “I promised her I’d look after you, and what better way to do that than to raise you myself?”
“I’m just—” He inhaled, his throat closing. “I’m saying you did a good job. You did a great job. You’re my mum, and I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she said. He could feel her palm making rhythmic circles in the center of his back, like she’d done to soothe him to sleep as a young boy. He couldn’t tell if it made this harder or easier. “Callum, what’s gone on?”
“Nothing, I just…” He inhaled again, feeling like he wasn’t getting enough air. “I just didn’t want you to worry or to—”
He met her eyes and realized he couldn’t bear to see the disappointment there. He tried to swallow around the lump in his throat.
“There was a reason I didn’t bring girlfriends home,” he said softly. He could feel his eyes prickling, and he swallowed again, turning his face away. “I just…I didn’t want one. I didn’t want to disappoint you, and—”
He choked, his voice losing ground to the well of fear and sadness in his throat, and he glanced up. Lucy put her palms against his cheeks, leaning forward and resting her forehead against his.
“Mum, I’m not ever going to marry a woman. I’m gay.” He closed his eyes, bracing himself for the impact. For the intake of breath that would end this part of his life. “I knew when I was eleven.”
“Oh, my darling,” she said softly. “Is that what this is about?”
“I didn’t want to disappoint you,” he said, finding that all he could do was repeat himself.
“Callum,” she said. “Look at me.”
With great effort, he opened his eyes; it was even greater an effort to find the blue of her eyes as she stroked his cheeks. There was nothing but kindness there.
“Did I teach you to be ashamed of yourself?” she asked, her voice quiet. “Is that from me?”
“No, mum—” He inhaled, a great, gulping breath that turned into a sob. “No, I just—”
“There’s so much love in this world for you, my darling,” she said. “So many people who just want to love you, and that’s not ever going to get used up. Don’t you see? You’re so beautiful, and you were made this way for a reason.”
He was weeping openly, a broken noise escaping him as his mother wrapped him in her arms, rocking him as though he were still five years old.
“You could never disappoint me with that,” she said, stroking the nape of his neck as she held him. “Oh, my darling, I was just worried you wouldn’t find anyone, that’s all. I only ever wanted you to be happy.”
He gave a watery laugh. “I managed to muck that part up, I’m afraid.”
She pulled a tissue from the box that she kept on the coffee table. He blotted at his face, knowing he must look a sight. A grown man a blotchy mess from weeping, but somehow he felt lighter. Lucy patted her lap and Merlin lay down, letting her run her fingers across his temple like she’d done up until he’d left primary school.
He realized that he’d missed this. He’d pulled away from his mum after that time, because he thought that it might hurt her, or that it might disappoint her. Instead, here he was, something from his childhood making him calm. The simple feeling of his mother’s touch left him feeling better. His legs hung off the sofa by a good six inches, letting his feet dangle, but his mother smelled as she always did—of vanilla and cedar and brown sugar. Comfort. He pressed his face to her knee, not caring in that moment that he was a grown man.
“I’d always wondered,” she murmured. “Some mothers ‘know’ but I’d be a piss-poor nurse if I assumed I knew everything without you telling me.”
“I didn’t mean to keep it from you,” he said. He felt her fingers pause. “There never seemed to be a good time to bring things up. ‘Oh, look, Christmas goose, and by the way, mum, I’m seeing a bloke named George from down my street.’”
There was a chuckle from above him, and he rolled his gaze up to find her smiling down at him.
“If you’d decided to do that, I might have just asked you to pass the peas but seeing as how you’ve got yourself worked up into a mighty knot, we’re going to do it this way.”
Callum took a breath, scrubbing at his face with his hand. “You’ve always been brilliant, mum.”
“You got lucky,” she said.
He laughed despite himself, the sound surprising him. She tapped him gently on the ear, and they both sat there, contemplating their own thoughts for a long while. He didn’t know how much time had passed, but her fingers against his temple were soothing and he found himself drifting.
“But what’s all this about you mucking it up?” she asked after a time.
He closed his eyes. “I fall in love with the wrong people.”
“No, no, not in that way. Just…he wasn’t right for me. He has a woman in his life. They’re good—good together,” Merlin said. “I wouldn’t dream of taking that from him. It seems selfish.”
“Oh,” she said. She hummed softly. “Can I help?”
“You are,” he said.
“Good,” she replied.
He inhaled, breathing out as his anxiety about the situation fled, leaving him feeling wrung out, even in his mother’s care. After another long while, he sat up, rubbing at his face.
“I need your help to pick an outfit,” he said.
“Oh?” she asked.
“You do better dressing for fancy parties,” he said. “I was…they invited me to something in two weeks and I didn’t have the heart to say no, and if I back out—”
“Ah,” she said, understanding passing over her features. “Do you need something new?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never been to a dinner party like this. Rich folk, I just—”
She nodded. “I’m sorry we didn’t have that.”
“Are you kidding?” Merlin asked. “I’d be drunk constantly on scotch that costs more than the shop brought in during the month—”
She laughed, and he realized he was rambling. She took his hands and squeezed them, and he pressed a grateful kiss to his mum’s cheek.
Somehow, things had turned out all right.
James was manning the counter when the bell above the shop door alerted him to Martin entering. He felt his hands get a little clammy, and he wiped them on his apron before he smiled brightly at the dark-haired man over the counter.
“Good afternoon,” he said. It wasn’t even the start of the feelings that jumbled in his chest when he saw the handsome florist again, but it was a start. At least he hadn’t choked up.
Martin startled, as though suddenly becoming aware of his presence. He paled, and James feared he’d bolt right out of the shop, but instead he swallowed and moved up to the counter.
“Good afternoon,” Martin said. His voice was quiet. “Is Roxanne in?”
“She’s out making a supply run,” James said, leaning his hip against the counter. “She needed a hand and luckily my afternoon was free. I can get you a cup of tea if you’d like to wait for her?”
Martin nodded, and James hopped to, bustling about and getting the order ready. The lunch rush had come and gone; he noticed that Martin avoided the shop if it seemed busy—or if it seemed like James was around. That last thought was more directed at himself, and he frowned as he fussed with the kettle.
It had been years since he’d thought about himself that way; his carefree dating had always been a sort of out for himself. He didn’t have to commit unless someone wanted to, and they rarely did. They were always looking for the thrill and when his schedule meant he was away for long periods, instead of coming with him, whoever he was seeing at the time would break it off.
Even in college, most of the people he’d dated had grown out of him. Maybe that was his curse. Absence didn’t make the heart grow fonder in his experience, it just made it grow forgetful. Announcing he was poly usually sped up the process. They either assumed he’d be unfaithful or that he already was. The old ball of hurt knotted in his chest, and he swallowed it down.
Instead of dwelling on that, he forced himself to focus on now.
He poured a cup of tea and plated a brownie, bringing over fresh cream and sugar for Martin on a tray. Dark thoughts notwithstanding, James found he couldn’t let things lie as they did between them. For all the things he was, a coward was not among them, and he cleared his throat as he set down the tea things.
Martin glanced up from where he’d been looking out the window; that hunted expression crossed his face again, and it damn near made James’s words die in his throat. He drummed his fingers against the chair back opposite Martin at the little table, getting himself together.
“May I, may I sit?” he finally blurted.
The hunted expression on Martin’s face deepened, but he nodded. James pulled out the chair and dropped into it, glad that he’d been allowed into Martin’s space for just a moment. He folded and refolded his hands over themselves.
“My sister pointed out that I may have made you uncomfortable,” he said softly. “If I did, I’m sorry.”
Martin swallowed, his throat working. James searched his face, finding that same nervousness there that plagued him. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. He wouldn’t know until he tried.
“I didn’t, and usually don’t, think before I speak when it comes to those things,” he said. James chewed his lip, searching for his words. Martin was here, and he was listening, but all the speeches he’d rehearsed in his head flew right out of his ears when faced with the real thing. “And I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable. I know how much you mean to my niece, and she would never forgive me if I put my foot in my mouth—more than usual, anyway.”
He grinned nervously, a smile that died almost as soon as it reached his mouth. Martin was listening, his brows knit in concentration as James rambled along.
“I never got a chance to properly thank you all for what you’ve done for Roxanne,” he said instead. “This was so important to her. Things haven’t been kind at home since she’s moved out, and there are…anyway. She talks about you all like you’ve hung the moon, and I suppose I was a little starry-eyed when I ran into you at the shop.”
“The aubrieta,” Martin murmured. James blinked. “Did your mother like them?”
James remembered then, the plants in their painted pots that were currently enjoying the sun on the balcony of the flat he was renting. He stuttered to a stop, fingers clenching around themselves.
“I—” He chuckled, nervously. “I kept them. I couldn’t bear to part with them. With any of them.”
“You’ve bought twenty-nine succulents from me over the past six months, until the shop caught fire,” Martin said, alarm creeping back across his face as he calculated. “Do you have that much room?”
“I—yes, I do,” James said. “Wait…you remember how many I bought?”
High spots of color appeared on Martin’s cheekbones, and James warmed up to the thought immediately. Something so simple shouldn’t make him giddy; perhaps Martin was just the sort of person who remembered a repeat customer. James wanted to believe it wasn’t that, however.
“I’m sorry,” James said softly, some of his confidence returning. “I should have at least asked if you minded…me. I know that I can be—”
“I don’t,” Martin blurted. “Mind, I mean.”
“You don’t?” James blinked.
“I’m not used to this sort of attention,” Martin said, his voice going quieter. “Everyone has that occasional person who flirts with them, just—”
He stopped, breaking off a corner of the brownie on the plate before him, crumbling it onto the plate with an unreadable expression. James was hanging onto his words, and it occurred to him that it was the longest conversation they’d had without Roxy present.
“I’m not a partner,” Martin said at last. “I’m a project. Most people find me odd, at best. At worst…”
He gestured, almost helplessly, as though he couldn’t find the words. James resisted the urge to reach for his hands and calm their fluttering movement, instead waiting for Martin to continue.
“Everyone gets flirted with sometimes,” he said, shrugging. “It’s easy enough to get out of and it never really…bothered me. This is…this is something different. I’ve never done this before.”
“With a man?” James asked quietly. While they were alone in the shop, his voice hushed itself, remembering past mis-steps in that same arena.
“With anyone,” Martin clarified, and James’s jaw must have hung open at that because the high spots of color that had been there since Martin had started talking only deepened. “I just…it’s never occurred to me to want something like this for myself. I didn’t think I did? And now…”
“You do?” James asked. His heart was pounding in his ears, but he wanted to hear Martin’s response so badly that he was leaning forward in his seat, on tenterhooks.
“I don’t know,” Martin said. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how. It’s quite probable that I’m going to either ruin this or be too slow for you. Or I’ll just be awful.”
“How do you know, if you’ve never tried?” James asked.
Martin pushed the crumbs around his plate. “Like I said, I’m not a partner. I’m a project. People look at me and see a quiet man who’d rather tend his flowers, or a serial killer in training. Not many people remember that I can hear them when they say those things.”
“They want to fix me,” Martin said. “I’m not quite so sure that there’s anything wrong. I know I’m not like—like regular people—”
His voice trailed off, frustration etching his face, deepening the lines around his eyes.
“Is that why you’re trying to tell me to man the lifeboats?” James asked.
Martin shrugged. “I don’t know. Like I said, I’ve never done this before. I keep reading things wrongly, or not at all. I feel like you deserve…better. Than me.”
James’s heart hurt. It hurt for the man before him, quiet and full of promise, his dark eyes nervous as they met James’s over the table. He wet his lips, forcing himself to ratchet back his enthusiasm.
“Would you prefer it if I didn’t do those things?” James asked, seriously. “Now that I know it bothers you, I’d like to change that behavior—”
The bell over the door jingled as a customer walked in, interrupting James. It was a regular, and thankfully James already knew what he wanted. He hopped up, hoping that Martin was still there when he got back. Once he got the pastries boxed and rung up and the delightful old man on his way, James returned to the little table by the window.
The tension didn’t seem to have dissipated out of Martin. He stared out the window, toying with the handle of the tea mug. His shoulders were tense and his jaw flexed as though he were chewing his tongue. The brownie, save its mangled corner, lay untouched on the plate before him.
“Sorry,” James said softly. Martin met his eyes again, and shrugged.
“You’re a good man,” he said. “To help out Roxanne like this.”
“Well, we’re family.”
“Yes, but you’re famous,” Martin said.
“What does that have to do with anything?” James smiled.
“You’re not like anyone I’ve ever met,” Martin said.
“Is that a good thing?”
Martin shrugged one shoulder. They were silent for a moment, both trying to suss out what the other was thinking.
“I meant it,” James said, leaning his elbows on the table. “If you want me to change my behavior, I will gladly do so, now that I know it makes you uncomfortable.”
“It…doesn’t,” Martin said. “But I also don’t know what to—what to do with it. I’m trying to help you understand.”
“You don’t want me to change,” James said, nodding. “All right. Can I help, somehow?”
“I don’t…know.” Martin made a fluttery, jerky motion with his fingers. “I—”
He fell silent, confusion washing over his features. James’s heart ached for this man, and he reached out, gently placing his hand over Martin’s. Almost immediately, Martin stilled at his touch, like a skittish animal shown human kindness for the first time. James ran his thumb along Martin’s. It was quite the contrast, his tanned fingers over Martin’s pale ones. The florist’s hands were rough, coming with digging in the soil for a living, perhaps.
“How about this?” James said. “Follow your instincts. What do they tell you?”
“That this will crash and burn,” Martin blurted.
“Not if we navigate it slowly,” James said. “I like you, Mister Gainsborough. I’d like to know you better. But on your terms.”
Martin swallowed. “I…okay. Okay. We can try. If you want to.”
James found that he would like nothing better. He pulled back his hand, resting it on his side of the table.
“There’s a dinner party in two weeks,” he said. “Will I see you there?”
“A party? For whom?” Martin asked.
“That lovely Northcott woman, friend of Harry’s?” James said.
“Ah. I wasn’t invited,” Martin said.
“Yes, you were. I just did.” James’s smile was bright. “Merlin is going, she said. So you’ll have people along with you. And Eggsy is going to help Roxy with the catering.”
“Oh,” Martin said quietly.
“Think about it,” James said. “You don’t have to get me an answer. I just hope to see you there.”
Martin nodded slowly. “Okay. I can do that.”
“Good,” James breathed. There was a small victory in that. In knowing that Martin wanted…something. James was content to revel in the small smile that Martin gave him across the table.
The jingle of the shop’s bell distracted him again, and he hopped up to serve the customers that wandered in. This particular group of ladies recognized him, and he spent a little more time with them, letting them get some pictures and signing a few slips of paper for them. When he got a chance to breathe again, he looked over at the table, only to find Martin gone. There were bills tucked beneath the cup of tea that had been finished.
James hummed to himself, clearing away the plates and wiping down the table.
Slowly. He would have to move slowly. Like all things worth doing, this would be well worth it in the end. He was sure of it.
I did mention that this was a love story. What I didn't mention was that it's important to have more than one type of love in your life. And you don't realize it's missing unless...well, you don't have it. For those of you who've dealt with that sort of pain and fear and anxiety -- we're never alone in that. It feels like it, but you have people. You have to remind yourself that you do, sometimes. I hope you don't feel so alone after this.
Thanks for reading, if you liked it please feel free to mash that comment button. Doesn't have to be anything more than a simple 'I love this, thanks for sharing', but they mean a lot. If it makes you anxious, don't feel like you have to do it, just know that I appreciate every comment I get. Kudos are nice as well, but you can only smash that like button once. You can also reblog the links I post on tumblr. Who knows, I might find another Constant Reader with your reblog.
Chapter 18: Rekindled
I wonder how I ever made it through a day How did I settle for the world in shades of gray When you go in circles all the scenery looks the same And you don't know why And I looked into your eyes Where the road stretched out in front of me And I realized I'd never lived Before your love I'd never felt Before your touch And I'd never needed anyone To make me feel alive But then again, I wasn't really livin'
--Kelly Clarkson, 'Before Your Love'
Merlin almost called it off the day of the party. Martin was riding with him, however, and he was already nervous about being thrust into such a large group of people without a buffer. While Martin was adept at faking high social situations, he hadn’t needed to do so in so long that it almost seemed criminal to make him do it alone.
Merlin fussed with his jacket. While Maddy had insisted that this party was casual, Merlin had gone with dressy. His mother had gone all out, finding him a dark silk shirt and a pair of grey trousers that he could pair with a nice jacket. Thomas had delivered them yesterday, a knowing look in his eye.
Merlin found himself warming to his mother’s suitor when he produced a tie, looked at the clothing, and then pocketed it again, instructing him to forgo it and leave his collar open instead. As he’d said it, he’d clapped Merlin on the shoulder and they’d shared a moment of…solidarity, perhaps. While they hadn’t talked much save for when together over dinner, Merlin realized he did enjoy Thomas’s company. He made his mother happy, and that was more than enough, especially after how hard their lives had been up until this point.
He looked himself over in the mirror again. His mother had taken his measurements for a reason, and the suit fit like it had been altered specifically for him. He rubbed his freshly shaven jaw and then pulled on his shoes, nudging Apollo out of the way when the Doberman decided that Merlin sitting meant it was time for pets.
His stomach was churning, but it would only be for a few hours and then he could return home to his tea and his dogs. Merlin checked his appearance one last time, then picked up his keys and wallet to head out the door, his phone in his other hand.
“Be good, I’ll be back by ten,” he said. Artemis whuffed from where she lay on the settee, Bernie giving a sigh of agreement. The dogs would be fine, it was himself he was worried about.
“He’s not coming,” Harry said, peering out the window.
“No one’s here yet,” Maddy admonished him, fussing with her hair in the hall mirror. “It’s just now four, and you know how the old money likes to be fashionably late.”
Harry blew out a breath. He felt like he’d swallowed one of his own rescues, with the way his stomach was fluttering, but he tried to settle down. Eggsy and Roxy had arrived an hour ago, and were back on Maddy’s patio setting up tables and equipment for the catering. Merlin and Martin hadn’t come with them, and there was also a conspicuous absence of James and Amanda as well.
“I just…he seemed very not comfortable with the idea of this and—”
“Henry Edgar Hart, if you flake out on me now I will never forgive you.”
Harry clamped his mouth shut but peered out the window again. Maddy sighed and put down her comb. She rose, moving to rest her hand on his shoulder.
“Look, if he doesn’t show up, he’s missing out on a spectacular party thrown for charity, and he’ll miss the little romantic walk through the gardens he and Eggsy spruced up for me just last week.” Harry swallowed, the butterflies going into overdrive at the idea. “And you can moon over him all you want once you’ve got him.”
“That’s not how it works,” Harry complained, albeit softly. His knuckles ached from how hard he’d been squeezing his hands shut, and Maddy reached out and opened his right hand, smoothing over his palm with her thumbs.
“It’s true,” she said. “That’s not how it works for us, is it? We always seem to lose ground right before we crest that hill, but why shouldn’t we try to keep climbing? Why is that for other people, and not for us?”
He looked down, catching her soft grey gaze. “Because people like me don’t get happiness, even late happiness.”
“Harry,” she said, clucking her tongue at him. “You’re so determined to wedge yourself into that shell, whether it fits you or not, aren’t you? What happened to the brash young man who jumped into a pond to save my hat and cover for me and Julie Pendergrast sneaking away by making a scene?”
“I grew older still,” he said. “You went off to Greece and missed it each time, but I’ve gotten grey hair since you’ve been gone.”
She reached up and framed his face with her palms, stroking her thumbs along his cheeks.
“You deserve to have that chance to try,” she said. “The only thing you have to lose is a little bit of your time.”
Harry swallowed, closing his eyes. “I’ve already lost all the time I have.”
“Is that how you feel?” He nodded, his eyes still shut. “You’re forty-five, that’s hardly old.”
“It feels that way,” he said. “He’s not—”
“You don’t know that, and you won’t, until you take that chance,” she said, and the firm tone she took made him open his eyes and stare at her. She patted his cheek with one of her palms, not quite a slap, but enough that it caught his attention and made him pay more attention to what she was saying. “I will lock you both in a closet if that’s what it takes, but mark me, you’re going to actually talk to him instead of hinting that you’d like to have him ‘round even if there’s no work to be done.”
He gave a watery laugh, realizing tears were trickling down from the corners of his eyes. She blotted at them with her thumbs, then squawked as he pulled her into a hug.
“You’ll crinkle my dress!”
Harry hugged her regardless.
Thomas and Lucy were some of the first arrivals. While evening was settling across
Thomas and Lucy were some of the first arrivals. While evening was settling across the countryside, the party was just starting. Tables were set with fine food and drink, and the air was pleasantly cool but not chilly.
Having her on his arm was a singular pleasure, if only for the way Maddy cooed over them both when Thomas had told her. It wasn’t quite the same thing as finding her in his youth, but given all he had been through and all he knew now, he wouldn’t change a thing. Lucy was lovely in a grey sheath dress that accentuated her eyes, her hair done up and exposing the long and elegant line of her neck. She wore a simple set of pearls, the barest hint of makeup, and she was stunning.
But then, Thomas thought to himself as he fetched them both a drink, he might be biased.
The party was hardly getting underway, and already she was chatting with the two caterers. He gave a fond huff of amusement as Lucy reached out and was pinching the young man’s cheek as he returned, flutes of champagne in hand.
“Aw, mum,” the young man whined. Lucy merely chuckled, releasing him. Thomas raised an eyebrow as he passed over her flute, wondering if there were more sons to be pulled out of the woodwork. Lucy caught his expression and smiled, tucking her arm in his.
“Thomas, this is Eggsy,” she said. Thomas remembered the name, he’d been the subject of many of their Sunday dinners. He took his measure of the young man, finding his face to be expressive and his gaze clever. He found Eggsy resembled a younger Harry in a lot of ways and found himself approving.
“Ah, Gary,” Eggsy said. “Gary Unwin, sir.”
Unwin. No wonder Harry had taken to the boy, Thomas thought as he took the young man’s proffered hand.
Reginald Hart IV was of the old school when it came to raising his sons. After a failed push to nudge Harry towards the army and to something more ‘manly’, Reginald had turned toward Thomas to make something of his youngest son. Being Harry’s godfather, Thomas had always seen Harry as a young man cut from much of the same cloth as he was, and all of Harry’s eccentricities were because he was bored of the life set before him. His godfather had seen that in him—down to the point of Harry rejecting things because they were coming from wealth, like clothing or foods, taking to eating packaged crisps and dressing in dowdy old sweaters and torn jeans as he traipsed about the Hart estate.
It was a life that might have ended either in a blowout or a tragedy, but Thomas encouraged Harry to take a different path, and with intelligent investing, Harry soon had a life that could be considered separate from his family. It was enough to quiet Reginald about Harry’s peculiar habits, at least briefly.
Thomas had been abroad when Harry had befriended Lee Unwin. A strange friendship, to be sure. His parents had fussed about it back then, especially his father—one didn’t socialize with the help, after all. In many ways, Thomas and Reginald had butted heads over the matter, to the point where as gentlemen, they’d agreed to disagree. Their debates had become heated over brandy in the evenings and instead, they’d dropped the matter.
Lee Unwin had been a welcome change in Harry’s life, however. A shy child who would have rather had his butterflies and the company of a few set people in his life, Harry had never had time for idle chatter or for socializing. To hear that Harry had willingly set aside his time to speak to someone other than Madeline was, quite frankly, a relief. Harry was slow to make acquaintances into real friends, and it was often that Harry worried Thomas with his reclusiveness. To see him out in the garden, chatting and laughing while he helped Lee pack sod or just as they sat and ate lunch—it was a measure of gratitude that he owed Lee Unwin, Thomas felt, for bringing Harry out of his shell.
The accident had been just that – an accident. Thomas hadn’t yet retired from police work, and he’d checked into the case for Harry. It hadn’t stopped Harry from agonizing over it, however, and he’d withdrawn more into himself at the passing of his mother. When Reginald had died, it had been a blow, but nothing like this hurt piled upon hurt. More things had set Thomas back on his heels, such as learning of Harry’s peculiarities as a front to protect himself—his father would have surely disowned him and he’d never have seen his mother again if they knew—but in a way, it was a long step backward.
Perhaps it truly was serendipity that had brought Lucy, Callum, and now Eggsy into their lives again. Thomas could see only a little of the backslide that had come with Callum’s unintentional rejection. There was too much for Harry to focus on these days for him to let these emotions rule him.
The conversation had turned to the gardens around, and Lucy smiled as Eggsy pointed out features he’d installed himself and with Callum’s help.
“You’ve a good eye for color and style,” Lucy was saying.
Eggsy beamed. “Well, I did the fountain in the corner of the garden. The water helps bring the whole thing together.”
Thomas had to agree; Eggsy’s eye for landscaping was evident in the professional cast to their surroundings.
Sculpted hedges provided a sort of natural fencing, moving towards a wooden gate that led to the flowering fields beyond that would eventually—if one were inclined to walk that far—lead to Harry’s own back gardens. Privacy was preserved while not compromising the view, leading the eye toward the rolling green of St. George’s Hill. The water feature drew the eye and guided the gaze where the landscaper wanted it to go, to bring attention to the natural beauty of one’s surroundings. The lake on the other side of the garden at the east edge provided a balanced counterpoint, with a stone and sculpted brush path that led down to the dock that Maddy kept maintained. The dock itself was strung with paper lanterns, their soft white light casting an almost ethereal glow onto the water as the sun set.
More paper lanterns were strung on the hedges and along the walkways on wrought iron hangers, leaving the party wreathed in light. There were several fire pits strewn about with seating in front of the flickering flames, as well as a brightly burning hearth inside Maddy’s lovely sitting room for those that were too chilled to brave the outdoors without a glass of something warm to pepper their spirits. Soft music drifted from speakers placed strategically, and it was quite pleasant.
A successful evening so far, with the guests that mingled and chatted moving in small groups that turned larger as more people arrived through the gate ‘round the side of the house. Madeline always did know how to throw a soiree, and Thomas wasn’t surprised to see some familiar faces in attendance. Including one that was more familiar to Eggsy than to himself, it seemed—as Princess Tilde of Sweden rounded the gate and fluttered over to their group like Eggsy and Roxanne’s aprons were a homing beacon. She planted kisses on both Roxanne and Eggsy’s cheeks before realizing that Lucy and Thomas were watching, both bemused and not a little concerned.
“Oh, forgive me!” she said, smoothing her outfit.
“Not to worries, You—” Tilde shook her head frantically, and Thomas’s sentence halted and changed direction. “You must be a friend of Roxanne and Gary’s.”
She nodded, and Thomas glanced towards the doors where two large armed men stood with their hands folded in front of them, watching the party. Discreet, but one couldn’t really disguise secret service—especially when the observer happened to be a police officer as well. He smiled, however, and let her live her lie for just a moment.
“I thought you had to go back,” Eggsy said.
“I did, but a friend of mine invited me back, just for a couple of days,” she said, clinging to his hand. It was clear the reason why, and Thomas’s fingers tightened a little on Lucy’s. This would be something lasting, if they could get off the ground, but circumstances being what they were, this was likely her way of saying goodbye.
“Could you excuse us?” Eggsy said, and Thomas nodded.
“Just make sure you’re back before I have to break down the tables and clean up, yeah?” Eggsy acknowledged her with a one armed hug, and practically let Tilde drag him off. Roxy watched them go, shaking her head.
“I don’t suppose he realizes,” she said. She glanced at Thomas, shrugging. “She told me the first weekend she spent here. She, uh, is considered to be ‘slumming it’, hanging out with Eggsy. Not that she considers it that, just—”
Roxy gestured around them. “This isn’t what Eggsy’s used to.”
Thomas tilted his head at her. “Oh, he knows.”
She blinked as Lucy nodded. “How do you suppose—”
“The way he held her hand as they rushed off. He knows his time is limited and the way he looked at her, she didn’t exactly get a chance to say goodbye before.” He offered Roxy a crooked smile. “I’ve been there, I can read the signs.”
Lucy squeezed his forearm as the gates opened, admitting a few more guests. Roxy perked up and turned to wave at a couple that seemed closer to siblings than romantically involved, and as they got closer, Thomas recognized James from the hospital. They shook hands, and introductions went around; the woman on James’s arm was his sister Amanda, Roxy’s mother. Amanda wasn’t as bright as her daughter’s personality, and Thomas felt that low pit in his stomach that he got when he had a feeling he knew what had dulled the woman’s shine.
It was like looking at two coins, side by side. One was burnished with care to a gleaming brightness, while the other had been exposed to the elements and had been handled roughly, leaving it darker. He didn’t have time to ponder that, as the woman of the hour appeared and the strangest thing happened.
Amanda Morton brightened, almost as though Madeline Northcott’s presence was a pick-me-up.
Madeline hugged him first, pressing painted lips gently against his cheek so as not to smudge.
“Uncle Thomas! You managed to get out of that drafty old house and come to see me!” she chirped, throwing a pleased smile to Lucy. “You’re a wonderful influence on him, Ms. Sheffield.”
“Lucy, please,” she said, looking as charmed as she ought to be. Thomas merely huffed laughter and let Maddy get on with terrorizing her guest list. It included squeezing Roxanne into a hug as well as shaking James’s hand like the little whirlwind she was. Amanda’s eyes followed Maddy as though she were a looking glass to the modern-day Narcissus.
That was something worth considering, though he didn’t have enough information to pocket that in a particular place as of yet. Still, it was an interesting thought. Perhaps he would see that line of thought blossom elsewhere, but for now, Amanda looked much more at ease, with her daughter and her brother beside her. She looked almost free to be herself.
“But where’s your son, Lucy?” Maddy asked after a moment.
“He’ll be along, he tends to run late when he has to convince Martin to abandon his cozy flat for the night,” she said.
James brightened at the thought. “Well, so long as I’m not the only one fashionably late.”
Maddy hummed, glancing over to the back patio. Thomas followed her gaze and frowned, catching sight of Harry standing, drink in hand and watching for headlights.
Oh, that wouldn’t do, and apparently Maddy thought the same, as she marched across the grass and tugged Harry over by his arm. Harry came, though the reluctance was obvious in his face. Still, he accepted Lucy’s kiss to his cheek with good humor and offered Thomas and James a handshake. Introductions were made once again and Amanda offered Harry a shy smile but kept him between herself and her brother.
That same pit in Thomas’s stomach got a little wider. As they got to talking, Thomas glanced down at Lucy, finding her peering up at him with a smile. She tilted her head toward the paths in silent invitation.
“Would you excuse us?” Thomas asked the gathering. “I think I’d like a little air.”
“Of course,” Maddy said, holding court now in front of the food and watching people come and go from her little circle with all the benevolence of the queen herself. Harry and James were talking traveling as Thomas slipped away, his lady love’s hand in his own. Maybe that would open up new doors for his godson, instead of pining. A trip abroad might give him perspective.
As they strolled away from the other party goers, Lucy was quiet. Perhaps lost in her own thoughts, but Thomas couldn’t tell as the lanterns gave way to a mix of starlight and the rising moon as they strolled down the less lighted path toward the dock. There were still crickets about, and the softness of their song replaced the music the further along they got.
“You noticed too, didn’t you?” she asked, after a moment.
“Hm?” he said, not sure what she was referring to.
“James’s sister, Amanda?” Lucy’s voice was quiet, as though she wanted to keep this in strictest confidence, even though they were far from prying ears. “You tensed up.”
“Ah,” he said. “I did. I didn’t think to mention it in polite company, but—”
“You were trained to look for those things, like I was,” she said. “Should we extend our hospitality later this week?”
“Our hospitality?” he said, his voice amused and with a tinge of warmth. It was one of the things Lucy did, including him in with herself as a single entity, as though they were already more than just a couple. Six months was hardly a long time, but—
“Yes,” she said, as though this were a foregone conclusion. “Knowing one has a safe space is of the utmost importance and is the first step to leaving a situation like that, if our instincts are right.”
“Of course,” he said. “You picked up on it as well, though I can’t confirm anything. I want to help how I can, so we should invite her for lunch next week, you think?”
“An excellent idea, my love,” she said, humming the words as they made their way onto the dock.
“You keep using that endearment,” he said softly. It had been a recent thing, as recent as last month. Something spoken over tea, so tender that he might have missed it save that it rattled him to the point that his mug shook in his hands. She loved him.
“Does it bother you?” she asked, turning her face up to his in the soft glow from the paper lanterns.
“On the contrary,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure that your feelings were clear.”
She gave a fond huff of laughter, reaching up and cupping his face with her hands. “I couldn’t love you any more, were we both thirty years younger and in our prime again. We found each other, Thomas. That’s important.”
“Then I hope that you won’t think me forward,” he said as he reached into his trouser pocket. The little velvet box seemed both impossibly large and too small to get a grip on, his throat dry. “And I hope you’ll forgive me for not kneeling—”
“Thomas!” she said, her eyes widening as he produced the box. For a wild, brief moment, he lost his grip on it, and he felt like he could see it go tumbling end over end into the moon-drenched waters of the lake, but he managed to keep hold of it and clutched it to his chest before he offered it to Lucy.
“It was my mother’s,” he said. “And I think…she would have liked you to have it.”
Lucy opened the little velvet box, her blue eyes rising to meet his as soon as she caught sight of the ring that lay within. The gold band was molded into small flowers, with tiny sapphires set in the middle of each bloom. The outsides of the bands held a ring of small stones as well, containing the flowers between two rows of delicate stones.
“Are you sure?” she whispered, her eyes wide and liquid in the starlight.
“I looked for you for thirty years,” he said. “Do you think I want to give that up?”
“I know that I don’t,” she said.
“Is that a yes?”
“It always was, my love,” she murmured, leaning up to kiss him. He bent and caught her, feeling her smile against his mouth as he cupped the box and her hands between them.
As they made their way back to the party, Thomas felt lighter, as though the last thing in his life had slotted back into place. He held Lucy’s hand, the little box tucked into her pocket and the delicate ring on her finger. They would make the announcement later, so as not to take away from Maddy’s party.
For now, it was enough that she’d said yes.
His pleasant line of thought stopped short as Lucy froze beside him. He’d never seen her go quite so rigid before, and he stopped abruptly, following her gaze to the patio, where a man chatted with a woman. He was dressed well, groomed impeccably, and smiled as he spoke. There wasn’t anything that flagged him as important in Thomas’s estimation, but then, he hadn’t held a conversation with the man yet.
“Lucy?” he asked.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She took a shaky, inhaled breath. “I didn’t think I would see him here.”
“Who?” Thomas asked.
“Chester King,” she said. She said the name with such venom that Thomas was shocked that the man hadn’t died on the spot. Lucy swallowed and turned away, turning her gaze up to meet Thomas’s eyes. She was pale, and Thomas wrapped an arm around her.
“He’s Callum’s biological father,” she said, her voice barely audible.
Thank you for your patience, Constant Readers. I have been SO. Busy. I am so sorry about that. Here's one more chapter for In Bloom. I'm going to try and get more regular work done on this series, as it's very dear to me, and almost done -- though y'all can pester Bearfeathers about the country music tangent we split off on tonight. Writing's been stunted lately, as I've been very tired.
That said, I appreciate you sticking with me!
Chapter 19: Chase You, Chase Me
Falling in, and a falling out.
Eggsy dragged Tilde into a darkened corner of the garden, turning only when he was sure the shadow of the hedge obscured them. Tilde’s eyes were wide, but she sagged against him when he pulled her into a hug.
“I missed you,” he whispered against her ear, feeling her fingers tighten against the back of his shirt. “When do you have to go again?”
“Soon,” she said. He released her, and she backed up a step, the moon shining through the hedge dappling them both in shadow. “I didn’t mean to leave so abruptly, it’s just—”
“You have a country to help run,” Eggsy said softly. She stiffened, and he smiled at her. “Were you gonna tell me, or were you hoping things were gonna work out on their own?”
Tilde sighed and moved to a nearby bench, patting the seat. Eggsy, feeling the pit in his stomach open wider, sat next to her. When he did, she wrapped her arms around his arm and put her head on his shoulder, twining their fingers.
“I wanted to tell you,” she said.
“Why didn’t you?” he asked.
“It’s complicated,” she whispered. He nodded slowly, letting her get the words out without cutting in. “The secret service knows, of course. They had to, as soon as I came back the first night looking really happy—they did a background check.”
“They can do that?” he asked.
“Anyone can do that, if you pay the right fee. It was a criminal background check. They’re very protective.”
“It’s their job, babe.” Eggsy sucked his teeth, considering this. “No one tossed me in a van and beat me up and then drowned me in the Thames, so that’s a good start to something like that.”
Tilde let out a nervous giggle. “That’s happened to you?”
“Not the drowning part,” Eggsy admitted. He flushed, glad the shadows helped that a bit. “But sometimes you talk to the wrong man’s girlfriend and she doesn’t tell you and he gets angry.”
“I don’t have any other boyfriends,” she said, and he could feel her cheek curve against his arm as she smiled. “It wasn’t allowed.”
“So, I am your boyfriend?” he asked, feeling the teasing note creep into his voice without it meaning to, his lips twitching as he fought not to grin at the circumstances.
“If you wanted to be,” she said. She sat up, folding her hands into her lap. She looked out over the garden, turning her face away. “I know that’s sudden and I know I’m not who you expected and it will be difficult—”
“Merlin said I should say goodbye after the wedding,” he admitted. She fell silent, the dull roar of the party even carrying to this corner of the garden. “I even tried. But you and I were having fun, yeah?”
She nodded. “We were. I didn’t want to say goodbye, either. You make me feel—”
Tilde paused, biting her lip. She took his hand and rubbed his knuckles with her thumb.
“My whole life, I’ve always been my title, to everyone, even my parents. They love me, I know, but the monarchy comes first, as it should. But…I don’t want to just be princess. I want to find love and live a normal life and be a normal person and you—you never cared about any of the things that people should care about meeting a princess. You took me to a pub and we got kebabs and we just…talked. It was…I wanted that all the time.”
“So, when you said you had friends at the wedding—”
“More like cousins,” she admitted softly.
“And you’re not slumming it?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “I want to be here, with you. I’ve never considered it that.”
“Eventually, they’ll make you marry someone more your station.” He felt her fingers tighten.
“I talked with my mother about that. She wants me to be happy. My father will come around. They love me. They’ll learn to accept it.”
“Even with you being in line for the throne?” he asked.
“Yes. It’s not the seventeen hundreds anymore. While political alliances can be made via marriage, we’re lucky we have laws that forbid making it against my wishes.” She smiled. “You have a strange concept of royalty.”
“I’ve never met anyone royal before you,” he said. Leaning in, he cupped her face, kissing her. It was sweet, soft and chaste, and he was lightheaded when he pulled back. He rested his forehead against hers, smiling.
“Merlin knows?” she asked.
“I think he knew before everyone. He said something about us dreaming above our stations.” He shrugged as he leaned back. “But he’s in love with a weird butterfly man who raises caterpillars, so he might not have the greatest of opinions right now.”
Tilde pealed laughter, ducking her head.
“I need to get back to help Roxy,” he said. “Do you have time after this, or are you flying back?”
“I’m staying for a few days,” she said. “I wanted to make sure I had some time in case this worked out. Did it work out?”
“It did,” he said, kissing her cheek. “Because I don’t think I could have said goodbye either.”
Harry found James a charming conversationalist, if only because they shared many of the same interests. Here was someone he could talk to about traversing the wilds looking for rare species as he wrote his dissertations. James was a kindred spirit, loving the outdoors, no matter if the crew was with him or not.
“You should come with me, one of these days,” James said.
Harry paused, his glass halfway to his lips. “Pardon?”
“Travelling. You should come with me.” James smiled at Harry’s bewilderment. “I know my viewers, and I know that a handsome man talking about butterflies is good for at least two segments, if you’d like to spread awareness of some of the more endangered species.”
Harry considered. “What would I have to do?”
“Just talk for a little bit, maybe answer some questions,” James said, shrugging. “Your books are popular—I looked you up, you see—and you’d sell more if you were visible.”
“I don’t…” Harry paused, then sighed. “Can I get back to you on that?”
“Of course,” James said. He was off on another topic soon enough, though the idea percolated in Harry’s head far more than he’d like to admit.
Surprisingly, Harry found he enjoyed James's company. He was witty, his conversation bright and engaging, even as his sister was dragged away by Maddy to introduce to the others, Roxy returning to her post at the table so she could network with Maddy's guests. James and Harry took their drinks and absconded to some of the strategically placed wooden benches to people watch and chat.
Still, the absence of Merlin weighed on his mind, and James must have noticed his gaze wandering over the hedge at every pair of passing headlights.
"I can't help but feel your attention is split," James said, good humor coloring the gentle criticism as he sipped at his glass of champagne. To be fair, he’d waited until about the sixth time Harry had peered after the passing car.
"Sorry," Harry said, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Don't be," James said. "Merlin is a lucky man to have got you in knots like this."
Harry flushed, a protest rising to his lips, but James just laughed and shrugged, gesturing at Harry with his glass.
"You looked like a man in the desert finding an oasis in that hospital room," he said with another little laugh. He wasn't drunk, but it was clear the champagne was having the desired effect. "Besides, he brightened up when I mentioned you were there. I think it's good for you both."
"He did?" Harry's attention zeroed in on James at that revelation. "When? I thought you and Merlin—"
"When you and Martin were fussing at each other about the proper way to make a cup of tea," James said. He shrugged. "Frankly, I never stood a chance, now did I? He was happy I was there, but he lit up when you arrived."
Harry's pulse tripped in his throat and he felt the beginnings of a smile curve his mouth. Maybe tonight wouldn't be an unmitigated disaster, after all. He was suddenly feeling a lot better about this than he had this afternoon while helping Maddy. It wasn't that the butterflies in his stomach were gone, but now it seemed as if they served a proper purpose, providing anticipation rather than anxiety.
The gate creaked, drawing both their attention. Martin and Merlin stepped into the yard, looking about themselves as if to gauge if they were too late or not.
"Oh," James breathed, and Harry could say the same if words hadn't fled along with his good sense.
"If you'll excuse me," James said, standing. Wiping a hand down his shirt to get rid of imaginary wrinkles, he made a bee line straight for...Martin. Harry's attention slid to them as James snagged another glass of champagne for Martin, grinning in delight when the florist accepted it and ducked his head, talking quietly with James. Suddenly, some things made more sense than others, and Harry realized that he and James were two peas in a pod. He wished the man well, a little thankful that there was no real competition between them, for what did he have to offer compared to the gregarious and charming James?
Merlin looked a little lost, his gaze roving over the crowd as Harry forced himself to stand. Martin and Merlin were both dressed casually, but Merlin was dressed on the cusp of too formal, his jacket covering broad shoulders and his trousers outlining long legs. He swallowed, hard, feeling his mouth go dry.
Dark cloth suited Merlin, accentuating his complexion and lending him an allure that almost made him seem intimidating. Really, he might have been intimidating if Harry hadn’t seen him flush whilst apologizing for raving about his profession and all the things that excited him. That flush wasn’t apparent now, instead replaced by a wary expression as Merlin greeted Eggsy and Roxy.
The worst that could happen right now is if his legs refused to work or his knees gave out. Harry pushed himself to move, his glass left where the it would be found for cleanup on one of the tables dotting the area. It almost felt like a lucid dream, sleepwalking over to where the florists stood, making conversation with James.
"You came," Harry breathed, not really believing his good luck. Merlin startled, blinking at Harry before he smiled.
"Hello, Harry," Merlin said, the soft lighting making his eyes a dark green. "You're throwing a lovely party."
"Not my party," Harry protested. "Maddy's done this every year since we were children."
"Ah, well, remind me to thank my hostess," Merlin said softly. "I'm sorry we're late."
"Don't be," Harry said. He was feeling a little lightheaded. Perhaps it was the champagne, as he’d been accepting refills almost as often as James had, though it had never been a problem before now. Now his tongue felt thick and heavy, clumsy.
“Are you all right?” Merlin asked. His brogue softened the words, making them burr slightly, and Harry just…smiled at him.
“Would you walk with me?” Harry asked. He gestured toward the dock, empty and inviting with its many paper lanterns. He’d seen Thomas and Lucy out there before, but it seemed like they’d had their moment of romance and were heading for the warmth of Maddy’s house. (Not that he could blame them, here he was attempting the same thing, after all.)
“Of course,” Merlin said, though it was halting. Harry grabbed them two flutes of champagne, Merlin accepting his with a brush of his fingers on Harry’s. They walked in silence down the flagstone path to the dock, the moon giving them enough light to see by and making the crushed quartz in the stone sparkle.
“I wanted to talk to you,” Harry said, clearing his throat as they stepped up onto the dock. The water lapped gently against the shore here, and the moon was beginning to set. They strolled to the end of the dock, where Harry leaned against the railing of the walkway, rubbing his thumb against the glass in his hand.
“Well, you have me here,” Merlin said. He offered Harry a crooked smile that made his heart pound, and Harry almost forgot himself. Instead, he offered a weak smile back.
How could he even begin to broach the conversation? He’d never gotten this far with someone without the no-strings-attached clause of a relationship firmly into place. Usually he was shot down way earlier, with the ‘just friends’ talk or even a blowout fight happening before anyone returned his feelings.
The thought made his stomach knot up, even though Merlin was looking at him like whatever he had to say would be worth hearing, just because it was from him. The nervousness returned, pitting in his stomach and making him sweat.
“I want to pay for your renovations,” Harry blurted.
Stupid, that was stupid, he chastised himself. He cleared his throat and tried to salvage things.
“I know that you’ve been waiting on the insurance to come through with their payments, but I wanted to help—”
“Harry, that’s not necessary,” Merlin said. The interest had turned into a sort of dull indulgence now, and Merlin turned toward the water.
“I know it’s not, but I’ve spoken with Martin and he said he’d bring it up to you—”
“He did,” Merlin said. “I said no then, too.”
“May I at least ask why?” Harry said.
“Because as the owner, it’s my choice as to whether or not I hand control of my company over to someone else, and I’m not comfortable doing that,” Merlin said. He set his champagne on the railing, untouched. “I understand that you want to help, but that’s not something I’m keen on doing.”
“But I could help fund the rebuild, and get you back on your feet, to where the shop is open and bringing in an income again, surely that’s important as well?”
“Not if it means relying on someone like that,” Merlin said. “If I can’t do it on my own, what makes it worth doing?”
Harry, stymied by this logic and not a little tipsy, frowned hard. “Why are you like this?”
“Like what?” Merlin asked, turning to face Harry. There was something in his tone that left the sluggishness brought on by the alcohol singing out a warning, but far too late.
“I’m your friend, I should be able to help out.” Harry gestured. “You already weren’t cashing my cheques, I had to go to Martin to make sure you were getting paid for your work, which is when the subject came up about insurance.”
“Which means Martin and I will have to have a chat about how much of the business he handles,” Merlin growled softly.
“Don’t bring it on Martin, I asked because I care,” Harry said. “I miss coming to your little shop and seeing what you’ve got on offer. I know that your business is suffering because you can’t be open and you can’t monopolize on the wedding. I know that you’re paying for things out of pocket, like Eggsy’s salary. I’m saying that I can help with these things and I want to just…see you happy.”
“Did you even stop to consider what I wanted?” Merlin asked. His tone had gone from accommodating to cold in a heartbeat. Harry was feeling the whiplash, his chest hurting. “My ‘little’ shop was poised to do a lot of good work, with Eggsy and Martin being the only employees I had. I could have expanded by this time, but I didn’t get a chance because some eejit decided to light it up. I don’t want or need your help, Harry. If I don’t do it on my own, it’s not worth doing and it won’t make me happy, and I wish you’d get your head out of your arse long enough to understand that!”
“No,” Merlin said. “Don’t try and turn this around on me, making me seem like I’m unreasonable. All my life, men like you have come into my life, telling me that I didn’t earn my place. Telling me that I must’ve bought my way in with favors or by shagging the right bloke at the right time, not through my own hard work. I’m tired of having to explain that not everyone wants or needs you to save them, and I’m not a charity case.”
“Don’t call me that,” Callum snapped. “Only my friends call me that.”
He felt like he’d been punched in the chest, the air leaving him. Why was he so terribly bad at this? Every time he tried, it felt like he made progress and then just slid all the way down the hill to the bottom.
Coward. He could hear it in his father’s voice, bouncing around his skull like an echo of a bad dream.
This was why he preferred butterflies. At least the butterflies acted on instinct, rather than ulterior motives. He knew butterflies. Human beings were far too much trouble to figure out.
Harry snapped his jaw shut, straightening. “As you wish, Mister Craig. I’ll see that my contracts with you are completed. You can send your employee around to collect your feeders any time within the next two months, and I wish you all the best for your future endeavors.”
Callum’s brows drew down as he scowled, but Harry shrugged it off. This was what he wanted. He wanted to go it alone, so Harry would let him.
“Fine,” Callum said. “I’ll just be making my apologies to your lovely—to Maddy. She doesn’t deserve you.”
It sounded rather more like a judgment of his character than one of Maddy’s.
He pushed past Harry, storming off the dock. Harry took the untouched glass of champagne, downed it, and strolled to the end of the dock out towards the water. Finding an empty bench at the end, he sat with the glass in his hands. Well, he’d managed to be right, but it brought him little comfort in proving Maddy wrong. She’d be disappointed in him, too.
Life was better if you were a pessimist, Harry decided. You were either right or pleasantly surprised.
I'd say I was sorry, but lies don't become me. Still working a lot, but I have a lot planned for this and hopefully I can get it finished before October, that's my hope at least.
Chapter 20: Out of Hand
Things go from bad to worse.
“What did you do?!” Maddy hissed at Harry, stomping down the wooden dock towards him. He’d absconded with a tumbler and a bottle of something a little stronger than the champagne, and had managed to work on about a third of it before his best friend noticed him alone.
“Why don’t you ask Callum Craig?” Harry spat, glaring out over the water. “He’s far more apt to be able to…”
He waved his glass, sloshing some of the brandy over the rim and into the dark water below.
“He’s a bastard,” Harry said, downing what was left.
“You’re a bastard, too, you should be all over each other,” Maddy said. “He thanked me for a lovely party, made sure Martin had a ride home, and left without so much as a drink. What did you do?”
“I offered to reopen his shop for him.” Harry poured himself another measure of the brandy and took a healthy swallow. “I, in fact, stuck my entire foot in my mouth up to the knee. Now we’re not only no longer friends, I’ve terminated any and all contracts I have with Kingsman florists.”
Maddy snatched the glass from him and dumped the lot into the water. Harry shrugged and took a pull straight from the bottle.
“Harry Hart!” Maddy snapped, reaching for the bottle. Harry simply lifted it above her head, moving away from her grasping hands. “You should have gone after him, and apologized!”
“For what?” Harry barked. Some of the guests closer to the water turned their heads at their raised voices, but Harry ignored them. “He’s the pillock with his head so far up his arse he’s threatening to swallow his own shoulders. Why should I apologize for what was entirely a nice gesture on my part? He assumed I wanted to sleep with him in return—”
He sighed, looking down at the bottle in his hand before he took another long swig. This time, he let Maddy pry it from his fingers, wobbling on unsteady legs.
“I did want to sleep with him,” he said softly. “But because I liked him.”
“I know,” Maddy said, her voice soothing. “He doesn’t know what he’s missing.”
“Don’t try and placate me with that, Madeline.” Harry wiped at the back of his mouth with his hand. “I’m going home.”
“I’ll have Lewis—”
“No, no. I’ll just walk through the field. It’s a lovely night,” he said. It really wasn’t, the chill end of September delivering a cold breeze, but he would manage. He swallowed hard. “Have fun with your party, Maddy. Tell me all about it in a few days?”
Maddy peered up at him, but he was already pulling away to head to the gate that led to the wildflower field that joined their two properties. A shortcut he’d used many times, and one which was a convenient out when he’d had far too much to drink.
Harry waved a hand, and Maddy subsided. He was already out the gate by the time she pulled Thomas aside.
“Are you quite sure, Lucy?” Thomas asked. He peered at the older man chatting with one of Maddy’s financier friends. He seemed well-off; the cut of his clothing suggested a sizeable bankroll.
“Oh, I’m sure,” Lucy murmured. “That man is Chester King. Not only did he abandon my best friend and his child, he barred me from the exams when I attempted to enter as a doctor. Being a single mother ‘disqualified’ me from study, as he so succinctly put it.”
Thomas felt himself bristling. “And he is Callum’s father?”
“He is,” she said. “I was the only one at her bedside when Callum was born. We were both nurses and she’d allowed herself to have a fling with Chester because he was a doctor and he was charming—up until she fell in the family way. Then he stopped returning her calls and she had no one but me. Eclampsia caused seizures, and she passed shortly after Callum was born. Adoption took a while, but the orphanages in the area were content to leave him with me, as I was feeding one mouth they didn’t have to.”
Her tone had turned bitter, but she subsided as Chester looked their way. His gaze passed over Thomas, almost a bored diffidence, something he’d noticed in Harry as well, when he was thinking something unkind. (Though in Harry, it was less a habit now that Thomas had corrected the way he thought about things. Chester seemed to have taken it to a whole new level, however, mulling things over with a reptilian sort of calm.)
Then, his gaze landed on Lucy, and his brows went up. It was almost like watching some saurian era predator latching onto a target, with the gleam in Chester’s eye. Perhaps this was Thomas’s own sudden dislike of a man who had hurt his lady so, but there was no denying the calculation in Chester’s gaze as he excused himself and made his way down the steps and towards them.
“Good evening,” he said. “I’m sure we’ve met somewhere before.”
“We haven’t,” Thomas replied shortly, then schooled his tone. “Thomas Brampton. I’m Madeline’s godfather.”
“Ah, the woman of the hour,” Chester replied. He offered Thomas his hand. They shook briefly, though Chester’s grip wavered and he released Thomas’s hand quickly as though he could sense the malice radiating off Thomas’s skin. “Charmed.”
He turned to Lucy, an expression of recognition crossing his features a little too long for it to be anything but fabricated. “My, my, Lucy Sheffield, is that you?”
“You know very well that it is, Doctor King,” she said, her voice the temperature of the Thames in January.
“It’s been ages,” he said. “How have you been?”
Lucy’s grip on his forearm was beginning to hurt. “I’ve been well enough. If you’ll excuse me and my fiancé?”
Chester blinked owlishly. “Of course, my congratulations. Please give my best to your son.”
Lucy’s nails dug into Thomas’s palm and he guided her away. They stopped some distance away, beneath a bower of rosebushes sculpted into an archway that led into the flower fields behind Madeline’s house.
“Are you all right?” Thomas asked. She nodded, inhaling. He gathered her close and she pressed her face against his shoulder. He could feel her shaking, and he rubbed his hand up and down her back. “It’s all right, my love. He can’t hurt you.”
She let out a bark of laughter against his shoulder. “I’m not afraid of him. I was squeezing your hand so I wouldn’t wrap my fingers around his damnable throat.”
“I love you,” he blurted, and the shaking of her shoulders intensified as she laughed at him, now. He chuckled softly, running his hands up and down her spine while she gathered herself together.
“Uncle Thomas?” He could hear Maddy calling for him, and he turned as she rounded the corner, spotting them in the bower. “Oh! My apologies.”
Lucy pulled back and away, blotting at her eyes with her handkerchief. “No need to be sorry, my dear. What’s wrong?”
“It’s Harry,” Maddy said. “He’s drunk far too much, and wandered off into the field. He’ll catch his death if left out there but he wouldn’t let me have Lewis take him home.”
“Harry?” Thomas asked, his brows rising.
His godson had long ago learned the meaning of moderation, so hearing that he’d gone and drunk himself stupid enough to walk the field home in this cold, it was enough to have the hackles on the back of Thomas’s neck stand up. It was nearly two and a half kilometers from Harry’s property to Maddy’s, and on uneven terrain as well.
“I know it sounds hard to believe, but, well—” Maddy shot a glance at Lucy and then inhaled. “He and Callum had a fight.”
“A fight!” Lucy exclaimed. She cast around for her son, but as Thomas looked as well, he realized that the tall young man was nowhere to be seen. “What’s happened?”
Madeline sucked her teeth. “How much has Harry told you?”
“I know enough,” Thomas said. “He admitted some time back, after the fire, that he was affectionate…that…”
“That he’s in love with Callum,” Maddy said, using her bluntness to her advantage. “He’s been working up the nerve to talk to him, and stuck his bloody foot in his mouth and now he’s depressed.”
Lucy’s eyes widened, and she tucked her fingers against her mouth. “He thought you were together.”
“What?” Maddy goggled at Lucy. “No offense, but they’re both rather thick. Harry’s my big brother.”
“Oh dear,” Lucy murmured. “They’ve gotten it all wrong.”
“Well, we can’t fix that if one of them catches pneumonia. Can you help me find him, Uncle Thomas?” Maddy asked. “I’ll round up James and Eggsy for you to help, and maybe Martin as well.”
“Of course,” Thomas said. He turned to Lucy and pressed her palm to his lips. “I’ll be back as soon as I get my bull-headed godson poured into bed.”
“Be careful,” she said. “Last thing I need is one of you turning an ankle in the dark. Take your coats and bright flashlights.”
“Yes, dear,” he murmured, and moved away from them, waving down James and Martin.
The search for Harry hadn’t taken long. As he was rather tall, he stuck out over the field and James, Martin, and Eggsy were able to ride him down in one of Maddy’s golf carts with Thomas lending direction. They got him bundled into the cart and off home, though Eggsy had never seen Harry in such a state.
While he hadn’t tried to take a swing at anyone, he was obviously plastered, sitting with his head hanging down and his body slouching to the side, bounced along in the cart as they made the journey to Harry’s home. Thomas let them in with his keys, and they saw to setting up Harry for the morning ahead while Martin attempted to get hold of Merlin by mobile outside.
A mess was an understatement, but Eggsy had seen this coming. Both of them were stubborn to a fault, to the point where this had turned into a miscommunicative blow-out. Eggsy felt the guilt creep in as he realized he may have helped that along by being shitty to Harry early on, feeling overprotective of Merlin.
But now, seeing the man curled around the cup of coffee that James had made him, looking miserable, Eggsy was very sorry indeed that he’d contributed to the tangle that they found themselves in now. Harry had loudly protested talking about it, waving them off when they pressed for more information. Thomas had frowned, but let him be, which was why Martin was attempting to get in touch with Merlin. Judging by Martin’s face from the light of the kitchen that spilled out onto the patio, that was easier said than done.
Martin entered the kitchen, shaking his head as he tucked his mobile back into his pocket. “His calls are going straight to voice mail. He’s never done that, so whatever happened between them was enough to push Merlin to that.”
His gaze on Harry was the same one he used when he thought Eggsy was being too loud or a customer was annoying him, and Eggsy bristled.
“We don’t know what was said,” Eggsy said. “Harry could have been the one rejected, for all we know.”
“Do you really think Merlin would have?” Martin challenged him.
“I’m right here,” Harry slurred, irritation making his tone sharper. James patted his back, and Harry shrugged off his hand. “I would appreciate it if you’d refrain from talking about me as though I weren’t. In fact…all of you, leave.”
“Harry—” Thomas’s words were cut off by the impact of Harry’s hand slamming down on the table, rattling the coffee mug in front of him.
“Even you, Thomas,” Harry snapped. “I’m in no mood for…for a lecture. I’m happy for you and Lucy. I am. But I don’t think I’ll be coming to any more Sunday dinners.”
The shocked silence was met with glances between all four men as they hovered over Harry.
“Will you be all right getting upstairs?” Eggsy asked at last.
“Yes,” Harry said, but it lacked the bite of before. Now he just sounded tired.
“I’ll check on you in the morning,” Thomas said.
“Don’t do me any favors,” Harry muttered. He pushed back from the table and stood, shaky but steadier than before. “James, Martin, I apologize for you seeing me like this. I shall be sober when I come to settle my account with Kingsman.”
“We have the option of taking a cheque by phone,” Martin murmured, and Eggsy wanted to elbow him, but he was out of reach.
“Yes, well. Good night.” Harry waved them to the door. The four trooped out to where the golf cart was parked, the cold night air beginning to cut through clothing. They watched Harry stand in the kitchen for the moment before the lights went out.
“What a mess,” Thomas sighed through his teeth. “Gentlemen, thank you for your help.”
“Of course,” James said. “He’s our friend, even though he’s a bit moody.”
“Speak for yourself,” Martin said. “He’s done something to Merlin.”
“Now, Martin, we don’t have all the facts, and logic dictates you have all of those before you come to your conclusions, right?”
“I suppose you’re right,” Martin said at last.
Eggsy’s jaw dropped as Martin’s expression morphed from annoyed to thoughtful and back again. He’d never seen someone take Martin’s stubbornness about the rules and turn it around on him so fast.
“Teach me your ways,” Eggsy mumbled at James.
James just laughed. “Come on then, back to the party, just so Maddy doesn’t lose her mind, the poor dear.”
Eggsy cast one last glance over his shoulder at Harry’s darkened house, the only light spilling out onto the back yard that of what he remembered as Harry’s bedroom, from his brief tour some time before. He shook his head, knowing that there was more than one way to fix this, but it would all have to start with the men in question. Once he was done with his clean up, he was going to go have words with his boss.
The party wound itself down before three. Usually these things went later, but with the untimely exit of Harry and Merlin, it seemed that a lot of the fun was sucked out of the event for Maddy. She’d just seen off the last of her guests when Eggsy pulled the catering truck about to start loading up the tables and dishes for clean-up back at Roxanne’s.
“Thank you again for your help,” Maddy said.
“Of course,” Eggsy replied. “It was a good time, I think.”
“You do?” she asked, her sculpted brows rising.
“’Course,” Eggsy replied. “Not nearly half the drama from some of the ragers that my mates used to throw.”
Maddy pealed a laugh, squeezing his shoulder. “Well, I shall have to have you cater every event I can. Practical and hard-working, I like you.”
“Thanks,” he said, giving her a cheeky wink. “You’re not so bad yourself. You host a lot of princesses?”
“Oh, she told you?” Maddy hummed thoughtfully. “Tilde and I met during one of those charity functions that was more about being seen than doing good, you know? She was wanting to get out and so was I, so we escaped and drank cheap wine and ate ice cream at mine. She’s got a standing invitation to come by when she likes. She’s good fun.”
Eggsy nodded. “She is.”
“And she likes you,” she said, pinching Eggsy’s cheek. “I can see why.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Really. If you’re the one who—”
“Ah, ah,” Maddy said, waving a hand. “How it happened isn’t important. Finish up so you can go see her, silly. I won’t keep you any longer.”
Eggsy grinned and went back to hauling in the last of the tables and equipment. Roxy had gone on ahead with a smaller load in her car, along with her mother. James and Martin had driven back together, Martin taking the wheel for the champagne. Thomas and Lucy were staying the night, so as to be able to check on Harry in the morning.
That just left himself and his dishes. The last of the refuse had been bagged up and disposed of, and his last load was ready to go soon enough.
He let Maddy’s chauffeur Lewis open the gates for him, and he waved before he trundled the truck off toward London. It was a nice enough night for a drive, and Eggsy hummed along with the radio while he ate up the miles. Soon, he was pulling in to the alleyway behind Roxanne’s, tired but feeling good. He didn’t have anything to do tomorrow, which meant he could take the day with Tilde.
Eggsy was so caught up in thoughts of spending time with her that he missed the footsteps approaching. The hands that grabbed his shoulders and threw him against the catering truck left him winded, and the fist to his gut meant he wasn’t crying out any time soon.
He crumpled, falling to the ground as attackers rained kicks and punches on him. He tried to rally, but his arms were pulled behind his back as someone else punched him in the face and stomach. Every time he lifted his head someone punched him, and his pained grunts filled the alleyway. He couldn’t get a good look at anything, he couldn’t think, couldn’t react – not with the arms locking his own hands behind his back.
His breath was wheezing gasps before the back door of Roxanne’s opened and Roxy stepped out.
“Eggsy?” Whoever was holding him dropped him, and they scattered, pelting down the alleyway at the square of light from the back door. He was on his knees, then his side, his rapidly swelling face and bleeding nose and lip making him feel like ground hamburger.
“Eggsy!” Roxy knelt beside him. “Mum, call the ambulance and uncle James!”
“’S’okay, Rox,” Eggsy mumbled. “All right.”
“Shh,” she said, levering his head up so she could tuck her folded apron beneath it. It was warm, warmer than the cold concrete, and he felt like he was lying down a long tunnel.
Things would be all right, if he could just stay awake. He knew enough to know that. But it was just too hard. He was so tired.
He couldn’t do it.
Sorry for my long absence, Constant Readers. I've been gearing up to move house and clean the one I'm in, plus work is taking its usual toll. This should be done hopefully by the 31st, though I don't know how accurate that guess is.
Chapter 21: Silver Lining
Wounds need to be licked before life can continue, both physically and emotionally.
By the time Merlin turned his mobile back on, he had eight voice mails from Martin and several text messages that all blipped into existence at once. He sifted through them, not really reading them, until he got to the last one.
It was nearing four in the morning, but the words Eggsy is in hospital had his blood chilling. He threw on his coat, stamped into his shoes, and dialed out to Martin.
“It’s about time,” Martin huffed as soon as the call connected.
“How is he?” Merlin barked.
“He’s being treated now, but we’ll know something soon enough. His mother and I are waiting here. Roxanne and James have gone to get him clothing, and Roxanne’s mother Amanda has gone to get us something to eat. Get down here.”
The line went dead, and Merlin’s stomach churned as he climbed into his car.
Martin was waiting for him outside Eggsy’s room by the time he got there, and it was only his friend’s expression that drew Merlin up short and kept him from entering immediately. While Martin kept many of his emotions tightly lidded, preferring to ignore them rather than acting on them, the anger on his face was both raw and directed at Merlin himself. Martin gestured with a jerk of his head that he wished to speak to Merlin outside, and Merlin followed Martin to the hallway doors, out and into the early morning.
They got as far as the car park before Martin whirled on Merlin.
“Are you quite finished with your little tantrum?” Martin demanded. Merlin took a step back, hands raised. “Your mobile was off. Considering we scooped up and poured Harry Hart into his bed after he stumbled off in a drunken stupor, I can piece together exactly how your night went.”
“Enough,” Merlin said, shaking his head. “That’s not about this—”
“The hell it isn’t.” Martin cut him off with a finger in his face, glaring at him. “You can be angry with me and Harry Hart later, because I heard from Maddy why you left, but your mobile was off and we had no way of telling you about this.”
“I’ve a right to not respond to anyone immediately,” Merlin snapped.
“Yes, but you’ve never done so before tonight, and I’ve never had a reason to abuse the privilege, so that makes me think this is less you needing a break and more you throwing a tantrum because Harry has your number and you were cutting off contact.” Martin said.
“Why I turned my mobile off is none of your business. I am sorry that you weren’t able to reach me when Eggsy needed me. I’m here now, and I’m not sure I would know what to do if I’d gotten here earlier, or what I could do.” Merlin inhaled and blew out an exasperated breath. “So, I’m sorry.”
“Why?” Martin said, his tone bitter. “It would be the first time you acted in someone else’s interests during this whole debacle.”
Merlin felt his temper flare, and he glared at Martin. “And just what is that supposed to mean?”
Martin ticked off on his fingers. “You didn’t charge Harry for the inserts in the greenhouse. You didn’t charge him for the landscaping work – a majority of it done by Eggsy, meaning you’re having to pay him out of pocket. You weren’t even going to charge him travel expenses. You’re infatuated with the man, and it hurt your bottom line. Because in case you hadn’t noticed, we don’t have a shop right now! Our income is limited.”
“Did you put him up to that?” Merlin growled.
“Put him up to what?” Martin said, his irritated tone not changing.
“He offered to rebuild the shop,” Merlin said.
“No, I didn’t put him up to that. He brought the same idea to me and I put him off by saying I would speak to you about it.” Martin shook his head. “Where at all possible, I downplayed our financial difficulties.”
“Considering he offered to rebuild the whole thing, without expectation of a repayment—”
“He came upon me as I was surveying the damage,” Martin snapped. “It’s hard to go ‘we have everything under control’ when we very clearly don’t.”
“And you blame me for that.”
“I blame you for part of it. But not all of it.” Martin rubbed at his jaw. “But I would like you to start thinking more like a businessman and less like a lovelorn little boy about things. Look at this with a little bit of logic.”
As angry as he was at the both of them, Martin had a point. Merlin felt the irritation leaking from his frame, leaving him feeling more tired than anything else. While Martin could have phrased it less bluntly, he was right – and Merlin’s own guilt had caused his temper to flare in the first place. He’d been neglecting his business.
This whole situation left him…tired. Tired in a way he’d not felt in a long time. What, exactly, had he been working towards? He’d lost sight of his goals and it was showing in the ugliest way possible. Here he was, fighting with one of his oldest friends about something that, in the long run, had been a pipe dream.
He rubbed at his face, feeling stretched thin and not a little mentally weary. It was time to put away hope and focus on the goals he’d set for himself in university. He’d lost sight of what he needed by chasing something he wanted. It was time to admit the mistake and get back on track.
“You’re right,” Merlin murmured. “Even before the shop burnt down, I couldn’t remember the last time I was in there to work a full shift before the last big order for the wedding. I was preoccupied, and I’m sorry.”
Martin nodded. “As long as you recognize that. And I could have perhaps phrased things better when calling you down here. Eggsy’s predicament isn’t your fault. He was helping Roxanne unload the last of the dishes.”
“Poor Roxy,” Merlin murmured. “Is she all right?”
“She and Tilde have a handle on things,” Martin replied. “It’s strange that they knew to hit the bakery right at that time, don’t you think?”
Merlin frowned. “Are you suggesting what I think you are?”
“I think I might know what’s been happening.” Martin reached into his pocket and pulled out a thumb drive.
“They were able to salvage the footage,” Merlin said. The shop’s cameras had a hard drive, but the fire had done a number on the electronics. It had taken Martin sending off the drive to a retrieval company to be able to get any sort of footage at all.
Martin nodded. “They posted it to me about eight hours ago. I haven’t had a chance to review it, but it looks to be good. I’m going to upgrade the shop’s cameras to also store copies of the footage in a cloud format – I didn’t think about fire and we almost lost our case wholesale because of it.”
Merlin inhaled. “What do you need from me?”
“Your trust,” Martin said. “I’ve been working with investigators from the fire department. Let me handle this side of things. Get your head on straight, and be prepared.”
“You already had my trust,” Merlin said. “Martin, you’ve been my best friend since university. I’m sorry that this made you question that.”
Martin seemed mollified by that, the tense line of his shoulders easing. “All right.”
Merlin felt the tension in his own shoulders relaxing somewhat, and he and Martin shared a wry look at each other beneath the car park fluorescents before deciding that the matter was done. Martin returned his thumb drive to his pocket, and Merlin shoved his hands into his own pockets.
“What do we know about what happened to Eggsy?” Merlin asked, turning a look at the hospital’s windows.
“Let’s go inside and we can figure that out,” Martin said.
Any lightness Merlin felt by clearing the air with Martin was dissipated by the sight of Eggsy lying in the hospital bed. His face was a mass of bruises, and there was obviously bruising elsewhere by the way he moved, as though he were made of glass. He was conscious now, though that was rather more curse than blessing.
Merlin hovered in the doorway while Michelle gave him the hairy eyeball across the bed until she realized Merlin wasn’t angry with Eggsy. Eggsy’s mother was just as much of a mama bear as his own mother, and that meant that her son was all she had some days. He gave her a terse nod, knowing that she had been dragged out of bed by Martin.
Daisy drowsed in her lap, the little girl’s curls loose about her face in a tangled cloud. There hadn’t been time for a sitter, not with Eggsy in hospital, and Michelle cradled one baby whilst the other tried to get comfortable in his bed. Merlin stepped forward, clearing his throat.
“Please tell me you three aren’t getting into something you shouldn’t,” Michelle murmured.
Merlin shook his head. “This wasn’t something that we planned on happening. It came as a shock to all of us, I promise you.”
“See, mum?” Eggsy wheezed. “I told you that’s what he’d say.”
Merlin being worried about Eggsy was enough for her. She pressed a kiss to the top of Eggsy’s head and then excused her vigil to get some tea. Daisy blinked sleepily at Merlin as her mother exited, her eyes large and dark before closing again.
“How are you feeling?” Merlin asked, once Michelle had given them some privacy.
“Like shit,” Eggsy said, closing his eyes. “You look worse, though. What happened?”
“Doesn’t matter now,” Merlin said.
“Mm,” Eggsy said. “Martin.”
Martin grunted in acknowledgement from his seat beside the bed. He was tapping through his phone, most likely researching their next course of action.
“Check the pockets of my jacket, would you? I grabbed something off one of them.” Martin raised his brows but rose, sifting through the pockets until he pulled a brass cigarette case from the inner pocket.
“Which one?” Martin asked.
“The one doing the hitting,” Eggsy said with a wheezy huff of laughter that turned into a groan. “Figured that would help us find him.”
“Or make the police think you stole something and they beat you up for it,” Martin said, then pocketed the case. “I’ll look into it. The investigator for the fire department did say he’d found something interesting along those lines.”
“You’re the guv’ner.” Eggsy closed his eyes for a moment, looking exhausted beneath the bruises that swelled his eyes near-shut on their own.
Merlin took visual stock of Eggsy’s hurts, finding more and more that his anger at Harry and Martin was being redirected to something that felt more proper – whomever did this to Eggsy had done it with the intent to maim, to cause as much damage as they possibly could. It was horrific, the purpling bruises trailing down Eggsy’s face and beneath the gown they’d put him in when he arrived. He was moving slowly, and it was very obvious his ribs were tender, if not broken. His lips were split, though the blood must have been cleaned up with the stitches in his lower lip.
“Will you be pressing charges if we find them?” Merlin asked.
“Of course,” Eggsy said.
“Good,” Merlin said. He sank heavily into the hard plastic chair by Eggsy’s bedside. “Good.”
“What did you say to him?” Eggsy said after a moment.
“What?” Merlin blinked, the question coming in the quiet and almost startling him. He looked at Eggsy to find the young man watching him.
“Harry,” Eggsy wheezed softly. “What did you tell him?”
Merlin glanced at Martin, who shrugged. There wasn’t any real way to say it but to get things out there.
“He offered to rebuild Kingsman. To pay for the entire reconstruction. We could have the doors open two months from now.”
“That was nice of him,” Eggsy said, closing his eyes again.
Merlin didn’t reply, instead frowning down at his hands. There was a long beat of silence, leaving him alone with his thoughts. Would it really be so bad to get back on his feet, to open his doors again? To accept help?
For most of his life, he’d been the one struggling. His mum had encouraged him where she could, but growing up poor had a way of coloring your perception of the world to a dangerous degree. Accepting Harry’s help would always leave him wondering if his affections had been bought. Not that he’d had a chance to tell Harry how he’d felt.
“Merlin.” Eggsy’s voice brought him back to himself, his self-diatribe interrupted. He looked up. “Maybe you should talk to him.”
“How?” Merlin asked. It was soft, to the point where he wasn’t even sure if he’d been heard.
“Call him. Text him.” Eggsy shifted, wincing as his ribs protested the action. “But you gotta do something, bruv. He’s gone on you.”
Merlin’s breath caught. “Wait, he—”
“No, he didn’t tell me,” Eggsy said. “But I’m hardly as thick as you’re being.”
Merlin swallowed, nodding slowly. “I’ll think about it.”
“Just don’t think too long,” Eggsy said. “I’ve seen you stew over things.”
“You should rest,” Merlin said. Eggsy shot him an arch look, but he didn’t deny the wisdom of the words. He settled down, inhaling as he relaxed.
“Tilde needs a flat here,” he mumbled to himself. “Or I need one of my own…”
Merlin glanced at Martin. Martin’s raised brows in his direction meant that neither of them had been aware of that particular development. It would be something for a later date, however, as Eggsy drifted off to sleep, his eyes falling shut.
“Eggsy has been hurt?” Harry murmured into his phone, squinting at the overabundance of sun in his home.
His head was screaming, the hangover an amazing punishment for the sheer amount he’d drunk the night before. He’d woken fully clothed in his bathtub, his shoes off and his legs hanging over the side. His mouth tasted like death, and he had no doubt that it would until he brushed his teeth and saw to breakfast of strong coffee and perhaps toast for his rolling stomach.
“He has,” Lucy confirmed. She’d called him from Thomas’s number, the ring tone one that Harry would pick up, regardless of how savage his temper was with the man the night before. He sat up, groaning, and he heard her tsk softly.
“Have you had any water in the past eight hours?” she asked.
“No, madam,” he said, clambering slowly out of the tub. “I’ve been building up my tolerance for poor life decisions, since that seems to be where my efforts are getting me.”
“Oh, Harry,” Lucy said softly. Her voice wasn’t full of pity, as much as his ego wanted it to be so that he could snarl at her. “Why don’t you have a glass of lukewarm water, with some lemon in it if you can stand it. Then whatever food you can manage.”
“Yes, mum,” he murmured, a smile lifting his lips without his permission. Whatever his baggage with Mer—with Callum, Callum’s mother had never been a part of it.
“Good,” she said, and he could hear the smile in his voice. “I’ll see when Eggsy is free for a visit.”
“Ah…” Harry paused, staring at himself in the mirror. His eyes were deeply circled, and he was haggard. “Could you, perhaps, let me know when I may visit without inconveniencing Callum? He and I—”
“Of course,” she said softly. “Oh, I meant to ask. Are you free for tea next weekend?”
She hadn’t asked for an explanation. Either Callum hadn’t told her, or he had and she knew all about it. He was going to either get a lecture, or suffer through something completely awkward for a few hours while he tried to tell her that it wasn’t Callum’s fault, per se.
But was it his own fault?
In the glare of morning, Harry wasn’t so sure. He realized that he hadn’t answered Lucy, and he cleared his throat.
“Next Saturday I have an open schedule.”
“Good,” she said. “Come by my house, and we’ll have tea. I’ve been meaning to ask your opinion about some things.”
“Of course,” he said.
He could try to deny her, but what would be the point? She’d been nothing but kind to him, he thought as they both said their goodbyes and disconnected the call. He could maintain a friendship with Lucy, especially with as enamored with her as Thomas was. She was important to his godfather, therefore she was important to Harry.
The shower did his headache some good, as well as brushing the taste of old alcohol from his tongue. Water helped further, chased with aspirin and some plain toast. Slowly, he remembered how to be human again, and that was important, he felt.
His home was quiet, Mister Pickle coming and going through the dog door, but his movements more of the background noise of Harry’s life. It was…peaceful. Harry hadn’t expected that, as he lay on the couch, carefully paging through a book as his headache receded. He’d expected more of the raging anguish that had plagued other crushes, the rejection destroying him and needing him to rebuild himself over from scratch.
Instead, there was a quiet. A calm. As though this wasn’t the end, but a beginning to something new. He wondered at that, sitting up once his headache eased, his long fingers marking his place in his book as he looked outside. Fall was in full swing, but his grounds had been maintained to the point that the only thing littering his grass were recently fallen leaves.
He frowned, rubbing at his jaw.
Maybe this wasn’t a rejection of himself, but of himself in the moment. He still cared about Callum, but the rejection of his offer wasn’t a bad mark on himself. It was merely Callum setting a boundary. Harry worried his lower lip, leaning down and scooping up Mister Pickle when the terrier leaned against his leg.
“What do you think?” he asked softly. “Should we pick ourselves up and try again?”
The dog licked his cheek, making Harry chuckle.
“I don’t know if he’ll…want to be friends after this,” Harry said. “But I know that I’d rather be friends than nothing at all.”
All he could do was try. As he took Mister Pickle out for a game of fetch in the freshly fallen leaves, Harry realized that his hangover was gone. It was either a sign, or just good doctoring on Lucy’s part. Either way, Harry found himself enjoying the crisp day for what it was.
It was not the end, not yet.
I'm so sorry I've been so quiet, Constant Readers. I've been gearing up to move house, and that's a lot more involved when you're the one organizing the moving. I'm going to try to have this finished up by October, but I'm not sure how feasible that's going to be. That said, you have my word I'll do my utmost to bring this story to a close.
There's more to come.
Chapter 22: The Butterfly Effect
I have the only key to your heart I can stop you falling apart Try today you'll find this way Come on and give me a chance to say Let my love open the door It's all I'm living for Release yourself from misery There's only one thing gonna set you free That's my love - Pete Townshend, "Let My Love Open the Door"
Harry emerged from the cab as a bitter wind began to blow, heralding the nip of the upcoming winter months. Just into November, and the days had been getting darker and colder. It was hard to keep an upswing in mood when mother nature was determined to shed her fall foliage for colder winds and frost that took longer and longer to leave the trees and grass. For now, though, his coat and a warm sweater were enough to keep the chill at bay; Mister Pickle had his own smart sweater that kept his poor little frame warm and toasty on these brief excursions outside. He gathered up the little dog from the seat, collected his parcel, and paid the driver before turning to take in Lucy Sheffield’s townhome.
His hair ruffled in the cold air, and he almost wished for a hat as he hurried up the walk and towards the door. Mister Pickle burrowed into his coat as he rang the bell, so he had a feeling his small companion agreed. Footsteps moved to the door, and Lucy opened it, smiling at him.
“Not late, I hope?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Right on time. Come in, it’s freezing.”
He stepped inside, setting Mister Pickle onto the rug so that he could remove his coat. The pup immediately went to Lucy for attention, and she laughed, scooping him up and rubbing behind his ears.
“When you’re ready, we’re in the kitchen,” she said.
We? Harry blanched. Had Callum come to tea?
That wasn’t something he was quite ready for, and his heartbeat sped up several notches. What could he say? Would Callum throw him out? What could—
Lucy must have noticed his expression, because she reached out and grasped his forearm. “It’s only Thomas.”
He swallowed and nodded. While he wasn’t keen on meeting his godfather’s eyes so soon after his drunken outburst, perhaps it was for the best. Ripping that band-aid off would only make the next step easier. He owed many people an apology. He hung up his coat and trailed Lucy into the kitchen after removing his shoes at the door.
Thomas’s faded denim eyes locked on him for a long moment, and Harry froze. Instead of a lecture, however, Thomas pulled out a chair and indicated Harry should sit without a word. Harry sank into the chair next to his godfather, putting his parcel on the table.
“I brought cake,” he said softly, his voice awkward as it tried to fill the silence that stretched between the three adults in the room.
“Oh, you didn’t have to,” Lucy said, moving the tea pot to the table. “I’m sure we’d have managed.”
“My mother would have risen from her eternal rest to scold me if I’d shown up bearing nothing but Mister Pickle and my appetite,” Harry said. “I should hope to scrape at least a few manners she taught me out of the burning ashes that was poor Maddy’s dinner party last weekend.”
Thomas frowned, and Harry realized his joke had perhaps fallen flat. He cleared his throat.
“What I meant to say, madam, is that my behavior was abhorrent, and not at all normal for me,” he said. “I should like to apologize, to both of you.”
“Mm,” Thomas said. Harry glanced over at his godfather to see him nod in approval. “Accepted. I’m sure your hangover was punishment enough.”
Harry grimaced a little. “As you say.”
Lucy set the pot onto the table and reached out, squeezing his shoulder. “Harry.”
He looked up at her, finding her smiling at him with a kind expression.
“I love my son,” she began. “And I have a feeling that you do, as well.”
Harry felt the blood drain from his face. Had he really been that obvious? Her smile didn’t change, and she squeezed his shoulder again.
“I don’t know what was said between you two, but I know my son. He doesn’t like to accept help—not even mine. He’s fiercely independent and hates feeling like he’s taking charity.” She patted his cheek. “If you offered to help him rebuild, it’s likely he didn’t take it kindly, did he?”
Harry sighed as she took her seat and began to pour the tea. He glanced at Thomas, wondering how much his godfather had told her, if he’d been open with Harry’s…inclinations.
Thomas gave a minute shake of his head. He hadn't told Lucy, then. Harry breathed a little easier. He knew that when he'd told Thomas it might have been a possibility, but his godfather had been his secret keeper for years now.
"I'm not...sure where to go from here," Harry admitted, swallowing as he looked up at Lucy. "Callum has made it quite clear that I'm no longer welcome to share his company."
"Callum has a fierce temper when it gets hold of him," Lucy said. She reached out and patted Harry's forearm. "But he's remorseful when that flash of temper has passed. It's like a storm squall. Likely as not, an apology a little later might be welcome, and it's likely he'll apologize, too."
Harry sighed. "I'm not...good with these sorts of things. Living on my own for so long, I've become used to doing things a certain way, and it's not often I have an inclination to change my ways."
"Well, perhaps you might, for Callum," Lucy said.
"That's what surprised me," Harry replied. "That was the first thought that crossed my mind when I woke up."
He could feel Thomas's gaze boring into him, and Harry met his godfather's eyes, giving a small nod. Thomas's look turned thoughtful, and he gave a small hum.
"An apology is a good place to start," he said. "And yours has been accepted. I know that this hasn't been easy on you, what with your recent injuries as well as this. Just...try and remember next time who your family is when we attempt to help you."
Harry breathed a small laugh. "I'm not drinking to excess like that again. The hangover was reminder enough that I'm not a young man anymore."
"Good," Thomas said. Harry knew that it had settled the matter with Thomas; his godfather didn't hold grudges long once a proper apology had been given. It had been this way between them since Harry was a young man, and it didn’t seem to have changed. For that, and for Lucy, he was grateful. The first step was always the hardest, and it would make these next steps less of a chore.
"Will you stay for supper?" Lucy asked.
"I'd...like that," Harry said. "I've yet to congratulate you on your pending nuptials. Forgive me."
Lucy, to his surprise, turned a pleased pink at the mention of it. Thomas's own smile had a happy edge to it that Harry hadn't seen in years, not since his divorce so long ago. This was good for them both, it seemed.
It was like something out of a fairy tale, meeting again after so long, discovering that you still felt the same attraction that had caught you before. Something like that was to be celebrated.
Harry turned talk to happier things, and began to turn over in his mind about how he was going to apologize to Callum.
Martin's phone rang right in the middle of breakfast. He picked it up, not recognizing the number.
"Just take the insurance pay out," said a gravelly voice on the other end of the line.
"Who is this?" he demanded.
No one answered, and the line went dead.
Martin stared at his phone in disbelief. Someone was trying to intimidate him, and poorly at that. He dialed out to his contact at the fire department.
"Wes," he said. "Any progress?"
Eggsy blanched at the sight of the envelope as Roxy pulled the mail from Kingsman's temporary mailbox. It was postmarked normally, and there was nothing odd about the envelope, but the letter was addressed from Gainsborough, Beechman, and Stowe.
“You all right?” Roxy asked, noticing his ashen expression.
She was helping him with errands that he was sure Merlin and Martin had forgotten, and he was right, by the state of the mailbox. Letters postmarked from almost a week ago made a thick packet in Roxy’s hands.
“I’m all right,” he said. “Just a twinge.”
He was still on crutches for the next couple of days, and the help was welcome. It hurt to move now, and even though it wasn’t the current cause of his distress, it was believable enough. He took the letters from Roxy.
The only other Gainsborough that Eggsy knew of was Martin's father, and from what little he spoke of...there had been a reason Martin had left home and cut all ties. Martin was usually closemouthed about his feelings, but his lips had thinned and his knuckles had gone white when he talked about Mortimer Gainsborough, usually to direct the conversation elsewhere.
Eggsy debated shredding the letter right there, but there was no telling what was in it. He rubberbanded it on top of the other mail and tucked it into his coat. He had to meet with Martin next anyway.
Surely it couldn't be too horrible?
Merlin sighed as he transferred another chunk of his savings into his business account to pay for rent on a building he couldn't even use. Reconstruction was going poorly, with the fire marshal's investigation still pending. There was no telling what would be of use, but it was getting harder to justify paying for the little shop front when he couldn’t use it.
Stress was beginning to take its toll. He hadn't been an easy sleeper, by any means, but now he was lucky if he got an uninterrupted four hours at a time. The dark circles under his eyes were a testament to his efforts to at least try sleeping, but he wasn't as successful as he'd like.
The only thing that would keep them in the black for now were the payments for his work done on Harry's property. His payments from the royal wedding had gone to pay for Martin and Eggsy’s cheques for the next six months, making sure that they were taken care of while they waited to see if Merlin could salvage the shop. The other portion of those payments had gone into taking care of Merlin’s own bills. The money he’d tried to keep from taking out of Harry’s pockets had become critical, and Martin had done the right thing by asking for another cheque when Harry had mentioned it to him.
From a business standpoint, it had been the correct move, no matter what Merlin’s feelings on the matter had been beforehand. Thinking of the man now was doubly painful, because Merlin was quite aware that he'd had expectations, even though he'd tried to guard himself from them.
Yes, he could have accepted Harry's help, but there would be no guarantee that Kingsman would have been able to stand on its own. It had to, in Merlin's opinion. Money as a gift had always been a touchy subject, and he'd always reacted poorly to it. Sooner or later, favors would have to be repaid, whether the money had to be paid back, or whether someone expected something else.
Merlin refused to entertain either idea.
He rebalanced his books, trying to account for yet another month where the shop couldn’t open. The outer structure had sustained little damage, but cleaning the whole place up and redecorating would take time, and money. Money that he didn’t have, and he didn’t know that he would be able to get a loan from the bank. The previous loan he’d taken out to start the business had been paid off in good order, but there was very little liquidity in his accounts at the moment.
Merlin rubbed his face, realizing he’d shut the door on his own foot this time. He could have used the help, but his stubborn nature had won out. Not only had he burned that bridge, he’d pissed in the ashes, and he was going to pay for it, quite literally.
The hothouses were a ruin, and the greenhouse on the roof of the building had endured smoke damage. The shop on the sides of the building hadn’t been damaged, save for a little smoke, and his insurance had cut them a cheque straightaway. They were still waiting on the fire marshal’s report to pay him for the damages.
He should have taken Harry up on it. He could have paid him back if the insurance had decided to pay. It was just—
Merlin frowned as he took a sip of his tea. It had gone cold long ago, left forgotten by his hand as he balanced the books. He grimaced into his cup, though the cold tea was only a part of his own discomfort.
Merlin had expectations, expectations that Harry clearly hadn’t shared. It had been enough to upset him at the party. The way the lights had played through Harry’s hair, the way he’d smiled, the way he’d led him down to the docks, as though it were a special place, it had made the bubble of excitement in his chest too much to bear. And then he’d started talking about helping Merlin open his shop again, and it had all come crashing down for Merlin.
He redid the numbers, sliding more money out of his accounts to make sure that rent and utilities were paid. He might have to tighten his belt, but surely the investigation was coming to its conclusion.
He should have taken Harry up on his offer.
He had to make it on his own.
Sometimes, making it on your own was harder than it looked.
He rubbed a hand over his face, feeling how tight his jaw had gotten. The muscle was ticking with both irritation and stress, and he sighed. He couldn’t concentrate on this any longer, not the way he was thinking. He stood, stretching the knot out of his back and dumping his cold tea in the sink.
Perhaps Roxanne had some fresh perspective. He threw on his coat and bid the dogs goodbye.
Roxanne’s was a beacon of light on the cold street, as usual. She was open early and closed late, and the smell of baked goods wafted through the street at all hours of the day. Merlin was glad for it as he tucked his cap down lower. His flat was a quick walk from his own shop, but even then, the chill of winter had finally seemed to settle over London. The forecast was calling for some snow tonight, but he was bouncing off the walls of his apartment, and he could handle a little snow.
Things were quiet, from the empty appearance. He must have timed the dinner rush right, as the last of her customers left with bags in hand right as he strolled up. The bell jangled over the shop as Merlin entered, and he inhaled, letting the warmth seep into his chest before he shucked his coat and hung it on the rack just inside the door.
Roxy poked her head out of the back.
“Merlin!” she cried. She bustled around the counter and hugged him tightly. “How are you doing?”
“Going stir-crazy, I’m afraid,” he admitted. “Decided to stretch my legs and get a cup of tea.”
“Well, sit down,” she said, shooing him toward a chair. “Uncle James, are there any of the chocolate croissants left?”
James said something unintelligible from the back, then cleared his throat and tried again. “A few, but not for lack of trying.”
He poked his head out and grinned at Merlin, a smear of chocolate at the corner of his mouth. “Hullo, Merlin.”
Merlin chuckled, gesturing at the corner of his own mouth. James wiped hurriedly at his mouth with his thumb.
“Are you going to share those, or do I need to make a new batch tonight?” Roxy asked, hands on her hips.
“Oh, please, I’ve lived off insects for the last six months,” James said, a wheedling tone to his voice. “Let me have this.”
“You’ll lose Instagram followers if you put on too much weight,” she said. James merely laughed and patted his stomach.
“That’s what my publicist keeps telling me, but I’d rather have the croissant.”
Merlin chuckled, but accepted the croissant James handed over. To be fair, they were quite good. His compliments were always for Roxy, and she knew it. It was nice to get out for a while, he decided.
“How are things?” James asked.
“They’ve been better,” Merlin admitted. “The insurance still won’t consider a payout until they have proof that it wasn’t arson from one of mine. Martin has some evidence but he needs to run it past the fire marshal and submit it to the investigation before he can say for sure it will help.”
James shook his head. “This has dragged out.”
Merlin nodded, taking a sip of his tea and letting the warmth from the mug soak through him. Outside the snug little café, snow had begun to fall, coating the streets in a thin sheen of white. It was nice to be inside where friends were.
“Is there anything we can do to help?” Roxy asked.
“What I can take care of, I have,” Merlin said. “Salaries are covered, thanks to the royal wedding, and the last…last payment from Harry covered the bills for the next couple of months.”
He frowned down at his knuckles, barely registering James sliding into the seat across from him.
“You all right?”
Merlin shook his head. “No. I can’t say that I am.”
“The dark circles would agree with you,” James said. He made an appraising noise, sucking in a breath through his teeth. “He was upset.”
“We were both upset,” Merlin said softly. “Though meeting in the middle has never been one of my strengths. Compromise only works when someone isn’t stubborn.”
“Wasn’t he just making an offer?” James asked.
“I meant me,” Merlin said, giving a bitter chuckle. “I cocked it up royally, and I told him I didn’t want to see him again. I like to think, at one point, we might have been good friends.”
Perhaps more, given the chance. But now that chance was in the wind, and Merlin hadn’t been able to take it upon himself to follow Eggsy’s advice and text Harry. It didn’t feel right, apologizing over a medium that wasn’t face to face. The lack of notifications from Harry meant that they were both licking their wounds, and it would be childish to expect Harry to be the one to do the chasing, when Merlin had expressly told him to bugger off.
“You know, it’s hardly too late,” James said.
“Isn’t it?” Merlin asked. “I can’t bring myself to text him. I’m…I guess, more ashamed than anything, but I don’t know how to start.”
“Hello works,” James said. He reached out and clapped Merlin on the shoulder. “Look, I admit—I’m hardly the man to talk to about maintaining relationships. Almost all of mine have failed. But they’re not mistakes I regret making. Most of the time, the experience is worth it in the end. Just…being with someone who’s brilliant has inherent worth, whether they stay or not. If you feel this way about him, you should at least get the chance to tell him, and an argument only lasts as long as it takes to apologize.”
Merlin gave James a tired smile. “How are you a real person?”
James grinned. “I know, it’s amazing, isn’t it?”
Roxy brought them over another couple of croissants, glancing out the window. “Didn’t they say only a couple of inches of snow?”
“Mm,” Merlin said. “The walk home will be fine enough, but it might mean you have a few less walk ins tomorrow.”
She considered, blue eyes watching the fat flakes drift down in front of the windows. “I think I’ll clean up and close up here in an hour or so. Uncle, are you coming with me to mum’s?”
“Afraid not,” James said. “I have a date.”
Both of their attentions rotated to where James was sitting, turning his cup of tea in his hands with a small, contented smile.
“A date?” Merlin asked.
“Oh, yes. I’m supposed to meet Martin for a movie after this,” he said.
If Merlin had a hairline, his eyebrows would have touched it. “Does he know about this?”
“You wound me, you old goat.” James snorted at him. “He suggested it.”
Merlin blinked. He didn’t remember the last time Martin had suggested anything, much less called it a date. He didn’t even remember Martin dating in university, but this was a new, albeit not unwelcome development. Relationships for Martin tended to be enough for him if he could tolerate the person in the room for an extended period of time.
He wasn’t unfeeling, but it was something akin to patiently chipping away at stone to reveal the beauty beneath. It would take someone with an inordinate amount of patience – and Merlin had a feeling James was patient for those who loved him.
It had been something of a worry for Merlin, wanting to see his friend grow. Not necessarily romantically, but because he’d never seen Martin interact outside the shop. But to initiate? That wasn’t like Martin. Something James must have said or done must have struck something in Martin.
“I’m glad,” Merlin said.
He found that he truly meant it. If this worked out, it would mean a whole new set of experiences for his friend. Martin’s childhood had been exceptionally rough on him, rough enough that he had closed himself off. Now, with James, Martin appeared to be in bloom.
It was a good change.
“Me too,” Roxy murmured. She squeezed James’s shoulder and beamed at him, before disappearing back into the back to finish her clean up.
Waiting an hour turned out to be a mistake. What should have been two to three inches of snow was turning into a storm, with large, fluffy flakes of snow piling up outside the windows. Merlin helped James and Roxy pack up, knowing that they would have to drive off in the mess that was accumulating. His walk might not be terrible, but it was still enough that he was considering calling for a cab.
Which turned out to be difficult, as the waits were going to be longer than expected. He might as well walk home. He wasn’t looking forward to waiting close to forty-five minutes for a cab. As Roxy counted down her drawer, he pulled his coat on and bid them both goodbye.
It was cold as he exited, and the wind whipped the wet flakes of snow into his face. He ducked his head against the weather, and ran smack into someone, bouncing off a broad chest and shoulders as he left Roxy’s bakery.
He stopped short as he looked up. Harry Hart stood before him, snow dusting his shoulders.
Going to try and get this and my advent things finished soonish. I have a schedule but it's all fucktangular because of work and aches and pains. Thank you for reading, feel free to leave a comment if you liked it!
Chapter 23: Love is Just Around the Corner
Love is just around the corner, any cozy little corner. Love is just around the corner when I'm around you. I'm a sentimental mourner, and I couldn't be a loner, When you keep me in a corner just waiting for you. –Frank Sinatra, "Love Is Just Around the Corner"
For a moment, there was a flash of something—hurt, perhaps—across Harry’s face, and then it settled into a neutral smile, one with only a hint of the warmth Merlin was used to seeing.
“Mister Craig,” Harry said. “I see Roxanne has closed. Perhaps I should call for my cab—”
“I’ve tried,” Merlin replied. His voice was thick, full of things he should have said but didn’t. “There’s none to be had for perhaps an hour.”
“Ah,” Harry said, hesitating. He shifted, revealing Mister Pickle under his arm.
“I didn’t realize you had your pup with you,” Merlin said. “Come on, you can wait this out at mine, at least until the cabs are running.”
“I don’t think—”
“Please,” Merlin said, softly. Perhaps there was some of that longing in his tone, or perhaps it was just the fact that they were speaking civilly, but Harry hesitated.
“I’m insisting,” he said. The lights flicked off, the sound of an engine starting coming muffled with the snow and the building between them and the noise. “Just for a little while. I can’t have the poor dog freezing on my conscience.”
Harry swallowed, brown eyes glancing away from Merlin’s face. For a moment, Merlin thought Harry might decline, but a look at the snow rapidly piling up on the street seemed to decide him as they both huddled under Roxy’s awning.
“All right. Did you walk?”
“I did,” Merlin said. “I live a couple of streets over, nothing too strenuous.”
He gestured toward his usual route home, and Harry fell into step beside him, Mister Pickle tucked into his coat to keep most of the snow off him. Their walk was quiet, oddly so in the falling snow. They passed by the husk of the shop, and Merlin braced himself for some comment, but Harry seemed content to walk with him through the drifts.
It was almost the companionable silences of before, where Merlin would be landscaping and Harry would be working nearby. It brought a lonely sort of melancholy to Merlin’s chest, thinking of everything he tossed away out of his pride and the chip on his shoulder. It had been foolish, in hindsight.
Then again, the party had been what, a month ago? It seemed longer, like they’d widened this rift by hand with pick and axe until it threatened to engulf them both. His preoccupation with getting Eggsy on his feet again and helping Martin prepare whatever evidence he could for the shop as well as balancing the books on the thinnest tight rope he could – it made time get away from him.
It would almost make him more bitter, but it was deserved, this time. He deserved what he got.
“This is me, here,” Merlin said, jerked from his silence by the realization they’d walked the entire way without speaking a word. Perhaps it was for the best – he didn’t want to argue more.
“Shoes off?” Harry asked, stepping up onto the porch and brushing what snow he could reach off himself. Merlin nodded, stepping just inside the door and slipping off his shoes, setting them on the raised rack he had for them to dry. Harry did the same before he hung up his coat and then saw to Mister Pickle.
“I have a hair dryer,” Merlin said. Harry blinked at him. “For when Mum stays over.”
“Oh.” Harry swallowed. “All right, let’s see about getting the little fellow dried off and warmed up.”
“The kitchen is this way, I’ll get some towels,” Merlin said. His voice felt sluggish, like it was a waking dream. It was getting late, too. If the snow didn’t stop, he’d offer Harry his bedroom and sleep in the pullout in his office. It wasn’t the first time, nor was it the last.
The dogs had all crowded at the door of the kitchen, watching Harry as he used some paper towels to clean the worst of the wet and dirt from Mister Pickle’s paws. The little chappie was patient, letting Harry take each foot in turn and gently wet it down, then dry it off.
It was sort of surreal, having Harry sitting cross-legged on the floor of his kitchen, but he shook himself and moved forward with the hair dryer and terry cloth towels in hand. As they tended to the dog, Merlin couldn’t help but notice Harry shivering.
“Are your clothes wet as well?” he asked.
Harry frowned and kept rubbing over Mister Pickle with the towel. “It will be fine.”
“Not if you catch cold. Don’t move.” Merlin got up, padding into his bedroom where he fished out a pair of his sweats and a soft tee. Socks were in order, too, and he added them, carrying the pile out to Harry. “I’ve a clothes horse set up in the living room for just such a thing. Go ahead. Bathroom is down the hall and to your left.”
“I—all right,” Harry said.
He rose, turning the little cairn terrier over to Merlin’s hands for the remainder of his care. Merlin exhaled when he left the room, then saw to the task of blow-drying Mister Pickle and then turning him loose to greet the other dogs. He immediately led Apollo into the living room, where the heater would likely be going per his timers that were set upon his arrival home, timed to warm the house as soon as his door was unlocked.
Now he just…had to see about Harry. He cleaned up and checked his phone. The forecast was now calling for a snowstorm, blown in from Scotland and expected snow until tomorrow morning. They had plenty in the cupboards, and Merlin could cobble them together something to eat, it just…wasn’t ideal.
“You look like your phone personally wronged you,” Harry said. Merlin looked up. His clothes were baggy on Harry; he had muscle where Harry was leaner. His old university tee stretched in tantalizing ways on Harry’s shoulders, the other man broader there than Merlin, and his sweats were a hair too short on Harry’s long legs, riding up his ankles.
All in all, it was a cozy, once-in-a-lifetime dream. Merlin would be sad to see Harry go now. His hair was mussed from changing and getting the wet from it, making Merlin ache to run his fingers through it.
Though I suppose that is Madeline’s wheelhouse, not mine.
“They’re calling for more snow,” Merlin said, banishing the treacherous line of thought. “You find the clothes horse?”
“I did, thank you. I appreciate you putting me up for now.” Harry cleared his throat. “Shall I find a place out of the way?”
The sentence was like a slap, but Merlin couldn’t say he didn’t deserve it. For a moment, he didn’t say anything, but before Harry could speak again, he gathered his pride and tamped it down.
“Harry,” Merlin said. Harry fell silent, his brown eyes searching. “I owe you an apology.”
“Harry,” Merlin said, and he could feel the sting of Harry’s insistence on the use of the formality. “Please. Just…I owe you an apology and I know that you don’t have to accept, but I do. I was out of line at your lovely girlfriend’s party and—”
“Madeline isn’t my girlfriend,” Harry said, his eyebrows raising.
“Oh,” Merlin said, and stopped. “I just thought that…”
“She’s been trying to get me to be more social for ages. We’re much better as friends.” Harry’s glance slid to the side. “Believe me, Mother tried.”
“Oh.” Merlin wet his lips, out of his element now. “Well…I am still sorry. I shouted at you for no good reason other than my pride.”
“As did I,” Harry said. They were silent for a long moment, eyeing each other across the kitchen warily. “I was hurt that you wanted someone else to help, but wouldn’t let me.”
“What do you mean?” Merlin asked. “No one else helped me financially.”
“But it was all I could do. I don’t have the connections that James does, nor do I have the bureaucratic knowledge that Martin seems to have. I can’t even help like Eggsy does. He’s—younger and already knows how things work. I couldn’t impose that way. So I thought to do the next best thing.”
“Ride in like a white knight?” Merlin murmured.
“Take the stress off of you,” Harry replied. “You think no one notices that you’ve lost weight, or that you look like you haven’t slept well in weeks? How many times has someone asked you if you’re all right in the last month?”
Merlin rocked back on his heels, stung. “I can handle—”
“I know you can,” Harry said. “But that doesn’t mean not accepting help, Merlin. Handling things sometimes means accepting help to get where you’re going. I’m not looking to curry favor. I just want you to get back to where you’re doing what you love the most, with the people you love the most. Because it would make me happy to do it.”
Merlin bit his lower lip, feeling tears sting at the corners of his eyes. Harry had somehow cut him to the core, slicing through his excuses and his bravado. He was struggling, and Harry was offering his hand. What could it hurt to take it?
“All right,” Merlin said softly. “What do you want in return?”
“For you to get a good night’s sleep, for starters,” Harry said. “Taking care of yourself is the first step to taking care of the shop.”
Slowly, Merlin nodded. “All right.”
“Now, how much snow is there forecast?”
“Almost three feet,” Merlin said, his nose wrinkling. Harry’s did as well, doing the calculations. London was equipped for some snow, but this would likely clog the streets for a day, perhaps more. “Are you hungry?”
“Famished,” Harry replied. “I was stopping by Roxanne’s before I left for home. Shall I sing for my supper and cook for us?”
“If you like,” Merlin said, a little more uncertain now. “I can do a fry up, but that’s about the most energy I have for things these days.”
“Well, then let me,” Harry said. “Make yourself a cup of tea and relax, and let me figure it out.”
For once, Merlin loosened his grip on the reins of his own life, letting Harry steer for a while. It was an interesting feeling, watching Harry sort through the cupboards and make little noises of discovery as he gathered ingredients. It was almost homey, though the awkward charge to the atmosphere hadn’t quite dissipated.
It was, however, a feeling that replaced the knot of tension in his stomach with something a little calmer. He inhaled the aroma of the tea Harry had made, watching him work.
The snow hadn’t started falling heavily before James arrived at Martin’s door. It was a lucky thing, deciding to stay in tonight; the cinema might make getting home troublesome in the weather. He knocked, cradling the bag of food away from the falling snow.
Martin answered the door in a soft black sweater and jeans, a collared shirt peeking from beneath the sweater. He looked like an accountant, his glasses perched on the edge of his nose before he pushed them up, blinking at James for a moment.
“Hello,” James said, trying to hide the giddy bubble of excitement in his chest. The movie idea seemed safe enough, and James had been more than willing to accommodate Martin to make him more comfortable.
He hadn’t been fibbing when he’d said that Martin had asked him. It had come as a surprise to him as well, the abrupt text message, but it had turned into a long text conversation as plans were made. James still smiled at the apologetic text he’d gotten the next day after Martin had fallen silent. He’d fallen asleep texting.
It was sweet, in its own way, finding how Martin showed affection in comparison to James himself. More and more, James found that just getting to know Martin was a reward in and of itself. It felt like watching one of Martin’s succulents bloom, prickly on the outside but with soft petals and a unique beauty if one were patient.
“Hello,” Martin replied, stepping aside so James could slip inside. “You brought dinner.”
“I remember you saying you weren’t much of a cook,” James said. In fact, he’d been more of a supervisor than a help while assisting in Roxy’s bakery, but it was all right. “I hope Indian is okay?”
“Yes,” Martin said softly. James toed out of his shoes, though the click of nails on the wooden floor made him turn.
“Oh!” A black sheepdog stood in the doorway of the hall, watching him. She was lovely; even the notched ears gave her a sense of uniqueness that was something James associated with Martin, as well. “I didn’t realize you had a dog.”
“Bella is a good girl,” Martin replied. He held out his hands for the food and James obliged him, sinking to a knee after he’d passed the bag over. “Bella, come.”
Bella moved closer, tail wagging cautiously. James held out a hand, fingers fisted for her to sniff. She glanced at Martin, and when he nodded, she moved in reach and smelled his hand all over. After a moment, her tail started wagging harder, and James had a dog washing his face enthusiastically. He laughed, stroking the dog.
“She likes visitors, though it’s usually just Merlin,” Martin said. “Merlin is her favorite.”
“She’s lovely,” James said, glancing up at Martin. His face had softened at James interacting with Bella, something much less severe than his usual expressions. It was…nice, James realized. He scratched Bella’s chest, letting the feeling wash over him.
“We should eat,” James said after a moment more with Bella. She pressed against his legs when he stood and whipped at him with her tail. High energy, but well trained, as she came to heel when Martin clicked his tongue at her and pranced into the other room after him.
James trailed along behind them into the kitchen, smiling. This had been a good idea. Martin was more secure in his own space, and it was a show that he was trying when he’d invited James over. It was a show of good faith, one that James intended to repay by going at Martin’s pace.
Martin hummed thoughtfully at the selection of food, pulling plates from the cabinets and handing one to James. There wasn’t a need to talk as they plated their food, moving and bumping past each other as they got situated. James couldn’t help but feel like he could get used to the companionable feeling.
Martin had no expectations of him, not even the usual ones – and it was refreshing to realize. James had no pressure to be anything but himself. It was nice to just…be enough.
They adjourned to Martin’s sitting room, where James found himself settled into a squashy couch next to Martin, not touching but close enough. It was interesting, watching Martin gravitate in and out of his personal space, as though unsure himself. He likely was, James realized.
Dinner was excellent, the food from the same restaurant they’d visited after the Royal Wedding. Martin put on a film, something they both hadn’t seen. There wasn’t a need for conversation; all James had to do was just…exist. It was easy in this space. Martin was a tasteful decorator, with muted greens and blues accenting the browns in the furniture. Framed art prints lined the walls, and everything was neat.
It was a place that wouldn’t feel lived in, not usually, but here, with Martin, James found he didn’t mind. Martin’s space meant getting to know more of Martin, and James found that it was worth the patience once again. It had been so long since he’d taken time for himself. With his shooting schedule, his time demanded by everyone from his publicist to his family to his fans, it was hard to chip out time for himself. As an extrovert, James had never minded, but he found himself relaxing as their food was consumed and the movie was winding down. It was like a weight had been removed, something he hadn’t even been aware he was bearing. He exhaled, feeling tension leave his body.
Some time during the film, as they’d finished dinner, Bella had wormed her way onto the couch between them, her head in Martin’s lap and her hips pressing against James. James reached down to pet her, earning himself a thump of her tail, and felt fingers brush his own.
He glanced over, finding Martin looking at him, startled. They’d touched, accidentally, while both were showing Bella affection.
“Is this okay?” He murmured.
Martin hesitated. “I don’t—”
“You don’t have to,” James said. “May I?”
Martin nodded, and James took his hand. Gently, he curled Martin’s hand into a loose fist, extending his pinkie finger. He looped his own pinkie around it, then smiled up at Martin.
“When Roxy used to get overwhelmed as a little girl, I would do this. She had a phase where she used to be touch sensitive, not liking hugs, sometimes even heavier fabrics, like velvet. So, this was how I showed affection.” He brought their knuckles together, letting the pad of his thumb meet Martin’s. “We used to call that ‘sealing it with a kiss’ when we would make promises.”
He fell silent at the contemplative look on Martin’s face. Perhaps he’d said the wrong thing, because most people didn’t like him bringing up his niece, being reminded that he was human outside his persona, with family and goals that may not align with their own. It was something he was used to, but it was disappointing every time it happened.
“She was lucky to have an uncle like you,” Martin said after a moment. Slowly, he mimicked the movement James had showed him, touching the pad of his thumb to James’s. “Though that was my first kiss.”
James blinked at Martin, watching his face. Martin’s eyes were dark, the pupils blown wide in the dim light from the lamp in the sitting room. For a moment, James considered breaking the tension with a lame joke; any other time, and he might have. However, it felt too serious for James to attempt it.
“Did you mean—”
Martin nodded, glancing away.
“I told you, I don’t…consider relationships. I haven’t, not before you. I’m a project, not a partner.” Martin swallowed as he spoke, speaking more to Bella’s head than to James.
“As far as first kisses go,” James said, “I think it was perfect.”
Martin’s gaze shot to James, who offered him a smile. Red splashed Martin’s high cheekbones, and James found he quite liked the look on him. One more thing that was likely a first. Courting Martin was incredibly rewarding, if one had the right goals in mind.
“Would you like to watch something else?” James asked.
Martin nodded. He kept his pinkie linked in James’s.
Snow continued to fall as Merlin and Harry worked through dinner; Harry was an excellent cook, even with Merlin’s limited pantry, and he’d put together pasta and chicken, with steamed vegetables. It was filling, and a proper hot meal did wonders for Merlin’s mood. The mood of the room lightened as well, with them falling into a sort of echo of their time before. Conversation was quiet, limited to how much they discussed the idea of Harry helping to pay for renovations – Merlin had put a pin in it, asking for some time to consider how to go about getting Harry an estimate.
It seemed to be enough for Harry, for Merlin to even just consider it. It was enough for Merlin, too. The conversation was uncomfortable, but even having it was a step outside of Merlin’s own comfort zone.
Occasionally, one of them would glance out the window, only to note the snow piling up higher. It was definitely a night for Harry to stay here, rather than attempting to get back to St. George’s. Merlin settled them into the sitting room, with dogs piled up around them as he put on something mindless on television.
With the heat from the electric fireplace, it was enough that the chill from earlier had been abandoned, and both of them found themselves drowsing within a couple of hours. It was getting close to midnight when Merlin rose.
Harry looked at him in askance, and Merlin gestured towards the hallway.
“Let me make up the bed in the office for myself, and I’ll let you have my bed for tonight,” Merlin said.
“Nonsense,” Harry said. “I’m not going to take your bed.”
“I insist,” Merlin said, shaking his head. “The bed in the office needs replacing – I’ve been meaning to, and it’s just—”
“I’ll be fine,” Harry insisted. “Please, don’t put yourself out because I happened to be a ninny running errands before a snow storm.”
“Harry, I’m serious,” Merlin said. “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable, and I’d be a poor host if I didn’t.”
The argument was silly, but it evoked memories of their more bitter spat at the party, leaving Merlin a little sad. Would they always butt heads over simpler things, refusing to see the forest for the trees? It was disheartening to think that a man that Merlin liked – and if he were honest with himself – loved quite a bit would be so combative that they couldn’t reach a compromise.
Harry stood, shaking his head. “Merlin, I really must insist—”
“Harry, it’s my house,” Merlin reminded him, his tone snappish, despite himself. The chip was back, his pride already taking a beating by admitting he might need help.
Harry’s expression was thunderous. For some reason, this had made him querulous, his tone going petulant. “Look, the only reason I would kick you from your own bed would be to shag you on the floor—”
The argument stopped. The silence would have been comical if it weren’t so serious to the both of them. Harry swallowed, paling as the realization of what he said hit him.
“Merlin—” His voice stuttered on the last syllable. “Callum—”
No. Now was not the time for talking.
If anything, Merlin had done too much talking and not enough showing. Not near enough action and too much thinking. He’d spent so much time trying to keep Harry from realizing that now it all came boiling forth in a rush. It was time for all of this to stop. Harry could hate him in a moment, but it was easier to just…act.
Merlin was moving before he realized it as he invaded Harry’s personal space, fisting his hands in Harry’s shirt and crashing their mouths together.
Thank you so much for all the lovely comments last chapter. I'm glad that there are people still following this - I was worried I'd lost interest. I promise, I do read every single comment, even if I don't get a chance to reply to them. Thank you so much for them, because they really did make my day.
It's not a cliffhanger if you added something midway - that date with James and Martin popped into my head as I was falling asleep. More soon. I want this done by mid-February, I think.
Chapter 24: Can't Fight This Feeling
The snow gets worse, but things have settled for now.
Kissing Harry Hart was a true delight, beyond what he’d imagined. As their mouths met, Harry fisted a hand in Merlin’s jumper, to keep him from going too far, even as their teeth clicked together rather painfully on the first touch. Merlin slid a hand into Harry’s hair, his tug on unruly curls earning him entrance to Harry’s mouth when the other man gasped at the contact. Merlin devoured Harry, swiping his tongue against the other’s and nipping his lip.
Harry made an obscene noise and gave back, the tension ebbing from their bodies as they pushed toward each other, meeting in a dance that had been delayed far too long. Soon, though, air became a problem and Merlin reluctantly drew back, breathing hard.
Harry was wrecked. His mouth, pink and swollen from Merlin’s kisses, was slightly parted, his eyes half-lidded with a daze as he met Merlin’s look. Merlin had no doubt he must look much the same, and found his hands wandering to Harry’s hips, resting there and keeping them both centered.
“I’ve wanted to do that forever,” Harry mumbled. He rested his forehead against Merlin’s; his smile was shy now. “Since you first knocked on my door.”
“You hid it well enough,” Merlin said, pressing another fluttering kiss to the corner of Harry’s mouth. Harry turned into it, tilting his head to give Merlin all of him. He cupped the back of Merlin’s head and sighed into it, a content noise that had Merlin’s chest constricting.
They could have been doing this before, without the heartache and the anger. Without the push and the pull. It was almost criminal how much time he’d spent waiting and wanting the affection from the man beneath his hands now.
“I thought you might not be interested, at first,” Harry admitted, softly, as they broke apart. “And then I heard you and James in the hospital—”
“What?” Merlin said.
“You admitted that he’d saved you, and you said that you regretted not…using that swipe thing.” Harry flushed, looking away. “I didn’t mention it, because of course you’d have someone interested in you, besides me. I wanted to wish you both well, but I couldn’t…I couldn’t help feeling like I’d missed out on the best thing I’d ever get.”
“Harry,” Merlin said. He reached up, cupping Harry’s jaw and encouraging him to look him in the eye. “You know that it was a joke? Because I was already so gone on you – lord, you have no idea – that I was hoping to see you as soon as I could. You came to see me. You wanted to see me. That was more than I could have ever asked.”
Harry’s arms slid around Merlin, pulling him close to his chest. “I’m a stupid man.”
“Possibly,” Merlin said, feeling Harry nuzzle against his neck. “But no more stupid than I’ve been.”
Harry laughed, the puff of air tickling Merlin’s neck. He leaned into Harry, feeling far lighter than he could remember.
“I’m in love with you,” Harry murmured, and Merlin felt goosebumps shiver pleasantly down his back at the admission. “Though perhaps that’s putting the cart before the horse.”
“It’s not,” Merlin said, pulling back. Harry gazed at him with such fondness that it made his chest ache. It was a good ache, though, like something worth doing had been done. He wrapped his arms around Harry, bringing them nose to nose. “Because I think I’m in love with you, too.”
“You ‘think’?” Harry asked, but Merlin could hear the teasing notes in his voice at this point. “You’re not sure?”
“You’re in my house, standing in my clothes, my arms around you and you’re telling me that you love me,” Merlin said, grinning at Harry. “I’m pretty sure I just declared it without saying anything, long before you got the words out.”
Harry chuckled, leaning in and nuzzling Merlin’s ear lobe. “I suppose it could be worse. Though at this point I’m convinced that you just like seeing me in your things.”
“Maybe,” Merlin said, feeling his breathing quicken at the way Harry purred the words. Now that they’d admitted to it, it had become a tension between them again, though it was positive, like the clench in one’s gut right before doing something exciting. Crackling between them, Merlin could feel Harry shaking slightly with his chuckle.
But it was lost, seeping away as they both sort of sagged against each other. Losing that stress had left a void in them both, and exhaustion was rapidly setting in as the argument de-escalated. Merlin felt Harry stifle a yawn against his shoulder.
“Are you still tired?” he asked.
Harry hummed. “A bit. This whole mess has left me…exhausted, really.”
“Come on, then,” Merlin said. He took Harry’s hand and tugged him toward the bedroom. “Let’s go to bed.”
“This is not the scenario I envisioned, really,” Harry said, almost petulant, even as he followed Merlin down the hallway to his bedroom. The dogs were content to doze before the heater, remaining on their pillows scattered before it as the two men made their escape.
“Did you think about it a lot, then?” Merlin asked, turning to Harry and lifting a brow.
“A bit,” Harry conceded, flushing in the low light of the hallway.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Merlin pointed out.
“I know, it’s just…mm.” Harry gestured, like he couldn’t quite articulate it. “I should be the one taking you to bed, shedding clothes as we go, the rest of the night ours for the taking. It seems rather, well, anticlimactic to let you tuck me in and say good night.”
Merlin burst into laughter. “Did you want to do that? Are you up for it?”
“I—” Harry sighed, rubbing at his forehead. “I could be, but—”
“You’re tired. I think I’m not the only one who hasn’t been sleeping well,” Merlin said. He tugged Harry closer, cupping his jaw and kissing him sweetly. “So. A compromise. We sleep, and then we eat breakfast, and then we have a proper lie in, and we can do whatever our hearts desire.”
Harry sighed into Merlin’s touch, leaning into his fingers and letting his eyes flutter shut. “As you wish, dove.”
The affection in his voice, coupled with the endearment, warmed something in Merlin’s chest. He took a shuddering breath, kissing Harry again.
“All I wish for is you, you vain peacock,” Merlin said, earning the smile he felt against his own mouth. “Now, come to bed.”
This time, Harry allowed himself to be tugged down the hallway, into Merlin’s bedroom and to the bed. Merlin didn’t bother with the lights, letting the soft light from the street lamps outside cast the room in dim twilight. It was quiet as the two prepared for sleep, Merlin swapping his jumper for a soft cotton shirt and his trousers for sleep pants, while Harry turned down the bed for them both. There was the sensation that they’d done this before, a million times, and Merlin held onto it, hoping to get a million more.
Merlin sat on his usual side, watching Harry cross to the other. It felt so soft, and fuzzy, like a waking dream where you remember details vividly. It left Merlin almost terrified that he’d wake to find Harry gone, the other side of his bed not slept in at all.
But as he felt the mattress sag under Harry’s weight, and slid in beside him, their limbs tangling as they sought one another in the dark, he let the fear go. If he woke and Harry was gone, he would just go and find him again. He had been lost to this feeling from day one, and after admitting it, it was easier to do it again, if need be.
Merlin settled onto his back, and Harry took his cue, curling up in his arms and pressing an ear to his chest. There was a contented sigh from his partner, and Merlin felt himself warm again. His fingers slid into Harry’s unruly curls, stroking through the soft mane of his hair. The weight of Harry against his side was a balm, and he gave a contented sigh of his own. He could feel Harry’s fingers slowly winding and unwinding in his shirt, listening to him breathe in the dark.
It was a sound that he found he could get used to, listening to Harry’s breathing evening out into sleep. As Harry dropped off, Merlin stroked his hair, until the other man was snuffling quietly against his chest. He felt boneless, the kind of tired one felt when their work is heavy and arduous, and being able to put that burden aside made him feel lighter than he had in a while.
Things would get better. They would figure them out…and they could do it together.
Merlin smiled to himself in the dark, even as he felt sleep creeping over him. He wanted to keep this with him forever, but as the snow fell around them outside, his eyes closed of their own volition, and he joined Harry in sleep.
James roused himself to the sound of soft static on the television. He’d drifted off sometime during their second film, comforted by Martin’s presence and the press of Martin’s fingers against his own. Now, though, he was groggy, glancing around for the time. He felt heavy, as though he had slept so long that his limbs weren’t as responsive as he would like. His hand was dangling off the couch, and he could feel Bella’s head resting beneath his palm. As he twitched his fingers, he heard the thump of her tail wagging.
He still felt…heavy. He glanced toward where Martin had been sitting and realized they’d navigated together in sleep, Martin pillowed on his chest. Martin’s breath was soft against his chest, and he shifted a little, resting his palm on Martin’s back.
It was…nice. Being needed just for himself, rather than for what he could do or give to someone. Martin didn’t want any of his fame or recognition. He just wanted James. Or…that was how things seemed to be progressing. James knew that he’d fallen hard long ago, but only now did he dare to voice it.
He was in love with Martin Gainsborough. At first it had been infatuation, something that might have been lost, but now…
With his hand idly stroking down Martin’s back and Martin sighing in his sleep, James could feel the way his chest constricted at the thought of giving this up.
“…time is ‘t?” Martin mumbled. James’s hand moving must have woken him. He cursed himself for needing that touch. Martin peered up at him, glasses askew and his expression confused.
“Still early, darling,” he murmured. Perhaps Martin would be upset in the morning, but for now, he wanted to keep this. “Go back to sleep. I’ll be here.”
“H’mkay.” The rest of Martin’s voice was a sleepy mumble, and he fisted his hand in James’s jumper, closing his eyes again. James retrieved Martin’s spectacles, setting them on the coffee table, and let Martin curl closer.
In the grand scheme of things, here he was not famous, here he was just James. He hadn’t been just James in so long that he held on to it as long as he could. This was where he could rest. Here, with this man, in this place. He might wake with a hell of a back ache in the morning, but that was for the morning. Here, right now, he was content.
James drifted back to sleep with the sound of static playing quietly on the television, and the sound of Martin’s soft breathing to guide him down.
“The snow is getting worse,” Roxy remarked. “I should go and see about getting a room for myself tonight.”
“Nonsense,” Tilde said, shaking her head. “We’ll just add you on to ours.”
The room had been an indulgence, Tilde needing a place to stay while she visited. Roxy would have offered her spare bedroom in her apartment, but she hadn’t a spare bed, and that required logistics beyond what was available to them at the moment. James and Martin might have helped, but with the news that they had a date, Roxy hadn’t wanted to bother. She didn’t want Eggsy lifting anything while he was still hurt, either.
Tilde had swooped in and rented the room, and Roxy had stopped by on her way home. But while they’d been visiting, the snow had gotten worse. Now it was time to think about her own accommodations. Tilde seemed to have other ideas, though.
Eggsy nodded from where he was dozing with his head in Tilde’s lap, his voice drawing Roxy from the spiral of her own thoughts. “’Course you can stay with us, Rox.”
He’d been saving his painkillers for the evening, knowing how groggy they made him, and he was out of it. Roxy gave Eggsy an indulgent smile, knowing that he was agreeing because they were talking softly and it sounded nice to him. Roxy had come to visit when Eggsy told her that Tilde was in town, and she’d wanted to at least say hello before business pulled Tilde away again.
But now, with the snow worsening, she wasn’t going to be able to get home easily. There would be no cabs to be had, and so she’d have to dig into her savings a bit and rent a room. Tilde’s offer was kind, but—
“—I can’t impose like that,” Roxy said, giving Tilde a grateful glance. “I’m not a very good third wheel.”
“Who said you were a third wheel?” Tilde declared. “I know very well that you are our friend.”
“Is this the royal we?” Roxy asked with a smile, trying to distract from the situation. Tilde’s expression said that she would not be distracted.
“No,” Tilde said. She reached out to where Roxy was sitting beside the bed, taking her hand. “I mean this. You’ve been here to look after Eggsy while I’ve been away. And you’ve been a very good friend to the both of us.”
Roxy flushed, looking down at Tilde’s hand gripping her own. “I’m just helping. Eggsy’s helped me so much, I wanted to help him the same way.”
“Roxanne.” Her full name from Tilde made her look up. “Do you not want to stay with us?”
Roxy glanced around the room, looking anywhere but at Tilde. There was complexity in her reasons for not answering right away, many layers of which she hadn’t gotten to think about on her own. It was for the best if she got her own room.
Feelings were complicated, and there was no point in dragging other people into them, especially two people who were already connected like that. It would cause heartache in the long run, and she didn’t want to drive away the only two people her age who seemed to have time for her. Surely it was projection of her own want to be accepted, not an actual admission of attraction for the both of them.
Running the bakery on her own left her very little time to socialize. It was hard to date when you were awake at four in the morning and got home at ten in the evening. Which meant that she’d been projecting, surely. Her loneliness wasn’t her friend’s problem, nor was it their burden to bear. She’d been keeping it on lock for a while now, this feeling, and she knew that there was no reason to air it here.
She realized her silence had stretched to the awkward breaking point, and she cleared her throat.
“It’ll be easier if I just…book my own,” she mumbled.
Tilde squeezed her fingers, and she looked up reflexively. The princess was wearing a very familiar cat-got-the-cream expression, and Roxy realized she must have picked it up from Eggsy. It was strange, yet almost endearing, the habits they’d picked up from one another in such a short time.
“Stay with us, Roxy,” she said. “It won’t be so bad.”
Something in Roxy told her that Tilde had already made the decision for them.
“There’s only one bed?” she tried, but even that excuse sounded weak to her in the wake of the discussion. She’d heard about this, once. It was a method for decision making, where you think about what you have to do, and flip a coin. Not to decide, but to realize what you wanted all along. You tend to hope for a certain outcome while the coin is in the air, and that is your course of action.
Tilde had put the coin into the air, but Roxy couldn’t really tell her how she wanted it to come down. It seemed foolish to even suggest it.
“It’s a big bed.” Tilde patted the other side with her other hand. Roxy knew she was right. There was plenty of space on that side, even by most hotel standards. “Stay with us, tonight. I’d feel put out if you didn’t. When was the last time you got good rest, running that bakery on your own?”
Roxy glanced from Tilde to Eggsy, who gave her a bleary thumbs-up. “Wouldn’t ask if we didn’t want you here, Rox.”
Something in her warmed at that. Eggsy and Tilde really were her friends. What harm could there be?
“All right,” she said. Tilde clapped her hands in delight, and immediately settled Eggsy on the bed so she could find Roxy something in her things to sleep in.
Eggsy grinned at Roxy. “She loves you, you know.”
Roxy blanched. She peered at the closet, where Tilde was digging through her suitcases. “What?”
“Tilde. She loves you a whole lot. So do I.” Eggsy yawned, wincing a little as he shifted. “This is as much for us as it is for you, Rox. I’m glad you stayed.”
After all of her protests, even Roxy had to admit she was, too, seeing the way Tilde smiled as she returned triumphant with some spare night clothes.
Well, that was a heck of a writer's block. I'm sorry, Constant Readers. I've been trying to get things sorted and nothing wanted to work. I think I may have gotten it taken care of, though. Thank you for reading, feel free to leave a comment if you liked it!