Feel It In Your Skin
The night air above decks was crisp and clean in late June and Merlin reveled in the cool kiss of it against his exposed skin as the USS Pocahontas steamed westward across the Atlantic. Craving more of the slick slide of the refreshing atmosphere against his skin, he stripped to the waist. Lacking a clean perch for it, he slapped his lid back on his head and slid down the bulkhead until his rump hit the deck. He drew a deep lungful and stared up at the stars gleaming brightly in the arch of the deep blue-black firmament vaulting over the open ocean. He loved these moments. Heading for home after having successfully transported another batch of Army boys to France to fight the Kaiser, the sailors rattled like peas in the near empty troopship. Sailing east was hell with every patch of deck crammed full to the gunwales with doughboys looking to escape the stifling confines of a well packed transport. They filled the sick bays and ran the Hospital Corpsmen off their feet. Below you couldn’t move without tripping over a seasick Army boy and Merlin envied the sailors whose assignments kept them up on deck in the open air.
Speak (or in this case, think) of the devil and he will appear. In this instance, Merlin’s demon took the form of a broad shouldered blond standing six feet tall with skin tanned a deep golden-brown from constant exposure to the sun. Here he was coming for Merlin again, Gun Pointer First Class, Arthur Fucking Pendragon. Recent bane of Merlin’s existence and stirrer of feelings that no man had any right stirring in another. It was obscene what that blue-blooded brat did to Merlin’s equilibrium. It was just wrong to make a boy ache so badly for another boy. Merlin had experienced such aches before but this was definitely the strongest longing he’d ever felt for anyone in the entirety of his (almost) eighteen year stint on the planet.
Not even Lance had made him yearn this painfully. Then again, Lance had returned Merlin’s regard, nay, had instigated the connection between them. Then the stupid kid’s secret had been discovered and he’d been kicked out of the Navy entirely. Merlin had been the recipient of his mother’s approval and assistance when lying about his age to enlist at sixteen. Lance had not. In fact, it was Lance’s own mother who reported him. In the fall of 1916 with a war on in Europe she was scared for her boy’s life so she tracked him down during basic training and informed their CO that the boy claiming to be eighteen was in fact no more than sixteen. She’d brought with her the damning proof, Lance’s birth certificate. And just as suddenly as Mrs. Du Lac had appeared, Lance had disappeared; whisked away to the safety of his mother’s home on the shores of Lake Huron.
That was almost two years ago and Merlin hadn’t since been eager to get…attached to another boy like that. It certainly hadn’t been for lack of temptation though. The Navy was full of good looking young men and Merlin wasn’t any sort of a saint. However, the temptation had yet to outweigh the risk involved in starting another relationship of that kind. The threat of court martial, a sentence in the brig and a dishonorable discharge rather tended to dampen one’s ardour. At least it had until Arthur Pendragon had come aboard the Pocahontas nearly two months ago. He’d replaced one of the sailors injured in a firefight they’d had with a German U-boat cruiser.* The ship itself hadn’t sustained a direct hit but the shrapnel from some of the near misses had rained down on deck and ripped into several of the men serving there. Their departure to convalesce had brought replacements; one of them was the blond god of a gunner. Pendragon had invaded Merlin’s previously comfortable world and now there seemed to be no rest for his wicked mind.
It did not help that the gun crews seemed to spend most of the daylight hours bare-chested, bronzing in the solar blaze that always seemed brightest at sea. Working topside was a heated toil in the mid-day sun and it was only reasonable that the boys made themselves as comfortable as possible. They needed to be alert, after all and heat exhaustion wouldn’t help anyone. If Merlin found reasons to linger on deck at these moments, it was only to assure himself that the crew were taking proper care of themselves.
Merlin shut his eyes and hunched down a little further against the bulkhead. Perhaps he’d been wrong, perhaps Pendragon was just heading in his general direction; perhaps he wasn’t actually coming for Merlin. After all, the small spot of deck he was occupying wasn’t all that obvious once he was seated. He sneaked a peek in the gunner’s direction and his eyes widened involuntarily. Pendragon was coming for Merlin, there was no mistaking the alignment of his gaze. He had the Hospital Corpsman in his sights.
Arthur was aware of him as soon as he came on deck. The boy was like his personal lodestone, he always knew when he was near. Pharmacist’s Mate First Class, Merlin Emery-Rice had taken control of Arthur’s existence with the first glance from his big blue eyes and the first flash of his heart-stopping smile. Arthur had only been aboard a week when he’d visited the infirmary upon the insistence of his Lieutenant with a burn on his right forearm. It wasn’t bad as far as burns went; he’d certainly had worse in his time as Gun Pointer on his last cruise. It had seemed a complete waste of time to bother with sick bay just for a bit of singed skin.
However, all his internal grousing had ceased the moment he’d stepped into the surgeon’s examining room and met Merlin. The boy had introduced himself with a gently brusque confidence which had simultaneously reassured and disconcerted Arthur. He was assured he would be well looked after by the PhM but he’d been completely disconcerted by his body’s reaction to the other boy. It was as if an electric charge had passed over his skin, sensitizing him to everything. The brush of rough fabric against his legs felt harsh, the heat from the electric lamps burning above beat against him and even the air itself seemed alive with a strange tension that crackled along every nerve ending. When Emery-Rice had gently grasped his arm to examine the blistered patch of red skin, the light press of his fingers seemed to scorch with more intensity than even Arthur’s injury.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been attracted to another male, not by a long shot. That had been happening to him since he’d sprouted his first man-hair. But this, this was more than attraction. Merlin hadn’t just made Arthur aware of him, he’d taken over the older boy’s senses completely. Arthur was overwhelmed by the sensations swamping him. His head was full of the Corpsman’s scent, like cinnamon and balsam, notable even with the medicinal tang of alcohol and liniments that lay heavy over the infirmary. The deep timbre of Merlin’s voice sent uncomfortable shivers to sensitive places deep in Arthur’s body. His touch sizzled and Arthur’s eyes took in every little detail about the young man in front of him.
He wasn’t conventionally handsome; his looks were much more intriguing than that. At first glance he seemed to be made up of nothing but eyes and ears and cheekbones, each feature far too prominent and all of them clamoring for attention at the same time. Then the boy smiled and Arthur was almost blinded by the incandescent nature of that conjugation of white teeth and raspberry lips. He wondered briefly if the Navy had registered Merlin’s smile as a deadly weapon; he felt they ought to seriously consider it if they hadn’t already done so. He was fairly certain that a focused beam from that boy’s upturned lips could sink any number of enemy vessels and halt entire armies in their tracks.
Arthur had only been distantly aware of Merlin smearing some kind of cream on the burn before wrapping his arm in a snug bandage. He watched the corpsman’s lips move but was too distracted by their shape to really make out what words they were forming. It wasn’t until he felt an impatient tug on that same arm that he shook off the lusty fog in his brain to concentrate on what this angelic creature was telling him.
“Hey! Did you fry your brain as well as your arm out there?”
There was a distinctly nasal cant to the pretty boy’s speech. New York? No, the accent wasn’t quite that heavy. Definitely east coast though.
“Uh…no? I don’t think so.”
“You sure about that? It gets pretty hot topside. You drinking plenty of water?”
“Yeah, yeah. Lieutenant insists on it.”
“Good. Now just try and keep that as clean as possible and don’t pop those blisters yourself, got it? You do that and you’ll definitely get infected and you’ll be back down here buggin’ me and I have more important things to do than look after some snooty little brat like you.”
Arthur had felt his jaw drop at the younger boy’s words.
“Yeah, you’ve got ‘trust fund’ written all over you. To the manor born, no doubt.”
“And what would you know of it?” Arthur sneered in self-defense.
“More than I care to, pretty boy.”
In Merlin’s mouth, the phrase “pretty boy” was not a compliment. The kid seemed to have an awfully big chip on his shoulder. It had Arthur snapping back, fury sharpening the already clipped tones cultivated by Boston’s highest society.
“Raised by the help, were you? Close enough for a bellyful of envy but always on the outside looking in?”
That’s when the tall, skinny boy had thrown a punch. Arthur had ducked it easily, grabbing the youth by the wrist and spinning him around before slamming him against the wall with the offending arm twisted hard up against his back. Boarding school bullies had prepared him well for life in the Navy. He’d learned young how to dodge a blow.
“I could have you on report for this but I really don’t think a spindly little twerp like you is worth the time and effort. However, come at me again, little bug and I will squash you.”
He’d stalked out of the infirmary flushed with annoyed arousal and a deep, disappointed ache throbbing in his gut. He’d really wanted to like that beautiful boy. Heaving an internal sigh he acknowledged it was probably better this way. That kid was far too tempting. He might just find himself making a pass at someone who was likely to have a distinctly different mindset about what two men should be getting up to in a deserted examining room. A dishonorable discharge for lewd and unnatural acts would no doubt turn his temporary estrangement from his father into a permanent state of affairs.
Arthur had tried to ignore the black-haired boy after that. It really shouldn’t have been that hard. After all, their jobs were in completely different parts of the ship. He spent all of his time on deck, manning one of the ship’s six-inch guns. The gun crews were always on alert, in constant contact with the lookouts, ready to engage the enemy at any moment. Merlin, as a Hospital Corpsman would likely spend all his time in the infirmary. Or such had been the habit of the Hospital Corpsmen on his last assignment.
It took less than a week for Arthur to discover that this wasn’t the case on the Pocahontas. Apparently Lieutenant Muirden, the ship’s senior medical officer believed in a proactive approach to health-care. Most of the Corpsmen under his command made regular rounds of the ship to ensure the men were looking after themselves, eating properly, getting enough rest, caring for minor wounds and immediately addressing the first hint of illness shown by anyone. According to the rest of the boys it was a new detail, instigated by Muirden after a rumor reached him of some sort of infection spreading rapidly in the ranks of the Army. Since their business was transporting doughboys, the Lieutenant had made it his business to keep a sharp lookout for everyone under his care.
So instead of Merlin staying below, safely out of sight and mind, he seemed to be everywhere Arthur looked these days. Sightings kept Arthur’s mental picture of Merlin bright, shiny and annoyingly prominent in his thoughts. Then there was scuttlebutt about the kid to contend with. That started as soon as he’d returned to his crew with his freshly bandaged burn.
“Was Merlin on duty?” Gwaine piped up.
Arthur had shrugged and feigned ignorance. “Some scrawny bean pole patched me up.”
“Black hair, blue eyes?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Percival chimed in, “That’s Merlin. Surprised he didn’t introduce himself, he’s sort of the unofficial welcome wagon ‘round here.”
“He may have, I wasn’t really paying attention.”
“Yeah, well you were lucky. You got the best damn Corpsman in the Navy there.”
“Yeah? How ya figure?”
“Merlin’s a legend, doncha know? Never lost a single man in his charge.”
Percy nodded his agreement as Gwaine waxed on.
“Doesn’t matter what condition you’re in, if you get to Merlin, you’ll live.”
Arthur arched a skeptical brow. “Right. What propaganda pamphlet have you been studying?”
“No, seriously! I’ve seen him save boys with their guts on the ground. Men you were sure were already dead always recover in his care. It’s kinda uncanny.”
“There’s no way that idiot boy is some kind of medical genius.”
Kay stuck his oar in the water on that one. “Yeah, wait and see, boyo, wait and see!”
“Kay’s right, ain’t no one with a better record than Merlin. Drives Muirden up the wall, I tell you.”
“That old quack’s just jealous ‘cause he don’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. Emery-Rice makes him look bad and the ugly fuck knows it.”
They’d spent the next several days regaling Arthur with tales about Merlin. They all waxed poetical about the kid’s medical prowess, his dedication, his selflessness and his utter likability. That last one threw the blond for a loop. Likable? Merlin?The realization that the irritable, rude little fuck was famed for his gentle wit and friendly demeanor came as a personal slap in the face to the gunner. Clearly the boy’s behavior toward him was out of character. According to his fellow sailors, Merlin liked everyone. Arthur had kept the incident in the infirmary to himself in the face of the Hospital Corpsman’s popularity with the rest of his crew but it just made that ever-present ache of disappointment in his gut throb harder. There was something specific about Arthur that the cursedly beautiful boy didn’t like.
In the face of Merlin’s clear disdain for him, Arthur had resolved to keep away from the younger man. However, he soon found himself tracking the tall, slim sailor with his eyes whenever he was near. Hell, it wasn’t just when he was near, either. Whenever Merlin was anywhere in eyesight, Arthur couldn’t help but watch. It was pathetic and he told himself every time that next time Merlin was around, he’d completely ignore the sweet-faced boy. It was a resolution he failed at again and again.
Merlin wanted to ignore Pendragon, he really did. He thought he might manage it if the arrogant jerk would just stop staring at him. Wherever he seemed to go, Pendragon was watching him with an inscrutable look on his face. He could never tell what the man was thinking when he centered the bright blue beam of his gaze on Merlin’s movements.
Surely it was nothing more than the fantasies of frustrated longing that made him think the sun-gilded gunner ached the same way Merlin did. He’d be delusional to believe that the heat that seemed to burn in that ultramarine gaze was the warmth of desire. It was probably the burn of resentment for the name calling Merlin had indulged in at their first meeting. He flushed with shame just thinking about it. Merlin didn’t normally act that way. He wasn’t belligerent by nature but there was just something about Arthur Pendragon that had gotten under his skin.
He’d already seen him before they’d ever met. Merlin had been at the rail when the tall, broad, undeniably handsome boy had come aboard. He’d caught his breath as well as the railing when he’d gotten that first eyeful. Then came irritation. No, damn it! Not again. He was not going to get all worked up over yet another pretty face. There were already pretty faces aplenty aboard this ship. He’d resisted every one of them, he resist this one too. The man wasn’t that good looking after all. He wasn’t any handsomer than Lance had been…alright, probably not the best comparison but there were other examples on board, he was sure of it.
When he’d observed Arthur just a few days later, he was reminded of a few of those competitively attractive men. Right there in the same gun crew were two examples. Both Gwaine, dark and witty and Percival, big, built, blond and sweet as pie were every bit as good looking as the new gunner. There was no reason for this guy in particular to catch his eye. Thus, he should be just as easy to dismiss as the other gorgeous boys were.
Except, he wasn’t. Merlin found himself searching for the nameless gunner whenever his rounds took him in the blond’s general direction. He heard the other men call the newcomer “Pendragon” and it hadn’t taken him long to obtain a first name to go with the formidable sounding last. Arthur. Arthur Pendragon. The distinguishing mark adorning his right sleeve that first day had marked him out as a gun pointer. The small “E” stitched below told Merlin he was also an “expert rifleman” and the crossed canons and single chevron below the forward facing eagle indicated a Gunner’s Mate Third Class. Merlin found that every scrap of information he managed to obtain about Pendragon just made him hungry for more. That…irritated him. What was so special about this man? They’d not even had a single conversation so why should he be damn near obsessed with him?
Merlin’s irritated fascination crawled into his skin and itched like a newly inked tattoo. He got a few more tidbits of gossip. Arthur was from Boston and apparently moneyed like nobody’s business. What he was doing serving as an enlisted man was a mystery everyone seemed intent to chew on. Boys like that didn’t enlist, they went through the academy and joined as officers. Who ever heard of a Boston blue-blood serving with the jackies? Still, no one had anything bad to say about him. He didn’t lord himself over the other sailors and despite the posh accent, he seemed to fit right in with his crew.
Joining the crowd thronging the rails when it was time for the new gun pointer to prove his worth during target practice, Merlin had watched Pendragon do just that. His first time out and he’d blasted the periscope right off the target being towed by the decoy ship. A collective cheer went up along with a general relaxation of tension. This replacement wouldn’t likely let them down when another U-boat came creeping up on them.
Damn it! Merlin hadn’t wanted to be impressed by this man and his baffled resentment seemed to just build when he was. So when the object of his seething sexual frustration turned up in the examination room a few hours later, Merlin hadn’t had the time to regain his mental composure. Already off balance, he’d been incensed when the snob had ignored his greeting, failed to introduce himself in turn after Merlin had and then proceeded to pay no more attention to the Corpsman than he would a servant in his rich daddy’s household!
Swiftly abandoning his usual manners Merlin snapped and took a verbal swipe at the maddeningly attractive man. It failed to register with the ass so Merlin let fly with increasingly snarky comments until the venom seemed to finally soak through the obtuse jerk’s thick skin. Pendragon had clearly been caught by surprise but it took him only a few moments to gather himself enough to fire back with an insult that hit a little too close to home for Merlin’s comfort. Before he realized what he was doing, Merlin’s fist flew out, aimed to wipe the sneer off that handsome face.
He wasn’t really surprised when he failed to connect. Pendragon looked the type to be handy with his fives and despite growing up on the streets of South Philly, Merlin hadn’t really done too much scrapping in his lifetime. He’d always been more the type to avoid a fight rather than start one. He usually managed to talk his way out of bad situations. With his abilities, it hadn’t been wise to put himself in a situation where the only way to save himself was by exposing his secret.
So, no, he really hadn’t been surprised by Arthur’s successful dodge but he had been shocked by the surge of heat that seared a path directly to his cock when he found himself pinned to the wall, arm twisted behind him and Pendragon’s hard body pressed into his own. Then Arthur had seethed something into his ear but Merlin was too distracted by the hot breath swirling against his neck to really understand whatever was said. Something about being squashed? He was already being squashed and he was surprisingly turned on by it!
After Pendragon left, Merlin had whipped inside the supply closet and leaned back against the door. To his everlasting shame he’d pushed his trousers down and taken himself in hand. A few quick strokes was all it took before he spent himself into a rag hastily grabbed for the purpose. He’d never experienced anything like it.
Granted, he didn’t have all that much practical experience. Just Lance and he’d always been very gentle. There had been no slamming of bodies and certainly no arguments seething with sexual tension. Merlin did have to concede, if only to himself that the sexual tension was likely one sided. What were the odds that a guy like Arthur Pendragon shared his unnatural penchant for men? He knew he wasn’t completely alone in his proclivities but he also knew that admitting them to the wrong person could get you killed or at least thrown in the brig and then out of the Navy with a dishonorable discharge. That was a big smear on a man’s life. If the circumstances of such a discharge were made public it meant a lifetime of shame and ostracization from society in general.
Merlin had figured he was safer if he just ignored Arthur from that point on. It should have been an easy thing to do. He was sure the other sailor wouldn’t be eager to talk considering what had happened the last time and he was right. Pendragon hadn’t made any attempt to speak to him but he did direct a disconcerting amount of attention his way by watching every move he made.
Whenever he was anywhere near the blond, he could feel those too-blue eyes on him. It crackled on his skin like magic, that heated stare. He’d swear he could feel wherever it roamed over him. Like the focused beam of light from a mirrored lamp it would burn a path up and down the entire length of his body. It made him want to writhe into that nearly-tangible caress like an excited cat under her owner’s hands. Arthur’s intense gaze made him feel wanton and reckless. Every time, he’d find his mouth going dry and he’d lick his lips to moisten them again. Every time he showed his tongue he could see Pendragon’s jaw tighten and his gaze focus on the sudden gleam of moisture painting Merlin’s mouth. Was he annoyed by the display or enticed? It was so hard to tell and the penalty for getting it wrong could be catastrophic.
Merlin tried, he tried very hard to avoid actually running into the arrogant ass but it was getting harder day by day. Pendragon had progressed from simply staring at him to actively seeking him out. He started by approaching Merlin whenever he made his rounds. Merlin had little trouble avoiding him then, he’d just duck below or change direction, bypassing Arthur’s assigned station. The gunner wasn’t allowed to leave his post while on duty and if Merlin was technically shirking his own duties by not checking on Pendragon’s crew, well, he comforted himself with the fact that they all looked to be in excellent health.
Apparently Arthur wasn’t about to be thwarted though. When Merlin continued to elude him while he was duty-bound to remain at his station, he simply waited until he was off-duty to seek the Corpsman out. Their shift assignments didn’t rotate on the same schedule so Merlin soon found the gunner trying to catch him while he was engaged in his official duties. He tried to catch Merlin on his rounds, following him every time he tried to duck away. Merlin was forced to start inventing reasons to engage perfectly sound sailors in health-related conversations to keep Arthur from catching him alone. He counted on Pendragon’s natural reticence to air their dirty laundry in public and it worked. Arthur joined in a few of these conversations but Merlin made sure there was never an opportunity for a private word.
He knew he should probably just let Pendragon get rid of whatever was on his chest but he found himself ludicrously reluctant to let the man have his say. He’d long since acknowledged to himself that he owed the man an apology for his behavior but he was strangely reluctant to allow it to happen. It wasn’t that he was unwilling to apologize, it was just that he didn’t want to be alone with Arthur again. It boiled down to trust or lack thereof. He didn’t trust himself around the beautiful man. He was far, far too attracted to him. He knew if he allowed Arthur that one confidential moment he was clearly itching for Merlin would either break down and pounce on the man or he’d just wind up verbally attacking him again to keep him at arm’s length. Neither scenario appealed so he continued to avoid the Gunner’s Mate like the plague.
His attempts had been successful with one notable exception. Just a week earlier, Arthur had caught him entirely alone in the infirmary once again. He’d been in the special treatment room using the sterilization bath to clean a batch of surgical instruments when a sound near the door caught his attention. He’d looked up expecting to see either Gilli or Lt Muirden only to find the doorway filled by broad shoulders and blond hair. Pendragon.
The instinct to bolt was a powerful urge but there was nowhere to go. His only exit was cut off. Arthur had him cornered and like any cornered animal, he began to snarl.
“You’re not allowed in here, these quarters are restricted to medical personnel and patients undergoing authorized treatment. Get out.”
“Only if you come with me.”
“Are you injured?”
Merlin felt his lip curl and his eyes narrow.
“Are you ill?”
“Is there an emergency somewhere else requiring my presence?”
“Then I’m far too busy to indulge you at the moment. Get your over-privileged little ass out of my treatment room!”
“What the hell is your problem with me, Rice?
“It’s Emery-Rice you condescending shithead and I don’t have a problem. However, you clearly do.”
Pendragon’s eyes narrowed in return and his lips (those full, tempting fucking lips) pinched into a thin line.
“What the fuck did I ever do to you, you irritable little wretch?”
“Me? What did I do to you to make you dog my every move for the past six weeks?”
“I just wanted to talk to you. I want to know what it is that I’ve done to make you so angry. Every other man on board this ship keeps telling me how friendly and sweet you are. How you never have a bad word for anyone and how you’re some kind of goddamn saint!”
“You should know better than to listen to scuttlebutt, Pendragon. I’m no fucking saint.”
“Clearly! So how come everyone else thinks you are?”
“People see what they want to see.”
The irony of his statement wasn’t lost on Merlin. He wasn’t any more immune to interpreting things to suit his fancy than the next man. Take the example standing before him. If Merlin indulged his own wishful thinking, he’d be seeing frustrated desire in Pendragon’s eyes instead of a mostly justifiable anger over Merlin’s peevish behavior.
The expletive jerked Merlin back into the conversation.
“I’ve been watching you Emery-Rice,” with a curled lip, he slurred the hyphenated name into one word. “You’re sweet as a pecan pie to everyone else on this goddamned ship. You tell me why I’m different.”
“No one else on this ship is anywhere nearly so rude or fucking entitled as you! That’s what’s different you arrogant prick!”
Arthur’s big blue eyes got bigger and his jaw literally dropped. He took several steps toward Merlin, his mouth working but nothing coming out. Finally he seemed to find his voice.
“I’m rude? Me? The very moment I met you, you ripped my head off!”
Rolling his eyes, Merlin snorted in derision.
“No, the moment we met I tried being polite and you treated me like I was the hired help.”
“What the hell are you talking about? I did no such thing!”
“You walked in the door and I introduced myself. You didn’t say a word, stuck your arm out and proceeded to ignore everything I said. You didn’t bother to acknowledge my existence until I lost my temper. So, sorry m’lord but I’m not about to pander to your ‘be seen and not heard’ expectations. I’m nobody’s damned servant!”
Merlin slammed his hands down on the table and a pile of surgical clamps still waiting to be cleaned clattered to the floor with a mighty crash.
For the first time, Arthur looked taken aback. To Merlin’s amazement, a flush ran over the skin of the man’s face and neck. The blazing blue eyes angled away from Merlin’s and he took a deep breath through parted lips. Several moments passed in silence. Pendragon’s throat worked around a few swallows before he finally straightened his shoulders and turned his face back toward Merlin.
“I didn’t realize…I’m sorry, I was…distracted at the time. I didn’t mean to…I wasn’t deliberately ignoring you.”
Now it was Merlin’s turn to flush in embarrassment. He’d made the assumption that Pendragon’s reaction had been aimed at him personally. Upon reflection, why would it have been? Arthur hadn’t even been aware of Merlin’s existence until the Pharmacist’s Mate had made sure the newly arrived sailor wouldn’t ever forget it. What was that saying about negative attention being better than none?
“Yeah well, it sure seemed like you were.”
“For that I apologize. Still, you have to admit your reaction was a bit violent.”
Squirming in shame over his unwarranted attack on the other man, Merlin cast about for some justification.
“I guess I was just having a bad day and your apparent attitude kinda hit a sore spot.”
“So I gathered. What’s that all about?”
Merlin sighed and turned back to the sterilization bath he’d left unattended. There was no way of explaining that sexual frustration had gotten the better of him that day.
“It’s not something I care to discuss, Pendragon. I accept your apology and I’m sorry for taking a swing at you. Even if you had been deliberately annoying, I never should have lost my temper like that.”
“So why did you?” Arthur continued to press. “I’ve been reliably informed you don’t have a temper.”
He’s just puzzled, you dolt, he is not flirting with you, no matter how much you want him to be. Merlin repeated this line to himself...twice, before he responded.
“Of course I have a temper, everyone does. I just am usually better at controlling mine.”
As soon as the words left his mouth Merlin suddenly became aware that Arthur was right behind him. He was so close, Merlin was certain he could feel the heat coming off the other man.
“So what made you lose it that day?”
The words were practically breathed against the back of his neck and Merlin felt the shock of it down to the root of his rapidly filling cock. He knew he was in danger of humiliating himself if he didn’t get away from Arthur, fast. Twisting himself sideways he managed to get around the other man without touching him.
“Look, it’s none of your business. Would you please leave? I have things to do.”
As he spoke he headed out the door, abandoning the boiling sterilization bath and emerging into the larger, more public space of the main examination room. Arthur followed slowly; he seemed unwilling to end the conversation.
“You know, it really is my business when you’re taking whatever’s bothering you out on me.”
“I apologized for that.”
“And yet you still haven’t forgiven me.”
Turning back to face his utterly persistent nemesis, Merlin cast around for something to say, something that would get Pendragon to leave before he humiliated himself again. The soft look the older boy was sending him was about to do him in. He could deal with a spoiled little toad but Arthur’s compassion could truly doom him forever. It was getting harder and harder to remind himself not to read into anything. There was just no way a man like Arthur would want a skinny little runt from South Philly even if he was into men the way Merlin was.
“Seriously, Emery-Rice, I won’t bite. I promise. Give me a chance, yeah?”
There it was again, the way Arthur slurred his last name down to just three smooth syllables tingled down his spine like a virtual caress. He felt himself weaken. He wanted to give in; he wanted Pendragon so badly he was trembling on the edge of confession. The question Arthur was asking him had only one damning answer and it was struggling to escape from Merlin’s lips.
He lifted his eyes from Pendragon’s mouth to his eyes and hesitated. It looked like desire coiled up there in the dense tropical blue of those beautiful orbs but how could Merlin really be sure? He didn’t really have the experience to be certain. Could he trust this man with one of his most dangerous secrets? Should he gamble everything on the chance that Arthur was like he was?
No, he just couldn’t do it. It was too much of a risk. If he was wrong then he’d find himself in dire straits indeed. He stiffened his spine and carefully smoothed his features into a blank, icy mask. He forced his lip to curl contemptuously.
“What makes you think I’d bother giving a cocky, arrogant blue-blooded ass like you any kind of chance to take a shot at me?”
Arthur jerked back as though he’d been slapped full in the face. Merlin couldn’t help the twinge of guilt that spasmed through him. He just hoped it hadn’t cracked the facade he was clinging to so desperately. He needed this to work, if Pendragon didn’t leave now, he had nothing left to fight him with.
To both his shame and relief, Arthur drew himself up to his full height and bowed his head in Merlin’s direction.
“I can see that we’re not ever going to see this eye to eye. You’ve made up your mind about me and it doesn’t seem like I’m going to change it any time soon. I’ll leave you to your duties.”
Merlin blinked slowly, once, twice and then Arthur was gone. Suddenly, the air in the room went thin and he gasped for oxygen to fill his starving lungs. Reaching out a hand to steady himself, he grasped the edge of the treatment table Arthur had sat on during their very first encounter. He fought off a wave of dizziness. What the hell was wrong with him? He’d gotten what he wanted. Pendragon would leave him alone from now on, of that he was sure. He’d delivered a clear “stay away” message and Arthur had very clearly received it. So why did it feel as if he’d lost a piece of his soul?
He forced himself to stumble back into the treatment room before the sterilization bath could boil out and catch fire to something vital. Fervently hoping this was the last time he’d have to confront Pendragon, he assured himself that he could resume his normal rounds without fear of ambush. All the unnerving staring would cease and maybe he’d finally be able to banish all his inappropriate thoughts about the beautiful golden gunner.
After their last confrontation in the infirmary, Arthur wasn’t intending to approach Merlin again. He’d been mortified when he realized that it was his stunned-fish reaction to meeting the Corpsman that had so offended him. There was no way he could have told Merlin that he hadn’t been ignoring him, he’d been overwhelmed by him. The maddening little idiot had interpreted his dazed silence as arrogant dismissal. Arthur was utterly crushed that Merlin couldn’t have been further from the truth. Merlin’s icy dismissal had hurt him all out of proportion to their level of acquaintance. Obviously he was the only one affected by this hopeless attraction.
However, that night, when Arthur saw the beautiful boy come on deck and strip his shirt and jacket off there was just no way he could keep away from him. The bright moonlight revealed a lithe, pale torso and long lean arms smudged with dark marks that looked like tattoos. Arthur swallowed hard and tried not to moan out loud. Fuck! He knew he was sunk.
As if he wasn’t already obsessed with the tall, slender kid with his ocean blue eyes and wild black hair; Arthur had a particular weakness for tattooed boys. He didn’t even want to fight the attraction any more. Seemingly a glutton for punishment, he gave in to the magnetic pull that tugged on him whenever Merlin was near and followed it unerringly, even after the other man disappeared. He knew where Merlin was, he’d been watching as the boy slid down the bulkhead and sank out of sight.
He didn’t make a secret of his approach; he didn’t try to be stealthy. Merlin had seen him and knew he was coming. If the boy wanted to run, Arthur was prepared to let him. Merlin didn’t run.
When Arthur came around the housing for the steam capstan, behind which he’d seen Merlin vanish, the infernally attractive boy was still there. He looked up at Arthur as he came to a stop just feet away. Somewhat incongruently, he was stripped to the waist but still had his round white cap perched on his unruly black curls. Arthur couldn’t stop the smile that tugged up one side of his mouth at the picture the boy made sitting on the moonlit deck. The hat emphasized those adorably outsized ears, ears that by all rights should have detracted from his looks but somehow didn’t. The play of light and shadow on his face made it look like it was nothing but huge eyes and flaring cheekbones. The kid’s plush mouth and stubborn chin were momentarily lost in the shadows but Arthur’s mind had no trouble filling in the blanks.
If it hadn’t been for the depressingly realistic setting and the earthy grounding of the tattoos on his long pale arms, Merlin could have almost passed for one of the fair folk Arthur’s granny had told him about as a child. The Corpsman was hauntingly beautiful and suddenly looked absurdly young to Arthur’s eyes.
“How old are you?”
He flushed with embarrassment when the words just blurted mindlessly from his mouth. Luckily, the pale wash of moonlight hid the colour he could feel swamping his cheeks.
“Eighteen…well, in October anyway.”
Arthur stared at the ink on Merlin’s skin. It wasn’t easy to judge but only one of the images appeared all that new. From where he was standing, Arthur counted four tattoos, two on each arm.
“How long have you been in?”
Merlin seemed to answer without thinking, “Two years in September.” As soon as the words were out, he winced and bit down on his lower lip.
He glanced warily up at Arthur.
“How’d you manage to enlist at sixteen?”
Looking around to see if anyone was near, Merlin hissed, “Keep it down, will ya?”
Returning his attention to Arthur, his face drew up in a scowl that the gunner fought hard to not find adorable. He returned Merlin’s glare with a penetrating gaze meant to communicate his intention to pursue the subject to his satisfaction. Merlin lowered his head and let out all his breath in a long, loud sigh.
“My mom helped me forge my birth certificate and gave her consent so I could enlist at seventeen.”
“For God’s sake, why?”
“Seemed like the thing to do at the time. I was done with high school already, didn’t have the money for college. My uncle figured I should sign up for the Hospital Corps so the Navy would take care of my physician’s training.”
“And your mother agreed to this?”
“Heck, you’d think it was my Mom’s idea the way she went on about it.”
“How ‘bout your Dad?”
Merlin glared and didn’t answer. There was so much raw pain in that angry stare that Arthur didn’t repeat the question.
“They didn’t figure we’d wind up going to war?”
“Nah, they knew we’d wind up facing the krauts sooner or later.”
“And they still wanted you to join up?”
Merlin shrugged negligently and pointedly looked away. Tilting his head back against the bulkhead he stared up at the sky, his mouth pressed into a firm line. It was clear that he didn’t care to continue the conversation. Arthur took the opportunity to hunker down next to him but didn’t actually sit on the deck. Instead, he crouched beside him staring at Merlin’s exposed arms.
“I never knew you had so many tattoos.”
“Why would you? Unlike some people, I don’t make a habit of prancing around on deck half naked all the time.”
He sounded so petulant that Arthur couldn’t help but grin. He flexed his well-muscled arms and didn’t miss Merlin side-eying him.
“Of what? Your sun-fried brains?”
Arthur threw back his head and let loose a full-bodied laugh. For some reason, at this time, at this particular moment he found Merlin’s surly retorts tremendously amusing.
Reaching out, Arthur stroked two fingertips over the downy-soft skin of Merlin’s arm.
“Yeah well, we wouldn’t want to ruin your pretty, porcelain complexion, now would we?”
The younger man pulled away with a shiver and Arthur dropped his hand, fingertips tingling. He reminded himself that looking was OK but touching was not, not if he valued his future. Merlin had yet to give any indication that the painful yearning Arthur was experiencing was in any way mutual. In fact, aside from a few heated glances, Merlin had been evincing nothing but a sincere disdain for the Boston born Gunner’s Mate. Still, those few smoldering looks were enough to keep Arthur’s stubbornly optimistic heart hoping.
His eyes fell back down on the dark ink that twined within the pale, milky skin of Merlin’s arms. The contrast was mesmerizing. The urge to touch was so strong that Arthur literally couldn’t fight it. He raised his fingers once again and ran just the tip of one over the lines on Merlin’s left bicep. This time Merlin didn’t pull away.
Arthur’s incredulous response to the story of his mother’s compliance with his enlistment wasn’t unexpected but Merlin couldn’t really explain that there were threats to his existence that were more immediate than the Kaiser. His mom and Uncle Gaius both knew that all too well. The Navy was a good place to hide from anyone likely to be looking for someone like him.
The inquiry about his father’s role in his life caught Merlin in the raw. His father’s absence from his life was a persistent, ulcerative sore that would never heal. Balinor’s history was the driving force behind his choice to join the navy but he wasn’t about to discuss that with Pendragon or anyone else for that matter. He looked away from Arthur’s intense stare and set his mouth in a stubbornly mute line.
When his silence stretched beyond the comfortable, Arthur sighed and seemed willing to abandon his line of inquiry. Instead he turned his attention to Merlin’s tattoos. He teased the pale-skinned man about his aversion to the sun and Merlin snapped back without any real anger. Now the sniping was just banter with Arthur smiling, laughing and Merlin relaxing.
Then Pendragon touched him, stroking his arm with a gentle brush of his fingertips. Merlin twitched away from the electric current that jolted through his whole body from that single feather-light caress. He couldn’t stop the full body shiver; he just prayed Arthur hadn’t seen it. The older boy dropped his hand and Merlin relaxed again but the reprieve was only temporary.
Only moments later Arthur focused once again on the images inked into Merlin’s skin. He watched as the impossibly gorgeous blond stretched out a tentative finger to stroke the curve of deep blue on Merlin’s left bicep. This time, something he couldn’t define kept Merlin still under Pendragon’s touch.
“Hey! I can feel the ink in your skin!”
Merlin’s voice was tellingly hoarse when he responded.
“Yeah, it’s part of the healing process. Scar tissue.”
He caught his breath as Arthur began stroking his fingers repeatedly over the faintly raised lines of ink. Arthur’s skin scorched Merlin wherever he touched, sending signals to the Corpsman’s body that had his dungarees tightening in an alarming fashion. Merlin shifted so his jacket covered more of his lap and prayed the Gunner’s Mate hadn’t noticed the tenting of the heavy fabric.
Catching his full lower lip in his teeth he watched Arthur’s face as the older boy stared at his pale skin as though mesmerized. Merlin loved his tattoos but right now Arthur’s fascination with them could prove disastrous. No one on this ship knew about him, nobody knew his secrets. Right now though, Arthur was closer to discovering one of them than anyone other than Lance had ever come. He wanted to jerk away from the troublesome touch but he didn’t dare let Pendragon see just how unsettled he was. If he found out about Merlin, if he reported him…
Arthur jerked slightly, as if he was surprised that he’d said the word out loud. Merlin raised his eyes to Arthur’s and time seemed to shudder to a halt as cool Atlantic blue met warm Caribbean turquoise. Breathing ceased, both boys stilled to stone. Unmoving, they stared at each other for an achingly long moment. Questions were asked and answers were given in that tense, silent communication. Mere seconds may have passed or eons come and gone before either of them allowed oxygen to enter their lungs once again.
Merlin closed his eyes, knowing that Arthur had discovered his secret after all. However he opened them again and smiled knowing that Arthur had a secret of his own and it was the same as Merlin’s. Well, one of his secrets anyway. A smile tugged at the corner of those pouty, puffy lips and Merlin couldn’t help but lean up and press his own smile to Arthur’s.
Soft skin met and clung then shifted and parted. Suddenly Arthur’s tongue was slipping, sleek and wet inside Merlin’s mouth and he groaned softly to feel it. It wasn’t his first kiss, it wasn’t even his first kiss from another man but it was his first kiss from Arthur and as such it was the best kiss he’d ever received.
He drew back for air grudgingly and laid his flushed and heated face against the smooth bronzed skin of Arthur’s shoulder.
“I didn’t mean the tattoos, you know. I meant you.”
“Before, what I said. I meant you are beautiful, not the tattoos.”
A feeling, warm and wonderful curled in Merlin’s chest and he smiled. He skimmed the surface of his palm over the invitingly broad width of Arthur’s hair roughened chest.
“You don’t like the tattoos?”
“No! No, they’re beautiful too! I just meant…I mean,” Arthur floundered and Merlin’s smile stretched into a grin as the usually cocky Gunner’s Mate stuttered like a schoolboy with his first crush. He stretched his hand up and stroked his fingers along the square, strong jaw working so hard to get a coherent sentence out.
Arthur fell silent and just stared down at Merlin with a slightly dazed look on his face.
“I didn’t dare hope you’d feel like I do.” The whispered admission was full of wonder.
“Neither did I. I dreamed but I didn’t think it would ever actually happen, not in real life.”
Arthur’s smile crimped ruefully on one side. “You drove me crazy you cheeky brat!”
“And you me, ya fuckin’ conceited jerk!”
They both chuckled and reluctantly drew further apart, glancing around to be sure their hidden little spot on deck remained unobserved. Merlin relaxed and sagged against Arthur’s chest when he confirmed with all his senses that no one was near. Westbound as they were, the upper decks of the troopship remained relatively deserted. Had they been traveling eastward, every last inch of deck space would have been occupied by a khaki clad Army boy. The strict observance of lights out helped keep them concealed as well. No one aboard would light so much as a match above deck for the light of a single cigarette could be seen for up to half a mile making them an easy target for any passing U-boat.
Sinking down with Merlin in his arms, Arthur’s backside finally found the deck. He shifted around, grip never slacking, until his back was firmly against the bulkhead and relaxed. Merlin snuggled against his chest and was content for that moment just to bask in Arthur’s warmth and scent and the stroking of his fingers against his exposed skin. Neither spoke for a long time.
Finally Merlin asked, “How long have you…you know…been like me?”
“Since about the time I sprouted pubes and my sister’s best friend tried to kiss me.”
“Yeah, I found myself thinking that I’d rather be kissing her brother and that was pretty much it for me. How ‘bout you?”
“Honestly? I didn’t really know for sure until I was in boot camp and another boy got me behind the mess hall and kissed the breath out of me.” Merlin laughed. “Suddenly I realized why none of the girls back home ever really appealed to me!”
Arthur’s arms tightened around Merlin and a growl rumbled in his broad chest.
“Yeah? Who was this boy?”
“A friend, just a friend.”
“That doesn’t sound like just a friend.”
Merlin could hear the frown in Arthur’s voice.
“No but Lance got yanked home before he could become anything else. See he lied about his age too, only he got caught.”
“Anyone else since then?”
He couldn’t help his grin at the jealous note in Arthur’s voice.
“No one you need to worry about Arthur.”
“What do you know about what worries me?”
Merlin felt his grin tilt into smirk.
“I only know what worries me and I know there isn’t anything in my life that would qualify so…”
Arthur decided for the sake of his peace of mind, he really didn’t want to know anything more about Merlin’s love life before this moment. He was only concerned with where it was going from here on out.
He tugged Merlin around until the lovely boy folded his long, slim legs around Arthur’s waist. He leaned up to kiss those plush, swollen lips, gleaming with moisture in the colorless light. Groaning from the contact he plunged his hands into Merlin’s soft sable locks and curled his fingers into the boy’s tender scalp. Gasping into his mouth, Merlin writhed in his lap and scraped his fingernails down Arthur’s chest.
The hardened bulge in the Corpsman’s dungarees was a sweet weight pressed against his own aching erection. He bucked his hips as he disengaged from Merlin’s succulent lips. Gasping for breath but unwilling to lose mouth contact with the intoxicating flavor that was purely Merlin he dragged his lips and just the tip of his tongue over the firm line of the boy’s narrow jaw. He continued to mouth his way up and over those opulent cheekbones that demanded so much attention from anyone catching sight of his memorable face. He lip-nipped a path over the sharp curves and deep hollows of Merlin’s visage until he found his mouth coming to rest just under the lobe of one of his absurdly ostentatious ears.
His tongue took over and swirled around the thin, flared shell then dipped inside to tickle the interior of the lovely protuberance. Merlin squealed and wriggled wildly against him, the fingers that had been trailing languidly over Arthur’s ribs now dug into his waist. The sharp sting of Merlin’s nails sent another excited surge straight to the gunner’s cock, stiffening it to an almost painful degree. He felt a throb pulse through his balls and he bit down on Merlin’s shoulder while he struggled not to come right then and there.
“Arthur, fuck, Arthur!”
A brief spasm of fear clenched in his chest as Merlin called his name. While the throaty sound of those syllables spilling from Merlin’s succulent lips was a true joy, Arthur couldn’t stop the apprehension that coiled in his gut. What if someone heard? They could not be discovered. With this in mind he slid his mouth back over Merlin’s sealing his cries inside. He ran soothing hands up and down the long length of the younger man’s back, gentling him until he calmed and quieted.
Merlin trembled against him like a reed in high wind but only emitted soft little whimpers rather than the full-throated cries that escaped him only minutes before. Putting his mouth directly against one of those enticing ears again, Arthur breathed his words right into it.
“Shhh, love. Mustn’t make any noise. Can you do that for me? Can you keep it inside? I love hearing it, God knows I do, Merlin but we can’t, not here, not now. Can you keep quiet…for me?”
Long, thin arms clutched at him convulsively but Merlin nodded into his shoulder, even the whimpers ceasing.
“Yes, I can, for you. I’ll do anything for you.”
It was whispered into his chest and then there was nothing but the labored sound of their breathing and the whoosh of the ocean rushing past the ship so far below their perch far back on the stern. Arthur felt the soft press of lips against his collarbone followed by the moist swish of Merlin’s tongue exploring the sensitive column of his throat. His whole body clenched down on the moan that struggled to vibrate from his vocal cords. A soft huff of air was all that emerged from his mouth but it was a near thing.
Nothing had ever felt this good in his life. There had been other men, eager and willing fellow students at Yale before he’d dropped out to enlist in the Navy. There had even been a few fumbling encounters before that, boarding school being a notorious tinderbox for hormonal teens denied the company of the opposite sex. Even the boys not as strongly inclined as Arthur often found themselves in the sweaty clench of another male’s arms, preferring the hot flesh of a boy’s body to the pallid grasp of their own hand. Arthur had even fancied himself in love a time or two but this…Merlin was something he’d never experienced before.
This pale, elegant, delicate-looking creature had taken him over completely, inspired an intensity of emotion unlike anything he’d ever believed himself capable of. Since meeting Merlin he’d found himself swamped with lust, consumed by rage, shattered with disappointment and dominated by a yearning so strong it threatened to destroy his soul. He trembled to think what would have happened to him if Merlin had continued to deny him, if he had chosen to reject him completely. The word “relief” couldn’t adequate express the freeing rush of heady delight that had washed through him when Merlin had smiled into his eyes and kissed him.
Merlin was dragging the edge of his teeth across Arthur’s shoulder and the gunner banished thought in favor of sensation without a twinge of regret. His hands were still sweeping up and down Merlin’s back and now they slid lower with intent. Filling his palms with the shallow swelling of Merlin’s buttocks, he lifted and kneaded the taut muscular flesh. Teeth snapped into his shoulder once again as he tilted the other boy up to lean into him while he pressed his belly against the hard ridge of Merlin’s denim clad cock.
He urged the slender body to slide higher so he could nuzzle the smooth, lean flesh of the boy’s abdomen. He licked and nipped a path across the buttery soft skin. A soft growl of desire rattled in his throat when he felt Merlin’s long fingers slide into his hair and knot into the sweaty strands, tugging at his scalp. Pushing down as he pressed Merlin up, he dragged his mouth across the rough material shielding the swelling heat of that most coveted flesh. He inhaled deeply and savored the delicious musk that radiated even through thick fabric. Hooked fingers dragged down the other sailor’s trousers and pants. The sweet, turgid length of Merlin’s thick cock sprang free and slapped lightly against Arthur’s cheek.
Long body bowed above him, Merlin had planted his palms flush against the bulkhead to support the bent arch of his position hovering over Arthur. When his dungarees pooled around his ankles, he lifted one foot free and spread his legs apart in a wide, sturdy stance. Gently grasping what had to be the prettiest cock he’d ever seen, Arthur let his eyes roam up and down Merlin’s completely nude form.
Arthur couldn’t hold back a wondering whisper.
“Merlin…oh, Merlin look at you!”
The boy bucked into Arthur’s grip, his breathing harsh, rasping audibly in his long, slender throat. He was biting his lip, hard; teeth savaging the already swollen curve of it. Arthur felt his throat constrict with emotion. There were no words to adequately describe the feelings flooding through him, sweeping across every one of his senses. He was surrounded by Merlin, saturated with him, the scent of his arousal, the silky slide of his skin, the sound of his hitching breath, the incandescent beauty of his trembling body and finally the heady flavor of his flesh as Arthur slipped his lips over the tip of his weeping erection.
Merlin’s head flew back and his mouth opened in a silent scream. His hands came away from the bulkhead and flew down to clutch at Arthur’s shoulders instead. As the blond boy inched his mouth down the hard length of Merlin’s gorgeous cock, the raven head bowed once again, breathing reduced to a frantic panting. Arthur dug his fingers into Merlin’s firm little buttocks and pulled the boy deeper into his mouth, easing him down into the long, hot tunnel of his throat. Merlin tried to buck again but the older boy was completely in control of his body. He held the Corpsman steady and slid his head back and forth with slow deliberation. He wanted this to last as long as possible though he knew it wasn’t likely to take very long. Both of them had been without the touch of another for far too long and both of them had been yearning for this moment since the first time they met.
He tried to catalogue everything about this precious encounter. Savoring the taste of Merlin on his tongue he fixed in his memory the exact pitch of his lover’s almost silent sobs. He reveled in the sting of Merlin’s hands alternately curling claws into his shoulder and tearing at fistfuls of his hair as he writhed above him, legs trembling with the effort of remaining upright. And when Merlin finally spilled his creamy release into Arthur’s eager mouth, he swirled the bitter fluid around the straining flesh of Merlin’s still twitching cock, delighting at the tang and texture of his lover’s velvety essence.
Quivering all over, Merlin collapsed against Arthur, sliding down to pool bonelessly in the blond’s lap. He gratefully gathered the trembling body against his own and buried his face in the side of Merlin’s neck breathing in the sweat-enhanced scent he found there. His lover whimpered quietly, just once, ever so softly voicing the aftermath of his pleasure. He tightened his embrace desiring to never let go…and he didn’t until he felt the smooth glide of Merlin’s long, slender fingers wrap around his own aching erection. It was then that he dropped his arms and let his head fall back against the bulkhead behind him.
Merlin slid back in his lap but didn’t leave it, instead he leaned up and in to Arthur’s chest so he could straighten his arms and work his lover’s flesh in the snug ring of both hands. He nipped at Arthur’s collarbones as he slid his fingers up and down, gathering Arthur’s precum by flattening his palm over the tip of his cock and circling his flared hand over the dome of it. It wasn’t a technique Arthur had ever encountered before and he couldn’t help the brief flare of jealousy that blazed across his consciousness when he wondered who had taught it to his love. However, the alternating twist of Merlin’s fingers on the increasingly sensitive flesh of his prick soon distracted him from his possessive thoughts. Merlin was good at this, God so good at this! He had the talented hands of a future surgeon and Arthur had no doubts Merlin would be brilliant in his future endeavors as a medical man.
His control didn’t last any longer than Merlin’s had and sooner than he wanted, Arthur felt the wrinkled skin of his scrotum stretch tight over his aching balls. His body spasmed, his cock jerked and he spilled his liquid release all over those long, elegant fingers.
The word was released with the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, no voice to it, all wind and no vibration. As his lover’s hands withdrew from his trousers, he realized that Merlin had only loosened the waist of his dungarees, he hadn’t actually pulled them down. He chuckled to himself when he shifted slightly and encountered some of the spill Merlin hadn’t been able to catch. However, his laugh stilled in his throat when he saw that Merlin was licking the rest of the cum off his palms, his sleek tongue twining around each long finger to gather up every drop of Arthur’s milky seed.
“Fuck. Oh you filthy little minx! I am never gonna get that image out of my head.”
“Good, I wouldn’t want to think I was at all forgettable.”
Merlin’s tone was teasing but Arthur sensed the thread of doubt there. He pulled Merlin back into his arms, nuzzled at his neck and whispered truth into his ear.
“I could never forget you, ever. You’re soaked into every part of me. Merlin, even when you’re not touching me I can feel you in my skin. I don’t ever want to be without you again in my entire life.”
When Merlin leaned back in his embrace, Arthur loosened his arms to let him. Wide ocean blue eyes looked deep into his own then roamed over the rest of the gunner’s face before returning to lock with his gaze once again.
“We shouldn’t want this you know...but...I can’t help it. I think I’d bleed to death if you left me now.”
The words should have sounded absurd, melodramatic and floridly exaggerated but somehow they didn’t. He knew exactly what Merlin meant. He’d already been bleeding before Merlin staunched the wound. He wouldn’t want to live if that solace was ever taken from him.
“I won’t. I won’t ever leave unless you tell me to.”
“You should know now that I won’t. I won’t ever let you go.”
“I don’t ever want you to.”
They clung to each other and they didn’t speak of the hardships they knew would come their way. There would never be the comfort of publicly acknowledging their love. This soul-deep bond they both felt must forever remain a closely guarded secret. Arthur knew this and he knew Merlin did as well but he really didn’t care. He’d never thought to find someone like Merlin in his lifetime. He’d certainly never thought he would ever feel this strong connection to another person. He just hadn’t thought he was capable of such depth of emotion. However, he was desperately grateful that he’d been proven wrong.
Merlin pulled his knees back until his feet were flat against the deck and his legs were upright on either side of Arthur’s waist. He pressed his naked chest to Arthur’s and lowered his face to the bigger man’s shoulder. His lips moved, parted and his teeth came to rest on the skin just above Arthur’s collar bone. Then he just clung there gently, cuddling Arthur…with his teeth. It was a bizarre little gesture but it felt so right that Arthur copied it, resting his own pointed teeth in the taut flesh of Merlin’s sloping shoulder and cleaving to him with arms and lips and yes, teeth.
He’d never know how long they stayed that way but it was about as close to heaven as Arthur reckoned he’d ever get. Eventually, Merlin began to sag against him, his eyes drifting closed and his mouth slipping from its perch. Arthur released his own mouth-hold and slid both of them down to the deck. He smiled drowsily as Merlin curled into his side and drifted off to sleep.
Merlin woke with his face pressed against something warm...and...firm and yet, it was definitely softer than the surface beneath him. His fuzzy brain struggled to identify what type of pillow he was resting against. That’s when he noticed that the pillow was moving ever so slightly up and down in a rhythmic fashion. A chest, it was a male chest…the previous night rushed back into his consciousness and he realized it was Arthur’s chest he was snuggled up against. Cracking an eyelid he could see the sky above was beginning to lighten. He groaned ever so softly and made to roll away. That’s when he became aware of the brawny arm wrapped snugly around his waist. Arthur was keeping a tight hold in his sleep and Merlin tried in vain to wiggle free. There was no help for it, he had to wake Arthur before somebody discovered them in the rapidly brightening light of dawn.
“Arthur, “ he poked him. “Arthur!” He poked him harder. The sleeping blond simply contracted his arm and nuzzled his chin into the top of Merlin’s head. The young Corpsman hadn’t ever contemplated just how bony Arthur’s chin was. He made a fist and thumped the sleeping man in the ribs.
“Arthur, wake up!”
“Ow, what the hell? Merlin!”
“Let go before someone sees us!”
Loosening his arm, Arthur grumbled, “You didn’t have to punch me in the ribs for crying out loud.”
“Gentler means of persuasion proved ineffective you big lug.”
Arthur lunged up and kissed Merlin before he could move away. Merlin shoved his new lover’s face away and then scrambled to put a few feet between them.
“Knock it off, it’s just about dawn and I have to go on duty in a little while.”
“Ugh! So do I.”
“Well then, stop with the hands and get up!”
“But Merlin, you just started letting me put my hands on you!”
“Yeah well, consider your hands banned during daylight hours.”
Casting about the deck for trousers, shirt and jacket, Merlin paused to feel around for anyone in the vicinity. He didn’t sense anyone around for the moment so he crawled back over to where Arthur remained sprawled out, happily shirtless on the deck. His eyes were still closed but his grin indicated he was aware of Merlin’s presence. Pulling his shirt out from under Arthur’s head, Merlin snatched the opportunity to dart in and steal one last kiss from Arthur’s lips. The blond immediately sank both hands into Merlin’s hair and held him still for a much deeper kiss than he’d intended. Merlin flailed a bit but still twined his tongue around Arthur’s for several long, blissful moments before tugging back. The gunner let him go with visible reluctance.
Merlin wriggled back into his clothes and gave Arthur a looking over.
“If you really have to be on duty this morning you better move your ass. I’m leaving now, so don’t blame me if you’re late.”
Arthur waved an arm at him before dropping it over his eyes in a melodramatic gesture.
“It’s on your head Pendragon. I’ll see you around!”
Shaking his head Merlin made good on his threat and left the gunner stretched out on the deck half-naked. Making his way below, he stopped for a quick wash before heading to the infirmary to begin his daily routine. When he arrived he was surprised to see Lt. Muirden already there, face like a storm cloud.
“Sir, is there something wrong?” Merlin asked nervously. Had someone spotted him and Arthur while they slept? Had he already been reported? Was this the plunge into hell after just one night in heaven?
“You bet your ass there’s something wrong, Emery-Rice. We’re sailing home right into the middle of a shit-storm!”
“Pardon me, Sir?”
“There’s a fucking plague spreading back home and it’s hitting the God damned Army harder than anyone. “
“Is it the measles again, Sir?” An exceedingly deadly outbreak of the disease had swept through the Army just the previous winter, killing up to thirty percent of the men infected.
“No, this time it’s a fucking influenza!”
“Influenza, Sir? Surely that’s nothing compared to the measles?”
“Well, no, it’s not as deadly but it’s putting men down everywhere. You mark my words, Corpsman, we’re heading into hell of a slog if those incompetent fucks at the AMD can’t get their heads out of their asses and properly contain this outbreak.”
Merlin winced knowing full well just how bad the Army Medical Department was at containing anything. They’d done nothing to effectively battle the measles outbreak and the mishandling of it brought the Army Surgeon General himself before a Senate Committee demanding answers. There had been many fingers pointed but no real justification for the death toll. Thankfully this new outbreak was of a much milder disease. Influenza could be lethal and no mistake but the disease was known to take mostly the very old and the very young to their graves. Strong young men in the prime of life were spared the worst of its ravages.
It wasn’t like they hadn’t already been dealing with a few cases of flu anyway. They’d continue on as always, mopping up after the sick lads and sending them down the gangway on the other side of the ocean. Sick or no, they’d be leaping down the throats of the krauts within weeks of their arrival in France. Faceless cogs in the machine of the Great War.
Short of possessing a crystal with which to scry the future, Merlin couldn’t know just how wrong he was about that.
*The USS Pocahontas was a real troopship in service during WWI. Formerly the “Prinzess Irene” of Germany, she was converted for use by the Transport Service and rechristened with a new name. She went into service in 1917 and remained in service throughout the war. On May 18, 1918 10:20 AM, while returning from France (1000 miles from Brest, unaccompanied) she was involved in a firefight with a German U-boat cruiser. The ship sustained no direct hits but suffered minor damage from several near misses.
Emery Rice was the name of an actual sailor in the US Navy during WWI. When I came across a small anecdote attributed to him I was struck by the similarity of sound between Emyrs and Emery-Rice and couldn’t help using it as a play on Merlin’s last name.
Details about the uniforms worn by Merlin and Arthur were gleaned from a few disparate sources that seemed to conflict with each other over a few of the finer points. I did the best I could to piece together what insignia would have been worn by whom.
The winter of 1917-1918 saw an outbreak of measles that swept through Army camps all over the US. The mortality from complications (mainly pneumonia) was as high as 30% in some places. In comparison, influenza was most often a milder illness that usually only killed the weakest (the elderly and infants) in the population. However, in the influenza pandemic of 1918 a violent new mutation of the disease caused the highest proportion of death among those with the strongest immune systems: adults (esp. male) aged 18-40.
I am a complete landlubber with no nautical experience whatsoever. Please forgive any mistakes I may have made with reference to the appropriate lingo!
Thanks for reading!