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A Royal Arrangement

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Eggsy Unwin, Lady Rowley, takes a deep breath, studies his pattern, and stabs his needle into his sampler with precisely the correct amount of force needed.

He’d like to pin it to the wall like a butterfly. And then stab it a few more times for good measure. But that would not be befitting a lady, his mother would say. Certainly not a lady whose name still resides on the coveted Register.

Eggsy might be tempted to disregard his mother’s dictum, but worse luck, she’s sitting right across from him in the morning-room of their house in Town. Michelle Unwin, Countess Rowley, is immaculate in a sky-blue gown in the latest height of fashion, short sleeved and beribboned and brushing the tops of her side-buttoned boots. Eggsy sets off his mother in the knee-length tunic and leggings appropriate for a male Omega, dyed a complimentary sea-green. His mother says the color brings out his eyes.

“A slow morning, my dear, wouldn’t you say?” Michelle offers this observation into the silence. A widow, she doesn’t have to occupy her hands with needlework to show her fine breeding. She may sit composedly at her leisure on the most comfortable sofa in the morning-room, a warm cup of tea on the table at her elbow.

Eggsy sneaks a glance at the clock. Eleven-thirty. By tradition, a morning At Home ends at noon. He can only hope their morning-room remains as empty for the next thirty minutes as it has for the last ninety.

But: “Indeed, mother,” Eggsy murmurs.

“Really, I begin to reconsider coming to Town so early in the Season. I had thought more families would have joined us, but they seem to all be staying in the country.”

Eggsy merely nods agreement, knowing better than to protest. Michelle may feign surprise, but Eggsy knows perfectly well that they’d come early to London a-purpose. Because Eggsy’s name isn’t just on the Register – his name heads the Register. And that means –

The door to the morning-room opens, and the butler steps in. With a small bow Reynolds announces, “Lady Cuxhaven has come to call.”

Eggsy’s stomach sinks to the bottom of his stays. Michelle, by contrast, perks up. “Show her in at once,” she informs Reynolds, who bows and withdraws. To Eggsy Michelle says: “Now we shall have news! Matilda will know what there is to know about – about that Omega.”

Eggsy stabs his sampler again and holds his tongue. By that Omega, Michelle means James, formerly Lady Spencer, third child of the Duke of Marlborough. Carrier-consort of His Majesty, Henry IX.

Eggsy knows James. Had been friends with James, before V-Day and the advent of the Register. Eggsy would have loved to still be friends with James. But two Omegas side-by-side on the Register can’t be anything but enemies. Whatever their own preferences, Society will see to that for them.

The fertility crisis of V-Day had rocked British Society to its core. Overnight, a ton of several hundred had found their viable members cut down to a tenth of that. Alphas – sires – had been less badly hit; perhaps two in ten Alphas had retained their fertility. But the fertility of the Omegan population had been all but wiped out. Only one in twenty Omegas throughout England remain able to bear children.

Eggsy is among them.

The door opens again. “Lady Cuxhaven,” Reynolds announces.

“Michelle, darling!” Lady Cuxhaven sweeps in. Eggsy notices, because he’s been well brought up, that her dress is not quite as modish as Eggsy’s and Michelle’s – the color is well enough, a pastel pink, but the sleeves are long in the style of last winter, and there isn’t quite enough lace around her neck and wrists. The reticle is perfect, however: it must be new.

Michelle rises smoothly to receive Lady Cuxhaven, exchanging air kisses and urging her into a comfortable chair by the fire. “Matilda, so good to see you, my dear! Come, warm your feet. So frightfully cold, isn’t it?”

“Well, this early in the Season, after all!”

The ladies nod at each other, completely in charity. Eggsy, looking at them, has an uncharitable thought: they look like a pair of hens, heads and necks bobbling over a juicy piece of corn.

A few more pleasantries are exchanged, including a compliment from Lady Cuxhaven on the quality of Eggsy’s embroidery. Fortunately, as a theoretically-modest maiden, Eggsy need do nothing more than cast his eyes down demurely while Michelle accepts the praise on Eggsy’s behalf. Eggsy isn’t sure what he’d say if he had to actually speak. He knows what Lady Cuxhaven is here to say – only one topic would bring her here, today – and his nerves are wound tight in terror or anticipation. Or both.

At last Lady Cuxhaven gets to the point. “Well, my dear, have you heard the news from Buckingham Palace?”

Michelle feigns surprise. “I thought the announcement was to be made tomorrow, before Parliament?”

“Oh, yes, the official announcement. But the word is already leaking out.”

Michelle leans forward. In spite of himself, Eggsy’s hand stills on the needle.

“The carrier-consort,” Lady Cuxhaven says slowly, “has not conceived.”

Eggsy drops his sampler.

Michelle claps her hands together. “Did you hear that, Eggsy?” she cries. “You’re going to be Queen!”

That night, in his room, Eggsy sits before his mirror and stares at his reflection blankly.

His room is well-lit with good wax candles – the Rowley estate may be without an Alpha Lord, but it’s well able to provide for its widow and offspring. There’s a fire in the grate. Even for March it’s unseasonably cold. Eggsy has wrapped a shawl over his night-gown. He’d be cozier in bed, where the warming-pan has done its work, but he’s not ready for sleep yet. He’s afraid of his dreams.

Or perhaps he’s looking forward to them.

Despite Michelle’s excited proclamations, Eggsy is not going to become Queen on the morrow, nor any time in the near future. But James’ failure to produce an heir means that Eggsy is one step closer to that lofty goal.

He’s never wanted to be Queen. But he has wanted – secretly, quietly, for longer than he can remember – Harry Hart.

Five years ago, when Valentine’s Day had been a holiday about the exchange of flowers and cards, when there had been no fertility crisis and no Register of Fertile Omegas, when the succession crisis had not yet catapulted Harry Hart from eighteenth in line to the throne to the throne itself, Eggsy had met him. Lord Hart, he’d been at the time. Being eighteenth in the succession to the throne had been just distinction enough to enhance the otherwise relatively minor title of Marquess of Cardoc. Certainly it had not made Lord Hart so grand that an Earl’s child could not raise their eyes to him.

And raise his eyes Eggsy had done. The ball had been a small one, late in the Season. That Season had been Eggsy’s first, and though he’d had several admirers, none of them had quite been in the rank of life to satisfy Michelle. Thus he’d already known he would likely have a second Season; another chance for a new admirer to enter the lists and sweep away the prize. And when he’d met Lord Hart, when they’d danced three dances and been seated next to each other at dinner, when Lord Hart had smiled and bowed over his hand at the end of the night and asked if he might call on Eggsy, Eggsy had dared to hope…

The V-Day virus had changed everything. There had been no Season the following year. There had been no time for gaiety when the world had been falling apart. And then had come the passage of the Inheritance Act, restricting the inheritance of noble titles – from the lowest hereditary knight to the Crown itself – to fertile scions only.

The tumult among the noble classes had cost another Season, as heirship had shifted, the disinherited had rebelled, and younger children who had been comfortably launched upon supportive careers had been recalled to embark upon a second lifetime’s worth of learning. And then had come the discovery that Omegan fertility had been even more affected by the V-Day plague than Alphaic fertility – that, inheritance aside, there might in another generation be no more nobility, unless measures were taken to ensure it.

Thus the passage of the Registration and Royalty Act. Thus the Register of Unmated Fertile Omegas, ordered by rank, on which Eggsy Unwin, the child of a mere Earl, had found himself second only to Lady James Spencer. And thus the law that had seen Lady Spencer’s engagement to Lord Percival Morton broken off, so that James could be mated to the newly-crowned Henry IX as carrier-consort, and given a year to produce an heir.

The Act’s text, as it relates to the Crown, is simple. Produce an heir within a year, be crowned Queen, and receive the grateful thanks and adulation of an entire nation. Failure means that the ceremonial mating is annulled, the Omega is returned to their family in disgrace – and the next Omega on the Register gets their chance.

Lord Morton will probably re-offer his suit to Lady Spencer after the annulment, Eggsy thinks. Their engagement hadn’t been a mere matter of Lady Spencer’s dowry and Lord Morton’s title. They’d been in love. Eggsy remembers, during his one and only Season, how James had blushed and giggled over Lord Morton’s every attention. How Lord Morton had snubbed several other young Omegas to lavish attention on Lady Spencer alone. How James had floated on air for a month after their engagement had been announced.

Eggsy hadn’t seen James after V-Day – not until he’d attended the royal wedding ceremony a year ago, during which Lady Spencer had been given to Henry IX, to do his best duty and provide an heir for a reeling nation that had seen the seventeen in line for the throne before Henry die or have their claims to the throne declared invalid by virtue of infertility. James had been pale but otherwise composed, seemingly calm as he’d pledged his troth. Henry IX had been impassive. Eggsy had fancied he’d seen Henry’s eyes burning with anger, and spent the next several nights tossing and turning as a fever of his own invaded his dreams.

That had been the last time Eggsy had seen his friend. The next time, he supposes, will be at the ceremony of annulment; and then, probably, at Eggsy’s own wedding.

Is it wrong, Eggsy wonders, to gain his heart’s desire at the expense of so much?

Assuming I even succeed in producing an heir. Assuming Harry doesn’t hate me now. Assuming I can win his confidence…

Henry IX’s opposition to the Registration and Royalty Act is widely known. He had argued strongly that a year is nowhere near enough time to produce an heir – that even perfectly fertile couples could take several years to conceive – that Omegas who went through this process and failed would have their mating prospects unnecessarily damaged, in a country that couldn’t afford to lose even a single fertile Omega to old maidenhood – that the stability of the country itself could be threatened by a revolving parade of carrier-consorts instead of a single Queen. But Parliament had passed the act anyway. Eggsy is forced to wonder, sitting before his mirror, if Henry IX will resent Eggsy as the representative of that Act.

Eggsy stands up abruptly. It’s no good thinking about it. It will be what it will be.

He blows out the candle. The thoughts, unfortunately, follow him to his bed.

The next day dawns blustery and grey. Michelle spends breakfast alternately listing all the shops they’ll visit to buy Eggsy’s trousseau and bemoaning how gauche it would be to start shopping before the official announcement and notification. After breakfast, Eggsy moves towards the morning-room automatically, only to be brought up short by his mother’s sharp words.

“Eggsy, dear, where are you going? Naturally we are not At Home this morning!”

“We aren’t?”

Michelle waves her fan majestically. “The news will be all over Town, official announcement or no. Everyone will be trying to visit us.”

“And that’s undesirable?” Eggsy thinks he can be forgiven for the questioning tone in his voice. As far as he understands Society, which he thinks is fairly well, it should be desirable to be visited by as many important personages as will no doubt be interested in evaluating, befriending, and possibly currying favor with the new potential Queen-to-be.

Michelle sniffs. “After the announcement has been made, naturally we shall wish to achieve a certain level of visibility. But before then, you are as a bride on the eve of their wedding, Eggsy. You are not to be seen until you are ready to burst out upon them in glory.” She nods in satisfaction. “Now come. We shall retire to the small parlor to await the royal messenger.”

Eggsy follows her in a daze. A morning trapped in the small parlor should be just as boring, if not more so, than a morning At Home, but he’s suddenly acquired a series of mental images that occupy him wholly. While Michelle draws up lists of necessary purchases and dreams of Eggsy’s wedding-dress, Eggsy finds himself dreaming of the wedding night, in sudden clear and glorious detail.

He has to fan himself several times.

Luncheon comes and goes without Reynolds interrupting their solitude, though his footsteps can frequently be heard going down the hall in response to a knock on the door. A royal messenger would be swiftly admitted, but no one comes. Eggsy imagines the varying disappointments of nobles come to call on the new carrier-consort, only to be repeatedly told that Madame and Miss were not At Home.

Just after four o’clock, though, when even Michelle has given in to the monotony and picked up a book, there’s a sudden flurry of footsteps. Reynold’s are measured and familiar as always, but there are others, almost as if every footman and housemaid in the place have crowded onto every stairway and into every door to witness something unusual. Something gossip-worthy. Something like –

Reynolds throws open the door. “An official messenger from His Majesty, Henry IX,” he announces.

Michelle and Eggsy both rise. Technically there’s no need – they’re both Omegas, while the messenger, by convention, will be an Alpha; and they’re in their own home besides – but something compels them. A desire for ceremony, perhaps. The old British sense of tradition that motivates so many of their finest moments – and so many of their least. Like the Registration and Royalty Act.

The messenger enters. An Alpha indeed, she’s dressed in the Palace livery, and bows as soon as she’s fairly cleared the threshold. First to Michelle, as senior, while Eggsy stares at her dark hair and tries not to sweat. Then to Eggsy, and as she straightens Eggsy is the recipient of a careful scrutiny.

“You are Eggsy Unwin, Lady Rowley, eldest child of the Earl of Rowley?” the messenger inquires.

Eggsy inclines his head. “I am indeed.”

She nods and recites: “Let it be known that His Majesty, Henry IX, and the carrier-consort, the former Lady James Spencer, having failed to conceive an heir to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, will have their ceremonial mating annulled, by official decree, effective the first of April; and, consequently, and pursuant to the Registration and Royalty Act, the Fertile Omega Lady Rowley is commanded to present himself to Westminster Abbey on the fifteenth of that same month, to be joined in ceremonial mating to the King and begin his own term as carrier-consort. His status as such to extend no further than one year, and be terminated either by annulment or by crowning and elevation to the rank of Queen.”

The messenger pauses here to draw breath, and proffers a scroll: the official document, summoning Eggsy to be wed. Eggsy reaches his hand out for it. Michelle gets there first, and takes it from the messenger before Eggsy touches it.

“Thank you for your message,” Michelle says, every inch the elegant Countess Rowley. She inclines her head, clearly expecting the messenger to leave.

The messenger doesn’t. She nods acknowledgement of Michelle’s words, but then speaks again, in a different tone. “His Majesty further bids me inquire, whether tomorrow evening or the next would be most convenient?”

Michelle actually betrays surprise, and Eggsy stares blankly. “Most convenient for what?” he asks.

The messenger coughs discreetly. “His Majesty considers it good form, regardless of the existence of the Act, to offer his suit to his – er – betrothed – in the traditional manner.”

Eggsy processes this. “He wants to visit to propose?”

“Eggsy!” Michelle snaps, having recovered her wits in the interim. She favors the messenger with a gentle smile. “Naturally we will be ready to receive his Majesty at any time that is convenient to him.”

“Of course, my Lady. However, his Majesty did insist I bear back to him your expressed preference,” the messenger murmurs.

Michelle’s smile turns a trifle sharp. She opens her mouth again, clearly ready to dismiss the messenger’s upstart pretentions. Eggsy doesn’t give her the chance.

“Tomorrow,” Eggsy blurts out.

Two sets of eyes swivel to him. Michelle’s, accusing. The messenger’s, approving. She bows again.

“My thanks, Lady Rowley,” she says smoothly. “I will carry your message to his Majesty – and any other, perhaps?”

“My child’s natural modesty – ” Michelle begins.

“Thank you,” Eggsy says, interrupting this time. That’s well over the line into rudeness, and he’ll catch a scolding for it, but Michelle would never lower herself to return the snub, and he rushes onwards into her icy silence. “I do, indeed, have another message. Please convey to his Majesty that I look forward to renewing my – my acquaintance with him – and assure him that I still think fondly of both dogs and garden fountains.”

Michelle stares, but the messenger smiles. “I shall do so, my Lady,” she promises. “Then, by your leave?”

Eggsy imitates his mother’s incline of the head. “Certainly,” he answers for them both.

Reynolds appears on this cue, far too well-trained to miss it. “This way, good sir,” he murmurs.

The messenger bows again and retreats. Scarcely is the door closed when Michelle rounds on Eggsy. “What were you thinking, setting up your preference over his Majesty’s convenience?” she cries. “You must be dutiful and submissive if you wish to secure your place as his Queen!”

“My fertility, or lack thereof, will determine whether I wear the crown,” Eggsy retorts. “I was thinking less of my rank and more of my mating. Which I hope to be one of mutual consideration, even if we achieve nothing else!”

There’s silence. Eggsy becomes aware that his voice had risen more than he’d intended, and he’d said more than he likes. He shakes his head, trying to look dutiful, to blunt his mother’s dismay. “What I mean is…” Eggsy doesn’t finish. He doesn’t know what he means, if not the truth.

“Oh, my child,” Michelle sighs. She holds out her arms, and Eggsy falls into them gratefully. “I forget how young you are. How much the world must still seem like a grand adventure to you.”

“Didn’t it seem so to you, when you mated with Father?”

Michelle smiles wistfully, and touches Eggsy’s cheek. “All that and more,” she sighs. “I wish I had never learned otherwise. Eggsy, my love, I want only your best happiness.”

“We have plenty of money, Mother.”

“But no true social security.” Michelle shakes her head. “If the money had been your sire’s, things would be different. But though I bear the title, the best hostesses do not forget that our wealth comes from my dowry, and was made in trade – nor that you bear my descent in equal measure to the Rowley blood. I wish to see you placed above that. Bear an heir for the King, and no one will ever snub you again.”

“And happiness?” Eggsy can’t help but ask. “You, who had such joy of your bond with Father – can you really ask me to mate without love?”

“Do I ask that, Eggsy?” Now Michelle’s eyes sparkle. “My eyes may be beginning to fail, but my heart still sees. You were fond of the King when you met before V-Day. You’re fond of him still. Am I not right?”

Eggsy deflates. “You’re right,” he admits. “But… the Act…”

“Yes, the Act,” she admits. “It opens a door and throws obstacles into the path, all at once. But you shall overcome.” Michelle smirks. “With the aid of a good wardrobe and a set of social graces, you shall overcome.” She gives Eggsy a gentle kiss on the cheek. “I believe in you, my little egg.”

Eggsy leans his head on his mother’s shoulder. He thinks of the message he’d sent to the King – to Harry. Daring, to recall the way they’d gone strolling in the gardens at their first and only ball. All unchaperoned, they’d come to a fountain, and sitting there, talked for a full three-quarters of an hour. Their mutual love of dogs had been only one of their many topics; the only one Eggsy had felt comfortable speaking of to the messenger, but still, he hopes, enough to recall himself to Harry.

The King.

So many years since they’d been Eggsy and Harry in a garden at midnight.

“I’ll try to believe in myself,” he murmurs.

Eggsy had indicated a preference for the earlier night, on the theory of not giving himself time to be nervous. He discovers his mistake when he awakens on the fateful morning feeling his stomach roiling at the mere thought of movement. He can’t quite tell if the nausea stems from the thought of the King visiting, or Harry.

Matters are not helped when he discovers that his mother has scheduled a visit from their usual modiste directly after the morning’s At Home. “Madame Fleury was most pleased to put a rush on your new silk,” she tells Eggsy. “The head seamstress will be here at one to ensure that everything is in order and add any final flourishes. You shall look your best when the King arrives.”

The morning drags. Half the ton parades through their morning-room, or so it seems, all mouthing the same pleasantries over again and smiling the same insincere smiles. The absolute worst is when Countess Huntington and Lady Charles Hesketh, her eldest child, pay their call. The nuances of rank among Earldoms are complex but clear: Charlie is just that much less senior than Eggsy. And though Mary Hesketh may be able to conceal how much she resents that Charlie is third on the Register instead of second, Charlie certainly cannot. His greeting is barely civil and he spends fourteen of the fifteen minutes of their visit in silence. Eggsy finds that vastly preferable to the comments he does make in the remaining sixty seconds.

“And to think, he’s next on the list of you don’t produce an heir.” Michelle shakes her head after they’re gone. “I think we may wish to relocate to the colonies, if that comes to pass, my dear.”

Eggsy laughs, though he’s not sure if he’s meant to. But his stomach roils again. If Charlie becomes carrier-consort, it’s because Eggsy has failed. And suddenly Eggsy’s musings of last night seem overweeningly confident. Here Eggsy is, thinking of romance and fountains by moonlight and hoping Harry will overlook the circumstances of their mating to give Eggsy a fair chance to win his heart, when in actuality none of that matters a bit. What matters is whether or not Eggsy can produce an heir. If he can, Harry will have to stay mated to him, yes, and it’s horrible to think of a life without a mate whom Eggsy can love and be loved by in return. But how much worse would it be to fall all the way in love with Harry Hart – to make the King fall in love with Eggsy – and then have to have their mating annulled, if Eggsy can’t?

“I think I’m going to be sick,” he tells his mother.

Michelle frowns. “Are you going into heat early? Because you get a year by the calendar either way, but if you can time your heats – ”

“Mama!” Eggsy’s cheeks catch flame. Embarrassment, at least, serves to quell some of the nausea.

The modiste’s head seamstress has the grace to arrive then, saving Eggsy from having to bear further discussion on the topic. But his own mind is not so easily evaded. Eggsy spends the entire fitting poised obediently still on the outside and writhing on the inside. Unbidden, his thoughts turn to the calendar and start plotting. Omegas’ heats come quarterly, everyone knows that, but of course no Omega is quite perfectly regular, and Eggsy is rather less regular than the average Omega, or so he gathers – no lady would discuss such a thing outright, of course, but there is the usual range of widely understood euphemisms, and the other young ladies Eggsy had befriended during his Seasons have visited the country for their health or gone to wait on their maiden aunt on something of a regular basis. Meanwhile Eggsy finds himself wandering about the seasons, almost a month out of place at his worst. A year by the calendar: that’s what the law provides, and that’s how long he’ll have, to lie with the King (even in his thoughts he blushes, and hastily fans himself – “So warm today, isn’t it, Lady Debenham? Quite unseasonable!”) and get with child. No provision is made for irregular heats. So really Michelle is quite right. It would be best if Eggsy could contrive to have his first heat as soon as possible after his mating, to maximize his chances of getting the full annual complement of four into the twelve months he’s allotted.

Now if only there were some reliable way of going into heat.

“Eggsy?” Michelle query recalls Eggsy to himself, and he blinks back into focus, attempting to look as if he hasn’t been wool-gathering. The attempt is probably futile, judging by the look Michelle is giving him, but thankfully Michelle doesn’t inquire. “You’re looking peaky,” is all she says. “You’d best take tea in your room and lie down for a spell. I’ll send your maid up to wake you when it’s time to dress. Mind you make a good tea, now, for you won’t want to overeat at dinner. His Majesty will be here right after.”

As if Eggsy could have forgotten. Michelle’s warning is quite unnecessary: Eggsy doesn’t expect to be able to eat a bite at dinner, and he barely nibbles at the edges of a cucumber sandwich when his maid brings the tea-tray. She draws the curtains, though, and the cool dimness makes Eggsy sigh with relief as he lies back against his pillows. Like this it almost seems as if he’s dreaming. As if all this crazy world he lives in, the V-Day virus and the Register of Fertile Omegas and the Registration and Royalty Act, are all some figment of a fevered imagination. Perhaps if Eggsy closes his eyes and breathes very, very steadily, he will go back to the world he remembers. The world where beautiful clothes were for beautiful dances, and the children of Earls might walk with Marquesses in the moonlight, without a care for anything but whether or not they might like each others’ smiles and share a fondness for dogs…

It's a beautiful dream. It lasts until Eggsy’s maid knocks on his door, and comes to help Eggsy dress for dinner.

Chapter Text

Henry, ninth of his name, by the grace of God, King of Britain and Ireland – who very much wishes he could still be plain Harry – throws down the letters he is trying to read and says, “Oh, fuck it all.”

There’s a cough. His secretary gathers up the papers, stiff with disapproval. “Will that be all, your Majesty?”

“Yes, yes, get out.” Harry hardly waits for the man to be gone before he drops his head into his hands. A heartfelt groan may not do much towards the betterment of Britain, but damn if it doesn’t make Harry himself feel better.

“Well, that doesn’t make me feel better about the future,” another voice says lightly. Harry looks up to see that James has entered the room. Unannounced and unchaperoned, but then, an Omega generally requires neither to be in a room with their mate. Even when said mating has less than twenty-four hours to exist.

Parliament has drafted the Act of Annulment. Harry expects it on his desk by midday. He will sign it, of course – he has no choice. By midnight his mating with James will be dissolved.

Harry has hardly seen James since the physician-midwife’s visit last week had told them what they’d more or less already known: James’ fourth and final heat of their year’s mating had been as barren as the first three. From that confirmation, a clock had begun to toll. Two days ago Harry had been summoned before Parliament to answer the Question of whether or not an heir had been conceived. Yesterday Parliament had gathered to draft the annulment, and notice had been sent to the next Omega on the Register – a Lady Rowley, Harry knows. Somewhere in the palace, no doubt overseen by Harry’s capable equerry, Merlin, preparations for a second wedding are already underway. Within the space of a single month, Harry will have shared his last heat with James, had their mating annulled, re-mated to a new Omega, and, in all probability, shared a heat with this Lady Rowley. While all the while Britain marches on, quite uncaring of what any of the participants in this farce have to say about it.

“I’m sorry,” Harry says to James.

James shakes his head and comes over to Harry’s desk. Harry sees without surprise that James is already dressed in traveling clothes. The last week since the physician-midwife’s visit has seen James’ household in a whirl of activity, as a veritable army of servants – some from the palace, and some from the establishment of James’ sire, the Duke of Malborough, to whence James will be returning - had descended to pack up James and his belongings for his departure.

Though not, it is to be hoped, for long. “Have you heard from Earl Morton recently?” Harry asks, trying to be casual.

“Worrying about me?” James perches on the edge of Harry’s desk, a wrenchingly familiar position: just so had James sat many a long evening during the past year, keeping Harry company while he’s worked. “I’ll be fine. I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Yes, James is lucky. Lucky that the engagement he’d had to break off in order to spend a year as Harry’s carrier-consort will be resumed without fuss. Lucky that he won’t have to endure Seasons with whispers following him – he’s spoiled goods now, already lain with an Alpha, couldn’t even conceive, who would want him?

“If Percival gets cold feet, tell him I’ll make him a Duke,” Harry says, instead of what he really wants to say, which is something like: I’m going to go down to Parliament and duel every single member of the House of Lords.

James laughs, as he is meant to. “It hasn’t been a bad year,” he says. “You’ve been kind. And – ” he hesitates, then throws his head back proudly. “I would have done my duty, if things had turned out differently.”

Harry knows this. Harry has known this, and hated this, for every one of the past three hundred and sixty-five days. And he could not tell, even know, why he has hated it the most. Has it been because James’ rigid sense of honor has prevented Harry from suggesting that they remain quietly separate for James’ heats – allowing James, at the end of the year, to go back to his life and his former fiancé? Or has it been because some part of Harry had seized on that knowledge and selfishly hoped that James might conceive? It’s despicable, and Harry has spent many a night castigating himself for it. But the fact of the matter is that James is honorable, is kind, is pleasant to be with – is, in short, Harry’s friend – and compared to the pleasant comfort of life with James, the thought of spending untold years working his way down a list of fertile Omegas is horrible. Always holding back affection in the face of inevitable parting, adapting himself to a different variety of domestic life according to the whims of whoever currently holds the post of carrier-consort, and then in the end finding himself mated for life to whomever manages to conceive first, with only luck to determine whether it’s someone Harry can stand or not…

Merlin, the only one to whom Harry had confessed these thoughts, had said that it’s natural enough. But that hadn’t stopped Merlin from further pointing out to Harry, in great detail, what an utter cad he would be for ruining James’ future just to avoid that fate. If James had been unattached when the Registration and Royalty Act had been passed, it would be different. If Harry had been first… but there: Percival had been first, and compared to the inferno of what the two of them clearly feel for each other, Harry’s friendship is a pale candle indeed.

Harry’s been silent too long. James slides off the desk, looking chastised. “Well,” he says. “I was just coming to say farewell.”

Harry can’t let James leave thinking Harry doesn’t genuinely wish him, and by extension Percival, the best. He casts hastily about for something to say and blurts out, “Do you know him?”

“Know whom?”

James settles back against the desk, not quite sitting on it but at least leaning, at least not leaving quite yet. Harry is kicking himself, because bringing up James’ replacement is not far off the worst topic he could have chosen, but he’s committed now. So Harry says: “Lady Rowley.” The Register appears in his mind – he’s memorized it, quite unbidden – “Gareth Leigh Unwin.”

“Oh!” Surprisingly, James smiles, and moves to sit more fully on the desk. “Yes, indeed, we were friends. Before V-Day.”

“Oh – yes, of course.” Harry really ought to have known that already himself. Now that he’s reminded, the page from Debrett’s is easy to recall, but he hadn’t put two and two together. “Earl Rowley was with your grandsire’s command in the Maldives, wasn’t he?”

“Indeed he was.” A moment of silence: respect for the dead. Then James laughs. “Gareth Leigh, my goodness, no wonder you couldn’t place the name. His sire used to call him Gary, I believe, but no one else – Eggsy, he goes by.”

Eggsy?” The name jiggles something in Harry’s memory. A hothouse of an evening ball, a breath of cool evening air, a fountain twinkling in the starlight. “Eggsy,” Harry repeats, slowly. “I – yes, I did meet him. Before.” He doesn’t have to elaborate. Everyone knows what is meant when someone says before, with that certain heavy emphasis. Before V-Day. That’s how time is measured now. Before, and After.

“He certainly remembered meeting you.” James sighs a little. “I think he rather mooned over you for a time, though I was too busy sighing after Percival to do my fair share of friendly listening.”

“Mooned over,” Harry repeats, with a certain amount of distaste. He’s been mooned over plenty, since his accession to the throne. It had been worst during the first six months, every unmated Omega with a title suddenly sensing the chance at a throne – the one good thing that wretched Act had done for Harry had been to shut down the crown-hunting. His year’s grace with James seems to have lulled Harry into a false sense of security. The crown-hunters haven’t gone away, they’ve just had to bide their time. They haven’t all been struck from the register for being infertile.

James, perhaps sensing the direction of Harry’s thoughts, flicks him lightly on the shoulder. “If you intend to go through life dismissing every Omega who’s ever had a youthful crush as somehow unworthy of you, you will be a sad, lonely, disappointed old Alpha, and I shall laugh at you. I shall drive to the palace every day for the express purpose of laughing at you. And if I should predecease you, I shall leave a bequest to anyone who continues to laugh at you daily, for the remainder of your life. For you shall amply deserve it.”

“Touché,” Harry says lightly. He bows, ironically and with some difficulty, since he is still seated. “I will even admit to certain puppyish crushes in my own, long-distant youth.”

James mock-gasps. “You? Why, your Majesty, surely you are above such mortal cares!”

Paradoxically, that sobers Harry. “I’ll miss you,” he admits, quietly. That’s all he says, but James seems to understand him nevertheless.

“Believe it or not, I will miss you as well,” James tells him. “But Eggsy is hardly a shrew, you know. I’d wager you and he will get along at least as well as you and I have.”

“In other words, he’s a good egg?” Merlin would thwap Harry for that, but at least it makes James smile. And it makes Harry ask: “How did he gets such a nickname?”

“Ah, that’s a story.” James stands and stretches. “And not mine to tell. But if he’s still here a year and a day from your wedding, perhaps he’ll tell you.”

A knock comes on the door, and soft-footed servant enters. “The Duke’s coach stands at the gates, my Lady,” she says to James.

Harry looks at James. He wants to say, stay. Just for a few days. The wedding won’t be for a fortnight – stay, and keep me company. Keep the loneliness away for just a little while longer.

More selfishness. Instead Harry rises and says, “I’ll see you out.”

“Thank you,” James says softly. He settles his hand on Harry’s offered arm, and Harry escorts him from the room, for the last time.

“Ye don’t need to do this,” Merlin says.

“That depends on which set of values you consult,” Harry returns. He doesn’t bother to shorten his strides; one of the few nice things about being King is that keeping up is a problem for others. Unfortunately, Merlin’s legs are even longer than Harry’s, and the equerry keeps up with ease. “I was raised that it’s polite to ask a lady for their hand in marriage.”

“When the lady in question has a choice in the matter, aye. But this is more like rubbing it in.”

“I disagree.”

“Harry.” That makes Harry stop. Merlin had been Harry’s valet before Harry’s accession to the throne, but he’s embraced the new formality of Harry’s position – and his own – with the fervor of a new convert. Addressing Harry so formally is quite out of character. He looks at his friend questioningly, and Merlin continues. “I know ye think ye’re acting from chivalry, but take a second thought. This lady’s got no choice but to accept yer suit, and ye know it. Ye’re not even offering a proper mating. The whole thing is as dishonorable a notion as only the English could come up with and dare to dress in pretty clothes. Why make yerself more complicit in it than ye have to be?”

“There’s something to what you say,” Harry admits. “But think about it from the other side. Suppose that Lady Unwin – ” he coughs. “Suppose he becomes my Queen. Or whomever – I can’t choose who they are. I can’t do anything about the Act. But I can choose to have the beginning of our relationship be a traditional proposal, rather than meeting over the altar without us having any choice in the matter. Isn’t that better?”

There’s a moment of silence. Then Merlin scoffs, “Ach, ye old romantic,” and Harry knows that Merlin won’t complain about it any further.

“Anyway, you’ve got plenty of work to be doing tonight that doesn’t need my interference,” Harry says. “So, although it’s rather putting the cart before the horse, I’m going to go propose to my fiancée while you plan my wedding.”

“Get on with ye then.” Merlin waves him away, turning back into the palace. “I’ll see ye in the morning.”

Harry walks the rest of the way to the carriage-loop alone. It’s a short ride to Mayfair, where the Rowley townhouse is located. Or perhaps it only seems short because Harry, despite his bold words to Merlin, is rather dreading what will happen when he arrives.

Since James had jogged his memory this morning, Harry has slowly dragged out the recollection of the handful of times he’s met Lady Unwin. They’d spoken for a few minutes one morning while driving on the Row, he thinks. And Harry had carried the Rowley’s packages once – or, well, his valet had – when they’d encountered each other among the fashionable shops. The most notable occasion of course being their meeting at the Cuxhavens’ ball, when they’d danced, and walked in the gardens, and talked – as the royal messenger has since reminded him – of dogs.

Perhaps Harry will get him a dog, after they’re mated. That would be something else not required by the Act. Something nice for just the two of them.

The carriage pulls to a halt. The door opens, and Harry descends.

Some days he doesn’t think he’ll ever quite get used to being King. He remembers being a mere Marquess, able to drive his own horses if he chooses, walk up to a door and knock like any other gentleman come to see a lady. He remembers when butlers didn’t turn white at the mere sight of him and when housemaids didn’t nearly trip over the teapot rushing to bring him refreshments.

Though he flatters himself that young ladies had always had to catch at door-jambs, and nearly faint, when being escorted into his presence.

“Your Majesty,” Eggsy Unwin stammers.

Harry rises automatically, though he remembers, belatedly, that he is no longer required to do so. Nevertheless, he offers a courtly bow, as well. He’s started this, and he’s going to finish it.

“You look lovely this evening,” Harry says. It’s not a shallow pleasantry: Eggsy does indeed look lovely. The tunic of lilac silk must be new, it’s so sharply creased, and the delicate spring-green laces that hold it closed along Eggsy’s sides and at his throat can never have been knotted in any other position. The laces dangle tantalizingly down to Eggsy’s leggings, which are dyed the same green, tapering down shapely calves to soft calf hide boots.

It’s all quite lovely. And, as the part of Harry that is always calculating knows, very carefully chosen. Green for fertility, especially that particular green that is the color of new-grown grass, with its association with spring and the flowering of new life. Lilac, for what is delicately termed ‘compatibility’ – the not-well-understood way certain Omegas’ scents will be irresistible to certain Alphas, and vice versa. Harry wonders if Eggsy is worldly enough to understand the sexual undertones there as well. Certainly, whoever had chosen this outfit had understood them. Fortunately for Eggsy’s reputation, Harry has been in the ton long enough to give due credence to the possibility of an overzealous mama rather than a precocious child. The combination is certainly no accident. Nor is the way the leggings are molded rather than bell-legged. It’s the latest fashion, and quite daring. The traditional bell style resembles the full dresses worn by female Omegas, and once the height of style had been to dress Omegas in such a way that one could not tell the difference between the two. Now daring male Omegas dress in a way that blurs the lines between Alphaic and Omegan dress.

“Thank you, your Majesty,” Eggsy breathes. “Sir. You – your presence honors our humble home.”

Harry gives Eggsy a smile, watching as Eggsy’s eyes widen. He can’t quite tell their color. He can tell that someone – probably the same overzealous mama who had chosen the outfit – has touched Eggsy’s cheeks with rouge and his lips with coral. He can tell that the emeralds Eggsy is wearing are borrowed, by the way that the necklace hangs an inch too short for his taller frame and the ring is worn on the smaller pinky finger instead of the more traditional ring. And he can tell that Eggsy does not usually wear his hair quite so long, by the way that Eggsy keeps tucking stray hairs out of his face and back behind his ears.

“You can cut it, if you want,” Harry says impulsively, after Eggsy brushes away a particularly stubborn lock for the third time. “After our marriage.”

“Oh, no, I – ” Eggsy fumbles for the polite response for a moment longer, then suddenly seems to give it all up and laughs. “Mama says that respectable Omegas don’t buzz their hair off unless they’ve just had an illness.”

Somehow, and Harry is not quite sure how, he finds himself standing mere inches from Eggsy. Somehow he is fingering a strand of that hair thoughtfully. In the lamp-light it’s hard to tell its color: it might be anything from pure gold to light brown, under proper sunlight. But it’s soft and silky and Harry finds himself agreeing with Countess Rowley. “Perhaps you’ll indulge me with a trim instead of a buzz,” Harry suggests. “Out of your eyes, but not quite too short to…” Harry trails off, leaving the rest of the thought unfinished. Eggsy draws in a shocked breath at the implication, and looks up – he’s tall for an Omega, but still shorter than Harry – and Harry can see now that his eyes are blue, but a blue so dark that they will only appear so in direct light. Here in the lamplight they seem to swim between blue and brown. They will look darker in the bedchamber.

Somewhere in the house, a careless servant bangs a door. Harry does not quite leap back in embarrassed shock, but he does straighten and make himself unhand Eggsy. “Forgive my presumption,” he murmurs by rote.

But Eggsy doesn’t fall back stammering like the typical gently bred Omega. He continues looking at Harry, direct and forthright, neither blushing nor simpering. “Was it presumptuous?” he asks. “Formalities aside, the law says I am already yours.”

That destroys the burgeoning intimacy quite thoroughly, the dousing of shame that washes over Harry more effective than cold water in stilling amorous thought. “The law – ” may go hang, Harry stops himself from saying barely in time. “ – is the law,” he says instead, “but I should infinitely prefer if matters between us were conducted more, er – ” Harry’s invention fails him – he had not had to explain himself so to James, who had understood without speaking of it, and somehow it had not occurred to Harry to rehearse this conversation in advance – “traditionally.”

Harry fights the urge to wince as soon as the word is out of his mouth, because tradition, when it comes to affairs between Alphas and Omegas, at least those of the noble ranks, is often as tight of a straightjacket as any law may be. But it’s too late to take it back now. The word is said, hanging in the air between them, and Eggsy Unwin is nodding slowly.

“Of course,” Eggsy says carefully. “I am quite of your Majesty’s way of thinking.”

Harry wants to say something sarcastic and cutting. It’s quite obvious that Eggsy is nothing of the kind, is merely saying what he thinks his legally-proclaimed fiancé (and, oh, King) wants to hear. Well done, Harry, you’ve frightened him, he thinks. What an ogre he must believe you.

Perhaps Merlin had been right. Not that Harry has any intention of ever admitting that. Which means Harry must try to save the situation. Somehow.

“Lady Unwin,” Harry begins slowly, and right away sees the Omega tense up. “Excuse me,” he backtracks. “I should have begun by asking, whether you would allow me the use of your Christian name?”

“Oh,” Eggsy says in surprise. “I – what?”

Had Harry read this wrong? Belatedly Harry realizes that the tension may have been because Harry had already been using a less formal form of address; Lady Rowley would have been by far the most proper, given that they had never really been introduced in their current roles, their last meeting coming several years ago – coming Before, in fact – when Harry had held a considerably less senior title. Eggsy may have been tensing up from the perceived slight, not from what Harry had assumed to be an excess of formality.

“Only if you wish it,” Harry says hastily. “That is, I – how would you prefer to be addressed?” Which is the question Harry ought to have asked in the first place, if only he weren’t such a confounded mess.

Eggsy stares at him, and Harry can’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that he is being weighed and found wanting. But: “Eggsy,” he blurts out. And then he fidgets, and looks away, and behaves suddenly like a missish Omega. “That is. My Christian name is Gary – Gareth – but no one – Eggsy. If you will, my Lord.”

My Lord is an improvement over your Majesty, at any rate. And Harry is heartened to have been offered Eggsy’s preferred name, though that must have been helped by the fact that no one uses Gareth or Gary. It’s still a starting point. Harry makes his voice as warm as he can as he says, “Eggsy.”

Eggsy blushes. And Harry is quite an attractive Alpha – or so he flatters himself – and he is, unforgettably, King – but –

He certainly remembered meeting you, James had said. I think he rather mooned over you for a time.

Responsibility settles over Harry like the uncomfortable, hot, itchy cloak he’d been forced to wear at his coronation. He’d known intellectually that Eggsy is rather younger than he, but it hadn’t been real, hadn’t mattered, until this moment. Differences in age in noble marriages are rather more common than not, for one thing. And Harry remembers, the first time he’d read over the Register, remarking to Merlin that there had hardly been a lady older than five-and-twenty upon it. James had been very nearly an old maid at only half Harry’s age. Though that at least had been a matter of choice: as the child of a Duke, James had had his pick of husbands, and it had been a romantic nature rather than a paucity of suitors that had kept James unmated until Percival Morton had returned from the Maldives and tripped him into love.

What does Harry know of Eggsy Unwin? Only surviving child of the deceased Earl of Rowley – if Eggsy becomes Queen, the title will revert to the crown. His carrier, Countess Rowley, had been the child of a merchant. After Earl Rowley’s death the family had had plenty of money still but little social cachet. The title had been granted high for the last Earl’s grandsire’s accomplishments, but its newness has never yet worn off. No notable marriage alliances to speak of, probably for the same reason. Eggsy himself had neither attended the best finishing schools nor been sent abroad to France for seasoning. He’d had only the one Season, and then V-Day had come.

The Rowley title itself is not terribly old. And neither is Eggsy himself. Young, wellborn but with the air of a bank-book about him, moderately but not overwhelmingly dowered, bringing no title with him, and given to mooning over handsome, titled Alphas in the moonlight at the last ball of his first Season. Harry has seen it all before. It usually ends in heartbreak. There are far too many dissolute young lordlings who would amuse themselves with an Eggsy Unwin, keeping them on a string while the lordlings wait and hope for a better prospect. Harry has never been sure if the luckier ladies are the ones whose suitors eventually do settle for marrying them, having found nothing better, or the ones who are back on the marriage mart the next Season, a year older, a little wiser, a little more discreet behind their feathered fans, but with a quality of innocence gone that can never quite be reclaimed.

That is what Eggsy is putting into Harry’s hands. Whether he would have done so under any other circumstances – whether his nascent crush would have been nourished or flamed out in the natural course of things – no longer matters. Whether Harry himself would have pursued the acquaintance or let it drop, had V-Day never come, will never be known. They are here now. And Harry has always despised those lordlings who toy with the affections of a lady they know to be in love, when they themselves are nothing of the sort.

“I know it’s a silly sort of name,” Eggsy is saying, has been saying, babbling nervously to fill the silence that Harry has let fall. “Mama is always telling me I should have laid it by when my last governess left and I started putting my hair up and wearing long dresses. But you see, only my sire ever called me Gary, and after he died…”

“I understand entirely,” Harry hastens to assure him. “I myself find it constricting to be always called Henry.” Never mind all the your Majesty-ing.

“You prefer Harry?” Eggsy is nodding slowly. “I think – you asked me to call you Harry. Before.”

“So I did.” Harry offers a smile, is unaccountably warmed when Eggsy returns it. “Then it’s settled. When we’re in private, at least, we shall be Harry and Eggsy.”

“I’d like that,” Eggsy says softly.

Harry nods. Swallows. Silence falls again, and this time Eggsy makes no attempt to fill it. Eggsy knows why Harry’s come – Harry had instructed the herald to announce it a-purpose, to give all parties involved time to prepare. Not that that seems to be helping Harry. It’s been a long time since he’d been a boy at Eton, standing up to recite and finding his tongue glued to the roof of his mouth. The sinking feeling of those days has made an unwelcome return. Harry has not missed it.

“Eggsy,” Harry begins, since they’ve agreed to call each other so. Then he thinks better of it: “Lady Rowley.” This is a matter of their noble personae, after all. But then he thinks a third time – there are few things more private and intimate than the mating bed – and says, involuntarily, “Oh, fuck.”

Doing this with James had been easy. They’d both known what they were getting into. It had been a matter of form to propose. Harry had spoken the traditional sentence, James had accepted, and that had been that. How is it suddenly so difficult?

A muffled sound breaks the silence, and Harry stiffens. Then the sound comes again. Eggsy is – he’s laughing.

“Ah,” Harry says, still embarrassed, but relieved, at least, to find his bride-to-be somewhat in charity with him. “I do apologize. I seem to be making things awkward.”

“No more than they were already, really,” Eggsy says, still chuckling. “I couldn’t quite figure out who you were proposing to, but I suppose you couldn’t either.”

“I suppose both of you,” Harry says ruefully. “And both of me, for that matter.”

“Then I suppose you’d better propose twice,” Eggsy says, cheeky.

“Perish the thought.”

Eggsy’s mirth fades. “I suppose the King and Lady Rowley are already engaged,” he says.

“I suppose you’re right.” The idea is not as distasteful as it had used to be. How interesting. Well. Harry takes a step backwards to give himself room and bows again. “Eggsy, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”

He expects – he doesn’t know what he expects. Eggsy to laugh again, perhaps. Or to blush. Both had seemed likely enough, based on the past half-an-hour. But nothing in those thirty minutes had prepared Harry for Eggsy’s face to fall.

Please don’t cry, Harry thinks in sudden horror. In Eggsy’s defense, he doesn’t actually appear to be about to – the redness in his cheeks is only from the rouge, and there’s no tell-tale sheen in his eyes – but Harry has a horror of Omegan tears, and is suddenly overcome with an ancient urge to flee from the room and find a convenient library to bury himself in. He makes himself be still, and in the end it’s Eggsy who retreats, if only as far as a step and the breaking of their locked gaze.

“I can’t be your wife,” Eggsy says. He’s staring down at the carpet as if it’s the most absorbing thing on earth. Harry looks, too. It’s a very fine carpet. Richly dyed purple flowers twine bright green vines, scrolling around the edges of a cream pile. The colors march Eggsy’s clothes, Harry sees. He wonders irrelevantly if the carpet is also new.

Then what Eggsy is saying catches up, and – oh. No. Eggsy can’t, can he? Harry can’t have a wife. He can only have a carrier-consort. Unbidden, Merlin’s sarcastic commentary repeats itself in Harry’s mind’s ear: as dishonorable a notion as only the English could come up with and dare to dress in pretty clothes. And: why make yerself more complicit in it than ye have to be?

Harry straightens his shoulders and stares a hole into the top of Eggsy’s bowed head until Eggsy lifts his chin up to meet that gaze, seemingly in spite of himself. “For a year you will be,” Harry insists. “I will accept nothing less. Even if we must later part, we will be man and wife for that time.”

Oh, Eggsy’s lips shape. He studies Harry, as much as if to ask: do you mean it?

Harry does mean it. He can’t promise what will happen after Eggsy’s term as carrier-consort is through. He can’t promise to mean it for Eggsy’s successor, if Eggsy doesn’t conceive. He can’t even, shamefully, promise to mean it for Eggsy, after the year is up. What if they don’t suit? What if Eggsy comes to resent Harry for the turn his life has taken, and finds that a crown and a puppy crush doesn’t make up for a lost young adulthood and the chance to find real love? Worse – what if Harry becomes one of those lordlings he’s always despised, and one day Eggsy grows up enough to realize it?

But a year, Harry thinks. Surely they can manage a year. If they come to this mating with mutual respect and a willingness to try, they can come out of it on the other end with hearts and honor intact. Whichever end they reach.

“A year,” Eggsy says. For a moment Harry blinks, taken aback by the echo of his own thoughts. Eggsy looks determined, though, and there’s something impossibly endearing about the stubborn set of his jaw, the glitter in his eyes that’s more than just lamplight. Fire from within. Harry suddenly wants to see Eggsy burning with that fire, consumed by heat in their mating bed. The primal feeling is not in the least assuaged by the cold knowledge that, soon enough, Harry will have that opportunity.

“A year,” Harry agrees. “So under those terms – ”

“Yes,” Eggsy says, interrupting. Harry falls silent in sheer awe. How long has it been since someone had last dared? Eggsy doesn’t even seem to realize what he’s done. He’s nodding to himself, and the look he gives Harry is damn near a dare. “I’ll be your wife.”

Harry finds himself grinning back, fierce and ready. “Then prepare your wedding-dress,” he tells his bride-to-be. “I will see you in Westminster Chapel, on the fifteenth of the month.”

Chapter Text

The best advice Eggsy gets on his wedding day is simple. “Just breathe,” Michelle counsels him, as Eggsy’s standing in the dressing-room of the Rowley townhouse trying not to do just that. Lady Carlyle, who had been in charge of the former carrier-consort’s household and is, until Eggsy decides otherwise, about to be in charge of Eggsy’s, is in the act of drawing the laces of Eggsy’s tunic tight when Michelle offers this dictum. She frowns at the mere suggestion.

Eggsy lets out an explosive breath as soon as Lady Carlyle ties the laces off. The graceful bows droop briefly as his ribcage inflates, before returning to their proper drape when he exhales again. “I don’t think traditional Omegan dress is made for breathing,” Eggsy says, trying for wry humor. He’s dismally aware that he sounds lost and more than a little frightened.

“It’s only for a year,” Lady Carlyle says, coming around to regard Eggsy with sharp eyes, checking for so much as a hair out of place. Her own dress is immaculate, and Eggsy sighs over the cream silk that sets off her tanned skin, the well-managed waves of dark golden hair, so unlike Eggsy’s own. But Eggsy must pass muster, because Lady Carlyle nods. And adds, possibly meaning to be supportive: “Unless you breed, of course.”

“Did you do this for James?” Eggsy blurts out. He doesn’t know which answer he wants to hear. He doesn’t know why he’d asked the question. There are a laundry list of taboos for any noble, and more for an Omega, and even more for an Omega on the cusp of being mated to royalty. But first on that list has to be: don’t ask about the Omega who came before you. Don’t ask about the Omega who failed.

Lady Carlyle hesitates, darting a glance at Countess Rowley, no doubt checking to see if the peeress is offended. Michelle just looks back at her, serene.

Roxanne – Lady Carlyle – had come by her title not by mating but as a grant from the newly-crowned Henry IX himself. She had been close friends with James Spencer, and when her fertility and mating prospects alike had been destroyed on V-Day, James had asked her to join the royal household – in fact to head the distaff side of it. Her sire had objected. Hence the grant, a small barony in Ireland to give her independence. From what little Eggsy had heard of her since, she’d excelled in the role. And she no doubt still feels loyalty to James, the old, dear friend who’d helped give her a new lease on life after V-Day.

James had failed to breed with the new King. The tests had said he’d be fertile. But those are the same tests that say Eggsy is still fertile, too. That fertility is the only claim either of them have to the King. Lady Spencer had been first in line, the eldest Omega offspring of the Duke of Marlborough. He had failed to conceive in the year allotted to him. Now Eggsy is arrayed in traditional dress, ready to begin his own journey.

Don’t ask about the Omega who came before you. Except Eggsy has asked.

“Yes,” Lady Carlyle says at last. “I did this for James.”

Eggsy nods slowly. And you’ll do it for Charlie Hesketh, if I fail, he thinks. The thought is awful, not least because Eggsy has no idea how Harry will feel if that happens. Will he regret Eggsy? Eggsy wants him to – except that, no, he doesn’t – he wants Harry to be happy – but he wants that happiness to come from being with Eggsy. If there were anything Eggsy could do to make that certain – but all that matters is whether or not Eggsy can breed, and that’s not under Eggsy’s control –

“It’s not exactly starting like a fairy tale,” Michelle says comfortingly. “But you don’t know how the story will end.”

“His Majesty is kind and courteous,” Lady Carlyle offers. “Lady Spencer had no complaints about his treatment.”

No complaints. Well. A ringing endorsement, to be sure. If Eggsy had known nothing of Henry IX other than that his previous mate had had no complaints, Eggsy isn’t sure he’d be able to make it down the aisle today.

But he does know more. He does…

The law is the law. But I should infinitely prefer if matters between us were conducted more traditionally.

There’s a polite knock on the door. It’s Reynolds. “The carriage is at the door,” he murmurs.

“Thank you, Reynolds,” Lady Carlyle says calmly. “We are ready.”

“Are you ready?” Michelle asks, in a voice only Eggsy can hear.

Eggsy manages a nod. “Yes, Mother.” His body is ready, at least. Eggsy is honestly afraid to walk down the steps of the townhouse and into the waiting carriage, lest a speck of dust blow his way and ruin all this careful perfection.

But of course that’s nonsense. Lady Carlyle is already closing the clasps on an enormous box, which Reynolds picks up carefully and prepares to carry behind them to place in the carriage. If anything dares, it will be whisked away before the wheels complete so much as a single rotation.

The carriage itself has been drawn up so close to the townhouse’s door that its wheels are practically up on the stairs. Eggsy has to slide sideways into the cushioned seat. Michelle and Lady Carlyle follow, the latter tactfully taking the opposite seat.

The door closes and the horses are urged into motion. Eggsy is staring out the window, watching the townhouse fall away, and so does not immediately notice that the atmosphere in the carriage has become tight and strained. When he does notice it, he immediately looks down at himself to see if he’s committing some terrible faux pas. Has he crossed his legs at the knee instead of the ankle? Has the much-feared speck of dust marred the crisp white cloth or intricate leaf-green embroidery? Have his laces come undone somewhere, revealing a scandalous glimpse of ankle or collar-bone?

Nothing seems to be amiss. Eggsy looks up. Lady Carlyle immediately looks away and becomes absorbed with the passing scenery. Michelle at least has the decency to meet Eggsy’s eyes.

“Well,” she says, too brightly. “My dear, you have been an admirable child, but today – or rather tonight – you become an adult. I feel confident you have an adequate grasp of your marital duties. Nevertheless…”

Eggsy’s eyes widen. His cheeks catch flame enough, he’d guess, to put his rouge to shame. He sinks down on his seat as far as he can.

There is, alas, no escape.

“…as long as your arrangement shall last?”

Eggsy barely manages to keep himself from boggling. It makes sense that they would change the wording of the ceremony – promising to love, support, and cherish Harry as long as they both should live would be a tad hypocritical, given the nature of the law – but somehow he hadn’t thought of it, and it takes him completely by surprise.

The Archbishop lowers her book slightly, the better to glare pointedly at Eggsy over the tips of his gold-rimmed glasses. Eggsy says, hastily, “I do.”

The closing of the book makes a short, soft snap that is probably only audible to Eggsy’s ears. “Then I pronounce you Alpha and Omega,” the Archbishop intones. To Harry: “You may now kiss the bride.”

Bride. The word takes the air out of Eggsy’s lungs. Somehow he’d managed to avoid the thought of himself as a bride – much like, until Harry’s stumbling proposal, he’d likewise managed to avoid the use of the word wife. Words that don’t properly belong to Eggsy, not really. Perhaps in twelve months – but not now. Not today. Except that the Archbishop looks expectant, and the choir is ready to get to their feet, and Harry is going to kiss somebody and the best candidate for the position is definitely Eggsy –

Oh. Oh, so this is what being kissed is like.

For the first, brief moment it’s underwhelming – a simple brush of lips, almost chaste, and Eggsy would be offended, except that then he draws in an instinctive breath. He’d lost the air in his lungs at the word bride, so that he’s almost starved for oxygen, and he pulls the air in recklessly – through his nose, for his mouth is, as previously established, otherwise occupied. In a way that is suddenly not underwhelming at all.

Eggsy can’t understand it. The air in the church is a trifle musty, overlaid with incense and the waft of far too many perfumes. And suddenly he can smell none of that. Surrounding him, saturating his pores, is something he’s never scented before. Something that can only be Harry.

The brush of lips no longer feels chaste. It feels like a live wire running from the crown of Eggsy’s head down to his toes. Instinctively he leans into it, chasing the feeling. The hairs on his arms stand on end. The church fades into grey irrelevance. All that matters is Harry, and Eggsy, and the inexplicable amount of space in between them. Eggsy presses closer, feeling –

Feeling hands on his shoulders. Harry’s hands, of course, warm and large and beautifully firm. Eggsy presses into that firmness. The resistance excites him at first. Some primal part of Eggsy stirs, eager to test the depth of that force, to writhe against it and find out its limits. To find, ideally, that it is limitless.

“Eggsy,” Harry says. He says it quietly, privately, and so Eggsy later thinks he can be forgiven for the spike of lust it drives into his belly. Eggsy’s eyes fly open – when had they closed? – and he meets Harry’s gaze, expecting to be met challenge for challenge, eagerness for eagerness –

Harry’s expression is as closed off and unreadable as the figures in the stained-glass windows lining the church. He’s leaning away, not towards Eggsy. Over the sudden roaring in his ears, Eggsy hears a titter.

Embarrassment leeches the strength from Eggsy’s limbs. He feels suddenly unbalanced as Harry releases his shoulders, as if he’ll fall over without Harry to keep him upright. The church bleeds back into focus, but it’s a hostile place, full of mocking eyes and wagging heads and a low murmur that, try as Eggsy might, he can’t fool himself into thinking is just the fluttering of fans.

The Archbishop makes a gesture, abrupt enough that it draws Eggsy’s attention. The choir shoots to their feet in an uncoordinated shuffle of robes and breaks into sudden song.

There’s warmth on Eggsy’s skin again – just for a moment. Harry picks up Eggsy’s hand as if it’s a dropped handkerchief and places it precisely on his arm. The King turns them both towards the crowd. And there they stand for long moments, allowing the gathered nobility of Britain to look upon them, while soaring into the air behind them are the notes of the choir’s rendition of God Save the King. Eggsy has never in his life wanted so much to sink into the floor in a dead faint.

Alas, that life is not so kind. The song comes to an end. The string quartet, seated next to the choir, begin to play – some classical piece steeped in tradition. Harry – the King – moves down the aisle at a measured pace. Ensconced upon his arm, Eggsy has little choice but to follow. In fact, Eggsy has no choices – none at all. Caught up in the romance of that remembered night by the fountain, and the years-long flame he’d carried for then-Lord Hart, how had Eggsy failed to consider that being married – whether carrier-consort or wife – means that Eggsy will never make a choice that matters again?

For as long as your arrangement shall last. Faced with the sudden realization of just how much power Harry has over him – and how little, really, Eggsy actually knows the King – Eggsy’s desire to faint transmutes itself abruptly into a desire to run. To snatch up his long trailing ribbons and bolt like a horse out of its traces, out of the church and down the greens and all the way to the Thames. Could Eggsy swim to America, he wonders? Are things any different there?

“Eggsy?” Harry says again. Eggsy blinks. They’ve emerged from the church into the light of the noonday sun. And there is a closed carriage waiting. The King’s carriage. A footman has opened the door, of course, but Harry himself is urging Eggsy forward, seemingly confused by his new bride’s insistence on standing still as a post. Harry says, carefully, “Is everything all right?”

Faint or run or get into the carriage, Eggsy thinks with sudden clarity, but make your decision and then hold to it.

His mother’s advice: Just breathe.

Eggsy breathes. And then he gets into the carriage.

Harry swings up afterwards – is that an air of relief, or is Eggsy projecting? He isn’t sure. He sits automatically on the forward-facing bench and busies himself arranging all of his ribbons and laces while Harry does the same. Then the carriage swings into motion, and Eggsy dares to look at his husband – mate – King.

He has a long moment during which he may watch Harry as much as he pleases; Harry is gazing out the window at the passing street, abstracted. Eggsy studies the long thin line of Harry’s nose. Watches the high arch of his brow. Recalls the width of his shoulders and the spread of his hands – Eggsy shudders slightly, involuntarily, at the memory of the strength in those hands. What had Harry thought about the breadth of Eggsy’s shoulders? Had he found them too wide? Coarse, Lady Hesketh had once called Eggsy, sneering at the stockiness of his frame. Uncouth. Willowy Omegas are the fashion right now. Charlie had been Eggsy’s greatest detractor during their shared Season, starting a whisper campaign that had linked the width of Eggsy’s hips to his mother’s merchant blood. Once at a party Charlie had spoken too loudly, and Eggsy had had the satisfaction of retorting that at least he wouldn’t die in childbirth. But the triumph had been short-lived, and the humiliation had lingered, especially as ball after ball had followed with Charlie’s card full and Eggsy’s half-empty.

Eggsy blinks to wish away the memories, and reopens his eyes to see that Harry has turned from the window to look at him. The afternoon sun gilds his hair. There’s grey at the temples, Eggsy sees, but it’s beautiful. It makes Harry look steady. Eggsy yearns to be held again, to feel that steadiness surrounding and supporting him.

Harry says, “Are you comfortable? We have rather a long ride ahead of us.”

“We do?” Eggsy doesn’t attempt to conceal his surprise. “The palace is hardly far…”

“We’re not going to the palace. Did no one tell you?” Eggsy shakes his head, mutely, and Harry sighs. “We’re going to Windsor. I thought it would be better if we spent some time out of the public eye immediately after our mating. Especially if your, ah, time, is approaching.” Harry looks embarrassed to be referring to Eggsy’s heat in even so elliptical a manner. Eggsy is charmed. Those heats are the entire purpose of the carrier-consort arrangement, and Eggsy isn’t even the first holder of the post; he would have expected Harry to be more accustomed to the notion. His circumspection is endearing.

Then Harry says, “It will also give us time to work on public appearances and manners.”

Eggsy doesn’t flinch. He’s too shocked. The words seem to come out of nowhere. Hadn’t Eggsy just been feeling charmed – feeling affectionate? Hadn’t they just been drawing together? What had happened?

But of course, Eggsy knows what had happened. Eggsy’s own bad behavior had happened. He’d been uncouth, leaning into Harry’s kiss at the church. Panting after him, in public no less – hardly the demure, respectable Omega that the ton cultivates. Whereas Eggsy had taken the reference to sharing heat together with warmth and excitement, Harry had probably been repulsed. Hadn’t he always heard, in the retiring rooms at balls where Omegas had touched up their makeup and shared their gossip, that the truest sign of refinement in a lady is their ability to rise above their body’s carnal lusts? Charlie Hesketh and his contingent had always charged that Eggsy is no lady. And now Eggsy’s gone and proved him right.

What would a lady do right now? Eggsy draws his posture ramrod straight, folds his hands delicately in his lap, and casts his gaze modestly down. “Of course, my Lord,” he murmurs.

“Eggsy?” Harry sounds tentative. “I know royal etiquette is no one’s idea of a good time, but it is necessary. Or so Merlin assures me.”

“Merlin?” Eggsy endeavors to sound interested.

“My equerry.” Now Harry sounds long-suffering, even rolling his eyes fondly when Eggsy dares to peek up. “Formerly my valet. My mother assured me he was never my nursemaid, but some days it can be hard to tell the difference.”

“Ah.” The sound is all Eggsy dares to make at first. Then, with difficulty, he manages: “I’m sorry about your loss.”

Harry seems to turn to stone before Eggsy’s eyes. “Thank you,” is all he says.

Eggsy turns slightly away, feeling like a heel. The Queen Mother had died early into James’ reign as carrier-consort. The mourning had widely been blamed for James’ first heat being barren, with rumors swirling that the King had not even visited the carrier-consort’s bed for months after his mother’s death. Eggsy doesn’t dare ask for the truth. Harry’s reaction is enough to tell him the wound is still raw.

At last Harry clears his throat and says, “There are many members of my household you will wish to become acquainted with. You will need to choose a head of your household…”

“Lady Carlyle suited me admirably,” Eggsy says hastily. He doesn’t know who else might be foisted upon him – whether they will be someone he can trust. Lady Carlyle, at least, Eggsy had known Before. And she had never played the kind of games Charlie Hesketh and his ilk had.

“She was already to join us at Windsor, to serve in an interim capacity,” Harry says. “I shall ask her if she will undertake the charge.”

Eggsy bites his tongue rather than say that he’ll ask her himself. It’s Eggsy’s household she’ll head – his staff she’ll oversee, his social duties she’ll help execute. The divide between the distaff and spear sides is even more complete at this level than it had been at the level Eggsy has forsaken. The request should come from Eggsy. But Harry is already nodding, satisfied. And Eggsy can’t forget Harry saying manners, any more than he can forget Charlie whispering uncouth when Eggsy would dance past him down the line at those long-ago balls.

No one ever made a fool of themselves by remaining silent, Michelle had always said. Eggsy desperately wants Harry not to think him a fool. And who but a fool challenges their new husband’s authority – especially when said husband is also the King?

It’s a long ride to Windsor.

The sun is sinking below the clouds when the carriage pulls into the drive at Windsor Castle, and Eggsy wants nothing more than to do likewise, to lay his weary body down into a pile of soft bedding and not move for a day. It takes all of his hard-earned poise to descend gracefully from the carriage on Harry’s arm, and smile pleasantly at those arrayed to greet them.

Not to mention the marital duties later to come this night. Suddenly the thought of bedding is a considerably less restful one.

Harry doesn’t insist on doing the full receiving line – for which Eggsy gives devout thanks – but does introduce several key figures, ranging from Merlin himself (even taller and terrifying than Eggsy’s imagination had already painted him) to Harry’s private secretary (a man so average and unassuming that Eggsy has to keep glancing at his face in an attempt to commit it to memory) to the royal housekeeper for Windsor castle (a round, matronly Omega who looks like she’d born with a cap on her head, ready to alternately boss and mother an entire servants’ hall). The housekeeper, at least, greets Eggsy with warmth and cheer. Merlin’s facial expression could be intended either as a welcoming smile or a grimace that promises murder, and as for the secretary, well, Eggsy isn’t even sure the Beta knows what a facial expression is.

“I understand your head lady-in-waiting will be arriving tomorrow,” Ruth is saying to Eggsy. To Eggsy’s left, Harry is discussing something with Merlin while the secretary takes notes. “Lady Carlyle, it’s to be?”

“Yes, if you and she suit,” Eggsy says, alive to any hint that there had been enmity between the two before. The running of a household, among the complementary sex, is often as much a matter of compatibility as it is of sheer talent.

“Yes indeed, your Highness,” Ruth says comfortably. “A sensible choice, keeping her on, if you’ll permit the liberty. Smooth the transition. And speaking of which…” She glances down at the King herself, then lowers her voice slightly. “His Majesty’s equerry gave orders that the Queen’s chambers were to be fresh cleaned and prepared for you, after Lady Spencer vacated them. But if you’d prefer another set, I’ve got a set of mouse-gnawed linen I can show to say the Queen’s chambers aren’t inhabitable just now.”

“Oh,” Eggsy says gratefully, warmed more than he can say by this show of consideration. “I’m thankful to you for the thought, truly I am. But – the Queen’s chambers connect to the King’s, do they not?”

“Indeed they do.” Ruth surveys him with a knowing eye. “So it’s to be like that?”

“I have a duty to do,” Eggsy says. This simple statement would be much more noble if Eggsy had not simultaneously blushed to rival the setting sun.

“Say no more,” Ruth says. She looks back at the King again and shakes her head. “You must be exhausted, and they’re keeping you standing here.”

“Royal prerogative,” Eggsy sighs.

Ruth nods. “Well, I’ve got Sally – she’ll be your maid – heating you a nice warm bath, to get all that road dust off of you. Sally can also act as your dresser until Lady Carlyle arrives. Wouldn’t do for London, but it’s no matter here in the country, especially as there’s no formal dinner tonight. There’ll be a tray in your room after you bathe, and then it’s only night-clothes after that.”

Lust and fear make a nauseating curdle in Eggsy’s stomach. The memory of Harry’s hands on his shoulders still inflames him, but the memory of Harry’s voice saying manners is terrifying. To know he must go to Harry’s bed tonight and not abandon himself to lust is like some kind of ancient Greek curse – what Eggsy wants most of all, and gained in a way that robs it of its value.

At least he’s saved from the necessity of a reply by Harry finishing his conversation with Merlin and turning towards Eggsy. “Shall we go inside, my dear?” he inquires. It’s clearly a matter of form – Harry is already walking up the stairs, leaving Eggsy no choice but to follow. “I’ll show you to your chambers myself, and then leave you to your maid.”

“Thank you,” Eggsy says. Harry is striding forward thoughtlessly, and Eggsy’s shorter legs and more restricting formalwear is making it difficult to keep pace. “Are they close?”

“Towards the back.” Harry points out other rooms as they pass – formal dining-room, parlor, drawing room. An ornate staircase takes them up a floor, and then another floor. At last Harry slows. Eggsy matches him, careful to keep his breathing even.

Harry gestures. “Those are my chambers – ” Eggsy follows the wave of his hand, seeing a beautifully carved set of double doors – “and those are yours.” Another wave. “We won’t be dining formally tonight,” Harry adds. “So you needn’t concern yourself about finding your way around.”

“I understand,” Eggsy says. He takes a deep breath, not because he’s winded but to steel himself for the question he’s about to ask. “And tonight, would my Lord prefer I come to him, or that he visit me in my chambers?”

There’s a moment of silence. It hangs far too long, and the moment turns painful.

“I think it would be best if we remained apart tonight,” Harry says finally.

Lust vanishes from Eggsy’s belly, leaving only a fear quickly transmuting into dread. “My Lord?” When that elicits no response, Eggsy tries a different approach. “Harry?”

“We should take some time to get to know each other,” Harry says. He’s looking everywhere but Eggsy. “Naturally, when you go into heat… but perhaps it would be as well not to rush matters.”

Not to rush matters. There is again a dull roaring in Eggsy’s ears, as there had been in the church this morning. “What does that mean?”

“Well, after all – that is to say – ” First the ceilings, then the hangings, and then the carpet, are discovered by Harry to be fascinating. “There is – there is rather a difference between us, Eggsy. In age, and in – er – experience. And I shouldn’t wish to – that is – one wishes to be considerate.”

“Considerate,” Eggsy whispers. He doesn’t think Harry knows the meaning of the word. Not when every other word Harry has uttered has struck Eggsy like a sinner being stoned at the gates. A difference in age and experience. Or, put another way: Eggsy is an uncouth, coarse child. Who Harry already knows will be tempted to unseemly displays of lust in the mating bed. Naturally, as Harry puts it, Harry will do his duty – when Eggsy does into heat. But until then…

“Yes,” Harry says, more firmly. “Considerate.”

The door to Eggsy’s – the Queen’s – Eggsy’s suite opens. A maid, no doubt the aforementioned Sally, sticks her head out. “Pardon me, your Majesty, your Highness,” she says. “The bathwater is hot.”

“Thank you, Sally,” Harry says. He offers Eggsy a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes and an unnecessary bow. He’s already reaching towards his own door-knob. “Good evening, my Lady.”

“Good evening – ” The door to Harry’s chambers closes behind him. “ – Harry,” Eggsy finishes, barely above a whisper.

“Your Highness?” Sally prompts, when enough moments have passed with Eggsy staring at a closed door for matters to become awkward.

“Yes,” Eggsy says, shaking himself out of his stupor. “Well. A bath. Yes, that would be… lovely.”

Lovely, Eggsy decides, is his new favorite word. The rooms are lovely. The bath is lovely. The scented soaps? Lovely. The dressing-gown?

“We'll get it tailored right soon,” Sally promises, folding up the silk confection that had, unfortunately, been too small. “We didn’t have your measurements before.”

“It’s absolutely lovely,” Eggsy tells her. The word tastes like dust in his mouth. So does the food Sally brings him.

While Eggsy eats, or rather pretends to eat, Sally busies herself readying the room for slumber. The night-clothes she lays out are a frothy pile of delicate lace and sleek satin. Eggsy feels a stab of longing, looking at them. He wants to touch them. To put them on, feel them against his skin - far better than the old blue flannel dressing-gown that is all he has to wear until the other is tailored. Then to feel Harry’s hands against his skin, first through the fabric and then through no fabric at all…

Eggsy finds himself flushing hot from head to toe, as if he were still in that warm bath. He has to clear his throat twice before his voice makes itself heard. “Let’s save those for another night, Sally,” he says at last. “My regular night-clothes will do for tonight.”

She turns to face him, startled. “But your Highness,” she begins. Then she looks at him more closely, and her eyes widen.

“I know it’s not traditional,” Eggsy starts, following the promptings of an inexplicable urge to conceal the hurt Harry has dealt him and paint the King in a good light. “But…”

His voice trails off. Sally, he registers at last, isn’t looking at him as if she pities him, or sees his coarseness and undesirability. She’s looking at him in quite a different way. One he recognizes.

“No,” Eggsy says. His voice rises. “No, not tonight – ”

Sally comes over to him and lays the inside of her wrist against his forehead. “You’re warm, your Highness,” she says gently. Discreetly, she nods down toward Eggsy’s waist. “And you’re damp.”

She doesn’t mean from the bath. Now that Eggsy is paying attention, he can feel the trailing edges of the dressing-gown beginning to stick to the inside of his thighs. He looks down at his untouched dinner – the first food he’d been offered since breakfast this morning – the mere sight of it making his stomach heave. He puts down the piece of bread he’s still holding with a trembling hand, and Sally comes forward and gently takes the tray away.

“The heat-stocks were fresh renewed just this week, when the room was prepared for you,” Sally tells him quietly. “Is there anything you need right now, before I call his Majesty?”

“No,” Eggsy whispers. “Nothing.”

“Here.” Sally comes over to Eggsy and helps him up – his legs wobble alarmingly; without Sally’s arm he’d fall during the three steps it takes to reach the bed. When he reaches it at last, Sally puts the bell-pull in his hand and plumps his pillow. “Just you lay back, your Highness,” she says. “Don’t think of primping any. A dressing-gown is as good a negligee as any from France, you’ll see. None of it matters in the end.”

“Are you mated, Sally?” Eggsy doesn’t mean to ask the question. It comes out anyway. He’s slipping fast, losing his hold on reality. It’s never come on this fast before.

“Used to be.” Sally pats his shoulder comfortingly. “First time after mating is the hardest. It comes on like a galloping horse. That’s normal. What you need is his Majesty. I’ll go alert the household now.”

“His Majesty won’t…” But he will, won’t he? Naturally, when you go into heat… The King will come. Not Harry. But Henry IX will. To do his duty.

They’ll all do their duty. That’s what this is about. Not about romance and love and conversations in the moonlight. Duty. Eggsy wonders, as the room begins to swim about him, if he’ll be able to do his.

“Of course he will,” Sally says firmly. Then time seems to slip oddly. Sally is walking across the room. The door is closing. Opening?

“Harry,” Eggsy whimpers, and then the heat envelops him.

Chapter Text

There’s a knock at the door of the library. Harry contemplates it, as a diversion from contemplating the amber liquid in the glass he holds.

It comes again. Harry nods to himself. There are only two people who might disregard Harry’s silence and repeat their attempts to thrust themselves on Harry’s attention. One is Lady Carlyle, in her capacity as head of the carrier-consort’s household and frequent envoy from same. She hasn’t arrived yet from London, so it can’t be she. That leaves Merlin.

Well. Perhaps there is a third person. Harry’s carrier-consort might also so dare. Although James would never have bothered knocking a second time; he would simply have come in, and been sure of his welcome… but Eggsy is not James, after all.

No. Not James at all.

A third knock sounds on the door. Harry sighs to himself, soundless. Lady Carlyle he might have put off with harsh words. Eggsy – well, Harry more or less has put Eggsy off with harsh words. But Merlin will not give up.

Even a King must bow to the inevitable, it seems.

“Enter,” Harry calls.

Merlin does. The candlelight gleams off his bald dome. It makes his expression look frankly terrifying. Harry looks at him fondly. “Brandy, old friend?”

“Well, since I have no pressing duties tonight, why not?”

This sounds ominous. Harry ignores it in favor of waving Merlin towards the decanter. Merlin avails himself of this authority, coming around after with glass in hand to hover above the armchair opposite Harry. Harry waves impatiently for the man to sit down.

“You never used to bother waiting for permission,” Harry says. He can hear the petulance in his own voice and contemplates the liquid in his own glass again. Surely he’d poured himself more than this. Hadn’t he? But then where had it all gone?

“Ye never used to be King,” Merlin returns. “Ye may not like the pomp – ”

“I detest it,” Harry says earnestly. In that, at least, he and Eggsy are in perfect charity. He recalls clearly the dismay – no, more than dismay, outright despair – with which Eggsy had greeted the prospect of learning royal manners. Just so had Harry felt, once upon a time. At least Eggsy still has a chance to escape it. He may go as James had done – back to his real life, and away from this gilded cage and the sad, lonely old Alpha who inhabits it. He wonders if Eggsy, like James, will make a daily parade to come and laugh at Harry. He wonders if the two will perhaps come together. He chooses not to wonder why the thought of Eggsy leaving in James’ wake is an unpleasant one.

Harry’s glass is empty. When had that happened? He’d refilled his glass, hadn’t he? Once – no – had it been twice?

Merlin is droning on. Something about power and duty. It’s awful. Harry ignores it, going to get more brandy instead.

There’s something wrong with the floor. Harry can’t quite walk steadily. He grabs a nearby grandfather clock for support, and regards the floor reproachfully.

“How much did ye drink?” Oh, there’s a familiar sound. Merlin’s long-suffering tones make Harry smile in spite of his mood.

“Not enough.”

“I bet yer new bride will love the smell of that later.”

The smile slips off Harry’s face. The floor rolls again, and Harry sits down hard – in his chair; Merlin has maneuvered him back, and now frowns down at Harry. “What?” the equerry demands.

“Maybe I have had enough,” Harry says. “Help me to bed.”

“That’s the first sensible thing I’ve heard ye say in days.” Merlin has the gall to sound heartened. Harry blinks at him.

“To bed,” he insists.

“Aye. Up ye get.” With Merlin’s help, Harry is levered to his feet. “Ye smell like a still,” Merlin mutters. “Free advice from an old servant – have a bath before ye visit yer bride.”

“I’m not visiting Eggsy tonight.”

“Before he visits ye, then.”

“You’re not listening. That’s not happening. I’m not going to – to – tonight.”

Merlin drops him back into his seat.

“Ow!” Harry yelps. “What about my Kingly dignity?”

“When ye start having some dignity I’ll start respecting it,” Merlin retorts. “What on Earth are ye going on about? It’s yer wedding night!”

“It wasn’t really a wedding!”

“Don’t give me that. That poor Omega’s yours now – stood in a church in front of God and everyone to promise it, and don’t try and tell me ye didn’t notice how brave he was being to do it, either – how do ye think he’s going to take it if ye simply never show up?”

“I would never,” Harry says, offended. “I told him I wasn’t coming.”

Merlin stares at him.

Harry squints. “I know that look,” he says, the liquor transmuting his thoughts into words without his conscious intention. “That’s the look you gave me before you shoved my head in that horse-trough at the encampment in Egypt.”

“I’m considering reviving the practice.”

“No troughs in my castle.”

“I’ll say ye’ve taken a Kingly whim.”

That makes Harry laugh. From the way Merlin jumps, Harry would guess it’s startled Merlin as much as it’s startled him.

Has it really been that long since he’s just… laughed?

“Well, thanks anyway,” Harry says after a moment. “I think I’ll just sleep it off. If it’s all the same to you.”

“Whether it’s all the same to me isn’t the point. Ye said ye discussed it with Lady Rowley, but is it really all the same to him?”

“Eggsy,” Harry says without thinking.

Merlin frowns at him. “Not a good idea to eat on a liquored stomach.”

“No, no, he – Lady Rowley. Eggsy.” Harry fumbles for an explanation and then remembers, blearily, that he hasn’t actually been given one. The closest he’s got is James’ teasing words: if he’s still here a year and a day from your wedding, perhaps he’ll tell you. “He goes by Eggsy.”


“I have no idea.”

Merlin dismisses this with a wave of his hand. “Eggsy, then. Is it really all the same to him?”

“I’m sure it’s quite to his liking.”

“Is it.” The skepticism dripping off Merlin’s voice could be used as mortar in brick-laying.

Harry frowns. “Of course it is.” When Merlin says nothing further, Harry leans forward, capturing his equerry’s attention with the shaking of a finger. At least he thinks the finger’s shaking. It might be the room. “Eggsy is half my age, a virgin, and as you so eloquently put it, this entire thing is as dishonorable as it can be given that we stood together in a church not twenty-four hours gone. Naturally, when it comes to heat, we’ll both do our duty. In the meanwhile I’m quite sure he’s pleased not to be importuned.”

Merlin doesn’t answer this right away. He frowns, and shakes his head, and mutters to himself, as he often does when he’s thinking. Harry, for his part, leans back in his chair and stares at the ceiling. It’s really quite a comfortable chair. Perhaps he’ll sleep here.

“Perhaps it’s as ye say,” Merlin says at last.

Harry nods in satisfaction. Merlin understands. That’s confirmation enough that Harry’s doing the right thing. And if Merlin doesn’t quite have all the facts – doesn’t know about that night in Lady Cuxhaven’s garden, or about their mutual agreement to try for a year – well, Merlin also doesn’t know about the many responsibilities that have accrued to Harry as a result of that agreement. Like the responsibility not to take a young, vulnerable heart, already half in love – trick it into falling the rest of the way, and then break it.

This way is better. If Eggsy conceives, there will be time enough for a more mature and sedate approach to marriage.

“You’ll see I’m right,” Harry says.

Merlin gets up. “That’s as may be. But either way ye should have a bath. And then bed, empty or otherwise.”

“Mother hen.”

“Ye need one.” Merlin heads to the door and pulls it open. Harry tunes out the soft murmur of his voice giving instructions to the waiting footman. He drifts on a semi-pleasant haze of alcohol, until a sudden, sharp curse makes him blink his eyes back open and turn towards the door.

Merlin moves aside, and a woman in a maid’s uniform comes in. In Harry’s drunken state he can’t quite recall the right name to call her. Her face is familiar enough, though: just now she’s the maid assigned to Eggsy. A different one than had waited on James. James had brought his own maid from his sire’s household. Eggsy had not, thus - this one. She’s bobbed her curtsey and is now looking at Harry as if he’s something unpleasant she wishes she could launder. Harry struggles to sit more upright, dimly aware he’s not quite the picture of a King on his wedding night.

“Go on, Sally,” Merlin tells the maid.

Sally frowns at him, too. But to Harry she says: “Good evening, your Majesty. I am bid to tell you that his Highness the carrier-consort has begun his heat.”

Harry stares at her. “Excuse me,” he says. Merlin aside, manners are so well ingrained in him that they come to his lips even through the drunkenness, a fact he’s had cause to bless many times before. “I believe I’ve misheard you. I left the carrier-consort a mere – ” he glances at the grandfather clock – “ – a mere three hours ago, and he was in no such condition then.”

The maid scowls so ferociously Harry almost recoils. “Your Majesty is perhaps unaware that the first heat after mating can come on rapidly.” Despite the polite nature of her words, she sounds like a governess scolding a naughty schoolboy. “I must beg leave to repeat that the carrier-consort is in heat, and requests your Majesty’s presence at once.”

“His Majesty will be right there,” Merlin tells her, giving Harry a warning look. “Giles – ” this to the footman. “Forget the hot water. A hip bath and a pail are to be sent to his Majesty’s rooms at once. We will be there in a moment, and then his Majesty will join the carrier-consort.” To Sally, somewhat more haltingly – “Naturally you are attending to all of, er, his Highness’ needs – ”

Watching Merlin fumble around the mention of an Omega in heat would be amusing under any other circumstances. Merlin’s got no taste for Omegas himself, though only Harry and a few others from their old military unit know it extends well past mere social awkwardness and into an active preference for other male Betas like himself. Right now, however, nothing is humorous. Eggsy is in heat – already – on the very night of their wedding – and Harry, drunk, is expected to go to him and perform.

Harry had seen him not three hours ago. A first mating heat can come on quickly, Harry does know that, but the key word is mating. Harry and Eggsy are married, but not mated, a subtle but critical decision. They have not bonded in the old way, through the bite and the blood. Their bodies are not linked. Only their social positions. Physiologically, it doesn’t make sense. Though there are ways, Harry has heard whispers, for an Omega to induce a heat. Could Eggsy have done so? For what possible reason?

Well, one possible reason. To conceive an heir and become Queen of Britain and Ireland. Has Harry been misled, these last few weeks, to a false understanding of his new carrier-consort? Has the somewhat-shy, somewhat-saucy young lady been a veneer for a power-hungry social climber?

Eggsy had kissed him so sweetly, in the church. So eagerly. Not at all like someone who had the iron self-control it would take to make such a ploy. Eggsy had kissed like an innocent experiencing his first taste of lust.

And Harry had been so inflamed by it he’d had to insist they spend their wedding night apart, lest he do something they both regret…

“Come on, Harry,” Merlin says, oblivious to these dark thoughts. “No time to waste.”

Harry allows himself to be taken to his rooms, hastily sponge-bathed, and reclothed in a dressing-gown. He permits some minor fussing about the foolishness of getting drunk on one’s wedding night. But he draws the line at the vile concoction Merlin attempts to pour down his throat.

“None of your sober remedies ever worked while we were on campaign,” Harry reminds him. “As I recall, one of them in particular made Tristan vomit. Again.”

“Tristan drank far too much and far too often,” Merlin retorts. “As ye’re in danger of doing.”

“Your advice is noted.” Hauteur is another thing that had been drummed into him well enough that it remains even through the liquor haze. Thank you, Mother. Harry snorted to himself. His straight-laced, overbearing mother would certainly not appreciate being thanked for anything Harry does while drunk. If she’d been alive, Harry might have done it anyway, just to have her stop speaking to him for a few weeks.

Merlin turns Harry around by one shoulder, forcing Harry to face him. “Can ye even get it up right now?”

That cuts, and Harry lashes out. “Some of us find a ripe young Omega an aphrodisiac.”

Merlin turns several different shades of red. “If ye weren’t king, I’d strike ye for that,” he says, low and deadly.

Contrition arrives as fast on anger’s heels as anger had done on humiliation’s. “And I’d deserve it. Old friend – ”

“Don’t. The only thing I want to hear from ye is that you’re about to go treat that poor lass with the respect he deserves. Shame on ye, Harry Hart.”

“I will,” Harry promises hastily.

Merlin is still looking at Harry as if he’d like to slap his glove across Harry’s face. “Once ye could never stand it when ye heard others talking like that. I remember a duel you fought in Egypt – ”

“I know.” Harry does. “I forgot myself.”

“Ye’ve been forgetting yerself a lot lately. Harry – ”

“I have to go.” When Merlin moves as if to stop Harry, Harry plays a despicable card. “Eggsy needs me.”

That stops Merlin, at least. “That he does. But we’ll be resuming this conversation later.”

“I look forward to it,” Harry lies, edging towards the door that connects his chambers to Eggsy’s. “If you’ll excuse me…”

“I’ll be here.” Merlin moves to the small servants’ room, attached. “Someone’s got to take care of ye.”

“Ha,” Harry says weakly. Before he can think better of it, he escapes into Eggsy’s chambers.

And stops.

This isn’t good.

The room is over-bright, the candles all still lit as if Eggsy were preparing to read in the comfortable arm-chair before retiring to bed. Doesn’t that fool maid know that Omegas prefer it dimmer, during heat – a primordial memory of when mankind had coupled in caves? And the fire is built far too high; Eggsy will be sweating. Not to mention – Harry draws in a deep breath and gags. There are far too many scents in this room. Harry smells cheese, wine, a sachet of roses. And his nose won’t be half as sensitive as Eggsy’s is, right now. The cacophony must be overwhelming.

Underneath it all, Eggsy moans, a string of garbled syllables that might even be Harry’s name. Harry’s inner Alpha insists that it’s meant to be, anyway. That same inner Alpha picks out the rising distress among the intoxicating heat-scent, and roars an insistent demand for Harry to act.

Drunk as he is, Harry almost burns himself pinching out the sixth candle. He swears, then stills abruptly, guilty as a schoolboy, when Eggsy stirs uneasily and whine. The too-bright light shows Eggsy is pale and streaked with sweat and slick. He looks more ill than sensual. Harry’s suspicions revive – this isn’t how James had looked in heat, nor any other Omega Harry has lain with. But an artificially-induced heat might well come with side effects.

Eggsy whines again, and Harry’s inner Alpha growls. The primal side of Harry doesn’t care about possible Omegan heat tricks or crown-hunting debutantes. It scents an Omega in heat – an Omega shockingly near distress – and the candles and the scents and the fire are suddenly forgotten in the need to lay his hands on Eggsy.

Harry finds himself sitting on the edge of the bed without conscious recognition of how he’d gotten there. Some of the liquor haze is fading as his blood rises in automatic response to Eggsy’s obvious need. Eggsy had been wearing a dressing-gown of his own, some well-worn, comfortable-looking piece that looks almost ludicrous in these circumstances. If Eggsy is trying to seduce him, he ought to have chosen something more alluring than old blue flannel.

Though the way it’s undone at the waist and half-falling off of one pale shoulder is unexpectedly attractive. First Harry’s hand finds its way to that exposed collarbone, and then, without stopping to think, Harry bends to get his teeth onto the area. He nips. Eggsy stills abruptly under him, then nearly jackknifes out from underneath Harry, throwing himself onto Harry’s lap in an uncoordinated heap of arms and legs.

“Harry,” Eggsy pants, this time unmistakably. “Harry. Wanted you to come. You didn’t come.”

Eggsy is hot, too hot. Whether he’s done something to himself or not, this heat is dangerously close to out of control. Harry drags his fingers down the small of Eggsy’s back and listens to him moan.

“I’m here now,” Harry says roughly. “I’ve got what you need.”

There’s a soft indrawn breath. Then a warm wet nuzzling at his neck, as Eggsy instinctively moves towards the source of Harry’s no-doubt-enticing scent. Eggsy moans again, then whimpers. “Need – ”

“I know.” Harry has to manhandle Eggsy to get him back down on the bed in something like the right position; all Eggsy seems to want to do is wrap himself around Harry. His skin is so hot to the touch that Harry is half-afraid the sheets will catch on fire from mere contact. When Harry does manage to get a few fingers into the vicinity of Eggsy’s hole, they slip inside with no resistance whatsoever. The Omega is soaking and sobbing with heat delirium, but still, somehow, he isn’t cooperating. Harry would have thought instinct would take over once he’d gotten Eggsy back on the bed, but no – instead of assuming a proper knotting position, Eggsy just tries to climb right back onto Harry. Harry has never been with an Omega this close to heatstroke. It frightens him, and every time Eggsy stops Harry from doing what needs to be done, Harry’s patience erodes and his worry increases.

“Lie still,” Harry finally snaps at him, equal parts annoyed and frightened. “God, I’ve never been with an Omega who – you need a knot, Eggsy, and fast. You’re not making this any easier.”  

Eggsy makes a sound that’s half-choking, half-hiccupping. It might be a plea; Harry can’t tell. But Eggsy stays on his stomach this time when Harry puts him there, though he doesn’t come up to present. It doesn’t matter. Eggsy is more than slick enough that Harry can slide right in, even in that awkward position, no presentation or preparation needed.

And oh, God, Harry just about loses it at that first thrust. Hot and wet and he’d thought he’d understood what being with an Omega in heat is like – he’s been with lovers, with those ladies of the night who accept a soldier’s coin, even with a friend in the form of James – but this. This is something else. Eggsy is all around him. Eggsy’s scent is intoxicating. And Eggsy feels it, too. He arches his back at last and moans, and as Harry watches in fascination, a red flush washes all over his exposed skin, stealing the pallor away and replacing it at last with the healthy sight of an Omega being properly cared for in their heat.

“That’s it,” Harry sighs, hoping to reassure. “That’s better.”

There’s a sniffle. Harry pets down Eggsy’s spine, careful not to unsheathe himself from that glorious warmth. “You’re doing fine,” he praises. “Just right. You needn’t do anything else. Just lie there and let me take care of you.”

That produces something like a sob. Of relief, no doubt. Harry pets Eggsy again. He understands well enough how the raging storm of heat can produce odd reactions. Why, James had once wept at being offered a drink of water mid-heat.

Eggsy may no longer be quite delirious, but Harry feels as if he’s falling more and more into the grip of lust and desire. Merlin’s worries about performance are entirely unfounded – Harry is hard enough to hammer nails, and he’s far more likely to knot too early than he is to go limp mid-proceeding. Which is a very good thing. Harry would normally be inclined to take matters more slowly, but with how badly off Eggsy had been when he’d gotten here…

Harry rocks back and forth, appreciating Eggsy’s slim, lean body spread out beneath him. “I do like the look of you,” he confesses, and he’s glad suddenly for the liquor, because it makes saying this easier. He wants to say this. Omegas like praise, he’s always known. And Eggsy – he remembers sitting by that fountain, the way Eggsy had drank up Harry’s attention like wine, the way he’d blushed and stammered every time Harry had agreed with him – oh, Eggsy must love it. “Beautiful. I tried to put out the candles but I’m glad I didn’t. I’ll bank the fire in a minute, though…” That’s hardly romantic. Harry drags his wandering brain back on track. His cock, much more single-minded, hasn’t faltered. And the base of it is beginning to drag against the rim of Eggsy’s hole as his knot starts to swell.

He wants to say something else – some other words of praise – but his mind goes blank. He’s already spoken of Eggsy’s physical beauty, and it’s too soon for Harry to know anything else about him. His kisses had been sweet and his innocence endearing. His heat had been frighteningly high and if he bears Harry’s child he’ll be Queen. And Harry isn’t sure what one has to do with the other – if anything. There’s too much to be said and too little, all at the same time, and in the end Harry takes the easiest way out. He says nothing, and lets his knot swell.

“There,” he murmurs in the aftermath, maneuvering them both onto their sides. The next set of motions are automatic – reach for the night-stand, wipe Eggsy down with the provided cloth, hold the provided water to Eggsy’s lips. He has to encourage Eggsy to drink; the poor thing is still shaking in Harry’s arms. “You need the liquid, darling. You’re sweating.” And where had that endearment come from? Harry isn’t usually one for pet names.

“Mph,” Eggsy says. He drinks, though. When the cup is dry Harry puts it back on the night-stand.

“I’ll fill it when we separate,” Harry says. Eggsy should already have been educated on the essentials of mating, but he’s never been with Harry before. “I’ll bank the fire, then, too, so it will be cooler for you during the next round. It’s too hot in here. Would you like me to put the candles out?”

Eggsy is silent for a long moment. Harry begins to think he’s perhaps gone to sleep – not at all uncommon – when he says, timidly: “We’ll have to do it again?”

Harry nods slowly, beginning to wonder if Eggsy had, in fact, been properly prepared for the mating bed. “Yes. Between three and five times, usually. It varies from Omega to Omega.”

“Oh.” Eggsy sounds small. “Then – yes. Please. Put out the candles.”

So shy. Harry smiles fondly. He’d rather enjoyed the unusual experience of mating in the light, but he’d offered the choice to Eggsy, after all. And it is Eggsy’s first heat. After this, perhaps, they’ll have the chance to discuss individual preferences more fully.

“All right. If you change your mind, I’ll relight them.”

“All right.”

There’s silence. Harry has a sudden thought, and says: “I won’t be offended if you want to nap. It will be at least an hour before your need rises again.” More often it’s three or four, but with how fast Eggsy’s first peak had come on, Harry is erring on the side of safety. “It’s quite common to nap between peaks. If you wish to, you should go ahead.”

“Will you nap?”

“No, dear.” Harry presses a kiss to the back of Eggsy’s neck. “I’ll sleep after. In the meanwhile I’ll be right here, keeping watch on you.”

“Oh,” Eggsy says again. “All – all right then.”

Harry hides another smile. Not that Eggsy could see him, the way Eggsy’s back is pressed to Harry’s chest and his face is pressed into the pillow. But it’s the spirit of the thing that counts. It’s not honorable to laugh at a shy and inexperienced Omega.

He runs a hand down Eggsy’s flank meditatively. Eggsy seems to know the basics, but not the details. Of course, he’s a virgin – or had been – but if he’d been intending to deploy a seductive routine, complete with artificial heat, surely he’d have prepared more thoroughly. The blue flannel dressing-gown is still visible in the periphery of Harry’s vision. No Parisian negligee, that. Perhaps Eggsy owns no such thing. Perhaps Harry should give him one. Perhaps one day… but that’s a thought it’s better not to dwell on. Not yet.

He settles down instead. Makes sure Eggsy’s pillow is plump. Drapes a warm, weighty arm around Eggsy’s waist, so that Eggsy will feel it and know that Harry is with him.

Then Harry makes his breathing deep and even, and keeps it that way until Eggsy falls asleep in his arms.

Chapter Text

It takes Eggsy three tries to swim back to consciousness. The first time he tries he’s simply too tired: sleep pulls him back down again like a siren drowning a sailor, and he’s helpless to resist. The second time he makes it farther – far enough that he becomes abruptly aware that every part of him aches, from the cramp of his toes to the throbbing behind his temples. That time Eggsy courts slumber and falls into its embrace with gratitude. Alas, that he is not so fortunate the third time.

The third time he wakes up the aches are barely less, and the sun is stabbing him even through his closed eyelids. In a cruel irony, his bladder is full while his throat is dry and parched. The combination of needs drives him to make his poor body respond, first using the chamber pot and then fumbling with the water that’s been left for him on his night-stand.

Holding the dipper to his mouth, drinking, Eggsy’s overcome by the heat-memory of Harry doing this for him. The flash of remembrance leaves him shaking for reasons other than his protesting muscles. He sets the dipper down hastily before he drops it and rings for his maid.

The Omega who comes through the door is a stranger, and Eggsy has to fight the urge to recoil. “Where’s Tommy?” he demands, not even leaving her time to curtsey and greet him. Then he remembers that he’s not in Mayfair anymore, nor on the Rowley estates. Tommy had stayed behind with the rest of Eggsy’s old life, deemed unsuitable by Michelle for service in a large household. But even so – “Where’s Sally?”

“Sally’s at tea with the rest of the servants, your Highness,” the maid says, undisturbed. “I was left to tend the fire.”

“The fire?” Eggsy looks to the grate. It’s empty. Another memory: Harry banking the fire, then telling Eggsy not to worry, it would die down, one of the servants would keep an eye on it. To ring when he’d awoken, and the servants would relight it.

“Aye, your Highness. I’ll light this one in a jiffy. T’other’s been roaring these three hours, and your bath is ready when you want it.”

“Oh, thank God,” Eggsy sighs in gratitude. A hot soak after a heat is heaven, and never mind that he’d bathed as recently as his wedding-day. He’s glad to learn Harry is not one of those who sniffs at the practice as an unnecessary indulgence. He supposes Harry hasn’t got to worry about the expense, at least.

“Through there, your Highness.” The maid gestures to one of the doors Eggsy had never had time to open last night. “I’ll begin work in here, with your leave.”

“Yes, please.” Eggsy holds his dressing-gown in place modestly and goes into the next chamber. The promised bath is there, faintly steaming, and the fire makes it pleasant to slip off the heavy fabric. A moment later he sinks into the water, and sighs with happiness.

Short-lived happiness. The water’s embrace reminds him of Harry’s, which reminds him of last night. Or rather, the last few nights. What day is it? Eggsy is embarrassingly unsure.

He’s never had a heat like that. It had come on so rapidly, and reached such dizzying heights… such mortifying lows. Much of it is a blur. But he remembers Harry’s disgust well enough.

Lie still! God, I’ve never been with an Omega who – you need a knot, Eggsy, and fast. You’re not making this any easier.

All of Eggsy’s fine intentions, to remember himself, to control himself, and none of it had mattered. He must have humiliated himself thoroughly, for Harry to have been so sharp and pointed. And the reference to the other Omegas Harry must have been with in the past – the sting of that insult still lingers, burrowing beneath Eggsy’s skin where the warmth of the water can’t touch. Eggsy isn’t familiar with the details of Harry’s past, but he knows enough. He knows Lady Spencer. Who is elegant, and refined, and had doubtless conducted himself with propriety in the mating bed.

I’ve never been with an Omega who – what? Harry hadn’t finished the sentence. Eggsy’s imagination rushes to fill in the gap. Who is so pushy? So needy? So ill-mannered?

So shameless? First Eggsy forgets himself at the church. Then he has the ill grace go into heat, defying the King’s command that they spend their wedding night apart. And for a third, just to ensure Harry has no doubts about the quality of the Omega he has been shackled to, Eggsy manages to behave like the lowest trollop in bed.

He rolls to one side in the water, meaning to reach for the cake of soap. Slick has dried on his thighs and genitals, itchy and uncomfortable and reminding him of his shame. But he’s caught, frozen, when his eyes land on the careless pile in which he’d left his dressing-gown. His everyday, ordinary, blue flannel dressing-gown.

Neatly folded at the top of one of Eggsy trunks is the negligee Michelle had ordered specially for Eggsy’s wedding-night. The lace had come from Paris. It had been packed in a special box with cedar rather than camphor, the scent faintly spicy and said to be alluring. Eggsy had secretly been looking forward to wearing it. To feeling its silky softness against his skin – and then feeling warm strong hands taking it off.

Nothing about losing his virginity had gone as planned. 

Eggsy scowls and grabs the soap. “Well, he’s stuck with me,” he says vindictively. Immediately he regrets the sentiment. Any mate who has to be stuck is a mate not worth having.

But what else is there to do?

Wash himself, for first. Eggsy does so determinedly. He’s halfway out of the tub, already beginning to shiver slightly, when he realizes he has no clothes to hand except his discarded dressing-gown. Which should really be washed before he puts it back on. What’s happened to that maid? She ought to have been in long since.

He’s rescued by a knock on the door. “Your Highness?”

“Yes, enter,” Eggsy calls gratefully. He’s expecting to see the maid, bustling in with apologies and a pile of clothes. The clothes are indeed present, but they are borne by Lady Carlyle.

“Good evening, your Highness.” Lady Carlyle makes an elegant curtsy. “I see you’ve already enjoyed your bath. I must apologize for not being here straightaway. I’m afraid I had no chance to arrange your closet before your heat, and so I had to go sorting through your trunks.”

“Ah,” Eggsy says, envisioning this sympathetically. “Yes. Quite.”

“I’ll have it all shipshape before morning, never fear. I’ve already given his Majesty notice that you’ll be joining him for dinner. And here are your evening clothes.” She sets them down, the better to offer Eggsy a towel. “A nice knit. Softer on the skin.”

And the towel is heavenly – better even than the ones at home, and Michelle had never stinted. Eggsy sighs in happiness for a moment before the rest of what Lady Carlyle had said penetrates.

“Did his Majesty give any indication of whether he wished us to dine together?” Eggsy occupies himself with the use of the towel, pretending he doesn’t care about the answer to the question.

Lady Carlyle finishes shaking out the shift she’s brought before she answers. Then she says, cautiously, “Sometimes the feelings his Majesty shows aren’t actually the feelings he has.” She takes the towel from Eggsy and offers him the shift. “Your wardrobe is very modern. How do you like the new fashion in leggings?”

This transparent ploy to distract actually works for a moment – Eggsy finds himself scanning Lady Carlyle’s own outfit, itself a very modish ensemble featuring divided skirts and a daring cling to her chest, before he catches himself. “What does that mean?” he asks instead. He asks – but part of him knows. “The King wasn’t pleased at the idea, was he?”

Lady Carlyle doesn’t answer.

Eggsy forges onwards. “Did he often eat dinner with Lady Spencer?”

“Yes,” she admits.

I’ve never had an Omega who –

Eggsy holds out his hand for the shift. “Then I am sure he will eat dinner with me,” he says firmly. “He is, after all, an honorable man.”

Lady Carlyle looks at him. Then she smiles and gives Eggsy the shift. “I am sure you are right,” she says.

The dining room is empty.

Eggsy, Michelle scolds from memory. Really, your tendency for exaggeration will get you in trouble one day.

Eggsy conceals a sigh. No, the dining room is not truly empty, of course. It is filled with both inanimate objects – a table, chairs, silverware, the dining-service, sideboards and candles – and with animate ones: there is a servant next to every door, by every candle, and standing behind the chair at the foot of the table. Which is Eggsy’s, naturally, as the lady of the house. There is another behind the chair to Eggsy’s right: that will be for Lady Carlyle, who occupies that fluid space between independent nobility and mere servant. A title is a title, never mind that she’s a mere Baroness. And it would be beneath a Queen’s dignity – or, evidently, a carrier-consort’s – to have their household run by anything less. Even if said Baroness also unpacks trunks and arranges closets and dresses Eggsy for dinner.

But those two chairs are the only ones behind which servants stand. Inference: only Eggsy and Lady Carlyle are expected for dinner. Conclusion: his Majesty does not intend to join them.

Entering behind Eggsy, Lady Carlyle makes a sound that combines dismay and aggravation. “Masters,” she says to the butler, who is waiting with an air that makes it apparent he’d expected to be inquired of. “I wonder if his Majesty did not receive my message, that the carrier-consort would be at dinner tonight.”

Masters coughs apologetically. “Master Merlin himself delivered the message.”

“His Majesty’s equerry,” Lady Carlyle explains parenthetically to Eggsy, who nods, recalling the tall, bald Beta from his arrival. To Masters again: “Is his Majesty ill?”

Another apologetic cough. Eggsy sees with weary acceptance that he will get very tired of those before the year is out. “I do not believe so,” Masters says.

Lady Carlyle opens her mouth again. Eggsy stops her with a hand on her arm. “Very well then,” he says resignedly. “We may as well dine.”

“But your Highness – ”

“No doubt his Majesty is occupied with pressing business.” Eggsy moves towards his chair, nodding graciously at the servant who pulls it back for him. “We shall see him tomorrow.”

The press of Lady Carlyle’s lips confirms what Eggsy has already realized – they will not see Harry tomorrow. But she yields to Eggsy’s obvious wishes and moves towards her own chair. “Your Highness is most understanding.”

“My Highness can take a hint,” Eggsy retorts, which surprises a laugh out of her. In a burst of longing, he says, “Can’t I convince you to call me Eggsy?”

Lady Carlyle looks at him with surprise. “I – yes, of course, your – Eggsy. If you wish.”

“I do wish.” He looks away, briefly mesmerized by the way the candlelight dances on the gold-inlaid plates, then back again. “It seems I won’t hear my own name from anyone else in this castle for a long time. Was it like this for James?”

Don’t ask about the Omega who came before you. Don’t ask about the Omega who failed.

Lady Carlyle seems to be caught in her own memories. “At times,” she says at last. “His Majesty is… temperamental. But he and Lady Spencer were friends.”

“Ah,” Eggsy says sadly. He and Harry are, perforce, not friends. One night by a fountain does not friendship make – not any more than it romance makes, apparently.

“Roxy,” Lady Carlyle says.

Eggsy looks up. “I beg your pardon?”

“My name.” She takes up her napkin as the first course comes in. “If I am to call you Eggsy, you must certainly call me Roxy.”

“Roxy,” Eggsy says, testing it out. It suits her. Sprightly and forthright. “Thank you. I shall.”

Eggsy does not see Harry at breakfast the next day. Nor at tea. Nor, of course, at dinner.

He does not see Harry while horse-riding. Nor do they meet in the library when Eggsy goes to seek out a book. Their paths do not cross in the conservatory or in the gardens. Neither does Harry seek out Eggsy’s bedchamber at night, nor send word that Eggsy is to go to him.

The message is clear. Harry wishes for Eggsy to share no part of his life. And as for all Harry’s fine words before the wedding about how they will be husband and wife – well. Either he had lied – or this is Harry’s notion of how husband and wife are to go on. Eggsy can’t say which possibility is more depressing.

“Suppose I were to push that statue down the stairs,” Eggsy says to Roxy one day, as they stroll the castle. Eggsy is still learning his way around; they have taken to daily walks, to allow Roxy to point out hidden routes and major landmarks. “Do you suppose Harry would scold me in person? Or would he send Merlin to do it?”

“He’d probably give you a present,” Roxy says. “He hates that statue.”

“Does he?” Eggsy regards it a second time. He had picked it on a whim, merely because it is large and rests on a pedestal conveniently close to the main staircase. Now he sees that it’s a rather splendidly ugly depiction of Cupid surrounded by cherubim. “Hmm.”

“But he’d send Merlin to bring it to you, so that’s no good.”

“What did James do when he wanted Harry’s attention?”

“Barged in and demanded it, mostly. But Eggsy – ” Roxy stops and turns to face him. Eggsy stops too, perforce. “I think you’re comparing yourself too directly to Lady Spencer. Your relationship with his Majesty can’t be like James’. They were friends before; you didn’t know him. Lady Spencer was engaged – it was well understood that he rather hoped not to conceive than otherwise. Your case is entirely altered.”

“I did know him,” Eggsy says wistfully. At least – “I thought I did.”

“You did?”

They find a small bench tucked in a nook in one of the hallways, and Eggsy finds himself pouring out the whole story. How Eggsy’s first Season had been all but overwhelming. The shameful discovery of how little his title mattered next to his mother’s merchant birth and his own lack of beauty. The indifference of most of the unattached Alphas, or else, worse, their unsubtle inquiries about the size of Eggsy’s dowry.

“It probably didn’t help that I’m no good at dancing,” Eggsy admits, leaning back against the wall and looking up at the painting hung opposite – a landscape of some kind, wild and desolate-seeming. “I know the steps well enough but I always heard that I was too mechanical about it. And then I was as tall as most of my partners…”

Roxy makes a sympathetic noise. “I always wished to be taller.”

“Harry wasn’t like that. When he talked to me he wasn’t talking to an Earl’s child or a moneyed heiress. He was just talking to me. We – we talked about dogs.”

“He likes dogs,” Roxy says. “He had a Cairn Terrier when James first came to be carrier-consort.”

“Harry told me about him. But he was already old and sick.”

“Maybe he’d let you have a dog,” Roxy suggests.

Eggsy doesn’t want to think about that right now. He says, “We talked. We talked a lot. We were even alone, for a while, in the garden. Then he took a seat by me at dinner.”

“On purpose?” Roxy asks.

“So I thought at the time.” He’s beginning to second-guess himself now. “But after, he asked if he might call.”

“Did he ever call?”

Eggsy is forced to shake his head. He avoids Roxy’s gaze, knowing that it’s full of compassion.

“Eggsy,” she says gently. “Sometimes, Alphas…”

“Don’t say it,” Eggsy whispers.

Roxy is silent.

“It’s just that, there I was on the Register,” Eggsy goes on after a long moment. “And Mama was so pleased at the thought of me being Queen, but that wasn’t what I thought of at all. I just thought…”

“You had a crush,” Roxy offers.

“Seems foolish now.”

“Not foolish. Merely… optimistic.”

“He probably never remembered that night again.”

“I don’t have any way of knowing.”

Eggsy nods. The quiet stretches.

“Anyway,” Roxy says after a moment. “I can think of a better way to get on Harry’s schedule than pushing a statue down the stairs.”


“The same way you did it the first time. At a ball.”

“Roxy,” Eggsy says. “First, we’re in the country. And second, Queens – or carrier-consorts, I suppose – don’t just go and attend balls.”

“First, there are half a dozen carriages in the carriage-house, two dozen horses in the stables, and plenty of servants to hitch the latter to the former. You may go wherever you please unless the King says otherwise. And second, I’m not proposing you attend a ball. I’m proposing you host a ball.”

“Host one?” Eggsy blinks.

“Of course!” Roxy comes to her feet, animated now with her idea. “You’re a hostess now, Eggsy, or at least you are if you wish to be. Go back to Buckingham Palace and open it up for the rest of the Season. Host a ball. Host a dinner-party. Invite the top of the ton – or the bottom, if you choose!”

“But I’m not – I’m not really – ”

“For a year you are,” Roxy says, and Eggsy hears the echo of her words in what Harry had said to him before their wedding.

For a year… even if we must later part, we will be man and wife for that time.

And for that year, Eggsy has the privileges, if not the monarchic power, of the Queen. Why not use it? He comes to his feet, too, slowly, stunned at the thought.

“A year,” he says to Roxy, as he’d said to Harry, the night Harry had proposed. A year – not to be Harry’s wife – but, perhaps, to become that wife – and perhaps, to gain a husband, too. In more than just name.

Then: “Does Harry even like balls?”

“It hardly matters,” Roxy answers. “He’ll think it his duty to attend. He always does his duty.”

Something they have in common, then. A starting point.

“Let us return to my chambers and begin packing at once,” Eggsy says. “I should like very much to leave in the morning.”

Roxy’s grin is fierce. “Yes, your Highness.”

Chapter Text

Harry frowns down at the letter in his hand. He looks up and around the room – it’s gotten dark. No doubt that is the explanation. It’s dark in this room, and he hasn’t lit any candles, and therefore he has misread this letter.

That’s easily fixed. Harry rises and fetches a taper, carrying it around his study and touching it to wicks with his own hands. If Merlin were here, he’d lecture. Thankfully he isn’t. Harry has no desire to have his study intruded on by servants any more than absolutely necessary, and Harry is more than capable of lighting his own candles.

Once the room is properly illuminated, he returns to his desk and takes up the letter again. It’s from James – Lady Spencer. Sitting next to it is the formal card announcing his engagement to Percival Morton, seventh Earl Morton. The card is impersonal; the letter is not. James’ happiness overflows from the page. Harry had spent his first reading of the letter gritting his teeth, struggling against jealousy and the urge to burn the entire missive.

But the postscript.

P.S., James had written. I was beyond delighted to receive the invitation for your upcoming ball. Of course I knew Eggsy wasn’t going to be petty, but it’s still a wonderful mark of trust, especially as he can’t have known about my engagement when the invitations were sent. I look forward to renewing my acquaintance with him. How are you two getting on? Splendidly, I wager. Good for you, Harry. – JS

A second reading does nothing to dispel Harry’s confusion. The lighting had not been at fault. James had indeed written invitation and your upcoming ball. The difficulty being, of course, that no such ball is in contemplation.

After some deliberation, Harry rings the bell.

Giles enters at once. “Yes, your Majesty?”

“I would like a moment of the carrier-consort’s time.”

Usually Giles is an excellent servant – he had been part of the household during the previous monarch’s time, and it shows in grave reserve and a certain unflappability. But now he fairly stares at Harry. “Ah… does your Majesty mean, in the morning?”

Harry glances at the clock – no, it’s barely nine, Eggsy is unlikely to have retired already. “I rather meant immediately, Giles.”

This seems to have no effect on the servant’s confusion. “But your Majesty…”

Harry raises an eyebrow impatiently. “Am I expected to go to him now?”

“No, of course not, your Majesty,” Giles says hastily. “It’s only that, well, with the distances involved, I don’t see how his Highness the carrier-consort could possibly present himself before morning. Your Majesty.”

With the distances involved. Harry eyes his servant carefully. “Giles,” he asks, “have you been drinking?”

That stiffens the man’s spine. “Of course not, your Majesty!”

“Then go and get me the carrier-consort at once,” he orders impatiently. “No more excuses. Go!”

Giles opens his mouth. Closes it again. Bows, most correctly, and departs.

“The distances involved,” Harry mutters. It’s not that far from the Queen’s wing to the small tower where Harry keeps his study. Except, perhaps, in emotional distance. It’s quite true that Harry has kept a careful wall up between he and Eggsy since the night of their heat. But Harry would never have thought Giles ill-trained enough to make reference to it. Merlin, on the other hand…

As if summoned by those thoughts, the man himself comes through Harry’s door, not even stopping to knock. “What on earth are ye doing to the servants?” he demands. “Poor Giles is all a-tremble, saying ye accused him of drink, for God’s sake. And demanded that he somehow fetch Lady Rowley to ye all the way from London in the dead of night – at once! Have ye finally snapped?”

“Have I snapped?” Harry grips the edge of the table – here, real. He is not dreaming. Has the world gone mad? “Why on Earth would you think Lady Rowley is in London?”

“Because he traveled there. Last week. Which ye know perfectly well.”

“Last week?”

“Harry,” Merlin says slowly. “Have ye been drinking?”

“No!” Harry snaps at once. Then, guiltily, he admits: “A trifle. But I’m hardly drunk.”

Merlin peers at him closely. “Hmm.”

“Why did Eggsy travel to London? Why didn’t he tell me?” What if I’d wanted him? This is, of course, a massively unfair thing to think, since Harry has spent the last week and more avoiding Eggsy at every turn. Nevertheless, the thought persists.

Now Merlin is giving Harry a look usually reserved for children and fools. “He did tell ye.”

“He most certainly did not!” What is this, a conspiracy?

“I myself delivered his message – ” Merlin stops, closes his eyes, and brings a hand up to rub the bridge of his nose. “Harry. Ye did of course read the message I brought.”

Ah. Well. That message. Indeed, Merlin had brought Harry a message from Eggsy – or rather, a sheet of paper, neatly folded, bearing Harry’s name. Harry remembers spending an inordinate amount of time admiring the elegance of Eggsy’s handwriting. Then he remembers feeling foolish, reminding himself sternly of all of the reasons he had to give Eggsy space, and locking the missive in a drawer until Harry could look at it without foolish thought.

“I… have been waiting for a more convenient time.”

The look Merlin gives Harry is no longer for children.

“I’ve been giving him space!” Harry defends. “You yourself said you understood my reasons! He should not have my attentions forced upon him.”

“How is Lady Rowley ever to indicate that he desires your attentions if ye ignore his communications?” Merlin demands.

“He – why, he will – ”

“Attempt to join ye for supper? Visit your library on a series of increasingly flimsy pretexts? Loiter about in the common areas? Learn when ye commonly go riding and visit the stables at about those times? Write a letter directed to ye?”

“He – stables?”

“I’ve wondered why ye’ve given up riding.”

“I’ve been busy!”

“Ah yes,” Merlin says dryly. “Matters of state.”

“I am King,” Harry reminds Merlin haughtily.

“And England is at peace. The government practically runs itself. Your primary duty is to provide the kingdom with an heir. Tell me, your Majesty, how is that going?”

That’s a bridge too far. Harry fixes Merlin with a steely gaze. “You are well aware that the carrier-consort and I have both done our duty on that score, and quite recently.”

“Not as recently as all that. Isn’t it about time for the physician-midwife to be visiting?”

“A fortnight is the usual time.”

“Harry.” Merlin stares incredulously. “It’s been a fortnight.”

“What? It certainly – ” Harry closes his mouth. He also closes his eyes, the better to count. His wedding day had been the fifteenth of April…

“Tomorrow is May Day.”

Yes. Yes, of course it is. Harry has been busy these last few days in preparation for the quarter-day. Merlin’s right that the government practically runs itself, but still there are many things that need his signature, and many smaller things in the running of the household that intrude upon his attention. But somehow it had escaped Harry’s notice that May Day is, inevitably, a fortnight – or even a trifle more – after the fifteenth of the preceding month…

Harry’s thought processes suddenly mire themselves in mud. He had been married on the fifteenth of April. That same night Eggsy had gone into heat. It has now been a fortnight. Which means they are about to find out if their union has borne fruit.

“Is the physician-midwife coming here?” Harry blurts out, as the first coherent thought that manages to form itself.

“What good would that do? Lady Rowley is in London.”

No good at all. “Well I’m not about to find out the results by another letter,” Harry declares.

“An excellent plan, your Majesty.” Merlin’s deadpan is perfect. “Shall I begin the packing?”

“Yes – wait – ” The original issue returns itself to Harry’s attention. “Is it possible,” he says slowly, “or is James only dreaming, that Eggsy is hosting a ball? In London?”

“A ball?” Merlin raises an eyebrow, and Harry feels a momentary stab of relief. Merlin had had no idea about this either. James must be mistaken. It can’t possibly be true that Eggsy had not only left Harry behind – a full week ago – but had also decided to entertain, without him, at his own palace.

But then Merlin steps across to Harry’s desk, rummages quickly through a pile that Harry had mostly been ignoring, and produces a gilt-edged invitation. He peruses it briskly. “Why indeed he is,” Merlin says brightly. “On the fifth of the month. Excellent. We shall be in time.”

Harry groans.

“I’m sorry, your Majesty,” Lady Carlyle says, not sounding it at all. “The carrier-consort is occupied with matters of an Omegan nature and cannot be disturbed at this time.”

Harry resists the urge to throttle the noblewoman smirking – respectfully – up at him. How does one even manage to smirk respectfully? All Harry has ever been able to do is smirk. Of course, when a rich, titled, unmated young Alpha smirks, all the maidens in the ballroom swoon and the mamas titter and call him rakish. He imagines it’s quite a different matter for Omegas. Omegas, as a rule, do not smirk.

Lady Carlyle is decidedly smirking. She is also standing in front of the entrance to the Queen’s suite in Buckingham palace, blocking Harry’s passage, diminutive and utterly unmoving.

“Listen to me,” Harry says slowly. “I have ridden – ”

“In a carriage,” Merlin clarifies from Harry’s side, lest Lady Carlyle mistakenly believe that Harry had had to put forth any effort at all. Harry glares at him for the interruption. Merlin, unfazed, merely nods for Harry to continue.

All day,” Harry goes on. “For the express purpose of being with Eggs – er, Lady Rowley – during the physician-midwife’s visit. I am sure he wishes me to be there. The examination is, er, somewhat intrusive.” Harry is attempting to be delicate, truly he is. The subject of fertility is a delicate one in these After days. And Lady Carlyle is after all one of the victims of the V-Day virus.

She does not seem to have any conception of herself as a fragile victim to be treated considerately. Lady Carlyle looks down her nose at Harry – an impressive feat, considering that Harry must be a full foot and a half taller than she is – and says, coolly, “I am acting on his explicit instructions.”

“You cannot be,” Harry says through gritted teeth, “as he had no reason to contemplate my presence here, and cannot possibly have instructed you in its eventuality.”

“Had he then no reason to contemplate your presence here?” The look on Lady Carlyle’s face is astonishingly similar to the look on Lancelot's face when she’s just finished sneaking up behind someone and slitting their throat. It’s most disconcerting to see that feral triumph on the face of someone who has heretofore pretended to be meek. “Do you mean to say that your actions, or lack thereof, might in some way have persuaded the carrier-consort to believe that you intended to continue neglecting him, even during such a vital matter as the physician-midwife’s visit?”

Merlin has a coughing fit at Harry’s side. Harry glares at him again.

“Perhaps your Majesty would consider retiring to your own chambers,” Lady Carlyle suggests sweetly, “and I could send word when the carrier-consort is available?”

“This is insane,” Harry says, abruptly losing patience. “I am the King. I don’t care what instructions you have been given. If I say I’m going in that room, I’m going in that room, and to Hell with what anyone else wants!”

Lady Carlyle’s eyes flash flame and her hand rises. Harry watches it, fascinated. He wonders if she’ll actually dare to strike him. He wonders what he’ll do if she does.

They never find out. The door opens behind Lady Carlyle – she’d had her back flat up against it, and nearly stumbles as its support vanishes – and Eggsy appears in its opening. Harry drinks in the sight of him eagerly, an eagerness that turns to dismay the more he takes in. Eggsy looks pale and wan, with dark circles under his eyes. Has he been sleeping? Caring for himself? His hair is slightly longer than it had been when Harry had seen it last, but it hangs limply. Nor is Eggsy wearing evening-clothes; only a night-dress, simple and conservative in the extreme, and the blue flannel dressing-gown, which he clutches to himself. Harry remembers the modish ensemble Eggsy had worn during their proposal with a pang. 

“Good evening, my Lord,” Eggsy says. He even sounds flat and weary. “I understand you wished to see me.”

“Eggsy,” Lady Carlyle begins. “If you don’t want – ” Eggsy holds up a hand.

“Let us not pretend,” Eggsy says tiredly. “His Majesty has made it most clear that my own desires are irrelevant. Even when they pertain to my body and my privacy.”

“That’s – that’s not what I – ” Harry stammers. He hates it when he stammers. He squares his shoulders. “I simply wished to assure myself that you were – ” He considers various words and discards them all. “ – well.”

“I have not conceived,” Eggsy says bluntly.

Harry sighs. “I am sorry to learn it,” he says. He’s trying to offer comfort, but Eggsy stiffens.

“Indeed.” Eggsy bites the word off as if its taste is repulsive. “Now that your Majesty has been assured of my lack of well-being, perhaps I could be permitted to retire? The hour is late. Unless his Majesty wishes for me to perform my conjugal duties at this time?”

“Of course not,” Harry has hastily. Too hastily. Merlin nearly coughs himself to death at Harry’s side.

“No.” Eggsy seems to only go more pale and still. “I cannot conceive just now, of course.”

“Eggsy, that’s not – ”

“Naturally my body will remain at your Majesty’s disposal at any time.” Eggsy steps back. “Good eve, my Lord.”

The door closes.

“Eggsy,” Harry says plaintively to the closed door. He steps forward without thinking, reaching past Lady Carlyle to the handle.

“Harry,” Merlin says sharply. That’s a tone a voice Harry hasn’t heard from him in a long time: it goes all the way back to the days when they’d been in the army together, Merlin serving as Harry’s batman. When a misstep might have been the difference between life and death. When Merlin speaks in that tone, differences of rank and class aside, Harry stops dead in his tracks and listens.

He listens now. Merlin says: “If ye knock on that door right now, or God forbid go inside without Lady Rowley’s invitation, ye’re saying ye’re just as he thinks ye are. That ye are demanding yer right to his body without reference to his own thoughts on the matter.”

“I just want to talk to him!”

“How interesting, your Majesty,” Lady Carlyle says in tones that could freeze wine. “He had been saying the same to me for the past fortnight.”

Harry’s hand slams into the wall. Not the door. The wallpaper is a pleasant striped green. Harry hates it.

Lady Carlyle curtsies. “By your leave, your Majesty,” she murmurs. “The carrier-consort will be wanting me.”

“Yes, go,” Harry says savagely. He turns on his heel, facing away down the corridor. He doesn’t trust himself not to follow her if he’s watching when she opens the door to the Queen’s suite and slips inside.

“Well,” Merlin remarks, when the door has closed again and the corridor is empty save for the two Alphas. “Ye’ve made a right mess of this one, and no mistake.”

“What was I supposed do to differently?” Harry takes off, walking towards the King’s suite as fast as his legs will carry him. Which is quite fast. Damnably, Merlin keeps up. As always. “I was supposed to be in there with him! I’m his husband, damn it!”

“Are ye planning to start acting like it anytime soon?”

That hurts. “I was trying to be respectful,” Harry says. It sounds petulant even to his own ears. “You’re the one who said this whole thing was dishonorable. All right, he had no choice but to marry me, but I can give him a choice in how he goes about being married!”

Merlin groans. “How are ye so thick-headed?” he demands, seemingly of the suit of armor they’re walking past. “Staying away from him when he wants ye near isn’t giving him a choice!”

“He doesn’t want me near! He just said so!”

“Ye were about to barge in on him half-naked and with someone else’s hand up his – ”

“Don’t say it,” Harry says hastily. It will do neither of them any good to share the mental image.

“Aye,” Merlin agrees. He looks faintly disgusted at the mere thought. “Don’t know what ye see in it, myself.”

Harry clears his throat.

“Anyway.” Merlin visibly regroups. “Ye must admit, as a first step towards marital intimacy goes, it’s rather a lot. Dinner might have been a better starting point.”

“It’s a little late for that now,” Harry says mulishly.

“Nonsense. Dine with him tomorrow.”

“And say what?”

“‘I’m sorry’ might be a decent starting place.”

“Very funny,” Harry mutters.

“I’m sorry,” Harry says.

Eggsy comes to a dead halt on the threshold of the dining room. He catches at the door-frame and goes pale as a ghost. Harry, already on his feet, takes a hasty step towards Eggsy. He truly looks as if he’s going to faint.

“Harry?” Eggsy whispers.

“Eggsy, are you all right?” That’s Harry’s line, but it’s not coming from his lips: Lady Carlyle is the one to speak it, and she’s also the one who steps up next to Eggsy and catches his elbow to steady him. She follows the line of his gaze and sees Harry, now hovering awkwardly halfway down the dining table, and blinks. “Your Majesty!”

“Good evening,” Harry says, because he probably should have started there anyway. “My lady, you look lovely this evening.”

Eggsy stares at him. Actually, the pallor of his skin isn’t terribly flattering. It makes it obvious he hasn’t used any paint this evening, and in combination with the pastel green of his tunic, gives the impression that he’s vaguely seasick. Which isn’t a lovely sight on anyone. Though Harry is given to understand that when an Omega is breeding…

The image comes to Harry out of nowhere: Eggsy, breeding. Of course right now, right away, there’d be little in the way of external signs. But in, say, six or seven months… Eggsy would be beautifully round. Would he put on weight in other areas, too? Harry hadn’t exactly been able to count Eggsy’s ribs during heat, but Eggsy had had an unusual amount of definition. Would he keep that and remain firm and luscious? Or would he round out, soft and inviting?

As long as it’s my pup in that belly.

The possessive thought stops Harry in his metaphorical tracks. Where had that come from? For that matter, where had any of this come from? Harry had spent the first fifty years of his life avoiding thoughts of mating and breeding like the plague, lest the thoughts themselves lead to the reality. He hadn’t wanted to settle down. Certainly, he’d enjoyed the attentions of beautiful Omegas on a regular basis. And, despite what Merlin had charged, he’d quite enjoyed Society, too. Call him a peacock; Harry liked dressing nicely and attending balls and dinner-parties. But his title had ensured his entrée into that particular world without any need for a wife. Indeed, a wife would have been rather in the way.

Since V-Day, of course, matters had been altered. Even more so since the passage of the Registration and Royalty Act. Harry disapproves of the Act in the strongest possible terms, but the overarching goal of providing Britain with an heir is one he’d accepted as his duty. He’d been quite ready to fulfill it. With Lady Spencer or Lady Rowley or anyone else. Surely the year of placid coexistence Harry and James had shared is ample proof of that.

So then why is Harry suddenly alive with the urge to grab Eggsy, haul him off to the nearest convenient cave, and growl loudly at any other Alphas (or optimistic-looking male Betas) in the vicinity?

“Harry,” Eggsy says. He sounds as if he’s been saying it several times without a response.

Harry shakes himself loose of his baser instincts and makes an effort to smile. “Yes, Eggsy?”

Eggsy looks at him warily. “Are you… all right?”

“Just hungry,” Harry says, by way of excusing any misplaced growling that may or may not have taken place. “Shall we dine?” He comes around to Eggsy’s seat at the foot of the table, attempting to make it seem as if that had always been his target, and draws it back with a flourish.

“Of course,” Eggsy falters. He glances quickly at Lady Carlyle, who is perhaps not as subtle as she intends as she raises her eyebrows at him.

Harry slides the chair back up to the table as Eggsy sits, and gestures Lady Carlyle to her own chair. Finally, he seats himself. “A lovely evening, isn’t it?” He motions to the butler to begin service.

“Indeed, your Majesty,” Lady Carlyle says. Eggsy says nothing. Only stares.

This sets the tone for the rest of the meal. Harry offers an inanity, Lady Carlyle makes a polite but conversation-ending response, and Eggsy says nothing. Or makes a small noise of acknowledgement. He speaks only a handful of times: to decline the fowl (gooseberries, he says, do not sit well with him); to reply in the affirmative when Harry asks if he has had Countess Rowley to visit; and to thank Harry when Harry expresses admiration for how quickly Eggsy has organized the upcoming ball.

“And what role would you like me to play during the event?” Harry asks, pressing the topic. “Of course it is your affair; but the lord of the manor generally does have some small part in the proceedings.”

“Especially when he is King,” Lady Carlyle murmurs.

Harry inclines his head. “Just so.”

“Oh, I had not…,” Eggsy hesitates. “That is to say, I had not wished to presume.”

“Most considerate of you. But as I am now assuring you I am quite ready to perform my role, I wish you will begin.”


“To presume.” Harry smiles.

“Ah.” Eggsy looks down at his salad, moving the leaves around with his fork. “Well, naturally… there is the opening dance.”

Performed, commonly, by the highest-ranking lord and lady in attendance. Or occasionally by the hosts, if the precedence is close enough. In this case the two are united. “I shall be delighted to open the ball with you,” Harry promises. “What else?”


“Surely that cannot be all!” Harry protests. He’s attempting to go on projecting good cheer, although as the sorbet cups are passed round for the last time he’s aware that his air of bonhomie is increasingly threadbare. Eight courses’ hard going will do that to an Alpha.

“I – I shall think on it, my Lord.”

“I look forward to hearing your thoughts.”

In the silence that follows, Lady Carlyle folds her napkin up precisely. “I fear I am overtaken with a sudden headache,” she announces. “It is most dreadful. Like a nail being pounded directly into my skull.”

Instantly Eggsy is overflowing with care and solicitude. “You must go lie down at once,” he says. “I shall send Sally to you. Or shall you like me to come along as well? I could read to you. Quietly. That is – ” with a glance towards Harry – “if his Majesty permits – ”

His Majesty would rather not permit, having hoped to spend more time with his carrier-consort, but is opening his mouth to acquiesce when Lady Carlyle beats him to it. “Oh no,” she says quickly, turning to Eggsy. “No, indeed, I wish to be quite alone. I shall go directly to sleep.”

“If you’re certain,” Eggsy says doubtfully.

“Quite certain. Thank you, your Highness.”

“Eggsy,” Eggsy insists.

Lady Carlyle glances discreetly at Harry. “Your Highness has indeed been most condescending in the past – ”

“Oh, there’s no need to stand on ceremony simply because I’ve joined you,” Harry interrupts.

“Quite considerate, your Majesty,” Lady Carlyle murmurs. “Then, with your permission – ”

“Yes, of course.” Harry waves indulgently. “Rest well, my dear Lady Carlyle.”

The look she gives him promises fiery vengeance, in the form of a long gossip session between herself, Merlin, and as many of the other senior servants as can be convinced to league together to make a King’s life a living hell, should Harry fail to utilize this time alone with Eggsy properly. Harry nods in return. He also rises, in token of politeness, as she leaves the room.

“Well,” Eggsy begins, as soon as the door has closed behind Lady Carlyle. “I’m sure you’ll wish to be settling to your port – ”

“Don’t go,” Harry says, wishing Eggsy were close enough to reach for. “I’d rather spend the time with you.”

“Oh,” Eggsy says in surprise. He looks around, then down at his lap, and begins fiddling with his napkin. “Well… the meal is over.”

“It is, isn’t it?” Harry rises and comes around to his carrier-consort. “Then perhaps we could both withdraw together. What do you say to a cup of tea, and then, perhaps, a walk in the gardens?”

Chapter Text

“Welcome,” Eggsy says for the dozenth time, tipping his head in receipt of the curtsey he is offered. “Lady Dalrymple, so glad to see you. And Miss Evans – all the Misses Evans!”

“We could hardly refuse your most generous invitation,” the Countess burbles. Her various Omega children – blond-haired, fair-skinned, and differing only in height descending in step with their ages – bob their own curtseys down the line, like a row of jumping jacks when the string has been pulled. “The gratitude is all ours, Lady Hanover.”

Eggsy keeps the smile on his face by sheer force of will. Lady Dalrymple is not the first to refer to Eggsy by that title; nor will she be the last. It is indeed technically his by right, at least for the time being. What to call the carrier-consort during their tenure had been a matter of heated debate during the first months of James’ tenure in the role. James’ former style, Lady Spencer, had been obviously inappropriate after his marriage – though James had ended up resuming the title after the marriage had been dissolved. But of course a carrier-consort is not a Queen – indeed the entire purpose of the arrangement is that they are not Queen – and so the titles and styles of such would not be appropriate. The thinking had therefore gone as follows: during Eggsy’s marriage he belongs to the house of his husband – the house of Hanover – and he is, obviously, of noble birth, else his name would not appear on the Register. Thus, after much wringing of hands, consulting of obscure precedents, and various false starts, the title Lady Hanover had been settled on as most appropriate.

And if no one has been using that title until now – if every servant, in Eggsy’s hearing or otherwise, up to and including Harry’s equerry Merlin himself, has been continuing to refer to Eggsy as Lady Rowley – well, Eggsy is sure they have a good reason for it. Eggsy himself hadn’t thought to question it until tonight, when the first arrival had swept through the door, curtsied elegantly, and greeted Lady Hanover with aplomb. Surely it’s just an oversight on Harry’s staff’s part. It certainly isn’t that they’re all already certain that Eggsy will go back to his family and title of birth at the end of a year, just as James had –

“A good evening to you, Lady Hanover,” a poisonously polite voice cuts through his musings. Eggsy blinks the room back into focus to see that Lady Dalrymple and her brood have tactfully moved on. In her place is the Countess of Huntington, with Lady Charles Hesketh looking mutinous at her side. “My, what you’ve done with the place. I see his Majesty allows you tremendous license.”

As if lighting the room with good candles and choosing the blue silk-upholstered chairs over the green is somehow forward and presumptuous of Eggsy. Here, at least, is one who is counting the days until she can call Eggsy Lady Rowley again. Eggsy has no trouble remembering for this guest that, as carrier-consort, he need only incline his head the barest shade in reply. Lady Huntington’s smile thins further.

“Your invitation, of course, is a reflection of your status within the kingdom,” Eggsy says sweetly. Or else you’d never have made the list. And then, like a miracle, another family appears behind the Huntington’s. Eggsy’s smile widens. “And here is another esteemed guest! Lady Huntington, I do believe you know Lady James Spencer?”

Lady Huntington turns a distinctly unflattering shade of puce. Charlie, at her side, looks as if he’s about to choke.

“Lady Spencer,” Lady Huntington says, much as one would say, I have stepped in horse dung. “What a… surprise.”

“Indeed, I almost couldn’t believe my eyes,” James says cheerfully and with malice aforethought, sidestepping the gawping Huntingtons neatly to offer Eggsy a proper curtsey – one notably shallower than the Countess had had to give. “Such generosity of spirit on Lady Hanover’s part! Such kindness and warmth! Truly an example for all we ladies, wouldn’t you agree, Miss Hesketh?” James smiles malignantly on Charlie, who is still choking.

“I was so glad to receive your acknowledgement,” Eggsy says to James happily. “And the news of your engagement! Earl Morton, isn’t it?”

“Indeed I am surprised,” Lady Huntington says, cutting Lady Spencer off to re-enter the lists with a vengeance. “Hadn’t you suitors of your own rank in life?”

“My dear Lady Huntington, surely you don’t think the reason no Dukes have offered for your Charlie is because they’re all paying court on me, do you?” James laughs.

“I could have a Duke if I wanted one!” Charlie blurts out.

James regards him coolly. “Why, I have no doubt that you could,” he says. “I hear the Duke of Winterbourne is quite impoverished, and desperate for an heir besides. What was your dowry again, young miss?”

Lady Huntington’s hand tightens on Charlie’s arm before Charlie can do more than redden and clutch at his reticle. “We’ve taken up quite enough of the carrier-consort’s time,” she proclaims. “Such a limited resource ought to be husbanded, of course… come, Charles.”

Eggsy barely keeps himself from collapsing into giggles as the two Huntingtons sail off. “I’m so glad I got to see that,” he confesses to James. “I’ve never gotten in anywhere near as good a set-down on them.”

“I’ve had rather a few more Seasons than you to learn the trick,” James says ruefully. “Now, you must let me thank you for the invitation. No, I insist, we shan’t be awkward about it. It was a lovely gesture. And I think you’re doing a splendid job so far. Lord knows I never had the gumption to entertain when I was carrier-consort.”

“It seemed the thing to do,” Eggsy says. “There are only so many books one can read and horse-rides one can take.”

“Ah.” James regards him knowingly. “Harry is hiding himself away again, is he?”

“Until recently.” Eggsy is uncomfortably aware that he’s blushing. And James, of course, spots it.

What he says is, diplomatically: “I mustn’t stand here all night and monopolize you; you’ll have more guests to greet. But perhaps later, if there’s a break in the dancing…”

Eggsy grasps at this offer eagerly. He supposes that he ought to have more pride, but any suggestions James can offer about how to go on with Harry would honestly be much appreciated. Perhaps especially in light of their recent rapprochement. “During the waltz, perhaps?”

“If you’re not occupied.” James dares to wink – Eggsy supposes that, as the former carrier-consort and the safely-engaged child of a Duke, James really has very little to fear in the way of social consequences – and moves off before Eggsy can come up with a reply.

James’ pleasantry to the contrary, there is no one entering the ballroom just at the moment, so Eggsy has a moment to breathe and fan himself and look around. The palatial room is about half-full. It won’t fill up much more; Eggsy has never liked a crush, and the rooms at Buckingham Palace are large enough that Eggsy had been able to put together quite a respectable guest list without over-filling the space.

Despite Roxy’s jests, Eggsy has neither invited exclusively the top half nor the bottom half of the ton. He’s put together a more balanced guest list, seeking to create an inclusive and neutral atmosphere. It’s too much to hope that there will be no ill feelings or spats over the course of the evening – especially once Eggsy had resigned himself to inviting the Huntingtons – but he can, and does, hope that they will be generally minor.

Of course, he’d chosen the guest list before Harry had… he had…

Several new arrivals appear just then, and Eggsy resumes his role as gracious hostess. By the time he’s finished welcoming them all to Buckingham Palace, Roxy has materialized at his side.

“The dancing, your Highness,” she murmurs. “It’s nearly time.”

“Ah.” Eggsy turns away from the entry hall, moving discreetly through the crowd towards the open dance-floor. “His Majesty?”

“Merlin informs me he will be appearing momentarily.”

Her words are prophetic. No sooner has she spoken them than the band strikes up a fanfare. Conversations are silenced and fans are stilled across the well-lit room as, with the elegant rustle of silk and satin, the beau monde turns to face the double doors.

“His Majesty, Henry IX,” the announcement comes, and the doors open.

Harry – no, it’s not Harry who stands behind those doors. Eggsy can see the difference at once. He’s met them both, in a sense. Harry is the one who joins Eggsy for dinners and takes walks with him in gardens at night, who – Eggsy fights off the memory, lest he blush again. But when Eggsy had received a proposal of marriage, when he had stood before the altar – then he had done so with Henry IX. And that is who is behind these doors. Dressed to utter perfection, accessorized with a devastating smile, and striding confidently forward into the room, the King of England accepts the bows and curtsies of his subjects with careless insouciance. And then Eggsy really can’t help but blush, because all eyes in the room shift – shift to follow Henry’s – because Henry has eyes only for one person in the room, and, Lord help them, it’s Eggsy.

Henry approaches within three steps of Eggsy, the prescribed location. In perfect sync Henry bows and Eggsy curtsies. Then Henry extends his hands, and Eggsy takes them, and the musicians strike up the first tune.

It’s like something out of a dream. The lights blur in the corner of Eggsy’s vision; they’re hardly moving rapidly, the first dance being a time for seeing and being seen, but Eggsy can only look at Henry. The music is bright and gay. The wide hem of Eggsy’s tunic flares as Henry hands him through a spin. And then Henry grins at him, rakish and wide, and suddenly – despite the setting – he’s Harry again.

Harry who had risen from the dinner-table and said, perhaps we could both withdraw together…

The night had been warm, but Eggsy had still shivered when he’s rested his hand on Harry’s offered arm. Harry had led Eggsy out through a set of French doors off the drawing-room and down paths Eggsy had never dreamed he’d tread. The gardens at Buckingham Palace are glorious. But nothing had been so brilliant as the twinkle of the stars and the sparkle of Harry’s eyes.

They’d talked of nothing in particular, strolling those paths together. Eggsy had felt like a ghost with every corner he’d turned, remembering their first meeting at Lady Cuxhaven’s ball. Then they had talked of everything. Now they talk of nothing. But even platitudes on the pleasantness of the evening and the beauty of the flowers had seemed momentous. And at the end of the night, when Harry had bid Eggsy good evening, and then, quite unprompted, kissed Eggsy sweetly…

The music comes to an end and so, perforce, does the dance. Harry and Eggsy come to a graceful halt, perfectly poised. On display. Applause scatters through the ballroom, the due of the monarch.

Eggsy is having trouble remembering to breathe. The press of Harry’s hand on his is almost too much. And when Harry leans forward and drops a kiss on it, even the titters that sweep the ballroom can’t stop Eggsy from floating.

“I trust you’ll keep a few dances for your husband,” Harry murmurs, as the space around them begins to fill with those ready to join the dance. “The waltzes, at least.”

“Oh-h,” Eggsy gasps. “Yes, yes, of course.”

The smile Harry gives Eggsy sends his senses reeling. “What a pity it’s so frowned upon to keep to the same partner,” he sighs. “But I must do my duty to country now. Excuse me, darling.” He turns away and offers a bow to Lady Spencer, who is discreetly idling within earshot, waiting for just such an address.

“Soon I’ll be married and you may omit me from the proceedings,” James laughs, taking Harry’s arm. “In fact, I think I’ll start a new fashion of dancing only with my husband. Lady Hanover, you’ll back me, won’t you?”

“I certainly hope he will,” Harry says before Eggsy can even answer.

There’s a discreet cough at Eggsy’s elbow – the Duke of Westchester, the most senior unmated peer of the realm, who is waiting for her own dance with the carrier-consort. “Surely you don’t mean to take all pleasure from we poor Alphas,” she says gallantly. “Depriving us of our two brightest stars – what then would we do with ourselves at a ball?”

“Perhaps you’ll take up sewing,” James suggests.

Westchester laughs. She’d courted James a Season or two herself, before they’d ended up deciding matrimony would not suit, and is clearly well familiar with James’ ways. Though the Duke must be past thirty: time and past to secure her descent, Michelle would say. Eggsy almost looks around for his mother before he catches himself. That would be rude, of course.

Instead Eggsy offers Westchester a demure smile. “Your dance, I believe, my Lord?”

“If his Majesty will spare you, I shall be honored,” Westchester declares. “I believe they’re striking up now.” Indeed, the musicians are beginning to play. Westchester offers Eggsy a hand – Harry does the same for James – and then they’re stepping into the country-dance.

It’s a very different ball than any Eggsy has attended before. He has no dance-card; his partners are ordered by strict precedence, in accordance with their titles of nobility and the gradations of status therein. As the host, certain dances are automatically left empty so that Eggsy may circulate through the ballroom, consult with Lady Carlyle – in whose capable hands Eggsy has left many of the smaller details – and arrange any remaining matters as to the seating, etc., which could not have been settled until the final attendance had been confirmed. Indeed the Honorable Miss Watson and her chaperone have had to cry off at the last minute due to a most unfortunate illness, and the cards hastily reshuffled to account for their absence.

But Eggsy is pleased: the ball is proceeding excellently. The dance-floor is full at every turn. There are very few young ladies sitting about while the music is playing, and from what Eggsy can see, it’s rarely the same lady twice; no one is being made gooseberry. The only incidents so far are a spilled glass of ratafia, ruining a gown, and a minor contretemps over whether the doors to the garden should be left open or closed.

“Open,” Eggsy decrees, when the matter is put to him. “No indeed, Lady Dalrymple, I am quite sure the evening air is rather healthful than otherwise. I take it regularly with his Majesty.”

Lady Dalrymple looks suitably abashed, and the matter proceeds without further ado. Eggsy even sees one of her children – the eldest Miss Evans, he thinks – stroll into the garden later on with a gentleman, another of the Evans ladies trailing along behind to play propriety. He smothers a smile and silently wishes the young lady luck. Gardens at balls are lucky places, he’s found.

At last the last dance before dinner winds to a close and there’s a general movement towards the dining-room. Harry, whom Eggsy has not seen since their opening dance, rematerializes at Eggsy’s side. “May I accompany you?” he asks.

“It’s not quite the done thing, is it?” Eggsy parries. “You should be addressing Lady Spencer, or else the Duchess of Waring – ” they being the most senior unmated and mated Omegas, respectively, in attendance. “And I should allow Westchester or Marlborough to squire me around.”

“I thought we were setting a new fashion,” Harry answers. “And I believe the two ladies you name have already selected their preferred companions.” He points with his chin. Eggsy follows the motion and is unsurprised to see James ensconced on Earl Morton’s arm. Waring appears to be being escorted by the young Marquess Cherbury – ahh, of course, and there’s Waring’s child trailing behind, doe-eyed and hopeful. Waring has the match in her eye and isn’t letting propriety stop her, it seems.

“We seem to be abandoned,” Eggsy says. Westchester has singled out another young lady as well, and Marlborough has her wife on her arm, of all things. Eggsy sets his hand on Harry’s arm primly. “I suppose there’s nothing for it.”

“I may have dropped a few encouraging words in people’s ears,” Harry murmurs as he brings Eggsy forward. The crowd parts before them as they pass. “I am quite enamored of this new way of doing things.”

It’s really not fair, Harry saying things like that. Eggsy does not want to blush or flutter or, God forbid, faint, in front of all of the guests at his first ball as Buckingham Palace’s hostess. But setting Eggsy’s heart askew seems to have been Harry’s favorite goal in life, since that dinner they’d shared right after the physician-midwife’s visit.

The results of that visit haven’t been announced yet. Eggsy had asked Harry, that next night in the garden, if they might delay announcing them until after the ball. If the failure of Eggsy’s first heat as carrier-consort had been known, it would have been all anyone could have talked about; among themselves, to Eggsy’s face, in corners where they would have pretended not to know that Eggsy could hear them. Speculation on what had gone wrong. Various assignations of blame – to Eggsy’s diet, to the width of his hips, to the haste with which his head had come on after marriage. Old wives’ tales and suggestions to help his next heat be fertile; some kindly meant, and some… not. The thought had kept Eggsy up at nights until Harry had agreed. As it is, the physician-midwife had been persuaded to say that his first examination had been too early to be conclusive, and a second had been scheduled for the morrow. Only then will the news be official. And so for tonight Eggsy is cloaked in stolen glory – the carrier-consort who might even at this moment be carrying. Every tongue trips with speculation. One dowager claims to see a glow about Eggsy that can only mean a child. Another swears Eggsy has thickened already. The more spiteful whispers will be proven right soon enough. Then those words will be said again, to his face. Tonight they are relegated to dark corners, most of the ton choosing glittering hope over bleak pessimism. And so the crowd draws back, not just from their King but from Eggsy, who they hope may have already secured the succession.

Eggsy himself is a nexus of swirling, contradictory emotions. His first feeling on discovering he hadn’t conceived had been shameful relief. With the way Harry had been behaving – his disgust with Eggsy’s wanton actions during the heat itself – with Eggsy unsure if he could face a life of solitude and isolation, and a mate who treated him as if he didn’t exist – Eggsy had been relieved not to be shackled just yet.

Of course, that feeling hadn’t lasted. Guilt and self-recrimination had followed soon enough. It’s Eggsy’s duty to provide England with an heir if he possibly can. Surely the good of securing his nation’s future would far outweigh the sorrow of a barren mating. And after all Eggsy had hardly been being mistreated – he had had plenty of everything, freedom to come and go, an attentive staff, unlimited pin-money. It’s not as if sharing a palace with Harry had been a hardship.

Just the opposite, these last few days. After their dinner and evening walk, Harry had begin turning up everywhere Eggsy went. In the library when Eggsy went to exchange books, ready to talk about whichever novel Eggsy had just finished. Harry must have an excellent memory and a prolific appetite for reading, for Eggsy has yet to turn a page with whose contents Harry is not well familiar. And then, too, if Harry is not in the stables when Eggsy goes for his morning ride, he is sure to be found cresting the hill just ahead of Eggsy, or waiting in a forest clearing along Eggsy’s route with a picnic basket. Add in Harry’s attendance at every dinner, and his insistence on preferring Eggsy’s company in the gardens to the more usual glass of port…

If Eggsy didn’t know any better, he’d say Harry is courting him. If Eggsy didn’t… he glances sideways at his husband, and hastily averts his eyes from the handsome sight. Sometimes Eggsy isn’t sure he does know any better.

Alas, their ability to flout tradition ends at the dinner-table. Harry is at the head and Eggsy the foot of the main table, reduced to the occasional shared smile across the gleaming expanse. Eggsy divides his attention between Marlborough at his right and Westchester at his left. The courses proceed slowly, and Eggsy is unable to resist declining any of the gooseberry sauce, although he knows that every matron in the room has seen it and immediately taken it as confirmation of Eggsy’s nonexistent pregnancy.

Eventually dinner winds to a close. Eggsy keeps a discreet eye on the descending level in the sorbet-cups nearest him, and at an opportune moment, sets his napkin on the table. This signal is immediately followed by all of the spoons being set down. Once they are Eggsy rises.

A dinner at ball, of course, has different rules than a usual meal. The gentlemen do not linger behind for port and cigars, though it is understood that the champagne will flow rather more freely in the second half of the evening, and that a gentleman stepping out onto the balcony does not always do so in company with a lady. But the purpose of this evening is the mingling of the sexes. And so after the ladies have risen, the gentlemen rise likewise, and Eggsy is escorted back into the ballroom quite properly, on the arm of the Duke of Marlborough, just behind Harry and Duchess Warbury.

The orchestra is tuning, and it’s not the music Eggsy expects. Rather than returning to the country-dances, it appears that someone – someone other than Eggsy or Roxy – have instructed them to open the second half of the evening with a waltz.

Harry appears before Eggsy, bereft of Duchess Warbury and looking pleased with himself. “I believe this dance is mine?”

Eggsy’s heart starts to pound. You took his knot a fortnight ago, he reminds himself. Somehow that doesn’t help. He puts his hand in Harry’s and finds himself immediately pulled flush against a firm, hard body.

It’s not the same. Heat is sweat and need and a deep ache that drives out all other thoughts except becoming filled. Waltzing leaves Eggsy with far too much time to think. His feet go through the steps automatically. The places where their bodies touch are too warm; the places where they don’t are too cold.

Harry leans in. “It’s a beautiful evening,” he murmurs, whirling Eggsy around and drawing him close in again. “You’ve done a wonderful job as hostess.”

“Oh, I – thank you.”

“I think I could grow used to this.”

“We can certainly entertain further,” Eggsy flounders.

Harry’s arm snakes around Eggsy’s waist. “So long as you save the waltzes for me,” he purrs.

Eggsy nearly catches fire right then and there on the dance floor. His mother’s humiliating carriage talk suddenly comes back to haunt him. Now darling, of course his Majesty will be mainly interested in conceiving an heir, and for that, naturally, you must be in heat. But you should not assume that just because a heat is required for procreation, that Alphas only desire intercourse at that time. In fact their desires are quite out of season, in general. And though of course your first goal should always be to do your duty, you should know that, done properly, mating out of heat is itself quite enjoyable…

It’s not as if Eggsy hadn’t known that Alphas and Omegas could mate out of heat. Or that it is at least not unpleasant to do so, for Omegas – certainly it must be pleasurable for Alphas, or they wouldn’t seek the act out. But to feel so flushed and wanton merely waltzing with his husband, a bare fortnight out of Eggsy’s last heat – !

“A break, my darling?” Harry asks knowingly, slowing his steps. “We’ve more than done our duty – the dance floor is quite full.”

A quick glance shows that that’s certainly true. The first waltz had slid into the second without Eggsy noticing. He’d had no need to change partners, to be sure. But the second half of a ball is unlike the first regardless; although the King opens both, it is not required, in the after-dinner stretch, that the rest of the room wait a full dance before joining in. The floor had probably filled up within the first dozen bars.

“A glass of Madeira?” Harry holds up a finger, and a waiter is prompt. A moment later a glass is pressed into Eggsy’s hands. Even through his gloves the chill is welcome. “And perhaps a turn in the gardens?” Eggsy nearly gasps, eyes flying up to meet Harry’s, and while Harry’s tone and expression are perfectly neutral there’s mischief in those depths. “I think you could benefit from the cool air.”

“I – oh…” Eggsy castigates himself rapidly for being a ninny, and grasps after his wits. “I should like that very much, my Lord.”

He’d like anything Harry is offering, in truth. And the promises Harry’s eyes are making Eggsy is enough to make the most Socially experienced Omega swoon.

They move towards the edge of the dance floor. This time the crowd doesn’t part. Eggsy likes it better that way. It makes him feel anonymous. Just for a moment there’s no Registration and Royalty Act, no succession, no crowns. Eggsy could be any Omega, and Harry could be any Alpha, testing out the first steps on a road that could lead anywhere.

Then Eggsy hears it.

“ – quite certain,” Charlie Hesketh is saying maliciously, feathers in his headdress bobbing as he nods. “I don’t care what Mama says about gooseberry sauce. It will be announced tomorrow and you’ll see I was right. No heir.”

“Then that’s one heat down already,” another Omega says – a Lady Barker, Eggsy thinks dimly through a wall of pain mixed with anger.

“And it must have been a fast one, too!” a third gossips. “Why, to know already – ”

“Right after the wedding,” Charlie nods. “Of course, what else could you expect from breeding like that? One whiff of purebred pheromones and he probably went right over on his back.”

“Eggsy?” Harry asks. “What is it?”

There’s a shuffle in the crowd, and the voices of Charlie and his companions are lost. Only then does Eggsy realize he’s stopped dead, taking Harry with him.

“Nothing,” Eggsy says weakly. Then he squares his shoulders and clutches more tightly at Harry’s arm. “Take me outside,” he says. “Please.”

It must be Eggsy’s imagination – the result of his mind making words out of the rustling of the crowd – but as they leave the room behind for the cool of the evening, Eggsy thinks he hears Charlie again.

“I’ll be wearing a crown in less than a year…”

“A lovely evening,” Harry says to Eggsy. He sounds proud. He also sounds fond. Eggsy’s heart thumps twice – once in excitement, and once in fear.

Harry must notice. He frowns. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“It’s nothing,” Eggsy says firmly. Nothing but what Charlie and his ilk have always said about Eggsy. And Eggsy would be a fool to let that get in the way of the far more important happenings going on right now.

“Then let’s take a stroll,” Harry says, starting to move through the gardens. “I believe, if we wander assiduously enough, we might even find a fountain.”

Eggsy’s smile is impulsive and heartfelt. Tonight is just the capstone on what the last few days have been causing to happen: Eggsy’s feelings are back, and stronger than ever. He’s well on his way to falling in love with Harry Hart. And is it ego, or simple truth, that Harry seems to be becoming fond of Eggsy, as well?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Charlie’s right about one thing: Eggsy is one heat down already. But Eggsy hopes to be right about something else. Right about Harry’s feelings. Call it irrational, call it idealistic, but Eggsy can’t help but think that if Harry loves Eggsy, truly loves him, then the King will find a way.

“I think I see it already,” Eggsy murmurs, and lets Harry lead him onward.

Chapter Text

Harry wakes up the next morning and lies there in bed for a long time, trying to understand what is happening. The first and most obvious observation is that Harry has awoken naturally – that is, Merlin has not entered his room uninvited, thrown back the curtains, and announced that it is a fine day and Harry has much to accomplish. This routine is unvarying, regardless of whether it is, in fact, a fine day (Merlin had once proclaimed this obvious untruth in the face of a hurricane) or whether Harry actually has anything that needs accomplishing. Harry can’t recall the last time he’s awoken in advance of his valet-turned-equerry’s visit. Nor can he recall the last time he’s awoken without some combination of pounding headache, parched throat, and limbs so leaden they might as well have been cast for toy soldiers. He feels strangely… light. What has he been doing?

Dancing with his mate, for one. Harry experiences another unusual occurrence upon waking: pleasant memories. Eggsy had been light as a feather in his arms for the opening dance. And then, later, the waltz… not to mention their private stroll in the gardens…

Harry settles more comfortably into the bed. Parts of his anatomy are indicating that they like this train of thought very much indeed. Having had the virtue to awaken this early, Harry thinks himself quite deserving of a reward.

His smallclothes leave ample room as Harry reaches down to tug at his privates. He’s already filling up from the memory of Eggsy’s perfume. God, he’d wanted to kiss Eggsy right there on that dance floor. Wanted to lead him straight out of the ballroom, not into the gardens, but up into Harry’s private chamber. Wanted to show Eggsy that there was more to Harry than a fevered tumble during heat and clumsy words outside of it.

Harry hadn’t needed propriety to know that that would have been a mistake. Nor had he needed Merlin’s somewhat acerbic scoldings, delivered daily, to know that any attempt to pursue Eggsy carnally – rights as a husband or no rights – without first inveigling himself into Eggsy’s affections would be a crashing mistake. But Harry’s inner Alpha is much more interested in soft thighs than soft feelings. He remembers the sweet sounds Eggsy had made during their one heat together. The heady way Eggsy had moved with him, responded to him. Eggsy, unlike every other Omega Harry had known, had not been ashamed to show his pleasure. Harry is guiltily aware that half of his failure to perform up to his own standards during those heat-filled nights has been down to the shattering of Harry’s own inhibitions. How could he have remained reserved when faced with such enthusiastic participation? Nothing in Harry’s experience could possibly have prepared him for the primal satisfaction of seeing his Omega so openly enjoying his attentions.

He draws from the memories now, drawing his hand along his length and hissing at the sensations. Eggsy had looked so beautiful last night. The ball had gone off splendidly, and the satisfaction and triumph of it had only served to enhance what good fortune and – well – a good fortune had done for Eggsy’s looks. If Eggsy were on the marriage mart, Harry is sure he would have had half the unmated Alphas in the room sending him their cards today. Ahh, but Eggsy is taken. Those sweet smiles, coaxing lips, those warm soft curves – all were Harry’s. At least for now.

Harry groans, hand moving faster as he dwells more on exactly what he’d like to do with Eggsy. He imagines spreading Eggsy wide open on the bed and teasing him until Eggsy sobs for more. No part of him would be left untouched, but Harry would lavish special attention on that beautiful hole, licking and sucking until Eggsy writhed for mercy. He might give the same attention to Eggsy’s cock – some Omegas like that, he knows, though of course there’s nothing to compare an Omega male’s vestigial genitalia with the massive Alpha cock Harry is working with such dedication. Eggsy can’t knot, and without testes he can’t even really spill down Harry’s throat, but Harry knows from experience that an Omega can orgasm that way regardless. Has anyone told Eggsy that? Will Harry be the one to teach him? To show him that there is pleasure in the marriage-bed beyond the traditional lordosis position, beyond simple intercourse, a whole world of joy that can be Eggsy’s if he’ll let Harry show him…

Harry gasps and grabs at the base of his cock, wrapping his hand around his knot just in time to apply pressure as it inflates. The knot pulses beneath his grip as Harry’s come fills his smallclothes and leaks down to dirty his bedsheets, too. Harry closes his fist as much as he can, providing much-needed resistance around his knot, but it’s still aching and borderline painful. Harry’s fist is a poor substitute for the real knotting muscles of an Omega. Coming without anything around one’s knot is a mistake a teenage Alpha only makes once.

As the initial spasms subside and Harry’s knot ceases pulsing, locking into the inflated position, Harry sighs and releases his grip. The post-orgasm lassitude sweeps over him. He wipes his hand carelessly on the duvet and relaxes even farther into his bed, boneless with release. Soon, he hopes. Soon he will be able to translate some of these wishes into reality. In the meanwhile, he watches a hawk swoop lazily around the patch of clear blue sky visible in the window from where Harry lies. Just visible at the farthest corner, the hawk settles down at a stone fountain and dips its beak in for a drink.

The door to Harry’s room bangs open abruptly. Harry nearly jackknifes off the bed before he realizes it’s only Merlin.

“Good morn – why, you’re awake!” Merlin regards him with astonishment.

Harry discreetly adjusts the duvet to better conceal his still-inflated knot. Without the support of an actual Omega’s knotting muscles, it will go down in ten or fifteen minutes – not the hour or so he might achieve at the upper end, during heat – but that’s still fifteen minutes too many. There is no need for Merlin to know what Harry has been up to. None whatsoever.

“Merlin,” Harry says, trying for stern, “what have I told you about entering my chambers without permission?”

“Usually some form of incoherent mumbling I have been ignoring for the past three decades,” Merlin says. “Your Majesty.”

“Well then, allow me to be clear. You are to knock and wait for permission before entering.” A thought crosses Harry’s mind, still lewd from his earlier activities, and he levels Merlin with a pointed glare. “What if the carrier-consort had been in here with me?”

“His Highness is with the physician-midwife,” Merlin says calmly.

Further memories intrude. “Oh, fuck,” Harry says. “I have to go to Parliament today.”

Merlin nods, then glances away, then back. This is uncharacteristic of him, and Harry waits.

Finally Merlin says, “Is there any chance the answer will be different this time? After this morning’s second visit?”

This takes Harry a moment to understand. Then he shakes his head. “No,” he says, gently enough. “There was no mistake the first time. We simply didn’t want to announce the heat had failed before the ball. Eggsy didn’t need to deal with that.”

Merlin nods slowly. “So he isn’t pregnant.”

“No.” Harry sighs. The quiet sadness he’d temporarily forgotten to feel resumes its usual place in the pit of his stomach.

“Well. Ye still have three more heats to go.” Merlin offers Harry a cheering smile. “If ye lay off the liquor, ye might even get it right next time.”

“Hah hah,” Harry says drily. “I rather think there are other factors in play.”

“Such as spending more time with his Highness?”

“Exactly. Which reminds me – has Eggsy given any word about his breakfast?”

“He’d asked for a tray after the physician-midwife’s visit.”

“Ask him – Merlin, do note I said ask, not tell.” Harry waits for Merlin’s nod before continuing. “Please ask him if he would join me instead. I would very much enjoy the pleasure of his company.”

“Oh-ho.” Merlin regards him complacently. “Looking to get a start on those three heats, are ye?”

Despite Harry’s own lustful thoughts of mere minutes ago, he finds himself bristling. “Can you think of no other reasons one might wish to spend time with their mate?”

“Harry…” Merlin sighs. “Be careful what ye’re about.”

“What does that mean?” Harry blinks, surprised. “You were the one who was after me relentlessly to be more considering of Eggsy!”

“More considering, aye. But I’ve started to think these past few days ye were maybe carrying it too far. It’s as if ye’re trying to make the lass fall in love with ye.”

“And if I am?” Harry says defensively.

Merlin looks compassionate, but he delivers the truth regardless. “Whether or not ye stay married to him isn’t under yer control, Harry.”

“Well, perhaps we’ll just have to see about that,” Harry snaps. He’s being irrational and he knows it, but he doesn’t care to stop.

“Ye’re confusing the lass, too.”

That brings Harry up short. “I am?”

Merlin nods. “When he first came here he was ready enough to fall in love with ye. He knew it, too. And knew it was dangerous. When ye started pushing him away – ”

“You objected to me pushing him away!”

“There was no need for ye two to be at odds, but better that than – Harry, I said it before and I’ll say it again. This is as dishonorable a thing as I’ve ever seen. Ye can’t make him fall in love with ye until ye know ye’re not making promises ye can’t keep.”

Harry looks away. Out the window – but the hawk is gone. Flown off somewhere to be free. The fountain is empty. And the duvet’s concealing properties are no longer necessary.

“It was different with James,” Merlin adds after a few minutes pass, quietly.

“Yes,” Harry agrees. “It was.”

The silence stretches.

“Go and ask the carrier-consort if he will take breakfast with me,” Harry says.

“Harry – ”

“A year is a year, Merlin. And much may happen in a year.”

“Aye,” Merlin agrees. “But if ye’re hoping for a change in the law – it’s Parliament you need, not Time.”

And they both know which moved more slowly. Nevertheless, Harry sat up and reached for his dressing-gown. “Then there’s no time like the present to start.”

Eggsy sends word back that he’d be delighted to join Harry for breakfast. Harry nearly stumbles while drawing on his boots, impatient to meet him and discover whether the word ‘delighted’ had been genuine, or a mere pleasantry added to the message by one of the many servants through which it had passed. Merlin has to retie his cravat three times before Harry stops fidgeting enough for it to be done correctly.

The breakfast-room is a small parlor, well-lit with a blazing fire, and containing the wholly gorgeous form of the carrier-consort when Harry enters. “Good morning, my dear,” he greets. “Are you well?”

“As well as may be,” Eggsy answers, rising to take Harry’s hands in greeting. Fire or no fire, Eggsy is wearing a shawl over his day-clothes. And he adds, “I am afraid there has been no change in the physician-midwife’s diagnosis.”

“We both knew there wouldn’t be,” Harry reminds him.

Eggsy looks away. “Indeed.”

Hope is a pernicious thing, Harry has long since learned. “May I fill your plate?”

“Oh, I can – ”

“Nonsense, I insist. You are fond of eggs, I believe?” Harry pauses halfway to the chafing-dishes, struck by the thought, and turns back to Eggsy. “Is that the source of your nickname?”

Eggsy laughs at him – a little laugh, but a real one. “Guess again, my Lord.”

“Drat,” Harry says mildly, returning to the task at hand. “Kippers?”

“No thank you. Some fruit would be lovely.”

Harry brings the filled plate back to the table, studying it – and Eggsy – critically. “I think you would benefit from more meat in your diet.”

Now Eggsy’s laugh rings out. “Are you a midwife, then, sir?”

“Oh, I didn’t mean – ” Though Harry had, of course, thinking of the delightful thought of Eggsy growing round with his child, and being crowned Queen besides. He takes up his own plate and sighs. “I suppose I did mean. You must think me quite a busybody.”

“No,” Eggsy says archly, “just an Alpha.”

“Ouch.” But Harry is smiling as he goes to fill his plate.

They enjoy their breakfasts companionably, talking over small matters from last night’s ball – the order of the dances, the flowers that had been chosen, the promising progression of two or three courtships. It transpires that Eggsy is already thinking of hosting another event.

“In a month’s time or so,” Eggsy says, gesturing with his toast. “Of course I mustn’t interfere too much with the regular round of the Season. But it will be warm enough by then to have a garden-party.”

“Delightful,” Harry says. He’s surprised to find he means it.

Discussion of the proposed garden-party takes up the rest of the meal, until at last Harry puts down his coffee-cup and sighs.

“I have to go to Parliament today,” he says.

Eggsy looks up from the last of his breakfast. His smile is a trifle wobbly, but holds. “Yes,” he agrees.

“What shall you do while I’m there?” Eggsy shouldn’t mope around the castle, imagining who knows what.

“James is visiting.” Eggsy clears his throat. “Lady Spencer.”

“I do recall his given name,” Harry points out, before better sense catches up to him.

Thankfully, Eggsy doesn’t seem offended. “Last night, at the ball, we were going to talk, but there didn’t end up being time.”

“It was a busy evening,” Harry agrees.

“I hardly said hello to my own mother all night! Well, so I invited James for tea, since I knew you’d be up at Parliament. I sent the formal card before breakfast but I’m sure he’ll come, he promised he would last night. He’s been through this before, you see.”

That last is said rather quietly, as if Eggsy is not quite sure Harry will appreciate the reminder. Harry gives Eggsy a smile to show that he doesn’t. “I think it’s a marvelous idea,” he says. “I should have thought of it myself. Actually, I was going to suggest you invite your mother.”

“That’s a kind thought,” Eggsy says carefully, “but… my mother is… high strung.”

Harry nods in complete understanding. He’s been around the ton long enough to know what Eggsy isn’t saying. Countess Rowley is the ambitious one, the one who had dressed Eggsy in green and lilac and rouge for Harry’s proposal. She would doubtless have a thing or two to say on the subject of Eggsy’s not being pregnant at once. Naturally Eggsy will wish to defer that to a more distant time. And Eggsy’s casual statement, that he’d hardly had time to say hello to the Countess last night, takes on another meaning in light of this information. Eggsy had doubtless not wanted to hear all the Countess’ discourse on the subject last night any more than he wishes to hear it this afternoon.

“An outright snub would be perhaps unwise,” Harry says, “but of course, if your duties keep you too busy to have your mother to visit often, that would be quite another matter. And I’m sure that I can be counted on to demand your attention whenever convenient. A King can be domineering if he chooses.”

Eggsy’s gratitude beams from his face and smile like the rays of the sun. “Thank you, my Lord.”

Harry rises from the table. He ought to go now, but he looks at that face, that smile, and his feet carry him around the table instead. “Will I see you at dinner tonight?”

Eggsy looks up at him. “You will.”

Harry doesn’t try to stop himself from kissing those upturned lips. “Then until tonight, Eggsy.”

“I regret to report,” Harry says with as much steady calm as he can manage, “in answer to this most noble body’s Question, that the carrier-consort has not conceived.”

There’s a rustle through the chamber, and something like a sigh. Heads are shaken. Other heads are nodded. There are a few whispers, but they quiet quickly.

“Thank you, your Majesty,” Lord Liverpool – the Prime Minister – says formally.

Harry inclines his head.

“It has come to the attention of this body,” Lord Liverpool continues, “that the current strictures of the Registration and Royalty Act may not be perfectly aligned with best practice in all cases.”

Well, that’s putting it mildly. Harry assumes an expression of polite interest and motions Lord Liverpool to continue.

“Considerations have been raised by both the crown – ” here Liverpool bows to Harry, who again inclines his head – “ – and by various Members of this most august body.”

Several of the attending Members nod or pound briefly upon the rail before them.

“The rationale behind the Act remains sound. This country’s future is in a crisis, and the succession must be assured…”

Liverpool’s always been one who likes to hear his own voice, and of course, he can’t possibly allow any changes to legislation he’d sponsored – written, even – before making sure everyone present knows good and well that there isn’t actually anything wrong with the legislation in the first place. Harry mostly tunes this part out, heart pounding. He’d raised holy hell over the Act when it had first been read, arguing all the ways that it had been ill designed, unfair to the young ladies whose lives it would ruin, unfair to the Crown itself – is it possible that, all these months later, something is finally going to be done?

“…and so I move, in expectation of the full support of this body, to create a new position. This position, Minister of Lineage, would oversee all matters to do with the Act; and would be endowed with some limited powers of exception – for example, permitting the extension of a carrier-consort’s term by one heat, if extenuating circumstances can be proven; or, ending a term early, if new evidence reveals that conception is unlikely – ”

Harry conceals a sigh. Well, it’s a step in the right direction at least. Even with the way this body dickers the new position should be created before the end of Eggsy’s official tenure as carrier-consort. If Harry can ensure that the Minister is someone he approves of – say, Earl Morton – then the proposed exception power could be used to extend that tenure…

“… and revisiting those same powers on a regular basis, say a twelvemonth,” Liverpool finishes. “I will now hear from the Membership.”

At once a figure rises to their feet – Lord Broughton, leader of the opposing Whigs. “I am wholly of your Lordship’s mind on this matter,” he declares.

Harry blinks. That’s… unexpected.

“Indeed I applaud Lord Liverpool on his clear-sightedness and willingness to take action. I have only one thing to add to his most excellent summing-up, which is: that it is of the highest importance that the person we select for Minister be correct; be of the strongest moral character…”

He goes on that vein for some time, while Harry grows increasingly tense. He may barely have completed his second year on the throne, but he’d been a Member of this body – and a member of the nobility – for far longer than that, and he’s well able to see what’s going on here. This is no new idea requiring a year of bargaining before it is widely accepted. This has been in the works for some time. Carefully assembled, circulated among the membership, and approval won. It’s a Tory idea, and so the Whig support will have had to have been bought. Broughton is naming the price now.

“…and to that end I can see only one individual among us who meets all these qualifications, the natural and obvious choice for the position: Lord King!”

The lord himself rises to moderate applause and is recognized at once. “I am most honored,” he begins pompously. “Indeed the trust placed in me by this body fills me with gratitude – ”

Harry just bets it does. He leans back in his chair, deliberately adopting a bored attitude. Westminster is a dank building in an old style, and Harry has never liked it. He hadn’t liked it when he’d had to visit in his old guise as the Marquess of Cardoc and Member of the House of Lords. He likes it even less when he comes as Henry IX. And right now he finds it positively stifling.

Behind the pose his mind is racing. Lord Chester King, second Alpha child of the Earl of Cavendish, deceased. He represents the pocket borough of Milport. The present Earl is King’s elder sibling. She sits elsewhere in the chamber, nodding along as Lord King proclaims his eternal devotion to the business of England. Much more relevant is the third King sibling: Mary King, an Omega, who had married the Earl of Huntington. To the Earl she has borne four children. Including a Lady Charles Hesketh, whose name just so happens to grace the Register directly below Eggsy’s.

This isn’t a recognition on Parliament’s part that the original Act had contained numerous oversights. This isn’t a well-intentioned attempt to secure the succession of the British throne and the future of this country. This is a coup – nothing more nor less than an attempt on the part of the King line to ensure that one of their own becomes Queen.

The proposed exemption power takes on a sinister new light. What had Liverpool said? That a carrier-consort’s term could be shortened if ‘new evidence reveals conception is unlikely’? And that a term could in turn be lengthened, if the Minister determined there were ‘extenuating circumstances’. Harry had been foolishly excited to think of applying that exception to Eggsy. That will not at all be what King has in mind. He will be eager to cut Eggsy’s term short by any means necessary. After which Harry has no doubt that Charlie’s tenure will be attended by as many extenuating circumstances as necessary for Charlie to conceive and secure his place on the throne as Queen.

Chester King is winding to a close. “…and so, with respect, I do indeed submit myself for the position, pursuant to the approval of my colleagues and, of course, the pleasure of his Majesty.” Like clockwork, every eye in the chamber swings towards Harry.

Harry yawns.

King freezes in place. Liverpool looks astonished. “Your… your Majesty?”

Harry yawns again. “Dreadfully sorry, chaps,” he says with faux cheer. “Late night last night. Well, some of you were there, weren’t you?” He laughs loudly at this joke. Hesitantly, several members of the chamber laugh as well.

“Your Majesty,” Liverpool says slowly. “We – we have been discussing a matter…”

“Yes, yes.” Harry waves a hand impatiently. “Something about the Act, wasn’t it?”

This sudden insouciance causes paralysis in the chamber. Harry may not have liked being King, but up until now he’s been a grimly dutiful, conscientious monarch. He’s listened to every word, attended every meeting, read every paper. Consternation sweeps the chamber at the idea that Harry might simply not have been paying attention to them.

“It was indeed, your Majesty,” Chester King tries. “We are proposing – ”

“A proposal, excellent.” Harry stands. There’s a shocked moment of silence, then an explosion of movement as every lord and Member present scrambles to their feet likewise. “Well, I’m sure you’ll have it written up and sent to me by the end of the month.”

“The end of the month?” Liverpool looks blank. “I’m sure we could – accelerate – ”

“Oh, no need to rush yourself, my dear Lord Liverpool!” Harry positively beams upon the man. “I can’t possibly review it until then anyway. Frightfully busy time right now, you know. Settling in the new carrier-consort. The quarter-day’s business. And I do believe Lady Hanover is planning another entertainment.”

“The – the business of the government, your Majesty – ”

“And then of course,” Harry plows over him ruthlessly, “there’s your usual hiatus during the summer months. Of course, such loyal servants as yourselves – more than well deserved – I simply wouldn’t hear of you working at all during that time. So why don’t you just write up what you’ve got in mind, Liverpool, and get it to me before you adjourn for the summer. We can take the matter up again after Michaelmas.”

“After Michaelmas?” King looks gobsmacked. He shoots an appealing look to his sibling the Earl – another to Lord Broughton – a third to Lord Liverpool. All of them gaze back helplessly, unequal to this sudden display of monarchic authority.

“Yes, I think that will do very nicely.” Harry waves a hand at them all. “Well, I think that’s more than enough business for one day. A good day to you all, gentleman.” Before anyone can react to this, he strides out of the chamber.

Thank God, his carriage is waiting outside. Harry gets into it as fast as humanly possible and raps immediately on the ceiling to urge the coachman into motion. The absolute last thing he wants is for anyone to catch him and try to draw him into conversation.

No. No, the absolute last thing he wants is for Chester King to sink his claws into the matter of the Registration and Royalty Act.

Harry may have baulked them today, but they’ll regroup. The monarch’s power is far from absolute. Sooner or later they’ll realize that Harry’s attitude isn’t merely a sudden disdain for responsibility. And not long after that, they’ll remember all the tools they have at their disposal for making a monarch’s life a difficult one.

Confusion will be his ally for a time. And Harry is not without supporters in the chambers, though far from a majority – or else the wretched Act would never have come to be in the first place. But he can fight a delaying action. Buy some time. Contrary to what Merlin had said earlier, Time is what Harry needs now. Time means heats. Heats mean conception. Harry needs enough time to get Eggsy pregnant. In this, duty and affection are both united. Affection says Eggsy and only Eggsy must be Harry’s Queen – and duty says that, no matter what, Harry cannot permit the King family to succeed in putting their own children upon the throne.

The ride back to Buckingham Palace seems short, and Harry positively leaps from the carriage. Merlin comes hurrying out the door to meet him. “Ye’re back early,” he begins. Then – Harry can see the exact moment when it happens – Merlin catches a glimpse of Harry’s face, and Merlin’s whole expression changes. “What is it?” he demands.

“Good news,” Harry tells Merlin grimly. “Set aside all the routine work. We’re back to something we understand, you and I.”

“And what might that be?”

Harry bares his teeth. “War.”

Chapter Text

“Your Highness, please,” Sally sighs.

Eggsy stills guiltily. He’s being a terrible fidget, and that’s making Sally’s job twice as difficult as it needs to be. “Apologies,” he says contritely.

Sally goes back to doing his hair. “Tis the latest style, truly, your Highness. You’ll look very fine.”

“It’s rather more daring than Roxy – er, Lady Carlyle recommends.”

“That’s because your hair has been rather too short to manage anything daring until recently,” Sally says. “Now we can be rather more creative.” She tips her head to the side, considering Eggsy closely. “The blue riband, I think, if it pleases your Highness.”

“I’m in your hands.” Rather more completely than usual. While Sally is always the one to actually do the work of dressing Eggsy, making him up, and so forth, she’s usually working under Roxy’s direction. Today Roxy is elsewhere. James had asked it – Roxy had been his good friend well before she’d come with him to Buckingham, and on James’ wedding-day, he’d wanted her services. Eggsy had been more than pleased to grant the request. And Roxy had laid out Eggsy’s clothes carefully before departing for the Marlborough townhouse, and instructed Sally thoroughly on colors and modes and jewelry besides. Besides, Sally has been ladies’-maid to royalty since long before Eggsy’s arrival – she knows what’s she’s about.

Which leads to the inescapable conclusion that what Eggsy is nervous about is not, in fact, his clothes, nor his make-up, nor his hair. He is nervous about the engagement itself. Hosting a dinner-party is quite a different thing to gracing the wedding of Lady James Spencer. It’s unprecedented. Such a thing has never been done before. The current carrier-consort attending the wedding of the former?

For that matter – a former carrier-consort mating? Since James’ attendance at Eggsy’s first ball, and subsequent visit the next day to keep Eggsy company while Harry had gone to Parliament, Eggsy and James have become again as good of friends as they had ever been before V-Day. And James, after some initial reluctance to burden Eggsy, has unburdened himself more than once on the topic of his upcoming mating. Not about his soon-to-be-mate – to listen to James tell it, Percival Morton is Arthur come back to Britain – but about all the horrid things people have had to say on the topic. Broadly speaking, they fall into two categories. One side argues that James, having had the privilege to lie with a King, should be forever ruined for all other Alphas, and that it’s a shame and a disgrace for James to sully himself with a mating to anyone else. The other side argues that James’ tenure as carrier-consort, without having progressed to the status of Queen, means he’s ruined; a loose Omega, sullied and impure, quite unfit to mate with any other Alpha of quality. Never mind that the law had compelled James to resign his virginity to the service of King and Country; having done so, James’ only recourse is to retire to a convent to take up good works.

“I thought I had a thicker skin than this,” James had sighed, during his most recent visit three days gone. “But it’s like standing in the rain – no individual droplet does much more than spot your bonnet, but if you stand there long enough the garment is ruined. And then you take consumption and die and…”

After that, when James had asked for the loan of Roxy on his wedding-day, Eggsy could hardly have said no. Even if it does mean that Eggsy is preparing for a social event that promises to be just as awkward for him and James with only Sally at his side.

There’s a knock on the door. And Eggsy remembers, as Sally sets down her brush and goes to open it, curtseying low, that Eggsy will have someone else there with him – though whether the escort of his Majesty, Henry IX, will do more to quell the whispers or fan them is a matter still indeterminate.

“Good morning, Eggsy,” Harry says, coming in to lift Eggsy’s hand and kiss it.

“And a good morning to you as well, Harry.” Eggsy smiles at him without thinking, then glances at the clock when reason reasserts itself. “Are we behindhand?” Harry had said the carriage would be ready at ten –

“Not at all,” Harry assures him. “I simply missed you at breakfast, and wished to see how you were getting along. Oughtn’t you to eat something?”

“On no account,” Eggsy says feelingly. “Every eye in the room is going to be on me. If I have something in my stomach I shall be sure to lose it.”

“But the luncheon will be late after the ceremony,” Harry protests.

Eggsy pats his midsection ruefully. “I think I will survive.”

Harry tracks the motion, and something flares in his eyes, something hot and lustful, something that makes Eggsy melt inside. He steps closer to Eggsy – and since he’s still holding Eggsy’s hand, and hadn’t been far away to start with, that step puts him close enough that Eggsy can feel the heat of his body.

“I’d rather see you increasing than the other way around,” he murmurs, voice low.

Eggsy draws in a sharp breath, suddenly dizzy. The breath doesn’t help. It’s suddenly thick with an almost spicy scent – one part Eggsy, one part Harry, and one part something else, something that makes Eggsy’s knees go weak and his muscles contract suddenly.

He wants. He shivers with the force of the wanting. He’s not in heat but his body yearns anyway. And he’d known that could happen, he’d been told, and there had been times when Harry had smiled at him in the moonlight or kissed him over a picnic luncheon and Eggsy had felt a soft warmth blooming within him. He’d thought that had been it, that soft warmth. He’d thought that, outside of heat, that must be as much as his body is capable of.

He’s been so wrong. And suddenly he finds himself counting the days. His last heat had come right on the heels of their marriage – the fifteenth of April. It’s now well into June. Heats, like seasons, come quarterly, though of course some Omegas are more regular than others. Eggsy himself has always bounced about the calendar rather more than is usual, or at least so he’s been given to understand. Another consequence of his mother’s merchant blood, most like. Sometimes – often times – that’s been a dismay. But now Eggsy looks up at Harry, suddenly clenching with want, and thinks with sudden gladness that his next heat might come early. Mid-July would be thirteen weeks, and Eggsy is late as often if not more than he’s early, but sometimes, sometimes…

Harry touches Eggsy’s cheek gently, and Eggsy startles at the cool feeling of his fingertips. “You’re blushing,” Harry murmurs. “My dear, what are you thinking of?”

“You,” Eggsy says honestly.

Harry’s smile flashes out, almost blinding. The room is no more dim than it usually is at half nine in the summer-time, but in comparison to that smile, it seems as dark as evening.

Then Harry says, “I have something for you. The perfect thing to complete your dress, if you’ll accept it.”

“Oh,” Eggsy says, startled, as Harry produces a box from his pocket. “What – Harry!”

What Eggsy is holding are jewels – beautiful jewels, cut and faceted and sparkling as brilliantly as Harry’s smile. Of course Eggsy owns jewels of his own, the flip side of his murkier bloodline is the wealth his mother had brought to her mating, but Eggsy had learned early that some things were not for sale. Some things had been passed down since time out of mind, by those privileged enough to come from the oldest bloodlines, and no amount of money could ever compete. That is what lies piled in Eggsy’s hands now. Rubies, the traditional stone of marriage and mating and Omegan worth. The stones on the ear-bobs are the size of pigeons’ eggs; the others not quite so large, but still enough to steal the breath from Eggsy’s lungs as he looks from Harry to the jewels and back again.

“The set is not quite complete,” Harry says. “I inherited it thus from my grandcarrier. Earrings, bracelet, and ring. There never was a necklace. I have been meaning, for years, always in an idle sort of way, to take the set to a jeweler, and commission them to match the style and complete the set. If I had done so you’d have that to wear today – but I find I cannot regret the lack, because now you may commission the final piece, and have it just the way you like it.”

“I?” Eggsy shakes his head, hardly knowing what he does. “Harry – surely, I – ”

“Yes, you.” Harry motions to Sally, who has been hovering discreetly by the door; now she comes over and takes the earrings delicately from Eggsy’s hands, bending to affix one, then the other, carefully tucking Eggsy’s hair back in place after each. The setting is gold, of course. Eggsy looks in the mirror and is unsurprised to see that the richness of the rubies sets off the pale fawn of his dress precisely. The garment is new – made specifically for this event – and Eggsy wonders if Roxy had known, or guessed.

Harry says, softly, “These are not a loan, Eggsy. They are a gift. Whatever our future holds, I want you to have these. If you must go, take them with you – they will forever mark an alliance between our houses. But I think you must know by now that I hope you will wear them by my side for many years to come.”

“Harry,” Eggsy says helplessly. “You know I – if I could only be sure – ”

“I know.” Harry takes the ring from Eggsy’s hands, the last piece, and slips it on his finger. Sally steps back, the bracelet already in place.

Eggsy looks at it glimmering there. “Will there be politics tonight?” he asks.

Harry sighs. “At the most political wedding of the Season? Very likely.”

“They’re still trying to get you to approve Lord King?”

“To approve the position of Minister of Lineage,” Harry corrects. “That’s the first step. They wanted the two to occur simultaneously, but I won’t hear of it.” He assumes a pious look. “One simply can’t rush the business of state.”

Eggsy nods slowly. “And your goal is to have someone else appointed to the position.”

“At the moment, yes. I would have preferred to kill the position entirely, but it has far too much support. And with the right person in the role, it could be beneficial to us.”

“Depending on their powers.”

“Indeed.” Harry sighs. “It’s a gamble, Eggsy. I don’t conceal that from you. If I approve the position with broad powers, and someone we favor is appointed, then it’s a powerful force for us. But in the hands of Lord King…”

Eggsy shudders. “But if you cripple the position, and then place an ally in it…”

“Then we’ve thrown away that advantage.”

“So it all depends on who you think will be appointed.”


Eggsy studies the small boxes and pots littering his vanity, avoiding Harry’s gaze. “It would be easier if I just got pregnant.”

“I certainly intend to do my best during your next heat,” Harry says impishly.

That makes Eggsy look up. “It’s no more to do with you than – ”

“Than it is with you?”

Eggsy flushes. “Must you be so sensible?”

“It’s a failing of mine,” Harry sighs. “Merlin tells me so often.”

Behind them, Sally clears her throat. “Begging your pardons, your Majesty, your Highness, but it’s rising ten. Shall I delay the carriage?”

“On no account.” Harry steps back, drawing Eggsy to his feet in one fluid motion. “We must go do our duties.” He smiles down at Eggsy, and Eggsy shivers again, enjoying – traitorously – the sense of being loomed over, being protected. “But perhaps this evening, if my lady does not object, we might renew our discussion?”

“I will await you, sir,” Eggsy says breathlessly.

After that, the wedding itself ought to be an anticlimax, and if it were any other wedding, perhaps it would have been. Eggsy might have spent the whole time sternly ordering himself not to make calf-eyes at Harry, or fidgeting over pleasant daydreams, or thinking up new and inventive ways to issue social put-downs to Charlie Hesketh, who glares bloody murder at Eggsy the entire wedding. Eggsy can’t even figure out why Charlie is present, until he realizes: politics. If Hesketh – or, more accurately, King – were not invited to the wedding, it would be a sure bet they’d be off somewhere plotting to get Charlie closer to the throne, and probably raking in sympathy points for their exclusion to boot. Far better to have them safely here under everyone’s eye, even if their sour faces do rather ruin the mood.

Or attempt to. The real reason Eggsy spends his time neither daydreaming nor fidgeting nor inventing insults is this: a wedding, wherein the two principals are wholly, thoroughly, completely in love, is something so absorbing it leaves no room for anything else. Malice becomes suddenly petty. Enmity loses its sting. From the first moment when James enters the room, Lady Carlyle carrying his train, to the moment when Percival takes his bride into his arms and kisses him before God and mankind, Eggsy is wholly embraced by the warmth and joy of the event.

Seated in the carriage after, being driven to the reception given by the Duke of Marlborough, Eggsy kisses Harry softly. At least, he means it to be softly. It ends up with Eggsy bracketed between two firm, strong arms, being kissed so passionately and yet so tenderly that it takes him a good five minutes afterwards to remember how to breathe.

“Soon this will be us,” Harry tells Eggsy.

“We’re already married,” Eggsy points out, dizzy.

Harry kisses him again. “But your coronation will be an affair to behold.”

They finally make it into the event, no more than fashionably late. The new Countess Morton is radiantly happy as he greets his guests. Earl Morton looks as if he barely treads on earth when he walks. Harry graces them both with a bow, in honor of their marriage, and everyone else in the room practically falls to their knees out of sheer reflex.

The rest of the evening is not so pleasant. Bereft of hostess duties, the oddity of Eggsy’s social situation is on full display. While Eggsy’s dances at his own events are ordered by strict precedence, here gentleman are visibly worried about approaching him, lest they overstep or give offense. That at least is better than the cadre – led, of course, by Lord King and Earl Cavendish – who clearly intend to give offense. Eggsy chooses the better part of valor and holds court instead in the chaperone’s area, affecting the role of an old married lady past her dancing days. Several ladies, no friends of the Cavendish faction themselves, scent opportunity and come to dance attendance. Eggsy does have several unfilled lady-in-waiting positions, after all. No great prize in a carrier-consort’s household – James had never bothered beyond Lady Carlyle, and Eggsy had not intended to, either – but should Eggsy become Queen, matters will be greatly altered. And after all, Eggsy still has three heats to go.

As he is reminded frequently.

“And only three more heats to go,” a Lady Barker says in satisfaction, passing by with a glass of champagne. She affects to be talking to another lady, but Eggsy knows Barker for one of Hesketh’s cronies, and knows that the jibe is meant for him.

“So do be sure to try that poultice, your Highness,” the Honorable Miss Waverly says equally loudly, glaring at Barker from her position at Eggsy’s side. “My elder sibling quite swears by it, and you know he has seven children already.”

“Thank you, Miss Waverly,” Eggsy says, watching as Barker flounces off in anger. “I shall be certain to follow your good advice.”

“Rise above it,” Roxy murmurs at his side.

“Never been very good at that.” The look Eggsy gives her is wry.

The night wears on. The rumors wear on Eggsy. He dances with Harry twice, which does something to restore his equilibrium. He also dances with Percival Morton, who he is delighted to discover is very nearly as good an Alpha as James thinks he is.

He almost makes it to the end of the night. Almost. In fact, the carriage is bringing around, Harry already thanking their hosts for their hospitality, when it happens.

Roxy has stepped away to gather their wraps. The other ladies whom Eggsy had been surrounding himself with have dissipated, most already gone – Harry had chosen to stay later, to signal his continued and unstinting approval of James’ marriage. The gathering has largely moved into the smaller tea-room adjacent to the main hallway, the better to hear when carriages are called. But with smaller space comes increased density, and the inability to avoid hearing when Lady Hesketh says –

“Bloodline is the most important consideration, of course. You don’t breed a thoroughbred with a donkey.”

Lady Barker is nodding in agreement. “One heat or a hundred, it doesn’t matter – there’s no chance a mongrel like that can catch. You’ll be wearing a crown in less than a year, Charlie.”

“Of course I shall be certain to catch on the first heat,” Charlie agrees.

“Oh, shall you?” Eggsy demands loudly.

Every head in a three-person swivels at the sound of Eggsy’s voice – Eggsy’s fury. People on the outside of the periphery see their companions reacting and turn around likewise, until even the footmen circulating with their trays cease in their steps.

“Your Highness,” Roxy begins, materializing at his elbow. Eggsy ignores her, focusing instead on Charlie.

He says, “Do tell, Lady Hesketh. What is your magic secret for falling pregnant on demand?”

“I – ” Charlie stammers. “Well – ”

“Eggsy,” Roxy murmurs, voice deliberately pitched low. “Perhaps we – ”

Eggsy shakes off Roxy’s arm. His blood is pounding in his ears, and all he can hear is two sets of words. Charlie, inbred for twelve generations, dripping condescension from every pore: one whiff of purebred pheromones and he probably went right over on his knees. And Harry, snapping in annoyance: Lie still! God, I’ve never been with an Omega who –

Eggsy raises his voice. “Oh, wait, did I not hear your carrier saying? – you’ll just sleep with everyone you can the week before your wedding, is that it, and pawn off whoever’s spawn as the Prince of England – ”

“Shut up!” Charlie screams. “You dirty little scullery-maid, how dare you speak so to your betters!”

“And what is this unseemly display?” That’s James, appearing suddenly on Earl Morton’s arm. “Lady Hesketh, you disgrace yourself.”

“I?” Charlie cries. “I’m not the one who, who – ”

“Indeed,” a new voice says.

Eggsy’s mouth snaps shut without his conscious volition. That had been Harry – no, that had been Henry. But Henry in a way Eggsy had never heard him. Voice deep and low, almost a growl. Compelling obedience by sheer force of will.

Now Henry stands in the doorway, gaze sweeping the room. “Such behavior,” he says, narrowing in on Charlie, “is hardly becoming of one whose name resides on the Register.”

“Lèse-majesté is a crime, one believes,” Earl Morton notes.

“I wished no one any harm,” Charlie stammers.

Countess Huntington appears out of the crowd, pale-faced. She sinks into a curtsey so low her knees may well be touching the floor beneath the voluminous spread of her gown. “Mercy, your Majesty,” she begs. “My child has a chattering tongue, but no true ill-will, I’ll swear it.”

Harry gazes above her head. “I think I must have a word to Parliament about the standards for the Register,” he remarks. “I had thought they restricted the Register to only noble Omegas, but judging from Lady Hesketh’s behavior, they may have erred with one name.”

Countess Huntington gives something like a gasp and sinks to the floor in a convincing dead faint. Eggsy admires its plausibility, in a detached way. The Alphas in the room are visibly dismayed, beginning at once to mill about. Charlie is either completely taken in or a better actor than Eggsy would give him credit for; he’s flung himself over his mother’s body, sobbing and bleating. The Countess’ personal maid appears from a servants’ door and rushes over with a vial of smelling salts. Eggsy meets James’ eyes over the Countess’ body and they both shrug, very slightly. Countess Huntington has been faking fainting fits to manipulate her husband and household since before Eggsy’s birth.

Harry appears also to have gotten this memorandum. He turns his attention to Eggsy, giving the Countess’ body about as much attention as the candelabra. “I was come to tell you, my Lady, that the carriage is ready. Shall we return to Buckingham?”

Eggsy sets the tips of his fingers precisely on Harry’s offered arm. “I am at your service,” he says, the epitome of a dutiful, meek, submissive, well-bred Omega.

“This way, your Majesties, I shall see you out.” The brand-new Countess Morton skirts Countess Huntington’s body in much the same way one avoids a pile of horse droppings when crossing the street, and appears not to have realized that he’s elevated Eggsy’s style beyond that to which he’s technically entitled. He also forgets to close the door into the hallway. Which means that when James opens the front door to the house with his own hands and curtsies elegantly, it’s all within full view of the crowd in the tea-room.

“Thank you,” Harry says, bowing slightly, Eggsy curtsying with him as if they had rehearsed the maneuver. For a moment it looks like Harry will say something else – but then the moment passes, and they are secure in the carriage.

The closing of the carriage-door loosens Eggsy’s tongue. He groans, and puts his head into his hands. “Exactly how bad was that?” he asks, muffled.

A warm, heavy hand settles itself onto the back of Eggsy’s neck. It’s grounding and comforting and Eggsy groans again just from how good it feels. But Harry doesn’t answer immediately, and Eggsy feels himself growing tenser and tenser as he waits.

“Less than ideal,” is what Harry eventually says.

“You threatened Charlie,” Eggsy moans. “Now they know you don’t want him as carrier-consort.”

“Yes,” Harry admits, “but they probably knew that already.”

“They may have guessed but they didn’t know. Harry – ”

“Hush.” The hand on the back of Eggsy’s neck slides away, but before Eggsy can cry out in protest, he finds himself embraced. “It will be well.”

How? Eggsy wants to ask. But he already knows. He has to get pregnant. He has to.

“Then let us go home,” Eggsy says at last. “And – and you had better stay close. Just in case.” In case my heat comes early, he means. Eggsy is going to try every old wives’ tale he’s ever heard of, read about, or invented. Surely one of them will work. Surely…

Eggsy’s heart aches. Unwise, but there it is: he’s in love with Harry Hart. Perhaps he always has been. Perhaps any attempt at resistance, at guarding his heart, has been pretense all along.

 “Of course, my dear,” Harry answers, as if it’s any other evening.

The carriage sways as it trundles down the street. Eggsy looks at Harry’s face in the lamp-light, tracing its rugged creases. He remembers seeing it for the first-time, also lamp-lit, at Lady Cuxhaven’s ball. Eggsy had thought it the most handsome face he’d ever seen. And now that he knows that that face belongs to an Alpha of good heart and gentle strength – though Harry might struggle at times to express it – Eggsy can’t imagine letting him go.

Chapter Text

“Well,” Merlin sighs a week later, “it’s bad.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Harry says.

“All right.” Merlin walks around Harry’s desk and sets a piece of paper down atop it. “Here is the list of your allies in the House of Lords.”

Harry looks down. “This is only one sheet of paper.”

“I thought you might notice that.”

“So it’s that bad.”

“If it helps,” Merlin says, “a great deal of the sentiment is directed against Eggsy personally, rather than you as King or the monarchy as a whole.”

“You must be joking,” Harry says, frustrated. “Two ladies hurling insults at an evening reception is having Parliamentary repercussions?”

“Consider who the two ladies in question are.” Merlin sighs. “The King faction is powerful. They have alliances by marriage or fostering throughout half the chamber. And then there’s those as hold Eggsy’s merchant blood against him – or just those whose children are lower on the Register, and would love to see Eggsy’s term shortened for their own gain.”

“They’ll turn on Hesketh just as fast, then, if he becomes carrier-consort.”

“Aye,” Merlin acknowledges, “but King can afford that to be a problem for another day.”

“Especially if he gets into the Ministry.” Harry leans back in his chair and sighs. “Merlin, what am I going to do?”

“May I suggest knocking up – ”

“You may not.”

Merlin quirks an eyebrow, and in spite of himself, Harry smiles.

“I quite agree that would be the easiest way out of this situation,” Harry says. “But there are no guarantees.”

“I can undertake a search of Lady Hesketh’s family tree.”

“With an eye towards getting him stricken from the Register?”

“King’s coalition would fall apart fairly quickly without the ability to promise rewards upon Charlie’s accession to Queenship.”

“I suppose it’s worth a try,” Harry muses. “But that family’s as old as dirt, and just as hidebound. I doubt there will be any irregularities of sufficient magnitude – especially when you consider that the Lords would have to agree.”

“Aye,” Merlin sighs. “But I’ll look all the same.”

“Anything else?”

“Not this morning, yer Majesty.”

“Then I’m going to have lunch.”

Merlin looks at him knowingly. “I do believe the carrier-consort rode out an hour gone. Didn’t I hear something about a picnic basket?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Harry says with dignity.

Harry breathes in the fresh, cool wind as he rides his gelding Strider down the lawns of Buckingham Palace. There are benefits to being King: he has this entire private park to himself, and need not immerse himself in the crowds and the smells of the Row. Which allows him both to avoid those he does not wish to see, and easily find those whom he does.

Cresting a rise, he sees Eggsy and Lady Carlyle halted, their mares touching noses as the riders discuss some unknown matter. A sudden whim of mischief takes Harry. Strider is no war-horse, but Harry has taught him a few of the basics, mostly out of boredom in the early days of his Kingship. He whispers to Strider now, and the horse drops into a softer trot. A quick maneuver puts the sun at Harry’s back. Eggsy and Roxy are deep in their conversation. Harry is almost upon them before Roxy looks up, sees the outline of him, and shrieks. Eggsy half-turns – not soon enough.

“I’ve got you now!” Harry cries triumphantly, sweeping his carrier-consort off of his horse and onto Harry’s. “And now I shall ride away with you into the sunset, my stolen bride, and – yes.” He clears his throat, suddenly recalled to propriety. “Well.” References to having his wicked way with Eggsy will surely not be appreciated.

“Oh my God,” Eggsy gasps, one hand on his throat. “Harry, you gave me a fright! I had no idea you were there!”

“That was the idea, my dear.”

“You are a knave,” Roxy declares. Then, in a belated attempt at propriety of her own, she adds, “Your Majesty.”

“I am, indeed,” Harry agrees unashamedly. “But I am a knave who has brought a basket – though I set it down just behind that ridge, the better to surprise you. May I tempt you to an early luncheon?”

“For my part, yes,” Eggsy says breathlessly.

“And Lady Carlyle?” Harry tries to conceal how pleased he would be if Roxy had business back at the palace. He’s not sure how well he succeeds. Certainly Roxy rolls her eyes at him before she answers.

“I’m afraid duty calls me. If your Majesty will permit – ”

“Of course!”

Roxy and Eggsy exchange a look – some communication passing between them in a tongue known only to Omegas. Roxy, at least, is still horsed, and turns her mare around with a light touch to the reins. Moments later she is out of sight behind the gently rolling hills.

“You had best unhand me,” Eggsy says after a moment, “before Kara trots off to join her sibling.”

“Kara?” A moment of blank incomprehension, quickly resolved when Harry follows Eggsy’s gesture: his mare. “Ah, yes.” Harry sets Eggsy down, then swings off of Strider himself. “Shall we walk them a little way? There is a friendly copse of trees just yonder, with a bed of moss that will make pleasant seating.”

“As long as you brought a blanket,” Eggsy says primly.

Harry effects a bow. “Of course, my Lady.”

The walk is short and pleasant. Their hands brush each other often as they stroll. Eggsy keeps glancing at Harry, then away, then biting his lip. Harry takes this for a hopeful sign, and lets the easy silence linger.

The blanket of moss is exactly where Harry had seen it earlier in the week, when he’d scouted the spot. He shakes out the thin woven blanket solemnly and spreads it on the grown. “Your seat, my Lady.”

“Thank you,” Eggsy says imperiously. He allows Harry to help him to the ground and sits there proud as any queen while Harry unpacks the picnic-basket. “You did that very well.”

“What – lay out a spread?” Harry sweeps a hand at the food, theatrically.

“No,” Eggsy says, serious now. “The ambush. Harry – what did you do, when you were in the army?”

Harry stills. Deliberately he sets the mustard-pot down. “Many things,” he says carefully.

“But it wasn’t only usual army things. Was it.”


“Will you tell me of them?”

“It’s better not.” At Eggsy’s look, Harry relents slightly. “I was in a special division. We – put out fires, for lack of a better term. Much of it I can’t discuss, and the rest of it – ”

Eggsy nods slowly. “Not exactly polite conversation.”


“Does – forgive me if I’m being nosy, Harry, but my sire – he had dreams. Bad dreams. Not always. Not often, even. But some mornings we’d come down to breakfast to find him nodding over a glass. And some nights we’d wake up to find him standing in the hunting-room, not awake himself.”

Harry winces. “I see,” he says sadly. “Lee – bringing him in may have been a mistake. Not to say he hadn’t the skill. He was among the best of us. But his heart was too good.” He lets himself sit down, legs tangling with Eggsy’s, back against an old oak tree. “Like yours.”

“Do you have the dreams?”

“No,” Harry tells him honestly.

“If you start to, will you tell me?”

Harry hesitates, and Eggsy sees it. “How if – ” Harry takes Eggsy’s hand, willing him to see, to understand. It’s not that Harry doesn’t trust him. It’s just that some things should be left in the dark, alone to rot, and good riddance. “How if I promise to tell Merlin instead?”

That makes Eggsy’s eyebrows lift. “Merlin – of course.” Now understanding dawns. “Merlin was serving with you.”

“My batman, before he was my valet. Will that suffice?”

“It’s a bargain.” And Eggsy gives Harry that sunshine smile. For that, Harry would do far more than promise to talk to his equerry about his dreams.

“Well then.” Harry leans forward, meaning to retrieve a plate and fill it with delicacies for his carrier-consort’s delight. “Now that I’ve thoroughly disrupted your planned ride and alluded to the distasteful matter of my military service, shall I at least attempt to be polite by feeding you?”

“Maybe I don’t want to be polite.” And the look Eggsy gives him –

Harry sets the plate down. He puts a hand, tentatively, on Eggsy’s thigh.

“Maybe,” Eggsy says, “I want to be kissed.”

Harry kisses him. This is easy, natural, like breathing. Eggsy’s scent is heady. It sends Harry’s blood rushing through his body. The way Eggsy whimpers doesn’t help.

“What else do you want?” Harry asks, intimate and low, when they part.

“Maybe,” Eggsy whispers, lashes cast down over steadily reddening cheeks, “I want to be kissed somewhere else.”

Harry’s ability to speak locks up briefly. Is this the terrified virgin he’d taken through a heat barely two and a half months gone? If this is how Countess Rowley prepares her children for high marriage, Harry thinks dizzily, it’s as well Eggsy is an only child. He can’t imagine what would happen to the ton if an entire bevy of Unwins had been loosed upon them.

Eggsy is shrinking in on himself. “Of course such a thing is risqué,” he mutters. “Naturally you don’t – eek!” Eggsy yelps as Harry tumbles him over, careless of the mustard-pot as Harry spreads Eggsy out in place of the picnic. Cook will scold later about the broken crockery. Harry doesn’t care. He’s lifting the hem of Eggsy’s tunic and then staring, baffled, at the complexities of what lies underneath.

“Harry?” Eggsy looks at him, eyes wide.

Harry clears his throat. “These modern fashions,” he says. “I’m not quite sure – ”

Eggsy’s laughter is almost as good as Eggsy’s whimper. “Here,” he says, showing Harry where the various laces thread, which ribbons are genuine and which mere decoration. “Now pull.”

Harry does, and the whole pile of cloth comes away. “I knew how to go on with the old styles,” he mutters, oddly embarrassed. “That is – ” Now Eggsy will think Harry a rake, with a lover on every continent. Excellent show, Harry. Precisely the outcome you desire.

But: “It’s all right,” Eggsy is saying gently. “It took Sally and Roxy together an hour to figure them out, the first time they arrived.”

“I thought they looked new!” Harry says triumphantly. “Your wardrobe when you arrived was modern, yes, but Merlin didn’t believe me when I said…” And now Eggsy thinks you obsessed with Omegan fashion. Harry shuts his mouth.

Eggsy doesn’t mock, though. “I shall take you shopping with me next time,” is what he says. “That way…” his grin is positively wicked. “You shall know how to remove them from the start.”

“An excellent plan,” Harry murmurs, approving – and aroused. He looks down at the bare flesh spread before him like a buffet. Eggsy no doubt makes an odd picture to unbiased eyes; his tunic is merely rucked up around his armpits, and his riding-boots remain, too, the fabric of his leggings loose enough to slide down around them without them needing to be removed. But Harry is a most biased observer indeed. He thinks the sight before him is the most beautiful he’s ever seen.

He puts his hand on Eggsy’s small cock, one finger stroking the smooth skin underneath where testicles would be on an Alpha. “Is this where you want me to kiss?”

Eggsy gasps and stares at him. “No, I – that can be done?”

“Oh yes,” Harry promises. “But what did you have in mind?”

“Before, when I was in heat – ” Eggsy resembles a tomato in coloring, now, and Harry can see the blush disappear underneath his tunic’s neckline only to reappear on his bare chest. “You – you – ”

“Ahh.” Harry nods in understanding. Reaches lower, and finds that Eggsy is already wet. “You enjoyed that.”

Eggsy turns his head away.

“Eggsy, look at me.” Harry waits until his wife complies. “Didn’t you enjoy that, when I did it before? Tell me.”

“I did,” Eggsy admits, shamefaced.

“Good,” Harry says fiercely.

Surprise mixes strangely with shame. “It is?”


“Oh.” There’s a world of wonder packed into that syllable. “I thought – ”

“Let me guess.” Harry sighs. This is a tale he’s heard too many times, and it doesn’t improve with the telling. “A well-bred Omega takes no joy in the mating bed. They lie still, and let their husband do whatever their husband wishes, and evidences no sign of pleasure whatsoever. Do I have it about right?”

Eggsy laughs, though it’s short and hard. “Just about.”

“That’s bollocks, Eggsy. Maybe there are some Alphas who think like that – ” Chester King and his ilk, likely; if they’d ever known the joy of a real mating, of seeing their Omega experience real pleasure at their hands, they’d almost have to be less sour and crabbed. “ – but I am certainly not one of them. And I’ll tell you something else – ” For James had had just such hangups when James had first come to be carrier-consort, and Harry knows that Eggsy and James have become friends, which for Omegas even more than Alphas means the sharing of secrets. “Earl Morton is quite of my way of thinking.”

Eggsy’s blush, which had begun to subside, returns in full force. “James had… hinted,” he admits. “And so I thought you might not mind if I…”

“If you asked for what you wanted?” Harry can’t help it; he laughs. “I am delighted to be asked.”

“Then… if you would?”

“Here.” Harry picks up his discarded jacket and folds it up, a pillow for Eggsy’s head. Then he pats Eggsy’s thigh proprietarily. “Now, the only way I shall know if I am pleasing you is by your voice, so please, let’s have no false silence.”

“Yes, Harry,” Eggsy breathes.

Harry regards the spread laid out before him. He spreads Eggsy’s cheeks, stroking one finger along Eggsy’s hole. The finger comes away wet, and Eggsy’s hole seems to tremble, eagerly. Eggsy whimpers again.

“Here, darling,” Harry murmurs. “Here I come.”

He starts slow, starts small, gentle licks without penetration and the occasional teasing nip to the sensitive skin of a buttock. Eggsy tries to hold back his moans at first, but Harry is relentless. He will not be satisfied until Eggsy’s cries ring back from the trees around them.

They very nearly echo, when Harry puts his tongue inside Eggsy for the first time. Eggsy bucks beneath him, nearly powerful to throw Harry off entirely, and Harry thinks admiringly that Eggsy’s regular horse-rides have clearly been to some purpose. Charlie Hesketh, whip-thin and dried out as old leather, may be the height of beauty according to the ton’s standards, but Harry would take Eggsy’s robust strength and unbridled joy any day. And hopefully will take him every day, for the rest of their lives.

The thought is nearly as intoxicating as the concentration of Eggsy’s scent filling Harry’s nostrils. Slick is staining the blanket faster than Harry can swallow it. One of Eggsy’s hands has found its way into Harry’s hair, and from time to time the garbled noises coming from Eggsy take the form of Harry’s name.

The muscles stand out in Eggsy’s thighs, quivering as he strains against Harry’s tongue. Harry redoubles his efforts. Eggsy is beautiful in his pleasure, untaught in anything but the barest lip service in concealing his true emotions: he falls apart on Harry’s tongue, a vision of hedonism. Harry, in his time as a soldier, has seen far more faked orgasms than true. Eggsy’s pleasure is pure, with no design or artifice. Harry glories in it.

“Harry,” Eggsy gasps, “oh, Harry,” and then he’s tugging Harry up, sloppy and uncoordinated, kisses raining down on whichever part of Harry’s anatomy he can reach. Harry gentles him, putting his back against that oak tree again and tucking Eggsy up under his arm, guiding his kisses to their proper target. “I thought heat had warped my memories – Harry, I had no idea – ”

“I’m honored to give you such pleasure,” Harry says sincerely.

“Guh,” Eggsy says eloquently.

Harry lets him lie there, secure and drifting, showering occasional kisses on his lips and cheeks and chin. Eventually Eggsy stirs.

“What about you?” he asks.

“What about me?”

There’s still pink on Eggsy’s cheeks, but it’s faint – once Eggsy starts something, Harry sees, determination takes over, and Eggsy carries it through. “You’re hard,” Eggsy says, nodding towards the very visible bulge in Harry’s pants. “Can I…?”

“What would you like to do?” Harry holds his breath.

“I don’t think I could – I’m sore,” Eggsy says. “And the other…” He touches his lips. “It scares me,” he admits. Given Harry’s girth, Harry can well understand that fear – and oral knotting is a daring practice, one that leaves the Omega dangerously vulnerable. “But – my hand?”

“Oh, yes, darling,” Harry breathes. He reaches down with his free hand and fumbles with his laces.

“No,” Eggsy says, “let me – ” he wiggles from Harry’s grip, kneeling between Harry’s splayed legs in a way that has Harry instantly twice as hard. Eggsy tugs at the laces unerringly. After the complexity that is Omegan clothes, Harry supposes Alphaic fashions are pleasingly simple.

Harry’s cock springs free. The cool air of the clearing eases his heated flesh somewhat, but any relief that might bring is wiped way by the touch of Eggsy’s hand on him. “Oh,” Eggsy says, staring. “It’s so large.”

That makes Harry’s pride swell rather more than is quite reasonable. Harry’s actually fairly average, but compared to vestigial Omegan genitals – and Harry finds that he has no urge to correct Eggsy on the matter.

“And smooth,” Eggsy continues. “And – oh.” Eggsy slides his hand experimentally up and down, testing the way the looser outer skin slides around the hard inner core. “Mine never gets hard,” he confesses.

“It can,” Harry offers. “With enough stimulation. But it’s a very different organ than mine, for all they look the same on the outside.”

“Later you can show me,” Eggsy says. He looks determined. Harry wants to ask what later means, but forgets to, when Eggsy starts stroking him in earnest.

Now it’s Harry’s turn to moan. “Slower,” he manages. “A little – slower at first, long and slow, and then later shorter and harder – ”

Eggsy is gloriously obedient to Harry’s instruction. He’s concentrating so hard he catches his lower lip between his teeth. He can have no idea how much Harry wants to bite that lower hip himself, worry it, make it swell, and then soothe it with gentle licks and kisses. He can’t know how much seeing Eggsy follow Harry’s every order without question makes Harry strain even harder against Eggsy’s touch. Harry is swept away on a wave of primal longing: to take, to own, to control. Eggsy, kneeling graceful between Harry’s legs, obedient, pleasure-giving… Eggsy’s actual touch, in the end, is only a small part of what has Harry swearing and reaching for his knot. “I’m going to – ”

Eggsy bats Harry’s hands away impatiently, reaching down to wrap his own around Harry’s knot. Harry’s jaw drops open, astonished, and a long, low moan vents from between his teeth without his conscious command. It takes both of Eggsy’s hands, small and delicate, to contain its swell. But Eggsy holds tight, even as Harry feels like his knot is about to burst. And the feeling of Eggsy’s skin, the intoxication of his scent –

Orgasm hits Harry like a runaway carriage. Like the musket-ball that had caught him in the shoulder in Egypt. He shouts. Eggsy leans to the side, and the long ropy come largely stains the blanket beneath them, one pearly strand catching just above his eyebrow. Marking him. Marking Eggsy.

In that moment, Harry thinks he’d kill Chester King and Charlie Hesketh and the whole lot of them, rather than give Eggsy up.

“These grapes are delicious,” Eggsy says, some time later, allowing Harry to pop another into his mouth. Harry has Eggsy exactly where he wants him – lying on a picnic blanket, head on Harry’s thigh, fair skin shaded by the parasol Harry had thoughtfully brought along. This has posed something of a dilemma: Harry wishes to keep Eggsy in place, but Eggsy is, naturally, hungry – the more so for their mutual exertions. Harry has solved this problem by holding various morsels of food to Eggsy’s lips and trying not to let on how much each inadvertent, kittenish lick of Harry’s fingers makes his cock twitch with renewed interest.

“I should have brought more,” Harry agrees, regarding the few remaining pieces of fruit regretfully. “But I am not chivalrous enough to offer to go back to the house to fetch them, since it would mean leaving you here alone.”

“Nor do I want you to go.” Eggsy’s eyes have been half-closed with simple pleasure. Now he opens them and looks directly at Harry. “Anywhere.”

“I won’t,” Harry promises.

“No, I meant – I am being literal, Harry. I know you were planning to go to Cornwall next week.”

“Yes,” Harry says, surprised. “My old estates – Tintagel – are there; I try to visit them at least once a year.” The marquessate is property of the crown now. Harry will bestow the title on one of his younger children, so it behooves him to keep it in good circumstances. “But I had hoped you’d come with me; so you see you are not left behind.”

“I don’t think I ought to travel. I could be wrong – it is still a few weeks early – but there are signs, and if I’m not just being hopeful, letting my wishes cloud my judgement, then…”

Eggsy is rambling. Which means, Harry has learned, that he’s attempting to be delicate. Harry parses through this mess of words. “You think your heat is coming again?”

The blush that blooms on Eggsy’s cheek is as delicate and fascinating as the tracery on the most expensive of vases. “Soon,” he says. “Within the week. If I’m right.”

“Then we shall postpone the trip,” Harry declares. He leans down to kiss Eggsy, and takes a deep breath while he’s close. There’s nothing in Eggsy’s scent to suggest he might be approaching his heat soon. But the early signs are subtle, and known best to the Omega themselves. “We can go after Michaelmas.”

“Won’t Parliament be back in session then?”

“All the better. They can’t appoint a Minister without me.”

Eggsy grins. “Then perhaps it shall be a long journey.”

“Until your lying-in?”

“You’re optimistic.”

“Aren’t you?”

Eggsy takes a moment to consider this. “Hopeful,” he says at last. “But still frightened, as well.”

“Of me?” Harry very much hopes not.

“No,” Eggsy reassures him. “Afraid that it won’t happen. That I’m wrong about my heat – that I won’t fall pregnant. Those are my fears.”

“Alas, mine as well,” Harry sighs. “But let us be hopeful together, my love.”

Eggsy seems to agree. Or at least, he kisses Harry as if he agrees. And in the pleasure of his kisses, Harry lets his worries lie by, to plague another, more distant time.

Chapter Text

“Harry will be here soon,” Eggsy says. Reminds himself. He knows that it’s true. He has absolute confidence in it. So he sits calmly in the comfortable chair before his vanity. He is clean from a well-timed bath earlier today, his hair washed and combed. Beneath his new dressing-gown – pale blue satin, figured in darker blue embroidery, a gift from Harry – the silk of Eggsy’s Parisian negligee is smooth against his skin. This time, he is prepared for heat.

“Of course he will,” Roxy says. She isn’t calm. She is pacing. Eggsy’s gaze follows her around his rooms, even as his body remains relaxed, slumped in lassitude with his feet stretched out to the well-built fire.

These rooms have changed somewhat since Eggsy had first taken possession of them. He hadn’t known what to expect; his only frame of reference for this odd transfer, becoming carrier-consort in place of James, had been cases where a widower had married again. And one heard all sorts of tales of that: moving in to find the dead lady’s possessions everywhere, covered in dust, untouched since her demise. Or totally empty chambers, even the furniture cleared out by overzealous servants or the grieving widower themselves. Eggsy hadn’t known how much weight to give those tales. It had been a relief to arrive and find only an ordinary-seeming set of rooms, comfortably enough furnished, and utterly lacking in personality. He’d found out later from Sally that Harry had had them new-furnished after James had left – had, in fact, offered James any of the furnishings he’d wished, in expectation of his becoming betrothed to Earl Morton. Those items James had not taken had been redistributed to various guesting chambers throughout the palace, and a new, elegant set of furniture chosen for the new carrier-consort. Eggsy approves. He’d liked the look of the rooms from the start. And he likes them even better now that he has added some items of his own. Not much: but enough. The rather ornate gilt-edged mirror has been replaced with a simpler one, threaded with silk and ribbons. A pillow Eggsy had worked in school now graces the chair before the vanity in which he sits even now. His parents’ wedding-portrait sits on the small table beneath the window, next to some flowers which Sally keeps fresh. A small braided rug before the fire, where one day Eggsy hopes a child may play…

A pleasurable shiver racks Eggsy’s body. Oh, but he’d been right to ask Harry not to go to Cornwall. All that remains now is for Harry to come, and for them to share pleasure, and to create a child between them. Please, God.

“Harry will be here soon,” Eggsy repeats.

“Harry is here now,” a welcome voice replies. Roxy hastily curtsies, but Eggsy barely notices her. His attention is drawn like a magnet to the handsome Alpha entering the room. Mate, Eggsy’s heart whispers. Sire. Oh, how he hopes.

“Thank you, Lady Carlyle,” Harry is saying to Roxy. “The room is stocked?”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

“Then you may depart.”

Roxy curtsies again and does as she’s bid. Sally, waiting in the hall, briefly sticks her head into the room.

“All well, your Highness?” she asks.

Eggsy nods, not taking his gaze from Harry. “Thank you, Sally.”

Then the door is closed, and it’s just the two of them.

Harry is before Eggsy in two long, distance-eating strides. He draws a finger down the delicate satin of his dressing-gown and smiles. “Much better than blue flannel.”

“That blue flannel was comfortable,” Eggsy murmurs. “But this is sleek.”

“And exquisite,” Harry says. “Like its wearer.”

Eggsy smiles up at him dreamily. “Flatterer.”

“Oh, am I?” Harry takes Eggsy’s hand and guides it to his crotch – with Eggsy sitting and Eggsy standing to his full height, it’s at eye level, and there’s no mistaking that Harry burns for him. “Bodies don’t lie.”

“Take me to bed.”

Harry bends and picks him up. Curled in his arms, Eggsy should perhaps feel silly – he’s an Omega grown, his legs dangle past the end of Harry’s arms, and he’s bent nearly double to allow Harry to cradle him. But all he feels is safe. Protected. Cherished. And when Harry deposits him gently on the bed, Eggsy wants to stretch out like a cat and purr.

The bed dips next to him, and Eggsy rolls cheerfully into the gravity Harry provides. The approval rumble Harry gives makes Eggsy flush with delight. Harry’s hand slips beneath the dressing-gown to find flesh.

“Let’s get this off of you.”

“I thought you’d like to see me in it,” Eggsy says shyly.

“I do,” Harry assures him. This close, Eggsy can fall into the melting liquid chocolate of Harry’s eyes. “And it has served its purpose admirably. Now I’d like to unwrap my present.”

Eggsy has never thought of himself that way – as a present to be unwrapped. He can’t stop the quiet exhale, the way his lips part in astonishment. His body is growing ever more uncoordinated, but his heart is galloping in his chest. Harry has to do most of the work of disrobing Eggsy, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

“So this is the famous Parisian negligee,” he says, smoothing the silk over Eggsy’s thigh.

Eggsy wants to laugh – usually would laugh – but the rising tide of heat steals the energy from him; all he can do is smile, helplessly. “It was supposed to be for my wedding-night.”

“So you told me.” After Eggsy had told Harry his heat had been likely to come within the week, Harry had started asking Eggsy leading questions: did he prefer silk or satin, what colors did he favor for intimate wear, was lace pleasing or itchy? Harry had taken the notion to buy Eggsy some proper night-clothes, thinking, from their first heat together, that all Eggsy had owned was that poor flannel dressing-gown. Eggsy had told him – laughing then, because by then it had been a fine joke – all about the beautiful negligee lying neglected at the top of Eggsy’s trunk. So Harry had compromised, and replaced the blue flannel instead, And all during the week leading up to Eggsy’s heat, Harry had expressed increasingly outrageous interest in this mystical, this fabled negligee, that he would soon get to experience for the first time.

Now Eggsy asks, “How do you like it?” And he means, how do you like me?

Harry’s gaze flicks away from the garment immediately, to meet Eggsy’s. And Eggsy believes Harry’s answering both questions when he says, “Very much indeed.”

Eggsy moans. A flicker of embarrassment rises – Harry has barely touched him; as only looked at him, warm and heavy and full of approval, and spoken to him likewise. But already Eggsy feels hot and wanton. He spreads his legs without thinking; his thighs are growing sticky, where they had been rubbing together.

“My favorite scent,” Harry says. But instead of going for the source, he rolls over and buries his nose at the base of Eggsy’s neck. There are scent glands there, too, but the spot is hardly less intimate than the lower one: just to the right, if Harry were to continue nosing his way down Eggsy’s shoulder, lies Eggsy’s mating gland. Untouched, the skin unbroken, in contravention of the way matters have been between Alphas and Omegas since the dawn of time. If Eggsy can’t conceive, he will return to the bosom of his family, and the smooth space on his shoulder will stand in for his missing virginity. But if he can –

His mother had spoken of that, too, during that so-mortifying carriage ride on the way to Windsor Chapel. It sounds as if it must hurt, being bitten, but I assure you, with the right Alpha there is no pain. There is instead a strange kind of ecstasy. Before the moment comes, you will want the bite; it’s difficult to describe, but you will feel as if you are straining, not so much your body but – your heart, I suppose. Or perhaps your soul. And once done, you will know your mate in a way deeper and more intimate than anything you have experienced before. Even if you have anticipated your bite somewhat.

Which had been Michelle’s way of delicately alluding to the necessity of having intimate relations with Harry before being mated. Marriage is all very well, and confers a certain legal status on Eggsy he would not otherwise attain, but mating is mating. Mating is the true bond. And as Harry’s breath warms the skin on Eggsy’s shoulder, Eggsy feels the beginnings of a pull. It’s like and yet unlike Michelle’s description; he feels it in his body as well as his heart and soul. It’s as if the skin of his shoulder tries to lift itself up, wedge itself between Harry’s teeth and urge him to bite.

“Please, Harry,” Eggsy begs, unable to ask for what he really wants – the mating bite – and subsuming that desire into the all-consuming need of heat. “Touch me.”

Harry sighs a little, as if he too is regretting that he must leave that skin unmarked. But his touches are eager, and Eggsy gives himself up entirely to the pleasure Harry writes on his body. Until Harry reaches his genitals, and Eggsy nearly leaps off the bed in surprise when Harry takes Eggsy’s entire cock in his mouth.

“Oh my God,” he whispers, breathlessly. Surely this isn’t – no one who had spoken to Eggsy on the subject of mating, or being a proper Omega, had ever made any reference to that part of his anatomy. It exists, to be sure, vestigial and largely unresponsive. Some Omegas whisper that it can be pleasurable to touch. But no one has ever suggested to Eggsy that an Alpha might swallow him down, hold him in their mouth as easily as a bite of custard.

Harry rumbles around his mouthful, and Eggsy feels that reverberation rattle his bones. He finds himself staring at the ceiling, unseeing, as Harry wakes something in Eggsy never before felt. Eggsy has tried touching his flesh there but found it hardly more than sensitive: not unarousing, to be sure, but no more scintillating than having his neck nibbled. Harry is changing that. It’s as if there’s a wire running directly from his cock to his hole, matching each suck Harry gives to a corresponding tightening, a release of slick. And then Harry reaches up and touches one pebbled nibble, and Eggsy suddenly discovers another connection. He’d always been told that male Omegas found chest stimulation generally underwhelming – that nipples were largely for the nourishment of children anyway – but Harry seems to be bringing out zones of pleasure that Eggsy hadn’t even known he had.

“Don’t hold back,” Harry murmurs, pulling away from Eggsy’s body for a moment to
deliver this message. “You’re so tense, Eggsy – you needn’t wait for me. You can have as much pleasure as you want.”

Eggsy hadn’t realized he’d been holding back, but the moment Harry says it he recognizes that it’s true. It seems wrong somehow to have so much pleasure without a knot. His body wants the knot; he is in heat, after all. But it’s not as if an orgasm will really do more than take the edge off. Eggsy will remain ready and eager, his body primed to conceive. There is no reason to resist.

He stops resisting. Harry slides a finger into Eggsy’s wet and weeping hole, and that’s all it takes: a wave of pleasure sweeps Eggsy away, and he rides along with it willingly, crying out and writhing as the orgasm sweeps him.

“Beautiful,” Harry is murmuring, when hearing returns and Eggsy pries open his eyes again. “I love seeing you that way.”

“Oh, Harry, thank you,” Eggsy says, hardly knowing what he says. “You’re everything I ever wanted.”

Harry looks for a moment as if he’s about to argue, which makes no sense – Eggsy is speaking only the truth – but he nods, instead. “I’m selfishly glad of it,” he says.

Eggsy kisses him. He means it to just be a kiss, but his heat is rising fast now, and he ends up making the most shameless noises. Harry laughs again, and rolls Eggsy beneath him.

“Now,” Harry says. “Shall we proceed to the main event?”

“Oh yes,” Eggsy says fervently, and moans.

Eggsy reaches the top of the latest hill, reins to a halt, and sits there breathing deeply.

“You were right, Harry,” he tells his mate and riding-partner. “Cornwall is beautiful.”

Harry reins in next to him, smiling. “I hoped you’d like it here. I do.” He looks around and takes a deep breath of his own. “I shed ten years riding on these lands.”

“And gain ten pounds from the table?”

Harry’s smile morphs into an outright grin. “Not when I bring you with me to help work it off.”

That makes Eggsy blush, even though there’s no one around to hear the sly reference to their nightly congress. Tintagel is traditionally built, with chambers for the Lord and the Lady, all well-appointed – and the latter entirely unused. It had apparently been Harry’s parents’ custom to share one set of rooms when staying in their country retreat. Upon hearing that Harry himself were coming to visit with his wife in train, the servants had naturally prepared one chamber likewise.

Harry had been all apology, ready on an instant to call back the servants and order the second set of rooms readied. Eggsy had been the one to quell that start. Shameless. But it turns out that Harry likes shamelessness. And it has been so nice, not to constantly struggle against himself. If what Eggsy hopes is true, if it could last forever… but if he’s wrong, if all his heats fail, how will he live afterwards, having known what could have been?

Anticipation and dread make strange co-inhabitants in one’s gut. Seeking a distraction, Eggsy knees his horse in a slow circle, looking around. The manor-house looks small in the distance. “Did we really ride that far?”

“The air of Cornwall is good for the horses.” Harry pats his own mount proprietarily, then winks. “And not just horses. “If this last heat hasn’t done the job properly, we’ll come down here for the next. A little Cornish heir to the throne.”

Eggsy laughs. He can afford to laugh, if what he hopes is true. Of course the physician-midwife, arriving tomorrow, will have the final say. But Eggsy is familiar with himself, after all this time living in his own body. And his mother had been thorough in her teachings here as in all other places. If Eggsy does not fool himself – if the slight tenderness in his chest, love of naps, and sudden desire for cow’s milk in all its forms are not the result of an overactive imagination seeing what it wishes most to see – then the physician-midwife will bring good news.

He hasn’t told Harry yet. He’s too afraid of being wrong. Of raising hopes only to have them dashed. Harry hopes as well, of course. He’s told Eggsy as much, openly. And since their arrival here, Eggsy has awoken no fewer than three times to find Harry petting Eggsy’s still-flat belly, murmuring something wistful he cuts off as soon as he realizes Eggsy might hear.

If Eggsy truly is pregnant, he vows he’ll find a way to awaken silently, so he can learn what promises Harry whispers in the night.

Just now Harry’s mind seems to be on more practical concerns. He’s eying the distance back to the manor-house, and then squinting at the sun. “We should start back if we intend to eat our luncheon while it’s hot.”

“Yes, please.” Eggsy’s appetite has increased beyond his newfound love of cow’s milk. He gathers up the reins, and a thought strikes him. God willing, his riding days will soon be behind him, but for the moment – “Shall we see who can reach the house first?”

Harry’s grin flashes out in answer, and then they’re off, the two of them, galloping across the low, rolling hills.

Later – after Harry has won, the retired war-horse he keeps here at Tintagel far more adept, alas, than the sedate mare late-purchased for Eggsy’s benefit – after they have done justice to the fine spread sent up by the cook, full of local Cornish delicacies – and after Harry has kissed him most flirtatiously in the hall, Eggsy betakes himself upstairs for a nap, and Harry to the library to look over the estate’s books. The place has a steward year-round, a Master Bors, whose fearsome scarring and missing eye do not prevent him from being the favorite of every servant’s child and local urchin. Eggsy has discovered three important things about this Bors: first, that he had served with Harry in Egypt, and Harry has complete faith in him; second, that his popularity with the local youth is as much from his genuine kindness as his open-handedness on the subject of cakes and cookies from Tintagel’s kitchens; and third, that Eggsy himself is by no means immune to these offerings, nor is he – nor, he suspects, Harry – entirely free from being considered a child by the scarred veteran. After some deliberation, Eggsy decides to accept this with a good grace. Bors reminds him, improbably, of his old governess. And while Eggsy still hates needlework and green beans, he has had to admit, all unwilling, that Miss Greenwell had been right about everything else. Including the importance of genuine affection in marriage.

Eggsy has a dream, while he’s napping. It’s winter – no, it’s Christmas. Tintagel is festooned about with decorations. Eggsy descends the main stair, looking about, wondering. His clothes seem heavy. He looks down. Red velvet, aye, heavy enough, but the real weight is from his rounded belly. Eggsy clutches the banister tighter, suddenly afraid of falling. His other hand creeps up to rest on the swell, and he smiles.

Then, still in the dream, he hears a child’s voice calling: Mama! Eggsy looks up, and there at the bottom of the stairs is Harry and a little Alpha who couldn’t be anything but their firstborn. The child is pointing up, looking terribly pleased. Eggsy follows the gesturing hand and sees a kissing bough suspended just below the chandelier. We hung it for you, Mama! Now you have to come and give Papa a kiss!

With the suddenness of dreams, Eggsy finds himself standing next beneath the bower. Harry is before him. He leans down and kisses Eggsy, and one of his hands comes to rest atop Eggsy’s, atop that heavy bump. The light of the candles brightens in Eggsy’s eyes, and he wakens up to see Sally lighting the real wax candles, the echoes of the dinner-gong ringing in his ears.

“Good afternoon, your Highness,” Sally says, curtsying. “You looked to be having a pleasant dream.”

Eggsy can feel the soft smile still on his own face. There’s a gentle weight on his stomach – his own hand resting there, just as it had been in the dream. “Yes,” he admits. “A very pleasant one.” Eggsy stretches. Sally goes over to the closet, and Eggsy says, “The green tunic tonight, please.”

Sally pulls out his dressing-gown instead. And not the satin one Harry had given him, but the more practical, older blue flannel. The satin one is blue too. Harry had insisted. He’d said the flannel had a special place in his memories, though he had not explained further, and Eggsy hadn’t pressed.

“If it pleases your Highness,” Sally says, “the physician-midwife has arrived a day early, and requests an audience.”

Eggsy pushes himself to sit up, eyes rounding in surprise. “He’s here?” He takes in the dressing-gown in this new light, and swallows. “He wishes to examine me already? It’s not – shouldn’t He wait until tomorrow?”

“He bids me tell you that, as your heat was two weeks gone as of yesterday, today is ample. And if I may, your Highness – soonest done is least time to fret.” Sally holds out the flannel dressing-gown, encouragingly.

Eggsy swallows. Remember your hopes, he tries to tell himself. They’re suddenly swallowed up by his fears. Which only makes Sally’s words better wisdom. When Eggsy had laid down for his rest, he’d thought himself eager for the physician-midwife’s visit. Now that she’s here, he is suddenly sent into dizzying terror. How much worse would it have been to wake up tomorrow, anticipating the afternoon all the more, and trying to pass the day until then? No. Do it now.

He takes the dressing-gown from Sally. “I will see him.”

The Omega who enters, a scant fifteen minutes later – hardly enough time to rebraid Eggsy’s hair and splash his face with water from the basin – is not familiar to Eggsy. She enters and curtsies. Two long, dark braids swing as she does so, setting off pale skin and a slender form.

“Your Highness,” she says. “I am here to examine you, with your consent.”

“I was expecting midwife Johnson,” Eggsy says, somewhat disturbed.

“I am sorry, your Highness, but midwife Johnson was taken ill before he could set out from London. I have been sent in his place. I am midwife Owens.”

“Have you practiced much?” Eggsy is still holding his dressing-gown closed, and he trades uneasy looks with Sally.

“Many years, your Highness, and dozens of live births. Parliament has approved my qualifications.”

“Rather hastily, if midwife Johnson’s illness came on so recently,” Sally murmurs.

Owens straightens and frowns at Sally with mild disapproval. “Not at all. I am one of several who were placed upon an approved roster when the Registration and Royalty Act was passed. Midwife Johnson was favored by the previous carrier-consort, but Lady Hanover – ” she looks back to Eggsy – “is free to request any physician-midwife on the list, should he choose to exercise the privilege.”

“Thank you, I have been happy with midwife Johnson,” Eggsy says. And he gives her a quelling look of his own. He’s quite aware that he allows servants rather more latitude than the average highborn Omega – yet another thing that had been cast up to him as a sign of his coarse merchant mother’s blood – but he had learned young that servants were far more valuable to the smooth running of his life than fellow debutantes. Though some servants, usually the older and stodgier of the bunch, had been known to disapprove as strongly, or more strongly, than the dowagers of the ton. It seems as if Owens is one such, which does not predispose Eggsy kindly towards her.

But she takes the rebuke well, at least, bowing her head in respectful submission. “Your Highness is within his rights to wait for midwife Johnson’s illness to pass, if he chooses.”

“What is his illness?”


Eggsy recoils. “No,” he says, too sharply. “I thank you, your services will suffice.”

“I am honored,” Owens says formally. “Then if your Highness would repose himself upon the bed – ”

The next few minutes, Eggsy knows, are going to be uncomfortable, both in body and in soul. He lays himself down as directed, untying his dressing-gown as he goes. Sally takes up a watchful position by the bed. She’s as watchful a duenna as any Eggsy has ever known, with a wide breadth and depth of knowledge of the world besides. Owens will certainly not be able to get away with any of the more superstitious practices some midwives favor under Sally’s eye. Eggsy himself focuses on the beautiful canopy over the bed. Deliberately he recalls his dream, focusing on its details as a way of keeping himself aloof from his body’s situation.

The child. About five or six years of age. An Alpha, Eggsy had known with the certainty of a dream, though male or female had been uncertain. And at that age, irrelevant. It took puberty to draw out the subtle differences between the two. But the child had had Harry’s dark hair and Eggsy’s green-hazel eyes, seen with startling clarity, though from the distance Eggsy had been standing – halfway up the staircase – he should not have been able to tell more than whether the child’s eyes had been light or dark. And when the child had looked up at the bower, Eggsy had seen Harry’s stubborn chin.

Mama, the child had called him. Eggsy’s breath catches, and not only because the physician-midwife has reached the most invasive part of the examination, and is actually prodding at Eggsy’s womb from within. Papa, for Harry. And what had been the child’s name? Might there be some family name that Harry would wish to bestow? Eggsy has yet to ask – a superstition of his own. Perhaps there is, and the decision will be easy. Perhaps there is not, and he and Eggsy may read over the lists of Kings of England, and classical literature, and choose their own. Or perhaps – dream to the contrary – their first child will be an Omega. What had Harry’s mother’s name been? Andrew? And his grandmothers – Anya – no, Anastasia, a Russian princess, on Harry’s father’s side, the side that had given Harry his claim to the throne. And on his mother’s side, Theophania. Perhaps combined with Eggsy’s own mother’s name – Theophania Michelle, Princess Hanover? They could call her Tiffany, for short…

The drift of Eggsy’s thoughts is abruptly cut off as the physician-midwife withdraws, just as abruptly. Eggsy struggles to his elbows at once. Sally steps in, assisting Eggsy in reaching a sitting position and draping a blanket discreetly across his spread legs.

“Well?” Eggsy demands, heart suddenly galloping in his chest.

Owens takes her time rising from her crouch. When she curtsies, she does it as if her knees creak. “May I be the first, your Highness, to offer my congratulations,” she says. “You have conceived.”

Chapter Text

The knock on the door comes just as Harry has closed the last account-book, and for that reason, he doesn’t immediately curse at whoever has interrupted. He instead removes his reading-glasses, sighs, and calls, “Come!”

It’s Bors. “Found how I’ve been cheating you yet?” he asks, grinning. It’s a truly fearsome sight. More than one enemy has taken one look at a grinning Bors and fled, abandoning honor and rank together in order to preserve life.

Harry, knowing that Bors has a dog he calls Mittens – the runt of a litter, born missing a limb, whom Bors had refused to have drowned, who lives in the kitchen and feasts upon the fat of the land – merely grins back. “You’ve hidden it well this year,” he says. “I begin to think you may be an honest Alpha.”

“Hah! Never say that. You’ll ruin my reputation.” Bors doesn’t say which. He does, in fairness, have two. Here at Tintagel, he is the golden-hearted overseer who slips extra food to hard-up tenants on the sly and makes sure no youth come to deliver a message leaves without at least a cookie, whose accounts are scrupulously honest and who has been known to fail to dicker with a traveling merchant has too many holes in their clothes – though dickers all the harder if he suspects those holes are purpose-made. Few people know the other Bors. The one whose grin makes hardened soldiers flee. Whose blades, coated in poison, can drop a troop in their tracks. Who has never met a card he couldn’t palm or a pair of dice he couldn’t throw just right, to win the pot their company needed to last a little longer.

“Have a drink with me, old friend,” Harry says impulsively. It’s been many a year since the two of them have sat and reminisced about the old times. Eggsy’s recent questions about Harry’s time as a soldier have made some of the old memories new again.

“Later,” Bors says, surprising Harry. “I think you’ll want to go be with your lady. The physician-midwife is here.”

“What?” Harry surges to his feet. “He wasn’t supposed to be here until tomorrow?”

“No one told her that.” Bors shrugs. “Apparently the usual one was ill, so Parliament sent another in their place, and this one traveled faster. She’s up with Lady Hanover now.”

“Thank you,” Harry barely remembers to say, scrambling for the door.

Bors waves this off. “Come back and tell me if we’re drinking to your happy expectations!” he calls.

Harry takes the stairs three at a time, something he hasn’t done since he was a very young child. His back will exact a price for this tomorrow, and his knees will likely charge interest, but just now he doesn’t care.

He’d had all sorts of plans for this. Plans to distract – he’d already instructed Cook to prepare a picnic basket for tomorrow. He’d take Eggsy down to the lake, they’d eat under the willow trees there, then pole around in the old skiff until tea-time. Something to keep their mind off of the physician-midwife’s visit. Except now they’re here, and Harry is desperate to learn the results. He barely forces himself to knock and wait until he’s bidden entrance.

The door opens on a tableau. Eggsy is sitting on the edge of the bed, wearing his old dressing-gown and wearing a dazed, disbelieving look. Sally is hovering. And an Omega who must be the physician-midwife is standing before Eggsy, in the act of raising a fourth finger to join three others, delivering what sounds like a lecture.

“...daily walking.” Another finger. “Avoid overeating rich foods; fruits and vegetables will keep you cool.”

“Eggsy,” Harry says, interrupting.

The physician-midwife’s head snaps around; she has evidently been so deep in her pronouncements she hadn’t noticed Harry’s entrance until now. The resulting curtsey nearly sees her toppling over onto the floor. Harry ignores her, coming over to the bed and stretching out his hands to take Eggsy’s. “Darling – is it – ?”

“Harry,” Eggsy whispers. He meets Harry’s eyes, his own shining. “We are to have a child.”

Midwife Owens is sent on her way with the usual purse and Harry’s gratitude. Eggsy gives her his hand, and even the servants fall over themselves to express their joy at the news she brings. When Midwife Owens finally leaves, she carries a basket filled with cookies and cakes, dried herbs from the stillroom, even a cream cheese from the dairy. Harry has heard – and he believes it – that the goose-girl had tried to gift Owens with two speckled eggs, and been distraught when the midwife had turned them down, on account of having nowhere to keep a flock in London town.

Harry himself kisses his Eggsy thoroughly, and makes known to him exactly how proud, how happy, how thrilled Harry is with this glorious news. Then he charges Eggsy very strictly to indulge himself in every possible way, and to meet him for a celebratory dinner. In the meanwhile – with a wink and an answering laugh from Eggsy – Harry has some correspondence to attend to.

He does not begin immediately, however. He sits back down in the chair in his library and stares sightlessly out the window, onto the grounds.

Eggsy is pregnant.

It feels like the most wondrous dream and the greatest prison sentence. He no longer fears that Eggsy’s affection for him is a lie, or that Harry has somehow compelled it in opposition to Eggsy’s best interests. Eggsy desires Harry. And Harry, for a wonder, desires Eggsy as well. That is, it is no wonder that any Alpha would desire Eggsy – but to possess this deeper feeling, this need to cherish and honor and be with that Harry has learned is called love – that is the wonder. Harry had begun to think himself incapable of it.

Perhaps it had been that perceived inability that had led to Harry’s blindness. He had believed, foolishly, that Eggsy falling pregnant would be the end of their difficulties. A child secures the succession and authorizes their continued marriage. At Eggsy’s next heat, they can finally mate, sealing their bond in the old way, the way that takes their relationship from a mere social construct to a true bond. Their child will be born into a mated family, and Eggsy will have been crowned at Christmas…

And then Harry will be twice as vulnerable, for he will then have two people he values above his own life.

He takes a deep breath. You are not alone in this. You have protection to offer. Eggsy is already guarded more closely than he knows. And it is too late, far too late, to try to shirk this responsibility.

Nor does he wish to, ultimately. He has always been a daredevil. Merlin has castigated him for it often enough. And the promised rewards in this venture are more than enough to lure Harry to risk all.

He draws a sheet of paper to himself and begins to write. He omits the prefaces – his secretary may add the flowy courtesies – and goes directly to the meat of the matter. I propose to address the Houses on Tuesday next, on the matter of the Succession of the Throne of Great Britain…

“More?” Harry offers the tray of cheeses to Eggsy, who looks longingly at them, but shakes his head.

“I shall miss your larder here at Tintagel,” Eggsy sighs, leaning back against the trunk of a beautiful cedar tree. “The cheeses in London never tasted so good. Nor the butter.”

Perhaps that is because Eggsy had not indulged in them so thoroughly, before. Harry hides a smile. A fondness for dairies is a natural consequence of breeding, he’s been taught. “We’ll pack some up to take back with us tomorrow.”

“Must we go?” Eggsy sighs. “No, don’t answer that. I know we must.”

“You could stay,” Harry says tentatively. Tintagel is safer than London – isolated in the countryside instead of town-locked, its nearest neighbors miles away, staffed entirely by people who have served Harry’s sire and his sire’s sire for generations. No outsider comes on these lands without the manor-folk knowing. And the manor-folk themselves are entirely trustworthy.

But: “Not without you,” Eggsy says, smiling at Harry sweetly. “I hardly wish to be apart from you.”

Another natural consequences of breeding, especially when the child has been started before the bond is cemented. Eggsy need have little fear that Harry will run from him – even without being mated, an Alpha abandoning their pregnant Omega is rare, and biologically difficult – but Eggsy will be anticipating their mating as much as Harry will. Until it can be consummated, neither of them will have much tolerance for separation. And Harry must go to London, to put his report before Parliament at the very least.

After…? Well, Harry will contemplate after when it comes. There is something to be said for a strategic retreat. But something likewise to be said for a position of strength. He will have to see how Parliament and the ton take the news.

“We’ll come back for your next heat, at the very least,” Harry decides. That is something best enjoyed in the lands of his ancestors.

“An excellent plan.”

Eggsy’s eyes are drifting shut, the pleasant breeze playing with the loose strands of his hair. He’s let it grow slightly longer, as Harry had suggested – has it only been months ago? – when offering Eggsy his suit. Now the tufts cover the tips of his ears, and Harry thinks he detects the beginnings of a curl. What would it look like if left to grow until it brushes Eggsy’s shoulders? He wants to find out.

But a nap on the grounds, however pleasant, must be deferred for another day. “Come, my lady,” Harry says, climbing to his feet and offering a hand to Eggsy so that he may do the same. “Your maids can only do so much packing without you to oversee.”

“Bah,” Eggsy says, opening his eyes to grin at Harry but otherwise not moving. “You know perfectly well that Roxy and Sally between them are more than competent to run my entire life for me. Why, we could dress Roxy up as me, and send her out to public events in my place. No one would know the difference – or if they did, it would only be to remark on my sudden mannerliness.”

“I would know the difference,” Harry says, soft and intimate, for the pleasure of watching a fire kindle itself in Eggsy’s eyes.

“Unfair,” Eggsy accuses fondly. “First you tell me that duty calls us, and then you tempt me to its dereliction.”

“Tonight,” Harry says. “We shall both be dutiful this afternoon, and then tonight we shall have our reward.”

“Promises,” Eggsy murmurs, but lets Harry help him up.

He does not let Harry help him into his horse, which makes Harry more nervous than it ought. The fine-boned, even-tempered mare Harry had purchased for Eggsy has already been sent back up to London, the team leaving early to travel in gentle stages suited for preserving fine horseflesh. Today Eggsy rides a more high-spirited chestnut. But they seem to have an understanding, horse and rider: the gelding tosses his head when Eggsy mounts up, and quiets under Eggsy’s softening pat.

“At least we may continue to ride in London,” Eggsy says, looking around himself as they ride towards the manor. The reins are slack in his hands, the gelding stepping lightly, eager for his own feed. “Though the views will not be so glorious.”

“Better Buckingham than the Row,” Harry says feelingly.

“Too true,” Eggsy laughs. He turns his head suddenly. “Did you see – ”

It happens quickly. Harry, too, turns his head to track Eggsy’s gaze – then snaps it back as Eggsy’s horse shrieks, suddenly, rearing. Eggsy swears and tightens his grip on the reins to no avail. The gelding rears again, and then plunges, suddenly – tearing off across the downs with Eggsy on his back.

“Eggsy!” Harry shouts. He urges his own horse to speed – thank God it hadn’t spooked likewise, though as a retired war-horse, it knows better than to shy at shadows. Normally he would have no trouble catching Eggsy, but fear gives the gelding feet like wings, and they pound after each other without success. The wind stings Harry’s eyes until he must half-squint them. Eggsy is holding on, somehow, but his reins are lying loose and tangled beneath his horse’s bridle, unreachable. Not that Eggsy should be trying to reach them. The loss of balance could be fatal –

A large hill rises before them, the rise in the earth concealing a small pond filled with trout. Harry had fished there as a youth. Please God don’t make me fish Eggsy’s body from the river –

Eggsy knows what’s over the crest, too. Harry had taken him there only a week ago. Harry is close now, but not close enough to grab the trailing reins, and he’s running out of time.

Eggsy leans forward over the saddle, draping himself nearly over his horse’s outstretched neck. He heaves, twisting with all the force his body can offer – sideways, sideways – and as Harry watches in agonized hope, the horse responds. He rears again – Harry’s heart leaps to wedge itself in his throat – comes down, and wheels, spinning away from the danger and beginning to thunder back down the hillside. Right at Harry. Harry’s own horse stiffens, ready to receive the charge, and Harry leans over – grabs – misses – grabs again – and finally catches the reins.

There’s a bad moment then, full of jostling horseflesh and banging limbs. For a moment Harry thinks both he and Eggsy will be unhorsed. But then Harry’s own horse’s angry whinny seems almost to shock some sense into Eggsy’s runaway gelding. The gelding falters, and in that moment control is seized. Both horses stumble to a stop.

“Eggsy,” Harry gasps, all but throwing himself off his own horse. He has Eggsy’s horse’s reins in a death grip. The motion yanks on the gelding’s head, and the horse tries to shy, but Harry doesn’t let it. He reaches his free arm up to wrap around Eggsy’s waist. Eggsy tumbles into his arms in an ungainly pile of limbs. Only then does Harry let the misbehaving horse go, and sink to the ground to wrap both arms around Eggsy.

“I’m okay,” Eggsy is saying, over and over again, as Harry kisses his hair and his shoulders and his ears and every part of him Harry can reach. “I’m okay, I’m not hurt. I didn’t fall. Harry, I’m okay.”

“I thought for certain you would be thrown,” Harry cries. “I thought you would be killed.” Only now is the real fear beginning to speak into his bones. During the chase he’d been afraid, yes, but only intellectually – his mind cataloging the dangers, allowing him to react. Just as he would in a fight. Now that the fight is over, the adrenaline shakes his limbs, nowhere to go but to clutch Eggsy ever tighter and hear the quaver in his own voice as he speaks his fears. “I thought I would lose you both, before I even really had you, before I’d ever met them – ” Harry’s hand curls protectively against Eggsy’s still-flat belly, and then. Oh, then. Then the cold, calculating part of his mind manages to seize his attention, and a dreadful suspicion takes hold.

“Eggsy, right before your horse spooks – what did you see?”

“Nothing really,” Eggsy says, sounding shaken himself. “A shadow – I thought perhaps a deer. You had said there haven’t been red deer here for a generation, so I was curious to see its coat, and turned my head. A moment of inattention. And then – ”

Harry shushes him. He knows what happens then. What had happened before? Had there been something more in the shadow than a deer? Or – “You twisted in the saddle,” Harry says slowly. “To look. You don’t twist often. Some riders do.”

“Omegas, stereotypically,” Eggsy says, grasping eagerly at a safe topic of conversation. “We’re supposed to be bad riders – bouncing all over the place, not keeping a good seat.”

“You’re an excellent rider.”

“Not today, apparently.” Eggsy shakes his head.

“No – you are. Not many could have kept their seat in that.” But the suspicion in his mind keeps growing. “Eggsy – I need to look at your horse.”

Eggsy doesn’t protest to Harry releasing him from his hold, but he does rise with Harry, keeping as close to him as his own shadow. This suits Harry’s quivering muscles exactly. The gelding is quite calm now, only turning its head and snuffling as Harry approaches, almost as if it’s ashamed of its own behavior. It offers no protest as Harry unsaddles it and strips back the blanket.

“Harry,” Eggsy asks quietly. “What is that?”

Harry puts his hand on a long scratch down the gelding’s flank. “I have a guess,” he says grimly.

Eggsy, despite his protests, at last consents to be put up on Harry’s own horse – after his accoutrements have been thoroughly checked – and led back the house at a walk. Harry himself stays on the ground, leading the exhausted, ashamed gelding. Eggsy had wanted to walk himself, but Harry doesn’t want him exerting himself more than necessary. He may not have taken a fall, but the experience has still left him shaken. It’s left Harry shaken, too.

They’re later getting back then they’d said they’d be, and this has not gone unnoticed by the household. Lady Carlyle and Bors both come running out to the stables within minutes of Harry sending the stable-boy for them, revealing that they had been hovering anxiously nearby waiting for their respective masters.

“What happened?” Lady Carlyle demands first, beating Bors to it by mere moments.

“Eggsy’s horse spooked and bolted,” Harry says shortly. “Thankfully he was not thrown. Lady Carlyle, please help him to his room at once. He must surely need to lie down.”

“I do not,” Eggsy protests indignantly, “I – ”

“Bors, send for the doctor. A precaution only,” he hastens to assure Eggsy, who looks set to begin another round of protests. Harry takes Eggsy’s hands. “Please indulge me,” he asks. “Lie down quietly for a while, and let the doctor examine you. If they say all is well, then I will give over being so overbearing, I promise.”

Eggsy hesitates, giving a swift glance to Lady Carlyle. She must be in agreement with Harry, because Eggsy sighs and nods. “Very well,” he consents. “But we’ll talk later about your overprotectiveness.”

Bors coughs. “Good luck with that,” he mutters.

“Come along, your Highness,” Lady Carlyle urges. She slips an arm around Eggsy’s waist and begins guiding him from the room. Harry notices that Eggsy does not correct her on the use of the honorific. Eggsy is more shaken than he’s willing to let on, then.

“Well now,” Bors says, when the ladies are gone. “What’s the real story?”

Harry shakes his head and looks to the horse. Docile now, standing in his stall, nosing about his feed-bag. “I’m not sure.” Succinctly he relays the sequence of events – the shadow of a deer that may not have been a deer, the unusual way it had caused Eggsy to move in his seat, the scratch found beneath the saddle-blanket.

“I see,” Bors says, rubbing his chin. “It could be something, or nothing. In more ways than one. But you’re worried?”

“Eggsy’s pregnancy cuts off the hopes of several young ladies who aspired to be Queen.” Including a certain Lady Hesketh, whose uncle had recently made Parliamentary moves against Harry.

Bors nods thoughtfully. “What do you want done? I can question the stable-boys…”

He sounds doubtful, as well he might. Bors’ strength in their old military company had been the strength of his arms when swinging an axe. “No, old friend. This is a task for Morgana.”

“Ahh.” Bors looks much happier at this thought. “Yes.”

“In the meanwhile, send to Merlin. He must know everything that has passed. And you might begin considering whether there is any deputy you can leave here in your place. I may want you in London, before this is over.” Harry reaches into the stall and pets the now-gentle gelding’s nose. “Take care of this poor beast. It may be more victim than villain.”

Bors is studying the horse’s flank. “This is a nasty scratch. And I don’t think anyone in these stables would have cinched the girth so poorly as to have it be caused by the tack.”

Harry nods in his turn. Claps Bors on the shoulder. “Check over the other horses. Just in case.” A thought: “the carriage-horses especially.” Though an overturned carriage threatens Harry as much as Eggsy or the babe. But the Registration and Royalty Act will bind Harry’s successor just as well, if Harry dies without issue. And he doubts somehow that whoever moves against Eggsy does so for the love of Harry himself.

“Aye,” Bors agrees. He jerks his head. “Better get up to the house. The doctor will be coming.”

“Right.” Harry shakes himself out of his reverie. “Right.”

The village doctor comes, inspects Eggsy, and finds nothing at all amiss. “He may have a bruise from the hard riding,” the Beta says dismissively, “but a soft cushion will soon solve that. No, your Majesty, begging your pardon, I shouldn’t recommend any physic. When one is not already ill such things do more harm than good. Your lady has a strong constitution and is, I perceive, a lady of sense. For a more nervous lady, I might… but here there is no need for something to soothe the nerves. Eh?” The doctor pats Eggsy’s hand, and smiles. “A day’s rest will do no harm, and perhaps one may eat lightly, if one wishes to be abundantly cautious, but otherwise this will soon be a memory. Now,” addressing Eggsy, “if you do feel yourself becoming overset, or experiencing pains, send for me at once. But in the absence of any symptoms I am certain there has been no injury.”

“Thank you, doctor,” Eggsy says warmly.

Harry starts to make a motion to Sally to escort the doctor out, but the Beta catches Harry’s eye and makes an imperceptible sign. Curious, Harry escorts him out himself.

“Your Majesty, if you will forgive the presumption, I must ask you – as a doctor – to give over emphasizing the seriousness of this matter to your wife,” the doctor says firmly. “I tell you truly that there has been no injury to the body. But you may yet engender an injury to the mind, if you keep speaking thusly.”

“To the mind?” Harry says blankly.

“Do you want your wife to become nervous? Afraid of riding? Paranoid of some injury to the child, and dosing himself with whatever dubious physic the other goodwives of the gentry suggest?”


“Then leave the matter be,” the doctor recommends. “It is as I said about the physic – the suggestion of harm can be as harmful as the event itself. Your lady did not fall, was not kicked. The ride was merely rougher than he would have chosen. Treat the matter so, and there will be no harm of it. Continue to dwell on the circumstance, and the outcome may be different.”

“Thank you for your counsel,” Harry says quietly. He hadn’t considered – but then, he’s an Alpha and a warrior. Eggsy is a gently-bred Omega. And the doctor must certainly know what he’s about.

The doctor bows. “And congratulations,” he adds. “Long may your child reign.”

“Again, thank you.” Harry beckons to the waiting manservant to take the Beta out. Behind him, the door opens and Sally comes out. He glances at her, then shakes his head. “Not here. The library.” He begins to walk down the hall. He doesn’t have to look around to know that she follows.

The library, when they reach it, is not empty: Bors is there, waiting. Harry nods to him and then motions Sally to close the door. She does so, then comes to stand in the center of the room.

“May I speak?” she asks, still in her quiet, deferent servants’ tone.

Harry looks to Bors. Bors nods.

“Morgana,” Harry says, “what have you learned?”

She doesn’t straighten. She is already standing perfectly straight, with the excellent posture of a trained servant – or a lady of quality – or a soldier, hair bound up and uniform tailored to conceal her sex. Sally – or rather Morgana, as she had been called as a member of Harry’s corps - has been all three. And more.

“Midwife Owens,” she says, “delivered the second and most recent child of the Earl of Cavendish. Countess Cavendish is to be confined in November; Midwife Owens has already been paid to attend the birth.”

Bors swears. Harry only nods.

“You suspected as much,” Harry says. “To have learned this so quickly, you must have investigated Midwife Owens at once.”

“Typhus is a city disease,” Morgana says. “Or a soldier’s one. Midwife Johnson lives with his family in the country, at the home of his sibling, a curate. And no one else in his parish is ill.”

“No doubt they wished to have the earliest knowledge possible of the consequences of Eggsy’s heat.”

“But to sicken a midwife?” Bors protests. “Why not simply bribe a servant?”

“In London, I am sure they did,” Morgana says. “Here at Tintagel they would have a much harder time of that. Another method had to be effected.”

“The bigger question is, did Midwife Owens have anything to do with what happened today?”

Harry makes a negating gesture. “That is a question, to be sure,” he says slowly. “But if we assume – and I think we may safely assume – that the answer is yes, then the bigger question is, on whose initiative?”

Morgana is nodding. “Did Midwife Owens take the idea into her own head, on the spur of the moment, and seize an opportunity to advance what she perceived as her patrons’ ends?”

“Or,” Harry completes, “was she sent here with those specific instructions – either to confirm that Eggsy did not conceive, or to… correct… any such conception.”

Bors growls.

“I agree with you,” Harry says grimly.

“I do not know yet,” Morgana says. “But I will find out.”

“It will be easier to ferret out this tangle in London. Is Eggsy packed?”

Bors stares at him. “Surely you don’t mean to take him back to that nest of snakes. You’ll be safer here.”

We might be safer here,” Harry concedes, “but I cannot stay, and I will not leave him behind.”

“You could stay,” Bors protests.

Harry shakes his head. “Wars aren’t won from afar,” he says. “My enemies are on London. So must I be.”

“Eggsy is not packed,” Morgana says, “but if I pull in some of the under-servants, we can be ready to travel tomorrow.”

“Yes, do it.” Harry turns and gives her his full attention. “If I am not present, then one of you or Lancelot are to be with him at all times,” he says. “I may not have the opportunity to speak with Lancelot alone – tell her I have said so. And both of you should be prepared to use force, if necessary, to defend Eggsy.”

“We already are,” Morgana assures him.

“Then go.”

Morgana bows, a holdover from their military days. Everyone in the unit, even the ladies, had always bowed. A moment later there’s an indefinable twist in her air – as subtle as a soap-bubble popping, and as definite. Then it’s Sally standing there, a humble servant. And she curtsies as such. “By your leave, your Majesty,” she says, and is gone.

Bors blows out a breath. “I’ll never know how she does that.”

“It’s not your gift,” Harry says. “You have others, and I need them just as much.”

“Aye.” Bors straightens. “I can leave Jennings here for a month, perhaps. He knows much of the running of the estate. The other business – ” by which Bors means the routing for various information networks, the vetting of loyalties, and the trading of secrets – “can be forwarded to the palace, for a time.”

“Merlin will be glad to hear that,” Harry says drily. Those matters are primarily Merlin’s affair; Bors’ role is typically that of a middleman, with the occasional need to break an arm or separate an untrustworthy head from its neck.

“You know what I mean.” Bors grins briefly, though he sobers just as quickly.

“All right.” Harry levers himself out of his chair and grimaces. “I suppose I’d best get my servants packing.”

“I’ll make the rest of the preparations.” Bors is already striding for the door. “Another campaign.” He pauses to shake his head ruefully. “I thought we were retired.”

“One day,” Harry says.

“Maybe. Maybe.” He sighs. “But I begin to think kingship is the hardest battle of all.”

Then he leaves. Harry is left there, thinking. Bors is best known for the strength of his arms – but sometimes he has the knack of seeing to the heart of the matter. And when he does, in all the years Harry has known him – campaigned with him, employed him, drunk and reminisced with him – he has never been wrong.

But it’s a battle worth fighting. Not for a crown. But for Eggsy, and a country worth giving to their children. That’s worth it.

Harry goes out of the door in his turn, and begins readying himself to take the battle to his enemies.

Chapter Text

Eggsy wakes before dawn, stomach already roiling. He moans involuntarily. One hand creeps over his abdomen, rubbing in futile circles.

The servants’ door adjoining Eggsy’s bedchamber opens almost at once. Sally appears beside Eggsy’s bed, as silently and immediately as if she’d floated over, like a ghost, instead of walking like a mere mortal. “Here, your Highness,” she says, helping prop Eggsy upright and handing him his now-customary cup of morning tea. “Get that into you. And here is your toast.”

Eggsy eyes the toast with mixed longing and loathing. Dry toast first thing in the morning does seem to settle the nausea, and he wishes very much to be rid of that awful queasiness. Unfortunately, whoever had coined the term morning sickness must have been an Alpha: there is nothing morning about it. It lasts all day, and though it continues to respond to applications of dry toast and strong, well-sugared tea, Eggsy’s palate has grown as thoroughly sick of the cure as his stomach is of the disease.

Sally eyes him with, Eggsy thinks grumpily, some amusement. Nausea and grumpiness are a bad mix; Eggsy is about to break his longstanding rule of not snapping at servants, when Sally produces a second plate.

“And if toast is beginning to wear thin,” she says, eyes dancing, “I have heard that hardtack is similarly efficacious.”

Eggsy pokes at the square of – can it be called bread? – dubiously. It clinks against the fine porcelain, seeming about as giving as a chunk of rock. “That’s edible?”

“It is to be crumbled up and soaked in your tea. Then it may be eaten. Its virtue is that it does not grow stale – well, staler – and may be taken on long journeys. Our brave soldiers and sailors virtually live on the stuff, I’m told.”

“Then their sacrifice is greater than I’d thought.”

Sally does not laugh, though Eggsy can tell she would like to. “Shall I, your Highness?”

Well, at least it’s not more toast. Ugh. “Please,” Eggsy says, handing back his tea.

Sally makes quick work of the hardtack. There seems to be a trick to crumbling it; she takes it in her hand and squeezes in a peculiar way, and then when she opens her fist, crouton-sized chunks spill neatly into the teacup. She then sets the teacup on the table.

“A few minutes only, your Highness, and it will be ready for you.”

Eggsy settles back against the carefully-arranged pillows, sighing. The wait may not be pleasant, but trying to get up and move about would be less so, as experience has taught him. He casts about for a distraction. “Is James able to visit today?”

“Yes, your Highness. We had Countess Morton’s card last night after you retired. He is expected at tea-time.”

“Good,” Eggsy says, cheering up somewhat. It’s been rather lonely here in Buckingham. As Eggsy’s pregnancy has progressed, reaching the eight-week mark just yesterday, morning sickness and the increasingly fraught political climate have conspired to isolate him. He’s in no shape to host entertainments; nor can he just go about in Society as Lady Rowley would have. Eggsy is limited to what visitors can come to him. And since Eggsy is uninterested in the kind of visitor who would only come to curry favor with the future Queen and unborn heir to the throne, the list is small indeed.

Then, too, Harry has shown himself surprisingly nervous. He doesn’t like Eggsy to have any visitors. Nor does he like Eggsy to ride, or shop, or even receive merchants with assortments of goods. It’s as if he wants to wrap Eggsy in soft cloths and hide him away – in a closet, perhaps – until he gives birth.

At first it had been almost nice. Flattering. Eggsy had enjoyed the proof of Harry’s affections enough to overlook the inconvenience. That had worn off about the time Eggsy had started disliking toast.

“Sally,” Eggsy says thoughtfully, “do Alphas nest?”

Sally turns from the wardrobe, halfway through choosing out Eggsy’s day-clothes. “It’s not usually said that they do,” she says thoughtfully, “but now as you mention it, your Highness, I’ve seen it happen.”

Perhaps that’s it, then. Eggsy provisionally accepts this notion. And, as naturally as sunset following the evening, Eggsy’s thoughts turn to his mate. “Is Harry at breakfast?”

“I’m afraid his Majesty ate at his usual time,” Sally says. “He left word that he regretted that he could not wait, Parliament being still in session.”

“At his usual – how late is it?” Eggsy looks towards the window in horror. The curtains are drawn, though, with care to block out any light. He’s taken to retiring early, as pregnancy is not only roiling his stomach but sapping his strength. The sun had still been a riot of fire in the western sky when he’d climbed into bed last night. Now?

Sally follows his gaze and goes to open the curtains. “Oh,” Eggsy says faintly. Judging by the position of the sun, Sally should have brought him luncheon instead of toast. “I see I am fated to live the life of a decorative pillow for the next seven months.”

“This is entirely normal when breeding,” Sally says kindly. “Especially at first. In a month, you may find you feel much better.”

“From your mouth to God’s ears,” Eggsy groans, reaching for the teacup.

The hardtack doesn’t taste like much, but it also doesn’t taste like toast, and for that, Eggsy is grateful. It works somewhat more slowly than toast would have, but within an hour Eggsy has managed to rise, wash his face, and dress. His stomach has settled down for the time being, though the idea of further food does not appeal.

“I’m not starving the babe, am I?” he asks anxiously.

Since Eggsy has asked a variation on this question at least once a day for the past month, Roxy’s sigh is really not that unreasonable. “Midwife Owens said you were not,” she reminds Eggsy.

“Right. Right.” Eggsy picks up his book and looks at it. The morning-room they sit in is pleasant, especially with the fire newly-lit in honor of the autumnal winds. The pale blue hangings give the room an airy feel, and the thick new carpet is soft under Eggsy’s feet. Eggsy is comfortable, and not too terribly nauseated; pregnant, married, and soon to be mated and crowned. He should really not feel the urge to throw the book against the wall and sulk at his boredom like a petulant child.

A knock at the door is a welcome distraction, and Eggsy looks up to see the even-more welcome sight of his husband entering the room. “Harry!” Eggsy greets happily, jumping up to greet him. Roxy rises as well, more sedately, and makes her usual curtsey to the King.

“Eggsy,” Harry says in return, giving him a warm smile and coming over to embrace him. “I was sorry to miss you this morning. Are you well?” His gaze rakes Eggsy from tip to toe.

“Only a bit queasy,” Eggsy reassures him. “I think it is growing less.”

Roxy covers her mouth, taking a great interest in the landscapes on the wall.

“I had come to see if you’d join me for luncheon,” Harry says ruefully. “Perhaps that was optimistic.”

“I’ll happily watch you eat.”

“I can’t ask that,” Harry dismisses. “Perhaps a stroll around the grounds instead?”

Fresh air and sunshine, but – “I miss riding,” Eggsy says, wistfully, unable to keep it in.

“I know, my dear, but it’s too dangerous.”

“Many ladies continue to ride until they’re confined,” Eggsy says hopefully. He turns to Roxy, hoping for support. Roxy has spent the morning sitting across from Eggsy, dutifully picking at needlework. Eggsy knows that Roxy likes needlework about as much as Eggsy does, and would relish a gallop over the downs.

“You are not most ladies,” Harry reminds him.

“A gentle walk would do no harm,” Roxy says. She leaves it diplomatically unsaid whether this refers to a human’s walk or a horse’s.

Eggsy huffs, turning back to Harry and taking the fight back into his own hands. “Just because my horse shied at a leaf in Cornwall – ”

Harry’s face darkens. “You carry the heir to the throne!”

“Sometimes – ” Eggsy begins, then shuts his mouth in sudden horror at himself. Had he really been about to say that he wished he hadn’t fallen pregnant? After all of his longing and worry and fears? It’s just that – this baby he wants, yes. And Harry, of course. But the rest of it?

Harry is looking at him as if he can read all of Eggsy’s thoughts. He looks sad, suddenly.

“No,” Eggsy says desperately. “Harry, I didn’t mean it. I’m only – I don’t know what I am. Breeding, I suppose. It makes me all twisty.”

“But not irrational,” Harry says heavily. “On the contrary, you’re quite right. Being royal is no true blessing. Not when done properly, anyway, not when upheld as a duty and an obligation. I had feared…” he turns away, seemingly to escape Eggsy’s gaze. “I hoped you would not mind it so much.”

“I don’t,” Eggsy says. He casts the book aside now in truth and rises, going to Harry’s side and taking his elbow, slipping Eggsy’s own hand in Harry’s. “It’s a small price to pay.”

“Is it?” Harry looks down at him, searching Eggsy’s face; his own, unfairly, is in shadow.

“It will not last forever,” Eggsy says, reminding them both. “Once the child is born…”

Harry is silent a moment. Then he says, “The King faction is pushing for another amendment to the Inheritance Act.”

Eggsy swallows. “I thought you said they’d dropped their push for the Ministry position.”

“Tabled it only,” Harry says. “And they are now arguing that mere conception of an heir is not the same as the provision of an heir.”

Eggsy’s free hand creeps over his stomach. Still flat, though somewhat softer than before. He isn’t showing at all yet. Not even when he undresses for the bath and strains to see. Midwife Owens says first pregnancies don’t show quickly; she says Eggsy may not have a bump, a real bump, until six or even seven months into his pregnancy. Eggsy has been comforting himself with the thought that at least he ought to quicken well before that. He longs for some outward sign, some physical proof of the babe within him, something besides nausea and a lurking fatigue. Something good.

He has avoided, as much as any lady can, thinking of all the somethings bad that can attend a pregnancy.

“They are afraid I’ll miscarry?” Eggsy asks now, proud, distantly, of how steady his voice is.

“Say rather they hope for it,” Harry says scathingly. He puts his free hand atop Eggsy’s; the new tilt of his head lets Eggsy see Harry’s eyes blazing with anger. “Their motion is by no means universally received. They had more allies before you conceived; now that you’ve done so, many of the smaller families, whose ladies were lower on the Register, have accepted they’ve lost the crown. But – ”

Eggsy nods miserably. “As long as Charlie is next they won’t give up.”

There’s a moment of silence. Roxy is the one to break it, making Eggsy jump; he’d almost forgotten her presence. She asks, “What exactly do they propose?”

Harry answers her. “For the moment, they say that the Act should be amended to require the carrier-consort to give live birth, before their elevation to Queen.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Eggsy says sharply. Now that the floodgates have opened, a litany of terrifying probabilities are cascading through his thoughts. “As if that ends the risk! Have they never heard of measles? Of diphtheria? Of – ”

Roxy sighs. “I suspect they will think of those things quite as soon as you produce a live heir, Eggsy.”

Eggsy’s jaw drops open at the sheer unfairness of it all. “They would disbar anyone from becoming Queen!”

“No, acquit them,” Harry says grimly. “I suspect they will find it within themselves to relax those restrictions as soon as Lady Hesketh stands in your place.”

“What does the Act actually say, as to elevation requirements?” Roxy asks.

Harry turns his gaze from Eggsy at last, looking to Roxy. “Well, as they propose – ”

Roxy shakes her head. “I am not interested right now in their proposal. I am interested in the text of the current law. I know you were waiting for a formal coronation, until…” She clears her throat delicately, and pats at her shoulder, a discreet reference to the location of the mating bite. “But is that actually required? Traditional, yes – implied, almost certainly – but required?”

“I… am not sure,” Harry says. In some surprise.

“Check,” Roxy suggests.

“What are you thinking?” Eggsy asks her.

She shrugs. “That the current Act, which is law, says – or so we all were told; I am no scholar – that the carrier-consort need only conceive to become Queen. Well, you have conceived. So then, are you not already Queen? And if so, why should you not be crowned forthwith, and the entire matter rendered moot? It is one thing to deny a crown, but quite a different matter to recall one, once placed upon the head.”

Eggsy’s lips part in astonishment. “Surely they would block any coronation!”

“Surely they would try,” Roxy corrects. “But the crowning of royals is not, in fact, in their gift.” Her gaze shifts to Harry. “I am certain the Archbishop would be quite obliging.”

This makes Harry laugh, though it’s a short, sharp bark. “I’m certain Tristan would be,” he agrees. “But once a coronation is announced, it’s open warfare with Parliament.”

“It’s warfare already,” Roxy says coolly. “King’s side knows it, and is making no bones about it. They’re only unsure as to how much you realize it, and how far you’ll go to stop them. At first that was to your advantage; your pose of carelessness served as a cloak. But what does your cloak gain you now? Your end may be in sight. If so, you need speed, not concealment.”

She’s looking at Harry levelly, and shows no hesitation in speaking to Harry so. Eggsy watches her in astonishment. This is a side of Roxy he’s never seen.

And Harry, far from being offended or prideful, is merely thoughtful. Seriously considering her words. “The law must be read.”

“Of course, the law must be read.” Roxy shrugs. “So have Morgana read it.”

“And perhaps an actual legal professional as well?”

“If you wish.” Roxy shrugs again, dismissively.

Eggsy knows he ought to say silent, if he wants them to keep talking in this way, briefly forgetful of his presence and saying any number of fascinating things, but this is one mystery too many. He can’t help asking, “Who is Morgana? Why are they to read the law, if they are not a barrister? And if they are good at the law, why aren’t they a barrister?”

Roxy laughs at him. “Morgana is a lady,” she tells Eggsy. “But she was nearly called to the Bar all the same, before the Inner Temple discovered their mistake.”

“Oh,” Eggsy says faintly. “Oh, my.”

“Roxy,” Harry says warningly.

Eggsy looks at him. “And how come you to know this – lady?” He strives to keep his tone free of any jealousy. But really. A lady barrister? When Eggsy has never read anything more difficult than a novel, worked anything more difficult than needlepoint? And Harry’s history with ladies, before his accession to the throne, is no secret.

Harry sighs. “I was in London, readying my unit for another campaign, when she was turned out of the Temple. I thought her skills might prove useful to us. So I recruited her.”

“A lady soldier?” Eggsy shakes his head. “Now I know you’re telling me a joke.”

“Nay, ’tis quite true,” Roxy says, surprisingly. “She spent three campaigns with his Majesty. And the first time I met her, I thought her an Alpha, upon my honor.”

This draws Eggsy’s attention, and he looks at her narrowly. “How do you come to know this lady barrister-turned-soldier?”

“She assisted me greatly in crafting the scheme that let me separate from my sire’s household, and come serve in the King’s.” Roxy sighs. “Though an actual barrister had to file the paperwork, in the end.”

“Regardless.” Harry is looking at Roxy again; after a moment, he nods slowly. “I begin to be of your way of thinking,” he says. “But the first step is to read the law.”

“Then go read the law,” Roxy says simply.

Harry turns to Eggsy. “How would you feel about this?”

“About – ”

“A rapid coronation. Held quickly, rather than bountifully. And held before our mating.”

Oh. Because of course, it would have to be. Eggsy’s next heat won't come until after the babe is born. And though he’d expected that a royal coronation would take weeks if not months to arrange, he realizes suddenly that that’s actually not required. Although the event traditionally comes with much pomp and circumstance, it can actually be done quite simply. It requires only an archbishop, a crown, and a mandate. They may possess all three ingredients already.

And Harry is also asking if Eggsy is okay with that. With not having the pomp and the circumstance. The cheering crowds and the carriage-rides. And Eggsy would be offended by Harry asking him that – Harry thinking that that matters to Eggsy – except that Eggsy can also see the way Harry is watching him carefully. Anxiously. And remembers Harry saying, I hoped you would not mind it so much.

“If it could be done here, in this room, right now,” Eggsy says firmly, lifting his chin, “then I would beg it to be done, my Lord.”

The quick squeeze of Harry’s hands on his is as great a reward as Harry’s smile. “I think we can manage some better than that,” he says.

“Though perhaps not much more,” Roxy says warningly.

“I am not interested in being Queen, except as it permits me to remain at your side,” Eggsy tells Harry. “And besides.” He lets himself smile, hoping to lighten the mood. “I find myself in no great hurry to emulate Anne Boleyn.” She being the last Queen Consort to have been crowned independently of her husband.

Harry does smile at that, though briefly. “Then let me see if the thing can be done. Say nothing of this to anyone, until the matter is settled.”

“Of course not,” Eggsy says at once.

“No, your Majesty,” Roxy agrees.

“I must go,” Harry says, already half-distracted. “Eggsy, I’m sorry – ”

Eggsy rises to his toes, the better to kiss Harry. “You are doing this for us,” he says. “Besides. I shan’t be bereft. James is coming over, and he says he has learned a new dance he wishes to teach me.”

“I will – that is, may I visit you?” Harry clears his throat. “Tonight? I may be back late – ”

“Please,” Eggsy says. “Awaken me, if you must.” Another smile, in the face of Harry’s visible hesitation to interrupt Eggsy’s sleep. “I assure you – and Roxy and Sally can attest – that I am getting a surfeit of rest.”

“Very well.” Harry holds his hands a moment longer. Then, with the air of one doing what must be done, he tears himself away and goes out the door.

“Roxy,” Eggsy says a moment later, “can you ensure that Master Merlin knows that I wish to be awoken tonight when Harry returns, and entreat him to ensure that Harry does not take some fool notion about not disturbing me?” As senior lady of Eggsy’s household, Roxy enjoys an unusual level of freedom in interacting with the complementary sex. He has long suspected that she and Merlin frequently gossip about their respective charges over a bottle of wine late at night. “While you do so, I think I shall take a nap. Just to be certain I am fully rested, later.”

“An excellent idea, your Highness,” Roxy approves.

The moonlight is silver on the blankets when Eggsy awakens, coming smoothly out of slumber and to something not unlike full alertness, though the world seems itself asleep, dreamlike and haunting. His gaze goes at once to the door that connects his chambers to Harry’s. The door is open, and a familiar form is shadowed there.

“I see I have woken you,” Harry murmurs.

Eggsy sits up and holds out his hand. “As I wished you to do.”

“So you said.” Harry comes to take the hand, sitting down next to Eggsy, atop the blankets. “So I suppose I should not feel guilty.”

“No indeed.” Eggsy shakes his head. “I napped before James’ visit, and then retired early, a-purpose to be rested for you.”

“And how went the learning of the new dance?”

Eggsy grimaces. “Slowly.” It had been unlike anything Eggsy had ever attempted before – odd in its rhythm, and with some part of it seeming to be missing, though Eggsy had been unable to articulate what, exactly. “It seemed that it needed more balance than I am used to. Or perhaps it is only that my balance is not what it used to be.” He lays a hand over his stomach tenderly. Still no twitch, no bump. Soon. “James was very patient with me. Roxy seemed to pick it up faster – she said it was a variation on a dance she’d learned in finishing school, abroad. They say they intend to continue trying to teach me. I think they’re only doing this for a distraction. To vary my days. Well, if I can’t horse-ride, I may as well dance.” Eggsy puts a lilt of laughter in his voice, so that Harry understands Eggsy is speaking lightly, and not attempting to re-open the topic of horse riding. “And if I may as well dance, I might also be grateful to have two friends willing to devote so much time my entertainment.”

“I think I may know the dance Roxy is speaking of,” Harry offers. “I’ve seen her perform it before, if I’m right. Had it rather more contact between partners than usual?”

“Yes, exactly.”

“A very unique dance,” Harry says. “I hope you will learn it, Eggsy. I would like to see you dance it one day.”

“With you, I hope.”

Harry’s laugh is a warm huff of breath by Eggsy’s ear. “We shall see.”

The next two days pass slowly, in almost an agony of suspense. Michelle sends a card to come and visit him on the second day. Eggsy puts her off, writing vaguely about nausea and trusting her to read more into the words than he’s written. James does come again, but Eggsy is too distracted for distraction. Harry might be able to manage it. But he’s fighting a delaying action in Parliament and Society against King’s attempts to modify the Act, and then cramming in all his usual Kingly duties around that.

The wait comes to an end on the third morning. Eggsy wakens – late, again – eats his toast in bed, and then settles down in the morning-room with the same poor book he’s been trying (and failing) to read for the past week. Roxy looks like she’s ready to set fire to her needlepoint. Eggsy doesn’t blame her.

Then the knock comes. It’s Harry, and not just Harry. With him is Merlin and Earl and Countess Morton. Who all bow and curtsey.

“Your Majesty,” James greets him, smiling and impish.

Eggsy has to grasp the side of his chair for support. “Then – ”

“The text of the Act is quite clear,” Percival tells him. “The moment you conceived, you became Queen.”

“Long may ye reign,” Merlin says, gruffly.

Eggsy’s gaze seeks Harry’s. Harry nods, and smiles, coming over to Eggsy and taking his hands. “It’s true, my dear.”

Roxy claps her hands together.

“Does King know?” Eggsy has to clear his throat. “Does he know I’m – that he’s attempting to – ”

“Deny you your rightful crown?” Percival shrugs. “It can’t be proven. Of course, he’ll claim ignorance when the matter is put to him.”

“Of course he knows,” James says scathingly. “That whole family are snakes.”

“Snakes with power,” Roxy says. “We’ll have to move quickly.”

“The law is the law,” Eggsy reminds her.

“The law is the law, but power is what you can seize and hold,” Harry says. “Your coronation must be held at once. Where is Tristan?”

“On her way,” Merlin says. He has lingered in the back of the room, but now comes forward and joins the conclave. “She should arrive the day after tomorrow.”

“Morning or evening?”

“With the way Tristan rides? Morning.”

“Then the coronation may be held that same day,” James says.

Harry nods. “What has been done to that end?”

Percival is the one to answer that. “As we discussed, I have acted in your name, arranging for a mass to be held at St. Peter’s – supposedly in thanksgiving for Eggsy’s having conceived. No one need know it’s to be a coronation until the service itself.”

“Good thinking,” Harry approves warmly. “We may both proceed in secrecy and still count on the attendance of the major nobility. What else?”

Merlin says, “The crown is being withdrawn from its place in the Vault under guise of needing to be cleaned.”

“And the pearls replaced?”

Merlin nods. “Yes, your Majesty, the pearls will be made real.”

Eggsy pictures it, breath coming short. The crown of Mary of Modena has been worn by Queens Consort for over a hundred years. And in three days – two and a half days – they’re talking about setting it on his head.

Percival takes over. “I will bring it to the Abbey in secret, if your Majesty approves of my taking the position of crown-bearer.”

“I can think of no one better for it,” Harry says. The two Alphas nod to each other, something passing between them that Eggsy is too distracted to name.

“The scepter will be more difficult,” James says. “We may have to omit it.”

“It’s only ceremonial,” Roxy says. “The crown is the important bit. And the anointing.”

“I assume Roxy and I are to hold the canopy?” James asks.

“Yes,” Harry says, “but what of the – ”

“The Coronation Spoon has remained in the Church’s possession since your Majesty’s ceremony,” Merlin says smugly. “Tristan… neglected to return it.”

“Light-fingered,” Roxy mutters.

“To our benefit,” Merlin retorts.

“So Tristan has the anointing in hand,” Harry says. “Percival will handle the crown...” He frowns. “What are we omitting?”

“The service itself?” Eggsy asks. “The Archbishop – ”

“Oh dear,” Merlin mutters.

Harry looks briefly caught out. Then, with a rueful sigh, he explains. “Tristan is the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

“The Archbishop of Canterbury is named Moore,” Eggsy objects.

Harry clears his throat uncomfortably. “Yes, well, Tristan is something of a, a nickname.”

“You appointed her, didn’t you?” Eggsy is straining back through his memories, recalling the turmoil of the world post V-Day, the numerous appointments of his newly-crowned Majesty Henry IX. “As a reward for military service.”

“I did,” Harry admits.

Eggsy takes this in. “I seem to recall you and Roxy mentioning a ‘Morgana’ earlier.”

Merlin audibly groans. “Harry, ye didn’t,” he hisses.

“I’m afraid that one’s my fault,” Roxy says shamefacedly.

“And though I once thought your name of Merlin a mere conceit of your parents’,” Eggsy pursues this train of thought, speaking to Harry’s equerry, “I now begin to wonder if it’s your actual name.”

“Not the name I was born with, nay,” Merlin admits. “Though, seeing as how that name had more than a few crimes attached to it, ye’ll understand if I’ve left it far behind.”

Eggsy looks at Percival Morton, eloquently. Who laughs. “Percival actually is my name,” the Earl tells Eggsy. “I tell Harry often that that’s the only reason he recruited me. He had to, er, round out the table.”

James groans.

Eggsy looks back to Harry. “Dare I ask?” he asks resignedly.

“It’s not what you’re thinking,” Harry protests.

“Tell me you weren’t Arthur.”

“I wasn’t Arthur!”

“He wasn’t,” Percival says. “He was Galahad.”

“He’s certainly Arthur now,” Roxy says.

Eggsy looks at her – he begins to feel as if his head has been placed on a swivel, with the way his neck is constantly moving around. “Roxy – ”

“Come now,” Harry protests, futilely. “Surely you don’t think – ”

“After she knew the tale of Morgana, the lady barrister and soldier?” Eggsy raises an eloquent eyebrow. “I most certainly do think.”

Roxy bows. “Lancelot, at your service.” And she laughs at Harry. “You really ought to have just told him all at once. We’re going to start calling him Guinevere, you know.”

“James?” Eggsy asks, in his best et-tu manner.

James holds up both his hands in a gesture of surrender. “No, I was not secretly off fighting a war with them. Heaven forfend.” He grins. “Though they have started calling me Blanchefleur.”

It takes Eggsy an extra moment to sort back through his knowledge of the classics, before the reference slots home. “Beloved of Percival,” he says, nodding resignedly. “But Harry – ” turning to his mate. “Why the secrecy? I understood that you didn’t want to talk about your time as a soldier, but a nickname is nothing to be ashamed of.”

There’s a rustle around the room. People shifting their weight, looking away.

“Is there?” Eggsy asks hesitantly.

“No!” Harry says, too quickly. Then, catching himself, says “No,” again, more calmly. “Not to be ashamed of. Never that.”

The nods around the room, the straightening of postures, reinforce that more than Harry’s quick denial. “Then what?” Eggsy asks.

“An advantage,” Harry says simply. “Becoming King wasn’t easy for me. I have enemies – many more than I have allies.”

“Just say it,” Merlin says bluntly. To Eggsy: “There have been attempts on his life.”

Eggsy gasps.

“And there may have already been attempts on yours,” Roxy says. “Or have you forgotten your horse that shied at a leaf that wasn’t there?”

“That could have been an accident,” Eggsy says faintly.

“It wasn’t,” Roxy says. “Bors agrees.”

Bors. The steward of Harry’s Cornish estates. Also, incidentally, a knight of the Round Table.

Eggsy covers his face and groans. He can’t believe he hasn’t put it together before now. Half of them aren’t even trying – Merlin, Bors, Percival – well, Percival at least cannot help it, Eggsy supposes. But now that he sees the pattern, he feels an utter fool. Even Roxy’s shrewd tactical advice should have marked her out for Eggsy before now as a member of this secret cabal.

“My former military history is widely known, but the identities of my associates are not,” Harry says. “By concealing their identities and keeping them close to me in a variety of other guises, I could possess an extra layer of protection.”

“Especially if we’re easily overlooked,” Roxy says smugly.

Eggsy nods slowly.

“Do you understand?” Harry asks, sounding oddly vulnerable.

“Mostly,” Eggsy says slowly. “But – Arthurian legend, Harry? Really?”

The others present dissolve into laughter. Harry looks betrayed. “I have a fondness for the classics!” he protests, to no avail.

Eggsy manages to laugh a trifle, too, though he sobers quickly. “I will have more questions… later, I think,” he decides. “After the coronation, perhaps.”

“Aye, that’s sensible enough,” Merlin approves. “Plenty to be done between now and then without raking up the past.”

“Besides,” Percival says darkly. “After the crown’s on your head, and there’s no other way to take it from you, that’s when it’s time to watch your back.”

The laughter dies rapidly from the room. James smacks his husband on the arm. “Unnecessary,” he says.

“But true,” Roxy says. “Which is why I’ll continue to be sticking to you like glue, your High – your Majesty.

“Yes.” Eggsy swallows. “Yes, I think that’s wise.”

“Eggsy,” Harry says, turning Eggsy to face him and taking them both a step away from the others. “There is still time – that is, I wouldn’t want you to feel obligated – ”

“Harry, no,” Eggsy says firmly. “I want to be your wife. Very well, that involves a crown. So be it.”

“And all the danger that comes with it?”

“And all the danger that comes with it.”

“Hear hear!” James cries, demonstrating that Harry had not moved them nearly far enough away, nor dropped his voice far enough, to avoid being overturned. And Percival follows his wife’s lead, crying: “Vivat! Vivat Regina!

Then, out of the quiet that follows this acclamation, Merlin starts to sing. “God save our gracious Queen…”

Percival takes it up at once, and James and Roxy join in right away. Eggsy feels something wet pricking at his eyes and takes a step back. It’s all wrong, anyway. Eggsy isn’t to be Queen Regnant; the song doesn’t properly apply. He opens his mouth to stop them, to tell them they’ve got it wrong. But Harry is putting his arm around Eggsy’s waist, and joining in the singing, too.

They stop at the end of the first verse, at least, though that may be because Eggsy is crying almost too hard to hear them. There’s a shuffle of feet as the others leave the room. Harry guides Eggsy down to the chaise again and sits with him, half-holding Eggsy in his lap, soothing him.

“It’s all right,” Harry is murmuring. “It’s all right.”

“I know it is,” Eggsy tries to tell him. “I’m not – please, I’m not sad, I just…”

“Overwhelmed?” Harry suggests.

Eggsy tries to smile. “Something like that.” He thinks. “Possibly also breeding.”

Definitely breeding,” Harry points out.

That makes Eggsy laugh, though he’s still dashing moisture from his eyes. “They’re so loyal to you,” he says wonderingly.

“What makes you say that?” And Harry sounds genuinely curious, as if he doesn’t know, as if he can’t see.

“They’re so loyal to you they’re loyal to me,” Eggsy says. “Not to say I’m not worthy of loyalty in my own right – ”

“You are,” Harry insists.

Eggsy smiles at him. “Yes, but they haven’t had a chance to learn that, saving maybe Roxy. Percival? Merlin? Even James – all of the loyalty they feel towards me, it’s because of you. Because you have chosen me as your Queen, your – ” Eggsy laughs. “Your Guinevere,” he teases, because they are definitely going to be calling him that going forward. “The measure of their loyalty towards me is the measure of their loyalty towards you. And if you can’t see the latter, you can see the former, and judge the one by the other.”

There’s a long silence. Long enough for Eggsy to dry his eyes, finally, and pull just enough back from Harry’s embrace to crane his neck upwards and see his husband’s expression.

Shocked. Wondering. Glad.

“Thank you,” Harry says at last. “I can’t tell you… thank you.”

You need me, Eggsy thinks. The rest of the world will see Eggsy as the lady who became Queen, the one gaining all the benefits from this arrangement. Let them. Eggsy can see: everything Harry does for Eggsy – loving him, uplifting him, supporting and comforting him – all of those things Eggsy does for Harry as well. They need each other. They love each other.

“Two days?” Eggsy asks, thinking of the crown of Mary of Modena this time not with trepidation but with a promise.

“Two days,” Harry agrees.

“Then let us to it,” Eggsy says, rising. “I’m sure there is still much to be done.”

Chapter Text

The sun is brilliant as Harry emerges from the carriage and turns to assist Eggsy down. The bulk of St. Peter’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey, rises behind them. The street itself is lined with carriages, though they’re empty: everyone else attending will have arrived already, of course. It does not do to arrive after the monarch.

Harry wonders, as he has wondered several times over the past two days, whether any of the nobles within have guessed the true purpose of this mass. They have been careful with their information, hardly needing to go outside their own confederacy, but still things have a way of leaking out. Not all servants are as trustworthy as Morgana, and some of them listen at doors.

Eggsy steps out of the carriage, calm and cool. As Harry’s worry has increased over the past two days, Eggsy’s has seemed to decrease. His smile to Harry is as regal as his bearing.

Both of them are dressed with carefully chosen formality. Harry is wearing the same ensemble he’d worn to his own coronation, which will doubtless confirm any suspicions anyone may have. He is naturally wearing his own crown. Eggsy is bare-headed, according to tradition. But his clothes make up for this self-denial. Once again he wears green, for fertility, and they had labored assiduously for the past forty-eight hours – even Eggsy taking up needle and thread – to sew an extra layer of padding into the garment, to give Eggsy the gently rounded curve of belly that will remind every onlooker that he carries the heir to the throne.

“Ready, my dear?” Harry asks. It’s mostly for form’s sake; Harry’s own conscience demands he offer Eggsy one final chance to escape. Eggsy’s bearing is an answer all on its own. But Eggsy gives him another, shaking his head gently, and settling his hand on Harry’s arm in readiness.

“Then let it be done.” Harry escorts Eggsy up the stairs. The doors open as they approach, several young acolytes having clearly been on watch for them. The voluntary begins exactly as the two of them cross the threshold. Harry wonders idly how many of the attendees will recognize the tune.

Everyone else in the church rises, of course. Eggsy doesn’t turn his head an iota. He fixes his gaze seemingly on the frescoed image of Mary, the baby Jesus in her arms, and floats serenely down the main aisle on Harry’s arm. Harry is not quite so austere. He lets his gaze sweep from side to side, though he keeps his head straight. It’s a good turnout. Most of those who would be invited to an avowed coronation are present. A small handful of families have retreated to their country estates for the winter already, and then there are those landowners and officials whose duties do not usually keep them in London, and who would not see the need to travel for a mere mass of celebration – assuming they’d even learned of such a mass’ existence at all. There’s a reason an event like this usually has several months’ lead time. But today’s events are not about popularity. They are about publicity, and for that, the assembled crowd will do very well.

Whoever is playing the organ today has been well drilled. The music swells to a crescendo as Harry and Eggsy ascend the few steps at the end of the aisle, and comes to a dramatic conclusion as Harry hands Eggsy into his seat and takes his own.

The Archbishop of Canterbury bounds at once back to her feet. Amelia Moore – who had been called Tristan, a lifetime ago – had always been intended by her family for the clergy. She had been a curate already, waiting for a family living to become available, when the last war had broken out. Taking ship with his troop from Dover, Harry had sworn he could still hear Earl Aberlundy’s shouts, cursing Tristan for abandoning her duty to her family in favor of chasing after glory like the hounds her family had bred.

That had been the least of the unfair charges Aberlundy had laid at his child’s feet. Tristan had been the coolest head of any of them. Glory and lucre alike had been matters of indifference to her. And she had never looked twice at an Omega – though, like Merlin, that had not been for the reasons most of Society would have assumed.

In the end it hadn’t mattered. Earl Aberlundy had died during their time in Egypt. When Tristan had returned home, it had been to a vacant living and an older sibling firmly established in title and lands. When Harry had come to the throne, it had been his genuine pleasure to give Tristan the preferment to the episcopate. Further proof, as if Harry needed it, that loyalty was the truest coin in this life.

“My siblings in Christ,” Tristan says, beaming impartially over the congregation, “let us pray.”

The mass is conducted unexceptionally for its first half. Hymns are sung, prayers are said. Verses are read, one of those by Countess Rowley herself – Michelle Unwin, Eggsy’s mother. She is being escorted here today by a recent arrival to London, one Baron Dunwell, who has made himself desirable to the widow during the past few days. Gossip labels him a status-hunter, come from the woodwork of a minor estate and a brief military career to quest for favor by courting the mother of the presumed Queen. He will not be the last to be accused of such. In his case, the accusation is false. Bedivere positions himself guard to Countess Rowley at Eggsy’s – Guinevere’s – request.

And that, Harry thinks, is part of the secret of Eggsy’s late serenity. The harsh truth of the matter is that a consort, even a Queen Consort, has very little real power – and a wife essentially none, except that granted to them by their husband. Harry has never been (nor intends to become) stingy on that topic, but Harry knows that the role of carrier-consort had been difficult for Eggsy to adapt to, not in its aspect of future mother but in its aspect of ornament. Eggsy is not meant to be merely decorative. Harry had known that from the start – since that very first night spent talking by the fountain, when Eggsy had shown the sharpness of his mind and the broadness of his interests. Harry had found that attractive. The world, if Eggsy’s oblique references to his time as a belle in Society, had been less approving.

But as Guinevere, Eggsy had said, “I’m worried about my mother during the coronation. She has no other family to attend with – she will be alone. If the King faction makes a move…”

And immediately Percival had said, “Yes, of course – what would you have us do?”

That had been a revelation for Eggsy. To be a member of this company is to be an equal, regardless of rank. Lancelot and Morgana have turned over every rock and shaken every Alpha until there is nothing left but camaraderie. Even James has done his part to smooth Eggsy’s path, by establishing that one need not have served in the army to be part of their company. When Guinevere speaks, he is taken seriously. And the result of that is that Bedivere had been called even more hastily to London, and tasked to exert all his charm to ensure he remains at the side of Eggsy’s mother during this dangerous time.

Michelle knows nothing of these maneuverings. She glows with maternal love and gratified pride both, and seems to think it only natural that a handsome Alpha – and Bedivere had always been comely – should wish to be by her side. When she rises to read, she nearly bursts with gratified vanity. Her verses are from Proverbs, and have not been chosen by accident.

“A virtuous Omega who can find?” she reads. “Their price is beyond that of rubies.” Though the spiteful among the ton say that she’d come of age with a Cockney lilt, here and now Lady Rowley’s accent is pure as the gold of Eggsy’s crown to be. And she is positively angelic now as she recites the virtues of a noble wife – virtues Eggsy conspicuously embodies, in Harry’s estimation – while the assembled nobility of Great Britain stare, perforce, at the magnificent jewels Eggsy is wearing. The rubies Harry had gifted him, complemented with their missing piece: the necklace Eggsy had commissioned, the day they’d returned to London from their Cornish sojourn. A baby-gift, seen now in public for the first time. The correlation between Eggsy’s magnificent rubies and the verses Michelle is reading is inescapable.

“Their children arise up and call them blessed,” Michelle finishes sweetly, as Charles Hesketh shifts angrily in his seat, “and their husband also, and praises them.” She pauses. “The word of the Lord.”

“Thanks be to God,” the congregation choruses. Chester King, Harry notices, barely moves his lips. He swiftly conceals a smile.

But now the service, usually so familiar and so evenly-paced, seems suddenly to speed up. The readings finish in good time, and there’s very little left now between them and the main event. Harry, who has been sleepwalking through Anglican services since he’d been old enough to sit up unassisted, nearly stumbles over the words of the Nicene Creed, knowing as he does what’s about to happen the minute they get to the end of it.

Get to the end of it they do. “And the life of the world to come,” Tristan intones. “Amen.”

There’s a rustle among the congregation, all as well-trained as Harry, waiting for Tristan to move smoothly onto through the service. It’s nearly time for the collection to be taken, and many of those present are probably anticipating that event: they must expect that their gifts will be tallied and tracked, as being in honor of the babe, and will have calibrated them based on the honor they wish to give. Chester and his ilk, if nothing else has tipped them off to the true purpose of the ceremony, will have weighed their coin carefully to avoid offense and legitimacy likewise. Others will have readied more significant largesse. All of the offerings will be inadequate to the coronation of a new Queen Consort. Eggsy has already promised, laughing as he did so, not to hold this against anyone.

The silence stretches. The shifting of feet and adjusting of dress takes on an uncomfortable air. Tristan stands at her ease, hands decorously folded, letting the tension grow. This is by design. If they bulled straight into it, they could be halfway through the investiture before anyone grasped what they were seeing, and Harry had initially argued for doing exactly that. Roxy had backed him.

“This is a sprint, not a marathon,” she’d argued. “Get the crown on Eggsy’s head, and then – ”    

“And then Chester will lop it back off again!” Percival had shot back, only realizing what he’d said when Eggsy had flinched and Harry had growled. “All right, I’m sorry,” he’d apologized, “but I’m also right. What you need isn’t the crown itself, you need the – the establishment. You need to make Eggsy’s position seem like an immutable fact of life, not worth resisting. You don’t accomplish that by sneaking it by!”

Percival had been right, as little as Harry had liked it at the time. He’d argued still, though. Merlin had finally snapped.

“If what ye want is for ye to both be safe, then abdicate,” Merlin had said. “Ye can live quite happily and peacefully so long as ye haven’t got anything anyone else wants.”

“No,” Eggsy had said firmly.

Harry had turned to him. “No?”

“You have a duty to the country,” Eggsy had told him. Laying a hand on his belly, he’d gone on: “So do I, now.” And looking Harry right in the eye, asked, “Could you really live with yourself if you shirked it?”

That had been the end of that idea. So now the silence stretches, the congregation standing, awkward, waiting for the signal to allow them to sit. It doesn’t come. Instead, at a subtle nod from Tristan, James steps out from his seat near the front and proceeds down the aisle. Eggsy takes one step forward as well.

Now there’s the faintest murmur in the crowd – scandalous, ill-mannered, but hardly to be avoided. It mostly comes from the back. Those in the front are still held in the grasp of training and propriety. James reaches Eggsy and solemnly shakes out the bundle of cloth he holds – a simple white gown, loose. Eggsy bows his head, and James drapes it ceremonially over Eggsy’s rich clothing.

Meanwhile Tristan has not been still. She has stepped back to the altar, and now approaches the tableau, holding ampulla and spoon. Harry holds his breath and casts his gaze out over the crowd. If anyone present doesn’t realize now what is about to happen, they’re fools.

If there are fools present, none of them are apparent to Harry’s eye. He sees a variety of reactions, yes, but none of them are ignorance. The majority are some form of astonishment and a kind of garden-variety offense that has nothing to do with Eggsy qua Eggsy and everything to do with their own senses of outraged dignity. A coronation sprung on the nation without so much as an announcement beforehand? Themselves lured here under false pretenses – not nearly dressed for the occasion – no proper gift – no warning – no change to politick and maneuver for position – no opportunity to assert traditional privileges! Yes, they are offended – and Harry cares not at all. There will be opportunity to soothe that kind of offense later. It will respond to the usual flattering and favors, and soon enough the offense will pass away and be felt no more.

The kind of offense that worries Harry is in the reddening faces, the darting of eyes, and the clearing of throats. Chester King is nearly purple. Lady Huntington looks to be on the point of fainting. And Charles Hesketh’s face is a most unbecoming mask of fury. He is leaning forward in his seat, hissing something at his uncles King and Cavendish. The latter look to be on the point of shouting back. That concerns Harry less than the base cunning Harry sees dawning on Lord King’s face.

Any immediate action is checked by Tristan’s voice, reciting. Harry returns his attention briefly to the scene. Eggsy is kneeling, being prayed over and anointed with the holy oil. Then James helps him up and removes the white gown. Harry steps forward hastily, not wishing to miss his own cue, and helps Eggsy back to his seat.

There’s another pause. Is that it? the assembled nobles seem to ask themselves. An anointing only? The swirling knot of anger centered around the pews shared by the Earls of Cavendish and Huntington cools momentarily. An anointing only, they would stand…

James returns to his seat, his role in the ceremony over. Percival steps out. There’s a moment where the church holds its breath, waiting for Earl Morton to hand his wife back into their pew. Morton does so. But he does not step back in himself. Instead he holds out his hands, and into them James deposits a bundle wrapped in cloth of gold. Percival turns and begins his own walk down the aisle. As he does, he undoes the bundle. As the cloth whisks away, falling to lie in a heap on the side of the aisle runner, the crown of Mary of Modena is revealed before the crowd. There is first a gasp and then a sigh. So, Harry can almost see people thinking. A coronation indeed.

Some faces register relief. Harry could have named them in advance – those who have worried over the delay in getting an heir, concerned for country before anything else, who see conception and coronation alike as the beginning of a new era of calm and stability. The wider mass, who had before been offended, are now mainly resigned. The cleverer among them will have realized that, having chosen to crown Eggsy in such a manner, the monarchs can hardly take offense at this baron’s having left off their coronet or that duke’s being garbed in Parliament robe instead of State.

Harry keeps his focus on the Cavendish and Huntington pews. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Percival reach the front of the aisle, bow, and present the crown to Tristan. Tristan takes it solemnly, blessing Percival as she had earlier blessed James. Then Tristan turns back towards Eggsy, and that’s when it happens.

The movement comes out of the back of the church. Harry has lost that bet, then. He’d thought none of Cavendish or King or Huntington could have gotten a plant into the audience that far in advance. He’d expected – or perhaps he’d hoped – that a member of their own immediate party would have been the one to make the move, and that Harry could then have painted the families as collaborators.

A figure breaks out of the crowd, all but tumbling into the aisle as they trip over the various limbs of startled attendees. The figure wears the formal dress of a baronet, though their face is unfamiliar to Harry, and Harry would bet that the baronet to whom the crest they wear belongs is, in fact, secure upon their own estates, and will be utterly bewildered to find that their estate has been used in such a way. The figure stumbles back to their feet, and from their robes pulls out a pistol.

A shot is fired.

Harry only sighs. The church, of course, erupts in screams.

Chester King is staring straight ahead. He’s looking to see if the shot has hit its mark, of course. Expecting to see a crimson stain spread over Eggsy’s leaf-green gown at any moment. Or perhaps for his head to burst open, or for him to spin about before collapsing in a heap. Or perhaps for Tristan to be injured in Eggsy’s stead – they’re standing fairly close together, and accuracy on such a shot being what it is, that’s not out of the question – which would certainly delay the ceremony, if nothing else. Or even, failing that, for Harry himself to be hit. Who was it that had observed, accurately, that the families cared little which king Charlie Hesketh married…?

None of those things happen, of course. Harry is one of the only ones facing in the correct direction to see the real effect of the fired shot. The would-be assassin topples over forward, their back a wide, bloody mess. Bors, from his seat in the back row – attending, of course, as Steward of Tintagel – has already handed the empty pistol off to Morgana. Her sober, respectable clothing marks her today as a lady of minor consequence. Her calm countenance doesn’t waver as she rapidly reloads the weapon and returns it to Bors.

Someone else sees the body now. They point and screech. Slowly the congregation turns. Chester sees what has become of his would-be assassin and gnashes his teeth furiously.

“What an unseemly interruption,” Eggsy says. His voice is pitched to carry, and the building is designed to help him. The cool indifference in this tone is audible, Harry imagines, all the way to the back rows.

Tristan turns and gestures. Several acolytes spill into the aisle, looking fearfully at the body and then at their erstwhile master.

“Remove that at once,” Tristan says. Then he turns his back to it. “Forgive the interruption, your Majesty.”

“Most gauche,” Eggsy says. “Pay it no further mind, my good Archbishop. Proceed with the ceremony.”

Eggsy speaks as one born to the crown. The crowd, under Harry’s watchful eye, seems largely torn between mild disapproval and the beginnings of awe. Mild disapproval, that Eggsy speaks with such authority before the crown is properly on his head, and in the presence of his King and husband, who might rightly be said to have precedence. Not that Harry is affronted; indeed, he relaxes deliberately in his chair, and bestows a supportive smile upon his wife. And as the mild disapproval wanes among the crowd it leaves more room for that second feeling. Awe, that Eggsy is so little ruffled by the attempt on his life. That he dismisses it merely as ‘gauche’.

The eyes of those here assembled turn to Harry, who meets every gaze he can with calm equanimity – especially those of the Huntington and Cavendish families. I’d say ‘nice try’, but it wasn’t really, was it? It was crude. Barely more than spontaneous. Unworthy, even. And we both know it.

Just as we both know you’ll be trying again.

The bullet that can be seen coming is no threat at all. No one in their company had doubted stationing Bors and Morgana at the back of the church. No more than anyone had questioned Bedivere arranging to sit at the side of Eggsy’s mother, in case their enemies had chosen a softer-seeming target. The gentlemen’s wager they’d engaged in had only been on the topic of who would attempt to murder Eggsy mid-ceremony, not that the attempt would be made. Of that they had all been certain.

Foiling this attempt had been easy. Foiling the next will be more difficult. Next time they will know much less about how their enemy will choose to strike.

But today, Tristan holds the crown above Eggsy’s head. “God crown you with a crown of glory and righteousness…”

For a moment, Harry blinks, and time rewinds itself. He’s seated on the Coronation Chair, holding scepter and orb. St. Edward’s Crown hovers over his own head. He remembers looking up at the Archbishop’s face – a stranger; Tristan had not yet been made Canterbury, and so the service had been officiated by the Archbishop of York. York had been stern and unsmiling, laying stress in all his prayers on words like duty and servant.

Harry had not had the gift, as Eggsy does, of having a simple ceremony. His had been laden about with panoply. Everything from the hymns to the dress to the exact color of the anointing canopy had been specified by centuries of tradition. And there had been so much more of everything. More prayers. More antiphons. The entire parade of homage, God help him.

And the noise, the riot of colors, the marching of the Knights of the Garter – Harry had not been able to rid himself of the feeling of being on a battlefield. His thoughts had chased in circles, speaking battle plans to him against his will: if he stabbed that acolyte, and kicked that knight’s legs out from under him, and dodged around the Archbishop back behind the assembled choir, he might yet escape…

If only he could have told that past-Harry what had awaited him. The crown has been no prize. But Eggsy – Eggsy is worth even a kingdom.

Tristan places the crown on Eggsy’s head, steps back, and bows. And though the formula is not appropriate to the crowning of a mere Queen Consort, Harry finds himself repeating it in his mind, as it had been said to him when he’d risen from the Coronation Chair to be seated for the first time on his throne – stand firm, and hold fast from henceforth.

Harry steps forward. Takes Eggsy’s hand and places it on his arm. Eggsy, not accidentally, rests his free hand upon the padding that gives his belly a gentle swell. Then Harry turns them both, showing them to the assembled nobility of England: King and Queen Consort, crowned, united, and with the future of their nation already created between them.

Gloria!” the choir cries, bursting into song with the well-timed sweep of a baton. Their voices drown out the rustle of cloth as every knee in the audience bends. “Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Chapter Text

“We must hold a reception,” James says.

“At once,” Roxy agrees.

“We must prepare to hold the reception at once,” James corrects. “The reception itself should not be held much before Christmas.”

“What purpose is this reception to serve?” Eggsy asks, fascinated. He’s lying reclined on a chaise in the drawing room, where they all – gentlemen as well as ladies – have retired after their late supper. No one had seen the need to linger over port, not when there were matters still to be discussed, and waning energy even from the hardiest of them.

“We’re not twenty and on a mission anymore,” Harry had said ruefully, herding the gentlemen out after the ladies. He’d insisted that Bors take coffee instead of tea, apparently a rarity for him, and that Merlin sit rather than standing at his customary ease against the nearest wall. Percival conceals his yawns behind his mouth; James does not bother with even that polite façade. And Eggsy himself is utterly exhausted. At least I can blame the babe for sapping my energy. Only Sally, pouring the tea in lieu of the usual servant, seems energetic. Well, she’s stayed back at the palace all day, of course.

James answers Eggsy: “All the purposes your coronation couldn’t.” He begins to tick off on his fingers. “Everyone who should have been at the ceremony will come to this reception. They’ll have the chance to offer you support – should they wish to – ” Percival snorts, and James acknowledges his husband with a wry smile. “To give gifts, and see and be seen.”

“It will go a long way towards smoothing any ruffled feathers,” Harry says.

“Aye,” Merlin agrees. “It’s a mistake to focus so much on yer enemies that ye neglect your allies. Most of the nobility have no real objection to yer Majesty – ” bowing to Eggsy, still seated, a feat he makes look easy. Eggsy sighs with toothless envy. “But they’ll flare up fast enough if they feel their precedence is threatened.”

“And that’s just what this surprise coronation may have done,” Roxy agrees. “They’ll feel deprived of their traditional rights. They ought to have gotten dressed and sang coronation hymns and I know not what else. Give them their chance, and they’ll stand behind you readily enough.”

“Deny it to them…” Percival trails off, declining to finish the sentence.

“I have no objection to holding a reception,” Eggsy protests. “I simply wished to understand.”

“Then we must announce it at once, and prepare for it as publicly and lavishly as we can,” Roxy says.

“Will you lead the effort?” James asks. “I’ll assist as I may, but it ought to come from within the palace.” He casts the other ladies in the room a meaningful glance, and Eggsy, with a quick mind to the calendar, adds up what James doesn’t say: he’s expecting a heat of his own in the next few weeks. After a year of failing to produce an heir for Harry, James is even more worried about his ability to conceive than Eggsy had been. He’s been unselfishly setting his own concerns aside in order to help Eggsy, but he deserves this chance to pursue his own dreams. Eggsy looks to Roxy.

“Yes, of course,” Roxy says cheerfully.

“I’ll help as well,” Eggsy says, just in case Roxy hasn’t noted the date on her own. Sally, pouring a cup of tea, meets Roxy’s gaze significantly. Eggsy grins. “All right, all right, I know it’s an old saw about noblewomen, but I don’t intend to dump all the work on my servants.” Though of course Eggsy’s lady’s-maid will be involved. Eggsy suspects there’s little that goes on in Eggsy’s household that Sally is not involved in; she seems to be Roxy’s right had as much as Roxy is Eggsy’s or Merlin is Harry’s.

“Of course, your Majesty,” Sally says demurely. Which, since Eggsy has long since instructed her to call him by his Christian name, is pure cheekiness. Eggsy sighs contentedly. And to think he’d once been worried that stuffy palace life could never be comfortable for him.

Harry looks over, seems to take the sigh for a yawn, and stands. Perforce, the others stand as well. Except Eggsy. There are privileges to being Queen. “I think we’ve all done more than enough today,” he announces. “We had best retire.”

Eggsy would roll his eyes and make a comment about overprotective gentlemen, but then he really does yawn, and has to admit defeat. He’s tired. They’re all tired.

“Invitations tomorrow?” Roxy asks Eggsy and James.

“Yes, I’ll come over in the afternoon,” James says. Percival begins steering his wife out the door. Roxy follows, talking about square-cornered versus scalloped and Eggsy knows not what. He frowns. He’ll have to talk with Roxy about going easy on James.

“Never you fear, your Majesty,” Sally says in his ear, from all outward appearances busily gathering up the tea-things. “Lady Carlyle hasn’t forgotten, and she’ll give Countess Morton all the space he needs when he needs it. Up until then he’s fair game.”

“Hadn’t James better rest, or spend time with his mate?” Eggsy twists around to keep Sally in view, difficult with the way she’s bustling.

“And work himself into a tizzy with his doubts and fears?” Sally raises an eyebrow. “We didn’t let you do that neither.”

Eggsy recalls the dancing-lessons before his coronation and the hostess duties before his last heat. “Carry on, then,” he consents.

Harry comes back into the room, having shooed out the rest of their guests in the meanwhile. He joins Eggsy by the couch and holds out a hand invitingly. “Shall I help you up?”

Eggsy takes his hand and makes an effort to rise. His limbs feel like lead. “Pity you can’t carry me,” he says with a grimace.

He just has time to see Sally duck her head to hide a grin before warm, strong hands suddenly slide themselves around Eggsy’s shoulder and waist, and the room goes spinning as Eggsy is hoisted up. He stares at Harry in astonishment. Harry, by contrast, is practically preening. “I’m not quite so ancient as that, my dear.”

“Ancient?” Eggsy is startled into a laugh. “Now, I’ve never said nor thought that. A torment of your own making, Harry?”

“Perhaps so,” Harry admits ruefully. “I am twice your age, my dear.”

“Bah,” Eggsy says succinctly, throwing his arms around Harry’s neck. “Just for that, I shall make you carry me all the way to my chamber.”

“I am punished,” Harry announces dramatically – to the now-empty room, Sally having discreetly exited via the servants’ door. Harry looks a trifle put out at being without an audience for his strength and virility. Then Eggsy kisses him, and Harry visibly reappraises his opinion of empty rooms.

“Chambers,” Eggsy admonishes, pulling back before Harry can re-deposit him on the chaise and begin to investigate the necessity of such items as clothes.

“Bah,” Harry says, throwing Eggsy’s own words back at him. But he checks his motion to put Eggsy back down, and instead hefts Eggsy into a comfortable carry-position. The closed door provides an unexpected check, and he looks around. “Surely there must be – ”

The door opens from the hallway side. Sally bobs a decorous curtsey. “Will there be anything else, your Majesties?”

Eggsy leans his head against Harry’s shoulder and laughs soundlessly. “No,” Harry says, sounding vaguely disgruntled, “There will not. Good evening to you.”

“Good evening, your Majesties.”

“Good servants are worth their weight in gold,” Eggsy reminds his husband as they ascend the main staircase. “Lest you be plotting to give Sally references.”

“References?” For some reason that makes Harry laugh. “No indeed. I think the palace would quite fall apart without her.”

“I agree with you.” The housekeeper, in particular, would be sure to quit on the spot. Some housekeepers would resent an active servant like Sally, and be pleased to call her attention to detail ‘sticking her nose where she isn’t wanted’. Harry’s household seems to be run on quite a different model. Everyone from gentleman-servants like Merlin and Roxy to ladies’-maids like Sally, to the lowest chamber-maid, goes where they’re needed and does what needs to be done, without much regard for the traditional divisions of labor between house and butler and kitchen.

“Just as it would fall apart without you,” Harry murmurs. They’re moving down the corridor now, towards the part of the palace that houses the royal apartments. Harry walks freely and easily. Eggsy feels weightless in his arms, as if the burdens they both carry have been left behind somewhere along the way.

“And you,” Eggsy tells him. “You really are an excellent King, Harry.”

“Though I have not always been the best husband to you.” They reach the door to the King’s suite; it has been left standing ajar, and the candles all lit. Harry nudges the door closed behind them and carries Eggsy over to the bed. “Perhaps tonight can be a time for us to make all new again. After all.” He lays Eggsy down tenderly, but his grin is positively wicked. “I’ve never made love to a Queen before.”

A thrill runs down Eggsy’s spine at the very thought. “I’ve never made love as a Queen before.”

“Well then.” Harry loosens his neckcloth. “Shall we, my darling?”

After Eggsy’s coronation, life settles down for a while. Roxy calls it the calm before the storm, but Eggsy makes up his mind to worry about tomorrow when he must, and enjoys each today as it comes. Parliament – or at least the Lords – are out of session again, probably to remain that way at the mutual, silent agreement of both Crown and Chester King. King and his faction won’t wish to move until they see a clear path ahead of themselves. Harry appears contented to let them. The Commons continue to meet, as is their wont, but no one pays them much mind. They are by and large united in favor of their new Queen – or rather a new Queen.

“For it’s not you yourself they like, you understand,” Roxy says, continuing her self-imposed duty of teaching Eggsy everything a noblewoman’s education had not comprised but a Queen’s ought to include, beginning, naturally, with politics. “They like stability. It’s good for business. And they like the throne; they like Harry on the throne. Having a Queen settled and an heir produced is all to the good.”

“Even though it brought the Commonwealth no new alliances?” The Commons had actually been rather more against the Registry than not; not on any grounds of morality, but because restricting the King to a marriage from within the nobility of Great Britain had closed the door on any number of nations that might otherwise have sought an alliance. The last Prince of Wales, before being stricken by the V-Day virus, had been engaged to Princess Tilde of Sweden. The lady in question had kept both her life and her fertility, and had been quite willing to keep her engagement likewise, to the new Henry IX. There had been a vocal faction in the Commons who had argued that England ought to take the bargain.

“A strong ally is a gift,” Roxy says thoughtfully, “but a weak ally is a hindrance. Who’s to say which kind of ally Sweden, or any other country, would have been? They may have drained our resources rather than pooling their own in. You are a known quantity.” She shrugs slightly, taking up the next in a fearsomely large pile of paper-work – their task for the day, indeed for the week, being the preparation of the menus for the reception.

Eggsy himself is frowning over a stack of correspondence. “Did I not send a purse last week to the Orphans’ Fund?” he asks, turning over a letter entreating the Crown for monies. “I am sure I did.”

“I’ll check the ledgers,” Roxy says, setting the menu aside and rising.

“I wish there were something I could do beside send funds,” Eggsy sighs. V-Day had created a great many orphans, far too many to be absorbed by extended family or found placements in needy trades. Worse, many reach adulthood only to find themselves without a viable path forward in life. Marriage, that traditional path to financial stability, is unavailable to the vast majority of those who find themselves infertile as the result of the virus. “I wonder – did I not hear the housekeeper saying, just last week, that we were having trouble finding housemaids?”

“Aye, and cook is finding it difficult to get scullions,” Roxy says, nodding. “Service in a household like this is often attained through references, and references are hard to come by these days.”

“Perhaps there is a solution here, then.” Eggsy taps the letter.

Roxy says thoughtfully, “After all, I have never heard that either parents or fertility make any difference in how well one scrubs a pot or airs linens.”

“And if we set the fashion, other noble households may follow. For I make no doubt that if we are in difficulty getting servants, they must be even worse.”

“Often they bring servants from their estates when they come to London,” Roxy reminds Eggsy. “But the country may be as hard hit as the town; who’s to say?”

“I shall write to them at once.” Eggsy draws a sheet of paper to him. “How many should I desire them to send?”

“Twenty to begin with,” Roxy says after a moment’s thought. “If half that number are accepted on trial, that will be enough to go on with.”

A peaceful silence falls. Eggsy, nothing loath to spare a few minutes from Roxy’s lessons, takes his time in choosing his words to the manager of the Orphans’ Fund. Roxy herself sets the menus aside with a sigh and takes up some of Eggsy’s letters. Eggsy really ought to employ a secretary, but he hasn’t had time to find one he trusts in both competence and discretion. In the meanwhile, Roxy takes on some of the slack.

“Ah,” she says now, holding up a card. “The Mortons’ next entertainment. Monday next, it seems.”

Eggsy grins. After a moment, Roxy does likewise. It’s been over week since James had begged off a planned afternoon visit and then been discreetly absent from Society for the weekend following. By Monday next, they should be able to learn whatever news there is to learn.

“I do hope we hear good news,” Eggsy says wistfully. He puts a hand on his own belly, thinking of what a gift it would be for them to have a loyal agemate from birth.

“How are you feeling?” Roxy asks.

“Much better, thank you.” The longed-for thirteenth week has finally passed him by, and Eggsy is beginning to be able to eat something other than toast, and to rise sometime before noon. Better yet, his belly is finally starting to swell, though still very gradually. Underneath his clothes nothing can be discerned, unless by a self-deluded eye. But without clothes… Eggsy smiles to himself. Harry has been very attentive of late. Eggsy has heard tell that some Alphas react that way to pregnancy, and it seems Harry is one of them. Eggsy is not objecting.

“Good,” Roxy says in satisfaction. She passes him a stack. “Then we can both look at the menus together.”

Eggsy is almost accustomed, now, to the way the flow of people around a space halts when he enters it. Staying calm and serene in the face of it is a different challenge. When the event is purposely for the Crown – for example, when he’d been crowned – it had been easier. Coming into the Morton townhouse on Harry’s arm and watching the occupants interrupt their conversations to bow or curtsey at the announcement of their presence is not so easy. For a moment Eggsy envies Roxy passionately – she gets to enter the house in their shadow, to be briefly announced and as quickly forgotten.

The host and hostess approach at once, naturally. “You honor our house,” Earl Morton says, most correctly, while James is more free to exclaim, “We’re so glad you’ve joined us!”

Harry offers a most proper reply. Eggsy, at the first opportunity, embraces James and lets himself be whisked away. “You must be parched,” James says. “Come, a glass of madeira is what you need.”

“Yes, please,” Eggsy agrees fervently. “I am so glad to be here – if I must look at another linen tablecloth I think I shall scream.”

“Then you have come to the wrong place,” Roxy says unsympathetically. And indeed, as he accepts the glass James pours for him, Eggsy looks around the well-appointed room and sees that most surfaces are covered with just such cloths.

“At least I need not choose which I like best, or tell the difference between ivory and eggshell,” Eggsy says.

“But is that the worst of your complaints?” James wants to know. “Crushing boredom?”

“Yes, thank God.” There have been no further attempts on Eggsy’s life, nor have there been political difficulties to worry him. “Harry, of course, worries anyway.”

“As does Percival.” James and Eggsy share a wry look. “But tonight isn’t for worries. Only a select group, as you can see – friends all.”

“Yes, and I must make myself agreeable.” Eggsy drinks enough of the madeira to wet his throat, then hands the glass to Roxy with a sigh. “Soonest begun, soonest done. And I trust we shall have time for a cozy chat later.”

“Oh yes,” James promises.

Thank goodness, this isn’t a ball; there is no dancing. It is only to be a comfortable evening-party. As hostess, it is quite within James’ purview to appropriate Eggsy to himself and circulate slowly around the room as a pair. They chat first with the Duchess of Waring, then the Countess of Matlock, and a half-dozen other ladies in succession. All of them are staunch supporters of Harry personally as well as the Crown generally. Eggsy is careful to pay them each their due of attention and compliments, and to remember at least three personal details – their children’s names, their interests, their hopes for the next round of debuts and marriages.

Inevitably, they fetch up last at the Duchess of Marlborough. James’ mother is a formidable lady who studies Eggsy thoroughly through her pince-nez. But her curtsey is a masterpiece of grace and elegance, and she gives him a nod, too, as if to say he’ll do.

“Though mind as ye don’t

“Fascinating advice,” Roxy mutters.

“I honor her for giving it,” Eggsy says diplomatically, with an eye towards not offending either the powerful Duchess or, more pragmatically, his friend James,

“It’s as much as she ever did for me,” James tells Eggsy ruefully. “Just please don’t be hard on her.”

Instantly Eggsy is in charity with James. “I shan’t, if you promise not to introduce her to my mother.”

“Oh?” James raises a brow and gestures to a passing servant for more wine. “A difficult taskmaster?”

“Difficult… not precisely. But ambitious. I think she keenly felt how little her title had brought her, and wanted to see me better established.” Eggsy sighs. “And succeeding beyond her wildest dreams has not quenched her ardour.”


The serving-girl arrives with their cups, and James passes them around. Roxy frowns at hers. “I don’t recall seeing that one’s face before,” she says, voice pitched low.

“We have followed his Majesty’s excellent notion, and hired staff from the Orphans’ home.” James toasts Eggsy, smiling.

“And you are sure of them?”

“They serve only,” James says, quietly now. “They do not prepare, neither food nor drink.”

“Could they not slip something in?”

“Roxy, for shame,” Eggsy says. He feels an unaccustomed flicker of anger – perhaps because he knows, though in a different way, what it is to be unfairly judged. “Why should you suspect them over any other domestic?”

“I suspect all.” Despite her words, Roxy takes a sip from her cup. James and Eggsy stare at her, and despite Eggsy’s fine words, he’s caught in the tension of the moment. The clock ticks a full minute round before Roxy nods. Then she hands her glass to Eggsy, and takes Eggsy’s from him.

Eggsy finds his voice in a moment of shock. “Roxy!” he half-cries, remembering only at the last moment to keep his voice down. “What do you think I would do if you took sick?”

“Live,” Roxy says simply. “I took an oath. James, give me yours.”

“You took no oath to me,” James says, face setting in a familiarly stubborn cast. But then a new look crosses his features, and he hands the cup over, though still reluctantly.

Roxy tastes James’, and another minute passes by before Roxy nods and returns him the drink. Her own she sets aside. “I seem to have lost my taste for the beverage,” she says ruefully.

Eggsy suppresses a groan with difficulty. “We will talk about this later,” he hisses.

“If you wish, my Queen,” Roxy says blandly.

“Don’t let’s fight,” James says. “I have something to tell you both.”

Instantly all thoughts of poisoned wine and orphans are forgotten as Eggsy turns to James with delight. “Do you?”

“Yes, I do.” James looks suddenly shy, which is so unlike him that it’s a revelation of itself. “Eggsy, would you be terribly offended if I stole some of the spotlight surrounding the birth of your child?”

“I wish you could,” Eggsy laughs. Well he knows that the moment this child comes into the world, heirs of Earldoms or even Duchies are going to be utterly forgot. “Oh, James, I’m so happy for you!”

“As am I,” Roxy congratulates. “That’s splendid news.”

“It’s early yet,” James cautions, though he’s visibly giddy, eyes sparkling, utterly failing to contain his glee and maintain any kind of a public mask. “Anything might happen. But oh, just to know I can conceive! – you can’t think how frightened I’ve been, to think that perhaps the tests were wrong.”

Eggsy embraces his friend impulsively. “I never had a doubt.”

She did,” James says darkly, pointing with his chin towards the slender figure of the Dowager Countess Morton, holding court across the room. “Even my own mother was worrying over it.”

“Percival would love you just as much if you never bore him an heir,” Roxy says, putting her finger right on the issue.

“Percival would,” James agrees, sighing, “but do you know, I’m not sure I would love me just as much?”

“I felt much the same way,” Eggsy confesses.

“How did you bear it? When I was with Harry it didn’t matter – oh!” James covers his mouth and looks ashamed. “That is to say, of course I did my duty…” he trails off, perhaps realizing that this isn’t the best approach to take to Harry’s current wife and future mate.

“I understand completely,” Eggsy assures James. “As to how I bore it – well, it was easier to believe Harry wouldn’t love me the less when I remembered that I would love Harry none the less.”

“Oh,” James says softly.

“But now your happiness will be enlarged, both of you,” Roxy declares gladly.

Eggsy turns to her, suddenly ashamed. “I am so sorry,” he blurts out. “I never thought – in your own condition – ” for Roxy had suffered from the virus, and would never share in what Eggsy and James are now experiencing.

Roxy laughs merrily, and takes James’ madeira for a drink of her own. “I never wanted children,” she says frankly. “Gasp if you must; I know it’s shocking, but there it is! For me the virus was a blessing. I’m sorry for those it hurt – ” she sobers. “I understand what it’s like to long for what seems forbidden you, though in my case it was adventure, not motherhood. But the virus set me free. Once I was barren, my parents were all too willing to ignore me, and then to cast me off when the right offer happened along.”

Eggsy aches with the urge to hug Roxy, as well. But they’re in public, and the social gulf between them is, unfortunately, too large. “I hope I shall be a better parent than that,” he says instead, since it seems they all bear scars of some sort from their own childhoods. “You must promise to stop me, if I begin down the wrong path.”

“Of course,” Roxy promises.

“And on that topic…” James clears his throat. “Of course it’s presumptuous of us… and I really oughtn’t to say anything, Percival will be talking to the King later… but Eggsy, you won’t say no, will you?”

“To what?” Eggsy blinks.

“Godparenthood, of course,” Roxy says, smiling. “James, you really must begin to say what you mean.” To Eggsy: “I nearly had to trap he and Percival in a closet before James would admit he favored Percival’s suit, you know.”

“No, I didn’t,” Eggsy says, awed. His own memories from that period are all of James and Percival courting, billing and cooing before the entire ton. “Good Lord.”

“But will you?” James asks, sounding almost afraid.

“Of course!”

“The King must agree as well,” Roxy says pragmatically, “but he won’t refuse.”

“Arthur certainly won’t,” James says. “But sometimes the way you all disappear into your past worries me. I don’t recognize his Majesty in the stories Percival tells me of Galahad. And sometimes, the stories I hear of Percival…”

“It’s different out there,” Roxy says, not unkindly. “In a way you’re right. We do become different people. And it’s easier, too, to be those people, than it is to be Lady Carlyle and Earl Morton and Henry IX. Their lives are simpler; their decisions are straightforward. Sometimes going back to that way of thinking is a relief. Like a bath at the end of a long week. But it’s still us, you must know. Underneath.”

“I suppose,” James says doubtfully.

Roxy turns to Eggsy. “Tell him.”

“Actually…” Eggsy hesitates.

“You must have seen it with the King!”

“I’m not sure I have?” Eggsy blows out a long breath, handing off his glass to a passing servant, suddenly uninterested in wine. “I see Harry. And I see Henry IX, the King. So if that’s the same sort of thing as you mean, Roxy, I can say that I understand. And yes, they’re both really the same person, just – different duties. The way that Countess Morton is different than James.”

“Yes, that’s natural enough,” James agrees. “But what of Galahad?”

“Galahad…” Eggsy has to sigh. “I don’t think I’ve ever met him. I see you slipping back and forth, Roxy, and I see Merlin doing it, and even Bors sometimes, when we visit Tintagel. But I’ve never seen Galahad.” He thinks about it further. “I think I’ve seen Arthur,” he says, even more slowly. “Arthur is a King – like Henry. It’s just Harry being Henry, except he’s facing his knights, so he’s Arthur. But Galahad? No.”

“Maybe he simply isn’t Galahad anymore,” James says.

“But he is,” Roxy says, sounding troubled. “We began calling him Arthur for a joke, because he’s King now, but I don’t think that means he’s stopped being Galahad, on some level.”

“I don’t like to think about it much,” Eggsy confesses. “There’s a part of him that I still don’t know. I tried to talk to him about it a few times, but he just wants to let it lie – bury it, even. I even told him about the nightmares my da would have, but all he did was promise me he’d talk to one of you – to Merlin – if he had them; he didn’t want to talk to me.”

“Maybe he wants to protect you,” Roxy says.

Eggsy shakes his head. “I don’t wish to be protected from my mate.”

James nods understanding. “I made Percival tell me all before I accepted him,” he says. “I’d known about his military service – and I knew what it could do to people. So I told him, if he loved me, then before he offered me a ring and a bite, he needed to give me the truth. That was when I learned about Percival – the knight Percival.”

“I understand Harry couldn’t do the same for me,” Eggsy says, “but now, surely…”

Roxy shrugs. James sighs. Neither of them quite have anything to say to that.

The sound of a gong startles them all. “Good Lord, is it supper already?” James looks to the grandfather clock and does not – quite – gasp. “We’ve talked half the night away.”

“At least the bell saves us from rudeness. James – ” Eggsy lays a hand on his friend’s arm, before James can dart away to the resumption of his neglected hostess duties. “I’m sorry to have turned the conversation around into so many knots. What’s important is your expectations and our happiness. I can’t wait to see your child playing with mine.”

“And I,” Roxy says, “intend to spoil both in equal measure.”

“Thank you,” James says, brightening with happiness. “Thank you so much, both of you.”

“My dear, where are you?” That’s Percival Morton, and he’s making his way to their sides.

“Society calls,” Roxy says. “Go on, James. Eggsy – ”

“Yes,” Eggsy agrees. He turns to meet Percival Morton and accept his arm – only when Percival gets close enough, it’s James he offers escort to. “Oh,” Eggsy says in surprise.

“I understand there is a new fashion,” Percival says, smiling.

Harry appears behind him, extending his arm to Eggsy. “I may have told him so,” Harry says, and his voice is pitched to carry.

“And I am most pleased you did,” Eggsy says, following Harry into the same mode.  “A most beautiful evening,” he says to Percival. “I can hardly recall when I’ve had such a pleasant time.”

“I am all delight,” Percival replies in kind. “I hope our poor table can satisfy you.”

“I am sure it shall.”

“Then if we shall?”

Eggsy casts a glance behind at James and is met with a smile and a nod. Eggsy gives the same to Percival Morton, then to Harry, and allows himself to be swept off – to satisfy at least one kind of hunger, if not another.

Though if they’re starting a new fashion…

He and Harry are the leading couple, of course, and never mind that this is the Morton townhouse. They enter the dining-room first. Eggsy flings James a quick look, and James affects to stumble, clutching at Percival’s arm and generally bringing the train to a brief halt.

Harry half-turns to check on the situation. Eggsy all but drags him those last few steps. There in the semi-privacy of the dining room, with only the servants to see and gossip, Eggsy spins on Harry’s arm and crowds into his mate, face turned up, his lips pleading for Harry’s as a flower pleads for the sun. Nor do his pleas go unanswered.

“Why?” Harry whispers, under the sound of James assuring all and sundry that he is quite well, they may continue now.

“Because,” Eggsy says simply. Because he loves Harry. Because Harry loves him. Because Eggsy doesn’t fully understand Harry, even now – but he’ll have a lifetime to discover all there is to know. Because Eggsy wants nothing in the world so much as to do just that.

“Just because?” Harry asks.

Eggsy tucks his hand firmly back under Harry’s arm. The rest of the party enter at last, and see only two respectable royals, waiting for their companions in a mannerly fashion.

“Yes,” Eggsy says, smiling. “Because.”

Chapter Text

“I knew that being Queen would be different than being a mere noblewoman,” Eggsy sighs, “but I had no idea it would involve so much travel.”

“Surely you went back to your estates in the winter, and came to Town for the Season,” Harry says. He’s been permitted into Eggsy’s chambers by special allowance, since Eggsy must pack for their upcoming trip – or supervise the packing, since Roxy and Sally are doing most of the work – and being apart from each other is… difficult, these days.

“Oh, certainly,” Eggsy agrees. “But that’s only two journeys a year, with perhaps another round trip or two, for shopping or a house-party. Meanwhile, we are planning to travel to Cornwall now – then be back to Town for the reception – then back to Cornwall for Christmas – then back again for Parliament’s session in the New Year – then back again, so that I may be confined in the country – ”

“You wished to be confined in the country rather than in Town,” Roxy reminds Eggsy. She’s laying jewels carefully in their cases, though what Eggsy will need diamonds for in Cornwell, Harry can’t think.

“And you don’t need to return to Town with his Majesty for Parliament,” Sally adds, coming out of the closet with her hands full of ribbons. She lays them on the vanity so that Roxy can match jewels against them, and Roxy nods her thanks. “Many ladies remain in the country while their husbands sit.”

“Be apart from Harry?” Eggsy sounds dismayed at the very idea. Harry preens, though only slightly. If Eggsy hadn’t said it, Harry would have said it himself.

Sally smiles knowingly as she disappears back into the closet, intent on laying even more clothes in the enormous trunk. “That’s the babe talking,” she says over her shoulder.

“Not just the babe,” Roxy says, patting her shoulder significantly.

“Also,” Eggsy says, nettled, “I happen to love my husband.”

Harry preens at this, too, though they’re right, both of them. Eggsy’s pregnancy will naturally make him want his Alpha close, and the more gravid he gets, the more he’ll want Harry nearby. And then, too, there’s the mating drive. Eggsy is his, Harry knows it in his bones. But there’s no bite on Eggsy’s shoulder. Only a ceremony. Two ceremonies, if one counts the coronation. And very nice ceremonies they had been; but no substitute for a real, proper bond.

“Of course you do,” Sally says soothingly. The tolerant look she exchanges with Roxy is unfortunately familiar. Just so had Lancelot and Morgana often looked at each other, when the Alphas of their little band had become pettish.

Eggsy slumps down in his comfortable arm-chair. As has become his habit, one hand steals over his belly. Its swell is noticeable now, even beneath the loose waists of his tunics and dresses. Harry loves it. He loves it when Eggsy is decorously clothed, talking to another noble, hand carelessly resting there – oh, did you notice? Why yes, this is Harry’s child. And he loves it even more when Eggsy is nude, or wearing only the clinging, scandalous folds of the French nightclothes Harry has insisted on filling his closet with. Harry has never been one to sleep a whole night through, but his waking periods are very sweet now, with his beautiful Omega tucked under his shoulder, and a growing bump to whisper promises to.

“Soon,” Harry says to Eggsy now, a promise of their own. He longs for a true mating as much as Eggsy does. The only thing standing between them is the same thing that makes their mating possible – their child. While pregnant, Eggsy will not go into heat, of course. But it is only during heat that the mating gland is active. They must wait. A post-birth heat is a common occurrence. They should be able to cement their bond in early April.

It’s no unusual thing, for a mating to follow the birth of a child rather than the other way around. That had likely been the catalyst for the invention of marriage in the first place, in the distant haze of history. Alphas and Omegas had often determined their own compatibility through fertility, even before the V-Day virus had made that a necessity. A ceremony that could take place during pregnancy – when mating must be deferred – had therefore been very useful, historically speaking.

“Soon,” Eggsy says back to him, wistfully.

That night, when the work of packing is laid by for the time being and everyone has gracefully withdrawn, to their chambers or to other duties, Harry lights the candles in his bedchamber and watches the flames turn Eggsy’s skin golden as he bares it to Harry’s eyes. There is scarcely a part of him Harry doesn’t wish to kiss – eyes and lips and throat, chest and groin and that gorgeously swollen belly. Eggsy tangles his fingers in Harry’s hair and urges him downwards.

“Do you want something, darling?” Harry knows exactly what Eggsy wants, but there’s something addictive about the way Eggsy looks when he pleads.

Eggsy whimpers, hips arching. “You, please…”

“What about me?” Perhaps that’s cruel, to continue to pretend. A red flush of arousal is creeping up Eggsy’s throat. His eyes are wide open, but Harry would lay odds Eggsy isn’t actually seeing anything. His chest heaves with the effort of breath.

“Your mouth,” Eggsy whispers.

Harry kisses the nearest part of Eggsy, which happens to be his thigh. “Is that how you wanted my mouth?”

“More, please, Harry…” Eggsy moans, and throws an arm over his face, hiding his embarrassment. “Want your mouth on me, Harry, please.” 

“Oh, darling, never be ashamed of asking for that.” Harry can’t resist coming up to his knees to kiss Eggsy properly, though it makes Eggsy whimper and cry out, thinking Harry is denying him. “No, no,” Harry reassures him. “Of course you shall have what you want. You asked so beautifully.”

Bright eyes peek out from beneath the covering elbow, focusing for this moment on Harry, looming so close. “You make me feel…” Eggsy breathes. Doesn’t finish the thought. Perhaps there is nothing to finish. Perhaps Eggsy simply means to say that Harry makes him feel.

Harry settles himself between Eggsy’s spread thighs, stroking the strong, quivering muscles he finds there. Making Eggsy gasp. Making Eggsy keen.

“Don’t tease,” Eggsy begs. “Please.”

Harry draws Eggsy to him, hands firm on Eggsy’s hips – Eggsy loves to be held, to feel himself even somewhat constrained – and puts his mouth on Eggsy’s hole. He traces the fluttering rim with his tongue, stroking. Coaxing the muscle open to allow him entrance. Eggsy is tight. It’s a marvel to Harry, how the same muscle that can stretch itself to accommodate a fist-sized knot can clench itself so tightly as to refuse entrance to a single finger. Every time Harry does this – and Harry does this often, Eggsy loving it so – it’s an exercise in patience and trust. Reminding Eggsy’s body that this is Harry, his mate-to-be. Not a stranger to be denied. Not a rogue to be driven off. Harry has lain with ladies and he’s lain with whores, but it’s always the same story – an Omega’s trust is the most precious thing they have to offer, because that alone is what makes this joining sublime.

The need for breath pulls Harry back for a moment. He pets Eggsy everywhere he can reach, soothing the broken moans Eggsy voices at the separation. “Soon,” Harry pants, “when we’re mated, your body will respond to my scent – ”

“It already does,” Eggsy tells him, twisting and arching. “Come back, Harry…”

“Not like it will,” Harry says. He’s never experienced this himself, obviously, but others of their company have, and in the long nights of their campaigns they had kept few secrets from each other. “You’ll know me. And I, you. No one else’s scent will ever hold meaning for me again. And you, you’ll open right up for me, grow wet for me and me alone. I’ll still taste you until you writhe for me – ” He strokes a teasing finger over Eggsy’s hole, rubs the palm of his hand against Eggsy’s straining cock, just to see it happen. “ – because it’s so beautiful to watch, darling, and it gives you such joy. But we won’t need it. Think of it.” Harry hears his voice drop to a low murmur, distantly, as images unfold in his mind’s eye and he sighs with the longing for them. “A mere minute will suffice – we could come together anywhere, anytime. You could find me in my library, lift your skirts and sink right down on my cock. I’d be ready for you, darling. Or perhaps I’d come in to your morning-room, after you’ve dismissed the housekeeper and before the gardener claims your time – a handful of minutes only, but more than enough for me to tumble you right there on the chaise. And at night!” Harry groans, his cock throbbing at the thought. “My love, sleep will be but a memory.”

Eggsy bucks and wails, reaching for Harry with hands that tremble. “Harry, please, now,” he cries. “Now, inside me – ”

Harry had intended to make Eggsy come on his tongue at least once before advancing matters to the main event, but his own rush of imagination has left him shaking with lust, and Eggsy seems scarcely better. “Yes,” Harry growls agreement, shifting his weigh until he can line himself up with that beautiful hole. “Yes, now.”

The first moment of sliding home, of penetrating Eggsy as deeply as nature has endowed Harry to and claiming him in their intimacy, is an ecstasy that will never dull. The feeling of it is too strong to live in memory; Harry retains only the barest echo of it, like the image painted behind one’s eyelids by strong light when one blinks. Every time he experiences it in reality it’s a shock. “Eggsy,” he cries, barely holding on to himself, holding on to Eggsy’s hips so tightly it must hurt. “Oh.”

“Yes!” Far from disdaining the press of Harry’s fingers or the girth of Harry’s cock, Eggsy arches into both. His hands scrabble on the sheets in a vain effort to gain further purchase. To impale himself further.

“Darling,” Harry whispers, his heart twisting in his chest. This perfect, impossible Omega – how can it be that one so exactly calculated to be Harry’s match exists in this world? Or that, existing, could have come to Harry – wanted Harry – could be with Harry, now? “I love you beyond words.”

“Then fuck me,” Eggsy says simply, as if there can be no other course of action, “and show me with your body.”

And Harry does. God help him, he does, hauling Eggsy’s hips up with main force and pounding into him with all the fervor of a newly-made convert. It frightens Harry sometimes, how much he wants Eggsy. He’s never wanted anyone else like this – not any person, not any Omega. But that’s not what worries him; what worries him is that he has felt this fever before. On the battlefield. And that’s a part of him he never wants anywhere close to Eggsy.

But it’s hard to focus on anything right now that isn’t Eggsy. Not even the fears that sometimes wake Harry up at night. Not nightmares of his service, no. Not like Lee had suffered. Harry had never felt the regret that some of their company had felt. He’d been sent to do a duty, and he’d done it. Efficiently. Ruthlessly. And with never a regret, until he’d met this Omega who holds Harry’s heart in his hands. And who, if he ever learned exactly who Harry is and what Harry is capable of, would drop that heart into the dirt and crush it beneath his feet.

“Harry,” Eggsy begs. “Please. Fill me up.”

How is Harry to resist that? Nothing, not even his fears, are enough to prevent him from giving Eggsy what Eggsy wants. Harry growls, and then he roars, his knot inflating so fast it’s almost painful – locking them together, making Eggsy nearly scream his own pleasure, warm slick flooding the space where they’re joined as Harry’s own cock pulses within.

Eggsy is moaning, the sound no longer broken and aching but somehow triumphant. His hands scrabble, not on the sheets, but against Harry’s chest, urging Harry to come down and wrap his arms around Eggsy. Harry’s mate has very firm opinions about how matters should be handled post-knotting. Cuddling is not optional, and is to be engaged in as soon as possible.

Happily, Harry is permitted to wear as foolishly fond of a smile as he wishes while catering to his Omega’s needs. He is also permitted – nay, encouraged – to scatter kisses around Eggsy’s shoulders and the nape of Eggsy’s neck, and to murmur cloyingly sweet nothings into Eggsy’s ears.

“So beautiful, my darling,” Harry tells Eggsy, lying on his left side with Eggsy clasped firmly against his chest. He strokes idly down Eggsy’s flank, and doesn’t fight it when his hand goes, of its own accord, to rest on the gentle swell where their child grows. “When they paint you they’ll do it in the style of the Renaissance – Venus emerging from her clamshell, an icon and a goddess. Oh, but I shall insist that they depict you fully clothed. Is that quite overbearing and Alphaic of me? To want no one save myself to see the beauty of your naked body? But I think you like it,” Harry adds, delighted, as Eggsy shivers in pleasure. “So I won’t resist the urge. I – oh – ” Harry nearly sits up in shock, before the tugging where they’re joined reminds him that that won’t be possible. “Eggsy – Eggsy, what is that?”

“You felt that?” Eggsy puts his own hand atop Harry’s. The feeling comes again. A soft but distinct sensation of force. A press.  No – a kick. “I thought I felt it last week – but I wasn’t sure – and I was afraid to ask, for fear I would be told I was imagining things – do you feel it, Harry? Are you sure?”

“They’re kicking,” Harry says. Something claws at his throat; a sob, but not one of sadness. One of disbelief, post-coital exhaustion, and joy. “Our child, Eggsy. You’ve quickened.”

“I should have said something last week,” Eggsy says shyly. “But – oh, Harry, I’m so glad you feel it too.” Harry can see the edges of Eggsy’s smile without even needing to crane his head, so wide is the grin. “I’m glad I waited to share this with you.”

“Will they do it again?”

“Perhaps… no, I think they’re done.” Eggsy sighs gently. “I’ve only felt one or two movements at a time. Later, I think, they’ll be more active. I’ll speak to the midwife in the morning.”

Harry drops his head back to the pillow, nose buried in the hair at the base of Eggsy’s neck, breathing in his mate’s scent and trying to control the almost overpowering wave of emotion. “You are a wonder,” he says at last, voice so hoarse it breaks on the last syllable. “My Eggsy.”

“My Harry,” Eggsy whispers back contentedly. He drifts away to sleep off the knot soon after, breath huffing evenly, a small smile still on his features. And Harry watches over him, warm and content and hardly daring to breathe, for fear all of this will vanish.

“Here you are then,” Harry says, handing Eggsy up into the carriage. It’s the most well-sprung conveyance in the stables, and the roads between here and Tintagel are smooth. Still, he passes a cushion up to Eggsy, and a blanket, just to be on the safe side.

“Do I really need these?” Eggsy asks, accepting them with visible bemusement.

“You may wish to sleep on the journey,” Harry tells him.

“Are we to drive through the nights, then?”

“Of course not!” Harry protests, before he sees the tilt of Eggsy’s lips and realizes his mate is joking. “Of course not,” Harry repeats with more dignity. “But you, wife, have taken to napping at the oddest times.”

“And in the oddest places,” Roxy says, balancing another cushion atop the picnic-basket. They’ll lunch as they ride, to cover the most ground possible. There’s a white cloud thickening in the southwest that Harry mislikes. It’s still only November, early in the season for snowstorms, but not unheard of for all that. Of course there are many good coaching-inns along the road, stone-built and well-sealed, that they could easily take refuge in. But Harry prefers his own hearth and his fireside, and is eager to see Eggsy settled there before any inclement weather arrives.

Harry hands Roxy up as well, then looks around to be sure all is in train before climbing in himself. Merlin is gallantly assisting Sally into the second carriage, where several other domestics doubtless already sit; a hamper for them to share through the afternoon is mounted up beneath the coachman’s seat. A third conveyance is laden with baggage. Each carriage has a full team of horses and drivers. All appears to be in readiness.

“I just hope I don’t get carriage-sick,” Eggsy is sighing as Harry climbs up. He’s sitting against the far window – forward, of course – and already has the blanket tucked up around him, despite the hot bricks at their feet. Harry conceals a satisfied smile and signals the driver to start.

“If you do, throw up out the window,” Roxy says practically.

Eggsy sticks his tongue out at her in a burst of childishness. Harry seats himself next to Eggsy and prudently decides to have seen or heard nothing of what had just gone on.

“A lovely day for travel,” he says instead, brightly. The coach swings easily on its springs as the horses pick up the pace, pulling them out of the carriage-way and onto the road.

“It’s cold,” Eggsy grumbles.

Roxy reaches into what looks like a pile of mending next to her – she’s sitting backwards, which at least comes with the compensation of having the entire bench to herself, as Harry is of course sitting forward with Eggsy – and produces what looks like a sweater. “Here,” she says.

Eggsy takes it gratefully, while Harry checks to be sure the windows are firmly shut. It’s not actually that cold – brisk, Harry would say – but there is a chill note in the air and a whistle to the wind, token of the possible storm. Perhaps that’s what’s bothering Eggsy. Harry nudges one of the hot bricks closer to Eggsy with his own foot, and then puts an arm around Eggsy’s shoulders. With a sigh, Eggsy nestles against Harry’s shoulder, eyes slipping closed.

Harry meets Roxy’s eyes and raises a finger to his lips. Roxy gives him the quick, fierce smile that she had always given Harry in the field, in response to silent commands. Harry presses his lips together in equally silent reprimand. That’s not appropriate here.

Roxy’s countenance is the picture of subdued submission. Her eyes, though, seem to be laughing at him. But instead of speaking further she only takes up a piece of mending and settles to it, both her stomach and her flashing needle seemingly unaffected by the motion of the carriage. Mischievous she may be, but also dutiful, and Harry trusts her with Eggsy’s life.

With the windows well-covered there’s no scenery to watch. Instead Harry leans back and closes his own eyes. He’s been staying up late and rising early, burning the candle at both ends to keep the nation afloat while still working on the problem of Chester King and his Parliamentary faction. Not to mention his trysts with Eggsy. He’s tired. Between the carriage’s gentle sway and Eggsy’s own even breaths, Harry soon sleeps.

Something is wrong.

Harry doesn’t open his eyes – doesn’t even let them flicker. He’s suddenly, thoroughly awake, but no one looking at him would be able to tell. All his senses save eyesight are concentrated on answering the vital question: what is wrong?

“We are being followed,” Lancelot says calmly.

Harry opens his eyes. A quick glance around the carriage shows it to be more or less just as he’d left it. The pile of linen at Roxy’s right is somewhat shorter; a new pile has appeared to her left for the mending she has completed. Eggsy has shifted in his slumber so that he is no longer curled into Harry. He’s leaned up against the far door instead, breathing evenly. The blanket is still tucked around him, and the bricks, cooler now, are all on his side of the carriage. Harry spares Roxy an approving nod before turning to the window on his side of the carriage.

“Distance?” Harry asks crisply.




Harry nods. Yes, trying to catch a glimpse is risky. But they need information. Harry gestures, and Roxy picks up the pile of finished mending and puts it on the floor. Harry crosses the carriage to sit in the newly-freed space, facing backwards. Carefully he undoes one of the latches on the window-covers, and pulls back the leather covering just far enough for one eye to catch a glimpse.

The first thing Harry sees – “The other carriages are gone.”

“Yes, sir. We separated on the road approximately an hour ago.”


“They are more heavily laden than we are. The weather is coming up quickly. I judged it prudent to reach the coaching-inn as fast as we could, and regroup there.”

Harry’s next glance takes in the western sky. Indeed, its ceiling is significantly lower than it had been when they’d set out. And the clouds massing there are no longer white. They are grey, and dark. If the carriage were not so well insulated, he thinks he’d hear the shrill whistle of coming snow on the wind.

“Early for the season,” he comments.

Roxy nods. “Convenient for our pursuers, though they could not possibly have guaranteed it.” A storm will keep others off the road, allowing them to attack Harry’s party in relative peace and anonymity. And if it does prove to be a true early winter storm, and layer the area with snow, so much the better: it will hide tracks and conceal blood and bodies for a later time. Even a storm that only blows strong winds, sendling leaves flying and branches breaking, will do much for them. It is convenient indeed.

And as for the convenience of the timing – “Guaranteed a storm, no. But we were planning to travel this road again, for Christmas, and then the probabilities for one would be in their favor.”

“Hmm.” Roxy tips her head to the side. “So today they are perhaps in haste, and under-prepared.”


Roxy grins at him again – or no, Lancelot grins. “I am at your service, my King.”

Harry turns back for a third look. And this time he is lucky – he sees a flicker in the trees. A dapple-grey shadow that belongs on no natural forest creature in the south of England.

“They are on horseback. Armed with – ” Harry squints, but he can’t see. “They must be armed.”

“If you can see them, and they haven’t shot at us, they haven’t got rifles,” Roxy says practically. “A casualty of their haste, perhaps. Good rifles, and those accustomed to their use, are hard to acquire on short notice. Pistols…”

“Easier.” Harry nods. “Let us arm ourselves.”

They are, of course, already armed – neither of them go anywhere naked of a blade. But Harry isn’t speaking of the daggers and poniards that they customarily sneak under the eyes of polite society. Nor does Roxy mistake his meaning. She is on the floor of the carriage in a moment, feeling around underneath her seat. Harry returns to the forward-facing bench to get his own limbs out of her way. A soft click announces that Roxy has found the catch, and a moment later she pulls a panel away and sets it aside. Two swords emerge one at a time from the depths; three brace of pistols follow. The other swords Roxy leaves behind as being of no use. Harry loads his three pistols quickly; Roxy does the same with hers.

Belting on the sword is more difficult in the confines of the carriage, and Eggsy stirs. “Harry?” he mumbles.

“Better wake up, darling,” Harry says as gently as he can. Adrenaline is already starting to pump through his veins. He thinks he hears hoof-beats, though that could just be the pounding of his heart. “We’re about to be attacked.”

“Attacked?” That revives Eggsy quickly; he sits up, and the blanket slides to the floor. “What – by whom?”

“We’ll worry about that later. Now listen, dearest. Right now our pursuers are some ways off, and still hidden, but overtaking us. As soon as they feel themselves able to, they’ll likely emerge from cover and make a hard gallop. When that happens, Roxy and I are going to shoot as many as we can; then, when they’re a few hundred yards away, we will disembark and engage them on foot.” He pats his sword to illustrate the tool to be used. “You must remain in the carriage, which will go ahead to get you as far out of harm’s way as possible.”

“And leave you behind?” Eggsy demands wildly.

“The engagement should be brief,” Harry says. “If we are victorious, then the carriage will return for us within minutes. If we are not, then you must get as far away from here as possible. The driver will know what routes to take. You will reunite with the second carriage. Merlin – ” and Morgana – “will keep you safe, if that happens.”

“I don’t think you’re understanding me,” Eggsy says, sounding dangerous, now. “I am interested in your safety.”

“Then you need to reconsider your priorities,” Harry says firmly. “Here.” He presses one of the pistols into Eggsy’s reluctant hands. “My darling, I am in no haste to die, but you are Queen, and will be Regent for our child, should matters here go poorly. That is your duty.”

Eggsy looks torn between a desire to slap Harry and cry – a face Harry has seen on many a lady before, directed at him. He sighs that it has to be Eggsy giving him that look now.

Roxy slides across the bench and takes her own daring glimpse through the crack in the window. She swears. “They’re coming out of the trees. Four horses… six.” Another look. “They’re closing.”

“Far side,” Harry snaps. Roxy moves down, and Harry fills the space she has left. “On my word.”

“Harry – ” Eggsy starts.

“I never expected to have to ask you to obey me,” Harry says, holding Eggsy’s eyes and reminding him of their marriage vows, “but this is one time when you must.”

Eggsy’s lips part. Then he takes a deep breath and tightens his hands on the pistol, nodding.

Harry takes another glimpse through the window. Their pursuers are on the road, six strong-looking riders on well-built horses. As he watches, the leader gestures, and the horses open into a gallop.

Now,” Harry says.

He tears down his window-shade; Roxy does likewise. They both draw aim and fire at nearly the same moment. Eggsy jerks at the report, but Harry has no time for worrying over that. He is watching one horse stumble and fall, and another horse continue galloping, but with its formerly erect rider now slumped, lifeless, over its neck. Good.

Harry drops his first pistol and snatches up the second. Roxy is ahead of him: her second shot rings out as Harry is still aiming. One horse is now riderless, and slows to a halt in its confusion, not far in front of the horse that had fallen itself. The rider from that horse is attempting to free themselves from their mount – if they succeed, they could take the other horse and rejoin the fray – but Harry sees them fall again, the leg trapped beneath the fallen horse unable to support them. Hors de combat, then. Harry selects one of the remaining three still in pursuit who have living riders. A shot later, and now there are two horses with limp forms, still galloping with the herd.

He’s done; his third pistol is in Eggsy’s hands. He draws his sword and reaches for the door-latch. Roxy, on the far side of the carriage, makes her third shot. It’s not as effective as the first two. One of the riders jerks, but stays horsed, and draws a weapon.

“Come on,” Harry snarls, and flings himself out of the carriage.

The lead rider sees him and shouts. Eagerness? Alarm? Few are foolish enough to leap from a moving vehicle. But Harry is – or, rather, Galahad is. Galahad recovers his balance as the carriage thunders away, sparing only a glance to check on the team – lathered, but not flagging. Lancelot rolls out of the carriage herself. Galahad turns back towards the enemy, and draws his sword.

A red mist is beginning to rise before his eyes. He stops caring that his enemy is horsed while he himself is afoot; he disregards the sight of pistols, now visible at their waists, when he himself bears only a sword. What matters is that his prey is before him. They have dared to raise their hand against Galahad and his company and his mate. Their lives are forfeit, and Galahad is here to take them.

Take them he does. Oh, Lancelot deals her fair share; it is she who lames the first horse with a well-swung blow, and sends the rider throwing over their horse’s head to collide with a fine oak and slide senseless to the ground, there to be made sure of with a cut to a hamstring that will prevent them from interfering further. But Galahad takes the other two, dodging the first pistol-shot with contemptuous ease to unhorse them by the simple expedient of cutting their girth as they ride by, leaving them to be trampled. The second rider finds their shot failing them, pistol jamming. They had slowed to attempt the shot. Fool, Galahad thinks, as he lunges for them, and the red mist thickens until his enemy is all that can be seen.

“ – arry!”

Galahad stands over the body of the last of their pursuers, breathing deeply but evenly. The enemy is dead. They are very thoroughly dead, and Galahad is pleased by that. He’ll need a new shirt, though. The cuffs of this one are stained with blood.

“Harry!” the cry comes again. He knows the voice that utters it. It has a piercing quality, as if it goes directly to his heart.

Galahad turns.

An Omega is standing on the road, reaching out towards him. He looks disheveled, and he is panting. Well, he’s been running, a small, rational part of Galahad’s brain points out. The carriage is stopped what must be almost a mile down the road. The Omega would have run here. Not walked – no. He would have run.

The Omega is pregnant. “You shouldn’t have run,” he says. “It’s bad for the baby.”

“Are you all right?” they ask.

“Yes, of course.”

“Well,” the Omega says carefully, “Roxy – Roxy doesn’t think so.”

Galahad looks to the side. Yes, Lancelot is there. That’s good. Protecting the Omega. Part of their duty, protecting civilians. Though Lancelot isn’t assuming a defensive position. She’s got her arms around the Omega, as if – as if she’s holding him back.

Eggsy, he thinks. His name is Eggsy. His nickname. He’s never told me why.

“Harry?” Eggsy asks quietly. “Can you please – come here?”

It’s a simple request, and he sees no reason why he ought not to comply with it. He turns away from the body of his fallen enemy. Takes a step towards the Omega.

Stumbles, and falls to his knees.

The Omega – Eggsy tears away from Lancelot – from Roxy – and runs the last few steps towards Harry. Eggsy nearly trips in his eagerness, and ends up on his own knees next to Harry, his arms around Harry, shaking so hard that Harry can feel it everywhere their bodies touch.

Or maybe it’s Harry who’s shaking. Harry, because Eggsy is right here, and has seen everything. Has seen Harry shoot two people, unhorse another to be trampled, and then, after losing his sword, beat the third to death with his bare hands.

“Oh no,” Harry whispers. “No. Eggsy, no…”

Eggsy shakes his head, whining softly. He makes himself smaller, as if he’s trying to become one with Harry. Or as if he’s trying to hide. Helplessly, Harry puts his arms around Eggsy, and looks up. Roxy is watching them both, and her expression is grim.

In the distance, more sounds intrude. Roxy turns to look, but it’s not another wave of attackers. It’s the second carriage. Merlin is sitting on the box with the driver, handling the reins himself and swearing.

Harry should get up. He should greet them. Give orders. There are bodies to be disposed of – horses to put out of their misery. The one that Roxy had lamed will be regaining consciousness soon, and then there’s still the one trapped under their horse several yards away. They’ll need to be secured. Questioned. Any evidence they can find to discover the identity of the backer of this attack – especially to prove that it had been Chester King, or someone acting on his orders or with his recognizance – will be critical towards ending his threat once and for all. There is much to be done.

But Harry can’t move. Eggsy had seen. Eggsy had seen it all.

Now he is trembling against Harry as if his heart will break. He won’t look Harry in the face. He only presses his face into Harry's shoulder, hiding himself away.

And Harry knows, even as Eggsy clings to him, that he’s losing something precious with every shake.

Chapter Text

Harry is alive.

Eggsy clings to him, all but sobbing with relief. Waking from a warm cocoon of safety into a nightmare – Harry looking so tense and grim, Roxy with a wildness about her like he’d never seen – weapons in their hands, and where had those even come from? Eggsy had felt utterly helpless, adrift without even the most basic understanding of what had been going on. Harry’s words had made no sense. Attacked? By whom? Fight them on foot? When they were mounted? Eggsy may not be a soldier but he knows that’s a death sentence. Or it should have been. He’d seen Harry leap from a moving carriage and known in that horrible moment that he’d never see his mate alive again.

Harry’s heart beats beneath Eggsy’s ear, rapid but steady. Eggsy presses closer to Harry’s chest, desperate for the reassurance of that sound.

The carriage had barreled on after Harry and Roxy had left it, but only for a mile or so. Then it had come to a halt. Eggsy had thrown caution to the wind and run back, pistol in hand, ready to do whatever it took.

Harry had been okay. That had been the first thing Eggsy had seen – that Harry is alive. Oddly still, looking at Eggsy as if he hadn’t quite known him, but alive. Eggsy would have run to him right there if Roxy hadn’t stopped him.

I don’t wish to be protected from my mate, Eggsy had told her not that long ago at James’ party. She apparently hadn’t listened. He’ll be angry with her for that later. After he’s done being grateful for her role in defending him, and guarding Harry’s back.

Eventually, other matters begin to intrude on Eggsy’s awareness. He lifts his head, stifling a whine of annoyance as Harry’s arms loosen around him. He wants those arms where they are, thank you very much, and tugs them back into position with an annoyed huff.

Harry tries to let him go again. Eggsy’s head snaps up and he looks Harry straight-on. “When I am ready for you to stop holding me, I will let you know,” he informs his mate. A distant part of his mind remarks that Michelle would be proud. That had been the hauteur of a sitting Queen, and no mistake. And while on the topic – “I am most displeased with you, Harry Hart! You tell me you’re going to go fight six men on horseback with only a sword, you leap out of a moving carriage – you idiot, did you never think how I’d feel if you were killed?” He feels suddenly like crying.

“I – ” Harry starts, then stops, and doesn’t seem able to start again. He’s looking at Eggsy as if he’s afraid. It’s all wrong. He hadn’t looked afraid when he’d gone to face those attackers.

“You are never to do anything so dangerous again! Do you hear me?”

There’s an apologetic cough. Eggsy whips around to see Merlin hovering nearby.

“I do beg your pardon, your Majesty,” Merlin says, sounding oddly as if he’s suppressing something – a sneeze, perhaps – “but that’s an impossible request, I fear. Recall that those attackers came to you. Though I agree with you in deploring the risks he took – ” his glare at Harry is a fearsome thing, and makes Eggsy feel better to observe it – “if Galahad hadn’t acted, you would all three be dead now.” His gaze shifts suddenly, and he corrects himself. “Four.”

Eggsy puts a protective hand over his belly and glares impartially at all present – even those innocent souls who are only patting down the horses and checking over the carriages. “Galahad takes too many risks.”

That suppressed something is even more present now in Merlin’s voice: “Yes, your Majesty.”

Eggsy turns back to Harry. “Do you hear me?”

“I – do,” Harry says, sounding dazed. “But – Eggsy, I – ”

“We’ve been telling him that for years,” Merlin sighs.

Eggsy considers this. “So if we are attacked again, this may happen again?” he asks. Anger builds in him at the mere thought.

Merlin nods. “Aye, your Majesty.”

“And we are likely to be attacked again.”

“It… seems likely, your Majesty.”

“Then there’s only one thing to do,” Eggsy says decisively.

If what ye want is for ye to both be safe, then abdicate, Merlin had said, before Eggsy’s coronation. Ye can live quite happily and peacefully so long as ye haven’t got anything anyone else wants.

But that would be turning their backs on what is rightfully theirs, and on what they owe their country. Even if that were possible for Eggsy – and Eggsy doesn’t think it is – it’s definitely not possible for Harry.

Where Harry goes, Eggsy goes. They’d read from the book of Ruth at their marriage ceremony. Eggsy had chosen that passage himself: wither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge…

Harry’s arms tighten around Eggsy, then, incredibly, relax again. “Of course,” he says, quiet. “I certainly won’t stop you – ”

“Good,” Eggsy interrupts. “But don’t think I’m going to let you have charge of this; you’ll just soft-pedal the whole thing, I know you will. Roxy will teach me.”

There’s a moment of silence. Then Harry says, “What?”

“I promised, Harry. ‘And all the danger that comes with it.’ Remember?”

“Eggsy.” Harry is almost growling. “What is Roxy going to teach you?”

“How to fight, of course.”

Merlin sneezes. Then he starts laughing. He laughs long and hard. Harry just stares at Eggsy. Eggsy looks back at him, wondering why Harry looks so shocked.

Perhaps he’s been a little harsh in disclaiming Harry’s involvement. “Roxy will understand how an Omega fights,” he explains. “And she won’t hold back or treat me like I’m precious. You will. It’s – ” Eggsy falters, because now Harry is looking at Eggsy like the sun has risen in the west and the leaves flying by are actually brown and gold serpents. Eggsy clears his throat and says, carefully, “It’s not that I don’t respect your prowess as a soldier. I mean, just look at today.” He looks around himself, for emphasis, and finds that his own fear and determination have finally ebbed enough for Eggsy to start to appreciate the true magnitude of Harry’s prowess. “You took down six mounted attackers,” he says in awe. “With a sword. That’s well fit, Harry.” A flush of heat makes itself felt on Eggsy’s cheeks – he’s blushing. In the middle of the forest surrounded by dead attackers and live knights, all of whom are suddenly extremely occupied with other tasks as Eggsy shifts in Harry’s lap. Eggsy licks his lips and manages to say – around the sudden spike of warmth in his lower body – “I am extremely impressed.”

“You – are – impressed?” Harry sounds dazed. The next time be breathes, though, his nostrils flare, and he stares at Eggsy with a sharpness that almost cuts.

Eggsy frowns at him, worried now. “Did you hit your head?”

“No,” Harry says. “I did not.” His arms tighten around Eggsy. “At least I… don’t think I did.”

“You didn’t,” Roxy calls.

Eggsy shifts position again. He’s suddenly finding it difficult to sit comfortably – though that’s not because he wishes to be anywhere other than in Harry’s lap. “Um, Harry,” Eggsy says. “Perhaps we should, er, travel on. The next coaching inn isn’t far, is it?”

“Coaching inn?” Harry stands abruptly, no mean feat, considering that a moment ago he’d been all but flat on the ground with a grown Omega on his lap. Eggsy yelps, clutching at Harry to retain his balance, ending up sprawled on the forest floor gaping up at Harry. “We’re not stopping anywhere until we reach Tintagel. Why are we still here?” He looks around until he spots Merlin and all but accosts him. “We need to get on the road already! Eggsy’s in danger!”

Eggsy’s in – oi!” Eggsy scrambles to his own feet. “Harry – ”

“The coaches are ready to move out,” Merlin says, tone long-suffering. “Our two captives are being loaded into the baggage cart now. Two of us will ride with them.”

“And the rest with us,” Harry says, tone brooking no argument. Eggsy, about to suggest that he and Harry ride alone – in the interests of lightening the load, of course – closes his mouth again. He does not sulk.

The second leg of the journey, jouncing along in a cramped carriage packed full of people, isn’t anywhere near as pleasant as the first. Eggsy does know that the carriage is in fact extremely well-sprung, and that the number of people in the carriage is not actually in excess of capacity. But he’s far too out of sorts to be charitable. Every rock in the road sends an unpleasant jolt through his body. Every person in the carriage who isn’t Harry is grating on his absolute last nerve. He’s hot, but no one will even entertain the thought of opening the window-covers. He’s tired, too, but Harry has decreed that they will not stop short of Tintagel, not for anything but a change of horses and the purchase of a picnic-basket at the coaching-inns they pass. Pauses for the necessary are conducted in the deepest patch of woods between towns, with a ring of Alphas glaring at every squirrel and blowing leaf. The effort is putting a crease between Merlin’s eyebrows. Eggsy has had to lay a pointed hand on his swollen belly several times, when demanded of to explain why another stop is necessary.

He can’t lie down. He can’t stretch out. He can’t even lean into Harry. Harry, for some incomprehensible reason, is sitting as far away from Eggsy as possible – catty-corner in a coach that seats six. By nightfall Eggsy has abandoned any pretense of not sulking. By morning he is ready to heave everyone in this carriage bodily out the newly-uncovered windows, if it means getting some space and some fresh air.

Though only if it means they can’t get back in. After the first few hours, the jumbled scents of all and sundry had faded mercifully into the background, Eggsy’s nose adjusting to and filtering out the unnecessary information. Otherwise it would really be intolerable.

As the sun inches higher into the sky, Harry authorizes a pause at another coaching-inn. The last such pause they will need to make, according to him; the fresh horses will last them until they reach Tintagel. Roxy steps out to oversee the hitching. She opens the door again briefly to hand in the picnic-basket. Eggsy, already grown unused to her scent, sneezes at the acrid tang of it.

Roxy seems to be having similar difficulty herself. She doesn’t sneeze, but her nose wrinkles up as if she’d like to, and she claps a perfumed handkerchief to her mouth as soon as she lets go the basket. She turns away hastily back to the air.

  She’ll have to get back in here with the rest of us soon enough, Eggsy thinks, nettled. More’s the pity. If everyone else would get out of the carriage, that would suit him very well. That is, everyone except Harry…

Harry, meanwhile, has pulled out his watch and is checking it. “Another few hours’ ride,” he says. Grumbles, really. “We didn’t even need to change horses here.”

“This set have gone through the night, Harry, they had to be changed.” That’s Merlin, long-suffering.

“The time we lose getting fresh beasts won’t be worth the time they save us by trotting,” Harry says.

“But if we’re ambushed again, ye’ll be glad they can run.”

Harry grumbles but subsides. “A few more hours,” he says to the carriage at large.

Despite their proximity to their goal, the hours pass slowly. Eggsy gnaws on a roll from the basket, more to occupy himself than because he’s hungry. Actually, he’s eaten very little over the last few meals. He supposes that the atmosphere is sapping his appetite. That, and it’s very hard to focus on anything that isn’t Harry.

Harry, pressing a pistol into his hands. Harry, leaping from the carriage. Harry, standing triumphant over the body of his defeated foe…

Eggsy hastily bites at the roll. It’s not what he wants to be shoving his mouth onto, but until they reach Tintagel, he has little choice. And he’ll be glad later of whatever sustenance he can manage to take now.

Reach Tintagel they eventually do, though not before the sun is lowering in the sky. Harry swings out of the carriage almost before it’s stopped, making Eggsy’s heart leap with remembered fear and his cheeks warm with remembered awe. Harry’s barking orders about patrols and guards and Eggsy knows not what. What matters most right now is getting out of this carriage. Harry is out there, and Eggsy needs to be close to him.

His knees nearly buckle as they hit the ground. He’d waved off the footman’s offer of help, not wanting strange hands on him, but that may have been a mistake. Roxy has to catch him around the waist as he stumbles. Eggsy’s skin itches. Even her familiar touch is uncomfortable.

He wants Harry. Eggsy takes a step towards this goal. Harry isn’t even looking at him, but he stiffens suddenly, and his voice trails off. His head turns slowly, and Eggsy becomes aware that everyone within scent-range is staring at Eggsy warily.

“Harry,” Eggsy says clearly, “I would like to be alone with you now, please.”

Harry is looking poleaxed. “But that can’t be,” he says. “You’re – you’ve – ” He looks to Roxy, standing ready to support Eggsy should his knees give out again. “How is this possible?”

Roxy laughs at him. “You fool,” she says without heat. “He told you he was impressed. What did you think that meant?”

“Not – this!”

Eggsy is uninterested in the details of this conversation. “Harry,” he repeats. “Are you listening to me?”

“I think he’s observing you with another one of his senses,” Roxy says, more quietly.  Eggsy appreciates the quietness, given the number of eyes (and ears, and noses) still upon them. Every presence other than Harry’s grates.

“He’s just lucky this is a flash-heat,” Eggsy mutters back. True heat comes on quickly and reaches intense peaks; Eggsy would never have traveled close to a true heat, and good thing too, for if this had been a true heat they would still be back in the forest next to the bodies, knotted tight. A flash-heat comes on more slowly and will be less intense. Eggsy also can’t conceive during a flash-heat – not that that matters anymore. But Harry ought to have known that Eggsy would need him the absolute minute they arrived at Tintagel. That he is still staring at Eggsy in shock – “Can he really not know what that is?”

“I think he was under the misapprehension that your pregnancy prevented all heats.” Roxy grins. “He may also have thought that you’d find the sight of him killing for you to be off-putting.”

Eggsy gives this the answer it deserves. He doesn’t bother to keep his voice down, and several of the listening servants blanch at their mistress knowing such language. Harry, though… his scent spikes, and Eggsy shivers.

“Excuse me, Lady Carlyle.” Harry walks to them, stride loose and supple – stalking, part of Eggsy’s hind-brain thinks, and is very well pleased to see it. “I believe I am wanted elsewhere.”

“That’s right you – oh!” Eggsy finds himself scooped up, reticule and all, held securely in Harry’s arms. Harry’s strong, capable arms. Eggsy clutches at Harry’s shoulders and makes an embarrassing noise. “Harry – ”

“Merlin, take care of everything,” Harry calls over his shoulder, bearing Eggsy within the manor-house.

If Merlin says something in reply, Eggsy doesn’t hear it. All of his attention is focused on Harry, who seems, at long last, to be getting the picture. He heads straight for the stairs that lead to the bedchambers, and then straight into the master chamber. Eggsy voices his approval.

But though Harry sets Eggsy on the bed, and Eggsy immediately begins pulling at his own clothes, Harry doesn’t follow suit. He only sits down next to Eggsy. Eggsy grows in annoyance, sitting up to reach for Harry’s laces.

Harry catches his hands. “This is real?” he asks, sounding lost.

Harry,” Eggsy groans. “Lord help me, what is wrong? Don’t you want me?” He can’t help that last coming out plaintive. He doesn’t understand. Harry had maneuvered and connived and now killed for Eggsy. There doesn’t seem that there could be any doubt on the subject – and Eggsy’s body agrees, because it is making it quite clear that it wants that knot and wants it now. That bite, too, while they’re at it.

Or has Harry not realized that? It’s growing more difficult through the rising tide of lust, but Eggsy forces his mind to work. If Harry had thought that pregnancy prevented even a flash-heat, he might well wonder…

“This is real,” Eggsy says. Tries to say. He’s not sure how well his tongue is working. “This is how much I want you. Harry, you killed for me. Me. For our child. You did that to defend us. I want you so much that my body is doing this, Harry. I want to make sure you’re mine forever.”

“I am yours,” Harry insists.

“No – ” Are all Alphas so frustrating? Eggsy tears at his clothes with renewed fervor, finally ripping his tunic at the neck when it refuses to budge. Exposed to the air, the skin on his right shoulder throbs. Eggsy snatches Harry’s hand and lays it over the mating gland. “Forever,” he insists. “I want you. All of me wants you.”

“All of you?” Then Harry must feel it – the way the gland is swollen, raising it beneath Harry’s fingers like a brand, its warmth, even the faint pulsing from the increased blood flow. A look of startlement comes over his face, followed by one of understanding. Then at last, awe. “God,” Harry swears, voice broken, and all but falls on Eggsy.

Eggsy gasps and moans, instantly wet enough to leak just from the scent of his desired mate. Harry had hardly been hesitant during Eggsy’s previous heats (or the interludes they’d shared between) but he almost seems that way in memory, compared to the way he devours Eggsy now: eager, driven, bordering on desperate. Eggsy’s leggings suffer the same fate as his tunic; Harry’s shirt is only saved by Eggsy’s nimble fingers, undoing it while Harry yanks off his trousers. Then they’re naked, and Harry promptly shoves his face in Eggsy’s groin, sucking so hard Eggsy’s eyes roll back in his head. He clutches Harry’s hair and bucks so hard he’s sure he must be bruising Harry’s chin but he doesn’t care –

The first orgasm hits him as hard as Eggsy imagines Harry had hit those attackers. That’s going to run my heat up fast, Eggsy thinks, dazed, as his brain tries to regroup and process that oh, Harry hasn’t actually stopped. He’s got his tongue in Eggsy’s hole now and his hands on Eggsy’s thighs spreading him wide. Every nerve in Eggsy’s body seems like it’s on fire. Eggsy tries to speak, tries to beg Harry for mercy, but all that comes out is a moan.

Harry must be able to breathe, Eggsy thinks, breathless himself with pleasure. There’s no faltering or flagging in Harry’s relentless assault. Eggsy finds himself stripped, held in place by two strong hands, and made to experience pleasure almost as an attack. As if Eggsy can be claimed through the sheer force of Harry’s desire. Eggsy tugs at Harry’s hair futilely, trying to direct him to the needy gland, trying to get him to replace tongue and the occasional nip of teeth with the knot he craves so, but Harry is immovable. A second orgasm, and even a third, he wrings out of Eggsy before he even pauses.

“Please,” Eggsy begs him, the moment he has breath enough to do it. “Harry, please, stop teasing me – you know what I need – ” his shoulders are cramping with the urge to shove his mating gland between Harry’s teeth. “You want me, don’t you? You want me too?”

“I do,” Harry vows. His lips are swollen from his efforts and there’s a flush on his cheeks that Eggsy has ever seen there before. “But you’ll be mine on my knot, and not before.”

Eggsy keens, mind whiting out instantly as lust swarms him. Harry’s voice, low and growling – the continued possessive flex of his fingers on Eggsy’s hips – the memory of Harry standing over that body, and then of him holding Eggsy, there in the forest – “Oh please,” Eggsy almost sobs. “Harry, I want it.”

“You do.” Still that note of bewilderment. “Then roll over, Eggsy.”

Roll – oh. “Oh!” Eggsy scrambles eagerly, getting on his hands and knees and arching. Presenting. Harry has heretofore seemed to prefer having Eggsy on his back – and given the way he eats Eggsy out, Eggsy has not been complaining – but there’s something right about assuming the true mating position. Something primal and satisfying that says yes, this is what was missing: this is how you take your mate.

There’s a moment of separation as Harry gets up on his own knees, and Eggsy wants to wail from loneliness. But soon Harry’s touch returns to soothe. Not only his hands on Eggsy’s hips but the warmth of his chest draped over Eggsy’s back. And then the blunt pressure of his cock nudging against Eggsy’s hole. Eggsy does wail then, in desire and gladness as that cock fills him utterly.

“Yes, Harry – please – all the way – again!” Harry gives him a hard thrust, shaking the bed. “Yes!” Had Harry always been so gentle with him before? Never again. Now that Eggsy knows what’s possible – “Harder!”

And Harry gives it to him harder. He rams into Eggsy, and the bed rams into the wall. Eggsy hears a faint crash – turns his head to see one of the pictures come right off the wall to fall to the ground.

“Paying attention to something else?” That’s Harry’s voice, directly into Eggsy’s ear, so close Harry’s lips brush the outer shell and make Eggsy shiver. “I can fix that.”

He does. By the time Harry’s completed his next three thrusts Eggsy has no room in his ears for anything but Harry’s growls, no scent in his nose but Harry’s, nothing before his eyes but the red-tinged dimness of his closed lids. Every sense is filled with Harry. And Eggsy’s body is filled too, gloriously stuffed full, almost to bursting.

Harry’s thrusts begin to shorten, a wildness to them that Eggsy has learned to associate with Harry being close, ready to knot. “Eggsy, tell me again,” Harry gasps. “Tell me you want me. Tell me – ”

“I want you,” Eggsy babbles. “Want your knot, want your bite – want all of you, Harry – God, I was ready to climb you like a tree right there in the forest. Please, Harry, make us one.”

“My Eggsy,” Harry whispers.

The moment of mating is almost soft. Eggsy knows, on some level, that he’s naked, on his knees, back arched in lordosis, being split open on Harry’s knot. He knows that Harry’s teeth are closed around his shoulder, breaking the skin. He knows that there’s a trickle of blood, quickly soothed away by Harry’s tongue. He knows that his body has locked tight around Harry’s knot and that white-hot pleasure is sweeping from limb to limb.

But even more important than that –

His heart feels hot. Heavy, but not with sadness. With the weight of a second person there within it. With the warmth flooding into it from Harry. Affection in all its forms, from fondness to lust to ardent love – all of those Harry feels for him, and all of those Harry pours into him. Desperation, too. Harry is desperate for Eggsy to know. To feel the depths of Eggsy’s feelings for him.

Still so afraid, Eggsy thinks. What can he still be afraid of?

He sets out to soothe that fear, trying to replicate Harry’s feat, to share with Harry everything he, Eggsy, feels. Awe and admiration feel so small. Next to the wave of Harry’s feelings, what does Eggsy have to offer?

A memory: Waking up at night, still dozing, limbs heavy. Unable to open his eyes even if he’d wanted to. Warm and comfortable. The house at peace. The only thing disturbing his sleep the soft, soothing murmur…

And when you’re old enough, my sweet, your mother and I will teach you to ride – oh yes, he’s quite a good rider, you know. It makes my heart thump to see him put his horse through its paces. But perhaps you’ll do us the favor of being a little more careful…

Eggsy loves Harry. And he shares that love. But what Harry wants most, Eggsy thinks, is that sense of peace. So he gives Harry that, too. The perfect serenity that comes from a soft waking in the darkness, every limb and muscle at ease, the reassuring scent of one’s mate at one’s side, and the wave of enfolding, overwhelming peace that comes with every murmured word.

The wave recedes after a time. Eggsy finds himself blinking, almost surprised to be back in the lord’s chambers at Tintagel. To still be naked, and knotted, and wrapped up tight.

Eggsy turns to face Harry. That tugs at the knot, making Harry shift in discomfort, but Eggsy has to see him. Has to lay a hand on his face and say, clearly, “I love you.”

“I know.” Harry is looking at Eggsy, still astonished, but no longer disbelieving. Calm. The frantic rush of their coupling replaced with this – with the peace of their mating.

Harry lays his own hand over Eggsy’s heart and repeats it, voice wondering. “I know.”

Chapter Text

Eggsy is asleep, a warm, soft bundle in Harry’s arms. His breathing is soft and slow. So, too, is the rhythmic thumping of his heart – a sound not so much heard as felt. And Harry, romantically, wonders to himself as he lies there in the twilight, whether he feels that sound through the place where his hand lays over Eggsy’s heart, or through the bond they now share.

Harry had had much of the arranging of them both, in the aftermath of Eggsy’s flash-heat. He’d taken shameless advantage to place Eggsy resting on his left side, taking the space immediately behind him. In addition to allowing Harry to hold his mate, this position has one other notable recommendation. It leaves Eggsy’s right shoulder upright and easily visible from where Harry reclines.

The mating mark is only a few shades darker than Eggsy’s skin, looking as if it’s been there for decades – a childhood scar – rather than being, as Harry knows, fresh and only a few hours old. It’s thinner than Harry had expected. Well, how thick did you think your teeth were? It just seems awfully inconspicuous for something so momentous. Harry wants something to show to the world. In Harry’s youth, the fashion had been for mated Omegas to wear their collars low, leaving the shoulders bare to the collarbone. Harry had grown up seeing mating marks everywhere. As a child they’d seemed larger, somehow. Now Eggsy’s seems just barely big enough to kiss. And his usual clothing will conceal the mark entirely.

Harry wonders, fleetingly, if any of his mother’s clothes still hang in the closets here at Tintagel. Of course that’s foolish. They’d all been donated, in the first place; and they’d be five decades and more out of fashion, in the second. But that starts a new idea. A Queen is a trend-setter, aren’t they? Perhaps Eggsy would be interested in starting a new vogue in low necklines.

There’s nothing physically keeping Harry in this bed. His knot has gone down already. Eggsy is sleeping peacefully, the flash-heat well sated. Harry could leave him here without doing him any harm. Common practice would be to do just that. Eggsy may well sleep the clock round; there is no need for Harry to fritter his time away watching Eggsy. Harry could be about a multitude of other tasks.

And later, no doubt, Harry will be about them. There are many things calling his attention – not least among them the pressing matter of Eggsy’s safety. Once, indeed, Harry would have been unable to rest while there was so much afoot. But now, wrapped up in the peace Eggsy brings, Harry thinks: Merlin will be overseeing the interrogation of the captives. Roxy will run the bath. Sally will bring up a tray and lay out Eggsy’s clothes. Bors will guard the borders.

I can stay.

Harry can stay.

So he does.

“Ye look… rested,” is what Merlin chooses to say, when at last Harry joins the others in the library. It wants an hour yet to dinner. Eggsy had woken up perhaps thirty minutes ago, and they’d spent that time cuddling, before Eggsy had declared himself in want of a bath and shooed Harry away so that he could have it.

“I am,” Harry says. He doesn’t think he’s too smug, all things considered.

“Eggsy isn’t with ye?”

“He’s bathing,” Harry says. Smugly.

Roxy makes an abortive movement. “I should – ”

Harry holds up a hand. “I am charged to tell you that Eggsy wishes a nice, private soak, and then will probably lounge in his dressing-gown for a time. You are at leisure until it’s time to dress for dinner.”

“Still – ”

“Queen’s orders.” Harry smiles. “And King’s; not that it matters.”

“I’d take Eggsy’s orders over yours any day,” Roxy returns in like mode. Her smaller smile is nevertheless wholly pleased. “At least where it pertains to him.”

“As you should.” Harry looks around. The rest of the knights are all distributed at their leisure; Harry emulates them, taking his usual chair, which has thoughtfully been left empty. “Well, then, where are we?”

Bors summarizes the defensive measures being taken quickly enough. They’re familiar to Harry, running as they do along lines he had laid down with his fellow knights years ago and upgraded again after his accession to the throne. Tintagel has long been something of a home base for their small band, owing to Harry both holding the most-defensible lands and having the largest cash flow out of the lot of them. It had also been the natural home of three of them already; Bors’ employment here as steward, and Merlin’s former office as valet, predate their later offices as knight and intelligencer.

“That’s all right,” Harry approves, when Bors reaches the end of his recitation. “And our involuntary guests?”

Merlin heaves a long-suffering sigh. Morgana rolls her eyes heavenward.

“Never tell me they were able to hold something back from you two,” Harry says, appalled. Merlin and Morgana are experts at getting information from the least likely of places. Harry has never known them to be unable to ferret out a fact, nor to be much behindhand in gaining opinions, gossip, hearsay, or even slander.

“Of course not,” Morgana says, offended.

“The problem is that they simply don’t know much,” Merlin says.

“Garden-variety bravos, hired in a tavern – ”

“Half up front and half on completion.”

“They didn’t even know whom they were attacking.”

Harry sighs. “This is where you tell me I should start traveling in a marked carriage, isn’t it?” He’s resisted having the royal arms emblazoned on any of his privately-owned conveyances. He’d thought, and argued, that being incognito would be safer than riding around with a large sign proclaiming assassination target within. But if it lets Chester King hire people to kill him, or Eggsy, without ever approaching a whiff of regicide –

Merlin makes a balancing motion with his hand. “In town, we agree that the unmarked carriage is safer,” he says cautiously. “We are… reconsidering our position on the matter of cross-country journeys.”

“The bravos were horrified to discover who they’d attacked,” Morgana says. “They swore up and down they’d only been told they were going after a fat merchant.”

“Do you believe them?” Harry asks.

Morgana nods. “They weren’t lying, for one; and for another, it makes sense. This isn’t just about hiring those who would otherwise refuse to go after you, Harry. It’s also about protection for Lord King. As far as these men can testify – ”

“Assuming anyone would even believe their testimony,” Merlin mutters.

Morgana acknowledges this with a wry twist of her lips. “But even should they testify, all they could say is that they were hired for a routine act of highway brigandry. Their client, should their client’s identity be proven, could freely confess to the relatively minor crime while acting horrified that their hirelings had mistakenly attacked the King himself.”

“And then the bravos likewise themselves loudly profess themselves shocked and horrified to have raised their hands against their King,” Merlin concludes.

“Since the King insists on traveling in an unmarked carriage...” Morgana shrugs. “How were they to know?”

“Surely Chester King doesn’t care what happens to them,” Roxy protests.

“He cares about them not turning their coats,” Merlin says. “So he made sure they had nothing to turn.”

“I assume,” Harry says wearily, “that despite our free use of the gentleman’s name, we have no actual proof that Chester King was the one to hire these attackers?”

“Proof, no,” Merlin says slowly. “But here the matter grows interesting. One of our two captives purports to have some knowledge of their client’s identity.”

“Never tell me Chester King was foolish enough to have hired them himself!” Roxy gapes.

“If this bravo is to be believed, no,” Merlin says. “But…”

Merlin hesitates. He never hesitates. Morgana flashes him an impatient look, then says it.

“He – the bravo – says it was a lady.”

“A lady?” Harry stares. He’s been imagining the usual way of hiring thugs – a seedy tavern in the rougher parts of London, a few coins changing hands over a rough table, a lady of the night hovering nearby and an opium-den in the building next door. Nothing an lady would set foot in. “What – how – is he certain?”

“He caught a scent,” Morgana says. “That one’s an Alpha, and I gave his nose a test – he was able to catch my gender beneath a good level of concealment.”

“An Omega is one thing,” Harry says, trying to be delicate but thinking again of the whore in his mental visions. “But that does not follow that they are a lady.”

“Well-groomed nails, discreet cosmetics, and a very unwise choice to wear a true ruby bracelet and matching ring, in a gold setting, on the right hand,” Merlin says.

The right hand being the hand this lady would have used to pass over the initial payment. And of course these bravos would have noticed such a thing. They may even have reckoned on coming away with more than the other half of their owings on their second meeting.

“Countess Huntington?” Roxy guesses, already thinking ahead to the mystery of this lady’s identity.

Morgana shakes her head. “I certainly believe the lady capable of it, but she doesn’t fit the description. Our captives spoke of someone tall and slender, with fair hair. Someone who, wrapped in a cloak, passed well enough as a Beta until someone got close enough to scent.” She sniffs, professionally disappointed. “Should have used the right perfumes.”

Harry frowns. The hair may be dyed or a wig, but the rest – a tall person may pretend to be short by stooping, and a thin person to be thick by using padding, but to go in the other direction is difficult. Grant the use of lifts for the height, but the weight? Countess Huntington is a mature lady who has borne several children. She could not have passed for an androgynous waif. But there is another, affiliated with the King faction, who could…

Roxy is already thinking around those lines. “Lady Charles Hesketh,” she says grimly.

“So we suspect,” Merlin agrees.

Bors has been listening to all of this as intently as Harry has; now he speaks for the first time. “How do we prove it?”

A silence falls. “That’s the difficulty,” Merlin admits, after it has stretched.

“Would the bravo recognize the lady, if seen again?”

Morgana sighs. “Not of a certainty. It was not the face he saw, you understand. It was the scent, and the jewels.”

“So all we need is to dress Charlie Hesketh up in the same clothes, and the same jewels, and put him in front of this person…” Roxy throws up her hands. “And hope that this bravo recognizes Charlie?”

“More – hope that, having recognized Charlie, Charlie is brought to confess,” Harry says grimly. “And to betray his family likewise.”

“It can’t be done,” Roxy says.

“Why not?” Bors says unexpectedly.

Every eye in the room turns to him. “Let’s hear it then,” Harry says.

Bors shrugs. “You’re having a big party, aren’t you?”

“You mean the reception?” A started look has come onto Morgana’s face.

“Yes, that.” Bors shrugs again – the to-dos of the bon ton mean little to him. “Well, isn’t it your party? You can invite whoever you want, right?”

“We can certainly invite the King faction,” Harry agrees, “but what good does that do us?”

“Well, can’t you enforce a dress code?”

“It’s not the army,” Merlin objects.

“No,” Roxy says, slowly, as she thinks, “but a certain amount of… suppose it were a masquerade party?”

“For the reception to celebrate Eggsy’s coronation?” Merlin looks appalled.

“Hold a second one later if you don’t like the first,” Bors says bluntly. “Just make sure Hesketh comes to this party wearing the right jewelry and clothes.”

“Is that possible?” Harry looks to Roxy and Morgana. “Is there really a way to arrange matters so that Hesketh has to wear a particular ensemble?”

The two ladies are looking at each other, communicating rapidly in a language that appears to owe as much to facial expressions and body language as to language. “Not a masquerade, perhaps but – ” Roxy begins.

“A theme,” Morgana posits.


“Literary in general, but if we announce Eggsy – ”

Udolpho has options.”

“The rubies,” Roxy says suddenly, and then turns to Harry and asks him a blessedly comprehensible question. “The rubies Eggsy worse to his coronation, those are Hart heirlooms, and famous, yes?”

“Heirlooms, yes,” Harry says cautiously. “Famous…”

Roxy has dismissed him already. “Competition,” she says to Morgana in satisfaction.

“The rumors can be everywhere within a week,” Morgana says, as if something has been decided on.

“Yes,” Roxy says to Harry. “It can be managed.”

Harry holds up his hands in surrender. “I will leave it to you, then.”

“Very wise,” Morgana says comfortably.

“But will identifying Hesketh be enough?” That’s Merlin, and he raises an all-too-valid point. “Even supposing this bravo’s testimony is honest – supposing he is believed by all – even supposing that it is then believed that Charlie really did mean to commit regicide, or have regicide committed, and all of his denials and claims of ignorance are seen through – what will that accomplish, really? Supposing Hesketh is transported or even hanged – that still leaves his father and uncles behind, as powerful as they ever were, and now with thrice a grudge against you and Eggsy as before.”

“My dear Merlin,” Morgana says, smiling. “Have you not read The Mysteries of Udolpho?”

“No,” Merlin says guardedly. His glance towards Harry immediately brings him the reassurance he had sought: Harry is likewise ignorant of the work in question.

Bors, however, is sitting forward eagerly. “The black veil?”

“The gothic genre has many useful tropes,” Roxy says serenely. “I happen to know that Lady Hesketh is excessively fond of them.”

“Oh,” Harry says, beginning to understand. “I’ve seen several plays in the genre.” Horrid stuff, generally; ghosts and skeletons and, yes, large quantities of black gauze. “So you mean to say you’ll – what is the term?”

“Create an effect,” Morgana says promptly. Among her many other talents, she had been on the stage herself at one point in her youth. “Hesketh is young – not in years, but in mind. Sheltered, with no outlet for his imagination except novels, of which he has consumed many of the lurid kind. If we confront him with the proper effect – say, the ghost of a dead bravo, come beyond the grave to accuse him of regicide and drag his soul off to the underworld – ”

“Unless,” Roxy adds shrewdly, “Lady Hesketh were to redirect the apparition to a more deserving target – perhaps, to the one who masterminded the plot – ”

“Aha!” Merlin claps his hands. “Like the Commendatore scene in Don Giovanni!”

“Just so!” Roxy agrees.

“You should have said so at once,” Merlin says, miffed but understanding now. “So you propose that, through trickery, we obtain a confession from Hesketh – not only of his own involvement, but of those who had directed him.”

“In public and among their peers,” Bors says.

“After that,” Morgana says, “you should have no trouble getting Parliament to strip the lot of titles and lands, and end them as a threat once and for all.”

“Not only they,” Harry says. For once he’s seeing farther than they are. Usually Galahad is the close-in strategist, the one who deals with the fight ahead of them, while the intelligencers focus on the bigger picture. But Harry has been King these three years to some purpose, it seems, because at last he is beginning to see. “Even King and his ilk are themselves only a symptom. The real enemy is the Registration and Royalty Act. As long as that is law, any family with a lady on the Register has something to gain from Eggsy’s death. By demonstrating the lengths to which some of those families are willing to go – by showing the Lords, in dramatic fashion – I should gain the support I need to destroy the Act entirely.”

“Now that’s a prize worth playing for,” Bors crows.

Merlin is openly grinning. “Well said.”

“With your leave, I’ll brief Guinevere when I go help him dress,” Roxy says.

Harry nods. “Yes, by all means, and assure him that his presence is desired in our councils henceforth – there is much still to be decided, and still more to be done.”

“But it’s a start,” Morgana says. “If you’ll excuse me – I should begin looking over Guinevere’s wardrobe, for I make no doubt we shall need to add to it, to gain the proper effect.”

“While you’re at it,” Harry says, remembering. “What do you think of a more… low-necked style?” He clears his throat.

Merlin hoots with laughter. “Now why would ye want that, ye old dog?”

Bors is chuckling, slapping his knee. “Felt this old house rattling on its foundations not too long ago.”

“I already told cook to double the usual tray,” Roxy says. “Eggsy will be hungry.”

Harry feels caught. “You knew?” he blurts. He hasn’t told them – he and Eggsy should have told them together, when Eggsy comes down to dinner, and Eggsy can show off his mating bite –

“Oh, don’t be so stuffy, of course we knew!” Morgana laughs. “You made enough noise to raise the dead, without the aid of any stage magic! And it’s about time too,” she says seriously. “If you’d had to wait for Eggsy to give birth – ”

Harry thinks of Midwife Owens, and of all the complications that can happen to a lady in childbed even without the connivance of enemies who have shown themselves willing to kill, and shudders.

“It’s a shame,” Morgana sighs, pursuing her own thoughts. “Of all my skills, midwifery isn’t one. I never felt the lack before.”

“You can hardly be an expert at everything,” Bors says reassuringly. From the look Morgana gives him, though, this is the first time anyone has dared to say so in her hearing, and she by no means agrees with the sentiment.

Merlin clears his throat. “We’ll be formal about it later,” he says, “but Harry – congratulations.”

“Thank you,” Harry says automatically. And then, because it’s still the only thing he can think of, and because he can’t hold it in any longer, he blurts out: “He loves me. He saw me as Galahad, and he still loves me.”

“Of course he does,” Roxy laughs.

“You were the only one who ever doubted he could,” Morgana scolds.

“Ye chose a fine lady to be yer Guinevere,” Merlin says. “And we’ll follow him, as well as ye, wherever ye lead.”

Something stings at Harry’s eyes. “Thank you, old friend,” he says softly. Looks around. “All my old friends. I am blessed.”

“And it’s time ye knew it!” Merlin grins and crosses to the liquor cabinet. “Shall we have a toast, then?”

“Aye,” Bors agrees, moving over and helping Merlin pour the drinks. It’s only a moment until everyone has a glass in their hand; together they raise them. The glasses sparkle in the candle-light, turning each a small flame into a conflagration. Just so had the band of them always been. Fierce enough on their own. Together – unstoppable.

“To our Arthur and our Guinevere,” Merlin says. “Long may they reign!”

They do it over again more formally at dinner: Harry escorting Eggsy in, Eggsy making the announcement, the regular toasts and acclamations. After the meal comes the more intimate aftermath. The ladies coo over Eggsy’s mark, which Eggsy pulls back his collar to show. The gentleman enjoy a celebratory cigar. The conversation is cheerful and optimistic. In the midst of a conversation discussing Eggsy’s wardrobe – specifically the ensemble he will wear to announce their mating to Parliament – Roxy recounts Harry’s inquiry into lower necklines, and they laugh.

“But it may be nice,” Eggsy muses. “A jewel neck is very well, but a scoop would show off my gems just as well, I should think.”

“Especially your lovely rubies,” Roxy says knowledgeably.

“On that topic,” Harry says, turning towards the pair. “I have been assured that it is entirely possible to induce Lady Hesketh to wear his rubies to our reception, but I confess the means are quite beyond me.”

“Nothing simpler,” Eggsy says at once. “We turn it into a competition.”

“Over gems?”

“What else?”

“Gems are no different than any other signifier of wealth, except that they tends to be valued more by Omegas,” Roxy says. “But you’ve seen the way Alphas will compete over status. What are titles, lands, incomes, but a way of keeping score? Alphas will bet on whose horse is fastest, and Omegas are just the same, except that our yardsticks of choice are different.”

“Clothes,” Eggsy sighs. “Body types. Mates.” Harry hears an old ache in Eggsy’s voice and puts a hand on his shoulder – not coincidentally, right over the mating bite. He knows Eggsy had not exactly been the toast of the ton after his debut. But though Harry knows that their mating is one of love, it’s still satisfying to think that Eggsy has won in the game that matters to Society: he has successfully mated with the single most eligible bachelor of the age.

 “And jewels,” Roxy says. “Everyone will have remarked on Eggsy’s appearance at his coronation. Every element will have been discussed and discussed again. What we will do is circulate a new set of rumors.”

“About his rubies?” Harry asks.

“About my rubies,” Eggsy says.

“What sort of rumors?”

“That the rubies are the largest of any in London,” Roxy says. “That they are the oldest, having been held by the Hart line for, oh, three hundred years.”

“Seven,” Harry says, offended.

“Yes, but the Hesketh jewels are likely about five hundred years old,” Roxy says. “The purpose is to bait Charlie, not to speak the truth.”

“Five hundred?” Harry frowns. “Are you sure? The family is older…”

“The gems aren’t. Morgana is certain.”

“And that reminds me,” Eggsy says. “I would very much like to meet this prodigy of a Morgana one day. I’ve never met a lady lawyer, nor yet a lady soldier, and I am interested to.” In the midst of this speech, Sally drifts by and refills Eggsy’s tea-cup. “Thank you,” Eggsy says to her, courteously and innocently.

Harry strangles a cough. “I am sure you will soon,” he says. “She’ll be at the reception.” Protecting Eggsy, of course. Her pose as a servant will likely come to an end that very evening, and quite publicly if it does. Harry does not expect Chester King to accept his fate without violence. But that very fact makes it vital to keep Morgana’s incognito intact until that night, even if he expects the event to destroy it very thoroughly.

“I look forward to making her acquaintance.”

“So you will lay a snare for Lady Hesketh,” Harry says, moving the conversation back onto safer ground. “By bragging about Eggsy’s rubies, but making it sound as if Charlie’s would overshadow them.”

“Precisely,” Roxy says approvingly. “Any lady would be eager to prove their own gems superior.”

“And the clothes?”

“Similar tactics,” Eggsy says. “By choosing a theme for our reception and requiring attendees to come in costume, we restrict dress options. Beyond that…”

“That’s what bribing servants are for.” Roxy smiles. “Lady Hesketh will find that he has only one suitable outfit, when the moment comes to it.”

“And I,” Eggsy says, eyes dancing, “will be inaugurating a new fashion in low collars.”

Harry kisses him. He really can’t be expected to help it, even if others are present. Though when he looks up – only a moment later, he’d have sworn – they’re alone.

“Where did everyone go?” he asks, bemused.

“Bors and Merlin left to play a round of billiards while we were talking about the age of my rubies,” Eggsy says. “Roxy saw herself out a few minutes ago.”

“A few minutes?” Time certainly flies. “Well, if we’re not disturbing anyone…”

Several more minutes tick away. Not that anyone is counting. Harry certainly isn’t. He only knows he’s running short of breath when Eggsy puts his hand on Harry’s chest and gently separates them.

“I think,” Eggsy says, “that we should retire for the evening.”

Harry positively beams at him. “What an excellent idea.” He bends and, ignoring Eggsy’s protests, scoops Eggsy up in his arms.

Eggsy winds his arms around Harry’s neck, laughing. “Soon I’ll be too big for you to do this,” he says.

“Never,” Harry swears. “I’ll go back to training if need be.”

“You will?”

“For you,” Harry says, “anything.”

Eggsy all but melts into Harry’s arms. “I love you,” he says.

And this time, Harry has the presence of mind to return the sentiment, before whisking his mate away upstairs to spend the rest of the evening – and the long night that follows – alone together.

Chapter Text

The best advice Eggsy gets on the day of the reception in honor of his coronation as Queen is simple. “Just breathe,” Roxy counsels him, “and remember: if someone is charging at you, shoot first and ask questions later.”

Eggsy pats the hidden pocket in his tunic, where a tiny, pearl-handled pistol rests. A gift from Harry, its twin is still sitting on the vanity, waiting to be concealed in the billowing sleeves of Eggsy’s tunic. “As long as they fall after the first two shots I’m fine.” He has no spare power or shot – nor, truth be told, is he much good at reloading. Their limited practice time has been spent in another direction: marksmanship.

“They will,” Roxy predicts. Then, more practically: “And if they don’t, by the time they’ve recovered from two bullets, one of us will be on them.”

Indeed, every member of the Knights of the Round Table – as Eggsy has dubbed them, much to their apparent chagrin, having somehow not realized that choosing Arthurian nicknames opened them up to this demonym – will be present tonight, under various guises. Merlin will be managing the household; Morgana, Eggsy has been told, will be present under the guise of a servant. Bors is to play the role of equerry for the evening. Those of the nobility, of course, need no excuse. The Queen hardly stirs a step without Lady Carlyle’s attendance; her title is almost superfluous. Bedivere receives an invitation as Baron Dunwell. Tristan, as the Archbishop, is another whose invite needs no explanation. Percival is attending as Earl Morton, along with his wife, who has apparently been taking combat lessons of his own.

“And you never told me?” Eggsy had demanded. “We could have learned together!”

“I was under a vow of silence!” James had defended himself.

“All those visits from Roxy – ”

“Do you want to yell at me, or do you want to practice together?”

Eggsy had crossed his arms – petulantly, as even he had had to admit. “Can’t it be both?”

It is comforting to think that James has a smattering of defensive competence himself. Most of the Knights are Alphas, and it’s difficult to spend extended portions of time at a Social event around any particular Alphas. Spending the evening arm-in-arm with Countess Morton, with Lady Carlyle as their shadow, will pass completely unremarked-upon. Or at least with nothing worse than gossip on the part of those who envy James his favor with the Queen.

Roxy finishes tying up Eggsy’s laces and hands him the second pistol. “Make sure you can get to it easily,” she cautions. “Just as we practiced.”

Eggsy gets it settled in his sleeve and nods. “I’m ready.”

“Let’s go over the plan.”

“I know it,” Eggsy protests. He does, backwards and forwards: he’d helped in its devising, and they’d gone through this exercise at least once daily since their return from Tintagel.

Roxy sets herself in the small stool she uses to dress Eggsy’s hair, immovable as a mountain. “Then this will be quick,” she says brightly.

Eggsy sighs. “Very well.”

“What is our goal?”

“To extract a public accusation of attempted regicide.”

“Who from?”

“Charlie Hesketh.”

“Who of?”

“One of Lord Chester King, Earl Huntington, or Earl Cavendish.”

“To what end?”

“The elimination of the Registration and Royalty Act.”

Roxy nods approval. “How shall we elicit this accusation and confession?”

“By confronting him with an accuser of his own.”

The bravo who had identified his client as a lady of quality, one Saunders, had agreed to help with their charade. In fairness, he hadn’t been given much of a choice. Merlin and Bors had put the fear of God and the law into Saunders, detailing all the grisly ways that an attempted regicide might be put to death, and then competing with each other to invent ever more terrible torments for Saunders to suffer while burning in hell. Then, when Saunders had been left alone and trembling in fear, Eggsy had made his entrance. Dressed all in white, hand purposefully on his belly, crown on his head, he’d been as close to a vision as artistry could permit. Eggsy had had a short speech of exhortation prepared, but it hadn’t been necessary. Saunders had fallen to the ground, kissed the hem of Eggsy’s gown the moment he’d come close enough, and sworn that he’d do whatever the blessed Queen commanded.

Eggsy has to smile now, remembering the effort they’d gone to in order to make him up as something out of a painting of the Virgin. Sally had put her deftness with cosmetics to use again. Roxy had whipped the gown together, and Harry had found the crown: not the actual crown of Mary of Modena, of course, which is already safely back in its place at the Tower, but a battered old tin crown from the long-disused toy chest in Tintagel’s nursery, polished to a shine by the butler. Saunders had never known the difference.

“The rest is improvisation,” Roxy says. “Keep your head, keep near one of us, and it will be well.”

Eggsy gets to his feet, ungainly but determined. He faces the mirror, evaluating his appearance. The tunic is striking, a fusion of old and new. Belled sleeves and a wide, swinging waist evoke the gowns of the last generation. But the low neckline that shows Eggsy’s shoulders – and his mating mark – will set the dowagers by their ears. For all of five minutes. After which, God willing, they’ll have something much more important to gossip about.

Roxy wraps a fichu around Eggsy’s exposed neck and shoulders, pinning it into place with a jeweled clasp. It’s knitted thickly enough that the secret of the mating bite is concealed, to be revealed at the dramatically correct moment.

“Perfection,” Roxy decrees.

Eggsy nods. “Then let’s be about it.”

“Countess Huntington, so good of you to come.” Eggsy positively beams. The lady in question squints at him, no doubt unsure of why Eggsy is offering her such an effusive greeting. “And Lady Hesketh! My, my, what lovely rubies you have!”

“Five hundred years old,” Charlie says, preening. He holds out his right hand, allowing Eggsy a closer look at the bracelet. And ring.

“Set in gold, I see – how impressive,” Eggsy gushes. He glances quickly over Charlie’s costume. Morgana has come through again – if Charlie has two such disreputable outfits, Eggsy will be very much surprised. “And you are quite in theme!”

Charlie’s expression turns sulky. “I had thought of wearing a habit, like Laurentina,” he says in poorly concealed annoyance. “But unfortunately it could not be arranged.”

“I think you make a charming Annette,” Eggsy says. That his own outfit is most reminiscent of Emily St. Aubert is a mere coincidence, as is the disparity it places between them: Eggsy remains, even costumed, a lady of rank, while Charlie is masquerading as a servant from the same novel. The costume certainly does much to conceal Charlie’s sex, especially if it were to be paired with a veil. And the stains on the tunic in particular cannot all be owing to soot. This must be what Charlie had worn to meet with Saunders. Eggsy conceals his glee beneath his smile of greeting.

“Please,” he invites, in lieu of gloating. “Come and be welcome. I am sure you will find other friends here.” Or at least family: Earl Cavendish has arrived long since, and Chester King nearly ten minutes earlier.

“Thank you,” Countess Huntington says, graciously enough, and sails on. Charlie Hesketh is left to stare at Eggsy. A spark of animal cunning appears briefly in his gaze. Does he suspect? But after a moment it vanishes. Charlie makes the briefest courtesy and follows his mother.

“Your Majesty!” another voice calls, almost on Charlie’s heels. Eggsy turns to greet his mother – once again, thankfully, on the protective arm of Baron Dunwell. Eggsy gives Bedivere a look of thanks for his continued escort over Michelle’s shoulder as the two embrace. “My, you’re positively radiant,” Michelle says, patting Eggsy’s bump as they separate. “I am so glad for you.”

Eggsy’s smile feels nearly pasted on after half an hour’s worth of greeting arrivals, but it’s easier to keep the expression up when faced with Michelle’s pleasure. “I am as well,” he says sincerely. “Thank you for everything you did to help me get here.”

Michelle falters, then rallies. “Oh my egg,” she whispers. “You deserve everything you have.”

Bedivere bows and takes Michelle’s arm back. “We are looking forward to an exciting evening,” he says.

For him, Eggsy nearly grins. “As am I.”

Michelle and Bedivere are very nearly the last to arrive – Michelle and Countess Huntington have been making something of a contest between them of being fashionably late, over the past few months. Michelle had started doing it to bask in the limelight of Eggsy’s coronation. Countess Huntington, as far as Eggsy can tell, has taken up the competition out of some misguided belief that it establishes her superior claim to the position of Queen Mother. As if arriving later than Michelle to a party will automatically replace Eggsy with Charlie beneath the crown. It tickles Eggsy for Huntington to have lost the race tonight.

Roxy is checking a discreet pocket-watch. “Very nearly time for the announcement,” she says. “Anyone who isn’t here is someone we can live without. Let’s get you into position.”

Harry is already drifting towards the dais at the rear of the grand room. Merlin is standing against a nearby wall, as discreet as a post. Bors stalks behind the King, visibly uncomfortable in palace garb. In the crowd around Harry Eggsy picks out the familiar faces: Percival, Tristan, Bors. James appears at Eggsy’s left side, Roxy having already claimed the right, and flanks him as they approach the dais together. When they are close enough, Harry gestures to Bors.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Bors booms. He needs no amplification. He is instantly and clearly heard at all corners of the room.

Discreet servants put out every fourth candle around the room, everywhere except the dais. To Eggsy, who knows it is coming, the loss of light is perceptible. To anyone who doesn’t expect it, it should pass as unnoticeable. For the moment. Attention is oriented to the dais, where the lighting remains normal. Where Harry, tall and resplendent, is standing forth. And where Eggsy rises to join him, settling properly into place on Harry’s arm where he belongs.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Harry says, taking over where Bors had left off. His is no parade-ground bellow, but one isn’t necessary. In the hush that has settled over the crowd his calm, measured tones carry clearly. “My Queen and I have been enjoying the pleasure of your company this evening. The occasion is certainly a joyous one! After much turmoil and strife, the country has resumed its even keel. We have a King – ” he bows, just slightly. “A Queen – ” Eggsy makes the equivalent curtsey in the same degree. “And the succession of the throne is assured.” Eggsy, prompted, turns slightly to make his bump more easily visible, and lays his hand atop it in the now-familiar gesture.

There is a rumble, and then a swelling round of applause. Eggsy smiles slightly; Harry maintains a smooth countenance. Not every face in the crowd is so serene. In the back, around the edges, where the light is dimmest, the smiles are strained or missing. Even the politically ignorant could identify members of the King faction by their frowns.

Harry raises a hand, and the crowd obligingly falls silent. “In addition!” he cries. “There is one more blessing we have to share.”

Eggsy has already flicked open the clasp on the jeweled pin holding his fichu in place. As Harry turns to him and every gaze swings, Eggsy whips it off as dramatically as he can. Servants around the room extinguish the second of every fourth candle. The effect is to make it seem as if Eggsy stands on a stage, bright lights shining only upon him, and the mating mark escapes no one.

There is a moment of silence. Then a cry – not from Hesketh, Eggsy has been watching him, but from elsewhere, presumably another lady on the Register who had still nourished hopes of being Queen. Hesketh is still. He looks once at his mother, who looks back at him calmly. In that moment Eggsy is sure that Mary Hesketh knows about the assassination attempt. Her gaze upon her son speaks as clearly as words: what of it? Do you say that a true mating can only be broken by the death of one of the parties? So be it: we were willing to pay that price heretofore.

The other lady, crying out, has likely not considered that they might still have a chance with a widower Harry. Most of the ton will not leap at once to thoughts regicide. Though the cooler among them will be looking at Eggsy’s belly and calculating to themselves. Childbirth is not free of dangers.

And that is not a thought that avails Eggsy. He puts it away firmly, to be fretted over in the dead of some night yet to pass. Tonight there is still a part he must play. And even that is still to come. At the moment, dowagers are tutting over the scandal of Eggsy’s low neckline, ignorant of the way the young ladies in their charges are looking at Eggsy with envy. Their concerns are limited by the sight of two shoulders and a collar-bone, little knowing what more remains in store.

“My countrymen,” Harry is saying, “I am pleased beyond measure to tell you that my Queen and I have mated in the old way, and naught but death shall part us. And yet, what is it that I say? Naught but death?” He makes dramatic pause, and Eggsy can’t help but admire his pose. “But that thought is not original to me! Indeed I say to you – it has already been attempted!”

Shocked cries erupt from around the room. A rapid hum of talk immediately takes hold, sweeping the room. What did he say? Could he possibly mean – who – how – surely we’ve misunderstood – can it be?

“Not a month gone my Queen was attacked,” Harry goes on. Insensibly his speech has shifted, taking on a cadence that comes from a lifetime of oratorical training. “Brigands beset us on the road as we traveled to my seat in Tintagel. In my forgiving nature – ” Eggsy, having known Harry would say this, controls his expression successfully – “I believed them to be guilty of mere brigandry, a party of bandits seeing a rich target. Imagine, my fellow nobles, picture my shock, when, as the last of them lay dying, he confessed to me that ‘twas all a plot to murder my Queen!”

Gasps run the room. “Impossible!” comes a cry from one corner. “Barbaric!” another shouts. “Kill them all!” comes a third cry, but a fourth is soon taken up, not directly from the mouths of any of King or his compatriots but certainly from their cronies: “Produce this person!”

The Knights circulating through the crowd could have added their voices to whichever side they pleased. They could have bolstered the bloodthirsty cries for revenge, however impossible that may seem, since Harry has claimed the attackers all lie dead. They could have joined the more common shock, or even shouted disbelief. But instead they amplify the cries for proof: “Bring this person forward!” they shout, and those around them shout likewise. And the Knights add: “Let them point out the culprit!”

King’s allies take up this cry willingly enough; they believe it to be impossible. Harry has said the attackers are all dead. Their own intelligence will say the same. The survivors have been kept carefully under lock and key. Chester King will have long believed that this crime is undetected. No one shouts louder for an investigation than the one who believes his guilt cannot be proved.

Now it’s Eggsy’s turn. He steps forward and holds up his hands for silence, and it is given to him where it might not even have been given to Harry, so instinctive is the deference towards a lady. “The culprits are before God,” he says, voice emotional, trembling. “Or perhaps – they are before another…” Eggsy raises his eyes briefly towards Heaven, then drops them to the floor below. He starts to clasp his hands but thinks better of it. Don’t oversell, Roxy had counseled. “I cannot summon them here. Only a guilty conscience may call forth the dead.”

“But surely,” Harry protests, turning now towards Eggsy. “Surely none here have such a conscience!”

“No!” the various assembled nobles cry, prompted and lead by the Knights in the crowd. “No one! Not I! Surely not!”

A serving-maid is standing in the back of the room, next to the large grandfather clock. No one has noticed her winding it. Certainly no one has compared the time on its face to the time told by their various pocket-watches. No one realizes that it has been deliberately mis-set.

It begins to chime. Loudly, ponderously, cutting through the noise of the crowd like the voice of justice. It chimes twelve times.

The candles surrounding Eggsy and Harry on the dais go out.

Muttering breaks out almost immediately among the crowd. In a few moments it will become relentlessly practical. Some will call for the servants; others will take the still-lit candles out of their holders and go around relighting their fellows. There is only a moment for the effect to be seized.

“I see them!” a voice booms.

Anything we ask, indeed.

The crowd rustles, parts. There in the center, previously concealed among them, is Saunders. The servants’ garb he had been wearing is discarded. He is wearing the same clothes he’d worn when the lady had hired him. And he is lit from within by a seemingly unearthly glow – the glow, at least so it is hoped others will believe, of the spirit.

Everyone else is watching Saunders. Eggsy is watching Charlie. And he sees the moment when Charlie recognizes Saunders. Charlie turns nearly as pale as Saunders, and Charlie hasn’t the excuse of make-up. Sanders sees Charlie as well and strides closer – closer – closer. The others in the crowd melt away, but Charlie stands stock-still. And Saunders raises his arms and points, dead-center.

“I see them,” he says again, no less resonant. “I see the one who damned me.”

Charlie’s mouth opens, but nothing comes out, neither a denial nor an affirmation, nor even a gibber. It’s Mary Hesketh who speaks. She leaps to her child’s defense, suddenly a tigress, no hint of fainting or ill-health about her. “Begone, spirit!” she demands. “You have no business here!”

I was right, Eggsy thinks in satisfaction. He’d thought Charlie must get his taste in gothic novels – never mind his leave to read them – from his mother. Morgana had investigated based on Eggsy’s hunch and provisionally confirmed it. Now it’s a certainty, which is all to the good.

Saunders advances another step. “You it was who set me on this path!” he shrieks. “And you it is shall join me in Hell!”

“You can’t take me!” Charlie yells.

“Can I not?” Saunders booms. “You came to me and my companions, you paid us in the cursed gold – ”

“Mother, help me!” Charlie cries, clinging to Mary.

“ – and you held back as secret, that the carriage bore the Queen!”

“No! No, they didn’t tell me!”

“What’s this?” Percival cries, taking up the thread. “You admit it?”

“It’s not true!” Charlie spins, looking for a place to run, but the crowd is a silent mass at his back, accusing and imprisoning. He turns back to the seeming-spirit, at bay. “We were both lied to! I didn’t know the carriage carried the Queen!”

“Charlie, be silent,” Mary snaps.

Saunders reaches for Charlie, a terrible hand wreathed in the dirt of the grave. “I will burn – but not alone!”

“No!” Charlie cries again. “I don’t deserve it! Not me! I didn’t know!” He looks around one more time, but there is no other avenue of escape. From his position on the dais, Eggsy can see a stir on the fringes of the crowd. One figure pushes towards the exit. Another, towards the dais.

Charlie sees one of them, and points. “My uncle knew! He sent me to hire you, but never told me against whom!”

Chester King breaks through the edges of the crowd, bent on the door and freedom. He looks around wildly at the accusation and sees that Charlie is pointing at him.

“You ungrateful brat!” he shouts. One step he takes towards Charlie, before his sense overrides his anger. He turns on his heel and bolts for the exit. The crowd is behind him. The only thing between he and freedom is the serving-maid who had mis-set the clock.

She steps into his path. The light from the nearby brace of candles falls on her face, and Eggsy sees that it’s Sally. His heart leaps in gladness. Sally will have a pistol, or some other such means of defense. Though she doesn’t produce it immediately, the way she sets her feet and stands declares clearly that she means to prevent King’s departure.

King either doesn’t see this or doesn’t give it its full credit. His lips pulled back in a snarl, he reaches out to shove her aside.

The next few actions are a blur. Sally grabs his arm, shoves at it – locking his elbow, Eggsy thinks, startled to recognize a technique Roxy had taught him. Then Sally steps forward, forcing King off-balance, and almost casually throws him over her shoulder.

Eggsy blinks. He watches Sally put her foot on King’s chest, and it hits him in a blinding flash. He turns to look straight at Harry and give him a Look. “Morgana, posing as a servant?” he hisses. “You – you liar!”

“I didn’t lie!” Harry protests, also in an undervoice. “I… elided.”

“We will discuss this later,” Eggsy says frostily. The sound of pounding footsteps draws his attention. Earl Cavendish had been on the near side of the room to the dais when Saunders had appeared. Unable to bolt for the door, as Chester King had, Cavendish is attempting what Harry and most of the Knights had expected he should: to throw the dice once and for all, and complete the regicide Saunders and his band had failed to carry out. Crowns have been taken by force before. If Cavendish cannot marry his niece to the King, the thinking will have gone, then he will simply have to take a more direct path to power.

Harry grins fiercely and settles his own stance. Eggsy has to restrain himself from rolling his eyes. Harry is armed, both with a pair of pistols and a long dirk; Cavendish has only his bare hands. There is no reason for Harry to roll around on the floor with Cavendish like a pair of overgrown puppies. And yet, to all appearances, that is exactly what Harry – or more probably Galahad – intends.

Eggsy twists his elbow, and the pistol drops from its pocket in his sleeve into his hand. Knights, he thinks with a sigh. Well, if Galahad won’t take thought for the dignity of the crown, Eggsy will. He raises the pistol, waits for Cavendish to make the leap up to the dais, and shoots him neatly in the heart.

Cavendish crumples to the sound of fresh screams. Harry gives Eggsy a look every bit as betrayed as the one Eggsy had given him, upon discovering that Sally is Morgana. “I could have handled him!” Harry protests.

“One flash-heat per month isn’t enough for you?” Eggsy raises a meaningful eyebrow. Harry has the grace to look slightly ashamed.

Roxy is suddenly at Eggsy’s side, whisking the pistol away. “That’s torn it,” she mutters. “You were only supposed to use that in self-defense.”

“Close enough,” Eggsy shrugs.

“Close enough, but look at them.” Roxy gestures with her chin. Eggsy follows the motion, looking out over the crowd – stunned, disbelieving, and – disapproving? There’s a shift in the crowd, and suddenly Eggsy sees Michelle. Bedivere is still at her side, though there seems to be no danger; it’s at Michelle Eggsy looks, and he sees, in the horror on her face, not a fear for Eggsy’s life, but worse – his reputation.

Oh. Yes. Noble, delicate, proper Omegas probably don’t shoot down attackers in cold blood, do they? Drat.

“What now?” Eggsy asks Roxy, helplessly. He’s still keeping his voice low, but the crowd is beginning to split, and soon others will be up on the dais.

Roxy hesitates, then – “Faint.”


“You were divinely inspired to shoot Cavendish. It was a miracle of God’s justice. Now the moment has passed, and you’re overset. Faint!”

Eggsy freezes. He’s never fainted in his life, how is he supposed –

“You’ve seen Countess Huntington do it a dozen times,” Roxy snaps.

Right. So he has. And there’s nothing on this Earth a Hesketh can do that Eggsy can’t do better, so –

Eggsy closes his eyes and lets himself fall.

Chapter Text

Harry sees Eggsy faint and leaps to catch him, realizing the moment that he’s done so that his sudden rush of fear and adrenaline are unnecessary. Eggsy is tense in his arms, quite obviously still conscious, and is peeking between his eyelashes, trying to get a glimpse of the scene. Roxy can see it as well: she’s hovering over the pair of them, ostensibly fussing in the manner of the typical companion, but actually she’s muttering scathing commentary. “Good God, Eggsy, you’re stiff as a board. People who have fainted don’t – that’s better.” In Harry’s arms, Eggsy relaxes somewhat. “Stop trying to peek, you’ll ruin the effect.”

A mulish frown crosses Eggsy’s lips. Harry can hear him as clearly as if he’d spoken: I want to know what’s going on.

“They’re relighting the candles,” Harry reports. “Merlin’s got Saunders out of the room, good. No one seems to have noticed. Tristan has taken charge of Ladies Hesketh and Huntington – ”

Eggsy huffs a small breath. They’re clearly in need of spiritual counsel after that, Harry translates that to.

“Bedivere is staying with your mother in case anyone else tries anything. Morgana has Chester King corralled, of course. Earl Huntington – ” Harry squints. “Yes, Bors has him.” Whether or not Huntington is involved in the plot has been a matter of some debate among the Knights. His wife certainly is, and his child has been the focus of many of the King faction’s stratagems, but while Huntington is undoubtedly a political ally of King’s, there is a fairly wide gap between maneuvering and regicide. Huntington’s participation is not obviously necessary at any point in the plan, and the conspirators may have heeded the old adage about how many can keep a secret. But until they’re sure, Huntington’s movements will be carefully watched.

Roxy fishes something out of her reticule with a cry of triumph. “Smelling salts,” she says. “Time for your resurrection, Eggsy. Don’t actually breathe in – ” This advice apparently comes too late, because a moment later he’s coughing and gasping. “Well, that’s authentic at least. Here, sit up.”

Harry helps, and Eggsy does so, looking appropriately woozy. “Charlie?” he gasps.

“With Tristan,” Harry repeats.

Eggsy shakes his head impatiently. “No, I mean – he said he didn’t know that the brigands he was hiring were to kill us. Can it be true?”

“It’s not out of the question,” Harry says thoughtfully. “Much like Earl Huntington – there was no strict need for him to have that detail, and every one added to the circle weakens the secret.”

“I wouldn’t trust Hesketh to keep something like that protected,” Roxy agrees. “Though to save his own skin…”

“Does it really matter?” Harry asks, pursuing a different angle. “Hesketh knew he was hiring violence to someone. The law may make the distinction between regicide and homicide, but morally speaking…”

“Don’t ever let anyone hear you say that,” Roxy says in a furious undervoice. “Dieu et votre droit.

Harry can appreciate her point. The divine right of kings is not only an important foundational element of English society, but also the very thing giving Harry the power he needs to crush the King faction and restore safety to their little family. Sedition from the monarch is a dangerous thing indeed. But Harry hadn’t been born to the throne; his position in the succession had been a very distant thing before V-Day, and he had been raised both with no expectation of ever being nearer to it, and with a firm sense of the value of all men. Admittedly an unusual thing for a noble to possess, but it has served him well. And Eggsy smiles softly at Harry, seeming to approve the sentiment. Harry smiles back at him and forgets to care.

“Help me up,” Eggsy directs. Roxy takes one of his arms and Harry the other, and they help him to his feet. Most of the Knights have vanished down servants’ corridors in the intervening time, their prisoners in tow. The remaining occupants of the room, seeing their monarchs rise again, fall into a fidgeting silence.

Harry resists the urge to groan. He doesn’t have a speech for this. But everyone is looking at him expectantly, so he’d better make one.

“Ladies and gentlemen…” never a bad beginning. “Please, be calm. I know the experience we just shared is unsettling, but it is only further proof that justice can never be denied.”

“God save the King!” someone shouts, and the cry is taken up. Harry doesn’t dare turn his head, but he can feel Roxy smirking. Divine right of kings indeed. Harry raises his hands again for silence.

“You are all welcome to continue to enjoy the refreshments provided while your carriages are brought around.” The urge to leave is thick in the air – everyone wanting to get home and have a nice cup of tea and a warm fire and reassure themselves that whatever transgressions they have committed, at least they haven’t been confronted by a vengeful spirit of the dead – but it will be at least an hour before everyone’s carriages can jostle their way through the drive. “The Queen must retire, and I…” he trails off, invention failing him. The average lord wouldn’t depart an entertainment just to hover over their fainting wife.

The Duke of Marlborough rises to the occasion, stepping forward and bowing. “We beg you not to stand on ceremony,” he says, voice carrying clearly. “We are your servants in all things. Attend the Queen and the child, your Majesty, if it pleases you. Rest assured that we will be vigilant on your behalf, and see that none escape justice.”

Excellent. Harry seizes the opportunity gratefully, offering a slight return bow of his own as a sign of his approval. And Eggsy picks up a cue of his own, holding out his hand to the Duke to kiss. “We are certain that all loyal nobles desire justice,” he says, voice overflowing with gratitude. Instantly several who had been lingering around the edges of the crowd look around, visibly searching for some act of justice to perform. “Thank you, your Grace, your initiative warms us.”

The Duke bows over Eggsy’s hand as deeply as any could wish. “We will care for England while you care for its future, your Majesty.”

That’s an exit line if Harry ever heard one. Since it’s a night for Romantic themes and florid gestures, he simply picks Eggsy right up in a bridal carry and strides for the door behind the dais, the one that leads to the rest of the house. Roxy follows behind demurely. Eggsy helps out by twining his arms around Harry’s neck and resting his cheek against Harry’s shoulder. It likely makes him look extremely delicate to the watching nobles. It make Harry want to take his clothes off.

Unfortunately for Harry’s carnal ambitions, Merlin appears like a jack-in-the-box the moment Harry is out of the public eye. “We’ve got them,” he declares without further ado. “Hesketh is singing like a bird. Once Countess Huntington realized what he was doing, she started talking too. She’s choosing what she says to protect Hesketh as much as possible. But it seems Hesketh truly didn’t know the plot was to murder you, your Majesties.”

“What excuse did they feed him?” Roxy asks.

“That their family coffers had been drained by their ongoing legal and Parliamentary maneuvering, and they needed funds to continue the fight.”

“So, brigandry, but not regicide,” Eggsy concludes. He’s turned to watch the proceedings. It would be easier if Harry were to put him down, but Harry is disinclined to do so. “I’m glad to hear it.”

“You are?” Harry shakes his head over his wife’s forgiving nature. “Didn’t he torment you during your Seasons?”

“Yes,” Eggsy says lightly, “but he wasn’t the only one, and if everyone who tormented me were to attempt to kill me, I would never have a moment’s rest.”

Merlin grins. “Then may I take it, your Majesty, that you are willing to accept a lesser punishment for Hesketh, if he continues to cooperate?”

Eggsy nods. “If he truly didn’t know – I assume Morgana is involved in the questioning?”

“She is.”

“He won’t be able to lie to her,” Eggsy nods.

Harry cranes his neck to look down at Eggsy in disbelief. “You haven’t even really met her!”

“Of course I have, don’t be silly. I was just calling her by the wrong name for a while,” Eggsy says. At his side, Roxy is nodding.

“Is this an Omegan thing?” Harry asks, bewildered.

“We are said to be excellent judges of character.”

“That’s an old wives’ tale.”

“With an element of truth,” Roxy disagrees. “We have the best noses. You’d be surprised how many Alphas think lying is just about their expression and not their scent.”

Eggsy has returned to the point at hand. “If Morgana says Charlie really didn’t know, then exile from Society is enough for me. Huntington has a small estate down in Surrey, I believe. Charlie and the Countess can live there quietly. If I never see them again, I’ll be satisfied.”

“The Countess will kick up a fuss,” Merlin predicts. “She has other children, and she’s a prominent hostess. She’d accept retirement for Hesketh, but for herself?”

“Then you shall remind her that it’s never too late to be transported,” Eggsy says coldly. “She knew more than Charlie, I’m convinced. We’ll never prove it, but she doesn’t need to know that. The deal is both or neither.”

“Surrey has many beauties,” Merlin says. “I’m sure she’ll see reason.”

“See to it,” Eggsy orders.

“Yes, your Majesty.” Merlin bows.

“What of Earl Huntington?” Harry asks.

Merlin shrugs. “He knew something was afoot, but it’s hard to tell what. Strange to say, even as Hesketh’s sire, he stood to gain the least from the scheme. He rarely takes his seat in Parliament; the political power was to be Cavendish’s gain. And King was the one who needed the financial boost. Huntington’s estates are robust enough; he doesn’t gamble and he only buys the horses he needs, so they’ve no debts. And his pleasures are simple.”

“You’re being very diplomatic,” Roxy says, “but the plain fact of the matter is, Huntington’s a lazy bookworm. He likes to eat good dinners and read rare books. As long as his estate keeps him in both, he’s no need to involve himself in hiring brigands or rewriting laws.”

Merlin nods. “I don’t say he wouldn’t have been pleased to find his child on the throne, but I don’t think he’d take any risks to secure it. Mary Huntington was the one with the ambition. Chester King and Earl Cavendish supplied the means and the greed. Huntington was simply unnecessary.”

“And Charlie had the vanity,” Eggsy says quietly.

“Well, he’ll pay for it in the end,” Roxy says.

“Make sure they give you evidence beyond their confessions alone,” Harry says.

Merlin looks at him steadily for a long moment. Then he raises an eyebrow. Then, at length, he clears his throat.

“Just making sure,” Harry mutters.

“Everything is in hand,” Merlin says. “Bedivere will get things moving in Parliament. The spontaneous indignation of a loyal citizen – and if anyone attributes an extra motivation to him, it will be his passion for Countess Rowley, not his former military service. Just in case.”

When Merlin says everything is in hand, Harry may believe it. He takes his dismissal with good grace and nods. “Thank you, Merlin. I’m going to take the Queen upstairs now.”

“An excellent plan,” Merlin approves. He bows. “Good evening, your Majesties.”

Eggsy is kissing Harry the instant the door closes behind them. Roxy had declined even to enter Eggsy’s chambers, saying she’d be back tomorrow with fresh clothing and to ring if they needed her. Harry had taken that as a good sign, but he still hadn’t been fully prepared for the ferocity of Eggsy’s overtures.

“So I take it,” Harry manages between kisses, “that we – mm – are on the same page about our next actions?”

“‘On the same page’, oh my God,” Eggsy groans. “What does it say about me that I find that sexy?”

“That you’re my mate and I love you?” Harry guesses.

The look Eggsy gives him makes Harry’s pants instantly three sizes too small. “Good answer,” he purrs. He leaves off climbing Harry to climb into bed, reclining and beckoning to Harry in a way that must be intentionally seductive.

Harry looks at that hand, and looks at Eggsy, and says, “What does it say about me that I’m remembering you shooting Earl Cavendish?”

Eggsy stills. “It wasn’t that I thought you couldn’t handle him,” he begins.

Harry brushes this aside with an impatient gesture. “It was – ” he swallows. “Extremely attractive.” The rush of adrenaline, the beating of his heart, the anticipation of a fight mingling with dread that Eggsy would be injured somehow – and then the shot, the crumpled body, and Eggsy, magnificent and ascendant, holding that pistol as if he’d been born with it and gazing down at his kill with the cool evaluation of a sniper. Harry had had a vision then of what his life might have been like if he had met Eggsy earlier – if Eggsy had been born earlier, if Eggsy had been the one to come to Macedonia with the Knights instead of his sire Lee. Instead of a nightmare of blood and sand, two dead and four wounded… a cool hand on a trigger, sharp eyes, a ready wit. The target taken out cleanly, and then warm nights with an even warmer body, by day the sights and sounds of a city that had once been lovely. Harry gazes down at Eggsy, wishing he had the words to express a tenth part of this. “I love that you’re so capable,” he tries. “I – I’ll always worry about you, of course, you’re my mate, but to know that you can do this, that you can – I don’t know if I could have made such a shot. I was never a marksman. You drilled a moving target dead in the heart. You would have made an incredible Knight.” He holds his breath, wondering if Eggsy knows, if even after all this time he can possibly understand, what that sentiment truly means.

Eggsy nods slowly. “Then I’d say you’re finally starting to understand why I had that flash-heat in the forest.”

Harry blinks at him. “Yes,” he manages to say. Wondering, as he does, just how he’d gotten this lucky.

“Well then!” Eggsy relaxes, grinning. “What are we waiting for?”

Harry, having no good answer to that question, rids himself of his clothes as rapidly as possible, sighing in relief when he frees his cock from the infernal prison that his pants had become. Eggsy makes an eager noise on seeing it, which is the most erotic thing Harry has ever experienced by several orders of magnitude. But then he seems to hesitate, sending Harry plunging off the other end of the emotional roller coaster. “Eggsy?” he asks, trying for calm. “Dearest?”

Eggsy looks up at him. Looks away. Looks back. Blurts out: “Can I suck you?”

“Of course!” Harry says at once. Then a modicum of sense asserts itself, and he asks: “What’s different this time, that makes you want to ask?” For Eggsy has sucked him before, and never felt the need to study the duvet quite so intensely.

“I’ve heard…” Eggsy trails off again.

Harry decides that continuing to stand at the foot of the bed, naked, while Eggsy looks everywhere but him, is not a wise strategic move. He climbs onto the bed instead and reaches out an offering hand. He is rewarded by Eggsy snuggling up to him instantly. That this lets Eggsy bury his head in Harry’s neck, and avoid looking at him thereby, is a bonus Harry chooses to disregard.

“What have you heard?” Harry prompts.

Eggsy appears to be attempting to merge with Harry on a physical level. “Your knot,” he mumbles.

Said knot pulses, indicating to Harry that it would very much like to buried deep within Eggsy’s body right now. He tells it to calm down and asks, “What about it?”

Eggsy takes a deep breath, moist against Harry’s shoulder. “Could I take it?”

Harry can’t help chuckle fondly. “Evidence would seem to indicate you can, dear.”

“In my mouth.”

Harry’s brain promptly shorts out.

Eggsy lifts his head from Harry’s shoulder to look at him. “Has anyone ever done that for you before?” he asks, a hint of challenge in his voice.

“Never,” Harry says before he can think better of it. But he doesn’t wish the word unsaid when he sees what it does to Eggsy: his cheeks flush, his eyes glitter, and he looks every bit as proud and determined as he had when he’d shot Earl Cavendish dead to protect his mate and crown.

“But it can be done?” Eggsy demands.

“I – I have heard so.” In giggling whispers between young lords in the dorms at Eton and Cambridge, in drunken stories from other nobles over port and cigars, in bragging competitions between soldiers, yes, Harry has heard of the practice. Oral knotting. Harry finds that his hand has lifted of his own volition and is tracing Eggsy’s lips, imagining them stretched wide around his knot. Is it truly even possible? Harry had never been sure. But he is sure of one thing: if anyone would be capable of it, it would be Eggsy.

“Then I want to do it,” Eggsy says.

“It could be dangerous.” It could dislocate Eggsy’s jaw or tear the skin at the corners of his lips. It could – “What if you can’t breathe?”

“You’d lose your knot in a heartbeat if I started choking,” Eggsy says with utter certainty. And he’s right that the adrenaline rush would certainly kill any arousal, but it’s the way he says it, the perfect surety that of course Harry couldn’t possibly –

Harry is kissing him again, kissing him enough that they both almost can’t breathe without any knots being involved. “I love you,” he gasps. “If you want to try – ”

“I do,” Eggsy says. He pushes Harry onto his back and starts to climb down between Harry’s legs.

“What about you?” Harry asks. While they’ve done this as part of foreplay, Eggsy is talking about going all the way, and especially in the position Eggsy is adopting, Harry won’t be able to offer Eggsy much pleasure in return.

“Trust me,” Eggsy says wickedly. “If this works, you won’t even need to touch me.”

That sends the blood rushing to Harry’s cock so fast he almost explodes right there. “Oh God,” he says, “you’ll be the death of me.”

Eggsy bends over Harry’s cock, starting to work with long licks and light sucks, limbering himself up and working to take more of it into his mouth every time. Harry stares at him, captivated almost as much by the vision of him as the reality of it. Eggsy is beautiful, inside and out. Sculped like a goddess, with a heart big enough even to hold Galahad, a wit sharp enough to cut, and a hand steady enough to make target practice of a moving enemy. Eggsy. Impossible, beautiful Eggsy –

“Wait,” Harry gasps suddenly. “No, I don’t – it’s amazing, darling, truly – but before you do it – I want to know.”

“Know what?” Eggsy blinks at him, lips already swollen. His eyes are dark in the bedchamber. Harry had known they would be, the first time they’d met.

“Your name,” Harry says. “‘Eggsy’. Why Eggsy?”

To his surprise, Eggsy laughs. “Oh, that?” He leans down and licks a long stripe up Harry’s cock, then – tease – blows on the tip. “I was a contrary little tot,” he says. “Never wanted to do anything that was good for me. But give me a dare, tell me I couldn’t do something, and I wouldn’t stop till I’d done it. Mother figured out pretty quickly and used it to shameless advantage. You see, she’d egg me on.”

Harry stares at him, then starts laughing too. “That’s where it’s from?”

“That’s where it’s from,” Eggsy confirms. “She started off calling me her little egg, or egger. My nursemaid was Irish, and on her tongue it became Eggsy. It just stuck.”

Harry lets his laughter trail off and strokes a hand down Eggsy’s cheek. Eggsy presses into it like an overgrown cat, all but purring. Harry pets him, considering this information and the new challenge Eggsy has set himself. “So should I tell you,” he says, hearing his voice drop an octave, “that there’s no possible way you can possibly swallow my knot?”

“Oh,” Eggsy says faintly. His cheek heats beneath Harry’s hand. Against Harry’s thigh, he can feel Eggsy’s cock jerk.

“Oh yes,” Harry says, purring now himself. He slides his hand into Eggsy’s hair and tugs slightly, guiding Eggsy back down to his cock. “Let’s see what you’re made of.”

Eggsy goes to it with a will, working Harry’s cock like it’s the most delicious thing he’s every put in his mouth. He seems to like it when Harry tugs on his hair, moaning and pressing into the touch. He definitely likes it when Harry eggs him on. There’s a trail of fluid against Harry’s thigh where Eggsy’s leaking slick.

“Come on, you’re almost there,” Harry coaxes, the first time Eggsy takes his full cock in his mouth, the tip of his nose just brushing Harry’s pubes. “You’ve done so well already, just look at you. God, look at you.” Harry touches Eggsy’s throat with the hand not buried in his hair, marveling. That’s his cock in there. He can feel it, from both sides, the warm wet suction and the faint pressure of his finger stroking over Eggsy’s Adam’s apple. “You’re going to make me knot just by looking at you.”

Eggsy pulls back slightly, testing, then takes Harry back down again. Harry looks down himself. There’s a difference in sensation where his knot will inflate; the area isn’t as sensitive in its uninflated state, where the extra folds of skin that will stretch to accommodate his girth are draped loosely. But he’s pretty sure that his knot is entirely in Eggsy’s mouth, none of it down his throat. That would be dangerous…

“Are you sure?” Harry asks, holding Eggsy’s gaze.

A mulish expression crosses Eggsy’s face. He brushes Harry’s hands aside and dives straight back on Harry’s cock.

Harry groans, stars exploding across his vision. His head falls limply back against the pillows; he stares unseeingly at the canopy. All he knows is Eggsy, Eggsy’s mouth, Eggsy’s hands cupping his balls, Eggsy’s throat working around his cock as he sucks, as he demands Harry’s knot with the wordless language of sex…

“Oh God,” Harry says, “it’s – Eggsy, it’s starting – ”

His knot is swelling. It’s not actually instantaneous, despite what Alphas will brag. The sensation of inflating is incredible in Eggsy’s mouth. None of the usual in-and-out that Harry gets when he’s fucking. The pressure is constant, Eggsy’s tongue pressing up against the bottom of it, lovely support and warmth and Eggsy and his and mate…

 Harry comes in a rush, crying out at the indescribable feeling of it. His come pouring straight down Eggsy’s throat, the rhythm of his swallowing reminiscent of the rhythm of his body when he squeezes down around Harry. And his knot – pressure, so much wonderful, amazing pressure – a series of sharp pricks that he realizes belatedly are Eggsy’s teeth, forced up against the skin of his knot – and then it’s done, they’re locked, and Harry looks down almost fearfully.

Eggsy looks back up at him. There’s a dazed look about him, but no visible signs of pain. His lips are stretched almost white around the base of Harry’s knot; it hadn’t quite got all inside. And his cheeks are bulging out. Harry can feel how he’s pressed up against every inch of Eggsy’s mouth. He thinks he might be able to count the ridges of his palate. The pressure of Eggsy’s teeth aren’t painful – just more sensation. Every nerve ending in Harry’s body is reporting that this is the best feeling in the world. And every beat of Harry’s heart is overflowing with more love for the amazing person doing this for him.

“Darling, I hope you enjoyed it too,” Harry whispers.

Eggsy shifts. Harry looks down and sees ample evidence that Eggsy had, in fact, enjoyed himself thoroughly.

Harry reaches down and tugs a blanket around Eggsy. He himself is too hot to want any coverings, but his mate gets cold. A pillow, too, to help support Eggsy’s baby bump. He can’t lie flat on his belly, which would probably be the most comfortable. Instead he’s turned half onto his side, cheek pillowed on Harry’s thigh, and he reaches out to tuck the pillow more firmly in place.

“I love you so much,” Harry says helplessly. “I – Eggsy, can I ever tell you how much? What you’ve done for me, how you’ve changed my life – I was so empty before you, Eggsy. I was so alone.”

Eggsy makes a humming noise that nearly wrings a second orgasm out of Harry. When the whiteness recedes from his vision, and the satisfied smirk mellows from Eggsy’s face, Eggsy pets Harry’s other thigh and looks up at him inquiringly. Curiosity radiates from him. He’s asking – “You want me to tell you?”

Eggsy nods. To try, his eyes tell Harry. He gestures to himself: We’re going to be here for a while.

“I hope you like the sound of my voice, then,” Harry says, trying to make a joke of it.

Eggsy keeps looking at him. Serious. Steady. Not joking.

“Eggsy,” he whispers.

Go on, Eggsy’s gesture urges.

Harry has to stop and swallow. He reaches down and rests a hand on Eggsy’s head. Not tugging, this time. Not directing. Just connecting them.

“Well,” he says slowly. “Once, many years ago, I found myself sitting by a fountain on a warm evening...”

Chapter Text

Westminster Abbey, Eggsy thinks, really is beautiful.

The previous times he’d been here, he’d been too nervous to really focus on the architecture or the decorations. Coming for his wedding and then for his coronation – the first time expecting he knew not what, and the second time having the firm expectation of being shot at – had rather distracted him from aesthetics. And while he hates to admit that his wedding day hadn’t been the happiest of his life – it’s true, isn’t it.

But today – today might really be the happiest of his life. Happier than mating with Harry. Happier than the day the Registration and Royalty Act had been officially laid to rest by an act of Parliament. Happier even than the day he’d told Harry they’d conceived.

“The candidates for Holy Baptism,” Tristan says, beaming, in full regalia as the Archbishop of Canterbury, “will now be presented.”

Harry and Eggsy step forward.

The chapel is hung with brilliant, festive tapestries. Flowers adorn every surface. It’s Easter – one of the highest of Holy Days. And one of the traditional days for baptism. Eggsy had originally expected to be confined towards the end of April, thereby missing Easter entirely and having to wait Pentecost. But their little cub had decided to make their way into the world early. And so here they are, at the start of a new era, showing off the heir to the throne for the first time.

“Godparents,” Tristan invites, gesturing a welcome. Percival and James stand up and come forward. James is leaning heavily on Percival’s arm – his child shall be baptized at Pentecost, no doubt. And one more joins them.

“Dost thou, in the name of this Child, renounce the devil and all his works?” Tristan begins.

There follows the familiar pattern of questions and answers, prompts and responses. Eggsy lets himself be distracted by his pup, who is awake and looking around at the church with wide blue eyes. She giggles when Tristan passes briefly into her line of sight.

Harry leans over beneath the cover of the godparents obediently affirming their faith in the Holy Ghost. “I see she’s already ingratiating herself with those in power,” he murmurs.

Eggsy has to suppress a laugh. That’s really not fair of Harry. At least he may smile – nay, he may beam his joy to the whole church, because he is presenting his firstborn child today.

Who is beginning to fuss. “Hush now, little Daisy,” Eggsy says fondly, calling her by her nickname. “Almost time.”

In fact, it is time. Tristan is holding out her hands. Eggsy steps forward again, and after a brief reverence towards the altar, places Daisy in them.

“Name this child,” Tristan says.

Eggsy takes Harry’s hand. “We name her Margaret Mary Grace.”

The name had been announced in advance, of course. It had been written on the placard that had sat outside Buckingham Palace announcing Daisy’s safe birth. But still, at the sound of the name, a sigh goes through the audience. One day Margaret Mary Grace, called Daisy, will be King over them all – all those here assembled, and all those elsewhere in England, and Ireland, and Scotland – in the entire Commonwealth.

That’s for another day. Today, Tristan solemnly immerses Daisy up to the waist in the baptismal font, and says the ritual words, making the sign of the cross.

“Amen,” everyone choruses.

The reception is mercifully short; babies are well understood to be difficult company. Of course, Eggsy could hand Daisy over to her nurse, but he’s setting yet another new fashion by trying to do that as little as possible. So the reception comprises a brief tea, and then the guests depart.

Eggsy departs soon likewise, not for another house but for another wing, at least, where he may settle Daisy in a crib for a nap and lie down for a rest of his own. “Sally,” he calls, tugging at his laces.

“Don’t do that,” she scolds, predictably, taking the laces from Eggsy’s hands and undoing them deftly. “There. Will you want your nightgown?”

“No,” Harry says, coming in behind Sally and giving Eggsy a lascivious wink. “I think I’ll keep him naked from now on.”

“Hah,” Eggsy says dryly. To Sally: “I don’t think I’ll take the rest off. “I was just going to lay down for a few minutes.”

Sally pauses. “Oh, would you prefer to do the checkup later this evening?”


“It’s been two weeks.”

Two weeks – oh. Eggsy feels himself blush slightly. “Post-mating heats are rarely fertile, you know that.”

“Nevertheless,” Sally says sternly. Since she’d decided to take up midwifery, she’s become something of a holy terror. Eggsy had been grateful to have her deliver Daisy, true. Almost as grateful as when he’d learned that Midwife Johnson had moved permanently to France. To take care of her aging mother, it had been said. Eggsy hadn’t inquired into the details. Having someone he trusted at hand during the birth had been infinitely better than looking at whomever they’d hired to replace Johnson and wondering if they, too, had been bribed by someone who wanted to see Eggsy or Daisy dead.

But Daisy is born, and Eggsy is fine, and this is all getting a trifle old. “I want a nap.”

“It will only take a minute.”

Eggsy looks to Harry for help. Harry, the traitor, holds up his hands helplessly. “I’d like to invoke my God-given Alphaic right to have nothing to do with any of this.”

Eggsy groans. “Fine. If it will get you off my back – ”

“Not a word after this,” Sally promises.

This is a plain and obvious lie. Still, Eggsy shucks his tunic and lies back on the bed, forbearing to grumble. Mostly.

“If your Majesty would bend his legs – ”

“You saw me give birth, Sally, when are you going to call me Eggsy?”

Sally doesn’t answer, but Eggsy is pretty sure the answer is, when you do as I say the first time I say it. Being Queen does not liberate one from the tyranny of one’s servants. Particularly not when one’s servants are former Knights, current intelligencers, and sometimes midwives.

“Hmm,” Sally says.

“Hmm?” Harry echoes. “What does hmm mean?”

Sally puts her hand on Eggsy’s lower abdomen. “Cough for me, please.”

Eggsy coughs.

“Hmm,” Sally repeats.

“Sally?” Eggsy asks.

“Just a moment.” Sally leans down and, mortifyingly, sniffs.

“Hey,” Harry protests. “That’s mine!”

“Alphas,” Sally says dismissively. “Don’t you want to hear the news?”

“What news?” Eggsy shoves himself up on his elbows. “Sally, I swear to God – ”

“Post-birth heats are, indeed, rarely fertile,” Sally muses to herself.

“Yes, they – wait. Sally – ” Harry’s voice rises.

“Maybe it will be a daughter this time,” Sally says brightly. “Congratulations.”

Eggsy stares at Harry. Harry stares at Eggsy.

In her cradle, Daisy starts to giggle.