It blacked out, for a moment, then a clip out of some interview began to play. The video was in black and white, crisply and tightly shot, its subject a young man shown seated from the waist up, against a pale gray background, grinning at the camera. He was probably in his mid twenties, dressed down in a black leather jacket over a pale t-shirt, loose over denim jeans, his hair long enough to feather slightly over his forehead, a hint of stubble over his chin. He was also, quite possibly, the most beautiful young man Harry had ever seen, and disturbingly… familiar, somehow.
As the young man laughed noiselessly at the camera, elegant serif type faded over the lower third of the screen: Gary Unwin, by Vanity Fair. Harry blinked, and studied the young man’s pretty face more closely, the crinkling around his eyes, the joyous curl to his mouth, the way he sat, relaxed yet alert, like a hunting hound, waiting to come to heel.
Seventeen years ago, Harry had known an Unwin. And like his son, Lee Unwin had been pretty, with exactly that same, joyous smile, exactly that poise, alert and open to the world. Harry had met this Unwin as well, God, what felt like a lifetime ago now, as he tried to reconcile the little boy whom he dimly remembered with this gorgeous young man.
“…So,” the interviewer’s voice came in off camera, as the type faded out, a woman, her tone playful, “What’s it like being named Vanity Fair’s Hottest Secretary of the Year?”
Gary laughed, and it was mischievous and boyish and endearing all at once. “Y’mean, what’s it like being objectified over a buncha’ other guys and ladies? Pretty good, actually!”
The interviewer giggled. “Glad to hear it. What it’s like working for Richmond Valentine?”
“Oh man,” Gary actually perked up, bright eyed, “He is the most amazing person I have ever met. Seriously. I’m not even saying this in the hope of a payrise.”
“Though a payrise is always good?” the interviewer teased.
“Well sure,” Gary grinned impishly. “But Mister Valentine? He grew up in America, before Selma, back when he had to attend segregated schools, y’know? Single mum childhood, growing up dirt poor… and look at where he is now. An internet billionaire, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist… it’s crazy. And he genuinely wants to save the world. Not gonna lie: I ain’t met nobody in the world like him. He’s an inspiration. A great man.”
“Can you tell us about some of the projects that Valentine Inc is working on?”
“You got to be more specific,” Gary laughed. “Hyperfast trains, cars that run on water… we even got a space program in the works. Oh! And we just completed the purchase of a great big part of the Amazon Rainforest. Gonna police it, keep it poacher-free. Did you know, Mister Valentine’s now singlehandedly responsible for saving the blue-tipped tree frog? Crazy, right?”
“Got to look out for the little guys too, y’know?” Gary held elegant fingers up, miming a small distance. “It’s only about yay-high. ‘Course, Valentine Inc’s very involved in conservation. We’ve even got a Sea Shepherd ship, donated it about a couple of years back. The Richmond Valentine. I’ve been on it. It’s badass.”
“And I know you’re trying to get it outa me, but we got a huge announcement in the works coming up, and I don’t wanna spoil it for everyone, ‘specially since we went to so much trouble to set up a big deal of a launch event. So you’re all just going to have’ta wait and see.”
The video cut briefly, as though part of the interview had been clipped, and the interviewer was asking, “I’ve heard that you prefer to be called ‘Eggsy’. How did that come about?”
“Ooh,” Gary - or Eggsy - tilted his head up at the camera, a gesture that Harry did remember from years before. And yes, now that Harry thought about it, the little boy he had met had introduced himself as ‘Eggsy’, a solemn child, with serious eyes. “It was a kiddie nickname me dad came up with. Before he left on a Marines mission and died in the line o’ duty. He used to say I was his ‘little egg’, and stuff.” Eggsy smiled self-deprecatingly. “Dumb nickname, I know. But it’s something I’ve got to remember him by, and it’s stuck.”
The scene cut subtly again, and the interviewer asked, “How did you meet Mister Valentine?”
“Huh,” Eggsy looked a little sheepish, “It’s all over the internet, innit? I mean, it got a full court press. Lotsa drama and everything.”
“Just for the record then.”
“For the record? Okay. I guess the facts are, I joined the Marines. Got the King’s Badge-“
“Ah,” Eggsy looked even more sheepish, scratching at the back of his head, “That’s a shiny badge they give to the um, best all-round recruit in the King’s Squad.”
“Sounds like a big deal.”
“Naw. I got lucky,” Eggsy said earnestly. “Um. So I got a bit of leave after I was done with recruit school, and went back home to see how me mum was doing. The long and short is, it was a surprise visit, and I walked in on me stepfather punching her in the face right in front of my baby sister. That’s all agreed in court, no dispute.”
“So I threw him out of a third floor window, which broke his legs and arms,” Eggsy added, and there was something hard in his eyes, for all that he was still smiling wryly. “And the police got rather tetchy about it, as did the Marines. Long story short, Mister Valentine saw my story on the news, and came personally to lock up to bail me out, arranged for lawyers for my case and everything, for free. Like I said, he’s a great man. I’ve been working for him ever since.”
“No intention of returning to the Marines?”
“Nah. I mean. I could see where they were coming from. I was a fully trained Marine. My stepdad was a civvie. I shouldn’t’a done it, using violence like that against a civvie. I was an angry kid back then, and a dumb one. Mister Valentine, he saved me from all that. Showed me the error of me ways.”
“Going from the Royal Marines into becoming a secretary - was that a rather abrupt transition?”
“Well,” Eggsy drawled, “On Wednesdays, sometimes I crawl through a minefield to make Mister Valentine’s morning cuppa decaf latte, just to keep me hand in, I guess.” As the interviewer laughed, Eggsy smiled again at the camera, and the scene faded to credits, then paused.
Harry sat back in his seat, closing his eyes briefly. “Is Arthur aware that I’ve already met the target before?”
“It’s why you were selected for this task.” Merlin’s voice was inflectionless. “You have a line in to Gary Unwin. Kingsman is aware of your association with Unwin’s father-”
“My association?” Harry interrupted flatly. “Lee Unwin died in the line of duty, as part of Kingsman.”
“Regardless,” Merlin said, now a little reproachfully, “Arthur is rather concerned about the increasing frequency of the kidnappings, and with Valentine being the only common link between them all…”
Harry exhaled, very slowly, his hands curling and uncurling over his thighs. Business, as always, was business, and a lifetime of working in Kingsman had long taught Harry how to compartmentalise sentiment. “What are my parameters?”
“As Valentine’s personal assistant, Unwin is privy to every detail of Valentine’s life. At present, Valentine is only one of a small pool of suspects. If he can be eliminated from the pool or confirmed as the main culprit, so much the better. Other than that, Arthur advises that you have discretion.”
Harry stared at the frozen credits on his laptop for a long, silent moment, then he nodded. “Very well. Forward me Gary Unwin’s file.”
Gazelle was standing at ease outside Valentine’s room, sharp as ever in a black blouse with a white collar and dress trousers, hands folded behind her back. She gave him a slight nod when Eggsy approached. “Mister Valentine is in a Mood.”
“Really? What happened?”
“PETA forwarded him a video about dairy production,” Gazelle said unemotionally. “Called the ‘Real Cost of Dairy’.”
“Uh.” Eggsy was briefly thrown. “Cows?”
“It seems,” Gazelle added neutrally, as though discussing the weather, “Cows have to be pregnant to make lots of milk. And the calves are removed from their mothers and become veal.”
“Baby cows!” came a muffled wail from behind the mahogany door to Valentine’s room.
“O-kay,” Eggsy said slowly, but a year of working for Valentine meant that he was no longer thrown by his boss’ occasional crazy mood swings. “Sounds pretty sad…?”
Valentine burst out from his room, red-eyed, dressed haphazardly in a yellow Mickey Mouse hat, a black sports jacket, and a pink vest, jeans and polka-dot Converse shoes. “It is sad!” he declared, scowling as he adjusted his spectacles, striding rapidly down the corridor, forcing Eggsy and Gazelle to jog to keep up. “Eggsy, I want you to get rid of all the dairy in the house and… and… what’s a substitute for dairy?”
“Soy tastes like ass.”
“Almond milk?” Eggsy hazarded. “We were in Melbourne a coupl’a months back, lotsa their cafes were doing this almond milk deal, was pretty good. Kinda hipster, though.”
“Right. Buy over that almond milk company and move them here.”
“All right, boss.” Eggsy made a note on his tablet, sent a quick email to the in-house lawyers, then patched a call through to his mum. One year in, Michelle Unwin had taken to being housekeeper of Valentine’s estates with a vengeance, and had gone from running only the kitchen to running every detail of the sprawling grounds, including the maintenance. “Hey mum. The boss isn’t into milk anymore. ETA breakfast in five minutes.”
“What about cheese?” Michelle asked, by now as unflappable about Richmond Valentine’s moods as her son was.
“What about butter and cheese and stuff?” Eggsy asked his boss.
“None of that too.” Valentine hesitated. “Do they make almond milk butter?”
“I gotta ask.”
“Well, make sure they do,” Valentine flapped a hand. “And throw all that shit out. I don’t want no baby cow pain and suffering in my house.”
Eggsy patched back. “No more dairy products.”
“Right.” There was only a faint sigh, and his mum signed off.
At breakfast, there was toast, poached eggs, free range bacon, sauteed mushrooms and fruit chutney, black coffee and orange juice for the boss, the same for Eggsy, and oats with water for Gazelle, because she was not human. It had been a year, and Eggsy still stared suspiciously at Gazelle as she tucked in, and over the antique dining table, she smiled sweetly over at Eggsy as she popped a spoonful of gross into her mouth.
Valentine had prodded suspiciously through his breakfast, had to be reassured that the eggs and bacon came from his own farm, and ate, furiously checking his email on his phone. “Maybe we should buy up some dairy cows,” he told Eggsy. “Let them roam free like the bison did.”
“They’re… kind of not bison,” Eggsy said briskly. “Besides, where exactly are they supposed to roam free? They might even end up being an invasive species. Also. You eat beef. Unless you wanna go all vegan like the Sea Shepherd guys?”
Valentine looked briefly tortured, but as Eggsy thought, the boss’ obsessive love of Big Macs won over, and he sighed gustily. “Nevermind. Send PETA back a message, say I’ll like to be patched in on what they’re doing about dairy cows.”
“PETA are a bunch of crazy people,” Eggsy noted, having never particularly liked PETA after learning about their track record with adoptions, but Valentine flapped his hand at him.
“I know, I know. But if we got to fight against dairy, maybe we need all the friends we can get. OK. What do I have to do today?”
“Factory visit at ten,” Eggsy checked his tablet, “Via skype. Then you’re going to be meeting the British PM at twelve-thirty over at Number 10 for lunch. You got an investor conference back at the head office at two-thirty. Then you got a session with your personal trainer at four. After that, you’re attending the Oxfam charity gala at six.”
“So I’m gonna be real bored all day, is what you’re saying.” Valentine solemnly speared one of the poached eggs, and stared sadly at his plate as the yolk seeped everywhere, because sometimes the boss was melodramatic like that.
“That’s exactly right, sir,” Eggsy said, with a fair approximation of Gazelle’s wooden stare. “All in a day’s work of saving the world.”
“Speaking of saving the world,” Valentine perked up. “I saw your interview yesterday. Brought a tear to my eye. Brought a tear to Gazelle’s eye, too.”
“That’s right,” Gazelle said unemotionally. “Very moving. I was in pieces.”
“Oh that.” Eggsy pulled a face. “Bloody Vanity Fair. Was fun though. Like doing some kinda screen test, y’know? And hey,” Eggsy added, with a cheeky grin, “We always knew that I was gonna win that poll.”
“If Pope Benedict’s secretary had been in the running, you would have lost,” Gazelle said, and chewed on another mouthful of oats. Eggsy glowered at her over the table for a moment, then looked back at his tablet as he got a notification.
“The Swedish PM wants to tee up a meeting this week. He’s gonna bring Princess Tilde, ‘cos she’s interested and all in the Grand Plan.”
“Sure. Slot him in somewhere this week.”
“Also,” Eggsy added, as another email popped in, “Professor Arnold wants to introduce you to his super geeky professor friends sometime.”
“Aww,” Valentine smiled. “I love Professor Arnold. Whenever. Make that happen tomorrow.”
Eggsy emailed back the PM and Professor Arnold as he finished breakfast, kissed his mum on the cheek as she bustled in to clear up, and slotted Arnold in for tomorrow afternoon as he got an reply. He sent a confirmation via V-Cloud Calendar, wished Professor Arnold a good day, and tagged along behind Valentine as he headed up to his home office.
“How’s our patch of the Amazon going?” Valentine asked, as he settled in at his desk, which was a giant touchscreen, supported on a minimalist titanium frame. Eggsy had his own desk, close to the door, which was somewhat more prosaic, though with the tablet he didn’t actually need a computer: instead he simply plugged his tablet into a keyboard and slotted it into a holding frame. Gazelle settled down at the couch opposite Eggsy’s desk, alert and still, eyes flicking between the window and the door.
“Great. Poaching’s gone down in the area in general, even.”
“Some word of your fun weekend out with Gazelle must’ve got around.”
Eggsy looked over to Gazelle, who lifted a shoulder in a light shrug. “I still won.”
“‘Cos you cheated,” Eggsy shot back. “Nobody likes a kill-stealer, just saying.”
“Nobody likes a camper either,” Gazelle retorted. “‘Just saying’.”
“Whatever it is,” Valentine cut in hastily, “Good work team. Could be a regular teambuilding thing that we do, hey? What’s the place in the world with the worst poaching?”
Eggsy did a quick Google search. “Vietnam. ‘Cos of rhinos and tigers.”
“There you go. How’d you two feel about a ‘Nam weekend out?”
“If nobody is a kill-stealer, sure.”
“If Eggsy’s only allowed to use handguns,” Gazelle said evenly, “And he's not allowed to cry if he loses. Again.”
“Not that it really matters,” Eggsy allowed hastily, “I mean, once we roll out your big idea.”
“You’re meant to say it like this, Eggsy.” Valentine sat back in his chair. “The Big Idea.”
“Sure, boss.” Eggsy got an email from the Swedish PM, and scheduled him in for a meeting in a week.
“Any update on that punk-ass guy in a suit that Gazelle offed?” Valentine asked, as he checked through his own email.
“Nope. Though he was wearing some pretty cool gear,” Eggsy brought up the report from Valentine’s techs. “Bulletproof suit. Cufflink tasers. Grenade lighter.”
“What? That’s some serious James Bond shit!” Valentine blinked.
“We’ve referenced his prints through my contact at Interpol and some of our friends in MI6 and the CIA. He’s not from any of those.”
“Cufflink tasers? I want me some of those. Get the techs to cough it up.” Valentine hesitated. “Nah. Get them to reverse engineer it onto my favourite cufflinks.”
“You don’t have cufflinks,” Eggsy said dryly. “Sir.”
“Well then it’s about time I got me some. Fancy shirt and all. See to it, OK?”
Eggsy sent V-Tech a note. “Almost time for your Skype call, boss. You ready?”
“Yeah. Bring it.”
Walking over to Valentine’s desk, Eggsy brought up Skype, and put through the call. “Going live in three. Two. Now.”
Valentine leaned forward, beaming as the foreman of their factory in China beamed back. “Hey man. How’s things?”
“Production is right on schedule, Mister Valentine.”
Behind the foreman, Eggsy could see a vast factory of machines and bustling techs, all stamping out the little chips that were key to the Great Plan. He made a note of it, and smiled to himself as he started to take the minutes, all while watching the foreman show them around the factory floor, weaving around the intricate machinery that were producing all the component parts of Valentine’s grand vision. Parts that would someday, soon, save the world.
It was great being one of the good guys.
Trailing behind Valentine were two assistants. The first was a tall lady in a severe black dress, high-necked and conservative, a double amputee whose feet ended in unusually shaped, steel prosthetic feet somewhat akin to that of the South African Olympics runner. She had the balance of a dancer, as insectoid and alien as her feet looked, and from the way she kept glancing around the crowd, her gaze sweeping between exits and always snapping to attention whenever someone new drifted over to Valentine, Harry pegged her as a bodyguard, unlikely as it appeared on a casual glance.
The second was his target. Like his benefactor, Eggsy was dressed outlandishly for a black tie affair, in a pinstripe black suit with narrow lapels which, although well-made and nipped at the waist, was most certainly not bespoke. Unfortunately, the boy had chosen to compound this by wearing the suit over a black shirt with a yellow smiley face on it, tilted, with a spot of cartoon blood over the face that ran over the first eye. His choice of footwear was also garish: a pair of sneakers with bars along the sole and shoelaces that glowed a pale blue in the dark.
“The Comedian,” Merlin murmured into Harry’s ear.
“That shirt. Sorry. Just some trivia.”
“The boy’s stuck like a burr to Valentine all this while,” Harry said quietly. “Isolating him is going to be tricky. Not here, at least.”
“He’s been drinking champagne. Sooner or later he’s going to have to nip over to the bathroom.”
Harry wrinkled his nose. That wasn’t going to be particularly subtle. Ah well. Harry wasn’t entirely against sacrificing finesse for the sake of results, unlike certain other members of Kingsman. “All right. Watch him and keep me posted,” he added, turning away, because nothing was more suspicious than staring overtly at a target the whole time.
Accepting a glass of champagne, Harry was considering one of the strange, brightly coloured jelly-and-crisp fingerfoods when Merlin said suddenly into his ear, “Galahad, the target is approaching you at two o’ clock.”
It took all of Harry’s self-control not to instantly tense up, but to cover for any involuntary reaction he might have made, Harry took one of the crisps and ate it. It was some sort of citrus jelly and salmon, not that Harry really did taste it as he pretended to turn to go - but before he could take a step, a hand pressed lightly on his elbow.
Harry looked over, and blinked as he realized that it was Eggsy who had approached him. The boy was wearing the same mischievous, playful smile as he had in the Vanity Fair interview, and a sort of open interest in his eyes as he looked at Harry. “Hey. Sorry if this makes me sound like a creeper or something, but do I know you? I’ve got a good memory for faces, and you seem familiar.”
Making a show of studying Eggsy curiously, Harry said slowly, “No, I’m afraid that we’re not acquainted. Though I would like to be,” he added lightly, with a smile of his own, allowing a touch of heat in his eyes as he looked Eggsy over in turn. “Call me ‘Harry’.”
“My name’s Eggsy,” Eggsy said. “You sure we haven’t met before?”
“‘Eggsy’,” Harry repeated, then affected surprise. “Why. I think we have. Although you were very young then, I do recall. Eggsy Unwin, I believe? I gave you your father’s medal.”
“That was you?" Eggsy blinked. “Whoa. It’s been dog’s years. You look great, man!” This time, he extended a hand to shake.
“You’ve certainly grown up into a fine young man,” Harry said, not even having to fake the sentiment, and shook Eggsy’s hand - firm grip, confident and honest. “How have you been? You seem to be doing well.”
“Ah yep. I’m doing good.” Eggsy grinned. “You know. That number you gave me? It connected to some weird-arse company. Think they were selling soap or insurance or something. I hung up.”
“Oh,” Harry blinked, “When did you-“
“After I got arrested,” Eggsy shrugged. “Hey, don’t worry about it. Maybe I just remembered the number wrong. Didn't have the medal with me at the time. Or maybe I just remembered the whole thing wrong. I mean. I was a little tyke when we first met. And it was a bit of a dumb move, I guess, using my only phone call like that.”
“… Perhaps so.”
Eggsy didn’t seem to notice Harry’s cautious tone. “When I was a kid, I used to pretend that you’d given me some kinda magic pass phrase. Grew out of that kinda thing pretty quick in the Marines, or so I thought: but I guess the last bit o’ it stuck. But don’t feel bad,” Eggsy said hastily, as Harry frowned a little. “I mean, it worked out all right in the end. It was definitely me remembering the number wrong.”
For a moment, Harry was so disappointed that he was afraid that it would show, and he had to cover by taking a sip of his champagne. What a could-have-been this was. What a goddamned pity, and all because of Harry’s ingrained love of Cold War era dramatics.
“Well,” Harry said carefully, “I still do owe you that favour. Allow me to give you an updated phone number,” he added, and passed Eggsy his card: one of those for Harry H., a clean cover, in case Eggsy decided to investigate, with a number that linked up to a burner phone.
“Here’s mine, if we’re doing an exchange,” Eggsy passed over a card, bright pink on thick stock on one side, with ‘Valentine Inc’ picked out in holographic foil. On the other side, the card was white, with simple black ink: Gary Unwin, Personal Assistant, email@example.com and a mobile phone number.
“My thanks,” Harry said, slipping the card into a particular inner pocket of his suit, one which would allow Merlin to immediately scan it for prints - and bugs. One couldn’t be too careful nowadays. “You work for Richmond Valentine?”
“Oh yeah.” Eggsy actually lit up. “Like I said, it all worked out in the end.”
“Are you still on the clock?” Harry asked, “I’ll love to catch up.”
“Me? Yeah, I’m still on the clock,” Eggsy said regretfully. “I just came over ‘cos I thought you looked familiar, that’s all. Part of me job’s steering Mister Valentine around people of note, y’see, ‘specially in one of these kinds of ‘dos.”
“Sadly I wouldn’t be one of those ‘people of note’,” Harry said delicately. “Though it’s always gratifying to find a rich man so interested in philanthropy. I did rather think that Mister Valentine would be more of a World Wildlife Fund person than an Oxfam person, though.”
“Oh, Oxfam?” Eggsy lifted a shoulder into a shrug. “Yeah. Maybe poverty isn’t really one of Valentine Inc’s focuses. Though we did partner for a bit with the Gates foundation in its Africa deal. ‘Sides, Mister Valentine doesn’t think it’s nice to turn down an invite to a party,” he said, with a quick smile that turned the comment playful.
Someone had trained Eggsy to deal with the press, at the very least, to parry uncomfortable questions with press-ready responses. But most tellingly was the way Eggsy now talked, the way he smiled: the smile even reached his eyes, made his words seem charmingly disingenuous.
What a dangerous young man Lee’s son had become.
“Yes, I suppose that would be rather impolite,” Harry said, with a wry smile of his own that made Eggsy laugh.
“Tell you what,” Eggsy said brightly. “Maybe we really should catch up for a drink sometime. I haven’t met many people who used to know my dad in what he did. Even when I was in Marine school. I’ll call you, yeah?”
“Certainly. It’ll be my pleasure,” Harry said, and watched as Eggsy said a quick good-bye and scooted back through the crowd to Valentine’s side. Soon, Eggsy had his tablet firmly in hand, typing briskly on it and occasionally offering comments in response to Valentine’s questions. In no time at all, it seemed, Eggsy was already fully immersed back in his role as a personal assistant, alert and attentive.
Harry slipped away quietly into the crowd, placing the champagne glass on the bar counter, then heading briskly out of the function room towards the cloak room, to pick up his coat. “Do we have ears on the target?”
“We do. Good work. Don’t think he picked up on anything untoward at all.”
“Of course not,” Harry said briskly. The name card he had handed over had a paper-thin embedded chip in the centre of the paper stock, which would function well enough as a tracker and a bug. Depending on how Eggsy treated collected namecards, this might not end up being particularly useful - but it was something for now, and they might even get lucky. “Patch me in.”
“Who was what?”
“That guy in the sharp suit you went off to talk to.”
“Oh, him.” Eggsy said, as casually as he could. “I thought he looked familiar. Like maybe someone famous whom you might wanna be introduced to. Turns out I was right and wrong at the same time. He was familiar ‘cos he was a friend of me dad.”
“A Marine?” Gazelle inquired, keeping her eyes on the road. “Didn’t look like one.”
This much was true. Eggsy had not exactly lasted long in the Marines, but he had been in the Marines long enough to know one when he saw one, and the handsome, mysterious ‘Harry H.’ was not a Marine. But he most certainly was not a civilian either - his hand had a particular pattern of calluses, when Eggsy had shook it, that spoke of a definite familiarity with firearms.
Besides, Harry had definitely cased the room: unconsciously or not, he had been standing in one of the few spots in the ballroom chamber within sight of all the exits, and that was a sort of trait that Eggsy could attribute only to very few and specific types of people in the world.
“Dunno,” Eggsy said honestly. “Probably something around the same. I’ll ask him when we catch up sometime.”
“That’s nice,” Valentine said encouragingly. “Getting to know more about your dad. Was a big shame, him passing on so young.”
“Very nice,” Gazelle agreed in her monotone, “Just as nice as that man’s arse looked in his suit, hm?”
“Gazelle!” To Eggsy’s horror, he blushed.
“Now, Gazelle,” Valentine said reproachfully, “Why you got to think the worst of everyone like that?”
“It’s my job.”
“Well, I know it’s your job, but this is Eggsy. We all friends here. I mean. That dude had to be as old as Eggsy’s dad or something.”
“That’s right,” Gazelle said, as she slipped the i8 up a ramp, slotting like a quicksilver fish into a lane, “He had to be as old as your father, Eggsy. At the least. Maybe even old enough to be my father.”
“… Can we not have this conversation please?”
“No one’s judging anyone here,” Gazelle said mildly. “Age is only a number.”
“… You’re totally judging me right there,” Eggsy said accusingly, because Gazelle could lie better than a cat even on a bad day.
“Eggsy’s ‘type’ is silver foxes,” Gazelle told Valentine blandly.
“O-kay,” Valentine said slowly, eyebrows jumping in the reflection of him in the rear view window, even as Eggsy yelped, “That’s not true!”
“Lying isn’t nice.” Gazelle said calmly.
“Okay. So maybe. It’s a little bit true,” Eggsy grumbled. “A lot true,” he amended, when Gazelle sniffed. “But so what? Nothing wrong with that, aite?”
“Well damn,” Valentine added. “Your momma gonna be real disappointed that you never having kids.” He hesitated for a moment. “Though is surrogacy a thing? Or I guess you could adopt. Or collect dogs. Or cats. Or maybe you don't want kids, that's OK too, nothing wrong with that.”
“In any case,” Eggsy said sharply, before Valentine could head off on one of his flights of wild fancy, “I’m just probably gonna have drinks with him or something, okay? Maybe learn more about my dad and what he used to do. Nothing to it.”
Gazelle sniffed again. “Oh please. I saw everything.”
“What’s so great about older guys?” Valentine asked, clearly still fascinated with the topic. “I mean. When you get to my age. Somedays it’s just too hard getting up in the morning, let alone getting it up in the morning-“
Eggsy facepalmed. “Thank you sir-“
“Not to mention all the back pains, knee pains, forgetting things everywhere, thinning hair, funny teeth, bad posture, weird diseases and don’t even get me started on the eventual development of an old person smell-“
“You’re just trampling all over my hopes and dreams,” Eggsy said mournfully.
“Gazelle doesn’t need to worry about that, of course,” Valentine ignored Eggsy. “‘Cos girls are forever twenty-one after they become twenty-one.”
“That’s right sir.” Gazelle nodded briskly.
“But feel free to bring him home or something if you want,” Valentine added generously.
“I don’t think that’s going to be necessary, boss.”
“No, seriously. My house? Also your house. And Gazelle’s. And your mum’s. And cute lil’ Daisy’s.” Valentine’s eyes misted over briefly, forever a bit of a sap where Daisy was concerned. Even at her tender age, Daisy had already begun wrapping everyone in her world around her little finger. “You sure she don’t want a Princess-themed bedroom? We can always change it if she don’t like it when she gets older.”
“Pretty sure.” Damn the Wall Street Journal and its post on over-the-top kiddie bedrooms. Valentine had been mildly obsessed over the very idea of it ever since.
Sea Shepherd sent over a nice email and a video from the Richmond Valentine’s pursuit of illegal fishing out southwards of New Zealand, which cheered up and distracted the boss, and since it happened to be a Big Mac Day, dinner was had in the ‘tv room’, which was more of a miniature indoor cinema, with a projection screen as big as a small theatre's, and only two rows of guest seats.
Eggsy’s mum had made popcorn to accompany the Big Macs and chips, just because, and they went through a carefully vetted PG13 version of the news: no blood, no gore - watched some of the National Geographic channel, and signed off for the night, Valentine still emailing PETA as he retired.
“There’s going to be a Liberate a Cow day,” Valentine told Eggsy, just before he had gone to bed. “Sign me up for it.”
“Seriously?” Eggsy groaned, because the boss could be really impressionable at the worst of times.
“Well, see if you can slot it in anywhere,” Valentine said vaguely, and went off to bed. Gazelle gave Eggsy a shrug, and Eggsy left her to it, sending PETA a note which, although not quite teeing up a confirmed attendance, also sort-of hinted at Mister Valentine possibly being unable to attend because of work matters.
Responding to emails, V-Tech status reports, checking on factory statuses, financial reports and accounts logs meant that Eggsy went on his nightly run closer to midnight, also with JB at his heels, waving at the security patrols that he passed by, then he cleaned up and tucked in for the day. JB snuffled and wheezed as it struggled onto Eggsy’s bed, and while hanging up his jacket in his wardrobe, Eggsy remembered to take out Harry’s card from its pockets.
“Harry ‘H’?” Eggsy murmured, as he flopped down on the bed next to his dog. “Who the hell doesn’t spell out his surname on his bloody card?” Or his business name? Did ‘Harry H.’ just like making personal business cards just for the hell of it?
For an eccentricity, it was kind of cute. In a very old-world sort of way.
JB let out an agreeable wheeze, and then a blarp, as Eggsy absently scratched it behind its ears, turning the card over to memorize Harry’s phone number. Eggsy hadn’t told his mum about the chance meeting, and thankfully, neither Gazelle nor Valentine had brought it up during dinner either. It had been years, and the topic of Lee Unwin’s death was still a painful one for his mum: it had, after all, sparked the beginning of a slide to a time which she’d rather now forget, or so Michelle had said once, when gently pressed.
For Eggsy himself, losing his father hadn’t been quite as traumatic, for he had been too young to have any really concrete memories of his father - though he had suffered through the financial fallout along with his mother. The lean years had been tough, but they were in the good years now, and besides: soon, when the plan was in place, life would only get better.
Eggsy studied the card for a moment longer, then left it in the top drawer of his bedside table, next to his father’s medal, and closed the drawer over it. He’d give Harry a call tomorrow morning.
Princess bedrooms - WSJ - http://www.wsj.com/articles/princess-bedrooms-that-rule-1423153260
“Clear,” Merlin murmured into his ear. Harry nodded absently in acknowledgement, and approached the cafe.
The cafe was, for the most part, populated by tourists and peppy yuppies, and Harry managed to get a table for two by the river, settling down a little gingerly into one of the creaking wooden chairs. The air was crisp today, and smelled of stone and the river and the afternoon sun, a pleasant day out, at least where London was concerned.
Eggsy arrived ten minutes late and breathlessly apologetic, in a casual zip-up black jacket with white bars over his wrists, pulled tight over his shoulders, worn loose over a pair of ludicrously tight-looking gray jeans: Harry found his eyes getting involuntarily drawn to how much they stretched over Eggsy’s thighs, and had to force himself to look up over the table.
“Sorry, sorry,” Eggsy repeated as he plopped down on his seat. “Traffic’s a right bastard at this time of day. Sorry.”
“That’s quite all right,” Harry assured him, and it was hard not to get caught up in Eggsy’s infectious answering grin. “I haven’t waited long,” Harry lied.
“The coffee here’s pretty good,” Eggsy said, and so Harry ordered a latte to Eggsy’s cappuccino, and a sandwich to Eggsy’s salad. “Got to eat healthy sometimes,” Eggsy admitted, when the waiter left them to it. “Given what I eat the rest of the time.”
When Harry looked puzzled, Eggsy laughed. “Ah, sorry. I forget sometimes that not everyone keeps up to date on celebrity gossip and stuff. I live with Mister Valentine, and let’s just say he really, really loves his Big Macs. To the point where everyone kinda has to share in the love.”
“You live with Richmond Valentine?”
“Not in that way,” Eggsy said, though he seemed amused that Harry had even brought it up. “Naw, Mister Valentine just likes having his staff close by, that’s all. My mum’s living there too. And my half-sister. We got separate rooms. Nice digs, even.”
“Not really. Big house.” Eggsy disagreed. “Though I know. It’s a little bit Downton Abbey, innit? Having all the staff close at hand?”
“In a way,” Harry allowed, with a wry smile. “You must be very busy, to have to be literally in-house.”
“Yep. To be honest,” Eggsy said, rubbing a hand sheepishly through his hair, “I only managed to sneak out for this lunch ‘cos Mister Valentine’s attending a climate change talk in the general area with a bunch of his geeky professor friends, and he’s gonna be a while.”
With the strangely un-kidnapped Professor Arnold, perhaps. “Glad to hear that I rate higher than a talk on climate change,” Harry said teasingly, and Eggsy flushed a little, though he laughed to cover it.
The conversation he had overheard was legitimate, then. Eggsy had, very likely, first approached Harry out of a rather more prosaic and personal interest. And although Harry had originally been a little uncomfortable at running a honey pot line with the son of a man who had once saved his life, in Kingsman, business ruled over sentiment. Something which he was reminded of every time he was home.
“I’ve heard a lot of it before,” Eggsy said dismissively. “This past month. Everyone thinks they got a new idea. But it all boils down to the same deal.”
“The long and short of it?” Eggsy glanced briefly out over towards Parliament. “‘People suck’.”
“That seems a pessimistic way of looking at things,” Harry ventured.
“Nah. I been in hundreds of shindigs like this.” Eggsy said shortly. “You get lots of people who mean well, but then they come up against… governments, red tape, problems on the ground, like poachers and stuff… doubters, haters… or often it just gets to a point where you need a great deal of people to change how they live, and it will just never happen until it’s too damned late.”
“You mean… energy use?”
“Resource consumption, waste, environmental destruction, everything. Y’know, the UNEP says that maybe a hundred and fifty species go extinct everyday? And look at all this,” Eggsy swept a hand contemptuously around the cafe. “I betcha nobody here gives a fucking damn. Not really. Not enough to want to pour themselves into changing it. People like the WWF can run ad campaigns and tv shows and talks, on and on and on, but it’s all like pissing into the wind, really.”
“No doubt,” Harry said, wondering a little where this was going, but he had certainly touched a nerve, and experience indicated that this was one of the best ways to get closer to a target. “This does seem to be a topic very close to your heart.”
“Ah, yeah,” Eggsy looked sheepish again. “Sorry for my little rant.”
“Not at all. It’s a topic well worth being passionate about,” Harry said, and nodded to the waiter as he reappeared with their drinks. “And it must be a pleasure to work for someone so devoted to that area of philanthropy. I heard that Mister Valentine actually purchased an entire section of the Amazon Basin?”
“That he did,” Eggsy said excitably, and chattered about local initiatives and the poaching problem and outreach programmes, all the way until the food arrived. The sandwich was passable, though the bread was chewy and the cook had been heavy-handed with the mayonnaise proportion on the poached chicken, but Harry ate to be polite, and watched Eggsy pick at his salad.
“For an environmentalist,” Harry said, “Isn’t it surprising that Mister Valentine still loves McDonalds? They aren’t exactly the greenest of companies.”
“Oh, yeah, that,” Eggsy said, through a mouthful of greens, and swallowed. “Hrm. He’s cut it down to a weekly vice, so he says. Man always needs something, right? But he’ll be all over it soon, he thinks.”
“Maybe. You never really know, with the boss,” Eggsy said, though he smiled a lopsided smile, as though at a private joke. “Enough about me going on and on about myself, though. What about you? When did you meet my dad?”
“When he was in the Marines,” Harry said, which was the truth: he had recruited Eggsy’s father right out of Whitehall.
Eggsy raised his eyebrows, tilting his head. “The Marines, huh? Were you in the Marines?”
“Not particularly. But your father was in a company strength attached to the SFSG.”
“Special Forces? Figures,” Eggsy said, relaxing a fraction. “I didn’t peg you for one of the Royals.”
“Because I haven’t quite had my nose broken enough times?” Harry quipped, amused.
“Nah. It’s just a feel of things. I mean. My granddad was a Royal. So was me dad. And me, for a bit. Is that why you were so hush about things when you first met me and me mum?” Eggsy asked curiously. “Confidential mission, huh? With the SFSG?”
“You know that I still can’t tell you.” Harry said, as gently as he could, as much as it was a confident lie. “I know that’s not much comfort. But your father was a brave man.”
“Yeah. I s’pose.” Eggsy did look openly disappointed.
“And… frankly,” Harry added, wondering if perhaps he was taking matters a step too far, “If you ever felt like… returning to something akin to the Marines…”
“Join the Special Forces?” Eggsy laughed out aloud. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to laugh. Thanks, that’s really flattering, but no thanks. I’m happy where I am. I’m right where I can help to make a difference, y’know? I don’t think that I could do that in the SFSG. No offence.”
“None taken,” Harry said, disappointed all over again. “It was only a thought.”
“Nah. I do appreciate you askin',” Eggsy said quickly. “Where are you based right now? Regents Park?”
“I’m not exactly sure if I should tell you,” Harry said, half playfully, half seriously, but Eggsy grinned impishly regardless, and the rest of lunch passed pleasantly enough, with Eggsy probing lightly for details about his father and Harry giving out generalities in response.
In the end, as lunch wound to a close, Eggsy said, “Thanks for agreeing to all this.”
“Having lunch with some punk-arse kid who spent the whole hour grilling you about random stuff?” Eggsy smiled.
“Actually, I enjoyed myself,” Harry said, and he had, even with the necessity of pretence, even with the stakes hanging over him. “And if it isn’t being too forward to say so, I would love to catch up some time again. Over dinner this time, perhaps?”
“Sure thing,” Eggsy said brightly, as though Harry had just paid him some sort of compliment, “I’ll check my schedule, but maybe this weekend?”
“Saturday night?” That’ll give Harry some time to investigate the mysterious Professor Arnold.
“Should be fine. You wanna pick a place, or me?”
“I’ll leave it to your discretion,” Harry said, and insisted on paying for lunch. As Eggsy said a quick goodbye, checked the time on his phone, and darted off, presumably because the climate change talk was about to end, Harry ordered tea, waited for all the plates to be cleared, then leaned back in his creaking chair.
“The best way in,” Merlin said, into his ear, “Is if you could upload a trojan through bluetooth to his phone.”
“That’s a great deal of sleight of hand.” But not impossible.
“You know what the boy’s interested in,” Merlin said, though he sounded a touch uncomfortable as he did. Despite all his years in his role, Merlin had never been particularly comfortable with honey pot missions.
Needs must. “Yes. I know.”
“About what now?” Gazelle asked absently.
“‘Bout my luck with guys.”
“What about it?”
“Pretty sure I was just epically lied to all through lunch,” Eggsy noted sourly.
“Really?” Valentine asked, from the back seat. “He wasn’t your dad’s friend after all?”
“Nah. Pretty sure that bit was true. Pretty sure that’s also the only bit that’s true,” Eggsy glared at his phone. Valentine’s contact in the SFSG had just come back, certifying that there was definitely no ‘Harry H.’ fitting Harry’s description in the SFSG at any point.
“Ah, I see,” Gazelle said, as they got out of the BMW, this time with Eggsy narrowly avoiding braining himself on the low ceiling clearance, yet again. “Your incredibly bad luck with men.”
“At least,” Gazelle said, with a slight frown, “This time it isn’t some sort of closet Christian fundamentalist with a double life?”
“Yes, thank you,” Eggsy said irritably, “I’ve moved up the rung. Instead, it’s some guy who’s definitely military of some sort or other, but not exactly, and I just found out that my dad actually wasn’t part of the Marines for ‘bout six months leading up to when he died! And I probably would never have found out ‘bout that,” Eggsy added, scowling, “If I hadn’t tried to lean on Mister Valentine’s Commander friend. Seems someone slapped it with a high clearance ‘Confidential’ tag.”
“Neil’s a good sort.” Valentine had navigated exiting the car with slightly more grace. Gazelle locked up, and they headed towards the private lift that would take Valentine up to his office.
“Sounds odd,” Gazelle noted. “Did anything… seem strange? Back then, when you first met the man?”
“I was too young to know,” Eggsy admitted. “And not really. I mean. Operational tours for the Royals usually last around six months anyway.”
“Maybe he’s MI6,” Gazelle said facetiously. “James Bond, the works. Tried tracing his phone?”
“V-Tech tells me it’s no deal on the number. Pretty sure it’s a burner.”
“… Suddenly, the MI6 joke isn’t so funny,” Valentine said slowly. “But he really is your dad’s friend? Y’sure?”
“I’ll put money on it,” Eggsy said, because some things were hard to fake, and besides, whatever angle that Harry H. might be working now, he had actually shown up with the medal when Eggsy was a little kid and a nobody.
“OK then,” Valentine said, as the lift pinged open and he strode briskly out into what Eggsy had always mentally termed the ‘jungle’ half of the top floor, crunching down the gravel corridor between the banks of lush plants that carpeted the ground from the lifts to the view. “Maybe your dad got headhunted into MI6 or something. Stands to reason. Maybe that’s why there’s all this weird-ass mystery.”
“Might explain the nice suit as well,” Gazelle added. “Didn’t look like something you would buy off the rack.”
“Guess not.” Harry had looked really good in his suits. Bloody hell. Wank material, even.
“Well, I might know someone who might know someone in MI6’s Control,” Valentine thought about this for a moment. “In case you’re really curious.”
“Yeah. I think I am. Thanks.”
“Hey, what’s stuff like this between friends?” Valentine asked expansively, as they finally reached his huge office, shuffling from gravel up onto turf. Actual turf, because the boss was funny like that, which smelled of fresh grass when stepped over, everyday. It cost a bloody mint to maintain.
As Valentine settled into his chair at his touchscreen desk, Eggsy folded himself into a chair at his own desk, and yet again, Gazelle took a seat near the gravel path, on a stool, back upright, hands neat over her lap. The day passed quickly, mostly in pursuit of budgeting and progress reports on the distributor networks that they were acquiring en-mass for the chips, and at the end of it, when Eggsy thought that it was all going so well, Valentine got an email from his contact.
“Huh,” Valentine said, and forwarded it over. “Seems your dad wasn’t in MI6 neither. Or this Harry guy. Or MI5. Or SIS.”
“Mystery continues,” Gazelle said idly from where she was, without turning around. “You know what you should do?”
“Do tell.” Eggsy braced himself.
“Tail this guy home the next time you go out for dinner and then break into his house when he’s out for work the next day. Plug one of V-Tech’s proprietary trojans into his computer and let it tick around.”
Eggsy groaned. “Because that’s totally what a normal person does when faced with a mystery.”
“We’ve already violated his privacy by asking all these questions,” Gazelle lifted one shoulder into a light shrug. “You might as well escalate.”
This was why Gazelle was a frightening person at the best of times. “Thanks for the suggestion, but no thanks.”
“Oh fine,” Gazelle said absently. “Get him to take you home, and then mess with his computer when he’s otherwise distracted. If you want to be more civilised about it.”
“Gazelle,” Valentine said patiently, “This is why you got no boyfriends. Or girlfriends. People are like butterflies. If you pin them down like that, they leak gross goo things everywhere.”
Eggsy fought the urge to facepalm, but it was a near thing. “I can be subtle. Okay? And I don’t need your help. Thanks.”
“Says the man wearing glow-in-the-dark sneakers.”
“There’s nothing wrong with these sneakers,” Eggsy shot back grumpily, because the sneakers had been one of the first things he had bought with his first Valentine paycheck. “How was the climate change talk? I forgot to ask.”
“The same,” Valentine said gloomily. “World’s ending. Somebody has some ideas. They all need cash. Implementation will be a bitch. Not gonna bet the farm on stuff like that. I mean. I’ve already been there. Tried that. There’s only so many times you can try and change the world by the world’s rules.”
Eggsy nodded, already familiar with Valentine Inc’s various projects, most of them now abandoned. Attempts to reverse climate change, slow the extinction event, clean pollution… they’d all gone down, one by one, some in flames, some with a whimper. The world didn’t play fair.
And as he’d told Harry - people suck.
“Why do you still go to these things? They just make your mood worse.” Eggsy ventured. “I mean, this Sunday we’re flying to Oslo to attend one o’ them, even.”
“‘Cos I’ve made it a policy to always be open to ideas,” Valentine explained. “And if there’s a better way to get to where I wanna be, then sure. I mean. None o’ what I want to do is personal. I just want to cure the virus before we all go down in flames.”
People. The Virus. “We bringing the Professor with us to the next one?”
“Maybe. He isn’t so sure. Flying’s tough on his arthritis right now. Acts up in a plane.”
Eggsy nodded: Valentine had been very apologetic about that when they had flown Arnold home from the ‘kidnapping’ and had noticed the symptoms during the flight. He checked the hotel booking for Oslo, confirmed it for three guests, and while tabbing through, Gazelle added absently, “Maybe you should get his prints.”
“The Mystery Suit Guy.”
“Oh God. I thought we were over this.”
Gazelle ignored him. “Because the last Mystery Suit Guy I ran into managed to murder a half dozen of our best operatives. Maybe it won’t hurt to be careful.”
“All right,” Eggsy sucked in a slow breath. “Now you’re being paranoid.”
“Middle aged guys. Posh. Nice suits. Obviously military or black ops of some sort. No records anywhere.”
“You think the worst of everyone,” Valentine sighed. “Seriously. Not everyone out there is out to get me.”
“Can’t be too careful.”
“All right, fine,” Eggsy said testily. “I’ll suss it out, all right? In a sane way. That doesn’t involve burglary, or infecting people’s computers with viruses, or lifting his prints or stuff. Okay? I’ll deal with it.”
“I’ve heard that before,” Gazelle said blandly.
A week before his kidnapping, Professor Arnold had published a fairly well-received - or so Merlin had said - article in the Scientific American, bemoaning the prevalence of climate change doubters and highlighting the proof of climate change in a series of convoluted mathematical equations. The point, Merlin had said, was not for the public to actually understand the equations, but to highlight out to doubters in the American Senate that their ‘quack science’ that was based on no ‘scientific proof’, or so Arnold had written in his article, was a ‘travesty and an affront to modern systems of education’, and that they should ‘return their degrees to their universities posthaste’.
Apparently the paper had been a sensation: enough, in any regard, for Imperial University to actually commission Kingsman to retrieve Professor Arnold when he had been abducted. The Dean at the time had been afraid that militant ‘anti-climate change nutters’ had ‘gone and gotten rid of the poor man’, and that was when Lancelot had left on his ultimately disastrous final mission.
The University was winding down for the weekend: it was Friday afternoon, and the grounds of the Office of Environmental Programs was quiet, with most students having already hared off to the pubs for a crawl, by the looks of it. Judging from the surveillance data that Merlin had pulled off the University servers, Professor Arnold liked to spend his Friday afternoons grading papers quietly in Lecture Hall B, instead of using his tiny, crowded box of an office in the staff floor.
As Harry waited for the Professor to make an appearance, he cast a careful glance over at the French windows that sat to the left of the scratched old desk, leading out to the street, and then up, past the tiers of student’s desks to the small door that opened out into the rest of the university. Behind him, the old-fashioned chalkboard still bore the scrawls from Arnold’s morning class, the equations as impenetrable to Harry as the Scientific American article had been.
“According to his deductions,” Merlin said, “It seems that the world is fucked.”
“You understand his theories?”
“Nothing that a crash course through wikipedia, opinion forums and a previously earned doctorate in pure mathematics can’t handle,” Merlin said, very dryly. “It’s a mathematical attempt to prove the Gaia hypothesis. That organisms interact with inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a system that contributes to maintaining life on the planet. That there’s a sort of planetary self-regulation that will adjust depending on such relationships.”
“And that can be proved through mathematics?” Harry asked skeptically.
“The Professor believes so. Unfortunately for him, Gaia theory is itself highly controversial. No one even really knows how the so-called Gaian self-regulation even works. But no one’s actually tried to prove it through mathematics before. That article that the Professor wrote is most certainly what caused his kidnapping.”
“It might also explain why of all the people who have actually been kidnapped, the Professor was the only one returned to his usual life. If we do still believe that Valentine is the primary suspect behind all the disappearances.”
“Quite likely.” There was a pause, then, “I’ve got eyes on the target. He’s alone. Heading out of the cafeteria, right on time.”
“Good,” Harry said briskly. This should be a simple enough interrogation. And perhaps, finally, he could get some answers.
“By the way,” Merlin added, “Arthur wanted me to remind you that the Lancelot selection process starts this afternoon, if you still want to nominate someone.”
“No,” Harry said, after a moment’s thought. “I’ll pass this round. I haven’t got the time to head back over to Whitehall or Regents Park to pick out a candidate.”
Merlin sighed. “You’ve passed two rounds already, Harry. You know that’s not quite done. You are meant to contribute a candidate.”
“I was in Kazakhstan during the last selection.”
“Even so,” Merlin grumbled. “I know you probably still feel guilty over what happened to Lee Unwin. But we do lose candidates each go, sometimes fatally.”
“Leaving his son and wife without a pension was unfair.” Reading Eggsy’s file had made Harry feel considerably more guilty about his original decision to respect Michelle Unwin’s request to leave the both of them alone.
“Lee Unwin didn’t actually make it to the position of Lancelot.” Merlin pointed out gently.
“But he was close. Recruits shouldn’t have to take the chance that the interview process might end up making their families destitute,” Harry swallowed his scowl, however, and his temper. Merlin wasn’t the one who made policy decisions in Kingsman, after all.
“I suppose it just hasn’t ever been such a problem before,” Merlin said thoughtfully, for Merlin himself had once been a Kingsman candidate, and like all those in his class, just like most recruits and all of the current Kingsmen, he had come from a well-heeled family, a product of Eton and Oxbridge.
Which was part of the problem, in Harry’s opinion. Despite the last two crops of candidates having some women in the group, the knights as a whole - and Arthur - remained white, male representatives of the upper class. At present, the only really remotely modern part of Kingsman was the Merlin department and its associated branches. The rest of the organisation was as staid and as traditional as the Savile Row shop that fronted their business.
Glancing soberly back at the impenetrable mathematics that covered the chalkboard, Harry only turned around again when Merlin said, “Target’s close by. ETA two minutes. He’s about to enter a blind spot. Going to lose visual in three, two. Now.”
Harry walked over to the first tier of seats, just in case, tucking a hand into his trouser pocket, careful to appear casual. Bypassing security in the University had been simplicity itself: he suspected that most of the security staff and others around had simply thought him to be either a visiting parent or an associate of the Dean.
The door opened, and Professor Arnold bumbled in, hands animated in the midst of describing something or other, and beside him, arms full with paperwork and files, was Eggsy.
Harry blinked, even as Eggsy froze, and it was Arnold who stared between them both in surprise and then asked Harry, “Um, do I, er, know you?”
Harry recovered his poise hastily. “Not particularly,” he admittedly, in as genial a tone as he could, and went up the steps, hand outstretched, shaking Arnold by the hand briskly. “I'm Harry. I simply happened to be in the area, and I thought that I might as well take the opportunity to meet the author of The Gaia Algorithm in person. Fascinating work, sir. You should be proud of yourself.”
“Oh,” Arnold brightened up. “Are you a proponent of the Gaia hypothesis?”
“Not particularly, but I admit to feeling persuaded by your work, Professor.”
“Well then, mm, I do have a bit of time, if you’d like to talk about it,” Arnold said earnestly, then seemed to remember belatedly that Eggsy was there. “Oh, er, this is a friend of mine, ah, Eggsy Unwin.”
“We’ve met,” Eggsy said, very dryly, and although he grinned, it was obvious that Eggsy was now studying Harry closely.
“It’s a small world,” Harry said, wary now, and Eggsy straightened up, his posture shifting almost imperceptibly for better balance.
Oblivious to the ramping tension, Arnold said, “Eggsy the files can go anywhere on the desk, thank you.”
“Good thing I caught you when I did,” Eggsy waited until Arnold had started ambling down towards the desk before he followed, still studying Harry, though he headed over to the scratched old table and put his load down neatly next to a haphazard pile of graded papers. “You shouldn’t be carrying heavy shit around by yourself like this at your age, Prof. People still print their stuff out? I thought everything would be emailed nowadays.”
“It’s all very well for the young to read fifty theses off a computer screen,” Arnold said mildly, “It’s another game altogether for older folk. I insist on twelve point, spaced appropriately, Times New Roman.”
“Sounds eminently reasonable,” Harry said, just to buy some time. Merlin was silent in his ear, which meant that it was up to Harry whether or not to push the situation further, see where it might leave him if matters shattered spectacularly: or find a way to save it.
“You’re killing trees is what you’re doing,” Eggsy said, though he smirked at the look of affront that crossed Arnold’s face. “Just ribbing you, Prof. Relax.”
“So as I was saying before we got in here,” Arnold said, mollified, “I would love to attend the Gaia Symposium in Oslo. Tell Mister Valentine that I won’t be bothered by a short flight, and even if I was, it’ll be well worth it.”
“Right. I’ll make the arrangements.” Eggsy made a note on his phone. “Mister Valentine said that you wanted me to meet the Environmental Systems Chair or summat?”
“Oh yes, but I’ve forgotten: he’s extended his trip out to Sussex and I haven’t quite been able to get hold of him. Sorry for making you come all this way for nothing.”
“Nah. Was a pleasure.” Eggsy didn’t leave, though. “Since I got a bit of time,” Eggsy added dryly, “Maybe I could sit in while the two of you hobnob over Gaia theory and math and stuff, eh?” He looked directly over at Harry with a challenging little smirk.
Why, the little shit.
Harry held his own, but only because Merlin helpfully fed him appropriate questions and answers, and at the end, he was sure that he had Arnold convinced that he was some sort of higher-than-average if amateur enthusiast.
Eggsy was another matter altogether, however. As the chat wound down, Eggsy said, “Maybe we shouldn’t keep the Prof shooting the breeze instead of marking his papers.”
“Of course. Thank you for your time, Professor Arnold. It’s been illuminating.”
“I hope so,” Arnold said earnestly, and shook Harry’s hand, then Eggsy’s, and sat down at his desk, while Eggsy and Harry left the lecture room together. Harry felt as though he had become hyper-conscious of Eggsy’s presence, of the measured economy of his step, the mark of a trained fighter; the cut of his maroon blazer, tight over his arms but loose enough over the back that it might’ve been worn over a hidden holster, today pulled over a black shirt with an upended crown and the text Now is the Time to Panic and Freak Out.
“Like the shirt?” Eggsy asked, as he closed the door to the lecture room behind them.
“It’s an unusual sentiment.” Harry kept his posture relaxed. “Isn’t the popular one about keeping calm?”
“That’s boring,” Eggsy declared, tilting his head. “You didn’t strike me as someone who was that into the rarefied strata of applied mathematics or whatever.”
“I suppose there’s a great deal that you don’t know about me,” Harry said, unable to resist giving voice to irony.
“Yeah. I noticed." The game was quite obviously up, in Harry’s opinion. It was purely bad luck that Eggsy had come by the University when he had. Arthur would have to assign someone else- “Hey, y’know what,” Eggsy checked his phone, “It’s pretty late in the day. You want to grab an early dinner? There’s a fairly good place ‘round the block. Bit of a posh sort of diner.”
“I’ll be pleased to,” Harry said, even though his instincts screamed against it. “Lead on.”
Well. If Eggsy was the prey, this big cat was about to get a fucking big surprise.
Still, he made it a point to play at making small talk with the waitress as they ordered: Harry a plate of Southern fried chicken, the house specialty, and Eggsy a jalapeño and beef burger with chips and a salted caramel milkshake.
“You learn a lot about math in the SFSG?” Eggsy asked dryly.
“More than you would think.”
“Maybe the SFSG’s a little less For Queen an’ Country nowadays and a little more like Blackwater, hm?”
“Hardly.” Harry actually seemed genuinely affronted at that. Eggsy had touched a nerve, then. His hands were on the table at least, tucked in his elbows, though since Eggsy couldn’t see Harry’s feet, that wasn’t much comfort. Still, if he read Harry right, Harry wasn’t the sort of person who would pull something big in this kind of joint.
Eggsy, on the other hand, didn’t exactly have the same moral qualms, but hey. It probably would’ve been Pretty Irritating for Mister Valentine to have to bail him out of jail a second time.
“Yeah right,” Eggsy said instead, and Harry sighed.
“I can’t give you specifics. But I did know your father, Eggsy, and-“
“And he was some sorta’ super secret spook like you? That what you’re trying to tell me? I know he quit the Marines six months or so before he actually upped and died,” Eggsy said flatly. “He left saying he’ll get me a puppy when he was back, and he comes back in an urn of bloody ashes instead, with no fucking explanation as to how that might’ve happened other than a phone number that don’t work and a medal that no one recognises. Life’s funny, innit?”
Harry actually visibly flinched. “Indeed it is,” he said finally, “And frankly, while I did not, in the scale of things, know your father long… he was a good man, and a brave one. And I do wish that I had done more for his family.”
It was, on the face of it, a bloody fucking shallow thing to say, and Eggsy’s fists actually itched, to clench up and go swinging, but there was guilt there, raw enough to be real, a sentiment that Eggsy guessed had actually eaten at Harry all this while. Super secret spook or not, Eggsy’s words had hurt Harry, rather more than Eggsy had meant them to, and that, perhaps, was a little reassuring.
“Right then,” Eggsy said, forcing himself to take a few deep breaths. “I don’t blame you for it, aite? I don’t. Neither does mum.”
“Good to know,” Harry said, his tone careful.
“So you owe me a favour still, right?”
“Can I call it in?” Eggsy asked, and without waiting for Harry to respond, said, “If you got some sort of beef with Mister Valentine? Knock it off.”
“I don’t have a problem with Mister Valentine.”
“It seems rather curious to me,” Harry noted idly, “How Mister Valentine often seems to be the common thread between all the high-profile disappearances recently.”
“Oh, is that it?” Eggsy said dismissively. “Yeah, it’s a bloody shame, innit? But Mister Valentine meets a hella lot of people in his work. Not just as part of Valentine Inc, but part of his charity stuff. You didn’t see all those nobs in the Oxfam gala up and disappear, did you?”
“As I said. I don’t have a problem with Mister Valentine.”
“But you’re ‘curious’.”
“As are we all.”
Eggsy sighed, careful to let it sound frustrated, but not too archly so that it would seem fake. “And Mister Valentine’s the best suspect you could come up with? The man’s in his late sixties and he’s scared of blood, man. In a world full of arseholes like IS and stuff, this still the best you got? That’s bloody sad, that is.”
“Perhaps it is,” Harry said, and actually had the bloody cheek to smile when he said it, the handsome bastard. Eggsy tried not to scowl in response, because he’d rather die than be baited over something like this, and it was a good thing that the milkshake came when it did.
Harry changed the subject over dinner, presumably because it wasn’t gentlemanly or whatever to keep going with the thinly veiled threats over a burger and chips, and with improved blood sugar came an improved temper, at least where Eggsy was concerned. Even if Harry was definitely a Mysterious Suit Guy, as Gazelle put it. Bloody hell. Eggsy hated it when he had to admit that Gazelle was right.
God but Harry was damnably hot, though, even the fussy way he was carefully slicing out the fried chicken with fork and knife rather than using his fingers like a normal person. Eggsy ended up grinning at it, amused, and got an arched eyebrow from Harry. “You can use your hands, y’know. That’s what the tissue’s for.”
“Certainly not,” Harry said, sounding mildly affronted just at the thought, and Eggsy laughed, which got a startled look out of Harry, the first hint of a definite crack in Harry’s composure, at the least.
A way in.
So Eggsy went with it. Back to the jokes, to the flirting, to making eyes at Harry over the table, to talking about nothing, like he had in the cafe next to the Thames. As though the last hour hadn’t just happened, just for the hell of it.
Harry was obviously confused, at first, then wary, then he closed himself off again and played along, at least up until they’d both polished off their dinner. Eggsy got the bill, just because, and as they waited for the waiter to come back with Eggsy’s card, Harry asked absently, no doubt just out of having nothing much else to say, “So what do you like to do when you’re not on the clock?”
“Me?” Eggsy leaned forward over the table, lowering his voice, because when Gazelle was right she was usually right for the long haul, and maybe it was time to escalate. Now to see if he could push that composure a little more. “I like to fuck older guys like you up the arse.”
Eggsy winked as Harry actually flinched again at that - victory! - and sat back, with his best look of faux innocence. Harry blinked owlishly for a moment, as though unsure whether he was being baited and wary of it, and just as Eggsy was sure that Harry was going to pretend not to have heard him after all, Harry sat back in his chair, a faint, sharp smile curling at his mouth.
“Well then. Are you currently on the clock?” Harry inquired, silky and low, looking Eggsy pointedly up and down as he did, and damn if Eggsy’s cock didn’t suddenly take a very definite interest in this deadly game of predator vs predator. Game, set, and bloody match.
“Gonna be weird going to my place, given where I live,” Eggsy said, as casually as he could. “What about your place?”
“I know somewhere closer by.”
Note: "Imperial University" is a made-up uni that was part of Professor Arnold's Kingsman dossier, because, Mark Hamill and Star Wars.
Also, I can't believe they blew up Mark Hamill in the film. D:
Firstly, that it was entirely possible that in a straight out fight, Harry might not actually come out the victor: not against a far younger man like Eggsy, in any regard, not toe-to-toe. Secondly, at present Eggsy still seemed set on perhaps persuading Harry of Valentine’s innocence, which suited Harry, because said matter had yet to be fully determined either way. And thirdly… Harry had to admit that Eggsy had a draw that was beyond his sheer physical appeal, magnetic and undeniable. It was enough to fracture his usually impeccable self-control, and Harry knew the matter had to be dealt with one way or the other, or he might as well recuse himself from the case.
And so Harry took Eggsy to a safehouse of his, a top floor flat in a three-storey apartment block on York Street, a corner flat with quick access to a fire escape. The fittings were prosaic: no hidden caches, nothing out of the ordinary - bought and paid for by ‘Harry de Vere’.
“Nice digs,” Eggsy said offhandedly, as Harry let him in, looking around the very modern, minimal apartment. It was nothing like Harry’s townhouse, the furnishings still the same default set that Harry had purchased as a package deal along with the apartment, and Harry didn’t personally care much for the place.
“Doesn’t look like your kinda place though,” Eggsy added, sauntering in and running the heel of his palm over the high back of a white-quilt-cushion chair, and yet again, Harry had to swallow a fresh round of disappointment. Eggsy had excellent instincts.
What a damned waste.
Eggsy turned around, leaning a hip against the smoothened edge of the glass dining table. “I’m thinking that you’re more of a person who’d have a house than a flat,” he said offhandedly. “And I bet it’s wall-to-wall wood or carpeting or both. You probably like antiques. Queen Anne stuff, maybe? None of this seamless minimal steel and glass stuff.” Eggsy rapped his knuckles on the table. “Bet all your plates are Wedgwoods… No? Villeroy? Ha, you’re looking smug now. Last guess. Noritake?”
“Good,” Harry said, amused despite himself. “You can tell all that from a glance?”
“I’ve gone out with you twice,” Eggsy folded his arms. “First time at that hipster little joint, you were turning up your nose at how they used mismatched cutlery on everything, but you did like the antique ‘lil silver teaspoon in the sugar pot. You were way more comfortable in the second joint, which was a converted old gentleman’s club. Things like that."
“Not bad,” Merlin said into Harry’s ear, “But just in case, I’m going to sweep your place for bugs.”
“You’re wasted as a secretary,” Harry said honestly, and Eggsy smirked at him, shoving away from the table.
“Baby, you couldn’t afford me.” Eggsy was right up into Harry’s personal space; Harry nearly jerked back, but Eggsy got a hand up behind his head to pull him down for a kiss. There was nothing tender about it: Harry’s lower lip got mauled in the process, though he got a nip in of his own as Eggsy choked a laugh between them, and he could feel the unyielding press of Eggsy’s arousal against his hip.
A thigh rode up between Harry’s legs, and he let himself rub against the pressure, breath whistling shallowly through his teeth as he got his hands under Eggsy’s jacket, leaning down for another kiss - then freezing as he heard the familiar sound of the magazine release catch. Eggsy smiled lazily at him as he tossed Harry’s Glock across the room, to clatter somewhere into the kitchen, and tucked the 9x19mm magazine into an inner jacket pocket.
“Didn’t think you for a Glock man.” Eggsy said, and Harry hadn’t even felt Eggsy’s little display of sleight of hand.
“Didn’t figure you for SIGs,” Harry said in response, as he slipped the catch on Eggsy’s gun in turn from under Eggsy’s jacket, dropped the matte-black P226 and toed it briskly off towards the balcony, pocketing the magazine as well in turn.
“Not bad, old man,” Eggsy said, absolutely unfazed, and kissed him again, both hands, this time, cupping Harry’s cheeks as he walked him back against the wall, right next to the door, and now he kissed like he meant business, enthusiastic and demanding and bruising. It was more of a fight then a dance, more teeth than tenderness, and violence had always burned Harry’s blood hotter than lust. Harry knew he was likely as flushed as the gorgeous boy in his arms, his cock already hard enough to ruin the line of his trousers.
Harry’s jacket got dragged off and dumped on a chair, then Eggsy actually did a double-take, wide-eyed. Glancing down over himself was involuntary, but Harry wasn’t left wondering for long whether there had been some sort of wardrobe malfunction - Eggsy breathed, “Oh fuck me, that’s hot,” and hooked his fingers into the leather braces of Harry’s shoulder holster and tugged.
His tie was left near the couch, along with Eggsy’s ludicrous sneakers, and when they finally reached the bedroom Harry had managed to get Eggsy’s jacket off, and his own shirt was part unbuttoned, part ripped down, buttons pinging everywhere despite his reproachful sigh. Eggsy smirked and bypassed the bed, leading Harry to the bathroom, and Harry sucked in a slow breath, realizing what that meant - Eggsy did fully intend to make good on what he had said in the diner.
“Second thoughts?” Eggsy asked challengingly, though he slowed to a stop, tipping his head questioningly.
“Not at all,” Harry breathed, and this he didn’t have to fake: in any circumstances at all, bedding someone this beautiful was a privilege. He did wish that the situation was better, for a moment, as Eggsy smiled lazily and pulled him over onto the cold tiles, to kiss Harry as nimble fingers undid the buckles on his shoulder holster, then pulled off the remains of his shirt. Pressed so close to Eggsy, the supple, lithe strength of Eggsy’s frame was obvious enough, and for a moment Harry wondered with a little shiver whether Eggsy was strong and skilled enough to pin him down, to press Harry face-first into the pillows and fuck him until he limped.
Divesting Eggsy quickly of his clothes revealed two concealed knives, and Eggsy laughed in turn as he toed through Harry’s own shed clothes, the glasses tucked safely away on the sink. “Fucking ‘ell. Why the fuck d’you need three Glocks? We over-compensating here?”
“In case some ‘punk-arse’ kid pickpockets one, obviously,” Harry said, his voice too breathless to be playful, for Eggsy bared to his skin was glorious, right in the prime of his life; and while Harry kept himself fit, age had long started creeping up on him.
“What d’you think you need three bloody Glocks to shoot right here in London, eh?” Eggsy asked. Harry was glad that the shower of this flat was large enough for two, the washroom stocked with the right supplies for a job like this.
“London’s rather more dangerous than you think,” Harry said smoothly, and Eggsy smirked at him as if Harry was paying him some sort of underhanded compliment, and dragged him into the shower.
And it was a job, for all that Harry’s arousal was plain enough to see and he couldn’t quite get his pulse under control. Lust was a drumming tempo of hot water and a whisper of steam as he managed to get Eggsy pinned to the slippery tiles, a kiss sluiced wet with water, Eggsy’s laugh as he slipped Harry’s grip and shoved him facefirst against the wall, nudging Harry’s thighs apart and kneading Harry’s arse, a bite worked high against the nape of Harry’s neck as Eggsy rubbed his cock teasingly at the cleft. To swallow his groan, Harry bit down so hard on his lip that he tasted a coppery spark of blood.
Prep was an impatient blur, towels an inconvenience, and they were both still damp when they ended up on the bed in a wrestling, biting tangle, Eggsy laughing still, the wicked little tart, bright-eyed with mischief like a creature of chaos itself, distraction in the taste of his mouth, disaster in the press of his tongue against the fresh wound on Harry’s lip. Harry could see his own blood flecked on Eggsy’s mouth as Eggsy leaned up over him, elbows braced over Harry’s shoulders, arched over Harry on the bed, and it was like madness, to want this boy so, like ruin.
“Gonna fuck you up,” Eggsy whispered against his ear, and bit, then chuckled as Harry choked out a moan. “Y’do this often?”
“Not exactly,” Harry grit out, for it had been a while since he had bedded anyone, and never, ever anyone quite like Eggsy.
“Oh really?” Eggsy said, with arch disbelief. “You being James Bond and all, I thought your life would’a been a long string of martinis and sex and saving the world.”
“Not at all,” Harry said, amused now despite himself, and got a kiss for it, a slower one, nearly like a lover’s kiss but for the long fingers far too dangerously close to circling his throat.
“Right then, hands and knees,” Eggsy said, with a pointed pat over Harry’s hip, and as Harry turned around, knees pressed into the soft sheets, cheek over the pillows of the impersonal gray and white quilted bed, he was already hard enough that he was dripping onto the covers. For a moment Harry was far too aware of how ludicrous this all had to look, a boy half his age braced between Harry’s thighs, Harry with his arse up in the air- but then Eggsy started to kiss down his spine, his breathing shallow, as though reverent, and Harry relaxed a fraction, sucking on his wounded lip.
“God, you’re so hot,” Eggsy breathed, and Harry actually let out a startled laugh at that before Eggsy uncapped the lube he had swiped from the bathroom’s box of supplies, rolling on a condom and working two fingers easily into a hole already loosened from clean-up. Harry let himself enjoy it, even as his fingers tensed involuntarily on the sheets, his instincts hating how vulnerable he was right now, getting spitted on a boy’s fingers and stretched open. Dazed, panting in low gasps, Harry didn’t even flinch as a third finger was squeezed in, though he groaned as Eggsy murmured, “So good. That’s so… bloody good.”
“More,” Harry gasped, because he wasn’t sure how much more he could take like this, self-control already in shreds, and Eggsy made a strangled sound and drew up behind him, slicked fingers sliding briefly over Harry’s arse before ending up over his hip.
Harry had expected Eggsy to get right to it, to slide in and fuck him into the bed, and so he yelped, startled, when Eggsy landed a deft smack on Harry’s arse, instead, hard enough to sting; the whine that Harry had been bottling in slipped out all in a rush as Eggsy’s spare hand stroked over undoubtedly reddening flesh.
“Make that sound again,” Eggsy said, breathless again as he guided himself in, a tight fit despite the prep, and Harry turned his face against the pillow and swallowed his moans, determined at least to preserve a little dignity, as exquisite as it felt to be full like this, to be spread open and taken. He’d forgotten.
“Be like that then,” Eggsy noted playfully, and clever fingers were squeezing around Harry’s cock, stroking him off briskly, and even though Harry groaned and squirmed pointedly against Eggsy, Eggsy didn’t move, keeping himself buried deep as his fingers curled into a tight fist.
“Eggsy don’t…” Harry gasped, “I’m already close and… don’t-“ he tried to bat Eggsy’s hand away, but Eggsy ignored him, kissing over Harry’s spine instead as Harry choked out another whine and bucked desperately into Eggsy’s grip and finally gave in, ecstasy white hot as it tore through him all in a dazed mess, clenching down tight over the hard cock in his arse as he muffled a cry in the pillows.
“Faster than I thought,” Eggsy observed, but Harry was too dizzy to snipe back, breathing hard as he stared over his shoulder at Eggsy in unabashed surprise. “Relax,” Eggsy added, with a smug little smirk. “I’m still gonna fuck you. But I prefer it like this,” he added, as he tucked a pillow under Harry’s hips and wiped his hand on the quilt. “Maybe you’ll even get it up again, hm?”
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Harry said dryly, which got a laugh out of Eggsy and finally, finally, the first snap of his hips back and up against Harry’s arse.
It was good even like this, even though Harry wouldn’t get hard again anytime soon, to just brace himself against the bed and ride out Eggsy’s desire, and if Harry was maybe twenty years younger he most certainly would have gotten hard again in a shot. Eggsy fucked with the ruthless abandon of the young, scouring lust into Harry’s skin, nails over the jut of his hips, teeth high up on Harry’s back, a peppered map of bites and wet kisses marking each time Eggsy made the bed creak and jerk against the wall, until Harry felt dazed all over again, drunk on the intensity of Eggsy’s hunger. Again, it was like madness.
When Eggsy came it was with a stuttered breath and a palm braced over the curve of Harry’s shoulder, and Harry winced as Eggsy pulled out after a few gasps for breath. A kiss was pressed against his shoulder, then Eggsy ambled unsteadily off, probably to dispose of the condom in the bathroom. Harry rolled onto his back, away from the wet spot, and dimly remembered that Eggsy’s phone was in the bathroom, that he had work to do, that-
“So,” Eggsy said, as he climbed back on the bed, wearing a smirk and nothing else, disheveled and flushed and bright-eyed and still as glorious as ever. “That was pretty awesome.”
Harry could only nod slowly, still blinking.
“Got somewhere you need to be right now?”
“Not particularly. Why?”
“‘Cos,” Eggsy said, and ran a palm up under Harry’s thigh, tugging it up from the knee. “Maybe I’m not done with you yet. If you ain’t too sore.”
Harry’s cock made a manful effort to get hard again, and he growled, as he reached out to drag Eggsy over, “Then I suggest that you get to it.”
“Wha…” Eggsy began, then he groaned and rolled facedown onto the pillows. “Why, that fucking bastard.” Eggsy never slept this deeply, unless-
“This is why you shouldn’t follow Mysterious Suit Guys home if you don't know what you're in for,” Gazelle said, as she opened the windows in the bedroom. “At least he just drugged you and hacked your phone, rather than, say, murdering you in cold blood and hiding the body.”
“Harry hacked my phone?”
“Earlier today. We shut down the unauthorised access when the techs noticed it, so hopefully there wasn’t that much damage done.” Gazelle said briskly. “At which point Mister Valentine was convinced you had just been killed and freaked out. Tracked your phone GPS to this place. Thought I’d be in time to find a body at best.”
“God I’m so sorry, I-“
“Just go and clean up,” Gazelle said pointedly, and stalked away towards the living room.
By the time Eggsy reappeared, sheepish and dressed, Valentine was already in the room, pacing anxiously. “Oh, thank fuck,” Valentine said, when he saw Eggsy. “I think I aged ten years! What was I gonna tell your mum, huh? Or lil Daisy?”
“Sorry, boss,” Eggsy mumbled, red-faced. “I thought I had it under control.”
“All right then. Well. I’m glad you’re not dead,” Valentine said firmly.
“And what have we learned today?” Gazelle asked idly from where she stood beside the dining table.
“That you’re always right?” Eggsy sighed.
“That,” Gazelle agreed, “And if you do decide to sleep with dangerous people, you probably should watch their hands at all times. Or shoot them right after you-“
“Gazelle,” Valentine cut in hastily. “Eggsy’s learned his lesson, I’m sure.”
“I bloody well have,” Eggsy said feelingly. “The next time I see him I’m gonna shoot him in the fucking balls is what.”
“I think you’re a bad influence on my secretary,” Valentine told Gazelle, who sniffed. “Right. Now you’re gonna call your mum and tell her you’re OK - we didn’t tell her you disappeared, but I think she sensed something this morning. And then you’re gonna go home and-“
“Actually,” Eggsy interrupted, “I’d rather just get on with work.”
“It’s Saturday. Relax,” Valentine said firmly. “It’s your off day. Which means relaxing, not going around hunting old people spies.”
“… Right,” Eggsy said reluctantly. “I’ll relax.”
“Let’s go bag some poachers,” Eggsy told Gazelle. “Vietnam’s a bit far since we have to be in Oslo on Sunday. But we can still pop down to Kenya. Save some rhinos.”
Valentine clapped Eggsy on the shoulder enthusiastically. “That’s the spirit.”
“Any luck tracing where they’ll be staying?”
“Almost… There. They’re all rooming over at the Grand Hotel.”
“Of course. The Christian Radich for Valentine, I presume?”
“Valentine, yes, and Gazelle’s in the attached suite guestroom. Arnold and Unwin are in separate junior suites. I’ll text you the room numbers. I believe they’ll likely check in, rest, and then head to the Oslo City Hall for the Gaia conference. Doors open at ten in the morning.”
“I’m going to check the City Hall,” Harry decided briskly, and put the book away, heading out to the car parking, briefcase in hand, for all appearances like a gentleman out on a quick business trip.
If it wasn’t for his bloody limp. Damn Eggsy and his enthusiasm. Sitting down in the innocuous little silver Volkswagen Golf was still a bit of a trial, but Harry felt mildly better as he checked the back seat and noted the other care package that the local Kingsman connection had left for him along with the car.
Fully armed again, Harry pulled out onto the Rv150, heading south, the car but one of many of its kind on the road. Some Kingsman agents, like Tristan, liked to work with fast cars in the style of James Bond, but Harry had always privately felt that to be unprofessional. If he was in London, he preferred the black cab, if he was elsewhere in the world, he would simply choose one of the most common cars in that area.
The Oslo City Hall was in the midst of playing its hourly carillon when Harry found a parking space nearby and got out of the car. Straightening up made him wince, and as he locked the car, Harry scowled to himself. He had definitely been partly complicit in his current situation by allowing Eggsy to have him twice, and the second round had been just as rough at the first, Harry on his back with Eggsy between his thighs. God. Even thinking about it the night before, when Harry had been preparing for an early night prior to Oslo, had been enough for him to have to take himself in hand in the shower like a schoolboy.
Sleeping with Eggsy certainly hadn’t gotten Eggsy out of Harry’s system. Quite clearly, the opposite had happened instead, and Harry only had himself to blame. If only he had been more professional about the whole matter rather than allowing his baser desires to come into the equation…
Thankful for the chill of the Oslo morning, Harry got himself back under control and walked briskly towards the City Hall. The imposing brick-red building cast a stark outline against the blue sky, all angular functionalism, and the white clock face on one of its dual towers read a couple of minutes past nine o’ clock.
Passing the sculptures and the fountains in the courtyard square before the City Hall, Harry made his way quietly through into the City Hall. Staff were already setting up helpful little directional signage for the Gaia conference, and Harry spent a helpful half an hour walking about, studying the exits, the stately, antique conference room with its green-backed leather chairs and rings of tiered oak benches, and even a few self-indulgent minutes admiring the vast frescoes that covered the walls in the main hall.
“Thoughts?” Merlin asked, as Harry quietly exited the building, having installed a very specific Kingsman subroutine into the City Hall’s security systems, just as he had in the airport.
“I’ll be spotted easily as a guest. The conference only has a few hundred attendees.” Harry slowed down briefly next to an imposing stone fountain crowned with two swans, turning back to look up at one of the towers. “Arthur should’ve reassigned another Knight to this case.”
“He probably will,” Merlin assured him, “Once Bedivere returns from his task in Syria.”
“Surely I could swap tasks with another Kingsman,” Harry muttered, but Arthur had always been a firm believer in a sort of One Man, One Job type of work aesthetic. “My cover’s been blown.”
“Yes, sorry about that,” Merlin said, sounding faintly embarrassed. “V-Tech security was far better than I anticipated. Arthur’s still reviewing the files that we did manage to pull, but as far as I can tell, much of it is basic to mid tier secure information, all corporate, all more or less already available on their website or in press releases.”
“It looks like we have three options, since I doubt that I can get close enough to Valentine to pick his pockets without being noticed by his bodyguard or by Eggsy,” Harry said, as he crossed back towards his car. “I could wait in the City Hall and try and get Professor Arnold alone, despite the crowds of guests and tourists and staff - which will be tricky, since he recognises me as well.”
“Not good prospects,” Merlin admitted. “It’ll be messy.”
“If Professor Arnold parts ways with Valentine and his team after the conference, I might be able to tail him and catch him prior to him returning to the hotel.”
“Big if,” Merlin pointed out. “But I’ve got eyes in the City Hall now. Might be a good possibility.”
“And if all else fails,” Harry decided, “I suppose I’ll have to breach his privacy in his suite.”
“Unwin’s suite is right next to Arnold’s,” Merlin warned. “Also tricky.”
“Life would be terribly boring without a challenge,” Harry pointed out, as he got into his car. He’ll get some breakfast somewhere, wait until the conference was well under way, then head over to the Grand Hotel and get Merlin into its systems. “What’s a good cafe in Oslo?”
Merlin steered Harry over to a bakery at the corner of Schous Pass and Thorvald Meyers gate, where he had a cup of tea and a perfectly adequate cinnamon roll, reading the news on his phone as he ate. Valentine Inc, it seemed, was still in preparations for its ‘big reveal’, in its upcoming expo in London, and anticipation seemed to be ramping up: articles had made it to the front page on the BBC and on CNN.
“Any idea what the ‘big reveal’ is going to be?” Harry murmured.
“Something about SIM cards, according to the files that we have. There were a few draft press releases. I think Valentine Inc wants to provide free internet to the masses.”
“That doesn’t sound particularly villainous.”
“Indeed it doesn’t. Oh yes. Arthur wants to note that the Swedish Royal Family has just added themselves as a joint client to your current task.” Merlin paused, as though scanning through an email. “So. Locating the missing Princess Tilde has been added to your list of high priorities.”
Harry internalised a sigh. He hated it when priorities got amended on the fly. “Where was she last seen?”
“Similar situation. According to her immigration records, she cleared customs in Heathrow with the Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Carlsson, with the intent of meeting Valentine. He returned to Sweden the next day without her.”
Harry looked at the BBC news site, where Princess Tilde’s kidnapping was still front page news. According to Carlsson, the last he had seen of Princess Tilde was when they had parted ways in Heathrow: he had gone to No. 10 to greet the British PM, while Princess Tilde had decided to head on to the Savoy to check in. Her bags had been brought up to her suite, along with the luggage of her private security to adjacent rooms, after which they had driven her off to Buckingham Palace, where she had tea with the Queen. Princess Tilde left Buckingham Palace at five in the afternoon, presumably to meet up with Carlsson at Valentine’s villa, but she had never made it there.
Valentine and Carlsson had apparently waited for an hour or so, thinking that the Princess was merely late, after which they had called the police. Despite the huge manhunt that had ensued, there was still no sign of even Tilde’s security team, and the BBC seemed torn between attributing the Princess’ disappearance to the recent spate of high profile kidnappings and to it being an ‘inside job’ by her security team.
“Any further information that isn’t in the news?” Harry asked.
“Not particularly. But like all the other people who have gone missing, Princess Tilde has had a long history of engaging with environmental and social justice issues.” There was a pause, then, “You might have the chance to question Stefan Carlsson. According to the Oslo airport, he arrived twenty minutes ago.”
“For the conference?”
“Perhaps.” There was the brief sound of typing, then Merlin added, “But be careful. Arthur doesn’t want an international incident.”
“Arthur worries too much at the best of times.”
“Feeling better?” Gazelle had asked neutrally, when they had reset the first game.
“Sure. Why’d you ask?” Eggsy had said, as breezily as he could. After all, no one really needed to know that he’d had to jerk himself off in bed last night, thinking about how fucking hot Harry had been. God. Eggsy maybe. Just maybe. Had a problem there.
The Christian Radich suite was lavish, even for Eggsy’s experience of lavish things, and he had gawked for a while as Gazelle had swept the room for bugs. Valentine was slouched in one of the antique couches, checking his email, seemingly oblivious to the old-world luxury around him, while Eggsy had gone from room to room, excited.
“You know,” Valentine said, when Eggsy had stopped, sheepish and feeling gauche and had asked Valentine if he would like a latte. “I’ve been thinking.”
“This suite. It’s pretty cool, right?”
“I guess?” Eggsy said, in what he hoped was a suave and worldly manner but probably failing.
“Maybe Daisy would like it as her room? We could take pictures and I could get someone to recreate it. Think about it. Or something like it. Maybe some bits she won’t like. Or we could make it more pink. Or put in a petting zoo. Or-“
“She’s fine with her room as it is now,” Eggsy said hastily. A petting zoo? Really? “Seriously, boss.”
“Aww,” Valentine looked disappointed. “She’s in a guest room, man. You guys be family. That’s not right.”
Daisy’s ‘guest room’ was really a guest suite, converted into a child’s bedroom with a liberal application of fresh pastel paints and a ridiculous collection of soft toys, and in actual fact was likely larger than the entire apartment that Eggsy, his mum, and Daisy had once lived in.
“I told you before, boss. She’s still a baby. Maybe when she’s older, we can talk about it. Also, I’m pretty sure that PETA will complain if we brought in a petting zoo. Them’s all animals separated from their mommies, right?”
“True,” Valentine said, and sighed gustily, checking his phone, then he perked up again as something occurred to him. “I heard that little girls all like ‘Frozen’. Maybe we could recreate Elsa’s room or something.“
“Err… maybe we shouldn’t make any assumptions,” Eggsy said quickly, grimacing. “I mean, what if she ends up liking the Lion King or something more?”
Valentine frowned to himself. “Maybe we could have a meerkat enclosure-“
Thankfully, at that moment, Gazelle trotted briskly back into the salon. “All clear.”
Eggsy got a ping on his phone. “Mister Carlsson’s landed. He’s going to check in and meet us over at the City Hall. He’ll probably miss the first speaker, so he apologises for that. He asks if you’ll like to catch up over lunch, and we should bring Professor Arnold if he’s interested.”
“‘Course. Book us in someplace nice,” Valentine said vaguely. “Preferably with burgers.”
Eggsy sent Carlsson an email and arranged for a table at Cafe Fedora, based on various reviews online, all while following Valentine out of the suite. They scooped up Arnold from the lobby, heading out to where the Tesla S idled in the driveway, watched over like a hawk by a suitably tipped valet, and Gazelle pulled them neatly out into traffic.
“Feeling better sir?” Eggsy asked Professor Arnold.
“Yes, thank you for arranging for the coffee and the muffin in the suite,” Arnold said earnestly.
“No problems. You said it’ll help settle you after a flight.” Eggsy sorted slowly through his emails all the way to the City Hall, where Arnold discussed the conference with Valentine, particularly the keynote speaker, one of many of Arnold’s geeky Professorial friends, as far as Eggsy could tell.
The Oslo City Hall was cool, especially the big paintings in the main hall, but Eggsy didn’t really have the time to admire it: Oslo’s mayor was waiting for them in the hall, enthusiastically shaking Valentine’s hand when recognised and walking with them towards the lecture hall, expounding all the way about solar cell production and hydropower, clearly trying to invite himself to lunch or dinner. Thankfully, Mister Valentine was quickly distracted when he recognised yet another one of Arnold’s Geeky Professor Club, and Gazelle hastily bundled everyone into the lecture hall before they were late.
The lecture wasn’t particularly exciting: rather too much dense science for Eggsy to follow comfortably - so he worked instead, flicking out emails to the production factory in China, checking on distributors. Since it was Sunday, there wasn’t actually the usual volume of things to sort through, and Eggsy was actually beginning to get bored when there was a sudden ping from V-Tech.
He read the warning, frowned, then tapped lightly at Valentine’s elbow, and passed him the tablet. On the terminal, Carlsson’s words were being transcribed through voice recognition: he’d just said something that tripped the security filter. Valentine activated audio, the feed going to him, Gazelle and Eggsy.
“-don’t know where the Princess is!” Carlsson was saying, his voice desperate.
There was a sound of a gun’s safety being thumbed, then an all too fucking familiar voice saying briskly, “Are you prepared to swear to that?”
Harry. Bloody hell.
“I… I swear that-“ Carlsson’s words snapped off into a yelp, then, “Oh God. Oh God. All right. All right! The Princess and I met with Mister Valentine-“
Eggsy winced as Valentine typed in his personal override for Carlsson’s chip without first turning off the audio, and his ears were still ringing as the three of them slipped out of the lecture hall, and into a side room not on the security cam circuit. Gazelle still checked for bugs, though, circling around the small room briskly.
“Damn, boss,” Eggsy complained, once given the all-clear. “Give a man some warning.”
“Sorry, sorry.” Valentine was also rubbing at his ear. “I forgot. Ah fuck. I liked that guy.”
“Okay, maybe not. He was a bit of a snake and I liked our other guest better, at least she was genuine,” Valentine admitted. “But what the hell. He was a snake who was in favour of changing the world. So. Damn.”
“What next?” Gazelle asked. “Should we investigate?”
“Nah. Not personally.” Valentine frowned at the screen. “But put the fix in, Eggsy. You know the drill.”
“That other voice,” Eggsy said slowly. “It was Harry.” His stomach felt like it was twisting into a sick little knot. The explosion wouldn’t have injured Harry, not physically, but there would’ve been secondary side-effects from the chemical reaction that allowed chips like that to ‘overheat’ so spectacularly, and maybe-
Valentine stared at Eggsy soberly for a moment, then he shrugged. “Well. If you can bag him, you deal with him. But don’t stress out, OK? Just do what you have to do.”
“Gotcha,” Eggsy said, as they headed back into the lecture hall. He couldn’t concentrate for the rest of it, all through lunch, even as he arranged for contacts to clear out the scene and influence the investigation, sending a quick email to friends in law enforcement and in the Norwegian government.
The fix was In by the time the matter broke afternoon news: as far as anyone was concerned, poor late Stefan Carlsson had been assassinated in his suite in the Grand Hotel, along with his security, and the terrorist was still At Large. Eggsy hesitated for a long moment, reading the BBC article, then he smiled sharply to himself and submitted Harry’s description to his contacts as a Person of Interest, and waited for the manhunt to start. Why do the work himself, if the police could do it?
The cafe at lunch was all abuzz with the news of the attack, the city mostly locked down by law enforcement trying to find a ‘tall Caucasian brunette Briton in his 50s, well-dressed, armed and dangerous’, and Eggsy felt a little viciously better about life in general as he sat down at the table with Valentine and composed a statement to be released by Valentine Inc, mourning the late PM and all that.
“Add that it’s a blow to the clean energy world, stuff like that,” Valentine added, as he looked through the menu critically. “And that we’re all devastated, etcetera.”
“Submitting Mystery Suit Guy’s details to the police was a good touch,” Gazelle said, as she read through just the salad portion of the menu. “You’re learning.”
“Fair’s fair in love and war, innit?”
“You know me. I’m always in favour of further escalation.”
Still, perhaps unsurprisingly, the police failed to catch Harry, and Oslo was still on high alert all through the second day of the conference. Getting cleared to fly back to London was a bit of a hassle, and Eggsy was relieved when they were finally in the air, watching Gazelle bully Professor Arnold at Battleships.
A car had been arranged at Heathrow to return Professor Arnold to Imperial University, along with their i8, and on their way back to the house, Valentine asked, “Still no luck with finding that dude?”
“Nope. I kinda expected better of the Norwegian police.”
“Damn, he’s good,” Valentine said, with grudging admiration. “He must’a gotten a face full of the chip goo, and he still managed to get out.”
“Maybe he had help,” Eggsy said, but he somehow doubted it. “Whatever it is. I bet he’s based in London. And there’s got to be more of them out there.”
“And Carlsson spilled the bloody beans,” Valentine sighed. “Snakes, I tell you.”
“Fallout’s under control.”
“I’m not worried about that,” Valentine scowled to himself. “I’m worried about this James Bond Blackwater-esque spy company messing with my plans. I want them found.”
“I got some ideas.”
“Do what you have to,” Valentine instructed him. “But don’t go crazy. When you find out who’s the boss of these people? Tee me up for a talk.”
“You want to get personal?” Eggsy asked doubtfully. “Umm. You and blood-“
“Personal? Nah. This ain’t personal for me, you know that.” Valentine smiled slowly from the back seat. “I’m real good at persuading people over to my point of view, that’s all. I’ve always said, if you can’t beat them? Buy them.”
They shook hands, because there was nothing else that really needed to be said, and then Harry leaned a hip against the bedframe and ran a hand over his face. “How long have I been out?”
That explained the beard. “What happened?”
“How much do you remember?”
“I…” Harry closed his eyes, schooling his thoughts, rearranging the memories the way he had once been taught, in Kingsman training. “The mark… exploded on me? I’m not sure. Something got on my face, like… paint or some sort. It rather had the effect of being drugged with a hallucinogen, I believe. I think I managed to make it to the car. That’s the last I remember of anything.”
“You did manage to make it to the car before you passed out, after which I took over remote steering and got you to our contact for extraction. The manhunt was on, so we had to ship you out in a private plane as cargo. Arthur had to call in a few favours.”
“Yes,” Merlin said, very dryly. “I do believe that Valentine leaked your appearance to the police as a suspect. A great deal of effort has gone into trying to find you over the last three months. I had your Marylebone safehouse forensically cleaned, just in case. Good thing, too - the police investigated it a week or so after Carlsson’s murder.”
“So my cover’s been… quite thoroughly and publicly burned.”
“Fantastic.” Harry pinched at the bridge of his nose. Arthur had to be so pleased. “How did Carlsson die?”
“The engineers and I studied the footage from your spectacles and noticed this.” Merlin brought up an image on his iPad and showed it to Harry. It was a picture of Carlsson’s neck, zoomed in, his chin tilted up by the muzzle of Harry’s Glock. Just under his hair line was a faint, raised scar, like a recently healed incision into his skin.
“What’s that?” Harry asked, still puzzled, and by way of response, Merlin switched the television wall unit on.
“This happened three days ago.”
It was a BBC news segment, covering Valentine Inc’s recent, lavish launch of a revolutionary new technology: subdermal SIM cards that could connect with any number of Bluetooth or wireless devices. Any individual anywhere could get a card installed for free, after which he or she would be able to access free Internet services anywhere, through Valentine’s satellite, superfast Zero-G network.
“The rollout’s been hugely successful,” Merlin said. “Globally, too. Valentine Inc’s been supplying it everywhere, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds or tech levels, to, say, even semi-nomadic villages in sub-Saharan Africa, along with basic Valentine Inc devices. Part of his ‘global education program’, apparently.”
“Why would people willingly install a SIM card under their skin?” Harry asked, bewildered.
“Free internet?” Merlin shrugged. “Anyone can get a card. On the books, it’s been touted as a way to help swathes of the world out of poverty by connecting them globally through the V-Cloud. Lots of free online universities out there, and I think Skillshare’s also creating a selectively crowdsourced online primary and secondary school program in various languages, just for the V-Cloud.”
“Commendable, except that the card seems to have a rather spectacular side effect should the subject annoy Valentine,” Harry said, studying the photograph for a moment longer before passing the iPad back to Merlin. “Why was I out for three months?”
“We’re still analysing the chemical composition of the, ah, explosive residue that had been left on your skin, but it seems that it was absorbed through your skin and your body reacted badly to it,” Merlin said, very delicately. “No lasting side-effects so far though. Other than, ah, the long period of bedrest.”
“Who’s been assigned to this task while I was incapacitated?”
“Bedivere. He’s been in Sweden, chasing a lead on the Princess.”
“What?” Harry blinked. “But before Carlsson exploded, he said that the Princess had met up with Valentine. Valentine’s obviously behind all the kidnappings! It was Valentine’s chip under his skin!”
“Yes, well,” Merlin grimaced. “Publicly, Carlsson’s been linked to the disappearance of Princess Tilde as the culprit. So it seems Arthur came under pressure to have Bedivere investigate leads in Sweden.”
“Arthur bowing to pressure? That’s a first.”
“Never had a case quite on a scale like this, either,” Merlin pointed out. “Or gone quite so long without concrete results.”
“Did Bedivere at least break into Valentine’s house?” At Merlin’s shake of his head, Harry asked, “The office? Servers?”
Harry folded his arms, frowning to himself. Something was very wrong here. Harry had been so sure, on his dizzy flight out from Carlsson’s room, that even if he didn’t survive whatever had just happened, that the replacement Kingsman agent assigned to his task would take over and take care of Valentine posthaste. Granted, Harry had been disoriented and under the influence of strange drug residue at the time, but…
“I want to review all of Bedivere’s findings over the last three months,” Harry said finally.
Maybe Harry had missed something. Maybe he had been too focused on Valentine after all. In the harsh light of day, it did seem… strange that someone who had clearly committed his entire life and resources to ‘saving the world’ would be behind the random kidnappings of conservationists, environmentalists and such. What would be the point? Surely the opposite would be more effective, to silence all the naysayers.
“Actually,” Merlin said uncomfortably, “You’ve been taken off the case. As you mentioned before, your cover’s been rather spectacularly blown. And you’ve already technically been off the case for three months. Bedivere’s been reassigned onto it. And Arthur says that when you’re feeling better, he’ll like to have a debrief in the Round Table room.”
“Ah.” This shouldn’t actually have been shocking to Harry, given that he had actually asked to be reassigned, once right after Merlin had tripped the V-Tech security, and once in Oslo, after all. But it still was. “Very well. Did anything else that was monumental happen while I was out?”
“The kidnappings have actually stopped, about a month or so ago. Global opinion’s still wavering between ISIL being the culprit or some unknown terrorist organisation.” Merlin thumbed through the iPad. “There’s been the usual sort of thing happening around the world. Another mass shooting in America, deadlock in the Middle East, some elections, ebola scares, ongoing debates over the Iranian nuclear program…” Merlin lifted a shoulder into a light shrug. “Also, England didn’t win the Ashes.”
“I don’t believe any of us reasonably held any hope about that,” Harry pointed out, depressing as it was. Like most of the English, he held no real conviction that his country was still in any state to win certain World Cups, be it in cricket or in football. At least Harry was more of a Rugby man.
“In Kingsman news, the candidate trial is still ongoing. There’s about five of them left.”
“What’s the pool like?” Harry asked, because the Merlin Department had a culture of its own, and betting on anything from agents, recruits, all the way to task outcomes was apparently common.
“Think the running favourites are between Arthur’s candidate and Percival’s.” Merlin checked something on the iPad. “I put my money on Arthur’s. Percival’s candidate is most likely going to fail one of the later stages. She’s afraid of heights. Also, unfortunately, none of this current batch of recruits have begun to understand the ‘teamwork’ component of the interview process, so I very much doubt that she’ll get any support.”
“Even now? It’s been months.”
“Even now,” Merlin said glumly. “But I do note that it’s not uncommon in recent rounds.”
With that parting, depressing note, Merlin left Harry to it, and Harry dressed himself slowly with the clothes provided: sharp white shirt, double-breasted charcoal suit. No shoulder holster, back holster or any of his Glocks: Harry presumed that all the weaponry had likely been delivered to his home. When he finally put on the Kingsman-issue glasses, Harry felt put together all over again.
Arthur was waiting for him in the Round Table room with a wry smile, with a set of whisky glasses and an aged Macallan on a silver tray before him. “A drink to surviving another day?” he invited, when Harry sat down in the Galahad seat.
“No thank you,” Harry admitted. “I’m still a little out of sorts from the medication.”
“Ah, of course.” Arthur said smoothly. “Shame that things worked out the way they did. Not entirely your fault, of course.”
“And what part of it was my fault?” Harry inquired, arching an eyebrow.
Arthur sighed, a paternal sort of sigh that Harry had heard only a handful of times in his entire career. Arthur never expressed anger, or impatience: any of those would have been better. What Arthur used, instead, was disappointment. “You’re a highly experienced agent, Galahad. I would have thought that the lesson taught to all Kingsman agents, which began with a puppy in recruit school, would have been ingrained within you by now.”
“‘Nothing is personal’,” Harry said slowly.
“Of course, we’re all human,” Arthur said, still with his sober, sad-eyed stare. “And I suppose that your attachment to Gary Unwin was perhaps entirely to be expected, given that his father saved your life. My fault as well, I should say, for expecting the impossible. You were right. You should never have been assigned to this case. For that, I apologise.”
Having not expected this from Arthur by any means, Harry stared, blinking in surprise. “I could still assist-“
“Your cover’s been quite thoroughly and publicly burned, I’m afraid,” Arthur said tiredly. “I’ve done all I can to keep the Interpol sketch sufficiently vague that you won’t be recognised on the street, but it’s a rather tenuous situation right now. It’s my hope that when Bedivere resolves this whole matter, we’ll be able to sweep matters under the rug along with his solution.”
“Bedivere is in Sweden,” Harry said, trying to keep a lid on his patience. “Valentine is here.”
“It’s a rather more complicated situation than we originally thought. And also. Our main priority isn’t to engineer some sort of takedown of Valentine Inc. It’s to find the missing people, hopefully alive, as soon as possible. Given that some of the missing people have medical conditions that require specialised care, I would say that we’re rather on the clock. Bedivere’s on a lead in Sweden. And you’re off the case. That’s all that you need to know.”
Orders were orders. And Arthur did have a point. The welfare of those kidnapped was far more important. “All right,” Harry said, reluctantly.
“And given the fiasco in Oslo,” Arthur added, “I would strongly suggest that you take a leave of absence. Paid, of course. Somewhere out of London and somewhere quiet. Until Bedivere has finished up and everything’s settled down again.”
“Leave London?” Harry said blankly. Save where missions required it, and once or twice for the occasional vacation, he had never left London.
“Surely your finances would allow it.” Arthur said mildly. “As a precaution, naturally. Maldives is quite nice at this time of year. Think of it more as a long service vacation, not so much as some sort of rebuke.”
“I… see.” Harry said slowly. “Is that an order?”
Arthur let out another long-suffering sigh. “Yes, if you must have me make it an order, indeed it is. Leave London, go somewhere quiet, relax. Try to have fun, if that’s not asking too much.”
“… Very well.” Harry said, still utterly thrown by the ‘suggestion’. “If that’s your decision, then I’ll go. Have Merlin contact me when there’s a new task.”
“Certainly. Are you sure that you wouldn’t like a drink before you leave? Between old friends? I am glad that you’re out of that coma,” Arthur said, with his usual careful, wry patience, and when Harry shook his head, he added. “Try not to take this any other way.”
“Of course not,” Harry agreed, and Arthur nodded, rising to his feet. Harry pushed himself up too, if belatedly, which was when he saw it.
A pale white scar, weeks-old, just under Arthur’s hairline.
“No,” Harry said, as he shook Arthur’s hand. “I won’t try to take this any other way.”
And commercial farm practices. What even. People sucked.
“What about?” Valentine asked distractedly, and tried a spoonful of Michelle’s experimental vegan cashew cream of mushroom soup. “Hey. This is pretty good!”
“Well obviously,” Eggsy said, feigning outrage. “It’s me mum’s. What d’you expect?”
“How’d she make it this creamy without cream?”
“Something about…” Eggsy frowned, then patched in to his mum. “Hey mum, did you use almond milk cream or something?”
“Soaked cashews in water overnight then blended it,” Michelle Unwin replied briskly, then added, “Any good?”
“It’s awesome,” Eggsy assured her, and dutifully relayed the message to the boss. “So about Mister King. He says that Galahad’s woken up, but he’s been taken care of.”
Valentine frowned at his soup. “He got whacked?”
“Umm no.” That had been a relief, uncomfortable as thinking about it was. “Enforced vacation away from London. Seems the meeting went well. ‘Far as Mister King knows, Harry… er… Galahad’s purchased a ticket to Maldives, and he’s packing his bags.”
“Right. Good.” Valentine said firmly. “Send back an email, my thanks, etcetera, make sure that Galahad actually does leave London, and so on. The usual.”
“‘Course.” Eggsy composed a detailed email back to Mister King. “So that’s the end of our Mystery Suit Men problem, you think?”
“Never good to assume,” Gazelle said briskly, already on her second helping of soup, and was scooping herself a portion of a quinoa and chickpea spiced stirfry. “What’s the conversion rate on the so-called Knights?”
“We’ve got…” Eggsy checked his notes, “Gawain and Bedivere. As to the rest, Mister King isn’t quite sure of them yet.”
“Didn’t he mention that they have some tech guy called ‘Merlin’ who oversees everyone?” Gazelle added. “The same tech guy who tried to hack our servers?”
“It’s all a work in progress, apparently.”
“Let the man handle his own gang,” Valentine said firmly. “We got enough shit on our own plate. No need to add more to it. But,” he added, after a few more spoonfuls. “Maybe you should flag the passport. Make sure that Galahad actually lands in Maldives, eh?”
Eggsy sent the President of Maldives a private note. “And?”
“And we just make sure he gets there?”
“Well yeah,” Valentine shrugged. “I told you. This ain’t personal for me. The man was just doing his job. Let him have a break.”
“Right,” Eggsy said, and swallowed his grin.
“‘Course, if you want to make a vacation of it as well…”
“What? No! No. ‘Course not.” Eggsy said hastily, and glared at Gazelle when she sniffed. “We got lots of work to do here. Plenty of time after the Big Plan’s over and done with.”
After dinner was done with and Valentine packed off to rest, Eggsy did his usual run around the grounds, with J.B. behind him, cleaned up, and went to bed. Tonight, instead of turning in immediately, he took his father’s ‘medal’ out of the side table, studying the old, pitted metal in his hands. He wondered for a moment if his father would’ve understood.
Arthur had helpfully forwarded Eggsy his father’s file. Lee Unwin had been a Lancelot candidate, recruited to Kingsman by Harry Hart - so that’s what the ‘H.’ stood for - through Whitehall. Apparently, Harry had simply gone through the list of people who had received King’s Badges recently and picked someone with at least two years’ combat experience: so Eggsy’s father had been it.
Impersonal, according to the file. Harry hadn’t actually attempted to cultivate a friendship with Lee Unwin: not that he did with any of his candidates. But Lee Unwin had been the last time that Harry had put forward anyone to any position. In a way, it looked like the only person who’d never moved on from Eggsy’s father’s death had been Harry Hart.
Which was. Okay. Maybe kind of sad. But it wasn’t as though it had actually stopped Harry from ‘doing his job’, As Valentine put it. So. Even though this had clearly become sure as hell personal for Eggsy, despite his best intentions… they’d won, hadn’t they? Harry was out of the picture. As a bonus, he was still alive. At least for now. That was a good deal for everyone, innit?
“We’re even, old man,” Eggsy said out aloud, and put the medal back in the drawer. It didn’t sound particularly convincing, even to himself, and Eggsy stared up at the ceiling of his bedroom for a very long time before finally being able to drop off to sleep.
The exterior of the boarded-up building was covered in graffiti, and the interior was worse: all three levels of the factory were thickly covered with painted images and tags, the ground littered with rubbish and human refuse. Most of the machinery had long been moved away, and what remained was the occasional broken-down, rotting hulks of furniture: old desks, worn chairs, even an old filing cabinet, its drawers rudely torn out from it and scattered across the floor. There was a central stairwell, the concrete steps still intact, if partly covered over in refuse, and a fire escape out the back, the rungs rusted over.
Once satisfied, Harry settled down to wait, Glock at the ready, safety already thumbed, noiseless and quiet within a side storage room close to the main door, which had once likely been a security room of some sort. His target arrived right on time, walking briskly through the only unbarred entrance into the factory, steps light and confident. Quietly, Harry circled noiselessly around, and snuck behind his target, raising his gun.
Very dryly, and without turning around, Merlin said, “I know it’s you, Harry.”
A rueful smile plucked at Harry’s mouth, though his gun didn’t waver. “Don’t move.” He glanced quickly at Merlin’s skull, the left side, then the right. No scar. A little knot of tension within Harry eroded slowly, though he didn’t lower his gun.
“There’s the new guard - Kay, Tristan and the others - who grew up on James Bond films and pretend that they’re James Bond at the worst of times,” Merlin said mildly, “And then there’s you, and Bedivere, and some of the rest, who very likely grew up reading le Carré and such and love your Cold War dramatics. An abandoned factory in Shoreditch? Really? What happened to having coffee somewhere civilised?”
“Places like these have their benefits.”
“Why don’t you ask me why I walked right into an obvious trap of sorts with no backup?”
“Well,” Harry said evenly, “Because you always do have backup. You’re Merlin. But Percival’s never been very good at walking softly in Kingsman-issue oxfords, and his daughter hasn’t yet learned that a target can pick out someone sighting down a sniper rifle through the gleam of the sun off its lens.”
There was a long silence, then a soft chuckle could be heard from the floor above. “All right then,” Percival’s voice drifted down, brisk and dry as parchment, as always. “Are we all friends again? Because I don’t quite care for this building, I’m afraid.”
Harry kept his Glock trained on Merlin for a moment longer, then he lowered it and thumbed the safety. As a precaution, however, he stepped further out of any line of sight from the door.
“Can I turn around now?” Merlin asked.
“If you like.” Harry hesitated for a moment more. “Take off your glasses first.” Merlin complied, slipping the spectacles into a pocket in his sweater vest, and started to fold his hands behind his back. “Hands where I can see them.”
“All right.” Merlin held his hands palms up, even as Percival came down the stairwell, looking absolutely unruffled, tall and thin and neat in a navy blue double breasted suit, dark brown hair combed severely over his skull and slicked down. His spectacles were in the midst of being folded into his suit pocket, and his tie, as always, was the Kingsman-issue navy blue with yellow stripes.
He also looked unarmed to the casual observer, but Harry had known Percival almost longer than he had known Merlin, and he knew better. “Turn your head,” Harry instructed Percival. “Now the other way.” No scar. The little knot of tension eroded a little further.
“What’s this about, then?” Percival asked. “By Jove, it isn’t the Cold War any longer, Harry.”
“I have my reasons, Alastair,” Harry shot back. “Let’s just say that I’m currently working through some trust issues.”
“Well, have at it, then,” Percival said, sounding faintly resigned. “I say. I haven’t seen you this put out about things since I brought Maria back to London.”
Harry scowled at the reminder. “She was a KGB spy!”
“Was. Was. Now we have two lovely daughters and no one has been poisoned by polonium. At least. Not that I know of,” Percival amended absently. “I’m aware that you’ve been under a lot of stress recently, Harry, and-“
“This is about Arthur, isn’t it?” Merlin interrupted quickly. “What you saw.”
Harry nodded slowly. “And I know you’ll have seen it too. You’re always watching.”
Merlin blew out a deep sigh. “Aye, you’re right on the money there. I’ve been suspecting something for some time. While you were sleeping, the Merlin Department had a few more dictates handed on. No more feed access, save during ‘on task’ hours. Strictly no more ‘initiative’ tasks, save where expressly ordered by the duty agent or Arthur himself. Nothing really odd, by itself. Up until I was taken off Bedivere. It’s being handled by someone in a ‘special task room’, separate from the Merlin Department.”
“And how did Arthur fly that by?”
“Well,” Merlin scratched at the back of his head, “It’s happened before, where the mission’s particularly delicate. Save that the last few times, the one isolated in the task room tends to be whoever happens to be Merlin. This time, Arthur said he needed me to ‘oversee’ everyone else. So. I’ve had my suspicions.”
“Did he know about… what you said to me in the infirmary? About the scar, and my suspicions? Was he listening in?”
“Arthur doesn’t listen in,” Merlin pointed out. “Not without someone from the Merlin Department standing by, usually me, and driving the tech. He’s not much of a tech person per se. And yes. I did flag the SIM cards prior as an Item Of Interest for Bedivere. After which, I do believe, the aforementioned ‘no initiative’ order was slapped down from up high.”
“What on earth is going on?” Percival asked, frowning slightly.
“Arthur’s been flipped,” Harry told him. “To Valentine Inc.”
“Sadly no,” Merlin agreed. “Not just Arthur. I’m fairly sure Bedivere has been as well. And Gawain.”
Percival mulled this over for a long moment, then he tipped up his head. “All right, Roxy, you can come by now. Might as well keep it all in the family,” he added, when Harry narrowed his eyes.
“I haven’t yet decided whether to trust either of you,” Harry pointed out.
“Oh please,” Percival looked mildly offended. “You were the best man at my wedding - even if I’m fairly sure you were armed - and you’re the godfather of both my daughters. You went to Eton with Mark. And he used to be your full-time handler before he became Merlin. If you can’t trust us, you can’t trust anyone.”
“I’m still thinking about it,” Harry said flatly, then he added, “Also, I was armed. As were most of the guests. And the bride, I should add.”
“It was an interesting wedding,” Percival agreed, unfazed by the revelation, but then again, Percival had never quite been fazed by anything. “This is a deuce of a problem, isn’t it?”
“I haven’t yet decided whether it’s still just my problem.”
“Oh for God’s sake, Harry. Either you trust us or you don’t. If you don’t, just shoot us and be done with it. I can’t stand the suspense.”
Merlin pinched at the bridge of his nose. “Don’t tempt him.”
“…Fine,” Harry said grudgingly, because all through the flight to Maldives and making his way back to London through quieter routes, he had thought over the problem of Arthur and Valentine, and had come to the reluctant conclusion that it was most certainly a problem too large for just Harry alone.
“Besides,” Merlin said gently. “If you didn’t need help, you wouldn’t even have reached out to me.”
“I do need help,” Harry admitted, just as Percival’s oldest daughter stepped into the room, prim and neat in a chestnut blazer over a white blouse, a black skirt and knee-high boots, rich walnut-brown hair bound into a tight bun. She was carrying what looked like a canvas guitar bag against her back, but judging from the faint distortions in the fabric, it was most likely hiding a disassembled sniper rifle.
“Mister Hart,” Roxy greeted Harry politely, and after a moment’s hesitation, Harry slowly holstered his gun. “I’m glad to see that you’re well.”
“I’m glad of that as well,” Harry told her wryly. “Merlin tells me that you’re doing well in the trials, Roxy.”
“He’s too kind.” Roxy lifted her shoulder into a light shrug, and her mouth flicked into a quick, pleased grin at the praise before she forced herself to sober up.
All in the family.
And perhaps these people, standing with him in this filthy, abandoned old factory, were in fact the very last people in the world whom Harry could trust.
“What now?” Percival asked Harry. “Somehow I don’t think that confronting Arthur will go quite well. At least, not until we’re sure of where everyone else stands.”
“No. I don’t want to push that as yet.” Harry conceded. “Arthur did say something important to me before I left. Some of the kidnapped victims have medical conditions that require treatment. Perhaps that’s how they can be traced.”
“I’ll look into the packet that we managed to get out of the server the last time,” Merlin acknowledged.
“If Bedivere’s also been flipped,” Harry added, “Then he’s very likely in Sweden for a specific reason. Otherwise, what would be the point?”
Percival sighed. “Sweden it is. I’ll take some leave, pretend to head off to Berlin for a holiday, and make my way north from there on the quiet.”
“Hiding that from Arthur may be a little difficult.”
“Oh, I’ll take Katie with me,” Percival said, unconcerned. “Pretend that it’s a family holiday. Maria might even tag along.”
“… All right.” Normally, Harry would’ve been worried about civilian collateral damage, but then again, this was the Percival family, the only Kingsman agents who actually did have a lineage back to the original founding team. Percival’s grandfather had been the previous Percival.
“Some of the other recruits might also have been flipped,” Harry told Roxy. “And besides. As a Kingsman recruit, you do have full access to the entire base. So you’re best placed to investigate on the ground.”
“A bit of reconnaissance on the fly, then.” Roxy tried to sound as offhanded as her father, but her youth showed instead: she couldn’t help her smile, her eyes bright with mischief and pride at her first real mission.
“And I suppose I’ll pull the bulk of the work,” Merlin said wryly. “I’ll have to create a closed link communication network. And create a ghost trail for Galahad in Maldives, as well as for Percival and Katie in Berlin. And I’ll keep trying to find out who else has been flipped.”
“What are you going to do?” Percival asked Harry. “You had best be careful. It’s not just Arthur you have to look out for. Your description’s still all over Interpol.”
“What am I going to do?” Harry repeated, with a thin smile. “Escalate.”
“Seriously, boss.” Eggsy groaned.
“Just getting into the spirit of things,” Valentine said, sounding hurt. “Doing our part. Liberating cows.”
From where Eggsy was hidden, out of sight of the sprawling commercial farm behind a dense copse of shrubbery that smelled rather strongly of the cow manure undoubtedly spread liberally over the field beyond, he took the time to briefly rub a palm over his face. Despite his best efforts to delay matters, this had been inevitable after all. “Really, it’s going to be way easier for us to just buy out that farm. Better, too. Might even be good for tax reasons. That way we can just put in people who’ll take good care of the cows and leave them to undisturbed grazing and stuff, yeah?”
“It’s the principle of the thing,” Valentine said loftily, and Eggsy made it a mental note to send a box of bloodworms to whoever it was in PETA who kept managing to slip through Eggsy’s email dragnet. “But we’re not gonna kill anyone, OK? That’s not the point. You’re gonna sneak in there, and install them spy cams, and then we’ll host the feed and pass it on.”
“That’s gonna be a real lot of comfort to all the cows who die tomorrow,” Eggsy noted. “If that’s what you were worried about.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I know.” Valentine sighed. “But hey. If we just get rid of the farmer, there’s just gonna be more farmers. If we buy the farm? There’s still lots of farms. And ‘sides. We’re not pushing a vegan agenda on this case. We’re just here ‘cos this dickbag doesn’t believe in clean kills, remember?”
“That’s why I-“
“I told you before, Eggsy. In everything, you gotta look at the big picture. You got to have a big plan. Just running about sweeping up the symptoms don’t change shit. Maybe tomorrow he kills a bunch’a cows. But in one week, we’re gonna ruin him. You gotta win the war, not just a battle.”
“Right.” Eggsy had read the reports. “It’s a good plan. Just. Ease up on the military jargon, ‘kay?”
“… Fine, fine.”
Farm security was tight. There were dogs, a security guard patrol, even alarms and cams. But running with V-Tech stuff was probably cheating at the best of times, and Eggsy got disruptors on the electronic security, a harmless but scent blocker bomb for the dogs, and as to the patrol, they were easily avoided. Swarming up the various walls to install the cameras took a bit of doing, though, and it was a couple of hours past midnight by the time Eggsy was done, had wiped off his shoes as much as he could, and climbed into the Range Rover hidden behind some trees twenty minutes’ walk away.
Gazelle wrinkled her nose as he got into the front passenger seat, and Eggsy rolled his eyes. In the back seat, Valentine was typing on a laptop.
“Live feeds are up,” he said finally. “Good job. Going to forward it all to PETA now.”
Gazelle gave Eggsy a pointed stare, and he said, “Look, boss. Maybe we’re getting sidetracked here. I mean. Don’t we have stuff to do? You’ve got a press conference this morning.”
“Aw, you know that’s just gonna be a meet and greet,” Valentine said absently. “I mean, we’re pretty up there right now on the approval front. I’ll just talk about the free internet part, and the Cloud, and we’ll be set.”
That pleasant sentiment lasted as long as it took for them to drive all the way home - where they promptly found the press camped en mass at the gate, satellite dish vans and camera crews and all.
“What the fuck?” Valentine frowned, leaning forward in the back seat.
“I’ll take us in through the other entrance,” Gazelle decided, and thank God they were in the Range Rover instead of the i8: no one noticed as they took a quick turn around the roads and headed through a back lane.
Michelle was waiting for them in the foyer of the mansion, and security was thick: two guards in the foyer, the rest on patrol, watching the press siege at the gate. “What happened?” Eggsy asked anxiously. “Daisy?”
“Daisy’s sleeping,” Michelle assured him. “Here.” She passed an iPad to Valentine, open to the BBC news site. “That broke about twenty minutes ago. I was asleep, but the noise outside woke me up.”
Eggsy and Gazelle peered over Valentine’s shoulder. What’s the True Cost of Free Internet? read the front page headline, and, Experts note that Valentine Inc’s revolutionary new SIM card system may cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, and possibly pose a cancer risk.
“The hell?” Valentine blinked, and opened the article quickly. In the article, several doctors had apparently just written an ‘Open Letter to Richmond Valentine’, which they had sent to the BBC, detailing all their concerns about subdermal chip implants - and even the non-subdermal variant that was to be distributed to countries where mass subdermal surgery wasn’t feasible. It was concise enough not to be impenetrable, and, Eggsy noted sourly, contained quite enough scientific scare terms to be a PR disaster in the making.
“Who are these punks?” Valentine demanded. “And… ‘Heat concerns’? What heat concerns? We haven’t had any complaints yet!”
Heat concerns. Eggsy scanned the article again. “Valentine Inc’s explosive offering to the tech world… a grand gesture in scope without sufficient medial testing… Look at the names of the scientists. Dr. ‘Stefan’ Grun. Dr. Trevor ‘Carlsson.’”
“That right bastard,” Valentine said slowly, as the revelation dawned. “It’s from Galahad, isn’t it? This is declaring war! What is wrong with some people? Give them the chance to go on a long holiday in peace, and they throw it in your face. That’s disappointing, that is.”
“If the scientists are fake,” Gazelle said doubtfully, “Maybe we can put the fix in quick.”
“I kinda really doubt they are fake,” Eggsy said with a sigh, because that would be too easy, and because Harry Hart had turned out to be a far more subtle and dangerous opponent than he had expected after all.
Harry had rolled with the punches, gone to ground, licked his wounds, and come back swinging. Eggsy found that he was smirking, wolfishly, even as he read the rest of the damaging article; because the game was afoot again, because Harry had obviously not taken enforced leave lying down after all, because Harry had been smart enough to see the con, and because…
Well. However it was going to end for the both of them? At least it was going to be fun.
“Don’t you worry, Mister Valentine,” Eggsy said firmly. “I’m gonna take care of this.” Game. Set.
One of his sound bytes was also quickly picked up and publicised everywhere: “There’s always doubters an’ haters before something big happens,” Valentine had said on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. “People used to think mobile phones cause cancer. Guess what? Most of us got phones now. I betcha, back when the wheel was invented, some hater would’a gone ‘Hey! That thing is gonna give us herpes!’”
On the fourth day, Dr Grun was arrested for hoarding child pornography, and that was that for Harry’s little throw of the gauntlet. Still, Harry felt, as he checked through opinion pieces online on his phone, the damage had already been done. Distribution had slowed noticeably across Europe.
On the fifth day, Harry sat in a new safehouse and watched the morning BBC news anchor planted outside his house, talking earnestly to the camera about how a ‘new lead’ about the ‘Carlsson assassination’ had ‘led’ the police to a ‘fresh trail’. Thankfully, Merlin had long also had that safehouse forensically cleaned, but given how long Harry had been living there, he didn’t doubt that the police would likely find something.
He had long thought himself immune to sentiment, but watching the police cam sweep around the hallway and over to his dog and back was still… difficult. In a way, it was rather like a violation. Harry realized that his hand had gone white-knuckled over the tv remote, and as he forced himself to relax and breathe out, Merlin said into his ear, “By the way, despite the ghost trail I left for you, I think Arthur knows by now that you’re not in Maldives.”
“Yes. That much has been rather obvious.” The doctors’ names were perhaps a bit much, on hindsight, but Harry had always had a penchant for dramatics. “It would’ve happened sooner or later. Just watch yourself. And tell Percival and Roxy to be careful.”
“Worry about yourself,” Merlin replied, sounding amused, then he added, more soberly, “Also, Tristan’s just been allotted another ‘special task force’ handler, but I’m fairly sure that he hasn’t left London. So. Watch your back.”
“Never liked the man anyway,” Harry said absently, which wasn’t entirely true. More disappointing, perhaps: he’d never had any real problems with Tristan, but they’d never been friends. Both of them preferred to work alone, and as such, had never had much contact with each other outside of the occasional chance encounter in the Kingsman base.
Harry had also already considered the possibility that a contract might be put out on himself by Kingsman, and had thought it might feel… strange. Or sad. At least at the time. Now, when faced with the reality of it… he felt nothing instead. It was just another complication.
“If the police get a DNA sample from your old place, I’ll try and arrange for it to be contaminated. But just in case-“
“No theatrics for a while. Yes. I understand.” Harry had something else in mind, anyway.
On the sixth day, all the news furor around Harry’s house were eclipsed by new viral animal abuse footage from PETA, involving hidden videos from a slew of prominent cow farms within the UK, and as the nation engaged in a highly publicised period of beef-related soul-searching, Harry put a private conference call through to Percival and Merlin.
“How’s progress?” Harry asked.
“Great. We’re on our way to Szczecin to catch a flight out to Stockholm.” From the muffled sounds in the background, it seemed as though Percival was driving, and Harry could vaguely hear Katie’s voice asking a question. “It’s Harry,” Percival said, then hesitated as someone spoke in the background. “Maria says privyet. Hang on. I'm going to put you on speaker.”
Harry scowled to himself. Maria had a perfectly accent-less command of English if she needed it to be, but for some reason or other only ever talked to Harry in Russian, possibly as a way of annoying him. “Bedivere’s been spotted in the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.”
“The medical school?” Percival mused. “Hm. Acquiring a supply stream for the enforced guests?”
“Doubt it,” Harry disagreed. “It accounts for forty per cent of all academic medical research in Sweden. I think that Bedivere’s likely investigating something else, on behalf of Valentine Inc. I want to know what that is. Don’t be spotted. Don’t attack Bedivere if you don’t have to.”
“And how are you getting to Stockholm?” Harry asked, as an afterthought. “We can’t use Kingsman resources, and if you go on a commercial flight you’ll be tracked.”
“Merlin’s going to set up a ghost trail for us where we gad around on a road trip to Poland and such, putting up images on Katie’s photogram-“
“-instagram,” Katie corrected loudly from the back seat.
“-and such to convince Arthur that we’re really on a holiday,” Percival continued, without missing a beat. “And we’ll fly to Stockholm secretly through some help from a friend of Maria’s.”
“What friend?” Harry asked suspiciously.
“I think the less you know about that the better.”
“Oh fine,” Percival said, with a little sigh. “We’re going to use the SVR underground, all right? Sort of like a favour from the cousin of Maria’s uncle’s wife.”
“And in return?”
“They owed Maria a favour, this is the repayment. Honestly, Harry, you’re worse than the other Arthur.”
“The other Arthur?” Harry blinked, and Merlin laughed.
“Well. There is that,” Merlin conceded wryly. “If the current Kingsman is compromised to such a degree, and we’re trying to resolve the issue… then we do rather need a new Arthur, don’t we? So far, you’ve been doing a half decent job at running the show against the odds, at that.”
Harry raked a hand through his hair, closing his eyes briefly, allowing himself a small, wry smile. So it had come to this, then, as he had thought it would, deep down. Kingsman as it was now was broken and sold, and had to be remade. Something new had to come. “Yes. I am at that, I suppose.”
“Oh, and I saw the news about your house,” Percival added. “Bad show, that. Punching beneath the belt. Sorry to hear it.”
“It was going to happen anyway. Once Arthur actually realized that I was no longer in Maldives.”
“Mm. Yes. If I may make a suggestion… there’s actually no need to taunt the enemy the way you did. We’re not quite looking for a fight, are we? What’s our priority?”
“Finding the hostages and securing their release,” Harry agreed. “That’s the priority. I was perhaps feeling a little vindictive that day.”
“That’s understandable of course, but-“ Maria made an inaudible comment in the back, and Percival chuckled. “Maria says that nothing’s changed, then.”
Harry glowered at his laptop for a moment, then swallowed his irritation. “In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to disrupt their distribution process. It shouldn’t be too difficult to push people away from the subdermal chips. After all, it is a rather confronting process.”
“He’s giving out other SIM cards, isn’t he?” Percival asked. “Free internet off those as well, works with any sort of phone. Heard they’re even giving away the things with old V-Tech phones in some areas.”
“I’m not concerned about the other SIM cards. Merlin acquired one recently for testing, and apparently it’s more or less like any other SIM card, save that it’s linked up to the so-called ‘V-Cloud’,” Harry said dismissively. “What can they do? I’m concerned about the chips that can blow up people’s heads.”
“Surely people like the other Arthur might be less inclined to support Valentine now that they know about this side effect of the other chip,” Percival said doubtfully. “You said you flagged it, Merlin.”
“I did. Haven’t heard from him since. I presume that he very likely thinks that it won’t be a problem as long as he doesn’t spill the beans,” Merlin said, if uncertainly as well. “After all. We do happen to be an organisation which tests candidates on a task involving an oncoming train. In a way, an exploding head chip as a test of loyalty isn’t quite as dramatic.”
“Blast. I do so hate it when we happen to be more dramatic than the bad guys,” Percival said facetiously.
“Says the man who married a KGB spy,” Harry muttered.
“Ex-spy, Harry. Ex-spy.”
The thread promptly went massively viral, and by the time the evening news were doing the rounds, Mister Valentine’s coy “Well, I’m not saying there ain’t something to this sudden shitpile” comment had been blasted across the airwaves. With a careful bit of sleight and a great deal of social media grooming, by the time Eggsy signed off for the day, the cancer article was forgotten, and Mister Valentine was the media darling of the day again.
“I think I don’t pay you enough after all,” Valentine told Eggsy, as dinner wound down, and Eggsy grinned, pleased.
“This? This is nothin’.”
“Well, I think there should be some kinda bonus for all the shit you swatted back this week. How about we make Daisy’s room a fully planted hummingbird aviary-“
“No thanks,” Eggsy said hastily, and made a mental note to re-check the sort of blogs that Valentine liked to read before breakfast. “Look boss. You just need to wait maybe two or three more years, and then Daisy will probably have an opinion on it all, aite?”
And Eggsy fully intended to have a highly definite opinion behind that as well. No sister of his was gonna grow up to be a spoiled little princess. If anything, Daisy would hopefully grow up to become like Gazelle.
“Hummingbirds die easily,” Gazelle offered a neutral opinion.
… Maybe a somewhat less murderous version of Gazelle.
“We still got the same problems right now,” Eggsy said hastily, bringing up the stats on his tablet. “Adoption rate of the chips have dropped. Hasn’t affected the SIM card distribution, though.”
“Yeah?” Valentine sat back in his chair, steepling his fingers for a moment as he thought this through. “Right then. Don’t push the subdermal chips anymore. We’ll save them for just our friends and staff. Push the SIM card distribution.”
Valentine shrugged. “Yeah, used to be that I was thinking, maybe we randomise it. Save some, make it random, that way we keep a pretty random if sizeable pool of people who survive what comes next. How many we got who’ve been chipped?”
“Twenty thousand or so. We got way more who just chose to have the SIM cards, ‘specially after we got it out on the ground in India. And once we tee up the distribution agreement in China, we’ll probably be struggling to keep up with demand.”
“Right.” Valentine thought for a while more. “Twenty thousand. Fair enough. Push the focus away from the chips. Back onto the SIM cards. But do it slowly,” Valentine added. “Don’t want our friend Galahad getting on the scent, yeah?”
“You got it, Mister Valentine.” Eggsy sent PR an email.
“And in the meantime,” Valentine added, “Take the night off. Take tomorrow off too, if you want. Maybe borrow the jet and go with your mum and Daisy off to Paris, or New York or something. Have some fun. You deserve it, OK? So shoo.”
Because Eggsy was feeling good about life, he decided to get a drink, in one of a select few very specialised clubs where he might, maybe, be able to have a bit of his favourite sort of fun by the end of the night. He dressed up for it, in a proper suit, Savile Row, thank you, albeit with modern, skinny lapels, jet black, skinny tie, crisp, knife-sharp white shirt. A dark blue silk handkerchief went into his left breast pocket: dark blue for anal, left for top - and this particular club was slightly more of a wine/cocktail bar than a club: no dancing, no loud music.
Eggsy settled at the long counter, ordered a craft beer via picking the coolest name of the lot (‘Where Strides the Behemoth?’ fuck yeah) and settled down to study the crowd and wait.
The club wasn’t exactly crowded tonight, which was a bit of a pity. It meant that some guys who weren’t his type tried to try their luck - either too young, or also tops - he waved them all off, if politely and with a friendly grin, and it felt like adrenaline was buzzing under his skin along with the alcohol. He wanted to fuck something. Or fight something. Eggsy wasn’t entirely sure if he cared which, at the moment.
Just as he was about to give it up as a bad job, call Gazelle, and either go sparring or pop down over to Kenya, Eggsy heard someone approach him from the back. He turned his head slightly, to keep the person in his peripheral vision, then blinked and swivelled around all the way.
Harry Hart smiled at him, thin and sharp and impeccably dressed as ever, dove gray suit this time, double-breasted, no handkerchief, no tie. He had a long black umbrella hooked in the curve of one elbow, so much of a vision that Eggsy could only blink at him dumbly for a moment, dry-mouthed, wondering if he was hallucinating. The moment passed quickly, thankfully, as Harry slid onto the seat beside him, and Eggsy turned his feet down against the footrest, ready to launch himself sideways if necessary, even as he quietly palmed the hilt of one of his knives under the right hand that he had resting on the counter.
“Harry. Fancy seeing you here,” Eggsy said blandly, or tried to - a little breathlessness crept back in, instead. Fuck, but there was really no one quite like Harry, the handsome bastard, no one so… so magnetic.
“I’m as surprised as you are to see you here,” Harry replied smoothly, quite likely lying through his teeth, and ordered a whisky neat as the bartender sidled close.
“Yamazaki 18? Good choice.”
“So I’ve heard,” Harry said wryly, and for all that his mouth softened into a wider smile, his eyes were a predator’s all over again, wary and hard.
“‘ave you also heard why people come to a bar like this?” Eggsy plucked pointedly at the handkerchief in his suit pocket.
“I’m aware of that as well.” Harry said, and nodded his thanks as the bartender poured him a glass. “Cheers.”
Eggsy obligingly tapped his glass of beer against Harry’s whisky. “Been following me, have you?”
“Life is full of coincidences.”
“S’pose so,” Eggsy said, with deliberate casualness. “I mean, funny coincidence, eh, how that house on the news got found. What was that deal with the stuffed dog over in the bathroom?”
Harry’s eyes narrowed a fraction, though he took a sip of his whisky, otherwise seemingly unruffled. “A mystery for the world forevermore, I presume.”
Harry sighed, an indulgent little sigh, that made Eggsy’s hackles rise a little. “Eggsy. This week, if anything, has shown me one thing-“
“Got tired of having your arse kicked yet?”
“-which is that you are an unusually resourceful and talented young man,” Harry continued, ignoring the interjection. “However, I’ve been playing the Great Game for longer than you have been alive. This is the least of what I can do.”
“The Great Game?” Eggsy repeated, mockingly. “Old man, this ain’t a game for me.”
“So I have seen,” Harry said quietly. “I wanted to try to speak with you once more, at the least. Since I still owe your family a favour-“
“I’m gonna stop you there,” Eggsy interrupted, finishing his beer. “Y’see, I came to this club for a reason and I don’t like getting sidetracked. So. You wanna lecture me and tell me to come over to the losing side, fine. We can do that. But,” Eggsy reached over and patted Harry’s knee lazily, and leaned over such that his mouth nearly brushed Harry’s ear, “I wanna fuck you again first.”
This time, Harry didn’t even flinch. Instead, he deliberately finished his whisky, and even looked amused as Eggsy rather playfully paid for it.
“All right,” Harry said then, as calm and crisp as ever, a sharp curl pulling at his mouth. “Your place or mine?”
“Pretty sure your place is still being dusted for prints,” Eggsy said, studying Harry carefully, but he couldn’t pick anything out of Harry’s perfectly put-together poise. God. At that moment, Eggsy would quite happily have mortgaged his soul for the chance to take this man apart again.
“That being the case,” Harry said dryly, “Perhaps the Savoy, then? Neutral ground?”
“Just so you know,” Eggsy said slowly, “If you’re trolling me about this, and I wake up with nothin’ to show but a hacked phone, I’m gonna actually be seriously pissed this time.”
“Life’s a gamble, Eggsy,” Harry said blandly, even as he slipped the roughened pad of his trigger finger lazily over the sensitive skin between Eggsy’s thumb and index finger, the tease. Eggsy’s cock started to press uncomfortably against his trousers, and he breathed in a little unevenly, and pulled his hand away.
“The Savoy it is.”
Twenty Thousand - from Asimov's The Naked Sun. His Daneel Robots series is a really fantastic read on varying concepts of population control.
Further note - Updates might slow down for a bit. Real life catching up. :o
Maria - Helen Mirren in her 40s-50s. (Helen's father is Russian):
When Percival first met Maria:
Sorry Harry. Percival never had a chance
Eggsy chose the Edwardian suite, and the concierge looked mildly scandalised when Harry passed over his credit card, then flushed and looked down quickly when Eggsy hooked an arm around Harry’s and simpered archly. Despite the situation, Harry found himself biting down on a laugh as the room was processed and they were given the key.
“D’you see his face?” Eggsy sniggered, when they were in the lifts. “We totally got judged.”
“Not quite in the way that you think,” Harry said, amused. “He looked at your handkerchief first, then at me, then back.”
“Still got judged,” Eggsy shrugged, though he smirked at that, and pressed closer, a hand slinking around Harry’s back. “And I happen to know firsthand ‘ow good you are at taking it up the arse.”
Harry’s heart rate picked up, though thankfully it didn’t show, his voice still steady as he said, as mildly as he could, “I’m good at a great many things, Eggsy.”
“I suppose you are at that,” Eggsy drawled, and pinched Harry on the arse, cheeky bastard. “That being the case, ‘ow good are you at sucking cock?” he asked innocently, just as the doors pinged open to show a well-dressed elderly couple, who both stared, blinking, as Eggsy and Harry stepped out of the lift.
Eggsy winked at the lady, and as she stiffened, the lift door closed to her sharp little, “Well, I never!”
“You little troublemaker,” Harry sighed, even as Eggsy laughed and hooked his hand into Harry’s elbow again.
“I asked you a question,” he purred, as he took the keycard from Harry and swiped the suite door open.
The Edwardian Suite of the Savoy was elegant, in muted tones of cream and gray, the lavish bedroom and the marble bathroom separated by an entrance foyer that overlooked London itself. It was, in many ways, rather like stepping back through time to an earlier age, and as Harry closed the door behind him, Eggsy sauntered through, looking around with sharp-eyed curiosity, running a palm over the bespoke cushioned back of an armchair, his other hand tucked under his tailored suit, inside a pocket. Framed against the light and life of London in the night, as though frozen between the old London and the new, for a moment, Eggsy presented a picture so exquisite that it took Harry’s breath away.
Eggsy smirked as Harry kissed the back of his neck, breathing in the hint of his cologne, his hands bracketing Eggsy against the armchair, and for a moment it was as though they were actually lovers, with nothing else between them, and it was a fantasy so seductive that it ached. Gone in the next moment, of course, as Harry pressed closer, and felt the hint of Eggsy’s back holster between them.
“To answer your question,” Harry said mildly, “I can be as good as you need me to be.”
“Fuck,” Eggsy breathed, twisting around, a becoming flush already colouring his cheeks. “You can’t say something like that without proving it, old man.”
“If I must,” Harry said, unconcerned, leaning the umbrella against the armchair, and started to kneel, only for Eggsy to stop him, tugging him over for a kiss that was tentative and soft and disorienting, like new lovers still learning a taste, sweet and yielding with Eggsy pliant in his arms, hands on his shoulders. Eggsy no longer seemed as though he was in a hurry, content just to kiss and kiss, like this was all he had brought Harry here to do, as though they had all the time in the world.
And if Harry hadn’t had years of the Great Game under his belt, if he hadn’t done something like this himself before, engineered traps like these as smoothly as any other tool in his arsenal, he would have fallen for it. Eggsy sold this lie as sweetly and as seductively as a veteran, and it was only human to be tempted.
“You’re very good at this,” Harry said dryly, when Eggsy nuzzled his jaw. “Done it before, have you?”
“Done what before?” Eggsy asked innocently, though his next kiss pressed the sharp line of his smirk against Harry’s throat.
“I’m not so easily bribed.”
“Baby,” Eggsy drawled, leaning back against the armchair, touching the pink edge of his tongue briefly against his upper lip, “I’m not bribing you. You don’t scare me, and I’m pretty sure that you’re way too stubborn to be bought. Kind of a pity,” he added, as he unbuttoned Harry’s shirt, slow and deliberate. “You’re so much my type it isn’t even funny.”
“An enemy spy?” Harry inquired wryly.
“Ha.” Eggsy pressed his palms against Harry’s shoulders, lightly, and Harry went down, onto his knees on the plush carpet, even as he pulled his spectacles off and tucked them into his shirt. Eggsy’s eyes darkened quickly, a hand carding up through Harry’s hair, mussing it. “Posh and hot, silver spoon up your arse, so fuckin’ self-righteous, think you’re always right.”
“You have strange tastes in men, then,” Harry said glibly, as he unbuckled Eggsy’s belt, and tugged his shirt out of his trousers.
“Not really,” Eggsy said, with a hitch to his laugh. “Bet if you walked into a room of people, half o’ them would wanna fuck you, and half o’ them would wanna be you. I just happen to be in the first half, that’s all,” he breathed, as Harry undid the button on his trousers with his mouth. “Fuck me. That’s hot.”
Harry allowed himself a quick smirk, as he got Eggsy’s trousers down to his knees along with his briefs, and Eggsy groaned at the first, slow lick, up from the root of his cock to the tip and back again, and again, until Eggsy was slicked up and fully at attention, his hands tucked into Harry’s hair, knees pressed against Harry’s arms. Harry kissed the swelling cap, teasingly, and when Eggsy moaned out a hoarse, unintelligible curse, he smirked again, looking up at Eggsy this time, before grasping Eggsy and taking him into his mouth, all the way down.
Eggsy’s hands tightened painfully in Harry’s hair, but the strangled cry that tore out of him was well worth it, even as Harry’s stretched lips kissed the root of his cock and Harry’s throat closed tight over the cock shoving it open. Harry groaned, like this, more for the effect than anything, then when heard Eggsy whine and stiffen up, he tugged at Eggsy’s hips. Eggsy let out a disbelieving laugh, and his first thrust was tentative and shallow until Harry tugged at him again, and then he was rough, the next jerk of his cock down Harry’s throat hard enough to squeeze tears into Harry’s eyes.
“Jesus,” Eggsy was gasping, “Oh fuck- oh Harry- fucking hell your mouth,” over and over, as Harry concentrated on relaxing, on allowing Eggsy to just take, to feel this lovely boy fracture against him, “Fuck, fuck-fuck-fuck-“ Eggsy breathed out in a rush, and finally held Harry still as he pumped his first load of the night down Harry’s throat.
Harry swallowed, to be polite, licked up the rest, and then dabbed at his mouth with a handkerchief, still kneeling on the carpet. He was about to stand up when Eggsy started to laugh again, that wild and joyous laugh, like mayhem made flesh, and shoved Harry onto his back over the carpet, straddling him and leaning down to kiss him, to chase his own taste in Harry’s mouth. Shoes were kicked off with socks, then their clothes and gear, all in a mad rush, though Eggsy hesitated when he sifted through his clothes and fished out lube and condoms from his pockets, looking back over down at Harry.
“Maybe we should move to the bathroom-“
“I showered before I got to the club,” Harry assured him, and Eggsy’s eyebrows jumped.
“Just being thorough,” Harry said, and that was a bit of a lie. The back and forth over this week had taught Harry a second thing: using just his hand on his cock was now unsatisfying, embarrassing as it was to think of Eggsy between his thighs when Harry had fingers shoved up his own arse, too little, not enough.
“You dirty bastard,” Eggsy said, though he laughed again, avarice in his lovely eyes as he prepped Harry anyway, with a copious amount of lube and Eggsy’s long, elegant fingers curling into his arse, as confident and as heady as before. “Thought you were going to get lucky?”
“That wasn’t actually a conscious consideration.”
“Bullshit,” Eggsy said cheerfully, as he stroked himself hard again, then rolled the condom onto his cock and pulled one of Harry’s thighs flush against his chest, pinning his other leg down onto the carpet. “You were totally thinking about me,” he added confidently, and smirked when Harry said nothing. The rough slide of Eggsy’s cock within him was just as glorious as Harry remembered, just as damning, especially now, pinned down and spread wide; Harry clawed his fingers into the thick carpet and grit his teeth.
His determination not to embarrass himself shattered briefly when Eggsy first nudged up against his prostate: a little whine edged through clenched teeth, and Eggsy smirked and brushed a kiss against his knee. “You’re gonna make that sound for me again. All night.”
“Yeah.” Another snap of Eggsy’s hips, right on target, and Harry barely managed to swallow a whimper in time. “And then you’re gonna come from this, on my cock, nothin’ else.”
“You and your promises,” Harry said, even as his breath hitched into a gasp. “Show me.”
“So hot,” Eggsy slurred, fighting to breathe; he was on his third round now, second condom, starting to get a little sore and it was better like this, a little pain, a lot of pleasure. If this was like war then Harry was winning: it was crystal clear to Eggsy that he would never meet anyone quite like Harry ever again. He didn’t care. In all things, Eggsy was a bit of an opportunist: better a taste like this than nothing, and by God, what a taste this was.
Harry smiled at him, and this wasn’t a smile that Eggsy had seen Harry wear as yet, teeth bared, near feral; he would’ve been bitten if he hadn’t had Harry braced against the wall like this, and as Harry reached over, to curl his fingers around the back of Eggsy’s neck, Eggsy bit out a whine of his own, and dragged Harry over, pulling him onto Eggsy’s lap. Harry didn’t even hesitate, tipping back his head as he rode Eggsy roughly into the carpet, there’d be carpet burn on Eggsy’s arse and thighs and Harry’s knees at this rate and Eggsy didn’t give a fuck, laughing breathlessly. They were out of rhythm, near brawling, Harry’s teeth now sunk against Eggsy’s shoulder, Eggsy’s fingers clawing down Harry’s back, and it felt like having the air punched right out of him when Eggsy finally came, one last time, with a strangled keening moan.
Against him, Harry hummed in satisfaction, licked the mark he had made on Eggsy’s flesh, then pressed a brushing kiss on Eggsy’s cheek, and uncurled unsteadily to his feet, wincing. They showered together in silence, because the marble bathroom was big enough for two, and it felt like the water was sluicing away what they’d done, making it all business again - Harry didn’t touch him, as much as he sure as hell looked his fill.
Fine. Eggsy could play this game. As they dried off, he reached over to pull Harry over, ignoring the wary glance that he got, and as he had at the start, Eggsy kissed Harry like he meant it, like he wanted to, like lovers would. He hadn’t been trying to bribe Harry at all, nothing like that. Eggsy knew Harry wasn’t someone who could be bought, not like this. But Eggsy could feel Harry’s pulse tick up, from the hand he had sliding up over Harry’s damp chest, could sense uncertainty in how Harry rested a hand briefly against his waist, then ghosted it down to his hip. This time, when Eggsy pulled back, Harry couldn’t quite hide the startled look on his face in time, like a man whose world had been shaken.
“So,” Eggsy said casually, with a playfully demure smile. “You wanna give me that lecture now?”
Harry hesitated only for a moment. “Can we do that fully dressed?” he asked dryly, but Eggsy could see that Harry’s composure wasn’t all quite there yet. Good.
“Aww. That’s no fun. If you insist.”
They dressed and retired to the balcony, leaning against the rail, a hand’s breadth away from each other, studying the city. This time, Eggsy was careful to keep Harry’s hands in sight. Once bitten, and all that.
Eggsy had expected Harry to launch right into it, but instead, Harry stared down at the street, pensive. Just as Eggsy was about to try and prompt Harry to say something, Harry murmured, “You might find this hard to believe, but when I was your age, I was very much like you.”
“I really rather doubt that,” Eggsy said, mimicking Harry’s so-very-posh accent.
Harry smiled wryly. “Certainly I’m aware that our circumstances are very different. But I had just qualified into MI6 on the very best of recommendations. I was the darling of the Circus, I felt invulnerable, like the world was mine.”
“I made a bad call on my first full mission,” Harry added. “Because I was actually a rookie, for all my ‘talent’, because I was arrogant, because I trusted the wrong people for the wrong reasons. People died. It was a disaster all around, in summary. And I learned from it. How to be humble, how to know when I’m outmatched, when to cut my losses.”
“Doesn’t seem like you’ve learned.”
“Oh, I have,” Harry said evenly, though without looking up at Eggsy. “And believe me, I know how frustrating governments can be. I know how tempting it is to want to change things another way. But there is an order to this world, without which there is chaos, and whatever you and Valentine are planning, I would say, there is a right and wrong way to get to a solution, and kidnapping the innocent is not the right way.”
“Sounds about right so far,” Eggsy said blandly, and smirked when Harry narrowed his eyes a fraction. “Anything else?”
“Your father was a good man. Do you think he’ll have approved of what you’re doing?”
“I can’t believe you just tried that line on me,” Eggsy said, amused. “Firstly. I knew my dad for what, only the first few years of my life? I don’t really remember him. Secondly, for your information, I actually do still have one parent. Y’know. Me mum? The one who brought me up? And she’s fully on board with Mister Valentine. You wanna keep talking about this? Keep in mind, the last person who ticked me off over me mum? I threw him out of a window.”
“If you want to change the world,” Harry smoothly changed tack, “Isn’t reducing carbon the main problem? Combating climate change? How does kidnapping conservationists help?”
Was Harry wearing a wire or something? Eggsy shrugged. “‘Course. Kidnapping people randomly ain’t right. Pretty sad, what happened.”
Harry frowned at Eggsy, for a long moment, then he blinked. “Ah. You think that I’m recording this.”
“We live in an increasingly inter-connected world."
“I give you my word that I’m not,” Harry said testily. “I wanted to talk to you about your current path, in good faith.”
“Same kinda good faith which had you spike me with something and hack my phone?” Eggsy shot back. “S’fine. You can keep lecturing me. I’m listening.”
Harry sighed. “No. No you’re not, and you have no idea how disappointing that is.” For a moment, Harry looked… tired, for want of a better word, tired and genuinely upset and frustrated, and Eggsy sobered, studying Harry for a moment before reaching over to pat him comfortingly over his arm.
“Look. You tried, OK? Want me to explain some things?”
“Do tell,” Harry said wearily.
“You know how many women get killed by a current or former partner every month in these parts?” Eggsy jerked his head out at the street. “In the UK?”
Harry blinked, clearly thrown by the question. “No…?”
“Seven.” Eggsy said, keeping his voice casual. “When I came home that day. I could see that it wasn’t the first time that dickhead hit me mum. And. Y’know? When I got locked up? Me mum grabbed Daisy and ran off to a shelter, cos she was so sure that Dean’s gang was gonna come for her. Maybe they would’a just slapped her around, maybe she would’a ended up another statistic.”
“And I would’ve gone to jail for a while,” Eggsy added, frowning at his hands. “In that time, who knows? And then what would’a happened to me sis? So.” Eggsy said evenly. “When I say that Valentine saved me life? I mean every fuckin’ word. Not just mine. Me mum’s, too. And Daisy’s. Do me a good turn, and I’ll pay you back. But do something like that for me?” Eggsy shrugged. “Dying for him is the least that I’m willing to do.”
Harry sighed. “And I do understand that, Eggsy. But killing people-“
“Hey man,” Eggsy said dryly, “I’ve seen your file. You’ve killed way more people than I ever have. And you do it for money. That’s what Kingsman is. You guys take contracts. All tied up with your secret handshake agreement with MI6. License to get paid to kill, huh?”
“That’s the least of what Kingsman is.”
“Well, I wasn’t gonna lecture you on that. ‘Cos in a question of doing it ‘cos the guy’s the unlucky guard of some drug baron, or doing it ‘cos the guy’s killing some rhinos, that’s just a question of degree and opinion. But I’m asking you to look at this hypothetically. What’s more ‘right’, eh? Doing nothing, knowing that by doing nothing you’re condemning the world go totally to shit and for humanity to eventually wipe themselves out by crapping all over the world… or doing something, that causes suffering in the short term but preserves humanity in the long run?”
“The end doesn’t always justify the means.” Harry said earnestly. “Eggsy, you clearly care deeply for the people around you. Your mother, your sister, your friends. How can you justify helping Valentine?”
“Okay,” Eggsy said, with a thin smile. “Here’s another hypothetical, then. D’you know, most of us are killing someone else, little by little, everyday? You eat some chocolate? Chances are, that’s made with illegal child labour. You buy a smart phone? You’re probably helping finance awful work conditions, somewhere in China. Sure, maybe we ain’t shooting them in the head, but we’re still contributing to a situation that’s fucking them up.”
“What I’m saying is,” Eggsy added, as Harry opened his mouth, “All of us are hypocrites. We can’t help it: we’re not really wired to give that much of a fuck. There’s too many of us out there, and it’s too easy to spread the misery around, ‘specially for us fuckers lucky enough to live in places like this. How can I justify helping out? It’s ‘cos I believe in Mister Valentine’s Big Plan, that’s why. ‘Cos he’s one of the only people in the world who really does give a fuck. Sorry,” he added, more gently, because Harry had begun to look so tired, all over again.
“Not at all. I suppose there’s something to be admired in a young man willing to die for what he believes in,” Harry said evenly.
“Aww, that’s the nicest thing you’ve said to me so far,” Eggsy said archly, and batted his eyelashes. “You’ve got a great arse, yourself. Don’t know how you do it. If I can look ‘alf as good as you do at your age I’ll die happy.”
Harry shook his head slowly, though he did smile, quick and rueful. “I do it by picking my fights carefully, Eggsy. Thank you for your time.”
“Pretty sure that I got way more out of it than you did,” Eggsy said cheerfully, with a salacious wink that made Harry arch an eyebrow. “See you around. Or not.”
“Perhaps so,” Harry said, and inclined his head, then he turned to go. Eggsy watched Harry cross the entrance foyer, picking up his umbrella from the armchair before leaving and closing the door behind him, and he rested his elbows against the rail, his back to London, pleasantly sore all over and content.
After a while, Eggsy said, “Gazelle? We got ears on the target?”
“Yes,” Gazelle said, into his ear, “And his location, too.”
“Good work from V-Tech, reversing that little listening chip thing in his business card.”
“Good work from you, getting it back on Mystery Suit Guy’s person.”
“I’m just that good,” Eggsy confessed, having slipped the card into Harry’s card-holder during a kiss, and as Gazelle sniffed, Eggsy smiled to himself. He'd been carrying that fixed card around for a week, just in case. Harry had been predictable after all.
“It doesn’t seem so,” Merlin agreed thoughtfully. “Not from what Eggsy said. It feels like we’re missing a huge part of the puzzle.”
“The chip implementation has still slowed down, hasn’t it?”
“Oh yes. Valentine was asked a question about it this morning on a live BBC radio interview, actually. He said that ‘the chip thing’ was just something ‘a little bit sci-fi’, knew it would’ve been ‘hard to swallow’, and said that he knows that the masses would likely adopt the SIM card. He also said that he’s absolutely ‘cool’ with that. Free internet, it seems, is the point, not so much the chip.”
“You’ve investigated one of his SIM cards closely, haven’t you?”
“I’ll look at it again,” Merlin said, “But yes. It’s an absolutely normal SIM card, as far as I can tell. I’ve had tech look at it, as well.”
“What about the free phones?”
“Looked at a selection of those as well. All normal.”
“Hm.” Harry frowned to himself. “We are missing something. I’ll have to think about it. How’s progress on everything else?”
“Recruit Charlie - Arthur’s recommendation - has been chipped. The rest haven’t, but Roxy’s fairly sure that of the group of them, none of the other four can be trusted,” Merlin said crisply. “My department’s far too big to be absolutely sure of everyone, I’m afraid, so I’ve given up on that for now. As to the other agents… other than Gawain, Bedivere and Tristan… I’m fairly sure that Bors has at the least been approached. Kay’s still in deep cover in Mombasa on his mission, I doubt that he even knows if Arthur’s been flipped.”
“Doubt he’ll care either way,” Harry said. Kay was a no-nonsense man, whose only loyalty was to the highest bidder. “What about Hector?”
“Still working his matter in Yemen. I’m not sure if he’s been approached, but I doubt it. He’s been dropping on and off radar: it’s hard enough for his handler to keep in touch with him, let alone Arthur.”
“I think we should be a little more proactive,” Harry decided, as he took a corner. “Approach Hector on my behalf. Anonymously. He was MI6 as well. All the rest of the Knights used to be soldiers before they entered Kingsman. And sadly, it’s beginning to look as though soldiers will just choose to fall in line.”
“How are you taking this call?” Harry added. “You have to be careful as well.”
“Ah, I have my ways,” Merlin said dryly. “I’ve been here longer than you have, Harry. I know where to take a private call without risking being observed. And I’ve given Roxy a thorough lecture on being careful, don’t you worry.”
“Good.” Harry hesitated for only a moment. “I’m very fond of Percival and his family. So I’ll very much hate to see something happen to her. She’s very young, and it’s her first mission, and-“
“And she’ll do fine,” Merlin interrupted briskly. “She’s one of the very best agents to come through recruitment in a while.”
“Other than her fear of heights.”
“She might surprise us.” Merlin said, unconcerned. “I’m worried about you, actually.”
“Well, firstly,” Merlin noted, very dryly, “I rather doubt that you still have a leg to stand on, at least where criticising Percival over Maria is concerned.”
Harry scowled at the wheel. “This is different.”
“If you say so.” Harry could hear the smirk in Merlin’s voice. “I’m not sure if you’re the one playing with fire, or Unwin is, or the both of you, but you’re going to burn the world down if you’re not careful about it.”
“I’m being careful about it.”
“If you say so,” Merlin repeated, smug as ever, and said nothing more as Harry made it all the way back to his most recent safehouse, a newly purchased Shepherd’s Bush apartment, bought through a shell company - along with the other flats on the same floor, just for the privacy. It was a pleasant enough flat, but as always, Harry always felt slightly homesick as he hung up his jacket and settled down at his laptop in the study.
Percival had left a note a couple of hours ago, saying that he was about to investigate the institute. Harry deleted the note, then checked BBC news. All Valentine Inc newsworthy articles had just been overshadowed by the Knox trial, and Harry was in the middle of scanning the front page when someone pressed the doorbell.
Frowning to himself, Harry brought up the security feed on his laptop. It looked to be a young man wearing a pizza delivery uniform, holding a pizza box. Puzzled, Harry started to get up to answer the door, then he hesitated.
Under the young man’s striped red and white uniform, he was wearing shiny black oxfords.
Silently, Harry drew and thumbed the safety on his Glock, screwed on a suppressor, then walked noiselessly out of the study. A short corridor led from the open plan living room and kitchen to the door, with another corridor branching off to the study and bedroom, and Harry pressed his back against the corner of the corridor leading to the exit, then used Merlin’s remote unlock app on his phone. The doorknob turned, as though Harry was opening the door - and Harry smiled to himself as three shots were instantly fired through the door - over where Harry would’ve been standing if he had been physically turning the knob.
Harry checked the security feed on his phone. The ‘pizza delivery boy’ was pressed to the wall, the box discarded, holding a Glock that had probably been hidden under a box. Good stance, muzzle pointing at the door, knees bent: the sign of someone Army who’d just been given a too-recent Kingsman polish. One of Roxy’s classmates. No chip scar - not Charlie, then.
Judging from where the boy was and where the bullets had ended, straight down the corridor and smashing into the opposite kitchen wall, Harry decided that the shooter was out of security feed range.
On the feed, the boy warily circled over to open the door, and Harry ducked briefly out from cover, firing down the corridor, bracing for the recoil. The Glock was still loud in the space of the apartment, despite the ear aids from Kingsman gear, but it couldn’t be helped - no doubt his neighbours on the floor below were already all calling the police. The boy slumped against the door, the weight of his body pushing it open, and Harry took a breath, checked Merlin’s security app, and used it to switch on the overhead sprinklers in the corridor.
There was a startled gasp, and Harry smiled to himself, estimated the distance and angle, ducked out of cover, and fired.
Tristan was good - he fired as well, after Harry, but his aim had been altered by impact, and the bullet did nothing more than graze Harry’s cheek. Harry switched the sprinklers off, stepped over the boy’s body, and jogged briskly down the corridor, where Tristan lay dying, choking and gurgling on the damp carpet.
Kicking away Tristan’s gun, Harry glanced at his former colleague, noted that he was a little too far gone to be interrogated, and frisked him instead. He grabbed Tristan’s phone and backpedalled quickly, in case there was a repeat of the Carlsson matter, and looked at the screen.
On it was a little minimap, showing a map of the street and Harry’s apartment block, and on it was a blinking red dot. Harry stared at it in confusion as he walked briskly back towards his apartment, then hesitated as the dot moved as well, very slightly.
Harry had been bugged.
Muttering an oath, Harry used the app to turn on the fire alarm, then he removed all his gear, put them in the oven, and turned it on to full blast. He grabbed his laptop, a bag of spare clothes and weapons, slipped out of the window into the fire escape, and headed briskly down. Ducking into the nearest public restroom to change, he stuffed his old clothes and shoes into a bin, and was soon on the road again, taking a side road towards the nearest train station even as there was a muffled explosion from the direction of his safehouse, sirens squealing by as the police showed up in force.
“Merlin,” Harry put a call through, “Remember the charter of your worth.”
“Right,” Merlin said, and signed off.
When Harry was on a train, just one of many anonymous passengers, Percival put a call through. “Just heard from Merlin. I say. Are you all right?”
“Got burned,” Harry said, resigned. “I will never, ever criticise you about Maria ever again.”
Percival laughed. “Wait. I’m going to have to… All right. Can you say that again?”
Harry pinched at the bridge of his nose and repeated himself, and in the background, he could hear the faint sounds of feminine giggling. “Happy now?”
“You have no idea, Harry. You have no idea,” Percival said, still chuckling. “By Jove. That boy must’ve done a real number on you. Imagine that. The great Harry Hart.”
“Yes, yes,” Harry said testily. There was only so much crow that he was willing to swallow all at once. “How’s Stockholm?”
“Ah. About that.” Percival said, sobering up. “You’re not going to believe what we’ve found.”
“I know, right?” Eggsy was, okay, maybe a little bit turned on right now. Arthur had fed them Tristan’s feed, through to the large table iPad screen in Valentine’s office, and they’d watched the whole process from start to death. Or at least, Gazelle and Eggsy had. Valentine was sitting by himself in the office garden, staring at the plants, occasionally asking plaintively whether it was all over.
Gazelle shot Eggsy a sidelong, unimpressed stare. “I should’ve gone to get him.”
“Hey, don’t look at me. Wasn’t my call.” Eggsy put his hands palms up. “Mister Valentine just felt that Arthur should handle his own gang, that’s all.”
Gazelle sighed ruefully. “Damn. It would’ve been a good fight.” She switched the feed off, and called out, “You can come back now, sir.”
Valentine edged suspiciously into the room, as though expecting to see a violent still at any moment, then relaxed and settled back into his chair as Gazelle and Eggsy circled away to the side. “I’m guessing it didn’t go well.”
“Nope. He’s also managed to destroy his apartment.” Gazelle reported. “Not a bad piece of work.”
“What about his car? Did he drive off in it?”
“Nah. He probably slipped off and took the tube.” Eggsy said, amused. The game was on again.
“What about his friends in Kingsman?”
Eggsy checked his tablet. “Gone. Merlin somehow managed to disappear right out from under Arthur’s nose. Roxy subdued two of her classmates and fled: they were in the middle of a training exercise in Libya.”
Valentine sighed. “When you want to get a job done right, I guess you gotta do it yourself. I want all these loose ends tracked down and taken care of. Any ideas?”
“Percival was last seen in Berlin. We have contacts on the ground who’ll help us ascertain where he is.” Eggsy flicked through a few emails. “Our satellites are about to go online this week. We can use them to track things that linked-up phones overhear. We’ll flag the terms ‘Merlin’, ‘Roxy’ and ‘Percival’, as well as a few others. Have some peeps from V-Tech sift through those. Maybe with an algorithm.”
“Sounds good. Once we get another hit on them, I want you and Gazelle to take care of it personally.” Valentine glowered briefly at his table. “But be careful and all that, of course.”
“Don’t worry, Mister Valentine,” Gazelle said neutrally.
“Right then. On to other things. How’s the biometric security thing coming along?”
“On schedule. V-Tech’s just ironing out some kinks in the system.” Eggsy sent out another inquiry email. “Adoption of the SIM cards overran available stock in New York. Seems the locals really hate their available internet providers.”
“Make more. Buy more factories in China, etcetera.”
Eggsy made a note, then sent the in-house lawyers another email. “We’re very close to an agreement with China. They want to ensure that the ‘free’ internet still matches their government censorship regime.”
“Make whatever agreement we have to, as long as our chips and cards go out on the ground. Bribes, promises, whatever.”
Eggsy sent their contact in China another note, carefully deleted some PETA emails, and followed Valentine as they headed out onto the helipad of Valentine Inc, still sifting through emails. “I feel like going off to the mountain for a bit,” Valentine said. “Nice bit of fresh air, check on our guests, that kind of thing.”
“Still better to reduce that kind of travel until you really have to go,” Eggsy pointed out. “At least until we sort out the Mystery Suit Guys.”
“True,” Valentine said glumly. “Where next then?”
“You’re booked in on the Daily Show in a couple of days. Stewart says he’ll like to meet you ahead of time if he can, give you a small tour of New York and such.”
“Sure. Let’s hop over to New York right now, then. Wanna bring Daisy and Michelle? Nice little group holiday.”
“Why not?” Eggsy shrugged, then he hesitated. “But if Daisy starts crying on the flight, please keep your freak out to a minimum, OK?”
“She’ll cry on the flight? Why? Is it gonna hurt her ears? Is that a thing? Or is she gonna be bored? Or-“
“You’re already freaking out, boss,” Eggsy said dryly, even as they strapped down in the helicopter and Gazelle took the controls. “It’s not giving me much confidence here.”
“I’m just concerned,” Valentine said, sounding hurt, and sulked during the short hop home, where Michelle had already packed up for all of them and was standing ready. All the women in Eggsy’s life seemed to be preternaturally efficient. It was scary.
On the way to the airport in the i8, as Eggsy worked over his tablet, checking on the diplomatic progress in China, Valentine said, “By the way, PETA invited me to their Liberate a Cow event in California. Tee us up, all right?”
“Really?” Eggsy asked, resigned.
“Sounds interesting,” Michelle said encouragingly in the back seat next to Valentine, and Daisy burbled and cooed in her arms as though agreeing. “Maybe I should come along as well. Freeing animals. Fighting the good fight.”
“How about we attend MIT’s Climate Change Talking Points instead?” Eggsy asked hastily. “‘Cos, you know, Professor Arnold suggested it to me once.” Arnold had not in fact done anything of the sort, but Eggsy was fairly sure that the bumbling old man probably wouldn’t quite remember if he had or had not.
“Oh. Oh all right.” Valentine said glumly. “Guess we should just keep working on the Big Plan.”
“Well, like you said,” Eggsy quickly sent PETA another ‘NO’ email, more strongly worded, “What we’ve got now is a scorched earth solution. If there’s a better one out there, why not, yeah?”
“True, true.” Valentine sunk against the back of his seat, with a sigh. “Man. Thinking about that is just depressing. We’ve done the rounds of these talks for years, me an’ Gazelle. We even gave some peeps half a billion dollars once. Not that anything came out of that other than some pretty awesome solar energy patents. We’ve tried grassroots stuff… top level government stuff… helped to push the Kyoto protocol into existence… and what do we have to show for it? Nothing. Zilch.”
“I know all that, boss,” Eggsy said, because Valentine tended to get maudlin when he dwelt on old failures. “Look. At least we know Plan A is gonna work. If we can’t find a Plan B, or a Plan C or something. That’s a few months more into implementation stage. You’d never know.”
“Got to be optimistic when you wanna save the world,” Valentine agreed, then brightened up. “Hey, let’s make this a big round trip! After New York and Massachusetts, why not pop down to South America? Check on our patch of the forest.”
“Speaking of which,” Michelle added, “The USA Today just mentioned that there are only two continuous forests left in the world right now, the Amazon and the Congo. Scary, isn’t it?”
“Scary,” Gazelle agreed, unemotionally.
“Yeah. Congo’s too hard to buy up, what with that pesky failed state thing,” Valentine said, resigned. “God knows we’ve tried. We’re funding some of the UN peacekeeping, but that’s all we can do in that area. It’s fu… er… fished,” Valentine corrected himself quickly. “Pardon my French.”
“Quite all right,” Michelle said generously, and Daisy burbled again, which meant that Valentine was fully distracted all the way to the airport. Eggsy made the departure arrangements, booked accommodation, and was confirming their attendance at MIT when they got a call from Arthur.
As Michelle made Daisy comfortable in one of the cabins, Valentine took the call in the plane. “Hey, Arthur my man,” Valentine said genially. “How’s things?”
“Progressing,” Arthur said, in his dry, even voice. “Might I add, I do apologise for what happened earlier today. Tristan was perhaps a touch too confident.”
“That he was, that he was,” Valentine shrugged, with a glance at Eggsy, who nodded. “Your problems, your solutions. We’re hopping out of town for a bit. I kinda would really like this rogue agent thing to be over and done with before I get back.”
“We’ve reached out to your friends in Interpol, and of course your upcoming surveillance project will also be of assistance,” Arthur said. “Rest assured, the problem will be taken care of in a satisfactory manner.”
“That’s what I wanna hear,” Valentine said brightly. “But don’t make a move on Galahad when you do find him, OK? My friend Gazelle here wants in on the action.”
“Galahad is a very dangerous operative, as you’ve seen. I can’t recommend that, as I’ll be unable to guarantee Miss Gazelle’s safety.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Valentine said dismissively, “Believe me, she’s the most dangerous person in the room, wherever she is.” Eggsy cleared his throat pointedly, and Valentine arched his eyebrows. “What?”
“Nevermind,” Eggsy said, resigned, and Gazelle smirked at him from behind Valentine’s shoulder.
“If you wish,” Arthur said doubtfully, “Then Miss Gazelle will be most welcome in our operations.”
“Right then. Keep in touch. Good hunting.” Valentine signed off, and glanced at Eggsy. “Keep an eye on them. Make sure that they actually find the bastard, eh?”
“Already on it, Mister Valentine.”
3 chapter update! Because the weekend.
Percival sighed. “Harry, you said that you weren’t going to criticise me any longer.”
“Over Maria. This is different.” Harry pinched at the bridge of his nose. He could feel a headache coming on. “We’re making a deal with the devil!”
“You can be so dramatic,” Percival complained.
They were in Kensington Palace Gardens, within the foyer of a building which, from the outside, would’ve looked rather like a small English castle, with tall elegant windows, surrounded by stately, trimmed grounds that any English gardener would’ve been proud of. If the driveway hadn’t been. Flying. The Russian Flag.
Just as Harry was about to insist that they leave, a young, blonde girl in a white blouse and a gray pencil skirt opened a side door, and stepped out briskly towards them. “Galahad and Percival? Mister Semenko will see you now.”
“Oh, you bloody didn’t,” Harry said, with a sigh, but he followed anyway, as the girl did a sharp about turn and strode back towards the door, Percival ambling behind her with a hand in a pocket, for all the world like a tourist admiring an old building, not an enemy agent about to face the king cobra in a den of snakes.
The side door led down a narrow corridor, past a series of closed doors before they came to one that was ajar. The girl knocked briskly on the door, murmured something, then stepped aside, ushering them through with a polite wave and a pretty smile. Junior SVR agent, Harry decided, as he studied her: the pencil skirt was a little too tight, and it betrayed the line of a thigh holster, probably some sort of knife specialist, judging from her fingers.
Within was a stateroom, with a long rosewood table, oddly oriental in make, pointedly out of place in a beautiful Elizabethan room, all rich, mahogany panels, a stone fireplace, oak carpeting, a brass chandelier and a oil portrait of some Russian military gentleman, with a prodigious white beard over his sleek uniform. Seated at the head of the table, closest to the fireplace, was a man who was unknown to the public, but whose name was legend in the world of espionage - Yevgeni Semenko, the Broker. While another man was the public face of the SVR, Semenko was the true puppeteer, a great spider who had sat on the intricate web of KGB, then SVR operations for nearly half a century.
Semenko had survived the Cold War, coups, power struggles, and the rise and fall of governments, even his own. As cold gray eyes studied Harry from across the table, dressed in an old-fashioned tweed suit over a rumpled-looking white shirt, it was clear enough to Harry the Broker’s body was clearly beginning to fail him, his skin sallow and alarmingly pale, liver-spotted over wrinkled skin, his hair long fallen out save for tufts over his small ears. Still, the Broker swept Harry, then Percival with an unforgiving, keenly curious stare, then he cleared his throat with a wet, coughing harrumph.
Beside him, at his right hand, Maria smiled demurely at Harry. Age had been kind to the once stunningly beautiful blonde bombshell of an ‘ex’-spy whom had followed Percival back to London from Moscow; although her thick mane was now trimmed into a short bob, Maria looked queenly even in a simple blue frock, her long fingers clasped over the table. “Privyet, Harry.”
Manners took over. “Good morning, Maria. Mister Semenko.”
“So this is Harry Hart,” Semenko said, as he rose to his feet, and his voice was was deep and as clear as a young man’s, thickly accented. “Pleased.”
“I’m afraid that you have the advantage of me, sir,” Harry said, though he shook Semenko’s hand, and tried not to glare at Maria.
“You and your organisation have been known to us and ours since the start,” Semenko said dismissively, as he shook Percival’s hand in turn, then sat back down, and waved them to a seat. “We keep an eye on operations like Kingsman, the same way we keep an eye on government agencies.”
“As I am aware.” Harry said warily.
Semenko snorted. “You were behind the sabotage in Siberia in the 80s, no? And the failure of the coup against Gorbachev? Information on the ground was scarce, but I was sure.”
Semenko ignored him. “All for money, not even for the love of country. I despise mercenaries. When my own daughter announced that she was leaving the KGB and marrying a foreign spy, I thought… maybe MI6, perhaps it would be borderline acceptable. CIA… we would have to have words. But a mercenary spy? I was ready to have her mother shot. Maria is half-English, you know. I felt it must have been the bad blood.”
“Da, papa,” Maria said gently, absolutely unconcerned, though Harry couldn’t help but stiffen up.
“Bah,” Semenko said irritably. “It was an unforgivable waste of talent and lineage.” He glowered briefly over the table at Percival, who smiled at him, just as unfazed as his wife. “But I suppose now I have two beautiful granddaughters. Maybe you mercenaries can keep one, and the SVR can have the other?”
“Nyet,” Percival said blandly, then added, “Though it would be up to the daughters in question, of course. What?” he asked, when Harry blinked at him. “They’re both adults and can make their own choices-“
“Katie’s still a schoolgirl!”
“Perhaps this should be a question for after we solve the world’s problems,” Percival said pointedly. “Mister Semenko has reviewed the footage we filmed from the institute, and-“
“Wait. Take this again from the top,” Harry said, resigned. “Exactly how did Mister Semenko hear about your mission?”
“You didn’t seriously think that we could use the SVR underground without some word of it getting back to Maria’s father-“
“And why,” Harry added, fighting the urge to press a palm over his face, “Didn’t anyone know that your wife is the daughter of the Broker?”
“Ah, well,” Percival said innocently, “Considering how everyone was already making such a huge deal over Maria being Russian and from the KGB, I felt that I didn’t want to unnecessarily exacerbate the problem.”
Harry let out a deep sigh. Someday, he was going to have to have a long, long overdue talk with Percival over his priorities. “Never mind. So you went to the Institute and… found evidence of radio frequency research, transmitted through V-Tech SIM cards, that could cause psychotic aggression. You found footage of clinical trials with criminals where they killed each other-”
“Managed to avoid Bedivere, too. As you said.” Percival nodded. “Maria sent the footage and the information to Mister Semenko. Without my knowledge, I should add.”
Maria shrugged, and spoke again, this time in flawless English. “It was a problem that was obviously too big for two burned middle-aged spies and a tech assistant.”
“I resent that,” Merlin muttered into Harry’s ear.
“Moscow has reviewed the evidence,” Semenko said, “And it’s been agreed that… this is very likely Valentine’s plan all along. His interest in Gaia theory, what little from his servers that SVR hackers have been able to retrieve, the kidnappings, his courting world leaders. All the same.”
“Get rid of the many,” Harry said quietly. “Save the few.” It was still a concept so ludicrously, ridiculously insane that he could barely even accept it, let alone think about how Eggsy must have known of it. Committing widespread genocide on a global scale? Insane.
“People with the chips are immune to the frequency,” Percival added. “He’s very likely chipped his friends, and possibly a control group of random humans, whoever might have gotten a chip during the initial roll out. To preserve genetic diversity, perhaps.”
“Whatever his motives are,” Semenko said briskly, “The SVR has decided that it is a priority issue. Russia clearly stands more or less alone on this matter. We have not allowed Valentine Inc to distribute chips or cards in our country. Nor will he be able to get a permit now that Moscow knows what he is planning. If the world cannot or will not act, then the SVR will act.”
“What will you do?” Harry asked, blinking.
“Firstly, to slow down MI6 involvement in London,” Semenko said shortly. “You and your friends are currently the most wanted people in the world - your descriptions are all over Interpol, and even MI6 is looking. We are not so concerned about MI5. So. You are welcome to use SVR resources. Operate out of here, if you like.”
Harry would rather not, but practicality intervened. “You’re too kind.”
“No. It is not being kind. It is being pragmatic,” Semenko corrected. “This thing that will destroy the world, it cannot begin. This Richmond Valentine, he must be stopped. So. The second thing that we will do. The whole world knows where Valentine lives. We will funnel SVR agents into London through the underground and attack the villa when Valentine returns. Capture him and his associates, get the full plan from them, find out where he has put the hostages, then make them disappear.”
A cold finger curled up Harry’s spine. “The SVR isn’t exactly always known for its subtlety in collateral damage.”
“We can be as subtle as is necessary. But we are also not… very sentimental, perhaps the word is. Not like the English.” Semenko smiled thinly. “Our interrogations, they are very effective.”
“And where do we stand in all this?”
“You can assist us if you want, or stay out of our way, I do not particularly care.” Semenko replied. “I do not like mercenaries. But this was originally your problem, and if you would like to see it through, I will not stop you.”
“I…” A horrific mental image swept through Harry’s mind, of how Eggsy might look after one of the SVR’s ‘effective interrogations’, and he had to stifle a shudder. “I see. Thank you for your assistance. And resources. But before you commit to the second matter… I would like to try and speak to Mister Valentine. Before we, ah, open hostilities.”
“If you must,” Semenko said, unconcerned. “It will take time for us to funnel in enough resources without triggering an alert from MI6. You have until we are ready to persuade a madman to become sane.”
“Mister Semenko,” Harry said tiredly, “If I fail, I will go with your men myself, when they raid that villa.” At the very least, perhaps a clean death would be the last thing that Harry could do for the son of a man who had once saved Harry’s life.
“Now I’ve been told that AT&T is an early version of Skynet,” Stewart said, to laughs from his audience, “But do you really think that free internet for the masses can save the world?”
“For sure. Think about it. The more interconnected we are,” Valentine said earnestly, leaning forward in his guest seat, “The more we share ideas. We’re at a stage now where the world is pretty much fucked. We can agree on that, yeah? We’ve got nutballs in the highest echelons of government who think that being able to make a snowball disproves climate change.”
“I think I can agree that maybe we are at least a little bit fucked,” Stewart agreed, with a grin at the camera.
“I lived through Selma, through Doctor King’s time… I know big ideas are difficult to push through. But if everyone comes together to solve something, maybe there’s nothing that we can’t do. So when you get your free SIM card, or chip, whatever it is, you also get a free uplink to the V-Cloud. From there, you’ll find in your account a ‘Think Big’ folder. You can leave me notes there, upload files, whatever. There’s an online project page, like Basecamp, where everyone can work on things together. What I want is for everyone to come together, to think about what they can do to turn this shit around.”
“You’re… probably going to regret saying that on cable tv,” Stewart laughed. “Going to get hundreds of TBs of LOLcat pictures.”
“And that’s fine too,” Valentine shrugged. “I just wanna open the question up to everyone. No matter who you are. I got the money to make a difference. I want everyone else to think about what I should be doing with it. So that’s the main deal with this free internet thing. ‘Course, there’s other benefits of everyone getting connected. Homeless people can apply for work, find out about soup vans in their area, things like that. People in incredibly poor third world countries who were never connected before can use it to get an education. Learn about clean water, even.”
“And how are you funding all this?”
“We’ve got grants from a few governments,” Valentine said evasively, “Also some money from some o’ my good friends… the Clintons, the Gates, the Buffetts, people like that. And there’s also money from the other bits and bobs I do here and there. I’m betting the bank on this.”
“Having everyone come together to save the world? Man, I hope it works,” Stewart said wryly. “You know, a great deal of people who get your cards probably don’t even believe in climate change.”
“And sure, that’s fine too. Crazy as I think those people are.” Valentine added. “Seriously, guys. But that aside, the people who do believe, there’s a lot of them out there, too. Young peeps, old peeps, people with tertiary education, people with none, everyone from every background. That’s where the good ideas come from, when you get them from everyone working as a whole. I’ve got a net worth of ‘bout eighty billion US dollars. I want everyone to tell me what I should be doing with it.”
“Build a ship with Matthew McConaughey, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley and Anne Hathaway as the pilots and launch it off into space to find another planet worth fucking up all over again?” Stewart suggested facetiously, just to make his audience laugh.
“Well, Jon,” Valentine said, “I kinda have to agree with Doctor Neil deGrasse Tyson there. I can’t really imagine a world where it’s better to find a way to leave it than to save it.”
After the show, on their way out from the studio, Eggsy checked marketing’s emails. “We’re expecting an upsurge in adoption once the Daily Show ep goes live,” Eggsy said. “Gonna time it with a big media buy internationally. TV, Times Square, billboards, the works. Got an agency working on getting the word out through a made-for-viral video, they’re gonna send us storyboards and scripts in a bit.”
“Have we buffered V-Tech to sift through all the stuff that actually does get uploaded?”
“Yeah. Most of that’s going to go into monitoring V-Camp. Going to run it like that other open everyone-can-participate global think tank deal called OpenIDEO. You know, the one that I was talking to you about on the flight here?”
“Tee up some sort of joint venture with them,” Valentine decided. “Maybe we can run a challenge together. If they can give us the peeps to manage V-Camp, that’ll be way better.”
“Right.” Eggsy sent OpenIDEO an email.
They met the Gates for dinner at Eleven Madison Park, then headed back to St. Regis, where Eggsy made sure to see Valentine off at the Presidential Suite, then he checked on his mum and Daisy in one of the Astor Suites, where their security detail was in the midst of offloading all her shopping. He kissed his mum goodnight, then went off to his own room, a suite overlooking Madison Avenue. Maybe he’d change, and get a night out at town, Eggsy decided. Scratch the itch that Harry Hart had left under his skin.
Humming Uptown Funk under his breath as Eggsy swiped himself into the suite, he slipped the keycard into the holder, switching the lights and the heater on - then he froze. Seated in the red velvet armchair in the living room, legs crossed, regal as bloody anything in a double-breasted navy pinstripe suit and fucking tie, was Harry Hart.
“Wow,” Eggsy said, blinking slowly. “You have balls of steel, man.”
“So I’ve been told,” Harry said blithely, and as relaxed as he looked, Eggsy wasn’t fooled - Harry had uncrossed his long, long legs, the soles flat on the carpet, and although his elegant hands were pressed over the armrests, the fingers were curled, tense.
“Well…” Eggsy said slowly, ready to duck under cover and draw if he had to, “I’ve kinda had a really long day, so… do you mind? I would really rather take a nap.”
“I’ve had a very long and trying day as well,” Harry said evenly, “I’m tired, and jetlagged, and rather frustrated with life in general. So have a seat.” He waved Eggsy towards the long couch.
“… Okay. Or we could shoot it out?”
“Or we could shoot it out, if you insist. But I would like to just talk right now.”
“I’ve already been through one of your lectures.”
“I’d really rather not fight you,” Harry said, a trace of exasperation creeping into his voice. “So sit down. Please.”
Eggsy studied Harry for a long moment. There was an edge of desperation in Harry’s tone now, something that hadn’t been there before, and it was strangely unsettling. Harry did look worn, as though his world had just been shaken, by something else, and after a while, Eggsy said, “All right,” and walked over despite his instincts, sitting down at the couch. “Let’s hear it. You still wanna have a shootout after?” he asked, facetiously.
“If you insist.”
“Then we probably should do it somewhere more dramatic,” Eggsy set his tablet aside. “‘ow about a museum? Oh! Or inside some sorta church? That should be fun.”
“I would like you to please take this seriously,” Harry said testily. “All right?”
“Right. Sorry.” Eggsy said, a little contritely. “What did you wanna talk about, then?”
“I…” Harry actually hesitated, for a moment, then he sighed. “Eggsy, I would like to have an opportunity to speak to Mister Valentine. No weapons. Neutral ground, preferably. You can pick.”
“… Okay,” Eggsy blinked. “I’m… kinda not really sure that’s a good idea.”
“You can have Mister Valentine talk to me through a bulletproof screen, or encased in glass, whatever you want. I just want to talk, face to face. No hostilities. Can you make that happen?”
“Uh, sure. Give me a moment. I’ll ask.” Eggsy put a call up to Gazelle, all the while keeping a close eye on Harry. “Hey. How’s things? Yeah. Well, maybe you should wrap up warm,” he said, code for a security red alert.
“Need help?” Gazelle asked.
“Nah, I’m fine. Pass me to the boss, OK?”
Valentine picked up after a second. “Eggsy? What’s up?”
“I got someone here who wants to talk to you. Peace talks. No weapons. Things like that.”
There was a pause, then, “You need help?”
Eggsy glanced up at Harry’s solemn face. “Nope. I’m good.”
“Think it’s a trap?”
“Not sure. I think it’s legit. He’s letting us pick the location and set the rules.”
“Should I agree?”
“That’s a question for Gazelle to answer, I think. I’m just your secretary, boss.”
There was another, longer pause, then, “OK. Frisk him, then take him up here.”
“That’s all right.” Harry removed the earpiece and his spectacles, setting them down on the table along with his gear.
“Umm. About the shoes. I know about those. Sorry.”
“Bathroom slippers will suffice.” Harry said briskly, and got out of his oxfords. He did feel slightly ludicrous standing on the thick carpet, in his socks and with all his weapons divested, but Eggsy stared at him uncomfortably, for a long moment, then he sighed.
“Y’know. I think if your balls were any bigger they could probably be seen from space.”
The joke had none of Eggsy’s usual mischievous humour in it, and Harry arched an eyebrow. “Indeed.”
They got the bathroom slippers out of the bedroom in silence, and as Harry was toeing them on, Eggsy said, with a sudden explosive breath, “Look. How about you just… head back in that room, get your shoes, and just… go? Go away. You and your friends. Go live in Rio or something. Leave us alone. We’ll leave you alone. I can fix Interpol, call off Kingsman-”
“And will you leave the entire world alone, too?” Harry asked quietly, his stare steady and accusing. “I’ve had a man up in Stockholm, Eggsy. I know about the SIM cards and the radio frequency plan.”
Eggsy’s eyes widened a fraction, then he closed his face off, averting his eyes, though he clenched his hands as well, so tightly that his knuckles whitened. “Right,” Eggsy said finally, tonelessly. “Ready to head up?”
“As ready as I’ll be.”
“We’re coming up,” Eggsy said, to his earpiece, and nodded to Harry, jerking his head in the direction of the door. “After you.”
A pair of bodyguards were waiting for them at the lift, and although Harry had initially expected them to get in, as well, all they did was pass Eggsy a plastic zip-tie. “Sorry about this,” Eggsy said apologetically. “Hands behind your back.”
“Mister Valentine seems to be an exceedingly cautious man,” Harry said, though he obeyed, crossing his wrists behind his back and allowing Eggsy to secure them together. The plastic wasn’t tight enough to bite into his wrists, but it was certainly secure enough that he wouldn’t be able to get free without a knife.
“He’s got cause to be cautious where you’re concerned,” Eggsy shot back, even as the lift pinged open, and he nodded to Harry. “That’s us.”
They were alone in the private elevator to the Presidential Suite, and Harry stood in a relaxed stance, studying the lighted numbers on top as they counted up. Eggsy was tense, frowning at the lift doors, and when Harry spoke up, Eggsy actually flinched a little.
“What’s your little sister’s name?”
“Uh.” Eggsy looked startled for a moment. “Daisy.”
“And how old is she?”
“Nearly two. Why?”
“Just curious.” Harry said blandly. “I suppose you must love her very much.”
“Well yeah. She is my baby sister and all.” Eggsy narrowed his eyes. “Might want to watch what you say real carefully now.”
“How many little girls are there in the world, d’you think, who are ‘nearly two’?”
Eggsy let out an incredulous laugh. “Is this your plan? Make the old pull-on-the-heartstrings, don’t-be-a-hypocrite remark at the eleventh hour to get me over on your side? Are you fucking kidding me? This ain’t the movies, mate.”
“And I agree,” Harry said evenly. “It’s obvious to me now that an emotional appeal has been a complete waste of time.”
“You got that right.”
“But I hope you’ve kept in mind that when you try and make an enemy of the world, you have to be prepared to lose things. You put everyone around you in danger. Friends. Family.”
Eggsy stiffened. “You trying to piss me off? ‘Cos it’s actually working.”
“No. I’m telling you a fact,” Harry said, and tried not to think of Semenko, or of the gulag he had been to once, two decades ago, sneaking around behind the Iron Curtain.
“What, like you’re the bait and you got a B team going to pick up me mum and sis? Yeah. Pretty honourable.”
“Not in the least. I’m here to have a chat with Mister Valentine in good faith. My word on it.”
Eggsy shot him a suspicious look but checked something or other over on his tablet instead, and had relaxed slightly by the time the lift doors pinged open to the Presidential Suite on the 24th floor. Lavish and expansive, the foyer opened up to a beautifully elegant living space, with a black marble fireplace, Persian carpets over inlaid wood tiled floors, and chandeliers and light fittings in white and gold. Heavy white curtains had been drawn closed, shutting out the view of New York at night, and in the centre of the living space were two plush couches, facing each other over a glass and aluminium coffee table.
Richmond Valentine was still dressed for dinner, in a well-made but clearly off-the-rack suit, over a loud fuchsia shirt and neon orange sneakers. He also wore a New England Patriots cap at a jaunty angle, and as Harry was marched into the room, he started to smile, then frowned.
“Eggsy, why does the man have no shoes?”
“Little knife things in the heels,” Eggsy said apologetically. “It was socks or the bathroom slippers. It wasn’t like I wanted him to look dumb or something. And I’ve already said I was sorry.”
“I’m not offended,” Harry assured Valentine mildly, and studied the tall, slim woman standing beside one of the armchairs, with her gleaming prosthetic legs, also still in dinner wear, dressed up in a flared black silk dress. She offered him a slight nod and a humourless smile, her eyes cold and hard.
“Oh, and this is Gazelle,” Valentine introduced her. “Head of my security.”
“Pleased,” Gazelle said unemotionally.
“Have a seat,” Valentine invited, and as Harry sat down on the opposite couch, Eggsy started to draw his gun from his back holster. “No, Eggsy. Put that back. We’re going to have a friendly chat. Like the man asked for.”
Confusion lit briefly over Eggsy’s face, then he nodded slowly. “All right. D’you need me to be here?”
“If you want.” Valentine said, then added, “Relax. Your mum and Daisy are up here, in the guest room. You can go check on them.”
Eggsy nodded, and strode off briskly. “He’s a mummy’s boy in many ways,” Valentine added, when Eggsy was out of sight. “Not a nice thing, what you said in the lift.”
“Some people have to face certain realities,” Harry said evenly. “The consequences of their choices, shall we say.”
“Right.” Valentine clasped his hands together. “So. You want to talk to me about my life choices, is that it?”
“In a sense.” Harry tried his best to sit in a relaxed manner against the couch. “I’m not going to try and appeal to a common sense of humanity and such. If you truly didn’t care about humanity, you’d have used your eighty billion dollar wealth to enjoy life while you could, maybe with a few charity projects here and there for karma’s sake. You’re an old man, and the world won’t go to hell while you’re yet alive.”
“Sometimes I wonder about that,” Valentine said wryly.
“Your track record’s also clearly indicative of a life spent committed to trying to combat climate change,” Harry added. “You were the money behind the Kyoto Protocol. You helped to push solar energy into something viable… you were behind the rise of the electric car, behind the CFC ban and more. So I understand where you’re coming from. You’ve poured your fortune into this endeavour and decades on, the world is still headed stubbornly towards apparent self-destruction.”
“It’s nice that you’re buttering me up,” Valentine noted, “But d’you want to get to the point? Not to sound rude or anything, but like you said, I’m an old man, and old men kind of need their sleep.”
“My point is,” Harry said, very evenly, “That you’re wrong. Drastic population control isn’t the solution to climate change.”
Valentine didn’t even blink. “Yep. Better men than us have debated that theory. Haven’t you heard? David Attenborough himself said that humans are a plague on the Earth.”
“Maybe that’s so. But curbing population is only a short-term fix,” Harry said firmly. “The world’s per capita fertility has actually been declining for several decades. The UN’s Population Fund noted that it has no proof that population control would even have an effect on climate change: claiming that population growth is the big issue is rather like shifting the blame from the rich to the very poor. For example, between the 1980s and 2005, sub-saharan Africa produced 18.5% of the world’s population growth, but only 2.4% of the growth in CO2. The problem, shall we say, is not actually the number of people, but the impact of people on the environment.”
“Well, you’ve certainly done your homework,” Valentine arched an eyebrow. “But colour me sceptical still.”
“It’s a proven fact that people who are educated tend to have fewer children. By making the internet available to anyone in the world, you might be giving them the means to free themselves from ingrained cycles of poverty,” Harry added. “The internet gives an opportunity of commerce beyond boundaries, an education without capital. In time, with the right commitment, you will have a global community that is more aware of itself and its impact on the world.”
“‘In time’,” Valentine agreed. “And it’s gonna take a hell of a lot of time. Generations. My solution stops the clock. Deforestation stops. Poaching stops. The people left in the world can rebuild and clean up.”
“That might work as cleanly as you’ve said it in a movie, perhaps,” Harry shot back. “But not in real life. Think of it this way. Out there in the world, there are a number of people like me. If you wire us to go berserk for… an hour? Two hours? I guarantee you, we will still be alive at the end of it, particularly if we don’t happen to be surrounded by others of our ilk. And we will be even more dangerous than we were before.”
“Other than people like me… there are people with military training. People with weapons training. These are the people you’ll leave the world to, if you do what you’re going to do. Not to mention,” Harry added, “That I doubt that you’re going to be able to get the cards out in every country. What about countries with no infrastructure at all - failed states, like Somalia? Or countries like North Korea and Russia, which are not in the least interested in allowing your cards out on the ground?”
“What you’re going to end up doing, in effect, is devastating the world economy, destroying many of the countries and people who help the world function, and creating a fractured world that is ruled by the last remaining world powers - North Korea and Russia. Is that a world that you want to create?”
“Hm,” Valentine arched an eyebrow, though he leaned back in his couch. “We’re still thinking of a solution for those two, true. Go on.”
“I’ll give you another scenario,” Harry added. “There are eight nuclear-weapon states in the world. Nine, if you include Israel, ambiguous as it likes to be on the issue. Excluding Russia, you’ve now managed to get cards out on the ground in six of them: the United States, the UK, Israel, India, Pakistan and France. China is on its way, I believe. When you create a world psychosis… can you also ensure that all the people in all these silos will not decide to let them loose? Destroy the world?”
“Fair point,” Valentine noted, even as Harry realized belatedly that Eggsy had slipped back into the room, taking up a place beside the marble fireplace, and was taking notes on his tablet. “We haven’t thought about that, but now we will.”
“And even so,” Harry added, trying not to look at Eggsy, “There are four hundred and thirty-seven operational nuclear power reactors in the world. Even if you have a solution for the people in those as well, to ensure that they don’t cause deliberate meltdowns, what about all the planes that might be in the air during this time? What if any of them fly into reactors, or silos, or anything of the sort?”
“True,” Valentine said, and sighed out aloud. “All right, Mister Hart. You’ve got me there. I’ll tell you now, we’re a few months away from linking up our global satellite system for this. And it’s obvious to me now that we’ve got some serious kinks in our system that we haven’t thought of. But," he added, as Harry opened his mouth, “I can tell you now, the stuff you’ve described? They’re not impossible to overcome, especially since I’ve got a fair number of those nuclear-capable country leaders in my pocket. So. D’you or d’you not have an alternative?”
“I would say that if decades of working in espionage has taught me nothing else,” Harry said wearily, “It would be about the infinite ambit of human creativity. You have created an opening for the entire world to participate together, for the first time, in a global endeavour to save ourselves, regardless of where we are, or who we are. Perhaps I’m an optimist, but I can’t really see why things will move on as they have. Give it time.”
“So you’re asking me to have faith.”
“I’m telling you that your core premise beneath your current plan is deeply flawed, and you have the means and the influence right now to do better,” Harry retorted. “As you always have. Give up on big plans that’ll only ever work in a movie. Fixing the world’s never going to be as simple as working off a single idea.”
There was a long, viscous silence, as Valentine turned his head up to look at the ceiling, scratching at his chin. Even Eggsy’s quiet tapping at his tablet slowed to a stop, and beside the armchair, Gazelle shifted her weight, as though ready to sprint forward at a word.
Perhaps Harry had overplayed his hand, after all. An optimist to the last. And if so-
Then Valentine let out a long and ragged sigh. “Aw, hell. You’re right. It was a good idea but it was too damn simple after all. You’re right.” The man, Harry noted with a start, was in tears - Valentine pulled his spectacles off, and rubbed his eyes roughly with a sigh. “And it took balls to come here unarmed and tell me that to my face. I respect that.”
“I told him,” Eggsy said from his corner. “Balls of steel.”
“Admittedly,” Valentine added, resigned, “This kinda means that all our guests are now loose ends.”
“Not in the least,” Harry said quickly. “Let me talk to them. Then spin a story for the media. Say that they hadn’t been kidnapped - they’d actually all gone away on a private retreat of sorts. A group think tank against climate change. Something like that.”
Valentine glanced at Eggsy, who shrugged. “Doable, if he can talk them into it and no one squeals.”
“The people you kidnapped are all environmentalists. It’s all a matter of selling them on the idea closest to their hearts,” Harry assured them. “For the greater good.”
“Right. We can see how you go on that,” Valentine said thoughtfully. “‘Course. I still don’t trust you. Far as I’m concerned, you’re a loose cannon.”
“I don’t care what you think of me,” Harry said calmly. “If I hadn’t come up here prepared to die, I wouldn’t have done it at all.”
“You’re a gambler then, Mister Hart?”
“Always,” Harry said wryly. It was, after all, the very nature of the Great Game.
“Right.” Valentine got to his feet. “Then it’s been a pleasure, Galahad, and you’ve definitely given me something to think about. Eggsy, call off the dogs and cut Mister Hart loose. And give the man back his shoes. Then I think it’s time we hopped over to the mountain after all.”
In the lift down, as Harry rubbed absently at his sore wrists, Eggsy let out a shaky laugh. “Fuck, man. I can’t believe you just did what you did.”
“Convinced a man who had committed his life to trying and failing and trying again on climate change to try yet again?”
“When you put it that way.” Eggsy eyed Harry thoughtfully. “I thought you were going to just lecture Mister Valentine on morality, and then things would’ve gone to hell. Gazelle gets real bored when people debate that kinda thing.”
“Like you told me once,” Harry said softly. “I’ve killed far more people than you ever have. And it’s all a matter of opinion and degree. I’m not the best person to be remotely convincing in a debate like that.”
“Somehow,” Eggsy said wryly, “I kinda thought this was all gonna end in blood and tears. Like in the films. Huge gun battles and kung fu and all that.”
“And either be destroyed, or destroy the best current chance that the world might have at actually changing?” Harry arched an eyebrow. “That’s a rather illogical way of approaching a solution.”
“Only you, man,” Eggsy let out another shaky laugh. “Only you.”
“After all,” Galahad said, as they left the now-actually-guests to it and boarded Valentine’s plane in the hangar, “You’ve more or less given them the chance to do something that they’ve wanted to all their lives.”
“Crazy capital, global reach,” Eggsy agreed. “Professor Yiping actually even told me that imprisonment has been ‘good for the mind’. She says she now has a lot of ideas.”
“Good, good. I liked her,” Valentine said, because the feisty Taiwanese Professor had, upon her kidnapping, actually managed to slap Valentine across the face. That diminutive old lady could move like a cat.
“Where next?” Eggsy asked, as they strapped down in the plane and their pilot headed through to the cockpit. “You want us to drop Galahad off somewhere? Or?”
“I want to offer him a job, actually,” Valentine said blandly, as he sank gratefully into his ergonomic seat. He did have an old man back, after all. “How would you like to take over Kingsman?”
Galahad raised an eyebrow, seated where he was opposite Valentine, across the small aisle, facing Eggsy. “You already have an Arthur.”
“Chester’s in his late eighties. ‘Bout time he retired somewhere with a nice pension with his grandkids,” Valentine shrugged. “Think about it. No more haring after contracts, too. Kingsman will work fully for me, with autonomy. Help keep the world in one piece while we get it where we want it to be.”
“I’ll think about it,” Galahad said neutrally. “I have some personal affairs to sort out first.”
“Take your time.” Valentine said offhandedly, though he had made his billions by being able to get people to follow him, and he could see that Galahad was tempted. He caught Eggsy’s eye, and Eggsy grinned faintly at him, then turned his attention back to his tablet.
They dropped Galahad off over in London, with Eggsy ‘tagging along’, and Valentine and Gazelle headed home. Michelle and Daisy were already back, having flown home from New York via another Valentine Inc jet, and since it was a Big Mac Day, they had dinner in the cinema room and watched Frozen, because Valentine had heard that little girls liked Frozen, even if Daisy slept through most of it.
Eggsy came back to the villa in the morning, just in time for breakfast, looking flushed and a little smug as he sat down at the table.
“That easy?” Gazelle asked, as she poked through her oats-with-water.
“I’m just that good,” Eggsy said, helping himself to poached eggs and toast. “But he still says that he’s gonna think about the job offer.”
“Keep an eye on him,” Valentine decided. “His friends, too.”
“I gather something spooked the hell out of him between the failed hit and him catching up with us in New York,” Eggsy added. “Was a feeling from the way he was carrying on.”
“An assassination attempt would usually accomplish that,” Gazelle noted mildly.
“Nah. It was something else. Don’t worry, Mister Valentine. I’m gonna find out what it was.”
“Sure thing,” Valentine said, and had a sip of coffee, dairy free. “Oh hey. This almond milk thing is pretty good!”
“Hipster as hell,” Eggsy muttered, though he tried some anyway. “So what are we going to do today?”
“Today?” Valentine said expansively. “Today we go back to the drawing board. And I’ve actually got a good feeling about it all, this time ‘round. It’s gonna be a new start.”
Beside him, Eggsy rolled his eyes. “Ok, firstly, this is our land. These peeps are illegal loggers. Secondly, our lawyers sent their company a cease and desist this morning and were ignored. So. Fuck’em. Lastly, what the fuck, Harry, why the hell are you wearing a suit? We’re in a freakin’ rainforest.”
“A gentleman should always be appropriately dressed,” Harry said, though he smiled blandly. “Besides, I’m here as an observer.”
“Gonna be real fun observing when you got to burn leeches off your ankles later an’ your suit gets ruined,” Eggsy said, wearing far more sensible camouflage gear and boots, loading his two SIGs. “OK, Gazelle. This time, I’m gonna kick your arse.”
“I’ll like to see you try,” Gazelle shot back, limbering up against the ground, checking her smartwatch, which showed a simple little map indicating where they were and where the loggers were.
An hour later, as they were being airlifted out of the forest, Gazelle removed one prosthetic bladed leg, cleaning the grime off its blade, while Eggsy sulked in a corner of the helicopter. Galahad looked as unruffled as ever, and, perhaps strangely enough, also looked more or less untouched by the rainforest, save for some mud on his oxfords.
“That was a fluke,” Eggsy told Gazelle.
“Just so happened that you were right next to that tree when the last scout came back.”
“A gentleman should be gracious in defeat,” Galahad told Eggsy, and sighed when Eggsy stuck his tongue out at Galahad.
“I’m not part of your Mysterious Silver Spoon Up the Arse Suit Club,” Eggsy reminded him, then hesitated. “Though. Katie and Roxy are cool. The rest of you, not so much. Y’know. Katie said her granddad offered her a job?”
Galahad stiffened. “Really? When was this?”
“Dunno. Week ago? We went out to watch SPECTRE in cinemas. You know that film which you said was going to be rubbish and refused to watch? Well. It was awesome.”
There was a deep sigh. “The Bond films deeply misrepresent espionage as a career.”
“Still awesome. But yeah. Don’t freak out. Katie said no. She wants to be an environmentalist when she graduates. Gets along pretty well with Professor Arnold and his geeky friends.”
“That’s… actually a waste of lineage and talent,” Galahad said, though he smiled instead of looking resigned.
“Good for her,” Gazelle decided. “Next time when we do one of these trips, we should bring Lancelot. See who’s the worst of the three of us.”
“… Roxy? The two of you are totally going to cheat.”
“That’s just your insecurity talking, Eggsy,” Gazelle said calmly, and smirked as Eggsy sputtered.
“I’m not going armed,” Alastair told Harry patiently, as he prepared to head out from the Kingsman shop. Harry frowned at him from the head of the Round Table, thin-lipped. “That would be dreadfully impolite.”
“Everyone else is going to be armed. Probably including your wife. And daughters.”
“I know. I’ll start a trend. Mutual disarmament.”
“I rather doubt it,” Harry said sourly. “This is just like your wedding all over again.”
“Not in the least.”
“True, it’s going to be worse. You’re going to be technically on Russian soil.”
“Harry,” Alastair said calmly, “Have a stiff drink, go home, and sleep with our not-enemy, all right? Work it all out from your system. I’m going to be fine.”
Harry grimaced. Alastair had never quite let him forget about the matter of Eggsy, because sometimes Harry needed to be reminded that he wasn’t, actually, some sort of perfect spy. Even if he did talk Valentine out of destroying the world. “Fine. But if you end up getting shipped off to Russia in a box, I’m not going to commit any resources to save you.”
“That’s so sweet of you, Arthur.”
As he picked up Maria from home, Katie from school and then Roxy from the Kingsman base, Merlin said into Alastair’s ear, “Need eyes and ears on the ground?”
“It’s a family reunion, Merlin, not a mission.”
“Sounds like a mission to me,” Merlin said dubiously, which showed that Harry had more or less managed to transfer his extensive trust issues over to his once-handler over the course of a couple of decades.
“Your friends,” Maria said, shaking her head from where she sat in the front passenger seat.
“I heard that,” Merlin said, sounding hurt. “Ask Maria if she’s armed.”
Alastair dutifully repeated the question.
“I’m always armed, lyubov moya.”
“There you go,” Alastair said to Merlin.
“You have serious problems, Percival,” Merlin told him, and nagged all the way to the embassy, after which he fell into a pointed silence.
War did not break out over pre-dinner drinks, or dinner, or even post-dinner drinks, even if Semenko did scowl darkly and mutter under his breath when Katie said brightly that she was going to study environmental science. Although Alastair could not exactly say that it was pleasant, at least it was interesting.
On the way home, Katie piped up. “Grandpapa said that maybe Roxy or I should marry one of his ‘handsome and eligible young friends’.”
Maria snorted, even as, in Alastair’s ear, Merlin started coughing, as though he had just choked on a drink of water. “Well, dear,” Alastair said absently, “Just make sure to bring them home first so we can have a look at them.”
“See,” Katie told Roxy. “Told you Dad wouldn’t freak out.”
“Yes, well,” Roxy said wryly, “Mister Hart will probably do enough of that for all of us.”
And so it was.
“Something up?” Eggsy asked, surprised to actually see Harry and Valentine in the same room. Despite the necessity of their alliance, Harry usually tried to avoid Valentine - or most people - preferring to stay in Kingsman unless out on a mission.
“Looking through nursery schools,” Valentine said absently. “For Daisy, obviously.”
Eggsy sighed. “Really? It’s not like we can’t take care of her at home, right?”
“It’s good to attend prep school,” Harry objected. “Even if home-schooling might have its benefits. She can meet other children.”
“I’m still not sure about her meeting other children,” Valentine muttered. “Other children can really suck. And be mean little monsters.”
“You can’t cocoon her forever.”
“Mum,” Eggsy put a call through to his mum. “Those two are up to It again.”
“I know,” Michelle said, sounding resigned. “Just let them work it out of their system. We’ve got a good specialist coming in here everyday soon, she’ll get the job done. And then I’m arranging a play group with the kids of some friends of mine and Gazelle’s-“
“Gazelle has friends?” Eggsy blinked.
“That’s a terrible thing to say,” Michelle said reproachfully. “Apologize to her at once, young man.”
“Uh. Sorry,” Eggsy told Gazelle, who smiled faintly at him. “But y’know. Now I’m kinda worried.”
“Don’t be.” Michelle said cheerfully, and signed off.
“Mum’s got it covered,” Eggsy told Harry and Valentine doubtfully. “OK? We done? God, you two.”
Harry got up from the table, a little reluctantly. “I’ll send you a note on the results of the Silverback initiative tonight,” he told Valentine. “We’re fairly sure that we might have the beginnings of a long-term solution for the Congo.”
“Hope so. ‘Cos that place gives me a goddamned headache. Eggsy, how was the meeting?”
“Going all right. We’ve just launched the global Get-to-school thing, pretty successful adoption rate across the third world,” Eggsy checked his tablet. “And we’re near a possible agreement with Moscow over having cards out on the ground.”
“Think that place is fucked and probably is a thing for Harry to solve, not me,” Eggsy said cheerfully, and Harry shot him an unimpressed stare.
“One thing at a time,” Harry said briskly.
On their way out, Eggsy crowded Harry against the side of the lift. “You really shouldn’t encourage Mister Valentine over the Daisy thing.”
“I didn’t start it.” Harry hesitated. “Actually, I don’t even remember how that conversation came about.”
“At this rate, she’s not going to have a remotely normal life. What about when she starts dating, huh?”
“I suppose we’ll have to exercise some restraint. After she learns self-defence from Gazelle.” Harry thought over this for a moment. “And undergoes firearms training-“
“You guys. Seriously.” Eggsy said, and scowled, even when Harry brushed a kiss over his forehead. “I’m going to get white hairs at this rate.”
“It’ll keep you on your toes.”
Glancing up, Harry was just in time to see Eggsy saunter into the Round Table room, winking at Harry as he walked right up to him and kissed him full on the mouth, the brazen thing. “I’m still at work,” Harry said reproachfully, as Eggsy sat down on the Round Table, long legs dangling over the edge.
“I know.” Eggsy said brightly, twisting around to look at the doorway, and eventually, Valentine emerged, grumbling and batting away Gazelle’s attempt to steady him by the arm. Age had bent Valentine over a walking stick, for all that it hadn’t had any effect on his dress sense: today, Valentine was wearing a pink baseball cap and leather jacket over a lime green shirt and blue jeans. At least Eggsy was somewhat more sensibly dressed, in a gray blazer over a white shirt.
Harry started to rise to his feet, but Valentine waved him back down, hobbling over to the closest chair at the Round Table, which he tugged out then sat down on it with a sigh. “How did the old Arthur ever manage them steps?”
“Very carefully,” Harry said, with a blink. “I could have gone to the Tower to visit you if you wished.”
“Nah,” Valentine said dismissively. “Good for me to get some air now and then. Guys, I need to talk to Arthur alone, yeah?”
“Sure,” Eggsy said, looking briefly surprised, though he slipped off the table and padded off briskly out of the room, followed by Gazelle.
“How’s business?” Harry asked, rather curious now himself. He had never seen Valentine go anywhere without Gazelle.
“Pretty good. We’ve finally brokered a deal with North Korea to put out our cards on the ground.”
“Hear you probably had a great deal to do with it.”
“Oh, Eggsy did his part as well,” Harry said modestly. It had been a considerably complicated operation that had also, unfortunately, required Harry to owe the now nearly decrepit but still canny Semenko a ‘big favour’.
“I know he did,” Valentine said, and his smile was wry, now. “We’ve cut emissions by half again this year, y’know? Globally.”
Harry nodded. The global thinktank had developed a way to make transparent solar panels on a massive scale - allowing any home’s windows to power the home itself. Combined with advances in battery development, global diplomatic recognition of climate change, and a meteoric rise in general literacy levels worldwide, the world was already weaning itself off fossil fuels. The population levels had long hit a plateau, and reforestation was back on trend.
“And to think,” Valentine said, with a grin, “It’s all ‘cos you talked me out of a dumb idea, twenty years back.”
“We all make mistakes,” Harry said generously, though he leaned back in his chair. “Did you want to talk about something?”
“Yeah. It’s the anniversary, y’know? Of that day in the hotel room in St Regis.”
“I haven’t kept track of such things, I’m afraid.”
“Don’t worry. I’m probably sentimental enough for the both of us.” Valentine assured him. “I’m a seriously old fart now. Few years more and I’ll have been kicking around for nine decades.”
“And there’ll be more years to see, I’m sure,” Harry said, wondering where this was going.
“Maybe. Maybe.” Valentine said pensively. “Eggsy’s already running most of my company. I’m thinking of letting him take over completely. While he’s still young enough to enjoy it.”
Harry arched his eyebrows. “Have you mentioned it to Eggsy?”
“He laughed it off. It’s funny to him now, since he’s in his forties, but it’s less funny to me, with all my old man problems.”
“Well,” Harry said, still a little confused, “If you’re asking me for my opinion, I’m very likely biased, but I do think that he seems to be doing an excellent job.”
“Not gonna have a problem working for Eggsy when the time comes?”
“Of course not.”
“Good. S’what I wanted to hear. Could you get the both of them back up here?”
Harry put a call through to Marcus, and after a moment, Eggsy was back in the room, followed by Gazelle. He bent his head when Valentine beckoned him over, nodded, then wandered back over to Harry’s side of the table, even as Gazelle helped a grumbling Valentine to his feet and out of the door.
“He shouldn’t be walking up and down steps like these at his age,” Harry told Eggsy, once Valentine was gone.
“I know. Told him. Stubborn old man.” Eggsy prodded Harry in the shoulder. “You aren’t that far off either.”
“The previous Arthur managed the stairs all the way into his eighties,” Harry said dismissively. “I’ll be fine. Shouldn’t you be heading off with Mister Valentine?”
“Nah.” Eggsy propped himself back up on the table, pushing Harry’s laptop aside to make space, knees apart and bracketing Harry’s chair. “It’s Friday. Maybe you should knock off work early too.”
“We’re growing rather too long in the tooth for doing something like this in my office,” Harry said dryly, though even now, two decades in, seeing Eggsy like this still made his blood quicken, this gorgeous man with mischief in his smile and mayhem in his eyes.
“Bullshit.” Eggsy curled his fingers into Harry’s tie, pulling him up, until Harry was on his feet, kissing Eggsy, slow and unhurried and with a tender intimacy that always bloomed a swell of warmth within Harry’s chest, like a lover’s caress, like a ribbon of time, winding tight. “It’s been twenty years since I starting learning to be less of a blind, dumb kid.”
“It still seems to be a learning process,” Harry noted, though he pressed a wry smile to the edge of Eggsy’s mouth when Eggsy laughed.
“Man, you have no idea.” Fingers pressed with ticklish playfulness against Harry’s jaw, edging up to his cheek. “I think that favour you owed my dad is long paid. Lots of times over.”
“Perhaps so,” Harry said softly, and this time, when they kissed, it was without the shadow of a man long dead, without the press of old history between them, without the pull of old regrets. “Dinner at the Savoy? My treat.”