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Over to the north the last rays of the sun light up a corner of the velvet blue sea. White crests of surging foam break the surface and an orange glow, cut through by swirls of grey, highlights it in swathes like wildfires buried fathoms deep. Lone blocks of ice float past in a steady stream, a dust of stalactites fracturing, crumbling and plunging into the water. A cargo ship lumbers across the ocean, bound for land.

Merlin sighs, clouds of vapour nearly solidifying as they whorl upwards. “Beautiful,” he says, hugging his mug, a red tin one brought from home, to his chest.

The cold metal of the rail digs into his hip. Even through all his layers of clothing, it cuts a line of frost across the length of his bone. Merlin pushes off the rail. He stands there a while longer though, looking out to sea, stars slowly coming alive in bursts and pinpricks, imagining the distance that separates him from home, the miles and miles of seascape, the flat ocean mirrors lapping against frozen shores.

He snorts. He's become oddly melancholy.

He takes a last sip of tea, the liquid now cold, the dregs silty on his tongue.

When the wind starts howling a song on the waves, Merlin turns around, his steps resounding on the metal platform. The drifting crewmen -- dirty, bearing tools -- pass him by, but none greets him. Merlin shrugs their inattention off. He opens the heavy door, thunders down a spiral staircase made slippery by grease, and stops at the control station.

Neon red lights flood the large chamber; stained concrete walls frame it, guarding a mass of equipment, panels, monitors, chugging engines, pale piping that snakes along the floor.

A number of mechanics are working on the BOP's control cable. This time, his presence a statement of fact that can't be avoided, they all acknowledge him, but with little fanfare. They lift their hands, say a curt something, or grunt if they're too busy with the cable. As if by tacit agreement, they all act more or less in the same way, all but one who fastens his eyes on Merlin but doesn't otherwise react with words or gestures truly directed at him. His gaze is intent though, penetrating, a blue eyed stare that must surely mean something – probably that Merlin has been weighed and found wanting.

The moment Merlin returns the stare with an insouciantly questioning expression, the man drops his, saying something to one of his team-mates. He wraps large, grease covered hands that are strangely glove-free, around one of the valves. His neck cords under the upturned collar of his reflective jacket. His mouth twists with effort, a thin line that would otherwise have been much lusher.

There's is something raw and visceral about the amount of work he puts in, the strain of muscles under skin.

Merlin drops his gaze and focuses on what he stopped by to do. He walks up to the control panel rigged to the far left of the chamber. Wanting to get a reading before he goes to bed, he wipes away the condensation that has fogged up the glass and squints.

“They're all normal,” Lancelot, the head-mechanic, startles him by saying, revealing his presence right behind him.

“Given that the last readings were a notch worrying,” Merlin says, smiling as confidently and kindly as he can, “I thought I'd check.”

“Of course,” Lancelot says. “I wasn't implying you shouldn't have. You're the chief engineer and we all believe in you.”

Merlin looks away, his gaze roving over the men, listening to their murmurs, their derisive chuckles. He suspects they're directed at him but can't say for sure. Briefly, he catches sight of the blue eyed mechanic from before; he isn't sniggering like the others. Not at all; he's quite serious and grim, his mouth the steady line it was before. Small mercies that do work Merlin's stomach to mush, with hope or something else, a lash of static travelling up his spine. Merlin shakes the sensation off and turns his attention back to the equipment. “I know I'm new,” he says, “but we don't want to have a blow out and subsequent oil spill like the one that happened in Mexico.”

“No.” Lancelot smiles, kind now. “We do want to avert some kind of environmental disaster.”

“Yeah,” Merlin breathes out.

Lancelot nods and goes back to directing his team of mechanics. Merlin checks the gauges one last time, makes a swift calculation and decides the numbers are all right. They'll have no disaster on their hands tonight.

Cheeks still burning from the embarrassment the run-in with the crew caused, he makes his way to his quarters via a system of stairs and ladders. His room is a sixteen square metre area, coming with a single berth, a table, some shelving, in the spaces between which a few photos hang, and the narrowest chest of drawers Merlin's ever seen, but it's not communal and far away enough from the deck that Merlin can sometimes actually sleep, the noise from rotor blades, the lament of cranes and the pounding of feet on the surface somewhat muffled by partitions.

Once inside, Merlin takes off his helmet, parka, and Wellies, puts his now empty mug in the basin wedged in the corner opposite the bed, and, after having wrapped a blanket around him, sprawls on his berth. He opens his laptop and, having verified their narrowband radio modem is working today, Skypes first his mum – she's okay, seeing Mr Simmons, and, oh, her year sixes loved the photos from the platform, even the artsy ones with the sea-gulls – and Will.

“Oi, mate,” Will says, his face a scramble of pixels. “Don't tell me you're using your unstable internet connection to call me instead of downloading some porn!”

Merlin snorts and waves his finger in front of his webcam. “I can always end the call and do that.”

“I bet you would love to,” Will says, settling in his chair, a red visual punch in the gut Will dares call furniture. “I bet that with all those sexy crewmen walking about the rig you're horny all the time.”

Will's not far off the mark. It's been six months since Merlin last had sex. First he had to complete his operations and safety training course, which had taken two months, and then it had been off to the rig with him, which isn't the best of places to go looking for a relationship, or even casual sex. Besides, the men don't like him and what are the odds of one of them being actually gay. They have a small population here, couple hundred or less, lots of women too. But he doesn't say that to Will. “I hardly ever think of that,” he says instead. “This job's important, Will. I've got responsibilities; it's big.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, mate, supervising engineer for that capitalist, corporate shark that is Uther Pendragon, and all that at 25,” Will says. “But I bet you're still horny, still dreaming of buggering one of those hardy crewmen.”

“We call some of them roustabouts,” Merlin says, a blush rising, burning his collarbones and stealing up, until it stains his face. “And no I'm not dreaming of buggering anyone.”

“Liar,” Will says, then taunts him again. “I bet that amount of muscle on hardy men's got you all hot and bothered and thinking of their big, fat cocks.”

Merlin bites his lip and tilts his head. “Are you sure you aren't gay?.” He hiccups a laugh. “You can tell me if you are, you know. I did come out and all that jazz.”

“Bug--” Will starts, then gawks and says, “Fuck off, I was just saying.”

There's a pause during which Will fusses with his mouse. “So how's the weather in Greenland?”

“We're far off the coast,” Merlin says, correcting Will. “And--” Merlin snorts. “The weather, really? You're going for that?”

“Oh, shut your mush, mate,” Will says, then looks away and to the left. “Look, Merls, flatmate is calling.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Merlin says, shaking his head. “I got you all uncomfortable.”

“Bullshit,” Will says. “A load of. I'm going to try and Skype with you next week, yeah?”

“Yeah, but remember,” Merlin says, opening the calendar tab on his laptop, “I've got the night shift next week.”

“Kay, mate, bye, mate.” Will closes the connection.

With a sigh, Merlin switches off his laptop. Putting his jacket back on, he makes for the lavatories, where he quickly showers before his cock can become a stalactite. It doesn't matter how much steamy water pounds on him, the moment he steps out of the cubicle he's always lashed by zero temperatures. As clean as he can be considering the grime that seems to permeate the place, Merlin hurries back to his quarters, skin a vibrant pink from his shower, shave cuts left unattended. He burrows into joggers and a hefty fleece jumper he uses as pyjamas, and then wraps the duvet around him.

Lights off, he goes into foetal position and buries his head under the pillows.

He sleeps for a while. All goes black at least, and he doesn't remember anything until noises – the usual mix of shouts and thuds – wake him. He tries to go under again, closing his eyes, counting sheep, but his brain buzzes with activity and he can't quite.

Sighing, he pushes off the covers, ducks into his jeans, puts on his thermal jacket, a pair of trainers, and he's off. At first he wanders the platform, but people are busy and he doesn’t want to get underfoot.

Seeing as he's still worried about the BOP, he goes to the control room. He fully means to do some function testing later this week, but for now he just wants to make sure he's going to have no emergency on his hands. That Mexico footage he saw during training still haunts him.

The controls room is dark now, but a light bobs in the dark. Someone moves in the shadows. After some vision adjusting, Merlin recognises the roustabout who was looking at him intently earlier this evening. “What are you doing here?” he says, releasing the breath that was caught in his chest. “Shouldn't your shift be over?”

“Yeah,” the roustabout says, “I'm on my own time.”

“And what are you doing here?” Merlin says, advancing in the shadows, questioning, wanting to gauge what's going on.

“I was checking the interface,” says the roustabout. “Three months ago we came close to a full actuators malfunction. There could have been leaks.”

“The readings last week,” Merlin says, connecting the dots. “So there is a problem. It wasn't just over pressure created from fluids entering the well bore. ”

“Yeah,” the roustabout says, shifting, his soles squeaking as they fail to get purchase on a patch of grease staining the floor. “I don't think the higher-ups wanted you to know. Computer testing is expensive.”

Merlin nods, walks over to the monitor of the stand-alone unit. The numbers are the same as they were earlier today, but that doesn't prevent Merlin from worrying now that that he knows the bigwigs at Pendragon are playing him. “Well, the readings are fine--”

“You think you don't know what I'm talking about because I'm just crew,” the roustabout says, the lines around his eyes sharpening.

Merlin coughs out a laugh. “Actually, I don't share that kind of prejudice.”

“So you don't think you've got to have a degree to be competent?” the roustabout asks, coming up close to Merlin.

“No,” Merlin says. “Naturally, it helps, but I'm sure a lot of mechanics are as skilled as a fresh engineer.”

“Very populist of you,” the roustabout says, with a grunt. He ducks his head, so all Merlin can see in the half light is the arch of his nose and the sharp linearity of his jaw, the dusting of fair stubble that coats it.

“I've been among this crew long enough to know how experienced some of its members are,” Merlin says, without adding, 'while I'm not and they laugh at me for it'.

“So you believe me and will check the systems?” the roustabout says. “You'll talk to the big cheeses without cowering the moment they threaten to cut your salary?”

“Sure I will.”

“Gutsy,” the roustabout says, cocking his head. The white of his teeth, one of them them particularly sharp and the littlest bit crooked, shows. “Will you, honestly?”

“Yeah,” Merlin says, surprised the roustabout is even asking. “I'll isolate the control system and the operator stations from the main frame, and use a HIL simulator. That will--”

“Way to sound geeky now.”

Merlin snorts, lowers his head. “Yeah, sorry, I was thinking aloud. It happens sometimes. I tend to run off at the mouth and I--”

Merlin's words are cut off. A mouth connects with his, all firm pressure and warmth, sucking kisses off him. Merlin gasps, his lips parting. The touch becomes wet. The roustabout's tongue dips into his mouth, pushing at his as if to invite participation. Merlin stops thinking, questioning this beyond the fact that he likes it, and returns the kiss, tangling tongues with this man he doesn't know, allowing for his mouth to be tasted and sounded in return. The kiss knocks the air off his lungs, so he pants. It makes his blood run faster with need, too, which makes his cock stand. But it's also infinitely, startlingly intimate.

Filthy too. It ends on a bite, one that sets Merlin upper lip tingling, before the roustabout sucks on it again, slow, and smooth.

It's so good, it's knocking his knees out.

A little bit frantic now, tantalised as he's been, Merlin reaches for the roustabout, pulls him flush against him. The man doesn't protest the action, but rather moves with Merlin, goes with the flow, growling.

He slams Merlin against the hard grey wall behind him, Merlin's bones rattling a bit at impact. He laughs a startled, euphoric laugh.

The roustabout's lips latch onto Merlin's neck and suck fierce kisses along the hollow of Merlin's neck. They trail up Merlin's jaw again, feather-light and teasing. Stubble older than Merlin's five o'clock shadow prickles him as the roustabout traces the lines of his throat. Nearly hitting a lever to his left, Merlin throws his head back, his hands splayed against a solid chest. That torso is like a wall of rippling muscle, sinews jumping at his touch.

Merlin's back is shored up against a wall of damp concrete, cool and sharp, but that doesn't faze him in the least because he's touching a man he wants like he wants his next breath. Hell, breathing is overrated.

Under the layers, Merlin strokes the man's chest in broad swipes of his palms. Blindly, he feels the strength of him, the coils of muscle, the power of him, the potential for it trapped within the body of a man reining himself in.

Hungry with a specific hunger for this self-contained, mysterious stranger, whose features he can barely read in the semi-darkness of the control room, Merlin maps the form of him. In the process he feels the man's erection and deliberately rocks into it.

With a grunt and a flare of nostrils, the roustabout slips his knee between Merlin's thighs, fondles Merlin's cock with the blunt roundness of his kneecap. Merlin hardens and aches to the rhythm of a dull, insistent pulse. His mind is wiped of all thought, concerns or worries. Geometries of shapes and castles of numbers dissolve into flimsy wisps of nothing, the sum of nought.

With hands that don't hold steady, Merlin undoes the buttons of the roustabout's uniform trousers, his palm brushing against his cock. The weight of him grows in Merlin's hand the moment Merlin gets a better grip of him.

At that the man goes hazy-eyed. Sliding a a hand in his hair, he draws Merlin to him by the nape, fingers knotted in his hair, pushing for an open mouthed kiss. At the same time, he unhooks the button fastening Merlin's jeans and drags them down his hips. With a few tugs he bares Merlin's cock.

Merlin face tingles. His breath catches when the roustabout's palm wraps around him, warm and calloused. Merlin's spine softens with how good this is. He makes a savage noise low in his throat, thrusts. When the roustabout strokes and thumbs his length, his slit, Merlin forgets everything, even to return the favour.

The roustabout brings their hips close, so close their naked cocks touch before they're gathered into his palm. “I see that if I don't take care of things myself--” There's a taunt in his voice but one the roustabout can't keep up with, because he sounds too wrecked and breathless for that, too much like he's in pain. “--we'll never get anywhere.”

So saying, he presses kisses under Merlin's chin, bruises his throat with his mouth, catching the skin of Merlin's rising Adam's apple into a soft bite that sits on the edge of his teeth. And all the while, he works them together. Merlin's spilling pre-come that wets them both, his hand fisting the top of the roustabout's uniform, his other one clamping around his forearm, opening and closing the same way his mouth falls silent on gasps that never rise past the stage of choked whispers.

Their cocks rub together, skin to skin, length against length, tip brushing against tip. Merlin's oozes precome. “I don't,” Merlin says, his chest rising and falling fast, every intake of breath stabbing his lungs drunk. “I can't...” he frowns, trying to make sense of the pleasure that confounds his senses, but he can't. He can only follow the current his body is sending him spiralling downwards on.

The roustabout knuckles them together, strokes them, his arm moving faster and faster. A thumb digs into his pelvis, a scrap of crumbling concrete scratches at Merlin's spine.

“I watched you,” the roustabout says as fists them hard into near pain. “And I couldn't, I know I shouldn't.”

Merlin doesn't know what the roustabout is getting at with the latter part of his sentence. But the knowledge conveyed by the former flushes Merlin with a spark of something, a thirst for the prohibited perhaps, that makes him feel great, makes him want to stand tall. He moves his feet apart, thrusts hard and out of any conscious control, and coats the roustabout's cock with the sticky ropes of his come.

The air smells like sex.

“Fuck I--” the roustabout says, pressing their foreheads together as he pulls on his own dick, a frantic edge to his speed. “Christ, that was--”

From this close, Merlin can see the roustabout's lashes come down like gold filigree. He can count the lines that sprout on his forehead, and identify the moment his face starts to slacken with orgasm.

Once again Merlin experiences a startling sense of intimacy that is heightened by having the roustabout's come dribbling on his cock and jeans. “I--” he starts, finding himself vociferous now that he can once again hear the throb of engines and the thud of feet on the deck above – not that the noise ever went away. “I--”

But the roustabout kisses him, with tongue but sweet, cleans them both with a tissue, and says, “You're quite something else, aren't you?” as though he's pondering the subject or finding it funny, even attention grabbing.

Merlin is at a loss for words, not knowing what to say, whether -- if he wants to waste his time on a pun --- he's coming or going. The etiquette of fucking complete strangers in control rooms while the night-shit is about is completely extraneous to him. “Well, I--”

The roustabout tucks his cock, soft and something Merlin longs to go down on, back into his trousers. “See you around,” he says.

Merlin stands there, ears roaring, not quite knowing what's happened – barring the fact that he just had the best sex he's enjoyed in a long while – and where he stands with the roustabout, until the rush of footsteps outside shames him into covering up and regaining his quarters.

By the time he gets there he realises he didn't ask the roustabout's name.

 

*****

2

Over the next few days, Merlin doesn't run into the roustabout, to the point that he almost fancies him a product of his fancy. What stays with him is a contentment that plays under his skin in the form of energy, a charge that sparks his body into a liveliness he's never known before. He thinks about the roustabout often, details like the slope of his nose or the turn of his lip feature largely in his imagination. Merlin savours his taste in his memory. He also often contemplates his strength, the way his body buoyed up his, and finds he enjoys the recollection, that it stirs his blood and his heart.

So, well, the focus of his thoughts suggests that he's smitten, that his heart's engaged too, which is stupid because the man hasn't sought him out again or even seen fit to share his name. And his thoughts sometimes do betray him. Even so, he concentrates on his job.

His twelve-hour shifts become fourteen-hour shifts. He conducts two computerised systems checks and finds out that while the situation is not alarming, some component parts vital to the life the rig could use an overhaul. Modernisation is definitely required. He radios land, tells them what his problem is, gets stuck talking to a PA's PA, who, while polite, never connects him to any of the board members, let alone Uther Pendragon. He's told to write a report.

Merlin is very aware that they're at risk. However, all his attempts to get through to the London managers headed by the authoritative Mr Pendragon, owner and ex-high finance whiz kid, are thwarted.

Still it pays to keep active. Someone is bound to listen sooner or later. Merlin holds meetings with different service professionals, and starts troubleshooting sessions that give him headaches because they last well past his shift hours. Then he turns his attention to well killing operations. He directs the pouring of a column of heavy fluid into bore 5 so that they can do without buying surface control equipment, funds for which he's been flatly refused. The long and short of it is that he spends two days neck deep in volumetric calculations.

By the end of it, he's so tired he can't even think about anything other than shutting down. In that way, he isn't troubled by any of the bone deep longing that settled in him since his meeting with the unknown roustabout. He doesn't look him up on the company roster; he doesn't inquire as to who he is or where he hangs out.

Merlin even fails to keep up with his own private routine, he's so knackered. At night he doesn't bother to stop to look at the carpet of stars shining overhead as he usually does, but cuts his way across the platform so he can reach his lodgings faster.

Still, he must use the gangways to make it to his. One night he's almost at the bottom of an outer platform cross section, wind buffeting him forward, when a resounding crack whips the air.

Merlin locates the source of the sound in the breaking of cables holding up the remote access technician dangling underneath the rig's underbelly. The tech slides downwards, shouting, his shout crowded out by the wind. The last remaining cable frays and snaps. Merlin rushes to get a hold of it as it slides towards the edge of the platform. His hands close around it in a last second grab. When the cable continues with its downward lurch, pain makes his eyes tear. Warmth floods his palms and trickles down. Fingers numb with cold, flames licking at his hands, he holds on. Frantic, Merlin shouts at the top of his lungs, “Help, please, someone help!”

Think, think, he tells himself. Find leverage. An idea dawns on him. He braces his feet against the platform, wraps his knees around the cord and keeps his hands around the material flaying his flesh. He shouts out again, his voice a feeble thing over the cry of the winter wind. The weight drags him down, tears at his muscles, nearly snaps his shoulders out of joint. Tendons bulge and cramp, hurt like mad, though not as much as his hands. He can't let go though. At these temperatures the man would die if he fell into the water. Assuming he survived impact.

“Come on, help!” Merlin shouts, voice hoarse. He's slowly and systematically inching downwards, his shoes skidding. The weight pulling him down stops dragging him forwards. For a moment he believes the cord fractured at some other point and that he failed the tech. That he fell to his death. But then someone slips his arms around his shoulders, bending over him, and says, “You can let go. We've got it.”

Merlin recognises the roustabout's voice. It thrills his heart through the burn eating at his hands. “The tech,” Merlin blathers.

“Let go, Merlin,” the roustabout's voice comes again, his hands cupping Merlin's, getting stained with his blood. “Let go.”

Merlin trusts him, lets go, and when he does he sees that Lancelot's team has intervened. They're hauling the tech up, perfectly coordinated by Lancelot's efforts.

Lancelot spares one thought for Merlin and the roustabout, “Arthur, take him to the doctor's station. He's bleeding badly.”

Merlin's shivering and his face feels wet. He should be longing for the warmth of the medical bay and for some relief from the pain that's a scourge on his hands and burns them to the quick. But he can't move, not even when Arthur – the fact that that's his name registers faintly – says, “Please, Merlin.”

Merlin only budges when he sees the tech on the platform, shaken but otherwise whole.

Then he lets himself be walked to the bay. Though he knows the layout of the rig by heart, he needs to be directed. He follows Arthur's bright orange jacket, watches as the light bounces off the yellow lines that intersect it horizontally at shoulder level, and then squints when he's ushered into the bay.

Arthur sits him on a gurney, his hands on his shoulders weighing him down so Merlin won't get up, as if he's of a mind to. “I--” Merlin blurts out, his heart still in his throat. “I don't know.”

Arthur cups his neck, pulls Merlin's head against his chest. He inhales deep, his belly hollowing.

Merlin's heartbeat doesn't settle, couldn't possibly. Adrenaline fuses with doubt and desire. A wash of longing shakes him though rationally he ought to suppress it.

With a sigh, Arthur pushes him backwards and takes his hands in his to inspect. There are two diagonal cuts on his left, one, bone deep. The sight makes Merlin's stomach roil. The other hand sports three gashes that are bleeding profusely, but there are no tell tale flashes of white.

“You had to go and be a hero, you idiot.”

Counting his hearbeats, Merlin mumbles, “He would have died.”

“I know,” Arthur says, ruffling Merlin's hair. “I know-- I.”

He licks his lips, eyes wide and full of something Merlin can't make out right now. He definitely looks as though he wants to speak, but he doesn't. So Merlin does for him, mentioning what probably shouldn't be mentioned. “I'm sorry,” he says, “I shouldn't have. Yow work for Pendragon, I work for them too, and I should have been creating the right work environment and not--”

“Don't be an idiot,” Arthur says, and though he seems to want to expand on that it's clear that he doesn't only because the doctor comes in.

“Let's see what we have here,” the doctot says, donning gloves.

After an aneastethics injection, Merlin's wounds are cleaned, sutured and bandaged. He's prescribed painkillers and some antibiotics and told to come back for check ups. In case the doctor feels the situation should be monitored in a hospital, he'll arrange for heli-transport.

Merlin says, “I'm sure I'll be fine.”

Arthur escorts him to his quarters, won't take no for an answer, not even when Merlin points out that Arthur is probably eager to get back to his team. “They'll understand,” Arthur says shadowing Merlin, striding so close to him Merlin's not sure Arthur trusts him to get to his quarters unaided. “You need a hand.”

“Is that a pun?” Merlin says, as he toddles more than walks down a series of decks. “Because given the context it's kind of morbidly funny.”

“Merlin, I--”

“You don't owe me help,” Merlin says, looking firmly down. “I mean I probably abused my position--”

“There's no rule against that kind of socialising,” Arthur says, his voice level, serious, no special trace of fondness to it.

“Still, I'm a position of authority over you and I'm...” Merlin wants to say he's sorry again, except he isn't, not exactly, or would only be if Arthur regrets what happened.

Arthur barks out a laugh; he wipes at his eyes.

“What's so funny?” Merlin asks, hugging himself partly because he hurts and shakes, partly because he's confused, not getting Arthur at all.

“Nothing is,” Arthur says.

“Still, I should have thought before acting,” Merlin says, his face stinging with heat. “And I...”

“We were both consenting adults,” Arthur says, catching Merlin by the elbow when he stumbles over the perfectly flat grid covering the last stretch of corridor. “And I wanted you like mad.”

Merlin's glad they've come to his door because that means he can't trip anymore, legs made hollow and rubbery and incapable of working. Arthur's words have mostly done the trick. The sucker punch to his heart staggers it into a furious rampage that isn't helping with the standing upright thing either. “I--”

Arthur walks into his space, his eyes as soft as his body – held completely rigid, fists balled – is not. “Just go to sleep, Merlin, and look after yourself.”

Merlin's too busy inhaling the scent of Arthur to realise he's walking away. By the time Arthur has cleared the corridor, Merlin slumps against the door. “Okay, all right, I'm not falling for him. I'm just not.”

That's easier said than done. Though the night of the accident Merlin knocks himself out with painkillers and is therefore spared all thought, the harrowing questions and the deep-seated longing come back with a vengeance the moment he wakes. He keeps analysing what Arthur said, that he'd wanted him, and wonders whether that still holds, or if the controls room incident was a one off. Merlin doesn't even lie to himself by pretending he wouldn't sleep with Arthur again if he had the chance. He most definitely would. Arthur doesn't just turn him on. He moves him, makes Merlin's lungs feel too small for his chest, and him too drunk to stay coherent.

And then there's the fact that however focused Merlin is on forgetting how much he wants him – at every level –, Arthur pops up everywhere.

Despite the pain that he's in – and an oversleeping bout caused by the meds –, Merlin resumes his normal working routine. But whereas formerly he never ran into Arthur, now he stumbles into him everywhere.

Arthur is part of the team that helps unload the cargo of the latest supply ship to sail over. Merlin oversees the operation. He's the one who wakes Merlin the morning Merlin doesn't turn up at seven as he was meant to. When Merlin blinks his heavy lids open, it's to find Arthur bent over him, a palm on his forehead, his fingers at Merlin's neck, clearly checking his pulse. “Did you take too many?” He eyes the pills on the shelf close to Merlin's bed.

“Just three instead of two,” Merlin slurs.

“Right,” Arthur says, hauling him up. “Do you want me to call the doctor?”

Merlin swipes a hand down his face. Too late, he remembers that it's not something he wants to do with the cuts on his hands. “No, I'll just--”

He stands, walks to the corner basin, strips off his shirt, works the tap, and dunks his head under. The shock of cold makes him flinch and erupt into goose-flesh, but he stays put. When his head's less foggy, he turns.

Arthur is trailing his fingers along the length of one of the photos Merlin pinned to the wall over his bed. It's the one with the petrel swooping past a crane, wings at the top of their span, yellow light diminishing into purple softness. When Arthur realises Merlin is aware of what he's doing, he drops his hand and in a level voice says, “You a photographer?”

“Nah,” Merlin says, bristling with self-consciousness. “I mean I enjoyed taking those photos, but they're mostly to keep in touch. I send them to my mum, see, so she can show them to her kids.”

“Her kids?”

Merlin's mouth swings sideways. “Yeah, she's a teacher. Eleven-year olds love my shit, you know.”

“Adults can appreciate it as well,” Arthur says, holding his gaze before handing him a clean tee.

Flustered, Merlin changes in record time and is soon ready for work.

Their meetings don't stop there. Arthur's present when Merlin walks into the TV room one night, still a little drugged up on pain killers. Though he doesn't say anything to Merlin, Arthur watches him, not constantly, but certainly from time to time. Merlin can feel Arthur's eyes on him when Elyan Smith, the tech he saved, comes up to him and says, “Thank you for saving my life.”

Arthur observes him when Merlin flushes and returns the embrace – but not the shoulder pat because his hands ache – Elyan envelops him in, and he seems to be listening to Merlin's comments on the progression of the match and his favourite players.

Nobody takes notice of this, except for Arthur's team foreman.

In fact, one day at the lunch held in the common mess, Lancelot comes up to him and says, serious and earnest, “Watch it with Arthur.”

Merlin suspects he's saying that because he thinks Merlin's causing all those meetings, that he's using his power as Chief to get some, so he says, “There's nothing going on with Arthur, I swear.” Not anymore anyway.

“I'll still talk to him,” Lancelot says on the end of a sigh.

Merlin doesn't know whether Lancelot has talked to him or not, and if he has about what exactly. Merlin was too mortified to ask Lancelot what he specifically meant to say, but his intervention doesn't change things.

Merlin is asked to replace an injector. In view of the task, he requests at least five men and the team manager sends him a bunch of roughnecks. Arthur turns up too.

They replace the injector in record time and Arthur proves brilliant at getting Merlin's instructions with only a few words. Which is great, because Merlin's standing knee-deep in the petroleum laden water of a well they've drained for this exact purpose. The wind lashes his cheeks, and his hands throb as he tries to hold onto a data chart.

They get the old, rusty injector out with less effort than Merlin had thought possible, but when the new one doesn't work, Merlin's morale plummets. As a result, he tests the new fitting and establishes that the entire piece needn't be changed, only the suction strainer. He kneels, ready to detach the faulty part and get along with his day, when a hand grabs his wrist. “You don't want to do that,” Arthur tells him. “That water is dirty. Are you gagging for an infection?”

Merlin looks at his bandaged hands. “I'm taking antibiotics.” He has to as his hands irradiate a low ache all the time. “And this is rather delicate.”

“Talk me through it...”

“Arthur, I--”

“Don't you trust me?” Arthur asks, dropping his gaze, his head bent.

The truth is that Merlin does. “All right, let's do a step by step.”

Since he's not the one who'll have to change the strainer, Merlin sits on a low block of concrete, on top of a grid. It's cold and he can't feel his feet, or his nose. His fingers are chafed red and his ears are about to fall off, but he makes his brain work because everyone else is suffering under the same conditions and he's the one who can actually solve the problem in hand. The sooner they manage to change the strainer, the sooner they all get back to their quarters. “I wish my hands were healed,” Merlin says, while Arthur works, haunching over in water, working blind.

“They will,” Arthur tells him, grunting when the piece doesn't come loose.

“I could have got us out sooner if they were.”

“You're in this state because you were quite brave,” Arthur says. “All the men here respect that.”

Merlin laughs self-deprecatingly. “Thank you, but I... I know I'm the newbie that got a nicely paying position because he was lucky enough to go to uni. I know the crew resents that. Most of them have worked here longer than I have and at tougher jobs too, and I--”

Arthur works a hand free of the water, puts it on his knee, oily water staining Merlin's jeans. “You care, you're serious about the job and ready to do a lot for the crew, even at great personal risk. So believe me, they noticed, Merlin.” He worries his lip. “And...”

“What?” Merlin asks, not because he's fishing for praise – even though Arthur's dearer to him than any other man's – but because he suspects Arthur really wants to say more.

“It's just that you act like you don't want to acknowledge what you've got going for you; you'd rather go about as this silent guy who likes to stay unaknowledged,” Arthur says. “But you've got potential in spades--” Arthur winces, a blush colouring his nose a bright pink that shows he must not be used to praising people.

“I'm just an engineer,” Merlin says. “I can do this job right if I focus, but I believe you're thinking a bit too well of me if you're convinced I've much to offer. And as for bravery, you think me plucky just because I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

“Most people,” Arthur says, working the spanner from left to right with great effort, “especially privileged people, don't do anything, not even if the situation calls for it, when they're in, as you say, the right place at the right time.”

Merlin reckons Arthur must have witnessed a lot of that in his position. “I like to think that's not true, that there's still a lot of great people out there, no matter their social standing.”

Arthur makes a dismissive noise. His neck, Merlin notices, flushes a brighter colour than the weather warrants.

“You think I'm naïve.” Merlin snorts at himself when he guesses. He must have come across as an idiot. “I'm not. I'm not always that much of an optimist either, but I want to be.”

“You're accepting,” Arthur says. His voice is level and that makes a statement of his remark, but there's an element of appreciation to it too. “That's good.”

“Maybe that's because I have no reason to not be a bit of one,” Merlin says, twiddling thumbs that should be doing the work Arthur is. Moving them disturbs the scar tissue, but he's got to do something, because even though Arthur's busy sweating around the strainer, he is listening to Merlin's words and his attention makes Merlin self-conscious. “My mum is a great mum. She raised me fine. And, yeah, we're working class, and I didn't have all the things I might have wanted as a teen, but I had everything that mattered.”

“That's great,” Arthur says, pausing for a second to straighten his back, mouth twisting in pain. “But not everybody is like that. A lot of people might have been born in the rosiest of circumstances but they can't hold on to the thinnest shred of optimism. They have no heart.”

“Probably,” Merlin says. It's not as though he hasn't met some of those types. Besides, Arthur sounds as though he's talking from experience and he doesn't want to question it. “Maybe.”

“You've got heart, Merlin,” Arthur says, going a bit cross eyed at that, as if he is in too deep thought. Seemingly dismissing the last one he formulated, he bends over again, and exerts a great amount of effort twisting the spanner inwards. Voice made rough by fatigue, he says, “It's come free. What next?”

Merlin's thoughts have scattered and he feels quite stupid and young when he finds he has no words. It would be less embarrassing – his face would certainly burn less – if he hadn't just blanked out because this man he likes so much has just said he's good at his job. But he has and it's stupid because Arthur hasn't even said that he's interested in Merlin that way, just that he finds he is an okay engineer. “I, yes, right, the strainer.”

Brain whirring in confusion, Merlin spends part of that night on the platform. Never mind that it's subzero and that he's got another shift in a few hours. He just needs to cool down, both literally -- his skin feels hot all the time these days – and figuratively. He can't stop having Arthur on his brain or flash-backing to their one time together. And it's kind of unacceptable. “Crap, it was only a hand-job.”

He gazes at the stars. A blanket of grey-green stretches across the night sky, streaming up and burning across the moon, like fireworks of ice winnowing the air. It starts with an arch of pure light, silvery like the wings of a dove, then the light shoots upwards, piercing the night sky, muffling the stars, and tinges the horizon with other colours, bright gossamer ones that are as dense as milk.

“The Aurora Borealis,” Arthur's voice breaks the chant of the wind.

Air sits heavy on Merlin's chest. “Yeah.”

Arthur sits next to Merlin's sprawling form. “Do you often come out here, at night?”

Merlin licks his lips, his mouth dry. He doesn't turn his head and look at Arthur, but stares fixedly at the halo around the moon. “Yeah, I hate the cold though.”

“Why do you come here then?” Arthur asks, a note of curiosity in his tone, mixed with a measure of breathlessness Merlin can't divine the source of.

Merlin rakes up his knee, his arm firmly under his head. “Because everything seems like nothing here.”

“I'm sorry, but I don't understand.”

“Problems, worry, stuff,” Merlin says, not sure he wants to be specific and reveal his hand, let Arthur know how much he wants him, how even his voice tightens Merlin's belly and nearly makes him hard. “They're nothing here.”

Arthur doesn't address that; thank God he doesn't catch whiff of Merlin's infatuation for him. Instead, he lies down next to Merlin in a mirror pose to his Merlin spies out of the corner of his eyes. Then he starts talking again, in an anecdotal tone this time. “Did you know that the Finns thought the northern lights come from a mythic fox sweeping its tail across the snow and sprinkling the sky with it?”

A soft laugh wells out from Merlin's chest. “A fox?”

“Yeah,” Arthur says, sounding merry too. “So you didn't know?”

“I'm not... “ Merlin doesn't want to sound uncouth, but he rarely reads stuff that hasn't got anything to do with numbers or mechanics. “I rarely read history essays, or fiction. I'm not really that much of a romantic.”

“Aren't you?” Arthur sniffles, works his jaw.

There is a pause in the conversation that's half natural and half awkward. Merlin's wonders if he should say something or just lie there, watching the light gradient fade.

Arthur says, “And did you know that I want you?”

Merlin swallows hard, fights not to let arousal saturate him and make him useless. He turns on his side, neck hot in the frigid air, and says, “I thought... I thought you'd scratched that itch, that you'd put me behind you...”

“Then you know nothing,” Arthur says, and it's rough and hurt, but then his kiss isn't at all.

Arthur presses their lips together in a soft kiss that Merlin deepens the first chance he gets, sliding his tongue past Arthur’s gorgeous lips and gliding it along the wet roof of his mouth. It's something he's been wanting with such an intensity that kissing Arthur over and over is a bit like being absolved from sin after questing for purity. In a way, he's shriven.

Though it's still bandaged, however messily, one of his hands comes up to cradle Arthur's cheek, when Arthur says, “Not here.”

“Do you still--” Merlin croaks. “Do you still want to?”

“Yes,” Arthur says, firm, decisive. “More than anything, more than is wise, just, let's move this somewhere private.”

Given that Arthur sleeps in a dormitory with all the other men in his squad, the only private spot at their disposal is Merlin's cabin.

They walk there as fast as they can, only slowing down if they run into someone and only so as not to look shifty. They negotiate two decks and three sets of ladders before they're there, but then they finally are. They close the door on the rest of the rig at the earliest possible moment.

Merlin tenses with need when Arthur leans in close, takes his face in his hands, and says, “You've done me in. I wasn't meant to. I was only meant to do my job, prove myself, but you've--” He rubs his thumb across Merlin's curving lips. “You've just bewitched me, haven't you?”

Arthur's question is quite silly because Merlin has obviously done no such thing. He's quite an ordinary bloke after all, one who hardly knows how to behave when confronted with such a hot man as Arthur wanting him. But his face goes hot at the statement all the same. It actually burns with the fiercest of blushes.

Then Arthur kisses him and it's his whole body that burns with it. His lips slide over Merlin's in a shower of soft, hot touches that coax Merlin's into a gasp, and then Arthur's tongue nudges his, slipping underneath it, lighting sparks even as it retreats. To get a taste of the spine melting warmth that's already breaking his heart, Merlin chases it in Arthur's mouth. Though they spark with a flare of pain, Merlin hands tighten around Arthur's shoulders. As their kiss goes on, deep but sweet, no longer the kiss of strangers, his hold stiffens more more and more.

Though Merlin doesn't know Arthur well enough to be sure of what his reactions mean, this kiss makes him believe that Arthur truly likes him. He's certainly someone who's not afraid to give.

As they dance backward into Merlin room, Merlin's fingers shift to rest on Arthur’s hips, above the line of his uniform bottoms, just before he slides them under the three other layers he's got on topwise. Even if the bandages prevent full contact, he touches hot skin.

In response, Arthur's breath hitches. He grabs Merlin's face and just pants against his mouth, eyes wide and soft. Merlin reins him closer and Arthur just barrells into it, until they're standing chest to chest.

“Merlin,” Arthur says, his lips curving against Merlin's as if Merlin's made his day. “Merlin.”

Because that smile is so downright beautiful and honest, Merlin's legs threaten to give. He gets incredibly light headed, but he likes the feeling. It's like he's tap dancing on the folds of the Aurora Borealis they just saw. He chuckles to himself at that, and says, “I was mind-dancing on air.”

Merlin can tell Arthur doesn't get it because his brow furrows and he sticks his reddened lips out. But it doesn't seem to matter, because he just says, “Merlin,” as if he's all amused, and slips his hands under Merlin's combo of jacket and jumper to further the contact between their bodies.

“I fucking hate layers,” Merlin says, stifling a moan.

“Me too,” Arthur says, slipping Merlin's under-shirt free of his jeans, until he's mapping skin, tracing spans of it. His touch lights up a brand new awareness in Merlin.

"Though perhaps we wouldn't be saying this if we were on deck now," Merlin reflects before his thought processes freeze once again when Arthur rocks his hips against his.

Arthur renews their kiss to one that hardens as he roams his hands down Merlin's back and across his narrow flanks.

For his part, Merlin's breath stops in his chest.

They lick into each other's mouths, going heavy at it, messing around.

Their breathing quickens, gets choked and shallow, suggestive of dirty things.

Merlin tries to make a grab for Arthur, though his palms smart in the same tempo of his beating heart and they're pretty much useless when it comes to doing what he wants, which is holding Arthur close. Still, he manages to push them far up under his top, chasing the ripple in Arthur's stomach muscles, skittering over his ribs, his thumbs rubbing across Arthur's stiffening nipples.

That pulls a sob out of Arthur, low, guttural, and shaky. Arthur tangles them together at the legs, their hips pressing close. Merlin can feel the shape, if not the warmth, of his prick, can feel himself get hard too. His pants are low and wet, exhaled against the puffiness of Arthur's mouth, made fatter by kisses that are all a tangle of tongues.

“Off with the clothes,” Arthur says, his voice rough and as wild as the look of want in his eyes.

Merlin doesn't feel like he's better off. His heart is jack-hammering, like it's drilling a hole into his chest that will make it spill out. His skin is fever hot, neck and cheeks burning. Lust is playing him like a fiddle. “Yeah, I agree,” he says as he pushes the jacket off Arthur's shoulders. “I've been--” He stutters to a halt, wrests Arthur's jumper off him even though his grip is tenuous at best, fucking hands. “--fantasising about your naked body for a while now.”

Arthur widens his stance, throwing his shoulders back, and Merlin just knows he's showing off now, that he's pleased and flattered. “Likewise,” he says, short of words, his voice a wreck.

In the pauses between kisses, Arthur divests Merlin of his layers until Merlin's lost all clothes but his jeans. Arthur comes to stand in the space between his legs, his trousers still on. Merlin tries to pull them down, but his hands aren't any good. To help, Arthur thumbs his bottoms past his hips, slowly easing them down before stepping out of them.

His briefs are light in colour and the tip of his cock peeks out at the top, the neon light highlighting the paleness of the pubic hair that's already visible while most of his underwear fabric still covers it. His legs are solid, strongly muscled. Merlin can discern the cut of his quads and guess at the strength of his hamstrings. A damp patch stains his underwear at the front.

Merlin's throat feels parched at the sight. That's for him, he obliquely realises through fogs of arousal that have made him thick and stupid, all heart and little else. He kisses Arthur's belly, close to where his erect prick is, then clutches him to pull him closer, on top of him. Arthur doesn't fight him at all.

The touch more delicate than he wants it to be because his hands are a bit ruined, his palm swipes up Arthur's flank. But Arthur doesn't mind. He growls, like shards of glass. Straddles him, ebbs right into Merlin's grasp. He grabs him by the hair and tilts Merlin's head back so Merlin has to strain and push off his palm to kiss him. For lack of a better angle, he nibbles on his lower lip, his chin and well under it.

As he mouths Arthur's neck and chest, scattering kisses, he pulls Arthur's briefs down. He does it one-handed, in incremental tugs that leave him with a palmful of Arthur's arse

Arthur sucks in a deep breath, shimmies his pants off and then pushes Merlin flat on the bed by way of a hand splayed on his chest. He lowers himself then, meeting Merlin for a messy kiss that surely leaves them both short of oxygen. With his mouth still engaged in the kiss, he paws at Merlin's boxers as if he can, by virtue of wanting it and being rough, get rid of them. Merlin's lying on his back with Arthur on top, so that's not as easy as it seems.

“Wait, wait,” Merlin says and Arthur draws back as though whip-lashed, his face falling in downward folds of mortification, rejection, pain and hurt.

Merlin smiles sheepishly and clarifies matters. “I need you to get off me if you want me naked.”

“Oh.” Relief smooths Arthur's face and he vaults off Merlin, coming to kneel on the bed close to him while Merlin arches his hips and yanks at his boxers. When they're past his ankles, he grabs them and balls them, lobs them at the chair without bothering to check whether they landed where he wanted them to.

When Merlin's done, Arthur crawls between his legs. A hand in Merlin's hair, thumbs revolving in circling motions, he nibbles on Merlin's lips, mouths at the hollow of Merlin's throat with parted lips that set Merlin on fire. Not content with how he's wrecking Merlin, making him writhe, he sucks kisses down his chest, down his belly, raising bruises with his mouth that already tingle and make Merlin leak.

Merlin's robbed of all breath when in his downward sweep of Merlin's body Arthur licks his cock, slowly and thoroughly. He does it from base to tip, suggesting at a moistness that Merlin wants with all that he has. Instinctively, Merlin rocks his hips forward, looking for more of that warmth, or a body to fuck.

Arthur chuckles, rubbing his cheek against Merlin, which is titillating in itself, with the sting of light stubble and all. “Merlin,” he says, as if he likes saying Merlin's name just so. Before wrapping his tongue around his head, Arthur laps at the crown of his cock with the flat of his tongue.

With a moan, Merlin flops back, sees stars. Arthur hums around him and the vibration tickles just as the heat drives him crazy. Rhythmically, Merlin bucks off the bed hips first, shoulders planted against the mattress,.

All the while, Arthur slides his lips down him, bobbing his head, suckling him. Merlin's left both nerveless and like a ball of nerves. He mumbles, says things that mean nothing, fucks hard into that mouth, thrashing his head, gripping Arthur's shoulders or the duvet. He feels it when he hits the back of Arthur's throat, and when Arthur swallows, his throat working around him. Merlin shouts. “Fuck, I don't. I can't. No.”

He doesn't mean Arthur should stop. That's pretty evident. He's coming undone here and his body's gone tight all over. His cock hurts.

But Arthur plays it as though he's misunderstood and asks, quite cockily actually, “Something wrong?”

Chest heaving, Merlin says, “No, fuck it, Arthur, make me c--”

The bite on the inner flesh of his thigh almost sets him hurtling down the path of orgasm, but what surely does it is the hard suck Arthur gives him right after. Merlin comes, little shocks coursing all over his body.

Arthur smacking his lips together is what brings Merlin back from his blackout. He's bright eyed and flushed, and he's worrying his lip. His hand inches toward his cock.

“No,” Merlin says. “No, inside me.”

Arthur's eyes roam the room. “Do you have any--”

Though his eagerness brings colour to his face, smarts it raw, Merlin makes himself say, “Drawer.”

Arthur leans over, his cock standing, his body a bunch of muscles that are all coiled tight. He opens the drawer with too much force, nearly wrests it off its slides, but gets at the supplies easily enough after that. He scatters them on the bed. With a hand, he strokes Merlin's pointy hip, as though he's a recalcitrant horse, as if he's got to be soothed, which is not the case at all.

“I want you,” Merlin says, to make things clear. He's been somewhat shy all of his life but now he wants Arthur so much, he forgets about that. “I want your cock. I want you to fuck me, you don't have to wait-”

Arthur, though, has probably got his drift anyway by now because he's stretching him with his cool blunt fingers.

Merlin can feel the sweat stick to his brow and drip down the side of his forehead. The sensations that Arthur sparks in him are brilliantly vivid. Perhaps it's like that because he's already come and can do nothing else but focus on what Arthur's doing to him, where his hands are, one on his knee, the other between his legs. Or perhaps it's just that he wants Arthur so much, everything he does with him gets to be a momentous experience.

“God,” he says, and that doesn't mean much except he wants more of Arthur's touch, that he wants for Arthur to know him, this way and in other ways. He wants to be an open book for him, though he's not always been, either with Arthur or others, always stopping short of saying too much, revealing his fears, what he means, what other people mean to him. But not this time. Maybe this means he's skating a fine line between mere want and pure love, but that's strangely okay with him. At least now that he's so blissed out.

“God, what?” Arthur asks, teasing him inside, making him wet with lube.

“I don't know,” Merlin says, talking as if he's got marbles in his mouth. “I was making small talk.”

Arthur barks a laugh. He looks up, holds Merlin's gaze, and his eyes are dancing. “You're--”

“I bet you want to say I must be dim, a bit touched in the head, likely to come up with completely irrelevant things at the most awkward moments...”

“Special,” Arthur breathes out, his expression not quite changing as losing that edge of humour it had held before.

“Special bad or special good?” Merlin asks, his stupidest question to date.

“Special like you're the best.”

“Oh.” That was flattering.

By the time Arthur rolls the condom on, Merlin's quite prepared. In a way he feels obscenely loose. He doesn't mind though. It's odd but in an okay kind of way. What's got him sweating again his Arthur's renewed proximity, his body blanketing his, all points of touch. Arthur looking at him as though he can read Merlin open just with the power of his gaze.

The head of his cock, fat and blunt, nudges in, makes Merlin swallow and want to move. He's a bit self-conscious now but all his attention shifts to Arthur when he makes a noise, a soft one that is all wounded and tortured. He slips forward, Merlin bearing down, helping him so he can work himself in to the hilt, cradling Arthur in his arms.

Arthur's push and pull starts.

The deeper Arthur strokes himself inside him, the more Merlin feels it, pinpricks of arousal that work him up and make him hot all over again. He kisses Arthur's temple, his neck, wherever he can reach, and wraps his legs tight around him, curving into all of his forward motions.

Arthur emits these little grunts Merlin knows originate deep in his belly – he knows because their hips slip slide against each other, Merlin's cock trapped right between.

“Come on, Arthur,” Merlin says, his hands in his hair, his lips on Arthur's skin. “Come on.”

Arthur's thrusts sharpen, shorten. Merlin's palm slips down his sweaty, flexing back, moulding his sides, lovingly skating along the arch of each rib before landing across his hip. At last the back of his hand finds a resting place at the base of Arthur's spine.

Their bodies flow together, meeting and nearly separating when Arthur comes close to pulling out.

“Merlin, fuck, shit,” Arthur rasps, his hips tattooing this short and close rhythm that works him in and in. Sounding winded, Arthur buries his face in Merlin's neck, his mouth searching. “I-- ah.”

Arthur buries himself deep and deeper, his withdrawals so short they amount to almost nothing. The focused, butterfly quick rub of his mouth against that spot under Merlin's ear is soft and ticklish. “I want you to come again,” he says, all husky and broken. “With me. Don't-- not alone.”

Merlin doesn't know if he can. He feels all hazy and soft inside, quite done and terribly tender. But he shores his feet up and wraps a hand around his cock the moment Arthur levers himself up just enough. Arthur nearly slips out then and his thrust has to lengthen because of that. On a jerk forward he starts shaking, soft little tremors that rise his skin into a thousand bursts of goose flesh.

His head bowed penitent fashion, he tightens all over and comes, eyes squeezed ever so tightly shut. The sight of him, and the workings of his own hand on his sensitive cock bring Merlin to a quick flash of a semi-dry orgasm, that's still bright, that still sets a smile of his face even though it doesn't shock his body the way the first one did. It's a muted but pleasant thing.

When they're done and Arthur's lying beside him, his nose nearly nestled in Merlin's armpit, his hand covering Merlin's on his stomach, he says, “I knew coming to the rig was the right decision. I thought... I thought it would do me good. But I would never have thought that it would change my life.”

Merlin is too drowsy and pleased and tired to pick that apart. He takes Arthur's words as a compliment and falls asleep with a smile on his face.

 

****

3

When Merlin wakes, Arthur is standing by the table, looking down at it. He's completely naked. Since he's facing the wall, Merlin can only see his side, contemplate the depth of his thighs and the bulk of his biceps. He can also spy a glimpse of his cock, or at least he can until Arthur moves and it swings sideways. There's such a quiet early morning ordinariness to this moment, Arthur is so unselfconscious, Merlin almost doesn't want to intrude on it.

Deep in thought, Arthur runs his fingers down the front of one of the folders lying about on Merlin's worktop, tracing the round of what looks like the Pendragon inc logo.

“Don't remind me of work,” Merlin says, stretching languidly.

“Did I ruin your work ethic?” Arthur asks with a clap of laughter.

“No,” Merlin says, stretching in bed. “But I do feel lazier than usual this morning.”

“You could radio in and say you're ill,” Arthur says.

“No,” Merlin says, squeezing the bridge of his nose after he's flopped onto his back. “Got so much to do...”

Arthur walks over to him, sits on the bed and kisses him on the lips, short but confident. “Don't overdo it.”

Merlin's heart lurches in his chest. He kisses under the spot where Arthur lower lips curls outwards. “I will take it easy once I'm on shore leave--”

Arthur fingers a thread of the blanket. “About that, I was wondering – I mean I know you're probably meaning to spend some time with your family–, but I was wondering if you wanted to hang out with me when you're on leave.”

“Sure,” Merlin says, beaming and probably looking a bit barmy in the process. “I'd love to.”

“We can do something worthwhile, I promise--”

“Arthur,” Merlin says. “I'd love to.”

“You would?” Arthur asks, both of his eyebrows going up.

“Yeah.”

There's no time for much more than a kiss and grope that leaves them charged and wanting because Arthur's shift begins in less than twenty minutes and so does Merlin's, but Merlin starts his morning much happier than he's got any right to be considering he's suffering from a serious case of blue balls.

He's deep in conversation with Tristan, their mud engineer, involving a detailed discussion of compressors that should be boring but that he instead finds thrilling for some reason, when one of the comms officer comes up to him and says, “London offices for you on channel four, sir.”

“London's radioing back?” Merlin asks, quite surprised to find that that's the case, considering he's spent more than a week trying to contact Pendragon headquarters in vain.

“Yes, sir, a Ms Eira Adams,” says the comms man.

“Mr Pendragon's PA?” Merlin asks, wondering why he rates her now, when he generally doesn't even get to so much as hear her voice.

The comms man shrugs. “I wouldn't know, sir.”

Merlin excuses himself and follows the comms man to the communication rooms, which lays a-top of the rig. The room is wide and flanked by huge windows overlooking the ocean. Today the view consists of a uniform wall of grey, such is the weather this far north. Still, Merlin, used to his windowless and cramped room, takes a second to take in the view. Then one of the radio operators hands him a pair of headphones and he has to settle into the chair offered him. Another one adjusts frequencies. Before he knows it, Merlin is talking to Ms Adams.

“Mr Emrys,” she says, her voice clipped, hurried, “I'm radioing you concerning the reports you sent in...”

“Oh, yeah,” Merlin says, sitting up. For the past two weeks he's been trying to suggest the opening of discussions on risk analysis and the possible refurbishment of the most dated machinery. He's fucking ecstatic to hear back. “I was waiting to hear from one of your onshore engineers...”

“We're a step ahead Mr Emrys,” Ms Adams says. “I'm currently radioing you from a chopper en route to Greenland. Mr Pendragon and his engineering expert, Mrs Caerleon, are with me.”

“What?” Merlin nearly falls off his chair. “I thought that I'd be talking to London first and then...”

“Expect us at 14.00,” Ms Adams says before cutting off communications.

“Crap,” Merlin says aloud, though he probably shouldn't. “Owner's coming.”

At the news the rig is all aflutter. The personnel hurries to clean the deck, finish minor structural repairs, and generally to get up to speed with their rota duties. The crew that's not needed at the pumps, wells, and reservoirs gathers around the landing strip. The mud engineer, operations manager, and construction supervisor are present, chomping at the bit to meet that phantom boss who's always talked about but never seen.

Teams of workers are also being paraded about. A variety of roughnecks, welders, drillers and roustabouts have been told to show up and are now standing in rows, their heads slightly bent, their hands clasped at their front, like lazy parade soldiers waiting to straighten up for the arrival of a decorated general. Unlike the more senior crew with high-paying jobs, they don't look quite as eager to meet the boss. The members of Lancelot's team, which includes Arthur, are all present and correct, but appear the be the least excited in the bunch.

Merlin sends Arthur one nervous smile before he has to brace for the helicopter landing. No sooner has it touched the ground than Uther Pendragon, sharply dressed, hops off, followed by two women, a tall blonde outfitted in a sharp suit, and an older woman whose her hair is fruitlessly bunched up in a bun that won't hold against the wind. Mr Pendragon is making his way over to Merlin's group, when he stops by Lancelot's. The sound of the rotors has died down, so his words resound as clear as day when he says to Arthur, “Oh, that's where you were hiding. Playing at menial labour instead of doing your duty by the company.”

Merlin freezes. He knows a moment of cognitive dissonance when he understands the words at a surface level but fails to truly comprehend them.

“Father,” Arthur then says, head held high. “I had to. If I'm to helm the company I have to understand how it works, from the inside out.”

“Nonsense,” Uther Pendragon sneers. “You don't have to know how to use a winch to chair a company.”

“No, but--”

“We'll talk about this later,” Mr Pendragon says dismissively, his voice sharp in a chorus of silence.

Merlin is quite distracted when the boss comes up to him. Though he muddles through giving him a guided tour, his head's not there at all. He rallies a bit when they discuss work-related issues, like the necessity of verifying and strengthening the BOP frame. “Especially when when it's under load.”

“I see,” Mr Pendragon tells Merlin, handing the reams of paperwork Merlin references to Mrs Caerleon instead of perusing them himself.

“We should buy new computerised equipment to run an in-depth analysis that would allow us to truly establish whether we should purchase new frames and angel wings,” Merlin says, trying to get into as professional a frame of mind as he can. “We also want to look into determining choke and kill connection overload risks. Oh, and upgrading our current BOPs for new load conditions is also something we should think about.”

“Let's talks costs,” Pendragon snaps.

The meeting isn't long. Pendragon wants to be back in London as quickly as he feasibly can. But it takes everything out of Merlin. He not only has to get technical with Annis Caerleon. He also has to talk figures to Mr Pendragon and impress upon him the necessity of getting new equipment. That's not exactly his field of expertise.

Still, he gets through it. It's only in the late afternoon that he gets to have a moment to himself to think about what he's learned today. With Uther Pendragon gone, he's at least got leisure to.

The short of it is that Arthur lied to him about who he really is. He played the roustabout and is instead the son of a man so rich he's in one of those Forbes lists. Merlin can't make head or tails of why Arthur would take up such a job as the one he currently holds. That's just mad. What hurts like a stab to the gut though is that Arthur chose to be silent about his real identity. He can only fancy he didn't want Merlin to know who he was because he believed Merlin would go for his money rather than the mans. Being thought of like that is so humiliating Merlin's stomach knots up.

He's pulling at his hair with the misery of it, when there's a knock to his door. “Come on, Merlin,” Arthur says, voice sounding distant because of the partition between them. “I know you're in there.”

“Bugger off, Arthur,” Merlin says, voice so low he's not fooling anyone as to how much he's upset.

“Let me explain, at least.”

Merlin flings the door open with much more force than necessary. “You don't have to,” he says hollowly.

Arthur pushes inside. “You know that's not true. I owe it to you.”

Merlin stumbles backwards, his legs rubbery. He sits at the end of his bed, head down, hands between his knees. “Mmm...”

Arthur paces the confines of Merlin's cabin, back and forth like a caged tiger. He's certainly taken over Merlin's space with his larger than life presence. The sad thing is that he still sparks want inside Merlin because of that very quality of his.

“I took this job because I wanted to understand what it took,” Arthur says, wiping at his mouth as he toes and froes. “I wanted to have a solid grasp of what I'm asking of the people working for me. I thought it was the only way I had to truly learn the business, without getting to the top in my twenties only by virtue of my name.”

Merlin makes a small noise to indicate he's listening.

“I wanted to be judged on my merits alone,” Arthur says with passion in his voice. “Just like the others.”

“Okay,” Merlin says, nodding, his lower lip sticking out. “Let's say I understand that. Not that I approve of all that subterfuge--”

“Lancelot knows,” Arthur puts in. “He always did.”

Merlin throws his head back and laughs. “Okay.”

“Merlin--” Arthur stops moving, reaches out for him.

“What you're saying,” Merlin sums up, “is that you had a reason for keeping your incognito. Okay, I get that. What you're saying is that you had a friend who knows--” Which, Merlin thinks but doesn't say, explains why Lancelot warned him about Arthur. “What you're saying is that you chose not to tell me.”

Arthur makes a pained, noise, looks away, then determinedly fixes his watery gaze on Merlin. “You were meant to be a one off.”

“Yeah,” Merlin says, mouth twisting while his heart petrifies. “I got that.”

“No, I,” Arthur says, lower lip pushing out. He breathes loudly, in and out, before reprising. “I liked you. I really did. I thought you the hottest man I've seen in ages.”

Merlin lets his sarcasm out when he says, “Why, thank you.”

Arthur ploughs over him. Merlin's sure he does it because he knows Merlin's about to tune him out. “And I wanted you. Generally, I can rein it in. But this time I couldn't. I haven't often had a chance to get with the people I truly like and...”

“I can't see why, little prince,” Merlin says, rueing the words before they're out of his mouth. He doesn't want to sound bitter. He doesn't even want to really lash out or hurt Arthur because he fucking loves him somehow. He just wants to be left to nurse his disappointment alone and in peace. So he can learn to breathe again with lungs that have turned to stone. “I thought people'd be queuing to bag you.”

“Maybe,” Arthur says, not faking humility. “But the people I want are never the people who'd go for the real me. ”

“In short you thought I'd be one of those social climbers who fuck people in exchange for fringe benefits,” Merlin says, though he doesn't want to. He doesn't really want to find out what Arthur thinks of him. “You thought I'd go for the money and status. That's what you didn't tell.”

“No,” Arthur says. “I wanted sex from you, true. Because you're... God, look at you. And maybe I could have stopped it at that. But then I found out more about you and you're just... different.”

“That's high praise.”

Arthur squares his shoulders; his jaw ticks. “I'm not good at... complimenting people but you're...You've got talent and you're a hard worker. You're quite humble and don't really know your own worth. And you're gutsy... I like that. I like all that.”

Merlin believes him. Arthur did sleep with him, so he must have liked something or other about him. “But you still didn't trust me one bit.”

“I didn't know you!” Arthur says. “The other night, when I saw you on deck, that was meant to be the last time I allowed myself to have sex with you.”

Merlin's temples pound like someone's hammering at his brain from the inside out. His eyes burn and his nose is so clogged he thinks a century of sniffling won't help with his breathing. And he doesn't want to be this mess, at least not in Arthur's presence, but it's not as if he can help it. “I think you got what you wanted.”

“No!” Arthur says it with a bang, like it's a shot in the night, coming from deep within his chest. “That's not what I meant at all. I was wrong. I was so wrong. I want us to have other times. I never consciously thought you'd date me for the money, I just didn't think to say...”

“Well, rationally I understand and all,” Merlin says, getting up. “I think I do anyway.”

Arthur botches a smile, a tenuous one, that can go either way, become brilliantly sweet or falter into nothingness. Merlin really wants to say something that'll make Arthur happy. But then he reckons he's not that instrumental to Arthur's happiness if Arthur was thinking of putting an end to them only the other night. “I--”

“I'll get you the funds for those renovations you're aiming for,” Arthur says, touching Merlin's above the wrist, were the bandage still is. “I'll talk to father and make sure he knows how clever and dedicated you are, how wonderful and quite brilliant...”

“Well, that'll help prevent an environmental disaster so I won't say no,” Merlin says. He closes his eyes before saying the rest. “But I don't quite think... I don't quite think we can have those other times you were talking about.”

Arthur's head snaps up. His pupils widen and there's this hurt look about him that encompasses both the dimming light in his eyes and the severe slump of his shoulders. “I-- I see. I deserved that, I suppose.” He slowly retreats until he's backed up against the door, his hand around the handle behind him. He seemingly scopes out Merlin's room as if some item in there can cue him as to what to say. “For what it matters, I am deeply sorry, Merlin. I am. I--” Arthur sucks in a rattled breath. “I never wanted to hurt you, quite the contrary, in fact.”

With that he's gone, taking a big chunk of Merlin's heart with him.

 

****

4

Living on a petroleum rig means that despite their break up, Merlin runs into Arthur more often than he would a normal ex, though he knows Arthur's making himself scarce on his behalf, working night shifts because Merlin isn't, and joining teams that rarely collaborate with Merlin's. That he knows of Arthur gets to see a lot of their grumpy, middle aged mud engineer.

Merlin ought to be thankful; for some reason, he isn't.

Getting these erratic glimpses of Arthur is, in fact, hell. Utter and complete hell. Partly it's because seeing Arthur reminds Merlin of Arthur's lack of faith in him, of how Merlin wasn't quite good enough to be more than the passing object of his lust. Not that there's anything wrong with lust, Merlin reflects, or that he wanted commitment after a shag, but he believes in playing on an emotional level field and they weren't. They weren't at all. Another reason for it being hell rests in Merlin's enduring fondness of Arthur. Feeling for someone the way he does while getting nothing much in return is a bitter pill to swallow. He would have loved to be a person Arthur could have confided in. And he would have quite liked to be the kind of bloke Arthur thought of as a fit partner. Because he can appreciate Arthur despite his faults and they're not that many.

For, in spite of his stab at passing himself off as someone he isn't, Arthur has loads of qualities. He works hard. He's serious and committed to his duties, even though Merlin learns by way of a quick google search he's qualified to do much more than unloading cargo and do repair work – a BSc in Economics and an MSc in Economics and Finance suggest that. Plus, Arthur's generous with his time and counsel, at least where his crew-mates are concerned.

Up till his outing he had been friendly with most of the crew. He's on more frigid terms with some of them now only because a bunch of the staff think of him as a pretentious liar, someone who's betrayed an untold pact of cameraderie. Merlin's heard the talk. “He only pretended to be chums with us,” a man on Lancelot's crew says within Merlin's hearing one day. “But the truth is he ain't. He's probably real posh.”

“That's not quite true,” Merlin finds himself saying though he wasn't invited to be part of that conversation. “I guess he just wanted to learn, bottom up.”

“Yeah, but he's got the choice, sir,” the same man as before says. “We don't.”

“You were friends with him before,” Merlin then points out, because it seems only logical. “Nothing has changed, it seems to me.”

“Except we know he's minted now, don't we?” someone else comments. “Makes a difference.”

Merlin doesn't try and change the men's minds. There's no point. They either will on their own or won't. Interference would probably make matters worse. Still, it breaks Merlin's heart to see Arthur shunned by his former mates.

Arthur's sitting by himself in the canteen, occupying a chair at the long breakfast table surrounded by loads of empty chairs, when Merlin says to himself 'to hell with it' and joins him.

Arthur's eyes widen and his cheeks redden. “Merlin,” he breathes out.

Merlin gives him a chocolate bar and a gentle smile. “They'll forgive you.”

Arthur's shoulders droop. “I don't think so. Say rather they'd love to stick my head on a pike.”

“Very revolutionary of them,” Merlin says, putting all he has in that smile of his so Arthur knows Merlin doesn't hate him at all. “But not really true.”

“Merlin,” Arthur says, his chest filling and then caving, “they think I'm a spoilt brat who's had it all and played at being poor for a lark...”

“Are you?” Merlin asks. “Any of those things?”

“Maybe I am spoilt,” Arthur says, his blush expanding so that both his neck and face are now a brighter pink than ever before. “But that's what it was all about. I was trying to teach myself how not to be, how to be one of the men, and it seems I failed spectacularly.”

Merlin bobs his head. “Try telling them that. It's a start.”

Arthur gnaws his lips, barks a short laugh, inspects his plate before fastening his eyes on Merlin. “Owning up to my failings, that's not easy, is it?”

“You're doing that now.”

“I'm talking to you now,” Arthur says, his fingers curling tightly inwards on the table.

“That's sort of the same though,” Merlin argues. Admitting to one's shortcomings the way Arthur just did takes a lot of courage anyway and the gist of Arthur's problem's the same as it relates to both Merlin and the crew. “As I see it at least.”

“No, not really,” Arthur says, bowing his head.

“I--” Merlin says, but then an alarm rings and there so time for that. Merlin scrapes his chair back and runs up on deck to find out what's going on.

The rig manager shouts out the information, "Night teams C and D were completing the construction of the sidetrack well we talked about when a fire broke out.”

“Shit,” Merlin says, “radio for help but first get me there so I can evaluate the damage.”

At a first glance Merlin asseses that the beams supporting the derrick and rig floor have folded and collapsed on one of the lower platforms. Sheets of flame leap and jump, corroding the firewalls, painting the pale, icy northern morning a red that bleeds dark. Smoke searing his lungs even though he's at a safe distance, Merlin says, “Get me the on-shift well controller. We're killing that well.”

“But--” the manager, sweating sheets, objects. “How--”

“For God's sake,” Merlin says, throwing his hands up in the air before he grabs the oxygen mask one of the fire-fighters already on alert throws at him. “Do you even know how to do your job?”

“We can let it burn,” the manager suggests, backing away towards the upper deck.

“And have an environmental disaster on our hands?” Merlin says, the brand of the fire warming his skin even as far away as he is. “No way.”

“I--”

“Do as he says,” Arthur says, nodding at him, eyes small against the glare of the fire.

“You have no formal auth--” the manager starts.

Arthur barks out a loud, confident, “I own the bloody place. Do as he says.”

“Yeah, yeah, right.” The manager starts radioing in the required personnel.

As he does, Merlin launches himself at a ramp of stairs that will get him closer to the fire so he can better assess the kind of intervention required. Arthur grabs him by the hand and stops him on the top landing. “Merlin--” he says, face sooty and sweat slick. “Watch out.”

“I know what to do,” Merlin says, since it's true. He has this. He can save the rig, and avoid massive scale ocean pollution, the works. “Arthur-- I.”

“Merlin, I don't--” Arthur says, lines of perspiration running down his face. He coughs a fat, raspy cough, and places his hand before his mouth. “Don't take risks.”

“I won't,” Merlin says. He has no intention of dying. He just wants to put out that bleeding fire. “Promise.”

“Just--” Arthur says then. “Put on that mask and let me come with.”

“Arthur, you're not certified for this either as an economics specialist or as a roustabout.”

“I know my limitations,” Arthur says. He studies Merlin as long and hard as the situation permits, his eyes darkening, a riot of fierce emotions welling in his eyes, his palm softly brushing Merlin's, fingers ghosting a centimetre away from his knuckles, before Arthur shakes himself off his apparent trance. Rolling his shoulders back and clenching his teeth, he adds drily, “My father owns this rig. Any casualty, any damage to the ecosystem is on me, Merlin, because I knew, just as I knew you'd be the one to have the courage to stand up to my father and ask for new mechanical supplies and systems checks. I can't stand by and watch. Let me take orders.”

Merlin moves his head up and down, jaw out. He understands the burden Arthur bears. It's probably bigger than Merlin's, and just as haunting. He also gets that Arthur isn't the kind of person that can stay uninvolved when someone – anyone – needs him. He can't send him in the line of – stupidly literally – fire, because Arthur's had little emergency training, but he can direct him to where he can make himself the most useful, where he can save lives. “Join Perce Strong's team,” he says, praying Arthur doesn't do anything stupid and self-sacrificial to make up for the stain on his family name this accident is going to engender. “He's at the pumps.” He doesn't say anything more – like, please, please, God, tell me you'll stay safe – because by then chief fire-fighter intercepts him and drags him to the under-platform closest to the fire.

For a second or so, Merlin's eyes don't leave Arthur's form, the silhouette of him as he stands on top of the metal stairs burnished by the reflection of the fire. He waits for as long as Arthur lingers. But when Arthur jogs down to Strong, Merlin makes himself swivel round and put his mind to the problem in hand.

After a heated discussion at the top of their lungs he, the constriction manager, and the head fire-fighter – a guy on the back of whose uniform the letters ALATOR are stamped – decide on the course of action they'll undertake. They end up going for the most practical solution.

A large pipe is lowered over the well-head, deflecting the flames away from the team Merlin accompanies. With the flames and smoke directed away, they work at well head. Under Merlin's direction they cut the main access-pipe sprouting into the well-head, then apply a new valve.

“Close,” Merlin yells.

Merlin watches, skin drenched with sweat, breathing ragged even through the mask, as the flames whoosh out.

A cheer cracks the air. The teams shout out in joy; men hug each other and jump around. Even those who are most tired from effort put in, flash smiles that puff their cheeks out.

Merlin just says, “Thank God,” and tumbles to his knees, dry retching, tasting bile, mostly out of nerves.

“Hey,” the chief fire-fighter tells him, passing him a Thermos of water, his face one big charcoal mask. “Chin up, boy. You did good. Fire's out. Well's secured. No victims, a couple of minor wounds. You did great.”

“Doesn't help,” Merlin says, as he tries to master the shakes that have overtaken him. He desperately wants for Arthur to take him in his arms right then, for very little else matters and he fears that all his doubts were but stupid and inconsequential in the face of... life. He spits out more acidic bile. “Shit.”

The head fire-fighter keeps dangling the Thermos in front of him. “It will. In a few days it's going to be the thing that matters most.” With that he trudges away, Thermos held loosely in his hand.

The aftermath of the fire is hell as well. It takes them two days to clear the debris, secure the damaged equipment in danger of collapsing – Arthur saves a roughneck from being hit by a pipe that suddenly splits in half and plummets towards him – and clearing out the foam the fire-fighters used to quell the flames.

The dawn of the third day sparks icy blue, when he asks of Freya, the chemical engineer, the most important question of all. “Environmental damage?”

“Thankfully we acted quick,” she says, seemingly avoiding answering until at last she does. “Close to none.”

A slab of granite is taken off Merlin's chest. After that he sleeps for two whole days, barring a few pauses in between. Nobody seems to mind.

A few days later, everything all right with the world, or at least the part of it Merlin lives in, body awakening to life and external stimuli, Merlin ventures out of his cabin. Lured in by one of the crispest mornings he's seen so far, colours sharp like pencil lines, Merlin reaches the topmost edge of the outer platform, works his legs over the safety rail and sits down, feet dangling in the void, foam churning underneath him in white frothy curls, the air tasting like salt and ice.

Lancelot, face dirty from work, finds him there and, without commenting on the peculiarity of Merlin's hangout, plonks down next to him. “Arthur said,” he says without any introductory greetings, “that you told him to go and apologise to the men, that it'd be all right if he did.”

“Not in so many words,” Merlin says, blinking against the sun shining behind Lancelot, a fiery orange ball that has no business blinding him so when it's still so cold. “I just suggested he might want to explain himself as he did to me.”

“Well, some of the men are coming round, think him a hero,” Lancelot says, kicking his feet in the void. “Some won't ever.”

“Yeah, that was to be expected,” Merlin says. “Some people like to stick to their opinions through thick or thin.”

“He can only do his best,” Lancelot says meaningfully.

“That's what I—“ Merlin thinks Lancelot's words over. “You think that applies to me too?”

“He looks up to you,” Lancelot says, saying it slowly as if to let the words sink in. “He wants nothing but your good opinion and thinks, and I'm quoting, he's now beneath it.”

Merlin stares straight ahead, unblinking, tearing up, heart blooming with so much warmth for Arthur his bones threaten to melt and his flesh to fuse. “He most definitely isn't.”

“You mean the world to him,” Lancelot continues as if Merlin hadn't said what he just has. “I can see where he's coming from. I also think, however, that you should take a leaf out of my crew's book and give him a chance.”

Merlin wants to say it's different for him, that he had sex with Arthur, that he gave him something that has zero to do with sex and a lot to do with desperate devotion. He wants to say that forgiving and forgetting when you've put your stupid heart on the line isn't easy. Risking it again feels next to impossible. He wants to shout, 'I'm not really that brave and I don’t want to break. And Arthur can, he can break me. He has a little already'. He wants to say he's being wise, salvaging the little pieces of him that, patched up and glued together, still hold a semi-stable front. But he doesn't say any of that. He stands. “I have to write a report about the damages the fire caused.”

Lancelot shouts after his retreating form, “Think about what I said at least.”

 

*****

5

Merlin uses his shore leave to deliver his report. After a helicopter flight to Nuuk and regular commercial one to London, he enters Uther Pendragon's office one bright morning at ten o clock sharp.

Mr Pendragon is sitting at his desk, a wall-wide window allowing glimpses of The Shard back-lighting him. When Merlin enters, report in hand, Uther puts his fountain pen down. “Ah, Mr Emrys,” he says, “Please take a seat.”

With legs heavy as lead, Merlin walks to it and sinks into the leather swivel chair Mr Pendragon indicated. “Here's an account of what happened,” Merlin says, handing in his report. “With details as to the measures taken to counteract damages, a list of the preventative ones adopted to prevent such accidents from happening in future and--”

Mr Pendragon takes the folder Merlin gave him and drops him without opening it. “I'll pass it on to the experts,” he says.

Merlin swallows thickly. “Yes, sir.”

“Seeing as the matter of the fire is being looked into, we can bypass that,” Mr Pendragon says, rooting inside a drawer.

For lack of a better thing to say, Merlin once again mumbles, “Yes, sir.”

Uther Pendragon nudges an envelope across the glass covered surface of his desk. “Pick that up.”

Merlin goes cold at the neck and temples. So this is how he is given the sack. Never mind that he complained and complained about the machinery being old, he's the one to suffer for Uther Pendragon's choice not to swiftly intervene. “So I'm to be the scapegoat,” he says rather angrily, his jaw cramping he's clenching it so hard. “I asked for systems check and begged for the acquisition of more modern machinery. I bloody told you, but you were too busy counting pennies.” The chair lands backward with a dull thud and Merlin realises that he's sent it toppling as he rose to his feet. “And now you give me the sack! You're such a big-headed, pretentious corporate wanker.”

Uther's eyes flash and narrow. Merlin's quite sure the man's going to have him not only fired but arrested as well, but instead of calling security, he says, “Open the letter, Mr Emrys.”

Dry mouthed, Merlin does. If nothing else, he's quite curious about this development. With a rather ferocious topside rip, the envelope is torn open and the contents, in the form of two printed sheets, spill out. Merlin starts reading. It's a sea of legal blah blah blah, but by line ten he understands what the communication is about. “This is a promotion.”

“My son was so kind as to point out to me what you did,” Uther Pendragon says, waving his hand about, “namely that you predicted a lot of what happened, that you saved the rig with your actions, at great risk to life and limb, and that we should have listened to you. Saving money is important but allocating it wisely so that Pendragon can grow – and in all safety – is important too. Nobody wants government investigations.”

Merlin dimly understands what Mr Pendragon is saying, he even catches a whiff of his very practical outlook on the matter – but all he's fit to think is 'Arthur', and all he's fit to say is, “A promotion?”

“Yes, Mr Emrys,” Mr Pendragon says as though he thinks Merlin very stupid. “It's in black and white.”

Merlin puts the letter down. He stands very upright, as though he's about to meet the Queen or something. “Well, then,” he says, “I thank you but... I quite love working where I do, if it's all right with you.”

“You do?” Pendragon says, eyebrow shooting up incredulously. “You'd genuinely give up both promotion and raise?”

“Yeah,” Merlin says, looking slightly to the left of Mr Pendragon's shoulder. “I'd love to be given a chance to increment safety measures on the rig, and to improve its yield. I know I can.”

Mr Pendragon gives Merlin a severe once over, one that Merlin thinks is a prelude to his being laid off for having dared to turn down such an advantageous proposition. “Yes, I'm sure you can.” He inclines his head like a king knighting a loyal follower. “The job is yours.” He flutters a hand about. “That is, your current one.”

Merlin knows he's smiling giddily when he says, “Thank you, sir.”

“You can go Mr Emrys.”

Merlin bounds over to the door, his legs feeling much lighter, as does his chest. He's almost opened the door enough for him to slink unobtrusively out, when Mr Pendragon says, “Arthur is right. You're quite special, Mr Emrys.”

 

****

6

 

The energising, blissed out rhythms of Mad Sound pound his ears as his feet plough the asphalt. Though he's wearing little more than a flimsy hoodie, he's covered in sweat, a result of getting used to the frosty Greenland weather and of the mileage he's already run. He covers the last stretch of his jog in big thundering strides, his breath coming faster than before. His soles shriek to a halt when, a few yards shy of his mum's house, he spies a staggeringly white convertible that has no business being in this neighbourhood. It's parked a couple of meter's away from the Emrys' door, hood up, and looks quite conspicuous.

In spite of his surprise at seeing the car, Merlin reprises his jog, wiping the sweat off his face with his sleeve.

When, practically in sight of his house, he slows to a walk, the car door opens. Arthur ducks out, palms up. He says something Merlin can't quite hear over the voice of Alex Turner.

Merlin takes his earphones out. Voice gusty, he says, “I didn't hear you.”

“I said,” Arthur says, walking around the car, “that I'm not stalking you.”

“I never gave you my address,” Merlin deadpans.

Arthur blanches. “Okay, I asked Eira to find it for me. Apparently it was hard, because you gave up your London flat, so she had to nose around to locate your mum, so technically, yeah, I sort of--”

Merlin laughs. “I was having you on. I'm not cheesed off.”

“You're not?” Arthur's lips edge upwards. “I thought you'd be.”

After having climbed the steps to his mum's door, Merlin fishes his keys out of his hoodie pocket. “And yet you braved my wrath and came.”

Arthur stands at the base of the steps, watching as Merlin negotiates the rusty lock. “Yeah, yeah, I had to find you and say the one thing I didn't say.”

With an ominous crack of tumblers, the door opens. “I should oil that.”

Arthur stays put.

“Aren't you coming in?” Merlin asks, tilting his head in the direction of the hall.

“Is your mum home?” Arthur asks, sliding his hands in the pockets of his finely starched trousers.

“Are you fifteen?”

“No, I--” Arthur's cheeks puff out.

“Come in, dolt,” Merlin tells him, throwing the door wider open and bounding inside, past the hall and into the kitchen, only to stick his head into the fridge.

Arthur must still be in the hall, for his voice sounds distant when he says, all polite and proper, “May I?”

Merlin turns, wielding a huge bottle of Buxton water. “Yeah, of course.”

Arthur leans against the range, mindful of his suit. “I-- um.”

Heart hammering in his chest, Merlin tilts his head back and drinks a large gulp of water. “You wanted to say something,” he says, a droplet Arthur seems to be quite stuck on staring at, meandering down his chin. “But I want to say something too. And I would have, once I got back to the rig.” He smiles, feeling like the floor is opening beneath him, ready to swallow him if he says what he's been contemplating telling Arthur for the past few weeks. He's stayed shacked up at his mum's, thinking of little else, and he's come to no other conclusion. Chickening out now makes no sense. “You hurt me.” He starts in a small voice that startles Arthur into straightening, into wanting to talk. Merlin makes a sign, asking him to be listen first. “A lot actually. I... God, I felt like I was kicked in the guts. A total ball of misery, unhappiness. And I may not be deep into self-analysis but I knew why that was.”

“Why then?” Arthur asks, eyes ever so round.

“For fuck's sake,” Merlin says, abruptly perhaps, but fully spontaneously. “Why do you think?”

“I don't know,” Arthur says, shaking his head, the picture of confusion. “I really... I mean obviously I lied and lies are hurtful and...”

“Arthur,” Merlin says, a note of exasperation at Arthur's inability to understand drowning his fear of putting himself out there. “You impressed me. Quite a lot. I... was... was a goner for you the moment you kissed me, okay?”

Arthur goes so bright eyed it'd be nearly silly, if it wasn't so damn endearing. “You were?”

“Yeah,” Merlin says, distinctly picking out the out of synch beats of his heart. “And I think I was halfway in love in you by the time you... we had sex and after that I think I-- I just feel, Arthur, I don't reason much, ask my mum. And I--”

Arthur throws his head back and laughs, boisterous, his fringe dancing with his guffaws. “Oh, shit.”

Merlin goes colder as if someone had dunked him in Greenland waters. “Yeah, right. I'm a fool aren't I?” He puts the bottle down with a thunk that rattles the drainer.

Arthur stalks out to him, grabs him by the shoulder. “God, don't,” he says, good humour dancing in his eyes and turning them a shade of blue Merlin thinks the most gorgeous ever. “I was laughing because I came here... I came here because Lancelot pointed out--”

Merlin's lost. His brow forms wrinkle upon wrinkle, he's sure. “Lancelot?”

“Just listen, okay?” says Arthur, as impatient to finish his muddled speech as Merlin was before when he had the floor. “When I told him what I'd said to you, Lancelot pointed out that I'd failed to make one thing clear to you when I apologised.”

Merlin doesn't think he has the emotional capacity to continue this conversation for much longer. One moment his heart is in chunks someone – mainly, Arthur – is stepping on, and the next hope surges through him and makes him feel larger than life. And the one following... the one following he is being tugged this way and that by both emotions – plus a sprinkle of panic – and made a mess of. It's too much. “And...” Merlin asks, all croaky, “What is that?”

“That I didn't tell you my number one reason for making a play for you, even if I know that you're probably far better off without me.”

“You're doing it on purpose now,” Merlin says, glaring at Arthur – though incidentally he doesn't think he can properly scowl at him, not really, because he's rather too sweet on Arthur.

“That reason being that I think you're quite lovely and all these other things that take my breath away every time I see you. And since I don't really suffer from asthma and I'm on the contrary a hundred percent healthy, I think that's because I fell hook, line and sinker for you.”

Merlin chuckles in a stupidly lively way. “You think?” he says, though by now he doesn't need to hear it.

“No, I know--”

Merlin fits their lips together and indulges in a kiss that's like getting back into the groove of Arthur, hesitant, playful, exploratory, deep at last. “Likewise.”

“Likewise, likewise!” Arthur says, huffing against Merlin's lips. “I had this wonderful declaration, semi ready and all you can say is...”

“I'm not that good with words either,” Merlin says, happiness licking at his heels as he tugs Arthur's upstairs. “But all I meant was I hope this can be that one time that gives birth to all those other times you told me you wanted to have.”

The End.