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The Murmur of Yearning

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“You know, we don’t usually allow these kind of flights in the winter? It’s dangerous. Almost impossible to see, the wind kicks up. Fueling gets complicated. You should consider yourself lucky you don’t have to make another drive.”

Link pulled his beanie down over his eyes to blot out the world, grateful that the chatty pilot couldn’t see his exasperation. Hell, the desire for any sort of banter had eked out of him weeks ago, yet he had to endure. Half hoping his mic had a loose cord, he responded.

“How much longer ‘til we land?”

A curt laugh came through his headphones. “I can tell it’s your first time. Sorry, sir. We’ll be landing in just a few minutes. This field site is a bit closer than some of the other ones, so you’re in luck. Almost there.”

Almost there. The words had been rolling around in Link’s head for the better of three days now and didn’t mean anything to him anymore. He was in a limbo of ‘almost there.’ A frigid, merciless, black-skied liminal space he’d grown to hate with every inch of his person. The constant growl of engines were the new soundtrack to which he lived his life--a life he’d spent the last month of in commute from McMurdo Station to Amundsen-Scott, and now further to his designated campsite.

Just because he’d taken this job didn’t mean he had to enjoy the details of it. He wasn’t a bad researcher for hating how miraculously inaccessible and isolated Antarctica was. He was only human.

At the time of the offer, it’d set his sense of adventure on fire. The government wanted to pay him--a little-known professor with a doctorate in ecology--a ridiculous amount of money to join a team. Four scientists on the western ice sheet at the bottom of the world, and he was to be the fifth, one of two in the carbon recording field. He’d been flown in to replace an injured researcher, from what he could remember.

Four months in one of the most fascinating biomes on Earth. The opportunity of a lifetime.

Regret would’ve been too strong a word to condemn this experience with yet, but getting to the field site had been pure hell thus far... and his job hadn’t even started.

Long ago he’d stopped peering out the windows of the vehicles he traveled in. The excitement had turned into a horrifying realization that when there weren’t towns to look at, the horizon was just nothingness. The sun never rose. The cold never eased. Over time he’d learned to bury his nose into his shirt to savor the warmth of his own breath, which escaped the fibers of his long-johns in puffs of vapor.

When the pilot spoke again, it was into a radio.

“Otter 24k to Field Site 466, requesting skiway clearance for landing.”

The words caught and held Link’s attention, and he listened with bated breath.

“Field Site 466 to Otter 24k,” replied a woman’s voice in his ears, “skiway is clear. Exterior lights on. Clear for landing. Please take precautions. Good luck.”

Good luck? Pulling his hat up, Link squinted through the windshield of the passenger plane, challenging the darkness before them. He didn’t realize they were touching down until parallel rows of black flags breached the inky fog on either side of the craft, and the entire thing shook and rattled as it began its lengthy slide to a stop.

Once everything stilled, nothing had changed. The engine cut, and the pilot was moving to unbuckle himself from his seat, but out there in the tundra was still… nothing. The headlights fell onto pristine, untouched stretches of white and more flags.

“We’re here?” Link asked in a daze, plucking off his aviation headset.

“Yep,” the pilot responded boredly, opening the craft and kicking out into the frozen. Link hesitated before following suit, throwing his own door open and landing in the snow with a loud crunch.

Then it was there in front of him. A light in the distance. A glowing orb floating in space, the cut metal door below existing only in a curtain of light in the perpetual night.

Almost there.

Link jolted when the pilot thrust his backpack and duffel bag into his unsuspecting arms.

“Carry these? I gotta haul the supplies.”

“Sorry,” Link breathed, slipping his belongings onto his shoulders. “Can I help?”

“Even if I wanted help, you can’t. Against policy,” the pilot chuckled, slamming a hefty box down onto the ice. “Besides, you should go ahead. Get acquainted with your new housemates.”

Link did a double take between the ethereal door and his busied chauffeur. “I just walk up, and…?”

“Knock. Might feel alien out here, but we’re still human.”

Swallowing, Link adjusted his grip on his bags and finished the last stretch of his journey home for the next four months.

The metallic door boomed in the hush of whistling winds when he rapped his knuckles against it. Not a full second passed before it swung open and a young woman bundled from head to foot filled the doorway. The only part of her that wasn’t covered were her striking blue eyes, and she looked Link up and down swiftly.

“Doctor Neal. Come on in.”

She shifted to let him pass, putting one foot past the threshold to yell to the pilot as Link limped into the small, warmly-lit foyer. “Thanks, John! I’ll come collect them in a minute.”

With the door shut, suddenly Link was in a different world. The tight space was illuminated with a dim bulb that was blinding compared to the world outside. Snow caked and slumped near the door in preserved piles from boots trekking in. The walls were metal-- everything was metal--but tarps draped across them, padding and protecting them from the elements.

The woman pulled her head from its wrappings and shook out her neat-cut blonde hair. “Welcome, Neal. We’re glad to have you. I’m Jen Matichuk, and I am the lone astronomer at this site.” She offered a thickly gloved hand to Link, which he took and tried his best to squeeze in greeting.

“Nice to meet you, Doctor Matichuk.”

She smiled. “I know you’re exhausted, but the rest of the team is waiting in the common area. They’re excited to meet you. Not often we get a new face.” She crossed her arms and took a long time examining Link’s boots. “You at least have to say hello before turning in for the evening.”

“Okay.” Link didn’t realize he was out of breath until Jen smirked at him and pointed to his duffel bag. “I can take that to your room for you, if you like.”

“Ah, I’ve got it. Thanks though.”

“Suit yourself. If you’ll excuse me, Neal, I have cargo to tend to.”

Hearing his last name without the usual “doctor” tacked on before it would take getting used to, but he’d assumed last names would be preference here. When he’d read the information packet, the first thing he’d noted was that everyone here held a PhD. This was a group of equals--addressing one other with honorifics would get tiresome quickly.

With Matichuk gone, Link turned to face the inner sliding door, flexing his fingers to regain feeling before letting himself in.

The scene he opened it to was jarringly domestic.

A long room stretched before him. It started in a living area, dressed in warm orange lights with a couch and armchairs and a low coffee table--all arranged to face a projection screen on the wall across. Past that was a kitchen and a single picnic-style dining table. Racks of skis and ski poles, blankets, flatware, radios, and various other amenities lined the edges of the room on tall orange shelves, too much for Link to take in before addressing his colleagues.

Three people were here; the remainder of his housemates.

A young man with a round face and wispy brown beard sat on the couch, his limbs spread to lounge and smiling cordially. A second fellow with slight features, a baseball cap, and glasses had stopped doing dishes to gape along his shoulder at Link. And then the third, far too large for his seat at the dining table, who held a steaming coffee cup paused at lip-height. From between his wild, dark-blonde hair and full beard, he stared at the newcomer over reading glasses with profound severity until Link cleared his throat.

“Hello… everyone,” Link offered, sidling into the room with his bags.

“Welcome, Doctor Neal,” sang the boy from the couch, giving an amicable wave. “We’re glad to have you. We all look forward to working with you.”

“Yeah, for sure,” added the man doing dishes, tossing a dishrag over his shoulder. “Not a lot of people would volunteer for emergency night shift in this hellhole, no matter the compensation.”

“Chase Hilt,” introduced the boy from the couch, not missing a beat. “I’m Scherer’s research assistant here for the sequestration readings, despite the fact we have the same credentials.” He shot a humored glance over his shoulder at the one in the kitchen, who pointed back defiantly.

“Says the one who stipulated it that way in the grant request! You know as well as I do that it’s a partnership.”

Link chuckled through his fatigue, resting his bag on the floor. “Hilt, Scherer. Good to meet you, finally.” When he turned his attention to the man at the dining table, his smile ebbed. The guy was hunched forward, reading a book and drinking deep from his mug. Totally disinterested in Link’s grand arrival.

“I’m guessing… you’re Doctor McLaughlin?” The question was forced out cheerfully, an attempt to make light of the rude reception from the only person yet to speak.

“Mmm,” the man rumbled into his drink, blinking lazily, eyes fixed to his book. It wasn’t even enough to know whether the noise was meant as confirmation, or appreciation of his beverage.

“Don’t let him get to you,” Hilt said coolly, getting up to stand by Link. “Mick’s been here a really long time… way longer than any of us. He’s a good guy once you get to know him. He’s just… like that.”

“I can hear you,” the large one warned, turning a page in his book.

“‘Mick?’” Link echoed, brow furrowed.

“Oh, yeah. McLaughlin is a mouthful, so we shortened it for him.” Hilt grinned and set his hands on his hips. “Not as fun to say as ‘Matichuk,’ you know?”

“Hey, uh, Mick,” Link tried with a halfhearted nod.

When Mick finally looked up from his book and set his mug down, Link’s chest swelled with the satisfaction of acknowledgment… which rapidly deflated once Mick gave him a once-over and picked his mug back up.

“He’s gonna lose it out here,” Mick stated, finding his place in his novel.

Link felt his jaw go slack, indignant as he glanced from Scherer to Hilt. Scherer was quick to react, sweeping in and taking Mick’s coffee from him. “You can’t play nice with the other kids, you don’t get Josh Coffee.”

“Hey!” Mick barked, hands up at a loss. After Scherer dumped his mug into the sink and turned to give him a biting stare, he flopped his arms down onto the table. “Don’t waste supplies like that. I should write you up.”

When Matichuk came back inside carrying a massive box of supplies, she didn’t look perturbed that Scherer and Mick were hot at each other’s throats.

“You’d write me up over a cup of coffee?” Scherer scoffed incredulously, his smile fading fast.

“Damn straight. I was drinking that, you wasteful asshole.”

“It’s 9pm! You don’t need caffeine this late in the evening anyway!”

“I forgot you were the site dietitian. Oh wait--you’re not,” Mick smiled, shutting his book, taking off his glasses, and turning to face the other. “You just think you are.”

Link swallowed and spared another glance at Matichuk. She was watching the ceiling, face tired in a way that could only mean not again .

You wanna cook the meals? Be my guest,” Scherer shot back. He put his full weight against the counter and watched Mick defiantly.

“No one assigned you that responsibility. It’s not our fault you missed your calling for culinary school.”

“Really, you guys?” Matichuk piped up, letting the box in her arms free-fall to the floor in a crash. “Neal just got here. Scherer, don’t antagonize him. Mick, what’s your deal?”

Mick jumped on the question like a wolf presented with fresh game, teeth bared and eyes piercing. “My deal is that they keep sending us these baby-faces to work with, damn well knowing what’s gonna happen to ‘em. I read through ‘Doctor Neal’ here’s background history. You know what he does for a livin’, up north? He’s a professor. They keep feeding people who aren’t ready for this environment into my damned team, and it shows!”

When Mick rose from his seat like a brewing storm, his head nearly hit the ceiling. Dread drove Link back a step into the wall, as if the giant wasn’t halfway across the room.

“Y’all act like you don’t know that’s what happened to Punch, but you do. He broke. Kept it in until he lost it. The kid’d been here longer than all of you!” Mick snatched his novel from the tabletop and headed for the mouth of a hallway at the far end of the kitchen. “I’m sick of them promising glamour to folks naive enough to come searchin’ for some sort of experience out of this shit.”

He vanished into the unit. Seconds later, a door slammed somewhere.

Link swallowed once, twice, looking between the remaining three researchers to read their reactions. When Hilt turned to him with the same, unaffected smile, Link’s eyebrows rose, uneasy.

“Want to watch a movie with us? I’ve got The Thing on my iPod.”

 

 


 

 

The incident from the common room cycled through Link’s head on loop as bathwater gushed and gurgled into the tub, filling the washroom in an unfathomably pleasant blanket of steam. He shed his dirty clothes to the floor, too distracted to let the sour stench of sweat and dirt from a month of traveling and sink-baths get to him.

Once the basin had filled with promises of cleanliness, Link lowered himself into the water and instantly felt the difference on his bruised muscles. He sank down to his chin, letting out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, loving the way the warmth coiled into his nose and lungs.

After the initial soreness had eased, the heat working over his limbs like meat set to thaw, there was nothing to keep Link from obsessing over the apparent work environment nightmare he’d gotten himself into. He’d only just arrived, and already one of the four people he had to work with-- live with--hated him. Mick hadn’t even spoken to him directly, just tried to disengage until the others had made him explode--like cutting the wrong wires on a bomb.

Part of him felt guilty--as if he’d entered a stranger’s house and upset the balance of their home life. The disappointment on Matichuk’s face when she’d returned to find that an argument had riled up the team? He’d caused that.

Another part of him was angry. This field site didn’t belong to Mick. It was a workplace. A hostile one, apparently.

The time he’d spent looking over the federal dossiers about his position and expectations had given him the information he needed to handle a professional job:

You have been assigned to the Carbon Record team, headed by lead researcher Rhett McLaughlin, Field Site 466. All reports and findings must be turned into and/or discussed with McLaughlin; during your time in-field, McLaughlin will act as your direct supervisor.

Or that was everything he’d thought he’d needed to know. They didn’t mention his veteran status at the post, nor any potential emotional or mental instabilities. Maybe he didn’t have any. Maybe it was just Link that had set him off.

Link rested his chin on the side of the tub, regretting it when the bite of cold metal seared his skin. With a resigned sigh he picked up the bar of soap and started scrubbing, washing the filth from his pits and groin.

The last part of him was undeniably wounded. Childish as it was to admit, he had never handled conflict and confrontation well; even problematic students in his classes who got aggressive over grades or attendance issues typically ruined his day--and that had been in the born-and-raised comfort of North Carolina.

Amazing, how even in the most forsaken land in the world, he still had the capacity to be soft-skinned.

Was he really just a glory-hunter? Seeking some sort of self-satisfaction from taking this position? It aligned with the excitement that had coursed through him upon receiving the offer...

He slipped beneath the water’s surface to wet his hair before massaging his roots with shampoo, rubbing too hard and too hurried.

Even if he was, it was too late to feel bad about it. He’d just have to tough it out--both of them would. Like it or not, Mick had to work with him. It was his job. They didn’t have to be friendly with one another to complete the tasks they were here for. Besides, the other team members had been perfectly pleasant right off the bat: Matichuk, with her powerful aura and peacekeeping agenda; Scherer, with his good sense of humor and backbone of steel; Hilt, the spot of unflinching sunshine in a sunless world.

They would get him through this. They’d be his support system for dealing with Mick.

As he unplugged the tub--body more tender than it had been in months--Link envisioned his anxieties draining out with the cloudy water.

 

 


 

 

“So, this is your room,” Matichuk indicated, opening yet another ubiquitous steel door and allowing Link entry into a space not much larger than a closet.

“Thank you.” Link hauled his bags into the tight quarters.

“Sure. The bed is a twin, so it’ll take some adjusting to get used to. Do whatever you want with your space, just make sure communal areas are kept free of your personal belongings. Wake-up is technically at eight, but since there’s no day or night here, we tend to be pretty leisurely with when we tackle our daily duties. ‘Cept Mick,” she nodded, then gave Link an apologetic look. “Which… I guess that means you get up at eight.”

“Understood. Thanks for everything. I know it wasn’t your job to welcome me, so I appreciate it,” Link admitted, unable to resist plopping down onto his bed in heat-fed exhaustion.

“No problem. I wouldn’t trust those dorks to welcome a stranger properly. And uh… don’t let Mick get to you, yeah? He’s really not a bad guy. He just cares too much.” She watched Link with a sympathetic grimace. “Works too hard.”

Link shrugged listlessly. “I’ll see, I guess. Don’t have much choice.”

Chapter Text

When the shrill beep of his alarm went off at 07:30 the next morning, Link rose from bed with a vengeance, fighting off his fatigue like it was a demon on his back. Pulling his wool pants and fleece shirt over top of his long johns, he prayed it would be enough under expedition gear to keep him intact on his first voyage into the merciless tundra.

It was a new day. He was going to do his job and keep his nose to the grindstone. No emotions, no time for feelings or lingering on last night. Pure business. Fishing a pack of instant coffee crystals from his things, Link headed for the common area.

When he stepped into the homey space, Scherer was already there--bright-eyed and busied over three steaming bowls. The jovial, carefree tune he whistled made Link hesitate in the doorway, watching Scherer’s back, feeling his resolve to remain distant for the day come to heads with the presented portrait.

There was a semblance there of something wildly unfamiliar to him. Even in college, Link had lived alone in a cramped apartment, and after graduation that had never changed. No roommates, no spouse--no time spent living with a significant other tucked under his belt. And although he’d known he would be living with others, he hadn’t counted on how intimate it would feel to watch someone cooking food for others. For him. Not since he’d lived with his parents had he been doted on.

He was considering skipping coffee and grabbing a granola bar from his pack to preserve the mindset he’d ramped into when his elbow knocked the wall in clumsy betrayal.

“Oh!” Scherer jumped, sparing a glance over his shoulder before smiling affably. “Morning, Neal. I’ve got coffee and oatmeal for you, if you’re hungry.”

Link let his mouth open and close a few times, then snuck the coffee packet into his pocket. “That… that sounds great, actually.”

“Good to hear! The oatmeal has dried apricots in it, with a teaspoon of sugar. Hope you like it,” Scherer chirped, whisking a bowl and cup over to the table and gesturing for Link to have a seat. “I don’t have much to work with for breakfast, but dinner will be better. Promise.”

Link permitted a warm smile as he slid into the bench seat. He wasn’t sure of the last time he’d eaten anything with something as fancy as apricot in it, and it smelled amazing. Funny, that he’d get nice cuisine here. “Do you always cook?”

Scherer shrugged, returning his attention to the other bowls. “Usually, yeah. I know I don’t have to, but it makes me happy. A good way to spend my downtime.”

“That’s cool, man. I thought maybe you did it because someone ordered you to, or… maybe because you felt obligated.” Link desperately steered the conversation away from what felt to be the inevitable mention of the site leader. “But it’s nice that it’s gratifying to you, too. Everyone wins.”

Scherer gave a tickled laugh as he started doctoring another. “I have to admit, it’s nice having another morning person with us. I mean, Hilt is always in a good mood, but sometimes I think Mick and Matichuk will kill me if I speak to them before they’re ready to socialize.”

That didn’t surprise Link.

“I dunno whether I’m necessarily a morning person, but that was the best sleep I’ve had in weeks.” Despite this truth, Link cast his gaze across the room at the lounge area, staring at nothing. It hadn’t been a lie--sleeping in moving vehicles wasn’t an issue, but it always left him banged up with cricks in his neck. He wasn’t well -rested.

“I know what you mean.”

“So… carbon sequestration, huh,” Link said around the lip of his mug. “Important work you’re doin’ with Hilt. More important than the readings Mick and I will be taking.”

Scherer cleared his throat to reply when Link--having finally tasted the coffee--gasped.

“Holy shit. This is delicious.” He gawked between his drink and the house chef, stunned. “Is this what you called ‘Josh Coffee’ last night?”

Scherer melted into a long, rolling laugh, clapping in satisfaction and bobbing his head. “Yeah, man! I’m really glad you like it! It’s a hazelnut brew with nutmeg and cinnamon, and just a dash of chili powder. Brought everything from home to make it.”

“Holy shit,” Link repeated into the blessing, draining the rest of it in one go as Scherer chuckled. “No wonder Mick got angry that you threw his out. This is amazing.”

“Let me know if you want more. Happy to make it.”

He could’ve drank a gallon of the stuff, and was about to take Scherer up on the offer when a third person loomed into the kitchen, leaning on the door frame.

“Josh. Coffee,” Mick growled, his eyes still worn shut with sleep.

Scherer spun and gave Link an amused look before passing a full cup to Mick. “That’s where the name came from.”

As quickly as he’d appeared, Mick was gone, and Link couldn’t help but notice that Scherer was still in a remarkably good mood despite the curt demand. The guy hadn’t even said ‘please’ or ‘thank you.’ Did he always just not care about how he came across? Even with the coworkers he’d been living with…?

No, he reminded himself sternly. That seed wouldn’t sprout. Not today.

Lost in his thoughts and oatmeal and struggling to focus on any of the small quips Scherer tossed his way, Link jumped when minutes later a fully fixed-up Mick returned and set his drained mug into the sink with more force than necessary. He wheeled about to stare down at Link, who wiped his mouth dumbly.

“You ready? You don’t look ready.”

 

 


 

 

Even fully prepared to go outside--decked out from head to foot in thermal gear, eye protection, top-of-the-line boots, and the best waterproof pants money could buy--Link still couldn’t escape the dissatisfied glare with which Mick blocked the entryway. He peered down past the pack of testing equipment in his arms, boring a hole into Link that should’ve been reserved for the ice outside.

“Is something wrong?” Link hazarded, glancing down at his outfit. Everything he wore had been marked and approved by officials. It was all up to standards. And it had cost him over a thousand dollars. He’d been reimbursed, but. Still.

“Are those the gloves you’re wearing?” Mick’s tone told Link he was in the wrong regardless of his answer.

“Yeah. We’re about to leave, aren’t we?” The retort came out hotter than he’d intended, but Mick just pressed his lips into a thin line and shoved an industrial flashlight into Link’s arms.

“They’re your fingers,” he mumbled, and turned to open the door to the outside.

Darkness. Even after his commute, Link didn’t think he would ever get used to it being pitch black outside in the morning. And the afternoon. And the evening. And always.

“Stay close. Don’t wander off,” Mick commanded, at which Link let out a vexed sigh.

“I’m not an idiot.”

“Those gloves say otherwise,” he responded easily, so nonchalant that Link couldn’t find the spark to defend himself.

With long strides Mick took out into the snow, jutting off at a hard angle and disappearing instantly. Link panicked until he found Mick’s flashlight beam and hurried to stay on his superior’s tail, doubling his usual pace to keep up. It wasn’t an easy task, power-walking through snow in thermal gear. Like trying to run in molasses.

Each question that tempted Link’s lips died as he imagined the responses they would earn. You’ll see. Stop talking. Are you qualified to do this or not? He would just have to treat this the same way he watched movies--keep watching, and it would all make sense soon. And if it didn’t, he could try to find answers later.

When Mick’s light swiveled in the air and landed on Link’s feet, he stopped.

“Get on,” Mick ordered.

“Get on…?”

A huff cut through the air and Mick angled his torch to reveal a red snowmobile pressed against the side of the building. It was mostly sheltered from the wind, snow only slightly encroached onto the front skis.

“Think you can manage?” Mick deadpanned, already exasperated enough to make Link’s cheeks burn.

“You want me to drive?” he asked, staring at the splash of color. A promised opportunity for him to humiliate himself.

“Just get on.” Mick bowed as if the gesture would be easy enough for a dog to understand.

Speechless, Link did so, grateful for the padding his tundra pants provided against the frozen seat.

He’d never driven a mobile before. Heart kicking his ribs, he could already imagine exactly what was going to happen: he’d run them into a snowbank, or crash into the only building out here, or manage to run out of gas even though that wouldn’t technically be his fault, or--

That’s when Mick’s weight fell in line behind him, arms reaching around Link to grasp the handlebars. Without a second thought, the guy scooted up to press his chest to Link’s back.

Link’s throat tightened when Mick’s head suddenly hovered over his shoulder, his beard scratching right at the spot on his beanie where his ear hid underneath. Stunned into stillness, he watched, dazed, as Mick leaned them both forward and slipped a key into the ignition. The vehicle hummed to life.

“I’m not driving?” Link whispered to himself, and nearly jumped when Mick shook his head, chin bumping against his head.

“Not on day one. Maybe later.” Right in his ear, the response was far gentler than he’d expected, and the cold chill it gave him rolled through his spine and shuddered him back into Mick. “Drop your goggles. ‘Bout to get colder,” Mick advised.

Link did, grateful that the shiver had passed off as result of temperature.

Cold didn’t even begin to cover what it was like navigating between the red flags of their route to the extraction site. The wind gnawed so relentlessly that after ten minutes, Link was certain the skin of his nose had been sheared off. The growl of the engine enticed the back of his mind, supplying ridiculous intrusive thoughts of stopping the craft to try and crawl underneath for some source of warmth.

Worse than his nose or slivers of exposed cheek, his hands were burning with numbness. He quickly found that the pulsing pain of his own circulation was inescapable--he stuffed them into his pockets, slid them under his thighs, tucked them under his armpits. Nothing worked. He’d been wishing his brain was defrosted enough to recall what the first aid brochure had said regarding early signs of frostbite when Mick let off the gas, and the mobile slid to a stop.

Not wasting any time, Mick shut the power off and Link lost all sight. Without the headlamps showcasing the length of track-riddled snow and wall of flags before them, there was nothing. A black so thick and enveloping that it crawled into his eye sockets, emptied the inside of his head of thought.

Nonplussed shuffling from behind gave a reminder that this was all old news to Mick. Someone who’d spent months in this reality, over the novelty and into the routine. It made Link feel small and stupid, since he seemed to be locked into place, unable to function without some source of light.

Then Mick was off. The constant pressure at Link’s back vanished when he stood and gave them the light they needed to get started. He stepped away to an industrial tarp a few yards off and didn’t miss a beat unhooking the taught wires from their settings. The only pause in his work was to switch his flashlight from beam to lamp mode, which he then sat on the ground, illuminating their work space in a fuzzy glow.

Link watched, stupefied, until Mick turned his gaze back on him, mid-hunch.

“For Christ’s sake. Are you gonna help?”

“Sorry,” Link blurted, stumbling to join as Mick rolled his eyes. Once all of the equipment was revealed, he stood straight and stared some more before motioning to a big box set into the ground nearby. “Should I open that up for us?”

“That’s a fuel bladder,” Mick stated, already hunkering down over the drill site. He unzipped their equipment pack and began pulling out gauges, a notepad, and empty, airtight containers.

“Fuel bladder?” So much for not asking questions. Eager to prove he wasn’t entirely useless, he took a seat next to Mick in the snow, helping him get their tools organized.

“They really don’t teach y’all anything anymore,” Mick mumbled, pulling a GPS from his pack and scratching the lengthy set of coordinates in the notepad. “It’s insulated. Full of fuel for the mobile in case of emergency.”

“Oh.”

It might’ve been true that he didn’t know all of the details of working in such a desolate place, but Link knew how to do this part--the testing. He’d been trained for this, and started extracting the drill so he could place a new collection bit on it. Mick faltered--watching Link closely--but was evidently satisfied enough with what the newcomer was doing to continue on his own.

New bit running and collection bottles prepared, the whir of the drill kicked on and the two men sat waiting for retrieval to finish. Link was still mindlessly trying to get the feeling to return to his fingers, trying not to be too obvious, when Mick spoke.

“You’re allowed to ask questions.”

Link snapped his head up. Mick was watching him with a calm air, the soreness that had been there since his arrival, gone. Link turned his brain upside down to find a response that didn’t make him sound like the idiot Mick suspected he was.

“I am?” Oh well.

“Yeah. I’d rather you piss me off than screw up the job.”

“...Right.” Link chewed the inside of his cheek, pushing down anxiety as he dared more conversation. “Can I ask how long you’ve been here?”

Mick took a deep breath that released a smokestack of vapor upon exhale. “Four years,” he let into the night air, thick with something Link couldn’t read.

“Holy shit,” Link mumbled, eyebrows pinning high as he regarded his boss. “That’s… insane.”

Mick nodded, no trace of knowing smile gracing his features. “Not Site 466 the entire time, but field sites, nonetheless.”

“Do you like it?” He might’ve been pushing his luck, but Mick seemed different out here on the ice. Sure, he’d been impatient and short already, but to be fair, Link had also been scatterbrained. Maybe Mick wasn’t totally unjustified in hating him.

Mick cocked his head as if the question was perhaps too personal, his focus stuck on the drill. When the silence stretched, Link strained his ears, thinking maybe Mick heard something he couldn’t.

“I can show you my favorite part right now,” Mick finally answered.

For some reason the offer made Link’s cheeks hot--not that he was in any position to complain about the pleasantness of it. “Please.”

Mick reached over and slapped the top of the lamp, shutting it off and sinking them both into darkness.

This time it wasn’t nearly as upsetting to the professor’s senses. With that came a hint of relief that he would get used to this soon enough, and riding that, he let out a soft chuckle. “You like how dark it is?” Link guessed, feeling an oddly placed pang of appreciation for the man on his left. He was eccentric, then.

The drill shut off, taking all noise with it.

“Look up,” came Mick’s hushed voice from the dark, and Link craned his neck up until the sight tore his breath away.

An expanse of stars and galaxies hung above them in the crystalline sky. A painting too ethereal to be bought or sold, too intangible to be captured or copied. Splatters of gold, silver, glittering purple and metallic gray flecked the sky from end to end, an overwhelming story of everything and nothing reflecting in Link’s goggles as he drank it in, impossibly small and impossibly human.

How had he never taken his sights off the ground?

“Whoa.”

Mick let out an amused puff of air and Link realized he was likely being watched in the darkness.

“Why can’t I see you? Even with all of the stars up there?” Link asked reverently.

“There’s no moonlight. Not now, anyway. Later this month, she’ll return.”

“It’s amazing.” Link couldn’t help the tinge of giddy laughter that escaped him as he took the sky in once more. “I see why it’s your favorite.”

With that, the lamp came back on, and the bright display in the heavens was muted with an ugly haze. “C’mon,” Mick intoned, sliding the sample from the bit into one of the containers. “We gotta get back and test this before you freeze to death.”

Link blinked, attention on the drill rig. Carefully, he picked it up and moved it according to the stipulations for tomorrow, setting it just two feet away from their initial site. “I’m not freezing.”

“You’re not as sly as you think you are. I warned you about those gloves.”

Shit. “It was only the ride here that made it so bad.” He was trying not to let the niceties of sharing the night sky together get soiled so easily, but Mick was evidently prepared to make that commitment.

“Yeah, and we have a ride back. Twice a day,” he reminded him bluntly, loading up their supplies with an exhausted sigh. “Say goodbye to your hands.”

“Wait, can’t I just get a better pair while I’m here?”

The resounding snort-laugh made Link’s stomach sink. “You think I’m gonna waste room in the next supply shipment because of your poor choices? Even if I entertained the idea, next parcel doesn’t arrive for two weeks. Go get on the damn snowmobile.”

Just like that, Link was back to square one. With a sigh, he got the drill site tarped down and trudged over to the snowcraft, dropping himself heavy into the seat. Mick walked over and hesitated before getting on, watching Link in the lamplight. “Put your hands in your pants.”

Link blanched. “I’m fine, thanks.”

“Don’t be an idiot. S’not like you’re steering.”

“I don’t want to, Mick. I’ll be okay.”

Mick grimaced, scowling off into the distance. “Oh, for the love of… fine.”

Link felt a peak of pride raise in his chest until Mick took his spot behind him and reached around, picking at the straps holding Link’s gloves to his wrists.

“What are you doing?!”

“Taking these off.”

“No! Then I’ll really lose my fingers!”

“Neal, will you trust me for one goddamn minute?” Mick growled in his ear, sending goosebumps down Link’s shoulders. “You’re under my jurisdiction. Which means I’m accountable for your well-being while you’re out here, regardless of how stupid and difficult you are.”

With a thick swallow, Link’s memory flashed to the common room scene the night before.

Y’all act like you don’t know that’s what happened to Punch, but you do. He broke.

The person who’d been here before him… had he also been under Mick’s care?

Reluctantly, Link pulled the gloves from his hands, ripping the Velcro loose and stuffing them into his pockets. He wouldn’t have guessed his skin could burn worse than it already was. He was wrong.

“Shit,” he swore, trying to flee from the subzero temperatures by retracting his hands up his sleeves.

Mick swiftly undid the binding on his own pair of gloves. Link’s breath caught at the sound.

“Mick, I can’t take your--”

“C’mon,” Mick goaded, nudging the back of Link’s knee with his own. “Put your hands in.”

Impossibly, Link’s entire face burned at the suggestion. “What?”

“Slip your hands underneath mine, and try not to mess up my steering.”

As hard a decision as it should’ve been to make, Link really didn’t want to be cold anymore. Biting his lip and ignoring the heat flare in his neck, he snaked his fingers underneath Mick’s into the gloves, where they were cradled and and piloted by larger hands worn rough from work. The reprieve relaxed him slightly, easing back into the man’s chest.

If the slump bothered Mick, he didn’t let on as he fired up the snowmobile and started their voyage home.

Chapter Text

Running numbers with Mick had been incredibly dull. The best part of camping out at the dining table to pore over the data logs was when Scherer had appeared and made them cocoa--not as otherworldly as his coffee, Link decided, but still damn good.

As soon as their work was finished, Mick excused himself to his room, mumbling something about dinner that evening.

Overall, their duties had only taken a few hours, and Link couldn’t resist the prospect of dressing down into something comfy-cozy and seeing what movies Hilt had on the projector’s iPod. Soon he was scanning through them, trying to find a drama or comedy or romance to pique his interest when Scherer and Matichuk stumbled in from the bunks, fully-decked for a trip outside.

Link examined the pair, brow furrowing. “I thought Hilt was your partner, Scherer?”

“He is,” Matichuk answered for the other, who was worrying to get the strap on his goggles adjusted. “We just run route together whenever our paths overlap. Do our own thing, come back and work on data independently.”

“Ah.”

“Hey, if you’re watching a movie, you should really get Hilt out here. He loves curling up on the couch,” insisted Scherer.

“Where is he now?”

“Napping. Deadbeat.” Matichuk snorted, pulling laughs from them.

“Well I don’t wanna wake him--”

“I heard movies,” Hilt mumbled from behind the two, donned in a baggy hoodie and bundled in blankets. He squeezed through Matichuk and Scherer to waddle over to the couch, where he collapsed and nestled into the covers dragged from his bed.

Link grinned and nodded at his co-audience. “Any preference?”

“No action films. Sleepy-me needs something calm,” he requested, as Matichuk and Scherer bid them silent farewells and left.

Before long Link and Hilt were wrapped up on opposite ends of the couch, each wearing pounds-worth of fleece blankets and watching Tom Hanks talk about how much he missed his deceased wife to a nation of listeners. The lights were off and the soft blue glow of the TV filled the room.

Link was sure Hilt had fallen back asleep--which was actually sort of endearing, like having a little cousin over for movie night--when the boy’s head whipped around to look at him.

“How was working with Mick today?”

Link spared a long glance at him. “It was fine, actually. But I’m pretty sure he hates me.”

“Nah.” Hilt adjusted, pretending to pay attention to the movie as he spoke. “He’s like that with everyone. He’ll open up to you.”

Link wriggled his toes in their home of warmth. “Did he open up to you?”

“No. But we’re on good terms.”

“Oh. Who has he opened up to?”

“Mmm… no one, actually. That was poor phrasing on my part. But he won’t cold-shoulder you into oblivion forever, is what I meant.”

“It’s fine if he does,” Link responded easily, ignoring the heat in his ears. “I’m not here to make friends.”

“Well, that sucks to hear. I wanted to be your friend.”

Link stuttered to backtrack before he caught Hilt smirking at him from the other end of the couch. Link couldn’t help but return the smile. “Too bad, then. I’m an asshole.”

“Clearly,” Hilt laughed. He sleepy-blinked through a yawn. “So, can I ask why you took this job? If you’d rather not answer, that’s fine.”

“Mm. Honestly, what Mick said last night was pretty accurate.” Link picked at his fingernails. “I guess that’s why it upset me. I did come here for an experience. Something I couldn’t get anywhere else. Wanted to have lived doin’ something only a few thousand people in the world have done. Didn’t realize how selfish it sounded.”

“It’s not selfish. If we didn’t have people with that mindset, we wouldn’t have astronauts. Or half the people in these research sites, to be frank.”

“You think?” Link tried not to sound too hopeful.

“Of course. Don’t let what Mick said bother you. I think he just gets riled when he sees that spirit in newcomers, since he must’ve gotten over it a long time ago. Right?” Hilt gave an exaggerated shrug to ensure it was visible through his wrappings.

“Oh. That’s… that’s really sad.”

“Well, don’t pity him either. He’d hate that,” Hilt laughed. “I dunno what he’s still searching for down here. Whatever it is, it isn’t out there in the snow.”

Link frowned, eyes glued to the movie, but not watching it.

Four years spent soul-searching. Time in a place that promised tales and status grander than the average person’s, yet it hadn’t been what Mick was looking for? Was he disillusioned, then? Why was he still here, living in the place that let him down? What must Mick’s home life have been like for him to make a decision to stay indefinitely? Did he even have family to call when he got lonesome?

Someone dead-ending their life at the bottom of the world--resigned to existing, shorted of something they’d once so desperately desired…

“I hope Mick finds what he needs,” Link finally responded.

“Oh, crap,” Hilt sighed.

“What?” Link followed his gaze to the far side of the room. Mick stood in the mouth of the hall to the dorms, clutching a book to his stomach. His expression was unreadable in the fuzzy darkness.

“Come on in, Mick,” Hilt tried to restart the atmosphere, straightening in his spot.

“It’s fine,” Mick stated, unmoving. “Don’t wanna turn on the light if you’re watching a movie. I’ll read in my room.”

When they were alone again, Hilt let out a breath. “Wonder how long he’d been there. Usually you can hear him coming, with those footsteps.”

Link’s stomach churned in disquiet. Why was it that when all he’d wanted to do was get along with all of his cohorts, the interpersonal tension at this site had worsened upon his arrival? All of the unpleasantness had been irrefutably his fault. Was he really such a source of conflict when all he wanted was to work and befriend other people in his field?

“Should I go talk to him?” Link wondered, rubbing his arms.

“Uhh… I might give him some space,” Hilt said with uncertainty.

Link tried to pull his legs closer to his body, but it was hard to sit still. “I’ve never been good at postponing awkward talks,” he admitted, rising to his feet with a flourish and passing his blankets over to Hilt. “I’ll be back.”

“I’ll probably be asleep when you return, but good luck.” Hilt waved him off, doubling down into his nest.

 

 


 

 

Link stood stock still in front of the door. McLaughlin is what it had initially read, but someone had taken a post-it note and helpfully supplied Mick in curly, elongated letters. Surprising, that he’d allow something like that be left up.

As if preparing to wake a hibernating bear, Link steeled himself before placing two quiet knocks on Mick’s door. There was a beat of silence before the gruff voice answered, “Come in.”

Sluggishly, Link pushed open the door to reveal Mick lounging on his bed with the book in his lap, as promised. The same half-moon glasses he’d been wearing when they met were perched on his nose and he looked over them to glower expertly. “What, Neal?”

“Hey. I just, uh. Thought I should… stop by.”

“And you’re definitely not here because I overheard you talking about me,” Mick drawled. He continued to read.

Link blushed in shame and tried to hide it by familiarizing himself with Mick’s room. It was as cozy as his own, but felt far more like a home. Wires strung from the ceiling held blankets and a personal bag. Shoes were neatly lined at the foot of the bed. There was a miniature bookshelf mounted over his head, barely any space left for more titles. The thing that struck Link most was the strand of bulbous fairy lights lining the walls in a welcoming orange-yellow glow.

“Can I help you with anything?” Mick reiterated. He closed his thumb in a page, patience already wearing thin.

“I’m sorry about all that,” Link jumped in, refusing to break eye contact. “We didn’t mean any harm.”

Mick pressed his lips together and rested the book in his lap. “Neal. Leave me alone.”

Link’s chest tightened, just slightly. “What?”

“What do you mean, what?” Mick countered, taking off his glasses and leaning forward. “I want you to leave me alone. I don’t like you. Is that clear enough for you to get through your thick head?”

Link knew he should’ve said something--anything, to regain some shred of dignity in that fleeting moment before it was too late--but he couldn’t respond, and Mick didn’t wait for him to.

“I don’t like that we have to work together. I don’t like how eager you are to impress not only me, but the others here. I don’t like how ill-prepared you are for your stay. I don’t like that out of all of the researchers they could’ve sent me, they sent you-- a bumbling college professor looking for a story to tell his grandkids on his deathbed. And I especially don’t like that you’re willing to try and crack open my psyche like a walnut the second you get time alone with one of my site members.”

He rose from his bed, filling the room at full height. “Why couldn’t you have been anyone else?”

The immediate sting gave Link no time to prepare for the hot tears that slipped down his face. Mick’s eyes widened, and too late Link wiped his cheeks to hide it, pathetic and fragile.

“That’s fine,” Link agreed, voice hoarse. “I’ll leave you be.”

Just as Mick opened his mouth to berate him more, Link ducked out and slunk back to his own room. Once safe and alone, Link sunk to the floor.

Here--where he could be vulnerable--there was no desire to cry whatsoever, and he could hardly fathom that he had done so just moments ago. In front of his superior, no less. And why? It wasn’t like it had hurt to hear. He knew Mick hated him. He’d said so to Hilt. It wasn’t hard to tell. The tears had just been a physical reaction he didn’t dam up in time.

Or maybe the night sky had given him hope.

Drained of emotion, his head now ached, and so he let his vision blur. Wordlessly, he berated his catatonia for its late arrival and chose to believe Hilt wasn’t waiting up for him.

 

 


 

 

When Scherer’s throaty call to dinner bounced through the halls of the site, Link was lying in bed staring at the ceiling as he had been for a long while. He didn’t feel like interacting with anyone, but which was worse--refusing to come out of his room like an angsty teenager, or subjecting himself to pleasantries where he had to pretend he was in good spirits?

Moments grew to minutes as he turned the choice over in his mind, and eventually enough time had passed that the decision had been made for him. He rolled over, content to squander his evening.

Link resolved to sleep--but then came a rapping knock for him. Every muscle tensed against his bed, the image of Mick’s dark figure outside flashing into his thoughts, ready to scold him for missing mealtime and wasting rations. But when the door cracked open, Scherer’s tentative words came through.

“Neal? If you want to eat in your room, I can leave your dinner here.”

A twinge of guilt hit Link. He twisted at the waist, doing his best to feign groggy when he peered up at Scherer from bed. “Uhh, sorry. I fell asleep. I’ll be right out.”

“Oh! Sure thing.” The cook flashed a smile and left.

Link pulled himself to a sit and took a deep breath. An aroma of something spicy and warm made his stomach and mouth curious--the last encouragement needed to gather himself and go join the table.

He was the last to arrive. Everyone was seated in a cramped custom, elbows knocking and feet clustered below. Matichuk and Hilt were already digging into bowls of some kind of steaming brown stew over a bed of rice.

“It smells really good.” Link slid into the only open spot remaining. Absently, he wondered if it had been planned that he was catty-corner to Mick--neither directly next to nor in front of the man. He passed no more than a cursory glance at him, just enough to confirm he existed in that space.

“Thanks! It’s curry. I didn’t know how hot you liked yours, so I went easy on it. But if you want more of a kick, help yourself to the pepper oil,” Scherer explained, sliding the small bottle of translucent red liquid towards him.

Link nodded appreciatively, spooning up a bit and tasting it. It was already spicy by his standards, but not unpleasantly so. He tucked in and kept his attention in the bowl, hoping his antisocial behavior could be passed off as fatigue.

“So, who wants to start tonight?” Matichuk asked around a mouthful of rice. Hilt grinned, looking expectantly between the group.

“You could, since you brought it up.” Scherer chuckled, setting his spoon down and crossing his arms.

“I don’t mind.” She shrugged. “I’ll need someone to pick a category though.”

“Nobel laureates,” Hilt supplied with a drum of his fingers on the table.

“You always want to do Nobel laureates.” Matichuk laughed but sat back to stare at the ceiling in thought. “Bonus points for explaining what they did?”

“What?! No,” Scherer cut in, “I’m already gonna be bad at this as is!”

“What are we doing?” Link panned over their faces, at a loss.

“It’s a game we play. You pick a category of people, and everyone has to take turns saying a person whose first name starts with the first letter of the last name of the person who was mentioned before. Whoever’s stumped first, loses.” Matichuk cracked her knuckles. “Counter-clockwise. I’ll get us started: Martin Evans, for stem cell research.”

Hilt’s eyebrows rose, impressed. He then pointed at Link. “So E’s your letter.”

“Uhh… Elie Wiesel, for his Holocaust memoirs?” Link tried, lifting one shoulder.

“Ooo, good one,” Scherer beamed from down the table. “Don’t get many literature mentions at this table.”

Link returned the grin, satisfied until he caught Mick watching him with a hooded expression. Link shoveled more curry in his mouth.

“William C. Campbell, for research on ringworm infection therapy,” Hilt didn’t miss a beat, and gave Scherer a smug smirk complete with eyebrow wiggle.

Link huffed a laugh. “No wonder you wanted this category! That was instant.”

“I used to study laureates in my free time, when I needed to de-stress from my thesis.”

“Mick?” Matichuk prompted, glancing erratically between her food and the site lead.

Mick leisured himself with a bite of curry, mustache twitching as he chewed and stared down into his bowl. Link assumed he was stumped, or that perhaps he was refusing to participate in such a childish endeavor, but after swallowing he answered, “Charles Kao, for his work in fiber-optics.”

“Shit,” Scherer breathed, and Hilt giggled infectiously, the twittering sound causing Link and Matichuk to break as well. “Uhh… Oh! Kip Thorne, for his contributions to astrophysics! Suck on that, Hilt!”

The game continued around the table as they ate, Link narrowly avoiding being cut each round by pure luck. Eventually all fates fell on Mick, who had been assigned the letter ‘B,’ and had been thinking about it a suspiciously long time.

“You gotta give an answer, man,” Matichuk ribbed, her smile growing wider with each passing second. “Time’s up.”

After a long, labored breath, Mick met Matichuk’s gaze, eyes twinkling. “Bob.”

The resounding laughter that rocked the kitchen didn’t exclude Link’s, who had to lean into Matichuk’s shoulder to keep from sliding out of his seat. Hilt pounded the tabletop as Scherer melted into pained cries of “Barack Obama! I suck at this, but Barack Obama!!”

Burying his face in his hands, Link peered through his fingers and giggles to catch a glimpse of Mick. His ears were red as he watched Hilt’s laughing fit, but his shoulders shook in silent mirth, too. Cheeks round and rosy. Crow’s feet peppered the corners of his eyes, where the sparkle was brighter than before. Link’s amusement was replaced with an unwelcome flutter in his chest.

Seeing Mick happy was surreal.

Some deep piece of Link soured at the sight. The concern wasn’t that someone who’d confessed dislike of him just hours ago was having a good time; it was that he would never be the one to make Mick look like that. Why such an absurdly unwelcome thought should barge into his brain, he didn’t know, but Link pushed it down. He would obsess about it enough as soon as he was alone.

He gathered up all of the dishes on the table unprompted. It felt natural--relieving, even, to step up to the sink and have a task he could busy himself with without retiring to his room like an eager recluse.

Hilt, Scherer, and Matichuk thanked him for the chore and filed into the seating area to pick a movie. The noise of the three laughing and joking with bellies full of food flooded Link with an alien sense of gratitude. It wasn’t often he got to listen to the sounds of a happy home.

Then Mick was at his side, reaching in and snatching a dirty pot from the mess. Link froze, keeping him in his periphery, unwilling to speak first.

“It’s my turn for dishes tonight,” Mick filled the lull for them, tone far softer than the one usually reserved for Link. “Go join the others.”

Link swallowed. He couldn’t meet Mick’s eyes. Something about the greenness of them, he wasn’t sure he could handle. “Thanks, but I’d really prefer to help out as soon as possible. I’m not totally useless.”

Mick lingered, leaning a hip against the counter. Whether it was an air of challenge, distaste, or subordination he was trying to put out, Link couldn’t tell without looking--but he could feel that stare boring into the side of his face, reading him.

Don’t look.

The seconds stretched to an eternity before Mick sighed--a contented noise, free from exasperation--and turned to set the dish in the sink. But Link’s stomach had untwisted too soon; Mick measured out some dish soap and coated the pot. Link watched Mick’s hands, deftly wetting it and taking to the caked-on rice bits with a sponge. “What are you doing?”

“Helping. Gets done faster with two people.”

“...you really don’t have to.”

“I know. There’s some rubber gloves under the sink, if you wanna wear ‘em.”

Link hesitated--hovering over the curry-stained mess before washing shoulder to shoulder with Mick at the kitchen sink. The younger researchers had chosen a comedy-- The Hangover, to be specific, and were already carrying the merriment of dinner through the opening of the film, giving the pair in the kitchen a pleasant ambiance to work in.

Sooner than Link had expected, all of the dishes were dripping from their spots on the wall-mounted rack. He dried himself with the eggshell-blue hand towel and passed it off to Mick wordlessly, still not coming face-to-face with the taller one.

“You gonna watch the movie?” The question sounded awkward on Mick’s lips.

“Are you?” There was room enough for two more people in the lounge area, one on either side of the couch in the armchairs. Designed for site capacity.

“Sure. This one ain’t bad.” Link could only see his shrug by the quick bob of his hands at his waist.

“Then, no. I don’t wanna bother you,” Link answered definitively, breaking away and heading to his room with unflinching purpose.

Once alone, he dug in his backpack and fished out his travel-size book of puzzles and a pencil. His headache had returned with a vengeance and he wasn’t sure he’d even be able to finish even one crossword… but he would be damned if he was going to sit there and fixate on Mick’s whiplash.

 

 


 

 

The first time it happened, Link tossed in his bed, sure that stress was playing a trick on him. Exploding Head Syndrome was something he’d experienced in the past when his students were frenzied over finals, and the half-asleep realization it had returned here in the Antarctic did nothing more than grumble him further into his mattress. He should’ve anticipated it, given his stressors.

When it happened again--the noise softer than he’d thought--Link’s eyes popped open. Someone was knocking at his door. The LED clock beside his bed read 01:22; if a colleague needed him now, it was likely an emergency. Covers wrapped tightly around his shoulders, Link crawled out of bed and found the light before opening the door.

The hallway was empty. Even after blinking the sleep away and leaning into the unlit corridor, there was no one, but he wasn't about to let paranoia take over if someone was in trouble. He stepped out to investigate when his socked foot nudged something on the floor.

A lone pair of gloves. He knelt to collect them. Turning over the mesh black fabric stretched over the hands and peering inside to rub a thumb against the thick-lined interiors, Link knew he recognized the brand. It was one he’d seen yesterday morning.

Remaining slick against the tile floor of the hall was a torn piece of paper. Link retrieved it.

They’re probably too big.

He stood and re-read the brief line three times, back-lit in his doorway.

The logical conclusion--the obvious conclusion was that Mick had been here moments ago, laying the note and gloves down before retreating back to his own room. But as Link closed the door, he couldn’t wrap his head around the gesture. Or, more accurately, what it meant.

People didn’t give gifts to those they hated. They especially didn’t give gifts to people they’d told they hated to their face. Yet here they were: Mick’s gloves, complete with a note that matched the handwriting he’d seen from the man when they’d filled out paperwork together. Dazed, Link pressed them to his chest.

Why were his cheeks so hot? Simple: he couldn’t remember the last time someone had given him a gift, even if the intent was purely pragmatic or to save the sender’s ass from potential repercussions.

Regardless of his turbulent day-long history with the site lead, he had to admit… it felt nice.

His memory dipped back to the kitchen--how Mick had been so gentle when he’d offered help, how it had seemed like it would’ve made him happy if Link had stayed to watch the movie. At the time, Link had assumed Mick was just being weird. Trying to foster a teamwork sort of environment.

But maybe he’d been wrong.

Soft smile on his lips, Link set the gloves reverently on top of his old ones before tacking the note to the wall with a magnet above his bed. It would serve as a reminder. A way to get through the days to come:

He’s not always cruel.

Chapter Text

Breakfast the following morning meant a worse-for-wear Link who hadn’t gotten enough rest, forcing himself to down the buttered grits Scherer had left out on the counter for everyone. Not that it tasted bad; Link just didn’t have much of an appetite. More than anything he wanted to slink back into bed and regain the hours of sleep he’d ended up missing due to the midnight visitation.

He failed to properly greet Mick when the man swept into the room at 08:00 sharp.

“You ready?”

Link gave a long, low sigh and took his dishes to the sink. “Yeah.”

“You’re not ready.”

“I am. Just need a minute to change.”

“Neal,” Mick addressed him, waiting until the professor turned in acknowledgment. “How are you feeling?”

Link sucked on his teeth. “Tired. Not great, but I’m okay.”

Mick was shaking his head before Link had even finished his thought. “Nope. You’re staying behind today.”

“What? No, I’m fine. Really,” Link insisted, “I came here to do a job.”

“And you can’t do that job when you’re ‘bout to fall asleep standin’ up.” Mick consulted one of the racks against the wall and took time selecting the iridium phone from its charging dock.

The sight of the phone kicked Link’s pulse up a gear. “I had coffee! You don’t have to call me in!”

“S’for your own good.” The phone beeped sharply as Mick dialed a number out from memory. “I’m your boss. You’re staying here. Travel fatigue and lack of sleep is a dangerous combination.”

“No!” Link leapt for the phone, recoiling when Mick’s icy gaze paralyzed him. “Mick… please. Let me come with you,” he begged. “I promise I’ll be fine. I want to go.”

Mick watched him, finger poised over the call button. With a growling sigh he slammed the phone back onto its charger. “Five minutes. In the foyer. If you faint out there, I’m leaving your body in the snow.”

Link nearly tripped on his way to get dressed.

Three minutes later, he was prepped from head to foot--the new gloves a stark improvement over the old ones, even if they were a bit spacious. He stretched and twisted his fingers inside to appreciate the difference they made in heat retention.

When he got into the foyer and found Mick leaned against a wall waiting, Link held up a hand. “Thank you, for these.” With a point to Mick’s own gloves, he smiled. “Happy to see they were just spares, though. I was kinda worried.”

Without so much as a nod, Mick spun to face the door. “You finally ready?”

“I am,” Link said, grabbing his flashlight from its hook and following Mick outside.

The second ride on the snowmobile didn’t feel nearly as intimate at the first. With the sensation of his fingers now intact, he was able to pay closer attention to the way Mick handled the steering: when he gave it gas or let off, how he managed to hit the exact ski tracks from days passed to conserve fuel. Even having Mick pressed up against his back didn’t induce the same level of anxiety.

Eager to prove that it hadn’t been a fluke to bring him into the field, Link hopped off the vehicle and got to work on the tarp before Mick had cut the engine.

“It’s not a race. You’re gonna end up damaging something,” Mick warned him, plodding over and setting their tool bag down.

“I’ve got this, Mick.” And he did. Within moments the tarp was freed and stakes were pulled up, in the exact way Mick had done yesterday. Just… much quicker.

“You interested in stargazing again tonight?” Link offered cheerily. He couldn’t justify the bizarre rush of energy surging through him as he plopped down beside Mick in the snow, but he didn’t really want to. It meant the work would be expedited, and Mick could hardly fault him for less time spent out in the field. He was nailing this.

“No. Do it every day and you start to take it for granted. Can you focus, please?”

Link nodded two times too many as he arranged the collection jars, trying not to let his jittery fingers tip any over. “I guess that makes sense. Still novel to me, though, so if you change your mind, let me know.” He flipped the drill on and wiggled, watching it descend.

Mick heaved a deep sigh, reaching out and grabbing his arm. “Neal. Stop for a second.”

Link pulled away instinctively. “What?”

“Give me your hands,” Mick instructed, offering his own palm-up in the air between them.

Link considered them, wary. “Why?”

Neal, ” Mick rumbled, throttling his wrists in impatience. It was enough to bring Link to rest his hands atop Mick’s, and the other wasted no time in clutching his thumbs to the back of them, holding them steady.

Link swallowed against the pressure. Two days in a row he’d been instructed to do something weird regarding his hands. The sensation of being commanded for work was one thing--being scolded and chastised for performing poorly or endangering their results was understandable. But the personal requests filled Link with a creeping bubbling that he didn’t know how to label, much less begin to address.

“Fuck’s sake,” Mick murmured, letting them fall. “You’re shaking like a leaf. Scherer put extra shots in the coffee this morning per my request, and you’re gonna crash like a meteor any second now. We have to hurry.”

“What?” Link snorted a laugh, rolling his shoulders. “I feel fine.”

“For now. You’re also way more talkative than you usually are.” Snow and ice shavings piled up at the drill’s entrance point, drawing Mick’s eye.

“Well, so’re you,” Link pushed back with a shrug. “What happens if we both crash?”

I ’m used to consuming this much caffeine. You’ve only had one coffee since you arrived. And it was regular.”

“Meteors don’t crash, by the way.” Link crossed his legs tight, clamping his hands to his ankles. “Meteorite is the word you’re looking for.”

Mick didn’t respond or sigh. When Link looked over, expecting to be on the shamed end of a suffering glare, Mick’s head was down.

“Why’d you ask Scherer to put extra shots in them, anyway?” Link asked, ducking his head to try and meet Mick’s eyes.

The irritation he found there didn’t dampen his curiosity, which only seemed to piss Mick off more. “I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. Will you shut up?”

“It’s ‘cause you snuck out to give me the gloves, right?” Link dared, riding the boost of energy into territory he knew to be dangerous.

Mick’s mouth opened and closed a few times before melting into a hard frown.

“I really appreciate it,” Link admitted, breaking eye contact to examine the gift once more. “These are amazing. You were right. I’m an idiot.”

Mick didn’t respond. Link could hear his measured breathing in the frigid air, noted how calm it was compared to the hammering that he faintly recognized as his own heartbeat.

“C’mere.”

The request tiptoed into Link’s ear, and he couldn’t help the stupid gape that found his face. “What?”

Behind his goggles, Mick’s eyes were as unbelievably green as they had been last night, set perfectly above his red, cold-bitten cheeks. “Scoot closer,” he clarified, patting the snow adjacent to his own hip. “Shoulder to shoulder.”

If nothing else, Link knew better at this point than to argue; Mick didn’t request anything without good reason. He silently wondered if this was trust as he scooted over to the taller one, trying not to get lost in the fact that he could smell soap and toothpaste when he sidled into the indicated spot, pressing their sides together.

“Okay,” Link breathed, now far too close to turn and make eye contact. He wasn’t sure he would if he could anyway, with how his nerves were running laps down his spine.

Without warning, Mick’s arm snaked around Link’s back and pulled him into a side-hug, Mick’s hand coming to rest atop Link’s ribs.

The sound of the drill blotted out all sensation as Link quickly came to terms with several things: Mick had his arm around him and was pressing their bodies together; this wasn’t something someone did with anyone they hated; and based on the involuntary burn in his gut and ears, Link didn’t hate Mick, either.

After the newness of the gesture had ebbed, Mick spoke. “You’re ‘bout to crash, and you’re visibly shaking from cold and caffeine. Once the energy wears off, there’s a chance you’ll faint from shock when your body finally lets you feel how cold you are. Can’t have you falling into the equipment.”

“Oh,” was all Link could manage through a thick throat. He tugged his clothes tighter, glancing at the drill thermometer. -28°F. It was true at least that he didn’t feel that cold, and the thought made him curl up, appreciating Mick’s willingness to look out for his--the project’s well-being.

“Told ya you should’ve stayed home,” Mick grumbled, but there was an edge of amusement to the scolding, and Link smiled into the neck of his jacket.

“Thanks, Mick.”

“You can call me Rhett.”

Link turned to the other in surprise, his shock wiggling up into his throat when Mick was already looking at him with a calm air.

“But… the others call you ‘Mick.’”

“Yep. And I ain’t gonna stop ‘em, either. But we’re on this project together, right? Just me and you,” Mick admitted, craning his head skyward as if he could see past the lamplight to the field of stars. “Call me whatever you want, but I wouldn’t mind if we were on a first-name basis.”

“Rhett,” Link tried to mouth the name, but the way Mick’s gaze dropped, side-eyeing him with a hint of a smile, it must’ve been audible.

“Link. Right?”

 

 


 

 

The conversation was the last thing Link could remember when he awoke in his bed, grimacing up into the ceiling light. The worst headache he’d had yet did its best to crack his skull open, and he drew his blanket up over his eyes with a groan to blot out the light.

“You’re awake!”

Link started, pulling the covers back down to peer with one eye out at the other who’d evidently been there the entire time. Matichuk sat on the bench across from his bed, leaning forward on her knees. “Here,” she offered, pulling a handful of pills and glass of water from Link’s side table. “You probably want these.”

With no small effort Link dragged himself to a sit, each muscle pulling at his head and twisting his brain. “Thanks,” he managed, downing the pills. And all of the water, for good measure.

“Don’t thank me. Thank Mick, “ she said softly, watching Link with smiling eyes. “He brought you all the way back from the site single-handed. He’s also running the numbers right now by himself. I’d say you owe him.”

“Shit,” Link groaned, dipping forward to rub his face. “I can’t believe I passed out.”

“You pushed yourself too hard. There’s no shame in needing down time after the commute to the site. More than a month spent in travel?” Matichuk chuckled. “No one goes to work the day after arriving. You gotta treat it like jet lag.”

“Ugh. I didn’t want to be useless.”

“Well, I hope I don’t need to tell you that Mick’s already called you in for tomorrow. Maybe the next day, too. You’re done pushing yourself, he said.” She stood and went to the door, knocking the wall absently.

“Yeah… okay. Thanks, Matichuk.”

“No problem. Sorry I scared you,” she grinned, and let herself out.

Link curled into himself, angling toward the wall to escape the sun-like bulb on the ceiling. When he found the note on the wall, he held it in his sight, tracing the letters over and over in a sort of quiet meditation.

Rhett. Not Mick. A name that somehow fit him better. One Link could associate with the man making goofy jokes over dinner, pressing to help with dishes, leaving gifts at his door and saving his hands with his own and wrapping an arm around Link’s waist to keep him steady.

The touch on his waist… Link shut his eyes against the flush on his skin, trying not to commit to memory how large Rhett’s hands were, how easily one arm had encircled his entirety. It didn’t work, and a lump formed in Link’s throat when he realized his pants were tightening.

Out of all of the workplace predicaments he’d gotten himself into over the course of his life, Link’s sneaking physical attraction to his boss with whom he would be quarantined for the next few months was by-and-large the worst. Conflicted feelings of personality aside, Rhett aroused him. And it was something he’d been able to deny until their proximity had melted: first on the snowmobile--where he’d been grateful to be seated in front, regardless of how thick his clothes were--and again today. Once could have been a coincidence, but twice meant something.

And that wasn’t even counting the thought of Rhett handling his unconscious body. How he must’ve situated him for the ride back.

Link hid his face in his elbows in a flagrant refusal to touch himself--to feed into whatever this was. Fearful that if he did, it would it turn into something worse.

 


 

 

Item after item piled on Link’s table, his frustration growing as the clock ticked closer to 19:00 and the smell of food wafted into his room. It was true that he hadn’t brought many things with him for leisure purposes--there was only so much room in his pack, and the coordinators had been adamant that there would be plenty of things to do to kill time at the base.

But a sudden urge had gripped him, and it wasn’t one that any communal item could help with; Link wanted to reciprocate the gift-giving. Amongst all of the teabags and notepads and lip balm he’d brought, there had to be something in his possessions worthy of showing Rhett how indebted he was--not only for the gloves, but also for all of the inconveniences he’d placed on his shoulders thus far. Including shamefully passing out.

What did Rhett like? Link knew he liked books, and the professor had brought only one--a signed copy of Rules for a Knight by Ethan Hawke. It was a short, beautifully-bound thing he’d read and enjoyed once in North Carolina, and--given its themes of self-searching and humanity--had made it into his bag here, where he thought it would take on a new light.

He held the small green hardback in his hands, tilting the cover so that the embroidered script glinted gold in the light.

“Dinner!” came Scherer’s call, making the decision for him. Link stuffed the book into his sweatpants pocket and headed to the kitchen.

Matichuk, Scherer, and Hilt were already seated at the table, but only one plate of steaming lasagna was left without its person. Link scanned the rest of the room quickly and ended up pointing to it. “Where’s Mick?”

“Said he wanted to eat in his room,” Scherer answered easily. “Must be tired. He doesn’t usually miss dinner.”

“Ah,” Link breathed, taking his seat. His cut of lasagna was a browned edge piece dripping with melted cheese and bits of spiced meat spilling out of the layered pasta. The smell made Link’s mouth water, and he wasted no time cutting off a chunk of it with his fork. “This looks amazing, Scherer.”

“Thanks, man. It came prepackaged from a pan--part of our rations, unfortunately--but I did my best to dress it up a little bit.”

It tasted better than it looked, but Link didn’t have much time to savor it before Hilt was clearing his throat to get their attention.

“What’s the category?”

“Can we do something easy?” Matichuk begged, resting her chin in her hand. “I’m kinda fried tonight. Something like… singers, or novelists, or--”

“Novelists without Mick? He’ll kill us,” Scherer laughed around a large bite.

Link felt the weight of the book in his pocket.

“Singers?” he echoed with a look around the table. “I could go for something easier, too.”

“Singers it is,” Hilt allowed, opening his arms in gracious invitation. “I’ll start.”

 

 


 

 

 

Hilt and Matichuk handled dishes and Scherer retired to his room, claiming that if they wanted to watch a movie, he was out. Fortuitously for Link, it seemed that everyone was feeling a little drained after their shifts that day, so all were excused to do as they liked. Made it easier for him to slink away to fulfill his plan.

He washed his hands and steeled himself before going to knock on Rhett’s door.

“Come in.”

Opening it to the same backdrop he’d cried in front of last night caused a swift spike of panic in Link’s heart, but he stood fast and addressed Rhett lying on his bed, book in lap.

“Hey. Sorry to interrupt. Again.”

“Look who’s awake,” Rhett intoned, setting his book next to his dinner plate on the bedside table. Link swallowed.

“Yeah, sorry. About that, I mean. You were right.”

Rhett took his reading glasses and folded them, placing them gingerly atop his book. “Shut the door.”

Feeling suddenly weightless, Link did so, pressing back against it in the small space. “I, uhh--”

“How are you feeling?” Rhett asked, his features gentle. Voice, calm.

“I’m better. Still kinda tired,” Link chuckled. “Thanks.”

“I trust Matichuk told you you’re off tomorrow?”

“Yes, sir. Thank you,” Link nodded, instantly kicking himself for the awkward formality.

“Sir?” Rhett smirked, running a hand through his hair. “Weird. Just be sure to actually rest. No running numbers behind my back while I’m gone.”

“Y-Yeah. Got it.” Link rubbed his thigh anxiously. “How’d you manage to drag me back here, anyway?”

“Same way we rode out there. Had to turn you around, though,” Rhett shrugged, and Link felt his face go aflame.

“That so?”

Not thinking more of it, Rhett asked, “Was there something you needed?”

“Right,” Link murmured, patting down his pockets and pulling out the book. He stared down at its cover, too bashful to look up. “I wanted to thank you for this morning. I was a pretty big pain in the ass, I know. And for the gloves, as well. So… I know you like books, and--”

Rhett stood, towering over Link as he closed in to investigate. Link’s pulse jumped, the hardness of the door at his back serving as a reminder that he was trapped.

“I dunno if you’ve read it before, but I thought you might like it.”

Rhett held out his hand, his rough fingers delicate and requesting as Link slid the gift into them. He turned it to read the title.

“It’s one of my favorites. Or, I really enjoyed it, at least,” Link laughed nervously, rambling, “I know most people think of Ethan Hawke as an actor, ‘cause he is, but I bought that on a whim ‘cause I really liked him in Gattaca, and I thought this looked interesting ‘cause it’s kind of about the virtues this guy wishes he could pass along to his children before he dies, what makes someone good and human and… yeah.”

Rhett thumbed to the title page, sliding the satin ribbon out of the way. “This is signed.”

“Yeah. I mean, I didn’t go to a signing or anything, the bookstore I was in had a few copies pre-signed, so it’s really not a big deal--”

“I love it,” Rhett said softly, finally breaking his reverie to look into Link’s eyes.

Link’s throat went dry as he tried to maintain the contact, barely trusting the words that left his mouth to make sense. “You do?”

“Yeah. No one’s ever given me a book,” he admitted, closing it. “Let alone here.”

“Ah. Well. Glad to hear it,” Link smiled.

He was halfway to his senses when Rhett leaned in and pressed a kiss to his forehead, lingering there until Link’s eyes fluttered closed.

It was… comforting. It made his knees weak, his hands clasp, and before he was ready to be done enjoying the closeness, it was over. He blinked dreamily, trying not to lose his balance when the taller one stepped back.

“Wanted to do that on the ride home,” Rhett said easily. “Figured I should at least wait ‘til you were awake.”

“Oh,” was all Link could offer, restraining from reaching up to touch the spot on his forehead.

“Might wanna go warm up.” Rhett coughed as if nothing had happened. “Your cheeks are red.”

 


 

 

Link wandered back to his room in a daze, disbelieving what he knew had happened. Which was that Rhett had kissed him. On the forehead, but it had been a kiss, and it had been for him .

He shut the door to his room, sinking onto the bed in slow-motion.

“Wanted to do that on the ride home.”

That’s right--with the shock of everything, he had already forgotten that part. Rhett had turned Link’s body around to face him on the mobile.

His head on Rhett’s shoulder, his chest pressed to Rhett’s, his arms under Rhett’s, his thighs over Rhett’s...

Link’s breathing hitched, his fortitude against touching himself weakening. He leaned forward onto his knees, as if giving his arousal nowhere to go would prevent it from happening. He couldn’t indulge in this. Rh--Mick was his boss. A cold, distant man who hated him and belittled him and found fault with everything he did. Who called him stupid and hated his choices and replaced his gloves and took care of him and kissed him on the forehead.

“Fuck,” Link whimpered, doubling down, crushing his sternum to his knees.

Mixed signals and conflicted feelings. He was adamant not to pleasure himself with those floating in the back of his head, so he shoved the thought of Rhett’s body out of his mind and dropped to the floor to do push-ups, decidedly ignoring the fact that he never did push-ups.

Chapter Text

Although he had the day off, Link knew better than to luxuriate in sleeping in. The last thing he wanted to do was risk screwing up his schedule, so when his alarm went off at 07:15, he pulled on some lounge clothes and followed his morning routine into the kitchen.

The ever-present Scherer stood over that morning’s fare, sprinkling cinnamon into bowls of granola-topped yogurt and feigning a small gasp when Link appeared in the doorway.

“Neal,” he said, looking his disheveled colleague up-and-down. “I didn’t know if you’d be up, so I put your bowl in cold-store. Let me get it.”

“Thanks, Scherer.” Through mumbling, the cook’s name slurred out as sure. “Sometimes I forget you’re just a researcher like the rest of us. Take too gooda care of us.”

Scherer let out a soft laugh, placing Link’s breakfast on the table. “I’ll take that as a compliment. No caffeine for you this morning; Mick’s orders. Sorry.”

“Nah, he’s right. S’for the best.” The yogurt was oddly refreshing--sweet and tangy but not heavy in the stomach, and the crunch of the granola on top was enough to make the meal feel substantial. “Dunno what I’m gonna do with myself today.”

“Well, you’re supposed to be resting.”

“I know. Don’t figure one of y’all can sneak me into the field with you, huh?” Link teased in between gulps of water, the humor running dry when he realized Scherer seemed to be seriously considering it. “I’m kidding.”

“I know. But Matichuk’s runs are pretty amazing, if you ever get the chance to join her. You think the stars are breathtaking without a telescope?” He gave a nod in greeting to the groggy Hilt joining them. “You should go with her once, at least.”

“I’m sure I will,” Link said. “Morning, Hilt.”

“Mmm.” Hilt bypassed them both and grabbed his coffee from the counter.

“Well, it’s gotta be soon,” Scherer stated, shrugging as he took a seat to eat across from Link.

“Why?”

“Did you forget?” Hilt asked in a cracked voice. He lost his grip on his bowl. It clattered to the table and a glob of yogurt splashed out. “Crap. Sorry, Josh.”

“Clean it up, sleepy-fingers,” Scherer mumbled, glaring at the wasted spoonful. “Matichuk’s gone in three weeks. Her trip’s over.”

“What?” Link gawked, suddenly very much awake. “So soon?”

“Soon for you, maybe.” Scherer took a big bite, crunching the granola thoughtfully as he examined Link. “She’s been here three months already. And, uh,” he spared a look at Hilt, who was staring down at his yogurt like it was a broken bowl of cereal, “Hilt and I leave the week after that.”

The cold sweat that broke in Link’s underarms and down his sides was instantaneous. Appetite gone, he tried to keep his reaction level when he clarified, “It’ll be just me and Mick?”

“Scary, huh?” croaked Hilt with a lopsided smirk.

Fucking terrifying, Link thought in agreement.

“I guess I knew that from the dossier and just… forgot,” Link lied. His clothes were getting tighter, constricting his lungs more with each breath. Sensing his dread, Scherer reached out and gave Link’s shoulder a sympathetic pat.

“A month is still a long ways off. I’m sure you two will be fine by then.”

“Maybe,” Link allowed, very much doubting it. “Is anyone else scheduled to come in after you leave?”

“Nah. It’s just you and Mick for the rest of the winter.” Hilt popped his knuckles and began eating. “That’s typical, though. Minimum capacity, to ensure sites are functioning properly. Usually that means just Mick. Was supposed to be Punch too, this time, but… y’know.”

A silence fell over the trio as they ate. Link forced mouthfuls of yogurt down, swallowing the granola like pills to skip chewing. He had no after-breakfast plans, but he didn’t want to be at the table anymore. Even if his window of time with his new friends was suddenly shorter than he’d thought.

Link found his way to the couch and gathered all of the duvets and thick fleece blankets to form a nest into which he sank and settled. Turning on something to watch was tempting, but since he’d already woken and had breakfast, he didn’t see the harm in taking a nap.

With everyone getting ready, committing to sleep in the common area was much easier idealized than done. Hilt’s muffled shouts to Scherer floated down the hall. Doors slammed and pipes flushed water to and fro. Whenever things managed to still, the whistle of the wind outside still pushed against the building.

It was no wonder Hilt only fell asleep out here when movies provided the right white noise.

To Link’s surprise, Scherer and Hilt were the first two to pass through and bid him farewell for their shift. With them gone, Link craned his neck from his pile to check the clock on the shelves. 08:25.

Not five minutes later Matichuk strode out with a telescope tucked under her arm, giving the briefest acknowledgment to Link before stepping into the foyer and disappearing.

“Looks like someone’s late,” Link joked to no one.

“Gonna miss the star I’m tracking if I don’t hurry,” explained Matichuk from the foyer, making Link blush bashfully.

“Godspeed, then.”

Finally, at 08:45, snowbooted footsteps announced the last resident’s approach.

On a panicked whim, Link slumped over, ducking his head into the blankets in hopes that his peppery hair would be the only thing left exposed. It was an impulse--one he wasn’t sure why he’d acted on until the forehead kiss replayed in his mind.

The heavy thuds stopped just between the coffee table and the projection screen, and Link’s heart pattered as he waited for Rhett to continue out into the snow without him.

“Are you asleep?” The question was soft, careful not to rouse him just in case.

Link licked his lips, but couldn’t find the words to respond.

After three more steps Link realized he wasn’t headed for the door; the footfalls stopped just in front of the couch. A hot mixture of excitement and fear bubbled up in Link’s stomach as he imagined it too easily --Rhett ripping away the blankets, pinning him to the cushions, nipping and sucking at the flesh of his neck as Link unraveled into moans beneath him, reminding him in hot whispers that they were alone, unbuckling his snow gear against Link’s hips and--

“In the boreal tundra of the frigid north, there is no bird of prey more deadly--or beautiful--than the snowy owl. For years, these visions of perfect evolution have evaded the skyward eyes of even the most comfortable human residents of the arctic…”

Link blinked, letting out a breath he’d been holding as the British narrator prattled on. Just when he was about to peek out from hiding, a gloved hand gently ruffled his hair.

“Rest well.” The footsteps faded until the front door opened and shut.

Warily, Link popped out of his cocoon, staring shell-shocked at the documentary Rhett had turned on. After a few minutes of beautiful cinematography, the disbelief melted into genuine interest, and he watched the detailed exploration of the hunting, mating, and chick-rearing habits of snowy owls, the close call all but forgotten.

It was best not to dwell on how easily he could’ve been seduced by Rhett, anyway.

The documentary was coming to a close when the front door opened and a very disgruntled Matichuk stomped inside, bringing a biting gush of wind in with her. She heaved a troubled sigh and tore off her beanie before trudging to her room.

Best not to engage her, Link figured. It didn’t look like the trip had gone well.

Next to return just as Link had started another documentary about urban legends was Scherer and Hilt, who spilled into the site laughing and falling over one another like chums finding their way into a bar. “That’s disgusting!” Hilt guffawed, trying to catch his breath. Scherer shoved him into the common area.

“You’re the one who started it! Don’t suggest ‘Would you Rather’ if you aren’t prepared to make some tough choices!”

“Ugh. Get me away from him, Neal,” Hilt groaned toothily, stripping off his shoes and letting chunks of snow fall where they may.

“Hey--no snow in the common area! Mick’s gonna eat you alive. Get back in the foyer.”

“You pushed me in here!” Hilt bit back, proceeding to mock Scherer in a voice that didn’t sound like him in the slightest. For good measure, he flipped him the bird.

“Whatever. I’m not saving your ass when Mick steps in a puddle wearing socks.”

“Deal.” Hilt finally seemed to realize he was standing in front of a movie, and the way his face lit up when he looked at Link made the professor chuckle. “Oh man. Can I join you? I just need five minutes to dress down, you don’t even have to pause it for me or--”

“Hey,” Scherer cried, his head appearing in the door. “We still have to log data!”

“Please, Josh? That’ll just take a minute, we can do it later tonight. Leave the samples in cold-store.”

“Ugghhh. Thanks a lot, Neal.”

“What’d I do?!” Link cried, trying his best to sound less rattled than he was after ‘Mick’s gonna eat you alive.’

“Hope you’re ready for ice beans.” Scherer rubbed the back of his head and headed for his room, tailed by a stripping Hilt hopping against the walls for balance.

“Ice beans?” Link whispered, perplexed. He returned his attention to the screen to find himself hopelessly lost. Had he really picked a documentary on serial killers?

The rattle of someone running was all the warning he received for Hilt’s return. The smaller one flung himself onto the couch beside Link, fingers flying into the blankets to claim them for his own, squeezing Link’s ticklish sides in the process.

“Hilt, oh my god!” Link thrashed to get away from the wiggly digits, without luck. His laughs rang embarrassingly loud, and the next breath he drew was sharp and squeaky when Hilt’s toes found his bare ankle under the covers.

“Ice beans,” Hilt announced, all but an octopus as he assaulted the pile of warmth and blankets, pulling and tugging and digging into them as Link squirmed and cackled.

“No!! No more ice beans, you’re so freakin’ cold! ” Desperately he struggled to get away, kicking to propel himself into the far corner of the couch. It did nothing but double Hilt’s determination.

“Share the blankets, Bogart!” Hilt laughed, finding a loose end under which he could lever his arms and haul for all his worth. As the chill seeped closer to Link’s torso, he locked up with his hoard, challenging Hilt.

“These are mine! Go get the blankets from your bed!”

“You know,” Hilt froze, considering Link, “I wasn’t trying to tickle you before, but it seemed to work pretty well, so--”

“No!”

“Sharing is caring, Neal!”

The assault wrested Link to face Hilt, gasping until his sides hurt. He caved at the thought that surely one blanket would at least stop the attack, so he peeled his top layer off and cast it over Hilt, careful to keep his pits protected as he did so.

“There! Is that enough?!”

“No!” Hilt grabbed it and twisted like an alligator doing a death roll. “I’m cold!”

“Don’t steal body heat, you leech!”

“Should’ve warned you, he’s cuddly when he’s cold,” Scherer’s voice came distantly.

“If anything I’m a cat, not a leech.” Hilt forced his way up inside the blanket fortress, the older one laughing too hard to fight back anymore. “So long as I’m not making you uncomfortable!”

“No, that’s… good lord,” Link breathed, wincing against the icicle fingers braced on his side to pry the blankets off of him. “You’re fine. Gosh.”

“Ah! Welcome back, Mick!” Hilt chirped, his head poking out from the successfully infiltrated cocoon, angled at the door.

Link felt the smile on his lips die when he turned to find a dressed-down Rhett staring, specimen pack slung over one shoulder. His wide eyes jumped between Hilt and Link in the blankets together.

Link’s every muscle locked up under the gaze.

“Thanks.” Rhett started in long strides for his bedroom. Much like the first night Link had been there, a door shut somewhere seconds later--just a little too hard.

“He must’ve stepped in the puddle,” Hilt snorted, easily snatching the blankets from Link, who was now too stunned to protest.

No matter what Rhett had thought upon seeing him with the younger man, it couldn’t have been good. He’d only been there for a second, yet his face had read everything: surprise, hurt, anger, annoyance. Even disgust. Like the sight of Hilt and Link together had burned him. Link’s stomach roiled in his gut and he shifted to sit on the edge of the couch.

“You okay?” Hilt asked, audibly concerned.

“I need to go talk to him about how his shift went.” It was a weak lie, considering how the words trembled in his throat and tumbled from his mouth. But when he’d told Hilt he wasn’t good at putting off matters of emotions, that part hadn’t been a lie. “‘Scuse me.”

He didn’t see the confusion on Hilt’s face as he jogged to Rhett’s room.

 

 


 

 

Knock knock.

“Go away.”

“R-... Mick?” Link counted his heart beats in the quiet. He got to nine before the voice inside returned.

“Yeah?”

Door opened, Link’s eyes automatically fell to the bed, but it was vacant. Instead Rhett was sitting in the floor surrounded by containment vials, worksheets fanned out around him. His reading glasses were on as usual, and--as usual--he scowled up at Link from behind them.

“What.”

“Hey.”

The sight of their data eased Link. Gave him an jumping-off point, from which he could steer into the awkwardness from a more natural direction. “You want help?” he asked, gesturing to the papers.

Rhett glared. “You’re off today. It’s against protocol.”

“I won’t tell if you don’t,” Link offered with an unsteady smile.

Rhett dropped his gaze back to the work. “I would tell.”

“I… I could stay here and keep you company.”

“That’s called a distraction.”

“What if I don’t talk?” Even Link could hear the tinge of desperation in his voice.

Rhett didn’t answer, filling out a field on one of their logs with a pencil. He popped the lid off of a container and retrieved a single pH strip, sinking it into the fast-melting snow pooled at the bottom.

“...please, Mick?”

With a sigh Rhett placed the container on his table and ripped his glasses off. When he looked up again, his eyes were cut sharp like emeralds.

“We’re back to Mick, then.”

“Calling you… by your first name,” Link spoke carefully, “feels weird when I’m trying to be polite.”

“I don’t care what you do, Neal. Okay?” Hearing Rhett follow his lead on names stung, even if it had been Link’s decision.

“If you don’t care, then I’ll stay.” Link swallowed and closed the door behind him, stepping over to the bed and sitting.

The indignation on Rhett’s face flared, and he was growling before Link had settled. “ I meant with Hilt.”

Link stopped, legs mid-cross as he met Rhett’s fiery gaze. “Hilt and I weren’t doing anything, Mick.”

“I don’t care. I don’t care if you were, I don’t care if you weren’t.” Rhett snatched the indicator strip from the snow and double-checked the label of the container. “I don’t know why you think I would.”

"You're the one who brought it up."

"Because it's obviously why you're here. I couldn't give a shit about what you do, though. Okay?"

“Can I sit on your bed, then?” Link tried, keeping his face neutral. Schmoozing wouldn’t help. Rhett would see through that with ease.

“No. Get out.”

The following silence deepened. It became evident, that so long as he wasn’t interrupting, Link was welcome to sit and watch his boss work. And the way Rhett worked--how his pupils tightened on the numbers, how he meticulously compared the small piece of chemical paper to the result key, how his fingers were so graceful with his pencil when he recorded information--there was something fluid and melodic in his care and scrutiny.

“Any day now.” The sound of Rhett’s voice was enough to shake Link out of his reverie.

“I’m gonna stay and watch. I’ll be quiet.”

Rhett hung his head, dropping his arms into his lap to zone out in a thousand-yard stare. It was almost funny--Link didn’t know he could look so physically done.

“You know I can easily pick you up and toss you out. Right?”

“I wish you wouldn’t,” Link said softly, cheeks heating.

Rhett’s eyes flicked up to Link, the rest of him frozen. “Why don’t you go ahead and say what you came here to say? Would that make you feel better, snowflake?”

“Snowflake?”

“Fragile. Small. Like you couldn’t glean that without my help.”

Link absorbed the nickname, turning over the adjectives in his head, trying to familiarize himself with how Rhett saw him. It wasn’t pleasant. Being flat-out told he was disliked had been far more pernicious, yet their professional relationship had bounced back from it. This could turn out the same way.

“I think you’re unnecessarily cruel,” Link started coolly, tilting his head back to watch the dismissive blonde. “When I saw how you looked at Hilt and I on the couch, it seemed like you were upset. So I wanted to explain the situation to you. Hilt had just come back in--right before you--and he was cold, and when he saw that you’d turned on the TV for me, he insisted on stealing my blankets. That’s all.”

Rhett let the paper in his fingers fall to his lap. “How did you know I turned on the TV?”

Link's ears burned at the mistake. “Since I’m being honest, I was awake.”

“Why didn’t you answer me, then?” Rhett asked quietly, lifting an eyebrow.

“I was nervous.”

“Why?”

Link gulped, the loudness of it a betrayal in the tight space. “Because of last night.”

Rhett didn’t respond.

“I… I liked it.” Link busied himself with his sleeves, pulling them long to hide his hands. “I was embarrassed to see you again.”

“I see.” Rhett coughed once, setting his pencil on the floor. “Well then. Do you feel better now?”

Link blinked. “Actually… yeah. I do.”

“Good. Now leave.”

“That wasn’t part of the deal. I’m staying.” Link curled up, resting his head on his knees. His eyelids fluttered sleepily.

“That’s… Christ. You’re insufferable, Neal,” Rhett mumbled, but Link couldn’t help notice how gentle his inflection was.

“I’ll be quiet.”

“Prove it.”

Link did.

Without a second set of eyes and hands, data processing took far longer than usual. The warmth of the room, the gentle sounds of paper shuffling and bottles opening and pencils in use, the comforting smell of Rhett’s soap and deodorant… all of it lulled Link deeper into the bed, and he saw no reason to fight it. He’d planned on napping earlier--he was supposed to be resting. When gravity won, slumping Link’s exhausted form over onto Rhett’s pillow, he braced for heated protests.

When none came, he let slip a soft sigh, and closed his eyes.

 

 


 

 

The light in Link's room had muted, was the first thought Link had upon awakening. He blinked, slow, syrupy movements, before squinting in confusion at the string of fairy lights glowing a yellow luminescence. Had those always been there? And since when was his bag brown, not black?

It was the humming that reached him next--a tender tune, low and calm and sweet to his ears, asking him to drift back into sleep. Defying it out of sheer curiosity, Link forced himself into wakefulness. That was when he felt the feathered touch sink through his hair, and noticed the constant weight of something draped across his shoulders, pressing him sideways into the mattress.

Link dipped his sights down to find Rhett’s profile, close. The man was sitting with his back to the edge of the bed, one arm lifted up and over Link’s body so that his hand could run lazy fingers through gray locks. He still wore his half-moon glasses and held a paper near his nose to read, undoubtedly hindered by the dim lighting.

Yet he worked, humming and petting Link. The most at-peace Link had ever seen him.

Fearful to break whatever spell had fallen over the room, Link kept his breath deep and steady, taking care not to move as Rhett’s fingers drew back and started another slow sweep. A burn unfurled up Link's neck and cheeks in a harrowing blush when Rhett traced through his follicles, placating and reassuring and there. Would he keep doing it if he knew he were awake? Probably not, Link decided, committing to feign sleep for as long as the ritual continued. Waves of heat rolled through him with each caress, singeing his skin and parting his lips, lids growing heavy and drunk off of Rhett’s affection. The worst part was knowing it wouldn’t last forever.

Through fuzzy bliss, questions begged at the edge of his mind, ones he’d addressed and filed away in the past. Ones he still didn’t know how to answer, but was willing to entertain in his appeased fog: Why was Rhett only kind when he was helpless? Why did he do things like this, yet speak so maliciously? How did he really feel? And--perhaps most troubling--why was he falling for Rhett?

Because he was. It was something he could admit to himself now, under the ongoing protection of the man’s loving touches, listening to him hum and feeling the near-reverent trawl of his fingers through his hair.

“You’re shivering.”

The statement bolted Link’s eyes open, yet the petting continued, and he found himself staring wide-eyed at nothing as Rhett read on, nonplussed.

“Do you want me to stop?”

Link shook his head three times, as that was how many it took for the gesture to register as actual movement.

“Can you say it out loud for me?” breathed Rhett.

“Please don’t stop,” Link managed in a voice gruff from sleep.

“Good.” Rhett adjusted the arm over Link’s back like he’d been bearing discomfort as to not wake the man. “You can go back to sleep, if you want.”

The offer was tempting. But it was impossible to tell how much time had passed and he didn’t want to mess up his sleep schedule by over-resting. So he laid there, trying to ignore how fiercely his blush roared in his cheeks now that Rhett knew he was awake, happy to have Link as some sort of lap dog.

“You really did stay quiet,” Rhett said after some time. “Thank you, for that.”

Link smiled, careful not to move his head. “You’re the one talking now. Thought you didn’t want any distractions?”

“Almost done,” Rhett shrugged lightly.

So this would be over soon. Link’s heart sank.

“I wanted to read after, though. The book you gave me.”

“Oh. You should read it, then.”

“Will you…” Link looked up in time to catch Rhett’s eyes flitting around the room, searching for words. Then, “You can stay, if you want.”

Link curled into the covers, drawing his knees together. “I shouldn’t sleep any more,” he started, Rhett already nodding in acceptance before he finished, “But I’ll stay. And I’ll be quiet.”

Rhett’s fingers paused, and Link instantly wished they hadn’t. He’d said the wrong thing.

“You don’t have to be quiet.”

“You’ll be reading.”

“Not if we’re talking.”

Link snuggled his head down to his chest, gazing at Rhett sleepily. “You wanna talk?”

“If you have something you want to talk about.”

Well, then. It’s not like Link was brimming with tantalizing potential--he was sure almost any story he could share would be wildly boring by Rhett's standards. Classrooms and students and a relatively normal childhood in the countryside. He didn’t know how to respond to the permission, so he didn't, instead opting for the only thing he really wanted to say.

“Touch me again, Rhett?” The broken whimper escaped him before he properly filtered it of both content and tone, the depravity of the request making Rhett twitch. Slowly the older one turned his head, the gradual eye contact making Link recoil into his shirt like a turtle.

“Jesus Christ.” Rhett's words were a scandalized whisper.

“I’m sorry,” Link squeaked.

The laugh that spilled out of Rhett’s throat made Link’s body burn from head to toe. Tickled and rollicking and deep. It was the same laugh that wasn’t meant for him, the one reserved for friends at dinner and stupid jokes and people he didn’t hate. It ended too soon, and Rhett’s mirthful eyes twinkled as he adjusted and dropped his fingers back into the professor’s hair.

“Good gosh, Link.”

Chapter Text

Time off for recovery was something Link had direly underestimated; 48 hours of rest was enough to gift him with a new body fit for the trials Antarctica. Each day was easier than the one that came before it as he fell into a practiced routine.

With rest, life near the south pole wasn’t as extreme as it had first seemed. Sure, there was a real risk of frostbite if you were negligent, and Scherer’s impending departure made Link dread future prepackaged rations--but it wasn’t too different from any of the science camps he’d spent summers at as a child.

By the end of his second week, Link felt like a seasoned veteran. He was careful, however, not to share this pride with Rhett; if he was a veteran, Rhett was a cloven-hoofed pagan god of old. It was for this reason that--when the iridium phone rang at dinner one evening and Rhett’s eyes went round--Link’s stomach plummeted. The researchers stared at the trilling device as it flickered green and red. Rhett splayed his hands against the tabletop to push himself to stand, then with heavy limbs, went to answer.

“Rhett McLaughlin, site leader 466.”

Link glanced at the others. All of them had frozen over their pizza to stare, faces blanched and baited on their leader.

In Link’s time there, the phone had not once rang. Chest tightly strung, he leaned in close to Hilt and whispered, “What kind of calls come through there?”

Hilt only turned back long enough to respond, “Emergencies.”

“Yes. Yes, ma’am,” Rhett was saying, nodding into the phone, arms crossed. He shifted from foot to foot. “Understood. We will follow protocol. Thank you. Yes ma’am. You, too. Goodbye.”

He pushed the end button with both thumbs and looked up to his crew, the phone tight in his grip. “Mick?” prompted Matichuk. Maybe she was the only one who’d kept breathing.

“Everyone, it’s going to be okay,” he started, setting the phone back on its charger. “Supply lines have been interrupted. High winds means visibility has been exceptionally bad for Otters, so the next supply run is going to be delayed. We are to skip day shifts and stay indoors until next shipment.”

“What?” Scherer shot to his feet. “For how long?”

“...A week,” Rhett reported.

The group looked inward, panic and disbelief on their faces.

“A week? We don’t have enough food to make it that long. We have three days, at most!” Matichuk held up helpless palms. “What do they expect us to do?”

“Put these back into cold store, for one.” Scherer snatched their unfinished plates and fetched aluminum foil from the cabinet, setting about to wrap each one individually.

“You guys can eat me first. I’m okay with that.”

“Hilt, can you take this seriously, for once in your life?”

“No one wants that much gristle anyway, Chase.”

“We can stretch our rations. Right? We can make it a week.” Link tried his best to placate the panic taking over, but didn’t miss the way his own voice broke up an octave. If his colleagues were this frightened, it wasn’t good.

“Matichuk leaves, then, anyway,” scoffed Scherer, throwing a hand in her direction. “She’ll be fine.”

“I still have to make it the week , you dumbass!”

“Don’t talk to Josh like that!” Chase snapped, all trace of good nature gone.

“Don’t speak to me like that!”

“Hey!!” Rhett slammed a fist against the wall, shaking the kitchen and stunning the room into silence. “Enough! The only thing more disgraceful than how you all handle bad news is how quickly you get at each other’s throats!”

Eyes dropped to the floor--all except Link’s, which remained trained on Rhett, mesmerized.

“Scherer. How much food do we have left?”

“Well, since supplies were supposed to ship in tonight, we only have tomorrow’s breakfast, plus the few slices of pizza we didn’t finish.”

“Okay.” Rhett curled his fingers into his beard, thoughtful. “Neal’s right; we’re gonna stretch the rations. Humans don’t need food so long as they have water. Not for a while, anyway. No one is going to starve to death.”

“Scherer, I need you to do your best to divide up the remaining food into 800-calorie servings. Eyeball it. Matichuk, Neal, Hilt: you three are to go to your rooms--Hilt, I’m assigning you to check Scherer’s--and bring out all of the personal food items you might have. Things you brought from home. Everything. Teabags, protein mixes, whatever.”

Matichuk was already halfway down the hall by the time Rhett finished assigning commands and followed her.

Each person delved back into their comfort packs to fish everything out. When they rendezvoused in the kitchen minutes later, Scherer was hard at work portioning out meals, clearly pained by the surgery he was having to perform on a solid block of frozen casserole.

“We can’t afford to be self-serving. Everyone put your snacks in the middle of the table,” Rhett instructed. Soon formed a pile of energy bars, packs of raisins, beef jerky, chocolate bars, and various other name-brand goodies. The sight made Link’s stomach rumble--so many things that were unavailable down here.

“Matichuk, Hilt, I need you two to start making 800-cal piles out of these. Okay?”

“Yes, Mick.”

“Yessir.”

“Neal,” Rhett barked, turning to gaze down at the man. “Gear up. We’re going to the snow mine.”

“Got it.” Link hoped that a ‘snow mine’ wasn’t as terrifying as it sounded, and jogged to his room to change.

“And I trust I don’t have to tell you all not to eat any of the provisions while I’m gone?”

“No, Mick.”

“No, sir.”

 

 


 

 

“You ready?” Rhett asked, two words that Link had grown to find comfort in whenever he met Rhett in the foyer.

“Yeah.”

“Good. Grab as many of those gallon jugs as you can,” he pointed to a perch of plastic containers in the corner, “and let’s do this.”

When they stepped out into the darkness, the merciless winds chewed any slivers of exposed skin, cold enough to freeze the wet of one’s eyes. Rhett turned right instead of left as they always did, disappearing into the darkness.

“Wait!” Link yelped, yanking the door closed behind him with a free finger. “I can’t see you!”

“Follow my voice!”

Heart racing, Link stumbled into the night, tracking the gale-crushed hush of Rhett’s words. “What’s a snow mine, anyway?”

“It’s where we get potable snow that we load the melter with,” Rhett called over his shoulder. “We pull it from a deeper embankment to ensure it’s clean for consumption.”

Blindly trusting his feet was difficult for Link. “Isn’t it dangerous to walk towards a hole in the ground?”

“Stop,” Rhett commanded, suddenly close. Link blinked hard, reeling back to avoid bumping into his boss. “Set the gallons down.”

Link did so, keeping his arms stretched across their tops so the wind wouldn’t take them. He nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of a snowmobile roaring to life. The headlights seared his vision with a stretch of fresh, untouched snow claimed with a line of blue flags whipping in the air. Rhett began securing the gallons to the luggage rack fixed to the back.

“Another mobile ride?”

“Yeah, but it ain’t far,” Rhett promised. He gestured to the seat. “Get on.”

Then they were off, their mobile cutting a path through the snow, staying between the bending flags.

It didn’t take as long to reach the snow mine as it did the field site, thankfully, and Link soon stared, shoulder to shoulder with Rhett, at the recessed black entrance to a deep tunnel built into the ground.

“This is how horror movies start, I’m pretty sure.”

“A gallon in each hand and c’mon.” Rhett ordered, lugging four in his hands as he descended to the mouth of the cave.

Not one to be outdone, Link also grabbed two gallons for each hand and hurried after Rhett, following the idling mobile’s headlights. Their shadows shrunk until they were at the entrance. Out of the path of the merciless wind, Link let out a breath and stood slack. Rhett nodded.

“Put the gallons down.”

They did, placing all eight at their feet, and Link was instantly wrapped in a crushing hug. He gasped against Rhett’s chest, a bite of cold surging down into his lungs. “Rhett--”

“I really appreciate you,” Rhett murmured into his ear, pressing his mouth against Link’s beanie. The shorter one blushed at the warm, wet air, at the feeling of Rhett’s lips moving against his hat. “It’s easy to forget the others are so young sometimes. Wish they were more like you.”

The compliment made Link’s head swim with echoes of the words he’d earned upon arrival-- why couldn’t you have been anyone else?-- and he melted into the hug, begging the tears in his eyes to stay there. He clutched at Rhett’s back, returning the embrace as tightly he could through their parka.

“I know. You’re okay.” Rhett brought a hand up to the back of Link’s head. “You’re doing really well.”

“Thanks, Rhett,” Link choked, his throat thick. He might’ve imagined it, but he could’ve sworn Rhett nuzzled into his beanie. Just for a second.

“We gotta get this snow back. Otherwise the others really will eat all of the food in a panic.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

Snow collection was interesting, to say the least; a funnel was placed into the mouth of the gallon jug, and fresh snow scraped from the walls of the mine until they were packed tight with white gold. Hauling them back up the incline to the waiting snowmobile was the worst part. Both men were panting for breath when they started the swift ride back.

 

 


 

 

As promised, Scherer, Hilt, and Matichuk had spent their time making neat little groupings of the remaining food. Perishables had been re-packed into cold-store. Rhett hovered over the remaining fare, hands on his hips.

“Including what’s outside, we have enough food for everyone to eat for four days,” Scherer announced bleakly from his perch on the kitchen counter.

“Barely enough to stop stomachs from growling,” Rhett concluded with a grim face. “And then three days without after that.”

“Some of the things here are negligent in terms of calories,” Matichuk added as she held up a teabag. “Looks like more sustenance than it really is.”

“Well, in the meantime, I encourage everyone to drink as much water as they want. There’s no shortage of that or fuel, so we can make as many trips to the mine as we need to.” Rhett’s eyes roved between his site members, taking time to address each of them as he spoke. “Everything’s gonna be okay. On the bright side, we got the call before we finished eating dinner. Things could be worse.”

“Scherer--you’re off cooking duty. I don’t want to see you in the kitchen anymore,” he continued, ignoring the sad indignation on the man’s face. “Everyone is to take their rations to their room. Understood? No more communal meal times. You can come out here to use the microwave, but eat in your rooms.”

“Why?” Matichuk begged, brow furrowed. “That doesn’t seem good for morale, Mick.”

“With different menus, we don’t need to be watching one another eat,” he explained. His calm, steady gaze quelled the astronomer’s nerves, and by proxy, Link’s as well. “That sounds like a recipe for in-fighting. I trust y’all, but hunger is a hell of a thing. To keep peace? We eat alone.”

“Aww. But our game,” Hilt pouted against his hands, earning a halfhearted slap on the back from Scherer.

“We can still play the name game. Or maybe nightly movies, instead of dinner?” Scherer flashed Rhett a thin-lipped smile. “Is that okay with you, Mick?”

“Yeah, please?” Hilt perked up. “It would be good for us.”

Rhett shrugged. “If you’d like to implement that, be my guest. I can’t make it mandatory, though. Time off means no required activities.”

“That’s right… we aren’t allowed to work.” Matichuk’s words hung heavy in the air, an invitation that Hilt took.

“I don’t suppose anyone brought Twister?”

 

 


 

 

Fasting, Day 1

 

“This is the second Tom Hanks movie we’ll have watched together, Neal. Did you notice?”

“Yeah! He’s really prolific. S’hard to get away from him.”

“I know. I’m not complaining. He’s an amazing actor.”

“One of the greats.” Link pushed down the growing craving for a bucket of buttered popcorn and spun a finger at Hilt. “You have enough blankets?”

Hilt nodded from his cloth armchair. With a wiggle he pulled his feet up onto the seat and tucked his toes into hiding. “I’m good, thanks.”

When Scherer trudged into the room, looking a little worse for wear, he paused in front of the living area and squinted at Hilt. “You don’t want to sit on the couch, Chase?”

“Nah. Sorry. You can sit there,” Hilt suggested, pointing at the armchair mirroring his own.

“...Okay.” Scherer situated into the lounger with a difficulty that Link could only describe as awkward.

“You, uhh,” Link looked between them, “you guys can sit here, if you want. I can scoot over. I just took the middle seat cause I figured no one likes it anyway, and--”

“You’re fine.” Worming around to make a comfortable groove, Hilt passed a snarky smile to Scherer. “You’ve just spared him from ice beans.”

“You haven’t even been outside today,” Scherer grumbled. Link hazarded a hopeful smile that the now-retired chef missed.

It seemed the hunger was already digging its claws into some of them.

“Matichuk! Mick! We’re starting the movie!” Hilt called, rapping his nails on the iPod impatiently. Both filed from their rooms into the common area, neither looking particularly thrilled to be dragged out of hiding. Thankfully Matichuk forced high spirits.

“Forrest Gump? Nice,” she intoned, plopping down next to Link. On his other side, Rhett sank into the couch wordlessly, shrinking deceptively far into the pliant cushions. He leaned against the armrest, resting his chin on a hand.

“I love this movie,” Link said to no one as it started--the famous scene of a white feather drifting down from the sky.

Hilt hit the lights behind his chair, and movie night began.

Not three seconds later, he asked, “What’s the policy on commentary,” which earned a groan from Matichuk. “What?! I mean, we’ve all seen this before, right? Can’t we talk about it?” Hilt sought their assent conspiratorially. “It’s not really communal time if we don’t talk.”

Link glanced over at Rhett. The man was irrefutably disinterested in socializing, eyes half-lidded, blank stare locked on the movie. He’d said before that movie nights couldn’t require participation; was he only making an appearance so everyone else was happy? The thought made Link’s heart nip at his ribs.

“I think talking should be allowed,” Scherer finally voted in a begrudging tone, and with a muted agreement from Link, Matichuk propped her feet up on the coffee table.

“Fine.”

Although permission had been granted, no one spoke as the plot plowed through Forrest’s formative years. The Elvis scene made Link smile, as it always had, and that was when Rhett tapped him gently on the arm.

“Pass me a blanket, Neal.”

Link snapped around to collect one from the back of the couch, pushing it into Rhett’s arms and helping him unfold it to cover the giant’s outstretched legs. Amazing, that a quilt long enough to do the job existed.

Neal.

The name sounded weird coming from Rhett. It was similar to the discordant taste left in his own mouth whenever he had to say Mick in front of the rest of the team. It wasn’t a decision they’d talked about, or that Link had even made consciously. And while he’d heard Scherer and Hilt refer to one another by their first names many times over the course of his stay, there was something about addressing his boss in the same manner that didn’t sit right with Link. Not while they were around other people.

Maybe he was worried about what kind of questions would arise.

“This movie always makes me want shrimp,” Scherer groaned, stuffing his hands into his shirt.

“No food talk,” deadpanned Matichuk.

Gradually, the air in the room fogged thick with fatigue, born of sleepiness and bodies adjusting to diet. Regardless of Hilt’s suggestion that they chat, no one had the heart to, and so the movie carried on. Forrest goes to Vietnam. Forrest rescues throngs of soldiers. Forrest leans over in his hospital bed, waving a cone and warbling, “Lieutenant Dan, ice cream!”

Rhett huffed a laugh through his nose when Dan dumped the frozen treat into his bedpan. The sound startled Link, who’d been sure everyone was fast asleep.

“Too on the nose?” he whispered, and Rhett managed a sluggish smirk. It lightened Link’s chest. “Guess we didn’t realize how much food was in this movie until eating was an sore subject.”

“Is everyone conked out?” Rhett rumbled the words. Link felt them more than he heard them.

“I… yeah, I think so,” judged Link with a quick survey: Matichuk’s head was slumped forward; Scherer had slipped longways in his chair so his head lolled off the side; Hilt was limp, breathing deeply, eyes visibly shut.

“Might as well join ‘em.” Rhett shifted, burrowing against the end of the couch.

Link chuckled softly, watching him rearrange. “Hope you sleep well.”

There was a beat of quiet where Link awaited a grunt in response .

“You tired?” Rhett asked instead.

“Yeah. I’m exhausted,” Link admitted with a drawn-out sigh. His back was starting to hurt from the determination of sitting at attention.

Wordlessly, Rhett lifted the edge of the blanket, showing Link his body sprawled against the couch. The way his sweatpants pooled around his thighs, the thin cotton shirt mussed and exposing a stretch of hair-dusted belly, how the loose fabric settled sleepily around his collarbones.

Link hadn’t been cold, but he was suddenly sweating when he realized he’d been staring, drinking in his boss’s form. “What?” he eventually asked with a thick swallow, hoping the sound didn’t find Rhett’s ears.

“You wanna c’mere?”

The question was simple, but it brought Link’s brain to a wrenching halt.

Instinctively he knew-- absolutely , he did want to slide into the offered spot under Rhett’s arm. He wanted to rest his cheek on Rhett’s existence and listen to his heartbeat as the other bundled them up, taking care to conceal them from the others. He wanted to run his hands across that steadily rising and falling stomach, trace the hem of his shirt once he fell asleep, close his eyes under the impossibility of being curled to Rhett’s side. He would surrender to all of it.

But they weren’t alone, and a splinter of fear nicked his brain at the acknowledgment that that was the only thing holding him back.

When the seconds dragged on and Link still had yet to respond, Rhett let the blanket fall with a shrug. “‘Kay.”

“Wait!”

Link balked at the volume of his own voice and spun to check that he hadn’t woken anyone. Scherer stirred, only to snore and fall back asleep. When he returned his gaze to Rhett, the man blinked sleepily--slowly--and lifted the cover a second time.

“Are you joking?” Link whispered, hoping the quiver in his voice wasn’t as evident to Rhett as it was to himself.

“Dumb joke, if so.” Rhett patted his free hand against the pec closest to Link. “My arm’s getting tired, Link.”

Hearing his first name made Link’s ears hot. Carefully, as if moving too fast might startle the opportunity away, he closed the distance between them on his hands and knees. The end of the couch had less support than the sturdy middle and he lost his balance, catching himself on Rhett’s sternum. Aside from a flinch of surprise, Rhett’s face remained calm.

As a teenager, Link had once cuddled with a girlfriend. The incident had been uncomfortable, to say the least--all elbows and awkward angles and holding his tongue about the painful position he was in so that she’d feel special. Like two ill-fitting puzzle pieces smashed together.

This was the difference between night and day.

Rhett was soft and warm and giving, Link found, as he sank to fit naturally against his side. The smell of clean laundry mingled with the not unpleasant note of his perspiration--the smell of him . Unsure of how much was too much to ask for, Link hurried into the exact position he’d fantasized of seconds ago: head resting flush with Rhett’s chest, hand sneaking up to lie on his belly, arm slipping under his back to find the man’s far hip.

Once Link had staked his claims, he froze, eyes open, staring past Rhett’s beard. “Is this okay?”

“Y-Yeah. You’re fine.”

Rhett tugged the blanket down over Link’s shoulder and brought his hand to the smaller one’s back, pressing his large palm in between his shoulder blades. The pressure he put there was reassuring-- protective . Tipsy with security and intimacy he’d never known, Link nuzzled into Rhett’s embrace, returning the hug and letting out a shaky sigh.

Movie long forgotten, Link closed his eyes and breathed deep, trying to commit to memory Rhett’s heft and scent. Reality came to him in remote, sensory parcels he leisured in unwrapping: the heat radiating from Rhett’s stomach; his impossibly plush shirt sliding between Link’s fingertips in feigned kneading like a drowsy kitten; the steady, rolling pa-thump of Rhett’s heart against his cheek, pulse brisker than Link would’ve estimated for someone resting.

Somehow, he refrained from opening his eyes when Rhett moved. He trailed up Link’s back to cusp his shoulder, insistent, angling Link down onto himself. Then--as if it were the most natural thing in the world--his free hand found Link’s waist. There he rubbed and pet, fingers carving out the slope of Link’s hip bone and grazing a thumb up his shirt.

The gesture wasn’t fervent, or alarming--it was tender. Earnest.  Link’s entire body shook at the contact. 

“Are you cold?” The question came gravelly and low, thick with trepidation.

“No,” Link answered into Rhett’s shirt.

“Is… is this too much?” Rhett withdrew his hand fractionally. Panicked by the loss, Link drove his hips forward with an adamant shake of the head. Rhett hesitated, dancing on the edge of touching the smaller one. “Can you say it out loud for me?”

“Please don’t stop.” Link was grateful his words were smothered. He wasn’t sure he could release them into the open air.

A lone huff of amusement. “You comfortable?”

A request Link dammed up behind his teeth, causing pause as he thought of what to say.  “Yeah,” he eventually decided, feeling silly for entertaining it.

“Somethin’ wrong?”

“No. Just… never mind.”  More vague replies like that, and Rhett was sure to banish him from the couch.

“What? C’mon,” Rhett flexed against Link in lieu of nudging him. “If you don’t tell me, I’ll write you up for insubordination.”

It was Link’s turn to smile as he pushed his nose into Rhett’s chest. “But it sounds stupid.”

“Just like you.”

“So mean to me.”

“Spill it.”

This time when Link swallowed, he knew there was no way Rhett didn’t hear it. “I just… I don’t know what’s, uh... too far right now, I guess.”

Rhett’s entire body tensed. Link kept his head down, not having the constitution to check the expression on his face. “Erm. I don’t--”

“I meant for cuddling?” Link tried, desperate to preserve the atmosphere. “I just… I find myself really wanting to put my legs around your waist. While I’m beside you.” The beat of his heart joined the drumming of Rhett’s in his ears at the stumbling clarification.

“Oh.”

A grandiose musical score filled the silence as Rhett absorbed the request.

“Never mind,” Link blurted, moving to untangle himself from the embrace. If he stayed any longer he was bound to spoil what they’d shared. Large hands found him instantly, locking him into place at his elbows. For the first time, he looked up into Rhett’s face.

As soon as the eye contact had begun, Rhett let go. His gaze was clear and alert, neck stiff as he watched Link, waiting for him to leave. “I was just gonna say that I don’t see how you could get a leg between me and couch. But you’re more than welcome to drape one over me.” The spark in his temperament had dampened. “You can still go, if you want.”

The screen of the television burnt steady white upon returning to the iPod’s menu. In the new light, Rhett’s eyes were unforgivably vibrant and real and there. His hair was fluffed and wild, messed into different directions and making him look boyish despite his beard. Link held his breath, hovering above him. One palm flat on his stomach, the other hard on his ribs.

“I should go,” Link blurted without thinking, tearing his attention from his boss, fighting the storm brewing in his gut. The entire time he was extracting himself from the limbs and blankets and climbing to unsteady feet, he didn’t glimpse at Rhett, and the other did nothing to stop him this time.

Nor did he respond when Link offered a hushed, “Goodnight,” over his shoulder.

Chapter Text

Fasting, Day 2

 

Evening came to site 466 with the promise that movie night wouldn’t happen again--not after the previous attempt had dissolved into an impromptu snooze-fest. Besides, they were all adjusting to the pinching in their guts that worsened by the hour. In lieu, the researchers were scattered across the common room under a flimsy film of good humor that no one tried peeling back.

“I can’t believe you subscribe to that stuff, Matichuk,” Scherer grunted from the floor of the kitchen. He sat hip to hip with Hilt, their backs to the wall, laptops in front of them.

Matichuk leered over the table, setting her book down. “And why would that be?”

“You’re an astronomer?” Scherer offered with rhetorical lilt, pulling a face.

“I can still enjoy astrology.” Matichuk spun the anecdotal guide on the table. “No one says there’s no overlap.”

“What do you know about Tauruses?” Hilt inquired with a wiggle of his crossed ankles. “Do you know enough about the signs off the top of your head to describe them?”

“Practical. Reliable. Stubborn.” The resident expert propped her head on her hand. “A sucker for worldly pleasures.”

“No wonder you love cuddling,” Scherer elbowed Hilt and rose an eyebrow at Matichuk. “I’m an Aries.”

“Courageous, determined, competitive. The ‘finishers’ of the zodiac.”

“It sounds like you’re about to place him in Gryffindor,” Hilt said in between short bursts of laughter, drawing a wide smile from Scherer. “What about yourself?”

“Scorpio. Intuitive, hot-headed, intense. And before you say anything, yeah, I know--it’s on the nose, ” Matichuk allowed with an amused sigh.

“Do you know anything about compatibility of signs?” Hilt asked, cocking his head.

“Aries and Taurus?” she clarified, pointing between them. “They’re pretty different. Taureans can be really overprotective, which Aries usually aren’t into. It’s an interesting dynamic, actually--they tend to work well together, since Aries will impulsively start efforts towards goals, and Taureans then ensure those goals are met. It’s a good balance of strengths.”

“What about Geminis?” Link piped up, turning to gaze into the kitchen. He and Rhett had been sitting in the lounge silently--Rhett on the couch and Link in an armchair--as the professor did crossword puzzles and the site leader read one of his many books.

This wasn’t the type of conversation he would normally jump into, but curiosity mixed with fascination when Matichuk rattled off information as if from a script. She straddled the table’s bench to address Link. “Charming, talkative, spirited. Classic overthinkers, though.” Jen grinned when Link’s mouth hung slack. “You asked.”

“That felt like a personal attack,” Link murmured, making the younger researchers snicker.

“Mick, when’s your birthday?” Scherer called.

Without looking up, he responded flatly, “I’m a Libra.”

“You’re a Libra?” Matichuk echoed. When Rhett gave a monotonous hum of confirmation, she blinked. “Diplomatic, peaceful, just. Can’t stand being alone.”

At this, Rhett dragged his focus up to Matichuk, his serious over-the-spectacles glare making her recoil. “Are you sure you’re a Libra?” she squeaked, faint smile on her lips.

“What about Gemini and Libra compatibility, then?” Hilt goaded, shutting his laptop and inching over to set his chin on the table. “Since he can’t stand being alone…?”

“I think he might kill me,” Matichuk whispered, unable to tear her eyes from Rhett’s dead stare.

“I’ll protect you, if he tries. I’m tall enough, I think.” Scherer stretched to observe the pair in the living room. “That’s worth at least 100 points for Gryffindor.”

“Uhh… Gemini and Libra. It’s one of the strongest pairings there is,” Matichuk started, and Link unintentionally gave her his undivided attention. “Libra are steady but thrive from the beauty of spontaneity, whereas Gemini are unpredictable and need security to keep them grounded. Libra is balance and Gemini is erratic. They’re perfect complements.”

“Although Libra prefers to lead and Gemini doesn’t mind taking the back seat, Libra’s diplomacy allows them to hand over the reins, and Gemini needs to be in control from time to time. Both love exploring new ideas and thus they engage one another mentally. They can spend hours just talking.”

“Yeah, Mick never shuts up,” Hilt squawked, and everyone broke into laughter.

Heat in his cheeks, Link glanced back at Rhett and caught the tail-end of a smirk.

 

 


 

 

Fasting, Day 3

 

Why Rhett never came to Link’s room, he wasn’t sure, but Link wouldn’t complain. Rhett’s little hideaway was nicer--the fairy lights added ambiance that Link simply couldn’t replicate in his own space. The sight of them had begun to foster comfort in Link.

He knocked as he usually did, waiting until he heard the muffled acknowledgment to enter.

It wasn’t unusual for Rhett to be in bed, but it was unusual for him to be under the covers, no book in sight. Link’s face contorted in confusion as he observed the man’s feathered hair peeking out over the pillows.

“Rhett?”

“Yep.” The response was deep and crackling.

“Are you feeling alright?”

“Tired.”

“Oh. I can go, if you want.”

“Did you need something?”

“No. Just thought I’d check in. Haven’t seen you at all today, so… hi, I guess?”

Silence.

“I’ll leave you alone.”

Rhett grunted, pushing his sheets down and rising to a sit, cupping his temples in his hands. “I have a splitting headache.”

“Trying to stay in the dark, huh?” Link asked, eliciting instant nods from Rhett. “Why don’t you turn off the lights?”

“I might fall asleep. Can’t risk it.”

Out of the five residents, Rhett had taken the enforced caloric threshold harder than any of them by far. Sure, Link was still hungry most of the time, but his body was through the worst of it. He’d learned to savor the morsels of food dug out in the safety of his room. Rhett, on the other hand, had been increasingly irritable and exhausted as the days progressed. His massive size meant he needed more calories than the average person, Link figured--making his deficit greater than the average person’s.

“I can stay and we can talk. Would that keep you awake?”

“Sitting in a dark room, talking? There are better ways to spend your evening, Neal.” Rhett shielded his eyes.

Without hesitation Link flipped the switch and plunged them into a blackness only rivaled by the outside world. “I can go get you some painkillers, Mick,” he pushed back, shifting in place.

“Drop the attitude. Took some already. They ain’t workin’.”

“No attitude.” Link sank to the floor blindly and sat crossed-legged. “Just mirroring you.”

A pause, and then, “I called you Neal.”

“You did.”

“Mm.”

“Rhett… can I ask you a question?”

“Can’t promise you’ll get the correct answer right now.”

“It’s not anything that requires brainpower. Not a technical question,” Link elaborated, taking a deep breath. “I know it's out of the blue, but... I was wondering if you would tell me about your family?”

If not for the fact that Link knew Rhett was still sitting up, he might’ve assumed the other had fallen asleep in the following lull.

“Why?” he finally intoned, quiet.

“I’m just curious. I don’t know if you believe in stuff like horoscopes--”

“I don’t.”

“...but regardless, I thought it might be nice if we actually did get to know each other better.” Link pulled his knees to his chin, staring into nothing as he spoke. “I know almost nothing about you aside from your name and your job. And that you enjoy reading.”

“That’s all you need to know.” Shuffling sounds, as Rhett rearranged.

Link's temperament fouled instantly, exacerbated by the needling pain in his stomach. “What, so that’s it, then? You don’t want me getting to know you any better than the basic stuff that a stranger could glean? You’ll invite me to cuddle, but you won’t tell me about yourself?”

“We never did that,” Rhett bit back, making Link glad he couldn’t see him. He knew that tone well enough to visualize the expression that came with it.

“Rhett... if all you want me to know about you are bare-bones resume lines, then clearly I don’t understand what's going on here. Are you just waiting me out, until I leave?” Link huffed. “At the very least I thought we were friends.”

“You’re just another researcher,” Rhett growled in the dark, the sound of the words tearing through Link. “The next name on my roster.”

From his compromised position on the floor, Link wanted to lash out in return, wanted to give Rhett a taste of the bullshit he had to put up with every day. He wasn't in the mood for this whiplash.  “S'that why you were so upset when Punch was sent home?”

“What?” Rhett’s response was a clear warning, and Link flagrantly ignored it.

“Lost your fuck-buddy?”

There was no time to feel smug as the gust of Rhett throwing his covers off turned Link’s blood to ice. He scrambled on his hands and knees, putting as much space between them as the tiny room would allow until his back was against the wall. He braced for the light switch to return, when instead a large hand found his socked ankle and he was yanked roughly towards the bed.  Link whimpered as Rhett’s hands twisted into the front of his shirt, hefting him into the air with ease. Palms tingling, breath coming in fast, Link could only grasp the man’s forearms for some semblance of control.

“Listen,” Rhett seethed in his ear, “My parents are dead. My brother is dead. My family is dead. I’m alone--but I don’t need your goddamned sympathy for it. That all you wanted to know? You sated, now, you little prick? Accuse me of fucking around with my team members again, and I’ll send your ass back to cozy little North Carolina faster than you can say cause for termination.”

Throat tight, Link hung limp in his hold.  “Rhett… I d-didn’t--”

“Get the fuck out,” Rhett breathed, lowering Link to his feet on shaking arms.

Link obeyed, finding his own room automatically with his head down, heart racing. Only when he was alone did he feel the stretched fabric at his chest and the stinging at his eyes--or acknowledge the inappropriate thrum of fear, arousal, and crushing guilt numbing his skin. Dazed, he padded over to his bed and sat.

There was no denying he’d crossed a line, implying anything about Rhett’s relationship with an ex coworker. Salt had gotten the best of him, and he’d wanted to tango the same way Rhett did: an off-kilter dance of belittling and insults and intentionally stamping on sore spots.

But deep down, he knew Rhett would never have said anything like that to him.

 

 


 

 

Fasting, Day 4

 

The cool blue bulb on the ceiling highlighted the meager array of foodstuffs in the middle of the floor, giving Link the fleeting impression that he was a prisoner who’d won the commissary lottery. He sat on his heels, thighs hunched, looking over the fare he was allowed for the day in the safety of his room--as directed. It didn’t look like much, but he’d been drinking enough water to drown a fish, so it was enough to stave off hunger.

A bag of cheesy puffs, a sucker, dried banana slices, a box of apple juice, a pack of flavored oats, and a caramel-filled chocolate bar.

It was the last item that drew his attention--the one he wanted most. It had been a long time since he’d tasted chocolate, and the branding alone of the bright red wrapper was enough to make his mouth water.

Link checked the clock. 10:22. Slipping the confection into his sweatpants pocket and running over the lines he’d been rehearsing for the past twelve hours, he started for Rhett’s room.

The routine knock was interrupted when the door cracked open, revealing a thin slice of Rhett from head to foot. Flannel pajama pants, sleep-riled hair, and a black henley suited him well--as did the deserved scowl on his face upon seeing his subordinate.

“Oh. What?” he asked flatly, looking Link up and down like an unwelcome mailman.

“Hey… Mick,” Link decided, already flubbing up the lines he’d nailed down now that he was in the giant’s presence.

Rhett let his eyes fall to the floor, where they stayed as he failed to answer.

“I wanted to give you this,” Link forged on, retrieving the candy bar and offering it to him in a loose grip.

Rhett considered it, chewing on the inside of his lip. “That’s your ration. I can’t take that.”

“Please? I want you to. I can’t shake the feeling that you’re hungry. Or hungrier than the rest of us are, anyway,” Link laughed nervously, smoothing out the edges of the wrapper in his hand.

“I really can’t take it, Neal. Against protocol. Soon, rations will be gone entirely.” The air between them shifted, weighing heavy on Rhett’s shoulders and lighting a small fire of determination in Link’s throat.

“Please?” he repeated. “Look, I know regulations and protocol are incredibly important, but you’ve not been well lately. It’s obvious. I think you’d feel better if you ate a little more.” His voice fell to a hush. “It would make me feel better, too.”

“I’m not here to make you feel better,” Rhett stated, but his words were losing their whetted edge.

Link swallowed, trying for one last push.  “I think we’d all feel better if we knew our site leader was doing okay. I won’t tell anyone.” When Rhett’s sunken green eyes met his own, Link held them like life preservers in a storm. “Promise.”

Rhett slumped against the door frame, leaning heavy on his elbow as he ran a hand through his hair. He sighed. Lightning-fast, he snatched the candy out of Link’s palm and tossed it over his shoulder like it had burnt him. There was a muffled thud from behind him as it hit his bed.

Link broke into a gratified smile. “There. Was that so hard?”

“Don’t patronize me, Neal,” Rhett mumbled with a sapped eye roll before shutting the door.

 

 


 

 

Fasting, Day 5

 

Each day blended into the last as the supply shipment’s arrival date closed in. With movie night having fallen through on day one, time had made the site quiet. The researchers opted to stay in their rooms. Only the occasional sound of Hilt’s laughter or water sloshing in the bathroom filled the silence.

The rations were officially gone--they were for Link, at least, as he’d eaten before noon--and so the next two days promised a fresh depth of hunger he knew he wasn’t prepared for.

When Scherer’s call rang out from the kitchen, it felt bizarrely normal for the few seconds before Link remembered that the man hadn’t cooked in days. Closing his book of word puzzles, he hoisted himself from his nest-like bed and went to investigate.

Scherer stood over a collection of thin black knapsacks arranged on the dining table, eyeing them warily with Matichuk and Hilt. When the professor dawdled in the doorway, Scherer looked up.

“Neal. You’re here.”

“What’s going on?” he asked wearily, running a nail along his stubble. “What is this?”

“Scherer found more food in the cold store,” Hilt supplied helpfully, grinning.

“What?”

“Yeah. There was a box of food in there we must've missed the first time we divvied it up, and there it has enough for everyone to eat tomorrow, too. Which means we all only have to go one day without food,” he explicated, shifty smile somewhere in between relief and concern.

“That’s amazing,” Link grinned. “Are these the portions?”

“Yep. Everyone grab a bag. They’ll get you through tomorrow.”

“I’ll take Mick’s to him.” Matichuk snatched two satchels. “I’m worried about him. Tried to bring him tea the other day and he was just in there with the lights off.” She hefted the food in her arms. “Maybe he’s depressed.”

Link’s lungs locked up: “My family is dead. I’m alone.” It took him a moment to realize everyone was watching him expectantly--even Matichuk. “Wh-What?”

“It’s just…” Matichuk glanced at Scherer and Hilt with a somber face. “Has he said anything to you? You know him better than we do.”

Link hugged his food back to his stomach and refused to don the nervous grin his anxiety wanted. “I do?”

“Well, yeah.” Scherer wrapped one of his hoodie strings tight around his fingers, turning them red and yellow. “We’ve been here longer, but he actually spends time with you.”

“He hasn’t mentioned anything like that to me,” quavered Link.  It wasn’t technically a lie. Whatever was wrong with Rhett, they hadn’t talked about… but Link probably did know more than the others. At least a little. Guilt piled on his tongue in sticky heaps and he swallowed, trying to send it down.

“Okay. Well… hopefully once we get the supply shipment, he’ll be back to normal,” Scherer conceded with a helpless shrug.

When Link’s bedroom door shut behind him, he flung his glasses down onto the mattress so he could rub a hand over his face. It did nothing to muffle the disquiet of a new question to answer, a new decision he was going to have to make: give Rhett space--which had worked well in the past, to smooth things over--or confront him and find out what was wrong.

Was improving where they stood with one another worth risking Rhett’s health?

Phrased like that, the choice was easy. Punch had been sent home, after all--Rhett could need to go home, too.

But there isn’t anyone there to take care of him.

Link seized his glasses, tested the weight of his rations, and headed to Rhett’s room, accidentally slamming his door behind him.

Under any normal circumstances, Link would have waited for permission after knocking. This time, however, he gave a quick rap and let himself in automatically, sticking his head into the room. The lights were off--how long had he been lying in the dark?

“Rhett?”

“Hmm.” The answer was tame and short. Whatever hesitation Link had about intruding crumbled.

“Can I turn on the light?” he coaxed. He stepped inside and let the door close behind him, pushing his back to it to click it shut.

“If you have to.”

He did. A flipped switch later and the fairy lights twinkled to life, revealing Rhett curled up under blankets in bed, head out and staring into nothingness across the room. His hair was grimed and wild from his pillowcase. The dark areas under his eyes had turned gray, filling Link with fear. The cloying smell of sour sweat and sleep hung heavy in the air.

When Link failed to say anything, too stunned at the progression of Rhett’s evident illness, the man on the bed dragged his eyes down to the professor.

“Matichuk already brought me my food,” he intoned, staring at the bag in Link’s hands.

“Rhett,” Link breathed, folding to a kneel and crawling to his bedside. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m sick. I’ll be fine.” Rhett didn’t recoil at Link’s proximity--just held his eyes with a dreamlike disinterest.

“You don’t look good.” Link’s voice shook at the edges. “How do you feel? What part of the body feels sick?”

“I have a cold,” Rhett stated blankly between slow blinks.

“That’s clearly not what’s wrong,” scolded Link softly, looking over Rhett’s face, neck, and shoulders like there was an answer carved there somewhere. “Are… are you depressed?”

Amazingly, this made the blonde smile. Just a faint tug at his lips. “No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

“I’m worried about you,” Link admitted, his neck growing hot. “We all are, man.”

“Don’t call me ‘man.’ I’m your boss,” Rhett croaked. His eyes slipped shut and for a few pounding beats of his heart, Link found himself panicking at the thought that they might not open again.

“Are you hungry? It’s gotta be the food, then,” Link plowed ahead, talking in the hopes that it would draw his attention. “I thought you weren’t going to do well on 800 calories a day. You’re so much bigger than any of us. Look, I feel fine, so let me just--”

“No.”  Rhett’s hand sprung out from the covers and clutched Link’s wrist, stopping him from opening his rations. Instinctively Link pulled away, shooting him a scowl.

“You’re not--”

“That’s your food, Neal. Protocol. Remember?” he warned.

But when Link snorted derisively and pulled open his bag, Rhett deflated into the mattress, resigned.

“Will you forget about the protocol for a minute? You need to eat. You’re…” Link trailed off, gazing down into the pack.

Rhett pressed his lips into a thin line as he watched him fish out a familiar red-wrapped chocolate bar.

Link held it up, ogling Rhett wordlessly.

“Surprise,” Rhett monotoned, looking limply between Link and the treat.

“Are you kidding, me, Rhett,” Link whispered. The effort of holding back weepy tears made his voice thick. He stared at the candy in his hand. “You unbelievable asshole.”

“Hey now. I may be weak, but I’m still your superior.”

“How many days has it been, Rhett?” Link let his hands fall to his lap.

“How many days have we been fasting?” Rhett asked blearily, looking at the ceiling in thought.

“You haven’t eaten anything in five days? Just so the team could have one extra day of food?”

It sounded impossible on his lips. Suddenly unable to sit still, he rested a hand on the edge of Rhett’s bed--but it wasn’t enough to quell his concern, and he rose to his knees to lord over him, brow knit, his throat and nose and backs of his eyes congested with emotion.

Rhett squinted to look Link’s torso up and down, wincing from the lights at his back. “Don’t beat me up.”

Link bit his lower lip and pulled it into his mouth as he leaned down, wrapping his arms around Rhett, letting his weight push him into the bed. He retracted only to pull his glasses off and toss them aside before burrowing into the warmth at Rhett’s throat, feeling his weak pulse protest against his lips.

“Easy, Neal,” Rhett rasped in his ear. “You’re gonna--”

“I’m sorry, Rhett.” Link blinked away his tears as best as he could, but one slipped out and ran down his nose. It dripped thick and wet onto Rhett’s neck. “I’m so sorry about the things I said the other night. I can’t believe you’ve been starving yourself for everyone. I thought I was grumpy, and hungry, and sick of everyone, but you--you’ve been doing this alone, and no one asked you to do this, and--”

“Shh.” Rhett snaked an arm out from under the covers and brought it down on Link’s back, pressing him into a hug.

“And now you’re comforting me?” Link shook his head against Rhett’s collarbone. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Can’t have my partner under duress,” Rhett droned. The pressure of his hand at Link’s back made the smaller man take a shuddering breath before pulling away, sitting back on his heels.

Determination renewed, Link overturned his bag and spilled all of the food into the floor. The waterfall of crunching didn’t last nearly as long as he’d hoped, and he grabbed the first thing his fingers found, tearing the plastic back: a chewy macadamia granola bar.

“Eat,” Link commanded. He stuck it in front of Rhett’s nose, waiting.

There was a spark of something there in the immeasurable fatigue--a kindled interest as Rhett observed the snack cross-eyed. “Link, I can’t--”

Link took the opportunity to shove the bar into Rhett’s mouth, earning a pissy glare from him before he bit off the end.

Thoughtful, Rhett chewed. The longer he held the held it in his cheek, the more his features eased, working over the food and rediscovering nourishment. After a rather difficult swallow, he let his head fall back.

Link tamped down the bizarre urge to kiss the look of relief on his face.

He broke off another piece of the bar and held it up, waiting.

Rhett leered. “I can feed myself.”

“No. You’ll hide it under your pillow or somethin’.” An eye roll and sigh later, and Rhett had his second bite.

Through some miracle, Link managed to feed Rhett a granola bar, a small bag of potato chips, and half a pack of beef jerky before he was met with more resistance.

“That’s enough. You’re just ensuring you won’t eat tomorrow,” Rhett griped, pushing Link’s hand away.

“Says the man who hasn’t eaten in five days,” Link shot back. “You should take your fill. I can hear your stomach.” He paused for effect, and just as he knew it would, an angry growl of a belly remembering how to digest punctuated his point.

“I’m not eating any more. I’ll get sick if I do. Gotta adjust back into it gradually,” Rhett sighed, burrowing down into his covers. As if hiding his mouth would prevent Link from cramming more food into it.

Link watched the lump on the bed, imagining how Rhett’s figure caused the bumps and dips of the covers. “Do you feel any better?”

After a beat of silence: “Yeah.”

“Good.” Link smiled. The warm satisfaction of helping buoyed his chest and made him feel lighter.

“You can go now.”

In the deadness of the site, Link listened for even the tiniest sounds as neither of them moved, but there was nothing. No water in the restroom. No movie in the common area. No talking, or music, or walking. The strain brought only the sound of his own heartbeat to his ears, drowning out everything else as he dug his fingernails into his palms.

“Hey, Rhett?”

“What?”

“You know the other night, on the couch?” Link began, chewing on the inside of his cheek.

“We don’t have to talk about it,” answered Rhett hurriedly. “I get it.”

“Can we do that now?”

The lump on the bed didn’t move. Link rubbed the back of his neck, tugging at the hair there in anticipation.

That was in the common area,” Rhett’s cloth-dampened words came slowly, as if he were choosing where to put his feet on a frozen lake’s surface. “These are my quarters.”

“I know,” Link nodded. If there was some sort of protocol he was unaware of, he didn’t really care anymore--he could guarantee that starving oneself was a flagrant violation of site policy. Rhett had no footing with that argument.

“I haven’t bathed in a while.”

Whether the warning was meant as an out for either himself or for Link, it didn’t matter. Link shook his head.

“I’ve been really worried about you. And I feel terrible for what I said the other night.”

“You’re not the one who lost their temper,” Rhett grumbled, twisting to face the wall. “Plus you already apologized.”

“I want to hold you.”

Link knew that another long silence would be his initial response. Cheeks warm and teeth grit, he waited. If Rhett kicked him out it would be understandable; the past few days had been more turbulent than usual between them. It made Link nostalgic for a time when they got up, did their work, and pursued their own interests in one another’s wordless company.

But the week had started with a potential that had excited Link down to his bones--an offer of closeness late at night, away from the eyes of others. Of soft breaths and gentle hands and heartbeats against cheeks. He desperately regretted running from it.

When Rhett lifted the blanket in invitation--his face flushed with more color than before--chills of excitement and gratitude danced up Link’s spine, and he crawled onto the bed.

Deliberately, he tucked his feet in next to Rhett’s, careful not to let his cold toes brush against him as he slid down into the offered spot. He made himself comfortable and Rhett stayed stock still, waiting for the adjustments to finish: scooting up far on the bed, turning over onto his side, tugging his shirt down to cover his belly twice.

“Alright,” Link sighed, already half tranquilized by the warmth. From this position he was a foot ‘taller’ and could gaze down at the choppy peaks of the man’s disheveled bedhead. “Just…” He stretched as if offering a hug, beckoning.

In one languid movement, Rhett wrapped his arms around Link, pressing his forehead to his chest and drawing their bodies together under the covers. He encircled him so easily it made Link’s heart skip a beat--his waist felt impossibly small under Rhett’s overlapping embrace.

Forgetting how to breath, Link saw his hand move in slow motion from the mattress to Rhett’s shoulder. He let his other be courageous, resting his wrist on Rhett’s temple and fanning fingers through that dirty blonde hair experimentally--trying to replicate the way he’d been pet in that same bed weeks ago.

Rhett let out a long, contented hum and buried his face into Link’s shirt, nuzzling at his breast.

As they grew familiar with the weight and comfort of one another, they dared to explore. Drunk on Rhett’s well-being, Link nestled his chin into Rhett’s hair, unbothered by the scents of his weakness. The third time that Rhett’s knee nudged, asking for permission, Link spread his legs and allowed them to tangle.

The heft of Rhett’s thigh between his own, the way Rhett’s foot rocked against his ankle as if he were passing along the affection at his head… Somewhere in his sleepiness, Link knew he was hard. Being touched and cared for and having Rhett small and safe in his arms was far more than his constitution could stand up against. He also didn’t care. It wasn’t like Rhett was going to do or say anything about it, if he happened to brush against it. He wasn’t the type.

At the worst, it would just be another earful of scolding, and that was old news.

He was teetering at the edge of sleep--struggling to maintain the right rhythm for petting--when he felt Rhett look up at him.

Link didn’t acknowledge the change. For once the hysterical panic that usually drove him to do stupid things was drowned out by rolling waves of comfort. If Rhett wanted to watch him drift off to sleep, that was fine.

He didn’t expect Rhett to scoot up, to find the bare skin at Link’s neck and plant a whiskered kiss on his pulse point. Just below his jaw.

Link’s eyes opened in response to the heat of the gesture. Rhett was much closer than before.

Their gazes locked--wide met heavy-lidded--and Rhett took a deep breath, clearly steeling himself in a way that made Link’s heart skip a gear. He leaned in again, finding the same spot on Link’s throat, pressing his lips there harder, lingering this time. Link stared into space as goosebumps raced across his limbs, the threat of being caught aroused suddenly a very real possibility as Rhett’s beard tickled his collarbone.  

Then Rhett’s lips parted and he drew Link into his mouth, sucking gently and lapping his tongue over the flesh there. A sharp gasp of pleasure filled the room, and Link slapped his hand over his open mouth, face on fire. He could feel the curve of Rhett’s self-satisfied grin on him, trying to pull whimpers and shaky exhales from behind Link’s fingers.

“W-Wait,” Link squeaked, and thankfully Rhett stopped instantly, pulling back to give Link his full attention. “You’re gonna leave a mark,” Link whispered, dizzy and lightheaded and painfully hard.

“I know,” Rhett rumbled, inspecting the spot in question. “You’re my partner, aren’t you?”

Link stared, pupils blown wide and breath coming in quick. He didn’t have a response. When Rhett moved in a third time, Link guessed he didn’t need one.

Skimming down to the base of Link’s neck and biting roughly, Rhett did his damnedest to drag all of the obscene gratifications he could from Link. Biting, sucking, nipping, kissing, and licking every exposed inch of his neck and chest like the starving beast he was.

Link was quickly coming undone--not only under Rhett’s mouth, but under his palms. They’d found their way up Link’s shirt to the low of his back, squeezing the love handles there as he growled appreciatively against the brunette’s neck.

Another trembling moan escaped Link’s hands, and he whined in the following quiet. “Someone’s going to hear us, Rhett.”

“Then stop being so loud,” Rhett scolded in between sucks, pulling Link’s hips towards him roughly. The sudden shift brought Link’s neglected cock to grind against Rhett’s stomach, and Link’s heart jumped into his mouth.

“Stop! Please, hang on.” He pushed Rhett to elbow length and nearly fell out of bed in the process.

Rhett froze, save for a series of perplexed blinks and heavy breathing. “Now what?”

“I… I’m, uh.” Link looked down at his lower half under the covers, at the tented fabric complete with telling wet spot soaking through. It was stupid that he couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence. He’d been gasping and crying out for the past ten minutes--shameful noises he never would’ve made alone. It was foolish to just tell Rhett he was hard, because duh.

“I am too.”

Rhett's admission didn’t help. For the first time since their exploration had started, Link forced himself to meet his gaze. Those green eyes he’d grown used to in their vitriol were roiling--dark and hungry and trained on Link like a dog waiting for a signal.

“Rhett,” Link said softly. He hated the way his words shook, hated the vulnerability that Rhett latched onto that made his hands slide off of his waist. He hated the way Rhett’s shoulders went slack as he started to nod, looking anywhere but Link’s face.

More than any of that, though, Link hated how much he didn’t want to stop.

“We can’t,” he concluded simply.

Rhett was still nodding. “I know that better than you do.”

“...what does that mean?”

“It’s not allowed,” Rhett shrugged, slow-blinking his way to acceptance.

Link took as deep a breath as his lungs would allow, as if drawing in enough air could expel all of the filthy urges he’d worked up under Rhett’s mouth.

“We can, uh… we can keep cuddling though,” Link suggested halfheartedly, heart still pounding in his chest. There was a small consolation he could offer. “You could spoon me.”

Rhett’s features softened from their obvious disappointment. He swallowed thickly and gave a fragile smile, forced and pitying.

“Okay.”

Lights still on, Link stared across Rhett’s room from his flipped position. A large arm draped over his waist and fell heavy onto the mattress before dragging back, pulling Link flush to Rhett’s stomach with embarrassing ease. Link busied his hands covering both of their bodies with the blanket--ensuring Rhett’s toes were cared for as well--and pressed back as hard as he could into the length of Rhett’s warm body.

He could feel Rhett’s erection easily now, as he situated. Given the difference in size between them, Rhett was able to nuzzle his beard comfortable over Link’s shoulder, yet his dick still prodded against Link’s ass, begging for attention it wouldn’t get. It made the professor dizzy with impulses despite laying perfectly still.

A wet and warm sigh of contentment hit Link’s ear and he shivered at the closeness, earning Rhett’s arm around him tighter. The sense of security only fed his desire to grind back onto Rhett, to encourage the hardness in his pants and hear him make sounds mirroring the ones he himself had donated earlier.

The only thing that kept him from chasing more was the thought of losing what he already had.

“Hey, Rhett?”

“Mmm.”

“Did you really leave… marks … on my neck?”

Rhett hoisted himself to get a better look, his chest hovering over Link’s as the blushing brunette bared the skin of his throat for his eyes to take in.

“No.”

Link wanted to say good, but that didn’t feel right.

“Okay.”

 

Chapter Text

“We’re going to miss you so much, Matichuk,” Hilt declared as everyone cheered, tapping the rims of their cans together over the dining table. A sea of enthusiastic agreement echoed his sentiment.

The supply drop had come without incident after a single day spent without food--which, when it came down to it, was a best case scenario that Rhett had guided them into with ease. The site leader had shared Link’s rations under the strict agreement that Link wouldn’t out him for sneaking behind the researchers' backs and risking his health, and it had been a pretty good deal as far as Link could tell. Better than the stubborn stoicism Rhett usually reserved for him.

As a bonus of sorts--and an apology from higher-ups for endangering their well-being--the restock had come with cases of beer. It was more than enough alcohol for Matichuk’s going away party, which the five researchers had gathered for in the kitchen.

“I’m technically not working here anymore,” Matichuk grinned with a sip. “You guys can call me Jen now. I’m just a friend tonight.”

“Jen. Sounds weird,” laughed Scherer. “You somehow managed to make Jen sound weirder than Matichuk.”

“I’m really gonna miss you, Jen.” Link did his best not to let his voice shake.

Only three weeks, he’d been at the research site. Yet the bond formed with Scherer, Matichuk, and Hilt was one he would inevitably think about for the rest of his life. Tight living quarters, communal dinners, movie nights, and even a hardship, they had shared together. Things that mettled the human spirit and brought out the most basic desire of all mammals: to be with, to belong, and to love. To be part of a collective, and to keep that collective.

“I’m going to miss you guys, too.” Matichuk pouted over her drink in an exaggerated frown. “We can still keep in contact, though. It’s not like I’m dying.”

“Speaking of, where’s home for you?” Scherer asked, setting his beer on the counter and whipping a notepad and pencil out of his shorts. “What’s your home address?”

“I’m from Alberta. What, are you planning on mailing me something?” she snorted, grinning from ear to ear. “Wouldn’t you rather have my personal e-mail?”

“You’re Canadian?” Link blurted out, prompting everyone to laugh--Mick included, whose drink threatened to spray from his nose.

“You didn’t think ‘Matichuk’ sounded Canadian?!”

“I don’t know what Canadian names sound like! And it’s not like she has an accent, either!”

Wrong, Neal. She definitely has an accent. It’s just subtle.”

“That’s close to no accent, then, ain’t it?!”

“Yep. Going to miss this,” Matichuk punctuated each word and drank to it. “Shame I couldn’t get any work done my last week here, though.”

“Let’s not talk about work,” Hilt tapped his beer against the edge of the table and proceeded to slurp up the foam that bubbled out. “This is a party!”

The air of merriment settled a bit when each of them took time to drink. The group stood, staring at one another expectantly until Matichuk snorted a giggle. “Anyone know any party games?”

“I have a pack of cards in my room.” Scherer set his drink down and hustled to retrieve it, calling over his shoulder, “Let’s play Waterfall!”

Minutes later they were all situated around the coffee table in the lounge area, chairs and couch pulled up close for easy access to the shuffled deck in the middle and their drinks perched at the ready.

“Didn’t realize we were aiming to get shit-faced tonight,” mumbled Link with an anxious smile. “It’s been a long time for me.”

“You ever played Waterfall?” Scherer asked as he adjusted his baseball cap.

“I’ve heard my students talk about it before,” admitted Link bashfully, “but no.”

“So, the rules are simple, but there’s a lot of them. Each card represents a rule, and you just have to adhere to them. If you don’t, you drink.”

“If you draw a two, that’s ‘two for you’--pick someone to drink.
‘Three for me’--you take a drink.
‘Four for whores’--Jen drinks, I guess. Sorry at the terminology.
‘Five for jive’ means you start a dance move and it goes around clockwise, each person adding a move. First person to forget the sequence--you guessed it--drinks.
‘Six for dicks’--the men drink.”

“That’s not fair,” Matichuk smiled, settling onto her elbows. “Just ‘cause you have a dick doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a guy.”

“Okay, then, how about four means female-identifying people drink, and six means male-identifying people drink? It doesn’t rhyme, but--”

“Better.”

“Okay, so then ‘seven to heaven’--last hand in the air drinks.
‘Eight’s a date’--you pick a partner and if one of you drinks, you both have to drink.
‘Nine for rhyme’ means we rhyme in a circle until someone can’t think of one and they have to… I think you get the point.”

Link gawked at Scherer, glancing between him and the cards like the deck might lash out and bite him. “I’m gonna get alcohol poisoning, aren’t I?”

“We have plenty of water,” Rhett cut in with a point into the kitchen. “Anyone is allowed to stop whenever they want.”

“Can I finish explaining the rules?”

“You aren’t done?!” Link blanched.

“Ten is ‘categories’. Hilt should be good at that. Just name things in the category chosen until someone can’t think of a new one.
Jack is the ‘thumb master,’ last person to place their thumb on the table loses.
Queens are ‘question masters’--if the person who drew a question master asks you a question, you have to drink.
And King cards are ‘make a rule’. The person who draws it makes up a rule, something like no saying each other’s names, or whatever, and if you break it, you drink.”

Link’s head swam with far, far too much information regarding the laws of inebriation.

“And aces, of course, are ‘waterfall’ cards. The drawer starts drinking, triggering a chain of drinking, and each person can’t stop drinking until the person before them does. Make sense?”

“No!” Link cried, and Matichuk burst into laughter.

“You’ll learn,” Hilt shrugged, scratching his neck lazily. “This game’s really not kind to first-timers, though. Good luck.”

“Since you’re leaving, Jen,” Scherer pressed, “I think you should draw first.”

With a victorious smile, she did, flipping the top card to reveal a queen. “Wow. I’m the question master right off the bat,” she announced smugly, “who’s ready to party?”

“Me,” Rhett volunteered, immediately following the response with a swig, much to the glee of the younger researchers. Link watched him, following the gulps at the base of his beard as he drank.

Rhett had only had one full meal since his intense fasting. Given, it had been the bountiful meal of honey baked ham and seemingly apologetic home-cooked comfort sides that were plenty filling, but the thought didn’t help the nagging of worry at watching Rhett’s eagerness.

Scherer drew a two and automatically shoved a thumb in Hilt’s direction, who was already lifting his beer to his lips at the sight of the card with a resigned, thin-lipped smile.

Hilt reached forward, fingers dancing and flexing like having a magic touch would give him a better card--whatever that meant in a game like this. He revealed it to be a six. “Guys drink!”

“That means I don’t drink, right?” asked Matichuk, and Hilt gave her a sly smile over the top of his can.

It had been less than thirty seconds, and Rhett had already drank twice. Link tried not to obsess over it as he joined in, watching Rhett’s large hands dwarf the next card and flip it over.

“Three for me,” he announced, drinking again. Link’s brow furrowed in as he watched Rhett tilt his can.

“Your turn, Neal,” Scherer reminded him and snapped him out of his reverie. There was a repressed snort of laughter from one of them, and Link’s neck burned at the realization he’d just been staring at Rhett.

“What was it… seven for what?” he asked, and when no one answered he looked up to find everyone’s hands in the air except his own. “Oh. Shoot,” he chuckled, feeling silly. He obliged, ignoring how watery the brew was and trying to focus on Matichuk’s excited smile.

The next flip was Matichuk’s: a king. “I’m a king and a queen. Fitting,” she decided as she stroked her chin with a thoughtful hand. “No one’s allowed to touch their glasses.”

“That seems targeted!” Scherer squawked with a wild gesture between him and Link.

“Neal touches his glasses a lot. I’m gonna get him for it.” A self-satisfied smirk found her face.

“No I don’t--” Link caught himself mid-nudge and sheepishly lowered his hand to a sea of laughter and Rhett giving him a conciliatory pat on the back. “Okay. I’ll drink.”

A round of categories which Scherer lost. Two thumb master cards, causing Hilt to drink twice. Link nudged his glasses several more times, much to his own disdain. The cozy fuzz of alcohol was already tickling the corners of his mind well before Rhett drew an eight and instantly declared “Neal” his mate, stunning the circle into amused silence. Link blinked down into his second beer and felt grateful that Rhett hadn’t used his first name.

“That was… fast,” observed Matichuk. She swirled her drink and glanced over at Hilt and Scherer. They looked to be damming up the same breed of smile she was, not daring to test tipsy Rhett’s humor.

“Partner in the field, partner in the game,” Rhett shrugged flatly and let his eyes fall closed sleepily. “If he don’t learn to keep his hands off his glasses, though, I might hafta tap out.”

“You’d tap out, though?” asked Link, scrutinizing the drink-blushed giant with a squint. He couldn’t help but trace the redness of Rhett’s ears. “You sure?”

“My turn,” Matichuk announced before Link got an answer.

The game continued and empty aluminum cans piled underneath the coffee table. The chaos of wins and losses ping-ponged around the five of them and it didn’t take long until alcohol was evident on each individual: Matichuk had slouched down in her seat with a permanent smirk plastered on her face, Hilt was leaning heavily against Scherer to keep his eyes open, and Rhett clapped when his next card was an ace.

“Yes!” He rose to his feet and Link’s heart rose to his throat at the full-body wobble before Rhett braced himself against the wall. “If I’m in charge of waterfall, I needa fresh beer.” As if confidence could replace sobriety, he strode away and came back moments later, relieved to be able to sit after an entire 20 seconds of being up.

“Everyone ready?” he asked, eyebrows pinned high. The pop and hiss of the tab breaking made Link spare a long glance at Rhett’s rosy cheeks, his impatient hands and tapping foot.

“I think I’m done after this,” answered Matichuk as she picked up her drink. “Gotta go to bed so I’m ready for pick-up in the morning.”

“Yeah, I’m falling asleep,” Hilt confirmed with a smack of his lips. “Josh, will you tuck me in?”

“Oh, for the love of--”

“To Jen!” Rhett bellowed loud enough to shock Link halfway back to sobriety. He held his beer aloft, and everyone mirrored. “The best damned Canadian astronomer--”

“--and astrologist,” Scherer added--

--”that site 466 ever had the pleasure of… doin’ the thing. With. Y’know what I mean,” Rhett trailed off with a sloppy smile, and began the chain of drinking.

Link watched in worry and fascination as Rhett drank, and drank, and drank. Everyone else in the circle had stopped, had run out of beer before Rhett finished chugging his full last can of the evening.

“How much have you had, Mick?” Matichuk peered under the table to catch a glimpse of Rhett’s contribution to the pile. It was sizable, to say the least.

“I had a rough week,” answered Rhett once he had drained the last one. “...I’ll clean up.”

Difficult standing turned into sad hugs as each of them bid Matichuk farewell. Hilt ran a hand through her hair lovingly, earning a laugh from her. Scherer patted her back, and she gave him a swift kiss on the forehead after pulling his cap off. Link gave her a hesitant hug, but was unable to stop the tears forming at his eyes, ridiculous as he felt.

“I’ll miss ya, Jen.”

She smiled warmly, the same look she’d given him on his first night there. After the outburst. “Just look at the stars whenever you do. I’m probably looking at them, too.”

He nodded amicably, unable to confess why that probably wouldn’t work.

“Neal,” Rhett drawled from behind him, and he turned to see Rhett somehow holding a trash bag and motioning to the mess. “Help me.”

“I… I was gonna go to bed, too.”

“I didn’t ask.” He shoved the bag at Link.

Alone, they cleaned up the wreck. The heavy clatter of cans being tossed together made Link wince and wish for the quiet of his room. They moved the furniture to its correct positioning and--for good measure--Link straightened Scherer’s playing cards for easy collection in the morning. When everything appeared in order, Link scanned the floor one last time to make sure, holding the bag up for Rhett to see.

“So, what am I supposed to do with--”

Rhett collided with him like a freight train, crashing their efforts to the floor in a cacophony of metal and pushing Link down onto the couch with his full weight. His large hands were everywhere at once--running along Link’s neck and sliding up his shirt and pulling at his hair--but what knocked the wind out of him was Rhett’s mouth on his, his tongue slipping out and demanding Link to open.

Link couldn’t possibly refuse him.

He dove into the kiss, fervent and needy and aching to continue what they’d started in Rhett’s bed nights ago. His hands found Rhett’s head, tangled into his hair and trickled down the back of his neck. The urgency Rhett was emanating was far more intoxicating than the alcohol, and Link was desperate to keep pace--to match it, to show Rhett how much time he’d spent fantasizing about this exact scenario: being crushed under him, Rhett’s fingers digging into his hips, his beard scratching Link’s collarbone.

“You’re such a fuckin’ cocktease,” Rhett rumbled against his flesh, the words dripping fire. He pulled back to pour a glare drenched in lust and irritation over Link’s features, possessive and wasted. Link committed the sight to memory and swallowed.

“You’re really drunk,” he breathed, recognizing himself somewhere in the statement.

“You are too,” Rhett read his mind aloud, forcing his arms underneath Link’s back and nibbling an unprotected earlobe. Link shivered from head to foot, biting his lower lip to keep quiet.

“We really shouldn’t--”

“Shut up,” Rhett ordered, capturing Link’s mouth again and palming his already-throbbing cock through his sweatpants.

Link let out a sharp gasp that dissolved into a moan. He bucked up into Rhett’s rough grip, wanting purchase, chasing the tantalizingly close friction from the man who invaded his filthiest daydreams. He’d denied himself of this for so long--not just the touching, but the thoughts, the lewd fantasies of Rhett over him and on him and in him that brought him to self-reckonings late at night when he was alone .

Rhett chased the gasps and moans into Link’s throat, hushing them and running their tongues together amidst hot breaths.

Remotely--smothered in the fog of their need that Link was helpless against--he wanted to touch Rhett, too. He whined into him, reaching blindly, finding his stomach and groping downwards from there, earning a dangerous growl in response.

Rhett stopped only long enough to command, “No,” before he was sucking at Link’s neck, pressing his nose into the skin there and drawing whimpers from the brunette.

“Please, Rhett. Please?” It was pathetic, but Rhett had taken pity on him for weakness before. It could work. “I wanna t-touch you.”

“Maybe someday, if you’re good for me.” He leaned in close to Link’s ear, rumbling. “Or did you forget that soon I'll have you alone for another three months?”

A series of quick, rhythmic gasps fell from Link as the words married the unfathomable sensation of Rhett’s hand slipping under his waistband. Rhett wasted no time getting acquainted with the head of Link’s cock, slicking the beaded wetness at his slit and stroking down to claim his full length.

“Fuck,” Link convulsed, eyes fluttering shut until he realized he wanted to be able to recall every last detail of this later. “Rhett, someone could walk in.” The protest was weak, even to his own ears.

“Let ‘em.”

Without warning, Rhett put his free hand to Link’s back and pulled them to sit, facing one another. By grunting curtly, he instructed Link to put his thighs over his own, his arms under his own, and pressed Link’s forehead into his chest. Only once they were situated did Rhett’s wrist begin flicking, jerking Link off in between them in rapid, slick tugs.

Every muscle in Link’s body tensed at the merciless waves of heat. He choked into the fabric of Rhett’s shirt, hands scrambling for somewhere good enough to grab--anywhere--but ultimately he couldn’t keep still, so they roamed endlessly on Rhett’s back.

“Wh… why?” he managed in between strokes, hoping the single word was coherent enough for Rhett to understand what he was actually asking. Link was already close, was helpless against Rhett's onslaught and his fantasies actualized.

“Have to,” Rhett purred in his ear. “Been thinking ‘bout doin’ this ever since I had you this way on the mobile.”

That was enough. Wrapping his calves hard around Rhett’s waist and hugging tight as he could, Link spilled into his pants, over Rhett’s knuckles--unable to stop his dribbling moans from staining Rhett’s shirt. A series of hungry, gnarled noises met his ears as Rhett carried him through.

“So easy, aren’t you?” Rhett murmured, still going, trying for every last drop he could get. “So ready and eager for me, Neal...”

It wasn’t until Link was shaking from aftershocks that he realized the weight of what was happening: Rhett had been working himself over with his free hand as he’d been getting Link off. Jeans undone, hand moving bruisingly fast inside of his boxers. The sight lit Link’s blood on fire, made his eyes sting and his heart skip a beat.

He tilted his head back and gazed up at Rhett, who was close to release as he latched onto the sight of Link’s face like a starving animal. His pace on his cock kicked up another gear.

“Hey, snowflake.”

Link surged forward to meet Rhett's lips, threaded his fingers in his hair, moaned with abandon into their kiss. Rhett hunched forward at Link’s efforts, slipping his wet hand free and firmly placing it on Link’s lower back to pull their hips together as he came, shivering and gasping into Link’s throat.

Link’s head swam, being subjected to this side of his boss.

The twitches and hushed gasps for breath tapered off as Rhett came back down. He rested his head on Link’s shoulder to give himself a moment, panting.

“Welcome back,” Link slurred with a chuckle--an acute self-reminder that he was still drunk.

“Good trip,” replied Rhett hoarsely.

Smiling, Link burrowed into Rhett’s breast. The smell of their sex, the damp of sweat, and warm breaths landing in his hair were all things he wanted to memorize. Details to revisit if--or, assuming he was being honest with himself, when--the primal memories weren't quite what he was looking for.  He was quickly robbed of the chance, though; Rhett put his hands on Link’s shoulders and pushed gently, separating them, and zipped himself up without another word. 

Link watched in a stupor. “Do you, uh…” He spared a long glance at the somehow-contained bag of forgotten trash in the floor. “Do you wanna sleep together tonight?”

“No,” Rhett responded easily and stood, leaving Link red and flustered on the couch. “Bad idea.”

“Oh.” Link’s gaze grew unfocused and the trash bag shifted into a black smudge in his field of vision. “Why?”

“It just is,” stated Rhett. He bent to grab the trash bag and tied it, tossing it into the foyer with a racket and starting for the dorms. “Go sleep in your own bunk.”

Link’s chest tightened. “That’s it, then?”

At this, Rhett stopped and turned, watching the disheveled professor. “Didn’t you have fun?”

“I mean… yeah? I did.”

“Then, yeah. That’s it.” With that, Rhett spun and disappeared down the hall.

Link waited until he heard Rhett’s door shut to pull his knees to his chest and allow himself to feel the familiar sting at his eyes.

 

Chapter Text

It’s been two days since Jen left.

Link paused to look at the sloppy script on the bound page. His students back home were right; it was hard to read his handwriting. ‘Doctor scratch,’ he’d heard it called before. But then, he wasn’t the same type of doctor that the term usually applied to, so it wasn’t a good excuse to hide behind. With a sigh he pressed on.

Four days until Hilt and Scherer leave.

He felt pathetic that he could only make it that far without stopping again.

Truth was, the idea to start keeping a journal had been a whim. It wasn’t something he’d planned on doing when he packed his bags to start this job. But after two days of excruciating silence between himself and Mick, he’d decided it was a worthy use for the leather-bound diary he’d kept stuffed in his pack thus far. With all three of his friends gone, he would be desperate for someone to talk to--and this was the best solution until his departure date.

Mick is just my boss.

The words trembled out of Link’s ink pen and he grimaced at the poor penmanship once again. It was as if the disdain behind them had bled through, had shook his hand and made the words look as flimsy on paper as they felt in his mind. For emphasis, he underlined the last three.

Mick is just my boss.

Better.

Back pressed against the wall beside his bed, Link tapped the butt of the pen against his chin and wracked his brain for more. There had to be something else he could write about. Anything. It wasn’t like his life revolved around his interpersonal relationships. He was in Antarctica. He had a job back home. He’d experienced things now, knew the ropes of such a challenging charge.

Everything is cold.

That’s what he finished with, and the simple line was enough to make him laugh bitterly at himself for memorializing such a stupid fleeting joke on the page. “Who knew,” he mumbled, closing the journal and putting it away.

He took his time getting dressed. It had become a ritual of sorts--methodically pulling on layer after layer of protection until he broke into a sweat. It calmed him. The only thing missing was music to listen to as he did it. He’d have to ask Mick if he could take the communal satellite radio to his room; it wasn’t like anyone ever used it, anyway.

There came a knock at the door. “Come in,” Link called as he crammed his feet into his snow boots.

“Don’t need to,” came Mick’s response. “You ready?”

“Yeah. Meet you in the foyer.”

The staunch professionalism that had settled between them in the aftermath of Jen’s going away party was comforting at best and a tedious wound at worst. The past two days, their field trips had been completely quiet. Neither spoke the entire time if it wasn’t about work. But it was simply the beginning of a necessary process Link was going to have to go through.

Nothing had changed during fasting week. Mick didn’t like him. He never had. The gloves, the forehead kiss, the hugs, the cuddling, the spooning, the hand job--all of it had been some sort of stress relief Mick had carried out on him. He’d simply been a convenient target, a way to make Mick feel better after being in a place with no physical human contact for four years straight. Hell, there had probably been others before Link.

It was fine, though. If Mick could detach that easily, why couldn’t he?

The final touch of the outfit was to slip on his goggles. When Link was prepared and finally opened his door, Mick was still standing there, equipment pack in his arms.

“Ready,” Link confirmed, and with a brusque nod Mick led the way to the front door and out into the frozen world.

 

 


 

 

Data collection and retrieval went as silently as it had the two days before. Link focused on the work, on ensuring the containers were properly labeled and organized into the pack correctly at the end. The mechanical nature with which he and Mick re-tarped the drill at the end was impressive, he had to admit; they made a good team in the field. Work passed seamlessly in tandem, with no distractions, no small-talk, and no emotions.

Link could do this for another three months.

When they returned to 466 and had stripped down to lounge wear, Link hovered over the dining table with their data spreads and sample vials.

“I can do this part alone today,” he offered flatly, looking over everything.

Mick gave him a face somewhere in between confusion and outright disgust. “Why?”

“You did this part alone when I was sick. I owe you.” Link shrugged.

“I’m not sick,” Mick pointed out, popping open a bottle and readying a test strip.

Breathing deep, Link reminded himself that he was detached now. Nothing-- nothing was worth pushing back against anymore. Not when he was so susceptible to being riled up. So with that, he sat, not missing the bemused glance Mick passed him as he tested the first sample.

 

 


 

 

The worst part of the change in atmosphere was the damper it put on the four researchers come dinnertime. Hilt and Scherer carried on as usual, cracking jokes and trying their best to engage the older two, but usually it petered out when they only got one-word answers in response to questions.

With Jen gone, there was an undeniable change in the site’s family dynamic. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Link had always appreciated how easy Jen had been to talk to, and in her absence it felt like the glue of their communal time together had been stripped thin. Only Hilt carried the same flame, and he far preferred to shine its light on Scherer.

Each dinner that passed without engaging Hilt and Scherer felt like a shot in the foot, but Link couldn’t bring himself to seem approachable and cheerful around Mick. Not when they were going to be spending so many weeks together alone. It was better this way, he reminded himself as he stabbed a forkful of green beans.

 

 


 

 

 

That night Link sat on his bed waiting patiently for the telltale clunk of the tub draining so he could bathe. Towel in his lap, he allowed himself to space out as he waited, letting his mind wander into a trance-like meditative state. When the sound of water cut back on, he furrowed his brow, snapped out of it.

Bathing twice in a day was against regulations. Sighing heavily, he made his way to the bathroom and knocked twice.

“Who’s in there?”

The door opened to reveal Mick, hair dripping wet and naked save for the towel around his waist. Steam poured around him into the hallway and Link pointedly focused on that instead of the fact that Mick was nearly nude in front of him.

“Why are you running another bath?” Link asked the door frame, refusing eye contact.

“I was gonna come get you in a minute,” stated Mick as he ran a hand through his dewy beard. “I was drawin’ it for you.”

Link squinted past him, into the small washing area. “Why?”

“What? You don’t like hot baths when it’s thirty below outside?”

“I do, but I can prepare them myself.”

“Mmm. Fine,” Mick shrugged, face neutral. “What’s running right now is yours, though. You’d better use it. Waste that water and I’ll put you on for a mine visit tomorrow.”

“I’m not an asshole,” Link muttered, stepping aside so that Mick could head to his room.

When he shut the bathroom door behind him, he watched the tub fill slowly, unable to relax his face from its scowl. Again, he reminded himself that nothing Mick did meant anything.

 

 


 

 

Keep everything the way it is. Nothing under the surface.

Immediately after he added the words to his journal, Link regretted giving them life on paper. Having to reassure himself that there was nothing under the surface indicated that there was something under the surface. Something he was having trouble beating down until it wouldn’t move anymore. With a sigh he scratched the line out with a series of ‘X’s until it was illegible.

The knock came at his door, and he was grateful that today he’d gotten dressed before picking up the pen.

“Coming.”

 

 


 

 

The silence got easier to bear with time. Drive, collection, clean-up, return, data entry, dinner, free time, sleep.

Guilt from cold-shouldering Hilt and Scherer with so little time left between the three of them coaxed Link out of his room after dinner, puzzle book and pencil in hand. With a cautious peek into the living room, he saw the pair sitting on the couch, sharing a pile of blankets and watching a movie. They were chatting and didn’t seem to be paying too close attention to the film. Confidence renewed, Link stepped out to join them.

“Hey guys,” he waved and gestured to the nearest armchair. “Mind if I sit?”

“You don’t have to ask, Neal,” Scherer smiled, visibly excited that he would be joining them. It made the professor’s heart hurt, in a way. “Sit down and do some puzzles. We left the light on for you.”

“You left that on so I wouldn’t fall asleep,” insisted Hilt with a scoff.

“I cannot keep carrying you to your room, Chase. I know I was athletic in college but… sorry.”

Hilt feigned a scandalized face, glancing between Link and Scherer. Link chuckled and sat his puzzle book on the coffee table, tucked his pencil behind his ear.

“So… two more days,” offered Link with a long exhale. “I can’t believe time passed so quickly.”

“I know. We’re excited to get home, though,” Scherer supplied readily. “The first thing I’m doing is eating a burger."

“See, that would be understandable if he had a plan to go out and buy one somewhere,” Hilt explained to Link. “He wants to cook his own burgers.”

“I can’t blame him.” Link shifted to relax and clock the movie. He didn’t recognize it, but a young girl was talking on a phone shaped like a hamburger. “You’re an amazing cook, Scherer. I can’t imagine what you can do with an entire grocery store at your disposal.” After a beat of thought, he added, “I’ll miss you and your cooking.”

“Aww. Thanks, man. I appreciate it.”

“What about me?!” cried Hilt, scandalization doubled.

“I’ll miss you, too, Hilt,” Link confessed, flashing him a warm, tired smile.

“But hey… you’re gonna be okay alone here with Mick. Right?” Scherer adjusted to ask the question, making Link’s heart constrict in his chest at the spotlight of focus. “I mean, maybe it’s just me and Chase, but… things have seemed… I don’t know. Weird? Between you two, since Jen left.”

Link waited, giving Hilt an opportunity to contribute and himself a moment to think. When Hilt simply watched him patiently, Link let out a shaky breath.

“Yeah. I’ll be fine. Work is work, right?”

“...right,” nodded Scherer thoughtfully. “But you know, if you need someone to talk to, you can e-mail us. Yeah?”

“For sure,” Hilt chirped, beaming from his huddle of blankets. “Heck, you’d better e-mail me anyway!”

A tacky lump formed in Link’s throat as he observed the two kids on the couch, finally allowing himself to feel just how difficult life would be without them there. Nothing to tiptoe around, no need to watch what he said. He was losing that luxury, and the companionship that came with it. “Thanks, guys,” he coughed, returning Scherer’s nod. “Everything will be fine, but I’ll definitely send you some messages. Can’t let you forget that you’re home already and I’m not.”

With a belly laugh Scherer said, “That sounds good to me. It’ll keep me grateful for life up north.”

 

 


 

 

Two hours later and sated by the company he’d been missing out on, Link made his way back to his room with a hopeful smile on his lips.

Scherer and Hilt were right. He could always e-mail them. It wasn’t like he was going to be alone alone. Plus, if he really wanted, he could call his parents on the iridium. The conversation would be awkward-- Hi mama! We haven’t spoken regularly since I came out to you in college. Guess what? I’m at the South Pole! Proud of me now? --but it was an option. He could do it.

Opting to sleep in a baggy hoodie instead of a sweater, he changed and was taking off his glasses when there was a knock at the door. Probably Scherer had forgotten something.

“Neal,” Mick looked surprised when the door opened, taking a step back.

Peering around the hall, Link frowned. “Mick. What are you doing?” His eyes fell to the bundle in Mick’s arms, and it took longer than it should have for him to piece together the obvious. Stacks of shirts and pants and even underwear on top. “Are--are those my clothes?”

“I had to wash a few things and there was space left in the machine,” Mick explained, whiskers twitching. “Like hell I’m running a load if it’s not full. Here.” He shoved the neatly folded pile into Link’s arms.

“You went into my room,” Link sighed in frustration.

“Just for a second.”

“How did you know which bag was my hamper?”

“I’ve got eyes,” Mick answered over his shoulder as he left.

“You looked through my stuff?”

Link didn’t get a response save for Mick’s door closing behind him. Incensed, he threw his own door shut and dropped the clean clothes next to his bed. Running both hands through his hair, he fell to a squat and pressed his fingers into his eyes.

How was he supposed to maintain his distance and stay neutral if Mick was going to keep doing shit like this? The bath had been one thing--weird, but whatever. But now Mick had come into his room without permission, looked through his belongings, taken--

Link’s eyes bolted open. He sprung over to his personal bag and tore through it, opening pocket after pocket until his fingers found the leather-bound journal. He opened it in a careless flourish, looked through it, flipping the pages harshly. No changes. Nothing suspicious.

If Mick had been looking for laundry, he wouldn’t have dug through a small side pocket on a backpack. Link let out a breath he’d been holding, placing a reassuring hand over his loud heart.

 

 


 

 

I don’t know if I can keep writing in this, but I’ll try.
Scherer and Hilt leave tomorrow afternoon.

Seeing the words on paper made Link press his face into the spine of the pages, listening to the way his breathing sounded against truths. For whatever reason he’d decided to start journaling, he’d grown to regret it numbingly fast.

Getting his thoughts down wasn’t just difficult--it also seemed pointless. Writing them down didn’t pardon them from his head; it only made him feel more obsessed, since all he could focus on if he revisited the meager older entries were the things he hadn’t included. Things like I don’t want to be here alone with Mick. Or, he seems set on getting under my skin. And most damning, why do I spend every waking second thinking about him?

Link’s entire life, his biggest fear had been snakes. Since last night, Link’s biggest fear was Mick sneaking into his room when he wasn’t there and inviting himself to Link’s belongings. Therefore, anything incriminating rolling around in his brain had to stay in his brain. The risk wasn’t worth whatever payoff there was to be had.

A light rapping made him perk up and close the journal. He would have recognized that knock anywhere.

“Neeeeeal,” Hilt sang, opening the door and extending a hand holding a steaming mug into the room. “Josh Coffeeeee. Last one.”

“What about tomorrow morning?!” cried Link as he moved to collect it, opening the door to look down at a pajama’d Hilt.

“He’s officially out of the right spices,” Hilt shrugged with a smile. “He said he’ll send you the recipe though.”

“I’m gonna need it,” Link marveled, frowning pityingly down into his drink. “Recipe or no, something tells me I’ll never taste it quite like this again.”

Hilt laughed, rocking back on his heels. “Come visit us on the west coast and you can have it again.”

“Us?” Link asked, blowing on the coffee to cool it. “Are y’all roommates?”

“Housemates,” Hilt clarified. “Two houses that share a garage.”

“Wow. Can’t believe I never knew that.”

“We tend to keep it on the down-low. Work together and live together? People start to look at you funny.” He scratched his nose and added quickly, “Not down here, of course.”

Link forced a chuckle. “Right.”

“I know you wanna enjoy that, but I’d drink fast, if I were you.” Hilt spared a long look toward the kitchen. “Mick’s just sitting on the couch out there in full gear already.”

“What? Shit. Okay,” relented Link bitterly, taking a large gulp and not savoring the taste as much as he would’ve liked. “Thanks, Hilt.”

“After today, it’s just Chase,” Hilt responded, stepping backwards down the hallway with a grin.

The reminder made Link’s chest ache and swell. “I know.”

 

 


 

 

“I really think you should drive.”

Mick pointed his flashlight at the key-ring up for the second time that week, dangling it over Link’s head like a treat as they stood beside the snowmobile.

The amount of energy required for Link to decline in a way that didn’t spatter like grease from a hot pan was immense. “I already told you, I don’t want to drive.” He folded his arms over his chest, made difficult by the bulkiness of his parka. “It’s faster if you do.”

“It’s a good skill to have for the job.” Mick didn’t budge. The key swayed in the biting breeze. Link fought back the urge to slap it out of his glove.

“So are you ordering me, or requesting that I drive?”

“Shit’s sake,” Mick groaned, dropping his arm. The defeat should’ve made Link feel triumphant, but all it did was twist his gut in discomfort. “Fine. Get on.”

He did, ignoring the roughness of Mick climbing on behind him and shoving the key coarsely into the ignition, ripping noise from the silence as they left for the field.

It wasn’t hard to tell that Link had soured Mick’s mood. As they untarped the drill and set everything up, every action taken by the man was performed with far less care than he normally used. The graphite tip of his pencil broke against the notepad as he logged coordinates, making him swear gruffly into his scarf.

Link didn’t offer anything. No comfort, no snickering, no jeering. Although he moved methodically, carefully, Mick embodied the tense, thin layer of anxiety and annoyance that had bubbled up in his own stomach over the course of the morning.

Link couldn’t trust himself to speak. Thick ice outside, thin ice inside--so he kept quiet, putting one hundred percent into his work. Samples collected. Tarp replaced. Everything secured.

“Hey,” Mick called from several yards away, and when Link turned to face the flashlight beam, the key to the mobile hit him square in the chest. With a fumble he caught it, staring down into his glove. “Drive.”

Heat seared through Link’s lungs, his nostrils flared as he dragged his gaze up to Mick’s. Just watching, waiting for his command to be followed without question.

What Link did next, he did without thinking. He turned to face the open wild, wound his arm, and with a feral scream hurled the key as far as he could into the black tundra. Panting, he waited, listening for the sound of metal meeting ice. It never came.

Chest heaving, he watched the darkness in the direction he’d thrown. Inky and static and unforgiving. Seconds dragged by in the sound of the whistling wind. Painfully slow, he turned to face Mick again.

His boss hadn’t moved. He was just standing there, all weight on one leg, expression blank through his goggles.

Link had been ready to fight--to be tackled to the ground and beaten to a pulp--yet somehow Mick’s calmness was leagues more intimidating. When he finally did move, Link’s hands balled into taut fists.

Wordlessly Mick closed the distance between them in precise strides, calm and determined. When he was just a foot away, Link took a step back, but Mick marched straight past him and into the field, using their torch to searchlight over the ground.

It was an opportunity to go help--to turn things around before it was too late. But Mick’s dismissiveness had fed the bubbling in Link’s gut to a boil, and he tore after him into the unmarked snow.

“Hey,” he snapped, watching Mick fall to his knees to inspect a divot in the ground.

“Neal, go get on the mobile.”

Consequences forgotten, Link bore down on him and released an angry tremor in the form of a shoulder stomp, knocking Mick to the ice. The older one landed hard on his side, stunned and eyes blown wide with outrage as Link leaned down to address him like the dog he thought Link was. “Fuck you.”

Link’s elbow cracked hard on the ground through his gear, pain whiting out his vision as Mick’s grip on his ankle dragged them together.

The ease with which Mick slung him about like a rag-doll only burned Link more, drove him to kick and thrash against the iron grip at his leg. “You ready to do this right now?! Fine, let’s fuckin’ do this!” Mick roared, his hands finding the front of Link’s jacket.

“Get off of me!!” His arms might have been shorter than Mick’s, but he was more nimble. When Mick hoisted him into the air he planted another kick--this time to his stomach--and was dropped. He landed hard on his back, the wind knocked out of him.

“You little shit,” Mick choked throatily, doubled over and holding himself.

Link stared wide-eyed up at the stars, gasping for breath and unable to stop the tears of shock from spilling into his goggles.

“What the fuck is your problem, Neal?!” Mick crawled over to him, avoiding his legs and looming over him until he blotted out the sky. “Ever since that night on the couch you’ve been pouting like a child! Like messin' around drunk after a party is the worst thing that ever happened to you in your pretty little life, and I’m goddamn sick of it!”

Paralyzed and unable to speak, Link watched as a trickle of red spouted from Mick’s lip, running into his beard.

“What the fuck are you looking for down here? Huh?!” His eyes burned into Link’s, expectant. Waiting for an answer.

Link could only wheeze, fighting for his breath to return.

“Shit,” Mick snarled and hoisted himself to his feet, stomping off to collect the flashlight. When he didn’t return, Link listened to his boots crunching on the snow, resuming the search for the key-ring.

With oxygen came sobs, and Link pulled his bruised limbs in as far as he could. He let himself close his eyes and cry silently, listening to Mick’s efforts.

A series of deep breaths, and he was able to speak again, his voice cracking against the frigid night sky. “I don’t know what you want from me, Rhett.”

The footsteps stopped.

“I can’t tell whether you hate me or like me, and I spend every spare second I have obsessing over it.” The silence emboldened him. “You look after me and you’ll even be close with me, but then you shut me out and trip me up with your bullshit all the time. I’m just…”

Link took a quivering breath that broke.

“I’m so tired of caring about you in a way you obviously don’t care about me.”

His lip trembled and he bit it still. The burning wet spill of his tears on his cheeks turned cold swiftly, leaving him feeling pathetic and gross and waterlogged in his eye gear. Back singing with pain, he pulled himself to a sit and rubbed his knees.

“I found the key,” Mick answered, voice reserved and level. Business as usual. “Let’s go. I’m bleeding.”

Straining, Link crawled to his feet and watched as Mick walked past him, bee-lining to their mobile like nothing had happened.

 

Chapter Text

Tightened nerves had wrested Link to his room, from which he had already decided he wasn’t going to come out. Not for dinner, not to brush his teeth, not even in emergency. He sat motionless on his bed, staring at an unfinished crossword puzzle and seeing nothing as his mind rolled through the last hour yet again.

“I guess this is goodbye,” Chase had said, lugging his bags into the lounge area where Josh, Mick, and Link were waiting. The sound of the Otter outside gave an appropriately momentous backdrop to the moment the younger researchers had been looking forward to since they’d arrived.

Mick had stood first, offering a hand to the cook and the goofball in turn. They’d shaken--had murmured words too low for Link’s ears by the front door. With goodbyes satisfactory, Mick had stepped out into the wintry night to collect whatever supplies had been sent with the transport. It was then that Josh and Chase had closed in on Link, faces warped in worry as they tended to him in hushed whispers.

“Why is Mick’s lip bandaged?”

“Yeah, did something happen between you two?”

“He didn’t start a fight, did he?”

Link screwed his eyes shut and swallowed.

“No, no. No fight. He slipped and busted his lip out on the ice.” Link had smiled. “Everything’s fine! Go ahead. Go home and don’t forget to check your messages. I’ll probably e-mail you by tonight.” He had lied to make them feel better, to make their journey home one of comfort and not guilt. He’d nodded to the door, eager to get the worst over with. Then just like that--with much waving and calls of affection over their shoulders--they’d gone.

He and Mick were alone.

Tomorrow would be day one of the next three months. The beginning of a nightmare from which there was no waking up.

To brace himself for the impossibly dragged out hell before him, Link had decided to make a list of hobbies--things he could throw himself into in lieu of subjecting himself to Mick’s company. There in the margin of his puzzle book, the note yelled at him:

Puzzles
Exercise
Writing
Learn to draw
Cross-country skiing
Video games? (check laptop)
Cooking
Movies

The last item on the list had been scratched out once he remembered that Chase had taken his iPod. Luckily, Link had managed to refrain from adding books to the list when he realized that all of the novels in 466 were likely in Mick’s room--and if they weren’t, it was still a conversation starter he didn’t want to leave himself open to.

Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t envision doing any of the things he’d written down. Not there, sitting in his room, barely able to pull his focus together enough to finish a single crossword. Learn to draw? Who did he think he was?

Gradually he sank down against his mattress, letting time and gravity pull him to the natural solution of sleep. With a final glance at the clock--16:00--he tugged off his glasses and buried his face into his pillow.

 

 


 

 

With a start Link’s eyes bolted open, heart leaping from rest into his throat. Someone had knocked--only, fuck, it wasn’t just ‘someone’ anymore; there was only one other person here, and that’s how it would be until they left. Link stopped breathing, stopped blinking, wanted to stop existing in the moment where he should’ve responded. But he knew there was no point.

Just as Mick was the only person here with him, he was the only person here with Mick.

He looked over at the clock when the knock came again, less insistent than before. 20:52; had he really slept for four hours? Begrudgingly, Link propped himself up to a sit and rubbed his face. Being avoidant was futile, even if it was what he would’ve preferred.

“Yeah?”

“Link?” Mick’s tone was hushed, gentler than usual even on the professor’s first name.

“What?” Link asked through the door, heart teetering at the softness of the request.

“I know it’s kinda late, but would you like to join me for dinner?”

Dinner? Link had known that cooking duties would fall to the two of them now that Josh was gone, but he couldn’t imagine Mick standing in Josh’s old place, worrying over meals and utensils and the spice rack in quite the same way. Link’s eyes grazed over his room, mind racing. A precedent was about to be set one way or another.

“It… it’s pretty late to be eating.” He cringed. It was the best he could do without outright denying Mick of company.

“I know. I should have started earlier.” There was a pause, and then, “The recipe was harder than I expected.”

Recipe? Link stood, curiosity winning the better of him as he feathered out his hair and retrieved his glasses. “Coming.”

When he opened the door, he immediately felt under-dressed.

Mick stood with a respectable distance between them, hands clasped behind his back. His curled golden hair was tamed into styled peaks, and the sweater he wore was one Link had never seen before--gray with thick vertical splashes of color, clean and unwrinkled. His gray jeans were nothing new, but he was wearing shoes--something the researchers had never done indoors: a black pair of vans, not a smudge on them. The only thing that didn’t seem to match the calculated getup was the round band-aid on Mick’s lip.

Link’s breath hitched when he realized this was home Mick. Not Mick of 466, not even Mick of this continent. This was the Mick that walked the streets of whatever town he called home in America, the one that used to experience warm summers and birds chirping and the drizzle of rain thrumming against his windshield on commutes.

“Should I get changed?” The question was barely more than a whisper as Link looked down at his own frumpy hoodie and sweatpants.

“Nah. You look great.” It wasn’t a smile, but an air of good humor that rested on Mick’s face when he extended an arm to gesture to the kitchen. In a daze, Link took the lead and padded into the communal area. When he reached the doorway, he froze.

A tealight candle flickered between two bowls of steaming food on the dining table. The overhead lights were off, and instead the seldom-used lamp in the lounge area blanketed the room in a dim, orange glow. The only thing missing from a scene like this was violin music, Link thought distantly.

“Sit wherever you’d like,” Mick offered, close to his ear. Link’s heart pattered in his chest.

“Mick… what is this?”

“Can we sit, first?”

With a dreamy nod Link moved to the far side of the table and took a seat, looking down into the bowl of noodles, broccoli, and brown sauce with some kind of chopped crumble on top.

“It’s peanut pad Thai,” Mick supplied helpfully, offering Link a napkin. “You do like peanut-flavored things, right? I’m not remembering that wrong?”

It took Link a moment to snap out of his fascination to take the cloth. “Yeah. I love them. When did I…?”

“Dinner, a few weeks ago. Josh asked about everyone’s favorite foods,” Mick explained as he settled across from Link. “You said peanut butter. I figured this would be better than peanut butter sandwiches for a nice dinner, but based on how it went…” He looked pointedly to the pile of dirty dishes in the sink, marginalized in the fuzzy darkness. “Maybe I was wrong.”

Every stretch of Link’s skin burned: neck, hands, cheeks, thighs, ears. He gave a nervous smile. “Thanks for cooking.”

“My pleasure.” Mick picked up his fork and twirled it over his plate, but after a brief glance at Link’s catatonic state, he huffed a small sigh and sat it back down. “I’m not tryna poison you or anything. You can relax.”

Link blinked hard, fixating on the candle’s flame. “I, uh… I guess I don’t… get it?” he asked, voice twinging up an octave on the last words. His gaze clicked up to Rhett’s, at a loss. “It’s just… the low lights, the dinner, the candle,” Link gestured, unable to tear his eyes from it. “It’s a lot.”

“Well… we’re stuck together now. Like it or not.” The tines of Mick’s fork rang against the bowl when he grasped it. “No one says we can’t have a nice dinner. If you don’t like the candle, I can blow it out.”

“N-No. It’s okay.” Link mirrored him for lack of confidence, swirling up a glob of noodles and poking broccoli onto the end of it as a topper. “This is fine.”

“It probably isn’t any good,” Mick mumbled, and after a confused look from Link, he pointed to the food. “Think I overcooked the sauce.”

Link's anxiety finally broke into a timid smile. “How did you even get something like this?”

“Made a call last night.” Mick popped a heap of noodles into his mouth and chewed, speaking around the food. “Special request.”

The dish wasn’t perfect--Link could see what Mick meant about struggling given the thickness of the sauce and the stickiness of the noodles--but the flavor was comforting and delicious, like something from one of his favorite haunts as a college student. After his first bite, he eyed the bowl appreciatively.

“Rhett, you did a really good job.”

“So you do know my name.”

Link bit his tongue.

Mick propped his elbows on either side of his meal, laced his fingers together and gazed at Link over them. The contact simmered and made Link’s cheeks flush as he backpedaled.

“Sorry. Just slipped out.”

“Why’d you switch back to ‘Mick?’” The question was innocent enough, but the imploring tone made Link’s throat tighten.

“To keep things… professional. You’re my boss. I really shouldn’t be on a first name basis with you.”

Mick snorted and shook his head at his noodles. “So we’re on the same page, then.”

Link’s brow furrowed as he sat his fork down. “What do you mean?”

Mick watched him for a time. Sucked on his teeth and cleared his throat. “You do know why I didn’t let you sleep with me that night. Right?”

A thousand reasons flooded Link’s mind: because you just wanted to get off, because you don’t like me, because I was too needy, because you were ashamed of messing around with me. None of them made it into the air for fear that he would be wrong.

When he didn’t respond, Mick finished, “I couldn’t trust myself to sleep next to you.”

The heat in Link’s face replenished, blooming outward from his nose. “What?”

“You heard me. You know... you really do piss me off sometimes. You’re stubborn as a mule. And I know you hate me, but…” Mick hunched over his bowl and stuffed more noodles in his mouth.

Desperately Link wanted him to finish the thought. But he didn’t. “I don’t hate you, Mick.”

“You should. It’d be better for both of us.”

There wasn’t a way Link could respond to that without deepening the nosedive of the conversation.

“Have you had a chance to call your family, since you arrived?” The sudden change in topic was welcome, albeit bizarre coming from Mick. Since when did want to talk about family?

“Gosh, no. I don’t really talk to them anymore.”

“Why not?”

“They don’t approve of my… ‘lifestyle,’” Link finished with air quotes, taking another thoughtful bite.

“I can see why,” Mick drawled. When Link’s head snapped up, indignant, he shook his head. “Professors are lame, man.”

The snort that escaped Link as he slapped his hand over his mouth to prevent noodles from escaping lit up Mick’s face. His gaze softened and lingered as Link made it through his giggles, dabbing his mouth dramatically with his napkin.

“Neal.”

Laughter ebbed from Link's face. “Yeah?

“I’m sorry.” Mick’s eyes fell to his chest.

Link stilled, only his heart daring to beat in the silence.

“You have a way of getting to me. That’s no excuse, of course.” Mick moved to run a hand through his hair but seemed to remember that it was styled, and dropped to rub his beard instead. “...Are you hurt?”

The memory of Link examining himself nude in front of the bathroom mirror flashed in his mind, the slow dance of checking his pale body for aftermath. “No,” he lied, pushing around the last few bites in his bowl. “Besides, I’m the one who attacked you .”

“Doesn’t matter,” Mick waved it away. “You really don’t have any marks on you?”

“...I do.” Link set down his fork in defeat.

“Where? Are you in pain?” Mick frowned, rubbing his palms up and down his thighs. “Can you show me?”

Link pressed his hands into his lap. “It’s really not bad, Mick.”

“Neal.” Mick held the brunette’s gaze steady over the candlelight, watching him pleadingly under a furrowed brow. Waiting for his call.

Link hung his head and nodded, rolling up the sleeve of his hoodie to reveal the aching circle around the jut of his elbow, the way the soured hues mingled and clung to his skin like watercolor to canvas.

Mick’s expression hardened at the evidence, and he straightened in his seat. “...Is that the only one?” If Link hadn’t let his sight dart across the room, Mick wouldn’t have jumped on the tell. “Show me.”

On that, Link hesitated. Haltingly, he dragged his foot to rest on the bench and pulled up his pant leg. There on his ankle were the burst blood vessels in a sickly faint outline of a large hand, the lay of grip clear from where he’d been yanked off his feet and ripped across the ice.

“Shit.” Mick pressed his knuckles against his lips, examining the spotted red area with weary eyes. His shoulders rose and fell in a deep, laborious sigh. “I can’t help with that one, but… hang on a second.”

He stood and excused himself to the foyer, Link watching after him with a flash of concern that Mick might be headed outside. But there came a rustling and he returned with a large bag of translucent blue goo balanced in one palm. He sat next to Link and straddled the bench to face him, patting the tabletop.

“Roll up your sleeve.”

Link did as he was told, exposing the bruise to open air.

Mick laid the blue thing on the table and reached out, his fingers gentle but insistent on Link’s arm as he coerced him to extend his arm and rest the elbow on the bag.  Link sucked in a sharp breath through his teeth--it was cold, whatever it was.

“Synthetic ice pack,” explained Mick, resting his hand atop the crook of Link’s arm and pressing it down gingerly into the frost. “You should keep it there for at least fifteen minutes.”

Link squirmed, scowling at the blue offender. “We spend most of our time making sure we’re warm, and now I gotta do this?

Chuckling, Mick withdrew his hand, letting his fingers brush down Link’s forearm in the process. “Just for a while. You’ll survive.”

“It’s just a bruise. I’ve never heard of icing a bruise before.”

“It stops it from getting worse,” Mick answered quietly, eyeing Link’s obscured ankle again. “ That, on the other hand…”

“It’s really okay, Mick.” Link pulled it up onto the bench between them, revealing it again so his boss could get a closer look. His breathing went shallow when Mick reached out as if to touch it, his fingertips hovering just above the skin.

You can touch me-- Link swallowed the words before they sprung from his tongue.

When Mick pulled back, Link’s muscles went slack in disappointment. He wasn’t expecting Mick to bring his fingers to his bandaged lips--planting a chaste kiss there--and press them tender to the crimson freckles on Link’s shin.

Link snorted into a slight goofy grin. “Wow.”

“I dunno. I’ve heard that can help,” chuckled Mick, collecting their bowls and stepping to the sink.

“Wait a second, what about you?” Link asked, spinning in his seat. Mick flipped on the water, and Link blew out the candle and hit the lights before joining him.

Mick shot a heated look down his shoulder as if the smaller one was a misbehaving child fishing for dessert. “Hey! The ice pack--”

“I’ll do it later. Mick, I busted your lip.”

You didn’t do that. I fell and bit the ice.”

“Yeah, because I kicked you. Twice.”

“I’m fine.” Mick’s tone leaned impatient as he soaped up the greasy pots and started scrubbing. “Thanks for coming out of your room for dinner.”

“Seriously?” Link huffed and grabbed an old rag from the rack, wetting it in the plugged basin. “I show you my injuries, then you won’t let me see your shoulder or your ribs?”

“No need. Not all of us bruise like a peach.”

Link stopped and set aside the only utensil he’d washed. He turned to observe Mick’s profile, lingered on the way he paid far too much focus to working over the dish in his hands. Everything was so fleeting; the good mood with which Mick had invited him to eat was trickling into reserved quietude once again. Link couldn’t help feeling at fault, even though he hadn’t said anything wrong. Or, he didn't think he had.

“Can I at least see your lip?”

Mick hung up a large pot which dripped soapy water onto the counter. “It’s just a scab.”

Frustrated, Link’s gaze fell to the floor, mulling over Mick’s Vans. When the taller one shut off the water and wiped his hands clean on a rag, he watched, mesmerized, as Mick turned to him and carefully grasped the edge of the band-aid and peeled it away.

He was right. It wasn’t anything shocking. It did look painful, though.

“Are you keeping it moisturized?” Link moved as if to touch it--to rest fingers along Mick’s jawline and run a thumb against his lip--but retracted his hand at the last moment and blinked. “That’ll prevent scarring.”

Mick loomed over him, lids low and pensive as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He glanced over Link’s head. “Yep.”

“Want me to kiss it for you?”

It had been an attempt to levy the air in the room, to bring Mick back from whatever brink he’d been creeping towards since he’d seen Link’s injuries. He regretted it instantly--well before Mick gave him a weak smile in response and replaced the bandage. The sound of coarse scrubbing filled the room.

“I’ll take care of the mess. Go enjoy your evening.”

 

Chapter Text

Another quick peek into his room confirmed the time--08:10.

When Link hadn’t received a knock on his door that morning, he’d assumed Mick was going to meet him in the foyer as had been tradition before Jen’s departure. Time had crept by as he waited and listened for any sign of life. After so much stillness he’d figured the clock in his room wasn’t showing the right time anymore for some reason--but sure enough, it matched the one in the lounge area.

Mick was never late. Not when he wasn’t alone.

In full gear he trudged down the hall to the only other occupied room and knocked.

Nothing.

“Mick?” he whispered, turning the handle in warning several times before opening it. The lights were off. He felt along the wall for the switch and flipped it.

The emptiness of the room knocked the wind out of him. Bare walls, bare floor, all hard metal angles with no belongings or bed sheets on the cot. When his gaze crawled up the white wall to find screw holes from a now-gone bookcase and a lack of comforting fairy lights, nausea swept over him and he took a shuffling step back into the hall.

“Rhett.” Link’s head snapped towards the communal area and he burst into a jog, geared footfalls heavy in the sickening hush of the site. The solitude sprawled into the kitchen and lounge as he stomped through them, compulsively checking each seat, each corner twice for a familiar figure that never appeared. When he got to the foyer he stopped and stared at the front door. The thought of fresh Otter tracks in the snow beyond made his gut clench in a fresh wave of illness.

“Fuck,” Link gasped, doubling onto his knees and slipping his glasses off. “What the fuck?!”

Images flashed through his head. Mick making a call on the iridium after Link had gone to bed. Packing up his things and being careful not to wake the only other site member left as he loaded everything into the foyer. Everyone had said Mick was staying through the winter--but had he ever asked Mick outright if that was the truth?

Wet welled up in his eyes as he ripped off his goggles, dropping them to the floor in a loud thud, followed soon by the muffled flutter of his gloves so he could pinch the bridge of his nose. Refuse to give life to the tears he knew were only a matter of seconds away regardless of how hard he tried.

“Fuck!”

“Link?”

The professor startled, a choked noise slipping out as he wrenched about to face the kitchen.

And there he was. One eye closed tight from sleep, hands stuffed into the pockets of flannel lounge pants, an extra-baggy sweatshirt drooping from his exhausted shoulders. Hair a mess.

“Mick.”

“What're you doing?” he demanded in a way grumpy enough to imply that he shouldn’t have needed to ask.

Link straightened to stare in disbelief. Like the man in the other room was a mirage that might vanish if he looked away. “I--we’re late, and I--”

“We don’t work today, remember? Dress down.”

Dazed, Link blinked slow, syrupy blinks. “But it’s Monday.”

“I told you last night…” Mick trailed off before his head lolled back to consider the ceiling. “Wait. Maybe I didn’t.”

“What?”

“I called us in today,” he finished with a bored shrug. “Figured we could use a day off.”

Link went limp and slack jawed against the door frame of the foyer. When he spoke, his words came out breathless and winded. “Your room...?”

“I moved. I’m across the hall from you now, in Josh’s old space.” Link couldn’t find a response, and Mick cocked his head to the side, features softening. “You okay? Don’t fall over.”

Shifting his shoulders flush on the wall, Link sank to the floor. He gaped into space and pulled the beanie from his head, popped the buttons on his parka, toed off his boots. He gulped, humiliated. “I thought you were gone.”

“Thought I’d left for field without ya?” Mick barked a laugh. “Wow. And you really fell apart, huh?”

“Y-Yeah.”

“...Wait.” Padded footsteps grew louder until his gray slippers were in Link’s periphery. Mick’s form hunched down to the floor, kneeling to grab the shed gear and set it aside. “No. You thought I was gone, gone.”

Link swallowed again and offered fragile nods.

“Link.” Mick sighed and gestured into the living area. “Come further inside to dress down. You’re gonna freeze.”

Obeying was easy enough without being able to speak. The state of shock was wearing off--it was his own idiocy he didn’t want to acknowledge. Link crawled the distance to the couch and pulled himself to sit.

When Mick collected his previous discarded garments from the foyer and set them on the coffee table, Link couldn’t meet his eyes. But he didn’t miss the way Mick hovered with his hands on his hips, watching.  “You really think I’d take off in the middle of the night without saying a word?”

“Stupid, right?”

“...I can see why you’d jump to that conclusion. I left you in the dark.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not.”

Link looked up to find Rhett biting his lip. All traces of sleep were clear from his face as he glowered down at the floor.

“It’s irresponsible, as site leader.”

Link hated the silence when neither of them spoke, now a fresh reminder of his new, unfounded fear. “I won’t tell anybody or nothin’.”

Mick swayed, pressing his palms together in front of his chest. The frown on his face was too deeply set for Link to ignore what was clearly written there. He was searching for consolation--tamping down the bile of misunderstanding in his throat--when Mick hummed. “Well, I’m awake now.”

Link squinted up at him. The statement was oddly placed, like a package set out that he was meant to collect and open. “Do you, uh. D’you wanna do something?”

“Free day? I’d like to read,” Mick nodded, suddenly brimming with energy as he spun and headed for the hall.

“Have fun,” mumbled Link with a self-degrading head shake, shrugging his jacket off.

“My room in five? Bring whatever.”

Link froze.

 

 


 

 

All of his things packed away and now donning comfortable sleepy wear, Link opened his door and was met with the one across from his already open. Without moving, he had a clear view from his room into Mick’s, the fairy lights and the re-mounted bookshelf and the bespectacled man himself lying in bed with a book, peering over his feet.

“Come on in.”

“Your door’s open,” Link pointed out dumbly, thumbing his puzzle pad absently.

“It’s just us. Don’t gotta worry about bothering anyone else now.”

“I guess you’re right.” Shuffling inside, Link had to stop himself from shutting the door behind him automatically.

“You can still close it if you want.”

“No point.”

“Might keep it warmer in here,” Mick shrugged, focus falling back to the page.

Link told himself it was that--and not the illusion of proximity--which drew him to nudge the door to with a soft click.

“Looks just like your old room.” Link admired the set-up with a smile.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Rhett pressed his chin to his chest to look down at Link’s choice of pastime. “Puzzles again?”

“What d’you mean, ‘again?’” The brunette couldn’t help chuckling as he settled into the floor.

“That dang thing’s all I ever see you with.” The jeer made Mick’s smile reach his eyes. “How you haven’t finished it yet doesn’t give me faith.”

“Hey!”

“I’m just sayin’.”

“Well, what about your books?” Link motioned to the rows of titles with a sweep of his arm. “You read every single day, and you haven’t finished them all?”

Mick lowered the one in his grasp, eyeing Link with an amused air. “I’ve read them all at least five times.”

Link’s mouth fell open. “Bullshit.”

“You see any bookstores when you go outside?”

“No, but you could… I dunno. Ask for more?”

“No need. The ones on the shelves are golden. Already finished Rules for a Knight three times now.”

“So you lied.” Link smirked. “Three is less than five. I guess my puzzles are paying off after all.”

“Shut up,” Mick simpered, letting his book fall flat. “It’s good, by the way. I really liked it.”

“I’m glad.” Link gazed up at the miniature library for a time before clearing his throat. “Which one’s your favorite?”

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.” The answer had been instant.

“Isn’t that a poem?”

“A collection of poetry, yes. It’s also the closest damn thing you can get to laying out the human experience on a page.” Mick sat up, a new light in his eyes as he talked. It made Link’s chest warm, made his lungs swell. “You need to read it.”

“Can I borrow--”

Mick was on his knees then, twisting to pull the volume from his shelf and holding it up to inspect the purple cover. “If anything happens to this,” Mick warned, staring warning daggers over his shoulder, “I’m firing you.”

“Oh, gosh. Nevermind then.”

“No--you have to read it.” He handed the book to Link reverently, nudging it further into Link’s hands when he hesitated.

“Have to, huh?”

Mick sat back. His eyes went glossy as he recited, lines falling from his mouth on a script tight as wire:

Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sunrise would kill me, if I could not and always send sunrise out of me. We also ascend, dazzling and tremendous as the sun. We found our own. O, my soul in the calm and cool of daybreak.”

“Whoa.” Link swallowed, turning the book in his hands. “That reminds me of what it's like being here.”

“No shit.”

“I’ll definitely read it. Thanks, Mick.”

“If you get food on it, I’ll skin you alive.”

“Goodness.” The care with which he thought about setting it on the floor and then opted for the bedside table made Mick chuckle noiselessly from behind his reopened novel.

In the following quiet, Link opened his puzzle book to a fresh page--a word search with letters so tiny he had to physically bring the page in to see them clearly. It was as good a choice as any.

As minutes ticked by, Link knew he was hunching further and further to the floor like a flower wilting in the cold. Every few seconds he yawned, dabbing tears of exhaustion from his eyes. When he did it three times in one minute, Mick dropped his book to his chest.

“Someone’s tired.”

“I miss Josh Coffee.”

“Me too. That kid made a mean cup of Joe.”

“I just wanna take a nap,” Link groaned through a stretch across the floor, fingers shaking at the exertion.

“You’re welcome to, so long as you don’t mess up your schedule.”

“I napped all yesterday evening and that turned out okay.” Link propped up his head on a fist in order to smile up at Mick, but found that his expression had tightened. “What?”

“All evening?”

“Yeah,” Link fumbled, realizing his accidental admission: he simply hadn't wanted to be around Mick. Swiftly, he tried to cover it up. “I was exhausted. Recovering body… you know.”

“Right...” Mick’s whiskers twitched at the beginning of a thought. “Floor’s probably not too comfortable.”

“Yeah… yeah.” It was hard for Link not to feel like a bag of tossed-around bones when he forced himself to sit back up, wincing at the weight on his elbow in the process.

“A bed would be better.”

The statement zipped Link’s gaze together with Mick’s. His brow was creased in a breed of concern Link couldn’t fully dissect, one arm tucked behind his head as he examined the brunette on the floor. The look was heavy--burdened with unsaid things in a precarious balance he clearly didn’t want to tip. Link swallowed.

“We’ve done it before,” he whispered. Hopeful.

“We shouldn’t have.”

“Would it be better if we went to the couch?”

“If I say ‘yes,’ that could be misconstrued as permission.”

“It’s just cuddling.”

“I don’t trust myself.”

“...Don’t you want it?” Link begged, painfully quiet.

“More than anything.” Mick’s words came out in a broken smolder.

But we can't, Link's brain supplied, the reminder Mick didn't want to let into the air between them.

Link bit the inside of his cheek and collected his pencil, his book, Leaves of Grass, and let himself out, shutting the door behind him noiselessly. He ensured that his own door was latched as well before settling into the stiff coldness of his cot.

 

Chapter Text

The next time Link’s eyes opened, it was into surreality and pieces of cognizance which settled at hard angles in his brain.

His first thought was that he had gone blind. Rapid blinks wet with sleep did nothing to return the things he should have been able to see in the darkness: his LED alarm clock, or the slivers of hallway light at his door. When sight failed, his ears strained in the quiet. The ever-present hiss of Antarctic wind carved against the building.

Experimentally, he flexed his fingers into his covers. The tactile familiarity provided some sense of relief as he sat up. No light, no sound; like being at the bottom of a well inside of a cave.

He slid his feet to the floor, stretched and eased into a bent-kneed stand. Keeping his hands out as safe-guards, he crept to the door and felt for the knob, twisting it. The corridor beyond was lined in dim red emergency lights scattered sparingly along the ceiling. They were weak, but enough to feel like a life raft in the pitch black.

“Mick,” Link croaked and shuffled across the hall. He knocked. “Mick. The power’s out.”

Silence.

Fear crimping the corners of his mind, Link opened the door and pushed it in. A gaping hole of nothingness filled the frame. “Mick?”

Making his way to the site leader’s bed and feeling that it was not only empty, but had been empty long enough to be cold sent a tremor up Link’s spine. He retreated into the hall and headed for the flashlights stocked in the communal supply shelves.

It took far longer than it should have for Link to locate them. He fumbled and bumped into things along the way, cursing and marveling at how--deep down--he was a primate accustomed to sight, turned a fool at the mildest inconvenience. Flashlight attained, he flipped on the switch and felt his autonomy return as he absorbed the dead stillness of the communal area.

It only took a minute of scanning each room for Link to confirm his suspicion that the man wasn’t there. He trudged to the kitchen and stood slack while he considered what to do.

“You think he would’ve learned to leave a--”

Note. There, on the dining table. With the very pen that had written it resting across the page. Link retrieved it and beamed the light down onto Mick’s scrawled handwriting.

Generator’s blown from the weather. Going to go have a look.
No field work today. Protocol.
You can check a laptop for the time. Focus on keeping warm.
Should only be a few minutes, but here’s a note in case you wake up.
-M, 05:54

Link snorted at the little ‘M’ in the signature. Who else would the note have been from? He sighed and replaced it.

It was so early. No surprise that he’d messed up his sleep cycle with the constant napping over the past few days. With nothing else to do, he located a laptop ajar from its designated spot on the shelves and cracked it open. It must have been the one Mick used. Gently it hummed to life and loaded the log-in screen, complete with time.

07:34.

The shard of dread in Link’s chest splintered and spread through his veins, numbing his limbs into ice as he willed the clock to correct itself--to show the time that it really was.

07:35.

In one step he snatched the note up from the table to double check: 05:54.

A lump stuck hard in his throat, one he couldn’t swallow as he wrung his fingers against his hip--one that carried him into his bedroom, slammed the torch down to illuminate everything and geared up. One that reminded him that he had no idea where the generator was outside, despite his plan.

It’s just a building, he reminded himself as he tugged on his boots, listening for the sound of the front door that never came. He could stick to the walls and end up at the entrance again, hopefully with Mick by his side… probably angry that he’d come to get him. But an hour and a half wasn’t a few minutes, and the image of Mick lying injured from slipping on ice welled up in his head until he pushed out through the front door.

Snow came down in angry waves from the sky, blocking out not only the horizon but visibility past a few feet. The wind howled against the angular-cut exterior of 466, lashing against its defiance to exist in a place like this.

Link pulled the site door closed and pointed his flashlight up into the flurry, bracing against it. Not a flurry--a blizzard . This was incredibly atypical weather for their locale. Snowstorms were few and far between and did little more than dust the ground with a fresh layer of powder. But, granted, it wasn’t like the global climate had been exactly normal over the past few years--not if Josh and Chase’s research was any indication.

A shiver quaked Link from head to foot and he pulled up the lined hood of his parka. Careful not to lose his footing, he decided to follow his flashlight left, running a gloved hand against the shell of their shelter for support.

“Mick!” The wind ripped the sound away into the permanent night, chilled his lungs and forced his mouth closed. It was after turning his first corner he realized his neck and chest were colder than they usually were on field trips, and he quickly dismissed the brief memory of his still-hanging scarf in his room.

He pushed on, steps slow and careful, light deadened by the haze of white muting his sight. Onward he trekked, further around the groaning building.

“Mick!” he tried again, knowing any calls were futile.

Then--a glimpse of something black, off to his left in the snow. A fleeting peek through the curtain of white that had opened and closed a few yards off. A miracle granted by physics.

“Mick.” Link pushed off, trudging out into the open toward the dark shape, heart rattling in his ribs. From what he’d seen, it had been large and low and close to the ground--all details that solidified the rock of fear in his stomach as he fought to relocate the lump in the storm.

Another flash of black to his right and he had it. He closed in with determination, shaking and gasping as he pushed through the invisibility.

A sleek black veneer greeted him when he knelt to inspect it. His eyes roamed in confusion at the roundness of his discovery, at the slick hard surface and the snow piling on top and the long parallel stretches of onyx metal jutting toward his feet.

“Shit,” Link spat at the snowmobile, tightening the collar of his parka. The trembling that arrested his limbs had tripled in the short time he’d been out here. Warmth eked out of him like sand in an hourglass, and the threat of the last grain falling pushed him to return to the walls of 466.

Only the walls never greeted him.

Link stopped dead when he knew he’d taken too many paces, resting and letting his mind race. His body was adjusting to the relentless cold pouring from the heavens, threatening to bury his feet the longer he stayed still. Panic gripped him and he angled his path slightly to continue, pressing on.

466 had been this way. He wasn’t stupid.

The comfortable acceptance of the cold was quickly turning to heat--something a dark corner of his mind acknowledged as one of the first symptoms of… what had it been?

Indecision was quickly becoming a death sentence as his brain fought to maintain logic; if he walked further in the wrong direction, the chances of finding his way back in these conditions were slim to none. If he stayed, he would freeze to death--and Mick was still somewhere out here. Waiting for him.

He swallowed thickly, the movement racking his stiff throat. Everything was hot now. The urge to pull his hood down was sweltering, to unbutton his parka and let in the blizzard. Fingers deadened, chest raw.  Thoughts fogging into sleep, Link fell to the snow and pinned his chin to his neck.

Maybe if he crouched, motionless, he could wait the storm out until it was safe to find Mick.

He was somewhere out here.

 

 


 

 

Yellow light.

Running water.

Warmth.

Open, closed.

Slow blinking, rejoining the world.

Link forced his glazed eyes open. A wall. A spout gurgling and gushing beneath it. Feet poking out of the water. Disorientation traced the feet up his own body--to his thighs and waist and chest. He was nude, in a bath. With a wobbly breath he sank into the relief of warmth, letting it thaw his bones and steam his lungs.

With comfort came memories. The last thing that had happened--what had it been? He’d gone outside. Got lost looking for… someone.

“Mick!” Link’s jolt sent waves splashing against the walls of the tub.

He had to see him, had to see that he was okay--that he was there and intact and alive . Gripping the rim of the tub, he began to pull his adrenaline-fueled body to stand when a looming shadow caught his attention and he stilled.

He tilted his chin up, following Mick’s full height to the ceiling of the bathroom.

Mick stood stock still in only boxer briefs, arms crossed tightly over his bare chest. His stomach and shoulder were bruised in deep splotches of purple, his eyes skewering Link’s with dangerous electricity when they made contact. Hair wrecked and wild, gaze set into a rigid scowl tightly focused on the man in the tub. Challenging him to move.

“Mick,” Link breathed, recoiling down as if the water could hide his exposure and fear.

Mick pressed his lips into a thin line and his shoulders rose with a deep breath, nostrils flaring at the effort. Link winced--braced for yelling in the tight space. But Mick let the breath out long and steady. When he did speak, it was barely loud enough to hear over the running water.

“Wanna hear how my morning’s been?”

Link hesitated, glancing around like cornered prey.

“I went to go look at the wind generator,” he started, words tumbling out gruff and paced. “The storm had damaged it. Came back inside. Contacted higher-ups to inquire about proper action. Took a little while to troubleshoot with the blueprints. Finally got the right tools, and went back out into the field.”

When he paused, Link didn’t speak. He barely dared to breath.

“Fixed it right up.” Mick feigned a hollow smile and pointed listlessly to the ceiling. “Power’s back.”

Link didn’t break their gaze to follow Mick’s finger. Didn’t acknowledge the yellow lights casting harsh shadows down his cut shoulders.

“Went back inside, ready to climb into bed. If I hadn’t noticed--out of the corner of my eye,” Mick forced an empty laugh, “that a certain laptop was open on the supply shelf? I wouldn’t have checked your room.”

Link could feel the roiling fury emanating from him. It built and burgeoned the longer he was able to recount the story, and some small part of Link hazarded stopping it. “M-Mick, I’m--”

“But no!” Mick cried, flashing a manic smile. He stepped over to the faucet and shut off the water, leaving only his severe voice in the air between them. “I checked every single room. You were just... outside. Somewhere.”

Swallowing, Link dipped his gaze to the blossomed bruise on Mick’s abdomen--the one he’d put there. The one Mick hadn’t wanted him to see.

“I circled the building. You weren’t anywhere.” Mick’s smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared. “I came back inside and grabbed the thermal imager--you know, the scanner that researchers in the arctic use to spot polar bears? We aren’t even supposed to have one here. It was a cataloging error.”

Mick tried crossing his arms to no avail, and let his roaming hands find his hips, gripping white there. Link sunk his hand into the water to cover himself. Bit his lip in humiliation.

“Thank god my first instinct was to check the mobiles. At the third one, there was a blip of heat--just a little one,” he pinched the air for emphasis, “and lo and behold.” He punctuated the next words through clenched teeth, keeping something darker from escaping his mouth. “There you were. Curled up like a corpse.”

“Mick--”

“No,” Mick snarled, gaze whet into razors.

Link hugged himself.

“You still don’t get to speak. Not until after I tell you about how I had to lug your limp, heavy body inside. About how I had to strip you down and bundle you in blankets. About how you still didn’t wake up even when I put you in front of the heater, even when I stripped down and got under the blankets with you.”

“Every single circumstance that led me to finding you was a freak accident of luck.” His voice trembled against the walls, close to breaking in a direction Link couldn’t predict. “Y’know, you aren’t supposed to put people with hypothermia and frostnip into warm water? Fucks with their heart.”

Link let his gaze drop to the steaming bathwater. Felt his tender chest with reddened fingers.

“But I couldn’t think of how else to get you to look at me again.” Mick’s words were crushed wet, gagged and meek and forced.

Link blinked down at his knees, dragged his hands up to run thumbs over his damp skin. He should have died. By all accounts, he should have been a body in the field by now, awaiting retrieval and collection when the storm ended. The desperation of his actions had led him to nearly kill himself.

And yet.

Tilting his head, he looked up at Mick, through the flecks of water on his glasses.

“I thought I’d lost you,” he said softly, the words scarcely off his tongue before Mick had fallen to his knees and crashed their lips together.

The kiss was frantic and heavy. Mick scoured his hands against the trickling nape of Link’s neck, fingers tangling up into his hair to press them close. Water sloshed to the floor when Link shifted, keening for Mick and pulling him, wet--begging to close the distance between them, for Mick to finally succumb to the same urges Link had been plagued with for weeks.

If Mick still cared about his job, he didn’t show it. He wrapped Link in his arms, straining against the side of the tub to deepen the kiss. Digging, pushing, wanting more , for Link to open wider for him, to moan into his mouth as his hands plunged down in the water to caress the curves of the brunette’s ass.

It worked. Link broke the kiss with a gasp and shivered while eagerly Mick found other ways to busy his mouth: teeth claimed collarbone, shoulders, an earlobe as the grip on his back tightened under the water. The ragged breath in Link’s ear went straight to his cock.

“It’s me who’s supposed to look after you.”

A full moan quivered the water. Mick blindly reached to drain the tub, his other hand cupping Link’s jaw and forcing their eyes together, smoldering.

“You seem to forget the fuckin’ order of things around here. You need me to remind you?”

Link’s lips parted, lids fell low with a desperate nod, drinking in Mick’s starved gaze.

“Yes, sir.”

In one swift motion he was hoisted from the bath. Trails of water slapped the floor as Mick settled them to kneel, chest to chest. Their next kiss was crude compared to the first--rushed and rough and demanding, Mick sinking his teeth hard into Link’s forgiving lip to pull whines from him. Wrenching him around, Mick shoved Link’s body down harsh against the rim of the tub basin.

Wave after wave of shivers rolled through Link as his senses struggled to keep up: the loss of warmth, Mick’s large hand palming the base of his neck, the sound of a waistband moving out of the way. The impossibly reality of being used for Mick’s power trip had him achingly hard--Link had wanted and burned at the thought, had fucked his hand to it more than once.

Mick spat, and Link’s pulse quickened as he envisioned the blonde wetting himself right behind him, stroking the cock he still hadn’t earned the privilege of laying eyes on. Instead, a determined finger brushed against Link’s entrance and he bucked back instinctively with a sharp gasp.

“So eager for my attention.” The words dripped from Mick, sultry and teasing. “Have been since the second you got here, haven’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” Link offered breathlessly, cheeks beaten and eyes watering while Mick leisured in playing with his hole. Sinking a single finger in and rubbing, luxuriating in the way Link writhed on it, breath catching. Two fingers, stretching and crooking, pulling at the threads holding Link together with beckons suddenly too impatient to go easy on him. It sent waves of heat and ecstasy crashing through Link, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t what he needed.

After so much torment, Link’s cock was past the point of begging--its head wept against his abs, desperate for friction and leaking on the floor. If things didn’t progress soon, Link was scared he might actually cry from the overwhelming teasing. To finish so swiftly without having felt Mick’s cock inside of him just once would be a nightmare come true.

“Please, Rhett?”

The fingers disappeared and Link whimpered until the unmistakable heft of something much thicker pressed against him, readying. More than anything he wanted to push back against it, to feel Mick inside of him after tortuously long denial--but a steady hand knew better. It found Link’s waist, anchored his eagerness.

“So disrespectful, using my first name.”

Link felt the thrum of his heart in his ears, worried it might explode if he was refused again.

“Mick... Use me?” he begged, rolling his hips. He perked his ass up with a dip of his back and presented himself for his superior. If he were enticing enough, maybe he could drag them past the point of no return. “Just this once?”

“Fuck,” Mick groaned.

In one slick thrust he filled him up, dragging a wrecked moan from Link as he clenched his thighs together. It was instantly too much, being filled up by the man he’d been obsessing over since he’d arrived at the site. They were here, wearing the colors of one another’s frustrations on their skin, and his hands were on Link’s hips, and he was inside of Link, and it wasn’t allowed, and--

Every bit of him was on fire in the face of this reality. None of it seemed possible.

“Just use me,” Link repeated into his shoulder, pretenses forgotten. “I want you.”

“Like you’re meant for anyone else.”

The response was tinder fed to fire in Link’s gut. His cock twitched against his stomach, waiting. Mick’s rough hands fixed on Link’s shoulders when he began to move. Their bodies fit together seamlessly, the combined wet of spit and precum like silk. The worn, deep growls that found Link’s ears made his toes curl against the linoleum.

He wanted to say more--wanted to gush praises and encouragement and beg Mick to do everything his moral compass had prevented him from doing up to that point--but words melted into sprawling gasps as Mick abandoned what restraint he had left. Link wasn’t the only one who’d been ready, it seemed.

“You’re mine, Neal.” Mick’s voice was tattered, deep remnants of what it used to be. “You got that?”

“Yes, Mick,” Link relented between sharp cries. “I am, I’m yours.”

Mick doubled down, forcing Link to grip the edge of the tub to keep from getting bucked into it. The spot Mick’s cock hit relentlessly sent white-hot flashes of pleasure through Link’s very being, shredding his breathing to hiccupy pleas.

The pace grew brutal, frantic, shameless as Mick’s grunts toyed apart in full-throated moans, loud and gratified and too sinful for the smaller one to handle. All too clearly Link could picture him as the heat in his gut coiled: knuckles white, eyes wrecked with sex, head tilting back as he rode out his pent up desires, about to--

“Come inside me, Mick, please, want you to fill me up,” rambled Link as he met his release, shooting thick ropes up onto his chest, thrashing against the rim of the tub, struggling for purchase. Every muscle clenched and the words broke into a loud, cracking moan of release that reverberated from the walls.

Mick’s hands couldn’t get to Link’s hair, his throat, his chest fast enough. He pulled their bodies flush together and Link listened in teetering bliss to the slap of hips on his ass and the baritone growls of Mick following his lead--tensing, filling him with sticky warmth.

Link shut his eyes, goosebumps railing down every inch of his arms. Mick’s touches withered from their urgency until they were gentle again--the tender strength of someone handling another who’d been injured. Where Link expected the touches to pull away, they instead snaked around his middle and pulled them both to sit on the cold floor, chest to back.

Mick’s breathing was hot in Link’s ear as they came down from their high. His bearded chin found rest on Link’s shoulder, nuzzling there. When Link’s come dripped down and met Mick’s arm, the older one reached to the tub and nabbed a damp washcloth, wordlessly cleaning Link’s chest.

The intimacy of the gesture made Link’s heart flutter.

“You lied,” Link mumbled, the accusation coming out oddly happy.

“I know. Sorry, snowflake. Didn’t want you to worry about me.”

“You made me think I was weak or somethin’. But your bruises are worse than mine.”

“You kick hard.”

“I’m sorry about that.”

“Don’t be. I needed an ass-kicking.”

“...thanks for finding me,” Link whispered, letting his hand fall and grip Mick’s thigh. Squeezing.

Mick froze for a moment before he dropped the cloth to the floor and wrapped his arms tight around Link’s chest, pressing his forehead to the nape of Link’s neck.

“I’m so glad you woke up.”

“After what we just did? Me too,” laughed Link, blinking sleepily.

“Stop doing stupid things for me, Link. This still isn’t okay.”

Link swallowed, returning a weak nod. “I know.”

“Do you feel well enough to stand? We need to clean you up. I’m not letting you into my bed if you’re gonna leak cum everywhere.” Mick gave him a playful nudge.

Link looked up to the far wall, dared to ask. “You want me in your room?”

“This isn’t allowed,” Mick sighed, untangling himself from around the professor, “but I’m willing to keep a secret if you are.” Link’s pulse raced at the offer as Mick extended a hand. He took it and was pulled effortlessly from the floor into a protective hug.

Link blinked against Mick’s shoulder, dazed and disbelieving the ruins of the shattered wall that had existed between them. Breath held, he brought his hands up to return the hug, hesitant and half-worried the man would push him away in panic. When it only served to make Mick hug him tighter, Link melted at the permission, clutching onto Mick and closing his eyes to savor his radiating warmth and smell of his sweat.

“Why would I tell anyone?”

 

Chapter Text

Large arms loosely wrapped. The steady, slow breath of rest. Soft skin and tangled legs and the scent of his body imprinted wherever they’d held one another.

In the faint green glow of the clock, Link watched Mick’s face at peace. No creases of anger or worry remained in the hold of sleep. It was mesmerizing how perfectly beautiful he was when he relaxed--when he could be totally defenseless and caring and open for Link. Like an Adonis from a Renaissance painting: long eyelashes, golden curls, sculpted cheekbones, inviting lips.

The urge to kiss them squeezed against Link’s heart.

Mick had kissed him that morning. They’d gone past that.

“I’m willing to keep a secret if you are.”

Link was. He was more than willing to leave their relations out of any reports to higher-ups if it meant they could continue, that this wouldn’t be the last time Mick invited him into his bed. It was the nature of the secret that kept him from leaning forward and claiming Mick as his own in a way far different from how Mick had already claimed him.

Sure, they had fucked. He was even in Mick’s arms at that very moment, relishing the intimacy radiating between them and scared to break the spell over the room. But plenty of people had sex and slept with others for release. It didn’t mean there was anything more. It didn’t mean Mick had developed feelings.

The kisses in the bathroom had been lustful--rushed and hard and needy. A dam breaking.

The kiss Link wanted to give now was none of those things.

He wanted it to be a promise, an outlet for the dreams that had billowed in his head so long as Mick’s arms were around him--hopes he dared to pretend were real as he lay gazing up at him. If not on his lips, could he get away with his cheek? Forehead? Neck? His confidence waned as he considered the alternatives, falling down each rung of the ladder until he’d met the sobering ground.

Careful not to move Mick more than necessary, he twisted his head to check the clock. It was getting close to dinnertime. He’d yet to cook for the two of them. Ignoring his cold-bruised muscles and the complaints of his soreness, he shifted, laying a palm flat on Mick’s chest and rubbing lightly with a feathered touch.

“Mick?”

“Mmm.”

Maybe he hadn’t been as asleep as Link had assumed.

“Are you hungry?”

In response, Mick adjusted and wrapped his arms tighter around Link, drawing his head into the crook of his neck. Link smiled, cheeks burning.

“Mick, I can cook.”

“Stay.” The word rumbled deep in his boss's chest.

Link let out a gentle laugh. “We’re gonna be exhausted tomorrow if we keep sleeping.”

“Not sleeping.”

“You’ve been awake this entire time?”

“So’ve you.”

Link worried his lip. He’d been in danger of getting caught staring, then. “Don’t you think we should get up? We’ve been in here all day.”

Finally Mick’s eyes opened, puffy from staving off rest as he glanced over Link’s shoulder. When his head hit the pillow again, he found Link’s eyes in the darkness.

“But I’m so warm.”

“Me too,” confessed Link with a smirk. “It’s nice.”

“See? Consider this frostnip treatment.”

“I’m not frostbitten.”

“Frostnip is the beginning stage of frostbite, which-- yeah, you definitely did have.”

The thought of losing fingers made Link flex them against Mick’s sternum, dragging through what little hair grew there. “I’m sorry.”

“So stupid,” Mick groaned--but when Link looked up he was smiling, focused on him. “As if four years of livin’ down here hasn’t prepared me for a generator malfunction. Like you could’ve helped.”

“Hey,” protested Link weakly. His brow furrowed. “Don’t be cruel.”

“The truth hurts.” Mick brought a hand from Link’s back and ruffled his hair. “If you really wanna get up, I’ll cook with you.”

“No. You should stay put. Enjoy being warm.” With great effort Link pushed himself up, gazing down at Mick. “You cooked for me the other night. I’m sure I can scrounge up something.”

“Do I smell that bad?” Mick gave his armpit an exaggerated whiff.

“No. I like the way you smell,” stated Link awkwardly before he could keep the words from tumbling out. Mick’s eyebrows rose-- that so?-- and Link twisted away to excuse himself from their positions. He scanned the floor in the dark. “Where… where are my clothes?”

“Living room.” He could hear the grin on Mick’s lips.

“Gosh,” Link breathed, shaking his head and slipping out of bed.

“Don’t cook naked,” Mick warned after him, stretching into the newly freed space. “Hot grease ain’t no joke.”

“I won’t.” Link opened the door and peered out, blinking owlishly into the chilly hall.

“Ain’t no one else here. You afraid the abominable snowman’s gonna see your wiener?”

“Will you shut up?” laughed Link, pardoning himself from the room with a wide grin. “Gracious.”

In the middle of the living room floor were Link’s clothes, as promised--next to a heap of blankets and Mick’s clothes. The scene made Link’s cheeks hot. Mick tearing off Link’s gear and stripping him down, bundling him in blankets, rubbing frantically to add heat. Mick tearing off his own clothes, crawling on top of him and wrapping them both up, pressing their foreheads together and hot begging breaths and kissing--

No. That was just him, just his wishes influencing likelihood of the truth.

Link dressed quickly and snatched Mick’s outfit, bee-lining back to the dark bedroom--only it wasn’t dark anymore. Mick was sitting up, blanket over his lap and finger-brushing his beard.

“I thought you were gonna stay in bed.”

“Nah.” Mick shook his head. “I can at least keep you company, if you won’t let me help.”

“You know,” drawled Link as he tossed Mick his clothes, “if you were really insistent on helping, I couldn’t stop you. You’re the boss. Right?”

When Mick stood and pulled on his pants, Link averted his eyes, only looking back when Mick sauntered to the door and slung his shirt over his shoulder. He stopped short to loom over Link, smirk down at him. “D’you forget already?”

Fighting back a shaky breath, Link forced an exasperated eye roll and left for the kitchen, Mick snickering on his heels. The taller one pulled on his soft cotton tee and settled at the table. He produced his reading glasses and a book from his back pocket and opened the book to a seemingly random page.

Link watched him, grasp stilled on the cold store handle. “How do you know where you left off?”

“I memorize it.” Mick slipped on his glasses, suddenly bored.

“You don’t have a bookmark? Seems like a lot of effort.”

“You cookin’ or not, snowflake?”

Blushing at the pet name, Link pursed his lips and ducked his head into their chilled pantry.

“You want anything in particular?”

“Chef’s choice.”

It wasn’t easy selecting what he should make for dinner. While it would’ve been nice to go with one of the easier options--like the taco casserole you simply popped into the oven, tray and all--Mick had practically slaved over the pad Thai. On the other hand, Link didn’t want to choose something he could mess up too severely. He wasn't sure he could handle Mick teasing him that much.

Eventually he pulled out a box labeled shrimp scampi and opened it, retrieving the ingredient packets one by one.

Cooking was bizarre. Not only had others taken care of Link's meals since his arrival, but even back home Link wasn’t the type of person who spent a lot of time in front of the stove. He usually ordered in, because what else was he going to spend his money on? Might as well eat express as he graded papers.

After some time he had a steaming pan filled with prawns, melted Parmesan, and angel hair noodles simmering on the hotplate. Satisfied, he stepped back to admire it and give it a last minute or two to cook.

He heard Mick’s book hit the table. “Do I smell shrimp?”

“Yep.”

“I am deathly allergic to shrimp.”

Link spun to gape down at Mick, who was watching the steam rise out of the pan from beneath concern-tented eyebrows.

“What?! Why would they even send us…?! Shit.” Link dropped the pan’s cover on it and was halfway to opening the front door for ventilation when Mick’s laugh bounced off of the walls of the lounge.

“I’m just kidding, Link! Come back.”

“...you asshole,” whispered Link as he pressed a hand to his chest, tiptoeing back into the kitchen and glaring at the blonde with wide, incredulous eyes. “ Such a jerk.”

“I can’t help it. You’re so easy to rile up.” He folded his glasses and stood, pocketing them. “I can't resist.”

“Yeah, sure. The next time I attack you, though, just know that you provoked it.” Link yanked the cover from the pan and gave the dish one last stir. “I think it’s ready.”

“Yeah?”

The question was right in his ear, low and calm. Mick’s hands roamed and found the hem of Link’s shirt, worked around him into a hug. Link’s throat went dry and he swallowed. “Yeah.”

“Looks good.”

“It’s just… what was in the box.”

“I know it,” chuckled Mick. “You think I was trying to compliment your cooking? I’m surprised that you know what a stove is for.” The comeback on Link’s tongue died when a gentle kiss pressed into his hair. A second later, Mick withdrew his embrace. “Lemme go put my book away.”

Dizzy, Link divided the pan’s contents between two plates, trying to ignore the tingling spot on his crown. Whatever game Mick was playing by testing their boundaries always left Link stupefied. Dreading and thrilled, used and cared for, teased and comforted. All of it seemed so easy to navigate for Mick.

That ease--Link realized, standing frozen in the kitchen with their food ready--could only come without weight behind it. It came only with the knowledge of several things: that affection felt nice, that Link was willing, and that regardless of what happened between them, he wasn’t going to have to deal with any consequences. Not once their stay at 466 had ended.

No strings attached. No commitment.

But if Mick couldn’t resist, Link knew he couldn’t, either.

 

Chapter Text

Subject: Birthday

Dear Charles,
Happy Birthday.

I called your cell phone this morning. It went right to voicemail. I called your office at the university. They told me you were on extended leave. On some sort of expedition? I can’t believe you would leave like that without saying anything. I wanted to actually talk to you, but an e-mail will have to do, it seems.

I contacted a few places trying to find a way to reach you via phone, but gave up after being redirected four times. Too much hassle, considering you didn’t even let us know.

Wherever you are, we hope you’re happy with yourself.

God bless you,
Mom

P.S. Your father read a book recently on atonement. He enjoyed it. I’ve attached a picture of it. Give it a try.

Link read the email twice before deleting it. He felt bad that it had even used data to retrieve it on one of the communal laptops.

He sat on the couch with his socked feet propped up on the coffee table. Computer in lap, steaming cup of mediocre coffee resting by his heels, he scrolled through his personal inbox for the first time since he’d arrived. He’d been hoping for birthday messages, perhaps from extra-thoughtful co-workers back home or old friends from college. The only one had been there at the very top, and it hadn’t been worth opening.

The other messages that acknowledged his ‘special’ day were all offers from businesses that had his information: coupons, special packages, discounts if he came in within the next week. He scanned them leisurely and tried to get some sense of normalcy from doing something so mundane.

Footsteps announced Mick’s entry to the kitchen. Towel draped around his shoulders and hair damp against his forehead from bathing, he got himself a glass of water and cleared his throat, watching Link across the room.

“No porn.”

Link snorted, clicking on his spam folder to check for any accidentally flagged messages. Maybe someone else had remembered-- anyone else.

“What are you doing?” Mick crossed the kitchen and leaned on the back of an armchair.

“Nothing,” sighed Link, logging out and closing the computer. “I was... just bored, I guess.”

“Mm. You been readin’ Leaves of Grass?”

“I started it the other night,” Link admitted and picked up his coffee, giving it a sip. “It’s beautifully written but hard to read a lot of at once, so I didn’t get very far.”

“Psh.” Mick pulled a face. “If it's a story you want, I’ve got lots of other books.”

“I’m gonna read it, Mick.” Link’s tone was harsher than he intended. He glared, letting his mood sour. “It's just... not everyone's obsessed with written word, y’know.”

“It’d be a better world if everyone was.” Mick took a long, nonplussed drink, draining half the glass before pointing to the TV. “Why don’t you watch something, then?”

“Chase took the movies. They were on his iPod.” Link glowered into his mug, brow knit. “Wouldn’t really want to, anyways.”

“Well, maybe you should try pullin’ the stick out of your ass, then,” Mick shrugged, straightening and heading to his room.

Link dropped the laptop to the floor, bundling himself up under the shared blankets. His go-to solution for foul moods was to sleep on them, but having fresh caffeine in his bloodstream barred that as a possibility. So he sat, stewing and scowling at the drink on the table in lieu of releasing his brain from its grudge.

He hadn’t been expecting a lot for his birthday. Hardly anyone even knew, and that was his fault. But to have the only personable message be one reminding him of the weight of his disappointment to his parents, from his parents? He pulled the blankets in tight.

When Mick returned holding Leaves of Grass to his stomach, Link scoffed.

“You went into my room? Again?"

“For my book, yeah.” Mick made his way to the couch and shooed Link out of the middle. “Scootch.”

Link didn’t budge. “Sit in the armchair.”

Without missing a beat, Mick set the poetry book gently on the table before brusquely shoving Link onto the far end of the couch. The brunette sputtered and grumbled, trying to right himself while Mick settled onto the opposite end. He crossed his legs, retrieved the book, and opened it to Link’s nondescript bookmark.

“What are you doing?” Link bit. It wasn’t easy crawling while encased in blankets, but he wanted to see the page Mick was on.

I am satisfied, ” Mick began, propping the book up on his crossed leg. “ I see, dance, laugh, sing.”

“Are you reading to me?” Link asked breathlessly, earning an amused, condescending look from Mick.

As God comes a loving bedfellow and sleeps at my side all night and close on the peep of the day, and leaves for me baskets covered with white towels bulging the house with their plenty.”

Link relaxed marginally, doing his best to focus on the meaning of the words instead of the meaning of Mick beginning impromptu story time. His muscles eased and he sank, staring past him, hands on his knees and glassy-eyed.

“Shall I postpone my acceptation and realization and scream at my eyes, that they turn from gazing after and down the road, and forthwith cipher and show me to a cent, exactly the contents of one, and exactly the contents of two, and which is ahead?”

Link wasn’t sure what the words meant--not truly. But they were comforting and Mick said them with practiced cadence, just slow enough to take in. Thoughtlessly, Link adjusted, trying to decide on the best position to enjoy this from. He was hesitant when his head found Mick’s thigh and took rest there, but the blonde didn’t stop or react.

“Trippers and askers surround me, people I meet. The effect upon me of my early life, of the ward and city I live in. Of the nation, the latest news. Discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new.”

Link looked at nothing as he listened, understanding and feeling the words he hadn’t appreciated until they'd been repackaged by Mick’s careful tongue into something palatable.

“My dinner, dress, associates, looks, business, compliments, dues, the real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love. The sickness of one of my folks--or of myself, or ill-doing, or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations. They come to me days and nights and go from me again, but they are not the me myself.”

As he read, Mick’s hands had found Link’s hair and begun to stroke--that familiar sensation Link recalled effortlessly from the last time they’d read at such close proximity. But Mick hadn’t shared the words then--hadn’t invited him into the further intimacy of the world building in his mind as he continued. Absently, Link’s hand snaked up to Mick’s thigh and held, squeezing.

“Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am, stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary. Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest, looks with its sidecurved head curious what will come next, both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.”

The lines hit Link in a way he hadn’t been prepared for. He shut his eyes, following the hem of Mick’s jeans, upward and inward, running along the heat radiating from his inner thigh. Mick hesitated--sending a jolt of excitement through Link’s stomach--and pushed on.

“Backward I see in my own days, where I sweated through fog with linguists and c-contenders,” he read with some difficulty, glancing from the page to Link’s hand which was now thumbing the hardness in his pants gently, teasingly. “I have no mockings or arguments… I witness, and wait.”

It was almost unclear whether the last line had come from the poem or from Mick.

Link shifted, bringing his fingers to the button of Mick’s jeans, prying. “Keep reading,” he implored with a coy smile.

He might not have gotten what he'd wanted for his birthday, but he could have this. He could remind himself that this breed of attraction was normal and beautiful. That he wasn't alone when he pined for someone like him, someone who wanted him in turn. Mick was here--he was willing. Permission had been given and a secret was to be kept between them, and the comfort and knowledge of that emboldened Link's work on the front of Mick's pants.

Mick swallowed, shoulders rising and falling once. In one swift upheaval he closed the book and hauled Link from his lap, dropping him unceremoniously back onto the couch. Pointedly ignoring the look of hurt and insult on Link’s face when he gawked up at him.

“What the fuck, Mick?” demanded Link, glaring at the book in his hands.

“That’s my line. Are you even listening?” Mick asked, eyes wide. The customary irritation he wore for outrage was layered underneath of something else that shook, brittle. “I don’t know if you’ve fuckin’ noticed, but this book is really important to--” He cut himself off and waved it in the air. “I didn’t come out here and read it as an invitation for you to beg for my dick!”

Link tensed from head to foot, indignance back with a vengeance. “Are you kidding me?! You let me get close to you!”

“Yeah, my mistake,” snapped Mick, tugging his shirt down. With a final double-take at Link he leaned over and set the book on the table. “Read it whenever. I don’t care.” Rubbing the back of his head, he turned and headed to his room, the door shutting loudly behind him in the quiet.

“It’s just a book, asshole!” Link yelled after him, heart racing and eyebrows stitched in anger. He couldn’t be sure that Mick had heard him, but sound carried well in 466.

Link could only sit, seething, staring at the collection of poems. He wanted to dump his coffee on it, wanted to take the volume outside and hurl it into the night full-force as he'd done with the keys.

“If anything happens to this, I’m firing you." "If you get food on it, I’ll skin you alive.” Those were the exact words Mick had used. Both outcomes were tempting. At least then he could lash out in turn--Mick was annoyingly pacifistic considering how cruel his words could be.

Link rose to his feet with a rolling growl, scooped up his coffee and took it to the sink to dump it out. He didn’t bother putting away the laptop or retrieving Leaves of Grass before storming to his room, throwing the door hard enough to rattle the walls when it slammed. He sank to his bed, running his hands over his stubbled face on loop, forbidding tears from falling.

The last line of the email sneaked into his mind, burned him inside.

Wherever you are, we hope you’re happy with yourself.

 

Chapter Text

When Link dreamed, he dreamt of fire.

Toddling along after his mom to the grocery store, where pews of his childhood faced the butchery. Things were cooking on long lengths of red-hot rod iron--slabs of flesh, crackling fat, and cuts of muscle squealing for mercy. The putrid air smothered with the scent of burnt.

His mother looked happy and young, done up in thick red lipstick and pearls in a Sunday dress. His father might have been behind the counter--might have been one of the men selecting shanks and dropping them onto the angry bars. Link couldn’t tell from this distance.

“Do you want to go see your dad?” his mom asked, leaning forward and nodding like he would take the supplied answer. He didn’t, and her face fell, hurt. “Sweetheart. We just want to see you up there. Participating.”

“Link!” His child-self looked up to see his father waving, a steel utensil he didn’t have a name for gripped white in his knuckles.

“Link!”

“Link?”

He rose with a gasp, covered in sweat and sticky in his bed. Mick was there, looming above him in the dark. The red of Link’s clock reflected crimson crescents in his eyes. It was too much--seeing his parents and the exposure and being thrown from nightmare to wakefulness--and Link let out a shocked sob, hunching forward onto his knees and wheezing. Fragile, choked sounds without breath behind them.

“Whoa, whoa,” Mick settled onto the edge of the bed, his large hand finding Link’s bare back. “It’s okay. You’re fine. You’re here.”

Link gasped for air, sniffling and nodding while he wiped at his eyes with the back of his arm. Small and stupid, to let Mick see him like this.

“Sorry if I woke you up,” he croaked, drawing his legs up into a tent and hugging them. “I must’ve been making a racket.”

“No,” said Mick, voice soft in the dark. “You weren’t.”

With hard blinks Link banished his tears, refusing to let more fall now that he had his wits. He cocked his head wearily. “Then why did you check on me?”

“I… came in here. Wanted to talk to you.” The sound of a swallow found Link’s ears. “I can go, if you want.”

“Stay... please.” Link was too exhausted to defend the request, or even explain it. Thankfully Mick didn’t ask him to. “What… what'd you wanna talk about?”

Mick paused, the general shape of his head turning to the clock. Link followed his gaze. 02:24.

“I don’t think we should be on bad terms.” Mick spoke slowly. “Not when we have to work together in the morning.”

Link sighed in the stillness, thick with regret. “Mick, I’m--”

“No. I came here to say it, so I’m gonna say it before you can.” The hand on Link’s back rubbed, thumb tracing his shoulder blade. “I’m sorry. I lost my temper with you, and I shouldn’t have. Completely unnecessary.”

“I deserved it,” admitted Link. “I had a bad day and… I’m sorry, too.” Link shuffled towards the wall, gave Mick a bit more room to support his large frame on, which the man took gratefully.

“A bad day? I thought collection went well. You did seem kinda… testy,” he acknowledged with a chuckle, “when you were on the computer. Did something happen?”

Link hesitated, staring in the direction of his feet somewhere in the darkness. “I got an email.”

“Oh?”

“From my folks.”

“Oh.” Mick withdrew his hand, leaving the spot on Link’s back cold. “I see.”

“I know I shouldn’t let them get to me, but-- shit, it’s deep-rooted. It’s in there so deep,” sighed Link, rubbing his tired eyes.

“I can imagine. Was the bad dream…?” Mick waited, hoping Link would fill in the blank. When he didn’t, he finished cautiously, “Was it about that?”

“Either that, or I need to switch grocers,” joked Link. He didn’t miss Mick’s shoulder wince in the dim.

“I don’t even know what that means, and I’m gonna have nightmares.”

“About earlier, Mick?” Link shook his head at a loss. “I don’t know what came over me. It was inappropriate. I know how much those poems mean to you. It’s not ‘just a book’--I’m sorry I said that. And you’re not an asshole for wanting to share it with me. For inviting me into it with you.”

Neither said anything for a moment, and Mick shifted.

“Can we lay down?”

Link glanced around the black room, suddenly anxious. “In here?”

“Yeah. Is that okay?”

“Yeah, but--the bed… I, uh… I got pretty sweaty during the dream, and… my sheets are kinda wet? I promise it’s not pee,” he laughed nervously, running a hand along the damp mattress.

“I sweat like a glass of water in bed and you’ve never said anything,” Mick retorted, smile in his voice. “I ain’t bothered.”

“There’s a dry blanket, under the foot of the bed.” Before Link could move, Mick had retrieved it and was tugging the old one off. He glanced up and threw the soiled cover into the air, hanging it across one of the ceiling wires expertly in the dark.

“There. It’ll be dry by morning.”

“How could you even see that?” Link chuckled, gazing up at the new shadow.

“Been doin’ this a long time, kiddo. Here.” He unfurled the back-up blanket, ensuring it found Link’s feet. “Can I join you?”

Wordlessly, Link scooted until his back met the cool wall, shielded by the new comforter. Mick sank and took his place, bringing with him the smell of sleep and musk as his warm weight settled. The smaller one stared, trying to meet his eyes. There wasn’t enough light, but their faces were only inches apart, so he didn’t need to see Mick--just wanted to.

They didn’t touch, careful to keep their limbs from bumping one another in the aftermath of tension.

“I’m sorry about your parents. Or, I guess I’m sorry that their love is apparently conditional.”

“S’okay.”

“No, it’s not.”

“...ha. Yeah. I know.”

“I could tell you were in a bad mood, and I snapped at you anyway. And now that I know why you were so upset? ...Shit.”

Link took a deep breath. “I overstepped our boundary.”

After some silence, Mick hummed into a thought. “I was trying to help. I should’ve just given you space, though. I think overstepped a boundary.”

“No.” Link shook his head emphatically. “I liked it. I really did. Hearing you read was nice.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Mick rearranged his feet, thoughtful. When he spoke again it was measured, dreamy. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately. To front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

The quote wrapped Link in the familiarity of Mick’s care, pulled him deeper into their bed. “That doesn’t sound like Whitman,” he slurred curiously.

“Henry David Thoreau. Walden.

“It reminds me of why I took this job.” Link gathered the blanket tighter to his chest, grasping them in a fist. “You always had me right. I just wanted glory. So cocky.”

“Link…” Mick sighed, the sound relenting and remorseful. “I’m an ass. You can’t listen to me. You’ve more than proved that you can handle a place like this. You’re gonna make your future self proud.”

“I’m glad you think so,” Link responded--doubtful, but appreciative all the same.

“And I’m really sorry about earlier today. I… I dunno what came over me.”

“It’s like you said earlier: Leaves of Grass is really important to you. It’s okay.”

“Even so, I shouldn’t expect it to be important to everyone. I got offended.” Mick huffed amusement in a soft breath that hit Link’s chest. “So selfish.”

“Mick… just because you lost your temper doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. I think it says more about you that you couldn’t sleep. That you had to come in here to apologize.”

“That’s not it,” Mick blurted. Recognizing the embarrassment there, Link laughed, his tinkling peals filling the room. “I just… shoot. Yeah, fine, okay? I couldn’t stop thinking about you. You heard me apologize though, right? For the temper tantrum?”

Mick’s inhales were even and steady, lulling Link back to sleepiness the longer they lay. More than anything he wanted to close the distance between their bodies and bask in the blonde’s warmth--to feel the sense of security that came with the contact of someone holding someone else. But this was good too--being this close. Talking. Link shut his eyes and sighed.

“They are not the me myself,” he quoted, content.

Mick froze. His head lifted to watch Link in the dark.

“You were listening.”

“Of course.”

Mick swallowed. “Link?”

“Mm?”

“Your parents aren’t the you yourself, either,” he said, low.

Link’s happiness morphed into something wet-throated and desperate, ignoring all previous hesitation. He reached out and pulled at Mick’s waist, tugging and hoping and allowing the larger one to take charge from the cue and drag their bodies together effortlessly under the covers. Stomach to stomach. Knees touching.

Mick wrapped his arms around Link’s shoulders, let his head meet the pillow again as he stroked his partner’s back.

“I wish I could see you,” Link murmured thickly. He searched for Mick’s features, knowing it was useless.  With a soft grunt of assent, Mick’s fingers roamed, brushing against Link’s side and drawing a tickling laugh out of him.

“Hey!”

“Gimme your hand.”

Sheepishly Link obeyed, curling their knuckles together. Mick gripped him and took control, beseeched them to move as one. Link’s breath caught with the thrill of naiveté, of what was happening as Mick pulled their hands up between them. Then he was touching Mick’s cheekbone, cupping the side of his face, held to the spot by Mick’s hand over his own.

“Is that better?”

Link swelled with affection, chest light. “Y-Yeah.”

Experimentally he stretched his thumb out to pet down the bridge of Mick’s nose, feeling the slope and shape of his existence. With a second stroke he found and traced Mick’s bushy eyebrow, curled around and ventured up to his forehead. Smooth and warm with a faint slick of oil.

Mick snorted happily. “What are you doing?”

“Hush,” Link smiled, twisting to bring his other hand up and resting it on Mick’s opposite cheek. He scratched through his thick, wiry beard, and Mick chuckled.

“So weird. You havin’ fun?”

“I am, actually.”

“Dork. You’re dorky,” growled Mick, drunk on the touches.

“Don't lie. You like it. You’re practically purring.”

Link grinned and closed his eyes, rubbing the soft skin under Mick’s ears with his fingertips. It seemed inevitable that he should let his thumbs fall to Mick’s lips; he met them in the middle and brushed outward to the corners of Mick’s mouth, curving upward just so at the end. Link couldn’t help but mirror the smile once he felt it.

“I’m sorry I made you cry.”

Link pulled a face he knew Mick couldn’t see. “I didn't cry today.”

“When you first arrived, I mean. You should never cry. Not because of me.” Mick’s jaw twitched in Link’s care. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get the image of you crying out of my head. Not even when I’m old and bent.”

“Still gonna be thinkin’ about me, when you’re old?” Link mused with a smirk, suddenly light-headed. His chest effervesced at the admission.

“Link…”  Mick’s fingers found his neck, the cusp of his jawline, and traced to his ear. He was close now, voice imploring and submissive.  “Help me find your lips.”

Every inch of Link’s body tingled into a sleepy blush.

He broke into a grin and leaned forward until their foreheads met, pressed together with care. Slow and tender, Mick tilted Link’s head back and kissed him. Worlds apart from the kiss on the couch, or in the bathroom. There was no urgency; it wasn’t a preamble to tearing clothes and bitten flesh. This one was gentle and chaste--lingering and heavy. Mick’s lips were chapped from the cold but perfectly plush to Link, who hummed and began to giggle, breaking the affection earlier than he wanted.

Probably for the best. If it had been up to him, it likely never would've ended.

Mick puffed one laugh, his words lined in good humor. “Get some sleep.”

Link dared to wonder. “Will you be here when I wake up?”

“Where else would I wanna be, snowflake?”

 

Chapter Text

The week passed quickly.

Work was smooth, time together only sharpening their ability as a team to get into the field and get tasks completed. Mick had gotten into the habit of making coffee for them just before data entry. He'd brew a pot and experiment with potential spice approximations while Link readied their sheets and samples on the kitchen table.

“I’m so sore,” mumbled Link absently and propped a hand against his lower back, taking a break from unloading their pack. "Those beds aren't meant for two."

“You’d rest better if you stopped asking to sleep with me.”

“You can say ‘no.’”

Mick snorted.

“Or we can sleep on the couch out here. I know I haven’t shut up about it,” Link intoned as he looked over a paper, bored, “but I swear it would be better than cramming into one of our cots together.”

“You make us sound like an old married couple. How about we just--I dunno,” Mick feigned thoughtfulness, scrutinizing the ceiling. “ Not sleep together every single night?”

“Again: you can say ‘no’ whenever you want.”

“I can say ‘no’ the same way you can stay away from me.” Mick passed Link’s mug to him, which Link set carefully on the floor, away from their work.

“Thanks. Let’s get this over with. Looking forward to having the day off tomorrow.”

“Why? You got plans?” Mick asked over the rim of his cup. He took a sip, and followed Link’s lead, lowered it to the tile.

“No, but days off are nice.”

“We’ve had plenty of them lately. I’m surprised they haven’t put me on probation for all of the problems around the site so far: sickness, generator failure, injury, food shortage…” Mick pulled his half-moon spectacles from his shirt pocket and slipped them on, grabbing the first vial of ice shavings. “I should be fired.”

“Not to mention sleeping with your subordinates.” Link smirked over the top of his sheet teasingly.

Mick’s furrowed gaze snapped to meet his.

Link opened his mouth to apologize when the unmistakable sound of an Otter’s engine cut through the air. Mick did a double take at the front door.

“Shit. Today’s supply day. I totally-- ugh. ” He stood, pausing to shove a warning finger in Link’s face. “ This,” he motioned back and forth between them, “isn’t happening. You got that? No jokes about it--don’t let yourself get so casual.”

Link knew what he meant--knew the weight of what they were doing and how it jeopardized both of their professional futures--but that didn’t stop his heart from tightening as he watched Mick jog to the front door and pull on some gear. With a frown, he focused and fetched a test strip, dipping it down into the melted snow in his vial.

It only took a moment before Mick was back, red-cheeked from the few seconds outside and lugging a giant crate. He waddled into the kitchen and set it down with a heavy breath. “I’ve gotta get this stuff distributed. Keep working.”

“Sure.” The waves of frigidity rolling from his gear as he dressed down tickled Link’s neck. He’d only just begun to record numbers when Mick popped open the top of the crate and stopped, staring down into their supplies.

Link glanced up, still writing. “Somethin’ wrong?”

Slowly, Mick lowered the lid of the crate to the floor and reached into the box with both hands. He brought up a small round cake--iced white, perfect, and protected by a plastic shell.

“Whoa.” Link dropped his pencil, effectively distracted. “What is that?”

“Was… was your birthday this week?” Mick looked accusingly from the cake to Link.

“Yeah.” The professor scratched his nose, unbothered. “Izzat for me?”

“What day was your birthday?” Ridiculous as it seemed, the look on Mick’s face was drawn--indignant . Link couldn’t help chuckling.

“It was Monday. Y'know, the day I got the email?”

“You didn’t tell me.” Mick took off his glasses and tossed them on the table, glaring at Link.

Link had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing. “So?”

“So we could’ve celebrated. Instead we fought.”

“Now who’s makin' us sound like an old married couple?” Link mused, turning his gentle gaze back to their work. “You came into my room that night. That was a good celebration.”

“No, that was an apology.” Mick huffed and took the treat to the counter.

“Why are you getting so worked up?” Link smiled at the back of his head. “It’s not a big deal.”

“Because you had an awful day,” Mick said to the cake. His hands splayed on the counter around it. “I had no way of knowing, and you didn’t tell me. I could’ve done some thing.”

“You could’ve checked your dossier,” Link suggested absently, trying to focus. As fun as it was to watch Mick get riled up, he really was looking forward to finishing their work. A hot bath with some puzzles followed by a nap sounded like a great way to end the work week. “All my personal information is in there.”

“So it’s my fault, then.” Mick spun, eyeing Link. The professor didn’t return the attention.

“I didn’t say that. Besides,” Link leaned and retrieved his coffee from the floor, taking a long drink. “I didn’t want you to feel pressured to get me anything.”

Mick rapped his fingers on the counter, agitated. Link refused to look up and feed into the needlessness of it all-- of course Mick would get upset over the more trivial details of living together.

“Can you just finish unloading supply so we can do this?”

Mick stepped forward and plucked Link’s coffee out of his hands, making the smaller one balk in surprise. “Hey! What’re you--”

“Nice try, ordering me around. C’mon.” Mick wrapped a hand around Link’s bicep and pulled, dragging him to a stand. Once on his feet, Link was tugged towards the dorms and his pulse jumped up a gear.

“What’re you doing?! We need to finish--”

“Later,” Mick stated, all but kicking in Link’s door. His eyes flashed around, grip tight on Link’s arm as he searched for the flash of telltale purple. “Where’s my book?”

Perplexed, Link tried to think. “Underrr my pillow…?”

Mick stepped to the bed and pulled it from its hiding spot. “Alright, let’s go.”

“Will you stop manhandling me?!”

“Just--c’mon.” Mick towed him back out into the living area. They bypassed the kitchen--where Link looked longingly at the melting vials on the table--and found the couch. Mick pushed him to sit before plopping down beside him.

“What is this?” Link demanded, dropping his hands to his lap. “I'm lost. What are we doing?”

Mick met his eyes, suddenly still. He took a deep breath to steel himself before holding the book up between them. “Do you wanna read, or me?”

Link froze, watching the offered text, the way Mick’s fingers were white on the spine. “I… what?”

“I said, ‘do you want to read... or me?’” The question was urgent, yet patient. Mick bowed his head, waiting in earnest for the call.

Link squinted, looking between the man and the book. “...You.”

“Okay.” Without another word, he opened it and began, settling into the same position he’d been in a few days ago, nudging his glasses up with a finger.

Link listened, stupefied.

“I believe in you, my soul… the other I am must not abase itself to you, and you must not be abased to the other.”

As calming as the practice had become, Link couldn’t relax. His brow knit, watching him. Trying to piece together why this couldn’t have waited until after their duties were done. He looked past Mick into the kitchen, to the vanilla cake on the counter.

“Link.”

Mick was watching him expectantly. A face seeking understanding, his green eyes bright and demure.

“I’m… I’m gonna keep reading.” The statement was heavy with meaning, and it took Link a few seconds before the weight of the memory fell on his chest and knocked the wind out of him.

That had been Link’s request. On his birthday. His exact words.

His face burned fiercely and his gaze fell to Mick’s lap. Swallowed at the telling bulge where his thighs met.

Satisfied, Mick shook his head once in nerve-wracked exasperation and continued.  “Loafe with me on the grass… loose the stop from your throat.”

The words rattled together in Link’s head, made his mouth dry.

On his birthday it had felt natural. He’d wanted it instinctively, calmly, from a place needing comfort and digging deep into Mick’s welcoming presence. Now, he still wanted, no doubt--but he was on the spot. Given full permission with complete expectancy to perform, to do a good job. For Mick. For the man his world had come to revolve around and be pinned under.

Whose approval he never stopped seeking.

“Not words, not music or rhyme I want. Not customer or lecture, not even the best.”

In languid movements Link slipped from the couch to the floor, his knees finding the rug as he crawled to perch beside Mick’s foot. In gentle request, he reached up and took Mick’s propped ankle in his hand. The taller one acquiesced, letting it slide down, letting his feet frame Link’s thighs.

He didn’t take his eyes from the page as Link bowed his head, ran a hand up Mick’s denim-covered thigh.

“Only the lull I like. The hum of your valved voice.” His words quivered, emboldened Link to reach farther and palm his superior's arousal through his jeans.

The hardness there--where he could wrap his fingers and earn a twitch of desire from the other side--went straight to Link’s gut, burning and dizzying.  Forgetting how to use his hands, Link fumbled with the button. Recognizing this but not wanting to shatter their moment by offering help, Mick slouched just so, bringing his legs to either side of Link’s shoulders and giving him better access. With the slack, unbuttoning him was easy. Link let the sound of Mick’s zipper float under his words.

“I mind h-how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning.”

Mick’s timbre had dropped along with his lids. Low and anticipatory and wanting as poetry fell from his mouth.

Once shivering and following what he wanted, desire became second-nature to Link. He slipped his hands under the hem of his boss’s shirt, pulling up just enough to expose his small pout of a belly. Palms rubbing Mick’s sides, Link leaned down and began kissing, following the gentle V of his hips. Every inch of him heated when the man stuttered beneath his touch, bucking up lightly in unspoken request.

“Y-You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over u-upon me.”

Link smirked at the verses, growing more assured with each moment that Mick let him have the reigns in this game.

Fingers ducking into his waistband, Link hesitated, bracing himself. Silly as it sounded, this was Mick’s real gift to him; over the weeks they’d been together and the handful of times they’d caved, Link hadn’t once been this close to Mick’s cock. He hadn’t even seen it in the heat of sex, yet he was about to be able to do as he wished. To force Mick to stare down at the power Link had over him--at what he was capable of when entrusted with his need.

He slipped one hand into Mick’s boxers and came into contact with his silky, hard length. The other hand, Link tugged down the underwear with until Mick was freed with a shuddering sigh.

“And part the sh...shirt from my bosom-bone...”

Mick audibly struggled as Link familiarized himself in his lap.

Mick was--and Link felt ridiculous that the word had popped into his head-- perfect. Thick and swollen and red with arousal. His cock’s head was streaked with precum and pulsating at Link’s attention... begging for it. Mick wasn’t as long as he was, but had definitely been big enough to hit Link in the spot he’d so desperately needed in the bathroom floor.

Link grasped his base in the wrinkled fabric and soft tufts of dirty blonde hair. Running his tongue over his lips, he glanced up at Mick, giving him one last out.

Face hazed, voice ragged, Mick was somehow still focusing on the poem. “ And p-plunged your tongue to my barestript heart.”

“Mick,” Link prompted, inching forward and pressing the head of his boss’s cock against his cheek, smearing wet there.

Mick swallowed and looked down with pupils blown wide, every breath shallow. The acknowledgment--those eyes turning on him went straight to Link’s cock.

“Watch me,” he drawled. He ran the flat of his tongue along Mick’s length, from base to tip.

Mick shuddered, his mouth falling open at the sudden wet. His next exhale was loud and shaky, and he watched as Link flirted with taking him down time and time again, pursing his lips on Mick’s tip before dragging back down for another lap. When Link gave a playful wink and kissed the head, wetting his full lips with want, Mick’s voice crackled back into existence.

“You don’t want me to keep reading?” The question broke in the middle, unable to find its footing against Link’s tongue.

“No,” Link shook his head. “I want you to watch.” Their gazes locked, he took Mick’s cock into his mouth, swirled his tongue against the head and tasted him for the first time.

“Fuck,” Mick hissed, knees clamping on Link’s shoulders. He fought to keep his eyes open, not to shut them against the waves of pleasure. Every bared part of him was soaked with blush: cheeks, ears, neck. He dropped the book to the arm of the couch and flexed his fingers at the loss as Link bobbed tortuously slow on his cock. “Wh-What should I…?”

Link sucked his way off of Mick to speak, stroking him gently in lieu as he replied. “Let’s see…” When he milked up more precum, Link wasted no time palming it and spreading it over Mick’s hardness, pulling unraveling groans from him. “It’s tempting to let you touch my head. To tell you it’s okay to grab my hair. But I don’t think you could control yourself if I gave you that kind of power.”

Mick waited with bated breath, blinking hard and pressing his palms to his pecs. That was the visual that gave Link an idea.

“Play with your nipples,” he instructed with a coy smile, settling his elbows onto Mick’s thighs.

“What?!” The look of embarrassed outrage was so endearing, Link committed it to memory.

“Pull up your shirt and play with yourself for me. I’d really enjoy it if you did.”

“Link…” Mick looked like he wanted to explode--red-beaten and humiliated. “Seriously?”

“This is my birthday present, right? I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

“Christ,” Mick wallowed. As if it were the most difficult thing he’d ever done, he grabbed the front of his shirt and brought it over his head, leaving only his shoulders covered by the fabric. “Like this?”

Link wiggled his hips appreciatively, admiring the stretch of hair-dusted body laid bare for him from neck to pelvis. Mick’s nipples were already hard, the brown buds perked and ready. Link’s cock throbbed in his pants and the intrusive thought of painting Mick’s chest with white--marking him as his own--made him squirm. “I love it.”

“Fuck.” Mick cupped his chest in his hands, avoiding eye contact as he experimented with his body in a way he clearly hadn’t before. He thumbed them gently, gave half-hearted, awkward flicks as Link watched, stroking him.

“If you do it harder, I’ll let you come faster.”

Mick’s thighs were going to leave bruises on Link’s shoulders. Desperation scrawled on his face, Mick pinched each of his nipples and twisted, moaning in surprise at the sensation he'd supplied himself with. As promised, Link’s mouth was on him at once, sucking with hollow cheeks and peering up at him hungrily, asking Mick to lose himself in his throat.  The combined assault tore a loud moan from Mick. He let his head fall back against the couch cushions in abandon, fingertips moving faster, feeling out a rhythm for his own waves as Link enveloped his cock, tongue never slowing. His breaths came fast and fell apart while Link worked him over, getting close.

“Wh...wha--fuck,” Mick couldn’t speak.

Against all desire, Link stopped to give him air. “What’s that?”

“What about you?” asked Mick, throaty and trembling.

“I’ll take care of me.” Link gladly dropped one of his hands to his waist, fishing inside of his sweatpants. He spread his leaking wetness, shivering at the mercy of friction and gasping against Mick’s head when he began to stroke himself in earnest, slicking noises announcing his self care to Mick.

The sound was too much for Mick, who bucked up and growled. “Fuck, Link!”

Link’s eyelids drooped at the feedback and he nestled his chin in Mick's lap, committing to stroking himself and shivering. Being an open wreck for his boss, there at his feet.

“God, you love this, don’t you? You like slobbering on my cock, Neal?” Mick twitched in Link’s hand, suddenly neglected. “Look at you! You’re a mess for me, fuck’s sake.”

Link whimpered, picking up the speed of his wrist flicks. Eyes glazing over as he listened.

Mick abandoned his chest, reached forward and brushed Link’s hair out of his face, held his head at his temple sympathetically. With a greedy smirk, he grabbed himself and pushed the head of his cock against Link’s lips. “Sad part is, you didn’t even think of what I would’ve done if you’d chosen to read .”

Link’s toes curled, eyes widening and cheeks burning at the thought of Mick, on his knees for him . He let out a strangled moan and took Mick’s cock back deep into his throat, sucking him off desperately. Wanting to show Mick what he thought about that, to make him come at just how impossibly forbidden Link found the suggestion.

Mick’s breathing hitched, once. Twice. Fuck, fuck, Link, I’m--I’m gonna--”

Link was hit with the unbearable heat first and moaned hard on Mick’s cock, spilling into his pants. The vibration did it; Mick coated the back of his throat, thrusting and grunting and wringing his fingers through Link’s hair. Link swallowed--kept swallowing until Mick was done and pulling himself from Link’s swollen lips.

For a moment they simply sat, breathless. Listening to the howling wind outside.

With a long, low growl, Mick leaned forward and gathered Link up by his under-arms. He lifted the dazed, shaking man from the floor and pulled him up onto the couch--held him in his lap, wrapped arms around him protectively and cradled him as his senses returned. The brunette wiped his hand clean in his pants, pulling it free in a stupor.

A full-body shiver hit him, and Mick’s arms tightened.

“It’s funny to me that you’re a cuddler,” Link slurred, listening to Mick’s slowing heartbeat and smiling in self-satisfaction.

“Just making sure you’re okay.” Mick brushed his fingers along his arm. “Good god, Link.”

“I’m great.”

“You’re crying.”

“I am?” Link wiped his cheeks with an arm, marveling at the tears there. “Holy crap.”

“Shh, li'l baby,” Mick teased, cocooning him. “So. Was that a good birthday present?”

“One of the best I’ve ever gotten. I really, really wish I’d chosen to read, though,” chuckled Link. He tugged at Mick’s shirt in reminder until the taller one unfurled it from the back of his neck. “To be fair, I didn’t know that was gonna happen.”

“For what it’s worth, I liked your choice.” Mick rumbled happily, pressed a kiss into Link’s hair. “...But I’ll keep that in mind.”

Link tingled from head to toe, nuzzling into Mick's neck and memorizing the way his arms caged him in comfort so effortlessly. Even if it didn't mean anything, this was nice. He could be fucked and held and caressed and kissed and not want more later. That's how things were going to be, and he was fine with that. Plenty of people lived like that, and he was going to be one of them. 

At least he had this much of Mick.

Link sighed contentedly. “We… not to break the mood, but we gotta finish work.”

“I know. Our coffee’s probably cold. I’ll make more and cut the cake when we finish. That sound good?”

Link nuzzled into Mick’s forgiving chest, allowing himself a moment of reprieve. “That sounds great.”

 

Chapter Text

Link had lied; he did have plans for his day off.

When his alarm went off at 08:00, he slapped it quiet and sprung out of bed, body buzzing with excitement.

Over the past few days’ downtime he’d been inspecting the communal maps of the fields around 466, letting his eyes roam over the cartography and familiarizing himself with what lay beyond the horizon. Harmless curiosity had led him to find it: a dip in the elevation--an unusual blip in the coordinates that he’d become somewhat fascinated with, and what the location might’ve offered.

From what he could glean from the data, it suggested a canyon with a crater opening to the sea at its bottom. A place offering a glimpse of natural beauty beyond the stretches of endless white to which he’d grown accustomed.

He’d made up his mind the night he noticed it. A trip had to happen.

The things he’d learned since arriving more than prepared him for a solitary journey into the ice. Wanting to prove it, he planned a cautionary list for himself in preparation: industrial spotlight, extra fuel just in case, every single piece of gear to his name, a snack, the map, one of the GPS systems from the shelves, a blanket, and a thick fistful of stake-tipped purple flags he’d found in the foyer. The only thing left to check before committing was the weather.

It was beautiful outside, despite the darkness. Or perhaps because of it, he thought, gazing up reverently at the clear stars.

With his field pack stuffed tight, he selected the key for the black snowmobile in the foyer cupboard--the same one Jen had used for her expeditions--and stuffed it into his pocket.

As a last chore, Link found his research notepad and tore out a page. He wrote in clunky, gloved letters on the kitchen table.

Mick,
Going exploring. Be back soon.

Good enough.

He clicked on the GPS, double-checking its battery charge before heading to the front door.

Spirit high and filled with the thrill of adventure, Link punched in the coordinates of the map’s oddity and mounted the black snowmobile. True, he’d never driven one before--and the snow he needed to cross didn’t have any tracks of those who came before him--but he’d watched Mick drive firsthand every single day for most of his duration here. If Mick could do it, he could do it, too.

Slotting the key in and twisting, the engine roared to life. Link smiled in satisfaction. He double-checked his provisions--portable fuel bladder, flags under his thigh, everything strapped down--and gunned the gas, following the GPS’ signal.

Riding alone was empowering. The hum of the vehicle carrying him through the night. The wind whipping against his goggles and hood. The endless expanse of galaxies overhead that didn’t budge as he flew across the ice, only stopping to kick flags down into his path in case his navigation system died.

Exhilaration made Link giddy. After the fourth stop over the horizon, a laugh bubbled up out of his throat and into the night air, lost in snow and stars and nothingness.

Perhaps the freedom he’d been lacking inside 466 was more missed than he’d realized.

As the GPS began beeping to announce his proximity to the destination, he eased up on the gas, careful to give himself room to stop in the stretch of light ahead. When the snow vanished several dozen yards away, Link pulled the mobile to a halt and set a pair of flags down in the snow behind it. He cut the engine, plunging his world into dark and quiet.

The sounds that found his ears in the distance filled him with disbelief.

Honking--faint, throaty warbles, like marbles rolling in a steel drum. Rattling and cooing.

Link laughed into his scarf, silly with discovery at the comical sounds. They could have come from only one thing.

He fetched the spotlight from his pack with tickled fingers and aimed it away, over the expanse of the canyon. The ground was solid ice here. Carefully, he crept to the edge of the cliff face and sat, setting the spotlight down and angling it to illuminate the massive ravine below.

Penguins.

An entire colony of them, waddling and hopping and mingling in a sea of gray and black and white. They held the crater as their own personal sanctuary. Link watched, mesmerized, as some dove into the crystal blue lake at the bottom. Others huddled in large groups for warmth. When they opened their beaks, yawning or calling, flashes of brilliant orange appeared and vanished like tundral fireflies.

Without taking his eyes from the marvel, he pulled the blanket from his backpack and wrapped it around his shoulders. Content to watch, Link hoped the penguins didn’t mind his distant company.

Risks were worth taking sometimes. The ravine was a thirty minute ride from 466--on their doorstep, in the grand scheme of things--and the only component that had been holding Link back was self-doubt. But he’d done it. He was here, watching one of the most beautiful phenomenons he’d seen in his entire life. No one had prompted him to do it, no one had encouraged him to strike out and live besides himself. He closed his eyes, listening to the squawking below, tilting his face to the sky. As silly as it sounded, he thought that maybe this was the universe’s way of kissing him. Of telling him how small and wonderful and fleeting life was. Of showering his being with reminder to enjoy the brief gifts that were so easily glazed over and missed. To let himself be in the moment.

When he gazed up, the moon caught his eye. Nothing but a faint sliver--not enough to see by, but enough to herald her return. Just as Mick had promised. Link smiled into his scarf, sighed in a puff of vapor that dissipated into the endless night.

With the GPS off and wrapped in a warm blanket, he settled in.

There was something strangely therapeutic about watching the penguins. He let himself think about their lives, being born from a warm egg to the fluffy-feathered chill of existence in a place like this, their affections and mates and feeding of families, to the undoubted predators that waited below the surface of the water and how purposefully they still jumped in, knowing that.

He let himself think about poetry. What it meant to be human in a place without humanity. How he’d come purposefully seeking the isolation that only the bottom of the world could offer, and not only what that meant about himself, but of human nature, that he should want such a thing.

Link couldn’t guess how long he’d been sitting there when a disorienting noise broke the quiet. A low rumble paired with a high whine. It grew steadily in volume until identifiable, and Link twisted at the hip to see a pair of headlights in the distance. Another snowmobile.

Undoubtedly, Mick’s.

Patient, Link waited, features soft as the mobile came to rest next to his own and its rider cut the engine.

“What the fuck, Link?!”

His rage tore through the serenity.

Mick hopped off of the back and strode over to where the professor was seated, shoulders heaving with each breath. “I thought I was imagining things when I woke up to the sound of an engine, but lo-and-behold, you were gone. What kind of fuckin’ note is this?!” he spat, holding up the crunched piece of paper in one of his gloves.

Link looked up, unperturbed. Waiting for him to blow off his steam.

“You didn’t even take a goddamn walkie talkie with you! I had to follow your flag trail. Do you have any idea how worried I was?! Like re-living the generator incident all over again!” He stalked back and forth, oblivious to everything except his own anger. “You’ve never driven a mobile before, you didn’t tell me where you were going, you didn’t even write the time on this ominous god damn note!”

When Mick hesitated, Link opened his blanket with an arm, offering the spot next to him on the ground.

“What are you doing out here?” Mick tried again, softer. Wounded.

“Lower your voice. C’mere. Look,” Link implored, pointing down along the spotlight’s beam.

Mick slumped, relaxing marginally. He stepped next to Link with thoughtful paces, towering over his shoulder and peering down into the canyon.

“I found penguins,” said Link happily.

“Whoa.”

The awed whisper made Link’s heart soar. He wiggled the edge of the blanket again. “Join me. I promise I’m okay.”

Wordlessly, Mick sank to the ice, allowing Link to stretch the blanket over his shoulders.

“Are you cold? I hope you didn’t rush after me and forget anything.”

“I’m fine,” Mick nodded, entranced with the birds below. His mouth opened and close a few times. “How… how did you know this was here?”

“I didn’t. I thought I saw something interesting on the maps, and wanted to check it out.”

“Holy shit, Neal.”

Link chuckled. “I know.”

Mick’s arm found his back and snaked around to his ribs, pulling their sides together. Just like the time he’d been about to pass out at the extraction site in the field, Link thought fondly--Mick had done the same thing then out of necessity. His chest tingled at the memory.

Mick had always been his partner, right from the start.

Two months down. Two to go.

In the din of avian life, Mick cleared his throat and spoke softly. “Sorry I yelled.”

“It’s okay. I’m used to it.”

“Don’t say that.”

Link laughed. “You were worried. I get it. You yell a lot when you’re worried.”

Mick shifted, pulling him closer. “I don’t like it when you vanish. You aren’t supposed to. My watch, my responsibility.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” Link laid his head on Mick’s shoulder and sighed. If his boss disliked the closeness, he didn’t protest. “I knew if I said anything, you would’ve stopped me. Or insisted on coming with me.”

“You didn’t want me here?” asked Mick in a whisper.

“It’s not that. I think… I think I just needed to prove to myself that I could do it alone.” Link watched as a mother penguin fed her baby. “To prove I don’t need you to hold my hand for everything.”

“I see.” Mick straightened, untangling his beard from Link’s hair. “Well. You did it.”

“I did.” Link cooed, eyes glazing over in thought. “But I’m glad you’re here, now.”

With a slow hand, Mick reached over and hit the spotlight, letting night fall. The stars came back in full-force, painting the heavens with colors that gave the sight below a run for its money.

“We won’t be able to see,” Link thought aloud in a weak pout.

“Give your eyes a second to adjust. Even a little moonlight makes more difference than you’d expect.” Mick took a deep breath, billowing fog into the sky. “I doubt our friends down there like being blinded, anyway.”

Link squirmed with a bit of guilt, pressing his lips together. “I didn’t think of that.”

Mick was right, as he always was. Each second that passed brought further clarity to the darkness. Soon Link could make out individual, albeit fuzzy penguins in the distance. Could see the shape and slope and divots of the cliffs of ice leading down to them.

“I love this,” he murmured absently.

Mick huffed a warm chuckle. It took him a long time to respond.

“Me, too.”

“Thanks for coming after me.”

“Like I had a choice.”

Time stretched and molded into something unquantifiable as they sat on the precipice of the canyon, watching the defiant beacon of life below.

Link knew in his heart--in the same way Mick had professed to the burnt image of his tears--that this was a crystalline memory in the making. One he could return to for the rest of his life and find something deep within himself he’d been missing. The thought begged him to enjoy it--to remain calm and observant and appreciate all of the senses so he could catalog them properly. The stars. The smell of chill. The calls of wildlife he'd likely never hear again. Mick at his side.

When the cold encroached and Link began to shiver, Mick rubbed him down slightly.

“We should head back.”

“...okay.”

Silently they packed up their things, better to let the pristine nature of their existence carry their task.

When they stood facing one another in between their mobiles, Link beamed up at Mick through his goggles, which Mick responded to only in an amused smirk. He let the brunette gather the folds of his collar into his gloves, requesting their faces come close. Re-purposing the words he’d heard every morning since he arrived, Link smiled and spoke gently against Mick’s mouth.

“You ready?”

Mick closed the kiss, wrapping his arms around Link and pulling him in until their goggles knocked together. Link gave himself the luxury of warm laughter when Mick replied low in his ear.

“Lead the way.”

 

Chapter Text

Dear Link,

Surprise!!! Guess who just got home last night?!

You wouldn’t believe how warm it is here in Los Angeles. Or, hell, maybe you would. I honestly can’t tell if it’s nice or terrible. I think my body adjusted to having horrifically shrunken balls. Lol.

Chase is watching me write this over my shoulder (he insists he gets to write the next one). We came home, unpacked, and hopped on the computer to message you.

When we arrived, we already had letters in our mailboxes congratulating us for our findings down at 466. Can you believe it? “Monumental contributions to the field of research of carbon sequestration” is a mouthful, but we’ll take it. :P

We also got plaques!! PLAQUES - c

He made me get up just so he could write that. Lol.

We heard from Jen! She wanted us to say hi--she’s off on another expedition, this time to northern Canada. She said she’s sorry she hasn’t e-mailed you yet, but she’ll do it as soon as she can. We texted her, of course, so don’t worry--it’s not like she wrote us a huge thing and just forgot about you. She misses you as much as we do.

How are things in 466? Seriously, we really miss you. Nothing like living together to make you close.

Hope Mick’s not giving you too much trouble. Things seemed…

Weird. -c

...when we left. Don’t let him push you around, yeah? He’s a douchebag sometimes, but he means well. (Please don’t show him this. I’m still not unconvinced he’s actually a wicked form of Santa Claus who can teleport and kill people who piss him off.)

Krampus!!! -c

Hang in there! 8 more weeks and you get to go home, too. Then we can text like normal people. Lol.

Hugs AND KISSES no no kisses that’s too much don’t write that oh my god are you just writing what i’m saying stop chase don’t you dare send that oh my god
Josh & Chase

Link couldn’t stop smiling.

He glanced up at Mick, who was busy hauling gear and supplies from the shelves and setting them in the foyer. It wasn’t nice to keep the man waiting, making him do all of the legwork by himself, but hey--he’d said it was okay for Link to check his e-mail before they left. That should've allotted time spent responding to his friends.

He clicked reply and began typing swiftly.

Dear Josh and Chase,

You guys are the best. Thanks for writing. I loved hearing about what y’all are up to. Congratulations on the commendations! I knew your findings would be considered significant. Kudos! You deserve it. :)

Mick and I are doing really well. It’s weird with just two people here. We cook and clean and do everything together now. I know things seemed bad when you left, but we’re… actually kinda great now. Mick’s an amazing person.

Link hesitated, watching the site leader’s back as he messed with a tangle of cables.

I think things have changed.

Link deleted it as soon as he’d written it.

I think we might have something together.

He shook his head, deleted it again.

Can you keep a secret?

Stupid. Tap tap tap.

He’s really special to me.

The words stared at him from the screen, the admission now real and palpable in its existence. Like everything had been a hazy dream he could go on ignoring so long as he hadn’t given the truth a place to sprout.

“You have a preference for what we take to cook?” asked Mick over his shoulder, startling Link from his thoughts.

“No. Whatever’s easiest.” He gave a reassuring smile that Mick didn’t see and let his gaze fall back to the e-mail.

I know that might sound crazy, but… I dunno. I really like him. Please don’t tell any of the higher ups. Or Mick, for that matter. His bark is worse than his bite, but his bark can still be pretty vicious. Lol.

Sorry this is so short. We’re about to go camping! Spending the night in a tent out on the ice. Should be fun. Or maybe I’m just crazy.

Write again soon!
Link

He hit send and closed the laptop. “Sorry. What can I do?” he asked, standing and putting the computer back on its charger.

“Nothin’, now. I called to let Amundsen-Scott know we're taking a field stay. We’re all packed up. Portable generator, heater, tent, campfire…” Mick listed everything he saw as he placed their frozen dinner into the repurposed supply crate.

“Oh. I took longer than I thought,” chuckled Link with a scratch of his neck.

“Who’d you e-mail, anyway?”

Link panicked for a split second before realizing the answer on its own wasn’t damning. “Josh and Chase, actually. They said hi. Just got back to LA.”

“Good for them.” Mick lorded over their gear with his hands on his hips. “Y’know, I never keep up with the people I meet down here. Don’t ever care to. But they were good kids. Liked having ‘em on my team. Jen, too.”

Link swallowed, his throat tight. “Wait... You never keep in contact with your team members?”

“Nah. S’just easier that way.” Mick gave a bored sniff and turned for his room. “You should gear up. I’ll get our equipment pack.”

“Oh. Okay.”

Head suddenly buzzing and wrung dry of good mood, Link showed himself to his room.

He let Mick’s words tip over what he’d thought to be certainties in his mind as he pulled on his fleeces and filled out his socks.

It had never been up for debate that their time at 466 would come to an end. Eight weeks remained: long enough to relax Link a bit in the hopes that Mick’s rule wouldn’t apply to every team member he’d ever had, but still short enough for him to dread how quickly he knew the next two months would pass. It seemed like yesterday that Josh and Chase had left, when in reality it had been four weeks.

His time with Mick was dwindling fast. And according to the man himself, once they parted ways? That would be it. He wouldn’t need Link anymore.

Sickness settled in the pit of Link’s stomach as he tried to consider life without Mick. Going back to North Carolina and teaching. Grading papers and meeting with students and being able to see the night sky without ten pounds of clothing hanging from his shoulders. Seeing the sunrise again.

As dependent and pathetic as it made him feel, he couldn’t imagine being okay, going back to that life. Not now. If he were honest with himself, he would rather take job after job and stay here, live indefinitely in Antarctica if it meant getting to be near him. Be on his team for as long as the government would let him.

At least in that frigid future, he could see himself happy.

The door across the hall opened and Mick filled the frame. “You ready?”

“No,” Link breathed.

Mick quirked an eyebrow at him. “What d’you need?”

“I wanna take this,” said Link as he grabbed Leaves of Grass, holding it to his chest. “Can I?”

Mick stared at it, debating. After a long pause he sighed. “Don’t let anything happen to it.”

“I won’t,” Link murmured, stuffing it in his jacket.

 

 


 

 

With the last of their supplies strapped onto their classic red snowmobile, Mick held up the key.

“Please drive this time. I hate driving these things.”

Link blinked in surprise, taking it from him. “You do?”

“No, but if I say I do, I bet you’d feel inclined. Right?” The smug look he shot Link from the seat made the smaller one punch him in the arm playfully, the blow cushioned by layers of clothing.

“Asshole.” Link smiled in earnest, unable to resist enjoying his presence. He sat, and Mick’s arms encircled his chest without a second thought.

Camping at the extraction site had been Mick’s idea, upon Link’s suggestion that they spend a night in the field following the ethereal magic of the colony.

“If we stay there,” Mick had explained over data sheets that morning, “we could just wake up and take our samples. We could head back home to finish work and just rest all day afterwards. Wouldn’t have to wait for the weekend.”

“That’s a really good idea,” Link had agreed, ignoring the way his chest had fluttered when Mick referred to 466 as ‘home.’ “You think I can handle it?”

“After you ran off and became emperor of the penguins?” Mick had laughed, eyes creasing in Link’s favorite way. “Yeah. I think you can handle it.”

When they arrived, Link cut the engine and rested his hands in his lap to look around. Mick didn’t let go of him. In fact, his hug tightened just a bit as the brunette thought aloud.

“Where should we pitch the tent?”

“Away from the drill,” Mick mumbled into his jacket. “If any ice melts from the fire, we can’t risk compromising the data.”

“Smart.” Link glanced down and tried to pry Mick’s arms from his middle. “C’mon.”

“I’m frozen,” the giant insisted, refusing to give.

“You’re not frozen, Mick. Move. Let’s get things set up.” A trickle of fear crept down Link’s spine at how much he liked the prolonged contact, and the inevitability of losing it one way or another.

“I can’t, I’m frozen.”

“Mick.”

“Fine.”

 

 


 

 

 

Getting the campsite set up was no simple task. The tent hooks had to be pounded into the hard ice with hammers. The generator was installed so they could run the heater inside as they worked. Everything that could be safely stored in the cold, they piled against the side of the tent. The campfire area was selected, but the portable fire had to be stowed to prevent the fuel from freezing until the time was right.

With everything set up, the men stood shoulder to shoulder, inspecting their house for the night.

“Why did we do this,” Mick sighed, and Link burst into laughter. “I mean, seriously. It’s not like we’re gonna see a sunset or have a run-in with bears or anything. It’s just gonna… be this. All night.”

“You want to have a close encounter with bears?”

“No, but it’d be a story to tell afterwards. Y’know?”

“Let’s warm up,” Link offered, letting himself into the tent. Mick didn’t hesitate to follow. They settled into the cardboard-insulated floor, each sitting on their sleeping bag, facing one another in the gush of the heater.

“We gotta stay bundled until we’re basically sweating,” drawled Mick as he crossed his legs, leaning back. “If you get frostbite, I’m firing you.”

“Add it to the list,” Link mused. He fetched Leaves of Grass from his inner parka pocket and set it carefully next to his pillow. “I’ve just come to assume if I sneeze, you’ll fire me.”

“Damn straight. Can’t let you get me sick.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll quit before you fire me.”

“Very funny,” intoned Mick with an eye roll.

“Yeah, see how it feels?” Link grinned. He sprawled out on his side, propping his head up on a hand. “It’s not a good joke.”

Mick fidgeted with the straps at his wrists. “It’s funny when I do it.”

“Agree to disagree.”

The air in the tent toasted nicely--much faster than Link would’ve assumed for being below zero outside. Equipment designed for this environment was no joke. Soon it was enough for them to take off their gloves and boots, setting the latter by the front flap to drip dry. When Mick popped off his parka, Link followed suit. He tossed it aside and curled into his sleeping bag to stare at the ceiling.

“It’s only 6:30.” Mick looked Link’s form up and down, smiling at the bumps of his feet and hips and arms. “You really shouldn’t go to bed.”

“I’m just getting cozy.” Link grabbed Whitman’s collection. “Reading time?”

“You gonna read to me?” Mick pondered.

Link wished his face hadn’t turned red at the suggestion--but unbidden images popped into his head of Mick closing the distance between them on all fours, looming over him in the confines of their tent. The blush must’ve been obvious, as Mick laughed. “Not like that. Such a freak. I was wondering if I could read my book? I’m at a part I really like, and I’d like to continue.”

“Oh. Sure.” Link swallowed, huffing an anxious chuckle at himself. “Yeah, go for it.”

Mick had barely retrieved his novel from his pack before Link dropped Leaves of Grass to his chest and looked over inquisitively. “What're you reading, anyway?”

“You wouldn’t be into it.” Mick slipped on his readers.

“How do you know? Try me.”

“It’s Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell," Mick responded evenly, flashing the cover. “And don’t make the joke everyone makes, please.”

Link snorted, reading the title like he might've been lying. “‘Everyone?’ How many people know you like romance novels?”

“Lots of site members have seen me read. This book comes out every so often.”

“I… don’t think I could make the joke if I wanted to. I don’t know anything about it.” Save that it was a romance novel, which apparently was a genre Mick was into. Link couldn’t help the goofy grin plastered on his face.

Mick grimaced. “There’s… there’s a character named Rhett.”

“Oh my god.”

“Mmhm.”

“Is he in the couple?”

“...yeah.”

“Oh my god. Is that why you like it?” Link sat up, rapt with mischief. “You like to pretend it’s you, don’t you?!”

“No!” Mick snapped, glowering. He glared with an intensity like he was trying to angry the smile off Link’s face. “It’s one of the greatest love stories of all time. Besides, the ending isn’t what you’d expect.”

Link’s smile simmered down to a smirk as he resumed reclining. “I think it’s hilarious that you like love stories.”

Mick dropped his tone low to reply. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

“Ohh, is that where that line is from? I do recognize that!”

“See? Iconic.”

“You wanna read to me?” Link’s sudden offer was quiet. He watched Mick on the other side of the tent, too far away to touch but still wanting some form of attention.

“Not particularly. It’d be awkward, starting where I am.”

“Oh. Okay.”

He didn’t mean to heave a sigh as he opened Leaves of Grass, mood soured.

Every time Mick shut down one of his ideas, it felt like a personal slight. A way for the man to say it’s not what you’re suggesting--it’s you, leave me alone. But he knew that wasn’t fair. He was still worked up over the fear that had nestled in his brain from what Mick had said earlier. The impending end of their time together, and the thought of being unable to say the things he needed to before then.

At least he’d admitted it to Josh and Chase. That was something, right?

“Hey.”

Link looked up, nudging his glasses to regard Mick.

“You wanna c’mere?” Mick motioned to the space between them. “We can pull the beds together.”

Sucking on his teeth, Link considered it.

“Nah. I’m okay.” It was a lie-- both statements were a lie. But he didn’t want some conciliatory pity offering, no matter how nice it sounded. Not if Mick was just counting down the days ‘til he wouldn’t have to see Link ever again.

“Oh.” Mick blinked, caught visibly off-guard. “Okay.”

In silence, several feet apart, they read.

 

 


 

 

Nothing else to do, Link made considerable progress in Leaves of Grass.

He found himself chewing on the poems in Song of Myself --disbelieving how profoundly relatable most of Whitman’s words were. They brought him comfort and made him ache all at once. But everything seemed to loop back to the sentence he couldn’t get out of his damn head:

“S’just easier that way.”

Easier, to cut people out of your life and never have to worry about them again. Mick made it sound so effortless. So convenient.

When the written word stopped filling him with some semblance of kindness, Link knew he was too fixated. He tried to shake the memory free--to let it fall from his mind and out of his ear. Tried to assure himself there would’ve been an “...except for you,” tucked somewhere underneath Mick’s tongue, had Link only asked. But it was too late to delve back into it now.

If he revealed he’d been obsessing over it, he’d reveal more than just that.

In the quiet he read, each word of poetry slamming into his brain and rattling the stuck thought. It was hard not to let his eyes roam.

The third time he glanced over at Mick, brows knit, the man stretched and set down his book. “You hungry?” He startled when he found Link already staring at him.

“Sure,” Link said, trying to control his voice. Trying not to let it quiver with the things he wanted and needed to ask. Maybe if he ignored it, it would go away. Just keep talking and reading. “What did we bring, again?”

“Spaghetti. It’s premade--just need to heat it up.” Mick began gearing up, looking bored and blissful to Link's internal turmoil and perfectly okay.

Link gritted his teeth. Relaxed. Chewed his cheek. “Sounds good.”

“I’ll take care of it. No sense in us both going out.” Mick pocketed his spectacles.

“Yep.” Focus. Pick up the book. Read.

Link turned the page and forgot himself momentarily when he saw the dog-ear at the top. Mick was okay with doing that to his favorite book? Link glanced over the page, eyes searching as Mick pulled on his snow pants.

A verse caught his eye, nestled in between a perfectly unassuming dinner scene.

 

This is the press of a bashful hand, this the float and odor of hair.
This the touch of my lips to yours, this the murmur of yearning.
This the far-off depth and height reflecting my own face.
This the thoughtful merge of myself, and the outlet again.

 

Link read it twice, throat growing tight as he raced to puzzle out its meaning.

Mick tugged on his parka and gloves.

Panicking--desperate to get something out before he was alone in the tent--the words tumbled out of Link’s mouth like water from a faucet.

“Mick, why did you dog-ear this page?” His dread was thinly veiled behind feigned curiosity.

Mick froze. Looked down at Link in the floor and the book in his hand.

Energy and upset coursed through the smaller one, and he sat up, pointing to the page in his lap. Tapping it with increasing desperation. Begging Mick’s gaze.

“What is it about this verse in particular that you needed to remember?”

Mick didn’t move. His hands on were mid-button as his eyes flicked between Link and the words.

“Answer me!” Link’s voice scratched up an octave in the demand, his free hand ringing into the chest of his tee-shirt, trying to ground himself before he’d pushed too far.

But he knew it was too much, too late.

“I didn’t do that,” Mick said flatly, lowering his arms to his sides.

“Bullshit. You’re the only person brave enough to do that to your copy of this book.” Link snapped his head back down, reading aloud. “This is the murmur of yearning. Why is that significant to you? What kind of yearning, Mick? Why would you care about that passage?”

The site leader didn’t respond. He began putting on his goggles.

Link crawled to a stand, grasping the offending collection in a brutal grip. “I think you should tell me. I think I deserve to know why this page is dog-eared. Why this one, specifically. You saved this page and then you lent me this book, and I’d like to know why. I think I deserve that.”

The prompt way Mick was ignoring him made his blood boil. Temper effectively lost, he got in the taller one’s face, shoved Mick's nose into the open spine, pointing at the lines.

“You have something you need to tell me, Mick? If you want to say something, you say it to me--you don’t hide behind gestures that I have to waste time deciphering. Neither of us have time for that!” Link’s voice broke again, wet and brittle. “Say it!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mick said quietly, leveling his gaze to stare over Link’s head, pushing the book out of his way with ease.

“Say you care about me, god damn it!” Link bellowed, clawing into the front of Mick’s parka and grabbing. He was lost--unwilling or unable to stop himself in the torrent of thoughts he’d held in all evening. “Admit it. Tell me! Say you don’t want this to be over when we have to part ways, say that--that I’m not disposable, or that you’ve never pulled this exact thing before on someone else. Say that I’m worth the effort!”

Mick fished his beanie from a pocket, face drawn and calm.

“If… if you say it first,” quavered Link, staring into Mick’s chest, wide-eyed, “then maybe I can be brave enough to admit how scared shitless I am of losing you. Please. Please, Mick. Please tell me you care about me.” He swallowed. Forced himself to look up. “I can't imagine losing you when we’re done here.”

Mick paused, hands stilled at his ears from tugging his hat on. He looked down at Link, eyes pitying and distant in a way that squeezed Link’s heart before Mick had even opened his mouth.

“You can’t lose what you never had, Neal.”

Nonchalance dripped from the words.

Link’s breaths shallowed to clipped panting as he stepped back, giving Mick space to turn to the door and slip on his boots. Link glared down at the page, tears burning his eyes and smudging his vision, getting too little oxygen, needing fresh air in the tight quarters where fresh air wasn't an option, running his hands over the type and letting Mick’s simple response wash over him in waves as the man found the tent’s first zipper and pulled it open--

Link tore the page from its binding, the rip searing through the air as he let tears of frustration and betrayal fall.

Mick stopped.

“Fuck you,” Link sobbed, letting the crinkled, dog-eared thing fall to the floor. The icy blast from outside made it flutter into a far corner, biting him on its way. He dropped the book and it landed haphazardly, pages bent. “God. Fuck you, Mick.”

Link sank back to his bed, let the tears come. He took off his glasses to wipe at his cheeks.

The harsh zipper cut through the silence.

The cold wind stopped and Mick was on him in a second. He tore off layer after layer of gear as fast as he could, pinning the brunette to the floor with his weight. With his goggles, hat, and gloves thrown across the tent, he bore down, flipping Link over easily to bring them face-to-face.

Hot tears streaking down into his hair, Link trembled at Mick’s expression--dark and ferocious, his eyes cut sharp and raking over Link’s face and neck. He throttled the front of Link’s shirt, snarling into his next words.

“I’m trying to make this easier on you,” he bit off, searching Link’s eyes. “Easier on both of us. This isn’t some fuckin’ fairy tale where we get to stay together in the end! There’s no happy ending when the pages run out. I stay here, you go home. You’re the one leaving me. I'm  the one losing you."

Link fought back another sob, looking up past him. The larger one continued disrobing, kicking off his shoes and shrugging out of his coat to fling it at the door. When he leaned back in, his mouth claimed Link’s, rough and eager. Link’s tears started fresh at the contact and he threw his arms around Mick’s shoulders, crying into his teeth and shaking. Mick wrapped him up and pulled him from the floor. He let Link’s legs encircle his waist as he sat back on his heels.

“D’you have any idea,” he peppered Link’s face in kisses, chasing his tears and cradling the back of his head, “how selfish you are, asking for that kinda shit? How greedy it is? How hard it is for me to put you in your place every time?! This can’t happen--how many times do I have to tell you that?”

“Then why don’t you stay away from me?” The plea was feeble. It lacked the venom Link had meant for it to deliver, whispered into Mick’s kisses. “Don’t do this. Stop.”

“I won’t be able to do this forever.” Mick’s low answer was easy. He didn’t have to think twice. “I want you while I have you.”

“You really do care more about this job than you do about me,” marveled Link softly, gaze unfocused and lost in Mick’s beard.  

Mick stilled, lips pressed against Link’s forehead. He shifted, settling them to sit with Link in his lap, gathering him up in a hug that felt exposed and fragile despite how tightly Mick pressed them together. When Mick swallowed against his shoulder, Link shut his eyes in preparation. “I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re not.”

“You don’t have to believe me. But I am.”

“If you were, you’d let yourself be happy.”

“It’s because I can’t make you happy that I’m sorry.”

“You could, though. If you cared enough.”

Mick let out a hollow laugh--one short breath. “You really think I don’t care.”

“Not enough to admit it to my face.”

“What would that give you, Link? If I did that?” The question was muffled and pensive as he stroked the smaller one's back. “More hope to cling to? Visions of some future together that won’t ever come true?”

“It would give me a reason to try. For you.”

“Try to what?”

“...I dunno. Continue this?”

“See?” Mick kissed the base of his neck, unbearably tender. His whiskers produced goosebumps. “It’s no good.”

Raw-throated and dizzy, Link pulled back to meet Mick’s gaze. His hair wild from abandoned gear. The sympathy of his sloped eyebrows. The self-inflicted injury in his eyes. 

“Can I have it? Just for tonight?”

Mick squeezed his lips together at the request.

Link pressed on. “It won’t leave this tent. When we go back to 466, we’ll just be--be fuck buddies, or friends with benefits, or whatever lens you choose to view me through. But if this is going to end anyway…” He forced a smile as weep took him again, words shaking. “Then fuck it, right? Tell me you care about me. Tell me you’re dreading the day I leave. Tell me about what it would have been like, if you’d been brave enough to keep me.”

“Link.” Mick sputtered and nestled his face to hide in Link’s chest. “Fuck’s sake, of course I care about you. 466 is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a home, and it’s because of you, Neal. There was never anyone before you. And there won’t be anyone after you. That much of me is yours. This is yours,” he emphasized with tightened arms. “It’s the only promise I can make--the only consolation I can offer, once our time here is up.”

Guilt hit Link and he cast his arms over Mick’s shoulders and back, leaving the weight of them there like a security blanket as he listened.

“You wanna know what life would be like, with us together? Really?”

“Yes.”

Mick nodded, kept nodding as he spoke. “This is my job. Year-round. Constantly. I’d stay--relocate to another site. You’d leave--fly back home. You’d realize I’m an asshole for letting you get into a relationship like that. I’d miss you. We’d fizzle out. You’d regret me.”

“I won’t ever regret you,” Link offered hoarsely.

“Don’t say shit like that,” growled Mick. He swelled up and kissed Link again, planted small nibbles along Link’s lower lip, making him quake.

“It’s true.”

Mick eased away, watching him with watery eyes. The sight startled Link--jolted down into his bones. “You won’t regret me. And I won’t forget you. Is that enough?”

It was Link’s turn to burst forth, to knock Mick backwards with his full weight and crash their lips together, crushing him into the foot of his sleeping bag.

They held one another and gave in with fearful fervency, deep and exploring. All the while Link knew it was borrowed time he had to spend perfectly--an allowance he couldn’t waste. Hands sought under shirts for expanses of soft skin and endearing hair, dipping into dimples and caressing curves. Mouths on ribs whispered expiring thoughts and dug contented breaths from lungs. Not a frenzy of lust, but one of passion and hearts beating in sync, bound to pull apart yet wanting the duet to go on for as long as possible.

They ate their fill of one another’s skin and warmth, and once sated with the gradual tick of the clock and the knowledge of what was to come, the urgency died. Mick lay on his back with Link under his arm, head on Mick’s chest, the pair of them breathing calm and deep together.

Mick ran a hand through Link’s feathered hair--toyed at the gray with fond fingers. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too. I destroyed your book.” Link looked at the forgotten thing in the floor, to the page he’d so kindly evicted from its home.

Mick snorted. “One torn page is hardly ‘destroyed.’ I can tuck it into the spine.”

Link craned his neck to look up at him. “You’re not angry?”

“I am, but… I deserved it. Besides, now I really won’t forget about you.”

Biting his lip, Link exhaled deeply. “I’m amazed you can joke like that.”

“Don’t think about it. It’s easier.”

“Like asking the stars not to shine,” Link mumbled.

Mick pressed a kiss into Link’s crown. “Speaking of--this tent has a skylight. Since we’re layin’ here…” He tapped Link to let him up and stood, finding the zipper of the roof and peeling it away until only a transparent plastic window remained.

Ribbons of vibrant yellow and rich pink floated in the dark beyond, and Link stared in awe. The colors hung in the night sky, alive and impossible. “Good. I was hoping it would happen tonight,” Mick smiled, switching off the tent light and dropping back to the floor to resume his position.

“Is that…?”

“Aurora Australis,” Mick provided contentedly. He turned to watch Link, gazing up at the one sitting at attention. “The Southern Lights.”

“Oh my gosh.”

“I know.” Mick rubbed Link’s back, as if to remind him that he still had a body on this plane, and Link nestled into Mick’s side obediently.

“Can we… can we skip dinner?”

“Sure. If you’re not hungry.”

“Not more than I just wanna stay like this.”

“Mm.”

“It’s beautiful. Like watching a lava lamp,” Link whispered, and Mick’s laughter filled the tent.

“Not the first thing I think of, for ‘beautiful,’ but… sure.”

The sound of Mick’s joy--his heartbeat. The warmth of being at his side. Swathes of unreal light dancing and morphing in the sky. Maybe Link could learn to be grateful for things that would soon be out of his reach. It would just take practice, and there wouldn't be any shortage of opportunity for that.

He enunciated carefully, reserved and calm. “I’m going to miss you.”

Mick ran a hand along his back, hugged him closer with an insistent pressure Link hadn't felt before.

“I know, snowflake. Me, too.”

 

Chapter Text

When Link awoke the next morning, he was starving, sweating, and surprisingly well-rested.

No sunlight meant he had to check the clock they’d brought along to confirm the time, and once he’d acknowledged that it was late enough to start work and head back, he sat up and looked around the tent. Dark and cozy and warm. Gear strewn about aimlessly.

Mick shifted at the loss of Link, feeling into the mangle of their sleeping bags. His brow furrowed when his hands came up empty and he had to settle for curling into the still-warm fleece. Link smiled fondly at the sleep-mussed blonde, so dear.

The corners of his mouth wilted only at the memory of last night. It hadn’t been a good conversation, but it had been a conversation, at least.

Mick was going to stay. Link was going to leave.

Neither of them was happy about the inevitable--at least Link knew that now. The most they could do was enjoy what time they had left together. Two months minus a day.

Link leaned over and planted a lingering kiss on Mick’s temple. He hoped that some of what he was feeling trickled into Mick’s dreams.

Quietly as he could, he stood and geared and let himself outside with their equipment pack. No need to rouse Mick if he was tired. Manning the drill could be a one-person job if said person was patient--and so long as the noise didn’t wake Mick up, of course.

The Southern Lights were mostly gone, but Link shut off the lamp all the same as extraction began. He sat on the ice and stargazed, enjoying the last tendrils of lime green wisping through the edges of the sky. Would any of the same constellations be visible from North Carolina?

Work went smoothly enough, and roughly an hour had passed before everything was contained and collected.

The next issue was the insistent growling of his stomach. As much as he loved the idea of cooking over a fire, there was no denying that rallying Mick and packing up for home would be a better use of his energy. At least there they had a stove and could run numbers while they cooked.

Link let himself back into the tent and found Mick sitting up, bundled in both of their sleeping bags. His eyes were thick with sleep and he blinked groggily up at Link, who smiled.

“Good morning, princess.”

“You started work without me.”

“Yep. Finished it, too. We’re all good to go.”

“Shoulda woken me up,” Mick grumbled, scratching his chest and running a hand through his hair. “Coulda helped.”

“Too late. It wasn’t a big deal.” Link set about tidying up, piling Mick’s gear next to him and packing away the rest of their belongings. “Gear up and let’s head back. I need coffee.”

“I’m the boss. Not you.”

“Alright then boss: what are we doin’?” Link stopped and put his hands on his hips, expectant.

“...gearin’ up.” Mick forced himself to a creaky stand and stretched. His back popped.

“Thanks for your leadership.” Link bent to turn off the heater, and a large hand struck his behind. Even through the snow pants, it elicited a sharp gasp.

“Watch the attitude,” growled Mick as he grabbed his coat.

 

 


 

 

“Shit. You’ve gotta be fuckin’ kidding me.”

Mick dropped his full arms and let their supplies clatter to the floor of the foyer. Link could only watch, stupefied, as Mick stalked into the lounge of 466 and pulled his gloves off. He spun on his heel, freed his mouth from his scarf and met Link’s eyes.

His next breath came out in the thick cloud of vapor.

“The heat.” Link propped the collapsed tent against the wall. “What do you think happened?”

“Probably a fuse blew,” sighed Mick, immediately returning his fingers to his gloves. “I gotta go fix it. We’ll freeze if we wait for the building to reheat on its own, so I need you to do something.”

“Anything.”

Mick smiled at his hands. “We need something to burn for warmth in the meantime. Look around for stuff made of wood--things we could live without.”

“What?! Where are we supposed to build a fire in here?”

“In the floor here. The vents are in the kitchen, else we’d do it in the bathroom. It’ll be okay, Neal. Trust me.”

“I do," Link nodded. "Metal floor? Should be fine.” Mick stepped around him to reach the outside door, nabbing their flashlight from its hook.

“Be right back.”

“I’ll look for wood.”

Mick hesitated with his hand on the knob. Without warning he leaned in and kissed Link’s bare cheek--the only part of him unswaddled. “Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone.”

Link blushed and kicked the snow from his boots. “I won’t.”

Then Mick was gone, and Link turned to face his chore.

He took inventory of the lounge and kitchen. Tapped a finger against a pair of cross-country skis to confirm they were polished plastic. Checked the cupboards for wooden utensils or bowls, of which there were none. The blankets in the living room were a necessity, but perhaps the rug under the coffee table--which would likely smell foul if burned--would hold an ember, even if it wasn’t wood.

The bathroom revealed nothing, nor did the empty dorms. He really did try when he got to his own room, but there was hardly anything fuel-worthy there.

When he eventually got to Mick’s door, Link paused. But ultimately, he had orders, and he had to follow them. It would only take a second.

Link scanned over Mick’s belongings, eyes briefly landing on the bookshelf and immediately falling nauseated at the notion. As a last resort he dropped to his knees and felt under the bed.

His grip closed on something long and slender and hollow, and he pulled to reveal an acoustic guitar.

“Whaaat the hell.” Link held the curiosity by the neck and inspected it.

It was quite dusty, but beautiful nonetheless. The wood was darker than most he’d seen, the pick guard a deep blue with gold flecks. He tried his best to imagine Mick playing it--strumming with skilled fingers and bobbing his head along to the cadence. The idea felt strangely natural for how far-fetched it seemed at its face.

The building's heat system kicked back on with a thrum and Link’s reverie broke. Standing, he took the instrument to the living room and waited patiently for Mick to return. It was hard to resist taking off his gloves and playing with the strings on the frets, but being able to see his own breath was a good deterrent.

A gust of icy wind brought Mick inside. He managed to get one shoe off before he glanced up, noticed Link with his guitar, and stopped.

“Don’t worry, we’re not burning this,” Link said hastily, giving it a reassuring pat. “I just… I didn’t know you played.”

Mick’s tension eased marginally and he toed off his other boot. “Used to. Haven’t in years. Hell, it’s probably warped from the cold by now. We could burn it.” He shuffled his goggles to his forehead, their pinched outline fresh on his cheeks and nose. “Find anything else?”

“Furniture.” Link jutted a thumb at the lounge. “It’s the only thing we have.”

“Figures. Lemme get the ax.”

“You think an armchair would work? We do have two of ‘em.”

“Good idea.”

As Mick handled the emergency supplies hatchet with a bare hand, Link sat in the floor of the kitchen and watched. He held the guitar in his lap and ran his gloves over it, listened to the tiny hums and squeaks each time he dragged up and down the strings. The site leader took apart the armchair methodically, like a butcher with game. After the arms of the chair had been cleaved from the body and stripped of cloth and cushion, he glanced up at Link.

“Why you still got that out? You can go put it back. Or pass it here. Wood’s wood.”

“No!” Link gave him an injured look. “It’s... interesting, is all. Why don’t you play anymore?”

“Wasn’t a conscious decision. Just stopped.” With a light sigh Mick sat back on his heels and inspected the two small piles of wood. “This should be enough to get us started. Let’s get this lit. S’cold as crap in here.”

Clearing fire hazards out of the way and pushing them to the far walls didn’t take long. From their emergency supplies Mick retrieved a small box of matches, waving to Link. “Think you can find some tinder?”

“Yeah. Hang on.” He hopped up and put the guitar away in Mick’s room before going to tear some solved pages from his puzzle book. When he offered them to Mick in a crunched-up fist, Mick smiled and nodded to the floor.

“C’mon, then. Light it.” He held the matches up for Link to take.

Self-consciously, Link knelt and scattered the papers underneath the pile of dry wood Mick had whittled out. In shaking fingers he took a match and struck it against the side of the box. The smell of sulfur and a bit of smoke drifted into the air, but no spark.

“Try again,” Mick instructed. “Pinch it.”

The second time, the lit match slipped from his glove and landed on the floor, burning. Link squeaked in surprise.

With a boisterous laugh, Mick pointed. “Pick it up!”

“I’m--I don’t wanna catch my gloves on fire!”

“Oh, gosh.” Mick shook his head and retrieved the hazard easily.

“Back off, huh? Why’d you want me to do it anyway, if you know you’re gonna be better at it?” Link sat and crossed his arms.

“I’m just teasin’, snowflake. Givin' you a hard time.” Mick’s smiling eyes found Link’s, whose ears warmed as they always had at the pet name. “You’re fine.”

Mick’s ungloved fingers grasped the bottom of the match stick and tossed it into the papers. They were quickly eaten by flames, which proceeded to melt upwards and cling to the perfectly curated stack of wood. Only when the other put his hand up to the fire did Link realize it was purple from exposure.

“Mick! Give me your hand!”

“Neal, it’s fine,” chuckled Mick, rotating the appendage like a spit over fire. “Just cold.”

“Please?”

“I’m fine.” The insistence fizzled when the brunette unbuttoned his parka and grabbed Mick’s fingers, stuffing them against his side. “Link, don't…”

“Is that better?”

“We have a fire going. Right here.” The grin that snuck onto Mick’s face was devilish, and Link didn’t have time to react before his frigid touch snaked through his clothes and found his bare hip--so cold, it was painful.

“Fuck!” Link gasped shrill enough to make Mick recoil. “God, you’re such an ass!”

“You’re the one who offered body heat!”

“At least let me… h-here.” Link took his hand and guided it gently back to his exposed waist, pressing it there slowly and letting out a long exhale.

Mick’s eyebrows popped up in surprise, and he brushed his thumb against Link’s hip bone. “You’re okay with this? You feel alright?”

“Mmhmm.” It was worth the sting.

The logs crackled. As time passed and the room warmed under the mixed efforts of the blaze and central heating, Mick instructed Link as to when it was safe to remove certain articles of clothing. After about an hour of chills and committing to exploring touches of their extremities to one another’s torsos, they were finally down to their fleece outfits, gear piled behind them on the couch.

Tension escaped Mick in a sigh and his shoulders slacked. Link watched him take in the flames licking the air, the reflection shining briskly in his tired eyes.

“We can finish data tonight. Or tomorrow. Whenever,” Mick mumbled. He ran a worn hand through his beard and fluffed out the tips like it needed to dry. “Jesus. I’m beggin’ to get fired.”

“This isn’t your fault.” Link pulled his knees to his chest, snug and content. “Even if we’d been here, the heater would’ve blown a fuse.”

“It’s not just the heat goin’ out, Link. It started before you got here, with Punch goin’ home. Combine that with the rations debacle, the generator malfunctioning--”

“Neither of those were your fault, either--”

“Coming to blows with a subordinate--”

“I started that!”

“Letting a team member pass out in the snow-- twice.” Mick looked over at him. He wore his qualms openly when his large hand rested on Link’s thigh. “Not to mention… this.”

“Mick, none of those things are going to get you fired. Half of them weren’t your fault, and the other half, they’re never going to know about. You think I’m telling them about the fight?” Link leaned back on his palms. “Hell no. And our ‘secret’ doesn’t leave this building. And… the tent, I guess.”

The blonde gave him a grateful smile, soft at the edges as his gaze fell to Link’s lap. “Mm. Maybe you’re right. I hope so, anyway.”

“Everything’s gonna be fine.” Link took a moment to lose himself in the dancing flames in the middle of the lounge. When he spoke again, he hadn’t expected the effort it would take to get the words out. “I know how much this job means to you, now.”

Mick hesitated. Swallowed and nodded and snapped back to the fire. “It’s everything to me.”

The rip in Link’s chest tore a nudge further at the admission. He ignored the pain--the only thing he could do--and murmured, “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course. You’re allowed to ask questions. Remember?” Mick smirked.

Link couldn’t help smiling at the memory. “Lest I screw things up, right?”

“Yep.”

“I… you remember the night you overheard Chase and I talking about you?” Even though so much time had passed, a wave of guilt still crushed Link into himself. Made him bring his knees up and weather a nervous glance over at the site leader.

Mick was unreadable, eyes glowing orange and yellow. “Yeah?”

“What… what are you looking for down here?” Link’s brow knit in concern. Their partnership had come a long way, for sure, but there was no guarantee they’d reached the point where he could request the information he wanted. Seconds stretched into a full minute of contemplation, with Link practically squirming to hold his tongue from throwing in never mind.

Mick eventually took a breath that swelled his chest to capacity, letting it all out through his nose. “If you tell me why you came down here, I’ll tell you, too.”

Link didn’t mean to gulp. “That’s--That’s fair. I feel like I’ve already told you before, though.”

With an ease that caught Link off guard, Mick’s hand found his and held it on the floor. His palm covered Link’s knuckles as he waited for him to continue. Patient.

“When I first arrived, you told me that I’d come down here seeking some kind of experience.” Link spoke slowly. “And you were right. That’s all it was--selfish wishing. Wanting another line on my tombstone. Another sentence in my obituary. It’s not like I have kids to outlive me--and to have them for that purpose would be cruel, anyway.” His gaze dropped into his lap. “Hell. I don’t even a spouse to die before, who could remember me even for a little while.”

Mick straightened and squeezed his grip on Link. If he was asking for attention, the professor was too ashamed to give it. “What about your students? I’m sure you’ve made an impact on them.”

The crackle of wood being chewed to ash became an easy soundtrack. It helped the words come, made Link’s back muscles loosen under their metronome.

“See, that’s the thing. I don’t think it could come from someone that far removed. If I’m going to be remembered, it should be from a place of love.”

Link heard Mick hum and risked a glimpse at him. He was still staring into the fire, brow knit.

“I think… I think that’s why I came down here.”

“To fall in love?”

“With myself,” Link finished. The words left his lips and met his mind at the same time--a revelation stumbled upon in the open, bared and genuine. “Maybe if I could be okay with myself, I wouldn’t need to rely on others to remember me. I could live just for me.”

Mick didn’t respond.

“If I could come down here and prove to myself that I’m capable enough, and strong enough, and worth a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity--to contribute to something greater than myself and do it selflessly, without holding back--then maybe I could be somebody worth loving.”

“And how do you feel now?” Mick’s voice was barely a whisper, mingling with the pop and hiccup of the hearth.

Link smiled without meaning to--beamed down at his feet in consideration. “I’ve got a few weeks left here, still, but… no. This journey has only showed me that I’m worth my shortcomings. I might be stupid, and scatterbrained, and annoying, and short-tempered on occasion, but… I like me, now. If I’m being honest?” Link shifted his hand, returning Mick’s hold. “You taught me how to love myself, Rhett.”

Mick’s chest stuttered with uneven breaths.

When Link’s eyes snapped over to him, he clasped their hands together in a bruising grasp--watched in horror as tears fell from Mick’s cherished green eyes and seeped into his beard. Shooting stars on his cheeks, streaking down in firelight and vanishing as quickly as they’d burnt.

“Rhett,” breathed Link, twisting to pull the blonde’s hand to his breast. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t--”

“I took this job,” Mick cleared his throat gruffly, “because I was so fuckin’ sick of acting like I wasn’t alone.”

Link softened his urgency, sat rapt as Mick said his piece to the embers.

“I’d given up. No family--same as you. But unlike you, I didn’t come down here looking for anything so benevolent.” He quivered with a reaching inhale. “I took this job because it was fitting. What better backdrop to live out the rest of my pointless life to than an endless, frozen night? Until my blip fell off the radar.” His voice quieted. “I condemned myself to this existence.”

Link was sure that the sudden pain in his chest was his heart breaking.

His hands slid up Mick’s arm, tugging, insistent. Resistance broken, Mick allowed himself to be guided, crawled on his knees at Link’s urgency until they were chest to chest, Mick straddling his thighs. With no flames to absolve his words, he tilted his head back and spoke to the ceiling, or perhaps to the stars beyond.

“I made myself as inaccessible as possible. Shut myself off from anyone who could’ve possibly cared to begin with. Submerged myself in work--in efforts that a human body and mind could contribute to, so long as they were piloted properly. Hollow and unfeeling and obedient.” Mick smiled, huffing through a sob. “And you still fucking found me.”

“Rhett,” Link whispered, heart hammering and eyes burning. He fought back tears of his own, determined to be strong when Mick needed him the most. The only time Mick had ever truly needed him.

Come here,” he pleaded--commanded--and Mick dropped his head and fell into their kiss.

Mick lost himself in all of the affection Link ached to give him. He allowed his lips to part easily, for their tongues to give and find one another. After Link’s hands delved under his shirt and caressed up his bare back, Mick trembled into the touch--deepened their kiss when Link palmed his shoulder blades and twined their bodies in embrace.

Link pulled away to press his mouth against Mick’s heart, whispering into the warmth and pulse and hoping the words found their way home.

“You are so worthy of love, Rhett. God, you have no idea.” Mick buried his face into Link’s hair, wet and wheezing hard. Link closed his eyes, mumbled mantras into his soft chest. “You’ve spent your entire life telling yourself you aren’t, but if you can let yourself hear it from anyone, just once… please let it be me.”

His arms tightened. Encircled Mick’s waist. “You plunged your tongue to my barestript heart,” Link quoted, the words barely leaving his lips before Mick’s reserved sob crumbled into a loud, furtive wail--a bruise pressed too much, far too hard. He clung to Link, desperate to be small, and Link let him.

With gentle touches he coaxed Mick off of his knees, encouraged full weight in his lap and legs around his hips. The kisses came as second nature--first at his dripping eyelashes and damp cheeks, then to the tuck of his jawline and the veins of his neck.

“Did you hear me, Rhett?”

Mick couldn’t respond, shivering and red in his arms. His puffy eyes didn’t focus when Link tenderly took each side of his face, pressed their foreheads together.

“Do you know what I’m trying to tell you? What I want to say, but can’t?”

Mick sucked his lips in and nodded, eyes falling shut against Link’s brutal sincerity.

“Keep it,” Link mumbled, not knowing what he was saying as he ran a thumb over Mick’s cheekbone. It didn’t matter. They weren’t his words--they were for Mick. “Carry it with you and know it. Know that you had it, once. Even down here.”

“You don’t have to do this,” Mick begged feebly, voice scratchy and ragged.

“You think I’m doing you a favor?” Link huffed in amused disbelief. “God, Rhett. No. Since when have I ever made your life easier?”

“Since the day you walked in,” Mick surrendered, and Link’s heart swelled and splintered.

“Let me kiss you.”

Mick didn’t need to be told twice.

Groping hands and gentle sighs worked fervently to banish the tinge of self-loathing in Mick's words. Steady hold on his back, Link kept their mouths together as he lowered them to lay by the fire. The outline of Mick’s shoulders blotted out the light like mountain peaks hiding a sunrise, and Link felt himself lucky in his shadow. He let a palm pillow Mick’s temple from the floor, let his free fingers wipe the wet from his cheeks and steady the chaste, wanting plant of lips from chin to brow. When Mick’s eyes regained their clarity and focus, they latched onto Link, paid him full mind. It made him feel oddly worshipped, that he should get Mick’s undivided attention after so much vulnerability. To not be driven away so his boss could collect himself in solitude.

If he was staring, that was fine. They both were.

Mick opened and closed his mouth. Spoke with measure and care. “I don't know how to say what I need to.”

So typical. Link allowed a weak smile. “It’s okay. Don’t say it.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah.”

“You know...?”

“I know.”

Sated on care, Mick wrapped Link in his arms and brought them together, and Link let himself melt into the pets through his hair that he’d grown to love.

 

Chapter Text

For two days, Link had been hiding it.

Field visits took more out of him than before--left him exhausted and sore and daydreaming about bed during data processing. Yawns and bags under his eyes, refusal to cough in front of his boss while scrubbing the soot from the lounge floor. He’d quickly learned that if he allowed even a weak hack, he wouldn’t be able to stop, and so saved them to unload and muffle into his pillow at night. The squinting looks Mick gave him at mealtimes put Link on edge. But he’d been sick before at 466. Couldn’t afford any more days off. His history of staying in good health on this trip was already abysmal.

If he ever wanted to come back, he had to keep a good track record.

The hardest part about hiding the illness were the times when Mick wanted to be close: when he leaned in for kisses that Link dodged to his cheek, when he wanted to hold Link and cuddle at night, when he offered to feed Link a bite of food under the pretense that the brunette hadn’t been eating enough lately. As if the rations on his own plate were the reason for his loss of appetite and not the uncomfortable squirming in his gut.

Link could only hope that all of the cold-shouldering wasn't hurting Mick.

The only way the avoidance worked was under the misconception that he was trying to make life marginally easier for them both by skipping out on affection, to lessen the blow of their eventual parting. That couldn’t have been further from the truth; every time Link redirected Mick’s whiskered kisses, words from the camping trip came careening back and made his chest thrum in pain: “I want you while I have you.”

Being sick was one thing--but getting Mick sick would’ve been disastrous for their work. So, he kept his distance: a decision that bubbled to a boil on his third night of frailty, halfway through the work week.

It was just before bedtime, and Mick held him at arm’s length outside of their doors.

“You can ask, you know,” Mick whispered out of the blue, sober and pensive as he glanced down to Link’s chest. “Or even just tell me. Put your foot down. I know I'm... quick-tempered, but I won’t get angry. Not about this.”

Link pulled a face, slipped into feigned ignorance all too practiced. “What do you mean?”

“We don’t have to keep doin’ this, Link. You think I haven’t noticed?” Mick’s eyebrows tented in worry and guilt pricked in Link’s throat like a twisted needle… though the pain might’ve been the sickness. “If you wanna draw a boundary, I’ll stop. I’ll respect it.”

“No! No, Mick, it’s not… that’s not it.” Link wrung his hands at his waist. The urge to kiss Mick pitted against his resolve made him shiver with want. “No boundaries. I just… need a break. To clear my head.”

“You switched back, too. ‘Mick.’ Link, I’m not mad, I just… I can tell what’s going on, darlin’. You don’t have to lie.”

Darling. The word was so easy on his lips that Link’s head swam, delirious with heat and blush, threatening to capsize even with Mick’s hands on him. Cursing the charade of health for making him act so cold in the face of such gentility, Link shook his head, offering the only honesty he could. “That wasn’t a conscious decision. I dunno why I did that, Rhett.”

“It’s okay. Listen to me.” Mick swallowed, eyes slipping further, to the floor. “Even if you don’t think these are choices you’re actively making, or if you don’t notice ‘em, I do. And I don’t wanna press it anymore. Okay? I’m… I’m grateful that you let things happen, back when you were comfortable with it. But I get it, now. You don’t have to say it. My feelings aren’t hurt.”

Link reached out and grasped the hem of Mick’s shirt, panic creeping in. “No, it’s not--”

“It’s really okay. Enough’s enough, right?” Mick pushed out an empty chuckle. “Why’re we still makin’ it harder than it needs to be?”

Link fumbled for footing, trying to backpedal without revealing too much. “It’s not that--it’s not that I don’t want you, Rhett, it’s just--”

“I know. It’s better this way, actually. I can stop tossing and turning at night and wishing you’d let me do everything I wanted. And you don’t have to keep soft-balling me.” Mick let his arms fall to his sides. “I hope you have a good night. Tuck yourself in good for me... yeah? I miss sleeping with you.”

Why did this feel like a goodbye? Link leaned back and caught his weight on his closed door. Every part of him clenched in a vice--his head, his stomach, his knees, which threatened to buckle. No more touching. No more kissing. No more cuddling. His plan to stay in good graces had cost him the privilege of being close to Mick, and this wasn’t even the worst to come. It was just a nick in his chest compared to the ever-approaching day that was going to sunder him clean in two.

“Rhett--I…” Link swallowed, searching for the right words.

If he admitted to being sick, he probably wouldn’t be allowed back in Antarctica. And if he wanted a chance of seeing Mick again, that was it. On the other hand, if he let this continue, let Mick believe he did need space, it would damage what they had for the rest of their time together. Besides--there was no guarantee he’d be offered another position here in the future.

“What is it, snowfla--Neal?” Mick asked, wincing at the slip-up.

The thoughts spiraled from Link’s head and drained to his gut, the last straw in his composure. He started for the bathroom, leaning heavily against the walls along the way. He didn’t bother to close the door behind him before he fell to his knees and emptied his stomach into the toilet, coughing and shaking with sick.

Once finished, he wiped his mouth and sat back miserably, breathing heavy and listening to his heartbeat pound in his ears. Twisting at a noise, he saw Rhett standing in the doorway, face suddenly bored and irritated.

“I fuckin’ knew it.”

“Wh-What?!”

“I knew you were sick. Known it the whole time.” Mick crossed his arms. “Just had to get you riled up enough for concrete evidence.”

“Oh, my god, you are such an asshole,” Link rasped, hiding his face in his arms against the bowl of the commode. “Shit.”

“Be right back. Gotta call you in.”

“Fuck.”

Link stayed in the floor, head spinning as he listened to Mick’s soft voice on the iridium phone in the lounge. He tried to steady the teeter of the room, tried to hold his head up without immediately letting it fall, sweltering, back to his chest.

When Mick came back, he nabbed a clean washcloth and wet it under the tub’s spout. “You done puking?”

“I… I think so,” Link groaned. Mick moved over and knelt by his side, put a gentle guiding hand on his shoulders to tilt him and allow access to his face so he could clean him up. Link closed his eyes, let himself be tended to.

“You think I can’t hear you coughing at night? You caught somethin’ when we went camping. Dunno how, but you did.” Mick’s tone wasn’t harsh, thankfully. Link doubted he could’ve handled angry Mick when he felt like garbage. “Glasses.”

Obediently, Link removed them. With the unsoiled side of the washcloth Mick wiped the rest of his face, eyes to forehead. He sat it on his knee and pushed back Link’s hair, feeling his forehead.

“Couldn’t this have been the evidence?” Link slurred, screwing his eyes shut. “You’re such a jerk. You made me stress vomit.”

Mick smiled. “I was pissed that you wouldn’t outright tell me. Wanted to mess with you a little.”

“Great. Thanks.”

“Shoot. You’re burnin' up. Probably the flu.”

“I’m gonna get you sick,” Link drawled, not caring to open his eyes. The dark felt better--eased his headache. “I can take care of myself.”

“I’ve had about enough outta you,” Mick warned quietly. He stood and rinsed the washcloth in the sink, draped it over the faucet to dry. “C’mon. Can you stand?”

“Can I just sleep here? In the floor?”

“I know you’re joking, but absolutely not.” Then Mick’s hands were on him, tugging his shirt up and over his head as Link winced from the cool air.

“Mick, I don’t want to--”

“You’re taking a bath. Don’t argue.”

Link’s head lolled back, eyes still closed. “Or you’ll write me up?”

“That’s right.”

“...can you help me?”

“Tryin’. Can you stand, snowflake?”

He did his best, felt how his legs shook with the effort and how easily Mick caught him under the arms to steady him. “I’ve got you,” Mick breathed in his ear. “Pants next.”

“S’fuckin’ embarrassing,” groaned Link, unbuttoning himself. It took far longer than it should have, but Mick didn’t mention it. He simply waited.

“Underwear.”

“I know how to undress!” Link bit, squinting up at Mick in the harsh yellow light. The man was expressionless, monitoring Link’s balance as he slipped out of his boxer-briefs.

“I know you do, but you’re weak and loopy from retching. I’m just tryin’ to help, like you asked.”

Link sighed and pressed his forehead into Mick’s shirt. “Oh, gosh.”

“You’re fine. Take it easy, now--you’re swaying quite a bit." To punctuate, the fingers on Link's sides tightened. "I really shouldn’t have made you puke,” he added, tone deep with remorse.

“Can… can you help me get into the tub?”

Without a thought, Mick crouched and gathered Link up, hoisting him into the air with one arm under his knees and the other at his shoulders. Cautiously, Mick lifted a foot and kicked on the warm water. The roar of gushing made Link wince, earning a sympathetic whiskered kiss on his forehead.

“Don’t kiss me,” Link protested feebly, words lost behind the gurgle of water.

“So grumpy.” Mick grunted when he knelt, lowering Link’s frame into the slowly-filling bath. “You’ve asked for help twice now, so let me help.”

“Sorry.” Link shuffled himself down, immediately sleepy as the heat crawled up his skin and begged him to unwind. “Woozy.”

“I know.” Mick stood and stretched. “Don’t fall asleep. I’ll be back in a minute.”

Link nodded and listened to Mick’s footsteps rush to the kitchen, heard him bustling around. He gazed out over the rim of the steaming tub, light-assaulted eyes following the trail--washcloth, glasses, clothes, water. Light-headed, he slid down into the water and grinned against it, head foggy. “S’like a poem.”

“What?” Mick rejoined him--a glass of water in one hand and their field flashlight in the other. “Did you say something?”

“Will you read to me? Grassy… leaves?” Link tried. His sight lingered on the torch in Mick’s hand.

“Later, darlin’.” Mick shut the door behind him and set the glass of water on the edge of the tub.

“Don’t hafta keep callin’ me that.” Link sent further rippling into the water with wiggling feet, red with blush and fever. “I know it was a joke.”

“Half-joke. I do miss sleeping with you. And I’ve kinda been obsessing over the fact that you won’t let me kiss you anymore. Which is why you’ve gotta get better.”

“Howsa flashlight gonna help?” Link blinked slowly, feeling his hot cheeks with the pads of wandering fingers.

Mick popped the light into lamp mode and turned off the ceiling light, leaving the room in a soft glow. Immediately the pressure in Link’s head alleviated. When Mick stepped over and shut off the cacophony of water, the pressure vanished completely, and a relieved sigh trickled from Link’s lips.

“Better?” Mick asked, looming with the lamp. The light danced on the surface of the water and cast shadows of limbs into the bottom of the tub.

So much. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” He sat the light in the floor and settled down beside the tub, retrieving the glass of water. “You need to drink. We don’t have any fever reducers, but fluids will help.” Carefully he passed the glass to Link, who frowned at it.

“It’s so cold.”

“You can dip the bottom into your bath for a minute.”

“No… I’ll deal.”

Link chugged the entire thing with halting difficulty and came up for air to a laughing Mick, who reached out and brushed the hair out of his eyes. “I didn’t say right this second.

“Get it over with,” choked Link with a cough.

Mick slipped the glass out of his hands and placed it on the floor. “Can you sit up straight?”

“Why?”

“You don’t have to wash your body if you’d rather not, but I want to give you a massage.”

Link sobered enough to meet Mick’s eyes. The mask of calmness he’d been wearing all evening hadn’t budged. Nonplussed and even, he waited patiently for Link’s answer, hands on his knees, hunched forward and at attention.

“Why?”

“‘Cause I bet you’re sore. You’ll sleep better.”

“Why do you care so much?” Link asked with burning ears. He dropped his gaze, slapped the surface of the water to distract himself.

“Because I know you don’t feel good.”

“It’s embarrassing.”

“The embarrassing part of this was how you thought you could hide it from me,” Mick smiled, reaching out and encouraging Link to turn, exposing his back. “Like we haven't been living together. Like I don’t know you better than that.”

“...I’m sorry.”

“Shhh. You’re fine. I’m not mad. It was kinda cute, actually, lettin’ you think you were sneaky. Didn’t realize it was this bad though. Should’ve put a stop to it sooner.”

Mick grabbed the soap bar and lathered it up, spreading oily bubbles over Link's shoulders and back. Even the angular push of the bar was enough to knead cough-induced bruises under Link’s skin, and he moaned in relief, resting his chin on his knees. Soon the bar was replaced with firm thumbs and fingers, which rubbed expertly slow over the knots in his muscles, doing their best to unravel them. Link let his eyes flutter shut.

Fuck, Rhett.”

A huff of amusement found his ears. “Easy with that mouth. Don’t get me all worked up back here.”

Link smirked at the wall. “Wouldn’t be the first time my mouth’s gotten you worked up. I’m a little offended that you aren’t right now, actually.”

“Seeing you ill isn’t a turn-on, Link. Even if you’re naked.” Mick’s fingers slipped up to his neck, moving in small circles and forcing him to go limp to enjoy it. Link hummed breathlessly, creating tiny rolling gurgles with each press of Mick’s hand. His boss laughed warmly. “ What are the noises you’re making right now?” 

Link giggled. “You make noises, too.”

“When?” The question had a bit more energy--a hint more indignation behind it.

“That time in your bed. When I held you. You, like… purred the entire time.”

“Did not.” Mick found his way down Link’s spine, digging into his lower back pleasantly.

Ahh. Yeah, you totally did.”

“That’s my happy growl. It’s not a purr.”

“Oh my god,” Link beamed, dizziness coming back full-force and paired with endorphins. “You have a name for it. ‘Happy growl.’ You’re like a bear.” He gasped sharply at the thought, enough to make Mick recoil from where he’d been rubbing. “You’re a grizzly bear! Brown and big and gruff. My grizz!”

“Your grizz? Oh, Jesus.” Mick wet the soap bar and applied another layer of lather to Link’s skin. The next motions were broad and sweeping, encouraging blood flow to the spots he’d been working over. “Does that make you a cub?”

Link burst into laughter, and Mick’s ministrations paused. “Cub? I’m not your kid.”

“No, but you’re small and I’m taking care of you.”

“O-Oh.”

“Cub. That’s really cute,” Mick decided softly. He cupped his hands full of water and poured them down Link’s back to rinse. The final wave of heat sealed the effects of the massage, turning Link’s spine noodly as he began to slip under the water. “Whoa, whoa!” Mick caught him, laughing. “Don’t fall asleep!”

“I’m not,” Link intoned through a huge grin. “But if I do, that’s fine. I’m super comfy. Just let me drown.”

“No! I'd have to resuscitate you and I’d really be fired.”

“Good. Then you could just leave with me.”

The bathroom stilled. Even in his sick stupor, Link realized he’d crossed a line. His throat tightened and he rotated to face Mick, hands grasping the side of the tub.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled quickly, eyes brimming.

“It’s alright.” Mick was smiling, gentle and patient. He looked down at the surface of the water, eyes far-off with a thought Link couldn’t read. “...We really need to get you to bed. You’re delirious.”

Link didn’t bother mentioning that he knew full-well what he’d said.

The tub was drained. With the plushest towel he could find, Mick helped Link dry off, seating him on the lid of the toilet so he didn't have to stand. He rubbed his calves and thighs and arms vigorously, but at the wet tips of his hair, he crimped carefully, well aware of the smaller one’s tender head. When he kicked the clothes in the floor into a corner, Link blinked sleepily. “What am I gonna wear?”

Mick wrapped him in the towel wordlessly and leaned to open the door. The cool air of the hall seeped over Link in a dragging wave and made him shiver. Same as before, Mick bent down and scooped him up in his arms as if he weighed nothing. “Come on, cub.”

“Grr," Link played along weakly. "I can walk.”

“Better safe than sorry.” Mick padded to their rooms but opened his door instead of Link’s, letting them inside and shutting it behind. “Can you hit the light for me?” Mick asked in the darkness, and Link reached blindly for the switch, flicking on the forgiving glow of fairy lights.

In one gentle movement, Mick lowered Link to the bed and removed the towel, throwing it over a ceiling wire to dry. From a duffel bag in the corner he retrieved a set of flannel pajamas three sizes too big for Link, and held them up. “Yes?”

“Yeah,” Link nodded. Giddy at the notion of wearing Mick’s nightwear, he tried to stand.

“Nope. Here.” Meticulously, Mick helped Link into the soft folds of clothing, careful to let him keep his weight on the bed.

“Thank you, Rhett,” Link mumbled dreamily, squishing his arms against his chest and rubbing to enjoy the way the fabric slipped and tingled against his skin. He loved how the sleeves went way past his fingertips, how the pants were too loose and sank past his hip bones when he wiggled. “These are nice. I can go to bed now.”

Mick stopped and smirked down at him, hands on his waist. “You’re sleeping in here.”

“What?! No, Rhett. I’ll get you sick. This was fun, and you take great care of me, and I miss you--a lot-- but it’s really a bad idea.”

“Don’t care. If you try to go back to your bed, I’ll just follow you.” Mick slunk out of his shirt, not bothering to replace it. He pulled his blankets from under Link, who rolled onto the mattress slowly. “Tired of you runnin' from me, snowflake.”

Link frowned. There was no way he was going to be able to deny Mick--not when the care and closeness he’d been giving him all evening had been so cherished. He wanted to sleep with Mick. Had been given permission bordering order to. But he gulped, his scratchy throat reminding him one more time. “You’re gonna wake up sick.”

“I don’t care.”

Mick turned off the lights and found the bed, his warmth and weight thrilling the brunette and making him sleepy and cuddly. Once they were side to side, Mick leaned over and kissed Link, chaste and long, allowing an unsteady inhale like it was a fix for which he’d been itching for months.

“Fucking finally," he sighed against his lips, and Link broke into goosebumps.

 

Chapter Text

Dear Link,

I promised Chase he’d be allowed to write this email, but after I saw him turn on caps lock, he lost that privilege really fast. It’s honestly amazing he has a professional bone in his body.

Getting back to working in a normal lab in a real building with tons of other people has been bizarre. As Chase so eloquently puts it, ‘at least in Antarctica, we felt special.’ I guess that means we both miss being down there. Lol.

We hope the camping trip went well! Sounds kinda batshit crazy, but hey. You wanna go sleep on the ice for a night for no reason other than ‘it’ll be fun,’ you do you. :P

Feelings for Mick? Wow. Honestly, when we read that, neither of us knew what to say to each other for a minute. We talked about how you two seemed so, like… hot and cold. Chase insists

I KNEW IT THE WHOLE TIME. You don’t leave me on the couch and run off TWICE to go comfort someone you don’t feel strongly about!!! -c

Yeah, he insists he knew. Lol. I was surprised, though.

But… you know, the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. You did complement each other pretty seamlessly. And no offense, but you kinda followed him everywhere. I know he’s your boss, but uh. You stuck to him like char on the $130 pan Chase ruined.

Does Mick make you happy? Is he kind to you? Does he take care of you?

Do you think he feels the same way?

He seems so reserved and focused on his work that it’s hard to imagine him being caring or whatever, but that’s probably just us. Chase is pestering me to mention that you got him to ‘open up,’ like you’ll know what he’s talking about? I feel like that’s a pretty universal saying, but he says you talked about it once. Lol.

Don’t worry. We won’t tell anyone--not even Jen. She seems to be having trouble connecting to the internet, anyway. But you’d better keep us updated!

No matter what happens, we’re rooting for you.

We want you to be happy.

Hugs,
Josh & Chase

Link clicked into the reply window and typed.

Hey guys!

It’s so quiet down here without you two, so I think it’s safe to say that 466 misses you, too. I sure as heck miss ya.

Sorry, I feel like me mentioning the thing with Mick kind of commandeered our correspondence. I didn’t mean for it to, I just… I needed to get it off my chest, and there’s no one else who would understand. Y’know? Thanks for being open-minded and so supportive about it, though. You guys are the best.

There’s no doubt Mick would throttle me or fire me or whatever if he knew I was telling you this, but I caught the flu from our camping trip (whoda thunk it lol) and Mick basically… nursed me back to health? Gosh, that’s embarrassing to share. But he did. He took care of me the entire week at the risk of getting himself sick, which, thank goodness that didn’t happen.

We’ve shared some really special moments. He has a short fuse, but underneath that is one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met.

Fingers hesitated over the keyboard. Link peered into the kitchen to steal a look at the man preparing dinner. The way his cream cable-knit sweater hung from his shoulders and pooled at his waist. The calmness with which he stirred their food before leaning against the counter, opening his book to continue reading through spectacles. The lilt of his messy golden hair, the uneven tips of his beard that needed trimming.

He was perfect.

I’m in love with him.

When the words came, they came as true and undeniable as any fact Link had ever known.

I can’t believe that soon, he won’t be in my life anymore.

He swallowed in refusal to let a lump home in his throat.

...sorry. I hate thinking about it, but lately it’s all I can think about.

It’ll be okay though. At the risk of being sappy, I have to admit that you two, Jen, and Mick have given me the happiest time in my life so far. I wish it didn’t have to end. But everything does. Right? Everything good ends eventually. One way or another.

“Link,” Mick said softly, his name floating to his ears from the kitchen.

Link didn’t have to look up to know what it meant. “Coming.”

Dinnertime. I’ll write again soon.

Miss you both,
Link

Send.

Same as last time, he stood, logged out, replaced the laptop on the shelf, and joined his partner.

The table was already set, save for their drinks, which Link hurried to fetch as Mick took a seat.

“Oh. Sorry, I forgot.”

“S’okay.” With two glasses of water Link settled across from him, passing one over. Their plates were inviting and steamy, deep with servings of fettuccine Alfredo. The creamy, peppery bouquet made Link’s mouth water, and he scooped up his fork. “Thank you for cooking.”

“Mmhm. Who emailed you?” Mick stuffed a tiny sprig of broccoli into his mouth and chewed.

“Josh and Chase. They miss being down here. D’you believe that?” chuckled Link. He twined the pasta onto tines and lifted the bite into the air, giving it time to cool. “Back in civilization and missing a wasteland.”

“You can’t relate to that thought?” Mick smirked. He picked up his drink, speaking around the rim. “I’m wounded.”

“No, I can. Just… they’re there together, you know?” Link shook his head and ate. He let the mouthful excuse him from elaborating, already guilty he’d said something so brazen.

Mick took a long gulp of his water, eyes reaching to the ceiling. Then he cleared his throat with a cough. “Glad it wasn’t your parents, emailing you. Sometimes I think other people are still lucky to have theirs, but… it’s not always good.”

“Yeah… sorry.”

“Don’t apologize.”

Link poked at his food, brow furrowed. When Mick froze as well, he could feel eyes on him, waiting. Apparently he knew Link better than Link had realized.

“You wanna ask somethin’.”

“Can I?”

“Again with this.” Mick sighed a smile. “Go ‘head.”

“What… happened?” Thankfully the air over their dinner didn’t change. When Link spared a timid glance up, the man looked knowing, almost bored. Like he’d been prepared for this talk and knew it was only a matter of time.

“I was in college. We were all going out to dinner--they were visiting Chicago.”

“You’re from Chicago?” Link didn’t mean to interrupt, but the revelation was surprising for some reason.

“No. Went to university there. From North Carolina--same as you.” Mick pointed with his fork. “But once I moved away, I never moved back. Couldn’t bring myself to go ‘home.’”

“Sorry.” Link chastised himself internally, ignoring his food. “Please. Continue.”

“You’re fine. Anyway, my parents had my older brother in their car, on the way to the restaurant, and a drunk driver ran a red light. Mom and Dad never saw the hospital. When I got there, they told me Cole had just passed, too.”

The ease with which Mick spoke of the incident made Link’s stomach flip. Images of a younger Rhett flooded his mind, of Rhett bursting through sterile double doors, clothes a mess from running too hard and chest heaving from the push of seconds passing, only to be restrained by medical staff as he fought in vain to see his only brother one last time.

He must’ve been wearing his reception on his face, as Mick leaned forward and caught his gaze.

“It’s really okay. It was twenty years ago.”

Appetite lost, Link pressed his hand to his mouth to excuse it from work. “My god, Rhett. How do you recover from something like that?”

Mick blinked and gestured to their surroundings with a small smile. “I already told you.”

“But… I mean, you were a student at the time, right? How did you keep your life from falling apart? How did you end up here?”

“Dove into research,” Mick shrugged, having the gall to eat as he spoke. “I didn’t handle them passing away very well. The girl I’d been seeing dumped me. Said it was weird that I didn’t mourn. All I did was study. Every ounce of what was left of me, I used for my future. And a lot of time passed, and… here I am.”

“Jesus.”

“Will you stop with the dead-eyed look?” Mick laughed and slapped the top of the table once, breaking Link from his trance. “I don’t need your pity. I’m really okay. I like my life now. Taking this job turned out to be a great choice for me. I’m suited to the work.”

“Y-Yeah.” Link nodded, squinting as Mick stuffed more pasta in his mouth. “Okay.”

“Got to meet you, didn’t I?” It was endearing, being asked through a grateful smirk and cheeks full of food. Link’s chest warmed briefly, and he wondered how Jen or Chase or Josh would’ve reacted to seeing Mick like this. He let himself pretend--just for a heartbeat--that this was their home together. That it was one of thousands of dinners left to come, and that there was no end in sight for enjoying one another’s presence.

“That’s true. Yeah.”

“See? The universe paid me back.”

“You’re gonna…” Link stopped himself.

You’re gonna lose me, too, had been the point on his tongue. But the last thing he wanted to do was take steps in the wrong direction and sour the weirdly good nature Mick had wiggled into at being able to confide in someone. When he realized Mick was waiting for him to finish the thought, Link swallowed and forced a chuckle.

He couldn’t admit specific truths--neither the sad one nor the other, fresh in his mind from the email. But he could keep Mick happy, at least. It counted for something. It mattered, right now.

“You’re gonna choke if you don’t take smaller bites.”

Mick’s eyes creased in smile.

 

Chapter Text

Each morning that Link’s eyes opened to the sleeping figure of Mick overwhelmed him with gratitude. They had worked into a pattern of rising and falling that Link knew he was taking for granted--a system of welcoming every new day that he would miss like air for his lungs once he didn’t have the privilege anymore.

He always woke before Mick.

He would bask in their joint warmth, run his hands along Mick’s bare chest and hips. Re-memorize how his eyelids purpled with sleep, how slow his breath came. And when he was full on the reassurance that it wouldn’t be the last time, Link would lean in and kiss Mick into existence.

His favorite was when Mick would smile sleepily under his lips and pull him on top of him, begging for five more minutes of fingers carding through hair before they had to subject themselves to the outside world.

Link could never say no. Those waking moments were invaluable.

Which is why, when Link roused before the alarm and Mick was nowhere to be seen, the hurt was palpable. He’d been robbed of a morning he would never get back. Disgruntled, he sat up, scowling at his door and listening. Sure enough, if he concentrated he could hear Mick in the living room. Talking.

The iridium phone. How had Link slept through a phone call?

Fatigue abandoned him as every assumption under the moon flitted through his head, cold as ice: another food shortage; something back in the states needed their attention; they were getting new team members; one of them was being called home early.

The higher-ups had found out about their relations.

He crawled from bed and tiptoed to the open doorway, where he pressed his forehead to the searing cold frame and listened, wide-eyed and vision bleary.

“Yes… Yes.” Mick’s meager contributions only paranoid Link further. “I know it’s a big deal--it’s certainly not lost on me, ma’am. Yes. But are you sure? I don’t think that’s necessary.”

Link didn’t dare to breath, heart kicking against his rib cage.

“Alright then. Understood. If you think that’s warranted, then yes, ma’am.” There was a pause, and it took all of Link’s restraint not to snatch his glasses and check Mick’s expression in the lull. “I’ll tell Doctor Neal.”

Link clutched the fabric at the front of his shirt, wringing it tight with nerves.

“Yes, ma’am. Thank you. Goodbye.” There was a soft beep when Mick hung up.

Slipping on his glasses, Link leaned into the hallway to get his first look at Mick. Still in his wool sweatpants, freckled shoulders slumped forward. He held the phone in his lap, staring down at it. Bumping the thing against his thigh twice, he stood and returned it to its charger. With an exhausted sigh he rubbed the back of his neck and turned, starting towards the hallway.

“Rhett,” Link said bluntly. The man in question nearly jumped out of his skin.

“Holy sh--gosh.” He smiled weakly, and closed the distance between them, gazing down at Link’s eyelashes. “Didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“What was that about?” Link bit his lip, searching Mick’s face for something--anything.

“Amundsen-Scott. We have the day off.” Mick’s blinks were slow and easy.

“What? Why? Did something happen?”

“Wouldn’t you rather go back to bed?” Mick tipped forward and gave him a kiss on the forehead, which Link received with a strange mixture of annoyance and adoration.

“Please tell me. It’s bad, isn’t it?” The words trembled just a bit, earning an incredulous, confused smirk.

“No. No, cub. It’s great, actually. Our latest readings indicated that there’s something of significance under the ice out there. They called to congratulate us. They’re gonna come out and excavate once our shift is up.” He put his hands on Link’s arms to stroke up and down. “Good news. We get the day off while they examine numbers, as a little reward.”

“Oh, god,” Link breathed, sinking his head to Mick’s bare chest.

The blonde chuckled warmly. “So quick to panic. We’re okay, darlin’.”

“I kinda freaked out.”

“Everything’s fine. I was gonna come back to bed and tell you.”

“I… I’m so scared of the time we have left being short-changed.” Link grimaced at the confession, let his eyelids fall when Mick’s arms secured on his shoulders and squeezed him into a hug.

“Don’t worry about that.” Mick pressed his lips to the shell of Link’s ear, speaking low and affectionate. “I won’t let that happen. I’ve got you for another six weeks. So instead of panicking about the future, why don’t we enjoy ourselves now?”

Mick had said we, but the word should’ve been you,  Link knew; he  was the only one having trouble relaxing in their allotted time, it seemed. “I don’t know how.”

“Well,” Mick’s breath was wet and hot and sent chills up Link’s back. “Why don’t we start by getting back into bed? We can drift off and wake up again naturally. Doesn’t that sound nice?”

“And then what?” Link’s words were muffled in scattered chest hair, and Mick huffed a gentle laugh.

“We’ll have all day together, and I will give you my undivided attention. We can do whatever you like--cuddle, cook together, take a bath, do puzzles, fuck, read--anything. It’ll be great.” Mick slipped a hand under Link’s jaw and rubbed, not trying to draw his attention. Just leisuring. “Does that sound good, baby?”

Link blushed fiercely at the intimacy of the new pet name and nodded, stress falling from his shoulders. He was tempted to laugh at himself for needing so much encouragement, but Mick could laugh for both of them while he was still so fragile. Being vulnerable was okay, he reminded himself.

“That sounds perfect, Rhett.”

“There ya go. C’mon. Let’s get back into bed.”

“Back into bed, hmm?” With levity came mischief, and Link leered. “What was one of the things you listed?” He found the courage to drop his hand to Mick’s pants and palm his sleep-heavy dick--casual enough to radiate comfort and ownership.

Mick startled, breaking into a rolling chuckle and collecting Link’s wrists, pulling them away and shepherding him back into his room. “Later. I promise. I’m so tired, Neal. Just let me rest some more.”

Link allowed himself to be pushed onto the mattress. “Maybe if you’d stop staying up so late…” He grinned.

“Oh, so it’s my fault that you get so needy when you’re sleepy?” Mick hovered over the brunette on his hands and knees, smiling down at him in self-indulgence. “No more Eskimo kisses, then. Your nose is always super cold.”

“Fine.” Link wiggled his hips in challenge and felt his shirt ride up on his tummy. The back of his mind hoped the exposed skin was enticing. “No more reach-arounds.”

Mick mock-frowned deeply, eyes flicking down once. “Giving or receiving?”

“Both.”

“So unfair. Like you didn’t start those in the first place. While I was sleeping, no less.”

“You woke up pretty fast. Pretty loud, too.” Link reveled in the way Mick’s ears turned red.

“Somnophile.”

“Only with you. Didn’t hear you complaining, once you realized what was happening.”

Mick growled and leaned in to kiss Link’s neck, allowing his full weight to slide down onto him in one smooth movement. “Like hell I’d complain.”

Link’s chest swelled. He shifted to throw the blanket over Mick’s bare shoulders, tamped down his explicit impulses from the heft and shape of the man he cherished pushing him into the mattress. He punched his pillow once in adjustment and cleared his throat. “Should I set an alarm?”

“Nah. Let me have this,” Mick slurred, already half-unconscious against Link’s bosom, small and cared for. “But if you happen to wake up before me, go ahead and wake me up, too. Can’t have you bein’ alone.” He yawned so deeply that Link marveled at his lung capacity.

“Sleepy grizz,” Link sang quietly, playing with Mick’s hair. “Night, sleepy grizz.”

“Mmm.”

Only one of them drifted back to sleep; the other was too enamored to let the moment slip away.

 

Chapter Text

“You did not ,” Link protested through laughter, nudging up his glasses. “No!”

“Swear to god,” Mick nodded, beaming at the ballooned Jiffy Pop in his lap. “I killed that car. I hated it so much.” He plucked another piece of popcorn and readied his throw, giving Link time to open his mouth along the predicted trajectory. When it flew across the length of the couch, Link ducked and caught it on his tongue. Mick grinned in satisfaction and took another palm-full for himself. “It was so stupid of me, honestly. There was never a guarantee I was gonna get another car, but man, I hated that thing.”

Mick’s arms around him at the stove that morning, caressing up under his shirt as pancakes cooked on the griddle. The smell of sweat and sleep and coffee breath. The arch of stretching back meeting chest and hips. The growl of appreciation at curves and closeness, of kisses planted in crooks of necks.

“Never knew you were so spoiled,” giggled Link, shaking his head in disbelief. When he wiggled his toes to grasp onto Mick’s bare feet, the other could only push back, lacking that dexterity.

“Grabby toes, freakin’ me out. Stop!”

“You stop!”

“I’m not doin’ anything!” Mick tossed the popcorn to the coffee table and dove in for tickles, trying to catch the elusive digits. Link squealed and scooted away, falling into the floor.

“Rhett, no! Seriously, don’t tickle me!”

Warm water and jokes about bringing books into bathtubs that afternoon. Of ‘we need to trim your beard,’ and ‘look who’s talking,’ smoothly followed by ‘have I ever told you how much I like your gray?’ Soft blushes under yellow light, and shampoo rinsed from heads tilted to expose flesh that implored lips and feathered touches.

“You’re such a dork! C’mere!”

“No!” Link flipped and speed-crawled away into the kitchen, leaving Rhett doubled over from cackles in their blankets.

“You--you just scuttled off like a freakin’ gremlin!”

Link sat, eyes wild and wide, shell-shocked smile plastered on while he stared from the tile. “Well don’t tickle me!”

The darkness that fell over Mick’s face as he threw off his blankets drew another thrilled screech from Link, who did his best to crawl under the kitchen table as Mick gave chase.

“What did that part mean,” at dinner. The judicious glance over both pairs of glasses and plates as cool irises met. The shift and rest of the book as Mick turned didactic, unearthing the intent of lines purposefully open for interpretation. The give and take of “what do you think it meant” and no wrong answers as socked feet met below, brushing.

“C’mere!” Mick reached under the table and hesitated to grab Link’s ankle--a pause that the smaller one read all too clearly. Immediately guilty, he came out of hiding.

“Sorry.” He wasted no time dusting himself off, standing to meet those green eyes. “I won’t run.”

Mick smirked. “Then I won’t tickle you.”

“‘Preciate it.”

He shifted closer, and Link braced himself for contact before Mick ducked off to the side, stepping over to the cold store. “I think it’s time to actually celebrate our findings.”

“What?” Link spun and watched as Mick pulled out a frosty bottle of red wine. “Whoa. How long have we had that?!”

“Been hiding it. It was actually, uh, supposed to be for that… apology dinner I cooked. But then we started talking about the booze at Jen’s party, and it didn’t feel right all of a sudden.” Mick set it on the table and fetched a corkscrew from the utensil drawer.

“We… we were supposed to have wine that night?” As if the candlelight hadn’t screamed ‘romance’ hard enough. Link’s heart fluttered at the memory while Mick uncorked the thing with a loud pop, vapor billowing from the bottle’s neck. “Huh. Do we have wine glasses?”

“No, but we have normal glasses. Or we could just drink straight from the bottle.” Mick shrugged.

“Let’s… let’s use glasses,” Link snorted, eyeing the selection. “I don’t want to feel like I have a drinking problem if we’re celebrating.”

“Done. I’ll bring it, if you wanna go sit on the couch.”

Link did as he was told, pulling his feet up onto the cushions and crossing his legs. “What goes with drinking? Is there a second activity while we celebrate?”

“I thought we could keep talking, if you wanted. Whatever you want, snowflake.” Mick rejoined him, setting their cups of freshly poured crimson and the opened bottle on the coffee table.

With a squint and a smile, Link retrieved his. “Why are you so keen on giving me whatever I want today? You’ve been saying that since we woke up. My birthday was weeks ago, you don’t have to keep doin’ this kinda stuff.”

“I know I don’t,” Mick grunted. He resumed his position on the opposite end of the couch. “Like seeing you happy, is all.”

Link gulped, taking down more wine than he’d intended. He licked his lips clean and shuddered at the unfamiliar dryness of the Chianti. “What about you? What would make you happy?”

“Anything that makes you smile.” Mick stared with a level gaze, making Link’s ears hot. “You’ve… you’ve not been smiling much lately, snowflake.”

As if on command, Link’s lips pursed. He flexed and stretched his toes against the forgiving couch, drawing Mick’s eye. “Sorry. I’ve been fixating.”

“I can tell.”

“How… how are you okay with it?” murmured Link, gluing his focus to his drink. It was dark enough to look like coffee, but a quick swirl stained the sides of the cup red. “You seem to be fine, even though we’re in the same boat.”

He didn’t miss the way Mick brought a thumbnail to his mouth to chew, just for a second. The bad habit was quickly replaced with a sip of wine. “Don’t have a choice. This way is easiest.”

“I want to come back, you know.” Link curled his fingers around his glass.

“What?”

“Yeah. I wanna come back and see you. I’m gonna try to get placed on your team again.” Forcing himself to look up, Link zipped their gazes together. “I… I hope you’re okay with that, ‘cause my mind is made up.”

Mick couldn’t hold the contact, which squeezed Link’s heart in answer enough. They both drank--longer than before, with Mick nearly draining his glass. With a small cough he glanced over at the professor, flitting and unpinned. “You can try.”

“I’m going to.”

“Link…”

“It’s okay. You don’t have to say anything. I know what this is. I’m not deluding myself into thinking it’s sustainable.” The ceiling light's reflection danced on the surface of his wine. “I just… I have to try. One more time.”

The wounded look on Mick’s features stayed there as he set his empty glass on the table and knelt across the space between them. He took Link’s drink from him gently and pulled him into a deep kiss tasting of spice and cherry.

Link melted under the care, hands taking their rightful place on either side of Mick’s face, thumbs running through his beard. A happy hum morphed Mick’s injury into smile, and he pulled back for air, both of them more breathless than was warranted for a kiss.

“That’s a really sweet thought, Link. But don’t get hung up on it. Yeah?”

Hearing it made Link realize he already had been--placing hopes of a future onto something that couldn’t possibly be guaranteed. Throat sticky, he cleared it to make room for a question. “Would you put in a good word for me, if I did re-apply?”

Mick’s brow furrowed and tilted, somber. He cradled the back of Link’s skull in the same way he always did, eyes roaming his face and lingering on the forest of peppered stubble on his chin. He swallowed. “It feels like I’m helping delay the inevitable.”

Link shook his head adamantly. “That’s not an answer.”

Through a weak smile, Mick nodded, planting another kiss on Link’s soft lips. This one was careful and reserved. “Of course, I would.”

Perhaps it was the hypothetical phrasing, or maybe the kiss spoke more than the words themselves, but Link’s eyes burned. He knew Mick better than that. He knew when he said one thing and meant another, when he was saying things and making empty commitments simply for Link’s benefit. More painful than being lied to on this precipice was that evidently, Link hadn’t earned the privilege of not being coddled like a child. When the heat slipped down his cheek and Mick pulled back in surprise, Link cursed.

“I wish you had the balls to be honest with me.”

Mick’s face went contrite. He sighed through his nose and set Link’s glass down so he could rub at his eyes. “I can’t make any promises, Link. I don’t want it to sound like I’m making a vow I’ll end up breaking. If you happen to come back down here, the chances of us being on the same team again…” He slipped his hand into Link’s, squeezing. “Well, they’re not abysmal, but they’re not great. I really wish...”

“What?”

“I wish you’d stop envisioning a future together.” Even with such a statement, Mick’s arms found their way around Link’s shoulders, pulling him in and crushing him close. Link felt his lip tremble, vision blur. “That way, if it doesn’t happen, you’ll be okay. And if it does… well. It’ll be a nice surprise, if I get to see you again.”

“Fuck, Rhett.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I feel like you don’t care.”

“But I do. I care a lot.” Mick pressed his beard into Link’s hair, sheltering and protective. “There’s gonna be someone after me, you know. There’s so much more left for you out there. I’m just… this chapter. Yeah?”

Tears fell freely now, wetting Mick’s chest in the silence. Link slipped off his glasses and pressed his face into Mick’s breast, thinking of the email he’d sent just days ago as the man cocooning him continued.

“But this chapter’s gonna end. I’m not the whole story, darlin’. I’m not the happy ending--he’s still somewhere out there, waitin’ for you to come home.”

“I don’t want him,” Link breathed. He snaked his arms about Mick, clutching them together.  “I want you.”

“I know, snowflake. I can see it in everything you do--in everything you are. You were made for me.”

“Then why don’t you want me, too?” Link could picture Mick’s eyes fluttering shut with the sigh he heaved. “I’m yours. Take me.”

“Don’t talk like that. You don’t want this life, baby.”

“You won’t try for me. At all.”

“You have no idea how hard I’m trying, Neal.”

Mick’s admission was fragile enough that shame coursed through Link. He craned his neck up and kissed his jawline, and with a sudden urgency Mick snapped down and caught the kiss, pushing into Link and tearing whimpers from his wine-coated throat. In an instant his hands were up Link’s shirt, toying with his nipples to pluck gasps from him.

“You say you’re mine, but you have no idea just how much I’m yours, too.” His lips were wet and heavy against Link’s, sending tingles of electricity down his very being. “There’s more chapters for you--but you’re my entire book.”

Link balked under the scratching beard at the base of his neck, the flurry of kisses jumping on repeat from mouth to skin. The embarrassing noises that slipped from his tongue only served to feed the larger one’s furor and greed. Not once did the attention at his chest ease. Unable to properly give back, he rolled his hips to slip underneath Mick and whined.

When the quickly stiffening bulge in Link’s pants slotted and rubbed perfectly into the clothed dip of Mick’s ass, the blonde was hit with an arresting, open-mouthed shiver that ignited Link’s blood.

“H-Holy shit,”  whispered Link, sure that the color of his own face matched Mick’s blushing neck. Time slowed. Their eye contact was wide and teetering and lasted through Link biting his inner cheek and thrusting up against him again.

Mick’s sharp inhale--the way a lock of hair fell from its perfect placement onto his forehead, the revealing tent at the front of his jeans, how he placed his massive hands on Link’s chest to steady himself--it all flushed Link in preparation. His breath grew shallow, lids fell low as he watched the effect on Mick, eyes devouring this side of him.

“What were you saying, Rhett?” he drawled, licking his lips and fastening his hands to Mick’s waist.

Mick’s face twisted in a beautiful combination of humiliation, anger, and lust. When he opened his mouth, Link brought him down hard against his cock, arching his back to get a good hit. It worked.

Ahh!”  Mick keened, his surprisingly slender hips squirming in Link’s grasp. One foot slipped from the couch to rest on the floor, trying to put distance between them in some bid for dignity, but Link reached out and pulled his knee forward, returning all of Mick’s weight against his pelvis.

“Say it again.”

“Jesus Christ, Link.” Face red enough to match the wine, Mick answered his best. “I… I said I’m yours?”

“Are you asking me or telling me?”

“...t-telling you,” Mick admitted, looking up and away--suddenly small and ripe for picking. “I’m yours.”

Link let the grip on his hip bones relax, instead reaching up and trailing his fingertips against Mick’s throat, tracing his veins. If Mick had spent all day trying to make Link happy, he’d been grooming him for this. It wasn’t Link’s fault that he suddenly knew what he wanted, more than he’d ever wanted anything. He tangled his hand up into his coiffed hair and forced acknowledgment from him.

“You ever been fucked before, Mick?”

He hadn’t thought it was possible for Mick to redden further, but his ears turned a lovely shade of purple at the question. When paired with the abject horror on his face, it was a good look on the man, whose mouth opened but no words came out.

“Answer me,” Link commanded, grinding slowly up into him again.

When Mick found the voice to respond, it broke about four different ways. “No.”

“What was that?”

“No… s-sir?”

Link frowned and pulled the hair in his fist, earning a whine that drove Mick’s eyes shut in embarrassment. “Closer. I think you’ve forgotten something.”

“I don’t--I, uh… shit,” Mick whispered shakily, forcing his eyes open when he realized what was missing. “Never, doctor.”

The satisfied leer in response was enough to quake Mick. “There you go. Was that so hard?”

“Li--Doctor Neal, I…” He hesitated, blush-beaten and pupils blown wide.

Link rubbed a loving hand on the strain of Mick’s jeans, coaxing wave after wave of shivers and shallow breaths. It was hard not to smile. How badly had Mick needed to relinquish control like this, and for how long? “You can speak, Rhett.”

Mick swallowed, attention bolted to Link’s face. His hands twitched on his chest--wanting to move and act, but not having permission--or, hell, maybe even the agency. “I wanna… I want to,” he pushed out in a ragged breath.

“You want to what?” Link knew what he meant, but the squirming was making both of them harder.

With a groan, Mick ground down onto his cock--a pretty picture of willingness that made Link lightheaded. “I want to be fucked. I want you to fuck me,” Mick growled, somehow maintaining eye contact from fields of blush.

Link pulled him down and kissed him hard, dry thrusting up into him and letting the harsh gyration of his hips spill mewls from Mick’s throat. When the kiss broke, Link rattled off fervent orders, riding the thrill of what was going to happen--taking it and running with it. “Go into my room. Undress--completely. In the side pocket of my bag is a small bottle of lube. Get it.”

Mick’s chest hitched. “You have lube?”

“It’s mine… but I’m kind enough to share, considering you’re mine, too. Gotta take care of my toy.” Link flashed a wicked smile when Mick wobbled with heat above him. “Don’t come out until I say so.” He almost chewed out Mick for not responding before finding his way to Link’s room, but the man was doing his best. It was endearing. Link stood and let out a long exhale.

If Mick wasn’t going to let this relationship go into the future, Link needed some form of control over the present. A way to memorialize it and bring it back to the states with him.

Pictures would have been a good start, but ideally, he would have some sort of footage of Mick--of their 'time' together. It was a half-formed plan… but the thought of returning home to a video in his email of Mick being fucked senseless by  him  was too enticing to pass up.

Quietly as he could, Link booted up a laptop, opened the recording app for the built-in webcam. He pointed the camera at the couch, hit record, and turned the screen brightness all the way down.

Mick wouldn’t notice. He wouldn’t be expecting it. As far as secretly recording them, there was a part of Link that didn’t feel good about that--but Mick had made it clear: he didn’t want to try maintaining anything past this.

So, Link felt owed a souvenir. Besides--he was in charge today. Whatever he wanted.

When he returned to the couch and began stripping, his mind rushed back to the gutter--to Mick squirming over-top of him and whimpering like a slut for his cock, of how hard he’d been in his jeans at the suggestion of being taken. How eager he was to have Link inside of him, how tight and hot he would be for him, all slicked up--the brunette grinned as he slipped off his underwear and kicked the clothes across the floor. Mick was thicker than him, but he was undoubtedly longer. And Link couldn’t wait to remind him.

He positioned himself on the couch with legs spread apart, his prick rigid and red and ready against his stomach. Running a hand through his hair, he hoped it was a memorable picture for his partner. “Where’s my Rhett?” he called, proud that his voice was deep with command in the silence.

The bedroom door opened at the mouth of the hall, and Mick emerged. Timid and flushed from his shoulders up, completely exposed. His member bobbed with each step he took, and he grabbed the thick of it self-consciously, holding himself in one hand and the little bottle of lube in the other. He paused in the kitchen, staring at Link on display. “I’m here.”

“Well, get over here,” Link instructed, pointing to his lap. Mick nodded and picked up his pace, only stopping when his shins bumped Link’s knees, hedging on what to do.

“Don’t worry, Rhett. I’m not gonna leave anything up to you.” Link patted the couch beside him. “Why don’t you lay down and suck me off?”

Such explicit commands made Mick’s thighs tremble, eliciting a twitch from Link’s now-leaking cock. He lowered himself onto the indicated space, letting Link take the lube from him easily.

Maintaining his composure in the face of Mick preparing to give him head was one of the hardest things Link had ever done. All he could resign himself to was heavy breaths and intense observation as Mick’s large hands reached up and got acquainted with him. How he tested the weight of his dick and leaned forward to spit on the head, pulling an impatient growl from Link.

“You want it or not?” Link bit off.

Mick blushed and let his tongue slip out, tasting him for the first time, swirling around his slit and making Link hiss. He barely had time to enjoy it before Mick’s eyes fluttered shut, and he stretched his lips on him, taking him up into his perfect mouth.

The visual of Mick sucking him--his facial hair adding a layer of scratchy tingles to the heat, the way his head began to bob as he tried to find a rhythm--Link steeled himself against the onslaught, glancing up at the laptop and feeling blessed that it wouldn’t be a one-time show.

“Someone’s wanted this for a long time,” Link stated as Mick tried to take him down as far as he could--only about a third of Link’s length, but the effort was endearing, and Link placed a guiding hand on the back of Mick’s head as the man hummed in embarrassment. “Move your tongue more. Think about how you’d wanna be serviced.”

After a pause of thought, Mick continued, and Link groaned at the changes he’d made: tongue massaging the ridges of his head, suction gentler but more steady, a hand stroking the part he couldn’t swallow. “Fuck, that’s good, Rhett. Or should I call you boss?” Link intoned, drunk on the wet of Mick’s care. “You like the taste of my cock, boss?”

Mick looked like he wanted to answer, but instead his eyes screwed shut bashfully, blush fierce as ever.

“That was rhetorical--you obviously do. Don’t you know it’s rude to talk with your mouth full?” He moved his hand from Mick’s head to stroke down along his back, feeling the goosebumps that joined the freckles there and smiling. He leaned to watch the slope of his backside, noticed for the first time how he was rutting gently into the cushions. “Tsk. You’re gonna make a mess,” Link managed, low and throaty. “Don't do that. Support your weight.”

Mick did, shifting onto his hands and knees, ass propped into the air. Link didn’t have to think about it when he popped open the bottle of lube and poured some into his palm. He spared a glimpse to check on Mick, making sure he was still enjoying himself. The man was throbbing between his legs, angry and neglected. Just the way Link wanted him.

Mick hesitated, eyes flicking up to Link’s.

Link played with the wetness on his hand, warming it up. “What?”

Mick swallowed, trembling as he pulled away from his duty. “Is… is that flavored, or somethin'?”

“Nope. Don’t worry about what I’m doin’.” He nodded to his cock. “C’mon, kitten. Don’t make me face-fuck you.”

Mick moaned on him loudly, and Link had to flex his thighs at the spike of pleasure. Fuck, Mick had really needed this.

Lubricant warmed, Link found the cleft of Mick’s ass, reaching down to smear the wetness at his hole like he’d done it a million times before. Mick gasped sharp--enough for Link to pop out of his mouth again--but he wasted no time fixing the error, shooting a look that sought mercy at his new superior.

Link smirked. “You learn quick.” He let his fingers rub over Mick’s entrance in turns--played with him sloppily and pushed nonchalant through the ring of muscle there, trying not to lose his head at the promised heat and tightness.

Concentration was getting difficult; Mick seemed to be taking notes on what got the best noises out of him and was hammering those moves on a hard loop. Or maybe it was having Mick skewered between his cock and exploring fingers that was quickly pooling the heat in Link’s gut.

“Shit,” Link grunted, reaching and stretching Mick on scissoring fingers, unable to take much more of his mouth. “You’re good at this, Mick. I'll come in your throat, if you aren't careful.”

Mick couldn’t stop shaking, thrusting into the nothingness below him with high whimpers. He’d had enough.

“Stop.”

He obeyed instantly, resting his temple against Link’s thigh and gasping shallow breaths. “Snowflake,"  he begged breathlessly, the air of it hitting Link's shaft. A slip-up in their role-play--but one Link didn't have the heart to correct as his entire body burned at the cherished nickname. That would be on the recording, too.

“I know. You’re all prepped now--and I am too. You ready?”

Mick collected his wits, forced his fists to his knees in a bid not to touch himself... restraint Link appreciated with a small, power-hungry smile. “Where--where do you want me?”

“Sit on my cock, babe.” The instruction was simple, but after Link shot a glimpse at the laptop, he added, “Face out.”

Amazed that his legs still worked, Mick stood and shifted to give Link a full view of his dripping hole. He was ready.

“Hands on my thighs. Lower yourself onto me.” He’d wanted the words to be domineering, but couldn’t help the tone of care and concern that eked out with them. With a shake of his head, he tried to banish it from the fantasy, guiding Mick’s hips down.

Having Mick in between his hands, about to be used like a fuck toy--the first time he’d ever been fucked--knocked the breath out of Link and surged him into that moment. Maybe he could afford to be a little gentle.

Mick's grip was hard on Link as he lowered himself inch by inch, and when Link pressed the head of his cock against him, he squeezed hard enough to leave bruises.

“Shit. Sorry,” Mick mumbled, and Link stroked a thumb on his waist.

“You’re fine. Keep comin’. Don’t keep me waiting, Rhett.”

The encouragement did the trick. Mick anchored himself and pushed back, and suddenly Link was inside of him, filling him up gradually, wracking him with shivers as he tried to adjust to the leap in size.

“Holy--oh, fuck,” Mick gasped, halting to collect himself.

Link grit his teeth, doing his best not to let Mick hear what he was doing to him. “You’re… you’re really tight.” Link observed, feeling stupid and way closer to release than he realized. Mick's fault, entirely.

“You’re so big,” Mick said softly, still grasping his thighs like life rafts in a storm. “Are you all the way in?”

Link frowned at the space between their hips. “'Bout halfway.”

“Oh, Christ.”

“You need to relax. Let me… hang on.” Link bit his lip and concentrated, sunk his fingers into Mick’s flesh to keep the man elevated as he began to thrust short and shallow up into him. The only thing better than the intense heat and pleasure it immediately fed to his lust was listening to how Mick’s gasps went from sharp and pained to languid and slutty, like Link’s cock was the answer to every problem he’d ever had.

“More, Neal. I can take it now, I think,” Mick nodded once he’d grown used to the stretch of being fucked.

Link eyed his back, leaned up and kissed his spine. “So impatient. Are you sure?”

Without warning, Mick closed the rest of the distance, burying Link into him balls-deep, tearing a moan from him that Mick echoed soon after. Once down, however, he didn’t stop moving, and began rocking in Link’s lap, fucking himself and learning how to work Link over.

The weight of him, the expanse of freckled skin looming over Link, the goddamn forbidden sight of Mick's ass in his lap, taking his cock--Link was bound to make his lip bleed if he bit any harder. Eager to regain some sense of control over the evident power bottom he’d created, Link wrapped his arms around Mick’s stomach to halt him. Luckily he was receptive, and relented with a shiver.

“It--It feels incredible, Neal. Oh, gosh. I… I think you’re hitting the spot I need? It’s like… hot. All over.” Mick gestured to himself vaguely, and Link knew he’d never be subjected to anything more endearing or consuming than Mick talking himself through his first time.

“You,” Link responded, dizzy with heat and need, thrusting mindlessly up into Mick’s tight hole, “were made for me. You are mine, Rhett.”

“God, Neal…”

“Go back to ‘Link.’” The request was telling and intimate, but the smaller one didn’t care. He needed it--needed to hear his name from this version of Mick.

“Link,” whined Mick on cue. A full-body tremble hit the smaller one at the sound of his name on the lips of a Mick so ruined, and he bucked faster.

Mick dissolved into moans, rolled his hips into Link. Laid back and asked wordlessly for back to meet chest so he could relax and be Link’s fuckdoll. Gladly, Link obliged, tucking his head over Mick’s shoulder to watch his aching cock bob with each thrust, painting Mick’s stomach with wet. Link’s hands couldn’t tease him enough at the sight--they found Mick’s throat and tightened, pulled his hair, pinched his nipples, and all the while Mick moaned and gasped on top of him.

Link’s pace kicked up when he bit Mick’s earlobe and Mick all but thrashed on top of him, begging, needing more, deeper, that same spot, please. When Link abandoned pacing, it was with a feral growl and forgetting about restraint as he pounded up into him, mining full-body cries out of his blushing throat and round wet eyes.

“Fuck, fuck, Link, I think I’m gonna--”

Link moved swiftly, taking Mick’s untouched cock that wept precum and stroking it fast and firm, shattering Mick over the edge with ease. He spilled up onto his chest with a screaming moan, his ring of muscle quivering and convulsing on Link’s cock enough to make Link bite his shoulder hard and follow close behind. He unloaded into him while offering mindless words to the tender skin he’d assaulted:

“Fill you up, Rhett... You’re so fuckin’ good at takin' me, aren’t you? All for me! Fuck!"

The blinding white was over too soon, and with a ragged gasp, Link went limp, suddenly acutely aware of just how heavy Mick was on him, and how he would gladly be crushed to death under him.

The question from Mick was instant. “Was… was that okay?”

Link snorted a laugh and planted a kiss on the red bite mark he’d left, coaxing Mick to rest his head back on his shoulder. “That was amazing. Are you okay? I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

“N-No.”

“Just made you scream loud enough for the penguins to hear, and you’re still embarrassed?” Link trailed his neck in affection, did his best to wrap him in a loving hug.

“I just… wow.”

“I did that to you,” Link reminded him casually, kissing his jawline just under his ear.

“I know. Holy shit.”

“Now you won’t forget me. Right?”

Mick shifted, easing Link out of him with some squirming to turn and sit in his lap, sure to keep the mess on his chest clear. 

“Link… never. I told you that already.”

The hurt in those deep green eyes was too much so soon after release. Link pardoned himself to look away, doing his best to blink back tears as Mick returned the kisses to his cheeks and neck with steady melancholy. 

 

Chapter Text

As much as time should have halted for reprieve and let the stars hang unmoving in the sky, it didn’t.

Days passed without the sun’s crawl to mark them. Only the steady flickering of digital numbers in their bedrooms gave the men--Link, more so--constant reminders of impending plane rides and the subtropical heat of home. Overcrowded classrooms and winding back roads with the windows down and a house suddenly far too large for one person. Perhaps he would downsize. Something smaller might make the change from 466 less disquieting.

Link tried to savor every moment, but there seemed to be a cruelty in adjusting to a routine and way of life: no matter how often he brought himself into the present or how many kisses he stole over running data, the pace of hours slanted ever-forward like water down a drain. Sure, sometimes the panic would cause a pleasant surprise--occasionally he had more days than he’d felt in his bones, would realized he’d checked the date more than a few times. But as soon as he relaxed to enjoy it, minutes slipped like sand between fingers and he would leap ahead on the calendar, dread compounded worse than before.

Thus, Link consoled himself with gleaning mementos where he could.

The homemade video of Mick had been the first--a dire, greedy thing he couldn’t believe he’d been brazen enough to go through with. When Mick had gone to clean up right after, Link had bolted for the laptop. He emailed the file to himself after quadruple-checking that he’d typed in the recipient address correctly, and promptly deleted it from the logs. It was his shame, but no one would ever know.

The sex tape had brought on a fixation to bring back what scarce pieces he could of his time at 466.

He promised himself he would buy a copy of Leaves of Grass and have it waiting on his front porch when he arrived home. He had his eye on Mick’s favorite sweater--the gray and color-block one he’d worn for their first dinner alone together--and had been working up the courage to ask for it. And he knew it was in violation of protocol, and that he might get in trouble at customs if he didn’t declare it, but he’d used site resources to preserve Antarctic snowflakes on a microscope slide.

Mick had helped with that one, saying it wasn’t a big deal.

It might have been the sudden willingness of Mick to help him take a piece back, or maybe even something as trivial as the shape of the microscope slide that stuck in his subconscious, but Link decided then and there that he was going to give Mick a memento, too. Rules for a Knight had been a reciprocated gift, and memories could fade with time. He had to give him something more meaningful--something indicative of their developed relationship, there at the end.

So, one evening when Mick had been reading and didn’t seem to mind whether he had company or not, Link sat alone in his bedroom floor, brow knit and tinkering over an array of makeshift crafting supplies that made him feel like a kindergartner.

On a small slip of neat, rectangular paper, he wrote in his best script, hoping it was a far shot from his usual chicken scratch. The puzzle he’d managed to put together wasn’t great, but hopefully Mick would still enjoy it. Carefully, he wrote out the prompts.

 

The first place you held me.

The first gift you gave me.

Where I realized my feelings.

(Whitman) I sound my barbaric…

You found me here.

 

After the last line, Link double-checked his spelling and the kerning to make sure it was presentable. He then filled out the space for answers and counted and re-counted the amount of letters in each, just to be sure. Circling specific ones.

He flipped it over and wrote one last thing--

 

Don’t ever forget.

 

--and added another slot for an answer.

He was about to begin preserving the project in tape when a noise begged his attention.

Focusing to catch it before it ended, his ears strained to take in the bizarre thrumming, the cordant lull. But the sound continued, strung together notes exciting and comforting. Link sat, stunned, listening to the guitar playing somewhere in 466.

With a sweep of his arm he pushed the evidence of his project under the bed and stood dreamily, cracking open his door. Mick’s door was closed, but the chords weren't muffled. He dipped his head out to look into the living room.

Sure enough, Mick sat in the remaining arm chair, the darkly hued guitar in his lap. He plucked the strings hesitantly, exploring and obviously trying to recall songs cataloged in his mind. Despite his rustiness, he looked comfortable holding it--relaxed and deft as his fingers traveled the frets. Link padded down the hall quietly, stopping in the kitchen to watch from across the room.  

When Mick found his footing, he fell into a progression that rolled from the instrument via muscle memory. Link recognized the song instantly, but was sure lots of people would have, had they been in his shoes. It was slower than he remembered--just a little--but the words still came to mind as clear as they’d been in college. He smiled and crossed the room, finally drawing Mick’s eye.

The blonde hesitated, but kept playing, watching him warily.

Link sat down on the couch, put his hands in his lap and twisted them. He wasn’t necessarily mentally prepared to sing--but if he wanted to, the cue was approaching.

“Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road…
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go.”

Mick faltered, stopping completely to stare at him. Link withered under the scrutiny.

“Sorry. I like that song.”

“No! No… you… you sound great. Sorry I stopped. Didn’t expect you to sing, is all. But you’ve got a great voice.” Mick shifted the guitar, nodding to Link with a tiny smile. “Keep goin’.”

The song picked back up, and Link closed his eyes against the blush in his cheeks.

“So make the best of this test, and don’t ask why.
It’s not a question, but a lesson learned in time.
It’s something unpredictable, but in the end is right.”

Link swallowed.

“I hope you had the time of your life.”

His voice broke on the last line, hating and loving it all at once and wondering if Mick had purposefully chosen something to clench his heart in such a way.

Mick only nodded to the beat, tongue peeking out in concentration.

“So take the photographs and still frames in your mind.
Hang it on a shelf in good health and good time.
Tattoos and memories and dead skin on trial."

Another swallow.

“For what it’s worth, it was worth all the while.”

“Doin’ great, babe,” added Mick softly, closing his eyes and losing himself in the music.

“It’s something unpredictable, but in the end is right.
I hope you had the time of your life.”

A salted wound and simultaneous relief in pressure. Link took a deep breath and watched Mick strum through the instrumental, eyebrows tented in emotion as another refrain approached. He didn’t expect Mick to open his eyes and gaze at him, joining in.

“It’s something unpredictable, but in the end is right.
I hope you had the time of your life.”

The guitar fell quiet and plucking, carrying the tune to completion, and Link couldn’t find it in himself to repeat the chorus again. Mick sang softly, filling the absence between them.

“It’s something unpredictable, but in the end is right. I hope you had the time of your life.”

The last strum eked out of the room like a flitting ribbon, leaving them in silence.

Link rubbed his sweatpants, nodded at Mick's hands. “You can still play.”

“Some things you never forget,” Mick chuckled, twanging a few strings absently. “I heard that song enough back in the day to make me wanna puke.”

“Yeah.”

“Hey.” Mick leaned forward, trying to scoop Link's focus from the floor. “You okay?”

“Yeah. That was fun. Thanks for letting me join.” Link stood to excuse himself.

“Snowflake, wait a second--”

The phone rang.

Both men froze, watching the flickering device on the shelf. Neither breathed.

Slowly, Mick set down the guitar and went to answer, giving Link a look heavy with meaning as he pushed the talk button.

“Rhett McLaughlin, site leader 466.”

Link’s stomach flipped. It was hard not to hate the iridium phone. Sure, the last call had been good, but the potential pathways for the news to be horrible turned his insides to ooze. He waited, tracking Mick’s face, which fell into severe confusion-turned-anger.

“May I ask who’s speaking?” He glanced up at Link once, quickly.

Link’s jaw went slack under questions he couldn’t ask.

“What is this regarding?” Mick turned his scowl to the rug under his feet. Whatever they were saying, he didn’t give them much time to finish. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Link stepped in, doing his best to get Mick’s attention without interrupting--but Mick shooed him off, shot an imploring look towards Link’s bedroom door before ducking over to the foyer, pacing and rubbing the back of his neck. As if the small amount of distance would give him privacy.

Link couldn’t leave, no matter how much Mick wanted him to. He watched, throat dry and lungs tight.

“I’m not putting him on.”

Surely it wasn’t Amundsen-Scott he was speaking to in that tone.

“No. I won’t allow it.” When Mick glimpsed up to find Link waiting and staring, he pressed his lips into an irritated line and pointed at his bedroom door again. Link shook his head adamantly, earning an eye roll. Mick pinched the bridge of his nose. “Then how about this: I don’t want you talking to him.”

Link’s eyes went round, pulse racing.

“Fine. Report me. See if I give a shit.” If he was angry, it was too late. Regardless of who was on the line.

“Rhett,” Link pleaded, starting for the foyer. The venomous look that earned stopped him still.

“Because whatever you have to say to him, he doesn’t need. Tell you what, why don’t you tell me what you have to say to him. If you can feel okay passing the words through someone else, I’ll deliver them.” After a beat, Mick adopted a shit-eating grin. “Yeah. Didn’t think so.”

Helpless to do more, Link sank to the couch, wringing his hands and listening as Mick upset some balance in one of their lives.

“See, here’s the thing… I think you’ve had plenty of time to talk to him. And to talk about him, no doubt. So why don’t I talk about him for a minute while you shut the fuck up?”

Even several feet away, Link heard the indignation on the other end of the line.

“Doctor Neal is one of the most accomplished first-timers down here at 466,” Mick started, revving himself into the words. “His work ethic is unparalleled. He’s worked himself to illness-- twice --and has already helped this site produce results that the government has recognized. He’s going home a seasoned veteran at surviving one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Doing something only those with big brains and even bigger balls can do.”

When he looked up to Link on the couch, he bit his lip.

“But, that’s right--you don’t care about that. His accomplishments don’t mean shit, do they? You care about what kind of person he is. And since you’ve clearly failed to grasp that as well, let me lay out for you-- exactly-- the type of person he is.”

Mick slipped his free hand to his hip, white-knuckled and severe. He spoke low and even into the phone, attention locked on Link.

“Underneath the work ethic of a draft horse and mind capable of changing the world for the better is one of the kindest, most sincere people I’ve ever met. Someone who has risked his life more than once to ensure the safety of those around him. Someone who would gladly sacrifice anything if it meant helping those around him even a little . Loving, and selfless, and worth constellations more than you unfairly assume. Shame on you.”

Mick’s voice dropped and he glanced Link from head to foot. “He’s irreplaceable.”

Link burned from the neck up at the sustained eye contact, at the gush of defenses for the unknown caller.

“Fix who you are,” Mick stated bluntly before he hung up. He watched the phone in his palms for a second before his gaze ticked back to Link. “Sorry. Things… might be weird at the next family reunion.”

Link found his breath, inhaling deep, eyes wide.

“Rhett.”

“I… I lost my temper.” Mick shook his head as if it would bring him back to a reality where that hadn’t happened. He held up the phone and started dialing as Link slunk from the couch, taking slow steps to close the distance between them.

Mick watched as Link closed in, gulping before the line went live on the other end. “Rhett McLaughlin, site leader 466. Request to block a number from further contact of operations.”

Dazed, Link stopped to stare up at him in stupor. Mick’s head tilted up to the ceiling and held, too nervous to make contact.

“Yes. Yes, the number that just got through to us. It was… she was unstable. Please block that number from Amundsen-Scott as well. Not worth the headache.” Mick sighed. “Thank you. Bye.” When he hung up, apologies fell from his lips. “Link, I’m sorry--we can't have her calling to complain, ‘cause what if she assumes there’s something going on between us and reports it that way? And I know she’s your mom, so I’m sorry, but--”

Interrupted by Link’s fierce kiss, Mick startled and dropped the phone to the ground with a forgotten clunk to return Link’s passion--gently at first, then sliding into full force with hands on his ribs and a contented hum in his throat.

Link pulled back breathless, done well before Mick. “I can’t believe you did that.” He fettered fingers through the downy hair at the nape of Mick’s neck. “ Why would you do that...?”

With heavy lids and reddened face, Mick ran a thumb over Link’s exposed collarbone peeking out from his shirt. “I think you know why.”

“I wanna hear it,” ventured Link. The heat rolling off of Mick was intoxicating. He pressed himself into it, felt the burns left wherever touches passed off.

The corners of Mick’s mouth twitched up. “I really like you, Link... a lot. Y’know?” He brushed stray hairs from Link’s face and cupped his cheek. “Too much to let folks who would put you down have a piece of you. Not that you need me to defend you, but--”

“I loved it,” Link sighed and melted into the palm at his cheek, nuzzling into the affection and letting it reach his bones. “Thank you.”

"Don't thank me." Mick smiled in earnest. “...I loved it, too.”

 

Chapter Text

The ginger slip of something stretching over Link’s eyes and tightening through his hair plucked him from the folds of sleep. Instinctively he groaned, doing his best to fend off the bizarre addition to his sleepwear with rest-numbed hands.

“Rhett?” The croaked question was answered with a thickly whiskered kiss and commanding hands that pushed his wrists down into the mattress. “I thought you got up to pee.” The edge of the bed sank under Mick’s knee, and Link squirmed in the confusion of quiet and loss of sight. “What are you--is this a blindfold?”

“Shhh.” The ticklish word at his eardrum made his blood hot. “Don’t worry. Not gonna hurt you. I was actually wondering if you could help me with something.”

The gust of cool air once the cover was pulled away budded his nipples, and--almost like the larger one had sensed it--his bearded mouth found one. The gasp Link let out dissolved into a hushed moan as Mick’s tongue teased him, lavishing wet at his chest.

“What can I help w-with?” Link hoped he sounded enticing and not depraved as he felt under Mick’s care.

His boss spoke around kisses and nibbles, each one hiking Link’s breath up. “Y'see… I won’t have you here forever. And there’s something I’ve always wanted to try.” He leaned in close, words like fire in Link’s ear. “This might be my only chance. How far are you willing to let me go with you, Neal?”

Blush reached Link’s forearms. Being catapulted from sleep to unquenchable arousal was his way of operating Mick; now that the shoe was on the other foot, his libido was leaps ahead of his sleepy body.

“You won’t h-hurt me?”

“‘Course not.” A tender kiss pressed his cheek. “Had enough of hurtin’ you, snowflake.”

Every line from Mick’s lips was fuel on the hearth of Link’s gut. “Do I need to do anything?”

“No. I’ll lead. Just come with me.” Craving hands brought Link to unsteady feet and Mick kissed him again, reassuring. “We’re going to the couch.” With a tug on his arm, Link followed, steps short and shuffling.

“You wouldn’t rather stay in bed?”

“You willing to let me get off on you or not, Neal?”

A whimper escaped Link’s throat. His body had finally gotten the memo--the faithful rush of blood to his arousal made him wobble as he stumbled along after his boss. It only took seconds for them to reach the lounge, and Link dug his toes into the rug there, feeding on the familiarity.

“Now what?”

“I’m gonna sit, and you’re gonna sit in front of me. Back to chest. Can you do that for me, baby?”

Each additional pet name was almost too much in itself, but Link nodded resolutely. “Yes.”

The cushions gave with a hush. Mick’s hands steadied Link’s hips, guiding him to spin and lower onto the couch in front of him. Mick tutted. “Already hard, I see.” Link clenched his thighs together in his sweatpants, skin brimming with heat as he settled. “You don’t even know what’s going on, Neal. You really are a slut for me. I say ‘come,’ you say ‘where, sir?’”

“Fuck, Rhett.” Link arched, pushing his hips against Mick and feeling his hardness prod against his tailbone in warning.

“No. I’m Mick tonight.” The correction seethed on Link’s exposed neck.

“Mick,” Link repeated obediently.

“That’s better. Give me your hands. Behind your back.”

Head swimming, Link did as he was told, reaching behind himself and letting Mick’s rough grasp pin his wrists together. A shuffling preambled the tightness that followed soon after, of coiling and wrapping.

“Is that--”

“I’m tying you up,” Mick stated calmly.

Link sat up straight as a good little plaything should, every inch of him tingling.

“Too tight?” Mick wondered, a bit of his bite lost.

Trying the restraints, they were secure enough to prevent him from slinking out, but not painful. “No.”

“Good. They’re nylon. Our utility ropes, actually.” The strange information danced in Link’s head. He huffed at the diversion, about to ask why that mattered when the blindfold slipped up off of his head in one quick motion.

On the coffee table before him was the laptop, screen on a paused video--the image of Mick standing naked before Link on that same couch.

Link’s blood ran ice-numb with fear.

“Imagine my surprise,” growled Mick, slow and dangerous behind him, “when I came out here to double check that our data had gone through, and I found this in the trash bin.”

Link wanted to respond, mouth opening and closing on words that weren’t good enough. No words pardoned this.

“We’re going to come back to the fact that you recorded me without my consent.” Calloused hands found their way under Link’s shirt, brushing against his stomach, fleeting and hard. Playing downwards into his happy trail and making Link lock up. He pressed his lips into the shell of Link’s ear, on the brink of tattered moaning just to torture him, “‘Cause I think you know how fucked up that is.”

“I-I’m sorry, Mick,” was all Link could manage, wide-eyed and shuddering. Mick’s fingers toyed with his waistband.

“Instead, I’m just going to ask how fucking stupid you could possibly be?”

Link’s cheeks seared with humiliation.

“That wasn’t rhetorical, snowflake. You gonna answer me? Leaving behind a trail of our affairs on government property? Hard evidence for people to stumble upon? Are you trying to get me fired?” Fury ebbed into Mick’s voice, and Link shook his head briskly, unable to stop the rolls of shivers cascading down his person.

“No, Mick! I swear! I just--”

“You just couldn’t believe you were going to get to fuck me. Is that it?” Mick snaked his fingers tantalizingly close to Link’s erection, which inappropriately ached more under the thrill of fear. He let them linger against Link’s warm skin, soaking up his heat. "So horny it made you stupid?”

Link had to say yes twice when first one didn’t come out. “I’m sorry.”

“Who the fuck did you send this to?” Threatening fingernails scratched down towards Link’s sac, bypassing his cock and making him gasp at the spike of pleasured pain as he curled in on himself. His thighs cinched together in what little control he could exert.

“Please don’t hurt me,” Link whimpered, lungs hitching. “You said you wouldn’t hurt me.”

Mick’s nails retracted instantly. “Who did you send this to?”

“Just myself! I swear, just my personal email. I wouldn’t show this to anyone, Mick, ever. You have to know that!”

“I do, Neal. Just wanted to hear you say it.” A tender kiss met Link’s neck and only pulled away once his trembling stopped. “I wasn’t gonna hurt you. Never would--not unless you ask for it.” With too light a touch, Mick found the heft of Link’s cock and considered it in a grazing touch. “Seems like you might like it if I did, though.”

Flexing his fists, Link wriggled back into Mick, seeking the grounding security of their bodies together. Thankfully, Mick allowed it, resting his chin on Link’s shoulder.

“I’m so sorry I recorded us-- you... without permission.” Link looked away from the laptop for the first time. “I wouldn’t--I’m not that kinda person! I just…” He paused, waiting for admonishment that never came. Mick was willing to hear him, at least. “I couldn’t… couldn’t think of another way to take you home with me. I’m sorry.”

Mick hummed a growl against his clavicle, long and low. “I’m more disappointed that you think this is an accurate portrayal of your time here. You fuck me once-- once --and that’s the time you get on camera and keep forever? Bullshit.”

When Mick slipped out of Link’s pants, it was to lean forward to the laptop’s track pad. Wordlessly, he opened the recording app. Link gawked, scandalized when a mirror reflection of a live feed popped up on screen, side-by-side with the paused video.

He was grateful he didn’t have his glasses on and couldn’t see the finer details. In the cool low-light of the screen, Link was showcased from head to knees. Sleep-clothes baggy and pooling except at the tent of his pants. Mick loomed large and imposing over his shoulder, face drawn in careful consideration as he examined Link’s mirror image.

“You know what we’re gonna do?” Mick encircled Link’s stomach with one arm and navigated to the play button with the other, tapping and muting the video as on-screen Mick settled down on the couch beside Link.

“Jesus Christ,” Link breathed, watching in terror as Mick hit record on the camera.

“We’re gonna make the prequel.”

Link watched his own throat bob, watched as Mick’s hand left the computer and sought the curve of his jaw. When he twisted to accept the touch, Mick met him halfway and kissed him hungrily. The arm around his middle pulled back and brought him to grind on Mick’s cock, dragging a needy whine from his throat.

“Good, snowflake. So eager.” Mick leaned over his shoulder once more, making unabashed eye contact with the webcam. “Hey, Link. Watchin’ this again, huh? Bet you miss me.” Link was sure his face had caught fire as the greeting paired with the two versions of Mick on screen--the one glowering from behind him while his thumbs slid under his waistband, and the one sucking Link off on the couch, head dipping and bobbing on his dick. “You as ready as we are?”

Mick pushed Link’s sweatpants and briefs down farther than Link’s embarrassment would’ve liked. He slipped them past his knees and let his swollen cock sway in the open air, backdropped by the folds of his green cotton tee. Link had a clear view of his own balls, too--tight and at attention and shameful --but Mick drank in the sight and let out a precarious exhale, running his tongue over his bottom lip. Link looked up to the ceiling and away from his indecency.

From between the couch cushions, Mick produced the bottle of lubricant, brandishing it like a knife against the brunette’s ribcage, cold and hard. “Snuck this out of your room.” He didn’t waste any time opening it and wetting his digits, grinning darkly. “Wanna ride my fingers, snowflake?”

Link’s blushes were going to leave scars--surely his blood vessels were bursting in the apples of his cheeks. Wanting to contribute, to participate as wholeheartedly as Mick was, Link tried to sound flirty. “Are you talking to this me, or the o-one watching in the future?”

“Both.” Link glanced down just in time to watch Mick wink at the camera before groping fingers felt along the dip of his ass. When they found the sensitive pucker they were looking for, Link bucked forward in surprise--but he was quickly reigned in by Mick on his tied wrists, pulling him back onto a slender finger that stretched into his warmth.

In short-lived moans, Link’s head lolled to the side, relenting to Mick’s languid exploration. The other took advantage of the slack of his neck and swelled forward to suck and nibble there, all the while reaching and beckoning up into him, working up a rhythm. It couldn’t be helped when Link began rolling his hips, beseeching Mick to hit all of the spots that made his cock weep.

“You want more, baby? Want it thicker?” Mick hummed and slotted another finger against his hole, teasing him with unbearably slow circles.

“Yes, Mick.” Link’s thighs convulsed from the shocks of touch, from keeping his weight just above Mick’s lap. “Please. More.”

“Don’t you dare fuckin’ forget how easy you are for me, Neal.” The warning was directed at the camera. Link gasped into a low drone when his second finger pushed in, drunk on the relief of getting what he wanted and of the choice of the word are and not were. “No one fucks you like I do.”

“Never,” whined Link. His head fell back as Mick crooked his fingers up in sluggish rolls, opening him up, his other hand abandoning the restraints and palming flat against Link’s throat, gripping to feel each ragged breath.

“That’s right. Such a pretty little thing.” A wet kiss on the nape of his neck. “All mine, no matter where you are.” The scratchiness of the reminder made Link’s toes curl against the cold floor.

“There won’t be anyone else. Ever,” hushed Link, and the hand on his throat tightened to a choke. The fingers inside of him grew eager and seeking, lost in erratic possession. With a keen, Link’s knees nearly gave out under the effort of staying aloft.

“You can’t promise that.” The growl in his ear wanted, needed to believe the admission, yet disbelieved still. “Don’t say shit you don’t mean.”

Link grunted against Mick’s stony grip, desperate to moan and for Mick to go deeper, eyes wetting at the lightheadedness that came with restricted breathing.

“It’s true,” he gasped, and Mick’s hands abandoned him. He caught breaths both thankful and disappointed, on the verge of apologizing with the precious air so long as Mick would keep claiming him.

Mick hoisted, shifting his weight, and Link blinked wearily to check the laptop. Mick had shuffled his pants just below his knees, catching Link’s legs and supporting them in a hammock. His weight fell heavy in Mick’s lap, curled and defenseless and crushing his tied hands into soft stomach. Mick stilled, catching Link’s eyes on screen. In careful movements he reached around and spread Link’s legs, coaxing them to rest on the outside of his knees. Exposing Link from the head of his cock to his hole, lids falling low at the sight. Link squirmed as he took it in: the flush of his arousal, the long expansive white of Mick’s thighs underneath his own--the man’s balls poking out just beneath his ass. Mick’s chest rumbled in gratification and Link snapped his gaze away.

Another kiss, this one calm and behind the ear. “Sometimes I forget how small you are.”

Swallowing, Link held his sight on the ceiling, digging deep. “Remind me, Mick?”

Mick shook with a bestial tremor and scooted them into the support of the couch. “Gladly.”

He’d asked for it, but Link wasn’t prepared when Mick’s arms snaked under his thighs and picked him entirely, hugging him to his chest and forcing Link’s knees to his shoulders. Link couldn’t resist looking--he glanced at the laptop and saw himself suspended like a toy, saw Mick’s feral, electric gaze watching over his shoulder. He used their video like a mirror and angled his leaking cock to Link’s prepped entrance.

Gravity did the work when Mick relaxed his heaving shoulders, letting Link stretch and sink down onto him with a prolonged high whimper. Like a key in a lock, Link’s brain slurred, savoring the high of Mick’s trembling fingers on the plump of his thighs and the way the giant quivered at being fully sheathed inside of the object of his desire.

They took a moment to exist on the precipice, hot quick breaths and muscles commanded to stillness.

“How’s that, baby? You… you okay?”

By all indications Mick was struggling to keep up the dominance, with not breaking and showering Link in sweet nothings. The fact that Link could feel him crumbling spoke volumes, so he leaned back to kiss his temple and remind him that he was in charge.

“Choke me again, daddy.”

The request was gasoline to the fire of Mick’s resolve. In one bulging arm he was able to keep Link’s folded body suspended, and his free hand slapped onto Link’s windpipe and clamped down, strangling a cry. Mick left nothing for Link to worry about, nothing to have control over when he started fucking up into him--all the way from his cock’s lipped head to his balls, over and over in agonizingly full thrusts. Link wanted to moan--wanted to do more than screw his eyes shut and feel the drool trickle from the corner of his mouth as he choked. But he was there for Mick; to be his as he saw fit, to regain the dignity and trust Link had taken from him with the video.

He prayed that the purrs and growls dripping from behind him carried to the laptop’s microphone.

“You wanna tell me more about how I’m the only one for you?” Mick’s hand let up for a split second, allowing Link to take selfish breaths in the reprieve. “Might be hard when you can’t speak, Neal.”

In agreement Link coughed and gasped, words dying in his throat. Mick’s hips shifted gears, fucking him steady and true to the spot that drove him senseless, eating up Link’s stupor and the building heat of each buck.

“Such slutty noises,” he noted, teeth grazing his shoulder. “Good way to shut that pretty mouth of yours when my cock isn’t an option. I think we both know you’d prefer that, though, wouldn’t you?” Mick was speaking for himself as much as he was for Link, talking himself off on the visuals and memory. “Never gonna forget the look on your face when you jacked yourself off on the floor, those thick lips wet from servicing me… like you’d been dyin’ for it since the second you’d arrived.”

Link writhed in agreement, nodding and burrowing his nose into Mick’s neck, twisting to hide his face there. The choking stopped. Mick’s hand slipped up to his jaw and held a bruising grip there, forcing their eyes to meet. Link winced at the contact.

“Say it.”

Whatever had come over them, Link ran with it, adamant to keep up. “I would’ve sucked you off under the table if we’d been alone.”

“Fuck.”

“Ahhh!”

In rolling growls Mick pounded up into him, restraint forgotten and desire eating them both alive. Every bit of it smothered Link--the teeth on his neck, the slap of Mick’s balls against his ass, his own shredded cries of ecstasy from Mick nailing him in the perfect spot to make his vision go white and limbs go numb.

“Mick, please, right there, I’m gonna--”

“No.” The hand on his jaw forced his gaze forward to the laptop, stuttering his release. “Look at yourself. Look at us. You see that? You see me in your lap, makin’ you mindless with it? How 'bout how ruined you look right now? When you come, you look into the camera. For you. So you don’t fuckin’ forget." His attention turned to future-Link. “Get ready, snowflake.”

Only one eye remained open to witness the onslaught on screen: Mick hefting Link’s entire body and drilling into his tightness like he weighed nothing, the sweat-slicked hair on their foreheads, the knit brow and fierce green eyes steeped in lust that prowled and waited as Link’s existence was dragged to bliss.

Link gasped one last “Rhett!” when the grip at his chin fell to his cock, finishing him in hot splashes onto his green shirt, body wracked and writhing enough to begin the rhythmic grunts at his back that he knew all too well.

Mick fucked him through their climaxes, only easing when tears of relief and release fell from Link’s eyes. Too dazed to think or move, Link let himself loll into uselessness while Mick untied his hands and turned him around to embrace him, letting the camera roll to capture the aftercare as well.

“I’m sorry,” Link shivered and did his best to kiss Mick as ardently as Mick was kissing him.

“For crying? Don’t be. Means it was good.”

“For everything --plus, I called you Rhett at the end,” he sniffled. “You wanted to be Mick for this.”

Mick’s face creased in amusement and he burst into laughter. He collected Link in his arms and shushed him with gentle rocking. “That’s what got me off, darlin’. It’s okay. You did great.”

Link rubbed the red sores at his wrists. Tangled a hand through Mick’s sex hair. “Are you… are you gonna email this to yourself, too? I’d like it, if you did.”

With a thin-lipped smile, Mick shook his head. “I’d like that too. But the only way I can view it is with these computers, which aren’t mine. Too risky to keep.”

“Yeah… yeah. Sorry.”

“Don’t be. Just ‘cause I can’t don’t mean I don’t want to.” Mick played with the stained folds at the front of Link’s shirt, thoughtful. “Tell you what--if I ever get a way to download it safely, I’ll let you know.”

Link’s heart stopped beating. His eyes roamed over Mick's gently smiling face, daring to clarify. “You… you’re gonna stay in touch? You’ll break your rule?”

His boss nodded contentedly, small and admitting. “It was stupid of me to think I could ever resist, Link.”

In the sorrow that had haunted Link over the last few weeks, that small promise of reassurance was enough.

No more cold-turkey abandonment, no more living like Mick had been a fever dream once he returned home. He could have that part of him, and keep it, and they would remember they had once lived on the same plane of reality.

He didn’t want to cry more--it seemed to be all he could do around Mick lately--but he surged forward and caught their mouths, sobbing.

“Thank you.”

“Like I ever had a choice,” Mick murmured as he stroked the tears from Link’s cheekbones. “C’mon. If you can go clean up, I’ll take care of the video files. We gotta get back to bed.”

“...mmkay.”

 

Chapter Text

One of the few things most-missed from waking up in a room with no windows and a world with no day was being able to rise with the sun. Back in North Carolina, dawn arrived with birdsong this time of year. Heat blasted the parched pavement and the air glazed thick with sweat until it rained and cicadas blotted out the noise of the highway neighboring Link’s suburb. Here, that drone and birdsong was replaced with galing winds. And it was the wind that woke him before his alarm, like a ghost whispering lamentations he couldn’t ignore.

Groggy, Link sat up and felt first the absence of Mick. He really needed to tear the guy a new one for always vanishing and ruining their sleepy wake-up ritual.

A spare glance at the clock revealed that it wasn’t, in fact, before alarm time--08:30. Link jolted awake and stumbled out of bed--as if clambering to the front door would make any difference of stopping his partner 30 minutes after their designated field start time.

“Can’t believe he would go without me,” Link growled and pulled on a shirt to stave off the cold.

At a jog, Link spilled into the kitchen and caught himself on the door frame at the scene.

Mick was seated at the table still in his pajamas. His arms were folded with one propped up to rest his chin on a hand. His fingers wrung into his beard. He didn’t look up when Link appeared.

“Hey,” Link huffed, breathless from the special breed of panic that only came with tardiness. “It’s Saturday. We’re late.”

Mick’s shoulders rose and fell with a belabored sigh. He combed his fingers through his hair, eyes glued to the table. The sudden unease that pitted in Link’s gut pulled him a step further into the room and curled his fingers into the hem of his shirt, fidgeting.

“Rhett? What’s wrong?” He leaned down, trying to get Mick’s attention, but the man was resolute in his distance.

With a sharp inhale and cough, Mick cleared his throat. His green eyes stared into nothing, through the table, unfocused. “We’re not late.”

Link blinked. “Do… do we have the day off?”

“Yeah.”

“Is that a bad thing?” Link chuckled and leaned against the wall across from him, relaxing just a bit. “That means we get to hang out here.”

Finally, Mick’s gaze snapped up to Link’s--sharp and unsettled. An air hung around him that Link had never felt before; it fed his mind thoughts of what back home might’ve meant to Mick, about what could’ve happened for them to get their day off. If it was severe enough for Mick to behave so strangely…

“Rhett? What’s wrong? You’re scaring me.”

As if it was the only way he could continue to breathe, another great heave carried Mick’s chest. He outstretched his arms to the tabletop, revealing the iridium phone, which he pushed to the center of the table and stared at. Silent.

Link’s throat tightened. “ Another call?” His pitch was a half-octave higher than he would've liked as he scrutinized the damned nuisance. “How come I never wake up when that thing rings?”

“It didn’t ring,” monotoned Mick, returning his hand to his beard to cord through its tips.

Brow knit in confusion, Link squinted. “So, then what?”

“I called us in.”

Ridiculous, that Mick felt this much guilt over playing hooky.

“Rhett, you’re the only person I know that would lock up like this for faking sick. If anything, I think that’s just another indicator that you need more days off.” Link beamed, spilling consolations to try and cheer him up. “Besides… you did it because you wanted to spend more time together, right? Like I could ever complain about--”

“I reported us.”

Mick’s level gaze locked onto him, waiting. Calm and patient and inscrutable. When he didn’t offer further clarification, Link swallowed, the noise thunderous in the frozen room.

“What d’you mean?”

“I called Amundsen-Scott, and disclosed our relationship to them.” A slow blink delivered Mick’s focus back to the phone. He continued through tented fingers. “We’re not fired. I lied and said tensions were growing, though. Gave them a ‘heads-up’ about it. I can’t tell if they believed me or not. But our jobs are safe.”

Jaw slack, Link glanced between the iridium and Mick, looking for something-- anything to say in response to the confession that wasn’t outright rage or relieved gushing. Too many questions surged through him at once, but the ones that mattered were the ones to make it out.

“That’s it, then...? They’re okay with it?”

“Absolutely not,” Mick intoned. The look he shot Link was wrapped with incredulity. “It’s violation of protocol.”

Link licked his lips, heart racing against the chap of them. “Rhett…”

“Mick.” The correction pierced the air, drove Link’s fingers to run through his hair in shock.

“You… you said our jobs were safe?”

“They are.” A third laborious sigh. “You’re being relocated.”

The words might as well have been a bullet to the chest.

Link’s eyes darted around the room, breath chopping to short gasps. He tried to ask, tried to find the will to request more information, but Mick knew him well enough to pick up on it without making him do it alone.

“Tomorrow, when the supply shipment comes. You leave with it.”

“What the fuck,” Link tried to say, but the words came out in a crushed falsetto as he slid down the wall to the floor, still cradling his head.  His body was shutting down, and he was helpless to stop it. Cold and shivering and panicked, bursting at once with adrenaline. “What the fuck?”

“It was time, Neal. This has gone on long enough.” The calmness--the finality of Mick’s words trampled him to the cold tile of the kitchen, squeezing the air from his lungs and replacing each heartbeat with a ripping ache.

“Is--is this a joke?” Eyes bolted wide, Link stared at everything and nothing. Focus left him.

“You really think I’d do that?” Mick’s tone was alien--void of all emotion. No amusement at Link’s silliness, no teasing of his stupidity. “No. It’s not a joke.”

“Why? Why, why, why, why would you do that, Rhett?” Small and fragile and hollow. The whimpers of an animal lined up for slaughter.

“Watch it,” Mick warned, eyes flashing in irritation. “It’s Mick.”

“No!!” With no place else to go, Link’s upset pushed him to his hands and he yelled from the floor, crying up at Mick in injury. “Rhett, why the fuck would you do that?!”

“It’s for your own good. I found this, you know.” Mick reached down and retrieved a leather-bound book from his lap, tossing it to the center of the table to knock against the phone.

Link’s journal.

The brunette stared at it, bewildered. When it was clear he couldn’t decide which path to drive his fury down, Mick continued, “Stumbled upon it when I was searching for the lube a few nights ago. Tried to resist reading it--it is your private property.” He shrugged, every bit of him looking tired. “Made it until this morning. But a book is a book. And I’m only human.”

“You read my journal,” Link repeated. He wanted the object in question to burst into flames, to vanish and take them back in time to last night. To go back and let Link hear Mick rifle through his things and sneak out with it. He could’ve woken up. Could’ve stopped him. 

In his stunned state, he could hardly remember any of the things he’d written. Helpful as ever, Mick opened it to the first page. He held it up for Link to see the words scrawled there.

Mick is just my boss.

“Rhett,” Link breathed, shaking his head, “That was--I wrote that before anything had even happened between us. It’s not how I feel now!”

“I know,” Mick nodded, setting the journal down and letting it fall closed with a clunk. “That’s the problem.”

“What?!”

“Neal. This ,” Mick’s temper flared, and he tapped a concussive finger on the book’s cover, “has it right. This is exactly what’s wrong with this situation. I am your boss. Just… your boss. You had it right in the beginning, and then it warped into something absolutely not okay. By any standard.”

“What about you, then?!” Link cried, rising to his feet so he could look down on Mick. “You’re the one who--who kissed me, and came onto me when you were drunk, and asked me to cuddle, and fucked me, and--”

“Hey!” barked Mick as he swelled to his full height as well. “I did my best to keep you at arm’s length, you fucking cocktease! Always coming to check up on me and trying your damnedest to make me like you. Why--for what purpose?! You didn’t have to be the way that you are, either!”

“The way I am?!” Link gestured wildly at himself, voice breaking under snarls. “I didn’t act on any of the things I felt! Because I knew it was wrong! You’re the one in charge, you were the one who made decisions! You were supposed to be the stronger of us when it came to preventing this from developing into something more, but you clearly weren’t able to resist!” He shoved a finger in Mick’s face. “You wanted me, too!”

Mick cleared the table in two steps. His hands found Link’s shoulders and knocked him back against wall with ease. Link shook it off and gathered himself instantly, eyes sharpened to daggers. “Yeah? You wanna toss me around some more? Leave more fuckin’ bruises on me, you asshole?!”

Teeth flashing in a grimacing scowl, Mick loomed over him, bringing their chests together. The scare tactic wouldn’t work anymore. If he tried to hurt Link, Link would fight back without a second thought. Tooth and nail.

“It’s over, Neal.” Link watched the pulsing vein at Mick’s neck, the livid flush of his skin. “You really wanna end it like this? Right before you leave?”

“It’s over because of you,” Link spat. He didn’t think twice before striking Mick across the face for all his worth, doubling him over to his side and drawing a pained hiss from him. “I can’t believe you did that to me. To yourself! You think I’m gonna be the only one hurting?”

Mick glowered up at him, holding his cheek, eyebrows severe. “I’m used to being alone.”

“So am I,” Link shrugged, inviting blows with nonchalance. “Used to betrayal from the people closest to me, too, so y’know? Fuck you. Fuck everything. Hit me. Toss me around to make yourself feel better about your shitty fuckin' decisions.”

“I’m… I’m not going to hit you,” Mick growled. His eyes fell to the floor as he straightened, rubbing the hand print Link had left on him.

“Might as well. I would’ve preferred being beaten half to death over you fucking betraying me and sending me away.” When he stepped to close the distance between them, Mick backed away, watching Link warily and trying to keep space until his back thudded against the wall, shaking the supply shelves.

“You like to act all tough and unreachable. Like you’re so unaffected by any god damn thing,” Link seethed, searching Mick’s eyes. “But I know you, Rhett. I know the real you. You’re a shitless coward who won’t stand up for anything unless it saves your own ass.”

Mick’s anger was quickly supplementing with something else, something darker and measured as Link unloaded on him.

“You run from everything. You ran from your family’s death, you ran from your old life, and now you’re running from me. Something that actually makes you happy. You’re too spineless to take what’s already yours. Too weak to say things you mean--the things you need to most , no matter the repercussions. Absolutely no banner is good enough for you to march under.”

“That’s not true.” Mick’s eyes fell to Link’s chest, and the smaller one smirked.

“Really? ‘Cause I can prove it.”

Mick didn’t respond, and Link leaned down, forcing their gazes to meet. Mick’s, apprehensive. Link’s, unwavering.

Link swallowed and watched Mick’s face. Allowed the rage to ebb and be replaced with a truth free of turmoil--one backed by endless stars and early-morning yawns, of guitar strings and gentle baths. Days and nights spent on and with one another, knowing there was no where else they would have rather been despite the unforgiving world outside.

“I love you, Rhett.”

The truth shivered in its existence, thankful to be set free.

The anger and hurt slid from Mick’s face and left him an open canvas--ready for whatever came next. His mouth opened and closed. Fluttering blinks as he debated.

Link waited, breath held.

“Too bad,” Mick whispered the response, eyebrows knit in self-injury.

Nodding knowingly, Link pulled away, pressing his knuckles into his stinging eyes. He huffed one curt laugh and slipped his hands to his hips in dejection. “Yeah... that’s what I thought.”

Mick reached out with imploring fingers. “Neal, it’s not--”

“No. I get it, it’s okay. This whole thing was just… fun, right? Sleeping together and goofing off. Didn’t mean anything.” Link sidled away from Mick’s touch. “Fun, to betray the people who love you and drive them away over professional obligations. Like you’d die if you didn’t have this job. It’s good. Everything’s fine. I’m fine.”

Tears were already falling, and Link cursed himself under his breath for being vulnerable in front of someone who didn’t care. He reached over, collected his journal from the table, and held it up. “I believe this is mine. I’ll get out of your hair.” He started for his bedroom, head down.

“Neal,” Mick tried again, voice beseeching and broken at the edges. But Link didn’t stop. When he found his room and shut the door, only ten minutes had passed, but everything had changed.

Numb, he dropped the journal to the floor and sank down beside it, wheezing with noiseless sobs he muffled into his palms.

 

Chapter Text

He had told Mick that he loved him. And it was true.

It was truer than the pain of exposure or the unfathomable that Mick had brought upon them. It was deeper than the fight, than Link’s use of Mick’s history against him in retaliation. It wouldn’t have changed before his original date of departure, and with solemnity, Link had to accept that the executioner’s ax closing in didn’t change it, either. It would have stayed the same regardless of time. It would stay the same, regardless of time.

Link loved Mick.

It was stark and unwavering and simple.

It was also why Link sat in the middle of his bedroom floor and finished the craft he’d started all those nights ago, stare dazed and listless on the hand-written puzzle as he put the finishing touches on it, preserving the slip in between tape.

He would still give it to him before he left. It would be fine.

Link looked at the clock--wondered for how many hours he’d confined himself to a paradoxical existence. One of hating and loving. One of gratitude for ripping off the bandage and betrayal for Mick taking the course of Link’s life into his hands. One of wanting to be alone and needing to be near him for what little time they had left.

01:43. He could just go to sleep. That would be the smartest thing to do--get well-rested for the trip to… wherever he was going to end up. If only he felt tired. Or anything, for that matter.

Another wave of loneliness and wanting enveloped him in its wake. He let himself exist in it, aching for Mick while he could have him yet remembering the severity of his face when he’d been corrected earlier. Mick. Not Rhett. A revoking of privileges that surely went past title alone. He wanted to hug and hold him and steal close breaths and warmth while he could.

Cruel. He never could have guessed that when they’d said goodnight last night, those were the last kisses Link would ever share with him.

Denied his last month at 466. Denied the time and ending he’d earned.

The soft knock at the door didn’t shock Link as it should have.

“Neal?”

“Yeah.”

“Your light’s on. What are you doing up?”

“What are you doing up?”

“I made food. Are you hungry?”

“No.”

A pause.

“You should still come eat. Didn’t eat all day.”

Link’s focus slipped to the floor, looking through the strips of cut tape and pens. “Is that an order?”

“No. You don’t have to come out if you don’t want. I made you a plate, though.”

Link’s ribs reverberated with the statement.

“Okay.”

Automatically he collected himself from the floor and cleaned everything up, stowing it in his bag. Not that it mattered if Mick saw it, or even that it was somehow ‘safer’ there. Apparently Mick didn’t mind looking through his things, finding the words he’d written upon fear of falling in love with him, as he inevitably had.

I caused this. At least partially.

“Coming.”

He opened his door to a familiar picture that tugged at his heart: Mick in his gray, color-block sweater, hair coiffed up, hands behind his back. The same spotless shoes as last time.

“Mick...” Link didn’t know what to do with himself, eventually settling for scratching his neck. “This is… don’t do this.”

Mick’s face stayed neutral. “Why not?”

Link hung his head and slipped fingers under his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose. “You can’t just… cook food and dress nice every time you hurt someone. That’s not how relationships work, if that’s even what this fuckin’ is.” Link sighed. “I’m not sure what it was to begin with.”

“I can still apologize.”

Link let his hand fall, glaring and suddenly exhausted. “You wouldn’t mean it, so I don’t want it.”

“Neal… listen.” Mick shuffled from foot to foot, inspecting his Vans as he spoke. “I shouldn’t have gone through your things. And I certainly shouldn’t have read your journal. And you don’t have to believe me, but I’m sorry. I… I have other regrets, too. Ones I’m not sure you’d actually want to hear.”

“Like what? What could you possibly regret, after making such a grand and righteous decision on our behalf?” Link backed into his room marginally. “You didn’t hesitate to call us in. Didn’t hesitate to have me shipped away. Well done on that, by the way. You’ve got the solitude you wanted, now. So, congrats. Take your prize.” He moved to shut his door, but Mick caught it with the heel of his palm.

“I regret that this can’t continue.”

Link shook his head, teeth clenched. “Bullshit. You could’ve--”

“Are you familiar with ‘abuse of power,’ Neal? Of a person with power putting someone else into a situation they don’t want to continue, but feel pressed to at the risk of losing their job?”

Faltering, Link opened the door. “I wanted ‘the situation,’ Mick. I made that pretty clear. And now all I want is for you to leave me alone.”

Mick considered it for a few seconds. “No.”

"Why not? I don’t think that’s too much to ask, after the day I’ve had.” Link waited, expectant. Ready to say no to any reason Mick could possibly give.

“I called us in, because it was the right thing to do…” Mick swallowed, excavating the right words carefully. “But… you’re here until tomorrow. And they can’t stop anything we do between now and then.”

Disgusted hatred and desperation brewed in Link’s stomach. He felt his nose scrunch in disdain. “Oh, so you wanna use me to get off one more time? Is that it?”

“No. Nothing like that,” Mick breathed. “Just… dinner, together.” His eyes flicked to Link’s lips and he chewed his own.

Link rued the way his neck burned and heart soared at the thought of giving in. He wanted it, too. He always would. “You’re despicable .”

“I know,” Mick murmured. “I’m sorry.”

“Let’s get to it, then. Dinner,” huffed Link. He stepped out from his room and pulled his door closed behind him as Mick turned for the kitchen.

There were no candles this time. No low-light, no complicated recipes or thoughts of violin music. Just steaming bowls that hadn’t been dolled up and a sink with two pots in it that needed scrubbing. Mick fetched them glasses of water and they sat. Link didn’t look at his food.

“Twelve hours left,” he mumbled, fixated on the projection screen in the lounge. Scenes from Sleepless in Seattle flitted through his head. The soundtrack of Forrest Gump. Of Chase and blankets and Waterfall and Mick offering to--

He winced, gulping down the memory before it took root.

Mick picked up his spoon and tucked in. “Enough time for a good night’s sleep before you go.”

“Mm.” Link couldn’t say more. The thought of waking up alone for his last few hours at 466 wrenched his innards, made him feel sick. Less sick than the thought of self-hatred if he asked Mick to sleep with him, but-- they can’t stop anything we do between now and then. What had he meant? Where was the border? Chest strung tight, Link sighed and Mick cleared his throat.

“Neal? You… you should eat. Seriously, the commute to Amundsen-Scott’s long. I’m worried you’ll skip breakfast, too.”

“Wouldn’t be the worst thing,” mumbled Link, feeling for his spoon on the table. “I don’t really have an appetite.”

He didn’t miss the way Mick’s brow creased in worry, just for a second. “Please eat.”

“...Fine.” Link blinked into his bowl, lethargic. Curry over a bed of rice.

There was something oddly domestic about the meal that culled his memory. Something he once knew, but had forgotten. Curious, he tasted it, the spoonful turning over thoughtful his mouth. Just as he guessed it might, the flavor brought that night back in clarity. Link swallowed and a wet lump replaced the food in his throat, heavy as concrete. The sorrow sunk into his sternum, dripping and clogging through his chest.

“Oh.”

“Hmm?” Mick glanced up and froze when he saw the tears roll on Link's face. Apprehensive, he put his spoon down and set his hands on the table. “Neal. What’s…?” It was obvious what he wanted to ask, and just as obvious that he was scared to do so for fear of seeming insensitive. What wasn’t wrong?

“It’s, uh,” Link put on a smile and poked the curry in his bowl. “Did you plan this?”

“What do you mean?” hesitated Mick, considering the food and Link’s wet face on repeat.

“This--this is the first dinner I had at 466.” Link chuckled and shook his head in disbelief. “Josh cooked it. I don’t know if you remember.”

Mick’s fingers twitched. “I… I remember that night, but not the food. This wasn’t on purpose.”

It was all so silly to cry over in retrospect. Josh had offered him chili oil in case it wasn’t spicy enough, and they’d played a game, and there’d been an oddly indignant mention of Barack Obama. An atmosphere of belonging and love that Link had fallen into seamlessly, even if it hadn’t felt like it at the time. But the most important detail about that night overshadowed everything else.

“It was the first time I saw you smile.” Link’s voice split. Like he could collect the pieces of it, he covered his mouth. The memory was fresh enough to be yesterday. Closing his eyes was all he could do, alone and mourning a time he couldn’t return to--before everything had unraveled.

He didn’t open them when he heard Mick stand, nor when a large, gentle hand found his upper arm and pulled him to his feet. “C’mere,” the voice implored, which only wounded Link further--that might have been the last time he would hear that simple command. So many sudden ‘lasts.’

He let himself be guided to the couch, where Mick sat beside him.

“Hey. Look at me,” Mick said softly.

Link wanted to, and didn’t want to. He dried his vision on the back of his sleeve before finding Mick’s face, feeling puffy and pathetic.

“You’re gonna be okay, Neal.” Mick’s encouraging smile twitched at the corners, doing its best to sustain itself in the face of someone crying. “Remember when I said this is just one chapter for you? Everything gets better with time. You’re gonna come out of this just fine.”

“I remember. I also remember you saying I was your entire book. But you love books.” Link averted his gaze to their laps to speak honestly. “So why did you stop reading? Was the story that bad?”

Mick brought an unsure hand to Link’s shoulder and let it rest there until it wasn’t enough, ‘til he sought the back of Link’s neck and stroked up into his hair. He shouldn’t have been doing it--Link shouldn’t have been okay with him doing it. But it was more than okay, when he was honest with himself, and he savored each individual rub, tears stilling.

“Snowflake,” drawled Mick, and Link closed his eyes, smiling in spite of everything. “I loved the story. It was too good. I was scared to see how it ended. Wanted some control over it.” He shifted. “I’m sorry.”

“I want to stay.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“Why would you do this? You’re so stupid.”

“I know. I really am sorry.”

“Mick.” Link's eyes flickered open again and held his boss’s attention. “Can I…?”

He wasn’t sure what he wanted. Permission, for anything and everything? To be normal for their last night together, since it wasn’t going to change things, either way? Injury of deception aside, he wanted Mick. No matter how damaging or how much he might regret it later.

“Anything,” Mick yielded, steadfast, and Link could see he meant it.

“Rhett,” Link sobbed in relief, and Mick swaddled him in a hug so swift and vehement that his lungs emptied.

“I’m so sorry, Link.”

“It’s too late.”

“I know. It’s for the best.”

“I love you.”

“I know.”

“I hate you.”

“I know. I do, too.”

“What don’t you know?” Link bit in irritation, pressing the wet of his weep into Mick’s shirt and for once not feeling guilty for the damp collecting there.

“What I’m gonna do without you.” The answer was instant and painful and drew a wailing whimper from Link. “Shh, snowflake. I’m so sorry about all of it. Everything.”

Sniffling, Link dug deeper. “Are you sorry about me? About us?”

“No. Not for a second. I’m sorry about the conditions of us,” nuzzled Mick into his hair. “In another life we met in North Carolina, and things were different. Even if I’d gone off to college in Chicago, I would’ve had a someone to return to once my family passed away. It would’ve been you. I feel it in my soul.”

Link thought his heart might burst.

“I’m sorry that I said you ran from your family’s death, Rhett. Anyone would have, so young.”

“You were right. I did run, and never processed it in the right way. It’s okay.” He pulled back to give Link an encouraging smile. “I am a coward.”

Chuckling, Link dared to put his hands on Mick’s wrists, resting there. “I love you, you coward.”

“And the coward says, ‘I know.’” Mick’s smile turned thin-lipped and remorseful.

“Can you at least tell me you care about me again? Please?” Link rubbed his thumbs along the veins in his arms, eyes searching Mick’s. “It’s pretty close. I’d like to hear it.”

“I care about you.” There was no reluctance there. Mick leaned in and pressed their foreheads together. “I care about you so much, Link. S’why I need you to be okay when you go.”

Link smirked. “No matter where I go, I’d be better off if I had you.”

Mick leaned in and kissed him--only to quickly pull away, clearly dismayed at himself. “Don’t say things like that,” he irked, almost like Link’s words had cast a spell.

“Things like what?” Link beamed at the slip-up, full of light at the new game. “Things like, ‘waking up next to you feels right,’ or ‘I want to take you home with me,’ or ‘I’m pretty sure you’re my soulmate?’”

Mick dove in this time, knocking Link back onto the arm of the couch with the force of the kiss and drawing elated giggles from him. “Yes, things like that!”

“I just wanna be with you, Rhett. It’s all I want.” Link cut open his heart and poured its contents onto Mick while kisses found his nose and throat. “I don’t care where we are, or what we do for a living. I don’t care if we have any money or not. I just want you by my side, for all of it.”

“Hush, snowflake,” cautioned Mick, hugging Link into the cushions.

Somewhere in the back of Link’s head, he wondered if a dam would break if he kept it up. He was still here, after all. He still had time, could throw his all into changing Mick’s mind and breaking that last barrier. Maybe if he could get him to cave, things wouldn’t have to end. There must’ve been a reason Mick wanted him to stop talking--one motivated by fear of truth and wanting.

“Can you imagine it?” he invited.

Mick dared to wait for more, knees sunk between Link’s thighs and heavy hands divoting the cushions beneath him.  

“No time constraints. Five years. Ten? Being able to have each other for every second of it. Dinners out and late-night drives where we wouldn’t care where we ended up. When the bulbs in your fairy lights die, we would replace them and keep them over our bed. We’d move past the honeymoon phase, fall into a routine of morning drive safe s in the kitchen and I missed you s at night in our bed.”

“You told me that all things get better with time. Why not us? I have to believe we would.” Link smiled softly at the proposal. “Not just emotionally, but physically. My hair would gray more and your smile lines would deepen. When you start to gray as well, I’d tell you you’re as beautiful as the first time I saw you.”

“Link.”

“Trips taken together. Not just vacations to warmer climates or cabins overlooking snowy forests of evergreens, but to places we need to go. To see your family’s resting spot. I want to meet them. To introduce myself, and tell them what kind of person you turned into. Your accomplishments and sacrifices. How fucking proud they would be of you, Rhett, if they knew all you’d done. I want to leave flowers on Cole’s grave.”

“Link. Stop.”

“You’d insist on going to see my parents, too, probably. To apologize, or return my favor and show them that someone as undeniable as you could want me, or maybe even to lash into them even harder to make them appreciate me more. To rebuild whatever bridge could be salvaged with family. But I hope you would believe me and be happy when I would say that you’re my family.”

“Link.” The name cracked wet against his neck.

He coiled Mick into his arms and kept him, quiet.

“Why are you makin’ this harder than it has to be?” The tears must have been contagious--passed from Link to Mick, settling in them and soaking through to their cores in turn.

“I’m just saying things I need to. Things I think you want, too.” There were so many details Link had never thought of trying to memorize: the lapse and duration of each of Mick’s breaths under duress, how silky his styled hair felt between his fingertips, the way his eyelashes clumped in pairs when they were wet.

“Doesn’t matter what we want,” Mick tried to point out as Link chuckled and shook his head in disagreement. “It doesn’t . You’re leaving and I’m staying here. That’s how it has to be.”

“Why?” The brunette dropped the question into Mick’s lap. Wanted to chase the conversation to its natural resolution and come up with a definitive answer he could feel the shape of in his hands. Something concrete and unbending for how it was too much, if they both wanted it.

“You don’t want to take me home, Link,” was all Mick tossed to the flames of curiosity.

“I do, Rhett. You don’t get to decide how I feel.”

“It’s not going to happen. Simple as that. I’m sorry.” He steadied his hands on Link’s chest and leaned in to nuzzle his cheek, which Link let happen in a distant frown. “Don’t think about it. Be here with me right now, snowflake. Enjoy the moment. You’re leaving soon, and I’ll miss you.”

“For how long?” Greedy, he knew, to ask questions like that--greedy yet irresistible, in his hurt.

“Forever.” Their next kiss was coated in the salt of dry tears. “Told you that already, Link. I won’t forget you. Can’t, even if I tried.”

Holding one another, they rested on the couch, both direly exhausted. Time passed too quickly--each glance at the communal shelf clock let tens of minutes slide by effortlessly.

“I’m sorry I didn’t eat dinner,” offered Link in a small voice.

“It’s okay. I’ll clean it up tomorrow after you leave.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s really okay. I’ll have lots of free time, once… once you…”

Mick hushed and pulled back to study Link.

The gaze was definitive. Link could feel Mick take in every bit of him at leisure, slow and calculating. The mess of peppered hair, which made him smirk fondly. The steady bump of heartbeat in his neck, where Mick brought his hand up to brush. The little beard Link had grown over the past few weeks, just a shadow of his in comparison. The chapped lips chewed raw from cold and worry that he leaned forward to kiss, enduring and insistent. In that moment, Link knew he was being memorized.

This was Mick’s goodbye gift to himself.

There was just one part he was forgetting. Link broke the kiss and slid his lips to Mick’s ear, shutting his eyes and focusing on letting the words come out perfect and steady.

“I love you, Rhett.”

He knew he wasn’t going to get the response he longed for, and knew more that it was probably unhealthy to be okay with that. But in the way Mick took him into his arms and melded their bodies together, he felt it.

It was the only way Link would ever know, and it was Mick’s goodbye gift for him.

Large hands stroked the back of his head, cradling him as they always had. Blinking away tears of torturous acceptance, Link cleared his throat. “Can I sleep in your room tonight?”

“Please.”

 

Chapter Text

If there was one thing the iridium phone was good at, it was robbery.

Yesterday morning, it had deprived Link of his last month at 466. And now, again, as Link stood in the foyer with his bags, time frozen in how ridiculously unfair all of it was. The sound of the Otter’s rotaries at his back. His packed belongings heavy in his hands. Geared from head to toe as he stared down the hallway, where Mick had sequestered himself in one of the empty rooms to take a phone call from Amundsen-Scott. They’d said it was urgent, and Mick had taken it under the pretense that it would be quick--that they had a solid half-hour until supply arrived. But only five minutes had passed.

It was time for goodbye, and Mick wasn’t there.

Business as usual, the door to the outside rapped with an impatient knock and Link felt his palms tingle with adrenaline. He turned and opened it to a vaguely familiar face who lugged in a massive crate and dropped it to the foyer floor.

“Hey,” the pilot--what was his name? Jen had said it once before--threw a hand at Link’s stuff. “Neal, isn’t it? You ready, sir? We’d best take off before the jets cool too much.”

Link wasn’t sure if he was swaying, or if the world had decided to change the pull of gravity.

“Can… can you give me five minutes?” he prayed in a weak voice, fidgeting with the goggles on his forehead.

The pilot glanced out at the plane and sighed into a hum. “I can probably give you two , if you’re quick. I know why I’m here to get you though, so… don’t do anything to get me in trouble for bending the rules.” If it hadn’t been an allowance, it would’ve felt like an insult. “I’ll load up your things.”

Link nodded. “I’ll be out in a second. Thank you.”

The door slammed shut and precious seconds passed where Link hesitated, waiting and hoping against hope that Mick had heard the ruckus and was getting off the phone to come say goodbye. When no such thing happened, Link strode through the length of the site in determined paces, halting at the door holding his boss. If he listened, he could hear him, speaking calm and low into the phone.

He had no idea the Otter was here. Link raised a gloved hand to knock.

Then stopped.

What if Amundsen-Scott was holding him on the phone purposefully, to see if he’d demand a farewell with Link? What if it was a trap set up to catch their true feelings around other people?

What if...

What if it was better this way, that there would be no finalities? No last kisses or hugs or words of parting. No tears and empty promises and heartache of wondering what was going to become of them until the very last second, because there didn’t have to be a very last second? He wasn’t even sure Mick wanted it, anyway.

Maybe that’s why he wasn’t rushing out to see him.

The amount of strength it took for Link to drop his hand to his side and back away from the sound of Mick’s voice was the most he’d exerted in his entire life.

Numb body being carried through the remaining actions automatically, he felt in his pocket for the parting gift.

Get this over with.

Let the hurt worsen so recovery can begin.

Link turned and opened the door to Mick’s room at the other end of the hall, no time for farewell to the fairy lights and bookshelf and the smell of home in the air. He pulled the puzzle bookmark from his pocket and laid it carefully on Mick’s meticulously-made bed, watching it get smaller with distance as he backed from the room and pulled the door closed.

Jaw clenched, Link walked. From the hall through the kitchen, through the lounge, to the foyer, tearing through the memories that begged him for a moment of his time. He pulled down his goggles and opened the door to the outside. The same pitch black he’d grown to appreciate offered no comfort.

With one last, hopeful look, Link gazed over his shoulder into the stillness of the site, and into the unmoving, silent hallway.

One more look. Please. Let him come out and see me leave. I want to see him.

“You ready?” came the shout from the darkness, a spotlight finding him from the pilot’s seat of the plane.

“No,” Link breathed, and let the door to 466 fall shut.

The slam shredded every piece of Link’s heart in a different direction, ripped and tattered in his chest cavity. He could only continue in shell-shocked catatonia, following the beam of light and crawling into the passenger seat in movements too quick to seem real. A video with missing frames, too fast and disconcerting.

The cabin shut, blotting out the world.

“It’s a three hour flight, but I’m sure you remember,” the pilot said cheerily, gassing the plane to turn them around on the skiway. He gave 466 a wide berth. “Hope you got everything.”

Through the thick-paned windows Link watched the site, craned his neck to keep his eyes on it as the support jets kicked on and rumbled the craft around them. The door was cast in its curtain of light as always, the single caged bulb above yellow and beckoning as they pulled away, starting into the night.

When it was little more than a bright smudge behind them, the door threw open and a figure stumbled out, reeling to watch the plane leave.

 

Chapter Text

The first hour of travel was the worst. After that, slipping into an entity of minimal being was only natural.

Existence required no effort. Putting in zero was all the professor could do, so it worked out. When the third attempt from the pilot to strike up a conversation failed, he seemed to get the message and stopped trying.

Link kept his eyes on the path ahead--the nothingness that came and came and never stopped. The thought that the windshield felt more like a mirror encased his mind in frostbite. It carried him for hours, faithful and true. The first time he broke his gaze, it was to look down at the GPS on the navigation dash. Their destination was closing in.

Three hours down, the rest of his life to go.

An indeterminate amount of time later, the pilot tapped his headset and spoke clear and clipped. “Otter24k to Amundsen-Scott, requesting skiway clearance for 466 return.”

The crackling response came swiftly.

“Welcome back, Warder. Skiway 24k is clear. Just in time for dinner.”

“Sweet,” the pilot mumbled happily, flicking some of the switch controls. The engines dropped in decibel.

The way the icy ground rose out of the darkness made Link’s heart ache. But then, he knew everything was going to, so long as he was still in Antarctica. Not that acknowledging that made it any easier. And after he got home, it wouldn’t end. But that was still a ways off.

His job was safe, after all. He was just relocating. Another month in this hell.

The Otter touched down in the well-lit fields around Amundsen-Scott. It was an entire city compared to the stranded cottage of 466, yet Link hadn’t appreciated the size of the operation on his first trip through. There were field buildings scattered for a good quarter-mile. The main headquarters was a massive construction, elevated from the ice and snow on thick, metal columns. Being outside while able to see so far was jarring.

They slid to a stop, and the pilot cut the engine. When Link didn’t move, he cleared his throat.

“Sooo… I know you likely hate me, but I was just following orders. And the last thing you probably wanna do right now is walk around and talk to people. But it’s dinnertime.” He nodded to Link’s things in the back. “If you grab your stuff, I’ll take you to the mess hall. Show you how to get meals here.”

Link squinted at him like the offer had come out garbled. Despondent and hurt as Link was, the pilot was nice enough. Kind smile, friendly eyes, shoulder-length brown hair and a heart-shaped face. Link sighed, apologetic. “I’m not sure I ever caught your name.”

“John Warder,” he introduced, sticking out an amicable hand for Link to shake. The professor did so, numbly.

“Warder. I’m Link.”

“Nice to officially meet you,” Warder beamed, returning his hands to his thigh with an enthusiastic slap. “You hungry?”

“Honestly… not really.” Link’s gaze slunk to his feet in the cabin floor. “But... I’ll come with you. I appreciate the offer.”

“Of course. Operations won’t be able to get you settled in for the night yet, anyway. No one works at dinnertime.” Warder unbuckled and let himself out. By the time Link had found the energy to follow suit, he was already standing and waiting with Link’s bags. “You, uh… would you like it if I carried these for you?”

“No,” Link groaned softly, taking them. Apparently he was already pathetic enough to look like he needed coddling. “Thank you, though. Lead the way.”

“Sure. Follow me.”

Warder moved much faster than Link was ready for. Soon he was jogging up a grated metal staircase to keep up, his bags knocking against his shoulders and back as he begged himself to snap out of grief. Double doors let them into Amundsen-Scott, along with a blast of warm air.

The last time he’d been here, he hadn’t come inside the main building--it had simply been a quick layover in the middle of transport. Now, however, he had the opportunity to take in Amundsen-Scott as he followed Warder in a daze through the halls. They weren’t all that big, but it was enough to feel colossal next to what he’d grown used to.

Link’s first observation, funnily enough, was that it felt more like a high school than a research base. The walls were plastered with cutesy infographic posters. Brightly-colored tiles speckled the walls and staircases. Glowing red exit signs hung at the end of every corridor. And despite its grandiosity, they found the cafeteria in less than a minute of walking.

The room stretched longer than it did wide, and dozens of researchers sat and ate and chatted, providing an uncomfortable din of civilization to which Link was going to have to readjust.

“So many people,” he mumbled to Warder, who laughed heartily.

“You’re gonna have a rough time getting used to life back in the states, aren’t you?”

If only the pilot knew.

“Alright, Neal. Let’s get some grub,” he cajoled with a pat on Link’s back.

They stepped up to the service window and Link gazed out at the bustling tables. He and Warder were the only people in field gear, but no one seemed to be paying them any mind. Didn’t seem like there was a dress code for dinner.

“Sir?”

Link startled, whipping his attention back to the window. “What?”

A young woman with blonde-tipped hair in a net and thick red lipstick was watching him carefully, and offered a comforting grin. “I asked if you wanted a veggie burger or a hamburger?”

“Oh. Hamburger, please,” he nodded, sighing. “Sorry.”

“You’re fine, sweetheart. You can go ahead and pick out your sides.”

Link glanced down the row at the steam trays filled with toasty morsels. “Do… do I have to? I’m not that hungry.”

“No, of course not. Here you go,” she beamed, passing him a lunch tray with a piping hot burger and a small sports drink on it.

“Thank you.”

Link turned and went to join Warder, who was waiting patiently. There may have been a lot of people in the room, but the tables weren’t anywhere near capacity. Warder guided them to a vacancy--the end of a table where they could sit in relative peace. The thoughtfulness of the gesture was enough to make Link want to hug him.

They dressed down marginally, removing their gloves and hats and unbuttoning their coats to eat.

Warder didn’t push conversation, for which Link also wanted to hug him. For a guy who seemed so friendly and chipper all the time, he obviously knew where to draw the line. Folks like that were rare, Link reckoned.

“Thanks, Warder. For hauling my ass around down here,” Link tried. The smile he flashed didn’t reach his eyes.

“Ah, no problem, man. Part of the job. Sorry to hear about… what happened,” Warder considered, cracking open the seal on his drink and draining a third of the bottle before he’d even taken a bite. “Never pleasant, when I have to do retrievals.”

Link swallowed, placing his hands on his knees under the table. “Do you do a lot? Of retrievals?”

“Oh, yeah. You aren’t alone by a long shot.”

Perhaps that should’ve made Link feel better, but it didn’t. Dozens and dozens of lives being broken apart by the roar of a plane engine, some likely to never see one another again. Just like him.

“Actually, the last guy I picked up from 466 is right over there,” Warder threw in casually, pointing over Link’s shoulder.

“What?” Link couldn’t resist, twisting in his seat and scanning the crowd. “Which one?”

“Geeze, dude,” Warder laughed, “a little discretion, yeah? Bleach-blonde hair--Punch. He’s been here ever since. They found a use for him and didn’t send him home. I dunno if you know his story, but uh… he’s doin’ a lot better in a bigger facility. Seems happy with his new job.”

Link’s eyes trained on the young man in question. A scarce beard, wild hair, sharp nose, round face, and a brilliant grin he was sharing with one of his tablemates, laughing.

“Punch,” echoed Link in wonder, and Warder gave him a gentle boot-to-boot kick under the table.

“You wanna stop staring?!” he warbled through a cheek full, already two bites into his burger when Link spun back around.

“Sorry… sorry. I’m… kinda out of it, I guess? Been a while since I’ve been around people.”

“Just a few months, right? Can’t imagine how McLaughlin would behave then. Four years.” Warder shook his head with a small smile, but it fell from his face quickly. “Uhh. Sorry.”

“No,” Link smirked, throat clogged despite himself. “I like hearing other people talk about him. Talk can’t hurt, right?”

“I… I guess?” Warder glanced around warily. “No, yeah. You’re right. He’s kinda like a cryptid down here, to be honest.”

“Really?” Link was surprised at the laughter that bubbled out of his throat.

Eating up Link’s change in mood, Warder nodded enthusiastically. “Totally! Only a few people have met him, but everyone’s heard of him. He’s like Bigfoot or something.”

“That… isn’t too far from the truth, actually.”

“Brutal.”

“Still true.” Link finally felt okay enough to pick up his burger and give it a taste. It had lost some of its warmth, but it was still good. Savory. “Have you ever met him before?”

“Oh, sure. Wasn’t always at 466. Been a passenger of mine twice. Scary dude.”

“He can be, for sure.” Link swallowed. “Was he ever transferred for… for the same reason as me?”

“Ahh, no.” The resolution in Warder’s response made Link smile, thankful. “Just completed shifts, is all.” He brought his drink to his mouth but paused and leaned in close, beckoning Link forward conspiratorially. “I dunno if it makes you feel any better, but that’s not why Punch left, either. As far as I know, McLaughlin’s never… y’know.” He found a simpler way to say it and held his finger near Link’s nose, pointing. “You were the first ‘conflict of interest’ McLaughlin was involved in.”

Link decided that he really, really liked Warder. He felt guilty for not accepting his company sooner. Dreamy-eyed, Link ate some more, appetite returning in the slightest. The happiness from Warder’s admission was fleeting, however, when he realized that it didn’t matter what happened with Mick. Not now, not in the past, not in the future. It didn’t matter.

“Thanks, Warder. I… I think that helps.”

“Happy to hear it, bud.”

Dinner ticked by smoothly, Link’s first interaction away from Mick made a bit more bearable thanks to Warder’s infectious happiness and downright likable personality. After being showed how to buff his tray, the pilot offered to take Link to Operations--the head of Amundsen-Scott, where he would be assigned a site to continue work for his remaining month.

The checkered tile outside of the office headquarters felt strangely childish juxtaposed to the weight in Link’s chest as he stood on the threshold of the doors. Warder lingered beside him for a moment, hands on his hips.

“This is where I say goodbye. They’ll help you--don’t worry. Like I said, you’re not the first. So don’t be too nervous.”

Link put on his best possible face. “Thanks, Warder. Stay safe out there.”

“You got it. See ya, man.”

With Warder’s booted footsteps fading down the hall behind him, Link pushed through the double doors.

The room on the other side was small, and not nearly as magnificent as he’d been imagining for the brain that controlled all of the United States’ workings on the icy continent. Desks against every wall, each with a computer. Cork boards brimming with memos and calendars and thumb tacks. A small vent on the wall that was decorated with ribbons which struggled against the heat like small flags in a storm.

Only one of the desks was occupied, by a lithe, pale woman with long blonde hair middle-parted and a thick gray cardigan. When the door slipped shut behind Link, she looked up and pulled off her glasses. Gave him a brisk once-over.

“I don’t recognize you. Link Neal?”

“Yes, ma’am. Just arrived from site 466,” he tacked on nervously, adjusting the duffel bag strap on his shoulder.

“Perfect.” She stood and stretched, gathering her long hair over one shoulder. “I’d tell you to take a seat, but frankly I’m tired and want to get this over with as quickly as possible. It’s been a hell of a day.”

It was a reasonable enough thing to say, but it still felt like scolding. Even if Link knew how she felt. “Understood, ma’am.”

“I’m Stevie Wynne Levine, operations coordinator Amundsen-Scott. Doctor Neal, for your actions at site 466, you are being relocated. If you refuse to accept relocation, your position with us will be terminated, and you will be barred from consideration for work on future sites. Do you accept these conditions?”

Link’s ears burned in shame. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Done. You’ve been reassigned here . Well. Not here this room, but you won't be going anywhere." She shoved her hands into her jean pockets and waited.

For what, Link wasn’t sure. Confirmation? Acceptance? A reaction of some kind? “Understood,” he finally managed, when she quirked an eyebrow at him. “What are my responsibilities, ma’am?”

“As humiliating as it might sound, we have no shortage of field researchers here at A-Scott, so you’ll be doing something a little more menial. Still important, though.” She walked around the desk in languid paces and opened the doors, beckoning for Link to follow. They fell into step together in the hallway, and when they came upon a black-and-yellow checkered staircase, she started down it and spoke over her shoulder. “Ever worked in an archive before?”

“Digital, or physical?”

“A library.”

“Oh. No,” admitted Link. He shouldn’t have let his gaze wander as Levine informed him about his new job, but there were so many rooms to peek into. Halls of dorms and a rec room with a pool table and a basketball court.

“You’ll be in charge of the archives. Ensuring that texts don’t leave it, assisting researchers with finding the resources they need, keeping it tidy… that kinda stuff. It’s easy work, and peaceful. A lot of people would say you lucked out--me, included.”

In the hall ahead, a door opened and a woman stepped out of a room. As Link passed, he glimpsed inside and nearly tripped; it was a massive hydroponic garden, wild enough to resemble a jungle at a glance. A large circular wood burning hung on the back wall with a curly tree and elegant letters that read South Pole Greenhouse.

Link didn’t miss the flash of bleach-blonde before the door closed: Punch, tending to a potted plant.

So that's where he'd found purpose.

“Neal.”

His gaze zipped up to Levine, but she was pointing to a door ahead. Could she tell he hadn’t been paying attention without even looking? “This is the archive. You’re in here tomorrow at 07:00 until 17:00. I’m sure you guessed already, but dinner’s at 19:00.” She turned and stared up at him with exhausted eyes. “You’re in dorm hall 3, room 3. Easy enough to remember. In there you’ll find a federal-loan laptop for personal use and a bed.”

The weight of Link's bags was beginning to gnaw at his muscles. He hefted them. “No roommates?”

“Not for cases like yours,” she stated bluntly, and he relented with an embarrassed nod. “Any other questions?”

“No, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”

“You got it. Welcome home for the next month.” With that, Levine strode past him to the stairwell, disappearing briskly up the hall.

The signs everywhere made it hard to get lost--again, the site really did feel like it was a school of some kind. Which… maybe that wasn’t too far from the truth. Even if they were paid, researchers were largely just... students. Here for knowledge, of various sorts.

Link found his room without incident and let himself in. It looked so much like the rooms at 466, he had to stop and press his back to the wall in reminder that it wasn't. The only difference, as promised, was a laptop on the bedside table, plugged into a long charger that ran from the wall. There was a strip on the back that read Safe for work only.

Link shrugged and dropped his things to the floor.

He didn’t have to think about it. So long as he kept from thinking about it, kept moving and acting, he’d be fine. Autopilot had done its job well thus-far. He hadn’t even cried since that morning, when he and Mick--

No. No thinking about it.

The only thing left to do, Link unzipped his bags and began unpacking. He could at least strive to make this feel like some sort of home. He arranged his things carefully, getting perfect angles and nesting like an obsessive rodent. Bed sheets went on. He laid out his gear carefully on the floor opposite the bed, stripping down into sweaty but ultimately more comfortable fleece wear. Peering into his pack, he looked for his alarm clock.

His journal stared back at him. Link frowned and pushed it out of the way, only noticing upon touch that something was off. Suspicious, he ran his fingers over the edges of the bound pages. One of them wasn’t fitting correctly.

When he opened it to that page, it was crinkled and unique, and he recognized the poetry on it instantly--recognized the jagged edge of being ripped from its rightful home.

This is the press of a bashful hand, this the float and odor of hair.
This the touch of my lips to yours, this the murmur of yearning.
This the far-off depth and height reflecting my own face.
This the thoughtful merge of myself, and the outlet again.

Right beneath it in unmistakable script--red and bold--was a note.

It means I love you.

Link held the book away from his chest, safe from the wet sobs that shook him without warning.

 

Chapter Text

To Link:

Hey buddy! I’m so sorry it took me such a long time to get in touch with you. The internet here is spotty, and that’s giving it too much credit.

I’m currently on another expedition, as hopefully Josh and Chase told you. I’m in a little community in northern Nunavut, a town by the name of Resolute. Not saying it’s a misnomer or anything, but after 466, it feels like a walk in the park.

The plane ride here was breathtaking. Green hills and plenty of snow and ice, but not enough to bury the ground. Not yet, anyway. I’m really looking forward to tracking the Aurora Borealis. My first night here, I walked down to the shoreline, and saw a small pod of beluga whales coming up for air. Pretty amazing. Makes me wish we’d seen wildlife down in Antarctica, you know?

Enough about me. How are you? I hope you and Mick are getting along. I’m sure he’s treating you well… always kinda got the feeling he cared about you, you know? At least a little. Why else would he be so eager to make you his ‘mate’ for Waterfall when the word was supposed to be ‘date?’ LOL.

Take care of yourself, and enjoy your last month at 466! I miss it a lot.

Talk to you soon,
Jen

“Excuse me?”

Link looked up from his laptop. A young pock-marked researcher wearing a floppy hoodie emblazoned with the words South Pole Station hugged some books to his chest. “Could you please help me find information on tardigrades?”

“Of course,” nodded Link, standing and leading the way to the biology shelves. The large potted plants they passed and the onyx carpet shushing beneath their feet really did liken the archives to a run-of-the-mill public library back home. He delved into an aisle until he hit the microbiology section and ran a hand along the shelf. “They’d be in one of these volumes. Would you like me to help you look?”

“I think I got it from here. Thanks.”

“No problem.” Link bowed out and headed back to the reception desk. He fell into his chair, sighed, and dragged a hand through his hair before clicking out of Jen’s email and opening the next one in his inbox.

Dear Link,

Whoa. In love with him?!? Holy shit, dude, we kinda suspected, but never thought we’d hear you actually admit it! You’ve got some nads, man.

Hey, so long as he treats you right, that’s all that matters! If you’re happy, we’re happy. Everyone deserves to find someone right for them, even if they just so happen to meet at their place of work. Be careful, though. We’d hate it if anything

Link clicked out of that email, too.

The tick of the clock on the wall behind his desk kept metronome for him as he considered everything. There was no way he wasn’t going to respond to his friends--the extent of truthfulness he should include was the real question.

Ultimately, this was his personal email account. Even if his professional emails were scanned--as he suspected they might be--he was safe here. He could say anything he wanted. With a quick glance to ensure the single other occupant of the library was busy, Link composed a new message and addressed it to both Jen and Josh & Chase.

Hey guys.

I don’t want to keep secrets from you all, because I consider you my friends. So I’m just gonna write. And maybe at the end, I’ll feel better. Hard to imagine, but it’s worth a shot.

Mick and I got involved in a romantic relationship at 466.

I don’t have any regrets about my time there. Hell, the memories might be the only thing I don’t regret.

It was bad enough knowing that I was going to leave eventually anyway, but

Link hesitated. As much of Mick’s fault as this was, he didn’t want them to blame him for it. If anyone could’ve blamed Mick, it should’ve been him. But Link didn’t have it in him, and didn’t want the trio to try and contact Mick to chew him out or white-knight for him or anything like that. That would only make everything worse.

It was bad enough knowing that I was going to leave eventually anyway, but Amundsen-Scott found out. I’ve been relocated.

A gush of heat kicked on and poured from the vent above his desk, punctuating the turn of events.

I’m actually at Amundsen-Scott now. The South Pole Station. I should be thrilled. They gave me a job working in the library. It’s easy, and quiet, and makes me feel weirdly empty.

Please forgive me for sounding stupid and predictable... but I miss him.

I miss him so fucking much.

Link would not cry at work. Not when the student was returning to the desk and holding up a volume for him to see. “Can I like… check this out, or...?”

“Sorry. Texts have to stay here,” Link intoned through clumps in his mouth. “If you want, I can put it on a hold shelf for you. Easier to find when you come back in.”

“Nah, that’s okay. Thanks anyway.”

Alone again, Link typed.

Everyone always says, when you’re going through a difficult time, that things will get better. That if you give it time and put hard work into yourself, that healing is inevitable. But I find it hard to believe that will ever work for my circumstance.

It’s not like Mick died. It’s not like he told me no, or that he rejected me, or anything so black and white.

He’s here. He’s just out of arm’s reach. And he will be for the rest of my life. But the fact that he’s so tantalizingly close? That he wants me, too, and that that can’t happen due to things apparently beyond our control? That’s why I can’t imagine it getting any easier with time.

Or maybe the cut is still bleeding too much. I don’t know. I wish it would clot. Scar over, eventually.

...Now that I’ve written everything out, I’m tempted to just delete it instead of sharing. But I promised at the beginning that I would be honest with the three of you. You deserve it.

Sorry I didn’t talk about anything else.

Jen, Resolute sounds beautiful. Take some photos of the Northern Lights for me, if you can.

Thanks for messaging me.
Link

Send.

The screen refreshed back to his inbox. There, just below the emails from Jen, Josh, and Chase, were two emails with file attachments, dated several days apart. The return address on them was Link's personal account--sent to himself from the 466 computer. Mick knew his address.

Tock. Tock. Tock.

Zoning out, Link relived yet another fragment in time. Just one in a slew of thousands, helpless to stop the phantom voices from finding him at his new job.

“You… you’re gonna stay in touch? You’ll break your rule?”

“It was stupid of me to think I could ever resist, Link.”

There were no new messages. It was possible that Link’s email had been barred access from 466’s contacts.

Mick still wanted to talk to him... right? Even if Link had left without saying anything. Even if things had ended far sooner than they were supposed to. Mick wouldn’t go back on his word. Not one he’d given so adamantly. Link wondered, then, if it went both ways? If Mick would be okay with Link contacting him first? Maybe he should-- maybe Mick was expecting it after Link had vanished without a word.

But Link didn't have Rhett's personal address.

Against his better judgment, Link found the website to log into his work email. The .gov domain irked his stomach into knots, but the worst they could do was send him home. With the chance that you really won’t ever see Mick again, his logic reminded him. But he promptly shut that out.

No new messages there, either.

He bit the inside of his cheek and glanced quickly from the keyboard to the screen. Clicked ‘compose.’ Waded through the contact files until he found the one he was looking for: r.mclaughlin. Selecting it and adding it to the recipient field produced a small pop-up window.

You don’t have the required permissions to contact this supervisor.

He’d figured as much, but it still stung.

That was it, then. He exited his work email and was about to close his personal when the inbox refreshed. A new message announced itself in bold type.

From: rhettreadsthings. Subject: Snowflake.

Link reeled, couldn’t find the timestamp fast enough. One minute ago. Cursor shaking on the screen and chest weightless, he opened it.

Hey, snowflake.
You really left without saying goodbye.
Never thought you’d do something like that.
It’s quiet here.
Should be used to it. Guess I’m not, anymore.
Miss you.
Rhett

Link had never hit reply so quickly in his life. Maybe if he was fast enough--

Rhett
I’m so sorry I left without saying anything.
I didn’t want to.
You were busy and I was scared I’d get you in trouble.
They’re keeping me at Amundsen-Scott.
I miss you too. So much. I hope you can feel it.
Thank you for the present you left in my journal.
I’m going to frame it when I get home.
I love you.
Link

 

Barely looking over it for spelling errors, Link hit send and wrung his hands below the desk--all but shaking in his seat as he waited.

More. He just wanted a little more--just wanted to be greedy and receive this one allowance.

Tortuous minutes later, he got a response, and his eyes welled up in gratitude. With a smile he envisioned Mick sitting on the couch with the laptop, watching and waiting and hoping that Link was as obsessive as he was about getting little pieces of one another.

I can feel it, cub.
I’m glad you liked the gift.
There’s another, in the bottom of your duffel bag.
Don’t get too excited, though. It’s not anything huge.
Found the puzzle bookmark. So silly.
So you.
At first I thought the answer to the one on the back--“Don’t forget”--was “Link Neal.”

The first place you held me: snowmobile (This one was a thinker.)
The first gift you gave me: gloves
Where I realized my feelings: tent
(Whitman) I sound my barbaric…: yawp
You found me here: colony of penguins (Kind of a stretch, but okay.)
Don’t forget: I love you.

Of course your name would have the same number of letters.

Why’d you laminate it? I can’t write on it.

Link was smiling so hard, his face hurt. There was another gift from Mick in his bag? He checked the clock over his shoulder. Two hours left on his shift. Then he would sprint to his room and check.

I laminated it so that you can use a dry erase marker.
Whenever you need to remember, you can just solve it again.

Ding.

Jesus Christ, Link.
...I really miss you.
I’m sorry I sent you away.

 

I miss you, too.
Always will.
Do you regret reporting us, now that I’m gone?

Does it matter? What’s done is done.
You’re there, I’m here. That’s how it is now.

Well…
If you do regret it, hearing so would make me happy.

The next message took a bit longer to come in.

Yeah. I do.
I’m sorry.
You really should just forget about me. You know?

Link shook his head at the monitor as if Mick could see him.

I couldn’t if I tried.

You should at least try.

But I won’t.

Stubborn as ever.

You love me, though.

I do.

I wish I could’ve heard you say it once.
What your voice would sound like, actually telling me…
Do you think I could sneak a call to 466? On an iridium?

Snowflake… don’t get us into any more trouble than we’re already in.
I’m on thin ice over here.
It’s what the phone call was about yesterday.

Shit. Sorry.

We shouldn’t even be talking in the first place.

Then why did you email me?

I’m only human.
That’s what got us into this whole mess in the first place.
The distance is for our own good. I can’t resist you.

I don’t want you to resist me.

That’s us in a nutshell, huh?
Me, doing my damnedest to stay away and looking to you to understand that.
And you, rejecting that and inviting me in anyway.
Fuck.

I wish you’d accept the invitation, Rhett.
I’d do anything to have a life with you.
I mean it. Absolutely anything.
You have no idea how much I love you.

I think that’s enough for today, cub.
This isn’t healthy.

The strands in Link’s heart pulled taut--what relief had come from the pain slacking only made it worse once strained again. Was there really a limit on their time together over email?

Are you busy?

To be honest, no.
I was just going to go read.
But… this can’t be encouraged.

Talking to you makes it better. Makes it easier.

No, baby. We’re just prolonging the hurt.

You’re still calling me snowflake, and cub, and baby.
You’re guilty of it, too!

It was an attempt to make Mick see how much he needed it. Because he did . Just as much as Link.

You’re right. I’ll stop. Sorry, Neal.

No! Rhett, that’s not what I meant!

I know it’s not, but it’s still a valid observation.
I’m sorry.
I’ll try to give you some space.
Email you later this week, maybe.

Later this week, maybe ? Link panicked, fingers flying on the keys.

Tomorrow? Please?
Please don’t be so cruel.
Baby steps. For me, Rhett?
Please?

...Okay. Baby steps.
Tomorrow it is.
Not trying to be cruel.
Just… tired of hurting.

Even when he committed, Mick couldn’t see through with his decisions. Not when it came to Link, who wiped his damp eyes gratefully on the sleeve of his sweater.

Thank you.
I’m tired, too.
I love you.

I know.

Several seconds later, another email.

I love you, too.

 


 

 

 

Link had spent the rest of his shift in a solemn daze, re-reading again and again the chain of correspondence. The archives weren’t nearly as busy as he’d assumed they were going to be, which gave him enough time alone, he guessed. But in a way the job also felt like his own personal hell. The omnipresent tick of the clock behind his desk tracked his loneliness, quantified it for him hour after hour.

When his shift was up, he grabbed his laptop and power-walked to his room.

It was the determination-fueled recklessness that made him turn the corner to the dorms and run head-first into someone, sending them both stumbling.

“Oh, gosh,” Link gasped, reaching out to steady the other’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry, I was in a hurry and--”

“It’s fine, man. We need, like, blind spot mirrors in these halls.” The bleach-blond hair. Sharp features.

“Oh.” Link could only stare for a moment as the kid collected himself.

“Uhh... you okay, there?”

“Yes! Sorry. It’s just…” With too severe a grip, Link hugged his laptop to his side. “Are… you’re Punch, right?” The words came out as a high whisper, embarrassing and bad for first impressions. Not to mention slamming into him.

Punch’s eyebrows pinned high in surprise. “Wow. Yes, I am. Y’know, no matter how often it happens, I’ll never get used to people knowing me before I know them. I mean--I know most everyone here’s heard about me, so, no surprises there, but...” He offered a hand, which Link took and shook in earnest. “Alex Punch.”

“Link Neal... sorry. I know this is probably weird and out of left field, but… I was just retrieved from 466 yesterday?” Link wasn’t sure why he felt the need to plunge right into his fascination with Punch. He could’ve led with something normal and friendly, like how are you or I saw that you work in the greenhouse or am I keeping you from anything?

“Oh! Oh, wow. Hey, 466 crew,” Punch chuckled, offering a fist, which Link bumped, feeling old and lame. “Once on the team, always part of the team.”

“For sure,” Link nodded. How in the hell was he supposed to just jump in from here? He had so many questions, but in the middle of a hall when the guy had obviously been headed somewhere wasn’t the best time. Plus, Mick’s present was calling his name in his room. “Hey, uh… if it’s not too weird, I was wondering if I could ask you some things about your time there? Like, maybe we could eat dinner together tomorrow night, or…?”

Punch blinked. “Sure. Yeah, I guess that’d be okay. It’s kinda embarrassing to talk about, but--”

“Trust me, I know. Like I said, I was a retrieval too." Link gave him a shaky smile. "Don’t worry. I’m just curious.”

“Then yeah! Let’s do it, man.” Punch gave him a brilliant grin, then pointed past Link with two finger-guns. “I gotta go to work, but say ‘hi’ if you see me around.”

“Will do. Thanks, Punch.”

“Tomorrow night, Neal.”

They parted ways, and Link was more observant of his surroundings on the last stretch to his room.

Tossing the laptop on the bed, he fell to his knees in front of his duffel bag and zipped it open. The usual care with his neatly folded clothes went out the metaphorical window, but there was nothing in the bottom of the bag. It was all clothes.

Until he realized one of the sweaters wasn’t his.

Gray, big, with thick stripes of color across the chest in horizontal lines. The one he’d meant to ask for before he left, but hadn’t.

How had Mick known? He was sure he hadn’t mentioned it. With a scratchy throat and blurry vision he held it up and instantly pictured Mick standing outside his door, arms behind his back and imploring Link to come out and have dinner with him.

Link’s first thought was to sleep in it, every single night.

Unless.

Reverently he brought the soft cotton to his face and rubbed it against his cheek. His eyes slipped shut and he let himself imagine leaning against Mick’s chest, curling into him one more time. Scared he might be wrong, Link desperately tamped his hopes down as he bunched it to his nose and inhaled deeply, searching.

It smelled like him. Warm and musky with just a tinge of his sweat. It transported Link back to Mick’s bed--to their bed. To feathered morning touches and chuckling at dumb jokes and holding one another in the few minutes before their alarm went off.

Mick purposefully hadn’t washed the shirt. For him--to give him those memories.

Skin flecked with goosebumps, Link sat in the middle of his floor: eyes closed, faced buried in the smell of Rhett, cursing that his tears always threatened damage to his mementos.

 

Chapter Text

Another anxious glance at the clock. 16:00.

There was only one hour left in Link’s shift, and Mick still hadn’t contacted him. If he compared it to the time he’d gotten the first email yesterday, the man was now two hours ‘late’ to their conversation. Each clunk of the second hand that filled the library was teasing, irritating--a promise that he wouldn’t be able to focus on anything else until an unread message popped up in his inbox.

Refresh. Refresh.

Link glanced over the empty archives, his jaw clenched too tightly for how serene the room was.

Refresh.

Paranoia made him log out and log back in, check his internet connection, and dive into his spam folder… not for long, though, because what if it arrived while he was away from the inbox?

Refresh.

There it was! Finally. Link sat up straight in anticipation.

From: rhettreadsthings. Subject: Sorry.

Hey Neal.
Sorry this is late. I hope you aren’t busy by now.
Data took a lot longer than usual today.
I didn’t sleep well last night. Guess it’s affecting my job performance.
Plus, stuff just takes longer without a partner.
How are you settling in at Amundsen?
McLaughlin

The stringent formality of it all made Link’s gut squirm: ‘Neal,’ not one nickname throughout, and he’d signed off as ‘McLaughlin.’ Not even ‘Mick?’ Link ignored the capsizing in his stomach--no time for it--and hashed out a response.

Hi Rhett
Sorry to hear you aren’t sleeping well.
Doesn’t sound like you. You always slept like a log.
Are you doing okay? I worry.
Amundsen’s fine. I’m a librarian.
Link

Whatever concerns Link had about Mick’s tardiness repeating vanished when the reply took less than a minute.

A librarian?
I don’t know whether to say that’s a waste of your potential, or what I want to say.
How are you? Are you okay?

What you ‘want to say?’ What would that be?

Don’t make me regret this.
Librarians are cute.
People who work with books?
You working with books? Jesus.

Link blushed.

Haha. Thank you.
You never told me how you were doing?

You didn’t tell me, either.
Isn’t that answer enough for both of us?

Yeah… yeah.
If you’re allowed to tell me to forget about you, though, I’m allowed to say it too.
Don’t let yourself lose the job you love because you’re distracted by me.

It ain’t your fault.
This job is fine, but I wouldn’t say I love it.
I’m well-suited to it. I told you before. I need it.

With a frown, Link re-read the last email a few times. He needed the job? That wasn’t the conclusion Link had come to, in all of their discussions through all of their time together. At all. If Mick was in fiscal trouble, he’d never mentioned it.

You ‘need’ it? What does that mean?

It keeps my life together.
Can we not talk about it, please?
Sorry I brought it up.
Anything interesting on your end?

Link debated telling Mick about his dinner date with Punch in just a few short hours. Maybe he’d want to say ‘hi’ to the kid or something.

I’m having dinner with Punch tonight.
He’s been here at A-Scott since he left 466.

What? Punch is there?
You’re sure, it’s Alex Punch?

Brow knit in confusion, Link typed.

Yeah. Beard, nice smile, friendly.
Hair so blonde it’s almost white.
That’s him, right?

Wow. Yeah, that’s him.
You’re having dinner together?
Why?

As much as it shouldn’t have, guilty pleasure from potential jealousy surged through Link’s veins and he smirked. He definitely didn’t have intentions like that with the guy, but seeing Mick protective instead of dismissive for once felt nice.

Just wanna talk to him. He seems like a nice guy.
Used to work at 466. We have some stuff in common.
Thought it couldn’t hurt to get to know him.

I see.
Well. Enjoy, then.

That seemed… brusque.

Want me to tell him you said hey?

I don’t think that’s a good idea.

Link was in the middle of responding when a second email came in.

Probably he associates me with a bad time, breaking down and all.
I know 466 is bound to come up, but please don’t mention me.
He’s a good kid.

Staring at the three lines, Link heard Warder’s voice clear in his head: “As far as I know, McLaughlin’s never… y’know. You were the first ‘conflict of interest’ incident he was involved in.”

That’s right--there’d been a qualifier with that, Link realized, his breaths coming in cold despite the heat vent above him. ‘As far as I know.’ Warder was just one man, following orders, as he’d said. And Mick had lied about the nature of his and Link’s relationship to Levine, hadn’t he?

Who was to say he hadn’t lied before?

Link bit his lip and typed out a reply, fingers braver than his brain.

Did something happen between you two?

Mick must’ve been refreshing his inbox like crazy for the reply to be so quick.

No. I promise, Neal.
You’re the one going to dinner with him.

Link huffed.

Yeah. To talk.
I JUST met him last night.

You scheduled dinner with him really fast.

Because I didn’t have a chance to talk to him!

Is that it?
Or are you just as eager for any stranger on the street as you were for me?

Jaw slack, Link doubled down, the sound of hammering on the keyboard making a racket in the still archive. He hit send and brewed in exasperation, hands balled into fists on the desktop.

What the fuck, Mick? Seriously?
I love you. You’re gonna say that kinda shit to me?
Like it would be so easy for me to move on?
Like I’m not coming apart at the fucking seams without you?

I dunno. It would take your mind off of me.
...Shit.  Maybe it’s a good idea.

The searing anger in Link’s sternum morphed and fell wet into his stomach, sick and churning.

Where do you get off, Rhett?!

Alone. I don’t have anyone else here who could help.
Unlike you.

Mick, I’m not looking for a lay. Are you kidding me?
Are you saying you would, if someone were available??

No. I dunno.

Maybe.

Link clamped a hand over his mouth, digging pressure-white fingers into his short beard, eyes burning.

Wow.
Okay.
Wow.

Neal, I was… shit.
I was kidding at first, with the eager thing.
Trying to tease you, to get a rise out of you.
Then I realized it literally doesn’t fucking matter.
None of it does. Yeah?
Why am I jealous? You’re gonna be with someone else eventually.
Jesus Christ. And even knowing that hurts.
What a fucking shitshow.

Breaths coming in short and shallow, Link tented his face in his hands and tried to regain composure. It was hard, knowing someone could walk in needing assistance at any second and see him having a panic attack.

Another message, probably prompted by his prolonged silence.

I wouldn't.
I’m really sorry I said that.
I don’t know what I’m doing, snowflake.
I guess I should be glad that you do, though.
Sorry. I crossed a line.
If you’re mad at me, you should use that anger.
Germinate it into something bigger to make this easier.
You know?
It’d help both of us, if you did.
I’m so sorry.

Even when he was trying to be comforting, Mick always managed to say the wrong thing.

The clock read 17:00--had it really been an hour? Maybe if Link reigned it in, he could leave and get back to his room without instantly alarming any researchers he passed. Biting his lip to the point where he should’ve tasted blood, he responded.

My shift is over.
I’ll talk to you whenever.
Later this week, maybe.

He stood and collected himself, wiping a hand down his face. Another notification popped up, and Link stared, pulling down at the bags of his eyes.

Okay.
I love you.

Jaw clenched, Link slammed the computer shut and threw it under his arm, striking out from the archives with a purpose wildly different from the day before.

 

 


 

 

Link was first to arrive in the mess hall. He didn’t really feel up to socializing given how horrifically his afternoon had gone--he’d regretted not saying 'I love you too' well before coming out to dinner--but he was managing to power through from curiosity and commitment alone. Standing off to the side let him watch the researchers file in and get trays, none of them paying him any mind as they clamored for grub.

Punch was easy to spot in a crowd thanks to his hair. Link waved, and Punch hurried over to him with a smile.

“Hey, man. Neal, right?”

“Yeah. You hungry?”

“Starving. Let’s eat.”

Dinner was steaming servings of eggplant Parmesan with a roll on the side and chocolate milk. Delicious as it looked with the thick tomato sauce and melted cheese, Link still didn’t have much of an appetite. Like he’d forgotten to pack it when he left 466.

There were plenty of open seats at the tables, but Punch nodded to two armchairs with a low table between them near the entrance of the hall. “Wanna sit over there?”

“Oh.” Maybe he would feel more comfortable talking about his time at 466 if they had a bit more space. Hell, maybe Link would, too. “Sure.”

They settled down and Punch rubbed his hands together, eyeing Link.

“Said you wanted to talk about the site. Right?”

“Yeah,” nodded Link, completely disinterested in his food. He leaned on the arm of the chair, towards Punch. “I… I dunno, I guess I was hoping you’d tell me about what it was like when you were there? I’m just curious, is all.” Punch took a deep breath and held it, puffing out one cheek in thought. Maybe offering a starting point would break the ice. “Were Matichuk, Scherer, and Hilt there, when you were?”

“Ah, shit, yeah!” Punch broke into a grin, fond and reminiscent. “I loved those guys. I’d been there for a while before them, though. Matichuk joined first, and then Scherer and Hilt after. Are you in touch with them?”

“I am. They’re the best people.”

“They are. Scherer was one hell of a cook. Tell ‘em all I said ‘hey.’”

“Will do.”

Punch stabbed a bit of eggplant on his fork but didn’t eat it.

“So,” Link’s brow furrowed in thought, “who was there before you? Like, when you got there, what did the team look like?”

“Oh, when I got there it was just me.” He popped the forkful into his mouth.

“What? You were alone?”

Punch nodded, then twisted his head once quickly, pulling a face. “Well, Mick was there, obviously. Guy practically lives there. Right?”

Punch had used his nickname.

“You call him Mick, too.” Link tacked a chuckle onto the end of the observation to mask his surprise as amusement.

“I’m the one who came up with that nickname,” nodded Punch as he opened his chocolate milk. “McLaughlin was a mouthful.”

Link knew he was dazed, staring at nothing as Punch drank. “ Not as fun to say as Matichuk? ” The line had been exactly what Chase had said to him, upon introducing Link to the site leader.

“Yes! Wow.” Punch leaned back in his chair. “I had no idea I was so influential at 466. I didn’t even stay for that long, but I managed to get Rhett a nickname and have a slogan to go with it.”

Link went numb from head to toe.

“You called him Rhett?” he asked, trying to be louder than a whisper, and Punch shrugged.

“There at the end, yeah. Nobody else did, though, so I always used ‘Mick’ with and around other people.”

“Were… were you two partners? Carbon recording?”

“We were. Hated lugging that damn drill around. Glad I don’t have to do that anymore.”

Punch chatted away happily, focused mostly on his food. Link should have been grateful for it--he wasn’t sure how he was maintaining his composure and not bolting from the cafeteria to dry heave into the nearest toilet. Mick had tried reassuring him via email, but the similarities were damning. He swallowed thickly, realizing the awkward lapse in the conversation he was supposed to be spearheading.

“Do you mind if I ask why you had to leave?”

Punch stopped and flicked his gaze up to meet Link’s. Reluctant, he set his fork down and cleared his throat. “How about a trade?”

“You wanna know why I had to leave?”

“Yeah. Seems fair. We’re in the same boat now, right?”

With a dry throat and shaking hands, Link picked up his drink and opened it as a way to busy his fidgeting hands. “Yeah. We are. I guess that’s fair.”

“You first.”

Link shivered, glancing over Punch's shoulder to the carefree researchers socializing at the tables. “I, uh.” He coughed and shook his head. “I fell in love with him.”

“Same,” Punch agreed, tearing a piece bread off in between his teeth. Bored enough to be running numbers.

The room tilted and spun for Link. Dizzying and nauseating. “Wh-What?”

“Yeah. Head over heels. Tall, smart, funny. Handsome. A reader. Spent lots of time together. Shit, I’m only human. I was smitten.”

I'm only human.  Words Mick had used time and again with Link.

“So… what, uh...” How Link was still upright was a mystery. He’d never been so lightheaded. “What happened, then?”

“He called me in.” Punch stopped and stared at Link, chewing thoughtfully, unaffected by the topic at hand. “He called you in, too, didn’t he?”

Link hunched forward onto his elbows, finally breaking enough to sink his face down into his hands. Fuck it. Punch seemed nice enough. He’d been here too. “Yeah. He did.”

“Ah… sorry. Forgot how recently it happened… didn’t mean to be an ass.” A firm, reassuring hand shook Link’s shoulder. “It gets easier. I promise. Miss ‘im like crazy at first, of course. But he’s an asshole. Doesn’t have a loving bone in his body.”

Link’s mouth was watering, a prelude to sickness. Not a good sign. “You don’t think so?” he managed, weak.

“No, man. Listen, here’s exactly what happened, and you tell me if this is something a kind person would do: I made dinner for him one night, right? And we were sitting in the living room after, watching a movie, and he’s clammed up like… well, a clam, I guess. I could tell he was nervous, there was this weird energy in the room. So I decided to address it directly--poured my heart out. Told him how much he meant to me, how much I’d grown to love him. How much I wanted to be with him, all that jazz. Y’know what he did?”

Link couldn’t respond, peering up at Punch through his fingers.

“He stood up, walked over to the phone, and called me in. Right then and there. Didn’t even say anything.” Punch chuckled at the memory, apparently distanced enough from it to find humor there. “Told them I’d had a ‘mental health emergency.’ Said it was a 'kindness,' that he’d even lied about that part. I guess he was right, ‘cause that’s what everyone around here still believes.”

Slowly, Link sat up with perplexed blinks. “He called you in just for confessing?”

“Yeah.” Punch paused, cocking his head to squint at Link. Link’s stomach fell at the slip-up. “Wait a second. You were actually in a relationship with him?”

“N-No,” Link blurted, tripping through his own thoughts to recall what Mick’s lie for him had been. “But… but he was scared something might start, if I’d stayed.”

“Shit, dude. I’d say I’m jealous, but first of all, my feelings for him died pretty quickly. And second? That’s even worse . Sounds like he trailed you along. I’m sorry to hear that,” Punch mumbled, sounding totally sincere. “I knew he was heartless, but I didn’t think he was that heartless.”

“Yeah. It’s okay, though,” said Link quietly. Strange, that he all at once felt justified in his hurt and grateful that things had gotten as far as they had with Mick.

Mick had rejected both of them, ultimately. But with Link, he’d allowed things to progress before ending it. Link had precious knowledge of what Mick’s kisses tasted like and the tack of their flesh slicked together with sweat and how Mick’s timbre rumbled when he moaned. Punch hadn’t gotten any of those things. Why had Link been an exception?

“Thanks for telling me.” Link finally committed to taking a bite of bread, realizing he hadn’t eaten yet.

“Yeah, man. No problem. I know how hard it is. It gets easier, though. I promise.”

“Thanks. You’re a good guy, Punch.”

“Anytime.”

They said farewell after dinner and Link trudged back to his room, thoughts heavy with regret over the fight he’d had with Mick. Things were difficult. As much as he was struggling, he had people to talk to here. Things to distract him from the ache and loneliness. Mick didn’t have anyone, yet he was undoubtedly going through the same thing.

Punch had insisted that Mick was a heartless asshole... but he never got the chance to be close with him. He hadn't heard the words Link had, hadn't felt what it was like to be taken care of when he was sick. Hadn't shared hurt over dinner and drunken fucks and pet names and enjoying wildlife together under a single blanket. Mornings where waking up was slow and tender. How it felt to be in his arms and have kisses etched into his hair with an appreciation so palpable, it could've bound a book.

Being with Mick and feeling his affection was the most real and undeniable thing Link had experienced in his life.

It was impossible, that Mick was heartless. Not when it came to Link.

So Link sat on his bed and opened his laptop and email. There was nothing new in his personal inbox, and he navigated to the last message he’d received with sour aggression earlier:

Okay.
I love you.

Link replied.

I’m sorry. I love you too.
Can’t stop thinking about you.

Once it was sent, he lulled his head back to rest on the wall and closed his eyes.

There had to be some remedy to stop the missing. To sate the hole in his chest and fill it up for the time being, just to get some relief. He tugged the sweater from under his pillow and tried to enjoy the scent of Mick, but it made the hole worse, its edges strained and eaten away. And he couldn’t find it in himself to fetch the paper from the journal. That would sting, too.

He needed to see Mick, and there was only one way to do that.

Link glanced at the sticker on the back of the laptop. Safe for work only. At its face, that was a request. Not a command.

Neck burning, Link checked his bedroom door before finding the two emails with video attachments. He debated. Did he want to see Mick servicing him, or Mick owning him and whispering sweet nothings to the camera, talking to him directly?

The choice was easy.

He opened the more recent email and picked at his fingernails as it buffered. When the loading bar finished, a shock of excitement shot through him and he stiffened, hand lingering on his inner thigh. Then, the pop-up appeared.

This file is corrupted and cannot be opened.

Link stared at it. Quickly, he went to the other video and tried that one, chewing on his lip.

Same error.

Nodding, Link logged out and closed the laptop, watching it with dead eyes. Unfeeling and crushed, typical and so, so unfair. The last shred of hope he’d had at feeling closer to Mick--something that should’ve worked, something he’d planned ahead of time and spent effort to orchestrate and preserve--gone, in an instant. He shifted his gaze to the far wall of the room, settling into resigned stillness.

Two days down, the rest of his life to go.

 

Chapter Text

All throughout his shift in the archive, not a single new email came in.

As if the human mind was normally capable of such a thing, Link juggled every possible reception in his solitude. Guilt, that he had let things end on a sour note. Anger, that Mick would let silence take over after only three days. Relief, that maybe it meant things might get easier, after all. Gratitude, that he’d fallen for Link but not Punch, and that Link had been able to have allowances with him in the first place.

But far and away the one that held Link closest and whispered to him in his loneliness was melancholy.

He tried to take his mind off of it; being surrounded by books offered endless possibilities for transporting him elsewhere… but the act of reading in itself made him think of Mick, as well, despite being hesitant to connect the dots on that line of thinking in such a pivotal moment in his life. If he avoided reading now, he’d probably never read again. It would be a decision he carried for the rest of his life.

Link wandered to the shelves, ran his hand along the spines of information and kept his eye peeled for anything that even remotely excited him. He settled on a text regarding the wildlife of Antarctica, one full of beautiful, high-resolution color photos. Once back at his desk, he flipped through it, listless, eyes refusing to comprehend the words and only soaking in the images of penguins, seals, albatrosses, and all sorts of alien sea life.

The photographs carried him to five minutes until his shift ended. Looking at his laptop, Link chewed on his abused lips and hit compose.

To: rhettreadsthings Subject: Checking in

Hey, Rhett.
I miss you.
Just needed to say it.
It has no where else to go.
I hope you’re doing okay.
Have a good

He paused. A good what? A good night? A good week? A good life? When were they going to talk again? If Link’s gut-wrenching suspicions were anywhere close to truth, there was a chance Mick was never going to respond. Ever. That his patience had worn too thin and he’d realized the damage of what was happening.

Link deleted the last line and sent it off. He packed up this things, returned the book to the shelf, and left for his room.

The more often he devoted himself to stillness and to allowing time to crawl by, the more adept Link became at checking out. He could do it, forever. Sit and stare when he wasn’t needed and be okay with waiting out his expiry. No desire for food, no need for company. He could just go to work to have a place to rot alone at night, and it would be an admirable life by society’s standards. Practice would make perfect.

This. Forever.

Perhaps he should’ve been startled by the knock at his door.

“Come in,” he called. His mind supplied a thousand reels of footage of Mick opening the door and smiling at him in the half-second it took for Levine to fill the doorway.

“Neal,” she said starkly, leaning against the frame in a puffy red vest. “I need you to… wait, what are you doing?”

“Nothing,” Link answered honestly, giving an empty smile from his perch on the bed.

“You’re just sitting in here in the dark?”

He hadn’t even noticed the lights were off. “Oh. I… yeah. I guess so.”

“God,” she sighed in exasperation, waving for him to follow. “Come with me.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Levine walked faster than Link. Warder had, as well. Was everyone at Amundsen-Scott on a mission at all times, or had Link forgotten how to use his legs to some extent? At the end of the dorm hall, he cleared his throat.

“Is everything okay, ma’am?” Not that it mattered.

“Let’s get to Operations first, shall we?” she offered, tearing up the stairs and leaving Link to fumble behind her.

They got to the office, the large double doors clicking shut behind them. Levine walked around the first desk and stopped in the middle of the room, letting out a tired groan that all but yelled I don’t have time for this . She froze like that, face turned to the ceiling to collect herself. Link frowned, waiting patiently. If she had to steel herself for whatever she needed to discuss with him--

“Rhett McLaughlin hasn’t responded since you left 466.”

Link’s mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out.

“We’ve tried his email, we’ve tried i-phone. He hasn’t sent in data in three days, and frankly, I’m getting pretty sick of all of the issues he’s managed to cause over there--even when he’s all alone.” Levine thrust out a chair and fell into it, crossing her legs to glare up at Link. Like it was his fault. “How much leniency do we give a person, Neal? How far does seniority go in terms of preserving a person’s job, if they fail to complete their duties?”

Dread poured into his chest as the information sank in. He hadn’t contacted Link in over a day, either. But Mick was strong--stronger than Link. He was just mad, like he always was, not processing things in a healthy way. Running. It was what he did.

He had to be fine.

“He’s… he’s not answering?” echoed Link in confusion, about four steps behind where Levine needed him to be.

“Nope. Not a damn thing. We can’t get in touch with him.” Levine picked up a pen and rapped it on the desk impatiently. “I have to ask: did you do anything to prevent him from being able to perform his duties properly? Maybe in retaliation for him calling in about your situation?”

She didn’t miss the way Link’s face creased in injured offense.

“I literally have to ask. It’s protocol.”

“No, ma’am,” Link answered begrudgingly.

“See? Was that so hard?” She slapped the pen down and picked up a corded phone from a cluttered corner of the desk, dialing in quick punches and clamping the receiver between her shoulder and ear. “Yeah, Warder. Can you come in, please? Thanks.”

Warder was going to be joining them?

Mick wasn’t responding. Levine had called upon Link. And now a pilot was coming in.

Link forgot how to feel--was weightless and dreamy and terrified to draw the conclusion he felt was obvious.

Levine hung up and regarded Link with pursed lips.

“Now, usually what we do in this situation is send someone to check-in on the distressed party. Their health and safety are our primary concerns. As much as their responsibilities are important, we care about our employees. I know you probably don’t believe that, but it’s true.”

The scratch of swallowing with a dry throat pained Link. Unable to find the words, he nodded, waiting. Too anxious to beg any further questions for fear of being wrong.

The door behind him opened and Warder was suddenly there, shoulder to shoulder with Link.

“Warder, we’re scheduling an emergency flight to 466. Are you free?”

“Yes, ma’am. Right now?”

“In a minute,” she warned, holding up a finger and scrutinizing Link with tight eyes. “Neal. I can see what you’re thinking ‘cause it’s written on your face. I bring you in here, talk about sending someone to 466. Ask if you’ve done anything to antagonize or damage McLaughlin’s position. Here’s the thing, Neal: McLaughlin’s job is hanging on by a thread.”

She sat forward, commanding Link’s full attention. “All of the incidents at 466 have cost us tens of thousands of dollars. The only thing keeping me from firing him are his experience and the results he’s produced over the past few years. He’s far and away our most valuable team member. But even that only gets a person so far. I can only pardon so many slip-ups.”

This job is fine, but I wouldn’t say I love it. I told you before. I need it.

Link hadn’t breathed in a while. His chest hitched. “Yes, ma’am.”

“It would be stupid of me to fire him without checking in on his health first.” Levine leaned back slowly, maintaining eye contact. “But I would have to be out of my goddamn mind to send you to be the person to check on him.”

The professor’s eyes fell to the floor, his neck hot with the familiar burn of thievery. Something he had only just dared to hope, taken.

“I’m not done.”

Link’s eyes snapped back up. Levine watched him with a level gaze, taking in his reaction before leaning forward to grasp the computer mouse on the desk. When the cursor moved, the black screen that Link had assumed was a screensaver activated and offered a large gray play button. She clicked it and sat back, eyes never leaving Link as the video started.

Josh and Chase popped up on screen.

They were seated side by side in a laboratory, dressed in white coats. They looked the definition of professional, and Link’s heart swelled at the sight of his friends, even if he was beyond bewildered as to what was going on.

Josh reached out to adjust the camera and gave an amicable wave, which Chase repeated. “Hello. We’re Josh Scherer and Chase Hilt, researchers with veteran status at USAP site 466. We are contacting you in hopes of appeal for one researcher Link Neal, regarding his status of relocation to Amundsen-Scott.”

Link could only watch, stupefied.

Chase took over, every ounce of serious that Link had never seen on him before. “Doctor Neal is one of the brightest minds we’ve had the pleasure of working with. Clever, intelligent, and hardworking, with a good head on his shoulders and even better capacity for kindness and compassion in a place frozen over. We believe it is an error in judgment, and, yes, unnecessary , for Neal to be relocated to Amundsen-Scott.”

“Regarding the nature of his offense,” Josh cut in, folding his hands in front of him, “we would both stake our professional reputations on his ability to continue producing the results that USAP needs. He isn’t one to let details of his personal life get in the way of his work--he is consistent, reliable, dutiful, and never once didn’t put his all into whatever he was doing.”

Blinking away the stinging of tears, Link bowed his head.

Chase nodded. “We would like to speak to the nature of the partnership between Doctor Neal and site lead 466, Rhett McLaughlin. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with on the field. Their strengths as a team complement each other effortlessly. To split two such minds apart--no matter how they feel about one another, interpersonally--is a detriment to the scientific community, and indeed, to your operations. If they feel their hearts belong together, imagine the damage of keeping their minds apart.”

“Again, we stake our reputations on this testimonial: an exception should be made for Doctor Neal to work in proximity with site lead McLaughlin.” Josh nodded, and sat up straighter. “Thank you for your time, Officer Levine.”

Where Link thought the video was over, the scene changed, and grainy footage of Jen bundled from head to toe inside of a tent popped up. He pressed a hand over his mouth to keep an overwhelmed sob from escaping.

“This is Jen Matichuk, veteran of USAP site 466. Regarding the professional and personal relationships of Doctors Neal and McLaughlin--please don’t keep them apart. Both for their work, and for their health and happiness.”

She shifted to level with the camera. “I understand the usefulness of implementing bans on relations in most workplaces, but I also understand that whatever power imbalance you may worry about? Doesn’t exist, in this instance. Neal and McLaughlin are partners, through and through. They keep one another in check. Which, for McLaughlin, is only a benefit. They are also grown men who take their jobs very seriously--not horny interns sleeping around on their site. Sorry to be blunt, but I think you know what I’m talking about, Officer Levine.”

Levine rolled her eyes with a tired nod, head on her hand.

“I would speak to it more, but there’s no guarantee this video will go through to begin with, so: please reconsider your decision of keeping Neal and McLaughlin apart. Thank you.”

The video ended. Now red-eyed, Link couldn’t stop swallowing down tears, refusing to let them into the open air after such glowing praise from his colleagues.

“Wow,” Warder stated simply.

Levine spoke around her fingers. “Right?” She powered off the monitor to address Link. “Glowing praise from three highly-respected and lucrative past members of our team. All of them willing to stake their careers on what happens to you here. I hope that’s not lost on you, Neal.”

“N-No, ma’am,” choked Link, shaking his head adamantly.

“I must be out of my goddamn mind,” Levine murmured, returning her attention to Warder. “John.”

“Ma’am?”

“Take Neal to 466.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Warder rogered, grabbing Link by the arm and pulling him out into the hallway before the first full-out wail wracked him.

A steady hand patted Link’s back, rubbing and comforting. “I know. It’s okay. It’s only for an emergency check-in, but you’re gonna see him again at least once. It’s happening. Shh.”

Nowhere else to outlet the knee-buckling emotion, Link turned and hugged Warder, latching onto him as he cried. Warder returned the hug without a second thought.

“Guess Mick ain’t the only one who loves you, huh?” Warder laughed over his shoulder, ruffling the back of his shirt to calm him. “Let’s go and get anything you think you’ll need.”

 

Chapter Text

It was amazing, how state of mind affected the passage of time.

This same flight taken days ago had passed in a wink. Now, it dragged endlessly, and Link was having trouble looking anywhere besides the GPS.

To Warder’s reluctant acceptance, he had made them board right away without any pit stop to his dorm room. He didn’t need anything from Amundsen-Scott to go to 466. Everything he needed was there already, waiting.

Hopefully, okay.

The exhilaration of promised closeness to Mick again--to be able to hold him and kiss him and finally get the goodbye he deserved, even if only for a minute--it had taken longer than it should have to give way to the murky remembrance that something may have actually been wrong at 466. That any number of things could’ve happened that Mick simply didn’t have the capacity to handle by himself. Not in his current state, anyway. Link wouldn’t have been able to, if he were in Mick’s shoes.

But it was surely just another external trial. 466 had run out of fuel, or the power was out.

That had to be it.

“Hey,” Link’s voice crackled into his headset, and Warder cocked his head in acknowledgment. “When we get there, would you mind if…?”

Warder laughed warmly, shaking his head. “I’m stayin' outside. This isn’t my story. Take your time, too. No hurry.”

A pensive smile etched into Link’s features.

“Thank you.”

“If you need me for anything though, let me know.”

“I will. How much longer?”

“About twenty minutes. Hang tight.”

The confirmation made Link float in his seat, like he’d drift up to the roof of the cabin if he weren’t buckled in.

Twenty minutes until he would lay eyes on Mick again. In person. To hear his voice, to tilt up his head to meet those achingly green-gray eyes. To be in his presence and feel humbled and grateful for it. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back to imagine Mick’s caressing touch on his cheek, that soft smile peering out from his beard. The touch of their lips again.

Mick would allow that, right? He would still want it.

Especially since Link had been sent back by Levine herself, knowing full-well the nature of their proximity and the risks and permissions that came with her assent. They were going to be together, and people were okay with them being together. Just this once. Just until he sated Mick on himself and vice versa, and got the proper goodbye they needed.

Link could live with it. Just once more. It was more than he ever thought he’d get in his life, and he was okay with that.

Link’s heartbeat rattled with the plane as it lowered to the skiway, and in the distance he picked out the illuminated metal door of 466, closing in fast.

He was here. Home, the word popped into his head, absurdly fond for an existence like this.

Every inch of his skin tingled when the Otter came to a complete stop, and he fought to unbuckle himself with shaking hands. Warder watched, calm as Link tore off his headset and kicked out the door. He landed in the snow with a heavy crunch and straightened to stare at the door in the distance.

Each second he waited was another moment he could’ve spent with Mick.

He started in a timid walk, which broke to a fast stride and then a jog to the front door. Link threw it open and let himself in, breathing heavy and glancing around. The lounge, the kitchen, the hall. It looked the same as it had--the only out-of-place thing was the closed laptop on the coffee table.

“Rhett?” Link called, voice breaking as he shut the door behind him. He’d never dressed down quicker in his life, shedding all gear but his boots as he stumbled past the lounge and into the kitchen.

He was in here somewhere.

“Rhett?”

He opened the man’s bedroom.

Dozens of beer cans scattered the floor. In forgotten piles and stacked in most of the walking and standing space of the room--the same brew from Jen’s going away party. Link traced them with his eyes slowly, astonished at the effort it must have taken to consume so much alcohol. The room was void of life, though, and with fresh dread in his heart, Link checked his old room swiftly before bee-lining to the bath.

The door was jammed.

“Rhett?!” Link shouted, trying the handle and banging on the door when that didn’t work. “Rhett, I’m back! Let me in!” He waited, pressing an ear to the metal.

Nothing.

Panicked instinct gripped him; Link took a few paces back and lunged forward, kicking it in heavy assault with his weighted boot. It writhed on its hinges and broke open to reveal the small yellow bathroom with a loud bang.

There he was.

Mick, sprawled in the floor on his stomach, the familiar bottle of spilled wine just out of reach of his fingertips. His cream cable-knit sweater pooled on the slope of his back. He was turned away from Link.

“Rhett,” breathed Link, falling to his knees and crawling to the blonde, swatting away the wine so it rolled and splashed across the tile. “Rhett, wake up. I’m here, wake up!” Gently his fingers grasped Mick’s shoulders, straining to pull his impossible weight from the floor and flip him over into his lap.

He looked peaceful. Almost asleep. His lips were parted just slightly, his eyelids heavy with the color of rest. It wasn’t until Link took his chin in his hand and turned his head that he noticed the gash on Mick’s forehead--the dry blood on his temple and sticky crimson pool to match in the floor.

“Shit, Rhett, no, no, no, no, no,” Link whispered wildly, reaching up to feel his neck, holding his frozen fingers there with breath held. Mick was warm, and had a pulse, but it was slow and as weak as his breathing.

Not wasting another second, Link lugged Mick’s limp body out to the lounge, hauling him onto the couch and kicking the coffee table free from the space before it. A trembling glass of water, the first aid kit, and a wet washcloth later, he crouched beside him and started cleaning the blood from his face.

Agitated from the movement, the cut began to bleed fresh again, sending a stream of red into Mick’s hair. Link’s fingers convulsed with nerves as he found disinfectant wipes in the kit and pressed one to the wound, stopping the bleeding as he located a bandage.

“Fuck, Rhett, what happened to you? Please be okay, please wake up--”

Link wasn’t aware of any of the words rolling from his lips as he sat up and applied the bandage. It wasn’t fit for the situation, but it would help until Mick could get better care.

Hovering over him, Link’s eyes raked Mick’s features. He reached up and caressed the sides of his head, ran his thumbs over the cheekbones he’d missed so much.

This wasn’t how their reunion was supposed to go. Link had been selfishly daydreaming about kisses and hugs and being together again, and the entire time, Mick had been blackout drunk and injured in the floor of a bathroom. How self-centered and greedy was Link, that his desires came before the actual well-being of his beloved in his mind?

“Wake up. Please wake up, Rhett. What happened to you? Fell and hit your head, drunk, shit, don’t have a concussion, don’t be in a fuckin’ coma or something, holy shit, holy shit, what if you’re in a coma? What if you never wake up?”

The steady rise and fall of Mick’s stomach taunted him. By all accounts, he just looked asleep. How long had he been unconscious? The blood in the bathroom was dry. Link fought back tears and folded the washcloth, pressing the clean parts of it to Mick’s eyes and forehead, hoping against hope. “Please come back, Rhett. Come back to me. I’m here now.”

A wheeze--soft, but there.

Link pulled away to give him space, watched in reverence as Mick’s face contorted, uncomfortable and pained.

Pushing and forcing encouragement out, Link’s throat tried desperately to clamp around the words and crushed them high with fervency. “Rhett! Rhett, can you hear me? Open your eyes, love. Please. Please wake up. I’m here for you. I’m back.”

A full-on wince, eyes screwed tight, and a slow sliver of green irises as Mick returned to the world.

Link held his breath.

Mick stared up at the ceiling, expression blank, squinting against the light. A low rumble started in his throat. For a split second, Link feared he might vomit, but it turned into a raspy statement, spoken low to no one in particular.

“Those fuckin’ dreams... I swear to god.”

“Rhett.” Link’s voice was fragile and warbled with relief. The blonde on the couch glimpsed around, disoriented, re-learning how to exist until his sights fell on Link there at his side.

“Holy shit,” he whispered, blinking his wide eyes hard, craning his neck to get a better look at Link.

“You woke up,” choked Link, scared to touch him just yet. Scared to hurt him more.

“Are…” Mick sat up, grunting and straining to prop himself up on an elbow. He took Link in like a ghost, pale and disbelieving. A hand moved to cup his face, pausing to finish the thought before contact. “Are you real? Am I dead?”

“If you’re dead, I’m dead too,” chuckled Link, bubbling and overwhelmed at the presence of the man before him.

He was okay. They were together again.

Link tried to dry his eyes. It was no use. “Which I guess would make this heaven, right?”

“Link... I’m sorry.” Mick’s face twisted, pained green eyes holding true. The unease on him was thick and teetering. He clearly wasn’t convinced Link was actually there--yet words fell readily, dug up deep and unearthed onto this opportunity, should it be the only one he got.

“Never know what I’m doing--even trying my best, I--never should’ve sent you away...? So cold... and cruel, and so… so sorry. You’re hurt now,” Mick breaks, “and should never be hurt, I just--did it without thinkin’ and god, how fucking shitty can a person--”

“Mick.” Link shook his head and smiled, trying to blink away the wet. “Your mistakes are not the you yourself.”

Mick’s hand trembled as it finally closed the distance to Link’s cheek, and when it found the tactile grit of his beard and stroked, something shattered.

“Link,” Mick gasped at reality, with all of the need of a starving man promised food.

When Link let out an elated giggle, Mick swelled forward and kissed him, warm and loving and chaste. Their noses and foreheads met as they always had, and both hands framed Link’s face and wiped his tears away as they always had, pushed his bangs back and tangled up through his hair as they always had.

The kiss broke and spawned into small kisses, raining on Link’s face as he laughed and cried and Mick whispered in between them. “What are you--doing here--what the fuck--how did you?--must be dead--fuck, I missed you.”

“I missed you too, Rhett. More than anything,” Link squeaked, letting himself be pulled into a strong embrace, hoisted onto the couch to straddle Mick. “Be careful! You’re injured!” he scolded through a smile. “And hungover, right?”

“Don’t care,” Mick rumbled in his ear, hugging like Link might vanish if he let go.

Which, technically…

“Amundsen sent me to check on you,” Link explained quietly, melting into the hug. Feeling it in every fiber of his being. The warmth, the smell of Mick and wine and copper, the large claw-like fingers clutching his back. “I can’t stay, but they let me come see you one last time.”

The cage of Mick’s arms around him slacked. “One last time?” he echoed in a murmur.

“Yeah. I have to go back soon. The Otter’s waiting outside.”

Mick swallowed audibly, throat bobbing on Link’s shoulder. He pulled back and forced their gazes together, level. Tinged with sudden fear.

“Link, I can’t do this.”

Link bit his lip, filled with conviction and bravery he hadn’t felt before.

Everything was going to be okay. This was his farewell--and it meant more than he could ever possibly dream. They got to be together one last time, and it wasn’t perfect--but it was them. And that was what Link had wanted all along. Their story had an ending, and it was going to be one that Link could live with. One he could smile back on, even with a wounded heart.

“I know,” Link nodded. “I just wanted to say goodbye.”

Rhett shook his head. “I’m homeless.”

The statement was jarring, to say the least, and Link bobbed backwards, face bemused. “What...?”

“I live here. I don’t have a home back in the states. I was hired through an outreach program, and that’s why I have to stay here.” Mick’s eyes were clear and searching Link’s. “I never wanted to burden anyone else. Didn’t want to couch-surf or bring down anyone kind enough to let me into their home if I returned to the States. Nowhere would feel right.” His gaze dropped to Link’s hand, where he rubbed his thumb thoughtfully. “If I don’t live here, I’m a drifter.”

Link inspected the collar of Mick’s shirt pensively, picking at the fabric there and relishing the feel of Mick’s large hands on his. He leaned forward into another seamlessly natural hug.

Mick was looking for something.

Link knew him well enough to tell that this was a question, and not a story at all. The entire time they’d been involved, he’d never mentioned this once, and it wasn’t a coincidence that he was bringing it up now, spilling his reasons why he needed this job for Link like a sacrifice at an altar. Hopes and want wrapped beneath.

Link smiled into the shell of his ear, felt the bloom of warmth between their chests.

“How many times do I have to tell you that I want to take you home with me, Rhett?”

Mick’s breath hiked into hard heaves as hands struggled to find rest on Link’s back. No embrace was good enough. Every tug of muscle, every exhale against Link’s chest was written in disbelief. Of a gratitude reserved for people pardoned from death… or perhaps a fate they deemed worse, Link realized distantly.

“Let me up,” Mick implored, tapping Link’s thigh in a sudden near-panic.

Surprised, Link shifted and fell back onto the couch. Mick creaked to a stand and loomed over him, took him in like the only thing he wanted to do in that moment was drop on top of him and eat him alive. Freshly bashful, Link smirked and burned at the attention, skin ablaze.

Then Mick strode over to the iridium phone and picked up it, jabbing numbers with practiced ease before lifting it to his ear.

“Rhett McLaughlin, site leader 466. Yes, ma’am. I’m fine, ma’am. Thank you.” Mick glanced over at Link on the couch, a timid smile twitching his beard.

“I quit.”

Link’s eyes fell wide, watching as Mick nodded his way through the rest of the conversation.

“Yes, ma’am... My sincerest apologies, but it’s time... I appreciate all you’ve done for me. I’m sorry about the study... though we did make some significant discoveries, didn’t we?” There was a beat of silence before Mick’s crow’s feet made a contented appearance, and he looked up at Link. “Yes ma’am. Request permission to fly back with Neal?”

Anticipation roiled in Link’s every limb, lurching him to stand and watch Mick, pupils blown wide.

It was happening. It was real. This was real.

“Thank you, ma’am.” Mick hung up the phone and dropped it to the floor, regarding Link on the other side of the room with dark eyes.

“Rhett,” breathed Link. Barely a whisper.

With purpose, Mick closed the distance between them and slammed Link against the wall, pinning him and capturing his mouth in a fierce kiss that tasted of cherry wine and himself--claiming him once again after too much time denying it. Link trembled into a moan, knit his fingers into his shirt and pulled him down harder, wanting everything he could possibly give. Mick growled into his throat, hands finding the warm bare skin of his hips and fixing his hold there like their veins were entwined--their hearts depended on that merge of skin.

Only when they were out of breath did they break, and Mick pressed his lips to Link’s ear.

“I love you.”

A full-body shiver wracked Link at the cadence and shape of the words leaving Mick’s tongue. The timbre and warmth and relief of hearing it, of being gifted the truth he’d known for so long but hadn’t heard. He whined into Mick’s shirt-- his turn to claw desperately for purchase.

“Again,” he requested, hot tears spilling between them.

“I love you.” It was instant, just one of any command Link could’ve made that Mick would have followed blindly. “I love you, I love you, I love you, snowflake.”

“I love you too, Rhett.”

“You’d take me in, Link? You’d have me?”

“It’s all I’ve ever wanted. You’re my whole book.”

It’s enough for Mick to hoist Link from the floor--to hold him so high against his chest that the brunette had to tilt his head down to shower the giant with kisses, tears soaking into his beard.

“I promise I won’t be a burden.”

“You never were.”

“I can’t believe you want me.”

“I always will. That won’t ever change.”

“Fuck.” A single sob. “I love you, Link.”

“I love you too, Rhett. More than anything.”

“Scary, isn’t it?”

“Not anymore.”

Mick broke into a chuckle that burned quick into laughter, nuzzling his wet face into Link’s chest and tickling him to giggles with his nose.

Let softly down to his feet, Link gazed up at Mick in raw adoration, which Mick returned in kind.

It had become second-nature to spend every waking heartbeat memorizing Mick’s features and mannerisms. The way his eyes twinkled when he smiled. The rosiness of the apples of his cheeks when he was happy. The way he shifted from foot to foot but kept his sights trained on Link--the center of his universe, unregretful and unforgettable. Link smiled and reached up to hold Mick’s jaw, to keep him in place as they stood in the howling quiet, drinking in one another to their fill.

To memorize him had become effortless, for fear of losing him. Now, Link wouldn’t have to do it anymore; he could break the habit and stop, just let moments flit by without worrying where they ended up or whether he would be able to recall them perfectly later on.

He could stop memorizing him, but he wouldn’t.

As long as his heart beat, Link would never let a second pass without cherishing every last thing about Mick. He would savor his existence and closeness until he physically couldn’t, and more, past that.

“I love you so much,” Link reminded him yet again--there was no quota too steep to fill. He reached on tiptoes to kiss the soft smile on his lips.

“I love you, too,” Mick mumbled warmly. “Like I ever stood a chance.”

Link huffed a quiet laugh and ran his hands over Mick’s biceps. “You’re really allowed to leave with me? Now?”

“Yeah,” Mick nodded, bending down to burrow into Link’s jawline. “I gotta go pack.”

“I can help,” Link offered, remembering Warder waiting in the passenger plane outside. “I dunno how we’re gonna get your novels packed.”

“Let me lug those around.”

“Y’know... they’re not gonna be happy when we show up at A-Scott and I quit, too,” Link mused, and Mick snorted amicably. “I hope they at least see to your head wound.”

“I’m gonna be fine, cub. And Levine’s probably expecting you to quit now, anyway.” Mick ruffled the professor’s hair with smiling eyes and started for his room. At the doorway he paused, looking long and distant at Link, who was still trying to ground himself in this reality.

“...What?” Link squirmed, blushing under his man’s scrutiny.

“You really gonna let me crash into your life like this?”

Link delivered himself to Mick’s side, where he belonged. He laced their fingers together and squeezed--felt Mick press back. Insistent, and there.

Not running. Taking what was already his.

“The crashing is over, Rhett. I think it’s time we settle down.”

 

Chapter Text

Dear Josh, Chase, and Jen:

Thank you.

Things are different now, and it's because of you. 

I don't have the right words. 

But I promise I'll send them as soon as I find them.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

With love,
Link

 

 


 

 

 

Link set the nail into the stud of the wall and pounded it in with the hammer, careful not to stray lest he smash his fingers. Lifting the frame delicately, he hung it on the nail and eased the weight from his palms.

It was surreal, ending the 8,000 mile journey for the preserved-but-wrinkled poem.

Then again, all of this was surreal.

He stepped back and considered the few things left to unpack in the corner of the kitchen--namely, enough books to warrant purchasing a nice, sturdy bookcase.

That would happen soon. Maybe tomorrow, if everything permitted.

Home.

Link let his eyes wander the lines of his house, remembering. How his clean, open-aired kitchen gave way to the soft yellows and plush carpet of the living room, where the long leather couch faced the fireplace and the TV above that, which was in dire need of dusting. Roaming his gaze more, it lingered on the beams of sunlight spilling in from the sliding glass door to the backyard.

He paced over to stand in the warmth and peered out into the lush green grass and trees lining his property that gave the illusion of privacy. Leaves swayed in the afternoon breeze, a gentle hush compared to the roar of the Antarctic. Somewhere in the distance wind chimes sounded, melodic and low and soothing.

More than any of it, Link lingered on the man standing square in the center of the yard, back to the house and face tilted skyward.

The door slid open with a squeal, and Link stepped out onto the concrete patio lip, pulling it closed behind him. Out of the corner of his eye he saw them--a pair of well cared for black Vans and socks, abandoned just at the edge of the grass. Heart light, Link made his way to the other, stopping just short of touching. Listening to the careful pluck of the guitar in his hands.

Not one to interrupt moments, Link took a deep breath of the forgiving North Carolinian air and held it, feeling the sun tingle his skin and the birdsong from the boughs of the trees. When he exhaled, Mick turned around and smiled dreamily down at him, strumming idle rifts with feathered touches.

“I missed the sun,” Mick admitted peacefully, not breaking his gaze from Link’s.

“Me too,” nodded Link. Maybe one day he would get used to the welcome ache of smiling too much. Probably not, but maybe.

“I missed the warmth.”

“Me too.”

“I missed you . One in the same.” Mick winked. Such a tiny gesture, but it made Link’s heart flutter with the starlings above.

“Daylight-Rhett is cheesy,” Link tittered, taking a step back to let Mick continue to enjoy himself in the beautiful summer air.

Mick’s hand found his wrist quickly and kept him. “Snowflake?”

“Hmm?” Link quirked an eyebrow. “If this is about paying ‘rent’ again, Mick, I told you eight times on the plane--”

“Thank you.”

Mick waited, as if Link would be able to say you're welcome--as if that would have been a normal response, even though he didn’t need to be thanked for any of this. This was all unconditional. But he couldn’t speak, and when he didn’t, Mick did again.

“I love you more than you could ever know. You’re my home, Link. Became my home a long time ago. And then you let me into yours.”

The way his face elated when he looked over Link’s shoulder at their house said everything. His eyes were at ease, and realized, and filling Link’s head with poems to which he didn’t know the verses. Link hoped that Mick felt it as much as he did--that it was all so steadfast and effortless. That life was as it should be, simply because they would be side by side now. The dread of the future gone and replaced with excitement to just be.

Link sidled up to Mick, chest to chest, and balanced on tiptoes to kiss him gently and let his lips linger. Mick dipped into it with welcome, pushing his guitar from hip to back. The deepening of their embrace sweltered in the sunlit breeze. Heartbeats and sweat and touches hot as fire through shirts. Tender, and hypnotic, and alive. That was their story, as it had always been.

“I love you, too,” Link mumbled in a daze when they parted, running his hands under Mick’s jaw.

Mick laughed and pressed their foreheads together, lids low.

“You don’t say?”

 

Chapter Text

At the tail-end of shivering release, Link collapsed into large, warm arms--cheek flush on chest and gasps for air pairing harmonious with the heart pounding against his ear. Fingers found his hair and stroked through sweat-dampened locks as he came down, coaxing a relieved smile from him well before the baritone chuckle rumbled between them.

“You weren’t even watchin’.”

“Got distracted,” Link laughed back, pushing up his glasses. “S’better when I’ve got the real thing right in front of me.”

Mick hummed and wrapped his arms over Link’s shoulders, content to exist beneath his husband and hold him until his breathing evened out and pulse lulled back to rest. Usually Link enjoyed it; he would trail kisses along Mick’s tender throat, trace out his shoulder freckles like constellations at which they’d once stargazed. But this time, Link twisted his sight down to the open laptop whirring on their bedside table. Moans and chokes humiliatingly close to home leaked out of the speakers. He threw a limp arm at it.

“Turn it off,” he slurred. “S’embarrassing once we’re done.”

“So soon?”

Link cocked his head to glare up at Mick, whose eyes sparkled in amusement.

“But the part where you make real pretty noises is comin’ up here in a second.”

“Rhett,” Link groaned, burying his face in Mick’s chest. “Can’t reach it. Please?”

Mick reached the laptop with ease and closed out of the video with a smirk, revealing the desktop. “Been a while since you wanted to watch that one.”

Link grunted noncommittally and shrugged, replacing his cheek on Mick’s collar. “Nice to remember where we came from once in a while, is all. I know you don’t always agree, but…” He chewed the inside of his cheek, hoping the confession wouldn’t sour the afterglow. “Sometimes I miss 466.”

“Still can’t believe you never thought to check your ‘sent’ folder,” Mick mumbled with a cheeky smile, and Link nibbled his clavicle in half-hearted revenge. A hand worn with guitar calluses stroked down Link’s sweat-slicked back, leisurely and loving. After a moment of obvious deliberation, Mick cleared his throat and peered down at him. “What do you miss about it?”

“I dunno.” Link paused, gathering his thoughts. “It was like our honeymoon phase, right? I know most honeymoons don’t involve beatin’ each other up or nearly starving to death, but...”

“I get it. Makes sense.”

Link crossed his arms over Mick’s chest and nestled his chin atop them, bringing their faces together. One of his pinkies strayed out to find Mick’s beard and played with the coarse hair thoughtfully, twining it this way and that. “Do you ever miss it?”

Mick frowned and turned his attention to the bedroom ceiling. “Parts of it. I don’t need to remind you that I’d been there way longer--and under circumstances I hated. Right?”

“Right,” Link nodded, eyes somber.

“But from the time you showed up, from then on? Yeah. I miss it too, sometimes.”

That was enough reassurance for Link. Or so he thought, until their eyes met for a long time and he spoke without thinking. “Rhett… you’re happy here, with me--right? Living off our savings, not really having a goal every day… you’re happy?”

Mick’s face creased as he tried to dam up an exasperated laugh, which made it out only as a huff. Thankfully when he spoke, it was sincere rather than teasing. “Of course, Link. You kiddin’ me? You brought me to heaven after pullin’ me outta hell.” Link couldn’t help smiling when Mick strained forward to kiss the tip of his nose. “My goal every day is to enjoy you.”

“And read,” Link added with a warning finger.

“And read,” Mick echoed with a sage nod. “My mistake.”

Link’s gaze fell to the pillows behind his lover's head, distant and pondering. It was as simple as that, then.

If Mick was happy, Link was happy, too.

Waking up to the Carolina sun. No cold. No shortage of food, or chance of dying on a trip to the mailbox. Spending their days and nights together and adoring every unscathed second of it: joking and embracing and--hell, even the occasional heated fights always ended in roughing one another up with a good, hard fuck.

This was the exact life Link had dreamed of, back in Antarctica. They’d returned, lived together peacefully until Mick had remembered that same-sex marriage had been legalized while he was down south--upon which he’d rushed Link to the courthouse in their pajamas to ‘fix it.’ They’d married, just like that. Josh, Chase, and Jen had even flown in afterwards to celebrate with movies and drinks and stops at the best local eateries. It’d been the first and only time thus far the five of them had been together--three years ago minus a month.

Everything was perfect. He was with the love of his life.

If Mick was happy, Link should be happy, too.

“Y’okay, darlin’?” Mick drawled, eyebrow cocked at Link’s thousand-yard stare, from which Link briskly snapped.

“Yeah.” He offered his best smile and sat back, peeling their bodies apart and resting on his knees to hunch before Mick. “Sorry.”

Mick eyed him. “You sure?” They knew each other too well.

“Yeah!” Link pressed, huffing a laugh to settle Mick’s nerves. “Just… dazed, after the deed. You probably wanna go clean up, huh?”

“I wouldn’t mind it.” Mick eased out of the bed and made his way to the bathroom, palming the back of his wild bedhead. The look he gave Link before shutting the door was enough to let the smaller one know he was in the clear from further questioning. Barely.

With a deep breath, Link stretched out on the covers and closed his eyes, resigned to push everything away--when a ping notified him of a new e-mail on the laptop. He crawled over to it and clicked on the pop-up for his inbox.

Probably just spam, but it would help take his mind off of--no. There was no problem, that was the whole point. His head was just running wild for some reason and he couldn’t stamp out whatever was causing it. Here he was, living the life he’d wished for so ardently, and his brain still had the gall to squirm. To say something’s missing.

The slosh of running water in the bathroom eased Link’s anxiety as he found the new message--from Josh and Chase! That alone lifted his spirits and he clicked eagerly, hoping that Josh had included a new recipe for them to try out. The guy really knew how to distill complicated recipes so even two idiots could cook something tasty.

Dear Link & Mick,

Glad to hear that therapy’s working well for you, Mick. Chase and I have both been to therapists in the past as well, when we were in school. They’re seriously miracle workers. Too much stigma for the results they produce.

Maybe Link should get a therapist.

So… not to be blunt, but we actually had an ulterior motive for contacting you.

Wait… they needed a favor? Anything. Link would do it in a heartbeat. He owed everything to his 466 friends. They’d given him his dream.

We were recently approached by our higher-ups and

JOSH IS LEAD RESEARCHER !!!!! -c

...Guess it’s my fault for taking so long to try and figure out how to say it without sounding conceited. Lol. Yeah, I’ve been promoted. I’m officially head of operations of research at the university. Chase is my assistant. And you’ll never believe it, but the very first thing they want us to do? Field work.

Link stopped breathing. His eyes flew over the following paragraph so fast that several times he had to stop and re-read what was written to ensure he’d understood correctly.

They want to send us to Madagascar. We’ll be stationed in the rainforest and take readings on the acidity of rainfall there and its effect on the wildlife. The duration of our stay is currently marked as ‘indefinite’--they would keep us there until we reach a conclusion given our data, one way or another. Can you imagine? Just me and Chase, surrounded by massive trees and monkeys and enough bugs to choke a frog?

Yeah, we can’t either.

But… maybe if you two came along.

When the water shut off in the bathroom, Link was on the verge of breaking. Into what, he didn’t know. Tears, for how much their friends loved them? Incredulous laughter? A panic attack? Either way, his chest strung tight and and fingers dug into the covers as he continued, trying to finish the letter before Mick saw him reading.

Being head means I get to assemble the team of researchers. And I know you’re both barred from working with the government again, but since the university is privately owned and operated, that won’t be a problem.

You’re under no obligation to say ‘yes,’ of course. Either way, you know we love you and see you as family. I just wanted to extend the invitation to you before offering it to anyone else.

You’re both more than qualified to do this with us, and the fact that you’re an ex-professor, Link? And that Mick’s work has been cited so many times in publications? You’d both be accepted without a second thought. Hell, one of you could even accept the invitation without the other. I have trouble imagining that, but… it’s an option.

No pressure. Please, take your time. Let me know when you come to a decision. And again, ‘no’ won’t hurt our feelings.

IT’LL HURT MY FEELINGS I WANNA SEE YOU -c

He’s clingy as ever. Sorry.

Hope to hear back soon!
Much love,
Josh & Chase

The bathroom door opened and Link was unfortunately bedded in his stupor, movements too sluggish from shock to navigate quicker than Mick’s steps to the bed. The bewilderment must’ve been clear on his face, from how Mick halted and lingered by the computer.

“Link…? What’s wrong?”

No use in hiding it. Mick would see it eventually, anyway.

Link swiveled the laptop on the table for him to read the screen, breathless and waiting. After nabbing his half-moon spectacles from the top drawer of the dresser, Mick hunched over and scanned over the proposal with a creased brow, hands on his knees.

It took an eternity before Mick slipped his glasses back off and considered Link, face neutral.

“What d’you think?”

Link’s eyes snapped up to meet Mick’s, cautious. “What?”

“You wanna go?” Mick asked like it was the simplest question in the world. Like if Link wanted to order pizza for dinner.

“Rhett,” Link said quietly, pulling himself to sit on the edge of their bed. He blindly retrieved and hugged his pillow to his stomach. “I can’t just go live in a rainforest for who-knows-how-long.”

“You could. Josh invited you,” Mick smiled, tossing a thumb at the screen.

“I can’t leave you here,” Link admits, and that much was flagrantly true. He’d said it before and it would always be the case: he never wanted to be apart from Mick again in his life. Not even overnight. It was too painful. He’d done it once, and once was enough.

Mick watched him for a moment before his smile broke into a tickled grin. “I’m invited too, you dork.”

Eyes widening, Link clutched the pillow harder against his chest, gawking up at Mick. “You would come with me?”

“Yeah,” Mick shrugged. He took a nonplussed seat beside Link, weighing the mattress down and bringing their hips together. “Been talkin’ about it during my sessions. I can’t let shit from my past keep me from doin’ things, babe.” Without a second thought, his hands collected Link’s and held them--long fingers brushing over their engraved wedding bands in turn even as his attention stayed on Link’s face.

“I know you, cub. Can tell you’ve been feeling lost lately, without anything to do. Can’t go back to teachin’. Can’t get another government job. But you deprivin’ yourself of things on my account?” He nodded at the computer, trying not to laugh. “You found your calling on the western ice sheet, Link. How happy were you when you read this?”

The dam of Link’s facade cracked as he follow Mick’s gesture, and a giggle escaped him. “Pretty excited, yeah.” It felt good to admit.

“See?” Mick chuckled and grasped him reassuringly. “Link, I’m always happy. I’ve got you.” When he leaned over and pressed a kiss to Link’s cheek, his husband’s chest swelled with gratitude and eyes burned as he thought of how lucky he was. “I’d follow you to the ends of the earth.”

“What if you hate it?” Link whispered, swallowing.

Mick smirked and let his gaze fall to their unclothed laps. “Then I’ll make sure to remind you every opportunity I get. That way it’ll really feel like a second honeymoon... won’t it, snowflake?”